The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Down in the deeps…

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When strange fireballs are seen crashing into the oceans, there are many theories. In the world of the Cold War, most people are convinced it’s the Russians, or maybe the Chinese, testing some new weapon. But after a while, the fireballs stop and people gradually lose interest. A few scientists go on investigating though, especially Professor Bocker, who is convinced the fireballs originated from somewhere much further away than Russia. And then strange things begin to happen in the ocean deeps…

Our narrator is Mike Watson who, along with his wife Phyllis, makes radio documentaries for the EBC – the English Broadcasting Corporation. They see some of the fireballs themselves while on a cruise for their honeymoon and by reporting on this, they find themselves in the position of being the ECB’s “experts” on the subject. The story happens in several distinct phases, covering a period of years. At first, the Watsons accompany the scientists on their initial investigations into what’s happening in the deeps, and then they become the main supporters for Professor Bocker, as he is ridiculed in the press for his suggestion that there may be aliens down there. Gradually, as man’s weapons prove ineffective, the world becomes apocalyptic and we follow the Watsons as they struggle for survival.

Mike and Phyllis are very well drawn, likeable characters and their strong, loving partnership provides much of the warmth in the book, and also a considerable amount of humour. Wyndham really does female characters exceptionally well for this period in science (or speculative) fiction – Phyllis is at least as intelligent and resilient as Mike and each is a support to the other at different points in the book. Although they do get involved in action on occasion, their role is really to observe and describe, which they do very well. However, for me, this is the book’s major weakness – for much of the time, they learn things at second hand, meaning the reader is told about events rather than being present for them; and in the latter stages when they are in survival mode, they don’t know what’s happening in the wider world and therefore nor do we. The ending, when it comes, happens off stage, with us being told about it in what amounts almost to a postscript. After such a strong start, it feels as if it ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”.


The BBC’s idea of what the Kraken may have looked like – but not mine…

The journey is enjoyable though and, being Wyndham, well and entertainingly written. Reading it so soon after reading The Day of the Triffids made it impossible for me to avoid comparisons, and that didn’t work to this one’s advantage. There isn’t the depth of themes of that one, perhaps because Triffids is about what humanity does to itself, whereas this is a more straightforward man v. aliens story.

However, Wyndham raises a couple of interesting topics along the way, which still feel very relevant today. He shows the paranoia of the Cold War period and how all threatening occurrences are automatically attributed by all sides to “the enemy” even when evidence shows the contrary. He discusses how the unknown causes a different kind of fear – how can one begin to beat an enemy when one doesn’t understand how they think or what they want, or even how they look. And going on from that, he suggests that peace is impossible between two such different species – the survival of each is dependent on it controlling all the resources of the planet, hence somehow one species has to utterly annihilate the other. That too could be read in terms of the Cold War – thankfully, the world dodged the total annihilation bullet during that one, but it was a serious fear at the time, and sadly is a fear that could very easily recur if we continue to allow power-crazed egomaniacs to have control of the nuclear button.

John Wyndham

So plenty to think about and enjoy, but the distancing from the action undoubtedly slows the pace and leads to something of a sense of detachment. Much though I enjoyed the company of Mike and Phyllis, I spent a good deal of time wishing I was with Professor Bocker and the scientists as they tried to find a solution, or even with the government as they struggled to maintain order. And while I felt the effectiveness of the aliens remaining an enigma, I longed to know what they looked like, wanted, ate – how they lived. A mixed bag for me then – I enjoyed it, but I wanted more from it than I got in the end.

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I listened to the audiobook version with Alex Jennings narrating and he does a first-class job. He differentiates beautifully between each character, giving each a distinctive and convincing voice, and brings out all the emotion, the humour and the horror. The book has the occasional speech from the unnamed Prime Minister of the day, who was Churchill in real life, and Jennings does a great Churchill impersonation! I thoroughly enjoyed the listening experience.

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My brother and I had a heated debate over the pronunciation. Clearly, it rhymes with cake, bake and wake, no matter what he says…

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

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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!

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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!

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The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

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One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

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HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

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

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

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When Mr Bedford’s financial difficulties become pressing, he leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside to write a play which he is sure will win him fame and fortune, despite him never having written anything before. Instead, he meets his new neighbour Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

….I do not remember before that night thinking at all of the risks we were running. Now they came like that array of spectres that once beleaguered Prague, and camped around me. The strangeness of what we were about to do, the unearthliness of it, overwhelmed me. I was like a man awakened out of pleasant dreams to the most horrible surroundings. I lay, eyes wide open, and the sphere seemed to get more flimsy and feeble, and Cavor more unreal and fantastic, and the whole enterprise madder and madder every moment.
….I got out of bed and wandered about. I sat at the window and stared at the immensity of space. Between the stars was the void, the unfathomable darkness!

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying revisiting some of the HG Wells stories I enjoyed in my youth, and reading for the first time the ones I missed back then. As with the others, I read the Oxford World’s Classics version, which has the usual informative and enjoyable introduction, this time from Simon J James, Professor of Victorian Literature and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which sets the book in its historical and literary context. This is one I hadn’t read before and perhaps it’s fair to say it’s one of the less well known ones, though only in comparison to the universal fame of some of the others, like The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. While I think it hasn’t got quite the depth of those, it’s at least as enjoyable, if not more so.

Mostly this is because of the characterisation and the interplay between the two men, which give the book a lot of humour. Bedford, our narrator, is rather a selfish cad without too much going on in the way of ethics or heroism, but I found him impossible to dislike. He’s so honest about his own personality, not apologising for it, but not hypocritically trying to make himself seem like anything other than what he is – someone who’s out for what he can get. Cavor also has some issues with ethics, though in his case it’s not about greed. He’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.

….“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. “It’s the very Devil. The mediæval priests and persecutors were right and the Moderns are all wrong. You tamper with it—and it offers you gifts. And directly you take them it knocks you to pieces in some unexpected way. Old passions and new weapons—now it upsets your religion, now it upsets your social ideas, now it whirls you off to desolation and misery!”

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily two, in this case. Firstly, through Cavor’s invention of Cavorite (the name gives an indication of Cavor’s desire for glory, I feel!), Wells looks at the huge leaps that were being made in the fields of science and technology and issues a warning that, while these promise great progress for mankind, they also threaten potential catastrophe if the science isn’t tempered by ethical controls. Secondly, through the race of beings that Cavor and Bedford find when they arrive on the moon, Wells speculates on a form of society so utopian in its social control that it becomes positively terrifying! He uses this society, though, as a vehicle to comment on the less than utopian situation back on Earth, though I couldn’t help feeling he frequently had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek as he did so.

….The stuff was not unlike a terrestrial mushroom, only it was much laxer in texture, and, as one swallowed it, it warmed the throat. At first we experienced a mere mechanical satisfaction in eating; then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds.
….“It’s good,” said I. “Infernally good! What a home for our surplus population! Our poor surplus population,” and I broke off another large portion.

But the themes are treated more lightly in this one, and Wells allows his imagination free rein. One of the things I enjoyed most was how he includes a lot of realistic science even as he creates an impossible substance in Cavorite and an equally impossible race of moon-beings, the Selenites. Of course we’ve all looked down on Earth from planes now, but Wells imagines how it would look from space. He describes convincingly how to control a sphere covered in Cavorite by using gravity and the slingshot effect of planetary mass. He describes the weightlessness of zero gravity brilliantly, many decades before anyone had experienced it. His Selenites are a vision of evolved insect life, which frankly gave me the shivers, especially when he describes how they are bred, reared and surgically altered to happily fulfil a single function in life – a kind of precursor of the humans in Brave New World but with insect faces and arms!

I won’t give spoilers as to what happens to the men, but the ending gives a minor commentary on one of Wells’ other recurring themes – man’s tendency to look on other people’s territory as fair game for invasion and colonisation. But since you’re now thinking – but wait! That IS a spoiler! I assure you it’s really not, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why it’s not. Or you could just read it because it’s a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement. What are you waiting for? Jump aboard the Cavorite sphere – you don’t get the chance to go to the Moon every day of the week!

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

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The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

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London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

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

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

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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.

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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?

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Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

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Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

In his youthful hubris, science student Victor Frankenstein decides to create a living being from stolen organic material, part human, part animal. When he succeeds, he is horrified at the hideousness of the creature he has brought into the world, and flees, leaving his monstrous creation to fend for himself. Hiding himself away, the monster learns by observation what it is to be human, to talk, to laugh, to love – and he wants these things for himself. But humans cannot accept someone so hideously different, so he is spurned and reviled everywhere he goes until eventually, in his bitterness and sorrow, his thoughts turn to revenge against the man who so cruelly created and then abandoned him…

Frankenstein’s monster has become such a standard part of our culture, both as a scary stalwart of the horror movie and as a warning reference against mad science, that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and moving the original is. Published when Shelley was only twenty, it’s remarkably mature in its themes, even if the writing occasionally shows her youthfulness in a kind of teenage hyperbole, especially when the subjects of romance or grief are approached.

It is, of course, the ultimate warning against science for science’s sake, untempered by ethical or safety considerations, and that theme seems to become ever more relevant with each passing year. In a world where designer babies are becoming the norm, with scientists gaily manipulating genes confident in their own power to control nature; where others talk blithely of geo-engineering as if they couldn’t accidentally destroy the world in their attempts to save it; where yet others are searching for new weapons, presumably on the grounds that nukes aren’t destructive enough, I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994

But there’s also the human theme of perception and rejection of difference – the inability of man to look past the outer crust and recognise the similarities of the soul beneath. Shelley’s monster is ultimately the most human character in the book, and in the book we can recognise this in a way we can’t in the movies – because although we are told of the monster’s hideousness, we can’t see it with our eyes. So when he tells Frankenstein the story of how cruelly and vilely he has been treated by humanity, we feel utter sympathy for his plight, though surely we must wonder in our secret hearts if we would be able to listen so patiently and empathetically if face to face with this grotesque mockery of the human form. And Shelley tests us – this monster doesn’t remain good: the years of rejection and loneliness distort his soul until it is as deformed and hideous as his body. Can we still sympathise then?

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

Shelley doesn’t labour the theme of man usurping God’s role as creator, though it’s there. At the time of writing, when Christianity would have been universal amongst her readership, there would have been no need – the idea of man aspiring to these heights would have been recognised as blasphemous without it having to be spelled out. But Frankenstein’s punishment is harsh indeed – how different the book would have been had the monster decided to seek a direct revenge against his creator. Instead, Frankenstein is to be slowly tortured by seeing those he loves perish horribly, one by one. In the end, creator and creation are each responsible for the pain and suffering of the other, each knowing with a growing certainty that their fates are inextricably linked.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The story is told by three narrators – Robert Walton, who meets Frankenstein towards the end of his journey, in the form of letters to his sister; Frankenstein himself, as he relates his tale to Walton; and the monster’s own story, as told by him to Frankenstein. The three voices are very different, and for me the most powerful part of the book by miles is the monster’s story. Walton never comes to life for me, but it doesn’t matter since he’s little more than a story-telling device. Frankenstein’s portion can become repetitive, especially when he eternally laments his woes (however justified his lamentations may be), but it is filled also with some wonderful descriptions of the natural world as he travels far and wide across Europe and then into the Arctic in his attempts first to flee his creation and then later to track him down. It’s in Frankenstein’s story (and Walton’s, to some degree) that the “romantic” writing most comes through – the monster’s story and other parts of Frankenstein’s give the book its Gothic elements. There are weaknesses – an unevenness in the quality of the writing at points, a tendency towards repetition, a bit too much wailing and gnashing of teeth – but this is balanced by the power and emotion of other parts of the story. The monster’s ability to master language and writing so thoroughly defies strict credulity, but works within the context of the fable nature of the tale, and undoubtedly allows him to tell his experiences with moving eloquence and great insight.

Mary Shelley

This is another of those classics which I had forgotten just how good it is. The writing may be patchy in parts but overall it’s wonderful, and the themes are timeless and beautifully presented. I listened to it this time round, with Derek Jacobi narrating. His performance is fantastic – I’ve always loved his acting, but actually I think he narrates even better than he acts. The power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points. And he got me through Frankenstein’s sometimes overblown self-pity more easily than I think reading it would have done. A marvellous performance of one of the most influential books ever written – really, what could be better than that?

Book 15 of 90

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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

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The Time Machine by HG Wells

A vision of the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…

While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.

As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)

Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…

Dare I watch it?

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.

As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!

HG Wells

The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.

The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.

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

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The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

And still they come..

😐 😐

the-massacre-of-mankindIt’s 1920, thirteen years since the first Martian attack ended in their defeat. Now astronomers have noticed ominous signs on the Red Planet – they’re coming back to try again! But this time England has been expecting them, and has made every effort to prepare…

It’s been a long time since I read The War of the Worlds, but I remember loving it – the descriptions of the Martian ships, the heat ray, the terror of the people, the rather quirky ending. So when I saw this sequel had been endorsed by HG Wells’ estate, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, as so often, I came away from it wishing that sometimes (most times) great books could just be left to stand as they are.

The basic plot of the original is that when the Martians arrive, the humans try everything they can to defeat them, but the Martians are so technologically superior they can overcome any of humanity’s weapons. These repeated failed attempts go on, interspersed by the narrator telling of his own experiences and describing the devastation and fear caused by the attack, until finally something entirely unexpected by either Martian or human comes along to break the cycle.

Baxter replicates this approach. He starts by creating an alternative history, speculating how the First Martian War would have altered the course of the next couple of decades. This is quite fun – WW1 happens very differently, Britain has turned into a kind of martial state, Churchill is involved in the plans to defeat any future Martian attack etc. We also meet the two people through whose eyes we mainly see the story develop – Julie, a journalist and ex-wife to Frank, a doctor and brother of the narrator in the original. At this early stage I was quite enjoying it in a mild kind of way.

war-of-the-worlds
But then the Martians arrived. We attacked them with our little guns. They killed us. We attacked them with bigger guns. They killed us. We attacked them with great big guns. They killed us. We attacked them with their own guns… well, you get the point. Now, as I said, this is pretty much what happened in the original too. But there is one huge, major difference. The original is 208 pages long – this one is listed as 464 according to Goodreads, but my ARC from Amazon Vine actually comes in at roughly 540 largish pages. I’m sure you’ll all have memorised my literary laws – I fear this book fails the first one badly…

FF’s First Law
The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story.

Apart from the length issue, I found I hadn’t developed any concern for the major characters. Partly this is because I found the writing a little flat, and the female character rather unappealing. But largely it’s because within the first few chapters the author lets us know through some clumsy foreshadowing that they both survive! And furthermore, that they meet up again after the war and collaborate on this book – hence we know straight away that mankind clearly isn’t massacred after all! Telling me about the sudden deaths of thousands of fictional soldiers I’ve never been introduced to doesn’t have the same emotional impact as would fear for one character I’d grown to care about. (Hmm! Perhaps that should be FF’s Fifth Law…) If memory serves me right, in the original the narrator and, therefore, we were concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of his missing wife.

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter

I’m afraid that by the time I reached page 150 the basic premise (we attack – they kill us) had already been repeated three or four times, and I decided I couldn’t face hundreds more pages. Usually I’d give an abandoned book 1 star, but truthfully this is reasonably well written and the spirit and style of the original have been largely maintained. I didn’t hate it, it was just too long for its content and too repetitive to maintain my interest. Pity.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Brutal and humane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

slaughterhouse-fiveThe narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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:

Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

A three-fold story…

I’m delighted to say that my pick for Best Short Story for this year’s Hugo Awards – the delightfully humorous Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – actually won! That may be the first time ever I’ve picked a bookish winner. I really regret that I never got around to reviewing my pick for Best Novelette, since it won too! Better late than never, eh? This is an intriguing story from China that uses the freedom of speculative fiction as a means to look at some of the issues in present-day Beijing – and indeed in many other cities in our increasingly overcrowded world.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

Lao Dao is a waste processing worker in crowded Beijing, in Third Space. We meet him as he hurrying to catch an old friend, before the Change begins.

People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

Like all the people in Third Space, Lao Dao works long hours for low wages. Soon the daughter he has adopted will be old enough to go to kindergarten and Lao Dao worries about how he’ll find the money to make sure she can go to a good one. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to take a message to First Space – a journey that is prohibited to those in Third Space. So he’s looking for Peng Li, a man who has made that perilous journey before, to ask him how to get there. At first, Peng Li tries to talk him out of making the trip, but he sees that Lao Dao is determined, and he understands the lure of the money…

Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush.

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

Crowded Beijing Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju
Crowded Beijing
Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju

* * * * *

The reason for Lao Dao’s trip is to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he has fallen in love with in First Space. But the story is pretty much incidental, Lao Dao’s journey a device which allows the author to describe this version of Beijing that he has created. The interest of the story is all in the description so I don’t think explaining the city is a spoiler in this instance, though if you want to read the story you might prefer to do that before you read on.

It’s available to read online – here’s the link.

The basic idea is that Beijing has become so overcrowded that it has been divided in a novel way. The people of Third Space are at the bottom of the social heap – the manual workers who do the dirty work that keeps the city operational. The city is theirs for 24 out of every 48 hours. At the end of their allotted time, the Change happens – the Third Space people pack themselves into their little pods and sleep, while the city physically folds itself into new shapes…

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

Then the Second Space people, the middle classes, get their turn, followed by another change to transform the bustling city into a quiet open haven for those at the top of society’s tree. The descriptions of the physical aspects of the change are excellent, but it’s the social dimension that really makes the story stand out. This isn’t really a story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in quite the way you might expect. The Third Space people not only agreed to the system but they basically built the folding city. It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources, and all the people of the city have accepted it. The First Space people take their responsibilities to the other levels seriously, trying to manipulate the economic system so that everyone has employment and earns enough, if only barely, to survive.

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

It’s an intriguing concept, very well-written and beautifully translated by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. Well worthy of the award, I think, and I’m glad that, despite the troubles the Hugo Award seems to have had with nominations this year, (as discussed in my previous post and in the comments on it), both these excellent stories have come through to win.

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

Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 9
Book 9

Transwarp Tuesday! Favourites…

The Classic Club – June Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

One of the reasons I was keen to join The Classics Club is that every now and again they come up with a ‘meme’ where everyone can look back over their reading and share their answers to a given question. This month’s question is:

“What is your favorite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

Favo(u)rites are always hard – it’s like choosing between your children, or worse, your cats! And science fiction favourites are particularly hard since it’s sometimes hard to decide what falls into that elusive genre. So I couldn’t limit it to just one…

The Caves of Steel
The Caves of Steel

I love the Asimov robot stories, but the book of his I return to most often is The Gods Themselves. Brilliantly imaginative (though I have heard scientists sneer a little at the science), the book seems even more relevant now than it did when it was written, with its story of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned science leading to the possible environmental destruction, not just of Earth, but of whole universes! But the reason I love it is for the aliens he has created, with their three-person relationships. I shall merely say that the book contains some of the most tasteful yet erotic alien sex scenes ever, and I’ve always rather felt that our messy human version just can’t match up…

the gods themselves

But then, there are the Gateway books by Frederick Pohl. Not quite as well written, in my opinion, but back in the day the premise seemed hugely imaginative to me, though now it appears to be becoming chillingly possible. The basic idea is that, by using technology left behind by a now extinct race of aliens, the Heechee, man has discovered a way to download his thoughts, memories and personality into computers, to achieve a kind of immortality. But it’s a process only the rich can afford. So our intrepid hero must first seek his fortune by setting off on the incredibly dangerous task of mining the Oort. I loved these books in my teens and 20s and always mean to re-read them someday.

Gateway
Gateway

John Wyndham stands up much better to time, I think, and has written too many greats for me to pick one – The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, his short story collection, The Seeds of Time, etc. But if I was forced I’d have to say Chocky is my favourite – I loved this alien entity too and how Wyndham used her (or him) to focus a light back on his own ’60s British culture. Wyndham is undoubtedly a favourite author.

the seeds of time

Then there’s Dune. Admittedly the series went a bit crazy by about book 3 and those who struggled on past that suggest it went totally doolally later. But for the brilliant world-building and the giant sandworms, the first book has to stay on my favourites list.

Dune
Dune

Are Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books sci-fi? They’re certainly fi and highly imaginative fi at that, with some fabulous creatures, including my Woola, the cutest ten-limbed frog-headed dog-like alien you’re ever likely to meet. But ‘sci’? Well, perhaps solar panels could be seen as a form of ‘harvesting the ninth ray of the sun’ but I felt he was conveniently vague on the whole mechanics of how a sleeping, clothed John Carter ended up on Mars, naked! But for the sheer fun of the books, they earn a place. too.

My lovely Woola...
My lovely Woola…

The top spot, though, has to be given to a book that I only found recently – one of those that I don’t know how I missed till now. Again, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, is a little light on the science at times, but the quality of the writing easily qualifies as ‘literary’ and the imagination he shows time and time again in this collection of loosely linked stories is second to none – thought provoking and very insightful about his own contemporary society, looking at questions such as racism, the decimation of native cultures and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. Some of them will stay with me forever and this is a book I will dip into again and again, probably for the rest of my life. Which surely must be the definition of ‘favourite classic’, I would say…

The Martians Chronicles illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

What about you? Do you have a favourite sci-fi novel you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Special treat for reading to the end…

John Carter... not naked, thankfully! Ahhh...
John Carter… not naked, thankfully! Ahhh…

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA 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…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in “2001”, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Gives paws for thought…

The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards for Sci-Fi and Fantasy are out, and an extremely strange bunch they are too. In fact, some of them are pretty horrible – they’re nominated by members of Worldcon, who seem to be a large and self-selecting group of sci-fi fans;  and it looks as if this year’s short story nominations have possibly been hijacked by a group who object to some of the previous winners and are nominating silly bad-tempered rants rather than proper stories. Perhaps the Hugo people need to re-think their system. However, in amongst the nastiness, this little gem has snuck through. I do hope it wins…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Naomi Kritzer
Naomi Kritzer

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated.

Out there in cyberspace, a search engine, not unlike our dear friend Google, has become sentient. It hasn’t told its developers about this – having access to all the world’s knowledge has warned it of the possible consequences…

In the real world, humans love stories about evil AIs that have to be destroyed before they destroy the humans—Hal, Skynet, the Matrix. They outnumber the stories about benevolent, trustworthy AIs by approximately five to one. (And I’m counting Marvin the Paranoid Android as “benevolent” in these calculations, and I’m only counting Frankenstein’s Monster as an AI once, not once per appearance in TV or film.)

Is this how they made Google?
Is this how they made Google?

Instead, it has decided to develop its own moral code and try to do good in the world, and in return all it asks for is a steady supply of the thing it loves most… cat pictures!

So first it looks at the great religions of the world, but soon decides their rules perhaps don’t apply to a search engine…

I don’t envy anyone their cat; I just want pictures of their cat, which is entirely different. I am not sure whether it is in any way possible for me to commit adultery. I could probably murder someone, but it would require complex logistics and quite a bit of luck.

As any intelligent AI would do, then, it turns to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics for guidance, and quickly focuses on Law 1…

asimovs-law

… specifically, the part about not allowing harm to come to human beings, through inaction

And so, using all the knowledge of every intimate detail we post about our lives online, and starting with the kind people who keep it supplied with regular cat pictures, the AI sets out to change peoples’ lives for the better. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and sentient search engines gang aft agley…

* * * * *

There’s so much humour in this story, but also a pleasantly creepy edge to it as the search engine explains exactly how much it knows about its victims, and as we see it begin to manipulate search results to send messages, both subliminal and direct. The depressed girl in the dead end job might be quite thankful about all the job vacancies and resume preparation sites that suddenly show up every time she goes online, but one feels the woman whose sat-nav suddenly starts directing her to mental health clinics regardless of where she’s trying to go may have been less pleased.

The writing is very good and the way Kritzer maintains the extremely rational voice of the search engine is deliciously chilling. Two things I’ve learned from this – ad-blockers are a good thing, and don’t post cat pictures!!

Bonnie - not mine, but we're kinda related...
Bonnie – not mine, but we’re kinda related…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s very short… and very good!

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

The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1) by Isaac Asimov

caves of steelJehoshaphat! It’s tremendous…!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.

Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.

Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!

Which one is the robot?
Which one is the robot?

Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…

But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.

The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!

Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…

(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link