Thursday, 30 April 2009

Babel-17 - Samuel R Delany

In one respect this is standard science fiction space opera. Space ports, interstellar war, strange names, all of it a bit grimy round the edges. The story itself is standard fare as well – a group of charming misfits set out to uncover who is responsible for sabotaging the war effort. You see this kind of thing in thousands of pulp magazines, cheap sf novels, and endless movies

In Babel-17 there are two things that make the book different. The first is the metaphysical theme concerning how language impacts on the way we think and view the world. More could have been made of this (and others, notably women sf writers, have done so to great effect), but it is well handled and never allowed to be anything more than an integral part of the story. The second is the quality of the writing.

Samuel R Delany is unashamedly poetic in style and handles the plot with great skill, picking out only those scenes that are essential to the story and letting the reader fill in any gaps if they are so inclined. The result is a pacy ride through an exotic landscape with characters who, if not exactly well-rounded, are at least sympathetic and interesting. It’s been a few decades since I last read this book and it has stood the test of time well.

Charlie Bone and the Shadow of Badlock – Jenny Nimmo

I am a great fan of the Charlie Bone books. This latest instalment does not disappoint. It contains the same mix of humour and menace, magic and mayhem, as the other books; draws us further into the story and deeper into the lives of those involved; and has some very scary moments as well. Indeed, there were times I had to put the book down because I was so worried for the characters – something I have not done since I was a child.

On the surface, the Charlie Bone books sound familiar. Magically endowed child attends school for similarly gifted children and fights evil. It is a situation that has been used by a number of writers over the years, but for me Jenny Nimmo ranks with Diana Wynne Jones as the best. For one thing, Jenny Nimmo can write. Characters are deftly drawn through their reactions and relationships. Events whiz along at just the right pace – fast enough to keep a young person’s interest yet not so fast as to sacrifice detail and depth. And there is a consistent and unifying atmosphere to the books that helps to create a world that is real and fantastical at one and the same time.

There is also a lightness of touch to the books. They may become dark in places (the strained atmosphere in the house where Charlie lives is quite claustrophobic; the evil characters are extremely unpleasant and ruthless), but there is an underlying gentleness and sense of fun and love that redeems what could otherwise be an unremittingly depressing tale.

I’m not going to discuss the plot in any way beyond saying that Charlie uses his particular endowment to help rescue one of his ancestors. Friends are won and lost, there is a frightening battle, some truly creepy events, and a poignant reunion. As for the rest… if you haven’t read these books, you really need to get a copy of the first one (Midnight for Charlie Bone) and start there.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Barefoot In The Head - Brian Aldiss

It is easy to forget what astonishing work was being published in the late ‘60s. Much of it, of course, has been dismissed because it has been classified as science fiction or speculative fiction. Similarly, we are seeing a number of books today feted by the mainstream literati which are works of science fiction and speculative fiction or have a clear debt to these genres, where everything is done to deny that connection.

This awful snobbishness does no one any favours. It denies a whole tradition of truly excellent writing by trying to consign it to a dustbin marked ‘rubbishy writing’, perhaps to leave the field clear for much of the sub-standard work that passes for literary work today.

Barefoot in the Head is a case in point. I suspect many readers of mainstream literature have never heard of it, or if they have heard of they will have dismissed because it is sf. Their loss. Their big loss. What is worse is that a book of this nature is pushed into the shadows when it should be held up as an example of the finest literature of the mid-twentieth century.

The premiss of the work is that a war has been waged with bombs that have sprayed the population of Europe with psychotropic drugs – the Acid Head Wars. Into this world comes a charismatic figure swiftly promoted to the role of messiah, leading a cavalcade of freaked out types across a devastated Europe.

In lesser hands this would have been an interesting idea. Aldiss turns it into a multi-levelled and extremely sublime work of literature. The whole work is written from the perspective of someone affected by the bombs. The whole book is a trip. But it is not a messy, sprawling piece of writing. Tightly constructed, the word play is dazzling and the imagery intense. Layer after layer reveals deep philosophical points and exposes the violence at the heart of modern Europe.

The language used puts it on a par with Joyce, yet makes it far more accessible than Joyce ever managed. The obsession with cars and crashes and sex prefigures Ballard’s seminal work. The examination of religion and the manipulation of religious impulse were relevant both in the ‘60s and are equally important now. From anyone’s point of view, this is an important work. It is not an easy read as it takes a while to immerse yourself in the rhythm and pick up the layers that resonate from the word play. However, it is well worth persisting, if for no other reason than to see what can be done with words.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - Philip K Dick

Having just treated myself to the five disc DVD set of the various versions of the movie Blade Runner, I thought I should haul the book off the shelf and re-read that as well. This is important. No film is a replication of the book. More so in this case than others. Or not.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and ‘retire’ replicants – organic robots with increasingly sophisticated brains. That is the gist of the story and the one with which movie-goers will be familiar. The sub-text of the book (and film) is a discussion of what makes us human, the nature of reality as perceived through human eyes. The book, of course, is able to go into this at a much deeper level.

There is no sense at any time in the story that such philosophical exploration gets in the way of the story. Not least because the story is written in the first person and we are therefore hearing the thoughts of the central character as he tries to make sense of his decaying world.

Excellent as the movie is, it is a shame that it has so overshadowed the book. Dick was an erratic writer. At his best (as he is with this) he writes well and fluently. At other times one gets the impression that he was simply overwhelmed by ideas; that he was desperate to get his thoughts and ideas onto paper. Consequently, some of his work has the feeling of being a rough draft. That said, his ideas are worth having in any form because he went to the very heart of the confusions of modern life.

If you’ve not seen the film, read the book; and do it before you see the film. It is a much richer intellectual experience and a cracking good story. If you have seen the film, but not read the book, shame on you. I like the film (I’m a heretic in that I actually prefer the version with the voiceover as it is closer in tone to the book and its noirish roots), but the book is better.

Friday, 17 April 2009

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin

In the future One State, citizens live in a condition of ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ - their needs are catered for, their days are regulated, everyone is productive. A space craft, the Integral, is soon to be launched and the state encourages its citizens to write paeans to One State in order to spread the creed amongst the stars. As his contribution, the chief engineer of the project, D-503, decides to keep a diary of the days leading up to the launch.

It is this diary that we read in the book, consisting of the innermost and often confused thoughts of this one-time devotee of One State as he comes into contact with ‘revolutionary’ elements and begins to question everything he once took on faith. Day by day, and through a feverish period of illness, D-503 falls prey to his emotions and begins to see (literally) through the façade of the harsh regime of One State. We learn of its lies, its methods, and of the partially successful rebellion.

The strength of the work lies in Zamyatin’s personal experience of revolutionary Russia and his battles with censorship. Using his experience as an engineer and his success as a writer, he produces one of the earliest and one of the best dystopian novels of the twentieth century.

Beautifully constructed (its strength is in its simplicity) and realistically realised (D-503 has no idea what is going on most of the time); it is also written with a strong and often poetic voice that is convincingly that of an engineer trying to understand a world beyond the material and mechanical. As always, we are in the hands of the translator. This edition (translated by Natasha Randall) is for the most part sensitively done. There are one or two places where it slips into lazy, modern idiom and it snapped me out of the reading experience, which is a shame. A phrase like ‘get my head round something’ might well have been in use in 1920, but its modern context does not sit easily with the rest of the text.

That minor quibble aside, this is a book that should be on the reading list of anyone serious about literature and writing. The use of language is superb. It is a tour de force of showing rather than telling. And the work is constructed in a way one would expect of someone who had supervised the building of ice-breakers on Tyneside – utilitarian, robust, and from that, shot through with an elegance rare in books these days.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Trouble With Harry - Jack Trevor Story

You will probably know this as a Hitchcock film. Relocated from Hertfordshire to Vermont, the film otherwise remains reasonably true to the plot and to the spirit of the book. I much prefer the book, not least because it seems to me to be quintessentially English.

Harry is a corpse. Lying in the woods above a small community he is dragged about, robbed of his shoes, fallen over, buried, dug up, reburied, dug up again and generally worried over by the local residents, several of whom are convinced they killed him. As the story progresses over a twenty-four hour period, people who have been neighbours for years begin talking to one another. Some even fall in love.

This is Story’s first published novel. It is assured, full of hints about what was to come (under his own name and as a writer of westerns, Sexton Blake mysteries, and television and film), and darkly funny. Yet Story achieves something here that few other writers have managed, for whilst this is a macabre tale, it never becomes dark. There is a summer’s evening glow about it, an innocence that a lesser writer could not have managed without, perhaps, resorting to a false sentimentality.

It is also clear that Story has hit the mark in other respects. From the outset he was able to create characters who were true individuals, whose lives verged on caricature without ever tipping over into absurdity; real people in fact, once you get to know them properly. As such (and all his novels have this, no matter how dark and dystopian they become) the absurd situations in which his characters find themselves also take on a kind of mad reality.

Short, sweet, superbly crafted, and with understated humour that arises naturally from the characters and their situations, it is clear from this first outing that Story was a writer of real talent. It remains a shame to this day that he has never been more widely appreciated.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Fever Crumb - Philip Reeve

See here for my review of this book.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Atrocity Exhibition - J G Ballard

There had been one or two hints in the work Ballard produced prior to this tour de force of what was to come. But they can be seen mostly with hindsight. The clues were more to be found in his short stories which were becoming astonishingly condensed – simple language resonating so much with the zeitgeist that sentence could convey whole chapters of meaning.

Eventually he began work on the short stories/chapters/condensed novels that make up this truly astonishing work of fiction. Short, formalised scenes that play over and over with compounding variations that build up a multi-layered, four-dimensional nightmare. The obsessions of the characters reflect the obsessions of the world in which they live. And although they were of a particular time, it would be possible to substitute Vietnam with Iraq or Afghanistan, the celebrities of the ‘70s with iconic figures of today, and our obsession with the motor car has never gone away. Indeed, the notion of ‘crash’ has taken on an extra resonance in today’s financial meltdown.

I’m not sure calling this work experimental (as some do) is useful. Ballard has perfected the form. His use of imagery, the language of sociological reportage, and the layered building of characters is as powerful as in any other major literary work of the twentieth century. The fact that Ballard chose to confront taboos and use a fractured form (perfectly in keeping with the subject matter and the society it examined) merely heightens the experience.

However, this is not an easy read. It requires concentration and an acceptance that there are more ways to tell a story than there are stories. Certainly anyone interested in writing and in what heights English literature is capable of scaling (rather than the tired literati clones we are saddled with today) has to read Ballard.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Crystal World - J G Ballard

This is the fourth of Ballard’s novels and like its predecessors it is what some called a story of inner space. It uses a science fiction trope (something to do with a ‘leakage of time’) to set up a situation in which a group of disparate characters, who were already living on the edges of society, are confronted with a situation that is both terrifying and a form of salvation.

Sections of African rainforest are turning to crystal. Most people are running, trying to escape being caught and petrified. Others are drawn toward the strange phenomenon, seeing in it a way of resolving their personal issues – a place to escape.

Despite the quality of the writing and the well-realised exposition of the situation (this is full of Ballard’s trademark imagery and scenery – deserted towns, armed conflict, the chaos of social collapse), this book does not work so well for me as the three previous novels (even the hastily written Wind From Nowhere). The world that Ballard has created has a fragile sterility that is, perhaps, not so engaging on a subconscious level as some of his other works. Indeed, this would have worked as well, if not better had he eschewed the science fiction element and set it in a war zone – but he was probably not ready to relive his own memories of that when this was written.

Sanders, even for a Ballard central character, is curiously unengaging. The other characters are equally difficult to grasp. And for a work of ‘inner space’ this is a disappointment. On the other hand it does create a strong impression of social disintegration and does reflect the essence of the book in that everyone seems as cold as the jewels with which they are surrounded.

It is, however, a well-written, concise, and at times extremely powerful book. Looking back over Ballard’s career as a writer, it is easy to see now that he was working things out with these early books, looking at the world from different angles, exploring how our inner lives mesh with external appearance and experience. This can be found in his short stories of this period as well which were becoming increasingly ‘experimental’. Indeed, this book might be said to mark the end of Ballard’s apprenticeship as a novelist. Happy days that a writer was allowed such time to develop.

Friday, 3 April 2009

At Swim-Two-Birds - Flann O'Brien

It was such a joy to revisit this book after many years (too many, I’m afraid). Funny, completely off the wall, so surreal in some places it is frighteningly real; this is a great work of literature. The fact that it is a send-up of literature and of writers whilst being a literary masterpiece itself, speaks volumes about the author, and about the courage of its first publisher (and Graham Greene on whose recommendation it was accepted). I suspect it would have a much harder time finding a home these days.

The plot, such as it is, involves a student writing a book about a character who is writing a book whose characters turn on him and use another fictional writer to write their creator out of the work. Into this convoluted Celtic knotwork are introduced characters from Irish mythology, a cast of people from Dublin life (albeit a surreal Dublin in which cowboys coexist with fairy folk), and an intellectual ambience familiar to anyone who has read Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, and other worthies of Irish literature.

Like all the best clowns, Flann O’Brien is very good at what he does. You cannot write such a wonderful send-up of the kind of literature Ireland was producing without being good at it yourself. Nor can you do it so well unless you have an affection for that which you are poking fun at. Because this book may be about pricking the pomposity of the literary world, but it does not make fun of the authors and the works they have created. Rather it deflates the pretensions of those who ride in the wild wake of the extraordinary writing that Ireland produced at that time.

If you like Joyce, Yeats, Beckett and all that crew (which I do), then you will (I hope) revel in this book, because it is wise, witty, funny, well-written, and slips down like a good pint of porter (or three).