Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Last Interview

Philip K. Dick & David Streitfeld (editor) The Last Interview (2015)
I'd told myself I wasn't going to buy any more books until I'd got through the thirteen or so left on my to be read pile, seeing as said pile has been up in the forties and fifties for the best part of the last three years; and there I was so close to beating the thing, and soon I would know the joy of being able to buy a book and just start reading the fucker right there; but we were in Austin and this was too much to resist, particularly as I was previously unaware of its existence.

I have copies of a couple of the tapes from which some of this material is taken, but here we have the benefit of an editor to cut through the awkward pauses, mumbling, and background noise of Mrs. Dick putting on the chip pan to make Phil's tea; so mostly this is concentrated Dick, in a manner of speaking, and is as such gripping. Most of the really crazy stuff is thankfully limited to the final interview, and the majority of what is reproduced here spans his somewhat more lucid phases of the seventies. What has surprised me the most is that my impression of the man has shifted once again after reading this collection, and slightly for the better. His wearying attitude to women as being either embittered controlling harridans or else dark-haired versions of magic pixie girl but with bigger tits seems a thankfully lesser aspect of his psychology, as it is revealed here, and he was, if anything, a man who understood his own failings. Additionally, the extent and development of his blossoming psychosis seems well mapped, dispensing with the customarily overstated ambiguity of how much of that stuff he really believed and by what criteria. So for most of the page count, he comes across as interesting and likable, and of such genuine insight as to warrant all that is claimed by his posthumous reputation. Only at the end, in the final interview, do we meet a version of Phil pretty much consumed by his own mania, and we can almost sense the interviewer desperately wanting to get away; which makes it all the more terrible when we come to the last page and discover that Dick suffered a stroke the very next day, never spoke again, and would be dead within a couple of weeks. It's as though we've been allowed a final snapshot of the point at which his own consciousness began to eat him alive.

Dick's posthumous reputation has been so inflated in recent years - partially thanks to the tsunami of dubious blue and orange adaptations for film and television - that the backlash was inevitable, particularly as he was a flawed individual in certain respects, as are many of us. So it's good to be reminded that, regardless of anything else, he remains amongst the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

The Space Merchants

Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth The Space Merchants (1952)
It has been impressed upon me for the last couple of years, or at least since I read New Maps of Hell, that this was the Kornbluth collaboration I really needed to read. I therefore kept looking, despite A Mile Beyond the Moon and others; and at last, here we are.

I thought it would be funnier, and I'm not sure it entirely lives up to expectations - although my expectations were fairly nebulous - but otherwise, yes - I can see that the hype is at least partially justified. Written in the fifties, The Space Merchants predicts a future which has turned out unfortunately like the present and, oddly, foreshadows Philip K. Dick's projections of where capitalism was headed - could be either the influence of this book or great minds thinking alike. Where Dick would incorporate the occasional scene of advertising drones attaching themselves to the hood of one's flying car and attempting to sell you toothpaste while you're trying to concentrate on driving, here the emphasis is much heavier, darker, arguably more sarcastic - maybe like a more overtly dystopian take on Mad Men.

The writing is lively and literate without ever quite crossing over into the jabbering of which Kornbluth was occasionally guilty, and it has the feel of one of those science-fiction novels you can usually smuggle in under the radar of those who might ordinarily wrinkle noses unless it's Wells or Wyndham. Our tale relates the story of an advertising executive who falls from grace and ends up fighting for survival at the bottom end of the economic totem pole, a victim of those forces he once helped perpetuate. Inevitably, his fall from grace brings an awakening, although I have to admit I found the last quarter - from chapter fourteen onwards - a little bewildering and hence unsatisfying in comparison with that which went before, although not enough so as to diminish the whole.

As an aside, the suffering underclass here depicted as justifiably disgruntled bordering on heroic suggests that Kornbluth's supposed sympathy for eugenics - as implied by The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag - is far from being so cut and dried an argument as his critics have alleged. For my taste The Space Merchants could have used a bit more atmosphere, but it's otherwise decent.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Violent Man

A.E. van Vogt The Violent Man (1962)
Although he never quite retired from bolting old short stories together as occasionally bewildering fix-up novels, The Violent Man was apparently van Vogt's first original book in twelve years. Curiously, it isn't science-fiction, and in writing it he clearly held back a few of his weirder, more disorientating compositional techniques, so I'm inclined to wonder whether this might not have been a bid for  mainstream success, or at least an attempt to elevate himself from the ghetto of science-fiction publishing.

That said, van Vogt's focus remains very much on themes which inform his science-fiction. In fact, the success of the novel is that he's covering old thematic ground, but for once it's fairly clear what he's trying to say.

Curiously, The Violent Man reminds me a little of Philip K. Dick's Gather Yourselves Together. Both novels are set in Communist China within self-contained communities isolated from the outside world, and you might argue that both approximately foreshadow certain aspects of Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner. Gather Yourselves Together was written a couple of years earlier, but was unpublished until fairly recently, so the similarities serve mainly as indicative of how much the two writers had in common, although it's doubtless significant that Dick had been reading van Vogt since he was twelve.

Two major preoccupations of van Vogt's later books are the totalitarian state and sexual inequality, and these combine in this novel with an examination of his primary obsession, the thought process itself - as has so often been examined through his interest in mind control, Korzybski's general semantics, and even L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics to some extent. Our story maroons a man named Ruxton in a prison compound as part of something called Project Future Victory, which aspires to turn unwilling test subjects into loyal Communists, specifically to educate them in such a way as to result in their embracing Communism of their own free will. Impressively, van Vogt gives a good impression of having done his homework with regard to Communist China, and if his narrative voice has often seemed to lean a little to the right with vaguely libertarian tendencies, here he remains relatively impartial in detailing the benefits of both Communist and capitalist systems whilst condemning shortcomings and inequalities on both sides of the fence. I don't personally agree with everything he seems to conclude, but the apparent absence of dogma is refreshing.

Similarly, van Vogt's later attempts to discuss what he regards as sexual inequality have generally been poorly argued at best, and profoundly troubling at worst, and yet here he manages to communicate his point very well. It still boils down to a general sense of exasperation at women not wanting to shag him as much as he wants to shag them, but in The Violent Man he strikes out and makes some effort to deal with female emancipation and to embrace a feminist perspective, so it comes across less like the creepy muttering of some dude in his mother's basement.

Somehow all of this is knitted together within the story of our man attempting to survive in what is more or less a concentration camp, told with van Vogt's characteristic focus on the psychological undercurrents of the tale; and while it may not be the greatest book I've read and probably isn't entirely successful in every respect, its ambition is tremendous, and van Vogt comes so very close to pulling it off. If ever proof were needed that the man really could write when he wanted to - meaning those weirder books came out that way by deliberation rather than because that was all he knew how to do - then it's right here in The Violent Man; and to be honest, as a discussion of ethics, morality and all of that good stuff, it not only pisses all over Crime and Punishment, but identifies a lot of what's wrong with our present system in identifying the psychology of what van Vogt terms the right man, meaning persons mentally incapable of accepting the validity of any argument other than their own. It might be argued that Dick inherited this theme in his railing against persons without the capacity for empathy, as we saw in Androids and others. In any case, whether referring to later writers or to global politics, it seems that van Vogt has ultimately been proven more prophetic than anyone could have anticipated.

Monday, 22 October 2018

A Mile Beyond the Moon

C.M. Kornbluth A Mile Beyond the Moon (1958)
I still intend to pick up The Space Merchants if I see a copy, but otherwise I'm done with this guy. Wolfbane and Search the Sky had their moments, as did a couple of the short stories I read in His Share of Glory; but on the other hand, His Share of Glory was about a million pages thick because it collected every short story he ever wrote, and my general verdict was that I might have enjoyed the shorts a bit more if there hadn't been so fucking many of them. Everything since has been picked up on the strength of the elusive Space Merchants sounding promising, and there hasn't actually been a whole lot that I've enjoyed; and at least two of those - this title included - have turned out to be collections of short stories, which I hadn't realised until I got home, and collections of short stories I've already read. Unfortunately, it also turns out that it doesn't really matter whether a Kornbluth collection contains seventy-thousand short stories, or just the eleven we have here, because the effect is the same, at least where I'm concerned.

In his favour, Kornbluth had a reasonably wild imagination, and he either writes well or has the potential to write well - eloquent, funky, jazzy, and even hilarious at times. It has been suggested that both The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag - two of his most celebrated shorts - communicate a pro-eugenics message, both presenting a criticism of just how many stupid pig-ignorant fuckers there are presently clogging up the planet, and a prediction that it will only get worse. The Little Black Bag is arguably the one story worth reading in A Mile Beyond the Moon, and it's mostly just a wheeze, with some background detail suggesting that dummies will inherit the earth; and much as I've grown to dislike Kornbluth's writing, I still can't quite bring myself to read any of it as necessarily pro-eugenics, at least not so much as that it's just plain pissy about how many profoundly stupid people we have clogging up our cultural and political bandwidth, a proposition which I would suggest is very much supported by recent events here in America.

The problem with Kornbluth is that he jabbers, he digresses, and he gets carried away and lost in his love of both language and his own jokes, and in doing so he forgets to tell a story.

As an unimaginably glowing drift of crystalline, chiming creatures loped across the whispering grass of the bank, Kazam waved one hand in a gesture of farewell.

Very poetic, but how the fuck does anything glow unimaginably, and do we really need that many adjectives all at once? It wouldn't be so bad if this were just an occasional flurry of imagery, but it's all the fucking time, with Kornbluth winking at the reader every few sentences like Douglas Adams on an intravenous high fructose corn syrup drip. I've read all sorts of awkward post-grammatical and unreadable fuckers over the years, van Vogt, Burroughs, Robert Moore Williams and so on, and I've enjoyed most of them, but Kornbluth has defeated me. I skipped a whole five of the eleven, and just couldn't bring myself to care about the rest, excepting Little Black Bag. To paraphrase Henry Rollins, A Mile Beyond the Moon felt like watching molasses come out of a spigot.

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.