Reprint: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

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Continuing my endeavour to get everything that has appeared in print online, this is my In Short column for Vector 282, Summer 2016: Continue reading

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Reprint: New York 2140

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One of the things I wanted to do when I started this blog was provide a resource for myself: a place where various reviews and essays that had only ever appeared in print would be readily accessible in one place online. But I rather got out of the habit over the last year or so. Therefore, I shall attempt to get back up to speed over the next few weeks with more of these reprint posts, beginning with this review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which appeared in Interzone 270, May-June 2017: Continue reading

Ambling

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Back in my teens and early twenties, spy stories probably constituted the bulk of my reading, both fiction (Helen MacInnes, John Le Carre, Len Deighton) and non-fiction (The Penkovsky Papers, Kim Philby’s My Secret War, a rather dense tome on General Gehlen). Through it all, one name kept repeating: Eric Ambler. The recent reprints of Helen MacInnes novels all come emblazoned with exactly the same quote from Newsweek that the editions I read in the early 70s carried: “Helen MacInnes can hang her cloak and dagger right up there with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.” Ambler was inescapable: if you liked this stuff, you had to read him. And yet I never did.

I am not exactly sure why. I think, for whatever reason, I had pegged him as the spy fiction equivalent of Edgar Wallace: populist, slick, rather trashy, and above all a representative of an earlier generation. It is an unfair characterisation, of course. Ambler’s career as a novelist stretched from 1936 to 1981, which isn’t all that different from Helen MacInnes’s career, 1941 to 1984. To say that, as spy writers, they belong to different generations is probably stretching it a bit. As for the identification with Edgar Wallace, I have no idea where that came from, but if I’d thought about that Newsweek quotation I’d have realised how far off the mark it is. After all, Ambler is being compared with MacInnes and Greene, neither of whom is exactly in the Edgar Wallace camp.

Journey into FearBe that as it may, it all means that Journey into Fear, a very gratefully received Christmas present from Maureen which I have just finished, is the first thing by Eric Ambler I have read. I should have been reading him 40 or 50 years ago.

Apart from the early chapters being told largely in flashback, it is a very straightforward story, straightforwardly told. Graham (no forename is ever given) is a British armaments engineer in Turkey to wrap up a deal essential for Turkey’s defence in the war that is just starting (it is the early months of 1940). On his last night in Istanbul Graham is shot at as he returns to his hotel room. Graham is inclined to dismiss it as a robbery gone wrong, but Colonel Haki, the head of Turkish intelligence, knows better. Any delay to the deal could be fatal to Turkey’s interests, and if Graham were killed it would put things back by at least six months. Haki therefore persuades Graham to change his plans; instead of travelling back to England by train, where he would be a sitting duck, he joins an old tramp steamer heading for Genoa, from where he can more safely return home.

The bulk of the novel is set aboard this boat as Graham slowly comes to recognise the parlous position he is in. The whole is a brilliant exercise in creating an atmosphere of fear which Ambler orchestrates by repeatedly offering hope and then dashing it. Graham realises that one of his fellow passengers is the Bulgarian assassin that Haki identified, but he can’t convince the ship’s crew that he is not delusional. He has been given a gun for his protection, but the gun is stolen from his cabin. A fellow passenger, an erotic dancer who is clearly trying to seduce Graham (for money, as we later discover), offers to steal her husband’s gun and pass it to Graham, but she isn’t able to deliver the goods. Another passenger proves to be a Turkish agent sent by Haki to protect Graham, but the agent is killed. The German mastermind of the assassination plot offers Graham what seems like a way out, but it turns out to be a deception to make it easier to kill Graham once they get to Genoa.

There are moments of dramatic action, the climax of the novel is quite spectacular, but in the main the novel works as a slow, quiet, accumulation of tension. There’s a way out, no it’s closed off; there’s another way out, no it’s closed off again. And Graham is an ordinary, middle class, middle aged man who has never before found his life in danger, and has never before had to act the way he must act now if he is to stay alive. And all of this is played out in the narrow confines of a rusty old boat, where the handful of fellow passengers may be allies who cannot be relied upon, or enemies who cannot be identified.

What struck me about the novel was how appropriate the comparison with Helen MacInnes is, although Journey into Fear is about half the length of an average MacInnes novel. There is, for a start, the sense of place; though MacInnes would play her story out against familiar landmarks and public spaces, where Ambler’s novel takes us to seedy nightclubs and smoky offices. There is the centrality of a journey, where deadly enemies are right behind or possibly one step ahead; though for MacInnes the journey would be through the sharply described mountains of Above Suspicion or the coastal landscape of Assignment in Brittany, while for Ambler it all takes place in the equally sharply described decks and salon and cabins of the tramp steamer. Above all there is the fact that the story concerns an innocent, an amateur, caught in a violent world that they do not understand and for which they are ill prepared, but who finds within themselves resources of wit and nerve that prove equal to the task. Though MacInnes will introduce romantic interest who proves equally resourceful, whereas Ambler’s romantic interest is, in the end, unreliable. And though both MacInnes and Ambler equip their novels with enough cliffhangers and bursts of action to keep any reader gripped, the real focus is psychological, how nerves and fear and resolve shape and twist and move things along.

It has taken me a long time to discover Eric Ambler, I suspect that now I shall be making up for those long years of neglect.

Roots and Branches

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Yesterday evening, I began dipping into A Conversation Larger than the Universe by Henry Wessells, a very personal history of science fiction, or, more broadly, of fantastika. It’s a wonderful book, engagingly written and delightfully illustrated, with just the right level of idiosyncracy to convince you that you are engaging in a long conversation with someone who is widely informed but also has his own distinctive views and tastes. It’s a lovely book, I recommend it strongly.

But I have one small niggle, set off by an almost throw-away remark. He comments, aligning himself with Brian Aldiss and John Clute on this, that fantastika had its roots in the Gothic.

No!

This is something that Aldiss began peddling when he started to claim that Frankenstein was the first work of sf. He very carefully worded his definition of science fiction in order to make this case. His definition has long been superceded, but you still see the claim about Frankenstein being trotted out. Most recently, given that Frankenstein was first published exactly 200 years ago, I’m seeing people suddenly announcing that science fiction is now 200 years old. Nonsense!

And Clute’s claim, in Pardon This Intrusion, that fantastika began with the French Revolution is part of the same thing. (I remember arguing in a review of that book that the French Revolution wasn’t the start of anything, but the end point of a process, the delegitimizing of a particular form of aristocratic rule, that began over 100 years earlier with the execution of Charles I. If Clute said that fantastika began with the English Revolution I might be slightly more inclined to agree with him.)

Let’s take fantastika as catch-all term for a variety of non-realist literatures that include science fiction, fantasy, horror, probably postmodernism and a few other less readily identifiable forms. To say that they began in the Gothic, that their roots lie there, is just plain wrong. It would, I think, be more accurate to say that the Gothic was when the various branches of fantastika began to sprout out from the trunk. That’s not the whole story, of course. Postmodernism is a form of the fantastic that only began be a distinctive form in the last half-century or so (and, to make the arboreal analogy more complex than it needs to be, was possibly grafted on to the root stock from elsewhere). In other words, I’m saying that the Gothic was when the separate elements of fantastika began to take on their separate and distinctive forms, but it was not when they were born.

To say that a branch is born when it separates out from the tree trunk is nonsense, trunk and branch are of one substance, and that’s what I feel about the various elements of fantastika.

The trunk itself, when science fiction and satire and horror and fantasy were all inextricably united, probably grew during that radical reimagining of our place in the world that was the renaissance and the reformation. But the roots reach back much further, to medieval legends of Cockayne and Christian symbolism and ancient Greek novels and all sorts of other places. Fantastika is a world tree, its roots possibly reach back to the very beginnings of human consciousness. But its emergence into the light, its rise above ground into a shape that we can recognise today, happened long before the rather petty little upset in literary history that was the Gothic.

All of which is an expression of my ongoing distress at a rather pernicious view of literary history that Aldiss foisted on the sf critical community. But to say that science fiction only began with the Gothic is to dismiss a whole string of earlier work that was essential to the making of sf:

The first Utopia – Thomas More 1516
The first anti-utopia – Mundus Alter et Idem, Joseph Hall, 1605
The first aliens – Newes from the new world discover’d in the Moone, Ben Jonson, 1620
The first scientific society – New Atlantis, Francis Bacon, 1627
The first mechanical voyage to the moon – The man in the moone, Francis Godwin, 1638
The first novel set in the future – Nova Solyma, Samuel Gott, 1648
The first parallel world (with distinct postmodern elements) – The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish, 1666 (Aldiss dismisses Cavendish as unreadable, she is not.)

And so on. I would hate to say that any of these was the first science fiction work, but collectively they constitute an active and engaging science fiction long before the Gothic came along.

What I’m saying is, there’s a need to see the whole tree rather than just concentrate on the branches

Little Britain

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Years ago, I remember reading reviews of a new film that sounded intriguing called The Return of Martin Guerre, though as it happened I never actually saw the film. At the same time, I remember being puzzled that something in the plot seemed familiar to me, though I couldn’t work out why that might be so.

Flash forward 30-odd years and I am reading Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes, or rather, re-reading. I don’t specifically remember reading this novel before, but in the late-60s and early-70s I went through a phase of reading everything by MacInnes that I could get my hands on, and this was one of her more prominent titles so I would be surprised if I hadn’t encountered it.

And as I read the novel I begin to realise what it was I recognised in the plot of Martin Guerre.

Assignment in Brittany was her second novel, published in 1942. It is a spy story (of course) set in Brittany shortly after Dunkirk in the early days of the German occupation. A French soldier, rescued from Dunkirk, makes his way cross-country to his little family farm just outside a small Breton village. But he isn’t a French soldier; he’s an English agent who happens to look enough like the Frenchman to take his place, allowing him an ideal opportunity to observe German preparations throughout the region. To make the deception work, he has to fool the Frenchman’s invalid mother, his fiancee, and the old family servant. For a while this seems to work, but soon enough suspicions start to emerge, mostly because the Englishman is nicer than the Frenchman was.

The nastiness of the Frenchman soon takes an important turn as the English agent, Martin Hearne, gradually comes to realise that the Frenchman, Bertrand Corlay, was actually a leading voice in a Breton nationalist movement that was being subverted by the Germans for their own ends. Indeed, Corlay was a willing agent of the Nazis, giving Hearne an unexpected opportunity to play a dangerous double game. But the only way to do that is to step out from behind his disguise to those closest to Corlay.

It is an extraordinary novel for its time. It must have been written in the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk when there was considerable confusion about German plans and British capabilities. In the novel, MacInnes imagines the Germans building military airfields across the Breton plain in order to launch an aerial bombardment of South West England; a plan foiled by the intelligence Hearne provides. I’m not sure if that was ever really the German plan, their activities in Brittany seem to have been primarily naval, directed towards bases used for the Atlantic war, but in the heat of that particular moment it was probably a reasonable expectation.

More interesting is the care with which she portrays the experience of rural France under German occupation, an experience about which she is likely to have heard whispers at best. And the novel is full of an intimate knowledge of the geography of the region, something that would become a hallmark of her postwar spy fiction. There is a sense that this is an area well known to the author, a sense that these stones, these roads, these dusty tracks, these fields can be found on the ground exactly as they appear in the novel. This sense of place is something that would be a distinguishing characteristic of her work, though it is interesting to see it in place here when she couldn’t arrange a quick research trip in the middle of writing.

The other regular characteristic of her work is here also: the handsome, charming, engaging hero figure, and the love interest who proves herself at least as brave and at least as resourceful as the hero.

And so we have the basic Martin Guerre plot (40 years before the Martin Guerre film): a returning soldier who isn’t, who is taken in without question by those closest to the original, but whose identity is eventually exposed by the fact that he is nicer than the original. But MacInnes uses this as the basis for a tale that involves duplicity and betrayal, violence, revenge, capture and escape. A quiet story of high action.

There was, apparently, a film made of Assignment in Brittany, but I know I’ve never seen that.

Before and After

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There is a congruence in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (4 January 2018) that I find interesting and instructive.

In the final paragraph of his review of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, Colin Burrow remarks:

A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. (8)

On the facing page, almost exactly parallel to this passage, in a review of Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Michael Wood says:

But the straightforward concept of a sequel tends to literalise the story that went before it, as if it were a solid historical structure rather than a fiction – that is, the reflection of a whole map of choices and inventions. (9)

And there you have it, as neat an encapsulation as you could wish of the fact that prequels and sequels are bound by the same iron chains. An original work of fiction is an “elastic imagining”, a “map of choices and inventions”. But once those inventions are set in stone, the sequel or prequel is restricted in what creativity it can bring to the fiction. The prequel has to work towards a known end-point, within circumstances already established by the fiction which it approaches. A sequel has to continue from a known starting point, within circumstances already established by the fiction it is building upon. To change what is known, to reinvent those circumstances, would not necessarily damage the particular prequel or sequel, but it risks irreparable damage to the original.

But if you are working within those strictures, then you are voluntarily abandoning much of the invention that made the original work worthy of a prequel or sequel.

There are other links in this imprisoning chain that neither Burrow nor Wood specifically reference (though they are, perhaps, implicit in the bodies of their reviews): that what prompts a prequel or sequel in the first place is often a strange love affair between the readers and the original book. I love such-and-such a character. I love such-and-such a world. This is both the major reason why sequels and prequels get written, and the thing that most encumbers the author. Because it is necessary to retain and often to repeat what is loved, otherwise the whole exercise is futile. This is why the later volumes in some long-standing series read as though they are simply checklists: this is the point where character A is loveable, this is where character B repeats her catchphrase, this is where character C repeats his catchphrase, this is where character D proves she is secretly a goody, this is where character E saves the day again.

There remains a market for such works, because there is clearly an enthusiastic readership who like to be reminded of what they loved in previous volumes. I am not part of that market. In the main I find prequels and sequels creatively stultifying.

I must be careful here: this is not intended as a blanket condemnation. Multi-volume works that were conceived and intended as a single work, such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun or, perhaps, John Crowley’s Aegypt (though I think here the original conception continued to change and grow over the 20 years of its execution), don’t fit the pattern. Here the invention of the first volume and the invention of the last volume are part of the same enterprise.

Nor am I saying that it is impossible to write a good sequel. The third volume of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, Europe in Winter, is, I think a better novel than the first volume, Europe in Autumn. Though at the same time I think Europe in Autumn, which was not intended to have any sequels when originally written, is the volume that contains the most invention, the most science-fictional creativity.

The trouble is that what I look for in science fiction is creativity, invention, novelty; what I see in the vast majority of sequels and prequels is the exact opposite of that, familiarity and repetition. What Colin Burrow and Michael Wood do, separately and in their congruence (which is, I’m sure, not entirely coincidental), is to point out that to take on a belated sequel or prequel is to voluntarily don a straightjacket, a set of limitations and restrictions laid out by the very cause of the sequel or prequel, the original work.

As it happens, both Burrow and Wood conclude that their respective subjects, Pullman and Banville, manage to avoid being entirely constricted by their chosen form. It can be done. But it is rare; rarer than the continuous churn of sequels and prequels might lead us to imagine. It is a hard thing to do successfully, it requires bravery, spirit, and probably more invention than the original. Which is why it should be the exception rather than the rule.

And that is why I look with jaundiced and dubious eye on anything that proclaims itself the new addition to the X universe, the further adventures of Y, a long-awaited return to Z …

Why should I want to go there again when there are always new places, unknown places, awaiting my attention?

2017 in Review

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It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.

2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.

Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks like the next couple of years are pretty much taken care of. Continue reading

A Priest chronology

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So, my next book will be about Christopher Priest and will be published by Gylphi, which is something that makes me inordinately pleased. I’ve started the reading and note taking that inevitably accompanies such a task. But I’ve also put together a chronology of his books and short stories, just as a way of keeping everything straight in my mind. And I realised as I was putting it together that there are gaps. I don’t just mean the pseudonymous stuff (I’ve only included the work he has acknowledged), but there are other gaps. I’m missing the Sally Gunnell book he was ghostwriter on, and I’m sure there are stories missing, also odd details such as where “The Discharge” first appeared. Therefore, if you can fill in any of the gaps, or add more details to this list, I would be very grateful.

The dates given are date of first publication, except for the stories that first appeared in Ersatz Wines. In those cases I have given the date of composition in [square brackets].

[1963]                   Going Native                                         Ersatz Wines, Nov 63

[1964]                   Stranglehold                                          Ersatz Wines, Mar 64

[1964]                   Star Child                                                Ersatz Wines, Nov 64

[1965]                   The Witch-Burners                               Ersatz Wines, Jan 65

[1965]                   Nicolson’s Repentances                       Ersatz Wines, Oct 65

[1965]                   Combined Operation                            Ersatz Wines, Nov 65

[1965]                   The Ostrich Seed                                   Ersatz Wines, Nov 65

1966                       The Run                                                 Impulse 3, May 66

1966                       Conjugation                                          New Worlds 169, Dec 66 [May 66]

[1967]                   Chance                                                     Ersatz Wines, Apr 67

1967                       Impasse                                                  SF Impulse 12, Feb 67 [Sep 65]

1967                       The Ersatz Wine                                   New Worlds 171, Mar 67 [Mar 66]

1969                       The Interrogator                                   New Writings in SF 15 [Jan 68]

1970                       Breeding Ground                                  Vision of Tomorrow 4, Jan 70

1970                       Nothing Like the Sun                           Vision of Tomorrow, Jul 70

1970                       Fire Storm                                               Quark 1

1970                       Double Consummation                         The Disappearing Future

1970                       The Perihelion Man                               New Writings in SF 16

1970                       Indoctrinaire

1971                       Sentence in Binary Code                        Fantastic Stories 20:6, Aug 71

1971                       Real-Time World                                      New Writings in SF 19

1972                       Charlie was a Bastard                             Oz Magazine 41, Mar/Apr 72

1972                       The Head and the Hand                          New Worlds Quarterly 3

1972                       Fugue for a Darkening Island

1974                       Transplant                                                 Worlds of If, Feb 74

1974                       A Woman Naked                                     Science Fiction Monthly 1:1, Feb 74

1974                       The Inverted World                                  New Writings in SF 22

1974                       The Invisible Men                                      Stopwatch

1974                       Inverted World

1974                       Real-Time World (coll)

1974                       Your Book of Film Making

1976                       An Infinite Summer                                   Andromeda 1

1976                       Men of Good Value                                     New Writings in SF 26

1976                       The Space Machine

1977                       A Dream of Wessex

1978                       The Watched                                                 F&SF 54, Apr 78

1978                       The Negation                                                Anticipations

1978                       Whores                                                          New Dimensions 8

1978                       Anticipations (ed)

1979                       Palely Loitering                                             F&SF 56, Jan 79

1979                       Static Gravity                                                  Omni 1:7, Apr 79

1979                       The Agent (+ David Redd)                             Aries 1

1979                       The Cremation                                                Andromeda 3

1979                       The Making of the Lesbian Horse (chap)

1979                       An Infinite Summer (coll)

1979                       Stars of Albion (ed, +  Robert Holdstock)

1980                       The Miraculous Cairn                                       New Terrors 2

1981                       The Affirmation

1984                       The Glamour

1985                       The Ament                                                         Seven Deadly Sins

1986                       Short Circuit (as Colin Wedgelock)

1986                       Mona Lisa (as John Luther Novak)

1987                       The Last Deadloss Visions (chap)

1990                       The Quiet Woman

1993                       Seize the Moment (with Helen Sharman)

1994                       The Book on the Edge of Forever

1995                       The Prestige

1996                       The Glamour (revised)

1998                       The Extremes

1999                       The Equatorial Moment                                      The Dream Archipelago

1999                       The Dream Archipelago (coll)

1999                       eXistenZ (as John Luther Novak)

2000                       The Discharge                                                         [online ?]

2002                       The Separation

2008                       Ersatz Wines (coll)

2008                       The Magic

2008                       “IT” Came from Outer Space

2009                       Real-Time World +2 (coll)

2009                       The Trace of Him                                                 The Dream Archipelago

2009                       The Sorting Out                                                    The New Uncanny

2009                       The Dream Archipelago (coll, revised)

2011                       The Islanders

2011                       Fugue for a Darkening Island (revised)

2013                       The Adjacent

2016                       The Gradual

2017                       Shooting an Episode                                            2084

I have not (yet) included the new novel or the new short story collection, mostly because I’m not exactly sure when they are due to appear. But if you spot any other gaps, I would be really appreciative if you would help me plug them.

Sharke infested custard

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I am, it turns out, a puritan.

This comes as something of a surprise to me. After a childhood brought up on The Children of the New Forest and its ilk (in my last year of primary school, when the class was told to write a story, I produced an 11-chapter, 22-page “novel” that was effectively a rewrite of The Children of the New Forest), I have always felt more inclined towards the wrong but wromantic Cavaliers than the right but repulsive Roundheads.

Nevertheless there it is: when it comes to science fiction, I would appear to be a puritan. Not, I hasten to add, in terms of what constitutes science fiction. On that issue I am decidedly catholic. But when it comes to criticism of, and commentary upon, science fiction, then I am most certainly a puritan. Continue reading