Sunday, 2 September 2012

Books read in August

The Entropy Tango – Michael Moorcock
I think this is my favourite of the Cornelius books, or perhaps it is the peak of an otherwise exceptional collection of novels and stories. It has all the familiar ingredients and characters presented without any explanation or backstory, yet it is written with an unforced maturity and has an air of melancholy that chimes with my own natural temperament. The ending, in particular, is heart rending without any attempt at false sentimentality. Plus it centres on Una Persson. If ever there was a fictional character I would like to meet...

Gold Diggers of 1977 – Michael Moorcock
Originally titled ‘The Great Rock n Roll Swindle’ to tie in with the movie of the same name. This is Moorcock’s own anarchic view of things (and probably closer, in its own way, to the truth). Although it it uses the punk band as a platform for the story, it takes a wider look at the music business (Mo Collier, a burned out musician forever in search of his wages with everyone else telling hime no money has been made) and the way in those who died young have become idols both adored and exploited long after they are dust.

Muddle Earth Too – Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Gentle fun at the expense of every childhood favourite fantasy. Enough of a story to hold interest, excellent illustrations (as ever) from Chris Riddell (some quite subversive if you start looking for likenesses), the occasional fart joke, and general mayhem. And a flower fairy called Pesticide. How can it go wrong. Very different from some of Paul Stewart’s earlier darker work for older children, but no less worthy for that.

Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (tr Olena Bormashenko)
Quite possibly my all time favourite ‘science fiction’ novel (sf being in inverted commas because whilst the premiss is science-fictional, it is a book about ordinary people). When it was first written, in Soviet Russia, the authors had terrible trouble with the censors. Not because of political subversiveness (although the text certainly has its fair share of that which goes to show how dumb some of those censors were), but because of moral questions (too much swearing, not a good example to Soviet youth, apparently). As a result the version that appeared in print and was later translated was a much watered down version.

This new edition is the Director’s cut, as it were. Not all ‘author’s versions’ are better than the version that was edited by another hand, but in this case the book, even though the changes are subtle, is far better than the original (which I read alongside this. This version is harder, rougher and, as a consequence, bleaker. It is also far more realistic.

The background to the story is that the Earth is visited by aliens who land, ignore us as if we were harmless insects, and then take off again. They leave behind them (in the only human aspect of them) a whole load of junk – as if they had stopped, cleaned out their garbage cans, and then moved on.

The places in which they landed are deadly to people although there are some who risk the perils to bring out artefacts to sell. These Stalkers work illegally in an uneasy relationship with the scientists who study the sites. The book follows the fortunes of one Stalker through eight years of his life and is about the effects of the Zone on him, his family, and the people he knows, mirroring all the implications for society as a whole.

There are no heroes, no super-scientists solving every problem, there is no resolution. What we have, caught in the brilliant spotlight of the Strugatskys’ writing, is a sad tale of how what could otherwise have been the most remarkable event in human history is turned, like everything else, into an excuse for exploitation and criminal behaviour. It is also about how we make myths for ourselves, even in the darkest of situations.

It is a mystery to me that the works of the Strugatskys, along with Stanislaw Lem, are not more widely known and are not readily available in new translations like this volume. They certainly deserve to be better known.

The Alchemist’s Question – Michael Moorcock
A Jerry Cornelius novel with a different feel. Subtitled as ‘being the final episode in the career of the English Assassin’, it seemed unlikely even at the time. Be that as it may, this book tapped into a different kind of 1984 (the year it was published) in which the gentle anarchy and alchemy of the hippy spirit of the west overcomes the beautifully satirised vision of what Thatcherism was in danger of doing to the country (and which project has since been revived).

Tapping into Celtic mythology the novel draws a battleground where one side tries to tap into a mythos of Arthurian/Gloriania in the form of Brigantia and the other simply opens themselves to whatever form the powers of the land decide is right to defeat the cynical misappropriation of values they know nothing of. Merrie England with its mock tudor frontage is demolished by those who have always lived off that particular grid in a wilder world. The ending is ambiguous, although the forces of stagnation, the lovers of nuclear winter, are confounded.

Whilst this does not capture the immediacy  of the earlier novels, it is good to go back and see how they develop this far. The underlying ideas are still there: the playfulness, the exploration of alternatives, and so on. However, the form and the characters have matured and in the end it is a fitting end to a major cycle of work.

Maigret Sets A Trap – Georges Simenon
On the track of a serial killer, this is about how failure and success go hand in hand, about the pyschology of killing, about the effects of the police. All wrapped up in 140 pages with Simenon’s usual economy of style and the ability to leave his readers feeling they have read a much longer book.

Maigret And The Madwoman – Georges Simenon
Pragmatism and compassion in equal measure drive this story. As with every traumatic disruption of personal life, things emerge that both horrify us and make us look to ourselves. In this case, a small old lady plucks up courage to approach the one policeman she admires and trusts to say that things in her flat have been moved while she is out. Maigret promises to go and see her, but puts it off (it is just a mad old woman) until it is too late and she is found murdered.

What is exposed is a series of lonely lives, people lost in an existential bleakness and clutching at whatever straws they think might keep them afloat. Justice is served on several levels and the one who seems to have come to terms with life, despite all that he sees and deals with, is Maigret himself.

The Pillars Of Eternity – Barrington J Bayley
When it comes to Barry Bayley, I am biased. I was introduced to him by Mike Moorcock [enough name dropping – ed] and went drinking with him back in the late ‘70s. He was witty, charming, frighteningly intelligent, but most of all was kind to a young and not at all successful writer. It has always been a mystery to me why his work has not been lauded and reprinted until book shop shelves are groaning under the weight (as they do for lesser writers).

I’m not a great fan of science fiction because it is generally devoid of interesting characters or the kind of issues I find interesting. Bayley, however, never fails to satisfy. He wrote using space opera as form for the most part. There is no lack of spacecraft, planets, exotic civilisations, and so on. These, however, are the means by which he explores some very deep philosophical, ethical, and psychological questions: the nature of and our relationship with reality, time, human nature, ethics.

Like any great writer he makes his story work these explorations out. Whilst characters may have philosophical discussions, they are always in character, essential to the plot, and never go on for too long. Bayley knew something about the readership of science fiction books. They are, for the most part, extremely intelligent. They don’t need things to be spelled out for them. In The Pillars of Eternity there is a whole background that you see glimpses of – it is a coherent and complex whole, but time is not wasted telling us about it. Where it touches the story it is relevant, otherwise, like real life, it just gets on with itself in the background.

The Pillars of Wisdom concerns some of the things that Bayley was most interested in – the nature of time, predestination, what it is that makes us and how (and if) we can alter that. The central character (who names himself Joachim Boaz) has undergone a physical and psychological trauma unmatched by anyone else in the universe (the why and how are beautifully integral to the overall metaphysical basis of the story) and he is searching for a way to undo it so that he does not have to experience it in his future lives. He is convinced the answer lies in the manipulation of time so that he can focus on a pre-ordained event and change it.

Tightly written, brimful of ideas that were way ahead of their time (in fact and in fiction) and never afraid to stray into areas others would feel uncomfortable even admitting they were interested in (the Tarot, for example). A number of his books have been revived as e-books, but it is a great shame to me that all his works are not still in print.

Sleep Has His House – Anna Kavan
Unique. In my experience. I can think of no other novel that I have read that comes anywhere near this. Based in part on her own life and withdrawal from the world, it is a truly surreal journey from day into night, from reality into dreams, from normality into a world of symbolism that is cut off from the mainstream. Yet it manages at the same to imply that, in fact, the night and the dreams and the symbols are a much more fundamental reality underlying the chaotic world in which we are expected to live.

Taking epsiodes from her own life which are used to introduce each episode, we see how that is converted into dream, how the real world is painful and desolate place. Each surreal flight, each dream is an escape, not from but to. The language and the episode offer new perspectives. And even where events are chilling (the brief visions of nuclear war are horrific) there is always a sense that somewhere in the twisted cosmos there is a way out.

For Anna Kavan, the struggle to escape was lifelong. She wrestled with addiction and mental illness. Her writing proves that sometimes she won, if for no other reason than that she made the world a better place for the rest of us through the very words she put on paper. Because in those words is not just a record of the struggle, but a glimpse of beauty and hope.

Deep Trouble – Debi Gliori
We are back at StregaSchloss with all the old crew. Outrageous, revolting, anarchic and truly wonderful. This one does get a bit dark but where an adult book would end, this one has a last chapter that offers a glimmer of hope. Quality writing for kids that treats them as intelligent beings (albeit with a penchant for stickiness, goo, vomit and other nauseating substances).