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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (vita litterae)

In Which We Remember John Brunner And Have Some Other Literary Thoughts...

The University of Illinois has published a series of studies under the generic title Modern Masters of Science Fiction in each of which the life and works of a particular author are examined quite closely. I've been reading two of these studies, one about John Brunner, and one about Frederik Pohl.

John Brunner was an incredibly prolific British SF author who will probably be remembered for writing the four classic novels Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. He was always to be found at British SF conventions, and I came across him several times over the years at this or that convention or other. His books were reasonably popular with the fans, but he himself was cordially disliked, and the convention goers tended to shun him. Not that Brunner seemed to care – he was usually accompanied by some extremely dolly bird or other and he seemed to be very happy with that. Well, who wouldn't be? Perhaps there was an element of jealousy in the reactions of the fans...

Brunner had a supercilious, sneering manner, and in his talks and panel discussions he could usually be relied upon to say something controversial or insulting in his fruity, upper class, glass-etching, incredibly annoying, fingernails-on-a-blackboard accent. He was a master of the arcane art of driving his more sensitive audience members to near apoplexy. Nevertheless he was clearly erudite, witty and knowledgeable. His opinions didn't come out of nowhere, and he was always prepared to back them up. He was alarmingly well read, and something of a linguist as well – he was fluent in both French and German (he translated several novels from those tongues) and he could make himself understood in many other languages. He was once a guest of honour at a Swedish convention. Naturally he read the convention booklet from cover to cover, as one does, and he noticed that some less than flattering things had been said about him in its pages. Perhaps the convention organisers thought that they were quite safe by writing the booklet in Swedish and not providing a translation. Brunner quickly disabused them of that notion...

I had very little to do with John Brunner at British conventions. Like most people, I tended to try and keep out of his way. But we did have a small interaction at one convention when he walked past me dressed in what, for want of a better word, I suppose I ought to call a suit. This was no ordinary suit – it was made of black velvet and it had glittering sequins sewn into the seams. As Brunner strode past me I said, "John, I hate to think what that suit is doing to my eyes!"

He turned round to look at me, his face flushed with anger. His fists were clenched and for one small, scary moment I honestly thought he was going to hit me. He took a deep breath and somehow regained control of himself, then he turned around and walked away.

I will agree that what I said was perhaps a little rude, but his reaction to it was completely inappropriate and quite over the top, though perhaps not untypical. Brunner had a fierce temper which he could, and often did, lose at the drop of a very tiny hat.

The Modern Masters of Science Fiction study makes much of his personality and his lifestyle. When I knew him, he was happily married to Marjorie, who was his business manager as well as his wife. But I was interested to learn from this book that they considered their marriage to be an open one, which certainly explains the dolly birds that were always hanging on to Brunner's arm. Marjorie herself was also a bit of a sexual predator on the side and, long after both of them were safely dead, much scandalous material about this aspect of their lives was published in Peter Weston's fanzine Prolapse (later retitled Relapse).

In his younger days, Brunner had been an amazingly prolific writer, churning out reasonably high quality stories for Ace books at a phenomenal rate (he claimed that was the only way he could make a living from his writing). In later years he revealed that many of his manuscripts had been seriously cut by the Ace editors in order to make them fit the Ace Double format. Brunner was quite scathing about the editorial changes made by Ace and so in the 1960s he began revising (and in some cases re-writing) many of those Ace stories in order to put them back into their proper shape. These revised stories, which Brunner regarded as the authoritative texts, were published by DAW books, and that was where I first came across them. Sometimes it seemed that there was a new(ish) Brunner novel on the bookshop shelves pretty much every single week or so! I bought them all and, mostly, I enjoyed them all. Ironically, DAW books was owned by Donald A. Wolheim who had once been an editor at Ace books and who had largely been responsible for much of the original trimming down of Brunner's stories in the first place. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut once said about something completely different...

After his four great blockbuster novels were published, Brunner's productivity seemed to slow down a bit. There were longer and longer intervals between the appearances of new novels in the bookshops. There were several reasons for this – one was that he had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and he claimed that the medication he was taking for it made his brain feel foggy and sapped his creativity. The Modern Masters of Science Fiction study reveals that at one point his blood pressure reached a massive 200/120. I myself have been treated for high blood pressure, but the highest mine ever got to was 160/90, which is absolutely nothing compared to what Brunner had to put up with. It also didn't help Brunner's state of mind that around this time his wife Marjorie died. He missed her business acumen a lot, and his always precarious financial situation quickly got very much worse without her guiding hand to point him in the right direction. He also missed her love and her companionship (despite their odd marriage, there was no doubt that they loved each other deeply) and, to quote Marvin the Paranoid Android, he went into a bit of a decline and his depression, in the clinical sense of the word, deepened. It's not really surprising that he was finding it harder and harder to put words down on paper.

Five years after Marjorie died, Brunner married a Chinese national called Li Yi Tan, for no very good reason that anyone who knew him could see. Their fierce arguments were legendary, and that can't have helped either his peace of mind or his creativity. Nevertheless, despite all these problems, Brunner kept on writing, albeit very slowly.

One quite practical reason for his slow rate of production was that he was concentrating on writing a massive historical novel called The Great Steamboat Race, a story about nineteenth century Mississippi steamboats. I heard him talk about this project on several occasions and it was clear that he regarded the book as his magnum opus, the novel he really wanted to be remembered by. He had very high hopes for it and he worked on it for years, polishing and revising it so as to get it just right. Perhaps he revised it too much – when it was eventually published it received very bad reviews. It sold poorly, and it vanished without trace. For Brunner this was a bitter blow.

In an attempt to regain some of his lost creativity, he deliberately stopped taking his blood pressure medication. This certainly helped with his writing in the short term, and he published some excellent stories during this period in his life – novels such as The Crucible of Time, and A Maze of Stars. But ultimately stopping his medication turned out to have been a poor decision. His blood pressure soared out of control again, and he died of a massive stroke in August 1995. Ironically he was attending the World Science Fiction Convention at the time of his death.

He was only a month away from his 61st birthday when he died. It pains me to think that my own 61st birthday was a great many years ago...

Reading this study of Brunner's life and work was both sad and insightful. He had clearly never been a happy man and his life was a constant struggle with serious financial and health problems. Despite all of this, he wrote an amazing number of very high quality stories. I consider myself reasonably well-read, and in the days when I actually had bookshelves, I had a frighteningly large number of Brunner's books on them. Nevertheless one thing I learned from this study was that there were a great many Brunner stories that had completely passed me by. For example, at one point the study talks about Brunner's "...well-liked Mr. Secrett series..." I've never heard of this series. I wonder who the people are who liked it so much...

Naturally, the study spends most of its time analysing Brunner's writing, and here it really comes into its own. Insightful criticism of Brunner's writing is something that has been sorely lacking until now. Like him or loathe him, he was clearly an influential and important writer and it's good to see that he is finally getting some of the attention he deserves.

The Modern Masters of Science Fiction study of Frederik Pohl contains far fewer surprises than the study of John Brunner. Mainly this is because Pohl documented his own life and career very well indeed in both an autobiography (The Way The Future Was (1978)) and in a series of internet articles (The Way The Future Blogs (2009 – 2013)). Amusingly, his blog posts won him a Hugo as Best Fan Writer in 2010! He was 91 years old at the time, probably the oldest ever winner of a fan writing Hugo...

The analysis of Pohl's writing is thorough and insightful. Pohl was consistently left wing in his political views (in his teens he had been a member of the Communist party). His political stance was made very clear in a series of essays collected in Practical Politics (1971) and in his mainstream novel Presidential Year (1956) which he wrote in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. Pohl was also a life long fan of "science" in the sense that even though he himself had no formal qualifications in any branches of science, he tried very hard to keep himself up to date with modern scientific thinking. His non-fiction book Chasing Science (2000) makes it very clear that not only did he think this was important, he also thought it was a lot of fun.

Those two streams of political and scientific thought dominate his fiction and again and again we see both of them coming together, weaving themselves in and out of the strands of his stories and holding the plot together. Sometimes he used them satirically, sometimes he used them to directly inform the nature of the drama and sometimes he used them to (almost) preach. But they were always there, just underneath the surface.

Pohl was an early adopter of the ideas of climate change, both man-made and natural (this last perhaps being the result of a catastrophic earthquake or volcanic eruption). In collaboration with Isaac Asimov he published Our Angry Earth in 1991 to highlight what they both considered to be the serious threats facing the ecosystems of the planet. The ideas he put forward in that book continued to preoccupy him in his later novels. Indeed, his very last novel, All The Lives He Led (2011) deals directly with the catastrophic environmental and social consequences of the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera.

In an interview conducted just a few weeks before he died, Pohl made the point that for him science fiction was more than just a form of story telling. He felt that it was very much a way of looking at the world,  a way of observing time as it passes, and of thinking in various directions to see how events fall together, and sometimes how they fall in different ways. Science fiction, said Pohl, is not predictive, it's "discussive" (sic). It shows what can happen, not what will happen. He saw himself and his audience as being very much part of that discussion.

Ray Bradbury once said: "I don’t want to predict the future, I want to prevent it". Bradbury was politically and scientifically the antithesis of Frederik Pohl. He was very right wing and he knew absolutely nothing at all about science. Nevertheless both Bradbury and Pohl had exactly the same vision about the purpose of the literary field that they both dominated. I think that's an important conclusion to come to grips with.

These, and other, University of Illinois studies are very valuable SF resources. They really deserve to be much more widely known. I urge you to seek them out.

Mind you, as well as indulging myself in literary analysis, I've also been reading quite a lot of fiction:

There are several ways to review a novel. Probably the worst of all possible ways is simply to list the events that happen in the story. It's a ridiculous approach because that's exactly what the story itself does, and generally it will do the job much better than the reviewer will ever be able to manage. Another approach is to try and put the story in context by comparing it, either explicitly or implicitly, to similar stories written by other authors, and to comment on the success or failure of scene setting and character development as the story progresses. I much prefer this second approach, but Asphodel by Jane Lindskold is such a strange novel that it simply isn't possible.

So let's begin with the first method and see where it takes us...

The narrator awakes all alone in a comfortable bed which is in a slightly misshapen octagonal room. She doesn't know where she is or how she got there. Windows in the room look out on several different scenes both domestic and fantastic – one window, for example, shows two people doing the washing up, while another displays a unicorn.

The narrator feels the need for a companion and it isn't long before Muriel joins her. Muriel's arrival and her logically consistent but nevertheless inexplicable abilities are the first real indications that absolutely nothing in this story is going to go the way the reader expects it to go.

Muriel and our narrator set out to explore the worlds in the windows. One of these is full of rabbits. At Muriel's suggestion, our narrator uses unconventional means to acquire a rabbit-like companion called Puck to help with the exploration. The name is well chosen, for he will be very puckish throughout the story...

Character and situation are now defined, and the story that follows has all the disconnected logic of a dream, or of a drug trip. It makes perfect sense within its own wild parameters, but those parameters have little or no connection with mainstream story telling, or even with mainstream fantasy, as most of us would understand the term. Nevertheless the story remains simultaneously both real and fantastic – the reality is sharply focussed and the events are crisply described even though, of necessity, they take place within the strangeness of a completely fantastic (in the literal sense) and surreal (in the juxtapositional sense) framework. Everything is as sharp as a pin. The searchlight of the story leaves no shadows in the corners.

The only way I can even begin to describe how the story all hangs together is to liken it to a picture by René Magritte that has been extended into an action packed movie. Magritte's paintings are their own justification. They stand alone, making sense only on their own terms. Every element they contain seems perfectly normal when considered in isolation. It's only when you put them all together in one place that the strangeness shines through.  But of course, that doesn't matter at all in terms of appreciating and enjoying their twisted nature. Perhaps Asphodel is the book that Magritte would have written had he been a novelist rather than a painter.

Asphodel tells a very odd, and oddly compelling, story. It's completely impossible to categorise and even harder to describe without spoilers. I've read it twice now and I still don't really know what I've read. But I do know that it was very well worth the reading.

Now let's go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Robert Rankin has just published a new novel with the very Rankinian title Lord of the Ring Roads. It's the first volume of yet another Brentford trilogy so beware, it finishes on a bit of a cliff hanger.

There is a plan to put a ring road round Brentford. The town clerk, one Pocklington by name, recruits Pooley and OMally to aid him in the construction of the road and its environs. This will, he assures them, take place over the course of a single night...

Pocklington, of course, is not what he seems and Professor Slocombe (the erstwhile Comte de St-Germain) is, quite rightly, worried.

The story is the mixture as before, of course. All our old Brentford friends are here, Neville the part time barman, the other Norman Hartnell, **** the postman who dare not speak his name, Leo Felix the Rastafarian truck-owner, and the two jobbing builders who long ago built a new chapel for the Antipope all have important roles to play. All the old jokes and a couple of new ones are told, and then told again. For once Pooley and OMally don't die (not yet anyway) even though they face great peril.

There was a time when Robert Rankin didn't bother too much with the minutiae of his plots (such as they were; I use the term very loosely). But in his maturity he seems to have become stricken with a desire to pursue loose ends and beat them to death. Personally speaking I'd prefer a lot more sprouts and a lot less logic, but I don't think I'm going to get my desires. Nevertheless, if you like books by Robert Rankin you'll like this Robert Rankin book and if you don't like books by Robert Rankin why are you bothering to read it in the first place?

Is there anything more science fictional than a robot? Is there anything that typifies a fantasy more than a fairy? In the anthology Robots Vs Fairies various science fiction and fantasy writers align themselves on one side or the other in a battle to decide which is more awesome, robots or fairies, science fiction or fantasy?

Naturally the stories don't always take themselves very seriously. John Scalzi has an absolute gem of a story called Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time and of course he comes down firmly on the side of team Robot. In Build Me A Wonderland Seanan McGuire is equally firmly on the side of team fairy despite having her fairies building and servicing robots. The robot pixies, it seems, are really quite troublesome to maintain.

So at the end of the book we can legitimately ask ourselves which is more awesome, robots or fairies? Not surprisingly, the only possible answer turns out to be yes, but...

The anthology is a lot of fun but really it's stated purpose is far too silly for words. I suggest you just enjoy the stories in their own right (they are rather good) and let the rest of it take care of itself.

Robicheaux is the twenty-first novel that James Lee Burke has written about his eponymous character Dave Robicheaux. Like most of Burke's novels, it's a dark, dark book. Following the death of his wife in an automobile accident, Dave, a reformed alcoholic (if there is such a thing) returns to drinking. There is strong evidence that, during an alcoholic blackout, he might have been responsible for the death of the man who killed his wife. He appears to feel very little guilt about this possibility.

Jimmy Nightingale, a man with political ambitions and a shady past, uses Robicheaux to get close to local writer Levon Broussard. Nightingale and a (not very) reformed Mafia hoodlum known as Fat Tony want to make a movie from one of Broussard's novels. In a nice bit of self referenciality, the Broussard novel that they want to film is called White Doves at Morning an historical novel about the American Civil War which Broussard himself claims is his very best (and least read) novel. In the real world that you and I inhabit, White Doves at Morning  is actually a novel by James Lee Burke, and Burke himself has often described it using the same words that, in this novel, he puts into Levon Broussard's mouth. Isn't it a small world?

Nightingale spends a lot of time with Broussard and his wife Rowena, exploring the idea of the movie. But then Rowena makes a  claim that Nightingale has raped her. Most people are doubtful about the veracity of the claim – she is known to be mentally unstable and she has made unsubstantiated accusations before. So nothing much is done about it.

Meanwhile Dave and his friend Clete Purcell convince themselves, without any real evidence at all, that Nightingale had been closely involved in the murders of eight black women several years before. Because the women were black, the investigation into their deaths was not as thorough as it might have been, and nobody has ever been charged with the murder. Perhaps now Dave and Clete can finally pin it on Nightingale and ruin his political ambitions, ambitions of which they do not approve...

All these story threads weave back and forth through the social and political landscape of Louisiana. I must confess that if the real life Louisiana is even approximately like the place that James Lee Burke writes about so lyrically, I would never want to visit it, let alone live there. Burke makes it quite clear that the climate is absolute shite, and so are the people. There are no redeeming features to be found anywhere.

If there is one message that comes strongly out of almost every James Lee Burke novel, it is that everyone who lives in Louisiana is completely corrupt and self serving, and that racial prejudice is alive and well, just the normal way of life and an acceptable motive for any crime down there in that hot, steamy corner of America. Police, politicians, the ordinary man on the street, Dave Robicheaux and his friend Clete, every single person on every single page of this book has a dark, black soul and a hidden, selfish agenda. Every one of them is corrupt in some way, and every one of them is racist to a greater or lesser extent. It's a bleakly cynical and hopeless way of looking at the world. I really have no idea just how much truth lies behind the world view of these novels, but surely James Lee Burke can't be making it up out of whole cloth? I would imagine that the reality of Louisiana must be informing his books to some extent.

What is certain is that every time I read one of his novels, I want to go and have a shower afterwards, and I always feel an urgent need to read something light and frothy so as to flush the darkness out of my soul. (This time I read Robots Vs Fairies and it did a brilliant job of casting out the darkness).

Of course, corrupt police and corrupt politicians are not unique to the novels of James Lee Burke. They occur again and again in American crime fiction, so much so that they are almost a stereotype of the genre. Interestingly, they are vanishingly rare in crime fiction from other countries (although not completely unheard of, of course). What that means, if it means anything at all, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

While you are pondering on that, if you should feel an overwhelming urge to get yourself a really good gloom on, take it from me that you simply can't beat a James Lee Burke novel. And rest assured, Robicheaux is one of his bleakest.

Jane Harper is an Australian novelist. The Dry is her first novel, though I gather that she has now written another one. Originally The Dry was published only in her native Australia. However the book was so well received that an American edition soon appeared on the shelves and her sales, and her reputation, really took off.

The story takes place in small town Australia. Twenty years ago, Aaron Falk and his father were hounded out of Kiewarra, accused of causing the death of Ellie Deacon, a young girl who had been one of Aaron's closest friends. The police could find no evidence to support a case against Aaron or his father, but the gossip and the malice and the persecution were such that they felt they could no longer live comfortably in Kiewarra. And so they left, moving to the big city, to Melbourne where eventually Aaron made a career in the police force.

But now Aaron Falk has come back to his home town to face another tragedy. Luke, his best friend from those early days and the person who gave him his alibi for the time of Ellie's death, has shot and killed his own wife and son and then committed suicide. Only his daughter Charlotte has survived the massacre. Aaron returns to Kiewarra for Luke's funeral. Even after two decades, the prejudice against Aaron has not gone away and he has an uncomfortable time of it. He also starts to suspect that all may not quite be as it seems with the deaths of Luke and his family. Also, there are disturbing suggestions that Luke may have known more about Ellie's death than he ever admitted at the time. With the help of the local policeman, Aaron pokes around both cases and he starts to find some disturbing things...

What makes the writing so powerful is the incredible sense of place that Jane Harper evokes. It is generally felt in Kiewarra that Luke must have cracked under the strain of what seems to have become a never-ending drought. He cannot make any money from his business, and it all got too much for him. It's a plausible motive, made all the more plausible by Jane Harper's amazingly atmospheric writing. You can feel the heat and the dryness and the tragedy pouring off the page:

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse. The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky... At least the blowflies were happy. The finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted. The glassy eyes. The wet wounds... Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm. So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying.

Kiewarra really comes alive and so do the people who live there. It is a small and very intense community. Everyone knows everybody else and they all think that they know each other's secrets, though clearly they don't. The drought threatens everybody's livelihood and the heat raises everyone's stress levels sky high. On the surface everything about both cases seems straightforward, but as Aaron digs deeper he uncovers a complex web of deceit and lies.

And trust me – you will never, ever guess who did it (in either of the cases), and you will be astonished to find out the motives that lie behind the death of Ellie, and the deaths of Luke and his family. This is crime fiction as it is supposed to be written. They don't come any better.

Jad Smith Modern Masters of Science Fiction – John Brunner University of Illinois
Michael R. Page Modern Masters of Science Fiction – Frederik Pohl University of Illinois
Jane Lindskold Asphodel Obsidian Tiger Books
Robert Rankin Lord of the Ring Roads Far Fetched Books
Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe Robots Vs Fairies Saga Press
James Lee Burke Robicheaux Simon and Schuster
Jane Harper The Dry MacMillan
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