Archive for December, 2017

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

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James E Gunn: The Listeners

December 29, 2017

51ZnpgDj6xL._AC_US218_I last read this one in 1979! So, having completely forgotten it for so long, I wasn’t expecting much; how wrong I was. It’s a masterly series of linked short stories set in a project scanning the universe for communications from other civilisations, other intelligent species. The lives and work of the various characters are interwoven with thoughts and reflections on the possibilities inherent in there either being other life-forms somewhere else or on our species being alone; Gunn imagines contact is eventually made and also succeeds in making us care about his main characters and their work, in an astonishingly powerful and quite erudite novel.

I’ve come across no other novels or stories by Gunn in my life of reading SF, so I looked him up; still alive in his nineties, apparently, and this particular novel a runner-up for a major award when it was published. Although life elsewhere is a standard trope of SF, the long and painstaking search for it, and philosophical implications are not. The novel was published in 1972, and this was the time when people like Carl Sagan were setting up the SETI project.

The communication Gunn imagines from intelligent life in the Capella star-system strongly resembles the drawings and coded information we sent out from Earth on the Voyager spacecraft five years later in 1977. To me, science and research has always been a double-edged sword; to be sure, we advance the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and this is a good thing, but so much that is discovered can be and has been perverted to evil ends, either in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or tools that enhance our lives whilst wrecking our environment. Against this background, I’ve always felt that the exploration of space and the search for life elsewhere is one of the best things that we do, one of the most useful things on which we can expend time and resources; I’ve never felt it to be a waste of money, given the obscene size of the ‘defence’ budgets of so-called civilised nations… And, when I find myself reflecting on the fact that I won’t be around for ever, one of the things I realise I would really like to be around for would be when we finally contact other intelligences, or when we get to Mars. I still rate humans landing on the Moon as the greatest event of my lifetime.

So, once contact is made, humans panic and fear. Will aliens invade and enslave us? Politicians’ first instinct is to suppress news, and to refuse to respond to the message; calmness eventually prevails and a reply is sent, but ninety years are needed for our message to reach its destination and a reply to come back, and here we are faced with a different issue – our attention-span. The SETI project in the novel was threatened with closure, having existed for 50 years without making any contact; 90 years for a reply to come back is beyond a human life-span, let alone any politician or manager’s working life. How does anyone cope, how do you sustain the necessary infrastructure for long enough to receive and respond? Our short lives and the nature of capitalism make us short-termists par excellence…

Gunn’s novel, which I’m sure has been long forgotten about by everyone except compilers of SF reference books, is another example of what the genre is best at: making us think. What if? I’d love to know…

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

Christmas Books 2017

December 26, 2017

5178JPz9XvL._AC_US218_5190gvBe8QL._AC_US218_I’m trying – with not a great deal of success – to cut down on the number of books I acquire, so I put rather fewer new books on my wish list this year. I also look at said wish list rather infrequently, so the books I received this Christmas, only four, (!) came as very pleasant surprises, and I shall very much look forward to reading them.

For the record, I received Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, Au Pays des Sherpas by Ella Maillart, All Things Made New by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and the wonderful Explorer’s Atlas.

I have long enjoyed Montaigne’s essays, his way of looking at and reflecting on the world, and indeed the way he may be said to have invented and developed that literary form, and although I haven’t thus far enjoyed Zweig’s fiction, I have found his non-fiction thought-provoking. Some of my readers will know of my passion for the travels, writings and photography of Maillart, the Swiss traveller: here is more for me to enjoy. And having used 2017’s being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as an excuse to revisit some religious history (see this year’s posts passim), MacCulloch’s recent collection of essays will no doubt shed some more light and raise a few more questions. The Explorer’s Atlas is the nearest I get to coffee-table delights and I’m really looking forward to it.

These should keep me going until the new year, at least…

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John Wyndham: The Chrysalids

December 20, 2017

A long time since I last read this one, and for my money it’s still the best of Wyndham‘s SF novels. Despite being written over sixty years ago, it hasn’t dated badly; the post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario is still pretty convincing, as is the concern with genetic mutations from that time, and the religious screwball craziness of the United States is as valid as ever…

Nuclear war has devastated the Eastern US, where the story is set; little or nothing is known of further afield. Mutations are rife, among humans, animals and crops, and in the region where the story is set, formerly north-eastern Canada, are seen as punishment for man’s sins that led to the ‘Tribulation’ some three centuries ago, and in this fundamentalist Christian society are ruthlessly extirpated and destroyed.

Wyndham writes well, and his story has a leisurely pace, fitting the sort of times and paces he’s creating; his master-stroke is his careful choice of an adolescent as his narrator, and one who gradually comes to realise that actually he carries a mutation, along with a handful of others nearby. It’s not a visible one, however – it’s a form of telepathy and ability to read and tune into the thoughts of others similarly affected. This puts them in considerable, though not immediate danger.

Eventually they are betrayed and have to flee, and come into contact with a whole society of telepaths who have colonised New Zealand and rebuilt a technological society; they come to their rescue. And yet, Wyndham leaves us with a sense of unease at the end, too, because although our endangered few from Canada are rescued and taken to a place where they will no longer be at risk of extermination, the Zealanders seem cold, calculating, almost un-human… as of course they actually are if though-reading and telepathy are widespread in their world, and they are very ready to dismiss those who are not, as primitives…

This is what’s different about good SF – see my previous post – there’s a reasonable plot, some decent characterisation, in that I actually cared about the fate of some of the characters, and the futuristic or science-fictional elements are rather more plausible. There’s material to make a reader think; we are challenged by the idea that a better future for some may not be for all…

On bad SF

December 20, 2017

I’ve waited several days before writing this post, trying to assess just how bad the novel is…

The characters and their relationships are cardboard cut-outs, without any depth or subtlety, indeed with barely any psychological credibility at all. The plot is pretty tenuous: four scientists are sent back twelve thousand years in time, for four years, to observe and monitor primitive tribes. They build trust, and interfere. There is much vulgarised anthropology and linguistics, too, such that even I, as an expert in neither field, could see through. The time-travel elements were barely credible, if that makes sense, even for a topic so incredible in itself. And then, a totally unbelievable deus ex machina at the end…

Why is it so bad? Although I briefly considered, a couple of times, giving the book up as a waste of valuable eyeball time, I didn’t. And that, it seemed to me, is the thing about SF, even a lot of really bad SF: the ideas are seductive. Time-travel is such an interesting concept – when would I travel to, given the opportunity? What happens when present encounters past? How will a writer develop his plot?

SF is the literature of ideas par excellence, and some of it is brilliant. I haven’t forgotten Theodore Sturgeon‘s comment that ‘95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap’. If time travel were possible – and I don’t, for one moment believe that it is – then one can imagine all sorts of things it would be great to explore and find out. And apart from the where and the when, there are the more complex questions of interference in the past: what happens if you meet your grandfather? kill one of your ancestors accidentally? killed Hitler or Stalin or some other tyrant in their younger days?. What about the psychological effects on the travellers? What happens if you get stuck in another time period and cannot return? All these questions have been explored in different ways, by rather better writers than Farmer. There was even a children’s TV series in my younger days, called The Time Tunnel, which I remember watching with great fascination.

Good SF challenges our existing world, and existing attitudes and beliefs, and if it’s going to do any of these things meaningfully, then it needs to be carefully researched. Reading the thin and barely credible anthropological stuff in this novel, I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin‘s fiction: her father was an anthropologist, and when she creates various possible variations on human beings, there’s a level of credibility and interest which makes any of the novels or stories in the Hainish series gripping and intellectually challenging…

I suppose this novel was no worse than Barbara Cartland among the world of love stories, or some of the S&F novels of the seventies. I didn’t waste too much time on it, but I was shocked at how poor it was.

H G Wells: Star-Begotten

December 16, 2017

51jfygNYWNL._AC_US218_Another book bought twenty years ago and not yet read… and I can see why. Just a bit of tidying-up in my SF collection and this pot-boiler from late in the writer’s career can definitely go. He still has a bee in his bonnet all those years after The War of the Worlds.

The narrative style irritates, for a start: that of a slightly superior parent talking patronisingly to a child. And then there’s the plot – or total lack of it, for it’s no more than a series of conversations, that grow ever more didactic, and insane. It’s the story of a rather dull bourgeois man, who grows up questioning the world as a boy – as most children do – and this spirit is inevitably squashed out of him by all the usual pressures: growing up, study, work, family and so on, turning him into a conformist like everyone else.

Among his circle of friends, he latches on to the idea that cosmic rays are being deliberately directed at Earth by Martians – probably – who are seeking to convert the Earth and its inhabitants slowly and gradually into creatures more like themselves, in order to take over our planet, having failed with their direct invasion tactic; there are backward self-references to his own novel here, as well as to Olaf Stapledon‘s rather more serious work Last and First Men. His hero is clearly certifiable, as are the friends with whom he colludes, and yet the idea spreads and has its brief moment of media fame; he spends time ‘researching’ his idea, and even goes as far as to suspect his newborn son and his wife of being Martian changelings…

But, if you have reached this point thinking, why is lit.gaz wasting time even writing about such tosh, pause for a moment and reflect that Wells hasn’t completely lost the plot: there are several quite clever twists in the thinnish plot. Researching his crackpot thesis, he meets schoolchildren – whom he suspects of being changelings – who are exactly the same as he was at that age; we make the connection, even if our hero doesn’t, right until the very end of the novel, when he is about to crack up.

And again, although I wondered initially how Wells could waste his time with such meanderings in 1937, he does explore the idea, still relevant today, that humans have lost their grip as a species, that the world is now too complex by half for us to know what we are doing to it or ourselves, and certainly not to be in control of much of it. What does the future hold for us? Wells visualises a new kind of human, superseding all the baggage of the past, rather than one galloping towards the horrors that would arrive two years later. But interestingly, too, fake news rears its head: when the crazy Martian takeover by cosmic rays theory goes public, the notion that the media can and will be used to tell a credible public anything and to manipulate them shamelessly, is there, eighty years before our time…

It’s not a good book; it was a waste of eyeball time, as I like to put it. And yet, the Wellsian prescience is still there, and the notion of our limitations as a species is stronger now than eighty years ago, I think.

On avoiding Marx

December 15, 2017

51OL0gW4-wL._AC_US218_Although I’ve always been on the left in terms of politics, I’ve managed to avoid engaging with Marx for most of my life. I may have read The Communist Manifesto at some point in my student days, but I can’t remember. I did have to read some chapters that Marx wrote about literature when studying for my MA, and we also grappled with some other Marxist critics such as Lukacs, but I remember very little of what they had to say on the subject. Marx is difficult, and the doorstep tomes are off-putting.

And yet, I’ve always been drawn to what I’ve known and understood of Marx’s analysis of economics and history, because what I have known of it has seemed to make sense, and because some over-arching theory of how our world works is needed in order to help us to change it, if that is what we want to do. I’ve been interested, throughout my adult life, in sexual politics, and also environmental politics, but also aware of the Marxist notion that the class struggle is the primary one, and all the others are sidetracks, which get in the way of changing things, and which, of course, the dominant class is very happy for us to get sidetracked down: those energies that might be used in demolishing the system are dissipated…

This has come to seem ever more true to me in recent years, as the world has appeared, over the course of my lifetime, to have become ever more stuck; I am struck by our inability to learn from our horrendous past, by our ability to destroy our environment without a thought, by our ability to be seduced by consumer trash, by our acceptance of politicians’ and economists’ lies….

A few years back I came across the writings of David Harvey, who has been teaching Marx for about forty years or so; his book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism provided a useful introduction, and then I discovered that a series of his lectures on the first volume of Marx’s Capital was available for download (here). I’ve recently discovered that lectures on the second volume are available too…

It’s taken me a while to get round to listening to them. They were recorded, not very professionally, in actual lectures, so the sound quality isn’t brilliant – there are frequent pauses and he rambles at times as lecturers do, and students’ questions are largely inaudible – but Harvey takes you through what Marx is saying in detail, explaining and clarifying, pointing out the salient points of the analysis, and most helpfully, relating them to the present day economic situation. It’s not easy listening, and I did find myself zoning out at various points, but I saw how Marx’s analysis fitted together and made sense, and I saw the totality of its scope. I found myself thinking not, ‘here is the answer, Marx says it all and this is what we need to do’, but ‘this is a clear and comprehensive analysis which makes sense as a whole, and is better and clearer than anything else I’ve heard or read… here is a template for viewing and understanding the world’.

What comes across is the inter-relatedness of everything, and the enormous difficulty of changing things. There are more questions than answers, it seems to me. Is democracy the best form of government, for a start? Because if you want to get on with making the world different, it will certainly take more than the maximum five-year time-frame of democracy. And perhaps democracy is only a bourgeois concept anyway, actually serving the interests of relatively few people? Maybe the Chinese, who can take the longer-term perspective, will have greater success in addressing the challenges the planet faces… What do you do with the small groups of vested interests who will fight tooth and nail to retain their power and privilege, even if outvoted in a ‘democratic’ election? Though I do not for one minute approve, I can understand why the Bolsheviks behaved as they did… HG Wells imagined world government, and surely change would have to be planet-wide to address humanity’s problems, but I see no signs of that happening…

Currently then, I’m still stuck with my feeling that we are not a very intelligent species and that there is probably no way, at the moment anyway, of us all coming together to build a better world, without a great deal of violence… and that is a contradiction in terms. But Marx’s analysis makes sense to me, and until someone does better, it’s the best we have…

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

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