Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Chrysalids

John Wyndham The Chrysalids (1955)
Without it really having resulted from anything resembling a plan, it seems I've been reading my way through the oeuvre of John Wyndham during the course of the last decade, and so - barring a few oddities and outliers such as Plan for Chaos, of which I've never seen a copy - it seems I've saved the best for last. This one's a cracker.

The Chrysalids occurs in a puritanical post-apocalyptic society reduced to a mediaeval way of life. We've survived nuclear holocaust but mutation is rife, and mutants are to be driven out with evangelical zeal; so the novel tells the story of a couple of those mutants with an emphasis which one might regard as owing a debt to van Vogt's Slan, and which certainly foreshadows Chris Claremont's X-Men comics. In fact, The Chrysalids seems to foreshadow one fuck of a lot, more or less everything Terry Nation ever wrote, quite a few subsequent takes on life after the bomb, The Handmaid's Tale and so on. The years 1949 through to the publication of this novel saw a significant upsurge in nuclear weapons research and testing across the globe, and it seems very clear that the potentially terrible consequences occupied Wyndham's thoughts.

As ever, his great strength as a writer is in the global picture as seen through the eyes of a minor player, at a more personal, almost provincial level, and so The Chrysalids doubles up as a classic children's novel about a boy saving his younger sister from a bullying father. Even better is that Wyndham held back from any of the stuff which spoiled at least a few of his books, the creaking humour and the tone which unfortunately inspired Brian Aldiss to coin the term, cosy catastrophe. This one is more than just a yarn.

'Purity,' I said. 'The will of the Lord. Honor thy father. Am I supposed to forgive him? Or to try to kill him?'

The answer startled me. I was not aware that I had sent out the thought at large.

'Let him be,' came the severe, clear pattern from the Zealand woman. 'Your work is to survive. Neither his kind, nor his kind of thinking will survive long. They are the crown of creation, they are ambition fulfilled, they have nowhere more to go. But life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks, change is its very nature.'

See? That one still works today. In fact I'd say it's quite pertinent right now given the upsurge of those who want to ship the rest of us off to labour camps or worse.

I've read a ton of science-fiction over the last decade or so, and I think I'm approaching the point at which I will have read just about everything I'm ever going to feel inclined to read of the genre; so my future may hold significantly fewer crappy seventies paperbacks with airbrushed spacecraft on the covers, and if this turns out to be the case, I'm fucking glad this one made it onto my shelves before the shutters went down, because it's one of the very best.

Monday, 15 October 2018

The Einstein Intersection

Samuel R. Delany The Einstein Intersection (1967)
My wife picked this up as we were browsing in the used book store, handing it to me with the words, this looks like the sort of thing you would read. It did, and I had an outstanding mental note to get around to reading something by Delaney at some point or other, so I ignored the possibility of mockery and took it as a challenge.

The Einstein Intersection won a Nebula award, and I can sort of see why, at least up to a point. Delaney's writing is wild and literary, word jazz touching on Fritz Leiber, a distant cousin to beat poetry, so it's not insignificant that Gregory Corso should be referenced at the beginning of one chapter.

While day leaned over the hills I passed the first red flowers, blossoms big as my face, like blood bubbles nested in thorns, often resting on the bare rock. No good to stop there. Carnivorous.

I squatted on a broken seat of granite in the yellowing afternoon. A snail the size of my curled forefinger doffed his eyes at a puddle big as my palm. Half an hour later, climbing down a canyon wall when yellow had died under violet I saw a tear in the rock: another opening into the source-cave. I decided on nighting it there, and ducked in.

See what I mean?

The story occurs in some kind of post-human realm wherein this world of Einsteinian laws, having intersected with a universe following a different set of rules, has changed—changed, strangely, wonderfully, incredibly, as it claims on the back cover. I can sort of follow what happens, and see how this intersection relates to the narrative, but as to what any of it may be about, I haven't a fucking clue. Delaney himself suggests it's about myth in one of a number of excerpts from his journal - quoted at the head of certain chapters - in which he discusses the process of writing the book we are actually reading; which is nice, but unfortunately left me suspecting I'd rather have read Delaney's journal. The Einstein Intersection is stuffed with memorable and intriguing images, and I particularly enjoyed the canonisation of Ringo Starr as a mythic figure on equal footing to Orpheus, but I'm afraid I otherwise found it to be a bit of a dog's dinner.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

By Theft and Murder

Ted Curtis By Theft and Murder (2003)
The author warned me that this one might not be entirely to my liking, although it was admittedly a vague warning based on his own reservations about the book. I bought it anyway, because Ted Curtis is honestly one of the best writers I've ever been lucky enough to know in person and I had assumed the warning would be mostly authorial self-deprecation.

Anyway, By Theft and Murder is journalism in so much as that it's an account of time spent in Palestine witnessing first hand the atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinian people by the Israeli authorities; which didn't strike me as being too far removed from Ted's comfort zone - if that's really an appropriate term - of autobiographical fiction, or possibly autobiography with knobs on, whatever you would call it. The problem however - if we're to acknowledge that there's a problem - was that the unforgivable shit Curtis saw in Palestine is probably not that easy to write about, because some subjects are just too fucking awful to work even as reportage, never mind sardonic one-liners. Ted's usual style, as deployed to such powerful effect in The Darkening Light, is dour and quite introspective, lightened with a touch of gallows humour. I get the feeling he may have accordingly struggled to write this one, a narrative which by definition needs to be read and therefore can't really afford too much stylistic indulgence, so it comes across as an uneasy hybrid of the author's usual dispassionate observation with something a bit more Radio 4, or which would at least communicate to readers of those newspapers which fold out to something the size of a picnic blanket.

Additionally, Curtis's narrative doesn't take up all of the book, being supplemented by three appendices of additional material which seem, at times, a little disjointed - although Susan Barclay's account is very much appreciated.

The important thing is that books such as this mean that the information is at least getting past the checkpoints; and while By Theft and Murder wasn't all I hoped it would be, the bottom line is that this is an account of actual events, including innocents squished by bulldozers, and my wibbling bullshit about whether or not it's a page turner in the tradition of Dan Brown is neither here nor there, particularly as that which is reported herein still goes on, still hasn't been resolved, and continues to be reported in terms of how those with the least economic power are the real menace.

As Ted Curtis himself acknowledges, By Theft and Murder probably isn't perfect, but I can see that it needed writing.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Pool of Fire

John Christopher The Pool of Fire (1968)
Here's the third in Christopher's Tripod trilogy, a book which happily maintains the high standard of the first two; although it's thematically so similar, or at least consistent, as to suggest that we may as well view Tripods as a single book split into three. Once again our heroes pit themselves against their mysterious alien overlords in a struggle which emphasises travel and invention. There's a certain specific flavour to Christopher's novels - or at least to the four I've read - and only now have I noticed that he seemed quite keen on the same values and qualities as Baden-Powell, father of the scouting movement. He spends a lot of time describing journeys made across unfamiliar countryside, with his characters getting by on the strength of their own wits, common sense, and basic ingenuity - lots of wittling and navigating by the stars. I've also noticed Christopher's emphasis on the nobility of the imaginatively named Fritz, a German boy featuring in what is a children's book published at a time when every playground in England was still busily restaging the second world war; and I strongly suspect that the Tripods books were very specifically written as a reaction to both the second world war, and modernity in a more general sense:

On the rare occasions when I turned my mind to look beyond our primary objective, and thought of the world that could be when it was liberated from our oppressors, my vision was hazy and mostly, I am afraid, centered on pleasures. I envisaged a life of hunting, riding, fishing—all the things which I enjoyed made a hundred times more enjoyable by the knowledge that no Tripod would ever again stride across the skyline, that we were the masters of our own habitation and destiny, and that any cities that were built would be cities for men to dwell in.

But for the presence of the invaders, the Earth of the Tripods has been restored to a rural, pre-technological idyll, and we learn that the original invasion - as apparently described in When the Tripods Came, which I haven't read - was facilitated by the advent of television, through which the aliens were able to hypnotise humanity. The Pool of Fire ends with the invaders in defeat and the human race attempting to overcome those cultural and political differences which have always divided it, yet with the restoration of a technological society striking a curiously ominous note.

Under other circumstances, this story could have gone horribly wrong as one of those exercises in nostalgia so typical of certain Doctor Who fans, for some reason, in which the rosily-hued past is somehow tantamount to a time before all those blackies come over and spoiled everyfink; but Christopher gets the balance exactly right, presenting his argument without any reactionary element, meaning that the important stuff about cooperation and the value of not being a twat still very much applies.

This is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. I don't know what the quality of children's fiction is like these days, but I really hope it's this good in its own way.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Dispossessed

Ursula LeGuin The Dispossessed (1974)
I had high hopes for this, knowing a fair few for whom it's an all-time favourite; and although I can see why, it wasn't really doing it for me. It's a decent, thoughtful read, making its point by comparison of a society divided in two, one living on the large, approximately habitable moon of the other's world. Annares is a functioning anarcho-syndicalist society living without religion, hierarchy, or any centralised power, whereas Urras is a capitalist society more closely resembling our own. While it may be tempting to read this as allegorical to the relationship of the United States and Soviet Union as was, the parallels work only in a very general sense because The Dispossessed strives to make much broader observations about human institutions; and it works because, although it ultimately comes down on the side of the individual liberty afforded by the anarcho-syndicalist society, there is no stacked deck in play, and we get to see both the relative merits and pitfalls of each system.

I read a second hand copy of this book, one which had evidently been used by a student taking notes towards a thesis of some description, so every page has a sentence or two underlined, usually with some footnote, women considered to be property and so on. This background noise was actually a bit annoying, and felt a little like having Margaret Attwood digging me in the ribs and scowling whilst coaxing me towards a certain conclusion; but happily, once I'd learned to ignore the embellishments, the narrative is revealed as mostly questions with very little that is didactic.

For her as for him, there was no end. There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere.

Of course, I'm sure there will still be idiots who read this as a communist diatribe or whatever, or
who at least come to that conclusion, presumably having had the book read to them; but there will always be idiots so there's probably not much joy to be had in getting upset over the fact.

Personally I found LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness more convincing and probably a better book, but The Dispossessed is nevertheless great.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Budrys' Inferno

Algis Budrys Budrys' Inferno (1963)
This is my third Budrys', and I'm beginning to realise why I'm yet to be entirely convinced by his writing. Each time I read his work, the first thing which strikes me is how well written it is, how literate, and so I look forward to becoming engrossed over the next few pages, and yet it never happens and I'm left wondering why. Anyway, I think I've worked it out at long last, having spotted a pattern. On the strength of what I've read, Budrys seems to limit himself to mostly edgy, paranoid characters at war with their surroundings, so the mood is a little relentless and is not conducive to the sort of lighter passages which might render it all a little more palatable. Budrys was of Lithuanian heritage, saw Hitler in a parade as a child, and then his country was annexed by the Soviet Union - although his family were living in America by that time. This seems to have informed his fiction, and out of the short stories collected here, only the somewhat more readable Lower Than Angels seems to be an exception, at least up to a point. That said, Lower Than Angels is predicated on the idea that pre-technological people will tend to regard anyone more technologically advanced as a God, which is unfortunately bollocks, and slightly annoying bollocks - or at least annoying to me every time some wanker claims that the ancient Mexicans believed Hernán Cortés to be the returning God Quetzalcoatl, which they fucking didn't…

Returning to Budrys, yes he could write - on the surface of it. He was very good at close-up detail, but less expressive when it came to the broader thrust of the story, and also somewhat lacking in humour. For me, this has meant scrabbling away at each story, unable to keep my attention fixed to the page because there was never much to draw me in, which left me generally without much idea of what was going on or why. Oh well.

It would be a very boring world if we all liked the same thing.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Envoy to New Worlds

Keith Laumer Envoy to New Worlds (1963)
I've passed Laumer's adventures of Retief as they've sat on the shelves of Half-Price many a time, never having been drawn to the character. Retief is, very roughly speaking, James Bond in space, and, with a couple of exceptions, I'm generally wary of science-fiction authors who specialise in the adventures of recurring characters. Initially, I knew of Retief only as a black and white comic from the eighties, an independent, but one of those independents which aspired to be DC or Marvel, or at least Eclipse or First. I never read the comic but saw the ads in the back pages of The Trouble with Girls - or something of the sort - and it looked fucking awful, one of those strips where everyone wears the exaggerated angry grimace of a biro rendering of Iron Maiden's Eddie drawn on the back of a denim jacket worn by a fourteen-year old boy in a rural English town between the years of 1984 and 1986. I didn't even realise Retief had been based on a series of novels until recently, and I own this mainly because it's an Ace Double sharing a spine with Flight from Yesterday by the magnificently peculiar Robert Moore Williams.

To get my facts straight, Retief is actually a diplomat, and is as such extrapolated from Laumer's time spent in similar employment here on earth, mostly Burma according to Wikipedia. The stories are short and to the point - this is actually a collection of six - and might be seen as thematically ancestral to Larry Niven, Star Wars, 2000AD, Red Dwarf, and all those other narratives in which aliens are basically funny foreigners. There are certain colonialisms here, as you might reasonably expect, so the recipe isn't promising; but nevertheless, it turns out that these tales of Retief are very enjoyable - too short to outstay a welcome, plenty of pleasantly weird ideas, breezily written, and with a refreshingly high quota of wit; and even with aliens as funny foreigners, there's nothing objectionable. Strangest of all, I found myself reading one particular page as an exchange between Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in their Dad's Army roles, and somehow it worked. I'm not sure whether I'll be reading more, but that's definitely a recommendation.