Even after the best part of two and a half thousand years, we can’t get away from Plato. His dialogues still have a shaping influence on modern thought, including on science fiction. It is interesting, for instance, that Jo Walton has a couple of books out recently, based on Plato’s writings. She isn’t the first; Peter Ackroyd has also used Plato as the basis for one of his rare excursions into science fiction, though the result is, frankly, one of his worst books. This review of The Plato Papers first appeared in Vector 207, September-October 1999. Continue reading
Years ago, there was a programme on TV (The South Bank Show?) which dramatized bits of Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd. It was fascinating, so I bought the book, and it was indeed wonderful. For a while every novel of his I read seemed to get better (for me, the very best is still English Music), I even started getting his biographies. I am not a great fan of Charles Dickens, but Ackroyd’s massive Dickens is a mesmerising read. But all of that seems a long time ago. The last heaven knows how many novels have been hit or miss affairs, mostly miss. This review of Milton in America, which I wrote for Vector 191, January-February 1997, dates from around the time when the decline set in, which means this is not a bad book, just nowhere near as good as it might have been. Continue reading
Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke, Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, Ed Bryant, Eric Frank Russell, Eric Rohmer, Gardner Dozois, George Orwell, George R.R. Martin, Graham Greene, Graham Swift, H.G. Wells, Ian McEwan, J.G. Ballard, Jack Dann, Jerry Pournelle, John Clute, John Fowles, John Jarrold, John Sladek, Kazuo Ishiguro, m john harrison, Martin Amis, Olaf Stapledon, Peter Ackroyd, Philip K. Dick, Rebecca West, Richard Cowper, Roz Kaveney, Thomas Huxley, Thomas M. Disch, William Boyd
I’ve written a lot about Chris Priest over the years, and most of it has ended up in What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction or Call And Response, but there is one major piece that hasn’t been reprinted. It is this interview I did with him in 1999, not long after the publication of The Extremes and The Dream Archipelago. The interview was first published in Vector 206, July-August 1999.
THROWING AWAY THE ORTHODOXY
A conversation about sex, innocence and science fiction
Paul Kincaid: Let’s start at the end. You have just brought out all the Dream Archipelago stories collected in one volume. Why have you gone back to that?
Christopher Priest: Well, there’s a bad reason and a good reason.
Let’s have the bad reason. Continue reading
Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. Okay, House of Leaves was brilliant, and this isn’t. But it gets better as you go on and learn the rhythm of the book – it might be better to read it as sub-epic verse rather than prose fiction. The main problem is the fiddly nature of the work. It starts in large print and the print gets smaller as the book progresses. But you don’t actually read all the way through, it is structured so you read eight pages then flip the book and read the next eight pages (a large drop capital signals the turn). What you get one way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1860s and 1960s; what you get the other way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1960s and 2060s. One journey is told by the boy, one by the girl, but incidents echo and duplicate between the two and each story ends in death and rebirth. And the hinge point (as we discover in the chronology that occupies the margin of every page) is inevitably the assassination of John F, Kennedy. Its hypnotic in its way, but the technical ambition isn’t matched by the literary achievement.
The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd. There was a time, probably between Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (with the brilliant English Music as its high point) when Ackroyd was one of the most exciting novelists working in Britain. Then somehow the novels lost their edge, they became thinner (both in size and content), and often read more like adjuncts to his non-fiction than original works in their own right. And he was always a novelist of London, anything he wrote that drifted out of the city (First Light, Milton in America) lost any spirit or liveliness. So Fall of Troy is a novel you approach initially more out of duty than excitement – it’s a late, thin novel, and not only is it not set in London, it isn’t even set in Britain. And yet it is easily the best thing he has done in many years. It is a fictionalised version of Schliemann’s famous excavations at Troy. In this version Schliemann is Obermann, a bombastic fraud driven more by faith and enthusiasm than by any archaeological or scientific integrity. He interprets every find according to the story he wants to discover, and when inscriptions are discovered which suggest the Trojans are not the Indo-Europeans he so fondly imagines it leads to cataclysmic consequences. This is a book to restore your faith in Peter Ackroyd the novelist.
Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 by E.L. Doctorow. I can still recall the sheer invigorating shock I felt when I first encountered Ragtime, and I have read just about anything by Doctorow I’ve been able to get my hands on ever since. (I’d still love to find his science fiction novel, Big as Life, which he ritualistically lists among previous publications in every one of his books, but which has been so successfully withdrawn from public view that copies are valued in more hundreds of dollars than I could ever hope to afford.) His non-fiction (of which several collections have now appeared) tends to be short and accessible, they are mostly written as reviews rather than essays, but they are every bit as thoughtful as you would expect. These pieces deal with the act of creation – generally covering writers, mostly Americans such as Poe and Melville, though there is also one essay on Einstein and one on the bomb. They are not so much reviews of books but insightful and often imaginative engagement with how they wrote, what they were doing. It provides a surprisingly fresh perspective on writers who have already been the subject of a massive amount of analysis.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always meant to read but never got round to before. After reading The Road I will almost certainly come back to him. It is a bleak, unrelenting novel that is, I think, meant to ask what is the possibility of redemption when there is no possibility of hope. A man and his young boy walk through a post-apocalyptic America. We are never told anything about the apocalypse, but we see its aftermath: ash everywhere, no living birds or animals, a nuclear winter closing in with ash-blackened snow. The only food is what can be scavenged from the remnants of civilisation; mostly the pair go hungry. The man is sick, we know that right from the start; the boy has a Christ-like innocence; but everyone else they encounter along the way is a threat (we see often gruesome but also rather illogical signs of cannibalism). Much has been made of the spare nature of McCarthy’s prose, but it seems to me that there is a curiously gothic quality to his brevity, as if the more pared-down the prose the more baroque the image. Not an easy book to read, it is too despairing for that, but it is a haunting and powerful work.
Aegypt by John Crowley (or as I should perhaps more accurately call it, The Solitudes, since Aegypt is the title for the sequence as a whole). Since Endless Things is now on my shelf, I am setting out to read all four volumes ready for a review I’ll be writing for Strange Horizons. It’s the first time I’ve returned to the book in 20 years and I was delighted not by how well it held up (I expected that) but by how much more it seemed to contain, how it was a richer and more complex reading experience because of my residual memories of Love and Sleep and Daemonomania. Anyone who doesn’t immediately recognise this as one of the finest works of fantastic literature needs their head examining, as far as I am concerned.
First published at LiveJournal, 31 January 2007.
You know, back when I started this journal I had intended to record my thoughts on every book I read. Yeah, sure! Service has been, shall we say, intermittent over the last few months because I’ve been reading a lot of books for review (I don’t like going public with something that is going to be published), or for articles (in some ways, reading for research doesn’t feel like reading), or for my history (ditto), or, more often, because I simply haven’t had the time (or the inclination) to write them up. Then, every so often, I come over all enthusiastic and think I should start writing up books all over again. Heaven knows how long this new enthusiasm will last (days? seconds? I’m taking bets) but I thought I’d start with Peter Ackroyd’s new novel (Chatto & Windus, 2004) which I’ve just finished.
I’ve been a fan of Ackroyd’s work since Hawksmoor, but it has to be admitted that since he got started on his superb biographies (Dickens, London) his fictions have become not only thinner as books but more insubstantial as works of literature (The Plato Papers?!?). The Lambs of London, his take on that curious couple, Charles and Mary Lamb, and their friend William Ireland who forged Shakespeare’s play Vortigern, has been hailed as a return to form, some have even said it’s his best novel since Chatterton. Well, I happen to rate English Music as better than Chatterton, (though I agree Chatterton is among the handful of his best novels); and The Lambs of London is distinctly better than any of his novels since, probably, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, but let us not think therefore that this is a real return to form.
Like Chatterton it is a novel about forgery and fakery, and contains many sly games with the idea of deceit and delusion. But where the earlier novel was clearly self-directed, a work that was all about the way Ackroyd himself put on other voices in his best work, this is essentially mild by comparison. A gentle comment about how clever and amusing it all is, rather than a fierce engagement with what it is to take on the voice of other writers. And where the death of Chatterton became part of the whole questioning of what is truth, what is fake; here the tragic finale, Mary Lamb’s murder of her mother and incarceration in a home for the insane, becomes just a neat and unironic tying-off of one stand of the story. What’s more, the two central characters, Charles and Mary Lamb, seem somewhat underdeveloped as characters, Charles in particular, who slips out of the limelight about half way through the book and never really comes back into focus after that. William Ireland, on the other hand, is one of the best realised characters Ackroyd has developed for a very long time, vivid, sympathetic, pitiful and real.
The thing I’ve noticed about Ackroyd’s fiction of late is that it has become the work of an historian. His literary recreations of earlier times have always been very carefully constructed, an elaboration of detail, an attention to the streets and the sights and the smells that might bring the period to vivid life. But in his earlier novels this care was overlaid with a vivacious sense of fictional creation: the linguistic jeu d’esprit of Hawksmoor, the plot convolutions of Chatterton, the novelistic recreations of English Music, the magic of The House of Doctor Dee. Now, that fictional fun has gone and the historical care is centre stage. This novel, like The Clerkenwell Tales before it, is a wonderful evocation of its period, but it has lost the daring, the linguistic risk-taking, the sense of fun that the earlier novels had.
Let’s be fair, this is a good novel, certainly better than Ackroyd’s standard of late, but it is not a great novel.
First published at Livejournal, 13 August 2004.