Category Archives: Science Fiction

Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE PLACE STANK. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

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Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror Fiction, Novellas, Science Fiction

They had not conquered any stars. A star had conquered them.

The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

I suspect most readers of this blog won’t know Leigh Brackett’s name. You’ll know her work though, because she was a scriptwriter on The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back. Quite a CV.

Until recently I knew her as a writer of mid-20th Century sword and planet/planetary romance novels, a genre that doesn’t exist any more. She wrote stories of a Mars that never was, full of princesses, ancient ruins, swords, spaceships and of course mighty heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only person still remembered for those kind of books, but for a while they were pretty popular and he was never the only one writing them.

What changed for me was a review by Trevor of Themookseandthegripes. He read her rather sombre sounding post-apocalypse novel The Long Tomorrow, and really liked it. Given Trevor isn’t an SF reader as a rule, that caught my attention (besides, it’s always worth paying attention to Trevor’s recommendations). I wasn’t in the mood for sombre though, so when I saw she’d written a novel that was a mix of hardboiled detective fiction and pulpy space opera I knew that was the one for me.

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Arch Comyn is a construction boss. The solar system’s been settled, but nobody yet has managed to make the big jump beyond it, nobody has reached the stars. Humanity may have settled Mars, the Moon, as far out as Pluto’s orbit, but no further and in this future world there’s still buildings that need to be built and hard men needed to build them.

Comyn’s a tough guy, handy with his fists. He’s a character you’ll recognise from a hundred hardboiled novels. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but he has a code and part of that code is he won’t forget a favour or a friend.

Now one of those friends needs him, because the word is that somebody’s finally made the big jump. Somebody’s punched through space to another solar system, and returned, alive. Ballantyne’s his name, the sole person to come back from this first successful interstellar voyage. The reason that matters to Comyn is that one of his friends, Paul Rogers, was also on that crew and Paul didn’t make it back. He’s out there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe not, somewhere further out than any human has gone before.

The expedition was funded by the fabulously wealthy Cochrane family, and whatever happened they’re keeping tight lipped about it. Ballantyne is locked away on a private clinic on Mars, nobody has access and nobody’s talking. Comyn though, he wants to know what happened to Paul Rogers, so he goes to Mars, breaks into that hospital, gets past the Cochrane guards and sees Ballantyne. We’re on page 10. These old pulp writers really knew how to push a story along.

Ballantyne isn’t as Comyn remembers him:

It was a face that was only a ghostly echo, pitiful, terrible, marked by something frightening, worse than death or the fear of dying. It was something, Comyn thought, that had never before oppressed the children of Sol. A queer terror came over him as he looked at it. Suddenly he wanted to run, to get away out of the room, far away from whatever evil shadow it was that this man had brought back with him from another star.

Comyn knows he doesn’t have long. He’s barred the door but the Cochrane people are drilling through it. He has only moments to find out what happened to Paul Rogers:

Comyn bent over, so that his ear was almost touching the blue transparent lips. A voice came out of them, no louder than the beating of a moth’s wing…

“…listened too long. Too long, too far…”

“Where is Paul?”

“…too far, too lonely. We weren’t meant for this. Desolation…darkness…stars…”

Again, almost fiercely, “Where is Paul?”

“Paul…”

The drill hit metal. The whining changed to a thin-edged screech.

The breathing skeleton that was Ballantyne went rigid. Its lips moved under Comyn’s ear, laboring with a dreadful urgency.

“Don’t listen, Paul! I can’t go back alone, I can’t! Don’t listen to them calling…Oh, God, why did it have to be transuranic, why did it?”

The drill screeched thinner, higher. And the painful whisper rose.

“The Transuranae! Paul, no! Paul, Paul, Paul…”

Suddenly Ballantyne screamed.

That’s all Ballantyne says. Moments later he’s dead. The Cochranes of course burst in, but here’s the thing – Ballantyne never spoke to them, only to Comyn. He didn’t say much of use, but the Cochranes don’t know that and that gives Comyn leverage. It’s page 12, I said those pulp writers knew how to move a story along.

… here he was in the middle of something so big he couldn’t even guess the end of it. It was a game for stars, and he, Arch Comyn, held just one little hole card… But, whatever the Cochranes did to him, he was going to find out about Paul Rogers.

I’m not going to say too much more plotwise. Obviously there’s a second expedition out to the stars, and of course Comyn bluffs his way onto it by playing his one card – that nobody knows what Ballantyne said to him – for all its worth. The Cochranes are right out of the Big Sleep, with an aging patriarch and murder at the heart of the family (and soon on the ship with Comyn). There’s a romantic interest too, naturally, in the form of the untameable Sydna Cochrane. Sydna’s rich and beautiful and she knows it, but she’s surrounded by socialites and dilettantes, she’s never met a man like Comyn before…

I’ll be honest with you, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff and I gulped The Big Jump down. Of course it doesn’t really make sense. We’re in space, but everything is pretty much like 1955, which oddly enough is when it was written. Take out the spaceships, electric pistols and moon habitats and it’s 1950s technology, 1950s social attitudes. The Cochranes have the most important man in the solar system locked up in a desert hospital where nobody can get to him (it doesn’t really change anything that the desert’s on Mars rather than say Nevada), but of course they don’t have a simple thing like a microphone or camera in his hospital room.

This is not a serious read. It’s certainly not a recognised classic in the way The Long Tomorrow is. The plot is straightforward and the characters are from central casting, but nobody reads a book like this looking for subtlety or psychological insight.

The characters are who they need to be to serve the story – a rough but honourable hero, a princess (sorry, heiress, not the same thing at all), a milquetoast hanger-on/courtier who resents how easily Comyn has found himself at the heart of things, there’s others but they’re equally archetypal. Even so Brackett’s skill as a writer does show. Hokey as the novel is it’s at times strangely powerful. The sense that the first expedition encountered something beyond human understanding, something other, is well captured and Brackett is as good as building atmosphere as she is at keeping things moving.

In the end, The Big Jump clocks in at a punchy 135 pages and it’s as fast a read as any you’ll find. It’s pure entertainment, but well written within the scope of what it’s trying to do. It’s solid, expertly crafted pulp. It’s a great choice as a palate-cleanser, particularly if new worlds and old-fashioned murder are the sorts of things you find refreshing. It turns out SF and crime are like bacon and maple syrup, it doesn’t sound like you should be able to combine them successfully, but actually the result is pretty good.

Joachin Boaz reviewed The Big Jump, here. Trevor’s review of The Long Tomorrow, which I mentioned above, is here. If the idea of SF crime remotely appeals to you by the way and you haven’t already read it you should check out Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel. I can’t promise how it stands up today given I read it as a teenager, but it’s pretty much the recognised classic in the field. There’s also of course Neuromancer, which might as well be The Big Sleep in orbit.

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Filed under Brackett, Leigh, Science Fiction

… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, Science Fiction, Short Stories

“He doesn’t guess. I guess. He sees.”

The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg

I got the SF bug early, which is pretty much how everyone gets it. If you don’t love SF by the time you’re 14 the odds are you’ll never love it. These days I don’t read much SF – I follow a half dozen or so contemporary authors at most. There was a time though when I couldn’t get enough of it, when it was like ice cream on a hot day.

Robert Silverberg is one of the field’s greats. Silverberg never cared about technology or credible futures, for Silverberg it was always about people. His best known novel, Dying Inside, is about a neurotic US academic who was born with the gift of telepathy and wasted it, and who in late middle-age finds it departing him. How do you cope with the loss of something that defines who you are? How do you face the death of what makes you, you?

Like many writers Silverberg has ideas he’s returned to over and over during his (so far) sixty year career. One of these was the idea of what it might be like to live with perfect foreknowledge. What it would be like to know, precisely and unerringly, your own future. He explored the idea in several short stories, but for me to best effect in his 1975 (oh so very 1975) novel The Stochastic Man.

Lew Nichols is a pollster and statistician in the heady futuristic America of 1999. He’s one of the best, and he’s tied his already risen star to a young politician named Quinn who Lew thinks has the potential to go all the way to the White House. Lew’s confident that nobody can guess the shape of the future better than he can. He’s probably right, but he’s about to learn that not everybody needs to guess.

In the absolute universe all events can be regarded as absolutely deterministic, and if we can’t perceive the greater structures, it’s because our vision is faulty. If we had a real grasp of causality down to the molecular level, we wouldn’t need to rely on mathematical approximations, on statistics and probabilities, in making predictions. If our perceptions of cause and effect were only good enough, we’d be able to attain absolute knowledge of what is to come. We would make ourselves all-seeing. So Carvajal said. I believe he was right. You probably don’t. You tend to be skeptical about such things, don’t you? That’s all right. You’ll change your mind. I know you will.

Carvajal is a rich private investor who’s backing Quinn’s campaign. He wants to meet Lew, to work with him, and when you’re putting as much money in as Carvajal is you get what you want. Lew thinks Carvajal’s a rich crank, a political amateur who wants to use his money to get closer to the action. Lew couldn’t be more wrong. Soon Caravjal is feeding predictions to Lew about upcoming events, and while Lew is used to being able to call trends Carvajal calls specific circumstances with a level of precision and accuracy that simply doesn’t make sense.

Carvajal replied. “When I want to, I see. A vision of things to come plays within me like a film.” His voice was utterly matter-of-fact. He sounded almost bored. “Is that the only thing you came here to find out?” “Don’t you know? Surely you’ve seen the film of this conversation already.” “Of course I have.” “But you’ve forgotten some of the details?” “I rarely forget anything,” Carvajal said, sighing. “Then you must know what else I’m going to ask.” “Yes,” he admitted. “Even so, you won’t answer it unless I ask it.” “Yes.” “Suppose I don’t,” I said. “Suppose I just leave right now, without doing what I’m supposed to have done.” “That won’t be possible,” said Carvajal evenly. “I remember the course this conversation must take, and you don’t leave before asking your next question. There’s only one way for things to happen. You have no choice but to say and do the things I saw you say and do.” “Are you a god, decreeing the events of my life?” He smiled wanly and shook his head. “Very much mortal, Mr. Nichols. Decreeing nothing. I tell you, though, the future’s immutable. What you think of as the future. We’re both actors in a script that can’t be rewritten. Come, now. Let’s play out our script. Ask me—” “No. I’m going to break the pattern and walk out of here.” “—about Paul Quinn’s future,” he said. I was already at the door. But when he spoke Quinn’s name I halted, slack-jawed, stunned, and I turned.

While it’s clear from the opening pages that Lew will learn to accurately see the future, for the vast bulk of the book Lew has no more gift of prophecy than I do. He does though see how useful foreknowledge might be for Quinn’s campaign, which raises a question: if what Carvajal sees absolutely will happen, is as fixed as the past, then does it actually help to know it? If the future is predetermined, knowing it can’t change it.

This leads to the meat of the book, which lies in the discussions between Lew and Carvajal regarding Carvajal’s ability. Lew persists in thinking about changing the future, about exploiting knowledge of it. He sees himself as a protagonist on the political stage, and can’t accept that everything is essentially pre-written.

Carvajal though has lived with foresight for years. His visions have crushed him, emptied his life of hope or desire. He sees himself as a puppet whose strings are pulled by a blind universe:

“… I give to Quinn because I know I must, not because I prefer him to other politicians. I came to Lombroso’s office in March because I saw myself, months ago, going there, and knew that I had to go that day, no matter what I’d rather be doing. I live in this crumbling neighborhood because I’ve never been granted a view of myself living anywhere else, and so I know this is where I belong. I tell you what I’ve been telling you today because this conversation is already as familiar to me as a movie I’ve seen fifty times, and so I know I must tell you things I’ve never told to another human being. I never ask why. My life is without surprises, Mr. Nichols, and it is without decisions, and it is without volition. I do what I know I must do, and I know I must do it because I’ve seen myself doing it.”

Worst of all, Carvajal has seen his own death. He’s seen it many times: he knows the time of year from the weather he sees in his vision, he knows he’ll be shot by a junkie who knocks on his door by mistake; he knows he’ll open that door and he knows what he’ll say that will make the junkie pull the trigger; he knows Lew will be there but won’t help.

I returned to Carvajal. He was sitting motionless, head bowed, arms limp, as if an icy blast had passed through the room while I was gone, leaving him parched and withered. Slowly, with obvious effort, he reconstituted himself, sitting up, filling his lungs, pretending to an animation that his eyes, his empty and frightening eyes, wholly betrayed.

Is Carvajal a puppet? In a sense that’s up to the reader to decide. His future after all is that of a man who can see what’s ahead of him and who believes he has no agency. That future can’t be changed, but perhaps it is what it is because Carvajal is who he is. Lew’s future can’t be changed either, and yet when he starts to see it his future is one where he’s teaching others to do what Carvajal taught him to do, and so changing what it means to be human.

A large part of the book is taken up with Carvajal’s method of teaching his ability, which involves Lew abandoning any sense of agency and doing exactly what Carvajal knows he will do regardless of consequence. A review in Infinity Plus notes that this book came out three years after Luke Rhinehart’s famous The Dice Man, and both have this sense of what happens to someone who volunteers to live by absolutely arbitrary rules. Lew lives as Carvajal tells him to because Lew thinks that by learning to see the future he can help Quinn. Carvajal though just tells Lew to do what Carvajal has already seen himself telling Lew to do. Think too long about that and your head starts to hurt.

If The Stochastic Man was just what I’ve talked about so far it would be an SF masterpiece. Unfortunately, it badly shows its age. The future here (our past of course) is a painfully 1970s future full of drugs, partner-swapping and bad clothes. Every bit of the novel which explores the culture of Lew’s America is, to be honest, slightly embarassing. It’s not Silverberg’s fault obviously that he couldn’t himself see the future as his characters can, and of course like in much SF his future is really his present seen through a scanner darkly, but even so those bits of the book just didn’t work for me.

Much worse is the character of Lew’s wife. Silverberg generally can’t write women, but he outdoes himself with Sindara. She’s Indian-American, which sadly leads Silverberg to some of the most objectifying and Orientalist writing I’ve seen in a long time:

She seemed perfect to me just then, my wife, my love, my other self, witty and graceful, mysterious and exotic, high forehead, blue-black hair, full-moon face—but a moon eclipsed, a moon empurpled by shadow; the perfect lotus woman of the sutras, skin fine and tender, eyes brilliant and beautiful as a fawn’s, well defined and red at the corners, breasts hard and full and uplifted, neck elegant, nose straight and gracious. Yoni like an open lotus bud, voice as low and melodious as the kokila bird’s, my prize, my love, my companion, my alien bride.

Her face isn’t the only thing empurpled in that passage. Sindara matters because her life philosophy is one of randomness and going with the moment, and as Lew increasingly embraces predestination their marriage comes under ever-greater strain. That’s interesting material, but it only works if Sindara is a human being the same way Lew is – if there’s a sense that she’s a person and not just a walking page from the kama sutra (which, naturally, they include in their love life).

The effect of the dated future and Sindara’s terrible characterisation is to act as a drag on the book, making key moments cumbersome and turgid. That’s a shame, because the core concept is brilliant. This is a hugely flawed book, one that on a reread I still love but that I can’t honestly call good.

It’s a curious thing, how one can read a book and see that it’s well written and skilfully crafted and yet be quite untouched by it. One can read another book and see its flaws, here dated characterisation and poor worldbuilding, and yet find a connection to it. That’s part of the alchemy of reading. I do think it’s possible to a degree to be objective in assessing what works in a book and what doesn’t, but any emotional response to it can only ever be utterly subjective.

So, The Stochastic Man. Having reread it the truth is it remains one of my favourite Silverberg novels. The irony though is now that I have reread it I’m conscious that it’s also far from among his best work. So it goes.

If anyone reading this does have an interest in classic SF by the way then there’s nobody who writes about better than Joachim Boaz. His blog is a constant delight. I actually thought he’d written a highly critical review of this one that I wanted to link to, but I can’t find it. Joachim, if you see this and you have reviewed Stochastic please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Silverberg, Robert

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, Science Fiction, Short Stories

‘The way I see it, anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet.’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan

One of the very few book awards I bother following is the Arthur C. Clarke award. One of the very few science fiction writers I bother following is Richard Morgan. In 2008 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for his fifth novel, Black Man, which makes it slightly ironic that it’s the first of his I’ve not enjoyed.

Black Man is a novel that uses SF techniques to comment on real world racial  and gender politics, showing how people can be demonised and caricatured. In the US the book was published under the alternative title Thirteen, a fact that makes Morgan’s points more effectively than his own text ever could.

The novel takes place in a dystopian future in which genetic engineering has allowed us to create human subspecies, bred to purpose. As with any new technology, the early applications focus on new ways to get people off and to get people dead. Sex and war, driving human development since 4 million BC.

Black Man

Carl Marsalis is the black man of the (original) title. That’s true in two senses: he’s black British, which in his future isn’t particularly important as Europe is largely post-racial; and he’s a variant thirteen. Variant thirteens are one of those new subspecies, bred from early human hunter-gatherer stock for size, strength, aggression and charisma. They’re genetic sociopaths, engineered hyper-alpha males.

Variant thirteens are the nearest this future has to monsters. They’re everything Western culture tells us men should be. They’re naturally dominant, and they don’t care who knows it. They’re so feared that generally they’re only allowed to exist on the offworld colonies on Mars. Marsalis is an exception – when a variant thirteen somehow escapes the colonies and makes it to Earth it’s his job to hunt them down and bring them in.

If you’re thinking of Blade Runner at this point you should be, the book contains clear elements of homage:

he carried his suitcase along broad, bright concourses lined with ten-by-two metre holoscreens that admonished Think it’s all Red Rocks and Airlocks; Think Again and We only send Winners to Mars.

Now one of these nightmares has made it to Earth in a crashed spaceship, and worse it’s killing people according to a pattern nobody can understand. The NYPD and colonial administration officers on Earth team up to track the rogue down, but they need help. They need an expert. They need, obviously enough, Carl Marsalis.

‘You don’t understand what you’re up against.’ The smile came back, fleeting, as if driven by memory. ‘You think because Merrin’s killed a couple of dozen people, he’s some kind of serial killer writ large? That’s not what this is about. Serial killers are damaged humans. You know this, Sevgi, even if Tom here doesn’t. They leave a trail, they leave clues, they get caught. And that’s because in the end, consciously or subconsciously, they want to be caught. Calculated murder is an anti-social act, it’s hard for humans to do, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable the capacity. But that’s you people. It’s not me, and it’s not Merrin, and it’s not any variant thirteen. We’re not like you. We’re the witches. We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context. You have to understand this; there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He’s not damaged. He’s not killing these people as an expression of some childhood psychosis, he’s not doing it because he’s identified them as some dehumanised, segregated extra-tribal group. He’s just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it. And he won’t get caught doing it – unless you can put me next to him.’

Black Man is essentially an SF thriller with a philosophical underpin. That could be said to varying degrees of all Morgan’s novels so far, but here it doesn’t quite come off. Almost everyone in Morgan’s future buys the genetic determinist viewpoint. They believe that the variant thirteens represent an extension of male traits, just as another much more submissive variant represents an extension of female traits. They ignore the fact that every variant thirteen was raised from birth by the military, trained to be what they were bred to be.

For much of the book it’s easy to miss how Morgan undermines his own characters’ viewpoint, which is very close to a modern pseudo-scientific Anglo-American viewpoint. Marsalis believes his own press – as far as he’s concerned he is genetically predisposed to certain behaviour patterns. He’s paired with an ex-NYPD detective named Sevgi. She finds herself attracted to Marsalis which doesn’t surprise her as she considers herself no less subject to genetic predisposition than he is. This is genetics both as destiny and excuse, but more as a seemingly apolitical justification for the status quo.

Looking around the real world today what Morgan’s talking about is much in evidence. I saw a while back a newspaper story about how scientists in the US were working on understanding the genetic underpinning for why girls prefer pink. They seemed unaware that in the 19th Century pink was seen as a colour for boys, blue was then the preferred colour for girls. Those scientists had assumed a genetic basis for what is clearly a cultural phenomenon, and a very recent one at that. That’s fairly harmless in that instance, but it’s a tiny step from that to assuming that under-representation of of women in engineering or of men in nursing is due to irrevocable genetic differences.

In my own profession it’s striking how few black lawyers there are, and of those who are almost all are of African rather than Caribbean descent. If we see that as a societal issue then it suggests that something has gone wrong at some point in the training and recruitment process. If though we reach to genetics (which hardly anyone does now for race thankfully, but which increasingly seems to be the default answer for gender-based outcome differences) then we can sit comfortably in our privilege reassuring ourselves that we find ourselves where we are not because we benefit from an unfair society but because that’s how nature made us.

That’s meaty stuff. The question is whether an SF thriller is the best place to explore it. Morgan spends most of his frankly rather fat book driving the plot along. The characters don’t see how their own assumptions are questionable, which means that for the vast bulk of the book nobody questions them and it’s very easy to miss the fact that they’re not actually supported by the text.

More problematically, it’s all very well showing that Marsalis isn’t as unique as everyone likes to think he is, that without genetic engineering we’ve produced more than our fair share of charismatic monsters anyway, but all of that pales when put against Marsalis beating up everyone in his path and getting the girl. The book’s plot undermines its philosophy. There’s a sense here of Morgan having his cake and eating it, treating the reader to exciting action scenes then saying that violence is bad, m’kay.

More successful is the portrayal of Marsalis’ partner Sevgi. She’s a moderately observant muslim who takes her faith seriously but who isn’t very good at it. That’s actually quite revolutionary. It’s a sympathetic depiction of what it’s like to practice a faith at the everyday level even though you’re not some paragon of virtue. She has a drink and substance abuse problem, she’s attracted to the wrong kind of men, she has all sorts of issues but none of that changes her faith or her hope that it might make her a better person than she is.

Morgan clearly isn’t religious himself, but here Sevgi’s faith is no worse than any other belief system, and since hers is a particularly progressive strain of Islam it’s arguably better than many:

‘Angels and demons, heaven and hell, god, morality, law and language. Sutherland’s right, it’s all metaphor. Scaffolding to handle the areas where base reality won’t cut it for you guys, where it’s too cold for humans to live without something made up. We codify our hopes and fears and wants, and then build whole societies on the code. And then forget it ever was code and treat it like fact. Act like the universe gives a shit about it. Go to war over it, string men and women up by the neck for it. Firebomb trains and skyscrapers in the name of it.’

You could read that as being about religion, and it is, but it’s about politics too, nationalism, and of course the absurd belief that somehow evolutionary theory tells us not just how we came to live but how we should live – the idea that girls like pink because their genes tell them to (to be fair this is a trap Dawkins himself has never fallen into, but plenty of his followers have).

In the end, the problem with Black Man is that it’s just far too long. My copy came in at 644 pages. That allows for an ocean of plot, of action scenes, twists and turns. The thematic underpin gets lost in all that. This should have been a 300 page novel. That would mean losing well over half the plot and likely entire characters and storylines, but the result would have been a book that had a much better balance between adrenalin and social critique. As it is the book risks celebrating exactly that which it sets out to challenge, and for that reason I think it ultimately fails.

There’s a very good review by Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons here which I recommend both for analysis and for a better explanation of the plot than I’ve sought to provide.

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Filed under Morgan, Richard, Science Fiction

In Zoo City, it’s impolite to ask.

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature is one of the very few literary prizes I pay any attention to. In part that’s because I don’t read enough science fiction to otherwise be on top of what’s coming out, but it’s also because it’s a well curated prize that really does tend to catch much of what’s most exciting in the field.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel, Zoo City, won the prize back in 2011. That caused some controversy, with many arguing that it wasn’t science fiction at all but rather a fantasy novel which shouldn’t even have been shortlisted (hardcore genre fans can get very bullish about defending genre boundaries). For me the better view is that the boundaries aren’t the point. The point is that the Clarke Award did its job, by finding a bloody good book and shouting to the world about it.

Zoo-City-SA-cover-final

Zoo City is the Johannesburg ghetto where the “animalled” live. The animalled are people who carry the guilt of another human being’s death in an unusually literal way, manifested in the form of animals which they must keep near them at all times. Zinzi December, the protagonist, used to be a Johannesburg lifestyle journalist until she fell into addiction and got her brother killed. Now she has a sloth which goes with her wherever she goes – a living reminder of her sense of responsibility for her brother’s death.

The animalled are stigmatised. In China, the novel mentions at one point in passing, they’re executed on the assumption that whatever they did to end up with an animal must necessarily be a crime worthy of execution. They’re outcasts, and since few people want to employ a presumed killer who is accompanied everywhere by some bizarre creature (examples in the book include a sparrow, a bear, a mongoose, a vulture and much more) they can’t get regular employment.

Other than the presence of the animalled the world of Zoo City is our world. People started being animalled in the 1980s, the first being an Afghan warlord who manifested a penguin which he promptly issued with a custom-made bullet-proof vest. The phenomenon then quickly spread worldwide (the timeline is similar to the spread of Aids in real life). Some seek explanations in religion, others by reference to dodgy sounding quantum physics, but nobody really knows and from the point of view of the animalled it doesn’t really matter.

Being apart from your animal causes profound psychic stress. If your animal dies, you do too (and in a particularly eerie fashion). The only upside, and it’s not much of one, is that each animalled person gains a small magical power.

Zinzi December’s magical gift is the ability to find lost possessions. That’s a talent you can charge people for, that and her writing ability which makes her particularly good at crafting email scams to lure in unsuspecting first world retirees. The emails apparently come from:

…an old lady with a flooded mansion, desperate to sell her priceless antiques cheap-cheap. A Chechnyan refugee fleeing the latest Russian pogroms with her family’s diamonds in tow. A Somali pirate who has found Jesus and wants to trade in his rocket launcher and ransom millions for absolution” and to make some money while they do so.

What each of them has in common is the need to get a large amount of money out of South Africa, the promise of rich rewards for the kindly stranger who helps with that, and some unfortunate up-front administrative fees that can’t be paid from in-country…

We’re in noir territory then, with Zinzi a down at heels and distinctly morally ambiguous PI. Soon a pair of hired thugs (with poodle and vulture in tow) are pressuring Zinzi to take on a job for a reclusive music producer who’s lost one half of his latest boy-girl pop sensation. Zinzi doesn’t do missing people, but when the money’s right how hard can it be to find one lost teenager? Besides, there are some people it’s very hard to say no to.

The cover for my copy of Zoo City comes with a William Gibson quote, which makes sense because Beukes has a lot in common with Gibson. Neither has any real interest in the how of their world, whether the animalled or Gibson’s Cyberspace could actually happen. What each focuses on instead is the experience, the personal and social impact of change.

Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (which I reviewed here), was outright cyberpunk in the classic Gibsonian mould. Here she’s writing what could be termed urban fantasy, but with the same outlook. Modern Africa is a mix of the high tech and traditional beliefs (the same could be said of modern Singapore, modern Britain). The animals and the magical gifts they bring allow her to explore the world of muti, African folk beliefs which continue in a world of email scams and disposable mobile phones.

Nyangas and sangomas and faith healers with varying degrees of skill or talent, broadcasting their services on posters stuck up on telephone poles and walls. Some of them are charlatans and shysters, advertising cures for anything from money woes to love-sickness and Aids with muti made from crushed lizard balls and aspirin. Guess which ingredient does all the hard work?

To South Africans the animals are another form of muti, as are the abilities they give their humans. December’s view of the world is a modern South African view, influenced in part by animist tradition surviving into a Christian and increasingly secular age. In truth she doesn’t particularly understand how magic works, but then she probably doesn’t understand how her car works either (since car control systems went largely electronic, few people do).

Object muti is easy, particularly when it’s based on a simple binary. Locked or unlocked. Lost or found. Objects want to have a purpose. They’re happy to be told what to do. People less so. [...] Most magic is more abstract. Capricious. It has a tendency to backfire. And the big stuff they promise, the Aids cures, bigger penises or death spells, are all placebo and nocebo, blessings and curses conjured up in your head. Not unlike glossy magazines, which also promise a better sex life, a better job, a better you. Trust me, I used to write those articles. And just look at me now.

The worldbuilding here is done to an extent by stealth – characters don’t spend time explaining their everyday world to each other (a common fault in much other SF). The result is that you pick up the details as you go along, and Beukes is good enough at her craft to ensure this doesn’t become confusing.

Beukes’ world convinces on its terms then, but that isn’t of itself enough to make a good novel. For me, where Beukes’ fiction really shines is her evocation of contemporary urban South Africa. She’s tremendous at capturing noise, smells, the clash of colours and the sheer energy and chaos of it.

Everything takes on a muted quality fifteen floors up. The traffic is reduced to a flow and stutter, the car horns like the calls of mechanical ducks. The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular, the fine yellow mineral deposits kicked up from the mine dumps, the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?

Though this next quote reminded me more of when I used to live in Earl’s Court, showing perhaps that in some ways major cities are the same the world over.

I catch a taxi into Auckland Park with the late-night cleaners, the nurses and the restaurant dish-washers: the invisible tribe of behind-the-scenes. I get off after Media Park and walk up to 7th Street with its scramble of restaurants, bars and Internet cafés. Outside the Mozambican deli-cum-Internet café, a hawker tries to sell me a star lantern made of wire and paper and, when I decline, offers me marijuana instead.

Beukes also often shows a nice turn of phrase. I liked an email-scam mark having his good sense overwhelmed by the smell of money which “bellows like a vuvuzela, drowning out the whisper of doubt.” Similarly I enjoyed a teenaged boy “pouting like he ordered strippers for his birthday and got clowns instead”, and in terms of imagery when a fatally wounded man “screams like a slaughterhouse pig in a Peta video” it’s vivid and unpleasantly easy to imagine.

What makes Zoo City such an enjoyable read then isn’t the concept itself, clever (and capable of so many allegorical readings) as it is. It’s the writing, the noirish characters, and perhaps most of all that remarkable sense of place. I’ve not read most of the novels Zoo City was up against in 2011, so I can’t say whether it deserved to beat them or not. I’m not at all surprised though that it got shortlisted, because if science fiction (or fantasy if you prefer) was producing many books like this back in 2011 it must have been an exceptionally good year.

Zoo City has been widely reviewed. There’s an excellent (and spoiler free) example at David H’s blog, here (I only just realised David’s blog wasn’t on my blogroll, so I’ve promptly corrected that) and he links in turn to fine reviews from John Clute and Niall Harrison each of which is definitely worth reading. I was happier with the ending than David was as for me the book always had that crime heritage overlapping with the SF and I was therefore expecting a fairly plot-driven ending.

Postscript: Some issues with the Kindle edition

Finally, a note of caution for those who don’t have this and might be thinking of picking it up. Beukes uses different fonts in places, to indicate emails or internet chats, and all that inevitably gets lost in the kindle version. Much worse though the kindle version, in the UK at least, has some truly appalling formatting errors which were so frequent and so bad that they started to genuinely spoil the book for me.

Since I knew the author was on twitter I dropped her a line there asking if there was some way to get the ebook version fixed (the paperback doesn’t have these problems). She put me in touch with her publishers, who asked me to email through the details of the problems I’d found (since they apparently weren’t in all e-editions in all countries).

The publishers offered to send me a cleaned up version, but before they could Lauren Beukes herself very kindly emailed me a word version of the book which was entirely error free (and which was apparently a later version of the book, fixing a plot problem I’d already read past without noticing that her French translator had picked up).

I really can’t praise enough Lauren Beukes’ and her publishers’ response to the problem I had. Given though the formatting issues with the ebook, and the fact that even once fixed you’ll still lose the font choices Beukes makes, this is one you should definitely read in physical copy if at all possible.

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Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Science Fiction, South African Literature

Free, strong, safe.

Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

I have white skin. Light brown hair. Blue eyes. I am tall. I usually dress conservatively: sports jackets, corduroy trousers, knitted ties. I wear spectacles for reading, though they are more an affectation than a necessity. I smoke cigarettes occasionally. Sometimes I drink alcohol. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church; I do not have any objections to other people doing so. When I married my wife, I was in love with her. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I have no political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

My skin is smudged with dirt. My hair is dry, salt-encrusted and itchy. I have blue eyes. I am tall. I am wearing now what I was wearing six months ago, and I smell awful. I have lost my spectacles, and learned to live without them. I do not smoke at all most of the time, though when cigarettes are available I smoke them continually. I am able to get drunk about once a month. I do not believe in God; I do not go to church. When I last saw my wife, I was cursing her, though I have learned to regret it. I am very fond of my daughter Sally. I do not think I have political ambitions. My name is Alan Whitman.

Among the first books I reviewed when I started this blog was Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions. After writing the review, I looked online to see what others had thought of it and discovered that I’d liked it more than most. The reason seemed to be because the London Kunzru was writing about was the London of my childhood; I recognised his book as true.

The problem with that of course is that if a novel needs a reader who was there (though I was only a small child in the 1970s) then it will struggle both for longevity and a wider readership. My Revolutions did find a wider audience than just me, but not as appreciative a one as he found for some of his other books.

I grew up in Notting Hill, more specifically North Kensington (near the north end of Ladbroke Grove for anyone reading this who knows London). It wasn’t then as fashionable as it is now; in fact North Kensington (despite what the word Kensington suggests) was one of London’s more deprived areas. It was also an area with large Black British and Afro-Caribbean communities and there were often tensions between them and the older white communities (Sam Selvon’s excellent The Lonely Londoners and his Moses Ascending both explore the area’s immigrant experience, my reviews of both are here).

Sometimes there were riots, and as a child one particular street (All Saints Road, the band All Saints named themselves after it though god knows why) was known as “the front line” because it was seen as a border between black and white neighbourhoods and a no-go zone for police and whites. The no-go bit was a myth incidentally, I walked through it on several occasions without the slightest problem (other than an assumption I was looking to buy drugs).

All of which brings me to Christopher Priest’s 1972 novel Fugue for a Darkening Island. Priest is a writer of what is sometimes called slipstream fiction, a term he invented as far as I know. He provided the foreword for Anna Kavan’s Ice and is a writer who straddles the line between literary and science fiction without recognising the boundaries of either. He can be challenging, and while Fugue is far from his best novel in some ways it’s perhaps the most challenging of all of them.

Fugue-for-a-Darkening-Island-VG

Racists sometimes talk of immigrants “swamping” Britain; of them “overrunning” the country. Fugue is a novel in which their worst fears are realised, That’s what challenges here: it’s not the fact that the narrative is a mosaic which cuts forward and back among the protagonist’s experiences and memories so that only by the end is the entire story clear; it’s the fact that Priest has written a book which explores racism in a profoundly visceral way.

War has broken out in Africa. Some of the powers involved have got hold of nuclear weapons. They use them, rendering large parts of Africa uninhabitable. The result is a human tidal wave of refugees; millions of them. Many come to the UK; more than the UK can absorb. The result is social breakdown, civil war, the descent of the UK into the sort of hellhole the Africans are fleeing from.

The obvious parallel is with War of the Worlds, in which Britain finds itself on the receiving end of the colonialism that it dishes out elsewhere, thanks to the Martians. Here there are no Martians, but the essence is the same. Priest asks the same question as did Wells, how do we like it when the atrocities happen in the Home Counties, rather than Rwanda or the Congo?

Fugue is written from the perspective of Alan Whitman, but not chronologically. Some sections are from his life before the UK’s collapse, with Alan indulging in meaningless affairs while ignoring both the increasing sham of his marriage and a dangerous drift to the hard right in UK politics. Some are from the period in which society began to break down, with Alan looking for somewhere he and his family can safely wait out the approaching storm. Some are from after that storm has hit, with Alan one refugee among many looking now for his wife and daughter who have been kidnapped by an Afrim militia group.

The Afrim are what the African refugees are called in the novel. It’s never explained why, which lends it a certain verisimilitude as the characters after all would know why. As the novel takes Alan’s perspective though the Afrim are largely faceless; a mass of indistinguishable black aggressors who literally steal his women. It’s a troubling portrayal and it plays directly into racist stereotypes (“Once the Afrims have a street to themselves, they spread through the rest of the district in a few nights”, and later “‘Then you should know that the Afrim command has set up several brothels of white women for its troops.’”). I don’t think this is a racist novel, but it’s definitely capable of a (incorrect) racist interpretation.

Priest describes in the detailed and fascinating foreword how he was in part inspired by the cosy catastrophes of writers such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. He wrote against a backdrop of political violence in Northern Ireland, barricaded streets and paramilitaries driving families from their homes.

We realized we would probably be forced to abandon our house in Southgate the day the barricade was erected at the end of our road. Although terrified by the prospect we did nothing, because for several days we thought we might be able to adjust to the new mode of life.

In Northern Ireland sectarianism led to social cleansing, not that we use that term when it happens in the developed West. Catholics and Protestants often found themselves living in different areas, and entering one group’s territory if you belonged to the other could be dangerous even if you weren’t yourself political. For Catholics and Protestants read Hutus and Tutsis, Serbians and Bosnians, a myriad sectarian squabbles.

The following day we were at home when we heard the noise of the Martins being evicted. They lived almost opposite us. We had not had much to do with them and since the Afrim landings had seen even less of them. Vincent Martin was a highly qualified research technician and worked at an aircraft components factory in Hatfield. His wife stayed at home, looking after their three children. They were West Indians.

Soon Alan is on the road with his wife and daughter, heading to his wife’s parents in Bristol and avoiding “the barricaded Afrim enclaves at Notting Hill and North Kensington”. We know they don’t make it, and Alan becomes a refugee pushing his few belongings across England in a wheelbarrow. The violence spirals out, not just white against black but nationalists against those who sympathise with the plight of the African refugees. Alan finds himself in a warzone, policed by UN troops who do little to help. When he meets combatants it doesn’t really matter much which side they’re on because none of them give a damn about the civilians caught in the middle. At best the various militaries hand out propaganda, then move you along.

He offered me an immediate commission into the Secessionist forces, but I turned it down, explaining that I had to consider Sally. Before we left he handed me a sheet of paper which explained in simple language the long-term aims of the Secessionist cause. These were a restoration of law and order; an immediate amnesty for all Nationalist participants; a return to the parliamentary monarchy that had existed before the civil war; the restitution of the judiciary; an emergency housing programme for displaced civilians; and full British citizenship for all contemporary African immigrants. It reflected exactly what I hoped would happen, but all our recent experiences had underlined the impossibility of a peaceful solution to the present chaotic fighting.

Alan incidentally spends a fair chunk of the novel criticising his wife’s passivity and refusal to recognise what’s going on and so help herself. As the novel progresses though it becomes evident that Alan’s not really that different, that what he hates in her is in part the mirror of his own failings. Fugue is as much an exploration of Alan’s psychology and how he reacts under extreme pressure as it is a bringing home of conflicts we’re used to seeing on the TV, and it’s that dimension which ultimately makes this a better book than many of those which inspired it – Alan is simply more real, more flawed and human, than most protagonists are in this sort of book.

Fugue isn’t without its problems. In the foreword Priest talks about how he thinks that when he wrote it he was too influenced by the coolly distant style of the 1970s new wave movement and by writers such as Brautigan and Vonnegut. Part of the reason he rewrote the book was to change stylistic and language choices which worked in the 1970s but which with the passing of time carried overt political interpretations which hadn’t been intended, but part too was that with hindsight he felt that his influences had resulted in a book the language of which didn’t really suit the subject matter. I’ve not read the original, pre-revision, version, but even here there is at times a conflict between the intentionally flat prose and the horror it describes.

I’ll definitely be reading more Priest, and I’m glad I read this because while it is exceptionally bleak in both tone and outlook, it does humanise the nameless refugees who from time to time populate our news. There used to be a saying in English, there but for the grace of God go I. It’s gone out of fashion, but it expresses an important truth. Given different circumstances, a run of bad luck, political developments beyond our control, those people we perhaps send a little money or a food or old clothes donation to could be us.

In my last review, of Berlin Alexanderplatz, I talked at the end about how that novel continued to have a contemporary resonance. Fugue, despite the unlikely subject matter, does too in its way. I’ll leave you with two final quotes:

The country was in deep recession. We had a government that prided itself on fiscal expertise, but they made one bad decision after another. John Tregarth and his government had first come to power because of their economic policies but the balance of payments was in the red for month after month, public borrowing was at an all-time high, prices continued to rise steeply and an increasing number of people were made unemployed.

and

Meanwhile, democracy was taking its turn, and a General Election was held in Britain. It was a time of economic recession, with many people jobless. Inflation was high, loans were difficult to obtain, many companies were going out of business. A new right-wing party, initially a splinter group from the Conservatives, campaigned successfully on the basis of economic reform and isolationism as a cure for our employment problems.

The cover above is the one I have. I couldn’t resist sharing this one though, which utterly misrepresents the novel on pretty much every front:

220px-Fugue_for_a_darkening_island_gratuitous_cover

Anyone who bought the book on the basis of that cover would have been sadly disappointed.

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Filed under Post-Apocalypse Fiction, Priest, Christopher, Science Fiction

No machine may contain any moving parts.

The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

As a teenager I loved Arthur C. Clarke’s novels. Nobody quite did sense of wonder like he did. I read pretty much all his major works multiple times, and most of the lesser ones too. It’s years though since I revisited any of them.

Laid up recently with my slipped disc I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything too complex; too stylistically dense. I turned therefore to an old friend, one I remembered as having lucid prose and grand visions. I went back to the stars, where in literary terms at least I grew up.

City and the Stars

The City and the Stars has always been high among my favourite Clarkes (The Songs of Distant Earth, The City and the Stars, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001, Imperial Earth, Childhood’s End, 2010, not that you asked). That means I’ve read it at least four or five times, though the last time would probably have been around twenty years ago or so. Coming back to Clarke now, fresh from authors such as Proust, Krasznahorkai, Szerb, two things struck me: technically he’s not actually a very good writer, but somehow despite that he remains a good read.

What’s The City and the Stars about? Well, here’s the first paragraph:

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of Earth congealed— but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.

Humanity, which once had the stars, is now restricted to a single city which dwells in Earth’s long twilight. Our empires have fallen, the mountains themselves have crumbled, but humanity continues; carried down the ages in a city which represents our greatest technological achievement. As Clarke goes on to say:

[Humanity] had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

To put that in perspective, the history of multicellular life on Earth so far is only a billion years old.

The citizens of Diaspar have access to every comfort. Machines create whatever they wish, as they wish it. They have access to a vaster array of art, science, sport and new undreamt of pursuits (well, MMORPGs, but they were pretty undreamt of when this was written) than a million lifetimes could exhaust. They need those distractions – they’re immortal. They never go outside. They don’t even wish to go outside, or at least nobody normal does. Nobody except Alvin, a young man who is the first child in a million years and who through some freak of chance or long-buried design has been born with the desire to explore.

The power of The City and the Stars lies in its elegaic sense of vast oceans of time. Clarke conjures a persuasive image of an exhausted Earth and a humanity retreated to a form of eternal retirement home, its passion spent. In a sense this is a tale of generational conflict, of the only youth in a society of the ancient. Equally it is an exploration of utopia, and of the compromises that utopia requires. More than anything though it’s epic SF and a tremendous piece of storytelling.

It’s also about 250 pages of exposition and leaden dialogue. Here Alvin’s mentor, Jeserac, explains how the society of immortals prevents itself from becoming stale:

“In a little while, Alvin, I shall prepare to leave this life. I shall go back through my memories, editing them and canceling those I do not wish to keep. Then I shall walk into the Hall of Creation, but through a door which you have never seen. This old body will cease to exist, and so will consciousness itself. Nothing will be left of Jeserac but a galaxy of electrons frozen in the heart of a crystal. “I shall sleep, Alvin, and without dreams. Then one day, perhaps a hundred thousand years from now, I shall find myself in a new body, meeting those who have been chosen to be my guardians. They will look after me as Eriston and Etania have guided you, for at first I will know nothing of Diaspar and will have no memories of what I was before. Those memories will slowly return, at the end of my infancy, and I will build upon them as I move forward into my new cycle of existence. “That is the pattern of our lives, Alvin. We have all been here many, many times before, though as the intervals of nonexistence vary according to apparently random laws this present population will never repeat itself again. The new Jeserac will have new and different friends and interests, but the old Jeserac— as much of him as I wish to save— will still exist. “That is not all. At any moment, Alvin, only a hundredth of the citizens of Diaspar live and walk its streets. The vast majority slumber in the Memory Banks, waiting for the signal that will call them forth onto the stage of existence once again. So we have continuity, yet change— immortality, but not stagnation.

It’s fascinating stuff and a marvellous piece of worldbuilding. I could believe in Diaspar; it made sense to me. It’s not though particularly electrifying. Jeserac may be a great tutor, but he ain’t a great conversationalist.

The City and the Stars shares here a fault common to much of Clarke’s fiction. Everyone is essentially decent and sensible. Where Alvin meets opposition in the novel it’s due to encountering conservative thinking; ignorance; fear of the unknown. Alvin faces obstacles in his quest to rediscover what lies beyond Diaspar, but none that can’t be overcome by good sense, a bit of forward planning and reasoned debate. Like most of Clarke’s work this is a novel entirely without violence. It’s a hugely optimistic vision, but it’s not a dramatic one.

None of the characters aspire to more than two dimensions. There is no psychological depth here, but then there isn’t meant to be. The point of the novel is the idea, the vision. Alvin is a delivery mechanism to take us inside Clarke’s imagination, to allow us to see the cathedral of wonder he’s created and in that context rounded characters would be a distraction.

Perhaps too that’s why Clarke’s flat prose isn’t a problem. Clarke is a functional writer – he doesn’t let any hooptedoodle get mixed in with the story. Here’s one more example:

Such unnecessary appurtenances as nails and teeth had vanished. Hair was confined to the head; not a trace was left on the body. The feature that would most have surprised a man of the Dawn Ages was, perhaps, the disappearance of the navel. Its inexplicable absence would have given him much food for thought, and at first sight he would also have been baffled by the problem of distinguishing male from female. He might even have been tempted to assume that there was no longer any difference, which would have been a grave error. In the appropriate circumstances, there was no doubt about the masculinity of any male in Diaspar. It was merely that his equipment was now more neatly packaged when not required; internal stowage had vastly improved upon Nature’s original inelegant and indeed downright hazardous arrangements.

Again, it’s all about the worldbuilding, the idea. From the perspective of understanding Alvin’s future this is important and interesting. As prose it’s dry as the deserts that surround Diaspar. This is why SF shouldn’t be in the Booker. The metrics of what makes great literary fiction aren’t just different to those that make great SF, they’re frequently in direct opposition. Only a tiny handful of writers (M John Harrison say) can successfully write great SF which should also be read for its prose. For most SF novels the characters are a means to explore the imagined world, the language a vehicle to carry the story (and the story ultimately is merely another means to explore the imagined world).

It’s equally incorrect incidentally to think that science fiction is about predicting the future. Occasionally it aims for that, but only occasionally. Here Clarke is imagining not the future, but a future. Much other SF of course isn’t about any future at all, but about our own present seen as through a scanner darkly. A novel about an interstellar war which takes place over periods so long the soldiers find society transformed every time they return home may really be about the Vietnam war. I’m digressing badly though. Exposition is infectious.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Alvin does of course find a way to escape Diaspar. How he does so, and what he finds when he does, well for those you’ll just have to read the novel. I was more conscious of its weaknesses this time than in the past, but the strengths were still there. The vision burns as brightly as it ever did.

One last note. I remember when I first read this book one part seeming just too incredible to me to be believed. It wasn’t the society of immortals, the billion year old city, faster than light travel (actually impossible we know now), telepathy or any of that. It was the existence in the book of machines with no moving parts. How ludicrous, I thought, how could that ever be possible?

Back in the 1950s when he wrote this Clarke thought such machines were in the long distant future. I have an iPhone and an iPad. It turns out they weren’t as far off as he thought, or as impossible as I did. So it goes.

The cover above is pretty much the one I have, but I thought I’d share one other cover with you that I found online. I actually think this fits the book better than any other cover I’ve seen for it. It’s a scene from the book – Alvin, having found a remote air vent, seeing the stars for the first time:

200px-The_City_and_the_Stars_hardcover

Edit: Tomcat of Tomcat in the red room also wrote about The City and the Stars, contrasting it with Miéville’s The City and the City, here. As ever, his thoughts are well worth reading.

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Filed under Clarke, Arthur C., Science Fiction

a rat became the unit of currency

Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis is a deeply quotable novel. Perhaps that’s its biggest flaw. It’s full of beautifully realised sentences, arresting slabs of prose, but taken as a whole it’s alienating and distant. It prefers idea to character, concept to situation. It has no interest in realism. It’s my first DeLillo, and apparently one of his weaker novels. If it is a lesser DeLillo that’s impressive, because even flawed it’s more interesting than many author’s at their peak.

The story, such as there is, is wildly improbable both in its overall scope and in its particular details. Eric Packer, software entrepeneur and billionaire, wants to take his limo across town for a haircut. He’s advised that the president’s in town and traffic is expected to be gridlocked. He insists though, and is carried glacially across Manhattan as around him whirl anti-capitalist riots, a Sufi hip-hop star’s funeral and what his security people tell him is a credible threat to his own life.

Packer’s limo is where most of the novel’s action takes place. The year is ostensibly 2000, but it isn’t really. It’s the future, the near future, just around the corner. The future that’s always just around the corner so close that we can see its outlines but not yet quite in view.

Packer’s limo is filled with screens, information, the highest of high technology. When asked why he’s not working in his office it’s evident that the question is a non-sequitur. His office is wherever he is; the concept of office is no longer meaningful. His staff come to him through the day, Packer receiving them like the contemporary royalty that he is. Sherman McCoy has been replaced by the new masters of the universe, born of internet IPOs and pure market speculation.

Packer has bet heavily against the Yen. It should be a good bet, because the Yen is at an unsustainable high. The Yen though, against all expectations, continues to rise. Packer is losing millions, tens of millions, more, amounts so vast they become meaningless. His wealth is beyond spending. It’s virtual, imaginary yet very real. 

I read an article once about the interest Bill Gates earns on his fortune and what he would need to do to spend faster than it accumulates. The answer was that practically he couldn’t. His wealth is now so vast it’s independent of him. It increases regardless of what he does. He is no longer necessary to it.

Conversations in the novel are far from naturalistic; thick with flat statements and answerless questions. This is a novel where the characters largely speak in monologues.

“There’s a rumor it seems involving the finance minister. He’s supposed to resign any time now,” she said. “Some kind of scandal about a misconstrued comment. He made a comment about the economy that may have been misconstrued. The whole country is analyzing the grammar and syntax of this comment. Or it wasn’t even what he said. It was when he paused. They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause. It could be deeper, even, than grammar. It could be breathing.”

Nobody of course speaks like that. That’s really not the point though. This is language as poetry, language as vehicle. Cosmopolis here is capturing that sense of a system become greater than its parts. Vast currents of capital and information eddy and flow around us, shaping our lives in ways that no single person is equipped to comprehend. Capital here is abstract, no longer a factory or farm but an algorithm spitting out trading strategies from a black box (and that’s not hyperbole, google black box trading).

By way of example, a scant few years ago I received an email at work that I didn’t understand. It talked about problems in the money markets, a sector I don’t personally work in and so only have a passing familiarity with. What it meant was unclear, but the sense of panic was palpable. I wouldn’t normally have received emails from that team, we did no business together, but this was firmwide.

Soon after the world faced fiscal armageddon. Five years on economies remain mired in recession. Youth unemployment in  Greece and Spain exceeds 50%. What happened? No factories burned down (except in riots, but they were an effect, not a cause). There were no unexpected wars. Instead vast abstract forces failed to operate as they had been expected to, and millions of lives came crashing down.

Returning to Cosmopolis (not that I’ve actually left it of course), it’s noticeable that DeLillo doesn’t care to give Packer much by way of inner life, nor to make him remotely sympathetic. Packer is an emblem, a vision of distant corporate elites, a fantasy rather than a person.  Packer lives in abstracts, reads Einstein’s Special Theory in English and German and poems composed mostly of spaces between the words. “He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at. The white paintings were unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color. The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.”

Packer leaves the car mostly for sex, with his art-dealer lover, with one of his security team. Through the day he keeps coincidentally encountering his wife, equally rich but of old money (another strand of our new aristocracy, which has subsumed the old aristocracy).

She was in her mid-twenties, with an etched delicacy of feature and large and artless eyes. Her beauty had an element of remoteness. This was intriguing but maybe not. Her head rode slightly forward on a slender length of neck. She had an unexpected laugh, a little weary and experienced, and he liked the way she put a finger to her lips when she wanted to be thoughtful. Her poetry was shit.

Cosmopolis isn’t all high concept. There’s a comic strand running through it where after each of Packer’s extra-marital flings he runs by chance into his wife and has to explain why he smells as if he’s just had sex. The prose is frequently quite lovely as you’d expect of DeLillo,  and while it’s not a true representation of what the world of finance is actually like nor does it set out to be. Like Ballard, DeLillo isn’t trying here to show how things actually are, but rather to show what the experience of them is like.

The concept though is never far away. Cosmopolis is, in a very real sense, a science fiction novel. Not just because it contains items of technology that don’t actually exist yet (a gun with built in voice operated security system is the most obvious example, or Packer’s screens which start showing events before they happen), but because of it’s desire to explore not who but where we are. If only though more science fiction had prose like this:

He saw a police lieutenant carrying a walkie-talkie. What entered his mind when he saw this? He wanted to ask the man why he was still using such a contraption, still calling it what he called it, carrying the nitwit rhyme out of the age of industrial glut into smart spaces built on beams of light.

In the end it’s the traditional elements of Cosmopolis that are it’s weakest (a point made by John Updike in his NYT review, which mostly I think misses the point of the book, but which does have the unnerringly accurate summation of Cosmopolis as “Nouveau roman meets Manhattan geography, under sci-fi moonlight.”).  As the novel draws to its close Packer’s encounter with his would-be assassin gains importance, but of course I don’t care. Packer’s not real, what does it matter if he lives or dies? The book comes to focus on an existential sense of becoming oneself through a flensing away of the extraneous, but other books have said that and said it better. Here it risks becoming trite (“Now he could begin the business of living.”)

Pacing becomes a problem. For such a short novel this is a very slow book, and that’s fine until it comes near its destination. As Packer’s day begins to close there’s a sense that the novel’s already done. A violent encounter between Packer and one of his guards feels almost tacked on, physical violence almost tasteless in this context or in any event irrelevant. The action is abstract, the descent into the real almost trivial (which is likely the point, but even if it is that doesn’t mean it works).

The end result is a book that doesn’t entirely succeed, but one which despite its failures has stuck with me after reading it. It’s provocative not in a cheap way, but because it forces the reader to think. When Packer contemplates the foreign exchange markets he finds “… beauty and precision here, hidden rhythms in the fluctuations of a given currency.” 

There’s a truth in that line about beauty and precision, because in a way the markets are beautiful in their summation of so many patterns of human effort and desire into a number or set of numbers, elegantly expressed. At the same time, it is not a human beauty. DeLillo shows us the language of the markets, which is the language of our time, and if it is alienating it is because the world it depicts is alienated.

“You know what anarchists have always believed.” “Yes.” “Tell me,” she said. “The urge to destroy is a creative urge.” “This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future.”

I mentioned a John Updike review above, which I didn’t personally particularly like (criticising Cosmopolis for implausibility is a bit like criticising Revolutionary Road for not being funnier, it’s missing the point). A better review to my mind is Blake Morrison’s at The Guardian, which can be found here. I’ve not found reviews of this at my usual blog haunts, but if I’ve missed one please do let me know in the comments. Also, prior to this post I wrote a post about the state of contemporary Anglo-American literature. That post was inspired in part by my thoughts on Cosmopolis, and is here.

Finally, for the curious, the flaws of the film are the flaws of the book. It changes a few details, but by and large it’s incredibly faithful. Perhaps too much so. Robert Pattinson is actually very good as Eric Packer.

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Filed under Delillo, Don, Science Fiction, US Literature