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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (fictum scientia)


I haven’t been reading very much science fiction over the last few months. Regular readers of this column will certainly have noticed that and may perhaps have wondered why. Obviously I’ve been feeling jaded, but I think there’s a bit more to it than just simple ennui. A few recent publications have clarified my thinking a little…

Old Earth Books have recently republished two classic works from the 1960s in very handsome hardback editions: Way Station by Clifford Simak and Davy by Edgar Pangbourne. I read both of them when they were first published (and loved them immensely). I own both of them only in very tatty paperback editions and I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy them one more time and possess them in hardcover. Having bought them, I had to re-read them, of course. And they cast their magic spell all over again – and no, I don’t think it is a case of rose coloured spectacles and youthful nostalgia turning off my critical faculties. You see, Frederik Pohl, another writer of their generation (who, unlike Pangbourne and Simak, has the advantage of still being alive) has recently published a new novel called The Boy Who Would Live Forever, and the comparison of these three books revealed a truth that I had never really considered before.

Way Station tells the tale of Enoch Wallace who fought in the American Civil War and then returned home to rural Wisconsin to live out his days. Rather to his surprise, he is approached by an alien who recruits him to supervise a way station; a stopover for galactic travellers as they journey around the universe. Wallace’s house is remodelled to accommodate the mechanisms that allow travel between the stars and Wallace himself is remodelled to become effectively immortal. For many years he does his job unnoticed by the outside world but in the late twentieth century paranoid government agencies start to suspect that something is going on. And the observers close in.

The book exemplifies everything that Simak does best. There is the authentic folksy tone of voice, the down to earth reactions of ordinary people involved in extraordinary events and the almost elegiac sense that the very fact of being alive makes all life throughout the universe part of the same family. He emphasises the essential decency of all his characters, both alien and human, and in the end they come to realise this and they cooperate with each other in order to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution to their problems. It is beautifully done, quietly understated and absolutely stunning.

Davy is a fairly traditional after-the-holocaust story. What raises it head and shoulders above the rest of that genre is the extremely detailed society that Pangbourne envisages as arising from the ruins of the old. At one and the same time it is utterly original and yet obviously derived from what, even then, were worrying trends in contemporary American culture. The society of the novel is tyrannically religious and Davy himself is a rebel with a very just cause indeed (from my point of view anyway). Subsequent events in America have only served to illuminate just how prescient Pangbourne’s vision was, and the current sad state of American paranoia, repression and fundamentalist intolerance makes this forty year old novel read like a contemporary fable.

And then there is Frederik Pohl who has been writing first class SF for more than six decades and is showing no signs of losing his touch. The Boy Who Would Live Forever is another novel in his Gateway sequence (don’t worry – you don’t have to have read the others, it stands alone perfectly well). For those who are familiar with the sequence, the events of the novel take place during and shortly after those of Beyond The Blue Event Horizon. Wan has been rescued from the Heechee habitat where he grew up and finds himself fabulously rich from the royalties due to him from the Gateway Foundation. Unfortunately this means that he is now rich enough to indulge the paranoia and distrust that his isolated upbringing has engendered and this has dire consequences for humanity. Even those people who have migrated to the Core to hide with the Heechee are unable to escape the effects of his machinations; and the Foe in the Kugelblitz are coming out to play. Don’t worry if none of that makes any sense to you. It’s all explained in context in the novel – and a very gripping novel it is, though it is also undeniably strange. Pohl has an oddly sideways view of the universe and the things that live in it.

There’s something that unites all three of these books. I can only call it imagination, (or perhaps Imagination) though I’m not sure if that’s the right word. I’m not even sure exactly what I mean by it. I can only try and sneak up on it while it isn’t looking...

One element of the imagination that goes into these books is pure science fiction itself. None of these novels would exist in any recognisable form if they didn’t make use of their science fictional elements. In other words it is completely impossible to re-write (or even re-state) the story in mainstream, or other genre terms and end up with anything approaching the original. The stories would mutate beyond all belief if you tried it. They are simon-pure SF all the way from the foundations to the roof. In some ways that’s a very good pragmatic definition of SF. If you can restate the story as (say) a western, or a detective novel, or a soap opera without losing any salient plot point, then it isn’t SF. (Okay, okay – now define salient. I didn’t say it was a perfect definition of SF, I just said it was a good one).

The same cannot be said of many of the books that are marketed as SF today. A lot of contemporary SF tells stories that are not really SF at all. The SF elements are peripheral to the plot rather than being intrinsic to it. They are only window dressings that neither add much to (nor, to be fair, detract much from) the story. James Blish referred to this as the "…call a rabbit a smeerp" syndrome. In other words, they look like rabbits but if you call them smeerps that makes it science fiction. Novels such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan stories are simply Regency romances with ray guns and could easily be re-written as historical stories without sacrificing anything of significance. That doesn’t make them any less worthy, but it does make them different in a rather slippery way.

Even today’s so-called hard science fiction novels which many people perceive to be the direct inheritors of the mainstream SF tradition (if that isn’t an oxymoron) sometimes fall a little bit flat in the imagination stakes. Writers such as Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter, for example, do wonderful things both with science and with fiction but they seldom mix the two successfully. Far too often they fall in love with a neat idea simply because it is a neat idea. Gosh! Wow! Nanotechnology! Isn’t that cool? And then, overwhelmed by their own cleverness in explaining nanotechnology (or whatever) they do something utterly mundane with it. Forty years ago the writers, the good ones anyway, would have said: Hmmm. Nanotechnology. I wonder what the implications of that are? And rather than simply explaining it (perhaps with large dollops of that mysterious element called handwavium, just to make it look good) they’d poke it a bit to see what fell off, or lift it up to see what crawled or slithered out from underneath. All too frequently the present day writers just leave it sitting there instead, with a light shining on it so we don’t lose sight of it.

Frederik Pohl’s last four Heechee novels (the ones where we actually find out what happened to the Heechee when they left this universe) are, on one level, simply dramatisations of (then) current scientific ideas about black holes. But rather than wave his arms about lots and say Black Holes, Black Holes, Black Holes! This is how they work! This is what they do! Gosh, aren’t they hairy! at the top of his voice, Pohl has elected to tell us almost nothing about black holes per se; at least not directly. He doesn't lecture us with large Baxterian infodumps. Instead, far more subtly, he invents a completely unrealistic, and in some ways deeply stupid, device called a disruptor which allows his characters to penetrate the Schwarzchild radius. And then he pokes his head inside and reports back the raree show that he finds there. And it isn’t a physics lecture at all; it’s just people living with different rules. Isn’t that a much more satisfying way of doing things?

When you dig deep and go way down below the surface of an idea, you start to find profundities. Only then can you lift yourself beyond the mundane and achieve transcendence. Pohl’s disruptor is a magic wand, a bit of skilful misdirection. And when our attention is properly diverted by a magician who is a fully paid up member of the Magic Circle, real magic seems to happen before out very eyes, though at no time do the magician’s hands leave his wrists. We can truly say: Gosh! Wow! Look at that! And we actually mean it, for it dazzles us.

Egan and Baxter and their ilk tend to swim in calmer, shallower waters than this. They are deeply concerned with explaining; they want their audience to understand. The idea is holy and the idea is the whole of the law. And so when they try to dive beneath the surface of the idea and finally exhibit some tendency towards the profound, all too often they vanish into incoherence. They are far too preoccupied with getting it all said, with dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s, and frequently that simply demonstrates that they don’t really know what they are talking about in the first place. They haven’t properly thought it through because of course they aren’t really research scientists at all. They are novelists pretending to be research scientists. And their grasp on the nature of the idea is probably just as tenuous as yours and mine. So the magic and the dazzle go away because the audience gets to see how the trick was performed (either that, or the audience gets so lost in the tangled web the writers weave that they fail to realise that there was even a trick there in the first place).

Baxter is particularly guilty of this sin. Look at his recent Time/Space Manifold series, for example, where the explications so far outweigh the implications that there’s absolutely nothing left. Except a smelly pile of handwavium, of course. It was very noticeable that when Arthur C. Clarke took Baxter in hand and slowed him down and pointed out to him just what he really was implying, that suddenly his incoherence vanished and his imagination flourished once more. Baxter has written two novels in collaboration with Clarke (with the promise of more to come) and they are far and away the best things he has ever done. And so much of Egan’s recent work has started to read like undigested lumps vomited up directly from the pages of The Journal of Physical Research that my eyes start to glaze over as soon as I open the book. That’s not imagination at play – it’s not even homage. It’s just words that have no purpose other than to fill the blank spaces on the page.

Pohl is far too wise and far too skilful to fall into that trap. And that’s why he can still do magic and the likes of Baxter and Egan can’t.

Imagination is also playfulness – another quality sadly lacking today. The answers to the question "What if…?" don’t have to be sensible ones. Indeed the answers are often a lot more insightful if they aren’t sensible at all. You can be much more serious with humour than you can ever be with solemnity; a lesson that seems to have escaped the current SF scene, which is almost totally lacking in any trace whatsoever of a sense of humour. And again – no, I am not talking about in your face Pratchettian farce. There’s nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that there is far too much of it polluting the bookshelves, but it lacks subtlety. Much of the appeal of Way Station is the sheer delight that Simak takes in describing the travellers who pass through Wallace’s station. They may only appear for a sentence or two and they have no large effect on the detail of the plot; they are just bits of business that add to the atmosphere. But brief though they are, these episodes are clever, fun and sometimes funny. Simak put a lot of work into those few sentences and they repay him a thousandfold by giving the story a shape and a depth and a lived in feeling. Contrast that with a recent blockbuster such as (to choose something pretty much at random) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon which is utterly glum throughout. I enjoyed it a lot – but I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if it had laughed inside itself a bit. I’m sure it would have felt more real if Morgan had employed more of that thing I’ve been calling imagination. Perhaps I could have lived inside the story then, instead of being an external observer. It was a good book. It could have been a great one.

The hero of Davy tells his own story in the first person. And he takes such joy in simply being alive and indulging his senses and his appetites that the essential darkness of the story slips down without you really noticing. There’s a lot more sex in the book than I remembered from the first time round and there’s also a lot of eating and drinking and dancing and just plain fun. All this despite the fact that Davy and his friends have suffered a serious defeat in battle, many of their friends are dead or captured by the reactionary majority forces and Davy’s army is in tatters. Davy knows his cause is hopeless but it doesn’t stop him telling his tale. Hope isn’t completely dead. It still survives in the Pandora’s box that is Davy’s future. He is telling his tale for the ages and perhaps the people in the future (if there is a future) can learn from Davy’s mistakes. I think the best way to describe that is well-rounded. And that alone makes the whole rather more than the simple sum of the parts. Joie-de-vivre can illuminate the darkest concerns.

Perhaps there’s a feeling that you have to be serious today. The rules don’t allow you to be playful when you have deeply serious concerns to deal with. If you sell your birthright for a pot of message (as somebody who I can’t remember once famously quipped) you aren’t allowed to laugh any more. I'm sorry, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Truly serious things aren’t supposed to take themselves seriously.

Look at Roger Zelazny. He was one of the towering SF geniuses who peaked magnificently in the 1960s. But even a deeply thoughtful work such as Lord of Light was full of play as well as of profundity. And when Zelazny was being overtly light-hearted (in, for example Doorways In The Sand) he was often laugh out loud funny. I miss those games and that sense of playfulness in contemporary SF.

The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were alive with literary promise. Something about that generation of writers struck sparks from the material; sparks which just aren’t there any more. Oh, there was plenty of rubbish then as well. I’m certainly not saying that every SF novel from the mid 1950s was a work of genius – far from it. Go and read Charles Eric Maine’s Timeliner (Hodder and Stoughton 1955) and weep. But I am saying that the proportion was higher then than it seems to be today.

It isn’t just nostalgia that made me devour both Way Station and Davy in a single marathon sitting and it isn’t only hero-worship that made me follow them with The Boy Who Would Live Forever with scarcely a pause for breath. They all have that indefinable something that I’ve spent the last 2000 words trying to pin down even while it wriggles away from me. I can only ever see it out of the corner of my eyes (a science fictional notion in itself) but I never fail to recognise it when it’s there.

Joe Haldeman once said that he had spent a lifetime bent double staring into his navel and writing down what he saw in there. "After you’ve done that for thirty years," he said with a grin, "you get a little weird."

I think we need a few more compulsory navel-gazing lessons for today’s young turks.

Meanwhile, this month's reading goes on.

NESFA Press have published an anthology called The Essential Murray Leinster which is almost certainly the definitive collection of Murray Leinster’s short fiction. Probably his best (and certainly his most famous) story is A Logic Named Joe. It was first published in 1946 and although the terminology is all wrong, the story is about something that is recognisably the internet. And what’s more, Leinster tells us that the major uses that people make of this thing are frivolous ones. Oh yes, they buy things, they do serious research and all that other good stuff. But they also gossip.

It’s the little insights that make the biggest impressions. You don’t have to shatter worlds in order to be world shattering and that’s another lesson that contemporary SF needs to re-learn. I’m tired of Significant space opera (note the capital letter). Just for once I’d like a space opera that isn’t about anything except itself. So welcome back Mike Resnick who has written a sequel to a novel called Santiago that he wrote umpteen years ago. Imaginatively, he has called the sequel The Return of Santiago. Just listen to this:

They say his father was a comet and his mother a cosmic wind, that he juggled planets as if they
were feathers and wrestled with black holes just to work up an appetite…

Resnick writes about larger than life characters on the rim of the galaxy. The books are utter rubbish; quite deliberately so. And by my own definition they cannot possibly be SF because they are really only cowboy stories in the wild, wild west of a galaxy that never was and never could be (and it never was in the "real" wild west either). Oh shut up! I don't care. Just read and enjoy. When you’ve got a story as over the top as this one is by a writer as insane as Resnick, you can’t hang labels on it any more. Sometimes imagination has to run away screaming and go and gibber alone in the corner. Playfulness to the nth degree has a charm all of its own.

Something that will always appeal to the reader is the ingenuity with which the writer presents the story. That sense of cleverness can be quite overwhelming when properly applied. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart are about the same age as I am, and Jack has been hanging around the British SF scene forever. I first met him more than 30 years ago at some convention or other. Heaven is his second novel in collaboration with Ian Stewart. It takes a lot of ingenuity to mix up Neanderthals, religious cranks, bizarre biology, galaxy spanning civilizations, and dangerous memes and still produce a coherent, not to say fascinating tale. And all the way through you can’t help thinking that the writers are having enormous fun with their own cleverness. Of course I may be biased. Cohen becomes particularly Asimovian when placed in front of an audience and he plays it like a musical instrument. But even when the people are crying with laughter at his latest silly joke he never lets them forget that deep down he’s actually very serious indeed. It is one of his endearing traits and I’ve enjoyed more than one of his talks, and more than one of his novels. Perhaps there is hope for contemporary SF after all.

One of the pillars of British fandom in the years that I was involved with it was Peter Weston. He published a fanzine which was originally called Zenith but whose title later metamorphosed into Speculation. One of the things that made his fanzine stand out from the competition was that it was actually about science fiction (almost unheard of in the fanzines of the day) and somehow he managed to attract articles from many of the famous writers of the time. I first read several of Larry Niven’s essays in Speculation, for example. (I vaguely recall that the infamously Rabelaisian Man Of Steel, Woman of Kleenex was published in Speculation long before it appeared in a respectable book. But I can’t swear to that. Certainly some of his other essays were there though).

The culmination of Peter’s fannish life was the British World Convention of 1979 which he was largely responsible for organising. And a wonderful convention it was too. I was there and I had a ball. He didn’t do very much after that (where do you go to after you’ve done a worldcon?). Or perhaps I simply drifted away from the things that he was involved in. After all, it wasn’t long after that convention that I moved to the other side of the world and started a new life in New Zealand.

Now Peter has published his memoirs in a very handsome volume produced by NESFA Press. With Stars In My Eyes is subtitled My Adventures In British Fandom. I’ve read snippets of it before in various obscure and now unobtainable fanzines such as Maya (some of which I think I still have, mouldering in a box somewhere). And some of the book describes events at which I was present and people who I knew (some of them now, alas, dead). So there was a certain nostalgic delight colouring my reading of the book. I don’t think many people will enjoy it, to be brutally honest. Peter comes across as quite humourless (time and again he expresses puzzlement about things that happened to him, and things that people said about him when it is quite obvious that he was simply having his leg pulled). And the book is far too concerned with setting the record straight about unimportant and long forgotten fan minutiae and politics. All in all, it’s actually quite a dull book despite the fact that I enjoyed it immensely. I think you had to be there, and I was. That was the only thing that kept me reading.

And Peter – if you ever read this review – let me correct an error of fact (I can do minutiae just as well as you can). Mervyn Barrett is not Australian. He’s a New Zealander.

I actually enjoyed William Tenn’s essay collection Dancing Naked much more than I enjoyed Peter’s memoir. This collection is also published by NESFA Press (both Peter Weston and William Tenn were guests at a recent convention and the books were published in conjunction with that convention). Tenn, pseudonym of Philip Klass, was a hugely influential SF author in the 1950s and 1960s and if you ever see any of his work, fall upon it with glad cries of glee and give it a place of honour on your shelves. He exemplifies everything I said earlier on about imagination and ingenuity.

He was never particularly known as an essayist and I must confess I found Dancing Naked to be quite an eye opener. It was absolutely obvious from his fiction that he thought profoundly and felt deeply about many things (though lots of his stories are, of course, rib-ticklingly funny – how could they be otherwise?) and these essays, in a more serious, or perhaps more sombre, vein only serve to highlight that. He’s an even more skilled essayist than he is a fiction writer, and that says a lot.

I read a couple of other SF books this month as well, though they gave me no great insights. But they passed the time pleasingly enough. Brighten To Incandescence is a collection of short stories by Michael Bishop. He’s a bit of an acquired taste and I’m not sure it’s a taste I’m completely comfortable with. The stories, all previously uncollected, range through most of his career. The earliest was first published in 1971 and is a story of a murderer fleeing the scene of his crime. It is so full of pretentious symbolism that the story completely vanishes under the load. The latest story in the book was written a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and was directly inspired by the attack. As you might expect, it is squirmingly embarrassing. These represent the low points. The other stories are better, but in some cases not by much. I think there are good reasons why these stories have never been collected before. But it passed the time.

Going Postal is Terry Pratchett’s new Discworld novel. It’s OK – it’s a Discworld novel. But I can’t get enthusiastic about it. Pterry’s concerns (his messages if you like) seem to get more overt with every book he writes and this one is more than a little shrill. His targets are big business, management incompetence and fraud. They are all easy targets and Pterry seems to have only half his mind on the job. Discworld by numbers again. I’ll put it on the shelf with the rest of them, but I doubt if I’ll ever read it again.

Unusually, given recent trends, this month’s reading contained much more science fiction than non-science fiction. But I did read one or two books that weren’t SF. Two are easily classified. Fleshmarket Close is the latest novel in Ian Rankin’s ongoing saga about Chief Inspector Rebus and The Torment of Others is the latest novel in Val McDermid’s series about Tony Hill, the profiler of serial killers. Both are exactly what you would expect – utterly enthralling and cleverly plotted. Both writers regularly produce first class work which is immediately snapped up by their legions of fans and which is completely ignored by those who don’t go slumming in the detective novel genre. If you are a fan you’ll have bought these books already. If you aren’t a fan don’t touch them with a barge pole. Read the authors’ earlier novels first (preferably in order of publication) and work your way up gradually to these latest books. Believe me, you won’t regret it.

And that leaves Charles McCarry and his new novel Old Boys. It’s at least thirteen years since McCarry last published anything and I suspect his reputation has long since been eclipsed. But in his heyday he was often compared to John Le Carré, for he wrote similar espionage oriented novels that displayed a deep understanding about not only the mechanics of the craft of the spy, but also of the politics and personalities and societies where it all took place. His magnum opus was a series of novels about a shadowy American agent called Paul Christopher and McCarry’s special genius lay in his ability to examine Paul Christopher’s entire life in every novel.

Just prior to the second world war, Paul, his father and his mother were living in Germany. His mother was a German countess and his father an American novelist. They had no sympathy with the Nazi party and took every opportunity to smuggle Jews out of the country. Eventually the family was expelled from Germany. But at the border, Paul’s mother was arrested, though Paul and his father, being foreign nationals, were allowed to leave. Paul never saw his mother again – she disappeared into darkness. His father spent the rest of his life searching for her and after the war he returned to Germany as a secret agent and used the opportunity to hunt through the remaining records of the Reich. But he never found her. He died in what was at first thought to be a car accident in Berlin, though it later turned out to be an assassination. Paul fought with distinction in the war and after it ended he too became a spy. Although he was obsessed with hunting for his mother, he also played a significant role in the cold war. He was eventually arrested by the Chinese and spent ten years in a Chinese prison camp before returning to the West. He retired from active service, but that didn’t mean that his secret life was over.

Every novel about Paul Christopher dealt with all these events and part of McCarry’s genius was that he could re-tell and re-dramatise these events time after time after time and still find new things to say. Every time there is some newly significant fact revealed that shows the whole thing in a different light and every time we appreciate anew a different set of motives and a different set of explanations. It really was astonishing how many changes he managed to ring over the same basic set of circumstances.

And then he fell silent for thirteen years before he did it all over again with Old Boys. The story hasn’t changed a bit but once more we see the events in a new light, and this time Paul finally gets a clue about what might have happened to his mother. As the novel opens, Paul is having dinner with his cousin. They reminisce a little and Paul reveals that he has named his cousin as executor of his will. The next day Paul is nowhere to be found. He has gone back into his secret world. A few weeks later he is reported dead in China and the Chinese Government delivers his ashes to his grieving family. But there are those who are not convinced that he is truly dead. And the old, old game is afoot once more.

McCarry hasn’t lost his touch, even after thirteen years.

Yesterday Harpo the Cat refused his breakfast. He obviously wanted to eat it, but he just couldn’t make himself swallow it. Even at tea time he was unenthusiastic, though he did manage to eat a little bit of food.

"What’s the matter, Harpo?"

"Tummy hurts," he said sadly, and went to lie down.

I wasn’t surprised. The previous day he had eaten a slug. Anybody who eats a slug deserves all he gets, in my opinion.

Clifford D. Simak Way Station Old Earth Books
Edgar Pangbourne Davy Old Earth Books
Frederik Pohl The Boy Who Would Live Forever Tor
Murray Leinster The Essential Murray Leinster NESFA Press
Mike Resnick The Return of Santiago Tor
Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen Heaven Warner
Peter Weston With Stars In My Eyes NESFA Press
William Tenn Dancing Naked NESFA Press
Michael Bishop Brighten To Incandescence Golden Gryphon
Terry Pratchett Going Postal Doubleday
Ian Rankin Fleshmarket Close Orion
Val McDermid The Torment Of Others Harper Collins
Charles McCarry Old Boys Weidenfeld & Nicholson
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