Sunday, January 04, 2009

Two Examples of
'Genre' Fiction

The two most recent books I have read for my Sunday afternoon reading group have been "genre" fiction; specifically a science fiction novel and 'noir' crime mystery, respectively. For all their inclusion in the category of genre fiction they are not necessarily lightweight reads, although they may be considered "entertainments" when placed beside weightier tomes.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke is a classic in the true sense of the world. Published fifty-five years ago, it is generally considered a great book. Arthur C. Clarke's novel exhibits several characteristics of a truly 'great' book. It is a lucid account of the meeting of "aliens" from outer space with the residents of earth. In describing this encounter and the aftermath, Clarke created a scene, the image of huge spaceships hovering over major cities of Earth, that not only impresses the reader but that had remained as an image for subsequent science fiction. But this book should be considered great as a work of literature, from the structure to style to characterization there is a economy that allows for a tale spanning decades to be told in a couple hundred pages. Clarke focuses on the essentials of the story and lets the reader imagine the inessential details. He also provides contrasts in character and ideas while providing just the right amount of suspense to keep the reader turning the page. His incorporation of science into his fiction is seamless and believable as his story moves inevitably towards an unexpectedly spectacular end for humankind. With his brilliant imagination Clarke has written a fundamental "novel of ideas". This reader took away from the book the wonder of both nature and the universe, and the potential for man when encountering other worlds.

The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin is less well known than Clarke's classic, but it is a unique example of 'noir' fiction from the mid-forties. It is a somewhat fantastic and whimsical story with nightmarish aspects. The author kept the action going and there were enough twist and turns to keep me reading, if only to mollify my confusion. The main character, a psychiatrist named George Mathews, is led into a series of adventures that almost cost him his life, yet I was never worried that he would not succeed in figuring his way out of the confusion into which he had entered. A satisfying 'entertainment' (as Graham Greene would say).

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. Ballantine Books, New York. 1970 (1953)
The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin. Penguin Books, New York. 1983 (1946)

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