On the His Dark Materials series

Reading by Flashlight

By Kay Kenyon

Hey, what’s with this Philip Pullman hijacking fantastic literature and taking a gazillion readers along for the ride? Whether among young readers or adults, Pullman’s trilogy is sending people into a buying– and reading–frenzy. Proclaimed by some reviewers as an adult read worthy of our best literature, His Dark Materials is nothing less than a smashing commercial and artistic success.

Literary acclaim, best seller lists . . . all for a young adult story filled with magic and strange new worlds. It isn’t fair! complain my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers. We do all this stuff, and languish in what amounts to a literary ghetto. What is so different about this fantasy story?

Based on first impressions I am tempted to say, not much. We writers of speculative fiction have covered Pullman’s fictional ground before, and often as well.

I can hear the protests: Aren’t you forgetting Pullman’s lucid prose, the originality of his story and its milieu? And how about those startling ideas? Surely these things explain Pullman’s legions of fans.

I agree His Dark Materials is a wonderful read. I loved it, and press the books into the hands of the uninitiated, believe me. But that doesn’t explain why The Golden Compass vaulted onto the best seller lists while most science fiction and fantasy doesn’t. If success was solely based on finely turned prose, how can we explain why Gene Wolfe isn’t a household name? Or M. John Harrison? As to the point about Pullman’s challenging themes, well, our whole genre  …

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