Crosstalk by Connie Willis

CrosstalkConnie Willis is an exceptional genre writer. Her 17 novels and numerous awards testify as much. In Crosstalk she puts her considerable talents to the test in what is described on the cover as a sci-fi rom-com. Wait. For those put off by that tag, let’s examine the evidence.

Willis has written a story about communication. How we communicate and why. What is too much communication and when might it be a good idea to stop. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and everyone seems to have a smartphone – even those who probably shouldn’t! Willis doesn’t just concentrate on technology, but contrasts it with company gossip, emotional bonding, parent/child relationships and a plethora of human communications.

Briddey is a red-haired romantic lead, and Trent is the perfect catch. They work in a fictitious tech company, whose main rival is Apple. Intriguingly, the company pretty much runs on gossip; which is often much quicker that official communication channels. Nothing gets said without everyone knowing about it faster that speeding WhatsApp message. Briddey also has an intrusive and interfering extended family. With her pending engagement, her folks and her job, she sifts through dozens of messages and missed calls every day. As do we all, or we soon will. We’re pretty much contactable 24/7 these days. Most of us multi-device.

But then there’s CB Swartz. He’s the smart one in Briddey’s company. The one who spends his time in a scruffy basement lab, dressed in even scruffier clothes; unkempt, unshaven, unloved.

When Briddey and Trent have their procedure (a MacGuffin called EED that allows emotionally connected individuals to experience each other’s emotions), something appears to go wrong. Of course it does. Briddey needs to keep secrets and tell lies. How could Crosstalk be anything other than a farce? The opening chapters are not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but Willis nails the humour as Briddey tries to keep her secrets, and her friends, family and colleagues are all giving her advice. What makes this more than just a sci-fi rom-com or even a farce is the cutting satire. And she makes it so readable.

You immediately ‘get’ all the characters, siding quickly with Briddey (who just wants a normal, happy relationship with Trent) and CB (who just wants [spoiler]). The narrative is from Briddey’s point-of-view which occasionally drives the plot along – a tad meta. Which I like. The pace of the plot never lets up as you turn page after page, getting caught up in Briddey’s apparent panic – imagine Black Mirror and the Buffy episode Earshot colliding and you’ll get the picture. Willis ends each chapter (and there are 36 of them) with a genuine cliff-hanger that moves the story on. There are occasional pop culture references (Avengers movies and Brad Pitt for example) that cleverly grounds the story. Even the romance(s) are believable.

My only criticism of the plot is that towards the end, Willis is so bogged down in the detail of how all the plot strands, theories, conspiracies and relationships all come together, it loses momentum. And it all falls together a tad too conveniently. But maybe that’s a clever device too? Too much communication from Willis to hammer home the point of this science fiction story? As Briddey herself thinks: “There is entirely too much communicating going on”. However, later, CB states that books are a refuge. Indeed. Crosstalk is certainly a great place to spend some time with.

 

Original version published here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-crosstalk/

 

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Interview with Robert Eggleton, the author of Rarity from the Hollow

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction filled with tragedy, comedy and satire. A Children’s Story. For Adults.

1 Rarity Front Cover WEB (2)

Lacy Dawn’s father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in the hollow is hard. She has one advantage — an android was inserted into her life and is working with her to cure her parents. But, he wants something in exchange. It’s up to her to save the Universe. Lacy Dawn doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her family and friends come first.

I asked Robert about this project via email. The interview is presented in full below.

 

 

 

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

Thank you, Ian, for inviting me to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel, Rarity from the Hollow.

Could you begin by describing this project: the book – Rarity from the Hollow – and why you wrote it?

Sure. Rarity from the Hollow is an adult literary science fiction adventure filled with tragedy, comedy, and satire. Lacy Dawn begins the story as the eleven year old protagonist. Her father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in The Hollow is hard, but she has one advantage – she’s been befriended by a semi-organic, semi-robot who works with her to cure her parents. He wants something in exchange, though. It’s up to Lacy Dawn to save the Universe.

To prepare Lacy for her coming task, she is being schooled daily on every known subject via direct downloads into her brain. Her powers gain strength as she comes to grip with the reality that she is not just a kid, that she is many thousands of years old and much more mature than her android boyfriend for when she’s old enough to have one. Some of the courses tell her how to apply magic to resolve everyday problems much more pressing to her than a universe in big trouble, like those at home and at school. She doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her own family and friends come first.

Once her parents have regained a semblance of mental health, Lacy Dawn assembles her team: her best friend’s ghost, annoyingly pessimistic as always; her formerly mistreated mutt, the only one with enough empathy skills to communicate directly with the enemy; her now employable father who has cut way down on drinking beer and has resumed his status as the best auto trader in the Hollow; a stoner neighbour who is highly skilled in business transactions and who got so rich from selling marijuana that he moved away from big city life because it would be better for his Bipolar Disorder; and a mother with greatly improved self-esteem now that she has new teeth and a G.E.D.

With a great team like that, what could go wrong? It’s simple, save the Universe and Lacy can get back to the sixth grade where life’s real challenges are faced by most kids. But no, entrenched management of any organization, including the universe, never makes anything that simple. Will Lacy Dawn’s predisposition, education, and magic be enough for her to save the Universe, Earth, and, most importantly, protect her own family?

The content of Rarity from the Hollow addresses pressing social issues in our society, like child maltreatment and poverty, while taking readers on a wild ride to an alien shopping mall where getting the best deals affect survival of planets. Written in colloquial Appalachian voice, it is a children’s story for adults, not for the prudish, faint of heart, or easily offended.

Rarity from the Hollow was the first, perhaps the only, science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power — parody with no political advocacy one side or any other. Readers find out how Lacy Dawn convinced Mr. Rump (Bernie Sanders) to help talk Mr. Prump (Donald Trump) into saving the universe. The political allegory includes pressing issues that are being debated today, including illegal immigration and the refuge crisis; extreme capitalism / consumerism vs. domestic spending for social supports; sexual harassment…. Part of the negotiations in the story occur in the only high rise on planet Shptiludrp (Shop Until You Drop), a giant shopping mall and the center of economic governance, now easily identifiable as Trump Tower.

I’m a retired children’s psychotherapist. Most of my writing has been nonfiction in the field of child welfare. After over forty years in the field, I returned to writing fiction, in large part, as a means of raising funds for the prevention of child maltreatment. Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia. http://www.childhswv.org/

Many will find the subject matter of child maltreatment and sexual abuse daunting and uncomfortable – indeed I didn’t want to read the book – even though the proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment. Why did you decide to address this issue in fiction?

Beginning with having read Charles Dickens when I was a teen, I’ve read a lot of books that featured child victimization. I even went to see the box office hit Precious when it came out in 2009. The movie was based on a book, Push by Sapphire, that I’d read. One thing that all of these great works had in common was that they were so depressing that their audiences didn’t want to think about the messages after the last page was turned. My goal was to write a story that sensitized readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment through a comedic and satiric adventure – something that was fun to read and, because of that, might influence people to want to do something to help prevent child maltreatment. The early tragedy in Rarity from the Hollow feeds and amplifies subsequent comedy and satire.

I agree that some prospective readers could find the topics of child maltreatment in fiction daunting. That’s why I especially welcome the opportunity that you provided, Ian, to describe the story beyond words that trigger. Perhaps it sounds weird, but as I wrote my novel I imagined a therapeutic impact – that those of us who had experienced child maltreatment benefiting from having read Rarity from the Hollow. That’s a giant target audience. So, the story had to be hopeful, to inspire. While prevalence rate is difficult to come up with and there is no estimate of how many read novels, approximately one quarter of all adults believe that they were maltreated as children – physically, sexually, or psychologically. Internationally, forty million children are abused each year: http://arkofhopeforchildren.org/child-abuse/child-abuse-statistics-info.

So far, eight of ninety-eight independent book blog reviewers have privately disclosed to me that they were victims of childhood maltreatment and that they had benefited having read my story. One of these reviewers publicly disclosed: “…soon I found myself immersed in the bizarre world… weeping for the victim and standing up to the oppressor…solace and healing in the power of love, laughing at the often comical thoughts… marveling at ancient alien encounters… As a rape survivor… found myself relating easily to Lacy Dawn… style of writing which I would describe as beautifully honest. Rarity from the Hollow is different from anything I have ever read, and in today’s world of cookie-cutter cloned books, that’s pretty refreshing… whimsical and endearing world of Appalachian Science Fiction, taking you on a wild ride you won’t soon forget….” http://kyliejude.com/2015/11/book-review-rarity-from-the-hollow/

Here’s another very touching review of Rarity from the Hollow that included public disclosure of child maltreatment by a book blogger: “…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.” https://booksoverhumans.com/…/rarity-from-the-hallow-by-ro…/

While sticking close to the mission of sensitizing readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, I wanted to produce a story that readers would enjoy: “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate…it’s a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.http://awesomeindies.net/ai-approved-review-of-rarity-from-the-holly-by-robert-eggleton/

“…Full of cranky characters and crazy situations, Rarity From the Hollow sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved… Robert Eggleton is a brilliant writer whose work is better read on several levels. I appreciated this story on all of them.” https://readersfavorite.com/book-review/rarity-from-the-hollow

With your background as a mental health psychotherapist, was it easy to come up with a realistic plot? Can you describe the process of writing this story?

While some book reviewers have posted that Rarity from the Hollow is wildly imaginative, a lot of it is more realistic than not. The characters are based on real-life people that I’ve met over the years. The flow of the story was modeled after a mental health treatment episode: difficult to face in early chapters similar to how disclosures can be difficult to make before treatment relationships are firmly established, more cathartic in middle chapters, and almost silly in final chapters as we accept that we live in the present and that past demons do not control our lives.

A couple of the wildest elements of the story are more reality-based than appears on the surface. For example, the fantastical means employed by the alien in my story to treat the parents for their mental health concerns was based on today’s medical reality. In the beginning of Rarity from the Hollow, Dwayne, the abusive father was a war damaged Vet experiencing anger outbursts and night terrors. The mother was a downtrodden victim of domestic violence who had lost hope of ever getting her G.E.D. or driver’s license, or of protecting her daughter. Diagnosis and treatment of these concerns affecting the parents, as representative of many similarly situated, was based on emerging technologies presented at the 2015 World Medical Innovation Forum: https://worldmedicalinnovation.org/ . Yes, in real life, like the android performed in my story, patients have been hooked up to computer technology for noninvasive medial diagnosis and treatment, and the practice will likely grow as this science matures.

Exciting research was presented that may one day revolutionize psychiatric treatment: (1) smart brain prosthetics, wireless devises used to relieve depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder…neural engineering to manipulate brain signals; (2) sophisticated imaging systems that are minimally invasive to brain circuitry for diagnosis (3) and, healing the brain with neuromodulation and electroceuticals to treat depression and schizophrenia. http://hitconsultant.net/2015/04/30/tech-revolutionize-neurological-psychiatric-care/

Also, now that Donald Trump has become a household name world-wide, the cockroach infestation used as a metaphor of immigration issues and for the refugee crisis in Rarity from the Hollow no longer feels so silly. Several European commentators have had articles recently published in magazines that have called migrants and the increase in immigrants in some countries a cockroach infestation. The U.N. reacted to this comparison: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/katie-hopkins-migrant-cockroaches-column-resembles-pro-genocide-propaganda-says-the-un-10201959.html

Don’t misunderstand. I appreciate the compliments about Rarity from the Hollow by book reviewers who have found it unique and imaginative, but actually all that I did was watch a little television and project a little bit. Mr. Prump in my story was a projection of Donald Trump based on the TV show, The Apprentice. The counterpart, Mr. Rump, was based on my understanding of positions held by Bernie Sanders as I wrote the story.

You describe Rarity from the Hollow as social science fiction. Why choose the science fiction genre to address the issue of child maltreatment?

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction. I write adult fiction, not because of its sexual or violent content, although there may be a little here or there, less than in many YA novels, but because the themes, especially the satire, comedy, and social commentary, are for grown-ups. To me, the term literary refers to the type of story that doesn’t end after the last page of a novel has been read. I admire the writing of Charles Dickens in this regard. He felt that a novel should do more than merely entertain.

The term science fiction is well known and has two broad categories: hard and soft. In the 1970s, Ursula K. Le Guin coined the term “social science fiction” and Rarity from the Hollow may fall within that subgenre better than any other. The science fiction is used as a backdrop in the story. It is not hard science fiction that has a lot of technical details, but it is also not convoluted with lineage and unusual names for characters the way that some soft science fiction and fantasy books employ. It is written in colloquial adolescent voice comparable to The Color Purple.

I selected the science fiction backdrop for Rarity from the Hollow because it was the best fit by process of elimination. The novel also has elements of horror, romance…. In today’s reality the systems in place to help maltreated children are woefully inadequate. I felt that the literary, biographical, nonfiction genres wouldn’t work because the story would have been so depressing that only the most determined would have finished it.

I felt that the story had to be hopeful. I wanted it to inspire survivors of child maltreatment toward competitiveness within our existing economic structures, instead of folks using past victimization as an excuse for inactivity. I didn’t think that anybody would bite on the theme of a knight on a white stallion galloping off a hillside to swoop victims into safety, like in the traditional romance genre.  That almost never actually happens in real life, so that genre was too unrealistic as the primary. There was already enough horror in the story, so that genre was out too. What could be more horrific than child abuse?

The protagonist and her traumatized teammates needed fantastical elements to achieve empowerment. But, as in life, one cannot overcome barriers to the pursuit of happiness by simply imagining them away. That’s where the science fiction came into play. It provided a power source. I tied the science fiction to Capitalism because in today’s reality it will take significant financial investment by benefactors to significantly improve the welfare of children in the world.

Both satire and science fiction tend to have dedicated and loyal fan-bases. Did you want to target them specifically with this story?

As you know, Rarity from the Hollow is my debut novel. Honestly, and I’m learning, but I was such a novice that my sole goal was to produce a good book. I didn’t actually consider target audiences as I wrote it. I wasn’t even confident that my novel would get published. However, I’m an old hippie and in the back of my mind was a comic: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Did you find it hard to write comedy around the seriousness of the message you wanted to deliver?

No, writing comes easy for me, even when the topic is serious. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this novel – to share the truth. While I admire many great works, too many to mention, that have addressed child victimization in fiction, the representations in have been partial. In my experience, most maltreated children object to the “poor, pitiful me” characterization of them during their interactions with others. Survivors of childhood maltreatment are much more than victims. We laugh, as well as, cry, joke around as well as, reflect…. While victimization is certainly correlated with mental and physical ills in life, the most dominant characteristic of it is probably resiliency.   

Kevin Patrick Mahoney, editor of the site, Authortrek, has said that the story was, “…not for the faint hearted or easily offended….” If you’re trying to raise both awareness and money for the cause, why risk offending an audience?

Mr. Mahoney reviewed an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Rarity from the Hollow. At that time, the book did not have the first two introductory chapters for the purpose of back story. It began with the harshest chapter in the book, the only scene with any violence (a bloody lip), but it is a scene of domestic violence that has deep emotional content. He felt that this scene was too much as the first chapter and other than that I can’t say why he felt that my novel was not for the faint hearted or easily offended.

Of course, what one person finds offensive another may not. For example, I read a Young Adult novel as part of a Goodreads program. It had an attempted rape scene. What I found offensive, however, was that the female protagonist, later in the story, agrees to go to the School Prom with the guy who tried to rape her. Ugh!

There is nothing intentionally offensive in Rarity from the Hollow. I did not pull any punches or sugar coat the story either.  The language and concepts are mild in comparison to some of the stuff that kids have said during actual group therapy sessions that I have facilitated over the years. By child developmental stage, it is similar to the infamous early adolescent insult in E.T.: “penis breath.” It is tame in comparison to the content of the popular television series, South Park, which has been devoured by millions of teens. The “F Word” is used twice, and any other profanity is mild colloquialism true to the characters. There is no blood, guts, or gore. Nothing is killed. Nevertheless, I recommend consideration of Rarity from the Hollow as a novel for adults.

To open this interview, Ian, you mentioned that one of the characters in Rarity from the Hollow is a victim of sexual abuse. Faith (metaphor: Faith is not Dead), Lacy Dawn’s best friend, plays an annoying and comical ghost in the story. There are no scenes of her victimization, and it was treated with a flashback reference only. Actually, there are no sex scenes in the story at all, but there are sexual mentions in the form of puns.

Yes, the mission of the project is to increase sensitivity to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, but there are lots of ways to help needful kids. I’m hopeful that this interview contributes to the cause more so than whether it sells books.

How can you convince someone like me Rarity from the Hollow is worth reading?

I would not try to convince you, Ian, or any other your readers to do any more than to check out reviews of Rarity from the Hollow that have been uploaded to Amazon by independent book blog reviewers.

You also say that you think it is the only science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power. Could you explain how this prediction unfolds in the story?

I’ve answered this question, in part, earlier during this interview. I will add that the long-standing feud between extreme capitalism and democratic socialism sometimes pits good people against each other, folks who have much more in common as human beings than that which divides them. So that I don’t spoil the story for potential readers, I’ll pass on explaining how Lacy Dawn opens the communication channels to solve the imminent danger to the universe, except to say that some families in real life have been torn apart by politics, similar to during the Civil War, and that I sometimes wish that Lacy Dawn was a real person.

What else do you want to say about the story?

For readers who are used to mainstream genre novels, I probably should point out that Rarity from the Hollow is written in third person omniscient narrator. “…The author has created a new narrative format, something I’ve never seen before, with a standard third-person narration, interspersed, lightly, with first-person asides. This makes me think of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude where internal and external dialogue are blended…partaking a little of the whimsical and nonsensical humor of Roger Zelazny or even Ron Goulart….” Jefferson Swycaffer, Affiliate, Fantasy Fan Federation. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1QI8J7NME5GE/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B017REIA44 Some of the inner thoughts of characters are in italics following the speaker’s voice. For some busy book readers, this style could feel like it slows down the read and could result in head hopping if an attempt is made to read my novel too quickly, but for leisurely readers with time to contemplate it is a good fit. “…If it does not make you think, you are not really reading it….” http://www.onmykindle.net/2015/11/rarity-from-hollow.html

Rarity from the Hollow is published by a small press. Have you ever had any interest from a mainstream publisher?

No. Referred to as the Big Five, I believe that the doors to mainstream publishers have been chained shut for as long as I can remember. Ferlinghetti, a Beat Poet from the ‘60s warned society about the impact of conglomerate publishing. Given increased name recognition, I may look around for an agent for the next novel but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Just thinking more broadly, how do you write? Are you a meticulous planner? Can you only write in the evenings or in the mornings, that sort of thing?

I start with a general outline that I revise as scenes build. Now that I’m retired, I write anytime that I decide to do so and time of day doesn’t seem to affect productivity. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and need to work on a scene before returning to bed, and that session may take longer than might be healthful to a good night’s sleep.

You’ve been described as writing “one-quarter turn beyond that of Kurt Vonnegut”. Is he an influence? Who are your influences?

The review of the ARC that compared the writing to Vonnegut was written by a prominent book critic, a person much more well-read than me. To read the review in its entirety: https://electricrev.net/2014/08/12/a-universe-on-the-edge/. Before this review, I’d never given it much thought – whether Vonnegut influenced my writing style. All that I can say is that the comparison was a high compliment. Other reviewers have made comparisons to other great writers. I love Vonnegut’s work.

As I’ve said, this is a difficult subject both to read but also to write about. Does it taint your dreams or even your day-to-day life?

In over forty years working with maltreated kids, looking back, there were only a couple of kids that caused me to shed a tear during psychotherapy. One girl noticed but didn’t say anything. The tear dripped onto a pad that I was using for notes. If you are concerned about whether you would find Rarity from the Hollow outside of your comfort zones, I sure don’t want to describe the content of that session. I’m going to let a book reviewer from Bulgaria answer this question for me because I feel the same way:

“…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.” https://booksoverhumans.com/2017/05/21/rarity-from-the-hallow-by-robert-eggleton/

Thanks very much for your time. Final question, what next for this project?

Frankly, I feel that I’ve been stuck in self-promotion mode for so long that I will be relieved when I pick back up on the next adventure: Ivy. While maintaining a comical and satirical approach, with a social science fiction backdrop, the story deals with addiction to drugs, and asks: How Far Will a Child Go to Save a Parent from Addition?

Thank you, Ian, for the opportunity to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel. You asked some very meaningful questions.

About the author:

Robert Eggleton has served as a children’s advocate in an impoverished state for over forty years. Locally, he is best known for his nonfiction about children’s programs and issues, much of which was published by the West Virginia Supreme Court where he worked from1982 through 1997. Today, he is a retired children’s psychotherapist from the mental health center in Charleston, West Virginia, where he specialized in helping victims cope with and overcome maltreatment and other mental health concerns. Rarity from the Hollow is his debut novel. Its release followed publication of three short Lacy Dawn Adventures in magazines. Author proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment.

“The most enjoyable science fiction novel I have read in years.” Temple Emmet Williams, Author, former editor for Reader’s Digest

“Quirky, profane, disturbing… In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip.”Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review

. “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse…tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…profound…a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.” — Awesome Indies (Gold Medal)

“…sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved…a brilliant writer.” —Readers’ Favorite (Gold Medal)

“Rarity from the Hollow is an original and interesting story of a backwoods girl who saves the Universe in her fashion. Not for the prudish.” —Piers Anthony, New York Times bestselling author

“…Good satire is hard to find and science fiction satire is even harder to find.” — The Baryon Review

 “…Brilliant satires such as this are genius works of literature in the same class as Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ I can picture American Lit professors sometime in the distant future placing this masterpiece on their reading list.” — Marcha’s Two-Cents Worth

 “…I know this all sounds pretty whack, and it is, but it’s also quite moving. Lacy Dawn and her supporting cast – even Brownie, the dog – are some of the most engaging characters I’ve run across in a novel in some time….”  — Danehy-Oakes, Critic whose book reviews often appear in the New York Review of Science Fiction

“… The author gives us much pause for thought as we read this uniquely crafted story about some real life situations handled in very unorthodox ways filled with humor, sarcasm, heartfelt situations and fun.” — Fran Lewis: Just Reviews/MJ Magazine

 Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia for the prevention of child maltreatment

Purchase links:

https://www.amazon.com/Rarity-Hollow-Robert-Eggleton/dp/190713395X/

http://www.amazon.com/Rarity-Hollow-Robert-Eggleton-ebook/dp/B017REIA44

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rarity-from-the-hollow-robert-eggleton/1118420669#productInfoTabs

http://www.doghornpublishing.com/wordpress/books/rarity-from-the-hollow 

 Public Author Contacts:

http://www.lacydawnadventures.com

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32993259-rarity-from-the-hollow

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.