Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

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On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End

June 15, 2019

81VHNCSOEgL._AC_UL436_  In need of a straightforward and familiar read, I went back to this SF novel which I bought before I left school, in the days when Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov were the big names. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I know many used to rate it very highly, but I find it very flawed and certainly it pales beside the far better The City and the Stars.

Very powerful creatures suddenly appear in spaceships above Earth and effortlessly take control, benevolently but firmly, ushering in an unprecedented era of peace and stability. There is no visible occupation, and resistance from those who cherish ‘independence’ is soon rendered pointless. Who are these invaders and what is their real intention?

The novel covers a large time-scale, a century or more, which means that – and this is a sad trait of a good deal of SF from this era – characters are poorly developed. Clarke is developing a cosmic sweep to his novel. The utopian Earth which develops in some ways comes to resemble the utopia of Brave New World, but without its coercion and conditioning: humans are happy, contented, but have lost the curiosity which drove them towards relentless progress in the past. Religion vanishes. In such a world, what will be the future for the species?

It transpires that the purpose of the Overlords, as they are called, it to prevent humans reaching the stars, a goal for which humanity is insufficiently mature. The Overlords are servants of something greater, into which the human race is transformed at the end of the novel, and with it, the Earth vanishes and humanity dies out…

It is a very flawed novel, with cardboard characterisation and some very silly plot elements: a human stowaway to the stars hides inside a fake whale on an alien faster-than-light spaceship? And yet, it’s an ambitious and thought-provoking novel too, wanting its readers to reflect on what the soul of humanity really is, just as Huxley did (rather better, I feel) and what the purpose of our species may ultimately be. It’s a product of the Cold War era in many ways, as well as of a would-be rationalistic and anti-religious mindset. It was worth re-reading but I can’t imagine I’ll bother again – much better writers have emerged to ask and explore these questions.

On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

Philip K Dick: Clans of the Alphane Moon

March 2, 2019

51iJJB54ArL._AC_US218_Dick continues to get ever weirder as I work my way through his oeuvre. An abandoned Earth colony, on a small moon in the Alph system, is home to the former inhabitants of a mental institution, who have constituted themselves into townships focused on their different conditions… and now, for unknown reasons Earth is interested in moving in again and re-hospitalising the inhabitants, who regard them as invaders and will fight to retain their autonomy, which is eventually guaranteed by their agreeing to become an Alphan colony.

This takes place against a personal conflict between a psychologist and marriage counsellor who is divorcing her CIA husband who wants to try and murder her by proxy; she has taken him to the cleaners and he can only survive by holding down two jobs, working a 24-hour day assisted by illegal drugs provided by a Ganymedean slime-mould who is good-naturedly telepathic. Are you still with me? Psi powers are rife on Earth too. Oh, and there’s a powerful TV mogul secretly in league with the Alphans, pitted against the CIA.

I’m finally beginning to fathom what Dick does to his readers, which is probably just as well for my own sanity and peace of mind… as reader, you have to remain fully inside his constructs and just accept his insane premises, weird characters and incomprehensible plots: there is no point in trying to step outside and ‘make sense’ or analyse what is going on, you just have to remain fully immersed in the hallucination until the end. You are part of it all while you read, drugged and tripping along with the author and his characters. It all makes for very interesting yarns…

And the resolutions are interesting: I’ve been noting, all the way through this series on Dick, his focus on and care for ordinary people and their feelings: good people rediscover themselves, are reunited with those they care about, learn something about themselves from all the craziness they are involved in, and emerge better people, better able to manage in what remains a crazy world. Maybe there are lessons for our times in here.

Philip K Dick: The Crack in Space

February 13, 2019

51WZTVM2SSL._AC_US218_This one was a bit more fun that the last one, although no more credible in any sense of the word. It’s a crazy futuristic thriller focused around a US presidential election campaign in which the first back man is about to become president… except that unlike Obama’s campaign, it involves futuristic weapons, time travel and a murder, linked to businessmen who own a satellite-based brothel…

What is interesting, gripping even, in this weird tale, is the discovery of a parallel universe where homo sapiens does not exist: here is the answer to overpopulation problems and without so much as a thought, people are being shipped over into that world before it’s realised that although homo sapiens may not exist, in that parallel track Peking Man became the human species.

Now it becomes fascinating: here is speculation, real SF, and the unexpected: what if that had happened? How different would the world be? And then there are the moral issues: could and should homo sapiens attempt to colonise, or even share such a world: the whole of white US history is under the microscope here. And true to what we know, the political and capitalist jungle takes over without a thought. This may be almost a throwaway novel, but you do end up thinking about a lot of real ideas along the way.

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Philip K Dick: The Cosmic Puppets

November 22, 2018

51OHOtUPMWL._AC_US218_I read somewhere, once, that this was the worst of Dick’s novels. For a very long time it was out-of-print and unobtainable, only re-appearing in the 1980s when Dick was dead and fashionable again.

A traveller re-visits the home-town he left at age nine, and finds it inexplicably a completely different place, unrecognisable and weird; he discovers that he was supposed to have died of scarlet fever at the age of nine. One again Dick has thrown us into the middle of things to confuse and disrupt his readers: we are drawn into the curious behaviours of two even stranger children who seem to be breeding creatures and fighting each other by proxy: they have odd powers and can bring inanimate matter to life…

There is an increasingly hallucinatory quality to this world from which the outsider cannot escape – an idea that Dick will develop much more convincingly and interestingly in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – and then he meets someone else whose vague memories of his past seem to chime in with his own. We can see Dick’s interest in the nature of reality developing, and entire universes which are actually controlled from inside a character’s mind are another idea that will feature much more effectively later in his writing career.

The novel develops – if you can call it that – into a battle between two personifications of good and evil, working at first through the two children I mentioned earlier. It is a weak novel, loose and lacking in both structure and connection: the ideas are certainly there but not developed and executed with any finesse; ultimately it failed to convince or grip this reader.

Philip K Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

November 19, 2018

51kYpaCvS5L._AC_US218_I’ve been a fan of Philip K Dick’s science fiction ever since I first read something by him as a student. He’s a brilliant writer – although very uneven in quality – and a fellow-writer once dubbed him ‘the best science fiction writer on any planet’, which probably does him justice… But I’m aware I have a few favourites which I re-read every now and then, and that there is a lot of his work I haven’t touched for years – so time to put that right. I decided to embark on a re-reading of his novels in the sequence they were written, to see whither that is illuminating in any way at all. I don’t know whether I’ll last the course, as some of his later books were quite bonkers, as I recall, reflecting his own very chaotic and tormented life.

Vulcan’s Hammer was apparently the first to be written. The opening – in medias res – is effective, immediately establishing an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mystery. Paranoia in many forms permeates most of Dick’s work, so no surprises here. He envisages a future with a world authority rather than individual nation-states, and everyone under surveillance to maintain stasis: prophetic enough when I look at today’s China, for example.

I did find myself noticing some shoddy language, suggesting a hastily-written text, and wonder if traits like this are harder to notice in SF, or perhaps more easily overlooked when one is taken over by plot and visions of the future? Certainly it’s one of those things I heard non-SF readers mention about the genre.

As the story develops we see emerging a conflict between two computers striving to control the world, and a people-led organisation that seeks freedom from control (although, in a typical Dickian paranoid twist, it turns out that this movement is actually a creation of one of the computers, unbeknown to its leader…) Surely Dick is looking forward to our world, where the potential of AI, and machines to manipulate us is currently a live issue? His controllers analyse the lower classes as risk-takers and gamblers who have not bought into security and stability: what does that remind you of?

But surely Dick is at his most prophetic when he visualises autonomous, programmed killing devices which can be used to target individuals – and he was writing in the 1950s! Killer drones – for that is surely what they are – are found in many of his novels and stories, as is the idea of machines creating ever more sophisticated killing machines, beyond the control of the humans who originally created them. There he was, sixty years ago, planning today’s nightmares…

Dick’s powerful controller Vulcan 3 is a paranoid computer, suffering from HAL syndrome more than a decade before Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we are clearly in a world where Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics does not obtain. Equally, he’s aware of the powerlessness of a grassroots movement faced by a modern bureaucratic state.

And yet, even in this first novel, Dick never loses sight of the human: the denouement returns to that level. There is a plot twist which is a bit of a cheat – no spoiler here – and I kindly remember that this is his first novel. So many of the ideas he will play with and explore in later novels and stories are foreshadowed here, albeit crudely. And you can already see that a writer who can juggle so many balls at once is something of a visionary.

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