A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.

I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.

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Hic et ubique

Moon's far side: NASA Apollo 16
Moon’s far side: NASA Apollo 16

Philip K Dick: Ubik
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2000 (1969)

Caveat emptor!

My worry with Ubik was that, as with the metaphor of the onion from Peer Gynt, I would peel away its several layers to find either that there was nothing in the centre or, worse, that I’d discarded its essence along the way. Even after waiting some while, years in fact, after first reading it — to let its ideas marinate, as it were — I find I’m only a little closer to even a vague understanding of its subject matter.

The confusion partly arises from the way Dick places his characters in a complex plot governed by wandering timelines, resulting in altered realities and alternate pasts and futures. His characters are malleable too, so that while nondescript novels might offer us easily identifiable heroes and villains, Ubik‘s characters can present themselves as morally ambiguous.

One way to approach Dick’s conundrum is to consider his appropriation of Elizabethan texts, particularly Shakespeare, in novels such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Time Out of Joint. Here the title Ubik hints at Hamlet referring to the ubiquity of the Ghost, his father: “Hic et ubique? ” he laughs, ‘here and everywhere’? Hamlet might well prove a possible entry to Dick’s textual labyrinth, but I glimpse other portals too.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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No Snow White

Front cover art by Walter Simonson

Archie Goodwin (writer) & Walter Simonson (artist)
Alien: the Illustrated Story
Titan Books 2012 (1979)

Originally issued forty years ago and timed for the release of the film, Alien: the Illustrated Story has a different narrative vibe from the movie while essentially giving us the same tale. Where the screen version used muted colours and shadows and built up the tension with long stretches of inaction and a strong sense of claustrophobia — as I remember it: in fact it’s been decades since I saw it — this graphic novel instead gives us bilious hues in which flashes of yellow (for lights), blues (for Ripley’s overalls) and especially red (for the inevitable blood) punctuate the action. Unlike the celluloid alien, which we only caught intermittent glimpses of, in these pages our eyes can linger on the dread details of Giger’s design for the malevolent predator in its disturbing exoskeleton.

Do I need to spell out the plot in detail? The original authors, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, were influenced by the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None in depicting a group of individuals who are bumped off one by one. In Alien the crew of the space transporter Nostromo are diverted from their homebound journey to investigate a CETI-like signal from a planetoid body. Inadvertently one member gets infected by an alien life form, which quickly matures and then proceeds to prey on the crew in the close confines of the spacecraft.

The stuff of nightmares, you can imagine why this story was initially — and so aptly — pitched as “Jaws in space”.

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Smoke, mirrors and planes

Christopher Priest: The Adjacent
Gollancz 2013

“We were naïve, all of us but especially me — we thought we were making a breakthrough into something that would neutralise weapons. It would always be safe to use, non-aggressive in nature, harmless because it would remove harm. But what we all feared soon came to pass: minds other than ours worked out how to make quantum adjacency into a weapon of war.”
— Professor Thijs Rietveld, discussing Perturbative Adjacency Field.

This is a novel of ideas, of obsessions, and of the emptiness when a loved one disappears. It’s a work of speculative fiction, but one in which one mustn’t look too closely at the science nor expect any magic (except that being accomplished by smoke and mirrors). It’s a narrative that jumps around in time and space, told in both the first and the third person, in which we encounter many individuals; but ultimately there is one thread and one couple on which our attention is focused. It’s a novel that is by turns illogical and alienating but yet strangely satisfying.

Told in eight parts, The Adjacent begins in a dytopian 2030s. Hopping between Anatolia and the Islamic Republic of Great Britain we come to realise that the world is in the grip of two crises, one of extreme weather brought about by rapid climate change, the other produced by random terrorist strikes using a frightening, almost apocalyptic, weapon. It is this last that has apparently caused the disappearance of Melanie Tarent while on relief work as a nurse in Turkey, to the distress of her husband Tibor, a freelance photographer, who travels back to the IRGB, towards Lincolnshire and Hull, then one of the seats of government.

Thereafter, while continuing to follow Tibor’s story we also find ourselves travelling to the western front during the first world war with stage illusionist Tommy Trent and H G Wells, then to the home of Nobel prizewinner, the physicist Thijs Rietveld in East Sussex, where he is photographed by a younger Tibor; this is followed by a Second World War airfield for Lancaster bombers in the Lincolnshire Wolds (modelled on RAF Binbrook) where we meet Aircraftman Mike Torrence, and then the apparently fictitious island state of Prachous where we follow the career of Thom, a stage magician, and Tallant, an overseas visitor. What is the connection, if any, between all these individuals with curiously related names; and of the women whom they meet, whose names equally seem to share resemblances?

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All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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Touchstones

Ladybird (credit: https://liveknowledgeworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/ladybird.jpg)

In the last three months we’ve lost two women who, between them, contributed hugely to the world of the human imagination. I say lost, but in truth we were privileged to have found them in the first place. One was a folklorist known for collecting childhood ephemera — both virtual and real — in Britain, the other a writer and poet who, through the genres of fantasy and science fiction, brought an anthropologist’s eye to considerations of how we function as individuals and as social animals.

These two outstanding individuals are of course Iona Opie and Ursula Le Guin.

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Paradise lost

Ursula K Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest
Introduction by Ken MacLeod
SF Masterworks: Gollancz 2014 (1972/6)

A novella I’ve had on my shelves for a couple of years, The Word for World is Forest is one that I was reluctant to begin, having understood that it was regarded as too polemical to be pure fiction. Completed in the aftermath of the terrible Vietnam war it was an expression of controlled rage against wanton killing, defoliation, poisoning and waste by a triumphalist aggressor against a supposedly inferior culture; Le Guin’s motivation was commendable but I’d had doubts sown over whether there was any edification to be had.

Having read it I can see the critical reservations all too clearly, but I can also appreciate its merits: a forward-moving narrative, a handful of clearly observed characters whose thought processes we observe, a sense of hope in amongst the more pessimistic aspects, imaginative touches that characterise both the genre and the universe that Le Guin has created in her Hainish Cycle. I can say that, yes, I was edified by the storyline, despite the darkness at its heart.

And here I must reference Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, which later went on to inspire Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Similar themes run through both novellas — subjugation, maverick officers, exploitation — which I feel may be more than a coincidence. And, as the author makes clear in her own 1976 introduction, her London sojourn in the late 60s and involvement in protest demonstrations reflected, amongst other things, her own environmental concerns, concerns which I think Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ also encapsulated: “They took all the trees | And put them in a tree museum,” she sang, and “you don’t know what you’ve got | Till it’s gone,” adding “They paved paradise | And they put up a parking lot.”

So, is this a Garden of Eden story as the foregoing implies?

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Multi-layered page-turner

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia:
Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter

Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010

The Helliconian trilogy is a multi-layered composition, as long and as rich as The Lord of the Rings, as colourful as a medieval tapestry and as polemical as an eco-warrior’s handbook. Aldiss is a prolific author in various genres, not just in science fiction; but SF at its best can itself include a great many genres, and this trilogy therefore has aspects of romance, epic, fantasy, prose poetry and science writing all flourishing in symbiosis with each other. And, like any great narrative, it is not only a great page-turner but has you caring about its characters. Continue reading “Multi-layered page-turner”

Wonder women

dragon
Lifesize (?) dragon sculpture outside a bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Jessica Yates editor
Dragons and Warrior Daughters:
fantasy stories by women writers

Lions Tracks 1989

This is a pleasing collection of eight short stories by seven female fantasy writers, featuring pieces which mostly appeared in the 70s and 80s with the earliest first published in the 1930s. Here are big names such as Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee and Robin McKinley, with a couple of doyennes like Vera Chapman and C L Moore, plus one author I know really well — Diana Wynne Jones — and another whom I’d not previously come across — Pat McIntosh. The title gives an inkling of what’s in store: yes, there are dragons (three tales with these), and there are female warriors (three in total), but the collection ranges a little more widely than is implied. Most have settings which feel medieval, but a couple are less constrained, either deliberately located in some parallel universe or involving a descent into nightmare and horror.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Strange places

mount everest

One April afternoon in 1978 the author Robert Silverberg heard what he called “the old familiar voice in my head whispering things to me.” Rushing into his office he reports scribbling this on the back of an envelope:

“The scene is a giant planet-sized city — an urban Big Planet, population of billions, a grand gaudy romantic canvas. The city is divided into vast subcities, each with its own characteristic tone. The novel is joyous and huge — no sense of dystopia.

“The book must be fun. Picaresque characters. Strange places – but all light, delightful, rafish [sic] …”

This was the germ of his idea for Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), leading in time to a series of science fantasy novels set on the giant planet of Majipoor. I’ve already reviewed Kingdoms of the Wall (1993), a sort of prequel in all but name, and Tales of Majipoor (2013), a collection of novellas and short stories (aka ‘novelettes’); and am now planning a reread of the novels and of another, earlier short story collection called Majipoor Chronicles (1995). My reviews, I hope, will give a flavour of what I find attractive about the series for those who aren’t yet acquainted with it and, for those who do have that familiarity, perhaps provide a somewhat oblique view of why some of the entries in the sequence work better than others.

Just as an introduction, let’s look at some of the qualities Silverberg enumerates for what turned out to be the first Majipoor novel:

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Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality. Continue reading “Richly resonant”

Miching mallecho

Cover art from UFO Journal June 1950
Cover art from UFO Journal (June 1950)

John Wyndham Plan for Chaos
Edited by David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Penguin Books 2010 (2009)

Here is a curiosity: a novel by the author of The Day of the Triffids, written around the same time (1948 to 1951) but abandoned, only to see the light of day around sixty years later when it’s finally published. It’s not difficult to see why Wyndham gave up on it — its compound of different genres, disparate themes and mangled speech patterns make for awkward reading — and yet it’s an interesting experiment which, given radical tweaking, could have been made to work.

The basic set-up is that supporters of the Nazi cause have survived into the 1970s, somewhere in South America we deduce, where they have built a secret underground complex. Here their clandestine wartime experiments for perpetuating a master race have resulted in the successful breeding of human clones; all that is required is to fool the superpowers into annihilating each other with atomic bombs — the chaos of the novel’s title — after which the new Germans will re-populate the earth. Their technicians have also developed flying saucer technology and cloaking devices, causing international consternation and confusion in a world unaware of their existence.

Into this massive conspiracy stumbles Johnny Farthing, an American magazine photographer with a mixed British and Swedish background. Continue reading “Miching mallecho”

Mixing genres

the-planet-earth

Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth? Continue reading “Mixing genres”