A history of human stupidity

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut.
Penguin Books, 1965 (1963).

“Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?” — Felix Hoenikker

In early 1961 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction at the height of the Cold War. Barely a decade and a half before this the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been virtually annihilated by atomic bombs, those supposed children of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, another scientific polymath – Irving Langmuir, with whom Vonnegut’s brother worked – was developing techniques in the 1940s to de-ice aircraft wings and to seed clouds for the purpose of inducing rainfall (though Langmuir’s attempts to lessen the force of a hurricane only succeeded in increasing its intensity). Around the same time, as a prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut famously survived the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden by sheltering in a slaughterhouse’s meat locker. Motifs from all these historical events, along with much more, will find their way into Cat’s Cradle (1963).

The author, born in November 1922, had lived through momentous times, and unsurprisingly this novel reflects them. But it also has an extraordinary historical footnote of its own: in 1970 Vonnegut persuaded the University of Chicago to accept Cat’s Cradle in place of the thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology which he’d never completed. In effect it was a “history of human stupidity” such as that referenced in the final sentence of the novel.

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A being darkly wise

Roadside Picnic
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.
Translated by Olena Bormashenko,
foreword by Ursula K Le Guin,
afterword by Boris Strugatsky, 2012.
Gollancz, 2012 (1972).

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

From ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle II’ by Alexander Pope

Superficially a speculative thriller, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic for me turned out to be a deeply philosophical novel under its science-fictiony veneer. For the most part it focuses on a character called Redrick, a chancer who lives for the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and occasional sex, living at some unspecified future time somewhere in North America. So, initially, a not very edifying tale.

The ostensible premise is that extraterrestrial visitors have touched down at six points on the Earth’s surface and then just as mysteriously departed, leaving behind their detritus in what turn out to be highly dangerous, disturbance-filled Zones. It is for this debris that Redrick and others enter the Zone adjacent to Harmont, to retrieve alien junk for the black market.

But there are deeper matters to think about than mere cupidity. At the central point of the novel we find ourselves listening to a conversation about the implications of this First Contact, implications that should matter to all humankind but which if ever considered are soon forgotten. In its underhand way Roadside Picnic encourages us to quietly consider those implications.

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Looking ahead a bit

#WitchWeek2022

The days are getting shorter and the nights … well, longer, and my thoughts are heading towards considering what to read as the dark gathers outside the window. Of course there is Annabel’s readalong of The Dark is Rising sequence which is due to take us up to midwinter, but what else beckons?

So, there’s Witch Week 2022, an annual meme run by Lizzie Ross and myself, focused on fantasy themes that suit the period between Halloween and Bonfire Night. This year highlights Polychromancy, a theme looking at fiction related to diverse cultures and stories, and runs till 6th November after the schedule of posts is revealed on 30th October. The featured book is Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.

#NovNov22 746books.com bookishbeck.wordpress.com

1st November also sees the start of Novellas in November run by Cathy at 746books.com and Rebecca at BookishBeck.wordpress.com. They’re basing their weekly schedules on four headings – short classics, novellas in translation, short nonfiction, and contemporary novellas – and I’m considering possible titles to read and review through the month, all chosen from books I already have on my shelves. Of course I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute!

Short Classics:
Good Morning Midnight (Jean Rhys) OR
Orlando (Virginia Woolf)

Novellas in Translation:
Strait is the Gate (André Gide)
OR By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)
OR Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel García Márquez).

Short Non-Fiction:
We the People (Timothy Garton Ash)
OR The Viceroy of Ouidah (Bruce Chatwin).

Contemporary Novellas:
The Lost Daughter (Elena Ferrante)
OR Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss).

@SciFiMonth

November is also when SciFiMonth (curated by Imyril at https://onemore.org and a couple of other bloggers) reaches its tenth anniversary. I’m generally on the periphery of bloggers marking the annual event but I shall attempt to read one or two titles at some stage during the month.


So that’s me. Are you planning to join any of these events? Have you read any of the novellas mentioned? Pray tell!

Godforsaken paths

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Wellcome Collection.  (CC BY 4.0)

One Billion Years to the End of the World
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,
translated by Antonina W Bouis (1978).
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2020 (1977).

“I was told that this road
would take me to the ocean of death,
and turned back halfway.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

Yosano Akiko (attributed)

A physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an orientalist and a mathematician walk into an astrophysicist’s apartment. No, it’s not the start of a joke but essentially the main action of this immersive novella by the Strugatsky brothers, also translated as Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances.

Set in 1970s St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, most of the action takes place in astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov’s apartment while his wife and son escape the city’s hot and humid July oppressiveness in Odessa on the Black Sea. Here he seems to be on the brink of discovering a link between stars and interstellar matter which he dubs ‘Malianov cavities’.

But he is constantly being interrupted, by phone calls, a delivery from the deli, even a visit from one of his wife Irina’s schoolfriends. And he is not the only specialist who isn’t able to settle to achieving a breakthrough — which is where the physicist, biologist, engineer, orientalist and mathematician come in. What is there to link their inability to progress their work, and who or what is causing it?

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Please to remember

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1840)

V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,
with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds,
additional art by Tony Weare.
Vertigo / DC Comics 2005 (1988-1989)

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

What should one do, how should one react, under an unjust, authoritarian government? What is the correct response when faced with the evidence of a fascist state’s war on its own citizens? Should one heed St Paul’s advice to the Romans, to recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath? Or should one take the law into one’s own hands, meet force with force, fight fire with fire, and forever taint oneself with the selfsame actions that the state is accused of?

These are the dilemmas at the heart of this powerful graphic novel, when an individual known only as V — for reasons both personal and societal — makes war on the authoritarian leaders, their minions, their stooges, and the symbols of their power. His own symbol, a V enclosed in a circle, is reminiscent of the universal sign for anarchy but (as V insists) ‘anarchy’ doesn’t refer to no rule at all: it applies to an absence of legitimate government — archon refers to a ruler in ancient Greece — and this pertains in the Britain that’s depicted in V for Vendetta.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Thatcher-era perspective, when individual freedoms and norms of social justice were determinedly being eroded, was an apt time to consider a narrative, a scenario in which a totalitarian Britain would be challenged by a figure from the country’s past, one whose effigy instead of being placed on a bonfire would initiate a pyre of all that was rotten in the state. Ironically, the fictional risorgimento was positioned as beginning in the year that a left-of-centre Labour government in fact won an election but which now fits a political situation three decades on from publication just like a glove.

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What a story is

1849 print by William Miller, after Francis Danby, ‘Sunset at Sea, after a Storm’ (1824)

The Wall
by John Lanchester,
Faber & Faber 2019

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

No, The Wall doesn’t actually begin like this, but the hackneyed and often parodied opening is close. Imagine, if you will, an unsettling meld of Kafka’s The Trial, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and current world politics, all nested uncomfortably together in a cli-fi dystopia, and then you may start to have an inkling of the nature of Lanchester’s novel.

And unsettling and uncomfortable it certainly is. We are in some future Britain following an indefinable (and ongoing) climatic disaster called the Change, when the island has been surrounded by a concrete structure to keep out rising sea levels and what are loosely termed the Others. Joseph K’s parents are of a generation who remember a time before the Change and the Wall; Kavanagh himself feels alienated from them and their nostalgia for a life he never knew, yet only has vague dreams of becoming one of the elite who are able to fly around the world.

First of all though he has to do a tour of duty on the Wall, to help defend the country from the Others determined to escape from intolerable conditions elsewhere. But how would he feel if he were to be in the position of one of the Others, how would he behave, how would he react?

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Blue jewel in the darkness

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books 1996

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?

John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.

Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.

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Home is the sailor

Islands off Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Gradual
by Christopher Priest,
Gollancz 2017 (2016)

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea”
— from ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

In many ways a genre-crossing novel, The Gradual exhibits the kind of features I have now come to expect of Christopher Priest’s books, a sense of viewing reality in a distorting mirror — solitary or alienated protagonists — a planetary romance blending aspects of science fiction with the kind of magic we associate with fantasy — allusions and illusions that create dream-like images and sequences.

Above all there is his literary sleight of hand which seems to be part of his trademark style, consisting of a bit of mystification assisted by misdirection. He is kind enough however to reveal to his reader sufficient clues for them to partly work out what’s going on, only to then introduce a plot twist which turns the tables on us.

The Gradual is the testament of one Alesandro Sussken, composer and musician on a world simultaneously similar to but yet completely different from ours. And just as a music composition is an unfolding in time of a sequence of sounds, so Priest’s novel too is about sounds, and time, and even space.

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Further reading

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com.

Approaching the last two months of this extraordinary year — one which I’m sure is seared into our collective consciousness — I thought I’d briefly, with your gracious acquiescence, take stock.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 70 titles so far in 2020, surpassing my modest target of 60 for the whole year. Bar one or two I’ve reviewed them all too, on Goodreads as well as here. As the year progressed (even as conditions globally regressed) I determined to be less constrained by goals and targets and challenges and go mainly for comfort reading, even if some titles weren’t necessarily comfortable reading.

So, as November and December beckon, what am I likely to have piled up by my elbow?

Continue reading “Further reading”