Wednesday, 27 April 2016

I Thought Solihull Was For Snobs

Paul Panic I Thought Solihull Was For Snobs (2015)
I'll always have room for one more punky history book, despite having read some fairly shitty efforts over the years. This effort comes from some bloke who was singer for the Accused. You may not have heard of the Accused and I suppose they might be deemed insignificant in the great scheme of things. They failed to tickle the grown-up charts, but Peel played them, and it sounds like anyone who ever saw them live probably had a decent time, or failing that a memorable one. I myself had heard of them, although I can't quite remember where; but this looked interesting, not least because it details what was going on at the edge of my world, Shipston-on-Stour where I lived when I was growing up as the seventies turned into the eighties. I was about three years behind this lot but there's plenty of common ground.

Could have used an editor, I thought flicking through as it turned up in the mail, picking up on a certain tone and some wacky punctuation of a kind which normally gets on my tits; but it was just a fleeting impression, and is revealed as redundant by firstly the disclaimer of the book having been written in true DIY punk spirit with the author making no apologies for bad grammar, slang, self-indulgence, attitude, bad memory recall, or lack of writing skills; and secondly by the book itself. It's always a pleasure to read any history of any aspect of punk which doesn't waste either pages or brain cells on idiots like Malcolm McLaren, or banging on about Situationism or the sodding Sex Pistols boat trip or boring New York poetry circles; so this one scores highly with me because it really gets to what it was all about, right there on the shop floor with the sheer excitement of forming a band regardless of playing ability, of staying up to catch Peel, of being young and realising there's more to life than the shite Dave Lee sodding Travis was playing on the radio. In fact, this is probably one of the better books I've seen written about punk - at least up there with Stewart Home's Cranked Up Really High, and at the opposite end of the scale to the pointless photographic paving slab written by that knob from Blue Rondo a la Twat.

On a more personal note, it's also kind of thrilling to read something making intimate reference to so many parts of my own teenage landscape - Birmingham and Solihull having been the big bad city for me, Look Hear presented by a young Toyah Willcox, Coventry's Alternative Sounds fanzine, gigs at the Mermaid and Fighting Cocks, bands such as the Photos getting noticed; and there's even a couple of more direct connections - as a paper boy I used to deliver the Daily Telegraph to the home of one of the Ideal Husbands, and then I used to write to David from Urge when he moved to Holland and started recording as Scram Ju Ju, and Jesus - the fanzines I used to churn out back in the nineties were even printed at the same place that did this book. The list could go on but probably shouldn't, and doesn't really even relate to why I found this such a cracking read.

It probably doesn't matter if you weren't there, because Paul Panic was, and he communicates the whole thing as a sort of universal experience which probably wouldn't work half so well had he adopted a more formal tone. What you get has the conversational rhythm of tales related in the pub by a natural wit, so even when he wanders off on some peculiar tangent, it all seems to work and hold together. The account of stuffing forty or fifty friends, fans, and band members in the back of a tiny van and driving them down to Weymouth for a disastrous gig is probably worth the cover price alone, and should be savoured before someone turns it into a self-consciously cute film with Bandersnatch Cucumber and gets it all hopelessly wrong.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Word for World is Forest

Ursula LeGuin The Word for World is Forest (1972)
I realise that James Cameron's Avatar borrows from a great variety of sources - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dances with Wolves, and the Smurfs to name but three - but it really feels like a massive fucking chunk of it came from this novella, albeit with a few other bits bolted on so as to save the effects guy being stood around all day twiddling his thumbs and looking bored. It's a short novel, really more of a novella, which originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions anthology. The story concerns a bunch of industrially motivated human colonists pissing off the natives of a largely arboreal world, and I would guess refers to the historical colonial treatment of native populations in general, particularly in North America and more recently the Amazon, with a sizeable chunk of Vietnam war thrown in. The little guys get treated like shit and so they fight back, and the book carries the kind of ecological message you would probably hope it would carry unless you're some sort of finance-based Republicrat Randian machine consciousness; and it carries the message well, without sermonising or reducing everything to black and white. Having been drawn from the LeGuin spigot, The Word for World is Forest is of course beautifully written in pastoral terms as the sort of rustically poetic folk saga she does so well. My only criticism, I suppose, is that you pretty much know how the story will turn out just from the title and the cover painting even before you've flipped the thing over to read the blurb on the reverse; so although highly readable, it's also kind of short and a little lacking in surprises. Then again, it was written as a long-ish short story and does it's job as such, so I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Lost in Space

George O. Smith Lost in Space (1960)
Sorry - Will Robinson isn't in any danger here. It's no relation, despite the title. This is another that found its way onto my shelves by virtue of being an Ace Double and therefore Siamese twin to something I wanted to read. Here's the lowdown from the inside front cover:

Commodore Ted Wilson's intuition told him right! He should never have let his fianceé, Alice Hemingway, take off on Space Liner 79—the flight that fate had singled out to change the destiny of the galaxy!

Once out in deep space the ship's engines failed and Alice found herself stranded in a tiny lifeship with two amorous men. Besides this, there was no way for Wilson to find them except by combing the light-years of all space for tiny craft.

'I'm guessing that probably wasn't written by a woman,' my wife observed as I read it out loud to her, and of course she's right. I don't know much about George O. Smith beyond that he wasn't a woman, had quite a lot of stuff published in Astounding Science Fiction, and was a member of a men-only literary banqueting club alongside Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey, according to Wikipedia. Additionally, I'm inclined to wonder whether he may have served in either the army, navy or air force. This I deduce from the slightly stilted social interaction of his jet-setting characters, even if a few of them may occasionally have the top button undone with the cap set at a jaunty angle.

Lost in Space reads like a poor cousin to Asimov, although Isaac could usually pull it off with a little more style than this - or at least leave readers feeling as though they've learnt something. Wooden characters go through the motions, and Alice Hemingway keeps her hand securely on her ha'penny whilst marooned in the void with her randy boss and a vaguely dashing spaceliner pilot. The creakier material of this sort alternates with unexpected flourishes of hard science, or possibly firm but slightly pliable science given that all the discussion of particles and infrawaves feel sciency rather than actually informative, and I wouldn't swear that any of it is genuinely based on anything. There's a fairly enjoyable paragraph about the infinite mass achieved at speeds faster than light warping space, but I've a feeling Smith was just making it up. He just isn't the communicator that Asimov was.

While Alice concentrates on not being entered by her fellow castaways, Commodore Ted Wilson discusses search vectors, and the whole thing is observed from afar by a warlike alien space fleet. This is the first time they've encountered humans, and debate rages as to whether they should kill, eat, enslave, or buddy up to their new cosmic neighbours. What's disconcerting is that the debate rages more or less like a bunch of pipe-smoking advertising executives hanging around in a bar, necessitating one of Smith's slightly peculiar asides to explain how he's translated the conversation into terms we readers will understand, because obviously they wouldn't be speaking English, and when using expressions such as top dog or cool cat, the animals to which they refer are simply the closest alien equivalents to those with which we are familiar. No less disconcerting are the fairly frequent references to ancient history. Those future people sure spend a lot of time thinking about how much everything has changed since the fifties.

She decided to drop the discussion as pointless, so headed for the bathroom. A hot shower and a quick tubbing of her underclothing were on her mind. Her garments, of course, would dry instantly. She had to smile a little. To think that a hundred years ago women thought something they called nylon was wonderful because it was fairly quick-drying! Not instantaneous, of course, as was the material of which her lingerie was made.

Yes. Just imagine.

Lost in Space is fairly readable, for all that it accidentally punches itself in the face about once every five pages, and Smith patently wasn't without talent so much as an inability to recognise his own strengths and write to them accordingly; but all the same, I'm glad it wasn't any longer.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The White Mountains

John Christopher The White Mountains (1967)
Annoyingly it turns out that I almost read this one when I was a kid, back when I belonged to the age group for which it was specifically written. I almost read it in so much as that I borrowed it from Kenilworth public library. My granddad used to take me there presumably in the hope of my developing a taste for books; and I did develop a taste for books, but not necessarily for reading them if they had no pictures inside and weren't related to something on telly, as this one didn't and wasn't, leaving just the starkly vivid cover of the Hamish Hamilton hardback to imprint itself on my slightly guilty consciousness.

As I read The White Mountains it took me a while to recognise it as the thing I once almost read, which I recalled only as a cover and a vague hint of heavily recycled H.G. Wells. I understood there had been a television series made of it at some stage, but that was after I left home so I never saw the thing.

Anyway, this book is fucking great, and I really wish I'd made the effort to read it back then. The inspiration drawn from H.G. Wells  is massive and obvious in so much as that the Tripods are his war machines lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds - inscrutable three legged mechanical alien tosspots differentiated only by their tendency to enslave rather than to exterminate - and yet the setting they inhabit is so distinctly its own thing that you don't really notice. This could be the sequel to Wells' story about three hundred years down the line had a few of the Tripods developed some sort of space Lemsip, but it doesn't really matter that it isn't.

The White Mountains describes future humanity reduced to a semi-feudal, effectively mediaeval existence as told through the eyes of its protagonist, a young boy soon to be Capped. Capping is what happens in this world when you reach the age of fourteen, it being some sort of implant performed by the Tripods designed to keep you compliant and docile as you reach maturity. Naturally our boy is suspicious and decides to run away from home, to seek the White Mountains where, so he's been told, humanity lives free beyond the reach of the invaders; and the White Mountains turn out to be somewhere in France, thus entailing all sorts of moderately harrowing adventures as our boy crosses land and even sea to get there.

The message is simple and is delivered without either sermonising or, conversely, any doubt of there being a message, namely concerning a healthy distrust of authority and the value of asking questions. This applies to the Tripods, but more so to the ruling human classes, those sanctioned by the aliens. Whilst the Tripods are terrible, they remain remote and mysterious, more in the line of an explanation for the shape of this blindly obedient society than as your traditional massed forces of alien evil. One of the most challenging choices to be made comes when our guy realises how much easier it would be to settle comfortably amongst the French aristocracy with whom he takes shelter.

I had travelled a long road since leaving the village, not only in hard reality but in my attitude towards people. More and more I had come to see the Capped as lacking what seemed to me the essence of humanity, the vital spark of defiance against the rulers of the world. And I had despised them for it—despised even, for all their kindness and goodness to me, the Comte and Comtesse.

But not Eloise. I had thought her free, like myself. I might even have come to the idea—its beginnings, I think, were in my mind already—that when we set off once more for the White Mountains, there might not be three of us, but four. All this was rendered futile by the sight of her bare head. I had come to think of her as my friend: perhaps more. But now I knew that she belonged, irretrievably, body and soul, to the enemy.

It's a children's book as children's books should be - in my opinion - defined by a focus on the sort of characters with whom younger readers will most likely identify without any sacrifice in quality, without talking down to anyone, and with some sort of actual content, something important which is communicated beyond just having a load of trainee wizards flying around for the sake of it.

I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this as much when I was eight as I have done at fifty, and had I done so it might have got me into the habit of reading something other than Terrance fucking Dicks, but never mind.

The one I almost read.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Bug Jack Barron

Norman Spinrad Bug Jack Barron (1969)
I vaguely recall having been put off Spinrad by one of his short stories in an old New Worlds collection, and put off mainly by prose quite clearly written by a man wearing sunglasses and a beret, smoking one of those LSD cigarettes and listening to jazz - I say man but I really mean some cat; and yet it is this same be bop mangling of language which makes Bug Jack Barron such a great book. Bug Jack Barron is a TV show in which viewers are invited to call in on their futuristic vidphones and bug the host - Jack Barron - about whatever political issue of the day might be bothering them. Barron then vidphones the person or politician responsible live on air and gives them a hard time, and the viewing figures for the show are such that only an idiot would pretend to be otherwise engaged when Barron calls. The book moves slowly in terms of events, taking its time to pick over numerous moral quandaries and to establish an entirely plausible future more or less resembling the present but for a few minor details; yet it doesn't feel at all slow, its first person testimony tearing along with the breakneck pace of a Stan Brakhage film somehow comprising a stream of consciousness rendered as highly caffeinated hipster jargon - James Joyce and William Burroughs collaborating on an episode of Mad Men with a whole load of Lenny Bruce and Marshall McLuhan thrown in for flavour.

As the elevator stopped, Barron looked at the nameless girl clutching his hand, saw the honey-blonde-dyed hair big brown eyes slightly-prosthetic made-for-balling body, saw the latest in interminable line of honey-blonde big-eyed not-Saras, felt pattern enmeshing him like fate, like creature plugged into Kismet-relay circuitry, felt stronger-than-lust weaker-than-love thing for the nameless girl, girl hungry for living-colour image-prick of world-famous Jack Barron.

It can be disorientating but it's really worth hanging on in view of where the story takes us.

I noticed a few Biblical parallels - Jack's symbolic crucifixion and himself and Sara as Adam and Eve tempted by the serpentine Benedict Howards. Actually, they're hard to miss.

'Think about what that means every morning when you wake up, knowing it's all there forever—the way food tastes, the way a woman's body feels, the smell of the air—all of it yours, and all of it forever. Wouldn't you sell your soul for that? Wouldn't anyone? Because you wouldn't need a soul to go somewhere and play a harp when you croak. You'd have it all, right here on terra firma. Forever.... Forever....'

'You sound like you're about to breathe fire and brimstone and ask me to sign a contract in blood,' Barron remarked dryly.

Bug Jack Barron is one of those striking a deal with the devil tales, so I'm sure such imagery is intentional, and the context is capitalist society, specifically the media-driven American version with the significant and still very much relevant problem of morality being defined by the highest bidder. As is probably obvious from the above quote, millionaire industrialist Benedict Howards develops a process which facilitates immortality and is busily buying up senators and congressmen whilst killing at least one president who refuses to play ball. Contrast is provided with snapshots of black America, those getting shat upon at the bottom of the heap for whom Jack Barron has become a televisual campaigner, injustice being his bread and butter in terms of ratings. Howards' brand of immortality comes with a terrible price - as the cliché has it - at which point the novel veers off in the general direction of stomach churning body horror, or at least enough so as to make its point quite clear.

I dislike body horror, generally speaking, having thus far failed to find myself in any way excited by the thought of someone having a penis sewn onto their face - that being the level of thematic thrust the genre so often seems to employ in lieu of actually bothering to tell a fucking story. If anyone feels that such a view represents some kind of censorship or perhaps a violation of their human rights, screw you and grow the fuck up. Winky face. Winky face.

Anyway, Bug Jack Barron does its job extremely well without quite sticking fingers down the readers throat, which is nice; and given the present state of politics and society as it is here in America, this book is at least as relevant as it ever was, arguably more so, and not even the author snapping his fingers with an mmm mmm yeah every few paragraphs quite manages to date it. In fact, when Spinrad names Reagan as having been president - as he does at several intervals - it blends so seamlessly with the landscape that I had to remind myself of this having been written in the sixties.

Possibly the only detail which Spinrad seems to have passed over is the role of the media which here appears less insidious than has been the case in recent years; although passages such as the following suggest this is more to do with the novel focussing on the wider society than any oversight on the author's part:

He put a razor in the last word, signalled to Vince to give him three-quarters screen and zingo, Howards was a scared little twerp cowering below him in the hotseat. He suddenly realised that to the hundred million people on the other side of the screen, what they saw there was reality, reality that was realer than real because a whole country was sharing the direct sensory experience; it was history taking place right before their eyes, albeit non-event history that existed only on the screen. A strange chill went through him as for the first time he got a full gut-reality flash of the unprecedented power wielded by his image on the screen.

Grazing the internet, I find that this seems to be one of those novels which divides people in so much as that some have apparently hated it, even described it as unreadable and slow. As is probably obvious, I belong in the other camp. I suppose my only criticism would be that I've personally never seen the appeal of immortality, but then that isn't really what the book is about, so it's not a problem.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tik-Tok of Oz

L. Frank Baum Tik-Tok of Oz (1914)
Being absolutely and without ambiguity a children's book, this seemed perhaps a little out of my way, but what the hell, I thought, I read Adventures of the Wishing-Chair not that long ago and there's a robot on the cover. Tik-Tok isn't actually a robot, historically speaking, because the term derives from Karel Čapek's RUR which was written in 1920. Here he's referred to as a mechanical man. Mechanical men and related automata have been turning up in western literature at least since Homer's Iliad, whenever that was. Tik-Tok himself first turned up in Baum's Ozma of Oz of 1907 and his genesis probably began even further back in 1899 with the Cast-iron Man from Baum's A New Wonderland. What makes Tik-Tok interesting is that he's clearly identified as something manufactured, essentially a consumer product designed to perform with no agency of magic as was the case for at least a few of his forerunners; so he's a robot by modern standards.

I gather this probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise given Baum's attempt to revise the established tradition of children's fairy tales - excising much of the violence, the romance which he doubted held much appeal to his readers, and presenting an arguably more pragmatic take on the form than seemed traditional. Baum's narrative - at least here - is roughly a mash-up of the Brothers Grimm with some of the nonsense of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, whilst additionally being substantially more than just the sum of those two parts. From what I can tell, Baum seems to have been a politically progressive individual, which is at least how it looks from reading this one. His world and its characters - notably the likes of Dorothy and Betsy, seem removed from the sort of class hierarchy into which Carroll's Alice was firmly cemented, and his royals are judged by their actions rather than hereditary or special endorsement from God, which seems happily appropriate for an American author.

'Most noble Private Soldier, I must inform you that by the laws of our country anyone who comes through the Forbidden Tube must be tortured for nine days and ten nights and then thrown back into the Tube. But it is wise to disregard laws when they conflict with justice, and it seems that you and your followers did not disobey our laws willingly, being forced into the Tube by Ruggedo. Therefore the Nome King is alone to blame, and he alone must be punished.'

I gather Ruggedo was more or less the villain of the Oz books, and that he came back to piss everyone off time and again, so it's interesting that even he comes to his senses and says sorry at the end of this one. This dispenses with the traditional absolutes of the form wherein evil is both remote and beyond redemption, instead replacing it with something a little more realistic with which the audience can identify because no-one is really too much worse than the kid who steals your pencil, pulls your hair, and then sticks his tongue out at you; and further to the whole spirit of keeping it real, or at least vaguely rooted in the modern world, even Thomas Edison gets a mention, as does radium - as discovered in 1898; and famously, it transpires that Baum, during a moment of particularly Gernsbackian inspiration, foresaw the mobile telephone:

At first they could not understand it at all; but presently Shaggy suspected the truth, and believing that Ozma was now taking an interest in the party, he drew from his pocket a tiny instrument which he placed against his ear.

Ozma, observing this action in her Magic Picture, at once caught up a similar instrument from a table beside her and held it to her own ear. The two instruments recorded the same delicate vibrations of sound and formed a wireless telephone, an invention of the Wizard. Those separated by any distance were thus enabled to converse together with perfect ease and without any wire connection.

I could probably get carried away and speculate as to whether any of Tik-Tok of Oz was informed by then ominous warlike rumblings across Europe, but I suspect any points made which may seem related with hindsight were probably more general. Further to the theme of not letting ourselves get too carried away, it struck me that at least some of Baum's narrative seems woven from the same broad thrust of ominous surrealism which informs Germanic or Slavik folk tales - the sort of thing involving huts strolling around on chicken legs; which leads us to his gnomes, or rather nomes. My knowledge is somewhat sketchy at this point but there seems to be some vaguely anti-Semitic implication to those races of little subterranean men hoarding their gold and precious metals, and then we come to the expulsion of Ruggedo, king of the Nomes:

'Again I beg to differ with Your Majesty,' said Quox. 'The great Jinjin commands you to depart instantly from this Kingdom and seek the earth's surface, where you will wander for all time to come, without a home or country, without a friend or follower, and without any more riches than you can carry with you in your pockets.'

I suspect this was simply Baum borrowing from the folk myth of the Wandering Jew rather than anything approaching any kind of racial allusion, given that the same would contradict the generous spirit of the book as a whole. Baum's only noted posthumously contentious observations on any matter of race seem to have been a couple of editorials written for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer which appear unusually harsh and written from a position of substantial ignorance, but which are difficult to characterise as directly racist in any meaningful sense; not that this has much bearing on Tik-Tok.

So, you may be wondering, did I actually like the fucking thing?

The prose is of a kind written so as to leave behind as few children as possible, and I suppose lacks the poetry of Alice; and the story is fairly thin, the usual deal with a whole bunch of people going off to do something or other whilst accumulating increasingly weird pals on the way, but then if you're reading this expecting anything else, you're probably a bit of an idiot. The point of Tik-Tok of Oz, at least besides the conduction of any low-level lessons in morality, is to entertain small children with a bewildering array of bizarre characters, corny jokes, and general insanity; and it does this extremely well, and without quite pandering as Enid Blyton did from time to time. Personally I could have done with a little more Tik-Tok given that his name appears in the title, and I occasionally had a vague sensation of this having been but number eight to roll off the L. Frank Baum assembly line, but otherwise it seems a good-natured little tome and it's hard to find fault with it. I would have liked a little more description, or at least enough to keep me from visualising that guy out of Insane Clown Posse every time Shaggy Man gets a mention, but that's hardly Baum's fault.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Half Past Human

T.J. Bass Half Past Human (1971)
I read The Godwhale by the same guy a while back. The Godwhale  was the second of the only two full length novels he wrote. Bass was, or possibly is, some sort of medical geezer, one who has penned a number of serious looking scientific textbooks, and his fiction is heavily informed by a thorough understanding of nutrition intake, codones, phenotypes, mutation, and so on. Accordingly The Godwhale gets off to a frankly astonishing start, describing the miserable existence of future humans sustained by engineered tapeworms inhabiting the sewer pipes of their hive, after which the novel inexplicably dissolves into undifferentiated narrative sludge making it a real struggle to get to that last page. Half Past Human inhabits the same future world of our remote hive-dwelling descendants and, being the first book, it seemed a safe bet. When Bass was good, he was amazing, and he must have done something right if they paid for a second volume of this stuff.

Unfortunately and peculiarly, Half Past Human suffers from the same problems as its sequel, getting off to a great start on a vividly rendered, entirely unfamiliar and seriously weird future Earth. Four-toed humans are crammed into subterranean hives where the dead are recycled as nutrition-rich patties because every little helps, as they say down at Tesco, whilst mechanical agromecks tend crops on the surface, troubled only by small bands of five-toed throwback humans who have reverted to a stone age level of civilisation; and then some other stuff happens for the remaining two thirds of the page count. Some of the other stuff is to do with a robot guitar called Gitar who floats around on his sound box and becomes a major player in the cult of Olga, a pseudo-religious belief system developed from half-remembered knowledge of a colony ship which left Earth many years before; and what I took from this was that not even a fucking robot guitar could save the story.
The craft landed and opened its hatch. Gitar floated out on his peanut magnet's sandwich field. Val nocked an arrow.

'Planning on shooting me?' asked Gitar, pushing the arrow aside with his tractor beam.

What the fuck is a sandwich field? Whilst we're asking, what the blow jobbing sloppy seconds is a peanut magnet when it's at home? This passage appears in the last chapter and it's the first I've heard of either sandwich fields or peanut magnets, although admittedly there may have been some reference I missed whilst zoning out during passages of this general kind:
Walter accepted the massive muscles as a reflection of the physical existence outside the hive. The buckeye's elevated neurohumoral axis resulted in hypertrophy of the vestigial endocrine organs—ten times larger than the Nebish. Kaia's pituitary was so large that Walter could see it with his naked eye. Citizen pituitaries were microscopic. Adipose tissue was almost absent— Cachexia, a Nebish body had a specific gravity of less than 0.85. It always floated. Kaia's body read 1.005. It sank in fresh water.

Well, it would, wouldn't it. Obviously.

The problem is that although it isn't all like that, there's enough of it to get in the way of anything which might actually be trying to tell a story; and so all the hard work which has gone into the kind of science-porn I might find fascinating given a chance, is wasted, resulting in what may as well be derived from a transporter accident involving Richard Dawkins and Mark E. Smith. There's a great book in here somewhere, but then there are forty-seven potentially great books presently sat on my to be read pile which remained untouched whilst I forced myself to finish this shit, and I'm willing to bet that very few of them will present quite such a slog as Half Past Human.

It's probably not so bad as I may have made it sound, but there's a massive margin for how much better it should have been.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Black Cloud

Fred Hoyle The Black Cloud (1957)
I had been trying to get hold of this one ever since I saw Dawkins rate it on one of those books you read as a kid shows, back when Dawkins was less annoying. The one I ordered from Amazon turned out to be an abridged effort printed for schools, about as thick as an After Eight mint and with half of the already reduced page count taken up by teachers notes and questions along the lines of why did the scientist think the Earth would become colder when the Black Cloud arrived? My friend Andy told me there was no point reading an abridged Black Cloud, so I didn't.

Nevertheless I kept looking because I'd promised myself I would find the thing, and was buoyed along by a vague childhood memory of my granny having fetched another Fred Hoyle science-fiction novel from the mobile library for me to read when I was ill. Only recently have I positively identified said novel as having been Into Deepest Space, not Neutron Star as I remember for some peculiar reason given that the latter title refers to a collection of short stories by Larry Niven. Anyway, I enjoyed Into Deepest Space immensely, so it was probably the first science-fiction novel I read, not counting Doctor Who books based on television shows.

Of course, Fred Hoyle was primarily a scientist, and one who now seems best known for having duffed up Stephen Hawking around the back of the bike sheds on occasions when the latter failed to cough up his dinner money, although the psychological underpinning of the battering was probably something to do with Hawking's theories supplanting Hoyle's steady state model of the universe. Hoyle seems to have been somewhat discredited in recent years, which is a shame as I still think the steady state is a nice idea and not entirely without merit, although some of the stuff he cooked up with that Chandra Wickramasinghe was obviously complete bollocks.

Anyway, I kept an eye open and thus made purchase of two cowritten novels - The Andromeda Breakthrough with John Elliott, and Seven Steps to the Sun with his offspring, Geoffrey Hoyle. They're pretty much unreadable, hard science diluted with a load of crap which I suspect some editor may have suggested would help sell the books - Ian Flemingisms and unconvincing references to the manly pursuit of smoking a pipe whilst making lurve to a beautiful woman. In spite of this, my search continued and has at last been rewarded.

Hard science-fiction is sort of the Paul Weller of science-fiction literature, I suppose - plenty of clenching and suggestions of commitment and less of the prancing around in dresses or talking about feelings; or page after page of top scientists having conversations about different kinds of proton, if you prefer - the kind of thing by which Isaac Asimov made his name. That said, in hard science-fiction terms, Asimov reads like one of Michael Moorcock's more inscrutably peculiar efforts compared to The Black Cloud.

The story is fairly simple - a massive cloud of dark gas approaches the solar system and comes to rest, blocking out the sun. The Earth freezes, everything begins to die, and it looks as though we're fucked until the point at which a group of plucky scientists realise that the cloud is intelligent and that communication is possible, and I won't spoil the rest. Most of this is told in a fashion which I would describe as plodding were I a less patient man, alternating passages reading more like essays than fiction, and droning conversations about protons and temperature differentials amongst numerous tweedy scientists, with the occasional light-hearted cricketing reference just to break it up a bit. It should be terrible, but the reader is quickly accustomed to this somewhat stilted style because that which is discussed, if not quite gripping, is certainly interesting.

Four days earlier in London a remarkable meeting had been held in the rooms of the Royal Astronomical Society. The meeting had been called, not by the Royal Astronomical Society itself, but by the British Astronomical Association, an association essentially of amateur astronomers.

Charles Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, travelled by train in the early afternoon to London for the meeting. It was unusual for him, the most theoretical of theoreticians, to be attending a meeting of amateur observers. But there had been rumours of unaccounted discrepancies in the positions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Kingsley didn't believe it, but he felt that scepticism should rest on solid ground, so he ought to hear what the chaps had to say about it.

Hold onto your hats, kids, because here we fucking go!!!

Seriously, in spite of itself, there's something in the tone and pacing of The Black Cloud which holds it all together. Despite the tweedier qualities, the somewhat predictable subtext of how everything would be better if we let scientists run the show, the suggestion of worldly experience which doesn't go much beyond handing in end of term papers and then enjoying a jolly old spot of cricket, despite all of its crankier qualities, The Black Cloud is an impressively solid novel, and - much to my surprise - one that has been worth every second of the wait. I suppose this is because, rather than having someone else come along to strip in details which might appeal to those who didn't actually want to read a science-fiction novel in the first place, Hoyle writes to his own strengths. There are some wonderful engrossing passages, not least the thoroughly convincing speculation on how intelligent life might develop within a cloud of interstellar gas, and even a few amusing steady state gags incorporated into discussion of the anthropic principal and even religion - one in the eye for the exploding-universe boys, as Hoyle puts it. The sobriety of the narrative lends the events of the story a greater and more chilling weight than one might experience were the tale to be told in more poetic terms. This shit could actually happen.

So Dawkins was right - The Black Cloud really is a classic.