Reflections on what I liked in the 31,536,001 seconds of 2016

Time for the annual reflection on all things geekery that occurred to me in the previous 31,536,001 seconds. 2016 was a bleak year for sure, but there was much joy to be had from the creation of fiction. As ever, I’m always on the look out for something a tad different and unusual, so before the top books, honourable mentions should go to: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (looking forward to reading Rosewater soon), Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Race by Nina Allen.

In total I read 39 fiction novels, listened to 10 audio books, read 6 nonfiction books and 3 novellas and half a book of short fiction (The Weird – my Winter of Weird shall continue). Plus some graphic novels. According to GoodReads, my year looked like this: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2016/6304958

Thusly, in order:

The Thing Itself (2105) by Adam Roberts. I thought that this was smart and funny and creatively unique. It had me gripped and interested in both the characters and story from the outset.

the-thing-itself

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014) by A S King. How can I relate to a teenage girl in the USA? King’s genius characterisation and story telling! Bonkers and brilliant and heart-warming and bleak and reaffirming.

glory-obriens-history-of-the-future

All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders. A refreshing mash up of science fiction and fantasy that was engaging and funny and I can’t wait to read what Anders comes up with next.

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. See Glory re: Meche; only in Mexico in the 1980s. Mix tapes! Magic. Complex teenagers being wonderful and difficult.

signal-to-noise

A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) by Becky Chambers. There is more humanity in Chambers’ pages than in most other science fiction and the mind-body dualism is a great story-telling device.

a-closed-and-common-orbit

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) by B S Johnson. Metafiction. Raging against the machine. Why this isn’t a classic along the lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four I have no idea.

christie-malrys-own-double-entry

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson. A prescient look at politics and people dressed up as a science fiction spy thriller. What’s not to love about Hutchinson’s wit and verve! (Also, currently reading the final book in the series.)

europe-in-autumn

I think there’s some pretty damn fine books there!

My history of science fiction challenge continued. Slowly. As usual. What? There are lots of books to read. I spent a while trying and failing to get a hold of an English translation of Ravages (1943) by René Barjavel but my favourite wot I read was Swastika Night (1937) by Murray Constantine. I also finished reading all of Vonnugut’s novels in order too. I might try that again. I’ve been thinking about Philip K Dick, but that’s a lot of books…

Moving on.

I saw 31 films for the first time. My favourites in no particular order were: Midnight Special, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, The Lobster, Tale of Tales, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Crimson Peak, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Meanwhile, the absolute stinkers were: Batman V Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World.

And some TV I’ve enjoyed: Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Black Mirror, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Better Call Saul, Penny Dreadful, iZombie, House of Cards, Preacher. Yes, I like things bleak and funny and nostalgic when I’m chilling in front of the telebox.

Finally, some comic series I’ve enjoyed are: The Wicked and the Divine (although I’m getting a bit bored of it now – why can’t these things just have shorter runs? – I’m looking at you, Saga), Injection, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Scarlett Witch, Kill or Be Killed, Monstress, Paper Girls, Negative Space, Deadpool Max and Ms Marvel.

Shout out to a couple of podcasts too, that mean my to-read list is ever expanding: Robin and Josie’s Bookshambles (must read some Steve Aylett) and Backlisted (where I heard about the Johnson).

So there. Thank you to all the creatives, artists, writers, directors and others whose vision and talent have brightened by life while the world crumbled.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Swastika Night by Murray Constantine (1937)

swastika-nightKatharine Burdekin wrote Swastika Night under the pseudonym of Murray Constantine after hearing Adolf Hitler claim that Nazism would create a “Thousand Year Reich”. Amazingly, it was published in 1937 and talks about a Twenty Year War. After its conclusion, Germany and Japan divide the global spoils. This was two years before the Second World War broke out. Science fiction shouldn’t be seen as predictive, but its warnings sometimes come to pass. In 2016, Swastika Night seems as prescient as ever.

The edition I read was the 2016 SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz (Victor Gollancz published the first UK edition in 1937). As usual, I didn’t read the introduction so my reading of Swastika Night was untainted.

This is the story of an Englishman, some Germans and the truth. It is mostly told through a series of dialogues, as the world is explained to the reader, and Burdekin’s feminism is revealed. We’re 700 years into German dominance of much of the world. Alfred – no surname – is the Englishman. He’s a mechanic for the German Empire and based in Salisbury. He visits Germany on a holy pilgrimage despite being antagonistic towards his masters and their religion. The German protagonists are Hermann, Alfred’s friend, who is a farmer, and an old Knight called Friedrich von Hess. Knights are the priests of the Hitler religion. In Burdekin’s future, Hitler is portrayed as a 7-foot-tall, long-blonde haired god who single-handed won the Twenty Years War (by heroically flying to Moscow). It is said that Hitler wasn’t born of woman but “exploded” from the head of God the Thunderer.

Alfred and von Hess become friends, up to a point. The main section of the novel is the latter explaining the German philosophy to the former. He does this by revealing that at the age of 21, his father gave him a book of ‘real’ history and a photograph of the small, paunched Hitler. There is also a beautiful young woman in the photograph. Von Hess has an ancestor who knew Hitler and this truth has been the curse of his family. Alfred understands the lies the German Empire is founded on and determines to do something about it.

In this future, men are everything and women are barely animals. Men don’t spend time with women, and are mostly homosexual. They take wives, but the women are kept in baby-making factories, where they must produce sons. Christians are worse still than women, with Christian women at the bottom of the pile.  Children have rights until they are taken from them at a certain age. Once they are the age of submission, men can take advantage of them, perfectly legitimately. This is a truly horrendous that has been built up on re-writing history and suppression of lies. In an allegory with Christianity, the Hitler religion was written a hundred plus years after the events (as the Gospels were). This is a completely made-up religion and history to keep up the fascist rule and oppress the ordinary worker. The world has not moved in any technological sense. Fixed telephones are still in use. Farming is a major industry, but food is limited for the underclasses. The German Empire has stagnated, because its oppression of others. There is no development. No evolution of thought. No art, no creativity, no drive. This explains why Burdekin has not moved society forward.

Von Hess gives the book and photo to Alfred who takes it back to England with the desire to return women to their places beside men. He where he hides it, while teaching his son its truth. Britain has been crushed, despite an attempted rebellion 100 years in the past from the protagonists’ perspective. The male population was been culled and a mighty German occupying army ensconced. He befriends a Christian and in further dialogues, we learn more of how this religion now works underground.

Swastika Night is a remarkable book in many ways. Not only is it superbly written, and for the most part, utterly engaging (the latter chapters not so much), it speaks of fascism, oppression of minorities, and the worth of women. It does this in a way that isn’t preachy. Of course, it’s not subtle. Almost all the world-building and future history is described via the dialogues, but it never feels forced or didactic. Although it is a very clear message from a British woman’s perspective following the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. In Swastika Night, women have their rights taken from them by men. They are to have “no will, no character, and no souls” (p70). Women submit. Men also dictate what beauty is. This is a scathing attack on society, were women were only just getting suffrage (1928 in the UK). Burdekin shows that men are fallible, and their mistakes lead to oppression. Men can be dominated by a woman’s sexuality and this emergence was an affront to maleness. Keenly, she shows that the suppression of women was not a Nazi ideal, but was always happening.

Burdekin also brings up British Imperialism, showing how awful that was, and suggesting it was Germany’s jealousy of Britain that led to their behaviour. The Germans erased history which showed that empires fell so that they keep their ideology in focus. Von Hess tells Alfred that socialism was smashed, but Alfred realises he must be a socialist, and that it is a just path.

A brilliant and clever and engaging science fiction novel which shows a horrific future also comments onto today, despite being written 80 years ago. Burdekin explains the rise of fascism towards the end of the book which is scarily familiar. Individualism – as also shown in Rand’s Anthem – means government is difficult. We live in an entitled and selfish world. True democracy breaks down and authoritarian rule takes over, where strong-personality male-types manipulate everything including the truth. What you end up with a Fuehrer (Hitler) or an oligarch (Trump). Swastika Night is a nightmare vision of the past and future and present.

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

Let’s get metafictional: Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

Christie Malry's Own Double EntryMeta from the Greek meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘self’. Fiction from the old French meaning ‘arbitrary invention’. Metafiction, then, is a self-aware invented creation. Something made up that knows it’s made up. One of the best known works of metafiction, I would suggest, is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which is a book about the failed attempt of a reader reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. The chapters alternate between this plot and the opening chapters of books the reader is reading. The book is aware it is being read.

I’d heard about Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) by B S Johnson from a podcast. Possibly my sort of thing, I wondered? Not exactly speculative fiction in the usual sense, but I liked the way the book was described, and the more I heard about B S Johnson, the more I felt like this book would appeal to me. Johnson is not very well known, generally, and I imagine not at all known in the science fiction, fantasy and horror fandoms. However, I think he will be appreciated by readers of speculative fiction. Not only is Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry a cutting satire that is self-aware, but Johnson is deliberately pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be.

It is a relatively short book – the edition I read was 180 pages, many of them text free. And the plot is fairly straight-forward. Malry is a fairly disenfranchised young man who gets a job in a bank in order to be close to money – which he sees as the main path to happiness in life, along with sex. He soon realises he needs to be a bookkeeper or accountant in order to trace money. After enrolling on a course, he finds himself working in sweet factory, in the wages department. He meets a girl, and they fall in love, having lots of sex. He devises his very own double-entry bookkeeping system, which he applies to his own life; “crediting” himself against society in an increasingly violent manner for perceived “debits” owed to him for being maltreated.

Once I read the opening few pages I knew this book was for me. I immediately saw what Johnson was doing with Malry and could find myself agreeing with his logic. For example, he has no choice about how he walks down a path. He agrees with society that he can’t walk on the road for fear of being hit by a vehicle, but is perturbed by the fact he can’t walk any other way, as there is a building in the way which has no relevance to him. Society, therefore has debited him in taking away a perceived choice. Despite free will and in the UK at least, the illusion of democracy, we don’t have a choice. We have to contribute to society in such and such a way. We have to behave in particular ways and journey through life in acceptable behaviours. There are many things in life I can’t do because it’s not my choice, even though no harm would arise from my chosen actions to myself or anyone else, and society might even benefit.

Thematically then, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry hit all my buttons. I wonder if Chuck Palahniuk had read this book before writing Fight Club (1996)…

So this would have been a good book for me. However, the metafictional elements notched it up another level. Into great book territory. I crave to read (and hear and see) the different and the unusual. And yet here was Johnson pressing my buttons only a few years after I was born. Not only does this book know that it’s a story and has a reader, Johnson, lets us know that we know. He even talks direct to Christie in a chapter towards the conclusion. Let’s look at the evidence:

Early on, Johnson the story teller is indicating to us as the reader that what we do and don’t need to know about Christie’s life and past. Not so unusual, maybe. However, it is in chapter 3, when we meet his mother, that the full extent of Johnson’s intentions are laid bare. [Spoiler]. Christie’s mother talks to him in actual dialogue about her role in the novel. This role is nothing more than both as narrative and metafictional exposition. When that role is complete, she dies. In a single chapter. Awesome use of fiction in my opinion. Indeed, other characters, for example Christie’s girlfriend – known only as The Shrike throughout – are aware they are but characters in Christie’s novel and behave accordingly. Interesting solipsistic conceit, I think. I often think about how other people perceive me in my life, and wonder about the reality of the lives of others. Are they bit parts in my story, filling in the cracks of my reality?  So as well as character knowing they are in a story, and Johnson appearing in a scene talking to Christie about the book, the style and presentation can also be called metafictional. I particularly enjoy the title of chapter 20: Not the longest chapter in this novel. Which itself is more than a quarter of the length of said chapter. One of the best comments is when Christie complains Johnson is using too many exclamation marks. Johnson also admits to the reader that he is often making stuff up as he goes along – as we all do in life.

The metafictional elements are amusing enough, but combined with the satirical swipes at society’s obsessions with money and sex (and remember this was 1973 and is equally relevant today) makes Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry one of the wittiest stories I’ve ever read. Combined with the textual elements addressing free will and a person’s place in the world, almost make this – thematically only – science fiction, although I’d certainly call it a horror story. It sits comfortably on the same shelf as Dick, Vonnegut and Ballard.

No book is self-aware, of course. No book understands itself. It is the author, when writing it, who is talking directly to the reader. True enough of works of metafiction. But then, doesn’t that apply to all fiction? Is all fiction, by definition, self-aware? In traditional fiction, characters behave in ways real people never would. Whereas I can see myself making Malry’s choices, Kirby, the main character in Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls (2013), goes after the man who attempted to murder her, herself. No-one would do that except a character in a story. So Kirby, and all other fictional characters, must act like she is in a story, and not like a real person. While Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry brilliantly wears itself on its sleeve, all authors behave in a similar way to Johnson, whether they admit it or not.

Some elements of this feature originally appeared here: http://www.hodderscape.co.uk/metafiction/

The History Of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

"Portadaorlando" by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
“Portadaorlando” by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Virginia Woolf might seem an odd name to crop up in a series examining the history of science fiction in literature. But I’d heard rumours of time travel so it deserved my attention. Orlando: A biography was first published in 1928 and was Woolf’s 6th novel. It is said to have been inspired by the writer Vita Sackville-West.

Without knowing anything about it, other than it begins as a fictional biography of a man called Orlando and the 1992 film starred Tilda Swinton in the title role, I read the 2012 Canongate edition, without reading the introduction.

The complete plot itself is difficult to describe, due to the nature of the style. Orlando begins telling the story of a nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I – so we’re in the mid to late 1500s. The teenage and male Orlanda had been a favourite of the queen. He soon falls for a Russian princess; but he has obligations. They plan to run off to Russia, but she betrays him, just as the ice of winter melts in London. He returns to a poem he is trying to perfect, but a writer he meets (Nicholas Greene) pours scorn on it. Greene then mocks Orlando in a work of published fiction. Depressed, he seeks a new challenge and is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador. It is now it now sometime in the mid 1600s. Orlando hasn’t aged much and no explanation is given. One night, while performing his ambassadorial role in a time of riots, he goes to sleep a man and wakes up a woman. No explanation. She is the same person, but in the body of a woman. Orlando now escapes Constantinople with some gypsies and heads back to England, where she embarks on various relationships with writers and marries a sea captain. He is potentially non-gender specific too, albeit portraying himself as a man. Greene is still alive and hasn’t aged either. He now helps Orlando publish the poem he once ridiculed. The novel concludes in 1928 when Orlando’s poem wins a prize and her sailor husband finally returns form a voyage.

There’s not a lot to say about this book. Sentences are brilliantly written, while paragraphs go on for pages; which proves challenging at times. Meanwhile not a lot seems to happen for huge chunks of the book with the ‘biographer’ procrastinates on this and that – including the nature of writing a biography. There are lists that seem to go on forever.

There is nothing in Orlando that gives a clue as to why the gender of the protagonist changes, other than it gives Woolf license to discuss gender roles. There is nothing in Orlando to explain how or why the eponymous character and Greene can move through time, other than for Woolf to make comment on the various societies she wants to comment on. I would have thought a more successful way of exploring these issues would have been with a more realistic plot devise, as shown by Wells in The Time Traveller. I spent most of the book wishing the lists would end and some explanation of the events would eventually appear, rather than enjoying the narrative or being interested in much of what Woolf had to say.

OrlandoWhich is a shame because sometimes I was really taken with Woolf’s imagination and wit. Sometimes, the post-modernism or metafiction or whatever really works, as Woolf’s biographer asks to consider this, or ignore that because it is boring or irrelevant, or asks to pause just before a moment of significance. Individual sentences and passages are to be admired, but that classes with confusion over the narrative.

There is plenty of worthy discussion of gender roles and the place of women in society in which is totally commendable; except the fact than in almost 100 years since it was written, not much has altered in the attitudes of many men, which is dreadful.

Sadly, Orlando is not an enjoyable read, taken in totality. It is not science fiction, despite the time travel. It barely registers a traditional fantasy. No magic is deployed. At best it is a metafictional magic realism (a genre I really like) and maybe an early example of post-modernism. It might be said to have a vague science-fiction-ness, in the sense that it is about what it means to be a man and a woman at various points in history, but the narrative contrivances take away whatever pluses that conceit brings. Orlando should have no influence on science fiction other than the feminism aspect and the inspiration provided by Woolf herself.

Image credit: “Portadaorlando” by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Favourite Re-reads: Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5“All this happened, more or less.” I decided to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. I’d previously only read this one, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions and Timequake before this particular mission. While I’d thoroughly enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five previously, it was only on this re-read, following on from Vonnegut’s first 5 novels that I’ve come to really appreciate it as part of a body of work.

Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim. He is a survivor of the infamous World War 2 attack on Dresden, as was Vonnegut himself in February 1945. Back in the US, Pilgrim is an optometrist and is the only survivor of a plane crash. Billy insists he can travel through time; witnessing key moments of his life out of sequence. And after the crash, he reveals that he has spent time on the planet Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in their zoo, along with another human – an adult film star called Montana Wildhack. They are to mate. The aliens are to watch. The Tralfamadrians explain that they can see all of time at once, and that everything that happens, happens at the same time, so you can visit events at will.

Of course, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war novel. And how! But being anti-war, especially considering Vonnegut’s personal history, is only half the story. Most of the tale is the journey of Billy as he is captured by the Germans and sent to Dresden where he survives the firebombing in the titular slaughterhouse. The storytelling, wit and intelligence is what elevates this novel. It is even metafictional – the narrator clearly identifying himself at occasional key points. Of course, as Vonnegut experienced many of them himself, he must be the narrator, manipulating the reader and the events he portrays.

For me, Slaughterhouse Five opens with one of the best and most memorable lines in fiction. There is so much meaning to those 6 words. Autobiographical. Fiction. Metafiction. Satire. Horror. Science fiction. An indication of what’s to come. The books brings together many of Vonnegut’s ideas, phrases and characters. The most common, of course, is “so it goes” whenever some passes. A harrumph at destiny? The Tralfamadrians, of course, are fatalists by nature. Other familiar areas are Ilium, New York; displacement in time; the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout; the planet of Tralfamadore (first mentioned in The Sirens of Titan and then in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). And fairly blunt attacks on religion. Reoccurring characters include war veterans Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (from Mother Night) and Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and the time shifting Bertram Copeland Rumfoord (from The Sirens of Titan).

With all that in mind, Slaughterhouse Five is such an easy and enjoyable read. More than almost any other writer I’ve read (especially social satirists and science fiction authors), Vonnegut is a terrific storyteller. He understands his audience and he understands people. In the hands of any other author, some of the writing would seem ludicrous, especially in an anti-war novel (“Billy had liked Spot a lot, and Spot had liked him” sounds like it comes from a beginner’s reading book). However, it moments such as Billy watching the war film backwards that whack you over the head with poignancy and meaning, especially the moment describing the women who hide the materials taken from bombs in the earth so they’d “never hurt anyone every again”.

There might be some doubt, narrative-wise, that what Billy recounts is real. Are his encounters with the aliens and his ability to travel through time real, or the results of the trauma of war (and the plane crash)? Is this simply a device Vonnegut uses for storytelling? Is Vonnegut (as himself or as Kilgore Trout) an unreliable narrator? And if so, does that mean we aren’t meant to take the aliens and time-jumping as anything other than metaphor? I don’t think it matters. You can read it either way – real or all in Billy’s mind – and the book still wallops you in the brain.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five says plenty about the horror and humiliation and dehumanisation of war. Much of the plot that happens in Billy’s later life occurs while the Vietnam War is ongoing. Despite the undeniable horrors of Dresden, America in particular never learns. Billy says: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does”. A very bleak outlook indeed. According to the Tralfamadrians, everyone who has died and suffered terribly because of war, is still alive somewhere and always will be. Which is something, isn’t it?

Bête By Adam Roberts

BeteThe knowledge and techniques Adam Roberts displays in his 15th novel, Bête, are as admirable as they are varied. At first glance, Bête is straight forward near future science fiction story. Look beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find a darkly comic satire of such wit and charm, and a very British dystopia with the best anti-hero for many a year.

For he is Graham Penhaligon and he is a farmer and he kills a cow. Not so much of a big deal, except Animal Rights activists have developed AI chips to install in animals. The cow pleads for its life but Graham has a farm to run and no sympathy. He believes that it is the chip that is pleading and not the animal. A video of the event is released and Graham becomes infamous. As British society crumbles and the animals begin to take control first of their own lives and destinies, and then tracts of countryside, Graham finds himself increasingly unwanted by society and unloved by his family. Anathema to the animals, he seeks solace in Anne, a guest house owner and fellow loner. She has a loquacious cat who ‘badgers’ Graham into an act against his better nature, in order to save the one thing left in his life that has meaning.

This is no animal farm. Fine, so the animals can talk, and may have sentience, but this is Graham’s story. He is a grumpy old man living on his wits and just wanting to survive in a world he no longer understands or believes in. True, the world has little time for him either, but he is pivotal to humankind and animal kind whether he likes it or not.

Roberts’ satire has more bite (there, I said it) than almost any other satirical science fiction writer currently plying a trade. His observations around the www of world wide web and religion are most amusing.  And he has the ability to play with language in way that brings a smile to the reader and yet isn’t clichéd or predictable. Roberts even finds time to write passages where he openly questions common phrases and clichés. My favourite trope is the way he strings ideas together, just like they do in your own head, exemplified by the reference to Norman Bates in the final third. There’s some proper darkness too, as humanity and animals come to have different kinds of relationships – just ask the dog in Newcastle. Bête reflects significant chunks of British, or maybe even just English, culture too. There are plenty of nods to popular culture familiar to us today. The towns and other locations (boarded up Costa in Wokingham, a militarised dystopian Reading, living rough in woods, a dubious pub clinging on to the past, for example) suggest a particular mind-frame for the reader. This is dirt-under-the-finger-nails science fiction; flabby flesh, greying beards and desperation.

There is very little mention of the world outside England, so we’re not sure about how the spread of the sentient animals is affecting the elsewhere. I don’t think it’s an issue within the narrative because this isn’t a story about that. As the UK economy is in trouble, and money is ‘cents’ on chips, it would follow that Europe at least has problems too.

There are as many light gags as there are dark but Bête is ultimately a clever story of an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. Graham is quite simply an awesome and refreshing creation in a brilliant book. It has some serious things to say about how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves. Of course, it has comment on technology’s role in our future and some inventive religious ridicule. It has some decent things to say about family and relationships too. Bête is as unsettling as all the best science fiction should be. And how many fantastic science fiction novels can get away with that INXS gag? A triumph from a terrific science fiction author at the top of his considerable game.

Originally published on Book Geek: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/06/10/bete-by-adam-roberts/

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother NIghtMother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Confessions by Kanae Minato, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Various works by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.

When I pick up a book I have a rough rule of thumb: nothing that can possibly happen to anyone in the real world today. It is rare that I don’t read anything that is covered by fantasy, science fiction, horror or magic realism. The above examples are the closest I come to reading what some might call normal or contemporary fiction. Of those examples, I haven’t really enjoyed Moore and Minato. The rest I’ve loved. Having just read Mother Night I thought I might investigate why.

I set myself a meaningless challenge at the start of 2015 which goes against my usual dislike for conformity. I plan to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. And so I come to Mother Night. Published in 1961, it was his third novel, following the science fiction of Player Piano and Sirens of Titan. I didn’t choose the read non-genre other than within the limitations of my own challenger.

This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. It is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This is a literary trick I like and dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. The best example is probably The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). The protagonist is an American who moved to Germany as a young boy in 1923 and then a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. He is now awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he recounts his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested. Incidentally, this is the first time Vonnegut uses his ‘so-it-goes’ approach to narrative, which I’ll come across again later in the year. Admittedly, in Mother Night the author plays with fiction and narrative, so although there is no fantastical elements, it is far from straight forward fiction. It is satire, as black as night. It is speculative fiction at its best.

Mother Night is clever, funny, bleak and brilliantly written. Vonnegut was a practiced writer before he became a novelist. His debut was outstanding and this isn’t far behind in terms of technical achievement. The plot is interesting enough but it is the themes and characters that keep you interested. Campbell feels like a classic unreliable narrator. He describes his motivations but remember, he is on trial in Israel for being a Nazi. How honest is he being? Only the actions of others hint at the truth. Vonnegut is so clever with his plotting and how he plays with the reader.

I think I’m happy enough to read what might be described as non-genre fiction but it appears there are some conditions. Literary tricks. Metafiction. Playing with the reader. Dark comedic satire. And if the list above is examined carefully, none of it could actually happen in the real world under normal reality rules and conditions. Mother Night is not science fiction and is not alternative history. It is not fantasy in the traditional sense. However, most good science fiction tells the reader something interesting about the human condition, either on an individual or global level. Vonnegut achieves this in the 175 pages of a memoir of a war criminal. Genius.

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.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

War of the WorldsReading an old favourite that you’ve not read for years and believe you’re familiar with is potentially problematic. I hadn’t read The War of the Worlds for more than 20 years. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it. Wells originally published the novel in serialised form in 1897, and the book made its appearance the following year. My copy is my old and dog-eared 1975 Pan edition which I’ve had since I was a child. There are no notes, introductions or comments in this edition.

The plot to The War of the Worlds is a familiar one to most: Martians land in Victorian England and slowly take over London, while our narrator fights to survive. You must acknowledge the classic status of such as novel. Throughout the book, sentences and descriptions fire the memory and bring a smile to my face. I had a shiver of excitement when I read the first few paragraphs. Later, when I read It was the beginning of rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind, I thought it might be the greatest sentence I’ve ever read. Probably not, but you take my meaning.

Of course, when you open the book and see the chapters listed, you know the eventual outcome of the so-called war. You read the book understanding that the narrator survives – this is no unreliable narration.

The narrator is unnamed and appears to be an expert in philosophy. After explosions are witnessed on Mars, an object lands at Horsell Common, close to the narrator’ house. At first, it is thought to be a meteorite, but when the lid screws off and aliens emerge, all hell breaks loose. Soon, death and destruction are reigned upon the watchers thanks to the famous heat-ray. Now, the narrator’s wife is sent away and the adventures ensue, while more alien craft from Mars land in the Home Counties. The descriptions of the devastating attack on London, and the intervention of the iron-clad warship Thunderchild are told through the reportage of the narrator’s brother. I’d completely forgotten about the brother’s perspective – probably tainted by other versions of the story. Again, the fact that the narrative is told in this way, and includes descriptions of Martian anatomy, gives the reader no-doubt about the eventual victor. History is always written by the victors: especially the history of war. Wells was clearly aware of this fact. He has plenty to say about real war and he uses this novel and others to highlight both its horrors and its impact. He believes it to be horrific. The Martians destroy everyone and everything. There is no room for negotiation or surrender. War is awful.

Wells also attacks religion in The War of the Worlds. One character, a curate, is shown to be weak under god. He questions the plans of the divine, which mirror the concerns of the time. How can a just creator inflict the pain of war? Even the curate questions his maker? His evangelical mania leads to his death.

The over-riding theme, however, is the Imperialism of England; shown in reflection to some extent. This invasion isn’t really about England but London. The Martians only land around London and move inward. Slowly. It amuses the reader in modern times that the initial landing and destruction takes place on a Friday and it isn’t until Sunday evening when most folks in London realise the implications. No instant communication channels at the end of the 19th century. So the island is invaded and the rest of the world continues as normal in a time after the real island had invaded huge chunks of the planet. And when the hordes panic through the streets of London, it is described as the end of civilisation. Book 2 is even called The Earth Under the Martians when in reality it was London and the Home Counties under the Martians, and nothing more. It is curious to know that while this horror falls down on London, most of the rest of the planet was oblivious. Maybe Wells thought London was the centre of the world or maybe he was satirising those others who did.

In the opening pages Wells acknowledges the story concerns the vanity of man. The topics are evolution and technological progress. This is a warning text. Wells suggests several times that the science of the age might be beyond man at the time. The recovered artefacts from the invasion are not able to be reverse engineered. And yet man is described as a curious beast. Of course, the topic of evolution was hotly debated through Victorian times and Wells had plenty to say on matter too (having been taught by Huxley); suggesting that human evolution might eventually lead to creatures similar in intellect but emotionless as the invaders. Is evolution a good thing? It is undeniable, but we must take care. The narrator only survives through several moments of luck and chance, and he acknowledges as much throughout. Does fortune favour the brave or is luck indiscriminate? Despite his education, he is an everyman, a decent ordinary citizen. How are we to read this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary in context with scientific advancement?

Public Domain

There a lots of lovely nuances in the text, reflecting Wells’ time. It is important to mention the fact that a man’s appearance was significant, even though his unkempt appearance was because a hat had fallen in the Martian’s initial pit. But Wells also uses poetic description (I had the sunset in my eyes) for its own sake. The horrors he describes are imaginative and not like anything written before. The way the Martians feed is brilliantly simply. As usual in novels from this time, the female characters receive short-shrift. Indeed, other than a few brief appearances of the narrator’s wife and some women his brother must save, there are none. Wells wasn’t telling a story about people however, perhaps highlighted by the fact none of the main characters has a name in the story.

As the book concludes, all the narrative and thematic strands are tied up as the Martians are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or guile, but by micro-organisms and disease. Man isn’t the victor despite regaining his home.

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream science fiction book to feature an alien invasion, allowing the author to comment on the social topics of the time: religion, scientific advancement, imperialism and war. Wells does an exceptional job in such as short text. Not only does it address political and social concerns of the times in a proper science fiction setting, it is simply a great read. No wonder it is one of the most significant science fiction novels of all time.