Archive for January, 2014

Philip K Dick: Eye in the Sky

January 24, 2014

Another exploration of the weird nature of reality in this novel from Dick’s early days; eight people are injured in an accident at an experimental physics plant (it really reminded me of what I’ve read about CERN and the large hadron collider) and find themselves trapped in a world inside the mind of one of the group… but whose?

When I think about my mind and what goes on inside it, I do often wonder if it’s in any way like anyone else’s; take this thought a couple of steps further and you could imagine that everything existed in your mind only, and was a figment of your imagination, as it were. What if you actually had power – conscious or unconscious – over that world and the things and people in it: what sort of world would it be like? would other people enjoy being in it or would you create a hell for them? How dark is your personality and how weird are your dreams, especially if you inflicted them on others?

Suffice it to say that the characters spend time in several different people’s worlds, each of them very strange, and this perhaps warns us that ‘our’ world would be just as weird.

Apart from this conceit, which is interestingly explored, the novel doesn’t really get anywhere: the ideas are provocative and scary, though.

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Science Fiction

January 23, 2014

It occurred to me that the reason I find myself reading far less science fiction than I used to, is because I have rather less of the future to look forward to, in the sense of growing older; when I was much younger, I had the sense that my future might be radically different… and, yes, daily life has changed enormously over my lifetime. Nothing digital in my childhood. Enough said.

I’ve always been picky in terms of what SF I read. I hate the term ‘sci-fi’, am not interested in space opera or fantasy and hobbits, which narrows down the field somewhat. It’s also the only genre (apart from Sherlock Holmes, of course!) where I’ve actually enjoyed reading short stories.

Speculative fiction is what I’ve always really enjoyed; the ‘what ifs’, the alternative futures, the utopias and dystopias through the ages. Some of these can verge on the didactic, and when I was studying, writing about and reviewing SF in the 1970s and 1980s quite bit of it did. I wrote a dissertation for my MA on speculative fiction, focusing on Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Ursula LeGuin, who, for my money, remain some of the best writers in the genre, although I know I have gone out of touch with what has been written more recently. And then I researched an entire MPhil thesis on Feminist science fiction. That’s reminded me of the stunning resource that is the Science Fiction Foundation, with their amazing library of literature and journals, the only one in the UK as far as I’m aware, currently based at the University of Liverpool. When I was using its resources more than thirty years ago, it was based in Dagenham at the former North East London Polytechnic.

Novels are created as entertainment, certainly, but I have always enjoyed being made to think as well, and the kind of SF I’ve described above has made me reflect on myself, on what it means to be a sentient being of the human type, on the future of the world, humanity and the universe. I suppose such writing may politicise readers, but it’s hardly likely to bring about social change or revolution, as novels are a creation of the bourgeois period and are for individual consumption. If a good novel takes me out of myself, allows me to escape who I am for a few hours, then SF takes me further away, makes me aware of my smallness in the scale of the universe, gives me a different sense of perspective. That’s why, for instance, the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime is a man walking on the moon,  why I’m really excited at the thought of a space probe landing on a comet in a few months time, and why the thought that a space probe has left the solar system and is on its way to the stars at some time in the unimaginable future blows my mind completely.

Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

January 22, 2014

41yFaUb7B1L._AA160_This is the Philip Dick novel that was filmed as Blade Runner. Set in a future dystopian USA where humans are encouraged to migrate to Mars where their living standards are allegedly enhanced by android servants, Dick nudges his reader to think about what exactly it means to be human: what are the differences between humans and androids? Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, paid to ‘retire’ androids who have escaped Mars and infiltrated the deteriorating society back on Earth.

Is empathy with other people a specifically human quality, or would androids eventually be able to develop it? The sands keep shifting – or Dick keeps moving the goalposts, if you like – would you have sex with an android? Somehow, the developing cyberworld makes all these ideas more haunting, more immediate. Dick always had an amazing knack of making you uncomfortable: his future worlds are at once alien from our own, weird, and at the same time uncannily familiar in small ways: you can imagine yourself there without a great leap. I have always loved his concept of ‘kipple’, the mountains of meaningless crap that we accumulate and that can end up taking over our space and our world, collecting dust and mouldering away because we can’t get rid of them.

And the one thing that all humans in this nightmare world crave is a real living creature as a pet… empathy, or what?

Philip K Dick: Flow My Tears the Policeman Said

January 20, 2014

41oYWzzzDBL._AA160_I’ve gone back to my favourite SF writer, and someone who has been called the most brilliant SF writer ever. I shan’t argue about the detail; since my student days I gradually collected everything he wrote, about forty or so SF novels, dozens of short stories and a few ‘mainstream’ novels.

At the heart of Flow My Tears is Dick’s fascination or preoccupation with the nature of reality as we perceive it, and how, or to what extent we can trust it, and how it can be interfered with. Such interference may be mentally or pharmacologically induced, and, for a California-based writer who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s particularly, drug-induced states feature heavily. In the totalitarian police-state which is the USA of the novel, someone slips through the surveillance – but how? whose reality is he living in? And will the police catch up with him and ship him off to a forced labour camp? And the chief of police is involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they have a child together) who is also into bondage, fetishism and drugs… I was about to write, you couldn’t make it up! (well, I couldn’t, anyway).

Dick is an SF writer with a difference. Yes, his plots are weird; yes, his characterisation can be thin at times, but his erudition shines through, as does his empathy with his characters as human beings trying to make sense of the weirdness of the worlds they live in, which are often not too far distant from our own, strange as this may seem. You can see elements of Dick’s life throughout his work – the experimentation with drugs, the mental instability which became paranoia, the comprehensive knowledge of classical music…

Some of his novels are stunningly good; too late, this was recognised and some were made into films; some are pretty trashy, but most are thought-provoking. There is always a problem with SF when writers fail to predict or foresee some new, usually technological leap which alters the world and reality in a way that could ruin their work. Most clearly, for writers of Dick’s era, it’s computers and digital technology which are completely absent from their work, and this feels weird at times. But even Orwell missed the computer in Nineteen Eighty-four, although this led to the stunning steam-punk effects in the film of the book.

For me, SF is an escape, it’s lighter reading, but it’s always full of ideas, parallels with our world, things to get me thinking. And Dick does it best.

Books grow old, too

January 19, 2014

This post is prompted by my picking up an old favourite Philip K Dick novel to re-read, and discovering that I first read it thirty-eight years ago. I can’t quite get my mind around that, I’m afraid: intimations of mortality &c…

I bought it as a brand-new paperback for 60p in 1974, most probably from the wonderful and long gone Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool. It’s now seriously brown around the edges, and the glue is very old and cracks when I turn the pages; there are loose sections. Books do age over time, especially paperbacks, and books manufactured in the UK generally, I find, even hardbacks, because they are made of cheaper materials and to lower standards than in the US, where the market is much larger, and the cost of using better quality materials is therefore cheaper. UK hardbacks increasingly have glued rather than sewn pages, and I wonder how long the glue will last. And even the well-made Everyman’s Library hardbacks, printed on good quality paper and with stitched pages, have begun to show some signs of foxing… Paperbacks from the 1980s particularly had incredibly poor glue which crumbles: all the pages eventually fall out, and the only remedy for a well-loved book is to demolish and re-bind it: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to do this.

Some books have lasted for centuries; the oldest one I own is over 200 years old and will probably last another couple of centuries if it’s looked after; book being produced now probably won’t, and who can foresee what will have become of the printed word in a couple of centuries more? Will libraries be much smaller? I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his lifetime, Chaucer had acquired a library of about sixty books…

Some books I’ve had to replace: my much loved copy of Ursula LeGuin‘s The Dispossessed fell to bits and has been replaced by a more durable hardback; when I was teaching I wore out several copies of Lord of the Flies before buying a hardback, which finally saw me through to retirement. If I really like a book, I now tend to make sure I have a good copy that will last, and outlast me. Books are objects to love.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

January 16, 2014

Jane Austen famously described Emma as a heroine her readers would not like very much; Shchedrin creates an entire family of repugnant individuals and yet manages to fascinate the reader with their lives.

The Golovlyovs possess a number of linked estates somewhere in the vastnesses of nineteenth century Russia, around the time of the emancipation of the serfs (1862). They are all obsessed with money, are greedy, wastrels, feckless – they have almost no redeeming features. The hero of the story is a hypocrite in the tradition of Tartuffe, using religion to bolster himself and persuade others of the rightness of what he does (although the author interrupts his narrative to explain to us that he is not a Tartuffe!) or a Bulstrode, who feels that God shines on him and blesses his ill-gotten gains.

Any yet, the successive generations of the family acquire wealth without gaining any happiness or contentment from it; ultimately (when it’s too late) they come to some vague realisation that there was no point to what they spent their entire lives doing; they die miserable, lonely, unloved deaths, or kill themselves.

I often found myself asking what Shchedrin wanted to achieve with this novel. Obviously, wealth does not bring happiness; obviously there are hypocrites everywhere; perhaps ‘look at these worthless people who inhabit our Russia today’? Not really the basis for a three-hundred page novel…

I wouldn’t want you to get the impression I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, it’s compulsive reading: I wanted to know how low the characters would actually stoop in trying to score points off each other, would they eventually get their come-uppance, were there any decent people at all in the Golovlyov family? Shchedrin’s creation and development of his characters is masterly: they sink convincingly into obsession and mania.

I found myself again thinking: how very different from what English writers were producing at the same time; then I remembered Samuel Butler‘s The Way of All Flesh.

Why I read…

January 14, 2014

2008_1227stefsphotos0001I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember.

The first book I was ever given was Winnie The Pooh, and I never looked back; the first book I ever bought myself was with a Christmas book token (anyone remember those?) – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It cost the amazing sum of 3/6 (for those who never met real money, that’s the equivalent of 17.5pence). I’ve never looked back from Holmes, either.

As a child I wore our the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, with daily visits during school holidays. At the age of 12 they let me loose on the adults’ section… James Bond was a revelation. I hoovered up everything I could at school, and was astonished to be paid a grant to study literature at university, where I lay on the bed, reading huge numbers of books, some brilliant and others dire. After that, I received grants to read for two more literature degrees… and then spent my working life teaching English, mostly centred around reading & literature. And now I’m retired and can and do read to my heart’s content.

And there are often times when I ask myself what I’m missing, what I’ve missed, through having my nose in books all this time. When I got too uppity as a teenager and argued the toss about everything with my father, he would remind me that you can’t learn everything from books. He was right, even though he was the one who had encouraged me to read, to study and to learn. And I realised that actually, by reading, I could learn from the experiences of others as they wrote about themselves.

I read because I can enjoy (vicariously) the lives and experiences of others.

I read to escape from myself and my world, sometimes.

I read for pleasure.

I read to stimulate my mind and my brain, to make myself think.

I read because I’m seeking information.

All of those in no particular order. There have been failures, some of which may shock people: I have no time for Dickens; I read Hard Times at university because I had to; it was fair, but I have no desire to read any more. Similarly, I had to read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but have never felt the urge to explore further. An unopened copy of Jude the Obscure is on the shelves somewhere. I tried to read Mein Kampf once, but it bored me stupid and I gave up. (I also fell asleep in the cinema trying to watch Triumph of the Will). Several people at different times tried to persuade me to read Nabokov’s Lolita; I’ve had three goes, and failed – it makes my flesh creep. It took me thirty years to tackle Saul Bellow; I managed to get to the end of The Adventures of Augie March, and it was okay, but…

If you want to know what I really like, then I point you to the page somewhere on here called ‘My Lists’.

I calculated, from the reading log I’ve kept since the age of 18, that I’ve read over 3000 books since then. It doesn’t really seem very many, and I know that I have lots to re-read, along with the large piles of unread ones: I hope I’m granted enough life and eyesight to get through them all. I’m certainly not going to change the habit of a lifetime…

Travel in the Middle Ages

January 13, 2014

51+nu5+broL._AA160_I particularly enjoy reading accounts of travel from the Middle Ages. Then I’m transported into a world with only very rudimentary maps, before the world was fully known – where are America, Australia and Antarctica? How did sailors actually know where they were? So travel was a much more complicated and chancy business. Equally, I’m talking about times in which the real world co-existed with imaginary and fantasy worlds, and the boundaries between them are very fluid indeed. Did Sir John Mandeville actually exist, and did he visit any of the places he writes about in his Travels? Marco Polo did exist and went to the places he describes, as did Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century Arab traveller who covered more miles that Marco Polo all over the known world of his time, and Leo Africanus explored much of North Africa in the following ventury.

Jean Vernon‘s book Voyager au Moyen Age explains in great detail who travelled in the Middle Ages (he covers the period from the fiftth to the fifteenth centuries) and how they travelled, by land (on foot and horseback, alone and in groups) and by sea, and how long it took to get to places. The hardships are illustrated by copious references to writings of the time, and there’s an excellent bibliography, with pointers to lots more writers who I must track down… Many of these ancient texts are, of course, now freely downloadable from sites like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Vernon covers not just travel to real, but also to imaginary places..

Lots of people did travel, for trade, personal and professional reasons; the journeys were often long and hard; much of Europe was heavily forested in the early Middle Ages. People were afraid of the sea, and there were lots of pirates; journeys could take ages if the weather conditions were not propitious (three weeks to cross the English Channel…)

The book is a fascinating insight into the growth of our knowledge about the world, and also into the minds of people of many centuries ago, and how they thought about themselves and their world.

Freya Stark: The Minaret of Djam

January 5, 2014

517TEGVnowL._AA160_Freya Stark travelled through Afghanistan in 1968, at the age of 75; she describes a harshly beautiful country, backward in many ways, but with friendly people, and at peace… for these were the days before the Russians decided to interfere and began to wreck the country, before the Taliban took a brief grip and tried to move the clock back, before the US and the UK decided to invade and make the country democratic… it made me very sad, really. The most precious thing one can have is to live in peace, and to be able to raise one’s children in peace.

Stark writes well, and reflects deeply on what she sees and hears; there are many photographs, though overexposed in the reproduction, and the map is not terribly helpful, but this was a marvellous glimpse into the time machine of days and places lost and forgotten.

Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet

January 4, 2014

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This is the second weirdest novel I’ve ever read; the prize for the first goes to The Age of Wire and String, by the same author. That one was weirder because more poetic in the way that the author (ab)uses language and concepts to confuse/ seduce/ amaze his readers; this one is a novel with a real plot which you can (attempt to) follow…

Surrealist is a word I might use here, although Marcus makes Boris Vian at his strangest seem quite mundane; nor does he bore me stupid like Robbe-Grillet in La Jalousie. In the same way that Marcus takes language to its limits, I’m finding it rather a challenge to write about his book… but here goes:

In a New York he imagines, human speech has become toxic: first, it’s the speech of children, then increasingly vocalisation of anything by anyone, causes a range of weird and appalling symptoms; eventually parents and their children can no longer inhabit the same towns, let alone houses; bands of feral children can terrorise and disable adults by shouting at them. The toxicity of words, reading and all kinds of symbols make life impossible, and the search for palliatives and cures involves all sorts of bizarre and unethical methods; the narrator is a member of a strange group of Forest Jews whose odd rituals alone in the woods may or may not be linked to a solution… the book is full of weird devices it’s almost impossible to visualise. Eventually, the residue of all human speech lies around as piles of salt…

In and among this, of course, is the human need for fellowship, companionship, love and sex, and the descriptions of what sex has become in this universe are most strange. The narrator loves his wife and daughter, and has to abandon or lose both in different ways.

Although all the ideas in this story are initially so alien, it bears reading and the plot urges you on, as you wonder where on earth it can go next, and I was left shocked and upset at the end. I’m sure I will read it again, because I can see there is a lot I will inevitably have missed first time around.

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