Wednesday, 30 December 2015

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Harlan Ellison I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1967)
For most of my life I've been only vaguely aware of Harlan Ellison as some bloke who penned an episode of Star Trek and edited an apparently amazing collection of short stories called Dangerous Visions. Beyond that I've had only the impression of an argumentative fucker who makes people angry; so not really a lot to go on, and not really enough to inspire a frenzied hunt for his novels or written material on my part; but then I now have a new Simak collection waiting to be read, specifically one including something called I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air which was written for an as yet unpublished volume of Dangerous Visions edited by Ellison and is accordingly a riff on his I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream; and I just happened across this collection so it seemed like I should probably buy it and read it before I get to the Simak.

...and woah!

He writes nothing like I anticipated. This is unlike anything I would have expected of someone who also turned in scripts for The Outer Limits and The Man from UNCLE. It's like being trapped inside William Shatner's acting. He writes in a sort of bebop middle ground between pulp and beatnik, something which would foreshadow Will Self if it made a bit more sense; and it isn't that it doesn't make sense so much as that the imagery is so dense and unrelenting that it's difficult to keep a handle on things. The ideas are often great, or at least suggestive of greatness whilst forever balanced precariously on the edge of a hallucinogenic precipice affording the occasional glimpse of details which may potentially leave a bit of an unpleasant taste. Scraping away the layers of Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, for one example, we find a beautiful woman transformed into a Las Vegas slot machine, thus combining two of the four things which men like - the other two being golf and cars - and by beautiful I think Harlan probably means great ass and a decent pair of knockers, someone with whom any self-respecting red blooded male would really like to have it off etc. etc. It's a decent story, but I hope Harlan's analyst hadn't made any plans that weekend; plus whilst the assumption of an exclusively male readership is probably forgiveable given at least a few of these stories having been commissioned by wanking periodicals, the fact of the female characters tending to be of the kind who get raped and either deserve it or secretly enjoy it makes it a bit of an intermittently uncomfortable read if you're not something of a tosser.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Battlestar Galactica

Glen A. Larson & Robert Thurston Battlestar Galactica (1978)
I always assumed that the sudden shift of emphasis in cinematic science-fiction around the time of the first Star Wars movie was probably something to do with some great leap forward in special effects making it easier to depict a dogfight in space, but then I spent at least a few months of my youth assuming the punk explosion happened because the invention of the synthesiser made it easier to form a band. With hindsight I suspect it's mostly been down to politics, both the films and the punk rock.

Before I go off on one, I should probably point out that I don't believe in well-coordinated Machiavellian government organisations deciding we all need to start believing this or that, so buy a Ted Nugent album; rather I believe that it can sometimes look that way simply because ideas or enterprises of a particular ideological complexion will tend to receive better funding during times when the political mood of the country or its leadership is already leaning in the same direction.

Science-fiction cinema of the fifties, at least in America, often tapped into a sense of fear analogous to McCarthyism. Following the sixties, during which previously underground liberal notions rejecting the black and white morality of previous generations became more or less mainstream, science-fiction cinema began to question authority and to recognise moral grey areas, and so we had Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, THX1138, Zardoz, and even Logan's Run. An increasingly contemplative tendency within science-fiction cinema was growing up, developing a conscience, and then George Lucas did his thing and we're back to Flash Gordon expressed as Star Wars and a thousand variations on the same.

My theory is that, roughly speaking, thirty years had been long enough for us to forget that the second world war had happened for a reason. The war had become something belonging to the older generation, and as for the causes, we no longer needed to look any further than the simple existence of evil as something to which we were opposed. Unfortunately Vietnam made it impossible to reduce such horror to the basic colours of a Saturday morning serial, not least because, if we were going to insist upon the existence of bad guys, then Vietnam made it look a lot like that might be us, at least from one angle. We needed good and evil back, along with the happy simplicity of horribly complicated situations reduced to shorthand. Bad guys we understand may cause us to examine ourselves, so better that we don't even try; better that we just boo, hiss, and throw the occasional rotten tomato.

Of course, Star Wars eventually developed grey areas, but in 1978 it was still a fight against evil as something which wears black, barks orders, and is evil because it's evil; and this is even more apparent in the cheap knock-offs which lacked even the wit and subtlety of Star Wars, and so we come to Battlestar Galactica.

I actually loved the Ronald D. Moore version, and probably because it does almost the exact opposite of the Larson television series from which this novelisation derives. The problem with the original stems from the notion that because Star Wars was Flash Gordon, then Wagon Train in space should work just as well, and so it did providing you weren't too fussy about everything else being the standard mainstream television cheese of the time except on a spaceship - the proud general who cares more about his men than what the politicians may have to say, the rebellious kid who comes through in the end, and the idea that none of us can imagine anything better than a few hours spent goofing off on the golf course, or just hanging around the casino. It all seems very much tied into the peculiar American self-image of the respectable rebel who takes no crap from the stuffed shirts or the British, and maybe cuts a few corners, but nevertheless likes to picture himself reading Plato in front of ionic columns, all fancified and shit. I suppose it's fine in a way, but it's very simplicity renders it insubstantial and when you look too close - like maybe when you write a novel about it - it all begins to seem a bit crappy.

Robert Thurston learned his trade directly from Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight and others, and clearly isn't without authorial credentials of some description, but he's working from a television script. He does his best, even padding out the Cylons with some sort of back story. It makes them more interesting, but the tale doesn't really need them to be interesting, just evil; and so the novel ends up shooting itself in the foot over and over. Cylon philosophy is absolutely alien to us, and yet understandable because it is logical, regarding the universe as an ordered environment tarnished with the invasive presence of humanity; at least up until we find the Cylons working with the insectoid Ovions in contradiction of their own xenophobic principles, meaning their principles aren't worth much because actually they're just evil evil evil; by which point the heroes are struggling to fly tankers loaded with precious spaceship fuel from the Ovion mines back to the Galactica whilst the Cylons go apeshit. It's almost a variation on the last thirty or forty years of American foreign policy, which would be fine were it not trying to invoke our sympathy quite so hard, and to invoke our sympathy by laying it on so thick as to make The Waltons look like Hungarian Constructivist cinema.

Anyway, as a novel it's readable in so much as the show on which it was based was watchable, but it's pretty obvious that it exists because affordable VHS video recorders didn't; but even without the above, there's still a lot of horseshit to wade through, much of it betraying a typical seventies fixation on astrology and the zodiac as something meaningful. Unfortunately, even with some redeeming features stemming from the author's obvious efforts to make the thing resemble a bit of writing, Battlestar Galactica leaves you with that feeling you get after an eight hour viewing marathon, and not even a Battlestar Galactica viewing marathon - we're talking Family Feud or Wheel of Fortune.

Therefore ugh.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Masque of a Savage Mandarin

Philip Bedford Robinson Masque of a Savage Mandarin (1969)
I bought this specifically because Mark Hodder ordered me to do so. Read this, he barked on my facebook page, it's mental! I'm paraphrasing, but he communicated this recommendation with such conviction that I could only shrug, order a copy from Amazon, and hope that he hadn't been posting whilst three sheets to the wind.

Masque of a Savage Mandarin
is the work of an author who otherwise wrote only text books about computers, and does indeed seem to be one of those lost masterpieces you always hear about, just as Mark Hodder said it would be. It's science-fiction in so much as it probably wouldn't quite fit into any other category, but shares some common features with earlier allegorical novels such as Huysman's Against Nature*, or even the work of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and those guys. The Mandarin of the title is an enlightened individual - at least on his own terms - one who seeks to elevate a neighbour by experimenting on him, by destroying both the man's ego and the societal conditioning which limits his behaviour, effectively performing a lobotomy by means of a pseudo-scientific machine which sends invisible rays through the apartment wall that divides them.

It's darkly comic, thoroughly engaging, and exceptionally well-written - so well-written that the fact of this being Robinson's only novel is baffling. I suppose one distinguishing feature of greatness is knowing to say nothing when you've already said it all, which is at least consistent with the quality of this solitary work. When I say comic, I mean to invoke the kind of wry humour associated with Peter Cook or Tony Hancock, whom I name because Masque of a Savage Mandarin seems similarly tied to its era, and might even be read as a distant, more philosophical relative to Hancock's The Rebel in some respects, not least in its pursuit of the absurd. It appears to represent a response to the decade in which it was written, and specifically to the then recently popularised notion of humanity on the verge of some great evolutionary surge, a mystic revelation to be brought forth in all that stuff about the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. The Mandarin is in some small way attempting to force this great evolutionary surge on his hapless neighbour, but of course destroys the man in the process, the foundation of his aspiration being built upon an illusory understanding of the world. At least that's how it seemed to me, and it's a lot funnier than I've made it sound.

This really is a wonderful book, and I have no idea why I should only have heard of it this year.

*: As distinct from the one I wrote which is available here and you need to buy right away, unless you've already bought it in which case you probably need a second copy by now; and in case you're "waiting for the paperback" (as were a number of my friends who obviously were no longer quite so close as to bother reading the fucking link), this is the paperback. If you can't be arsed, just say so for fuck's sake. Great news, Loz - I'll definitely want one when the paperback comes out blah blah blah... wankers. Consider yourselves off my Christmas card list, fuckers.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley Crome Yellow (1921)
Huxley's first novel was mentioned in passing by Simon Bucher-Jones during one of those sprawling email conversations shared between a number of subscribers, and then a week later I find a copy in a used book store in Boerne, which might not quite qualify as synchronicity but is probably the next best thing. Naturally I bought it, and have found that it slots pleasantly into a number of my current favourite openings, if you'll excuse the biological image.

Crome Yellow was written partially in response to Huxley's stay at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, then an informal community of artists, writers, and the like. Roughly speaking, it examines the cultural macrocosm of its day through the minutiae of the daily lives and preoccupations of a small group of vaguely creative types, which is to say either that it's a satire, or that Huxley was taking the piss, if you prefer. As such, it manages to be very, very funny without cracking any actual jokes, and through demonstrating sympathy for its subjects as opposed to just pointing at them and laughing, which probably isn't too surprising given that the Denis Stone character is most likely an autobiographical mapping of Huxley's own fears about his career as a writer. He'd suffered with keratitis as a teenager, a condition which eventually cleared up but rendered him near sightless for a couple of years, so, combined with the occurrence of the first world war, it's probably understandable that his writing should carry a certain pensive undertone - doubts expressed at the worth of his own work, and even the value of artistic endeavour as an end in itself.

'Of course,' Mr. Scogan groaned. 'I'll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives amongst artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.'

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. 'You're entirely wrong,' he said. 'My novel is not in the least like that.' It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that very evening when he unpacked.

Having veered uncomfortably close to commenting upon itself in the above passage, Crome Yellow settles into a series of Platonic dialogues examining society, its future, and how ideas of the same are reflected in the arts. In this examination it becomes quite clear how this novel relates to Huxley's later Brave New World in theme if not tone, and of course there are the obvious precursors to that particular line of thought:

Where the great Erasmus Darwin and Miss Anna Seward, swan of Lichfield, experimented—and, for all their scientific ardour, failed—our descendants will experiment and succeed. An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature's hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations.

All philosophies and all religions—what are they but spiritual Tubes bored through the universe! Through these narrow tunnels, where all is recognisably human, one travels comfortable and secure, contriving to forget that all round and below and above them stretches the blind mass of earth, endless and unexplored. Yes, give me the Tube and [Cubism] every time; give me ideas, so snug and neat and simple and well made. And preserve me from nature, preserve me from all that's inhumanly large and complicated and obscure.

It should probably be noted in the event of my having given misleading emphasis, that this is foremost a comic novel - comic as in examination through mockery, yet without quite letting the whole slip over into farce. One of the funniest protracted digressions here is the account of family history given by Henry Wimbush, the story of the dwarf Sir Hercules who marries a woman of similarly diminutive stature and runs the family estate along lines of consistent scale, replacing horses with Shetland ponies and hunting dogs with pugs; and even during this descent into a sort of foreshadowed Peter Cook or Hancock's Half Hour, Huxley plays it absolutely straight.

Crome Yellow still sparkles with wit nearly a hundred years later, and is one of those books which really everyone should read, especially Morrissey.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Darkness on Diamondia

A.E. van Vogt The Darkness on Diamondia (1972)
The planet of Diamondia has been colonised by humans. The native population are tentacled beings called Irsk who apparently maintain some sort of physical and sentient existence after death - although I could have misinterpreted that detail. Some Irsk are friendly and are identified as such by green and white striped clothing, whilst other Irsk are less well disposed towards humanity. Additionally there is this problem with the darkness, a poorly defined phenomenon which seems to cause people's minds to swap bodies, or even to inhabit those of the Irsk. A.E. van Vogt's novels tend to be weird and confusing at the best of times, but this one is peculiar even by his standards.

The narrative dances around in such away as to suggest that van Vogt could have been trying to say something here, and that The Darkness on Diamondia is more than just a sequence of arrestingly puzzling scenarios; but as to what he could have been trying to say...

It's tempting to see the colonisation of the Irsk planet as analogous to the colonisation of America, with the darkness presumably representing some aspect of the natural world, something to which the less technologically developed Irsk were connected in a spiritual sense, even something which the arrival of humans has thrown out of balance:

The adyl was sullen. 'It's well known,' she replied, 'that we live about five-hundred Diamondian years.'

Morton had heard the figure. But he was stubborn about where he got his facts.

And puzzled now. 'That's a long life span,' he said. 'How would you explain such longevity?'

'We Irsk,' she said, 'had a perfect affinity with each other through the darkness. All that is endangered now. And something has to be done quickly. Recently Irsk have died as young as a hundred and thirty. Everybody is alarmed!'

'It could be the war,' said Morton. 'Maybe rebellion isn't good for people.'

'It's better than slavery,' she said acridly.

'History says the Irsk welcomed the first settlers and helped them.'

'It didn't occur to those pure minds,' the girl replied raspingly, 'that their planet was going to be taken over.'

Morton was a pragmatist. 'It's happened—by whatever fashion. Now everyone has to learn to live with it.'

The Irsk as native Americans seems too obvious and simplistic a comparison to me, and isn't really supported elsewhere in the text, at least not that I noticed. I think the key to the above passage may be in the last line, presenting as it does the possibility of there being no  correct answer to a situation. This, I would suggest, at least applies to analogies of the arrival of Europeans in America in that the best one can really say is that it happened, because practically there is no apology big enough, and no recompense which will ever set such wrongs as were committed to right.

Elsewhere in the novel van Vogt wrestles with a dichotomy he defines as finite logic set against infinite logic, and at least some of this argument would seem to apply to the above.

It was an either-or idea. 'Where Edward is, Mary isn't.' Most useful in the great switching systems of computers and such, they said. Those were the days when if a switch or a relay or a transistor didn't work, the engineer would say irritably, 'For God's sake, get us another R2B unit.'

At some deep level of his being, he believed (with 'modern' logic) that all R2B units belonged to a 'set' and they should work, damn it.

And that system kept things in operation, because the human brain sort of understood that sometimes Mary did try to occupy the same space as Edward. And the gap between the set theory and the certainties of the Venn diagrams on the one hand and, on the other, the reality that as the machines grew more complicated, engineers learned from sad experience to furnish back up equipment that could take over in the event of a failure. People even worked out sophisticated MTBF (Mean Time Before Failure) theories for innumerable components.

But there was a day in the twenty-first century when (so the news reports later stated) every machine everywhere stopped. Obviously that was never literally true. But that was the way it looked.

For a day or more science confronted the nightmare product of a logic system that was based upon a mathematics which stated that there is such a thing as a dozen eggs or a dozen duplicate transmitters—in short, a 'set' of eggs or of anything.

Not true.

On that day of total (?) stoppage, every egg on Earth stood up and said, in effect, 'I too am an individual.'

He seems to be scrambling for quantum uncertainty, or fuzzy logic, or something else I don't quite understand most likely related to his interest in Alfred Korzybski's general semantics, but at times it unfortunately resembles the testimony of the nutter at the bus station talking about what has been done to the radiation since Strictly Come Dancing came back on the telly. The fun is, I suppose, to be found somewhere between the suggestion of ideas and the grammar of crazy; but unfortunately, it's not easy to keep one's eye on the ontological ball with all the thrusting and groaning:

The arriving troops had found vast numbers of prostitutes available in all the cities where they were stationed. 'And as you know, Charles, there are no fleshpots anywhere else. Elsewhere the women's unions have such a tight control that life has become a hell for men. We may surmise that Diamondian men never did allow civilisation to make as many inroads on the women situation. And when the Irsk ceased doing all the labor, it forced an economic condition which overnight sent girls out into the street to make a living.'

I think he means well, but he definitely has a weird attitude to women - or prostitutes as they are known in this novel.

'Why are the Diamondian prostitutes angry?' he asked.

'It's a one up thing,' said Kirk. 'Just imagine, they get all the sex and all the men a girl could ever dream of having. And get paid for it. But they can blame the men for being the kind of beasts they are. It's a perfect setup for a girl—you'll agree?'

Well, who could possibly argue with that?

Being a van Vogt novel there's also a superweapon to be found, and Colonel Morton eventually becomes at one with the darkness and hence Godlike by some definition, but I still couldn't say for sure what any of it adds up to, and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow at somewhere around the halfway mark. On the other hand, providing you can overlook all the weird stuff about prostitutes, The Darkness on Diamondia starts well with some of van Vogt's most vividly bizarre and descriptive prose, and remains oddly fascinating even beyond the point at which we lose all track of what the hell is supposed to be happening. So good, I think.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Whole Wide World

Paul McAuley Whole Wide World (2002)
I'm vaguely aware of Paul McAuley having written some Doctor Who novella which was supposed to be good, and although I've read it, I can't even remember what it was called at the moment. More recently his short story Little Lost Robot so impressed me when it turned up in an issue of Interzone as to leave his name lodged in my head when I saw this in the buy it cheap before we pulp the lot sale from which I picked up Beyond the Beyond, Little Fuzzy and others; so what the fuck, I concluded. Why not?

There was some initial hesitation on my part because I recall enjoying Little Lost Robot almost in spite of how it was written, which seemed kind of shrill and screechy with a suggestion of someone trying far too hard. Whole Wide World is similarly shrill and screechy but I realise this is simply how McAuley writes and it actually works once you get used to it, particularly in the context of a hard-boiled cop thriller such as what this is. Part of the screechiness manifests here as pop culture references specific to my generation, and the title itself is of course taken from Wreckless Eric. I have reservations about this sort of deal, just as all those New Adventures with chapters named after songs by the fucking Cure or the Smiths used to irritate the living shit out of me, even if the books themselves were decent, as they sometimes were. It's probably not the fault of the author, but I think it annoys me in apart because it's the sort of thing I used to do before I learned how to write - chuck in a few references to your fave band so everyone knows how cool you are and hopefully nobody will notice that you can't write; plus I'm still horrified by the continued existence of terminally beige Doctor Who authors of a certain vintage whose work these days mainly comprises hanging around on bulletin boards having opinions and making joking references to having once been a contender. If you're not sure what I mean here, just find some Who themed forum and look for threads debating which was the greatest Style Council album.

Anyway, it's irritating but McAuley just about gets away with it because the rest is so engaging as for you not to notice. Although that said, the novel is not without its problems in other respects. Amongst these, the most pronounced is probably it being centred around the inevitably gruesome murder of a teenage girl who, for the purpose of the plot, may as well be a prostitute. The video of her murder is all over the internet so as to make a number of somewhat blunt points about voyeurism, freedom of information, and so on; but the choice of victim tends to align the work with a thousand other lazily-drawn dramas in which we don't have to worry too much about the pivotal bucket of bloody innards because it was only a prostitute and was therefore probably complicit in its own murder by some means. So at heart, Whole Wide World may as well be Lynda La Plante with aspirations.

Some of those aspirations were apparently sufficiently advanced in 2002 as to justify this being published as a science-fiction, but most of the technology fetishised herein has since become commonplace, leaving the novel as a weird kind of period piece in which everyone still smokes in the pub. It sort of strains towards William Gibson, but just doesn't quite have the language; and by the time our man jumps in his car and blasts out his tape of the Clash, I couldn't keep myself from thinking of Lester Girls and Apache Dick with their beloved Phil Collins album in Gerard Jones' The Trouble with Girls:

Whole Wide World isn't bad of it's type, and is quite possibly above average of its type, so I wasn't bored, just occasionally disappointed. This is mainly because it isn't really about anything. It just sort of points at a stack of porn and a CCTV camera whilst pulling a knowing face, and that's your lot. Need I say more?

Yes, because you didn't actually finish the sentence, Paul.

Paul McAuley can obviously write. I just think he could afford to be a bit more ambitious than he is here, and a bit less like he's aiming for the airport book stand.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Trouble With Lichen

John Wyndham Trouble With Lichen (1960)
George Formby was concerned about his prize-winning marrow, specifically that it might once again mysteriously go missing the evening before the competition at the church hall and thus fail to win its due prize. He sat by the shed on his allotment with one beady eye fixed securely upon the treasured vegetable, determined to avoid a repeat of last year's shambolic episode in which not only had he failed to deliver the lovingly nurtured and cultivated winning marrow, but the cup had gone to Will Hay for a marrow of suspiciously similar volume and appearance, a marrow which had apparently sprouted during the night on an allotment entirely given over to carrots and turnips. That Will Hay was a shifty one.

George's thoughts were derailed as he heard a sound behind him, the tramp of a wellington boot at the side of his shed, a wellingon boot planted softly on the path - so softly as to suggest that its wearer might prefer to pass undetected.

'Oh - so that's your game, is it?' George chirped, leaping angrily to his feet. He hefted his spade with both hands and swung it directly into the face of the intruder. The blade sprang back chiming like a gong. George pulled himself up to his full height, ready to box the miscreant's ears.

'Ugh,' groaned the floored itinerant, head still vibrating as though he were a character in one of those Mickey Mouse cartoons you see at the pictures. 'Where am I?'

'You're not Will Hay!' George shrieked as the realisation dawned. His eyes popped from his head and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down with rising tumult. 'Oh mother!'

'Who am I?' croaked John Wyndham the popular science-fiction author, and that evening, despite a splitting headache, he sat down at his typewriter and got started on Trouble With Lichen.

That's my theory anyway. I probably should have been forewarned by my mother borrowing this book to read it just as I bought it back from the Oxfam shop, and then reading it with a fairly serious frown for most of that afternoon.

The premise is that a form of lichen is discovered to contain a compound which greatly extends the span of human life. One might see considerable potential in such a story, not least because it's John Wyndham at the wheel, and as we know, John Wyndham was more than capable of spinning a top quality yarn. Unfortunately what he has written here settles into a two-hundred page conversation about marketing once we've got the interesting bit out of the way. It's so heavy with exposition that I'm inclined to wonder whether it might not have been an aborted script for film or television, one which Wyndham perhaps abandoned upon noticing that someone had already made The Man in the White Suit. I actually read up to the last fifty pages and then skipped ahead, every tenth page, just to confirm that the rest was more of the same, as indeed it was. I was that bored.

It isn't quite the cosy catastrophe which Brian Aldiss famously characterises as representing the worst of Wyndham - its tone is as ever informed by Wyndham's class and culture, although there's very little which can be described as twee; but it fails as the satire it's plainly supposed to be because it's just not amusing. In fact, aside from dubious parodies of news items from left-leaning newspapers - all spun from the side-splitting notions of socialist governments nationalising everything and how men who work in factories are mainly interested in titties and beer - it's difficult to tell quite where the satire occurs. Given the emphasis on gossip, rambling conversation, and the cosmetics industry - and of course the proliferation of female characters - I have a horrible feeling that Wyndham may have regarded this book as one for the ladies, and that Trouble With Lichen is this is what a feminist looks like if you happen to be a pipe-smoking home counties chap enjoying a glass of Sherry up at the manor whilst wearing a tweed hunting jacket. I've a hunch this may also explain the occasional references to suffragettes.

'All my life I've been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done... But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they'll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane - or commit suicide out of boredom.'

Jolly good show! Given a couple of hundred years, even the lowliest housewife might learn to think a little more like a chap!

I suppose it's the thought that counts, but it still makes for an extraordinarily dull read. Given Wyndham's record, he's probably allowed a few stinkers, but even the dreaded Pawley's Peepholes isn't quite this awful. More than anything, Trouble With Lichen reads like some droning self-published effort.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Helliconia Spring

Brian Aldiss Helliconia Spring (1982)
I hadn't really planned to read the Helliconia trilogy despite its admittedly intriguing premise, partially because the thing looked enormous and I tend to prefer shorter works, and partially because it's Brian Aldiss. Of the man's novels, those I've thus far read have all been excellent, even exceptional, but his short stories are so bad as to have somewhat soured my view of the man, or at least to sour my view just enough as to inspire a certain reluctance when it comes to further toes dipped into the authorial pool, so to speak; but Mrs. Pamphlets and I were at some clearancey warehouse thing, and every book was to be sold off at just twenty-five cents a pop, and there were the other two - Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, due to be pulped if no-one bought them. Naturally I couldn't just leave them to their fate, and so then I had to hunt down Helliconia Spring because obviously I'm not going to read just the second and third part.

The aforementioned intriguing premise is of Helliconia being a world taking several thousand years to orbit its sun - or at least its principal sun - with seasons lasting about six-hundred years. This is, I suppose, partially why I thought fuck it and decided to read the thing: Aldiss gives good environment, it being more or less the main focus of those novels of his which I've read - Hothouse, Non-Stop, and the superb novella length Total Environment; and even the narratives of Earthworks and Frankenstein Unbound are determined to a significant extent by their settings. He does it again here with a developing civilisation repeatedly thrown back into its own stone age by the dramatic cycle of climate, forming a social history with the memory of an admittedly long-lived goldfish. Particularly satisfying is how Aldiss has really pulled out the stops with this one, which I guess is why it needed to be a trilogy. The main character is the history of the people of Helliconia, and here we focus on the subterranean dwelling remnants of what may have been some previous civilisation as they emerge from the ground to build themselves a new stone age as the snow retreats - for the first time so far as anyone can tell, except obviously it isn't. We experience the rebirth of mythology, science, and politics as illustrated through rudimentary society with the kind of focus which reminds me of the first few episodes of Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation television series, at least more so than it reminds me of any other novel I've read. Accordingly it's the big picture which matters, meaning - oddly - that, the details are not always of such consequence as they might be, and that the characters aren't so significant as the patterns formed by their lives. Keeping track of unfamiliar names is therefore not such an issue as it would be had Aldiss written with more obviously dynastic intent. This means that what might under other circumstances constitute a slog makes for an improbably breezy read given its page count and tendency to shuffle rather than run.

Ultimately the point of the book is revealed as being about nothing less than history itself and the vital importance of our being able to comprehend it fully.
'Do you understand that? Understanding is harder than slitting throats, isn't it? To comprehend fully what I tell you, you must first understand and then grasp the understanding with your imagination, so that the facts live. Our year is four-hundred and eighty days long, that we know. That is the time we take on Hrl-Ichor to make a complete circle about Batalix. But there is another circle to be made, the circle of Batalix and our world about Freyr. Are you prepared to hear the word? It takes eighteen-hundred and twenty-five small years... Imagine that great year! ...Until our day, few could imagine it! For each of us can expect only forty years of life. It would take forty-six of our lifetimes to add up to one whole circle of this world about Freyr. Many of our lives find no echo, yet are part of that greater thing. That is why such knowledge is difficult to grasp and easy to lose in time of trouble.'

In terms of our own political situation, this seems particular relevant now given the rise to power of a deafeningly vocal minority who apparently need the invention of the wheel explaining to them all over again. I have no idea how Helliconia will continue, but it starts well, is beautifully constructed and written, and is greatly more profound than may be obvious at first glance.