Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (ying tong yiddle i po)

Drinking Beer Causes Slurred Speech, Maudlin Expressions Of Love, And Sometimes Karaoke

The Relentless Moon is the third of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels. It has a different narrator from that of the first two books and it is largely a stand alone story, though if you come to it with no knowledge of the earlier books you might be a little puzzled by references to a meteor strike on Washington in 1952 and a thriving (sort of) colony on the moon in the 1960s.

The narrator and viewpoint character is Nicole Wargin, a lady astronaut who had a small part to play in the earlier stories. Elma Yorke, the narrator of the first two Lady Astronaut books, is off stage for most of this story because she is on her way to Mars. The events of The Relentless Moon take place on Earth and on the moon while Elma’s Mars mission is on its way and after it has returned to Earth. (The story of what happens when Elma reaches Mars will be told in the fourth novel which is due to be published some time in 2022).

As the story opens, it has been more than a decade since the meteor strike and the idea that the meteor induced climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable is well understood. The colony on the moon and hopefully an eventual colony on Mars are necessary steps along the way to the eventual implementation of a plan to evacuate the bulk of the Earth’s population to safety of a sort. But even in these early stages it is clear that not everybody can be evacuated. Inevitably some people will have to be left behind. An environmental group which calls itself Earth First takes this idea to extremes and insists that nobody needs to leave the planet at all, thus solving the problem in a gordion knot kind of way. They insist that everybody should stay and should learn to cope with the looming environmental crisis. To this end, Earth First starts to sabotage the space effort in an attempt to force it to close down..

Staff at the space centre fall ill and it seems likely that they have been poisoned. Equipment begins to malfunction at an alarming rate, putting many people in danger and destroying confidence in the space effort. Nicole takes off on a routine trip to the lunar colony. Her shuttle is a victim of the ongoing sabotage and she and her crew barely manage to make it out alive. They are effectively marooned on the lunar colony until help can arrive. But nevertheless the sabotage continues as Earth First intensifies its efforts. There are power failures and an epidemic and eventually there are bombs. Nicole needs to identify the Earth Firster responsible for all this chaos before the moon colony itself is destroyed. If the colony fails then Earth’s entire space programme is likely to fail along with it.

As with all the lady astronaut stories, the driving force of the narrative is a sub-text that highlights the racial and gender prejudice that was endemic in those years in both our world and in the world of the lady astronauts.  The novel’s great strength is that, by and large, its protagonists succeed in attaining their goals in spite of the social forces arrayed against them. Indeed, at times they deliberately manipulate the prejudices of both allies and enemies so as to get their own way. That’s an interestingly subversive tactic to adopt!

An amusingly stupid two star review on WarriorWomanWithOnlyOneBreast identifies these themes and as a result of their presence concludes that the author (and by implication the publisher) must both be Marxist Social Justice Warriors. That has to be the weirdest definition of Marxism I’ve ever seen!

I loved the story. I think it’s probably the best of the series so far. Though having said that, I did have some problems with Nicola Wargin herself – she is more than a little psychologically unstable to the extent that at times she poses a very real threat to the safety of her friends and colleagues. I found it hard to believe that she would ever have been selected to be an astronaut in the first place. Unless a lot of strings had been pulled (always possible – she is married to a senator and they both have friends in high places) she would never have been able to pass the rigorous tests that all the astronauts have to go through. Michael Collins’ autobiography Carrying The Fire has a lot of amusing things to say about how those things worked out in the real world and I’m sure that the criteria applied in Mary Robinette Kowal’s fictional world would have been equally as strict.

But that little cavil aside, it is undeniable that the story tells a rip-roaring tale full of emotional highs and lows. The tension had me chewing my fingernails down to the elbow. And the ending is so perfect that it made me want to cheer!

* * * *

I’ve tried to read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series several times. I’ve never managed to finish it. But, ever optimistic, I decided to give it another go.

The series is a heroic quest story which, like Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai stories before it, was directly inspired by Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Many people consider it to be King’s magnum opus. It certainly starts out well. Every time I’ve sat down to read it I’ve really enjoyed the first three books but then I find myself bogged down in the fourth, and at that point I’ve always given up. My problem with the fourth volume is that a huge part of it is historical in the sense that it deals with events that took place in the early years of the main character’s life. Mostly it is about his romance with the great love of his life. I’ve always found this section to be deadly dull and it seems to have very little connection to the main line of the story. It’s mostly just background filler. So this time I decided that I would skip past the dull bits when I got to them and go straight on to the fifth and subsequent volumes. I started out with good intentions, really I did, and as always happens, I loved the first three books all over again. I stuck to my plan and when I reached the dull bits in the fourth, I put the book down and picked up the fifth. And guess what? Yet again I got bogged down. It was a real struggle to get to the end of the fifth book and I found that after that I simply couldn’t bring myself to read any further. Once again, it seemed, the dark tower had defeated me. Perhaps it might be instructive to try and work out just why that happened…

The Gunslinger is the first book in the series. In it we meet  Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from Gilead. For many years Roland has been pursuing someone called Walter who he thinks of as the man in black. Walter is an agent of the dark tower though at this early stage we don’t really know just what that means. The story follows Roland's trek through a vast desert and beyond until, after many adventures, he eventually catches up with Walter. The man in black makes several enigmatic prophecies and then he puts Roland to sleep. When Roland wakes up again it is clear that many years have passed. Next to him is a skeleton, presumably Walter’s. For unspecified reasons, Roland takes the skeleton’s jawbone (as one always does in such circumstances, of course) and continues heading west on a journey that, he hopes, will eventually bring him to the dark tower...

The book is full of intriguing images. Roland’s identity as a gunslinger, and the landscape of the desert through which he pursues Walter, together with the people and places that he comes across along the way immediately makes the reader think of a traditional western story. King has admitted to being heavily influenced by Sergio Leone’s so called "spaghetti westerns" and it isn’t hard to picture Roland as looking very much like Clint Eastwood. But it is clear that in King’s world a gunslinger (or perhaps that should be Gunslinger with a capital ‘G’) is something special, much more akin to a knight from King Arthur’s court than he is to a thug from the old American west. He is chivalric, he is on a quest, and he has survived a great tragedy. His home and his family in Gilead no longer exist. The world has moved on and it seems that Roland might be the very last gunslinger.

The book is full of mysteries, hints and questions. There are very few, if any, answers but the story is atmospheric and immersing. Perhaps the next volume will bring clarity?

The Drawing of the Three finds Roland on a beach by the western sea. He is attacked by lobster-like creatures that he thinks of as "lobstrosities". In the fight he loses two fingers from his right hand and his right big toe. His wounds become infected and he spends much of the book very ill and semi-delirious. As he journeys north along the beach, he encounters three doors in the sand. Each door opens onto the New York City of (presumably) our world at different periods in time –  1987, 1964 and 1977, respectively. Roland recognises nothing about the city. He barely even speaks the language! So it is quite clear that Roland’s world is not ours, though there are correspondences. For example the song Hey Jude! is sung in both worlds.

Using these doors, Roland manages to bring back three companions who will accompany him through all the subsequent volumes as together they strive to reach the dark tower. They are a fellowship, arbitrarily formed in much the same way that the fellowship of the ring was formed in The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure that parallel loomed large in Stephen King’s mind as he was writing the book. The bulk of the novel concerns itself with the adventures that Roland and the three characters go through before they all eventually manage to come together, bound to a common purpose.

As an aside, along the way to forming the fellowship, Roland also manages to purchase a stock of ammunition for his heavy, old-fashioned revolvers and antibiotics to treat his lobstrosity infections. The book ends with the fellowship heading away from the beach. The dark tower beckons them.

This is my favourite novel in the series. The characters are well drawn and their trials and tribulations feel very real. By the end of it, although there have been few, if any, infodumping explanations, much light has been shed on the mysteries that were hinted at in the previous volumes. Interestingly, King is on record as saying that this book is also his children’s favourite

The Waste Lands is the third novel in the series. It is inspired by the eponymous T. S. Eliot poem and direct quotations from this and many other Eliot poems are scattered throughout the narrative. The fellowship are heading into a forest, leaving the sea and the lobstrosities behind. Deep in the forest, they encounter a gigantic bear called Shardik (the name is a deliberate and overly obvious reference to the Richard Adams novel). The bear turns out to be a cyborg rather than a real bear and fortunately for the fellowship it is very, very old and decrepit. It is definitely wearing out. The fellowship do not escape from it unscathed, but they do escape. Roland identifies the bear as one of twelve portal guardians that control the beams that lead to and from the dark tower. With the bear safely out of the way, they can now follow the path of the beam themselves. They are not sure quite where they are, but it is clear that some long ago catastrophe has left this world shattered and decayed. What sparse livings there are to be made in it are very precarious.

By now the fellowship are starting to think of themselves as a ka-tet, a word from the High Speech of Gilead. It defines a group of people drawn together by fate (ka) for a specific purpose. While they are exploring the implications of this idea, they befriend a billy-bumbler, an animal which looks like a combination of badger, raccoon and dog. It has a long neck, a curly tail, and retractable claws. It is very intelligent and has a rudimentary speaking ability. They call the bumbler Oy (the "word" it uses most often) and it joins them on their quest. The ka-tet is now complete.

They arrive at Lud, an ancient, high-tech city that has been ravaged by centuries of war. Murder and mayhem are a way of life for the bloodthirsty survivors who scavenge a poor living from the place. Running from the gangs and in fear of their lives, the ka-tet come across a monorail train powered by an artificial intelligence known as Blaine the Mono. They board the train, hoping to use it to escape the city. But centuries have passed since Blaine was built and he has degraded to the point of insanity. As they speed away across the Waste Lands, Blaine announces his intention to commit suicide by derailing himself with them aboard unless they can defeat him in a riddle contest. The novel ends with the ka-tet speeding  on their way to Topeka, the end of the line in more ways than one.

This is an excellent book that really brings alive some very frightening images of devastated landscapes and the devastated people who live so hopelessly in them. It is a bleak and terrifying story though having said that I also have to say that it really doesn’t advance Roland’s quest very much at all. It seems to be just marking time and I found myself becoming impatient as I waited for the ka-tet to get back to the "proper" story. This, it turned out, was a feeling that would only grow stronger as I struggled through the next couple of novels...

The fourth book, Wizard and Glass resolves the riddle game with Blaine the Mono in a very predictable way. There are clear parallels here with the riddle game that Bilbo plays with Gollum in The Hobbit – both Bilbo and the ka-tet win their game by cheating, though each of them cheat their antagonist in a slightly different way. I am quite sure that King drew this parallel deliberately, though I completely fail to understand why.

The ka-tet now finds itself in a version of Topeka that has been devastated by an influenza pandemic – this section of the book is full of references to Stephen King’s pandemic novel The Stand. Characters and situations from that novel have a large part to play in this one.

Then, one evening as the ka-tet make camp close to an eerie hole between the dimensions (Roland calls these holes "thinnies") Roland tells his companions a story about his early life and the lady called Susan who he loved and lost. This is the tedious bit that takes up most of the rest of the book and which I had already decided to skip this time round. So I did.

And so now, for the first time ever, I found myself opening up book five, Wolves of the Calla. The farming village of Calla Bryn Sturgis is under threat from the eponymous wolves who attack once every generation or so and take away the children for their own mysterious purposes. The villagers ask the ka-tet for protection from the latest attack. The theme here is obviously inspired by The Magnificent Seven / Seven Samurai together with elements taken from High Plains Drifter. This last appears to have been thrown in for additional atmosphere and also in order to give Roland a chance to reprise his role as Clint Eastwood while he formulates a cunning plan to get the better of the wolves.

The village priest in Calla Bryn Sturgis is a man called Father Callahan who, it turns out, we have met before. He was one of the protagonists in Stephen King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot. At this point the novel segues into a very lengthy digression during which we learn just what happened to Callahan after he fled the vampire infestation in Jerusalem’s Lot. He has many adventures, during which he acquires a mysteriously dangerous artefact known as Black Thirteen which he eventually uses to transport himself to Calla Bryn Sturgis – by the way, it isn’t a coincidence that the name Calla Bryn Sturgis begins with the first two syllables of Father Callahan’s name.

In another lengthy digression, some members of the ka-tet use Black Thirteen to take themselves back to New York where they again come to grips with characters from The Drawing of the Three who are now actively engaged in a complex conspiracy which threatens both the dark tower and the ka-tet itself.  

Finally, after waiting far too long for it to happen, we get to the point where the wolves attack the village. They are, of course, defeated by Roland’s cunning plan, together with a bit of help from the ladies of the village who prove themselves to be quite spectacularly adept at throwing sharpened plates which zoom discus-like through the air and embed themselves lethally in the wolves. The book ends, and I discovered that I really couldn’t face the thought of reading another one. So once again, I gave up.

The first three novels and parts of the fourth are truly innovative and exciting, albeit rather derivative in the sense that they take their inspiration from the works of other writers and film makers. But then the rot sets in. Wizard and Glass introduces a theme with which King starts to over-indulges himself and by the time we reach the end of Wolves of the Calla it has become annoyingly intrusive. The innovation and excitement of the early books has vanished and has been replaced with a lot of self indulgent and increasingly incestuous literary games. Characters and situations taken from a whole host of other Stephen King novels are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the plot line of the Dark Tower. Sometimes the fit is a rather uneasy one, and you can definitely see the joins... There are even references in the text to stories that King hadn’t written yet when he was working on this book, but which he was clearly starting to think about. For example at one point in Wolves of the Calla the ka-tet spend a great many pages discussing the ideas which, a decade or so later, would manifest themselves as 11/22/63, arguably one of Stephen King’s finest novels. All this self-referential wankery gets very tiresome very quickly. I am even given to understand that in the sixth novel, The Song of Susannah, members of the ka-tet meet a novelist called Stephen King who has just written a book called The Gunslinger and is wondering where to go with it from there. Dear God!

In addition to all this nonsense, far too much time is spent re-examining the implications of events from the first three books, trying to tease out new meanings from them as they are looked at again and again from new(ish) points of view. All of this adds to the impression that the ka-tet are simply spinning their wheels. Despite the huge number of pages in Wolves of the Calla, the plot remains stuck in place and by the end of the novel Roland doesn’t seems to have got any closer to the dark tower than he was at the beginning. But I repeat myself (if Stephen King can do it, why can’t I?). You will recall that I made exactly the same observation when I discussed The Waste Lands, and that was two whole novels ago! I rest my case.

Also, from Wizard and Glass onwards, the pacing gets glacially slow, and this only adds to the dullness. As a consequence of these pacing problems almost every scene is grotesquely over-written. It would be very simple indeed to trim many, many thousands of words from both Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. The books would be a lot stronger for it, and I really don’t understand why Stephen King’s editor didn’t sit him down and demand that he get his scissors out and start snipping. Perhaps he didn’t have an editor.

I think that this time I really have given up on The Dark Tower for good. I simply can’t imagine ever wanting to go back to it again.

* * * *

Lawrence Block is one of my favourite crime/mystery/thriller writers. He’s been making his living as a novelist since he was teenager in the 1950s, and he is still going strong today, though he is much less prolific now than once he was. At one time he was writing and selling a novel every month. Even at the derisorily low rates that the fly by night publishers he wrote for paid him, he still managed to earn a reasonable amount of money from his efforts. I presume from this that every word he wrote was an unrevised first draft. How else could he have maintained such a phenomenal rate of production?

Almost nothing he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s appeared under his own name – he used a whole raft of pseudonyms and house names – and almost everything he wrote during those years was, by his own admission, utter rubbish. The books were mostly sex novels of one sort or another. They were very tame by today’s standards but they were pretty racy stuff in the 1950s! Oddly, his speciality was the writing of lesbian romances. He was definitely the man to go to if you wanted some hot lesbian action. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever be able to write…

For many years he maintained a strict silence about those early novels. If fans presented him with one of his pseudonymous books to be autographed, he denied that it was his and he refused to sign it. But things have changed. Block has discovered the delights of self-publishing. For the last several years he has been bringing his early, long out of print stories back into the world and making money from them all over again. That’s a neat trick, if you can manage it. His motives for doing it are mixed. He claims that if people really want to read these early bits of hard to find nonsense, who is he to stand in their way? Also, because he’s 83 years old now, he feels that nobody’s opinions about the stories he wrote when he was 19 can possibly embarrass him, so why not make the books available again? And of course money is money – it all spends the same way, however you earn it.  

For each of these new editions he has written introductions, forewords and afterwords which talk about the kind of life he was living when the books were written and how he came to write them and even how much money he made from them. These pieces have all been collected together in a memoir called Afterthoughts 2.0 (The reason for the version number is because the first version, which came from a "real" publisher, went out of print so Block reacquired the rights, added some extra material and published the book himself as version 2.0).

In parallel with Afterthoughts Block has also produced A Writer Prepares which is a slightly more formal biographical description of his early years that goes into a lot more detail about some of the things he was doing back then. Perhaps the most important of these was the fact that he worked for (and was represented by) the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Meredith’s agency was very active in the 1950s and 1960s and most of the successful pulp writers of the era passed through its doors at one time or another. It had a well deserved reputation for conducting its business in a morally, ethically, and sometimes even legally, questionable way, but it was undeniably successful at what it did and it made a lot of money for itself and for its clients. Block pulls no punches in his detailed descriptions of the agency’s extremely dubious practices...

The agency still exists today though Scott Meredith himself is long dead. Hopefully it has somewhat mended its ways.

The two books taken together paint a fascinating portrait of Block himself and of the long gone pulp era of which he was such an important part. And as an added bonus, the books are often very, very funny. If you are a fan of Lawrence Block (and who among us is not a Blockhead?) you will thoroughly enjoy these experiments in autobiography.

Mary Robinette Kowal The Relentless Moon Tor
Stephen King The Gunslinger Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen King The Drawing of the Three Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen King The Waste Lands Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen King Wizard and Glass Hodder & Stoughton
Stephen King Wolves of the Calla Hodder & Stoughton
Lawrence Block Afterthoughts 2.0 LB Publications
Lawrence Block A Writer Prepares LB Publications
Previous Contents Next