The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)

Dying EarthDescribed primarily as a fantasy, I wondered if Jack Vance’s 1950 curio The Dying Earth might find a place in this history of science fiction. After all, it is set way into Earth’s future as the planet is dying. It also occurred to me that it might be resonant to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘law’: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That first appeared in 1973, so I wondered if this was, perhaps, an inspiration.

I read The Dying Earth as part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection Tales of the Dying Earth published by Gollancz in 2002.

I say curio because I was more than surprised to realise that The Dying Earth isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of loosely interconnected short stories all set in the far future where magic is real and humanity has fractured. Everyone knows that earth is on its last legs, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of technology. Indeed, wizards and demons are the primary focus of life. Earth has moved on beyond anything recognisable, with a collection of weird and exotic creatures, and varieties of humanoid species.

There are 6 stories in the book. Some mention characters or locations from other stories, but other than that, they don’t really link in theme (maybe the search for lost knowledge at a push) or purpose; only setting. There is a vastly reduced population. Wizards are the predominant power, and are the only ones who understand magic (although maybe not its origins). Women appear mostly subservient to men. There are ruins of long lost civilisations. Magic is carried out in a very traditional method; practitioners memorise and recant long and complex spells, and use objects or relics for protection. There is a suggestion that magic originated in maths and sciences long forgotten.

Each story is mostly a disappointing adventure romp. Mizirian is a greedy wizard seeking more power. He desires to create artificial life in a vat, but lacks the skills or smarts to do so. Turjan also wants to create life and ventures to another realm to learn how. He is also the guardian of the books which contain the 100 spells which remain in human knowledge. Guyal is seeking a ‘Museum of Man’. He hopes to find all is answers from someone known as the Curator, an apparent font of all knowledge. Ulan is a young trainee wizard who wants to find ancient tablets containing lost knowledge. Liane is vain adventurer, seeking out women, who embarks on a mission to steal a tapestry from a witch. T’sais is an artificial woman created by Pandelume, but she can only see evil and ugliness in everything. She has a sister who is the perfect woman.

In each story, stuff happens for no apparent reason. For example, in Guyal’s tale, he meets a woman and an old man, and there is some weird interaction with music – the woman tries to get him to play the man’s instrument. But then the story swiftly moves on with almost no comment or effect on Guyal. There is some mention of technology of former times, but again, this is more about lost knowledge. Ulan comes across a ‘magic car’ but no-one knows how it works.

While in this future, women appear to be subservient to men, there are some female characters with agency. Other than T’sais (although of course she was created by a man), there is Lith in Liane’s story. She refuses to serve Liane when he demands it. So maybe Vance is showing some progressive political thought for the time?

There is no indication of the history of Earth; how we get to Vance’s future from our present. It makes me wonder why he set it on Earth at all. The fact that the planet is dying only gets a few passing mentions (and maybe an indication that the majority of humans left for other worlds eons ago). It certainly isn’t a primary concern of the inhabitants of these stories. If Vance had written these stories without referring to Earth at all, but on an unnamed dying planet, this would never have come under the science fiction radar for me.

There are hints and nods that magic and technology are linked but these ideas aren’t explored in full. Magic is magic, I think, not advanced technology. The lack of through-narrative and no real depth of meaning in the collection as a whole meant that I found it difficult to engage. However, Vance’s writing is full of interesting and imaginative diversions. Which seems to be the best thing to say about The Dying Earth. His use of fantasy language is full on, and the world he has built is complex and seems to have an internal logic. But I just don’t think it hits any science fiction notes. Hints and allusions are not sufficient for me, and I’m just not a fan of empty fantasy stories of wizards and thieves.

Advertisements

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

1984Much has clearly been said and written about Orwell’s classic vision of a dystopic future. In 2017, it appears that people are more interested than ever, perhaps as a result of the Trump presidency in the USA and the UK’s referendum result to leave the EU. It was always my intention to re-read the book for this project, and I’ve recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign called 2084 – a book of short stories inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is the third time that I’ve read the book. In this instance, I read the Everyman’s Library hardback edition published in 1987. As usual, I didn’t read any of the introduction or notes within the edition.

My problem with Nineteen Eighty-Four is the actual story, not the ideas or the prose or the characters (although I have a tough time fathoming how Julia could fall in love with an older man without really knowing him). The story is threadbare: A disillusioned man works changing the past within a dystopia, while dreaming of a better future. A young woman falls in love with him. They have an illicit affair. The man finds a dissident group and a book written by the enemy of the state which provides some hope. Everyone, except the woman, betrays him by not being who they seem. He is imprisoned, tortured and brainwashed. End of story.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a decent narrative, but the first third of the book is exposition and world-building. Then there’s about 50 or so pages of forbidden romance. And just as you think it is really getting going, Winston Smith – for he is the man in question – spends pages and pages reading this secret manifesto of hope. And then the concluding section is all the horrible torture and Room 101 (which is a tad under-whelming to be honest).

Of course, where Orwell comes into his own is with the ideas and the fear. All the elements that have seeped into our cultural consciousness are brilliant: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101 and others. A quick look at the now familiar world Orwell created…

Early on (p37 of my edition), Orwell is at his startling best. “If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death”.  Somewhat reminiscent of the fake news outbreak of 2016! So, Great Britain, now called Airstrip One and part of one of the three superstates, Oceania, is run by an English Socialist ideology under the watchful gaze of Big Brother and the Party. There is the Inner Party, or the elite and privileged, the Outer Party who work for the benefit of the Party (of which our hero Winston Smith is one) and the proles – the 85% of society who are worthless. Less than people. Oceania is at war with one or other of the other powers; the Neo-Bolshevistic Eurasia (Europe and Russia) and Eastasia (far east) whose philosophy is Obliteration of the Self. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth – making lies. Essentially altering all record of history – he works in historical revisionism. “Who controls the past controls the future”. The Party slogan. This gives him insight and is the source of his self-doubt and rebellion. He recalls events that officially never happened, or that one day Oceania is at war with Eurasia and an alley of Eastasia, and the next day the reverse is true. Society is monitored, of course, via the Thought Police and the telescreens that watch your every move.

I think this world happens too quickly. It only takes 20 or so years from the post-WWII world we know to get to Orwell’s world of superstates and oppression, with almost no internal conflict or rebellion. It would take a lot longer. People would fight. Not everyone would believe the Party and equivalents so readily, no matter what the circumstances. And how do other people live? We hear a little about the other states and nations, but we don’t here at all about how people live in Madrid, or Moscow, or Sydney or Santiago, Durban, Rio or anywhere else. All of which, I think, takes the edge off Orwell’s creation. Maybe it should have been called 2048?

1984aThere’s nothing wrong with Orwell’s writing of course. He articulates his concepts perfectly and they are genuinely terrifying, even – especially today. The prose is very readable, and even some of the higher concepts on display are explained well. There’s a beautiful passage on pg228 just before our heroes are captured. Winston and Julia watch a woman pegging out diapers as the sun goes down. It is a lovely piece of writing but also storytelling, proving Orwell could do it, if for short bursts. I’d have liked more of this type of writing and less of the pages and pages of reading from a text book!

Some of the character decisions don’t ring true for me. Julia falls for Winston because she can ‘see’ the kind of person he is from one or two brief and distant encounters – enough to fall in love with him – but yet the Thought Police and spies apparently cannot. Or can they? Of course, everyone Winston thinks he can trust turns out to be on the side of the Party – or else there’d be no horrific conclusion. On one occasion, Winston visits O’Brien on the pretence of picking up a new version of the Newspeak dictionary, but in truth to find out more about the resistance. He never leaves with the dictionary. So this is either an error on Orwell’s part, or on Winston’s!

I think Brave New World is a better book, and We is a more interesting story. But Orwell has managed to distil the ideas of all that went before him into a great read. It is no wonder this book is a classic. The ideas are phenomenal. The story let’s Orwell down. Nineteen Eighty-Four is still a remarkable work of science fiction, despite being heavily influenced by more rounded books.

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

Winter of (not so) Weird – Initial impressions

I don’t know if my expectations are skewed or my definition of weird is different to most, but 6 stories in (in 10 days, I know, I’m already slacking) and I’m barely getting the weird. Only Lord Dunsany’s very short story comes close to what I think is weird.

So, what do we have so far?

Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side is the utterly forgettable opener. In fact, without looking back at it I can barely remember what it was about. Some kind of sleeping sickness and maybe a plague. Or is it a dream? A bit Lovecraftian I suppose, but not at all what I would have hoped for to get my winter of weird under way.

Algernon Blackwood.jpgThe Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford is a much better and more memorable tale of a revenge from beyond the grave with a suitably grizzly conclusion. And this followed by Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is a terrific one two. The latter is a genuinely creepy tale of two men lost in a flooded river surrounded by who knows what. Some great supernatural set-pieces and characterisation of terror. However, they are both – in my eyes – just great ghost stories. The mysterious creatures in The Willows might well be unknown inter-dimensional beasts, but ghosts would equally fill the role.

However, Saki’s Sredni Vashtar is a nicely odd little tale of a personal god, and revenge. Which I liked a lot, especially the idea that a deity would understand a vague prayer. Both this, and Lord Dunsany’s How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art are the shorter stories and all the weirder for it. In fact, having on read the later yesterday, I’m still not sure what it was about. Suitably odd and although I preferred Saki’s, this was the kind of thing I expected.

Sandwiched in between these oddities is the brilliantly classic Casting the runes by M.R. James. However, it is just a devilish tale, nothing too weird or different. Just a delicious read.

I’d heard of all the above authors except Saki, and had some expectations. The next batch from 1912 up to Kafka’s 1919 In the Penal Colony are all completely new names to be. Bring on the weirdness.

Image credit: Algernon Henry Blackwood By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31294059

A Kurt Vonnegut Reader – Vonnegut’s novels ranked and rated

vonnegutWhile Vonnegut’s individual novels are not amongst my absolute favourites, as a writer, he reflects my politics more than any other. I’m not sure why that is. As a collected body of work, I feel it’s pretty much spot on; matching my own world view. Last year, I decided to read all his novels in publication order, so I can see how his style progressed and why his writing resonates so much with me.

Was Vonnegut a cynic? He was cuttingly critical of many aspects of society for sure, and found failings in most aspects of humanity. Wealth, democracy in particular and politics in general, war (of course), art – both writing and painting – and the very nature of existence came under his critical glare. He wouldn’t have been surprised at the events of 2016, but I think he’d have been horrified all the same. So it goes.

Previous to this little adventure, I’d read The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake and his non-fiction book A Man Without a Country (2005).

And so to his novels:

Player Piano (1952)

Player PianoSynopsis: In the near future, all labour is carried out mechanically, so that humans don’t need to work. However, there is conflict between the higher classes who are the designers and engineers and managers, and the lower classes, who no longer have a place in the world. Set after a third world war, Dr. Paul Proteus is a middle manager type who is becoming deluded with his factory and life. Meanwhile, the Shah of Bratpuhr – a kind of future Dalai Llama – is having a tour of America, trying to understand how it works.

Comment: Written not long after WWII, where Vonnegut served, this debut novel has classic SF tropes, while not really written in the style of science fiction of the time. Is a life worth the cost of war? Where’s is humanity’s place in a world of increasing mechanisation? Prescient themes even today. An average man finds himself increasingly at odds with the world he’s forced to live in. Vonnegut is struggling to find himself in post-war America. As I said in my review, “Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia…and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction.”

This is a startlingly brave piece of debut fiction, with wit and bite. It is fairly different in style to much of his later work, interestingly, having an almost traditional prose style, and none of the characters feature in subsequent books. It harks back to the likes of We (1921) and even Brave New World (1932). We now live in the future that Vonnegut feared!

3/14

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Synopsis: Despite being a fairly short novel, a lot of plot is crammed into The Sirens of Titan. A lucky and rich man – Malachi Constant – is involved with a potential interplanetary war, and travels to Mars, Mercury and Titan. This is the story of his downfall at the hands of Niles Rumfoord. Another wealthy man, and another space explorer, Rumfoord enters a phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum: “those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.” He exists as a quantum wave and can appear in multiple places in both space and time. When earth crosses his existence, he appears. He also meets a Tralfamadorian on Titan.

Comment: This was my first ever experience of Vonnegut, many years ago. I figured at the time that he was just a SF author. I didn’t really ‘get’ the book as more than just a bonkers space adventure. This time around, I enjoyed it less as a tradition science fiction adventure but a whole lot more as a satire on wealth and power. Of course, it was written during that golden age of SF when not much was known about the planets of the solar system and therefore aliens were often found living on planets such as Mars and Mercury. Most of the characters are pastiches of the rich, but don’t have a free will of their own. They are clearly puppets of Vonnegut’s and perhaps his first dalliance with metafiction, albeit disguised as a traditional SF adventure.

There is so much to admire about Vonnegut’s imagination here, especially his embracing of the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and his bleak vision of free will. Some might say he is a misanthrope, but what liberty do we really have? I say he’s onto something here. The Sirens of Titan also marks the debut of reoccurring characters and ideas.

4/14

Mother Night (1961)

Mother NIghtSynopsis: Vonnegut finally nails his signature style in this complete turnabout from his previous works. This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. and is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This literary trick dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. Campbell is awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he is recounting his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested.

Comment: What is it about bleak I like so much? Or is it only when utterly black but clever metafiction comes into play that it resonates? Campbell is a terrific character and the classic unreliable narrator. You sympathise but are sceptical. We never really know how truthful his accounts are. After all, he was a propagandist.

Vonnegut is now into the full swing of his re-occurring themes and motifs. He understands both writing as an art, and what it takes to keep the reader interested. He is a student of humanity and that’s why his misanthropy works throughout his oeuvre. “So it goes” makes its first appearance; his famous phrase – a musing on fate. Campbell reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five. War is a major theme, and harks back to Vonnegut’s own service. War is stupid (my naïve opinion). War is horrendously stupid (Vonnegut’s more learned opinion). It is a fake autobiography, as many of his later works will be. Vonnegut isn’t shy about telling the reader that this is metafiction as he deconstructs his characters from his ‘editors’ point of view.

6/14

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

Cat's CradleSynopsis: Author John wants to write a book about what some significant Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Felix Hoenikker is a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John contacts Hoenikker’s children to interview for the book. John finds out about something called ice-nine, created by Felix and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine can turn water into ice on contact. If it ever gets into the planet’s ecosystem, all rivers and oceans will freeze. Meanwhile, John ends up on a fictional island of San Lorenzo, which has a nihilistic faith and a very unusual society.

Comment: Back into a more traditional narrative plot here, Cat’s Cradle still managers to rings all Vonnegut’s literary bells. And boy is it bleak. It is an incredibly complex novel – probably Vonnegut’s most challenging in terms of concepts and plotting despite its short length. Hence why I love it. It pushes all my buttons. A proper narrative, delightfully satirical prose and all of Vonnegut’s themes. I love the idea of the researched book as a plot driver and the characters are all cool. Vonnegut’s confidence in his ability and his handle on his beliefs are fully formed and that’s why this is such a delight. Discussions on free will (the artificial religion that delights in the inevitability of everything) and the nature of humanity’s relationship with science (the development of the apocalyptic Ice-9) make this proper science fiction satire.

While Slaughterhouse Five is a better book, Cat’s Cradle is a more complete work of fiction.

2/14

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

Synopsis: Eliot Rosewater is a millionaire who develops a bit of a conscience. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” He is, of course, a veteran of WWII. He basically spends the novel trying to help people while a lawyer tries to prove that Elliot is insane so he can take a cut of the Rosewater fortune by diverting it to a distant relative. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution after having a proper breakdown. He is then visited by his father, the lawyer and Kilgore Trout, his favourite science fiction author.

Comment: And now it’s time for Vonnegut to savage the rich and their class. Or more importantly, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the damage wealth can do to both the individual and society. Greed corrupts, obviously.

And welcome to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego. And the lawyer visits the Rumfoords in Newport, from Sirens of Titan. However, there’s not much else about this novel that stands out for me. It has all the satirical bite and humour that you’d expect, but the plotting is a little uninteresting and the theme, while important, is as one-dimensional as Vonnegut gets. Not saying it’s bad, but not his best in terms of story and ideas. The characters are interesting enough, with altruistic Elliot being a particular standout across all Vonnegut’s fiction (and indeed features again as we shall see). I suspect Vonnegut sees his as the human ideal; generous, incorruptible and compassionate.

9/14

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse 5Synopsis: The greatest of Vonnegut’s novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death to provide the full title is the story of Billy Pilgrim. But it’s really the story of Vonnegut’s experiences during WWII in Dresden. Although Billy might be an unreliable narrator as he also recounts the time he was kidnapped by aliens and held in a zoo with a film actress named Montana Wildhack. He also claims to have travelled in time; or at least experiences flashbacks of his life as a prisoner in the Dresden slaughterhouse. While under psychiatric care he meets the aforementioned Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the novels of Kilgore Trout. It is a this point that Vonnegut introduces the alien Tralfamadorians, who experience all time simultaneously and see death as nothing particularly important.

Comment: So it goes. Mortality, war, free will, metafiction, re-occurring characters (Rosewater, Campbell from Mother Night, a relative of the Rumfoords, Kilgore Trout), humour, death, satire, religion, American life. This is peak Vonnegut. But throwing everything at this story isn’t the dog’s dinner it might have been. Vonnegut skilfully takes the reader on a journey through the horrors of war and been held against one’s will. Having really been beaten in a Dresden slaughterhouse, it is remarkable that he writes this tale with such humour and verve. It must have been painfully difficult to fictionalise the horrors he went through. Yet…Vonnegut’s fatalistic ‘so it goes’ brings both a wry smile and a shiver of bleak inevitability regarding existence – in an entertainingly witty science fiction romp.

1/14

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Synopsis: Described as the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday puts Kilgore Trout front and centre for the first time. Not the success he’d hoped to be, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival where businessman Dwayne Hoover is kingpin of the city. Hoover might be losing his mind but takes an interest in Trout. After reading one of his novels, Hoover believes he is the only person in the universe with free will, thinking the novel to be factual and goes on a rampage! The book has a typically Vonnegutian piece of metafiction as a code, with the narrator bestowing freedom on Trout.

Comment: This is another complexly plotted satire from Vonnegut that dabbles in his many familiar themes. It is a dark as they come, with death and mental health at the forefront, along with of course, the idea that humans are not as free willed as they think. Are we nothing more than biological machines destined for nothing more meaningful than death? Probably. In previous novels, there has been a focus on bigger picture stuff (war, the universe, big business, wealth, etc) while Breakfast of Champions is a more personal story.

As it essentially features a couple of white men, this is as close to Vonnegut’s viewpoint portrayed in characters as you’ll find. Oddly, I found it less engaging than many of his other works because of this. While the themes resonate, and its ace to read a story with Trout as the main character, I was less interested in Hoover and his family than many of Vonnegut’s characters. Trout is an optimistic trier…always writing and always hoping for that great science fiction novel. More re-occurring characters pop up, including Francine Pefko, who was a secretary in Cat’s Cradle.

7/14

Slapstick (1976)

SlapstickSynopsis: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! might be described as science fiction but only in the loosest sense of the term. Set in a near future when New York City is somehow in ruins, this follows Vonnegut’s now traditional style of being a fictional autobiography. This time it is by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. He lives in the collapsed Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter and her partner. Swain is cut off from the rest of society due to his ugliness. He has a twin sister, and they have an unusually creative bond; as if they were two halves of a superior brain. Eventually, Dr. Swain becomes the President, devolving the government as global oil runs out, while the Chinese miniaturise themselves.

Comment: I didn’t really warm to Slapstick and I’m not sure why. I didn’t buy the science fiction elements, especially the Chinese plans, even though I like that Vonnegut depicts society collapsing as oil runs out. I found this one a bit too scattershot, and failed to engage with the characters. Maybe that’s the point, however, as the main themes are loneliness and isolation.

The religious satire elements are fun, however. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is a nice creation and allows Vonnegut to explore is fatalistic view of life with no afterlife.

11/14

Jailbird (1979)

Synopsis: Walter F. Starbuck had recently been released from prison after serving time for his “comically” small role in the Watergate Scandal (1972). It follows Vonnegut’s standard fictional autobiography trope. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one. Starbuck spends the whole novel pontificating on both American history and on how he ended up in prison in the first place, talking about paranoia and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Comment: Jailbird was as close as I’ve come to losing patience with Vonnegut. There is almost no story here and I felt little sympathy for the character of Starbuck. Of course, Vonnegut’s ideas and rants and gags still make this a worthwhile read, but I just wish that like his earlier novels, he’d stuck to the idea of exploring them here with a decent narrative and interesting characters. His exploration of big business – exemplified through his fictional corporation, RAMJAC, which owns almost every other business in the book – is as cutting as ever. And there’s not enough bite in the buttocks of the Watergate affair either. It needed more comment and criticism of the whole debacle.

Interesting, a character in prison with Starbuck claims to be Kilgore Trout. But it probably isn’t, just someone claiming to be him. However, many of Vonnegut’s other traits are missing here. There is no science fiction or absurdism. In Vonnegut’s other novels, Trout is a great storyteller with wondrous ideas, but you never get any exerts of his writing – almost the opposite of Vonnegut here. There aren’t any characters of note that can be seen in other works. There’s a lack of black humour in the prose. It is, perhaps, simply not Vonnegut enough.

12/14

Deadeye Dick (1982)

Deadeye DickSynopsis: Poor Rudy Waltz. Having committed accidental manslaughter as a child – he kills a vacuuming, pregnant woman by shooting a shotgun into the air – he lives his whole life feeling guilty and trying to make amends. Perhaps as a result of the guilt, he spends his life sexually neutral. Now, as a middle-aged man, he tells of how his hometown, Midland City, has been destroyed by a neutron bomb.

Comment: At least Vonnegut is back to storytelling and sympathetic characters here. There’s a lot to like about Deadeye Dick but the sympathy you feel for Rudy is perhaps the standout. It’s rare in a Vonnegut novel that the main character is more memorable than Vonnegut’s themes or satire.

Midland City is the place were Trout and Hoover meet in Breakfast of Champions and represents the blankness of middle America. Not a place Vonnegut has a lot of faith in. Or maybe it’s American society as a whole. I suspect you need a relatable character (not that we’re all accidental murders) if your sub-text is that society is so pointless we may as well nuke it. I do think that the plot gets a little meandering in places and loses its way towards the end, but I enjoyed spending time with Rudy as he tries to make up for his mistake.

10/14

Galápagos (1985)

Synopsis:  This is the story of a motley crew of souls collected in Ecuador, about to go on a cruise to the famous islands. The narrator is the million-year-old spirit of Leon Trout, Kilgore’s son. Having died on a ship that is converted into a cruise liner, he has unique viewpoint as a global financial crisis sends everyone into a panic. The mismatched band of travellers eventually end up shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia as a pandemic renders Earth infertile. Their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures.

Comment: An odd one this, and my least favourite, although still with plenty of merit. Most of the novel, in which the characters are introduced and come together before the fated cruise, reads like a farce, or a series of blackly comic misadventures. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, so when various tragedies strike, they have little impact on me as a reader.

Of course, it is the main theme that is the redeemer. Vonnegut’s main issue throughout his career might be called the stupidity of humanity, despite the big brain of the species. Here he addresses it directly. The last remaining humans evolve into swimmers, who have a suitably small brain. Nice. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance again. He tries to get his dead son into the afterlife (he fails, which leads to the narration), an unusual role for the elder Trout. Less is made of his writing career than in his other appearances in Vonnegut’s novels.

There is an interesting literary device which again elevates this book above the ordinary. Vonnegut puts an * before any character’s name if they are about to die. So it goes.

14/14

Bluebeard (1987)

BluebeardSynopsis: Fictional abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian describes his later years while writing his autobiography, at the insistence of a strange woman who inserts herself into his life some time after his wife dies. Karabekian sees himself as a failed artist, although with great talent, after an incident with some paint that faded to nothing. He describes his apprenticeship as he’s writing his autobiography, while defending his secret project from Circe, his new and annoying house guest.

Comment: Vonnegut versus art. Something a bit different and all the more enjoyable for it. Bluebeard goes all meta on meta. Not only is this a fictional autobiography, but it’s about the writing of a fictional autobiography. What’s not to love? Vonnegut is his usually forthright self, but unusually focused. While he touches on war and death, this is Vonnegut’s change to critique the art of creation; both painting and writing. How important is perspective when judging talent? And what about commercial or other success? The relationships between characters are perhaps Vonnegut’s most inciteful too.

This is also Vonnegut’s statement that it is men who have screwed everything up, and now maybe the women should have a go.

Rabo Karabekian previously featured in both Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, keeping up the traditional through-thread, tying all Vonnegut’s work into a complete piece of fiction.

5/14

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Synopsis: Hocus Pocus, or What’s the Hurry, Son? is the non-linear story of Eugene Debs Hartke who is a Vietnam War veteran. After being recorded being jokily un-American by the daughter of a right-wing commentator, Eugene is sacked from his job as college professor. So he gets a job in a prison. There is a breakout and the inmates take over his former college. The college becomes a new prison, Eugene becomes warden and then an inmate. These events occur mostly because of serendipity, or by hocus pocus.

Comment: The usual themes of Vonnegut’s earlier works all come together in this oddly unengaging non-linear narrative. Through Eugene’s ponderings and wanderings, the Vietnam war, class, prejudice, sexuality, freedom and social exclusion are all covered. This is really Vonnegut speaking in this fictional autobiography (again, Vonnegut is editing the notes and writings from Eugene for this text). Vonnegut tries to make it interesting by using some familiar meta elements, such as talking to the reader, repetition of phrases, and the adding of coughing noises, as Eugene has tuberculosis as he writes. Perhaps Vonnegut was sensing his own mortality.

13/14

Timequake (1997)

timequakeSynopsis: From the outset, it appears that this is the story of a timequake, when the universe decides to have a moment and sends everyone back in time 10 years. Forcing everyone to relive their lives again but having no control over the actions until the moment time catches up with itself in 2001. In reality, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical polemic. There is no plot, other than Vonnegut describing events leading up to, and resulting from, a celebration that features his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout. Apart from that, there’s nothing to describe. He alludes to many of his other novels and the first draft of this book, which appears to have more of a plot.

Comment: While this is as sharp and black as most of Vonnegut’s books, it lacks any coherence. As there’s no true plot, it is much harder to engage with it than any of this previous novels. There is no thread to follow as such, other than Vonnegut’s own life. The fun is to spot the themes and smile knowingly when he mentions is previous works in particular contexts. His playful language and running gags are a joy as ever. In lesser hands, this would have been a terrible book. Obviously, free will is the key theme, as everyone must live 10 years again, and then deal with their actions as the first moment of free will kicks in. People are forced to watch their bad choices again, which is as black as it gets! This is an intriguing idea, but I wish it had been carried though with an actual narrative or characters you’d cared for. I think that this is a lost opportunity for another masterpiece.

8/14

 

Final thoughts

As a body of work, these 14 novels are remarkable in their consistency of thought and voice. The themes of social injustice and the futility of human exist resonate strongly with me, which is an odd dichotomy. Life is pointless, Homo sapiens are stupid (or at least the male half of the species), and we don’t have the free will and liberties that we think we do, but while we’re at it, can we all be nice and fair to each other and stop having wars?

While I love the reoccurring characters, themes, gags and phraseology, I feel that towards the end of his career, the fictional autobiography trope becomes a bit tired. The brilliance of Cat’s Cradle shows that a decent narrative works well for the messages Vonnegut has.

His reputation is deserved, of course, and I shall be returning to most of these books again, later in life. And again.

So it goes.

 

kurt_vonnegut_1972The books in order:

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  2. Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  3. Player Piano (1952)
  4. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  5. Bluebeard (1987)
  6. Mother Night (1961)
  7. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  8. Timequake (1997)
  9. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
  10. Deadeye Dick (1982)
  11. Slapstick (1976)
  12. Jailbird (1979)
  13. Hocus Pocus (1990)
  14. Galápagos (1985)

Image credit By WNET-TV/ PBS – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38530410

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

glass-bead-gameHaving taken more than a decade to write, The Glass Bead Game, also known under the title of Magister Ludi (which is Latin for Master of the Game) was Herman Hesse’s final novel, and his only one that might be considered science fiction; it’s set in the twenty third century.

The full title of the edition I read – Vintage 2000, translated by Richard and Clara Winston – is The Glass Bead Game: A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Kencht’s posthumous writings edited by Hermann Hesse. Therefore, the conceit of this novel is that this is a fictional biography of said Knecht, which includes a few different sources, all brought together by Hesse.

The plot is fairly perfunctory. A talented but by no means exceptional boy studies the art of the Glass Bead Game in some bizarrely static future (I’ll come to that shortly), eventually becoming the top man in the hierarchy that oversees the game. The game itself is all about philosophy and music, although we never actually learn how the game is played or what the outcomes of the tournaments are. But the game itself is not really the point. The point is that Hesse was addressing a fundamental issue of the twentieth century: the end of national hierarchies and the rise of individualism. It even covers the rise of neo-libraralism (mentioned on page 303), as mentioned by the father of Plinio Designori who dominates his son’s life and belief system.

The Glass Bead Game is an odd one. On one hand, it is an imaginative thought piece on the changing nature of humanity. On the other, it is a deeply troubling projection of the author’s perception of the world, which somehow gained much critical acclaim.

So, the plot takes place in the future, but in truth it is a reflection on the past and not an actual comment on what Hesse thought the future might look like. Major themes are classic music, German philosophers, Chinese mysticism (I Ching), and religion. Nothing has progressed from the 1930s that Hesse must have experienced. It almost beggars belief that authors cannot look at the progress shown by history and not think the future will be filled with further progress. In Hesse’s future there are no technological or cultural advancements at all. Worse, his attitude towards women in particular and non-while males in general is shocking. It saddens me that this book is held in such high regard when it features not a single named female character in the biography of Knecht. It seems only men, and European men at that, have any place in the running of the future. The first mention of any woman is Plinio Designori’s mother on page 278 of this edition (more than half way through the book). The first female character with any agency is Plinio’s un-named wife (page 310), although her primary function is mother to their son. While Hesse extols the virtues of teachers, he suggests that they should be men. Interestingly, however, in the first line of Knecht’s so-called writings, it is stated that women ruled many thousands of years ago.

The Glass Bead Game becomes a black and white debate throughout its prose. There are several strands, but to Hesse it is always this versus that: the religious orders v the Game orders; the creation v the study of art; art v philosophy; art v science and the main event of course: the individualism of careerism, wealth and fame versus the old fashioned hierarchy where every brick in the wall counts, holding up the head of the ‘thing’ and its ideals. This is exemplified by Knecht’s stay with the Music Master while still at school, and (the voice of religion) Father Jacobus’s angry rant when Knecht was staying at the monastery (the Pythagorean brotherhood or the Christian church). Later, this examination of hierarchy is confirmed when Knecht is given the title of Magister and therefore he was to be a “jewel in the crown, a pillar in the structure” and he had to think of the Whole and serve the elite. At the conclusion, it is noted that “what would become of our Hierarchy . . .” if each man did not live in his assigned place.

Whether it is this particular translation, or the original writing, but parts of Knecht’s story are engaging enough The writing is skilled, and even though some paragraphs are longer than a page, rarely boring. Knecht’s relationship with the Music Master, his investigation of the I Ching and the changing relationship with Plinio Designori – the character who represents individualism – as they age, are charming and interesting. Knecht eventually rejecting the old ways and embracing the future. The biography style works well, and the author(s) discuss the truth of the tale versus the legend, describing where the information about Knecht’s life comes from, which gives the writing added authority.

A final criticism, and again one that seems to have gone un-noticed in the praise for this novel, is that there are meant to be at least three authors of this book. The ‘biographers’ who are talking to the reader for most of the story; the anonymous author of the final chapter ‘Legend’, and Knecht himself with his poetry and within the section entitled Three Lives. Yet, there is no difference in style or voice of the author; clearly Hesse himself. Surely he should have presented these writers as having their own unique styles, or did everyone in the future write like a 19th Century German?

A complex novel with a lot to enjoy but so much more to be concerned about. I’m undecided whether Hesse was looking back at affection at the old hierarchies of the past and warning about individualism, especially concerning Knecht’s fate. Either philosophy is problematic anyway, and Hesse doesn’t really consider shades of grey. If this book is some vision of Hesse’s future utopia, it has no place for anyone other than white European men. Shameful. Science fiction, of course, examines humanity and what it means to be a human either in the future or an alternative history. The Glass Bead Game does not do this but rather reflects on the past with rose-tinted glasses. Despite being set in the future, it is not a science fiction story by any stretch of the imagination.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938)

AnthemIn the author’s introduction to Anthem, Rand states that is story was written in 1937. It was originally published in 1938 but the edition I read – the 1995 Penguin Modern Classic edition – is the 1946 publication. Rand states that the occasional word was changed but the mood, “spine and spirit” were not changed. I’m not sure what the spirit of this novella is. I have mixed feelings.

I try not to take any prejudice into anything I read in this series, but that is literally impossible. I knew I found Gulliver’s Travels boring and I knew I loved Frankenstein before reading them again for this series. Through reputation alone, I had some trepidations but was generally intrigued when I picked up Anthem. As usual, I refrained from reading any introduction or notes not written by the author.

The story of Anthem begins with a confession of sin from the first person narrator – writing by candlelight in a tunnel that he discovered –  who refers to himself as ‘we’ and states “our name is Equality 7-2521”. All the characters are named in similar terms. Union 5-3992, Liberty 5-3000 and Similarity 5-0306 are examples. The latter belongs to the World Council. We are in a city in the distant future, but it is a low-tech one. Candles and glass are the apex of technology. In some distance past, known as the Unmentionable Times, something catastrophic happened with only a few survivors. This world has grown from some ashes that Rand never defines. Equality spends the first few pages describing the society he lives in: Children are raised in a collective, away from parents; careers are assigned (he is a street sweeper) even though he was good at science as a child; everything has a council (Council of Vocation, World Council of Scholars and many others); everyone lives and works (even plays are about toil) for their brothers and sisters – who are kept apart except for the Palace of Mating, and no-one has an individual life. This is a true authoritarian dystopia – men are punished with lashings or death without a trial.

350px-Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195306Our protagonist witnessed a public execution aged 10 and this seems to be the catalyst for change. He loves the Science of Things. He is curious. He shouldn’t be. And so when he discovers his tunnel, rather than tell his superiors, he keeps it a secret and works on a potential society-changing discovery. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl he sees by the side of a road (Liberty 5-3000). Their love is forbidden but grows slowly in any case. He names her the Golden One, even though individual names are also forbidden. He determines to present his discovery to the World Council of Scholars, dreaming they will accept him into their bosom. They reject him. He escapes the city, and with his Golden One, discovers a house full of books from the Unmentionable Times. He believes he will become a god-like figure of liberty to all men, and is worshiped by his mate. They rename each other Prometheus (him) and Gaea (her). He reveals the final forbidden word.

There are so many parallels in Anthem and books both before and to follow its publication. The lack of individualism and coded names reflect We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) – both authors lived in Russia. The collectivism and child-rearing away from any parental love feel similar to Brave New World (1932) by Huxley (the scenes when Equality is a child and wakes in the dorm in particular). The general dystopian society and the forbidden love that frees the man and woman may have influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). People are worn out at 40 harks back to The Fixed Period (1882) and forward to Logan’s Run (1967). And Anthem generally must have spurred many subsequent dystopic fictions

However, most of the classics in any genre are both derivative of, and influencers for, many other works. Standing on the shoulders of giants or turtles all the way down, however you look at it. That isn’t my issue with Anthem. I enjoyed pretty much the first two thirds of the story. It took a page or two to get used to Rand’s harsh style. However, once it picked up pace, some of the prose was quite poetic (“the sky is a soggy purple” being my favourite description). The story is a classic of course, boy meets girl, boy wants to shackle the chains of the oppressive authority and his curiosity naturally leads him to a way of doing so, girl falls into subservient love without knowing anything about boy – except maybe a spark she sees in herself; Rand never explains her backstory or hints at why she’s rebellious like Equality.

However, once Equality escapes and the Golden One catches up with him in the forest I found the tone oddly uncomfortable. We becomes I as the narrator reads the books he finds. I personally believe that the liberty of the individual is the most important tenant in life. Rand, for a short while, follows this path. The collective is a failure and the individual must rise. Freedom and liberty are what must be victorious. I kind of get that. However, it soon seems that the newly Christened and singular Promethues is looking to achieve god-hood over his fellow man (he calls them sons and his “chosen friends”); he will show them the error of their ways and lead them into the light. The final reveal left a bitter taste in this reader’s mouth.

There is a lot to admire about Anthem. While barely an original word or thought, it is like a smart and interesting remix of previous fictions and philosophies, and also demonstrably influential. It is not a Utopian rant or a polemic despite its philosophy, and has the bones of a story to it. It is of course, proper science fiction – examining a potential future while discussing the nature of man. I enjoyed reading it for what it was, up to the final point, and can see how Rand’s mind must have been working.

 

Image credit:By Popular Publications / Lawrence Sterne Stevens – http://www.philsp.com/mags/famous_fantastic_mysteries.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46698666

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Skylark of Space by EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1946)

Amazbuck
By Frank R. Paul – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3704097

Originally written as a serial – which is more than obvious from the narrative structure – from 1915 to 1921, and published in 1928 in the Amazing Stories magazine, The Skylark of Space was first published in book form in 1946. Which is interesting.

With a name like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, pulp science fiction author was perhaps the only career that would make sense for Edward Elmer. And with writing this from the period that saw the publication of many of HG Wells’ novels, the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other similar scientific romances, and the boom of pulp crime fiction, it is no surprise that this episodic story feels like it comes from lots of different influences.

I listened to a 2008 audiobook edition, unabridged, and narrated by Reed McColm. I often wonder if there is a difference of emotional reaction when listening to a novel instead of reading it, for the first time. Listening to audiobooks of a novel I’ve already read is one thing, but without a control – which of course is impossible in this situation – there is no-way of knowing. Reading Smith’s novel might not have been as entertaining as listening to it. I enjoyed McColm’s OTT performance, especially the dialogue from Dick Seaton. Would I have enjoyed the book with the voices from my own head?

Smith’s story begins with scientist Richard Seaton accidentally discovering a new type of energy in combining pure copper with a newly discovered element “X” (which is suggested to be a stable element in the platinum group). I love that during the first half of the 20th century, the letter ‘x’ was routinely given to new and exciting fictional discoveries. With his millionaire friend, Martin Crane, Seaton builds the titular space craft. Antagonist DuQuesne realises what Seaton has discovered and wishes to be the first to build a space ship. At any cost. And thus a bitter and deadly rivalry begins. DuQuesne tries to sabotage Seaton’s plans, and kidnaps the scientist’s fiancé – Dotty. Seaton and Crane have a secret and are soon pursuing DuQuesne’s ship. Any more narrative description would spoil the fun for those new to Smith’s universe, but suffice to say that a series of space adventures ensue, with much daring-do and plenty of saving-the-day and getting-the-girl.

Smith’s use of language is priceless – an early example is when Seaton first approaches Crane with his idea of building a space ship: “I’ve got a thing on the fire that will break him right off at the ankles”. I defy anyone not to smile at such use of language. We are in pure pulp science fiction here. The novel’s plot is faintly ridiculous, populated by ludicrous characters. However, science – albeit not altogether plausible science – is front and centre in most of the book. The main characters are scientists and run around with automatic guns and play tennis with incredibly rich brainiac playboys. Seaton, a materials scientist lest we forget, has an impossibly perfect fiancé who just loves everything he does and is. The first third or so is pure pulp – conspiracy, crime and lots of successful leaps in the dark. The rest of the novel is pure science fiction – space ships, mysterious objects in space, aliens and war.

I wonder, and I can’t find any earlier examples (considering the writing period), if Smith is the first person to use the phrase science fiction in a piece of science fiction? Smith also mentions computers in the story, and proving that this is proper science fiction, talks about Einstein, chemistry and gravity in proper context. However, it is the moment when the characters are in space when Smith uses the term Roche limit (a term I’d heard of but didn’t know, and subsequently researched as being to do with celestial mechanics) without explaining what it is, that the ‘properness’ is underlined. It felt like I was reading something that was written by someone who understood science, it’s place in society and how to incorporate it with an adventure story.

The first landing on an alien world is exciting and is perhaps a misleading note of things to come. The visit by Seaton and crew is brief, but they encounter giant monsters, over-sized bugs and dinosaur-like predators in a battle-royal. The next encounter is with a hyper-intelligence that has no material existence. The episodic nature – which felt like a precursor to Star Trek – quickly culminates in an extended stay on the planet of Osnome where the search for copper ends in war and weddings, before they return to Earth heroes, with even more wealth than they started with (which was substantial).

To be sure, this is a proper writer’s fantasy. The nerds are heroes who have anything and everything their heart’s desire, both professionally and romantically, and get even more of the good stuff as the novel progresses. The bad guys all get their comeuppance or turn out to be heroes too. You can’t take anything seriously, or the whole universe falls apart. Just one, ‘yeah but hang on’ thought and your enjoyment of the story would end.

Which brings us to Smith’s depiction of women. As with most of the male authors of the time, and despite the fiction of Virginia Woolf in particular, the depiction of the female characters is deplorable. Dotty, and the other female character of significance, Peggy, are little more than eye-candy and fluff. They have no agency. They are victims. They are captured so Seaton and Crane can go after them. They have no intelligence. Dotty doesn’t like scientific jargon and is only interested in the kitchen and bedrooms within the space ship. Her only moment of significance is in actually naming the Skylark. Meanwhile, Peggy is ‘only’ a secretary and only ‘good for making notes’. Of course they are both perfectly beautiful, and can’t resist their men (Seaton and Crane respectively). It is such a shame that the enjoyment of the pulp adventure is spoiled by the depiction of women.

Listened to not read

There is a lot of joy and significance in Smith’s The Skylark of Space. It is unsurprisingly episodic and doesn’t flow too well. The creation of the space ships comes too easily. There is little time spent in space and on the first discovered planet, and too much on the war on Osnome. The wedding section at the end was way, way too long and pointless.

You see. Once you pick at a hole, the entire fabric unravels. My enjoyment becomes tainted. The fun becomes blackened, as if burnt. On the surface, The Skylark of Space is an enjoyable romp and decent science fiction (in the sense that scientific principle drives much of the narrative, and Smith doesn’t shy away from proper science), but scratch that surface and there’s nothing but misogyny floating in a hollow shell.

The Comfort of Books

I never venture far without a book in my bag. I find it slightly disconcerting if I don’t have one near, even if I won’t need one for a particular journey. Someone once said to me that I hide behind books. There is possibly a sliver of truth in that, but I think I take comfort in them. They are my windows and mirrors: a glimpse on the world, and a reflection of me. They allow me to experience emotions I might not otherwise and allow me to find a community of people just like me.

7928636400_5ac10e382d_z

These are some of the books I easily find comfort in, for particular reasons.

The world is without doubt a mysterious and complex place to live in. There are as many ideologies as there are pebbles on a beach. We all see the world differently and whatever we have inside us alters the view of the world outside the window. Most people read books that reflect their particular viewpoint – or is it their viewpoint is shaped by the books they read?

BeteOn the beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is a bleak apocalyptic novel, offering a worldview of the cold war but also how people feel about death. In Shute’s story, set in Australia after a nuclear war, the protagonists know they will almost certainly die, sooner rather than later. Death is something rarely discussed in society, so fiction allows that exploration in comfort. What it means it live and exist in the world is perhaps the primary concern of science fiction. The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig features an alien on earth who takes the identity of a university lecturer. However, the book is mostly centred around the home life and how humans suffer in the mundane. Mental illness is one of the hardest things for anyone to comprehend and Haig helps with magnificent storytelling and prose. There are dozens of books about political philosophy that I find push my buttons, from the obvious classics Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the more recent Bete (2014) by Adam Roberts, which investigates human rights and how society treats nature. Political fiction is one of the most personal choices there is. I recently read BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) which I found ideologically spot on, and a perfect experiment in fiction.

But how do other people see me? Indeed, how do I see myself? How do other people see you? Perhaps surprisingly, there are so many books out there that reflect part of my personality or mirror my feelings or beliefs. The much missed Graham Joyce released The Year of the Ladybird in 2013. Set in 1976, the story is about a young man, working over summer while at college, trying to figure out his relationship with his Dad and trying to understand love. Meanwhile, the wonderful Kalix the Werewolf series (which kicks off with Lonely Werewolf Girl, 2007, Martin Millar) is about someone alone and lonely on the streets of London, far from where she was brought up. Kalix struggles to fit in, with anyone, and fails to understand the world she lives in. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books also spoke to me as she uses magic to explore London.

on the beachImagine a selection of characters with traits and experiences at the edge of imagination: sentient creatures that fly; artists and scientists exploring form and the limits of knowledge; ganglords and demons; hive minds and multi-dimensional beings. I think I have a decent imagination, but nothing compared to the world China Miéville creates in Perdido Street Station (2000). How can these things, these beings come to life in a fiction. Miéville’s skill is that in the Bas-Lag universe, the bizarre and the perverse seem normal. I can experience, through him, what he thinks it would be like to be a de-winged flyer or to experience an hallucinogen secreted by giant moth-like beings. But I can also experience how a scientist works and how an artist thinks. In fiction, I can experience fear while being safe. I can be creeped out while knowing there’s nothing hiding under the bed that wants to hurt me. House of Leaves was also published in 2000. I would suggest it was produced – as opposed to written – by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is an extraordinary work and I’ll bang on about it relentlessly if I need to. The plot summary is complex and perhaps unnecessary to know in detail. A self-confessed unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though there is no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed. The book is mostly a report on the fictional film which contains the description of a family moving to a house in Virginia. The house changes. There are doors and spaces that shouldn’t exist. It is changing size. Meanwhile, the family starts falling apart. It is hard to describe the narrative, but the feelings it engenders are easy: amazement at the achievement, wonder at the imagination and being genuinely creeped out but the prose. I really find an odd sense of joy in Danielewski’s achievement, and solace in knowing these things aren’t real. Maybe.

Hitchhikers-Guide-171x300But if I’m not in the mood to be freaked out, books of course, bring humour like no other medium. While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1985) works well on radio, and less so on TV and film, for me it shines in print. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Utter and hilarious genius. Books take you on so many journey’s and Adams’ one is full of wit and verve, and is also damn proper science fiction too. Not just a pastiche or a piss-take.

Another safe space for me are old favourites with beloved characters. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) features such heart-warming, joyful relationships between the central characters as they head off for first contact with aliens, that I just love spending time with them. Despite knowing what happens, I re-read the book every 10 years or so. When you think that there are so many books out there, re-reading – especially more than once, might seem like an odd thing to do. But it is about comfort and familiarity for me, and not just exploring new things. So reading a favourite is like drinking proper hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows. I will always be happy to pick up Never Let Me Go (1995, Kazuo Ishiguroor Ammonite (1993, Nicola Giffith) for example.

Reading is, perhaps, the most solitary of pursuits (which suits me), but sometimes it is vital almost, to know there are other people out there who feel just like I do. A couple of recent books that I’ve talked a lot about before exemplify this. All the birds in the sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders and A long way to small angry planet (2015) by Becky Chambers – which are both about accepting the differences in people – have received such a community buzz that it is simply awesome to know that a bunch of strangers enjoy the same things you do, and probably think in similar ways too.

The great and still missed Bill Hicks had a routine:

“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”

That’s one reason, and brilliant reason at that, to read. But the main one is to find comfort. That’s me in the corner. Behind a book. Not hiding, living.

 

Image credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Toffee Maky

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Brave New WorldI write this on St Valentine’s Day (2016). I’ve been witness to conditioning and conformity as one of the many annual rituals comes and goes; for society, consumerism, capitalism and normalcy. Aldous Huxley first published Brave New World in 1932, a year after it was written. I listened to the BBC unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Michael York. It is a book I’ve read at least 6 times but the first time I’ve listened. I’ve spoken about it before here: My Book of My Lifetime so this won’t be as deep a description as usual in this series.

Briefly, the plot focuses on a few characters in London, in AD2540, which is known then as 632 A.F.—”After Ford”. Bernard Marx is a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning. He’s very smart, but he’s not happy with life. He’s not normal in terms of physical stature, for his caste. Lenina Crowne works in a hatchery, and loves live. She is perfectly conditioned and perfect in every way. Bernard knows and understands how society works, and why it doesn’t work for him. However, he is infatuated by Lenina.

The world that they exist in is governed by the World State. Following on from Henry Ford’s ideas of consumption of disposable consumer goods, mass production, homogeneity and predictability (and he is now a messiah figure), society is stable, resulting from social conditioning and hypnopaedia, or sleep-teaching. There are five castes who are conditioned to know their place in society. At first glance, this appears to be a utopia. Everyone gets what everyone wants. But can anyone think for themselves?

The cracks in the society are shown when Lenina agrees to go with Bernard to a savage reservation – a place where the old values of family and religion persist. There they meet Linda and her son John. Their true identity is revealed and they return with the couple back to civilisation. Lenina falls for John, and John for Lenina, but he cannot abide her ways. When Linda dies, everything falls apart for John and Bernard.

The conditioning process that opens Brave New World and that continue to be explored are genuinely shocking today. Imagine reading this story in 1932! Social conditioning wasn’t as obvious in 1931 as it is today, and yet we are led to believe that we have more freedoms now than ever before. And yet, for those that behave in any outsider manner – not celebrating Valentine’s Day, not looking forward to Christmas as so as the summer sun sets, standing up for public libraries, creating art – life isn’t easy. The normal folks can’t understand the choices made. In Brave New World, of course, there is no choice. Citizens are sleep programmed to behave in their consumer fashion. Bernard, and his friend Helmholtz, are so intelligent that they can only be different, however. Which brings about the only real problematic area of the plot. Someone of Bernard’s intellect shouldn’t really find Lenina as attractive as he does. Although I suppose there may be some conditioning left in him. He is, however, a deeply flawed character, as exemplified with his relationship with Helmholtz. This is one of Huxley’s themes: beauty trumps intellect. Again, John falls for Lenina when he really should know better. Emotion is uncontrollable.

Another slight gripe, but maybe a result of the times Huxley lived in, is the lack of diversity within the story, which is a shame. Not so much in race, but in gender and sexuality. If everyone belongs to everyone else, why are gender and relationships so binary?

In Chapter 5 when Bernard talks to Lenina about being alone, this is what makes Brave New World so important. It fired my own individualism and lack of conformity when I was younger. Being the outsider alone! The main theme of the book is that it’s better to be me and unhappy than conform and be happy. Huxley hit upon the very definition of ignorance is bliss.

Huxley examines a lot of humanity throughout the book. The worship of Ford and the rapturous delirium of the ‘orgy’ in the solidarity meetings within this rational and technologically advanced word indicates that Huxley thought that humans need that religiosity in their lives, for example. Even the World Controller admitted as much later in the book when discussing religion with John. Another, again from that same passage, is that science and art (truth and beauty) are the twin crutches of freedom. And how! Much could be written – and has been – about the intricacies of this wonderful book, and how it is still relevant today. In Brave New World the citizens are not free to choose, but they are happy. In our real world, we are free to choose, and yet we choose to conform. And we are not happy.

The only other flaw in this book is one that crops up in so much early science fiction. Despite it set so far in the future and Huxley extrapolating and dreaming up so much of the horrors of our future, there is no evolution of communications technology. Bernard still needs to go to the post office to use a telephone and look people up in a phone book. I wonder why, amongst all things, science fiction authors fail to consider communications tech?

Brave New World is such a leap forward in the science fiction novel, even from the likes of Stapleton and Wells. It is a properly told story with fully rounded characters and a plot that makes sense. Huxley took the art of writing a science fiction story in a brilliant new direction. The seamless shift between the world building introduction to the book and the main narrative in the early chapters is masterful storytelling, quite unlike anything before it. And as for the brilliantly shocking ending…