Christopher Hitchens has praised the His Dark Materials
series and the works of Philip Pullman in general as works that "have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction." I think that's probably the best way to sum up what Pullman achieves in this first volume. There's enough adventure and wonder to satisfy younger readers and enough world-building and scientific depth to satisfy more discerning readers with a penchant for adventure, but get hung up on inaccuracies too much to enjoy works of whole-cloth re-creation and disregard for the fabric of reality. The Golden Compass
belongs to that growing category of literature that appeals to the child in everyone and has enough narrative skill to satisfy readers of all ages. The Golden Compass
is the story of precocious eleven year old Lyra Belacqua and her journey to the North to find her missing friend Roger and her uncle Asriel while unravelling several mysteries, both large and conspiratorial and intensely personal. Roger, like many other children in England, has been abducted by the Gobblers, a secret organization that steals young children for unknown, but nefarious sounding experiments in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic away from prying eyes. Coincidentally, Lyra's uncle Asriel has recently returned and subsequently departed again from the very same region, with a major and mysterious discovery about the nature of the aurora phenomenon and a new elementary particle called "Dust." How these plots are related and what they have to do with Lyra is a page-turning tale that includes witches, talking bears, animal familiar/projections called dæmons, and alternate universes in unexpected and ingenious combinations that make the world of The Golden Compass
unique and memorable.
Reading through, I couldn't help but repeatedly be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's famous line from Profiles of the Future
that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The atmosphere of the novel harkens back to the age when the realm of scientific discovery was imbued with mysticism and schools of science were inevitably schools of philosophy - physics lumped in the more general category of metaphysics, chemistry with alchemy and astronomy with astrology. There's a more stolid scientific undercurrent and the science introduced is well-researched and blended into the narrative seamlessly. For those "in-the-know," the proper use of ideas like the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics or wave function collapse is enough to induce nerdy bliss. For younger audiences, the essentials are distilled quite nicely and if not entirely understood, the relevant elements can be waved away as "magic." It's a brilliant approach and a unique environment for an inverted Paradise Lost
. There's enough science and familiar history to ground the story in a reality we're comfortable and familiar with and that makes the departures all the more fascinating. In some ways, The Golden Compass
presents us a window into a world that could have been, and I've always been a sucker for such speculation. It also helps the book bend genre and exist somewhere in the gray area of Sci-Fi-Fantasy.
A great read for people looking for non-theist alternatives to children's fantasy to replace books like Narnia
or The Lord of the Rings.
In fact, the controversy over the so-called depiction of the Church (in an alternate reality) and Pullman's intentions in writing the series to begin with warrant an inspection just to see what all the fuss is about (a whole lot of nothing). Luckily, in the course of your investigations you find a finely-crafted and well-written narrative that's fun and thought-provoking.