The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

An alternative to bone spurs…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When it looks as though war is inevitable, Hugh and his wife, Terry, decide that he will not fight – that killing is wrong especially when the reasons for it seem so obscure. So they decide to flee into the wild highland country of the north of Scotland, making their home in a cave to wait the conflict out. Hugh knows how to hunt and poach while Terry has a full range of country skills in preparing and preserving food, so they are better equipped than most to survive. But in the distance they can hear the guns of war, and they seem to be coming nearer…

This is issued as part of the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series, but it doesn’t seem to me to sit comfortably there. First published in 1936 and set in a then future of 1944, I suppose it’s that speculative element that allows it to be categorised as science fiction, but in reality it’s more of a survival adventure with the bulk of the book being a man versus nature story. I use “man” advisedly here – although Terry is present throughout, she is certainly the weaker of the two, following Hugh’s lead and existing, it seems, merely to provide him with the domestic and emotional support that a good wife should.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to allow our own prejudices to colour our view of a book. I have great admiration for those conscientious objectors who refuse to fight in wars, but who either choose to serve in some other capacity – in the ambulance service, for example – or are willing to take a public stand and risk going to jail for their principles. I’m afraid I have very little respect for people who run away and hide while waiting for other people to return the world to safety for them. Macpherson does his best to show that Hugh’s decision is born of principle, but the whole premise made it impossible for me to sympathise with Hugh and Terry as I felt I was supposed to, as they endured the various hardships and misadventures of their life in the wild.

The book has two major themes, it seems to me: firstly, man’s relationship to the natural world and his ability to survive without the trappings of civilisation; and secondly, how even those so strongly-held principles can be eroded as the veneer of that civilisation is stripped away, quickly returning man to a state of survival instinct. The writing is at its strongest when Macpherson is describing the beauty and power of nature and man’s vulnerability to its whims. It is at its weakest when Hugh tells us again and again in exalted and overblown terms of his great love for and need of Terry – this idealized woman who seems to be mother to him as much as wife.

Book 55 of 90

There is much killing and butchering of deer and other animals, but in the realism of the need for food rather than in any gratuitous way. There are also detailed descriptions of the practical steps Hugh and Terry take to make life in the cave possible, such as cutting peat and making a fireplace, making lamps from fish oil and animal fat, pickling eggs and salting venison, and so on. I veered between fascination and boredom throughout all of this, but fascination won in the end, and I found even the stalking and hunting scenes won me over, done with authenticity and a great sense of man’s deep connection to the natural world – something I, as a city girl, completely lack. The descriptions of the landscapes are great, although there were many times I felt the need for a map of the area. It was only once I’d finished reading that I discovered there is in fact a map, tucked in at the end of the book and not listed in the index – annoying.

The book is a bleak account of this survivalist life – there’s no attempt to present some kind of false idyll. As summer becomes autumn and then winter, the harshness of the weather, the scarcity of food and the fragility of health are all shown in full. And as the distant war rumbles closer, the story turns bleaker yet, with the tone becoming almost dystopian towards the end.

A strange book which I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise, which is a tribute to how well it is done. There’s a short essay from Macpherson included at the end (after the map!), written in 1940 when the real war had been underway for a year, and it’s intriguing to contrast his own views about participation in the war effort to those of his character, though they certainly seem to share their opinion of women. Recommended, but more to those who enjoy bleak survival stories than to science fiction fans.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Far North by Marcel Theroux

The end of civilisation…

🙂 🙂 😐

Makepeace Hatfield lives alone – the last resident of the town of Evangeline in Siberia. Some unexplained catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and decimated humanity. But one day Makepeace sees something that makes her think that somewhere remnants of civilisation may still exist and she sets off to find out…

This is a pretty standard post-apocalypse story, and I might as well start by saying I found it rather dull and pointless. We never know what caused the catastrophe – possibly climate change, though if so it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the snowy wastes of Siberia. And, while we see humanity’s struggle to survive, there’s nothing terribly insightful about it. Scenes of horror and misery abound, there’s the usual cult religious aspects that are always included as part of apocalyptic dystopian fiction, man’s inhumanity to man is given full play, and we see that those who had stuck to their old traditional ways of life are better suited to survival than those who had lived in cities, far removed from nature and with skills that are useless in this new/old society. It has been compared (probably by the marketing people) to The Road, but it has none of the profundity or bleak beauty of that book – this is simply a kind of adventure story that quite frankly doesn’t have enough adventure in it.

I read it as part of my Around the World challenge, thinking it would be a good one for the Arctic. But while there are lots of descriptions of the wildlife of the area and mentions of the local indigenous tribespeople, I never found the setting came to life for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it may be because I felt that survival in the Arctic region should have been much tougher, oddly, than it’s portrayed. Perhaps that’s my misunderstanding of the region – I know people have populated the area for millennia so clearly survival is not impossible – but I can only say I didn’t feel the cold seeping into my bones as much as I anticipated.

I’m struggling to find much to say about this one, to be honest. It is quite readable, the writing is good and Makepeace is a likeable heroine. I didn’t hate it, but I suspect I’ll have forgotten all about it in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll look for a different book to give me Arctic chills…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…

Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.

While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.

However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.

At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.

Muriel Jaeger

Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.

Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.

Book 50 of 90

I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15 of 20

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

Book 30 of 90

For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

i am legendLoneliness, prejudice and the will to survive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly the world. It’s some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seems to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.

Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it’s set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville’s world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.

Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson

The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?

But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.

Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Charlton Heston in The Omega Man which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.

The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn’t a super-hero – he’s just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him (this reader empathised so much, she did her usual crying thing again at a couple of points). But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it…

PS If you’re thinking “Oh, but I’ve seen the Will Smith film and I know the story already” apparently you don’t. I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s been changed out of all recognition, losing the whole point of the book in the process – why do they do that?

Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) which is nothing like the book and completely misses the point.
Book 6
Book 6

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the 5th waveThank Heaven for Little Girls…

😀 😀 😀 😀

An alien mothership hovers in the skies above Earth. But they’re not here to make new friends – it seems they’re intent on annihilating the human race. The first wave destroyed all technology leaving humanity almost defenceless, the second wave took out the coastal cities, the third wave released a virus that killed billions, the fourth wave remains almost entirely incomprehensible to me even though I’ve read the book… and no-one knows what the 5th wave will be. But fear not! The future of humanity is in the hands of a kickass teenage girl with a big gun, so I feel safe…

The book starts in the fourth wave with (oh, joy!) the first person present tense narrative of the aforesaid 16-year-old, Cassie, surviving alone in the woods after her parents have died, along with almost everyone else she knew. But her young brother was taken away, either by goodies or baddies – Cassie doesn’t know which – and she’s determined to find him. As she starts out on her journey, it’s Cassie who tells us the story of the alien invasion. Dark indeed though the story is, with some pretty horrific images, Cassie’s narrative is shot through with some much needed glimpses of humour which stop the book from becoming unbearably grim. Although she is firmly in the tradition of kickass heroines, she is nicely self-deprecating which makes her an enjoyable narrator.

We then swap to the story of Zombie, a 17-year-old boy who, like Cassie, has lost his entire family. Zombie has fallen in with a bunch of military people who are training the surviving children to be superkillers so that they can battle the aliens. (Why are they training the kids to do this rather than the adults? Because it’s a YA novel, silly! But I am deeply reassured to know that arming the 5-year-olds of today is an option, should we be invaded – in fact, I question why governments are not already doing this as a precautionary measure. I know I’d sleep sounder…) Zombie’s squad is struggling to get the points needed to graduate from training, until they are joined by Ringer, a super-kickass female who makes Cassie look quite cuddly in comparison…

Cassie meantime has fallen in with Evan, who nurses her back to health after she is injured. (Persons of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now. Here’s a little musical interlude to fill the time…)

Evan is hot! No, really, I mean it – he has chocolatey eyes and Cassie finds it difficult to concentrate on alien annihilation because she’s distracted by the ’roundness of his butt inside his jeans’. We have a lovely little interlude of teen romance here, complete with lusting semi-naked girl-in-the-bath scene and honourable male denial. Depending on your perspective, this whole section is either awfully sweet or sick-makingly nauseating. Guess which category I fell into? Fortunately I was distracted from the worst of it by my grumpy-old-woman disapproval over Cassie’s frequent use of bad language, mostly fairly mild, but still – rather than romantically washing her hair, I felt someone should wash her mouth out with soap.

(You can come back now!)

Just as I felt that I could take no more and should seek out sanctuary in the local old folks’ home, we return to the story proper, and oddly I was so much happier when we got back to kids shooting each other again. This final section is full of action and builds up to a strong tense finale. There’s enough emotional content to stop it being purely a shoot-em-up and, although the way is left very clear for the follow-up (it’s a trilogy, obviously – it’s YA fantasy, so it’s the law), the ending is quite satisfying in itself.

Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. I could have lived happily without the sex-without-actual-sex scenes and the swearing, but I probably would have felt differently about those had I been in the correct age group for the book. And the basic plot premise doesn’t stand up to inspection at all. These have to be the dumbest aliens I’ve ever encountered – one feels that a race of beings who can travel across the universe and unleash all these amazing horrors could have done something to annihilate the entire human race in a oner, but then that would have ruined the story. And, avoiding spoilers, all the stuff about why the kids were being turned into trained killers makes absolutely no sense at all. But the writing is good, the characterisation is strong, and Cassie in particular is a very likeable heroine (though I’m led to believe the males in the readership think Ringer’s the coolest). And the action stuff is well done – there’s lots of violence but it’s not overly glamourised, I felt. Although it’s geared towards a YA audience, it’s one that dystopian thriller fans of any age might enjoy, so long as their disbelief-suspension mechanism is in good working order.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenSoapy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it.

Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse. The past story (which is set in our present) revolves around Arthur and his failed marriages.

I’m afraid I found this a book of two halves. The post-apocalyptic portion is fairly interesting, although the ‘world’ seems pretty under-developed. Mandel has decided to go with a reasonably hopeful outlook where people start to form little communities, and work in co-operation with each other. She spoils this a little by throwing in the old cliché of a fake ‘messiah’ attracting followers who then go around terrorising the peaceful folk. Her main point in this section is that there is a need to feed the mind and soul as much as the body, and though she starts out well with the Shakespearian element, she doesn’t really follow through. My view may be being influenced by the fact that I am a dedicated fan of Star Trek – by using a quote from Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient’, she invited comparison; and, unfortunately for my feelings about the book, I feel that the episode the line comes from says considerably more about connectedness and individuality than this does. However the writing is good, and I feel this section works overall.

Emily St John Mandel
Emily St John Mandel

The ‘before the virus’ section, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme. Why she chose to set this around the fake world of a Hollywood actor beats me, since all it does is ensure that it has no comparison to the lives of the majority of her readership. It reads like a long and rather dull daytime soap, as Arthur makes his way through three broken marriages, and since we know in advance that most of the people in this section die in the virus it’s hard to get up much emotional investment. I quickly found I was enduring rather than enjoying these lengthy passages. If the intention was to highlight differences between ‘before’ and ‘after’, I feel it would have been better to choose a more average life in the ‘before’ part. And, for the sake of keeping it interesting, it would have been better not to tell the reader the fate of the characters at the beginning.

To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why this book is garnering so many rave reviews. While the ‘after’ bit is quite well written, enough to make me interested to see how Mandel develops in the future, it doesn’t really stand comparison to the best of dystopian fiction, and the ‘before’ section pulls it right down. A disappointing read in the end, perhaps because my expectations were too high.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Red Queen by Honey Brown

red queenLove, lust and rivalry…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The time feels much like the present, but society has been destroyed by a lethal virus. The narrator, Shannon, is a young man living in isolation with his older brother, Rohan, in a well-stocked house prepared by their now-dead father for just such a contingency, since he always feared that one day disaster would strike humanity. It’s been months since they saw another person, but one day a young woman, Denny, appears at the farm and throws herself on their mercy. Suspicious at first, both men soon find themselves attracted to her, but it still seems as if Denny may be hiding a secret…

Shannon and Rohan have little in common except their fraternal love for each other. Shannon is trusting and sensitive while, on the exterior at least, Rohan is tougher and meaner. Denny is nicely ambiguous – while Shannon falls quickly in love with her, the reader is left never quite sure of her honesty and motivations. The story moves at a fair pace and leads up to an exciting and well-executed thriller ending.

I was a little disappointed that Brown raised a couple of interesting questions and then rather failed to follow them through. Early on, there’s some discussion as to where the virus originated, with the suggestion that it may have been some kind of biological warfare. This strand is then totally dropped – just never mentioned again as if the author had forgotten about it. She does exactly the same with religion – Shannon is an atheist, while Rohan is apparently a strict Christian. This is made much of at the beginning as if Brown may be going to develop how their approach to the disaster affects or is affected by their beliefs…but very soon it’s just allowed to fizzle out into nothingness.

The ambiguous Denny is very well-drawn, and her character really holds the book together. Her actions stretch credulity at points, but not beyond breaking point. The men are more problematic. The first-person narrative via Shannon read to me throughout as if it was a woman speaking (not helped by the fact that I think of Shannon as a female name), and I kept having to remind myself that he was a man. Rohan is a bully and a tyrant, but apparently beloved by all? Hard to convince me of that, I fear, and Brown didn’t.

Honey Brown
Honey Brown

The plot revolves around lust and sex, so there are a lot of fairly graphic sex scenes – occasionally edging towards rape scenes. Too much for my taste, to be honest. The men are universally portrayed as slavering sexual predators whose moral and ethical standards are dropped at the first sight of a female. But then Denny is no slouch in the sexual predator stakes herself. The sexual manipulation that goes on amongst all the ‘goodies’ rather dulls the impact of the behaviour of the ‘baddies’, I feel. The suggestion seems to be that some forms of sexual predation are worse than others – true, but that doesn’t make me feel like saying the less bad kinds are OK then.

In the end, the book has less depth than the early chapters promised, but overall it’s a well-written and readable tale of love, lust and rivalry in an isolated post-apocalyptic setting.

 

 

GAN Quest: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the road“There is no God and we are his prophets.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂 or possibly 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten years before the beginning of the novel, an apocalypse – unspecified but we are given to believe caused by the actions of mankind – has destroyed America and presumably the world. Now our protagonists, named only as the man and the boy, are journeying through the devastated and barren landscape in an attempt to reach the warmer climes of the southern coast before another winter sets in.

On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.

As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. The remnants of humanity survived at first by eating any animals that lived through the disaster and by scavenging through shops and houses for canned or dried food. But as even these sources of sustenance began to run out, the survivors have formed gangs and turned to cannibalism as the only way to survive. The disaster has left the air so polluted with ash and dust that the sun can barely penetrate it, leaving the world grey and increasingly cold. Although nuclear winter is never specifically mentioned, it is implicit, with the result that each breath or drink of water is both life-sustaining and deadly, and the cotton masks the man and boy wear are seen for the entirely inadequate protection that they are. And the man is already coughing up blood.

There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things he’d no longer any way to think about at all.

the road2

In this desperate situation, what is there to hope for? The boy’s mother has already committed suicide and the man hopes that when the time comes he will have the courage to kill the boy and himself rather than see the boy become the victim of one of the gangs. The man and the boy are ‘each the other’s world entire’ – the ‘good guys’ struggling to maintain some kind of moral standard in this hellish existence. And there are hints that the boy, born at the time of the apocalypse, may be more than just a child – that he contains the goodness or perhaps the godship of the world, that his survival is symbolic of some greater survival. In the latter part of the book there is a curious reversal, where sometimes it is the boy who is reminding the man of what is ‘right’, and just occasionally it briefly becomes unclear which is which.

McCarthy tells the story in a kind of simplistic language for the most part, ignoring many of the rules and conventions of grammar. His sentence structure ranges from short, terse sentences to long rambling lists of actions connected by the ‘and’ word…

He took out the plastic bottle of water and unscrewed the cap and held it out and the boy took it and stood drinking. He lowered the bottle and got his breath and he sat in the road and crossed his legs and drank again.

the road3

I must admit I found this tedious in the extreme and for the first third or so of the book really had to struggle to keep going. However, there are also passages of great descriptive power that contain a kind of poetry, a poignant beauty, and gradually the overall effect becomes mesmeric. He builds up the picture of this dead world a layer at a time, like varnish, until suddenly I found I was immersed, not so much in the story as in the debate that is continually running in the man’s head – what is the right thing to do? To die together? To let the boy live and hope that somehow the ‘fire’ that he carries inside him can continue to burn? As the man’s health worsens both he and the reader know that the decision must be taken soon.

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this novel. Much of the language grated, some of the references were like being hit over the head with a blunt instrument (drinking the last can of Coke in the world, for example) and the mysticism was so vague that it felt a little hollow. But by about half-way through, I had become completely absorbed by it and have found myself thinking of it repeatedly in the week or so since I finished reading it. I’m not sure it’s quite as profound as it thinks it is, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty. With just a little uncertainty then, highly recommended…

* * * * * * * * *

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_flagI’m struggling with this. Yes, published in 2006, the book was written post-9/11 at a time when the US felt perhaps more threatened than at any other time in her history. But the apocalyptic theme seems more of a throwback to the Cold War than a commentary on contemporary fears. So unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise, I’m saying…not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagNo – the theme of post-apocalyptic society is certainly not original, nor is the mystical element of the place of God in a dying society. The language ranges from overly simplistic to poignantly beautiful, but I didn’t find it innovative. Not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagWell…again the quality is variable, but when it’s at its best, the descriptive writing provides some passages of bleak beauty and unforgettable imagery. I think it might take a few months for me to know how this book settles in my head, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt meantime, and hesitantly say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOne might want to argue that in some way this book represents the psychological after-effects of 9/11, and in that sense captures the American experience. One might want to…but I don’t. So…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

I’m not entirely sure yet whether I think this is a great novel, but with only 2 GAN flags (and one of those I’m still hesitant about) I certainly don’t see it as a contender for the status of The or even A Great American Novel. Unfortunately I can’t remember now why I added it to the original list of contenders, but I’d be most interested if anyone could explain why it has been considered in that context?

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dominion by CJ Sansom

dominionWhat if?

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In a departure from his Shardlake series, Sansom has created here an alternative recent history – what if Britain had surrendered to Germany after Dunkirk? What if Nazi sympathisers were running the government? What if Churchill had never become Prime Minister and instead was leading a resistance movement? Sansom creates a world that is so similar to the real world and yet so different that I eventually found I was having to make an effort to remember what was reality and what was fiction.

The plot follows a group of members of the resistance as they try to protect a man who holds a secret that mustn’t fall into the hands of the Germans. We get to know each of the main characters well – Sansom gives us enough of their backstories to let us understand their motivations and each is, in his or her own way, easy to empathise with. Although he doesn’t shy away from describing the atrocities against the Jews and Russians, even the German characters come across as understandable and oddly sympathetic, however horrifying their thoughts and actions.

CJ Sansom (waterstones.com)
CJ Sansom
(waterstones.com)

As always, Sansom’s excellent descriptive writing creates a completely believable world and this is both a strength and a weakness of the book. I felt that sometimes he got so wrapped up in expanding on the world of his creation that he slowed the plot down to a level that prevented the tension from building quite as much as it should in what is fundamentally a thriller. I was also left a bit uncomfortable about the way he made some real-life right-wing politicians into Nazi sympathisers for the purposes of his plot, particularly some who in real life had served either in the forces or in Churchill’s government. Overall, though, I found this to be an interesting, cleverly constructed and well-written book that indeed left me wondering ‘what if?’. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

A hollow egg…

😦 😦

Childhood of JesusWhen I was young, Easter eggs were a double treat. There was milk chocolate on the outside and then, when the egg was opened, there was an extra something inside, a small packet of Maltesers, Chocolate Buttons or, for the really lucky, Smarties. (Of course, note well that the Easter egg was also an allusion to the story of Christ.) What Coetzee has given us here is a hollow egg – and one that is, like this introduction, candy-coated with a thick layer of contrived and unsubtle symbolism and allusion.

The book is set in an unnamed society, where immigrants arrive with all memory of their past wiped clean and with new names given to them by the authorities. So we start with the arrival of Simon and the child of an unknown father, David (yes, David. Jesus only puts in an appearance through our friend Allusion). The society is a simple one where money is plentiful but food is in short supply. In fact, for the first couple of weeks, Simon and David are forced to live by bread alone – a thing Simon really feels man cannot do. However, the people of this new society are full of goodwill towards each other and happy with their lot – along with the cricket-bat-over-the-head Christian symbolism, Coetzee’s society seems to draw heavily from Huxley’s Brave New World, with Simon playing a very civilised and philosophical John the Savage.

Simon has taken responsibility for finding David’s mother in this new world – a task that seems impossible since not only do they not know her name or what she looks like, they also don’t know David’s real name (symbolic, eh?). Nothing daunted, Simon decides that a woman he has just met is David’s real mother and persuades her to accept him as her son. She is, of course, a virgin. David, we are told repeatedly, is an exceptional child though in what way is unclear – those who love him accept his exceptionalism without question, one might say on faith, while the authorities soon come to believe he is disruptive and must be contained.

JM Coetzee(courtesy of en-wikipedia.org
JM Coetzee
(courtesy of en-wikipedia.org)

The real problem with the book is that the symbolism is crashingly unsubtle, crammed into every nook and cranny, and yet ultimately signifies nothing. By half way through I was actually beginning to count the references – bread, tick; fishes, tick; wine, tick; virgin mother, tick; raising from the dead, tick; resurrection after 3 days, tick. At one point, as David watches Mickey Mouse on TV, Mickey’s dog is referred to as Plato. By that stage, I no longer knew whether this was typo, error or mysterious allusion, but sadly I suspect the latter. There is also a real feeling of misogyny throughout the book, with the women being treated as not much more than walking wombs or repositories for Simon’s (largely unfulfilled) sexual urges; though since I haven’t read anything else by Coetzee, I couldn’t decide if this reflected the author’s own outlook, or whether it was again symbolic, perhaps of the male domination of the early Christian story.

Despite all of the above, Coetzee’s sparse writing style and use of language make the book a strangely compelling read and Simon in particular is an interesting character, if a little too caricatured as The Thinker. The possibility exists throughout that the book might turn into something wonderful, that the author might pull the mass of symbolism into something profound and meaningful in the end. But once the smooth and velvety chocolate of the prose has been savoured, there’s nothing inside and the hollowness of the egg left this reader feeling unsatisfied and somewhat cheated.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link