Friday, 8 June 2018

My Recent Reading Backlog – 2

The Candidate, by Alex Nunns

This title is available directly from the publisher, OR Books, as a print-on-demand paperback and as a DRM-free ebook. Click on the image to go to the order page. This review is of the first edition and all page references are for the paperback.

In the 2015 election, I didn’t bother to take part. In fact, I pretty much buried my head and avoided it. I did vote: of course I voted, and I voted Labour, believing that Ed Milliband was a decent man at the head of a lousy party, but I was, as I had been since at least the Iraq War, if not since Peter Mandelson demonstrated the Blairites’ real priorities in 2000, a reluctant voter, who felt he had no real representation within the official political system.

If you’d asked me at that time what my ideal prime ministerial candidate would have looked like, I would have said, someone who did not seek the position, who spoke clearly about the world, rather than dodging round ideas, who opposed war and injustice, who was not muddied by association with the Blair years and who was prepared to aim for a move away from the apparently unstoppable drift towards a free-market economic free-for-all. Thanks to the deafening hegemony of the press, business lobbyists and cowed or corrupted politicians, that position, even under three years ago, seemed like a naive dream.

That year’s election result, an increased majority for the Tories (although on a considerably increased Labour popular vote), contrary to the expectations of the media and their opinion polls, didn’t, therefore, take me by surprise, although I had seen one Guardian cover which had shown Milliband to have been catching up with the Tories, and my hopes had been lifted somewhat. Though a Labour government, as the party was then, would not have made much of a difference to the country, it might at least have wiped the smirks off the faces of Osborne, his lackey Cameron and their odious puppet master Murdoch. In the end, though, as we all expected in our heart of hearts, Murdoch got his way as usual, and the Tories got back in, apparently stronger than before.

It would have amazed me then to discover that, a little over a month after the election, not only would I have joined the Labour Party, but that I would be on Facebook (which I had left several years before) posting enthusiastically for a Labour back bencher to become leader, attending Labour meetings and arguing with Blairites about the leadership election, and even wearing tee-shirts declaring my allegiance to the leadership candidate.

I can remember sitting in our garden, late on a summer evening, after having returned from the Isle of Wight Festival, and deciding that this man was for real, and that it was time to put my money behind him. I joined straight away: I didn’t want to just be a £3 supporter; I wanted to be a part of the movement to reintroduce socialism into British politics, and to do my bit to bring together all the angry people who had had no way of finding a voice that could reach beyond the paywall the British establishment had erected around itself. Jeremy Corbyn was saying things that had been too outre for mainstream discourse: things like, poverty is bad and not inevitable: war is a manufactured evil, not forced upon us; the news media is distorted by vested interests and hatred and we should be fighting the racist anti-immigrant propoganda; we should be funding schools properly; we should own our vital infrastructure networks; we should be reversing privatisation of the NHS, rather than collaborating with the corrupt capitalist clique who are stealing our country while lying through their teeth to us. And, most amazingly, millions of people were listening. Within two years, I was campaigning for a Labour Party that was propelled by this man to reduce the Tories to a minority government, change the political dialogue and unseat the hegemony of the elite mainstream media.

It has been an extraordinary couple of years: from despair to hope. This book tells the story from inside the left wing circles of the national Labour Party and, if at times it feels a little confused, and a little too busy, that is because it has a lot of material to cover,

There had been some precursors to the Corbyn movement, but, living on the Isle of Wight, working in public service and dependent upon mainstream media for my information as I was, I had largely missed them. Principally, the anti-austerity movement had been standing for all the right things for a few years, and gaining some coverage, but had been unable to inconvenience the insulated political class. The anti-war movement was similarly strong in voice but still fairly weak in influence, although the greatest parliamentary success of Ed Milliband’s leadership of Labour was probably the defeat of Cameron’s plan to bomb Syria, although Cameron went ahead and did it anyway in his next term. The anti-tax avoidance movement had caused a certain amount of change of narrative among the Tories, but no real change of direction. Online protest movements like 38 Degrees had begun to draw together people who were not active protestors but felt angry about political conditions. Looking back, I think that, for me, the biggest nudge towards thinking I should drag myself out of hopelessness had been reading The Establishment, by Owen Jones, which was widely read in 2015-16 (I remember the enthusiasm of the bookseller in Waterstone’s when I bought it as a moment of political fellowship). In particular, I was fascinated by what is now a reasonably familiar concept; the Overton Window, which is the constructed restriction on what is considered permitted discourse within the political realm. This concept, new to me then, perfectly explained the previously incomprehensible way in which issues that I saw as urgent and real were contained and marginalised by the political classes.

I can remember a thrill of recognition when I read, “…as the late socialist politician Tony Benn would often put it, social change is a combination of two things: ‘the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world’”[1] Though I certainly didn’t lack the flame of anger at injustice, I had been lacking hope for a long time, and every event that seemed it should inspire hope would, after the first headlines, get dragged back down into the mire of politicians’ vacilations and newsreaders’ contemptuous headshaking.

After the 2015 election, the candidates who came forward to stand as replacements for Ed Milliband did nothing to remedy that. Instead of change, we faced more greyness and surrender to neoliberalism. My despair was shared by Nunns:

The whole narrative was ‘we need to move to the right’… This was getting to the point where you go, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to take this if this is the direction it goes in. We’ve got to at least have a go, through the debate, to pull it back.’[2]

The standard profile of the politician to whom we had become depressingly accustomed by now was a professional technocrat, addicted to playing a game defined as much by its restrictions as by any desire to achieve anything beyond personal advancement. In the Tories, this created the dominance of, frankly, a class of corrupt second-raters, skilled at delivering power to their corporate sponsors in return for personal advantage, staying just within the rules they had, over decades, set for themselves. Tragically, the Labour Party had followed suit.

…within the ranks of the Blairite MPs there was a decline in quality over time…made up of spads-special advisors-many of whom had moved effortlessly from university to MPs’ researcher to ministerial advisor to a safe seat to being in government (this applied to Brownites as well as Blairites). It was a career path that produced technocrats, people who had never needed to fight.[3]

As the candidates lined up to succeed Ed Milliband, this was exactly what we were offered: a line-up of identikit technocrats. Andy Burnham (‘soft left’), Yvette Cooper (Brownite) and Liz Kendall (Blairite) presented nothing of any substance to someone who wanted to be led against the corrupt orthodoxy of austerity and privatised public services.

They have probably been thinking for years about their unique ‘policy offer’; which combination of the words ‘future,’ ‘Britain,’ ‘forward,’ and ‘together’ they will adopt for their slogan; and how they will answer the question about whether they took drugs at university.[4]

In that environment, the hopes of left-leaning Labour members were not high. Some even simply thought that the Left should simply avoid the contest. Owen Jones is quoted saying as much.

My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour Party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever.[5]

Had I been thinking about it, I would probably have felt much the same. I was not part of ‘the left’, but their views, as outlined in this book, were the very ideas I was dreaming of, and had been dreaming of for many years, thinking that they were politically impossible to believe in. I remember telling my sister that, at least, Cooper had been sound on the establishment of SureStart, but, given her bland, centrist campaign for the leadership, that felt like a quirky anomoly, rather than an indication of her radical, egalitarian politics. She, like Burnham, looked less like a campaigner who had sold out than a careerist who had a couple of slightly radical sales positions.

This very dreeriness and the weight of rightward-peering consensus was, however, what drove the left to search for a candidate. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott both ruled themselves out, Mcdonnell for health reasons and because he felt he was too abrasive and Abbott because she wanted to run for London mayor. Clive Lewis declined because he felt he lacked experience; “…I don’t even know where the toilets are”,[6] but the desperation for a Left candidate to at least shift the debate away from surrender to capital was powerful. As McDonnell put it in a journal article,

That the candidates for the Labour leadership so far have failed to mount the slightest challenge to capital shows the abject state of near surrender of the Labour Party. No core Labour principle is safe in the rush to not only return to Blairism but even go beyond. Redistribution of wealth through taxation is denounced as ‘the politics of envy.’ Privatisation of the NHS is acceptable as long as it ‘works.’ Caps on welfare benefits and toughening the treatment of migrants are suppoerted because they were ‘doorstep issues.’[7]

In this atmosphere, the idea of running to win was not really on the table. Merely fielding a candidate who could put the case for an alternative to servility to capitalist austerity was the only aim. Jeremy Corbyn was not even considered: “We suffered from a blindness to anything other than a conventionally acceptable candidate” Jon Lansman is quoted as saying.[8]

The story that Corbyn tentatively proposed himself at a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group is, according to Nunns, true. Despair had almost set in: “They discussed the alternative of backing one of the existing candidates in return for concessions…”[9] and he put his name forward, assuming that he would be defeated, but unwilling to see a contest without a genuine Labour voice. In fact, Byron Taylor, the national officer of the Trades Union Liaison Organisation had suggested Corbyn to Lansman already, pointing out that Corbyn was “…the nicest man in politics…he hasn’t got any enemies.”[10]

At this point, the Left’s highest ambition in the leadership contest was not to be wiped out. Nunns quotes one anonymous source as having said, “I don’t want the Left to fall flat on its face. The main thing is, we don’t finish fourth, or even worse than that, a distant fourth.”[11] However, very quickly, a new factor became evident: people power.

The early signs were all good. Even before the campaign had any kind of central command, things were happening out in the wild. Throughout the summer what was known as the Corbyn campaign was actually an amalgam of spontaneous local activity, but in practice the official operation was often “at the reins of a runaway horse,” as Corbyn’s press spokesperson Carmel Nolan described it…[Marshajane] Thompson found an image on the internet with the #JezWeCan motif and paid her own money to have 100 t-shirts printed with the design…”We had a meeting in Newcastle where we literally advertised it 48 hours in advance and we got 250 people” says Ben Sellars. “This is in the first week of the campaign.” Meanwhile in London, an activist gathering held in a pub in Tottenham Court Road attracted 300 people wanting to campaign for Corbyn.[12]

Jumping On Board

This must be around the time I came in, signing up to Facebook, partly because of a happy event around The Isle of Wight Festival and partly because I was, like nearly everyone I knew, amazed and delighted to hear a politician saying what I had been thinking, and speaking in terms that reflected the real world, rather than a photoshopped, PR-led mirage of ‘political reality’ that seemed divorced from the reality of my life and the world around me.

I’d found my dream candidate. Within days, I had joined the party, as a full member, not a £3 supporter.

The excitement of that time comes back to me now. I was far from the centre of things, on the Isle of Wight, going to my first constituency meetings, arguing for Jeremy, making new friends, voting in the constituency nomination poll, which overwhelmingly supported Corbyn. The local party here, like in many areas, was both excited and somewhat shocked by the influx of new faces, bringing an agenda that threw all the work they had done over the years up into the air. I must say here that the Island Labour Party, with a few exceptions, responded with great grace to the change. On Facebook, things looked rather different. A few very vocal figures were entrenched in their nostalgia for the Blair years and there were unpleasant and often circular arguments, which a couple of trotstkyite/leninist/whatever revolutionaries stirred with monomaniacal delight. However, the divisions were overwhelmed by the unanimity of the new voices, who leapt upon the opportunity to participate in politics that, at last, had some relevance to them.

This was the story nationally, according to Nunns. Local parties, by and large, were reinvigorated by the arrival of new members, while being, initially, somewhat sceptical about whether the surge in membership would translate to active participation. However, in the national party, the PLP, things were rather different. The best description is panic, and the most appalling example of the PLP’s failure to recognise the nature of their new support, and the change in the political landscape that it heralded, was interim leader Harriet Harman’s disastrous decision to not oppose the Tory government’s welfare reform bill.

Harman’s Horrible Blunder

The sheer barbarity of the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which Harriet Harman decided the Labour Party should not oppose, is well covered by Nunns.

It is a bill that piles the cost of the government’s austerity drive onto those in work on low pay-the very people Labour was founded to represent. But in her wisdom…Harman has decided not to oppose the bill. Labour will first table a ‘reasoned amendment,’ an obscure parliamentary mechanism for setting-out objections, and when that inevitably fails it will abstain…

John McDonnell, Nunns says,

has been sitting on the backbenches seething at the debate he has heard…With his first sentence, he cuts through all the vacillation: “I would swim through vomit to vote against this Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to.”

He [McDonnell] continues:

Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it’s imposed upon people…This Welfare Reform Bill does as all the other welfare reform bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty and not the system…I find it appalling that we sit here-in, to be frank, relative wealth ourselves-and we’re willing to vote for increased poverty for the people back in our constituencies.[13]

That line-”…blam[ing] the poor for their own poverty and not the system…” gave me another new hero. It summed up the confidence trick that the Thatcherites had inserted into British politics in my teens and that subsequent governments, Tory and Labour, had embedded and refined as a cover for the blatant thievery of an establishment that regarded itself as above question: sneering at disenfranchised, abandoned people for their victimhood. The fact that anyone was prepared to speak with such moral certainty against the corruption of the Draco Malfoy of British politics, George Osborne, and his Pansy Parkinson, Cameron, gave me a little hope. The fact that the PLP bottled its duty in such spectacular fashion by not opposing this brutal, snide bill with every weapon at its disposal secured my certainty that supporting Jeremy Corbyn was not just an opportunity, but a moral imperative.

When the division bell rings at the end of the debate, 48 Labour MPs-over a fifth of the parliamentary party-defy Harman to oppose the Bill. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are not among them. But John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are.[14]

The chapter on this inglorious moment in Labour history is particularly rich. Harman’s motivation for this career-defining blunder is discussed, and suggests that she was

…”traumatised” by her previous experience as acting leader after the 2010 election, when under her watch the Tories pinned the blame for the financial crash on Labour overspending.[15]

According to Nunns, both Burnham and Cooper were desperate for Labour to oppose the Bill, but divided by a squabble over who should speak first in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, and therefore suggest the reasoned amendement. “But Harman was resolute that Labour would not vote against it. The Shadow Cabinet was fragmented.”[16]

I remember being aghast and weary. Had Burnham or Cooper resigned the Shadow Cabinet and joined the rebels, I think the leadership contest would have been a lot closer, but they drifted into the disaster, tied to their belief that a facile show of unity trumped principles and, in so doing, lost my respect.

I wasn’t the only one.

There was…a perception of moral decay in Labour’s position, a feeling captured by Diane Abbott in an outraged op-ed published the day after Harman’s interview (on the BBC’s Sunday Politics on 12th July 2015). “How did a party that once promised to end child poverty in a generation become one that will shrug and vote for measures which will force tens of thousands of children into poverty?” she asked.[17]

Stunningly, this is an argument that Labour won, to an extent. After Corbyn’s election as leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, the right-wing Tory welfare minister, resigned over further cuts, this time to disability payments.

“Fiscal self-imposed restraints,” said Duncan Smith while explaining his resignation on the Andrew Marr programme, “are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.” He might just as well have directly quoted Corbyn’s campaign slogan that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.[18]

The (Over) Reaction

There was a quality of blinking disbelief to the media coverage of the leadership election. The over-ironed, open-necked shirts out of which comfortably Blairite skinny-necked ‘experts’ opined their certainty that a Corbyn victory was an impossibility were viewing the end of their cosy hegemony, and seemed to become shinier and starchier, simply denying it could be happening. Jonathan Freedland, Anne Perkins, Andrew Rawnsley, Michael White and Polly Toynbee, all of The Guardian, were notable columnists of the ‘left’ who circled their Priuses against the assault on the British media’s four-decade-long war against disadvantaged and marginalised people. Andrew Rawnsley lost his reason:

That Rawnsley should react with animosity rather than curiosity was perhaps understandable. Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion-with considerable skill-the books and journalism that had won him acclaim. Newbies were putting that all at risk.[19]

I gave up buying The Guardian (I had been a twice-a-week reader, on average, for thirty years) and have only bought one copy since (although I am thinking of paying an online supporter fee, now that the anger it inspired at the time has settled).

A selection of the headlines from The Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that thook hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, The Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was no a single pro-Corbyn column…

But The Guardian had a problem: its readers [disagreed]…78 percent of the 2500 people who responded [to a Guardian poll] backed Corbyn…Such sentiment was often reflected on the letters page, an oasis amid the relentless negativity elsewhere. And anyone brave enough to venture ‘below the line’ into the netherworld of online comments could not mistake the strong feeling that Corbyn was being unfairly treated and his supporters patronised. Commenters showed themselves to be expert at puncturing pomposity and exposing illogic, but the most striking feature of their contributions was anger at The Guardian itself…The charge was that The Guardian was effectively trolling one particular candidate-one who had the support of many of its readers.[20]

The long term effect on the press of the earthquake beneath the British political elite’s inward-looking fortress of privilege is a subject for another essay, but it is worth noting that The Sun, which before 2015 dictated popular political culture to a pathological degree, seems like an irrelavence two and a half years later. Who is The Sun’s current political editor? Any guesses? I don’t think it important enough to bother looking it up.

The New Statesman was particularly egregious. I followed it on Facebook and noted, as did many other people, that it became not dissimilar to The Daily Mail in tone. Indeed, when The New Statesman’s editor did “…stake[] out his position on July 22nd, [it was] in the Daily Mail of all places…”[21]

The section on the press is, perhaps, the bit of the book which has had the most impact upon me. Part of the establishment’s great confidence trick is that it is supremely skilled at sidelining voices that are not in accord with its own. Its greatest trick in this regard is to accuse oppositional voices of being ignorant and deranged: think of how often you hear establishment lackeys like Melanie Phillips or Andrew Rawnsley describe criticism of power as ‘conspiracy theory’. They alone have the right to express opposition, because they alone have the inside knowledge which the ordinary democratic voter does not have a right to share, except through the filter of their power. In the Labour leadership election, this closed shop collapsed in upon itself as it realised that, for the majority of people, and, in particular, the people it thought it had effectively demotivated from political participation, their voices were innaccessible, irrelevant and ridiculous. The people who chanted Jeremy Corbyn’s name at a rock concert less than two years after the leadership campaign haven’t heard of Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Max Hastings or Andrew Marr. They had heard of Laura Kuenssberg by then, but only as a figure of ridicule on Facebook and Twitter. The edifice of inward-looking, London-property-owning hegemony only really began to notice that the world had moved beyond it during this leadership campaign.

And this was not an accident. In the leadership election, the Corbyn campaign knew that it needed to reach around the fortress of hopelessly corrupted commercial and ‘public service’ news power and it succeeded.

Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 percent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of other candidates. “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more.” believes ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation rum by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips.

It was patently clear that some journalists felt threatened by the arrival of this new realm. A media narrative asserting that there is no alternative is much easier to sustain if there is no alternative media. The existence of a different point of view, forged among a network of people who would previously have been atomised, is what provoked the snobbish accusations of “virtue signalling” and “identity politics.” Being continually challenged about their bias and presuppositions brought howls of exasperation from journalists that congealed into a collective feeling of offence. It contributed to the general sense of consternation at Corbyn’s rise. Events were spinning beyond the media’s control.[22]

Note: Spookily, as I write this, I have received a marketing email from O/R books for the second edition of The Candidate. This new edition is expanded to include the 2017 election and the email uses social media quotes by ‘Britain’s major political pundits,’ all predicting the demolition of Labour at the polls. The same quotes are used in this publicity video.

Hubris doesn’t get much better than this.

Conclusion

As John Prescott says, the heart of the Corbyn campaign was not tactical, but issues-led: they talked about policies. The true pleasure of recalling the campaign, for me, is the excitement I felt every time an issue I cared about, that had become codified, contained and sidelined by ‘the political process’ was dragged into the spotlight and became live and real. The horrible corruption of privatisations, the mental health care disaster, the cruel and sickening purge of poor people from the economy by ‘welfare reform’, the collapse of education, the barely-coded racism of ‘immigration control’, the designed chaos of Tory prisons policy: issue after issue would turn up on social media and, instead of being buried in establishment pundits’ headshaking, would be discussed, witnessed to by the people who were suffering from the policy and would drown out the lies that had been told about it with real, human truth.

The years between Jeremy’s first leadership election and the general election of 2017 included the doleful attempt by the right-wing capitalists within the Labour Party to challenge him with the corporate lackey Owen Smith’s pathetic leadership campaign. It only strengthened Jeremy as leader, although you wouldn’t believe it if you read the Guardian, for whom the only story was “how long will Corbyn last?” Even the stunning political earthquake of the general election, during which I campaigned with enthusiasm and blogged with fury, hasn’t blunted their hypocrisy and partiality. In that election, as during the recent local election campaign, manstream media has been on the attack, settling upon one particular lie, that anti-semitism is an attitude unique to the Labour Party and a characteristic of it. It has done harm, mainly through the old fascist trope of repetition and ubiquity, and I worry that the anti-semitism campaign, contrived and corrupt as it is, has done a certain amount to split the party at a time when it should be coming together.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we will see a revival of the enthusiasm when the current government finally collapses in on itself. The people who listened with interest when I was leafleting for Labour during the 2017 election weren’t members of the party, but they were careworkers, disabled people whose support payments had been decimated and blocked by JobCentrePlus target campaigns, carers whose elderly dependents had little or no support from a National Health Service being deliberately run into the ground, and they felt hopeful then, as I hope they will feel when Jeremy leads us into the next election.

I really can’t afford to buy the second edition of The Candidate much as I would like to read it. I read my copy of the first edition last summer, and going back through it to write this has revived my political fire a bit. I am still in the party, as the secretary of my local branch and, incredibly, I have been nominated to be assistant secretary of the Island CLP, which is a bit embarrassing. In March, I attended an economics conference hosted by John McDonnell, and I was awed by the depth of talent and energy that has coalesced around the Labour Party’s policy making: academics, campaigners, charity workers and, most importantly, people like me who just care enough to get involved, are all having their say, so that, come the next election, we will go in with policies even more deeply worked out and clearly thought through than those we offered the electorate, and so nearly delivered, in 2017.

There is still hope.


  1. Jones, Owen, The Establishment And How They Get Away With It London, Penquin, 2015, pxxiv
  2. Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, OR Books, 2016, p84
  3. Nunns, p235
  4. Nunns, p294
  5. Nunns, p 83
  6. Nunns, p85
  7. Ibid
  8. Nunns, p86
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Nunns, p126
  12. Nunns, p127
  13. Nunns 191-193 (all three previous quotes)
  14. Ibid
  15. Nunns, p193
  16. Nunns, p195
  17. Nunns, pp194-195
  18. Nunns, p202
  19. Nunns, p219
  20. Nunns, pp213-214
  21. Nunns, p209
  22. Nunns p225

 

Sunday, 22 April 2018

An Old Map Of Hell

I’ve only got a single paper copy of my dissertation, and it is fading badly. I typed it originally on a machine that used diskettes for storage and I used a borrowed disk, so that it went back to the computer’s owner when I had finished the work. In those days, I thought of computers as posh typewriters: the output was a physical product, and the data was simply means to producing that object.

I’ve been meaning to type it up into a digital copy, and tidy up some of the spelling and punctuation for some years, and I have finally done it. I’m not entirely sure of the copyright status of dissertations: I have an idea that the university has some claim over it. Anyway, I thought I would post a copy, in case anyone might find it interesting. It’s pretty adolescent, as you’d expect, but I stand by the overall gist.

Alienation in the 1960s in The Novels of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick

Full page form here.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Recent Reading Backlog 1

I haven’t kept up with my book reviews, which is a shame, as I found they helped me to read a little more seriously and closely, and I enjoyed writing them. However, I haven’t stopped reading, just got bogged down in work and life and all that stuff.

Anyway, I have kept notes on some books, and I mean to catch up on some of them, and post reviews of the ones which have stuck with me. This is the first, of a book I read back in the Autumn.

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai

Middle-of-the-road story addict that I am, I still love to be moved by a book’s prose style. It’s hard to write an extended literary work in graceful prose, which is why most commercial novelists don’t even try. Modern American (or, in this case, Canadian) writers tend to adopt a voice that is accessible and contributes to character and their setting and let the pleasure stem from the storytelling. Many American novelists are, after all, temporarily embarrassed screenwriters, so story is all, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

So, although I objected to Charlie Jane Anders Californinetworking voice at the beginning of All The Birds In The Sky, I came to see that it was appropriate to the story she was telling and the social milieu she was painting. She was writing in the third person though, so it took longer to fit the voice to the world, and by the time she had, I was emotionally attached to her characters and absorbed in her vivid and subtly-hued world. Elan Mastai is writing in the first person, and his voice is all about the immediate grab. His narrative character is a slacker, who starts off whiny and just gets more and more ’90s indie kid clichéd, and he wore on me throughout the book.

I mean, seriously, Dude, I get it. You’ve like, wiped out your whole, like world, to get back at your dad. Jeeze! I mean; just get over yourself.

That sort of thing.

It does its job, but it’s not Trainspotting, in which a vernacular becomes poetic: in All Our Lost Todays, the narrative voice is workaday and a little annoying. It certainly serves to push the story forward, but at the expense of relish. At times it even feels (dare I say it?), like formulaic character construction, as though a checklist of necessary qualities is being slogged through to establish the central conflict (Screenwriting for Beginners; pp 78-102).* It feels, as Tom Barren, the narrative character, would say, phony.

Fortunately, Mastai is telling such a great story that the stylistic caveats cease to matter after a while. The initial conceit is strong enough: it is the idea of a world that conforms to yesterday’s vision of the world of tomorrow. It is the same idea that Umberto Eco explores in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I mentioned in my last reading post, and which I must reread. It is the glimpse of Utopia in the covers of ‘50s SF magazines: the effortless world, in which beauty and technology merge in a seamless, sunlit conformity. There are flying cars, clothes that manufacture themselves at the wearer’s bidding, entirely safe sleep and mood control, and everybody is employed in self-realisation and societal improvement.

There is also an (apparently) evil genius, in the figure of the hero’s father, whose focus is time travel. Barren senior is driven to emulate the achievements of the founding genius of this utopia, Lionel Goettreider, who, in 1965, invented a limitless source of energy: the Goettreider Engine.

All the SF concepts in this book are perfectly described. Mastai’s defining talent is imaginative thoroughness. I was blown away by his rationales of time travel: they appeared, to me, faultless. The main event of the book is the calamitous historical change Tom causes when he activates his father’s time machine in a fit of pique. However, later in the book, he is forced to revert from his altered world back by a different process and comes to understand more about the possible futures that are, effectively, competing to exist. Three potential hims fight to shape the outcome of the crucial historical moment around which their futures pivot and the battle reflects the moral natures of their respective realities.

In two key passages, Mastai sums up this struggle for existence when he defines ideology, first in relation to his original utopia, and then in the context of his depiction of the today of reality.

The existential difference between my world and this world is that where I come from the because is self-evident – just look around. No one needed to ask why. The answer was obvious. We were happy. Our purpose was to keep it going and, if we had some way to contribute, make it incrementally better for those who would follow us, just as those who preceded us had.

Yes, I understand that’s a pretty good working definition of ideology – a belief system so immersive that it renders questions unquestionable.

‘This world’ – the world of ‘today’, may not have flying cars or unlimited energy, but it does have, in Tom Barren’s view, a sense of striving. Towards the end, Barren reflects on ideology again, and on how the perfection of his original world – the apparent utopia – had a blindness:

It was like our collective imagination stopped revising the idea of what civilisation could be, fixed a definitive model in place, and set to work making it happen. It was the world we were supposed to have. And so there was no reason to consider any other world.

This is a pretty clever book, on quite a few levels, not least that it is a satisfying and pacy romp, once you get past the irritating voice, and that quibble may well just be me. In fact, looking at the many ecstatic reviews online, I suspect it is. All the same, I have mixed feelings about it. I am almost tempted to give it a skull emblem on my index of reviews, although that feels mean: this is, clearly, the product of a great deal of work by a creative and conscientious writer whose moral preoccupations seem to overlap my own, but it is also a book which, I think, makes some ethical errors. For instance, there are two nasty rapes, justified because they trail the existence of a plot element that crops up in the novel’s resolution, but which I had trouble integrating into my view of the essential decency of the lead character. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean, as that last sentence almost clangs, because of the extremity of its subject. Ultimately, I think he tried a daring plot device and failed, for me, to pull it off.

At the very end of the book, Tom says, “We need new futures,” and I agree with the sentiment. I just hope they’re not futures shaped exclusively by white North-Amercan hipster screen-writers.

*I made this up.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Recent Reading May to July

Over a hectic couple of months, with quite a few distractions, I have managed to read several books, some exceptional, some less so. It’s amazing to me how the time has flown since my last reading post. Some of the novels I’ve read have already slipped into what feels like dim memory, yet they were vivid and engaging when I was reading them. Reviewing my ‘finished titles’ on my Tolino makes me wonder, “was it really only a month and a half ago that I was so absorbed in this book?”

It’s a mixed bag this time round. There’s a modern ‘literary’ novel by a French writer who plays with form and and meta-narrative, a cosy crime novel set in an idealised French rural setting and a biography that verges on hagiography. Finally, there’s (for me) an oddity: a steampunk fantasy. However, let’s start in my comfort zone, with a science fiction novel, this one a classic from 1980.

As before, the linked titles lead to the indieebook.co.uk page for the books; the cover images link to their Kobo pages.

Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

According to the author notes, Tevis was inspired to write this novel while a teacher at Ohio University, where he noticed a decline in the literacy rates of students. While that theme is prominent, what might strike a current reader more forcefully is the theme of the dominance of humanity by their inventions: in this novel, the robots are in charge, or, at least, they appear to be.

The story is told in layered multiple perspectives, much like Wuthering Heights, beginning with the view of a super-robot, Spofforth, who wishes to die, but can’t, and then transferring to the viewpoint of a human, Bentley, who has, almost by accident, taught himself to read. Bentley’s lover, Mary-Lou, a fellow dissident, takes over for a section, after Bentley has taught her to read. Spofforth, wanting to live in a human partnership, has Bentley sent to prison and takes Mary-Lou as a de facto wife, and she recounts the story of this new form of slavery. After Bentley escapes prison and completes an epic quest through the American wasteland to return to Mary-Lou in New York, several chapters alternate between narrators until the finale, in which the three narrators join forces to bring their interrelated quests to a conclusion.

Illiteracy is the key to the degradation of humans in this novel. Without books, they lead lives of directed dependence, unaware that the robots that control them are, in fact, compelled to obey their instructions. Blind to their power, they look to the robots for every decision and every service, from basic necessities to entertainment. For their benefit, the humans are routinely sedated and live half-lives of passive emptiness.

The robots, meanwhile, fulfil their individual functions blindly, for the most part. Tevis is magnificent on purposeless labour: there are sentient buses that travel their routes empty, a factory that makes an endless stream of faulty product which is automatically recycled when it fails quality control, and there are food servers who regard the main purpose of their labours to be cleanliness and order, so that feeding people is a nuisance they try to control.

The despair into which the human race has fallen is terminal: not only are no children being born, but suicides -ghostly, drugged and silent self-immolations- are frequent and increasing. Sedation, passivity and a code of manners that values individualism and privacy over interaction, intimacy and curiosity, keeps people in isolated, uncommunicative wretchedness. In this environment, Bentley awakens through his discovery of reading, stops taking his sedatives and begins to understand the human condition.

In the midst of this bleakness, Bentley and Mary-Lou struggle, blinking towards a rediscovery of full life. Mary-Lou’s pregnancy marks an explicit turning point: it is this event which pushes Spofforth, the machine in superhuman form who is, nevertheless, sexless and longs only for death, to concoct his insane scheme to live with Mary-Lou as if they were lovers. The sterility of his condition counterpoints with the growing richness of Bentley’s experiences: he makes friends and comrades in prison, adopts a cat and escapes, and, through everything, seeks out books and the knowledge they contain. Painful as his journey back to the city is, it is full of sensation, human interaction and learning. Finally, on his return, he carries with him the full implications of Mary-Lou’s discovery that the machines were originally programmed to obey humans. Rather than overthrowing the tyranny of the machines, all they have to do is turn their backs, but not before they have obliged Spofforth’s ultimate wish: his longing for death.

I am often amazed by the richness of the back-catalogue of even quite minor science fiction writers. There is so much in the heritage of SF writing that I realise that I shall never read it all, but I will also never run out of beautiful surprises. I had, I think, heard of Tevis. He wrote The Man Who Fell To Earth, and several non-SF books that were filmed, including The Hustler. I may have come across Mockingbird in The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction, or Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree*, because there’s just a hint of familiarity in the book. I am sure, though, that I have never read it before.

It is a sombre, Delphic delight.

*Having just looked it up, Mockingbird, or, indeed, Tevis, aren’t mentioned by Aldiss, and The Encyclopedia merely says, “Mockingbird rather mechanically runs its android protagonist through a process of self-realisation in a senescent USA 500 years hence.” So much for scholarship.

 

 

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

I am not a huge reader of literary novels and, middle of the road reader that I am, I’m uncomfortable with structural experimentation in novels. I like a story, I like character, I like settings, and I like to be caught up in what I read. I had a brief sixth form infatuation with the meta-narrative of John Fowles in The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but was put off by the later self-indulgence of Mantissa. Umberto Eco, apart from The Name of the Rose of course, defeated me for years, until I was surprised by the beauty of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I read while I was a taxi driver. Later, I finally cracked Foucault’s Pendulum, picking it up to kill time when I was supervising assessments in Camp Hill Prison. However, when I am scouting around for an engaging read, ‘revolutionary form’ is not a quality at the top of my list.

Such a position could be quite self-limiting, which is why the reading of criticism is valuable for me in extending my reading. I came to Laurent Binet through a review by Christopher Taylor of Bunet’s second novel, The 7th Function of Language, (my review of that novel will have to wait, as I haven’t finished reading it yet) in the LRB in early June. Taylor’s article was titled, Epsiteme, My Arse, which is probably the best title I have seen in that quixotic organ, but I would probably have read it if it had been called An Article About a Post-Modernist Novel About Post-Modernists, Starting With The Death of Roland Barthes and Featuring Michel Foucault, as post-modernism, and those two figures in particular, played an important role in my degree.

Anyway, the review did its job, and I looked up The 7th Function on Kobo. It was still full price, and I was saving for my Fairphone, so I held back, but I downloaded Binet’s other novel, HHhH, somewhat dubiously. To my surprise, I was gripped from the beginning. This, despite the fact that, from the first chapter, it is clear that the ‘I’ of the book is not a fictional narrator, but the author himself, (I hate present authors), the topic is one in which I do not take any particular interest (the second world war) and its structure is deliberately broken and episodic (his chapters are frequently under 500 words; some are single sentences).

Binet’s structural conceits are dictated by serious considerations of content. The book is about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the foulest individuals to have disgraced human history. Every character in the book is a real historical figure, and the story itself is one that has gripped Binet’s imagination since he was a child. It is a story he has always wanted to tell, but it is a story (already told many times in histories, novels and film) that lends itself to somewhat glib, sensational forms. Binet is trying to write about a terrible undertaking, that was disastrous for every participant and for many, many people besides; that involved danger, terror and insane courage, and to avoid turning it into an adventure story. And, to accomplish that, he has to bind it up in a great deal of contextual content.

Ultimately, when the deed gets underway, and the whole horrific story plays out, HHhH is as gripping as the best completely fictional adventure story: I felt my heart race as I read about the assassination and the manhunt that followed, and I grieved for the cornered soldiers and was horrified by the descriptions of the Nazis’ insane (and counter-productive) reprisals. This is an utterly compelling book. The care with which he constructs the entire world of the 1930s and ’40s disaster, and the time he gives to exploring and elucidating the deranged logic of the Nazis’ grandiose crimes, brings us into the inescapable conflict, in which so many people become prepared to throw their lives away with little hope of victory, besides the simple awareness that they are refusing to comply with evil: they are fighting for the freedom to be who they truly are.

I was struggling to summon up the sense of awed identification I got from this novel when I thought to check whether it had been reviewed by the LRB. Lo and behold, I found Michael Newton’s article from 2012 when it was first published in English translation, and discovered that he had said what I could not:

The great theme of resistance fiction is failure. Success was impossible; the act of resistance was understood to be at the least a mark of defiance, at the most a preparation for some later triumph. We know what the resisters didn’t: that their enemy would be defeated, though this would be an achievement they wouldn’t share. The war wasn’t won by assassinations and victory wasn’t assured by the small Western European resistance movements…Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of July 1944 understood that their plan to murder Hitler and stage a coup was unlikely to come off. Instead of success, there would be the recorded fact that they had tried. They played for moral stakes, upholding their own decency, the reputation of their country, and perhaps the idea of decency as such. For those of us who don’t know whether we would be collaborators or fighters, the resistance story offers both the tension of narrative and a defence of the virtues of integrity and solidarity.

The threat of writing historical adventure is that it preys, immorally, upon the courage and heroism which it depicts. Binet avoids that trap by debating with himself. An example is the way he handles Heydrich as a character. In Chapter 88, he says:

Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, ‘My book on Heydrich,’ But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character…You see, Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist. Everything I’ve written about him is by way of background. Though it must be admitted that in literary terms Heydrich is a wonderful character. It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.

Heydrich is not seductive, despite his apparent omnipotence, his grandeur, his epic dominance. The Nazis admired him as a prodigy, and described his as handsome, although, as Binet notes, this doesn’t square with pictures of him. He was, to my eyes, as awkwardly malformed on the outside as within, but his vanity, combined with the power he exerted for a few short years, seems to have cast a spell that survived, for some confused or willful people, his destruction and defeat. Binet, in portraying him, skewers him. His perversion, his joyless amorality, his Hugo Boss-clad vanity seem reflected in his portraits, that cannot obscure the fact that one of his ‘great achievements’ was to grapple with the logistics of eliminating all the people of Europe who could be characterised as Jewish. He was driven, clever and meticulous, and his talents gave him what he wanted: power. He could, so easily, have become the ‘dark anti-hero’ of HHhH, as Hannibal Lecter, revoltingly, became the seductive core of all but the first of Thomas Harris’ perverted works.

Instead, because Binet takes such care to place us within the predicaments of the victims of Heydrich’s reign in Praque, the monster is the enemy, and we are the resistance. For a while, when Mrs Moravec took her cyanide pill, or her poor, braver-than-brave teenage son, Ata, defied his Gestapo torturers, I felt that, in their place, I, too, might have found the resources within me to resist the calamity of Nazism, however terrible the consequences.

And that, I think, is a real literary achievement.

Death in the Dordogne: Bruno, Chief of Police, 1, by Martin Walker

And now for something completely different. I can’t even remember what it was about Death In The Dordogne that caught my attention. It looks, from the cover, and the blurb, and its title, to be exactly what it is: the sort of unambitious series novel of quirky English condescension to a foreign culture, wrapped up in ‘deep love’ for its setting, and pitched towards media sales to an ITV production contractor, to star a middle-aged alumnus of the National Theatre. It would be screened on Sunday nights in the Autumn, taking the chill out of the lengthening evenings.

If that description makes your spirits wilt, you should probably skip this section, but I, to my shame, really enjoyed this book. Martin Walker is English, and I apologise to him if any of my guesses about him are libellous, but I imagine that he is a well-heeled Blairite who moved to France after a career in something that paid very nicely indeed and considers himself a man born out of his time. I have avoided googling him, so this is pure speculation.

Anyway, this is an utterly competent, warm-hearted mystery whose details have already escaped me. Someone is killed in a small, traditional town whose tightly-knit community has resisted modernisation but embraced inclusion, and some nasty outsiders appear to be responsible. The town and its surroundings are like the embrace of a gentleman’s club, and the world around it is a threat to all it holds dear: principally, from the evidence here presented, slaugtering and consuming the corpses of innocent animals in as many piquant and, somehow, cultured and enriching, rituals as can be fitted into long, sun-drenched days.

The protagonist, Bruno, is a war hero with a thousand-yard-stare and a resistance to becoming embroiled with a woman. Not that he’s not up for a shag; oh no: there’s nothing queer about Carruthers, but he values his ordered life and pleasant routine, which contrasts so comfortably with all the silly running around that people get up to in the outside world. There’s a Parisian lady detective, fortunately, with short hair and several black belts in Karate, who becomes both an ally and a reminder of what he might be missing, and she has the good sense to throw herself at him and the good manners to get a job in Paris at the end of the book, ending the affaire (with an ‘e’).

Bruno has an isolated cottage, a bit of land, a dog and a mobile phone he can’t work. Ah, so quirky! He has an ally in the left-wing mayor and everybody in the town loves him because he is on their side. The European Union, French nationalists, drug-dealing Dutch Nazis and several other détails de la vérité throw temporary clouds over the agreeable setting before order is restored without too much excitement or disturbance to the digestion. And then it’s over, until next time.

Loved it, but I’m going to save the next installment until the end of Summer. Best not to glut on these things.

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future, by Ashlee Vance

I hate American capitalism.

I thought I’d get that out of the way. If I had my way, the motor car would be on its way out, and economic structures would be reorganising themselves into small-area local units, preferably co-operative, in which all necessities were produced within the communities who need them and commodities were traded via airships, aerofoil-powered sailing ships and horse-drawn wagons.

That’s a bit of a pipe-dream though, so it is a good thing that some American capitalists are beloved of the idea of being ‘visionaries’ and inventing ‘disruptive’ technologies that are challenging the worst excesses of reactionary cartels in the transport and fuel industries. In fact, Elon Musk is South African by birth, which you no doubt know, as he is one of the most influential people in the world at the moment. I had missed a lot of what he is about, as I assumed he was another Ayn Rand-worshiping libertarian whose main goal was to abolish taxes and get everyone to leave him alone. It turns out I may have had him confused with Jeff Bezos.

A month or so back, I happened upon the video of Musk launching the Tesla Model 3, and was rather intrigued. If we can’t get rid of cars, it makes sense to mitigate their worst qualities: principally, their filth, and the disastrous power imbalances created by the market for their fuel. It wouldn’t hurt if we could also do something about the number of people they kill, as well (about 1,200,000 per year). He spoke in ‘visionary’ terms about what his company was aiming for but, unusually, the product he unveiled seemed to live up to a large part of that vision. In the face of all the neigh-saying and obstruction that has bedeviled the application of renewable energy to transportation, his companies have addressed the key issues: 1, generation and storage; 2, distribution infrastructure; 3, the practicality of the final product for the existing economy.

Shiny

It’s worth noting that in the process they have produced three models of car which, even for me as a car agnostic/hater, are extraordinarily attractive. There aren’t many reasons I wish that I were rich, these days -I am perfectly satisfied with my economic niche- but I would love to own a Tesla Model X. Unfortunately, they are $100,000, and we paid £6,000 for our car. Ah well.

However, Musk has been quite transparent about the fact that his whole plan for Tesla was to produce luxury cars that would support the development and production of what passes for an economy car in the U.S. market: the Model 3 costs $30,000, which is comparable with a mainstream petrol-engined vehicle. Several of the ‘yes, buts’ have been creatively addressed, such as the weight of the batteries, which aren’t actually that much heavier than a ‘performance’ petrol engine, but whose weight is offset by the use of aluminium in the body and fitted low in the vehicle to provide stability. Finally, although this isn’t covered in the biography in much detail, as it is a recent development, he has attacked the cost of the batteries, by massively increasing the production capacity of the world market. Genius is an over-used word, but there is something about Musk which resonates with a lot of plot-device mega-founders in classic SF: if this were a 1970s science fiction book, Musk would be the guy who invented the lightspeed engine, or the free energy machine that released humanity from its self-destructive course and launched it to the stars.

And, that’s another of his goals. SpaceX is now a revenue-earning commercial cargo company, making regular, reliable and cheap launches to the ISS, and his aim is to reach Mars. I am less sanguine about that. I have a sense that, for some very rich people, although not, as far as I can see, Musk, the idea of an escape to the stars is an excuse for resisting change on Earth. When I hear people saying that we MUST find a way to open up space, I find myself muttering “Whitey’s on the Moon.” It’s not that I’m opposed to space travel, in principle; just that I think there is a lot to sort out at home, first. Priorities, people!

Finally, and most excitingly, although it’s his least successful commercial venture so far, Musk is co-owner of the largest solar generation installer in America. He has recently combined that area with Tesla, producing batteries for home use, and Tesla’s website, thrillingly, is advertising a product I have been thinking would be a good idea for years: solar generating roofing tiles. If he wants to have a word about my idea for bobbly PV roofing tiles, he can contact me in the usual way.

You’re welcome, Elon. It’s the least I can do for such an admirable man.

 

The biography is by a journalist, Ashlee Vance, and is a fairly standard “written with the co-operation of,” effort. It is clearly an approved version, produced at arm’s length from its subject, allowing for some dissenting opinion and a bit of low-key personal scandal (he’s fired quite a few people in his time and his first ex-wife is not a devoted fan) but manages to meet the main challenge of recording Musk’s achievements so far: fitting them all in a comprehensible text.

Musk is only 46, but he has done an awful lot in that time. Making a clear story out of the overlapping projects takes some doing, and Vance does an excellent job of showing how the complementary projects have reinforced one another while, at the same time, stretching even this most capable and energetic of people almost to breaking point on several occasions. The genesis of Paypal, which was the company that resulted from Musk’s early attempt to create an entirely online bank, is not really an exciting story, but Vance keeps it moving, and the sheer fascination of how dogged force of will drove Musk to produce a workable model for the software, before his business partners decided he was going in the wrong direction and merged his efforts with Paypal, kept me reading. The battle to produce a space rocket -a space rocket- on a budget is mind-boggling, and the story of Tesla is truly beautiful, almost (I stress, almost) making me wish I had been good at sums and had become an engineer.

I did wonder, on a couple of occasions, whether this was all a wind-up. Could it be that computers have already so reshaped our reality that we are living in a sort of Cartesian ‘malevolent phantom’ world, in which impossible wonders are presented as truth? Could one man really be behind three of the most revolutionary companies to have come into existence in the past decade? It’s almost as though, in our time of need, the messiah has descended, and there is a little of that tone in Vance’s approach, try as he does to maintain journalistic distance. However, there are Teslas on the road, in increasing quantities, and the technology is spreading through the motor industry: you can already buy a second-hand Nissan Leaf.

We live in an age of wonders, and of accelerating change, as well as an age of worry and impending disaster. Reading this book has, for a little while, made my sense of hope a little bit stronger. Not all capitalists are utter fools.

Picture of a Specialized Turbo Levo electric mountain bike
I’ll have one in large, please.

And, while I may never be able to afford a Model X, when my cyclist’s legs can no longer manage the commute unassisted, I may turn my eye to a more modest electric vehicle. Spinny.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher

I am not a steampunk fan, in general. For me, the Victorians were defined by their rapacity, not their glamour, and urban squalor is just squalor: I don’t see the romance. I have read a few of China Mieville’s novels – I read Perdido Street Station on our honeymoon, as it happens, which was more romantic than it sounds- but I have not yet been drawn to abandon Science Fiction for Fantasy on the strength of arcane tech and corsets, much as I love a good airship.

For some reason, though, when The Aeronaut’s Windlass turned up on my Kobo suggestions email, I felt strangely drawn. I must have been having a camp moment, given the cover art. Moving on, I read the preview. It was on sale, so I bought it, thinking it would languish in the reserves list of my Tolino. And then I read it. I’m not good at leaving a little supper for tomorrow, either.

It’s good. Not, ‘oh my goodness, this has changed my life,’ good, but better than Death in the Dordogne, and not quite as good as HHhH. Jim Butcher, according to Wikipedia, is a big noise in the fantasy world, and his website has an impressively busy forum board. He is very prolific: only 45, he has produced fifteen volumes of his series, The Dresden Files, and six volumes of The Codex Alera. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first volume of a series called The Cinder Spires, and he plans to produce a second volume after his current novel is complete.

He is, certainly, a cut above the routine. The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a runner up for the 2016 Best Novel Hugo (N.K. Jemesin won it, which makes me happy). The book is cleverly plotted, although its story turns out to be a standard enough romp. What he is really, really good at, is unobtrusive, economical world building and strange, convincing military technology.

The Aeronaut, Francis Grimm, is a privateer captain of an airship, Predator. He was cashiered from the navy of Spire Albion, one of the ancient, vertical habitations that rise from a hostile planetary surface that is out of bounds for humans, and from which terrors constantly threaten to arise. The spires sound like termites’ nests: they are layered cities reaching high into the sky and each is a sovereign state. Albion is a monarchy, ruled by a detached, visionary monarch called the Spirearch. After a sneak attack on their spire by a rival spire, the Spirearch recruits Grimm to take an etherealist, a sort of sorcerer, named Ferus, and his apprentice, a young woman named Folly, down-spire to a lower level (Habble) to investigate dark goings on. They are to be supported by a trio of aristocratic city guards, including a young woman who is friend and sidekick to an intelligent cat, named Rowl, who is, for me, the star of the book.

Much dark plotting ensues, and a great deal of cut and thrust, made more interesting by the inclusion of both weird and terrifying wildlife crawling through the sewers and the brilliantly under-explained technology/magic of this world. The villains of the piece, a sinister enemy etherealist named Miss Cavendish and her personal servant and hitman, Sark, are sinister and deeply drawn. Butcher’s gift for revealing only as much as is needed to keep the story moving works powerfully to create real menace here.

The triumph of the book, however, is the naval action: the logic of the airships. They use various forms of power, but chief amongst them are crystals, that provide both lift and drive. They are very valuable and vulnerable and their function and fitting is woven into a section of the story with great grace, so that when the final battle occurs, we are fully familiar with their tactical use. In addition, there are sails of ethereal webbing and, in some, larger ships, steam engines. The terror of bombardment and violent maneuvering in a ship miles above the ground is brilliantly detailed. I felt the same sense of excitement and threat from the action as I got from reading Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. The peril seemed real and the terror tangible.

Recommended. Meaningless, like most fantasy, but vivid, thrilling and full of life. A fine novel.


And that’s it for this time round. I’m going to put a separate link for my reading posts on my homepage, as this promises to become a regular thing. My current read is an intriguing SF/literary effort by Elan Mastai called All Our Wrong Todays, and I’ve also bought a copy of Howl’s Moving Castle, which I’ve wanted to read for ages. Apart from that, Mockingbird has made me want to read The Man Who Fell To Earth, and so that’s on my buying list, along with the second of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, The Raven Strategem. I reviewed his first, Ninefox Gambit, last time, and it was bonkers, so I’m looking forward to that.

If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below.

For now, thanks for reading.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Recent Reading April To May

I’m not sure what I want from science fiction anymore. I have outgrown the desire for grand conflict, although, as some of the reviews in this post will show, I can still be seduced by it, if it seems to point to something more meaningful than mere adventure. The books I’ve read since my last reading post are almost an object lesson in what I have deprived myself of over the years through my addiction to laser beams and space battles, as well as a couple of reminders of how, when it is done with real writerly craft, space opera can still have a certain intelligent beauty.

All cover images link to the Kobo page for that book. I will include the indieebooks.co.uk links in the review titles, where they are available.

Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister

I read Creation Machine as an ebook after we had returned from our holiday in Norwich, having looked through a copy in Waterstones. Sorry, Waterstones, but I did buy Cold Welcome on the same visit, so I wasn’t completely parasiting on your hospitality. One of the reviews called Andrew Bannister a worthy successor to Iain M. Banks, and I think there is something to that: Bannister writes with an attentive detail that focuses upon wonderful settings and societies whose values almost-but-not-quite echo real historical eras. He has the gift Banks had of creating the shimmer and weight of the worlds in which his characters scheme and grapple, and he is a competent master of plotting: the book unfolds on several timetracks and it is not clear until the end which will be the base setting for the trilogy. I was surprised and somewhat grieved by his choice of which lead character died in the climax; which thread came to a close. It was an absorbing, atmospheric read.

The background of the novel is a galaxy that is the manufactured product of a vast, dead civilization, now divided into zones of influence that are fluid and in tension. A coup within the largest, led by the hero’s evil industrialist father, has crushed the rebellion of which she was a part and he is now leading an expansive war of aggression against its unsavoury neighbours. Fleare, the hero, is enhanced, and her sidekick-cum-spirit guide is a dead former comrade and lover who has been revived as semi-material computer code. They gather various other allies on a quest to discover an artefact of the makers; the species who created the galaxy. That artefact is sentient, and becomes a deus ex machina in the book’s climax.

As the story progresses, Fleare is forced to interact with an agent within a multi-layered virtual universe, in which I thought I detected references to the real Earth, though I may have misread that. I felt that the cyber elements of the plot dragged a bit, and was worried, for a while, that the author had lost his way, although he brought it back to a successful and emotionally coherent conclusion with great control.

Bannister’s love of SF is evident in his writing. In summary, the book sounds like a collection of cliches, but it is not actually so. As I read it, I was happily absorbed, and had that satisfying sense of not wanting it to end that really well-envisioned novels build. It is, I think, a success.

Strangely, though, less than a month on from finishing it, I could hardly remember it, and had to reopen it on my Tolino to remind myself of its plot and structure. Like a few of Banks’ Culture novels, it is an experience without an aftertaste, hinting at great depth and moment, but failing to entirely find its own pulse or purpose. The second book, Iron Gods, like Banks’ Culture series, is set in the same universe as the first, but in a different era, with, I assume, a different cast. That may not be a bad thing: Banks managed to create something vast and beautiful from such an approach, and the links of familiarity often gave me shocks of excitement, as in the dawning realization of Vosill’s true identity in Inversions. Since this is a first novel, I hope that, as Banks did, Bannister will find his focus. I will be reading the next installment, but I am not in such a rush that I will buy it before it drops a bit in price.

The Three-Body Problem Trilogy, by Cixin Liu

The majority of the other SF I have read since my last post have a common theme: the acceptance of otherness. The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, are much more than a single theme, but, at their heart, they explore the idea that the universe, if intelligent life is common within it, might be characterised by a nihilistic Darwinian savagery, in which species seek to eradicate any other worlds which promise to rise to a level of technology which might challenge theirs. On Earth, a division between idealists and hard-nosed Machiavellians leads to a disastrous transmission of our existence to the hostile galaxy, and the planet becomes a target for a malevolent and desperate alien invasion force.

This is hard SF, in the sense that it tries to create an entirely plausible scientific framework for its extrapolations about the future. Intelligence, even down to the level of an ant tracing out the carving in a headstone, is treated as a set of theories, rooted in mathematical and physical laws. Some of its conclusions, as they crop up through the vast plot, are stunning, and I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of discovery for readers who have not yet read them, but they are not what most moved me about, at least, the first two novels of the trilogy.

Rather, this series begins in, and seems to expand upon, recent Chinese history, finding in the brutal, perverted logic of the Cultural Revolution a pattern of human behaviour that undermines the hope that humanity might ever advance its condition through the application of science and logic. Neither does it seem to offer a solution: idealism, love, asceticism and devotion to duty all serve within its epic progress to cause further destruction; greater confusion. The result of all this savagery is an unravelling, not merely of the world, but of the universe. Despite the beauty of Ken Liu’s translated prose, this is a profoundly pessimistic series of books.

The lasting impression I took from them was of a wild, overgrown, ravaged city; life rampant and uncaring, and the whole of human invention and creativity just a miniscule rash hidden within one of its minor folds. They are beautiful, they are immense, and they are terribly, terribly cold.

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and A Closed And Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Of everything I’ve read since my last reading post, these two books are my favourites. That is not simply because they are rooted, not in conflict, but in fellowship, or that they are the only two books whose characters felt like my friends by the time I had finished them, although they are. It is rather that they are complete within themselves, both as individual books and as a pair, and they are not like anything I have read before.

That is not to say that they are some sort of exotic SF that has somehow found a way to reinvent the entire genre. No major element within the tapestry of which they are made is entirely original to anyone who has read, watched or played science-fiction themed art over the last two decades. There are spaceships, a war or two, oppressive social conditions and alien species: lots of alien species.

However, these are determinedly civilian stories. They focus upon how people make sense of their lives, their friendships and their identities, rather than upon how they assert themselves through power or quest or battle. In fact, the only war action in either book is observed from the point of view of civilian contractors and only as they flee from the barbarity. The characters are victims and bystanders, without responsibility or agency, and the war is an interruption to what matters to them: how to live and be true to yourself while respecting and valuing the differences between yourself and others.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is set aboard an engineering ship, Wayfarer, captained by a human, Ashby, who, besides his pacifism, is the closest character to a classic SF hero in either of the books. The lead character, Rosemary, is fleeing something, and in any of a hundred books I have read, it would have been lost love or a terrible mistake, but in this one, it is a more compelling detail, which I can’t reveal without spoiling the plot.  Largely, the story is about Rosemary’s process of winning the acceptance and love of her shipmates, but that makes it sound trite. What elevates Rosemary’s adventure is the mirror provided by the different species who make up the crew.

Chief among them is Sissix, an Aandrisk. Aandrisks are a reptilian species whose family relations are based upon adoption and preference. Because they are an egg-bearing species, they have no natural affinity for their biological parents and their loyalties are, therefore, dictated by choice. Their social glue is sex, which is handled in the book with a poetry and joy that rises above what any male author would have made of it. Besides Sissix, we meet half a dozen other species of ‘sentient’, until human characters become what they are in the politics of the book’s ‘Galactic Commons’ universe: a minority group who are tolerated as just one exasperating element within a wondrous, metropolitan universe.

Successful alien characters are not rare in science fiction, but I think I have seldom read a book in which the interactions between so many species are handled with such panache or such convincing enjoyment. The book gave me the feeling I had when I first began attending gigs and festivals; of a world that is brighter than the one I inhabit, with more interesting people, who seem to be okay with having me around. Becky Chambers has managed to create a universe epitomising that rarest of literary phenomena: convincing optimistic science fiction. And then, as you finish the first book, full of love for the new universe you have encountered, and rush enthusiastically into the second one, she goes dark, and it gets even better.

I am prepared to call A Closed And Common Orbit a masterpiece without blushing. I think it is, quite simply, beautiful.

It is not, strictly speaking, a sequel. Instead, it is like a spin-off which, for the first couple of chapters, left me feeling disappointed, as I grieved for the fellowship, good-will and sexiness of the Wayfarer crew. Avoiding plot spoilers for the first book is difficult here, but suffice to say that one character is uprooted from the crew in the care of a minor character from The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, and has to adjust to living a very different existence. In flashback, the character who mentors her is revealed to have suffered a terrible childhood. This upbringing has left an emotional debt that has yet to be paid.

I can’t be much more specific without spoiling your enjoyment, and I really, really wouldn’t want to do that. I cried at the end of this book, and while I am not the world’s most macho man, it is a long time since writing has made me do that. A female hero who is driven by childhood terror has become a ghastly sexist trope in anime, game design and bad male SF (particularly of the ‘kick-ass babe’ variety), but this book is completely removed from those awful exploitations. Becky Chambers writes about pain because that is a part of the human (‘sentient’) experience, but she manages never to lose sight of the redemptive power of love, however deep she goes into the horror of being unloved. There is nothing trite or contrived-feeling about her stories, but neither are they overworked. She writes with a sure touch, using detail only to advance her stories or to enrich her characters and settings, but never getting bogged down in self-indulgence. She is a writer you can trust, and her greatest theme is friendship. I want to be her friend.

If you haven’t read them, read these books now. Particularly, make sure you set aside a free weekend to read A Closed And Common Orbit. It is a triumph.

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

When I have had a really overwhelming book experience, I am often lost to reading for a week or two, unable to recapture the feeling inspired by the book I have just finished. Thanks to Kobo’s ‘recommended books’ feature, that difficulty is somewhat mitigated, although, for the first half of All The Birds In The Sky, I did feel a little disengaged.

To an extent, that may have been simply that this book suffered by comparison. It is a clever and beautiful premise, that moves steadily and gracefully from American high-school realism into a fantasy/SF mix that charts the collapse of the world into ecological and economic disaster. At first, it felt a little pedestrian after Becky Chambers’ beautiful companionship , despite its early magical elements which lay the groundwork for what is to come. A part of my discomfort, however, was with Anders’ tone: she writes with a sort of glib, coffeeshop blogger’s self-assurance that it took me a while to come to terms with.

However, her characters and, particularly her settings, which get more other-worldly as she moves away from the familiar now, grow to suit her cosmopolitan, Californian writer voice. This is a world of bloggers, web-comic artists, start-up sharks, musicians, magicians and inventors. The two protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, each start out as outcasts and grow to be extraordinary: she, as a witch who is discovered, educated and manipulated by the magical underworld, and he as an engineer who is taken under the wing of a technological visionary who has made it his business to save the human race from its own folly.

The greatness into which this book develops is the balance between two outlooks, the technocratic and the mystical, which, while it produces a really powerful fantasy, at least in its second half, achieves a balance between the two. In other words, the artistic product becomes representative of its own plot theme. Last Saturday, despite having had a long, tiring day, I stayed awake after we’d gone to bed, reading for two hours until I’d finished the book. By the end, I was entirely seduced.

She skirted some considerable risks in the writing of this book. It cannot be easy to do a ‘realist’ SF book in which there is a school for witches. Somehow, she managed to avoid the Hogwarts comparisons, and produce an experience of magical polity that is true to its own vision without being parody. In the same way, her fictional tech is brilliantly persuasive. I felt as though I had seen a caddy and really needed to get one.

The resolution of the plot is a surprise. It is preceded by utter devastation and apparently irremediable defeat. I felt real grief during the descriptions of the catastrophes that begin the collapse of civilization, as global warming begins to bite into American civilization. It was, I realized, something that SF should do all the time, but seldom achieves: to visualize what the currents of contemporary experience predict, and to make them seem as though they are already happening. This novel is a magnificent achievement, and I will look out for her next with eagerness.

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

This is a complete change of pace. I don’t think any great realizations lie within, but that is not to say that it is an entirely empty experience. What this novel is, I am not completely sure. I only finished it last night, and I dithered between thinking I had wasted a few days’ reading time and wanting it to continue. However, I am willing to be corrected. I might have missed something in all the noise.

Ninefox Gambit is a classical space opera, written with the imagination of a fetishist. Everything about it is alien, and I do not know to what extent that is because the writer uses Chinese taxonomy and is parodying it, and how much of it is simply bonkers.

The human universe in the book is ruled by the hexarchate, divided between casts that specialize in plotting, persuasion, assassination, soldiering, weapons engineering and a couple of others I couldn’t exactly ascertain. The hero, Cheris, is a Kel; a member of the group-indoctrinated soldier class. Within the hexarchate, ideology is rooted in calendrical orthodoxy, and to adopt a different calendar, wherever you are in the galaxy, is heresy. The calendar is maintained around a system of festivals, in which doctrine is celebrated by ritual torture, and the technology employed by the various castes in their wars is powered by calendrical orthodoxy.

The Fortress of the Scattered Needles, a space station in an outlying region, succumbs to calendrical rot and Cheris is ordered to become the host for a dead outcast general name Jedoa, partly because she has the mathematical abilities he lacked. He inhabits her as a sort of shadow with whom she alone can communicate. They lay siege to the Fortress, and all hell breaks loose. Cue a couple of hundred pages of tightly plotted, relentless war.

It is bloody, complex and perfectly judged. No character dies without being made human by little personality sketches. Yoon excels at quickly and sparingly creating bit part characters to throw into the hell of his weird invented weaponry. Strangely, his main characters seem always slightly distant, but convincingly so, as if the rigid formality of their culture has created a race of people who feel, but don’t always know that they feel. Cheris and Jedao are, I would guess, a homage to the relationship between Hannibal and Cherise in Silence of the Lambs. He is both monster and father-figure: the hated evil by whom she is gradually seduced, but that is not to say that this is any way a derivative work. It is more like an archetype; a deranged, perfect, internally logical fantasy of innocence overwhelmed by hatred, and fighting because that is what serves the story.

When I have cleansed my palate, I will read the follow-up. This is an ongoing series, so there is plenty of madness still to come.

Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon

Having said in my last reading post that I missed Elizabeth Moon, I found out that she had just released a new science fiction book, beginning a new series, Vatta’s Peace, which follows on from her previous SF series, Vatta’s War. This is the only one of the books reviewed here that I bought in physical form, and it is the least interesting of all of them.
Vatta’s War told the story of Ky Vatta, heiress and freighter captain, who single-handedly saved the universe when her family came under attack from a political faction in five overlong books that didn’t quite match the vigour and brio of Moon’s original SF series, The Serrano Legacy. In this new series, the war is over and Ky is an Admiral, young but unassailable, grappling with the demons she carries from her war, in which she discovered that she enjoyed killing. She is supported by her ex-lover, who owns a planet, and her aunt, who is president of her home planet.

On a state visit to the afore-mentioned home planet, her shuttle is shot down by miscreants who are part of a hitherto unsuspected military underground that holds a barren continent in isolation for experimental military purposes. With a band of survivors that she melds together into an effective military unit through her exemplary leadership skills, she survives a long period adrift in life rafts before coming aground on the mysterious continent. There, they discover the secret base maintained by the miscreants, abandoned for the winter, and prepare to fight off the return of the baddies.

The base is an ancient artifact of a long-forgotten alien race and provides the wherewithal to allow our hero to flee and then confront the miscreant’s mercenary force. I would tell you more, but I can’t be bothered. It is horribly predictable and overwhelmingly dull. I will probably read the subsequent volumes, simply for completeness. I was a fan once, but either I have grown up, or the world has moved on. As is obvious above, there is a wealth of imaginative, exciting, challenging science fiction available these days, and this feels like a return to a darker, duller, more conformist time, when a female hero was enough to make a science fiction novel feel innovative. That time has passed.

Giordano Bruno Thriller Series 1-3 and Treachery, by S. J. Parris

So much for the science fiction. Pay attention now, because this may get complicated.

I bought the collected anthology of the first three Giordano Bruno thrillers, but I have included the covers of the constituent novels because, frankly, they’re pretty.

Anyway, they are much as I expected them to be. S. J. Parris is the pen name of a journalist, Stephanie Merritt. She has crafted a convincing series of ponderous but still okay novels in the style of C.J. Samson, and she clearly has the historical knowledge and passion for the period to be able to maintain a meaningful progress through a series that could rival Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, but is not up to the standard of Sansom’s sparse but vivid output.

Giordarno Bruno is a former Dominican monk who falls foul of the inquisition as a result of his love of learning and his humanist, materialist studies. After a frankly workaday prologue describing his escape from his monastery, the story begins on the road to Oxford from London, as Bruno seeks to establish a life for himself in the more tolerant environment of reformation England. He has found a place in the French embassy and is sent on a courtesy visit to the university, where catholic hold-outs and protestant bigots eye one another effetely among the privileged sanctuaries of Elizabethan academia.

Nothing is missing from these novels except that they are rushed. Bruno is a collection of humane, everyman generalizations, irresistible to a certain type of oppressed but worldly-at-heart woman, yet devoted to his books. After four books, he has failed to come alive for me. Where Samson’s Shardlake is a character shaped by humiliation and compromise, Bruno is a bit of an empty know-it-all: a good twenty-first century humanist transposed into a well-imagined Elizabethan set. In the first novel, the murders are well-thought out and imaginative, but they suffer by comparison with the murders in Revelation, in which Shardlake chases a lunatic who is fulfilling the prophecies of the book of Revelation through set-piece atroctities. In Herecy, the murders are linked to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the thmatic nature of the murders is a red herring to draw suspicion away from the catholic conspirators.

I ploughed through, and began to enjoy them. I read the first two in Norwich, where enough of the ancient city is in evidence, amid modern concrete and glass atrocities, to complement books set in the sixteenth century. Annoyingly, the second title, Prophecy, is written in the present tense, as, it turned out, is the fourth, Treachery. I do not like that, particularly in first person narrative. I think it is a nod to Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which I intend to read, but haven’t got around to. However, they have enough scholarship behind them, and enough interesting secondary and tertiary characters, well drawn and fondly described, to make them not entirely tedious. Philip Sydney is an enduring pleasure: an aristocratic oaf who is a loyal friend and patron to our hero, he bumbles through the books as a Hastings to Bruno’s Poirot, both stupid and insightful, and endearingly devoted.

Flashes of illumination lift the series. The small town conspiracy necessary to maintain a high class brothel in sixteenth century Plymouth is cleverly drawn and illuminating and Parris does not spare us the horror suffered by the inmates. Historical figures come to life: Sir Frances Walsingham and Sir Frances Drake are both given real character and made, if not likeable (Walsingham was an unconscionable bastard and Drake was an ambitious war-monger) understandable. Parris is sparing with her key historical figure: Elizabeth steps from the shadows only in one book, of the four I’ve read so far, and her character remains opaque, described more by her effect than by her involvement.

They are product, but product created by a scholar who loves her topic. I recommend them, but sparingly.


That’s it for now. I’m dithering about what to read next. I bought a book on the militarization of American politics recently, and, thanks to the current election campaign, I feel optimistic enough to dive into that, so that may do me. I also want to dive back into the science fiction masterworks series: both Blood Music by Greg Bear and Mockingbird by Walter Tevis caught my eye when I was scrolling through the series recently. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Recent Reading

I bought a Tolino ereader a month or so back and it has proved a success. Actually, it turned out to be an unnecessary purchase: my Android ereader, which had frozen, responded to a flash drive reset and having its developer options turned on and is now in rugged good health. I’ve set it up for Amanda for when we go away.

My father’s old laptop, with Windows 7 installed to replace the Windows 10 OS that was far too demanding for it, now serves as an epub purchasing machine. I’ve never had any luck running Adobe Digital Editions on Linux: it’s supposed to be possible in WINE emulation layer, but is only ever stable for a week or so, before Adobe change some setting. The curse of Linux, that to keep up you must be able to converse with IT graduates in their autistic language, frustrates me in this situation, as in so many others.

So, Windows it is, with the unlocking of purchased books done by the hated Adobe DE, and then the DRM stripped from the books by Calibre, before installing on our readers. I favour a website called Indieebooks.co.uk, but am also using Kobo a fair bit, although there is little real price competition in the ebook market, which is fine, as I am happy to pay a price that secures writers some chance of making a living from the books I want to read.

I have also bought a few books from Baen. My longest standing reading quest is to find readable literary junk food, preferably SF, that will absorb me without completely insulting my intelligence. My ideal in this search is to match the pleasure I got from Elizabeth Moon‘s Serrano series, which I first read when I was working at The Rat and Parrot in Southampton. I used to take an hour off after the lunch rush, do the banking in town and then have a coffee somewhere close enough to the pub to not require a long walk back to work, but far enough away that I would not meet any of our regulars or staff. The books are military SF with female heroes, and a bizarre aristocratic social system under threat from its own decadence. They don’t bear close examination, but are sufficiently consistent within themselves to support the breathless adventures undertaken by a huge cast of likeable and superficially believable characters, and the settings are distinct, closely written and often quite vivid. Moon also managed to make the conflicts in which her characters were embroiled meaningful: one volume of the series involves the capture of several women and girls by a breakaway human culture rooted in fundamentalist Christian patriarchy, and the sense of injustice and horror of that heretical but convincing society brought to mind (in a vastly starker way) some of the attitudes I encountered when I lived in Arkansas.

Alas, they are a unique oddity. They are part of a huge publishing sector, American military space opera, that is otherwise despicably monotone and ugly. Perhaps the low point in my search was The Lost Fleet series, by Stephen Baxter. The entire dismal product was in the Camp Hill library, and I waded through the first two before giving up. They are circular, hateful, paranoid and describe a conflict without any cause or justification. If one of the points of SF is that it allows for stories that are not limited by mundanity, it seems almost a heresy to write science fiction that is dedicated to reducing real human suffering – the agonies of war – to mundane tropes. The Lost Fleet is suffused with war for war’s sake; a mere plot device, in which ‘warriors’ are misunderstood and betrayed by the ‘softness’ of people who would live their lives without conflict. Comically, in American war-worship fiction, these tropes combine into a form of campness unrivalled by any genre other than the classic Western: the high point of this tendency is The Seafort Saga, by David Feintuch, which almost redeems itself by being so bad it’s good.

Nevertheless, for a few days last month, I thought I had discovered a decent replacement for The Serrano Legacy. Baen Books publish David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which follows the career of a female naval officer who is the self-doubting but dutiful hero of the Confederate navy. The Confederacy is a monarchy, but a nice, American one, that spans a huge sector of the galaxy but is succumbing to decadence, which, in American Military SF terms, means reduced military spending. Its arch enemy, the People’s Republic of Haven, is evil, because it is a welfare state, and thus, inevitably, expansionist and tyrannical as well as technically backward, bureaucratic and hopelessly democratic (‘democracy’, here, meaning two-faced and futile). In the first novel, On Basilisk Station, borders are violated, command abdicated and our plucky hero has to step in to beat overwhelming odds with only good ‘ol American know how and lots of guns. It’s a romp, and a well-plotted one, that achieves the internal coherence and impetuous excitement of the Elizabeth Moon series. I overlooked the undercurrent of soldierly self-pity and contempt for peace because it was so readable, and it has other virtues: the first two novels of the series are free on Baen, the characters are distinct and memorable, and the author is amazingly prolific. Here is a vast source of mental chewing gum for when I don’t want to be challenged by my reading.

However, by the third novel, the repetitiveness and obviousness of the genre was asserting itself. To be fair, Weber is honest about his inspiration: he is trying to recreate his enjoyment of the Hornblower novels in science fiction form, an ambition that is not unique, or even particularly elevated: I’ve read the first Hornblower and that was quite enough. Other Napoleonic naval writers have done much better. Weber is, without doubt, a competent and engaging writer. His adventures are well-plotted and full of excitement. They were just failing to overcome my better instincts. I came to the conclusion that, in the years since I first read Elizabeth Moon, I have changed too much to enjoy war porn, however professional the product. I suppose I should be proud of the fact that I have outgrown such an adolescent genre, but I can’t help feeling a sense of loss.

The Better

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah

So much for the crap. The book that has impressed me most over the last month is non-fiction, which, given my dislike of the real world, is unusual. It is the autobiography of the comedian, Trevor Noah, Born A Crime. I bought it because I’d seen a video of him talking about it and he seemed a nice guy with plenty to say. Having read it, he is now my greatest man-crush ever. I am stupidly jealous of his intelligence, his energy, his understanding and his beauty. He is ambivalent, but never slighting, about religion, but what shines from the book is a sense of goodness, despite having lived a fairly destructive and dispiriting childhood. His understanding of the absurdity of racial definitions has a clarity that cuts through all the crap surrounding the current American situation: South African history is so absurd that it counterpoints the viciousness of current American divisions vividly. Despite the seriousness of all his topics (racism, an abusive stepfather, economic repression) he is incredibly generous in his ability to identify with those people who have done him harm, and he identifies his good nature as coming from the fact that, despite everything he endured growing up, he has never been without love: of family, friends and the wider communities with which, as a mixed-race South African, he had to consciously decide to identify.

Noah has now reached a position of fame and influence that is awe-inspiring and, although he does not go this far in the book, one has to wonder whether there is some divine influence in the idea that, in times of trouble, humans have a way of finding the spokespeople we need. As the Trump government gets bogged down in its own success, Noah is a real voice of rational, pacific dissent and opposition. I cannot think of anyone whose critique of politics I would rather hear.

Undead Boredom

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

A free edition is available from Feedbooks.

There is a Radio 4 series called ‘I’ve Never Seen Star Wars’, on which people who pass as interesting undertake common experiences which have passed them by. It’s quite boring; the sort of self-congratulating in-crowd stuff at which Radio 4 excels, but it’s a good idea. In the same spirit, I have a list of books which I feel I should read: most of Hardy, having been forced to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, all of Henry James, Gibbon, etc. I’ve made inroads into it over the last decade and it has provided some real pleasures. Dickens, for example, had never excited me, beyond A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, but I’ve read a fair chunk of his writing now and he has actually got onto the list of authors whose books I ration, so that I don’t run out, rather than the list of foggy challenges in which James and Hardy still languish.

Dracula had defeated me once, in my teens, after I first fell in love with Frankenstein and was looking for something similarly compelling. While Frankenstein is a progressive novel that took Gothic fiction forward towards the creation of science fiction, Dracula is everything that frustrates me about the Gothic: where SF reaches for the sublime through the expansion of human experience, the Gothic attempts to create it through what became surrealism: a mythos of self-examination; a narrowing of experience; a miserly raking over of old stories smeared over contemporary values and uncertainties.

I read Dracula last week, and it was still a chore, but I made it. It is an exercise in praise of late-Victorian efficiency and planning, interspersed with a few passages of vaguely evocative but pallid pastiche of high romance. I found myself comparing it with other early twentieth century novels whose values make me uneasy: it is not as openly racist as the Richard Hannay novels of John Buchan, but it is rooted in an assumption of the virtue of English and American civilization and in a feeling that that assumption is under threat. As I dragged myself, dutifully, to its underwhelming climax, I was surprised to realise that the modern pop-culture ubiquity of vampires-as-ideological plot devices is not a watering down of past glories but a continuation of a dreary tradition whose high point was just as awful as its Murdoch funded modern lows.

The problem with the co-opting of speculative themes by conservative authors is that the undermining of reality that is at the heart of the speculative imagination is, inherently, radical. Once a writer, or film maker, or comic-book artist, ties himself to a radical theme, he denies himself the right to conclude the story in a way that safely restores order. Thinking about it now, this may be why Hollywood, with its addiction to uplifting conclusions, has such trouble with Science Fiction: in speculative fiction there has to be change, and conservative storytelling is all about the preservation of established order. Dracula, in the end, is defeated, and the protagonists return to their lives, victorious and vindicated, with reality restored. The token American, it’s true, is killed, but he is such a non-character that he is hardly missed. It doesn’t make sense. The existence of vampires is an offence against what the protagonists are supposed to represent: rational, scientific civilization. The fact that Van Helsing is supposed to be one of the great characters of fiction seems absurd to me: he’s a mashup; a pseudo-scientist who accepts with little more than a frown the existence of supernatural villains. He hums and hahs in his cod ‘Johnny Foreigner’ accent, the cover for his ‘openness to things we can barely give creedence’, hops off to Amsterdam to collect the garlic and from then on he is basically a mystic, dragging out the thinnest of plots with inconclusive ‘clues’. It’s all very frustrating.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

In my irritation with Dracula, I remembered that I had bought ‘I Am Legend‘, by Richard Matheson, as part of a collection of SF Masterworks, when I first started buying ebooks. I loaded it on to the Tolino and read it and it proved to be an effective palate cleanser. A vampire story it may be, but it follows the logic of its use of the plot device. The vampire plague in Matheson’s book is triggered by nuclear war (he wrote the novel in the fifities) and spread by the dust storms of a minor nuclear winter, and the hero, an engineer rather than a scientist, gets only so far as the plot requires in understanding the ‘science’ of his plight. The important thrust of the book is that the idea of surviving a nuclear war is not a triumph: the survival of the human race is at the cost of our essential humanity. In my dissertation, I called nuclear conflict the Satan of post war culture, and I think it is very clever of Matheson to have addressed the topic through a familiar cultural metaphor, giving it the role of nuclear war’s Beelzebub.

Apart from its rather dodgy nineteen-fifties sexual politics, I Am Legend is a surprisingly good book, that handles grief and isolation with painful clarity. I recommend it. I can’t say the same for Dracula.

What Next?

I’ve got two weeks’ holiday from work, although I will have to do some work early next week, as I didn’t get everything finished yesterday. Nevertheless, I’ve been stocking up on reading for the forthnight’s rest. I’ve bought the three book series by Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem, that has garnered wide praise. I started the first novel this morning, and it is looking very promising. As backup, I’ve also got the first three books in a historical thriller series by S J Parris, the Giordano Bruno books. Set in Elizabethan London, they’re marketed at fans of C J Samson’s wonderful Shardlake series of mysteries.  Shardlake is a lawyer in Henry VIII’s London, and one of my favourite characters; a wise, honest investigator of mysteries who is marked as an outsider by his physical deformity and his moderation in a time of religious and political intolerance. Samson is a careful and beautiful writer whose craft transcends his genre, but he is not prolific, and both Amanda and I lament the gaps between his publications. I am wary about reading what, I assume, will be a lesser example of the genre, but will give it a try. I loathe Henry VIII, and am not much more positive about Elizabeth, but the cultural darkness of her father’s reign gave way to the flowering of English culture in hers, and so I have some hopes that, even if Parris is a lesser writer, her novels are set in a more fruitful period, and will provide something to enjoy.