Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Traps Of Time - ed Michael Moorcock

This is an astonishing anthology of pieces that could only (although I would be happy to be proved wrong) have been put together in the late ‘60s. Ostensibly a collection of pieces of science fiction, it goes way beyond genre for along with stalwarts of the science fiction community, it also features work by Borges and by Alfred Jarry.

Each of the nine stories and the one essay are about time. There is no time travelling in the conventional sense. Instead the stories explore time from a metaphysical and psychological stance. Aldiss’s tale of an astronaut returned from Mars who finds himself living 3.3077 minutes ahead of everyone else reveals the frustrations of everyone involved, along with the moral conundrums. It sets the tone for the rest of the book; thoughtful, well written, original, and often haunting.

Other contributors are Charles Harness, Langdon Jones, J G Ballard, David Masson, George Collyn, Thomas Disch, and Roger Zelazny. Each has their unique take on the theme; each demonstrates a literary skill that would probably astonish those who consider science fiction to be the work of hacks. Much of it is, as is much of any other genre including literary works. Yet Borges and Jarry do not stand out in this collection as superior writers. They are amongst equals.

I suspect the collection is now out of print although copies can be found if you look. It is certainly worth keeping your eye open for, if for no other reason than that it demonstrates that recent forays by the literati into the edges of the sci fi ghetto and praised for their originality are treating ideas explored half a century or more ago and with a great deal more skill.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss

It is fifty years since this book was published. Fifty years! Makes me feel old. Unlike the book itself. Some science fiction dates very badly. This has not. True, I read a revised edition, but apart from Aldiss tinkering with one or two sentences to make his main character less chauvinist in his attitude to women I doubt very much has changed.

So why is this, rightly in my opinion, considered a classic? To begin with, it is original. It has taken a number of familiar sci-fi ideas and taken them off in new directions. This is not an easy feat, not even in the late 1950s. It develops its ideas well. The attention to the background detail that makes Aldiss’s society believable is exemplary, and it is done without pages of exposition. And the whole thing is well written.

Aldiss is a great story-teller. The narrative begins slowly with plenty of rich and intriguing detail. It is not particularly difficult to guess what is going on in the background, although there are enough twists on this theme to keep you guessing, even though the clues are there. But in a sense this is irrelevant to begin with. You are drawn into a fascinating and unusual society. Once there, the characters draw you into new discoveries, and the story picks up pace, taking you to a breathtaking finale, in more sense than one.

If you like a well-written story with strong ideas that also manages to illuminate something of the human condition along the way, this book is for you.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Drought - J G Ballard

This is the third of Ballard’s informal quartet of books that nod in cursory fashion toward the elements. Like the others, it might be described as a science-fiction novel of the sub-genre ‘disaster’. But like every other Ballard novel it is so much more.

When toxic waste dumped into the oceans is cooked into a molecular layer that prevents evaporation, drought inevitably follows. Not the parched summer of an English countryside, but the blistering furnace of a tropical desert. Society collapses, draining away as quickly as surface water. It is a stark contrast to the amniotic lushness of The Drowned World.

Across this parched landscape a small group of characters play out their lives. They are the usual collection – a mixed bunch of misfits whose casual acquaintance in normal circumstances brings them close together when their inner landscapes become an outer reality. We are shown brief, bright glimpses, like the painful glancing reflections of sunlight from a mirrored surface. And if we dare to approach that mirror, we will see something of ourselves.

There are moments in the book when you can wish a tighter editorial control had been exercised. Some descriptions fail because the language gets in the way – there are only so many time you can use ‘river bed’ in a paragraph before it becomes obtrusive. On the whole, however, the writing shimmers like heat from a baked landscape, offering glimpses and mirages, distortions of a reality that show truths with an unrelenting harshness.

It is also a poetic work. The images and themes are displayed and developed with a concentrated intensity that prefigures the direction Ballard takes with some of his middle period work. Whilst it would not work as a poem, it does show what a poetic sensibility can bring to prose. It certainly makes me look forward to the next book in this chronological re-read of Ballard’s work.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Man Who Was Thursday - G. K. Chesterton

I have seen this book described variously as ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproarious’. I think those reviewers need to get out a bit more. Amusing, maybe, this ‘melodramatic sort of moonshine’ as Chesterton accurately described it is an odd piece of work. It is true that there is a clue in the subtitle ‘A Nightmare’, but this seems to me to have been added as an afterthought in much the same way others have used the ‘and he woke up and realised it was all a dream’ device.

What starts as a fairly straightforward thriller (police infiltrating an Anarchist cell) and an astute observation on the absurd directions a surveillance society can take us, soon becomes a metaphysical investigation of faith and human behaviour. One cannot read Chesterton without this happening at some point, so he cannot be criticised for it. It does seem to me, however, that by presenting this as a dream or a dark fantasy, he is sidestepping the opportunity for something more substantial. But that, too, is Chesterton’s way and why, ultimately I find his work unsatisfying. Contrasting serious themes with a comic storyline can be remarkably effective, but I always feel that Chesterton misses the mark. There is a feeling of flippancy rather than a true understanding of the comic; a feeling of ennui, with the author losing interest before he finishes.

To this I must add, that Chesterton is a sloppy writer. I cannot, for example, imagine the opening sentence of this work getting past a modern editor. Mind you, having seen some pretty dire openings of books that are claimed as modern literature, I should perhaps revise that and say that Chesterton’s opening sentence wouldn’t have got past me if I was an editor. It is clumsy, just as a number of other sentences and passages are clumsy. Potentially beautiful, but spoiled by laziness – first drafts that should have been worked at.

For all this criticism, it is a book that should be read. As should Chesterton’s other work. He may not be the perfect stylist and he may miss the mark, but his work does fizz with ideas and throws out sharp, often barbed, observations that stick and worry and make you think. Nor is he afraid of being surreal, of creating fantastic structures that so closely resemble the real world that we are compelled to stop and wonder which is which. For this alone, he is worth reading.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

It is forty years since this book was published and it is a sad indictment that is as relevant today as it was then. The world it describes, with its political turmoil, eugenics, genetic manipulation, social unrest, over dependence on computers, population problems, designer drugs, and casual violence is our world; it is what our world will continue to be.

Brunner was a prolific author. He was also an author who worked hard to raise his game. By the late 1960s he was writing blistering works of social commentary. Angry books that showed the injustice and hypocrisy of the world and its ‘masters’. Stand on Zanzibar is perhaps the best of these works. The style is innovative and ideally suited to the content; the story of social woes is told through the personal trials of a large cast of characters. With some we catch vicarious glimpses into their lives, much as we would see into the lighted windows of people from a slow moving suburban train at night. With others we experience the transformation of their lives as they are sucked into the destructive maelstrom of events.

Several stories and themes run parallel within the book – the political tensions between the United States (a dysfunctional and overcrowded land groaning beneath the weight of eugenics legislation) and a fictional Asian country that professes to have discovered a way of genetically manipulating human foetuses to produce perfect children; the corporate takeover of an entire African country and the discovery of how it has remained peaceful for so long; the pressures on individuals who are unable to cope with the pace of change; the ways in which governments dictate and manipulate individual lives.

This may seem a recipe for an earnest trudge through 650 pages of sociological lecturing, yet Brunner’s well-honed skill as a story-teller lifts the whole thing well above this. It is a highly literate novel that treats its readers with intelligence. Which is perhaps why it has never had any impact on those who lead us. Which is also perhaps why what may have been considered science fiction forty years ago is fast becoming the bleak reality of the world in which we live.