Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Drowned World - J G Ballard

The Drowned World is a quantum leap forward from Ballard’s first novel. Mature, confident, and with a prose as rich, dense, and tasty as a fruit cake.

The book follows the events surrounding a survey team moored in a lagoon on a world where sea levels have risen due to an increase in the sun’s radiation. What has been created is a Mesozoic outer landscape, matched by an inner landscape experienced by some of the characters. It is that inner landscape and its relation to the environment that is explored in the novel. The lagoon is like a giant womb and many of the characters have their own private hidey-holes which are also womb-like. Within these wombs people experience strange dreams in which they regress in psycho archaeological voyages. When the lagoon is drained by treasure hunters, it is a harsh birth for some.

Whilst on the surface this may be considered sf, it does what Ballard and so many of his contemporaries were doing – making use of sf tropes and themes to liberate the conventional novel and take literature into new areas. And not just new areas of content, but of style as well.

This may seem a grand claim, but you only have to look at the recent spate of books by the literati that make use of sf tropes and themes to the acclaim of lit critters. These books (of which more in a minute) would probably not have been published had it not been for the groundbreaking work of Ballard, Aldiss, Moorcock, Harrison, Russ, Lessing, and others in the 60s and 70s.

The difference is that those early works were genuinely ground breaking and led to exciting developments in writing that continue to this day; whereas the recent spate of work is, on the whole, dreary and self-congratulatory, with little awareness of what has gone before or how far behind the times they really are. Unfortunately, so are many publishers who seem to have little awareness of how much of all this has been done before.

A case in point is The Children of Men. Lauded by critics and made into a film, it is a dull, moralising book that hasn’t the wit to improve on all the preceding books that tell the same story. Brian Aldiss told this story so much better in the early 60s. He is certainly a better writer, a better story teller, and believed so much more in the intelligence of his readers – allowing them to draw any conclusions.

I suspect that what has happened is that certain books have been written off because they have been cast as genre works. Ballard is forgiven his early works as he has become a ‘proper novelist’. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (a fact unsurprisingly not officially acknowledged by a British parliament happy to promote yob culture by example), yet the fact she writes sf is quietly forgotten. Joanna Russ, one of the finest writers of fiction and an astute literary theorist rarely gets a mention – oh yes, science fiction.

But Ballard, along with those I have mentioned and many other writers of that vintage (and since) do not simply steal sf ideas because they couldn’t think of anything else. They are immersed in a tradition that has given us some of the finest fiction in the world. It is only in recent times that certain subjects have been deemed out of bounds by the ‘literary’ world. Which only goes to prove that the ‘literary’ world is populated by pompous fools.

The Drowned World begins in earnest the unpeeling of the modern western psyche. It is a journey in which Ballard, through all his work, shows us both the worst and the best of humanity. It is a journey made with a guide who is not afraid to take us into the darkest places, a guide who is erudite, a guide who is literate, a guide who is a great story teller. Given the subject matter, it is a journey that could continue forever. Sadly, like all of us, J G Ballard is mortal. But his example and his legacy are to be found in his books and it is our loss if we ignore them.

Friday, 22 February 2008

The Rose - Charles L Harness

The Rose, first published in 1953, is one of the great novels of science fiction. Well, strictly speaking it is a novella and there are many who say it is not science fiction. The length of the piece is irrelevant. It starts in just the right place, finishes exactly where it should, and has just the right amount of story in between those two points. Whether that makes it a novel, a novella, or a bowl of baked beans is one of those discussion that distracts from the content.

As for whether it is science fiction or not… well, I suppose it doesn’t contain much hard science (and that which it does seems somewhat quaint, ‘atomic oven’ being a great example). But that suits me. Most hard science fiction is dry as dust, peopled by cardboard cut outs, and inevitably mechanistic in its outlook. So, let us call it speculative fiction, or sf for short.

And speculate is what it does. On one level it is a philosophical argument about differing world views; on another it examines the differences between art and science. Yet it does this through the medium of a well-written beautifully constructed tale of love and jealousy. Whilst art and science are pitted one against the other, a new species of human is on the verge of emerging – one that encompasses both views of the world and so much more.

Poetical and passionate, this has long been a neglected work. Many sf writers cite it as a key work, but if you want to read it you will have to look for a second hand copy. That such an accomplished and intelligent writer should be out of print is a sad reflection of publishing today.

The edition I have contains two shorter works. One, about a chess playing rat, is a wry look at human nature. The other is another philosophical tale about ontology and the race to save the world from a change in reality. This last tale breaks one of the cardinal rules of sf, but does it with such wit, style, and fully in keeping with the logic of the story that it works well.

Charles L Harness is an author worth reading. Seek out his works and treasure them.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Across The Dark Metropolis - Michael de Larrabeiti

This final volume of the Borrible trilogy is the darkest of the books. It picks up on the quest begun in the second book and through a series of hair-raising adventures with plenty of new friends and enemies, exposing the filthy underbelly of adult society as it goes, it roars along to its terrifying climax.

The world of the Borribles, precarious at the best of times on the fringes of society, is systematically picked apart by the relentless persecution of the SBG. Recruited along with this dark force – all the darker for being based on a very real and very sinister police group – are those manipulated through their greed for money and power. It is a realistic study of how powerful elites manipulate others to do their dirty work.

As well as exposing the darker side of adult society, the journey is one in which the Borribles learn to re-assert their old anarchic values. This is anarchy in its true sense, not the propagandist version put out by the likes of the SBG or played at by bored rich kids, but the one in which people work together to assert certain basic values such as respect, freedom, responsibility, and honour.

But as I have said before, the Borrible books are not political polemics. They are rattling good adventures with exquisitely drawn characters who learn from their experiences and who grow.

Through simple story telling with great characters, Michael de Larrabeiti has created a set of books for which the word classic might have been invented. Well-written, fluent, exciting, and gritty, they still have the ability to shock with the realism of the violence – which is probably why they have remained a cult classic. Yet the violence here is shocking because it is realistic. People get hurt; the vulnerable are abused by the powerful. There is no rewind button. You cannot play that level again because you got killed. To me, those are the more shocking approaches to violence – switch off the screen and walk away. No involvement, no emotional investment, just adrenalin rush.

Not many books (and even fewer fantasy novels) have convincing villains. They are often over-played and cartoonish, twirling their moustaches and cooking up random acts of naughtiness which the hero will inevitably foil. But in Sussworth, we have a genuinely evil character. He is, of course, a caricature, but only just. Given what we now know about the mental state of some senior police officers, the increasingly unhinged messianism of Sussworth could be seen as prophetic.

Not many books move me to tears, especially on a re-read when I know what is going to happen (although knowing made some of it all the more poignant). I certainly don’t find sugary sentimentality of the type so prevalent in US TV shows, or being told what to feel does it for me. But these books are involving. The Adventurers become friends and it is difficult not to feel for their plight, especially in the darkest moments toward the end. Yet it is also a book which ends on a positive note, one of hope, one of strength.

Friday, 15 February 2008

How To Suppress Women’s Writing – Joanna Russ

Oh, what a tasty book. Succulent, sharp and, above all, nutritious. This is a finely sketched analysis of the ways in which women’s writing has been suppressed over the centuries. I know some people will switch off at this point. Your loss. For this book is not simply a well-argued analysis with plenty of evidence. It goes further.

Having ably and overwhelmingly demonstrated that: (a) there is a huge body of literature by women, and that (b) it has, generation by generation been denigrated so that, generation by generation, women (and men) have had to rediscover it; the book outlines the beginnings of a discussion about new ways of looking at literature. For that, if for no other reason, this is a book that anyone serious about the creative process of writing should read.

But this book is something else as well. It is straightforward, clearly written, witty, insightful, passionate, and useful. You don’t need to be reaching for a dictionary all the time and it does not obscure its arguments with the convoluted ramblings that are so often passed off as ‘serious literary criticism’. Its plainly stated arguments and its examples are sufficient to make the case that is presented – and make that case in powerful fashion. As such it should be held up as an exemplar. I suspect, however, it has suffered much the same fate as the works it discusses – sidelined neatly into a niche where it isn’t be allowed to challenge the status quo.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Wartime Britain 1939-1945 - Juliet Gardiner

When I first read this book it was as a straight narrative read. I have just re-read it for research. For either use, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Its major strength is that it is so well written. A book of this nature could so easily become a dull recounting of facts, but the mixture of official statistics and comments from diaries and letters, along with a lively style that recounts all these things in a clear narrative make this an enthralling read.

That I read its 690 pages twice was not intentional. I meant it for research, but was carried away by the story. Much of it was familiar (my mother’s family lived in London through the war) yet the framework and the relationship between events has presented everything with a fresh eye and a new perspective. And when I came back to it for research, that strong framework, the copious notes, and the huge bibliography made it a pleasure to use.

If you are interested in the period and have not yet read this book, find yourself a copy. It is a model of interesting and accurate history writing that far outstrips a great deal of popular history that finds its way into print.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The Wind From Nowhere - J G Ballard

If the wind disturbs you (like it has me since the Great Storm of 1987) and you do not like deep places like mines and tunnels (I was never able to use the pedestrian tunnel under the Tyne), then this book will give you palpitations. It certainly gave me some uncomfortable moments.

The story is simple. A great storm begins sweeping round the globe, with winds increasing slowly day by day. To begin with it is an inconvenience, but it begins to dawn on people that it is going to get a lot worse before it all dies down. But all the preparations are unable to withstand the winds that blow constantly at three hundred miles an hour.

In this mayhem as cities fall, lakes are swept dry, topsoil ripped away; we follow various groups of people as their numbers are whittled away by nature and by the scramble for resources.

It is uncompromising, bleak, and unlike what Brian Aldiss called the ‘cosy catastrophes’ of earlier English writers, it is clear that once the winds drop, the problems are only really about to begin.

This is Ballard’s first novel, published in 1961. It is not his best, but it was written at a time when publishers were more likely to allow a long term potential to develop. And Ballard already had a track record as a writer of short stories. Yet it is not a bad novel, which makes it all the more strange that Ballard should disown it. It is not clear why as he simply does not mention it, talking of The Drowned World as his first novel.

It is true that The Wind From Nowhere is episodic and that the characters are not so well defined as they later become in his work. It is also true that it was written in a very short space of time – two weeks according to some sources. But this still does not make it a bad book. And whilst it may have its flaws, it is recognisably Ballardian in so many ways. A pity then that a writer who has had such an influence on so many others, who has helped to shape new approaches to writing, should be ashamed of his own first steps. We all have to start somewhere, and this is an honourable beginning.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This is a little gem of a book. First written as a serial in 1915, it didn’t appear in book form until 1979. Make of that what you will.

Herland is a utopian tale. The nature of the subject precludes much tension, although Herland succeeds better than most. Gilman is an accomplished writer (The Yellow Wallpaper puts that beyond doubt) and a sharp social analyst and theorist.

In this book she tells of a group of three adventurers who, having heard rumours of a country of women, set out to find it. In this they succeed, and in their time there learn how the women became isolated and how, over a period of two thousand years, they developed a society. Parthenogenesis is used as a device to explain the long history, but this is not science fiction. It is social fiction and explains how, without the restraints and hardships caused by men, a society of women might develop.

Like many utopians and many early feminists, this book discusses issues only now coming into common consciousness – particularly population control, the environment, and food production (the women of Herland practise a form of Permaculture). Central to the book, however, are discussions of motherhood and child rearing around which all else revolves.

The tensions in the book are two-fold. The first element is provided by the culture shock experienced by the three men. They are somewhat stereotypical, but this serves an important purpose in showing how some men think of and treat women. This comes to a head at the close of the book and results in the expulsion of one of the men from the country. He is accompanied by one of his male companions and one of the women who is set the task of observing Ourland and reporting back on what she finds. And in this is the second tension – can Herland continue its near idyllic existence if its existence becomes widely known. (There is a sequel, With Her in Ourland.)

This is a short, intelligent and interesting book, shot through with wry humour and sharp commentary on the state of the male world. That it is not more widely known is a shame. It deserves to be read. And enjoyed.