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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on the The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge

books-1655783_960_720I began to think about, and write about, significant books in the history of science fiction in August 2011. I originally came up with 40 books I believed would fit the bill. Later thoughts and explorations increased this list significantly. Some I’ve wanted to read I’ve not been able to track down, such as an English translation of René Barjavel’s Ravages (1943). As I’ve been going, I’ve added a few more here and there I’d not previously considered. My mind is like an algorithm – I’ve read this so I should probably read that.

The modern world, eh. Anyway…

My project is taking a lot longer than I expect, mostly because I’m easily distracted – see my Fav Re-reads posts, reading all of Vonnegut’s books and my Winter of Weird, for example. Plus people keep writing and publishing new books which I feel like I should read every now and then. Sometimes I wish they’ all stop it, just for a year or two so I can catch up. And of course I review for this site and that one too.

Fittingly perhaps, as I pause for reflection, from Utopia (1516) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), I’ve read 67 works which I feel have significance in the history and development of science fiction literature. My next choice is Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance, as my reading enters the 1950s. It occurs to me now, that there are probably dozens of significant and classic science fiction books being published every year. My choices have been reasonably arbitrary based on a little research and a little knowledge. Just look at some of the books published in the 1950s that I have already read:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
  • Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl (1952)
  • Etc, etc…

There’s no way I could read every relevant book for this project. So what I’ve decided to do, because otherwise this would take forever, and ever and ever, is to just pick 4 or 5 books from each decade that I haven’t read before (which thankfully narrows the list down a fair bit). Although I’m sure some will see this list below and yell at me for not reading them so far. Well, I’ve been busy will all the other books and comics and films and life and stuff. So shhh now (and yes I did work in a public library).

Anyway, here’s my final list:

  1. Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)
  2. Cities in Flight by James Blish (1950)
  3. The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955)
  4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957) – maybe, if I can face it.
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  6. La Planete des singes by Pierre Boule (1963)
  7. Witch World by Andre Norton (1963)
  8. The Einstein Intersection by Samual Delany (1967)
  9. Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968)
  10. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolf (1972) – maybe, as there are 2 Wolf books here and I really want to read the other one…
  11. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
  12. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
  13. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  14. Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban (1980)
  15. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf (1980)
  16. Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh (1982)
  17. Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987)
  18. Grass by Sherri Tepper (1989)
  19. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
  20. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (1992)

I’ve stopped here because I’ve reached 20. It’ll be a few more years before I reach this point and I’ll see where I am then, in terms of this project.

science-fiction-1989816_960_720

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.

 

 

Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960264226/ghostwoods-books-our-2014-15-list-of-6-to-8-books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On activist fiction: Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny

everything-belongs-to-the-futureEverything Belongs to the Future is the debut fiction novella by renowned author and journalist, Laurie Penny. As well as her non-fiction books exploring gender, sexism and capitalism, she writes The Guardian, The Independent, Salon, The New Inquiry and many more. She is a loud voice who I follow on Twitter. I agree, generally speaking, with her politics, although I haven’t read her non-fiction books, only some of her articles.

Penny crams a decent amount of plot into not so many pages. We’re almost 100 years hence and the rich can almost literally buy time. Or rather an extension of life from the moment they take the medicine; a kind of ‘Fountain of Youth’ wrapped up in a blue pill. We’re in a divided England. The gaps between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Specifically, we’re in Oxford. A group of activists are living in a co-op house and are plotting against those who’ve been ‘fixed’. You see, the scientist inventor of this remarkable technology has fallen in with our perfectly representative house-mates. Nina and Alex, Margo and Fidget are the kind of activists that you’d imagine Penny might know in real life. Scruffy, punky, gender fluid and sexually diverse. Which is a good thing in theory but a little obvious from Penny. I’d have liked a little more stereo-type mould-braking.

It was the four of them, Nina and Alex and Margo and Fidget, and they were off to rob the rich and feed the poor. An exercise, as Margo put it, as important for the emotional welfare of the autonomous individual as it was for the collective.

Inventor Daisy, who is all but a child in an old body, has had enough. She wants to fight back and so when she meets our anarchists at a party they’ve crashed, she joins their cause. And they invent a timebomb. And they plan to set it off at the Big Event! But, one of their number is not who they seem and despite falling in love, must betray the group.

Pretty good story but to be honest, I’d have preferred it fleshed out into a full-length novel. I felt that that character development and the reveal of the betrayal plus consequences was a little rushed and quite under-developed. Without giving anything away, too much happens too quickly and like a cheap burger, left me wanting something more substantial after the initial hit.

There is a lot to like about Everything Belongs to the Future but the brevity of the story means that there’s no room for subtly or metaphor. This feels like Penny’s fantasy activist future. A cause that she’d like to fight. She would like our current situation of the power in the hands of the rich elite to escalate so she can be one of her characters and dramatically bring about revolution. It might be a bit too zeitgeisty for its own good, and might date quickly. I’ve not read much other science fiction where early 90s crusty-types persist into the future…but who knows, I guess. Science fiction isn’t about prediction, as such… And yet I admire and agree with the message of the story. It’s really good science fiction. A plausible premise. A divisive technology. A warning about our times. A little dystopic.

The group of activists represent Penny. Clearly. The betrayer should have been a stronger voice in opposition, which would have brought more depth to the story. Again that calls for a longer book. Daisy is the best character, of course, with the most depth. She has so much riding on her moral choices. She knows her choices are monstrous. Penny shows how people can be pushed over the edge:

“I realize it’s an escalation,” said Nina, “and I realize it’s the kind of escalation we’ve never considered before…I hate these people. I hate the suits and I hate the scholars and I hate the state…”…Her voice was flat and a little frightening.

So what about the message? The rich have power and the poor have nothing? It is of course a truism and this might be a plausible extrapolation. Penny is right to highlight it, because in these troubled times, people need to understand the choices they make. People in power never represent the ordinary person, whatever they might promise. The problem with books like this is that they inevitably speak within an echo chamber. Despite being a fine piece of writing, I’m not convinced many outside the choir will be interested in the hymn sheet.

Activist fiction is a difficult trick to master. Dangers of being overly polemic and just being plain shouty are obvious. The author needs to strike a balance between story, characters and message. There’s nothing wrong with Penny’s writing. Her voice is strong. Her prose is enjoyable, well written and very readable. She can tell a story. I think Penny almost gets it, but misses. Probably due to a combination of the strength of her personal convictions and the length of the story. I wish she’d taken more time and written something at least twice the length. I imagine anyone who didn’t have sympathy with Penny’s viewpoints would really take against this book. I enjoyed it for what it was, but would have preferred something greater.

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

Defender by G X Todd

defenderWriting any kind of post-apocalyptic story must be quite daunting. What could possibly be said that hasn’t already been said before concerning the human condition once society collapses? One way around this is to invent a new way of bringing about the end of the world. In G X Todd’s debut novel Defender it appears to be the voices in people’s heads that drives them to murder and suicide, until only a few un-afflicted remain.

It’s been a few years since normal life ended as people discovered the voices in their heads were driving them to commit atrocities. We meet Pilgrim, who has a voice of his own, which is known conveniently as Voice. He appears to be at peace with this, but also a bit of a loaner. Until he stumbles across a young girl – Lacey – selling lemonade by the side of the road, but otherwise very alone. Her grandmother, who had brought her up, passed a few months back. Lacey is now hoping someone will take her to the town where she hopes her sister and niece are still alive. Pilgrim hides the presence of Voice from Lacey, who has her own internal conflicts to deal with. Voice is fun – sarcastic and often right!

The ingredients of a post-apocalyptic road-movie seem to be all present and correct here. The gruff loaner on the bike. The spunky child who softens the loaner up. The gangs that take what they want, including women and children for their ‘pleasure’. The hick with a heart (or at least not so evil as the rest). A desperate character, running from something. A mythic figure who has risen from the ashes of the horrors.

As Pilgrim, who battles internally with Voice, and Lacey head into the unknown, a series of semi-predictable events lead them to picking up abuse survivor Alex, and come across the mysterious Red. This latter whispers the word defender, or maybe defend her, as she loses consciousness. But Red has escaped from a gang led by Charles and the sadistic Doc. They capture Alex and Lacey, and leave Pilgrim for dead. And this is where things start to get a little more interesting.

Suffice to say, there is a fair bit of nastiness and cruelty in Defender. Especially towards the women in the book. If G X Todd was male, this would be problematic at best. What Todd does is present the strength of the female characters throughout. They won’t be crushed by the men, even after such horrific abuse. The characters are all fairly likeable and rounded, despite looking a bit clichéd from a distance. Lacey, although just a child, wants to understand Pilgrim, and help Alex, as well as find her sister and niece. Pilgrim has a softer side.

The story is told from both Pilgrim’s and Lacey’s perspectives, which means that they don’t always know what’s going on, and why the apocalypse happened at all. They have doubts about this mythic figure – the Flitting Man. Part of the reason why I enjoyed Defender is because so little is explained. Todd’s world-building is fine and mostly exposition free. The reader learns only what the characters know. Todd mitigates the obvious references throughout. The journey, the horrors and the unexplained nature of our protagonists’ predicament echoes McCarthy’s The Road. I’m sure that the mysterious Flitting Man is a nod to Flagg in The Stand. In one scene, in a library (books should all have scenes in libraries of course), Pilgrim picks up Day of the Triffids, and I am Legend amongst others. Todd acknowledges the shoulders she stands on.

There isn’t a whole lot of depth and nothing new to learn about humanity here. The darkness is something we’ve all read before. The descriptions of the violence are standard fair. The premise is intriguing enough and the mystery surrounding it is nicely handled, while not being wow-inducing or particularly innovative. I’m still not 100% sure about the whole ‘defender’ thing either. Where is it going? What does it mean? Is there a point? The plot point that turns the book on its head isn’t hugely believable, but the conclusion is pleasing enough. The coda and the fact this is also known as The Voices #1 left me with an appetite to find out what happens next (see above re: defender), without being blown away. However, the interactions between Lacey, Pilgrim and Voice, along with Todd’s eminently readable prose style, makes Defender a worthwhile addition to the genre.

I received this e-book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.