Category Archives: Comic fiction

Someone, wearing an anorak, knocked on my door at lunchtime.

The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson and translated by Janice Balfour

Comic novels struggle to be taken seriously. Howard Jacobson recently won the Booker of course, but that’s a definite exception and as Jacobson himself noted he’d been waiting a fair while for the honour.

The book I’m currently reading is JG Farrell’s Troubles. It’s brilliant (so far anyway). It’s extremely well written and it’s extremely funny too. Why shouldn’t it be? There’s no conflict between quality and comedy.

The Pets is a story about a man, Emil, who returns home from a flight abroad to find an old acquaintance waiting for him. It’s not a welcome reunion. What do you do though when you don’t feel able to say to someone that actually you’d rather not talk to them? That question is the essence of the whole book. 

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

The flight’s as bad as Emil fears. He’s seated next to a man called Armann Valur who refuses to take the hint when Emil plugs in headphones. Armann insists on conversation but he has nothing interesting to say. It’s not all bad though because an old object of Emil’s desire, Greta, is also on the flight.

Emil met Greta years ago when they were both teenagers. He saw her slip into a bedroom with a boy at a party and come out later with tousled hair. He wanted her but never got her. Now he has another chance – they fall into conversation and she agrees to visit him at home later that night. He doesn’t mention that he already has a girlfriend. He was feeling a bit ambivalent about that relationship anyway.

When he does get home though he gets some disturbing news. A man came round looking for him earlier wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag full of beer. He soon realises who that man was. Years ago Emil housesat in London for a friend of his father’s. Emil took along a coworker from home that he’d got to know – Havard. It was only later he realised that Havard had some serious psychological problems.

I haven’t heard from Havard for about five years, since we sat in the kitchen on Brooke Road in Stoke Newington and I gave him four hundred pounds to go away. Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said—with a grin fueled by the two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch—that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.

Emil didn’t give him the four hundred more. He should have.

Soon after Emil arrives home Havard returns. Emil doesn’t want to see him so he pretends he’s not in, and when Havard climbs through the window that means Emil has to keep pretending not to be home or explain why he didn’t answer the door. Emil hides under the bed. Havard decides to wait, and in the meantime invites some people over.

Emil isn’t really a bad man, but he is a bit of a coward. His girlfriend wants them to have a more serious commitment to each other. He’s not sure about that, but he doesn’t want to say that to her. He doesn’t pick up the gifts she asked for in London but he doesn’t break up with her either. Armann is a pestering bore, but Emil doesn’t want to tell him to shut up. Havard is profoundly disturbed and potentially dangerous, but all those years ago back in Stoke Newington Emil ignored all the signs until it was too late.

Tragicomedy is tricky stuff, but that’s what’s happening here. Emil doesn’t really deserve to be trapped under a bed as increasing numbers of people come into his home, drink his duty free alcohol and criticise his music collection. Then again, the pets didn’t deserve what Havard did to them either:

For some reason he thought it was highly appropriate to play the ukulele for the iguana. It was meant to be some kind of “Galapagos atmosphere,” as he called it, but the sound he produced was as sad as the fate the Mexican iguana was to meet three weeks later.

I love that quote. It’s so foreboding and yet so absurd at the same time. That’s the essence of this novel. There’s a vein of menace that runs through much of it, but it’s coupled with pathos (Emil, Armann and Havard are all in their different ways a bit pathetic) and Emil’s compromises are ones that most of us make to some degree.

When I was a kid my parents routinely pretended not to be home to unwelcome visitors. We’d sit there, unmoving, waiting for whoever was outside to go away. Often the TV would be hurriedly switched off. Sometimes we sat for a long time, because whoever was outside had heard the TV being switched off and was annoyed at being ignored and so kept on banging to be let in.

I’ve tried to ignore people on planes by focusing on a book, but then put it down when someone clearly wanted to talk. I’ve preferred to be polite rather than assertive. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Is my desire to be left alone really more important than someone else’s desire for a bit of company? Is it altruism though that’s motivating me, or fear of seeming rude?

Most of us I suspect have known people who knew their relationships weren’t working out but didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup. I can understand that (though I’ve seen it result in some very unpleasant passive-aggressive behaviour). I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and while being dumped is no fun at all at least afterwards you can blame the other person. If you’re the one doing the dumping it’s hard to feel good about yourself.

Some people, like Havard, never worry about social embarassment. They never pretend to be out, or pretend something is going ok when it isn’t. Others, like Emil, would rather hide how they feel than risk unpleasantness. Most of us are somewhere in between. Here Ólafsson takes the two extremes and brings them together. Havard is a sort of anti-Emil. His nemesis. 

The line between tragedy and farce is always narrow. In a way it’s a question of importance. If what’s at stake really matters then it’s tragedy. If it all ends in blood and ruin it’s probably not going to be that funny (not intentionally so anyway, The Duchess of Malfi though can go that way). If what’s at stake is petty, but important to the characters, that’s farce.

I heard about The Pets over at Guy Savage’s blog here. I don’t think it’s a well known novel in English, and I think it should be. While writing this I also found a review by Stewart of Booklit here which is worth reading for a still positive but less enthusiastic perspective.


Filed under Ólafsson, Bragi, Comic fiction, Icelandic fiction

You would not enjoy Nietzche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of the best comic writers in print, a master of the comic phrase, with a style of writing which I believe requires far more skill than is immediately apparent (much like Runyon in that, though the styles are very different in some respects). He is an incredibly funny writer, endlessly quotable, fully deserving of his fame.

Wodehouse’s most famous creations are of course Bertie Wooster and his Gentleman’s Gentleman, Jeeves. It’s unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t know who they are, but on the off chance Bertram Wooster is a wealthy young man of good family but, like Winnie the Pooh, of very little brain. Still, he’s a generous young man, innocent of harm and generally a pretty nice chap. Jeeves is his valet, a man of unusual intelligence and resource, a perfect servant and one on whom Bertie relies to get him and his friends out of their endless scrapes involving fearsome aunts, unsuitable chorus girls and other unlikely adventures.

‘Sir?’ said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch him like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He’s like one of those weird birds in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I’ve got a cousin who’s what they call a Theosophist, and he says he’s often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn’t quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie.

Probably the best place to start with Jeeves and Wooster is the 1923 collection The Inimitable Jeeves, eleven connected short stories which as well as being among the first are among the best Wodehouse ever wrote. After that, comes Carry on, Jeeves – the collection I’m writing about today. Written in 1925, this contains ten stories, many of them set during Bertie’s sojourn in New York in hiding from his Aunt Agatha, and which are in the main brilliant.

Like the TV series House (for the first three seasons anyway) or the boxing stories of Robert E. Howard, almost every Jeeves and Wooster story follows much the same template. That doesn’t matter, one doesn’t read Wodehouse for the plot, one reads for the sheer brilliance of the prose, but it can mean that a collection can be more enjoyable if spaced out a story or two at a time between other reads. That said, I gulped this collection down in two days, and enjoyed it thoroughly, good enough writing after all forgives any fault.

So, what is this template? Well, it doesn’t hold for every story, but it does for most. Here goes:

1. We normally open to learn that Bertie and Jeeves have to a degree fallen out, normally over some sartorial experiment upon which Bertie is engaged and of which Jeeves does not approve.

… Soft silk shirts with evening costume are not worn, sir.’
‘Jeeves,’ I said, looking the blighter diametrically in the centre of the eyeball, ‘they’re dashed well going to be. I may as well tell you now that I have ordered a dozen of those shirtings from Peabody and Simms, and it’s no good looking like that, because I am jolly well adamant.’
‘If I might-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said, raising my hand, ‘argument is useless. Nobody has a greater respect than I have for your judgement in socks, in ties, and – I will go farther – in spats; but when it comes to evening shirts your nerve seems to fail you. You have no vision. You are prejudiced and reactionary. Hidebound is the word that suggests itself. It may interest you to learn that when I was at Le Touquet the Prince of Wales buzzed into the Casino one night with soft silk shirt complete.’
‘His Royal Highness, sir, may permit himself a certain licence which in your own case-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said firmly, ‘it’s no use. When we Woosters are adamant, we are – well, adamant, if you know what I mean.’
‘Very good, sir.’

2. Next, generally while the frost of disapproval is yet on, one of Bertie’s chums approaches him with a problem which to them seems insurmountable. Normally, it involves a disapproving relative on whom the friend is reliant for funds, but who for one reason or another is threatening to cut off the same, or it involves a desire to marry an unsuitable girl, generally of a theatrical persuasion (often in the chorus). Sometimes, it’s both.

I began to understand why poor old Bicky was always more or less on the rocks. To the casual and irreflective observer it may soud a pretty good wheeze having a duke for an uncle, but the trouble about old Chiswick was that, though an extremely wealthy old buster, owning half London and about five counties up north, he was notoriously the most produent spender in England. He was what Americans call a hard-boiled egg.

Sadly for poor old Bicky, he is dependent upon the above hard-boiled egg for his remittance, but that only flows because the old man believes Bicky is a success in business, and his forthcoming visit to New York will show that instead Bicky’s most notable feature is his ability to imitate a bull-terrier chasing a cat up a tree.

3. As neither Bertie nor his friends have much in the brains department, Jeeves suggests a scheme. And yet, despite the man’s undoubted brilliance, it often fails to quite come off on the first instance.

‘I was about to suggest, sir, that you might lend Mr Bickersteth this flat. Mr Bickersteth could give His Grace the impression that he was the owner of it. With your permission, I could convey the notion that I was in Mr Bickersteth’s employment and not in yours. You would be residing here temporarily as Mr Bickersteth’s guest. His Grace would occupy the second spare bedroom. I fancy that you would find this answer satisfactory, sir.’

[Later, Bertie hears that Bicky is not entirely happy with the outcome.]

‘What’s his trouble now?’
‘The scheme which I took the liberty of suggesting to Mr Bickersteth and yourself has, unfortunately, not answered entirely satisfactorily, sir.’
‘Surely the duke believes that Mr Bickersteth is doing well in business, and all that sort of thing?’
‘Exactly, sir. With the result that he has decided to cancel Mr Bickersteth’s monthly allowance, on the ground that, as Mr Bickersteth is doing so well on his own account, he no longer requires pecuniary assistance.’

4. Jeeves, however, is dauntless. With a little behind the scenes maneouvering and a great deal of native wit, he brings matters to a successful conclusion. Young love is brought together, aunts and uncles continue the provision of funds, all is well with the world. In gratitude, Bertie allows Jeeves to dispose of the offending garment over which they had originally fallen out.

‘Oh, Jeeves,’ I said; ‘about that check suit.’
‘Yes, sir?’
‘Is it really a frost?’
‘A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.’
‘But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is?’
‘Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.’
‘He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.’
‘I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.’

The suit, it is fair to say, is by this point not long for Bertie’s wardrobe.

And that’s it, with that template and the odd minor variation you could in theory write most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, except you couldn’t at all because none of that matters in the slightest. The structure, the plot, is merely a hook on which to hang the dialogue, the absurd situations, the general farce of it all.

Characters, too, follow types. As in the Commedia Dell’Arté the same personalities (though their names may change) recur time and again, story to story – the fearsome aunt, the rich but eccentric uncle, the intimidating fiancée, the irritating and untrustworthy young nephew, the dim but affable friend (usually either an impoverished artist or well off but dim chum from Oxford). Again, it doesn’t matter, the Commedia Dell’Arté is a meaningful comparison because it does precisely the same thing and for the same reason – the familiarity is a springboard for creativity, not merely a restraint on or lack of it.

And there we have it. On this occasion, the stories include the first encounter between Bertie and Jeeves, and one marvellous story told from Jeeve’s perspective (the stories are normally told in Bertie’s voice). Of the ten, nine are extremely funny, one a bit of a duff but that’s not a bad strike rate. This is an exceptional collection, from a major talent.

My analysis above may have made it all seem a bit dry, a bit formulaic, but it really isn’t. Instead, it’s the most wonderful froth, the foam on a glass of champagne, a quote on every page and a collection it’s impossible not to be cheered by. The formula allows Wodehouse in the space of a short story to create elaborate set-ups, mischances and misunderstandings that lead to quite simply hilarious outcomes. There is an inevitability, if an elderly aunt is convinced (wrongly) that Bertie hates cats, you know he’ll step on the poor thing before leaving the room, but watching it all unfold is a key part of the pleasure.

After the desolation of One Man’s Justice, this was the perfect follow-up and antidote, beautifully written, exceptionally funny, really quite wonderful. There is a reason these stories, these characters, are so widely loved. I’ll finish with one final quote, a conversation between Bertie and an unwelcome house guest:

‘What ho!’ I said.
‘What ho!’ said Motty.
‘What ho! What ho!’
‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Carry on, Jeeves – sadly the rather marvellous cover in this Penguin edition appears to be being discontinued, a great shame. On another note, Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes blog has written up one of the Psmith series here, which may also be of interest.


Filed under Comic fiction, Wodehouse, P.G.

I sat up, and the room was full of a man with a gun.

Somebody Owes Me Money, by Donald E Westlake

I love the pulps, pulp westerns, weird tales, adventure pulps, and definitely crime pulps. At their best, pulp novels are immediate, exciting, a ton of fun and sometimes surprisingly well written.

Until recently though, I’d never heard of Donald E. Westlake. I’d missed out. Fortunately, Guy Savage of the wonderfully titled blog His Futile Preoccupations wrote up the excellent Somebody Owes Me Money, here. That caught my interest, I bought myself a copy, and now I owe Guy Savage for the recommendation.

Somebody Owes Me Money was originally published in 1969 and is now reprinted by Hard Case Crime (an imprint I shall be looking out for a lot more going forward). By mischance, when I started it I mistakenly thought it a contemporary novel written in 2008, and was mystified by the lack of mobile phones and general period feel of the novel, eventually I realised it was contemporary, just not our contemporary. Ahem.

Anyway. Somebody Owes Me Money is the story of how Chet Conway, a New York city cabbie, a gambler, and an eloquent fellow, discovers the corpse of his bookie and ends up having to investigate the murder himself. Chet recounts the story himself, in the first person, almost the whole tale therefore being in the present tense (possibly a stylistic tip of the hat to Runyon).

Here, in the opening two paragraphs, Chet tells us a bit about himself:

I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress.
Where I am is in a cab in New York City. Fares frequently ask me how it is somebody as eloquent as me is driving a cab, and I usually give them a brief friendly answer which doesn’t really cover the territory. The truth is, my eloquence comes from reading rather than formal higher education, which limits the kind of job open to me. Besides, driving a cab gives me the chance to pick my own hours. Day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open. If there’s a game somewhere I’m particularly interested in, I skip a night and nobody cares. And if I’m broke, I can work as many hours as I want till I make it up.

In his own writeup, Guy talks about how as soon as he read that section, he was hooked. I was the same, it’s funny, breezy, tells you a lot about the character but also establishes him as an essentially reliable narrator. We’re not in tricky literary territory here, we’re metaphorically in the back of a cab or in a bar, being told a story by a likeable guy. We’re being invited to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Chet’s tale starts with him being given a tip on a horse race by a fare, he’d rather have had a cash tip, but you get what you get and the guy seemed a smart guy so Chet places the bet. Chet’s been losing a lot lately, and needs a big win, so he bets big. The horse wins, but when Chet goes to collect, somebody’s killed his bookie. Chet realises that the bookie would have been fronting for a syndicate, so somebody, somewhere, owes him that money.

The rest of the book unfolds from Chet’s attempts to get his money, in the process popping up on the radar of the police, fueding mobsters, the dead guy’s sister and assorted other characters most of whom assume that Chet is deeper into this thing than he is and most of whom at one point or another hold him at gunpoint trying to work out what his angle is. Chet, who despite all that still manages to make it to his twice weekly poker game, keeps pushing on, partly because once involved he needs to find out what really happened in order to get himself out of it, but just as much because he really, really needs his winnings. Here, Chet explains his philosophy when it comes to violence:

If you spend much time driving a cab around New York City, especially at night, sooner or later you’ll find yourself thinking about anti-cabby violence, and what you would do if anybody ever pulled a gun or a knife on you to rob you in the cab. A long time ago I decided I was no hero, I wouldn’t argue. Anybody with a knife or gun in his hand is boss as far as I’m concerned. It’s like the old saying: The hand that cradles the rock rules the world.

Another likeable quality of this book, is the lack of bravado shown by its protagonist. Chet’s full name is of course Chester, a name he hates. He wants people to call him Chet instead, but by and large nobody does, he’s just not that impressive a guy and whatever he may want to be called Chester is what he gets. He’s smart, but he’s not ambitious or any kind of a go-getter. He’s just a smarter than average average joe, with a nice line in dialogue but none of the tough guy nature of a Spade, Marlowe or Hammer.

Here, he’s held at gunpoint (as he often is in this novel) and ordered up a flight of stairs in an apparently deserted garage:

I went up the stairs. Our six feet made complicated echoing dull rhythms on the rungs, and I thought of Robert Mitchum. What would Robert Mitchum do now, what would he do in a situation like this?
No question of it. Robert Mitchum, with the suddenness of the snake, would abruptly whirl, kick the nearest hood in the jaw, and vault over the railing and down to the garage floor. Meantime, the kicked hood would have fallen backward into the other one, and the two of them would go tumbling down the steps, out of the play long enough for Mitchum either to (a) make it to the door and out of the building and thus successfully make his escape, or (b) get into the hood’s car, in which the keys would have been left, back it at top speed through the closed garage door, and take off with a grand grinding of gears, thus successfully making his escape and getting their car into the bargain.
But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum? What would he do then? Easy. He’d duck the kick and shoot me in the head.
I plodded up the stairs.

Part of the comedy comes from Chet being so plainly unsuited to the plot of the novel, at one point he’s holed up recovering from a bullet wound, a series of different tough guys calling round to interrogate or threaten him, he spends much of a couple of chapters lying in bed literally hiding under the covers while the dead guy’s sister (pictured on the cover of the novel) stands off the hoods and protects him.

Somebody Owes Me Money features a great protagonist, but that’s far from its only strength. Westlake also shows a nice eye for characterisation, each of the crowd at the twice weekly poker game is brought quickly and easily to life, so that you feel like you’re at the table with them. No small feat, given I don’t play poker and have no understanding of the rules. Even minor characters, like Chet’s father who spends his days analysing insurance policies in the ever vain hope of finding money-making loopholes or the investigating detective with his incredibly kitsch home bar with electric lights and porcelain drunks, are well drawn and sympathetic. Westlake’s characters are a likeable crew, owing more to the criminals of Runyon’s Broadway than the world of say Thompson’s petty grifters.

Westlake is comfortable working within his genre, clearly knowing it backwards, and so it’s no surprise that the dead bookie’s sister is a beautiful blonde packing a pearl-handled automatic in her handbag. What does surprise is that Westlake’s comfortable enough to have a bit of fun with genre expectations. Sure, the sister’s a beautiful blonde, but she’s also good in a fight, loyal and maybe not so bright – not the usual qualities one expects of a beautiful blonde in a hardboiled novel. There’s a playful subversion here, a writer at home with his craft enjoying himself with it, something that shows up again near the end when the characters discuss the discovery of the real murderer in a way which echoes strongly the likely reactions of readers used to traditional mystery novel conceits – were the clues fair, was there a reasonable chance to solve the puzzle?

Like any good hardboiled writer, Westlake also has a gift for snappy dialogue. Characters come out with lines such as “… they’d fill you with so much lead we’d have to paint you yellow and call you a pencil.” and “You’re a nice guy and I like you, but I can get along without you. I can’t get along without me for a minute.” He also has a real feel for location, place, which I consider essential to good crime fiction. This is very much a New York novel, full of affection for the city and its unruffleable inhabitants.

Graham Greene used to refer to his novels as entertainments, that’s what this is, it’s not a serious novel – it’s an entertainment. But, and it’s no small but, it’s a very good entertainment indeed. It’s funny, well written, skilfully paced and somehow despite it’s cast of low-lives, gangsters, gamblers and idiots, strangely cheering. It’s a novel where the nice guys win, and where an ordinary joe turns into a sort of hero, even if not a very brave hero. Chet is an everyman, easy to relate to, and perhaps that too is part of the novel’s charm, after all, as Chet says:

… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.

Somebody Owes Me Money

By the way, check out the wonderfully pulp-styled cover for this edition, which can be seen at the above link. One of my pet hates is the trend to dress up fiction considered lowbrow in highbrow covers, to conceal what is really being read. Harry Potter being reprinted for adults with sombre themed covers, instead of the colourful and exciting covers on the editions aimed at children. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading pulp, or SF, or or YA or fantasy or whatever, so there’s no need to hide it. I love this style of cover, and Hard Case Crime win my admiration for using it.

On the topic of covers though, their choice for a new Sherlock Holmes imprint done “Hard Case Crime style” is clearly having fun with the whole concept, marvellous stuff.


Filed under Comic fiction, Crime, Westlake, Donald E.

The theory is that they are mad

Recently, I had the misfortune to read a book which I enjoyed far less than I had hoped (The Necropolis Railway). Happily, I’ve now had the opposite experience, a book I picked up with a view to reading something light to refresh my palate after an Anthony Powell turned out in fact to be a clever and witty satire which was far more rewarding than I had anticipated.

The novel in question is Super-State, by Brian Aldiss. Nominally science fiction, it is in fact a satire of humanity itself, a book which I suspect could only have been written by a man in his late 70s with its mix of laughing despair at what is mockingly referred to in several places in the novel as The Human Condition (the capitals are his).

Super-State is set around 40 years from now, though the exact date is not important and no particular attempt is made at credible world-building of the sort many sf fans are fond of. Rather the shift to the future allows an ironic commentary on how little the world has progressed, how despite advances in technology people are much the same and how although the dream of a united European super-state has been realised all that achievement has accomplished is to move Europeans from hating each other to hating non-Europeans.

The novel has a plot, though it is hardly central. Europe is building up to a possible war with a new Chinese breakaway Islamic state (not as unlikely a scenario as it sounds actually), meanwhile humanity’s first manned mission to the outer planets is en route to the Jovian moon Europa. A range of figures, first introduced at a society wedding which opens the novel, live their lives in the midst of the build up to war while an unknown hacker group called the Insanatics interrupt broadcast adverts with doleful messages about humanity’s basic lack of rationality. Similarly, the crew of the spaceship Roddenberry, wonderfully described as “a tiny needle in the lethal immaculacy of space”, send updates back to Earth of their hopes of discovering life on Europa and their increasingly failing food supplies.

All of the above makes this sound after all as if it is a plot driven novel, it is not. The plot barely features, it is merely a backdrop, potentially momentous events (war, first planetfall on a Jovian moon, possible discovery of extraterrestrial life, a massive natural disaster) are happening but most people either largely ignore them or exploit for their own immediate ends.

As noted above, this is not really a science fiction novel (though there is an interesting albeit brief defence of science fiction as a genre). The only real science ficional element is the inclusion of androids, robot servitors who work as labourers or casual workers (while European gunboats sink vessels full of refugees seeking to reach European shores, due to fears of immigrants). Occasionally we are shown conversations between groups of androids in private, these conversations acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the main activities of the novel. The androids believe themselves to be the pinnacle of creation, to be rational, to be superior to the humans they serve. However, when one group discuss taking over the world their plan falters when they realise they do not know how to get out of the cupboard they have been locked in for the day. The androids are like humanity itself, believing the story to be about them, when in fact there is no story at all.

“‘At the shop today I saw a small crying thing being carried.’
‘It will grow into a human.’
‘Why was it crying?’
‘The theory is that it knows it will have to grow into a human.'”

The androids are absurd, their understanding painfully limited (on considering a funeral: “‘Then why did they bury him in the ground?’ ‘They have a theory he will get better there.'”) and yet their commentary does have a certain unwitting resonance. In a real sense they are us, their limitations a mirror held up to our own absurd sense of importance. What they are definitely not is an attempt at a realistic depiction of future artificial intelligence, this is not that sort of novel (though I can recommend that sort of novel, should anyone wish me to…).

In a sense it is a novel of vignettes, characters interrelate – one character will be a relative of another or have romantic intentions to another, the characters are connected by family, lust and politics, some characters manage meaningful (to them, not to the world) connections to each other, but there is intentionally no sense of a greater pattern. Things happen, some good, some bad, and people make their lives and impose meaning among and upon those events. Some characters fall in love and some then die pointlessly. Good and bad fortune are spread indiscriminately. A practical joke can backfire and kill a man, a war can become a farce when waged and yet still be deadly for all that.

The Europe of Aldiss’s future is a familiar one. Mass immigration is actively feared, though now the response is military in nature. Wars are threatened against small and far away states, while commentators condemn militarism and others point to attacks carried out on European soil as clear justification for hostilities (who is right? Who knows?). Political leaders are accused of pursuing war for their own political and economic interests. A scandal leaks about the sinking of a refugee ship with 4,000 people aboard, but besides a few media commentators nobody is interested. A novelist writes romantic fictions with absurdly over-sacharine prose, she sells in the millions. A learned broadcaster makes programs about humanity, its history and its failings but at home has disowned his own children. Hypocrisy is rife, business and politics continue, the world is as it ever was for all the scenery provided by the technology has changed.

The writing is skilful, light and generally sardonic in tone. The book is littered with small asides which comment wrly on the whole (a general notes “‘Even, mm, truth can be subversive in wartime'”). Characters are broadly, but effectively, sketched (“Daniel Potts who, in his early sixties, had a countenance somewhat resembling a disappointed walnut,”). Characterisation does not aim at realism, most characters are lightly drawn and held up for satirical effect, although certain characters are given greater depth where seriousness helps deliver the point being made through them.

Some satirical strands run through the book, such as the Europe-wide implementation of social algebraic coding, a nobel-prize winning new form of mathematically derived social science intended at ironing out income disparities within Europe. Early in the novel we see its unintended consequences on the ground, with families being paid for not drinking too much and government issued serious literature sent out to families (with each European country getting to select a different book for distribution each month, and with many choices inevitably causing vast offence to the legions of those waiting to be offended). Later we see the social algebraic codist himself, working now on mathematics to improve ethical behaviour, until his funding is cut due to the need to pay for the war. Again, small asides feature (speaking of the social algebraic coding: “This enlightened move was slowly but surely abolishing gross inequalities between rich and poor within the super-state, with the exception of Switzerland”).

The media is satirised, we receive thought for the day broadcasts of breathtaking banality, a reporter goes out after every major event to ask passers by in the street for their (utterly uninformed) views on the matter at hand. Each Insanatics broadcast is inserted into an advert and we hear a small part of each such advert, for products that no one could have any genuine need for. We are talking to ourselves and into the void, but it is far from clear that we are listening to each other while pretty clear that nobody else is around to listen.

In the end, it is a hard novel to describe, in an admirably concise 230 pages Aldiss covers politics, the military, the media, immigration, the European Union, the illusion of romantic love, the value of art, the absurdity of our notions of importance as a species, the absurdity of our notions of personal importance, many things, certainly more than I have covered here. He hits his targets well, the book is often funny, it offers no solutions and indeed strongly implies that there are none to be found. We are absurd, we are not really conscious or wise despite our beliefs to the contrary, we are painfully limited and only dimly aware of our limitations. But we are, at least, funny. At the end we have to laugh, even though it is laughter in the dark.

While writing this blog entry, I came across a comment by Aldiss on this novel taken from an online interview, he said:

“As for writing style — that is something that gets forged by practice. Diversification is the name of the game. In [my latest novel] Super-State, I have taken what for me is a new approach to story-telling. That is to say, I have subsumed the narrative into disparate episodes, some serious and many witty or satirical. By this means, I am able to convey a bigger overall picture, and ask “What’s happening in the world?” This is what concerns me at present, with so much change in process. Science fiction is the new old business of holding a mirror to nature!”

And that is what I think this book is about. Aldiss is holding a mirror up to our nature, and while the image we see is ludicrous, it is not unfortunately distorted.


Filed under Aldiss, Brian, Comic fiction, SF