The Great Eastern Q2: Writing

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The Great Eastern is an homage to both Herman Melville and Jules Verne. The author took great care to capture the voices of Ahab and Captain Nemo. Did you find his efforts convincing? How do the two literary characters differ in terms of the treatment the author gave them? How does Brunel, the character who actually lived, fit into this?

Comments

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    I'm not sure I can judge this as I've read neither 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea nor Moby Dick. To me, Ahab came across as thoroughly unpleasant and Nemo as (understandably) a zealot. I enjoyed Brunel's point of view the most. It's tempting to read the originals; I've had Moby Dick on the reading stack for ages now. Though Ahab's unpleasantness here puts me off.

    The writing did feel artificially convoluted and antiquated in places.

  • 1

    Oh dear. The writing.

    The writing.

    I've read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick. I've read a couple of other Verne books, a bunch of HG Wells, a few Dickens, some Bronte and Austin, and various other miscellaneous 19 Century novels. Tolstoy rocks, Dostoevsky sucks, you can tell Dumas was paid by the word. (I think I've read some C18 stuff too, but I can't be sure).

    You wouldn't mistake any of that writing for C21 prose. It has its own pace and rhythm. But those classic novels are classics for a reason: they're really good. They're easy to read, clear, and evocative. It's good writing.

    Those books don't have deliberately convoluted sentences and grammar. They'd have phrases like "Brunel saw the ship" or "Nemo sat at the organ", not "Brunel did see the ship" or "Nemo did sit at the organ." Rodman wasn't writing clearly. It reads like he's writing a caricature of what ignorant modern readers think C19 prose should be like.

    As for the content. 20,000 Leagues has a good chunk of exposition; but Verne has to explain all the cool things about submarines. Moby Dick has more, a lot more; there's place for a couple of essays on C19 whale hunting even if Melville thinks that about 20 is a better number.

    You can see Rodman's thinking. "20,000 Leagues had some exposition and was good; Moby Dick had more exposition and was (arguably) good. Therefore, if Great Eastern has more exposition than both of them combined, it'll be better than both of them!"

    I started skimming the book almost immediately. By about 25% through, I was reading one page in ten and I don't think I was missing much. About 75% through, there was something about a tsunami and I just gave up. The scene moved to some Paris commune after that, but I couldn't be bothered to work out what was going on.

    And finally, the accuracy. Melville took great pains to be accurate in his depictions of whaling. Verne worked out the details of submarine operations. Neither of them would have had Brunel in a soft suit at 3500m depth, looking at a ship at an apparent distance of about 500m above with the illumination you get at less than 100m depth. (I'll give them a pass on breathing gas mixes, but I think Verne would have loved the detail of heliox and its ilk.) And they would have both used contemporary science to understand how a tsunami behaves in the deep ocean.

    In summary: the writing.

    The writing.

    Oh dear.

  • 1

    Oh dear. The writing.

    The writing.

    Everything @NeilNjae said is on point. The writing was execrable! Bad. Pretentious. Fake. I could deal with that.

    I have read many of Verne's works - he has always been a favorite of mine - including both 20000 Leagues and Mysterious Island, both of which feature Nemo. Nemo has never been a hero. He has always been a supervillain genius, tormented and mad. I have also read several books by Melville - just not the White Whale. I love Melville's other writing, and loathe the White Whale, having tried and given up several times. However, the problem for me and the White Whale is not Melville's writing. Everything is pellucid. The same with Verne - he
    tells a cracking story. Rodman is playing games and being clever and thinking he is doing something he is not.

    And finally, the accuracy. Melville took great pains to be accurate in his depictions of whaling. Verne worked out the details of submarine operations. Neither of them would have had Brunel in a soft suit at 3500m depth, looking at a ship at an apparent distance of about 500m above with the illumination you get at less than 100m depth. (I'll give them a pass on breathing gas mixes, but I think Verne would have loved the detail of heliox and its ilk.) And they would have both used contemporary science to understand how a tsunami behaves in the deep ocean.

    >
    Absolutely! Melville completely understood the technology of both sailing and whaling. He had served on whalers and warships. Verne was the 19th century's equivalent of a hard SF writer. His grasp of current technology in any field was impeccable. Rodman skipped the classes and cheated on his tests.
    >

    In summary: the writing.

    The writing.

    Oh dear.

    It was awful. At least Jemisin could WRITE!

  • 1

    I got used to the writing. I didn’t like it, but I was able to ignore its most egregious pretentious aspects.

    I did not mind the exposition. It was often about something I was interested in thinking about. I don’t know enough about whaling to know how accurate it was.

  • 1
    While I agree with many of Neil’s points, including the over use of the word ‘did’, I actually quite liked some of the passages in the book, especially in the voice of Ahab (though this wasn’t always consistent) more on this later, maybe with some text samples. I wouldn’t say it was atrocious. Pretentious, yes but I suppose that’s the whole point - to pretend this speak like a fictional character.
  • 0

    Further to this - now that I have time and my book handy - I particularly enjoyed how the author brought Ahab to life. He used Ahab's voice, but Melville's style of inserting digressions. Ahab is an irascible figure, like an old Clint Eastwood character sitting on his porch. This appealed to my inner curmudgeon.

    "The cable here is made of copper. Wound into ropes and then the ropes wound together. But then: wrapped in gutta-percha. From Malay. Sap of a tree what grows there. A liquid and then its not. Electricity won't go through it. Fish won't eat it. Bends when it has to. Man named Chatterton mixed it with tar. Stockholm tar! Some rosin, too, who knows what else. Then called it his own: Chatterton's compound! Well hell and baloo! We know what it is. Gutta-percha, plain and simple, with some shit mixed in. Chatterton we don't need thee! Stop sticking thy name in where it doth not belong. Ahab says: When they write in history's book they'll be calling it gutta-percha. Yer gone, Chatterton! And not coming back as long as some tree in Malay has the thick sweet sap."

    See, I think Rodman can not only write, but write well. I see the annoyingly excessive 'dids' as a poor choice, just like the rest of you, but they didn't really mar the book for me.

  • 0

    I liked Nemo's voice, but detested Ahab's - I have read Moby Dick much more recently than 20,000 Leagues and I am convinced that it's nothing much like Melville's writing. For sure Melville has his digressions into apparently superfluous exposition, but he also has marvellous surreal lyrical prose which soars. Rodman doesn't - he seems to have only captured at best half of the original, and probably much less than that. Brunel remained largely a blank for me and never really came to life - but since he was supposed to be dead, maybe that's OK :)

    @NeilNjae said:
    You wouldn't mistake any of [various C18 and C19 examples] writing for C21 prose. It has its own pace and rhythm. But those classic novels are classics for a reason: they're really good. They're easy to read, clear, and evocative. It's good writing.

    Those books don't have deliberately convoluted sentences and grammar. They'd have phrases like "Brunel saw the ship" or "Nemo sat at the organ", not "Brunel did see the ship" or "Nemo did sit at the organ." Rodman wasn't writing clearly. It reads like he's writing a caricature of what ignorant modern readers think C19 prose should be like.

    Totally agree. I've also read some of those classics, as well as similarly-aged not-so-classics, and you really could not mistake the two. For me, if Rodman was trying to imitate an old classic, he just failed.

    @NeilNjae said:
    And finally, the accuracy. Melville took great pains to be accurate in his depictions of whaling. Verne worked out the details of submarine operations. Neither of them would have had Brunel in a soft suit at 3500m depth, looking at a ship at an apparent distance of about 500m above with the illumination you get at less than 100m depth. (I'll give them a pass on breathing gas mixes, but I think Verne would have loved the detail of heliox and its ilk.) And they would have both used contemporary science to understand how a tsunami behaves in the deep ocean.

    Yes, I found the idea that they could see the ship from 2000 fathoms (12,000') under the surface, or the submarine looking down, was so absurd as to destroy most credibility in the story. Distance, distortion, and darkness (just to get some alliteration into the post) would all frustrate such an effort.

    I'll talk a bit about the story itself elsewhere...

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