Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it its filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony… 😉 )

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

fear is the riderFear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

This thriller with a horror element is pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Neither of the main characters is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

Danger sign

* * * * * * * * *

the machine stopsThe Machine Stops by EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.

Click to see the full review

the machine stops art

* * * * * * * * *

the children's homeThe Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

2001 both1

2001: A Space Odyssey – book and film

The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Arthur C Clarke and  Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

Click to see the book review

Click to see the film review

2001 poster

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Next week: Best Factual Award

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Dystopian Novels by Title

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy Tales and Dystopian Novels and Stories

A

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens/Patrick Stewart (Audio)  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens/Tom Baker (Audio)  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

AI Unbound by Nancy Kress  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
A Kingdom Far and Clear by Mark Helprin  😀 😀 😀 😀
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

B

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield  🙂 🙂 🙂
Blackout by Tim Curran  😀 😀 😀 😀

C

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1) by Isaac Asimov  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee  🙂 🙂
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert  😀 😀 🙂
The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
The Color Master by Aimee Bender  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Cosmic Expense Account by CM Kornbluth  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

D

The Dancing Partner by Jerome K Jerome  😀 😀 😀
Danger in Cat World by Nina Post  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick  😀 😀 😀 😀
Dominion by CJ Sansom  😀 😀 😀 😀
Dune by Frank Herbert  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

E

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick  😀 😀 😀 😀
The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele  😀 😀 😀 😀
Equilateral by Ken Kalfus  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

F

The Faithful by Lester del Ray  😀 😀 😀 😀
Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome (Anthology)  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Folding Beijing by Jingfang Hao  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury  🙂 🙂 😐

G

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old by Philip Pullman  🙂 🙂 🙂

H

Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  😀 😀 😀 😀

I

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
If You were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

J

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

K

 

L

Legasea by Krystalyn Drown  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis/Michael York (Audio)  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

M

The Machine Stops by EM Forster  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Martian by Andy Weir  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

N

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke  😀 😀 😀 😀

O

 

P

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster  🙂 🙂 🙂

Q

 

R

Red Queen by Honey Brown  😀 😀 😀 🙂
The Road by Cormac McCarthy  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

S

The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Shadow Tree by Angela Slatter  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Silence: A Fable by Edgar Allan Poe  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman  😀 😀 😀 😀
Soulminder by Timothy Zahn  😀 😀 😀 😀
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel  🙂 🙂 🙂
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

T

Tek Power by William Shatner  😀 😀 😀 🙂
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville  😦
The Time Machine by HG Wells  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman/Neil Gaiman (Audio)  😀 😀 😀 🙂
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

U

 

V

The Variable Man by Philip K Dick  😀 😀 😀 😀
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2  🙂 🙂 🙂

W

The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu  😦
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

X

 

Y

 

Z

Zero K by Don DeLillo  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

0-9

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami  😀 😀 😀 🙂
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey  😀 😀 😀 😀

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Dystopian Novels by Author

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy Tales and Dystopian Novels and Stories

Novels & Short Story Collections

Asimov, Isaac

The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1)  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bender, Aimee

The Color Master  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bradbury, Ray

From the Dust Returned  🙂 🙂 😐
The Martian Chronicles  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Brown, Honey

Red Queen  😀 😀 😀 🙂

Burroughs, Edgar Rice

A Princess of Mars  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Gods of Mars  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Warlord of Mars  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clarke, Arthur C

2001: A Space Odyssey  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Coetzee, JM

The Childhood of Jesus  🙂 🙂

Curran, Tim

Blackout  😀 😀 😀 😀

DeLillo, Don

Zero K  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Dick, Philip K

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  😀 😀 😀 😀
The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick  😀 😀 😀 😀

Dickens, Charles

A Christmas Carol narrated by Patrick Stewart  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
A Christmas Carol narrated by Tom Baker  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Drown, Krystalyn

Legasea  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Gaiman, Neil

Trigger Warning (Audiobook)  😀 😀 😀 🙂
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Grahame, Kenneth

The Wind in the Willows  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Helprin, Mark

A Kingdom Far and Clear  😀 😀 😀 😀

Herbert, Frank

Dune  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Dune Messiah  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Children of Dune  😀 😀 🙂

Jacobson, Howard

J: A Novel  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Juster, Norton

The Phantom Tollbooth  🙂 🙂 🙂

Kalfus, Ken

Equilateral  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kress, Nancy

AI Unbound  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lambert, Charles

The Children’s Home  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Lewis, CS

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe narrated by Michael York  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mandel, Emily St. John

Station Eleven  🙂 🙂 🙂

Matheson, Richard

I Am Legend  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

McCarthy, Cormac

The Road  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miéville, China

Three Moments of an Explosion  😦

Murakami, Haruki

1Q84  😀 😀 😀 🙂

Post, Nina

Danger in Cat World  🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Pullman, Philip

Grimm Tales: For Young and Old  🙂 🙂 🙂

Roberts, Adam

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rushdie, Salman

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Sansom, CJ

Dominion  😀 😀 😀 😀

Setterfield, Diane

Bellman & Black  🙂 🙂 🙂

Shatner, William

Tek Power  😀 😀 😀 🙂

Spjut, Stefan

The Shapeshifters  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Stevenson, Robert Louis

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Theroux, Marcel

Strange Bodies  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vonnegut, Kurt

Slaughterhouse-Five  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Weir, Andy

The Martian  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Wells, HG

The Island of Dr Moreau  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Time Machine  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Wyndham, John

The Seeds of Time  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Yancey, Rick

The 5th Wave  😀 😀 😀 😀

Zahn, Timothy

Soulminder  😀 😀 😀 😀

Anthologies

Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2  🙂 🙂 🙂

 

Individual Short Stories

Asimov, Isaac

The Martian Way  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bradbury, Ray

A Sound of Thunder  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chu, John

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere  😦

Clarke, Arthur C

The Nine Billion Names of God  😀 😀 😀 😀

del Rey, Lester

The Faithful  😀 😀 😀 😀

Dick, Philip K

The Variable Man  😀 😀 😀 😀

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Horror of the Heights  😀 😀 😀 😀

Forster, EM

The Machine Stops  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Haldeman, Joe

Sleeping Dogs  😀 😀 😀 😀

Hao, Jingfang

Folding Beijing  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Jerome, Jerome K

The Dancing Partner  😀 😀 😀

Kornbluth, CM

The Cosmic Expense Account  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kritzer, Naomi

Cat Pictures Please  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poe, Edgar Allan

Silence: A Fable  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Slatter, Angela

The Shadow Tree  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Steele, Allen M

The Emperor of Mars  😀 😀 😀 😀

Swirsky, Rachel

If You were a Dinosaur, My Love  😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Book 8 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn” Robert Burns

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the grapes of wrathWhen Tom Joad returns to his parents’ farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.

First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck’s anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it’s interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn’t know Steinbeck’s own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.

A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I’ve read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man’s inhumanity to man – a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it’s several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven’t quite decided what I think of it.

"Departure of the Joads" by Thomas Hart Benton 1939
“Departure of the Joads” by Thomas Hart Benton 1939

On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don’t care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah – I truly don’t. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I’m guessing any reader who doesn’t ‘get’ it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times – ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely – the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people’s lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old ‘dead dog’ technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there’s the ending… but we’ll come to that…

“Preachin’s bein’ good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmus in McAlester [the jail], Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck’s call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity’s imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least, under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their ‘investment’, whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic ‘economic value’ and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck’s anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.

Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext
Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle’s indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they add a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the ‘Moses’ scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending – which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.

Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget.

Elmer Hader's cover design
Elmer Hader’s cover design

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Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagAbsolutely, and furthermore an aspect of Western culture that we are still struggling with today. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI certainly think the socialist theme would have been innovative in its time and in fact still reads as innovative now, when the Cold War has been won and capitalism appears to have been the victor. (In fact, I am intrigued as to why a book with such a strong socialist message is so highly regarded in the ultra-capitalist US? Answers below, please.) Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagHmm…it is superbly written, there’s no doubt about that, especially the descriptive writing about nature and the land, the biblical echoes in some of the language, and his wonderfully skilled use of dialect. However… there are also huge chunks of it that are simply dull and don’t add much. But I’m going to say achieved, since the excellent bits outweigh the dull bits.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI fear not. It isn’t trying to. But one of my criticisms of it is that it doesn’t expand out to set the experience of the ‘Okies’ into the wider context of society, thus giving a one-sided, polemical picture of the poor as fundamentally good and the rich as uniformly bad. A powerful but too simplistic message, though perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way at the time.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4½ stars and four GAN flags, I hereby declare it A Great American Novel. But one I doubt I’ll ever read again…

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Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayMore is less…

😀 😀 🙂

This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy’s head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There’s some good stuff in here – Chabon can write, there’s no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn’t much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous (“with skin the color of boiled newspaper” – I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the covers shown are from this series.
Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the illustrations are from this series.

The first sections, covering Joe’s escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn’t.

There was a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realised that it was the sound produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street. Joe gave up trying to think like, trust, or believe in his cousin and just walked, head abuzz, toward the Hudson River, stunned by the novelty of exile.

Joe’s story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe’s unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe’s own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

the escapist 2

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic – their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It’s also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy’s support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt, watching Joe, was unquestionably physical, but in the sense that Sammy wanted to inhabit the body of his cousin, not possess it. It was, in part, a longing – common enough among the inventors of heroes – to be someone else; to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his perennial inability to locate an actual self to be improved. Joe Kavalier had an air of competence, of faith in his own abilities, that Sammy, by means of constant effort over the whole of his life, had finally learned only to fake.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he’s gay; one feels even in the 1940s he’d have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy’s homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe’s relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow – in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe’s creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

Luna Moth
Luna Moth

There are too many points where the story feels contrived – where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe’s war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author’s hand controlling the characters’ actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses – but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn’t really been worthwhile.

 

Great American Novel Quest

 

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPublished in 2000, this really falls into the category of historical novel, and I don’t feel that it’s saying anything much about the time of writing. I also feel that it’s too shallow even about the period in which it’s set – I think Chabon tries to tackle too much and as a result doesn’t explore any one aspect as deeply as he might. Not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagCertainly the comic book theme, both in actuality and as a metaphor, feels original. But so much of the book drags rather conventionally through stuff that has been covered so often before that I can’t find it in myself to call the book overall either original or innovative. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagIn parts it is superbly written, but it’s inconsistent, and some huge chunks of it are frankly dull. So again, I’m afraid, not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think you can guess it’s not going to achieve this one. To be fair, it’s not trying to – it’s focused on a specific group – first and second generation Jewish immigrants – and on a specific bit of culture – comic books, widening out a little into art and entertainment. So no, unlike American Pastoral, I don’t think Chabon’s themes can be seen as a microcosm of the ‘American experience’ – not achieved.

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Oh, dear! Only one flag and that one for being American! I’m afraid that this one doesn’t even rank as a great novel much less A Great American Novel. Well, that’s my opinion anyway – what’s yours?