22 September 2006

Crying Artemis Fowl

Early in chapter 1 of his first Artemis Fowl book, Eoin Colfer offers this description of the title character: "A pale adolescent speaking with the authority and vocabulary of a powerful adult."

How could wish-fulfillment like that not find a worldwide audience? Plus, Colfer gives that pale adolescent boatloads of money, high-tech weapons and surveillance toys, and a loyal manservant to handle all the dangerous physical work. What more could videogame players want? Sure, Artemis's father is missing and his mother insane, but pale adolescents half-wish, half-believe they're in that situation already. As Gregory Maguire's review for the New York Times said, the novel may have only faint charm to go along with its thrills, but it does what it sets out to do.

I don't know how Penguin published Artemis Fowl in the UK, but Miramax Books did a fine job of positioning it in 2001 as the anti-Harry Potter, darker and older. Plus, just as news of the US book deal boosted Potter at its publication, Miramax crowed about the movie rights it had also bought. Since then, of course, the Harry Potter books have gotten dark as well, but Colfer gained his necessary toehold in North America.

As I read Artemis Fowl and things exploded and burst and farted around me, I found myself thinking about the book as a nationalist statement. Colfer is an Irish author who, until this book, hadn't been published outside Ireland. He portrays his home island as particularly beloved of the ancient fairies, but also extremely high-tech. Colfer's 2003 interview with C.M. McDonald hints at his feelings:

McDonald: His books also give us a sense in America what has happened because of the technology industry in Ireland. Have you found your corner of Ireland changing quite a bit?

Colfer: Very much so. People still have this Quiet Man vision of Ireland, and that does exist to a small extent, but Ireland has the largest growing economy in Europe and we have more computer plants per capita that I think anywhere else in Europe, as well. There’s a lot of American big business in Ireland--Mac and Dell and all these companies are there. A very high percentage of people are working in computers and are computer graduates. There are a lot of Porsches and BMWs driving around now that you never would have seen twenty years ago.
Indeed, in 1987 the per-capita income of Ireland was only 63% of that in the UK, but in 2004 the Irish measure passed Great Britain's. To some extent the picture of Eire as a high-tech hub is exaggerated. EU statistics show Britain still ahead of Ireland in internet access and use, and the level of poverty in Ireland remains higher. But Artemis Fowl emphasizes futuristic, not nostalgic, Ireland.

Compare Colfer's use of technology to what we see in the Harry Potter books. Rowling's wizards are determinedly old-fashioned, using quills and candles. Only the muggles have modern technology, which fascinates Mr. Weasley, but Harry's poverty and preference for the wizards' world leaves him without a PC, Gameboy, or cellular phone. His idea of high tech is a new flying broom. Artemis has much better toys, and his world's magical beings have also upgraded.

Perhaps later Artemis Fowl books, such as The Arctic Incident, don't have quite such an undercurrent of Ireland and what it means today. But I doubt Colfer has left that theme behind. He is, after all, author of The Legend of Spud Murphy, about a potato-blasting librarian.


John L said...

Very interesting analysis. I'm reading Artemis for the first time, and the combination of high-tech and fairy-world is a very cool approach. I've never even noticed the lack of technology in Harry Potter's magical world, because that's the way magical worlds usually are. An author has to set clear rules for his or her universe, and mixing science and magic effectively is no easy task.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. L. Frank Baum was a pioneer in including some modern technology in his fantasy stories, but even he was illogically selective. Oz ended up having radio, electric light bulbs, and phonographs, but no railroads or telephones. Lots of fantasy plots depend as much on what the characters can't as much as on what they can, so too much technology, like too much magic, can get in the way.