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.

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 – 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 – 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…

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

WeYevgeny Zamyatin wrote We in 1921 but it was first published in English translation in 1924. While he wrote many science fiction and satirical works, this dystopian far future tale is perhaps his most famous. This was my second reading, although I recall little about the first, other than it was a tough read.

I read the 1993 edition from Penguin, translated by Clarence Brown. As usual, I ignored the introduction and notes.

Before We was published most of the science fiction (with the exception of Wells, Shelley and one or two others) represented the utopian genre, to a greater or lesser extent. Most of those were generally unsuccessful in terms of a novel or story. There are not many examples of genuine full-on dystopia up to this point.

We is the story – and it is a proper story – of D-503. He lives a thousand years after OneState took over world government. The human population is not what it was. He is chief engineer on a project to build the mysterious INTEGRAL, and he writes a journal to record the process. All inhabitants live in a glass apartment and are watched by the Bureau of Guardians. D has an assigned lover (O-90) and they live their lives (work, recreation, etc) to precise prescribed timings. O is too short for reproduction which causes her anguish. O is allowed another partner, who is D’s friend, and state poet R-13. D meets I-330, a woman who appears to defy the OneState (she smokes, drinks and flirts with D). Flirtation is not allowed – applications for sex firsts must be pre-approved. The influence of I on D slowly infects his life and before long, he is unsure of his place in the new world. He begins to dream – a sign of mental illness in this future. His relationships with both O and I begin to alter. As each record in the journal maps his descent into chaos, they become increasing erratic.

There are complexities to this story not previous found in genre fiction. Despite this, I failed to engage with the characters. Not for any real reason I can put my finger on. The characters seemed to be driven by real motivations within the world that Zamyatin creates. I was hoping that D would become more heroic, rather than being more confused by events that seem to occur to him – although his reactions are probably more realistic than in traditional fiction. His world crumbles and he can’t necessarily cope, never mind comprehend. He appears to have little agency, despite his high position in the OneState. The character of I plays the part of a noir-ish femme fatale type, which I liked.

The chapters are presented as records and as befitting a journal, are short and punchy. There is no long exposition explaining this future world. Unlike previous utopian fiction, there’s not the tedious chapter on religion, chapter on sexuality, chapter on economics, chapter on education, etc. Instead, we learn about the future thanks to the actions of the characters as they progress the story along. Some concepts and world-building are described in terms of maths and physics, which is completely in-keeping with D’s character. Zamyatin gives D a very descriptive style in his writing. He uses this trope to give the other characters their physical and emotional characteristics. I imagine, however, that in a far future dystopia, the art of description might not be so common – even the poet uses mechanical means for his creation.

There are references to our world, our existence, throughout. We are called the ancients. We are criticised for our chaotic existence and our principle of equality and “idiotic language”. Perhaps Zamyatin didn’t enjoy living in post-revolution Russia? He makes some interesting arguments, comparing life to physics: paraphrasing…when something’s velocity is zero it’s no longer in motion, and therefore “when a man’s freedom is reduced to zero, he commits no crimes”. Bit of a leap in logic?

Is a socialist utopia and a dystopia the same thing? D enjoys being controlled by OneState, although he doesn’t like the idea of being emotionally controlled by I. In this future, humans appear to have lost their souls, but they are happy enough – if a soul-less being can experience happiness. After all, D belongs to the OneState’s ‘we’ and doesn’t want the concept of the individual self, or I. Zamyatin suggests that a soul is needed for a person to fly, to have imagination. Imagination needs to be cured. This is the true cost of the dystopian model. Take away a soul and a person is a functioning machine. When you introduce (through the character of I, and I assume the deliberate delegation of the letter I) emotion and imagination, the machine (D) fails in its function. When one part of the OneState machine fails, does it all fail? It is almost a mathematical equation…

I suspect that if I knew more about Zamyatin’s life, political disposition and Russian history, I might be able to read more in the book’s subtext. However, what I took from We is that personal freedom should never be threatened, no matter the perceived benefits by the state.

Zamyatin’s We is a smart piece of literature and proper storytelling. It follows its own internal logic and is therefore proper science fiction. Proper dystopia. The first truly successful novel of this genre, where characters grow and change and the narrative works. Despite my lack of engagement – which comes down to my individual tastes rather than a flaw in the writing, storytelling, characters or imagination of Zamyatin – this is a terrific and important novel. (Or course, many of the ideas within are later found in Brave New World and 1984 amongst others).

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.

Player PianoKurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.

Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.

The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).

Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.

As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.

In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.

Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional battery. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.

The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.

As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.

Favourite re-reads: Listening to Lethe

Lethe Favourite novels can often reflect a particular stage in life. When I first read Lethe (1995) by Tricia Sullivan I was in the process of deliberately hunting out female science fiction authors. I’d recently read and loved Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith and wanted more. I was also a member of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. My time at university had awaked me to some social issues which I was following.

I recently decided to listen to Lethe rather than re-read it. I played the unabridged version narrated – or rather acted – by Imogen Church.

Lethe is set in 2166 after a long period of recuperation for Earth, following the Gene Wars. Human-kind genetically altered viruses and experimented on fellow humans. The result was nuclear war, the decimation of Earth and the creation of new humanoid species. A planet-wide governance by an oligarchy of once-human brains in permanent computer interface allowed so-called “pure” humans to survive in rezzes, protected my mirror-fields. An off-shoot of humans, known as altermoders (who have gills and develop a skin for underwater swimming), can telepathically communicate and network with dolphins. Meanwhile, an astronomical body called Underkohling is found on the outer rim of the solar system which contains gates to other parts of the universe.

Our story features Jenae, an Australian altermoder, who is trying to make sense of the discoveries the dolphins show her, and Daire, who slips through the ‘fourth gate’ while on a mission of exploration, and what he finds on the planet he wakes up on. Jenae learns the truth of what has happened in the past, while experiencing bigotry and grief. She finds out that power corrupts but not everything is black and white when it comes to identity. The planet’s masters are not who they seem. Meanwhile, Daire finds the supposed descendants of the criminals involved with the Gene Wars and learns about love and responsibility. He also discovers what appears to be sentient trees. The leader of the descendants, an impossible girl called Tsering, must come to terms with a terrible fate, brought about by the corporations during the Gene Wars back in Earth’s past. The plot strands come together as Colin – a forth key character and scientist and colleague of Daire – meets Jenae. They escape Earth to find themselves on this new and viable planet.

I remember being really excited to read a story where the heroine not only swam with dolphins, but became like them and could communicate with them. I remember being impressed that science over-comes politics and corporations and has the potential to save humanity. I was also impressed by the small details in the writing. I remember at the time, thinking that a male science fiction writer wouldn’t have mentioned insects so many times. I was probably wrong.

Listening to Lethe was probably a mistake. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the story wasn’t as personal to me as I recalled. I’ve changed a lot. Sullivan’s world is interesting enough and has some nice ideas (how the corporate criminals tried to get away with their crimes, and the bigotry between sub-species for example), but it has dated badly in light of the modern communication age. Computers are clunky and they still use discs to transport information. Her writing is great, however. Her world-building is by discovery for the most part, and not exposition.

The cast of characters is impressive and mostly cliché-free. Jenae and Tsering aren’t the only strong women, but in the end I thought that Lethe should have been more about Jenae. Her story almost fades out as the conclusion arrives and Colin’s character takes over the story. Sullivan presents a scenario which provides Jenae with a potential release to her situation but then fails to explore it.

The details that Sullivan includes in her story are what takes it above a standard SF tale. The mention of the aforementioned insects, the way Jenae’s twin falls for a ‘wrong-un’, the lives of the dolphins, and more aren’t features you’d come across in most genre fiction. Many other passages too. The over-riding theme appears to be that humanity is reliant on nature and not separate from it. Meddle or destroy nature and it will destroy you. The other is identity. Jenae’s twin doesn’t have her altermode ability. The people running the planet are nameless brains. The sentient trees can show you ghosts of your past. What makes you, you? A question all good science fiction should ask. However, I was torn between being interested in the characters, themes and the future Sullivan created and being disappointed by Colin’s growing influence in the story. It was almost as if the author lost faith in her female leads.

Also, I found Church’s narration distracting. The cast of characters from around the world and of different ages meant that Church put on a range of accents and tones. Colin was a pompous Englishman. Janae a headstrong Aussie. There were children and middle-aged Asian men. Not that she couldn’t do accents, but they distracted from what they were saying. I’d have preferred it if all the characters had spoken in Church’s own voice.

I’m more analytically minded now than I was in 1995, despite not long being out of university where I’d completed an MSc. I think that if I’d read (and not listened) to Lethe for the first time today I’d have enjoyed it thoroughly, but it wouldn’t have impacted me personally as much as it did back in the day. There are some cracking science fiction themes here and plenty of interesting characters. Lethe is a great book by a great author, although this audio version is a tad mis-judged.

Space Opera by Ian J Simpson

Derek the Despot roared with laughter in brutal triumph.

I’d always wanted to fall in love with someone in a bookshop.

The strings bled pain in sympathetic appreciation.

I figured the odds were good, as I hung around them whenever I could.

Derek now had everything he ever wanted. The universe was his.

So it comes to this moment, this perfect moment.

He sat back on his command chair and surveyed the scene around him.

Cos I always figured that she’d been hanging around the science fiction section, looking too.

The planet was blackened beneath him. His enemies crushed; defeated.

After all, if I’m looking, here, she might be too.

Fire defied physics as the fleet of heroes burned.

What else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon?

Brad Fantastic, Derek’s nemesis, lay dead at his feet. Humanity’s last hope gone.

Read a book?

Since Derek first came to power, to rule the Company, his mission had been clear.

Alone?

To take away the freedoms of mankind and machine-kind.

And so I stood browsing the classics, looking for new reprints.

To halt the spread of humanity and their toys across the galaxy.

I suddenly felt her, at my shoulder.

To stem the infection.

And the world went dark.

To end the beautiful melody with a discordant hell.

Because she said hello and I felt the blood run to my feet.

So there had been huge, dreadful battles in space.

I couldn’t even turn around.

Derek had made sure that planets had been destroyed and billions had suffered and died.

So she said hello again.

The good women and men had risen against him.

I continued to fail to turn around. I was becoming panicky.

Brad Fantastic and the Fearsome Five.

Breathing heavily, I plucked a book from the shelf. Ringworld.

About as fearsome as a wet fart in a swimming pool.

About a second more passed.

They’d built intelligent, living, weaponised ships and huge, scary robots.

Another second.

But Derek crushed them all in his relentless pursuit of his ambition. His goal.

Sounds suddenly drown me, sounds never meant to be heard.

Derek the Despot reflected on why the good guys were all dead.

Certainly not in a bookshop, anyway.

In between bouts of hysterical laughter.

For a moment, I thought she would walk away.

You see, Derek thought, while watching the planet beneath his space ship catch fire.

I was being too slow, too scared.

It was never about the power.

But she reached past my shoulder and touched to book.

He boomed out another enormous guffaw.

And then gently, tenderly, she touched my hand with her thumb.

It was never about control.

I let go of the book which mind-numbingly, painfully, slowly fell to the floor.

When Brad was at his feet, his body charred from the energy pistol, with a moment’s breath left.

And I turned to face her.

He looked at Derek the Despot with pleading eyes, trying to understand.

And she was beautiful.

Searching for comprehension.

I think she said something, maybe about seeing me here before.

For a reason.

But all I heard were the angels singing her name.

Derek, like the good and proper villain he was, of course explained all to the dying hero.

Eventually, I managed to say ‘Hi’.

Derek, you see, didn’t want to be the ultimate ruler.

And when she laughed, the hearts of all the gods and demons broke with joy.

Didn’t want to be the tyrant with all kneeling down before him on a hundred or a thousand planets.

And she said ‘Hi’ right back at me.

It wasn’t about the power. It’s not even about you or me, Derek had said to Brad.

The orchestra of perfection played for me.

As Derek slowed his hysterical laughing he typed some commands into his control panel.

But then the sound cracked. Inharmonious.

Derek the Despot looked down at his final command.

As she tentatively reached out to touch me her eyes glazed over.

To destroy. For your own good.

She fell away.

He thought about the look on Brad Fantastic’s face. He laughed one more time.

Out of reach.

He’d told Brad that his one mission, his one true purpose, was the end of everything.

Falling.

Including me, Derek had said to Brad.

I tried calling out, but the sound was drowning me; killing me.

He looked at the screen which said: ‘to destroy the universe, hit enter’.

And the world went black.

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time MachineThere is deserved regard for H.G. Wells, and it is he more than anyone else who turned scientific romances or fantastic voyages of the 19th Century into what is called science fiction today. Incredibly, The Time Machine was Wells’ debut novel, built upon his earlier short story The Chronic Argonauts (1888). The Time Machine was written at the request of the publisher of the Pall Mall Gazette and published in serial form in The New Review. It was first published in book form in May 1895.[i]

I’ve read The Time Machine at least three times before this reading, but probably not for at least 15 years. The edition I read was the gorgeous yellow hardback Gollancz 50 edition, published in 2011. There is an introduction by Stephen Baxter, which I didn’t read, and there are no notes or explanations in this edition.

Time travel is a concept that’d been around for some time before Wells tackled the subject. Of course, we all travel forward in time (one second at a time, etc.). Others before him had written about going back into the past (Paris avant les homes by Pierre Boitard) or waking in the future (News from Nowhere by William Morris and of course, Rip Van Winkle). However, none had tackled the mechanics of time travel, and like Morris and others before him, this concept allowed Wells to explore his political views in a non-controversial, non-threatening forum.

The story begins with The Traveller explaining to the narrator and others, the concept of time. It has a similar tonal feel to Flatland – explaining time in terms of geometry. Very factual. Lures the reader in to what must be a serious treatise on the topic. Interestingly, this is not a tale narrated by its main protagonist, but is told in its (almost) entirety as a second-hand re-telling; a reportage, if you will. The other significant thing in the first couple of chapters is the naming of the characters. We have the Provincial Mayor, Medical Man, Psychologist, Editor, even the Silent Man. All except Filby. Which is odd.

It is difficult to read a classic and a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed previously without prejudice, but after only a dozen or so pages (in a relatively short book – this edition has 125 pages) Wells storytelling and imagination is already giant leaps ahead of his genre predecessors.

The Traveller arranges to meet with the narrator and others, but returns ‘late’ with them waiting for his news. Most of the bulk of the rest of the book is our narrator quoting The Traveller’s strange story. This is when Wells turns the previous genres of the utopian fantastic voyages and makes them science fiction. He takes the classic trope but adds elements of science. While the actual workings and mechanics of the time machine itself aren’t explained, the concepts of time travel are; while there is experimentation, observation and hypotheses (imaging that he may stop in something solid for example). The Traveller describes his journey into the future until he slows and is literally thrown into the future. It is 802,701 AD. Blimey. Take that William Morris (2003 indeed)! That leap of imagination is extraordinary for the time Wells wrote in.

Thus he meets the child-like Eloi and in particular Weena. He learns a little of their life-style and their language. It appears, on face value, to be a wonderful utopia in which they live, with no pain and an easy life. It is a communist life with no ownership. There is a dig, perhaps at specific works such as those by Morris, Swift, More, or a more general note to previous fictions, which in my eyes highlights the genius of Wells. He knows this is a fiction, so when The Traveller lands in utopia, he doesn’t find out everything. He only knows what he sees and experiences. “In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about buildings and social arrangements and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here”. Very clever writing.

File:The Time Machine (1st edition).djvu
Full scan of the 1st (1895) edition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (public domain)

What is different here to previous fictions, however, is that everyone is weak. There is no need for strength. No-one works. No-one fights. There is no illness. So in a society where everyone is weak, but the same, strength isn’t required. However, as The Traveller soon discovers, paradise is far from perfect. We meet the Morlocks and here I think Wells rushed everything. It is a short (albeit serial in first production) story, but the speed of intuition from the protagonist based on little evidence is hard to relate to. Fine, so he’s a genius inventor who has made a working time machine, but the leaps of reasoning concerning the Morlocks’ origins could have done with a little more fleshing out. There is the proper social commentary which is Wells’ satire on the class divide of England at that time. But too quickly it’s over and narrative obstacles are soon overcome.

The coda, however, is completely unexpected and something no other writer had dared to consider. The end of the solar system, if not the universe (not just England, or Europe or the world). The Traveller goes so far into the future, what he sees is almost beyond the realms of imagination.

Of course, females (well, the one female character– Weena – which says everything) gets very short thrift. Without spoiling the plot, Weena’s fate is shockingly sad. Of the times for sure, but Wells was a meant to be a political socialist and generally inclusive. He could have done better.

It’s not just the ideas and styles which make The Time Machine a revolutionary story. The writing itself is brilliant, almost poetic (“You know that great pause that comes to things just before dusk?”). It’s very readable with interesting narrative and proper character development based on events, rather than storyline contrivances, and features the understanding of one’s place in the cosmos. This isn’t a narrow-minded viewpoint of one man’s vision of life at the time, but a holistic viewpoint of the universe we live in. It has an almost nihilistic quality that this is all going downward towards nothingness. I suspect Wells understood the second law of thermodynamics.

In the end, The Traveller informs our narrator that he is going back into time but three years later, he hasn’t returned. Perhaps, half a century before the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics, Wells understood what time travel could mean.

A brilliant piece of genuine science fiction with a couple of caveats, which would have taken it to the very top of the literature tree. Better treatment of Weena (and more women generally), and more observation, evidence and experimentation when The Traveller works out how the Eloi and Morlocks came to be. Still, so much more a proper science fiction story than almost anything that came between it and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

 

[i] Hammond, John R. (2004) H. G. Wells’s The time machine: a reference guide. Greenwood Publishing Group.