Tag Archives: Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

<em class="BookTitle">The Pillars of the Earth</em>, Ken Follett

Signet, 2007 reprint of 1989 original, 983 pages, C$8.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-451-16689-0

This isn’t quite an application of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (“the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information– often an unfamiliar word or name– and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.” to quote damninteresting.com), but once I started hearing about Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, I started hearing about it everywhere.  Idle musing on which “big thick paperback” to carry along with me on a two-week trip to Australasia netted me two independent recommendations for the novel.  Then the TV miniseries went on the air, which probably in turn explained why I spotted another airplane passenger reading it in the next row.  For a book I hadn’t noticed until a few weeks ago, that’s quite a series of coincidences.

Oh, I did know about Ken Follett –but until then, I had him pigeonholed as a writer of not-overly-interesting suspense novels, many of them featuring characters for which I couldn’t feel any sympathy.  But The Pillars of the Earth is something very different: An epic historical novel taking place from 1123 to 1174, featuring a large cast of characters all somehow involved in the building of a massive cathedral.  Not my usual kind of novel either but hey –it was big, thick and looked as if it could keep me interested during no less than eight plane flights in seventeen days.

The risk, of course, was that the novel would prove to be a dud, and that it would fall from my hands after a few dozen pages.  Then I’d be stuck with it for a seemingly endless time.

I shouldn’t have worried: From the very first pages, Follett does an exemplary job at establishing his characters and throwing them into difficult situations.  In the first chapter, in fact, one of our characters has his most precious property stolen, kills the thief, loses his wife in childbirth, abandons his child, sleeps with another woman and discovers that his newborn has been rescued by a monastery.  This is hard-core shock plotting, and it works unbelievably well at establishing the tone of the novel: The Pillars of the Earth is epic, harsh and pulls no punches in its depiction of twelfth-century England.  There’s as much violence as there are sex scenes –and a number of those sex scenes are violent as well.

As with many good historical novels, The Pillars of the Earth is a mixture of modern values and historical attitudes.  The strong female characters clash with the restrictions of the era, the powerful church routinely interferes with the weak kings (it’s not as if there’s just one of them either) and a number of the things we take for granted (say, the rule of law) are still hundreds of years in the future.  Follett gives a good idea of how it must have been to live at the time, and the result is absorbing from beginning to end.

As far as plotting is concerned, it’s a mixture of dastardly villains, pure-hearted heroes, sins committed for pure reasons and spiteful accidents.  Many characters die (some of them unexpectedly), but pretty much everyone gets what they deserve in the end.  The cathedral around which the plot revolves is built, abandoned and rebuilt more often than you’d think.  There are some coincidence-dependent plot junctions, but they don’t feel as arbitrary as predestined.  The pacing only flags during the last section of the novel, which tends to diffuse itself rather than end on a high note once the plot-lines are resolved.

But it all amounts to an extraordinary reading experience, indeed one that is only available from big thick books such as this one: The Pillars of the Earth is an epic in the unadulterated sense of the term, and readers will be able to be comfortably absorbed by the novel until it ends.  It lives up to my friends’ hype as an amazing novel… and one that’s well worth taking along on a lengthy trip.

For Follett, it also represented a radical shift from his more familiar cookie-cutter thrillers, and one that he still seems to enjoy: The Pillars of the Earth was only followed by sort-of-sequel World without End in 2007, but Follett now seems to be in the middle of writing a trilogy of historical novels covering the entire twentieth century.  It’s heartening to see an author taking such a chance and being rewarded for it: Another proof, if any other was needed, that it’s a good idea to write whatever you want and worry about market expectations later.

The Third Twin, Ken Follett

Pan, 1996 (1997 reprint), 632 pages, C$12.00 mmpb, ISBN 0-330-34837-X

Even though not yet at the year 2000, a science-fictional year if there was one, several commentators have already started mourning science-fiction as a literary genre.

Their reasons are varied. Robert J. Sawyer, Spider Robinson and Norman Spinrad are all on record as saying that commercial pressures are garroting the SF publishing houses, who then become forced to fall back on base-level sci-fi to survive and ignore the groundbreaking material. Robert Silverberg is also on record as saying that media-SF is killing “true science-fiction”. Thomas M. Disch has even written a Hugo-winning book, The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of about how SF risks disappearing in a world increasingly SF-like because brought in existence by people who read SF.

This last reason might be the most valid of all. The last few years have really driven home -in a literal sense- the fact that technological progress Changes Things. The Internet has gone, in five years, from academic curiosity to mass-market phenomenon, along with all the social changes (email etiquette, IRC addiction, porn distribution, bombmaking instruction acquisition, MP3 piracy, etc…) it entails. Science changes human nature is the motto of SF. Well, duh! answers the Millennial Society, already weaned from birth in a SFictional brew.

So, society Knows SF in a holistic sense. Then, one might ask, why do we need SF if we’re already familiar with its teachings? If SF is getting mainstream, then the mainstream is getting more SF.

The last decade has seen the strengthening of a publishing category once before associated with the names of Clancy and Crichton: The Techno-thriller. Though possessing most of the ingredients of the Thriller (an ordinary man; a beautiful heroine; dangerous enemies; a breathless chase against time to save the world!) these novels are based upon scientific facts often more solid and more developed than your average SF novel. The military techno-thriller, in particular, is often more didactic than hard-SF, commonly pausing for a few pages in order to describe the finest operating details of a weapon system.

Ken Follett’s The Third Twin is a great case in point. It cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a Science-Fiction novel. It simply adheres too well to the “thriller” category to fit anywhere else. And yet, its central premise is a seventies experiment in cloning which produced at least three identical individuals.

As a thriller, it’s very well-done. The writing is fast-paced and easily graspable by even the most distraught of airplanes passengers. The protagonists are suitably sympathetic, adequately developed and worth cheering for. The often-preposterous plot goes for maximum dramatic impact, often at the expense of credibility. The legal and medical details are obviously distilled from careful research, but in a way to avoid overwhelming the layreader. The Third Twin is a whole lot of mostly clean fun, and can be read in a flash despite the thickness of the pages.

As SF, there not much substance to the text; assume that clones exists, and here’s a pulse-pounding adventure to go with it. As with most thrillers, consequences and implications of the scientific breakthrough are eschewed in favor of the narrative flow. The Third Twin is fun, but it’s kind of an escape-the-bus-commute fun, not the mind-expanding wondrous fun usually associated with Science-Fiction.

And therein lies part of the answer SF must learn in order to survive in a world it has created. No one will be offended, or even mildly disturbed by The Third Twin. No one will look up to the stars after reading this book and say “this is where I want to go.” No one will start picking on the various plot holes. Because it’s a thriller and only aims to thrill, and even if it does so competently, it stops there.

But SF has to be more than that.