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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (praesidens cogitationes)

The Thoughts of Chairman Alan

Nothing much happened to me this month so I spent my time playing with my dog and cat, reading a lot of books and thinking deep thoughts about the ideas I found in some of those books. So here’s a record of my reading along with (to quote the late Bob Shaw) a few wee thinky bits...

The Long Walk is an early Stephen King novel that was originally published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman. The premise of the book is very simple. Every year, one hundred boys, all volunteers, take part in the Long Walk. The only requirement for the walk is that the boys must maintain a pace of four miles an hour or more. Anyone who falls below this pace gets a warning. If the boy who gets the warning can keep walking four miles an hour or faster for the next hour, the warning will be cancelled. But anybody who collects three warnings and fails to cancel one of them will be shot dead the next time he slows down. The winner of the long walk is the last boy left standing and his prize is anything he wants... The walk is a simple process of attrition. Ninety nine boys will die and one will win his heart’s desire.

If you are willing to go along with the ridiculous premise, it’s quite a gripping tale. I must confess that personally I find it very hard to believe in a society that encourages the killing of children for arbitrarily stupid reasons. But what do I know?

The strength of the story comes from the personalities of the children taking part in the long walk. We see them progress from cheerful optimism about their situation at the start of the walk to pessimistic hatred of the conditions under which they are labouring as the reality of what they are facing starts to sink in. The tiredness, the pain, the sheer effort involved in putting one foot in front of the other simply to avoid being shot combined with the sure and certain knowledge that all of them except one will be shot makes for stressful reading (and stressful walking). King does a superb job of invoking the desperation, the hopelessness and the despair of the participants – but of course he has always been brilliant at describing the events of his stories from the point of view of his adolescent characters. That’s  his super power.

The Long Walk is brilliantly written. However I’m not at all convinced that the artificiality of the plot makes it worth reading.

A sizeable amount of Robert Silverberg’s enormous oeuvre has been concerned with time travel. The collection Time and Time Again assembles sixteen stories and novellas that deal with the theme. In an introduction, Silverberg confesses that the paradoxes inherent in time travel have obsessed him ever since he first read H. G. Wells’ classic novel The Time Machine when he was just a child, and he found himself returning to the idea again and again throughout his writing life. Indeed, at least one of the stories in this collection (Hawksbill Station) was later expanded into a full length novel because Silverberg simply couldn’t let the story go…

I consider myself pretty well read both in science fiction in general and in Robert Silverberg’s stories in particular but Silverberg was so hugely prolific that nobody (probably not even Silverberg himself) can claim to have read everything that has fallen out of his typewriter over the years – and that’s a paradox that Silverberg could probably turn into a fascinating story if ever he put his mind to it! Consequently some of the stories in this collection were new to me. But all of them, new and old, were first class. There isn’t a dud story in the whole book, and it’s very rare that I find myself saying that.

Time travel stories remain intellectually fascinating because of the potential for paradox that lies within the idea. Nevertheless, it seems that no matter how many times writers investigate the theme,  they always manage to come up with a new wrinkle on the basic notion. There have been so many stories about time travel that you’d think the well would have long ago run dry and that all the twists and permutations would have been mined to exhaustion. Indeed, the writer and critic Damon Knight once announced that the time travel story had been worked to death and he really wished that people would stop writing them because obviously there was nothing new to say about the idea. He later remarked that no sooner had he said that than God punished him by sending him ideas for six new time travel stories…

So read this collection of stories and find out what happens when someone projects his psyche back in time and ends up in the body of a lobster. Investigate the implications of marooning political prisoners in the past so as to keep them out of harms way. Ask yourself what would happen if one day you got in your car to drive to work but you drove back in time without even trying? And what would you do if your daily newspaper arrived in your mailbox a week early?

There’s nothing inherently new about these or any other of the ideas explored in the stories in this book. But every one of them is constructed from a subtle Silverbergian point of view that renders the ordinary into the extraordinary. Silverberg has done himself proud with this collection.

For no very good reason except that I wanted to, I recently re-read Geoffrey Landis’ novel Mars Crossing. It was originally published way back in the year 2000, but nothing in it has dated and it still held me enthralled all the way through. The characters in the novel are members of the third expedition to Mars, following on from the failures of earlier Brazilian and American expeditions. The crews of these earlier expeditions all died, and it soon becomes apparent that there is a strong possibility that this expedition too will end in failure and death.

At first everything appears to be going well. The crew land in the Martian southern hemisphere, close to a robot probe that was sent several years previously and which contains the supplies necessary to allow them to return home to Earth. Unfortunately, for various well explained reasons, the robot probe proves to be unable to supply what they need, and they find themselves stranded with (seemingly) no possibility of ever going home again. Their only chance of survival (and it is a very slim one) is to get themselves to the North pole where the ship used by the Brazilian expedition might be able to take them back to Earth.

The bulk of the novel concerns itself with  their trek across the vastness of Mars with, of course, the slim prospect of safety at the end of it to keep them going.

The novel has many strengths – it deals realistically with the scientific and technical problems of exploring Mars but, more importantly, Landis makes you really feel for the trials and tribulations that the members of the expedition go through on their long journey across the planet.

Landis has said that a direct inspiration for the story was the disaster of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Certainly the hardships that Scott faced on his long trek back from the pole are echoed in the hardships experienced by the characters in this story. But the real hero of the tale is Mars itself and Landis does an outstanding job of describing the terrain and the sheer enormity of the task faced by the expedition.

You can probably make a good argument that Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian was inspired by Landis’ book. Certainly both novels describe the technical problems that must be solved by people who are marooned on Mars with very little in the way of resources to keep them alive. Weir’s novel went on to win multiple awards and it was even turned into a rather good movie as well. But, in my opinion, Weir’s novel is much inferior to Landis’. The Martian consists largely of technological gimmickry and it contains far too many infodumps for comfort. Mars Crossing addresses many of the same problems as Weir’s novel, but manages to do it with much less hand waving. Even though, behind the scenes, it contains a much more in-depth investigation of the nature of the beast than does Weir’s novel, it never has to resort to lectures about thermodynamics or dive into abstruse chemical and biochemical reasoning – those things are all there of course, hidden behind the scenes for those who have eyes to see them, but they arise naturally out of the course of the story itself without the author ever having to insert a couple of paragraphs that sound rather like a lecture to a crowd of bored undergraduates.

I can easily imagine myself reading Mars Crossing again in a few years time when the details have started to fade from my mind a little. On the other hand, I have no desire ever to re-read The Martian because it is just too amateurish for words. I mildly enjoyed it when I first read it, but its flaws are much too blatant to make me want to return to it (and for once, I think that the movie was actually much better than the book).

The New Iberia Blues is the 22nd novel that James Lee Burke has written about the New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux – but don’t let that put you off. You don’t have to have read the earlier volumes to enjoy this one, it works very well as a stand alone story.

Dave Robicheaux discovers the crucified body of a young woman near the house of Hollywood director Desmond Cormier. Cormier is an example of local boy made good – he and Robicheaux were at school together but Cormier left home to make his fortune in Hollywood. He was successful beyond his wildest dreams and now he has come back to his old stamping grounds to make another movie.

Following Robicheaux’s discovery of the corpse on a cross, more oddly ritualistic murders start to pile up left, right and centre – somebody seems to be deliberately attempting to make a real life tarot pack out of the murder victims.  And Cormier himself is in financial trouble. It is rumoured that various unsavoury characters are backing the movie as a means of laundering their money. Could there be a connection between the tarot murders and the movie moguls?

The plot is completely dumb, of course, and it’s quite impossible to take it seriously. But that’s not the point. Burke’s novels are really all about the Louisiana swamplands and the corruption endemic in Louisiana society (even Robicheaux himself is very far from being a knight in shining armour) and all these things are beautifully and agonisingly portrayed. Burke writes such vividly metaphoric prose that you can taste, smell and feel the swamps, and the bayous and everything else that defines Louisiana in the miasmas that arise from every page. And you can count every dollar of the money that greases all the extended palms.

Everything in the story sinks or swims on the basis of your belief in the main character of course. If you don’t believe in Dave Robicheaux you will certainly never believe in the melodramas he involves himself with. Robicheaux is a complex man, driven by demons both real and imagined. He fought in Vietnam and the mental and physical scars he brought back from the jungles continue to haunt him. He is an alcoholic who doesn’t drink any more and he is three times a widower. It is sometimes hard to understand how he continues to function at all. In the lonely reaches of the night, when his spirits are at their lowest ebb, he sees things that might be ghosts and he talks to things that might not be there. He gets a lot of help that way. Louisiana is the home of the blues. Dave Robicheaux is one of the reasons why the music continues to flourish.

I’ve been a bit lukewarm about the last few Robicheaux novels. But this one is a welcome return to form. It is, quite simply, superb.

The novel Jeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott reveals a great secret. Jeeves is actually a British spy and the Ganymede Club (of which Jeeves and various other butlers and valets are members) is revealed to be an arm of the British Secret Service. Not that Bertie Wooster knows any of this, of course. He continues to stroll through life surrounded by scheming aunts with marriageable daughters, much as he has always done. To Jeeves, of course, this is a perfect cover for his more nefarious activities…

The book is a very good Wodehouse pastiche and it contains lines that the master himself would have been proud to pen – "I was idling away the pre-cocktail ennui, flicking cards into the coal scuttle, when in buttled Jeeves with the quenching tray" – but nevertheless I was left feeling unsatisfied at the end of the story. The plot is rather too thin, and while the prose is delightful, if the story were to be entered in a foot race it would quickly find itself being overtaken by glaciers.

You could say the same about the stories written by Wodehouse himself, of course. But Wodehouse did it deliberately; he wasn’t trying to shovel anything of any significance into his books. The plots, such as they were, were just a framework for Wodehouse’s delicious wordplay. Schott has a slightly more serious purpose behind his prose and I found myself wishing that he’d get on with it rather than wasting time by putting yet another bon mot into Bertie’s mouth. But maybe that’s just me…

The novelist Philip Kerr died recently. I enjoyed a lot of his novels and so in his honour I decided to re-read March Violets, the first of his Bernie Gunther novels. There are currently thirteen novels in the series with one more in the pipeline due to be published later this year, so clearly they must be quite popular. The novels follow the career of policeman Bernie Gunther from 1930s Berlin, through the war years and well into the 1950s. We first meet Bernie Gunther in March Violets. It is 1936, and Bernie, after having had something of a falling out with the Nazi hierarchy, has resigned from the police force. He has reinvented himself as a private detective. Bernie is approached by a rich industrialist called Hermann Six. Herman asks Bernie to recover a diamond necklace that has been stolen from his daughter Greta's house. As part of the robbery, it appears both Greta and her husband, Paul Pfarr, were murdered and the house was burned down. It doesn’t take Bernie long to discover direct links between the Six family and the movers and shakers of the Nazi party. The ice on which Bernie is treading gets thinner and thinner…

Kerr, through Bernie, uses the plot to examine the corruption, anti-Semitism and violence that is rife within the Nazi regime and also highlights the inability and unwillingness of many ordinary citizens to involve themselves in the war that is all too clearly coming soon.

It’s a thoughtful and fascinating book and Bernie Gunther is such a strong character (and such a keen observer of his world) that it comes as no surprise to find that Philip Kerr used him again and again and again as a social and political mouthpiece while the maps of Europe were being re-drawn over the next few decades.

Tombland is the seventh novel that C. J. Sansom has written about Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in the age of the Tudors. You don’t have to have read any of the earlier books in order to understand and appreciate this one. It stands alone quite happily.

The story is set in the spring of 1549, two years after the death of King Henry VIII. His heir apparent, the young Prince Edward VI, is only eleven years old and Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, rules England as Protector in his nephew’s name. Meanwhile Mary and Elizabeth Tudor are themselves plotting fiercely off-stage…

England is in a bit of a mess. The violent extirpation of the Catholic religion has caused much discontent and a new translation of the prayer book into English is proving controversial. Seymour has entered into a disastrous war with Scotland and France is threatening to intervene. The economy is collapsing, inflation rages and there are mutterings of rebellion among the peasants as the aristocrats start enclosing common land.

Matthew Shardlake, currently in the employ of Elizabeth Tudor, is called upon to investigate the murder of Edith Boleyn, the wife of John Boleyn, a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s executed mother Anne Boleyn. Shardlake and his assistant travel to Norwich, John Boleyn’s home, where they are soon caught up in a peasant rebellion. The charismatic Robert Kett leads a force of thousands in overthrowing the landlords and establishing a vast camp outside Norwich. Eventually they even manage to take over the whole city. Norwich, at the time, is the second largest city in England and the government finds its loss to the rebels very worrying.

Shardlake assists Kett with legal and political advice. When he learns that Government forces are mustering to destroy the rebels he is forced to examine his conscience and to decide exactly where his loyalties lie, and just why they lie there.

Like most people, I have a reasonably familiarity with the life and times of King Henry VIII and the events that took place during the reigns of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. But the few brief years between the death of Henry and the ascendancy of Mary to the throne of England were largely mysterious to me. I was vaguely aware that Henry’s son Edward succeeded to throne when Henry died and that a regent ruled in his stead because he was too young to reign. I even knew that Edward was a sickly child who died very young. But outside of those few basic facts, I knew nothing at all about the times in which this novel is set. I’d never heard of the Scottish wars that Seymour entered into and I knew nothing at all about Kett’s rebellion! So reading the book was quite an intellectual thrill and I thoroughly enjoyed myself as I followed C. J. Sansom backwards and forwards through the arcana of the interregnum that followed Henry’s death.

The book does rather bog itself down in detail, and the middle section is a little bit of a slog to get through, but by and large I enjoyed the story. It was nice to meet Matthew Shardlake again and to follow the casuistry he uses to persuade himself of the rightness of his opinions.

When Jake the Dog and I go for our walks I usually listen to an audiobook. Lately I’ve been listening to readings of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus detective novels. I was already an admirer of the novels – I’ve read them all to myself and you will find reviews of many of them scattered hither and yon throughout earlier columns.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the experience of having the books read to me. For once I think that the audiobooks definitely add an extra dimension to the stories, something that, for me at least, is simply not there on the printed page. It comes across best in the dialogue – the stories are all set in Scotland and hearing the conversations take place with a properly authentic Scottish accent wrapped around the words highlights so many jokes that I simply hadn’t noticed when I read the books to myself. I don’t have a Scottish voice in my head and a lot of the nuances had completely passed me by.

And so, as Jake and I walk along, I constantly find myself sniggering at cutting observations and biting, dryly sarcastic comments. The Scottish wit is famous, and these books are full of it. Jake keeps giving me odd looks when I chuckle. He gets a little bit embarrassed when I laugh out loud in public.

* * * *

OK – I promised you some wee thinky bits…

In an earlier column I mentioned that I always found it amusing to read the one star reviews of Sara Paretsky’s books on Amazon. These reviews, invariably written by Americans, accuse her of being a traitor, of being unamerican, and of spoiling her novels by including too much political argument into the text. In a collection of essays called Writing in an Age of Silence, Paretsky herself makes a similar statement about the large amount of hate mail she receives and she notes with some gleeful amusement that one excited fan referred to her work as "paranoid pinko liberal trash".

Writing in an Age of Silence is a collection of autobiographical essays that describe Sara Paretsky’s coming of age, and her dawning political and social awareness during the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.

She was born in rural Kansas. Her parents were Jewish liberals and some time in the early 1950s they protested against mandatory Christian assemblies at Sara’s school. In retaliation, the school authorities forced Sara to sit in isolation in the office as a punishment for refusing to take part in these compulsory prayer meetings. But the discrimination against her went much further than that. The local newspaper published her parents’ phone number, and actively encouraged their readers to let Sara’s parents know just how they felt about having such Communist atheists living in their community. I’m sure you can all imagine how well that worked out… This was Sara’s first exposure to the mob mentality that hides behind slogans without really understanding (or perhaps even thinking about) the ideas that lie inside them. She has campaigned against this simplistic fear of the bogeyman and the persecution of perceived enemies that threaten the American Way Of Life (sic) ever since.

Despite her parents’ liberal background, they still stereotyped their daughter in rather unpleasant ways, simply because she was female. She was required to do household chores that her brothers were excused from. Her parents refused to pay for a college education for her, though they encouraged her brothers to go to college, and when she started to pay her own way through college her father told her "...not to be surprised if [she] failed, since it was a first-rate school and [hers] was a second-rate mind." Behind her back, her parents even arranged for secretarial training, just in case she didn’t manage to make a good marriage!

Given Sara Paretsky’s attitudes to these kinds of discrimination, I was not at all surprised to learn that in 1966 she spent some considerable time as a community organiser in Chicago's south side during Dr Martin Luther King's march, and she experienced the ensuing violence at first hand.

When Sara started to write novels, these direct experiences of how her world treated anyone who was perceived of as being a little bit different greatly influenced the way she constructed her fiction. Much of what shaped the character of her detective V. I. Warshawski came directly from Paretsky’s attempts to understand and explain the corruption of Chicago’s civil administration and the city’s racial, ethnic, and religions divisions.

Depressingly, it would seem that behind the scenes not much has changed over the years. She still sees a necessity to keep addressing these problems because they have simply never gone away! The corruption, the fear and the prejudice remain very real. Only the identity of the bogeyman is subject to change. Political manoeuvrings by the movers and shakers (such as the Patriot Act) are seen by Paretsky as genuine repressions both of freedom and of debate. Enshrining prejudice in law does not give it any legitimacy.  Blacklist is probably the most overtly political of her novels – it is a direct reaction to the authoritarian excesses implemented by the badly thought out policies of governmental entities such as the Department of Homeland Security. It is a genuinely frightening and deeply unsettling book.

The essays that make up Writing in an Age of Silence amount to a manifesto that enlightens and explains the way that Sara Paretsky thinks of the world, and the way she feels that America has abused that vision. It defines the purpose that is served by her art. She is a best selling novelist, and she has a voice that deserves to be listened to. I continue to find it deeply ironic that outside of America her political stance is seen as being not the slightest bit controversial.

Cell 2455, Death Row is the autobiography of Caryl Chessman. Who is Caryl Chessman, I hear some of you ask? Let me tell you...

Caryl Chessman was sentenced to death in 1948 for various crimes committed in and around Los Angeles. In the years between his sentencing in 1948 and his eventual execution in 1960 he wrote several books, both fiction and non-fiction, and gained a world-wide reputation as a literary and political figure. Given his position on death row, it is no surprise that his political campaigning called into question the moral right of the state to execute the transgressors of its rules. As the day of his execution drew closer and it began to seem that no more stays of execution would be granted, prominent figures from all over the world appealed to America for clemency. Their pleas were ignored, and on 2nd May 1960 Caryl Chessman went to the gas chamber.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I vividly remember the furore that surrounded Chessman’s execution. I was only a child at the time but all over the world the newspapers and the radio news broadcasts were full of Chessman’s story. It was impossible to avoid his name. His execution coincided with a world wide revulsion against the imposition of the death penalty. The debate in Britain was a particularly fierce one, and Chessman’s execution formed a significant part of the discussion. Chessman’s case was seen as a powerful argument against the death penalty, not least because Chessman himself had never actually killed anybody at all – he was only ever charged with robbery, kidnapping and rape. These are all serious crimes, of course, but none of them seemed then (or seem now) to be deserving of a death sentence. However the authorities remained obdurate and Chessman went to the gas chamber. (In all fairness, I should report that a last minute stay of execution was issued, but it arrived too late to save Chessman’s life. However even if it had arrived in time, it would only have delayed the inevitable. There is no doubt that the sentence would eventually have been carried out). Soon after Chessman’s execution, the death penalty was abolished in the UK. Nobody has been executed in the UK since 1964.

Chessman was world famous when he died. His books were much sought after and became best sellers. When the controversy eventually died down they started to fall out of print, but every so often they surface again, when the times are right. Which brings us back to Chessman’s autobiography,  Cell 2455, Death Row. It’s rather an odd book…

Initially Chessman tells his story in the third person, describing the life and times of a man called Whit. Only towards the end of the book does Whit fade into the background and Chessman himself come into the foreground in the first person. It’s an oddly disconcerting technique.

Whit/Chessman had everything against him – his family was poor and disadvantaged and he grew up rebellious and angry. On the other hand, plenty of other people have started life that way but they didn’t end up on death row. Perhaps Whit’s obvious intelligence was his own downfall. He knew that there were better ways of living, he recognised injustice for what it was, he wanted a better life for himself, and he determined to take it, whether or not it was given freely.

His intelligence, wit and quickness of mind shines through almost every sentence of this remarkable book, but there is a downside to it as well. He is rather too eager to blame society for his own failings and he doesn’t like admitting that he himself can make mistakes. He doesn’t want to take responsibility for his own actions. His situation is always the fault of somebody else. He seems to regard himself as a victim rather than as a victimiser. In other words he comes across as a bit of a sociopath. But so do many other people, including a lot of well-regarded and well-respected world leaders!

There is no doubt that Chessman was a very unpleasant person. But that is not a capital crime in and of itself. Did he deserve to die for the crimes that he did actually commit? Probably not. But either way, his legacy remains as a potent argument in the debate about capital punishment. Perhaps this book should be required reading for the legislators in those few countries that still have the death penalty on their statute books. Its insights into the process of judicial execution are unparalleled.

I am biased of course. I feel quite strongly that the state has no right at all to kill its own citizens. The death sentence is never justified, no matter what the circumstances. And I say this as someone who lived through the depredations of the serial killer who was known as the Yorkshire Ripper. When the body of one of his victims was found on my school playing fields my mother and many of her friends point blank refused to go out of the house alone. This was too close to home for comfort and they didn’t feel safe on the streets any more. My mother was even more upset after Peter Sutcliffe (the Ripper himself) was finally arrested and it turned out that my father knew him. That really was far too close to home...

So I have experienced at first hand the terrible effect that a murderer can have on the life of a community, and it isn’t pleasant. Nevertheless I still oppose the death penalty. What good does it do? It punishes the killer (briefly) but if you believe in punishment for a transgression, then surely a life sentence is a much worse punishment than an execution? The prisoner suffers every day for a lifetime when a life sentence is imposed, but when an execution is imposed, there is only a brief period of waiting after which the prisoner feels nothing at all. Where’s the punishment in that?

You might argue that the existence of the death penalty acts as a deterrent to other people, making them reconsider their decision to commit murder. But this is demonstrably not true. Albert Pierrepoint was a British executioner for more than quarter of a century. He carried out more judicial sentences of death than any other executioner in any British archive, journal or record. It is unclear exactly how many people he executed, but the total was certainly more than 500. In his autobiography he says:

...[the death sentence] is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

Read that last sentence very carefully. Then read it again.

One of the men that Pierrepoint executed was a close personal friend who was very well aware of Pierrepoint’s duties as an executioner. Nevertheless he still committed a murder. The threat of the gallows with his old friend standing there ready to put the noose around his neck at the end of his life did not deter him at all.

The Chessmans, the Pierrepoints and their ilk have all seen the reality of judicial executions close up and personal, right there at the sharp end. They know whereof they speak and we really need to listen to their voices. Always pay attention to the experts – after all, isn’t that why we have them?

Stephen King The Long Walk Signet
Robert Silverberg Time and Time Again Three Rooms Press
Geoffrey Landis Mars Crossing Tor
James Lee Burke The New Iberia Blues Simon and Schuster
Ben Schott Jeeves And The King Of Clubs Little, Brown and Co
Philip Kerr March Violets Penguin
C. J. Sansom Tombland Pan MacMillan
Ian Rankin Rebus Audiobooks
Sara Paretsky Writing in an Age of Silence Verso
Caryl Chessman Cell 2455, Death Row Prentice Hall
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