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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

What to do when you see a… WINGED THING

If you see a ‘big bird’, it is likely to be in the sky. Note as many details as possible, and try to photograph it, including some recognisable object in the picture if you can, to help determine the bird’s size. Do not get too close any ‘big bird’ on the ground. Their reaction is unpredictable, and it might want to kidnap you. Try and take a picture, if in a safe place. A Mothman- or Owlman-type creature is somewhat different, its intentions towards us being completely unknown, so if you do see one, keep your distance and your nerve, and observe keenly. Try and take a photograph, and also try speaking to it. No one has tried this yet, and the creature might just answer. If it does, ask it where it comes from and what it wants.

One of the pleasures of a really high-quality second hand bookshop is finding an unexpected treasure, a book you’d perhaps heard of twenty or thirty years ago but lost all hope of ever seeing with your own eyes. I came across such a discovery the other day, in the form of Janet and Colin Bord’s Alien Animals (first published in 1980), which (amongst many other wonderful treats) contains the above (presented quite in earnest) as part of its first appendix, entitled ‘A few hints for monster watchers’.

The cover and title make it pretty clear what the Bords (a veteran pair of investigators into all things odd, especially in the UK) are dealing with: what some people would call cryptids, or mysterious and unexplained large animals. There they all are on the front cover, eyes a-glowing one and all – Bigfoot, a black dog, a big cat, the Loch Ness Monster, and a flying God-knows-what.

Now, the last serious book I read on the subject of cryptozoology was Loxton and Prothero’s Abominable Science, a fairly ruthless debunking of the notion that any of these large unknown creatures has any objective existence, on the grounds that most of them are known only from anecdotal (and therefore highly unreliable) evidence, and further that they are relatively recent creations rooted in the popular culture of the modern world.

The charming thing about Alien Animals is that while it is obviously the work of a couple of dyed-in-the-wool believers, they are also intelligent ones who are at least aware of the difficulties involved in asserting that the sightings all relate to conventional biological organisms. You get a sense of the Bords’ worldview, perhaps, when they offer such observations as ‘…the problem is that the subject we are dealing with has no place in our materialistic twentieth-century existence. It has no connection with wars, with politics, with the state of the economy… or any of the other trivia with which so many people occupy themselves. Man is so conditioned to see the world as those in authority want him to see it that it comes as a shock to learn of a hidden undercurrent of activity which includes creatures which are completely alien to us…’ Let’s put it this way, it’s a fairly safe bet that the Bords don’t belong to their local golf club.

The consequences of this are twofold. First of all, rather than adopting a more traditionally scientific posture and weighing the evidence on its own merits, the Bords start from a position of belief (primarily based, it seems, on the ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ principle, to which Loxton and Prothero gave such short shrift). So the first chapter, on lake (and a few sea) monsters, includes such curiously indicative statements as ‘It would be remarkable if in the vastness of Russia’s Siberia there were not also mysterious denizens in isolated lakes…’, ‘[Lake Labynkyr] for size stands midway between the small loughs of Ireland and the huge inland seas of the American continent, examples of all of which contain water monsters‘ (emphasis mine), and ‘There are probably thousands of other experiences like these in Scandinavian lakes which are never reported.’

There is, I think it fair to say, a degree of presumption here, but quite how much becomes clear when the Bords attempt to tackle what they see as the central mystery of the water monster phenomenon – not, as you might have expected, the question of what it is that is causing people to believe they are seeing monsters (which, I feel obliged to make clear, includes the possibility that they genuinely are seeing monsters), but a greater mystery: namely, given that water monsters so obviously exist, why does conventional science refuse to investigate them more thoroughly?

This essentially recurs throughout the book, most of which follows the same pattern: most chapters start with a large number of accounts of sightings of weird wildlife being presented (often at exhausting length). The Bords are, to be honest, fairly credulous and seem to accept most things at face value (they are given to pronounce that some accounts are ‘true’ even if the evidence is far from conclusive or even just anecdotal). Those occasions where they suddenly evince scepticism are startling – one report of a man seeing a mysterious ‘big black bird’ is dismissed as being suspect for undisclosed reasons, and the writers briskly move on to what they consider a much more credible account: that of a pteranodon being spotted in Texas in 1976. The testimony of Doc Shiels, these days a noted hoaxer, is also taken at face value (the Bords are very impressed by Shiels’ ‘Loch Ness Muppet’ photo, which no-one seriously accepts as genuine these days).

Oh, come ON…

 

The listing of selected stories is usually followed by a few tentative theories as to what may actually be going on here. These latter sections are by far the most interesting parts of the book, and come across as relatively less dogmatic. One other major difference between Loxton and Prothero and the Bords is that the authors of the more recent book limit their area of expertise to conventional biology; it is on the grounds of a lack of physical evidence that they declare Bigfoot, etc, to be non-existent as an actual living specimen. What’s interesting about the Bords is the second consequence of their desire to believe (come to think of it, I bet Fox Mulder had this book on the shelf in his basement), which is that they go beyond simple biology (or cryptobiology) and consider what I suppose we must call either the paranormal or the paraphysical aspect of many of these accounts.

After a while the ‘no smoke without fire’ principle becomes untenable, especially when the amount of smoke becomes absurd: if you believe all the stories, there are Bigfoot-like creatures not just living in the American and Siberian wildernesses, but in Florida, in Australia, in Japan, even in England. Some of these tell of bullet-proof monsters vanishing in flashes of light, or emerging from UFOs. Uncanny materialisations and disappearances are a routine part of the standard narrative of black dog encounters. Lake monsters are seen in bodies of water totally incapable of supporting their existence (the lakes dry out and refill, for instance, thus begging the question of what the monsters do in the dry season).

Suffice to say that if you’re inclined to dismiss meat-and-potatoes cryptozoology as being basically just pseudoscience, much of what’s discussed here will have you snorting contemptuously. The first chapter takes the existence of psychic powers for granted (the noted tendency to jam of cameras pointed at lake monsters is attributed to some kind of telekinetic effect), and by the end of the book the writers have touched repeatedly upon the theory of ley lines and Earth power, repeatedly mentioned UFOs, ghosts, and spiritualism, and even touched on the mythology of vampires and werewolves. You can picture reputable cryptozoologists, wedded to the biological thesis, rolling their eyes scornfully at the notion that the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot is really some kind of apparition.

The problem is that the strictly biological thesis just isn’t tenable any more – well, I suppose it’s just possible there are a few big cats living wild in the UK out of their natural territory, but there is no scientific basis for belief in the existence of Bigfoot or Nessie. And yet people keep seeing something. The question is whether this is merely a social and cultural phenomenon or something more esoteric. To their credit, the Bords do point out the large number of commonalities between the different kinds of exotic cryptids – glowing eyes, occasionally indeterminate size and shape, sudden appearances and disappearances – and also sightings of them – people do behave extremely oddly, forgetting to use their cameras, hardly reacting at all in the manner you’d expect, and many do report a ‘timeless’ or ‘dreamlike’ quality to the whole experience.

In the end the Bords conclude that alien animals do not have a simple or single explanation, though they do offer the notion that many of the different types of cryptid are really different manifestations of the same phenomenon, whereby some interaction of forms of energy and the witness create either the impression that an entity of some kind exists, or a full-blown creature with an objective, though temporary, reality of its own. That last bit is probably a step too far for many, including me, though I am reminded of scientific research carried out since 1980 which has suggested that vibrational and electromagnetic effects can cause hallucinatory experiences in test subject.

In the end the Bords quite wisely leave it all up to the reader to decide. The book is obviously aimed at believers, or at least agnostics, and even some of these might find themselves skimming through some of the many pages of monster sightings. But it has a definite, innocent charm about it (I really am trying not to sound too patronising towards the authors) and some of the thinking here strikes me as entirely sound, even if the premises and conclusions are a bit too way out there. Entertaining and thought-provoking in the right measures, and mostly for the reasons the authors intended.

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Excavating the inspirations for well-known SF TV shows and movies can lead you to some unexpected places: Star Trek is indebted, in fairly equal measure, to both the Hornblower books and Forbidden Planet, and therefore on to The Tempest; Doctor Who to the collected works of HG Wells; The Invaders (by way of The Fugitive) to Les Miserables. I was still a little surprised to discover that V (a well-remembered if slightly schlocky 1980s tale of man-eating aliens staging a takeover of the USA) was in fact inspired by a 1935 satire by the Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis, entitled It Can’t Happen Here.

It Can’t Happen Here has apparently enjoyed a significant sales spike in the last few months, presumably because many people believe that, on the contrary, It Can Happen Here, and indeed, It Is Actually Happening Here Right Now… here being the United States, of course. There are, needless to say, no aliens, man-eating or otherwise, in Sinclair Lewis’ book, which owes its current moment in the spotlight to the fact it depicts the rise to power of an authoritarian demagogue and the creation of a totalitarian police state within the US itself.

The main character is Doremus Jessup, a fairly bien-pensant Liberal newspaper editor from Vermont. Jessup has a comfortable life with his family, is initially more amused than disturbed by the rise in popularity of Senator Buzz Windrip – along with his like-minded friends, he dismisses the concerns of those who see Windrip as an American Hitler or Mussolini (I will just mention again that the book was written in 1935), cheerfully asserting that ‘It can’t happen here!’ – one of the book’s pearls of wisdom being that the first step to making sure such a takeover possible is to assert that it isn’t.

But of course it can, and does; Windrip is elected president and imposes his populist manifesto on the country – state ownership of industry, a raft of anti-feminist, anti-semitic, and just plain racist measures, the emasculation of Congress, and so on. Criticism of what becomes known as the Corpo regime by the press meets with a brutal response, with critics and other undesirables banished to the concentration camps which spring up across the country. Jessup finds himself increasingly falling foul of the local Corpo apparatchiks and their thuggery, appalled by the disappearances and book-burnings and endemic corruption, until he joins the resistance to Windrip himself…

You do not, I suspect, need to be a cultural commentator of particular insight to work out just why It Can’t Happen Here is enjoying such popularity at the moment: one current edition has as the cover crit ‘Eerily prescient’, just adding to the general consensus that Sinclair Lewis was somehow predicting the arrival of Donald Trump as US President. (To British readers, there is even a pleasing semantic consonance linking ‘Windrip’ – the name of the book’s Trump-analogue – to ‘break wind’ and then on to ‘Trump’ (which is slightly archaic British slang for a flatulent eruption).) Anyone turning up to the book expecting a close satire on the Insane Clown President’s rise and doings will, obviously, be disappointed. The book was written a decade before Trump was even born, after all, and the author’s concerns were on other things, most obviously the then-new Nazi regime in Germany.

Parallels between the book’s Corpo America and Nazi Germany are numerous – the Corpos position themselves as being the only party prepared to defend America from communism, and their rise is partly facilitated by the paramilitary wing of the organisation, the Minute Men or MM (vide the SS). There is anti-Semitism, book-burning, concentration camps, warmongering. The shady characters surrounding Windrip do recall Goebbels, Goering, and other senior Nazis. On the other hand, Windrip himself is Hitlerish only in his peculiar oratorical abilities – the rest of the time he is a clownish, none-too-bright figure, as much like Ronald Reagan as Donald Trump.

And some of the resonances in the book are eerie and a little unsettling – the US declares war on Mexico before the end of the book, for one thing. Windrip is pretty much only a narcissistic figurehead in the sway of a rather more sinister, ideological figure, Sarason, and some might say that this pretty much describes the dynamic between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Watchers of Bannon’s own documentary output have suggested that he is, essentially, an ideological warmonger, and it’s disturbing to hear sentiments coming from characters in the book which recall ones which real-life thinkers have been known to offer, especially on the topic of militarism and war as something to be welcomed inasmuch as it boosts a nation’s moral fibre.

So the book sort of does tell us things about the Trump regime, but only inasmuch as it is about, and a warning against, how democracy can be subverted and totalitarian rule take its place. One wonders if some of the observers on the Left who have seized upon It Can’t Happen Here as a warning from history are subconsciously holding their breath in anticipation of the moment when Trump wheels out the jackbooted stormtroopers and really gets busy with the brutal oppression of all opponents. Is that going to happen? I don’t know. Less than a hundred days into the ICP’s term of office, there are signs of the wheels coming off the juggernaut (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

Is there, then, much more to It Can’t Happen Here than an odd little book which circumstances happen to have made unexpectedly topical once again? Well, as with many cultural artefacts of significant age, there are things about the book which have become strikingly odd – impenetrable cultural and historical references, curious choices of literary style, a narrative voice which is at different times both laborious and sentimental. Many of the characters are not drawn with great depth – although the protagonist, Jessup, is an exception, and not quite the paragon of all virtues you might have expected – and the story is frequently manipulative. Then again, that’s possibly the point; it is certainly readable and resonant enough to be fairly rewarding even today, even if it isn’t quite the chilling prediction of the present day you might be led to believe. If does turn out to be on the money, of course, 1930s literature will be the last thing on anyone’s mind, so it might be better to read it soon, just to be on the safe side.

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The problem with a book about Doctor Who, even one written by a former Doctor, even one whose son-in-law is also a former Doctor, even one whose daughter is a Time Lord, and who herself is the daughter of her own husband, is that there are just too many of them (books – not Doctors.)

Apparently, it used to be the case that when people really wanted to praise Jimmy Carter, they would say that he was a great ex-President: by which they meant that he did all the post-Presidential memoir-writing and library-opening, and so on, really terribly well, with a much greater level of success, certainly, than most of the things he actually attempted while resident in the White House.

Being the President of the USA is in some respects a job for life – even after your four or eight years, you get to keep the title, not to mention the security detail, and apparently you keep the right to look at CIA intelligence reports too, not that many people exercise it – and the same is arguably true of being Doctor Who (although ex-Doctors don’t have any access to CIA files, as far as I know anyway).

If I were to describe anyone as being a great ex-Doctor Who (the implication being that their stories may have been a bit iffy, but their deportment since leaving the show to be exemplary) it would probably be Peter Davison. I’m not entirely sure why I would choose him over any of the others, and I’m aware that the implication – that his stories were not quite up to scratch – will be met by the usual frothing at the mouth and snarling from people who genuinely love his Doctor and those episodes.

Hey, it’s not as if I dislike the fifth Doctor’s stories – or perhaps it’s better to say that I like them more than I used to, simply because as I get older I find it easier to appreciate the intelligence and subtlety of Davison’s performances. As I think I’ve said before, he doesn’t always go for the most flashy or theatrical line reading, opting instead for more surprising choices.

The question with any actor is one of which of the traditions of Doctor-portrayals they belong to: giving a genuine acting performance, or simply producing a slightly larger-than-life version of their own personality. (It may be something to do with the nature of the modern series, but it strikes me there’s been a definite shift towards the former.) With Peter Davison there was never any real doubt that he was playing the Doctor, rather than being the Doctor, but that hasn’t changed the fact that as a person he has remained curiously anonymous and nondescript compared to some of the others.

William Hartnell was in the first Carry On film and apparently a bit racist, Patrick Troughton was a naval officer and storied character actor, Jon Pertwee hung out with Churchill and Hailie Selassie, Tom Baker escaped from a monastery and married his assistant, Colin Baker shouts a lot and doesn’t like polls, Sylvester McCoy used to put ferrets down his trousers, but Peter Davison… umm… didn’t he go to public school? Oh, I know: he wrote the theme tune to Button Moon.

To be fair, in recent years evidence that Peter Davison is actually a much more engaging character than his public image might suggest has been piling up: years ago, he was perfectly willing to let himself be kidnapped and vilely misused by Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, turned up on the Harry Hill show at least once, and the no-holds-barred irreverence of his DVD commentaries is quite often more entertaining than the stories themselves.

Davison’s transformation into the ex-Doctor I would feel most comfortable going on a medium-length touring holiday with is complete with the release of his autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs. As the actor himself notes near the start, any Doctor Who-related memoir is entering a rather crowded marketplace these days, and there’s always the drawback that the people reading the book will most likely have a firmer grasp on the actual facts of the series’ production than the writer.

pd-aad

Peter Davison manages to circumvent both these problems simply by being a hugely engaging writer. The fact that so many details of his life are relatively obscure also helps: for me at least, the book scored highly on the ‘cripes, I never would have guessed that’ front, as he regales the reader with the facts of his unexpected ethnic heritage, less-than-glittering academic career, occasional career downturns, and so on. (On the whole he opts for a roughly chronological approach to his memoir, running up to about the late 2000s, followed by a couple of chapters dealing solely with convention experiences and his work in West End musicals.)

Much of the entertainment value is derived from Davison refusing to pass up any opportunity to deprecate himself, although a few faintly scurrilous anecdotes about co-stars sneak in and details of his encounters with Dave Clark, Dave Prowse, John Cleese and the cast of Magnum, P.I. are usually both fascinating and funny. He’s usually very generous, however – that said, the story about Matthew Waterhouse giving Richard Todd advice on camera technique is wheeled out again, while he is evisceratingly harsh about Michael Winner. (The Dark Dimension debacle gets both barrels, too.)

Overall, the book is a disarming read: Davison spends most of it being disarmingly self-deprecating, but doesn’t shy away from moments of disarming honesty when dealing with more personal issues and his various relationships. (Caveat emptor: while David Tennant provides a typically charming introduction, he’s much more prominent in the photo section than he is in the rest of the book.) It’s more than enough to make me excuse the various small factual errors (which year some things happened in, which story came first, some oddly misspelt names) which have crept in. The absence of any mention of Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters is harder to forgive, of course.

I’m almost tempted to say this is a book capable of breaking out of the Who/vet niche and appealing to a wider audience, as Peter Davison remains a well-known face and the book is so much fun – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I. In the end all I can add is that this book has reminded me of all the things I like about Davison, his Doctor and his stories, and made me want to watch some of them again. And that must surely be a good sign.

 

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Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise gets his shirt off. A lot. Websites exist chronicling just how often the audience is treated to the sight of his exposed abdomen. People openly speculate as to just why it is that the captain’s shirt is of such poor quality that it tears so easily in so many episodes. Stepping back from the fiction for a moment, the captain-gets-his-shirt-off/torn bit is so notable that they do a gag about it in Galaxy Quest. (They also do a gag about it in Star Trek Beyond, but I’m tempted to suggest we restrict ourselves to the better class of Star Trek movie. Like Galaxy Quest.)

And it’s a decent gag, though perhaps a bit weary now from overuse. The same is probably true of the other done-to-death original series of Star Trek gag, which is the one about the fact that when Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a new guy from security beam down to a planet at the start of an episode, the security guy should have his will and life insurance sorted out, because his life expectancy would probably make an actuary blanch. (The best example I can think of is at the start of Friday’s Child, a (and this is perhaps significant) pretty poor episode of Trek.)

Now, you wouldn’t write a whole novel based around the idea that Kirk’s shirt gets ripped a lot (although as – and perhaps I’m assuming too much here – a fairly sane person, constant reader, you probably wouldn’t write a Star Trek-related novel of any kind). But someone has written a novel about the fact that the guys in the red shirts get killed at a frankly alarming rate, and… I still can’t quite believe it… it won the Hugo. The book is (duh) Redshirts, and it was written by John Scalzi.

redshirts_cover

The novel focuses on a bunch of new lower-decks crew members aboard the United Universe starship Intrepid, who very gradually become aware that the world they live in is, to put it mildly, statistically and scientifically unlikely. Why do most of the experienced crew spent much of their time hiding from the senior staff? Why is so much of the ship’s scientific research literally meaningless technobabble? How is it that ship’s navigator Kerensky can be beaten virtually to death every week and make a miraculous recovery time after time? And just why do they keep sending a navigator down on scientific survey missions anyway?

Well, you’re probably ahead of me on this one, but the protagonists eventually figure out that they are minor characters on a rather crappy TV space opera show, and their primary role is to die meaningless and slightly stupid deaths in order to serve the demands of the plot. The question, of course, is what on earth they can do about this not insignificant problem…

It’s to Scalzi’s credit that he takes what sounds very much like a one-joke conceit and spins it into a decent-length novel without it feeling too strained, although in order to do so occasionally feels like a bit of a stretch (the fictional characters in the book are not completely fictional in terms of the TV show, they exist in a genuine future which is warped, via inexplicable means, by the activities of TV writers in a parallel timeline). Do I even need to mention that this is a deeply recursive, very meta book? At one point even the characters start talking about how recursive and meta everything is, and you can’t get much more meta-recursive than that.

The book’s relationship with genuine Star Trek is a slightly peculiar one. Scalzi makes the joke in the acknowledgements that the book’s TV show is not remotely based on Stargate Universe (on which he apparently was consultant for a bit), but actual, proper, genuine Star Trek is explicitly name checked in the text of the novel itself, as someone figures out the only ship in the history of the universe with casualty rates like the Intrepid is the (explicitly fictional) Enterprise. It’s impossible not to conclude that the crappy TV show messing up the protagonists’ lives is an extremely thinly-veiled piss-take on Star Trek itself.

Hmmm, well. It’s not the most flattering depiction, nor is it (I would say) an especially fair one. The Redshirt Trope (as I suppose we should call it) obviously exists, and is certainly at its most visible in some of Star Trek‘s less impressive episodes – there’s Friday’s Child, as mentioned, plus also The Apple , in which an alien planet turns into a virtual shooting gallery for anyone in a scarlet sweater. There’s a fairly clear instance in The Omega Glory, too, which is on in front of me as I type – although I must confess to a sneaking fondness for this particular episode. (Is it worth mentioning the numerous episodes in which guys in blue and yellow shirts also meet sticky, plot-advancing demises?) But the thing is that the better episodes are not propelled along by casual slaughter – you won’t find any dead redshirts in Amok Time, or Doomsday Machine, or Trouble With Tribbles. Plus, very occasionally, you get an incidental crewmember death which is neither meaningless nor stupid – there’s Lt. Newlywed from Balance of Terror, not to mention Yeoman Scared from The Deadly Years. (Although I suppose there’s the question of whether these really count as ‘incidental’ deaths, given they’re significant. Recursiveness beckons again…)

Am I not getting just a bit too defensive about a book which, ultimately, appears to be at least somewhat knowledgeable and affectionate when it comes to Star Trek? (Especially when I am obviously not a Trekkie myself.) Mmm, well. The thing is that the portrayal of the show-within-the-book is wholly negative – even the characters making it admit it’s a cheap, incoherent piece of hackwork – with no mention of the many virtues or laudable things about real-life Trek. There’s a suggestion that Scalzi admits that making this kind of action-adventure genre show almost demands occasionally hokey writing in order to function at all, but not much more than this.

There’s an odd and presumably unintentional way in which Redshirts even shows up how well-written Trek is, in some respects at least. One of the things which writers on the show – during the Berman era, at least – complain about most bitterly was the difficulty of writing 24th century dialogue that sounds natural without being absurdly contemporary in tone. Good Trek dialogue has a slightly stylised quality to it, something classic, somewhat exaggerated. Having the characters just talk like regular people would somehow be ridiculous. The thing is that the characters in Redshirts do just talk like young people from the 2010s. It makes the achievement of creating characters like Picard and Sisko and the rest all the more impressive.

At various points in the book characters talk about Gawker (a popular if slightly disreputable US website, your honour) – there is eventually a time travel element to the story – and it seems to me that all the main characters talk and act like the millennial types you find hanging around on a site like io9 (a Gawker affiliate) – they’re bright, snarky, terribly aware of genre conventions and all that sort of narrative metajargon, and for all their talk about their lives being significant they treat everything with a distinctly ironic level of detachment. They drop the F-bomb and talk about oral sex virtually non-stop, too, which may mean they have a lot in common with Gene Roddenberry (I’m not sure, depends on which stories you believe), but they’re not really recognisable as being in any way akin to actual Star Trek characters.

I can see why Redshirts has proven so popular, if this is the audience which has adopted it – it’s a bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate book, which bright, snarky, knowing, media-literate people which are understandably going to enjoy. But it just seemed to me to be second-order science fiction at best, which it doesn’t strike me as being that difficult to write.  It is clever and inventive, but I found it rather lacking in warmth and depth – despite a concluding and slightly wrong-footing attempt at giving it all some emotional significance and heft. It may just be that I was expecting an affectionate and knowing Star Trek parody, and despite appearances this is not that book. It’s just a little difficult to work out what it actually is.

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It occurs to me that there was nothing on the blog to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trek, but then – other than a few small mentions in the news – it didn’t seem like that big a deal generally. The latest movie doesn’t appear to have made much of a splash (and I’m tempted to add ‘not without reason’), the only UK TV channel to do anything to mark the occasion was CBS Action, and all they managed to scrape together were some documentaries from about ten years ago.

Hey ho. At least news about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, is starting to trickle out, although breath-holding is not an advisable procedure, Captain, as the show has already been pushed back to early next Summer. News that the show will focus on a ‘minority female’ protagonist is hardly a surprise; the revelation that the programme will a) be set in the proper Star Trek timeline and b) occur about ten years prior to the original series and explore an event from the mythos, probably is. Not, apparently, the Romulan War, the dates are wrong anyway, so what could it be? If that ‘ten years’ reference is accurate it cuts the possibilities down quite significantly.

Well, anyway, my expectations are under strict management (this is the twitchy, burnt-out state to which the likes of Moffat and Abrams have reduced me), but one hopeful sign is the presence as writer and producer of Nicholas Meyer. Whenever Star Trek is spoken of, the name accompanying it most closely is that of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, and this is only right and proper, but at the same time it was not Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek which became a popular and critical success in the 1980s and gave the franchise its second great lease of life, but that of Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II, for many people (including myself) the best of the Trek movies and a high point of the franchise generally.

meyerbridge

I just recently finished Meyer’s memoir of his career up until 2009, The View from the Bridge, and a curious but definitely entertaining read it is. One of the things Meyer comments on is the attitude of the original Trek crew to the series – how they variously came to terms with the fact that, one way or another, this was the thing they will forever be associated with. Meyer doesn’t seem to consciously think of himself as being in the same situation, but then he goes and organises his book into three sections entitled ‘Pre Trek’, ‘Trek’, and ‘Post Trek’ – one senses his tongue may be ever so slightly in his cheek, but even so.

One senses very little animus towards the series from Meyer, anyway, even though there are many other interesting lines on his CV, some of which the book deals with in some detail – his Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which were hugely successful in the mid 70s, the steampunk time travel movie Time After Time, which isn’t nearly well-known enough nowadays, and various other productions (some of which I hadn’t realised he’d been involved with). Objectively, perhaps the most significant thing Meyer has ever done was the TV movie The Day After, which presented the effects of a nuclear strike on the USA in such sufficiently dismal manner as to make Ronald Reagan start thinking in terms of arms limitations treaties rather than Mutually Assured Destruction. Just think – we might all have ended up as clouds of radioactive vapour, were it not for Nicholas Meyer. And he wrote that scene where William Shatner shouts ‘KHAAAAAAAAAAN!’ I don’t know about you, but I would kill for a CV with either of those achievements on it, let alone both.

This is a professional memoir rather than a personal one, and so Meyer’s domestic situation only gets referred to when it impacted on his career (or vice versa). One commentator thought that the book comes across as ‘slightly grumpy’, but I can’t say I really found this to be the case. He comes across as a guy who knows his own mind, and not really one with the greatest tolerance for idiots, but not really congenitally irascible.

For a book which is mostly likely to get read by people with a greater-than-average interest in Star Trek, I’m not sure there are many great revelations to be discovered: William Shatner ‘liked to be the first man through the door’ (an interesting euphemism), and was ‘no ego, all vanity’ (something I struggled to understand until it occurred to me I could imagine people saying the same about me). The (in Trek circles) famous anecdote about how Star Trek II came to be written in less than a fortnight is retold, along with various other old favourites plus a few I hadn’t encountered before: Ricardo Montalban started work on the film by bellowing all his lines at the top of his voice, and when Meyer tentatively suggested there might be something to be gained from a more moderate approach, the star’s response was ‘Ah, you are going to direct me? Good!’

Much of the non-Trek stuff is just as interesting, although for a book which opens with Meyer reflecting on the intrinsic decency of the majority of the people he has met in Hollywood, there’s an awful lot of material about arguments with the studio and friendships disintegrating under pressure. The only real omission, if you ask me, is any reference to the fact that Meyer apparently did some uncredited work on the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies – the fact that there were script difficulties explains a lot about this movie, if you ask me – presumably because he was friends with Pierce Brosnan and related by marriage to the director. But no mention whatsoever here, which is curious and a bit of a shame.

If one were to take anything away from this book, it would probably concern the dangers of over-familiarity and over-reverentiality. A running theme is Meyer’s near-total lack of awareness of Star Trek prior to starting work on his first movie – ‘the TV show with the guy with the pointy ears’ is his not-especially-shorthand for it – with the obvious conclusion that this served the franchise better than dogmatic fidelity to Roddenberry’s own vision (in its 70s and 80s version at least). Then again, you could probably argue that Meyer’s influence on Star Trek didn’t really extend beyond the Kirk-era movies, and was of variable significance even then: his scripts are all about characters and their choices, they don’t have the reliance on techno-bibble or the slightly laboured sense of This Is Our Theme you get later in the franchise.

It will be interesting to see just how indicative the appointment of Nicholas Meyer proves to be, when it comes to the direction of the new Trek. Personally I think the series could use a bit more zest and wit and Hornblower right now. The expectations bar may have crept up a few microns.

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The thing about H.G. Wells’ novels – the great ones, the ones that everyone knows and remembers – is not necessarily that they are classic novels as the term is generally understood. They tend to have fairly simple plots, they are not over-burdened with characters, those who do appear are generally not drawn with much in way of depth or complexity, the dialogue rarely sparkles. And yet it would be odd if they were formed in any other way. Someone I’ve been unable to track down once said that the main character of an SF novel should be an idea, and I think there is more than a little truth in that.

I’ve just re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau, written by Wells in 1896 (after The Time Machine but before The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds), and it would be amusing to imagine the results were the typical novel-writing coach to get their hands on it. Anguished shrieks – the protagonist doesn’t do enough, there’s virtually no plot, it takes too long to get going, the story would happen even if the protagonist wasn’t there, and so on. And all of these things are true.

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Obligatory capsule-synopsis begins. The narrator, a shipwrecked biologist, finally ends up on the titular landmass after being rescued by Montgomery, a mysterious, dissolute figure. Montgomery is accompanied by some caged animals he is transporting and a grotesque, unsettling servant. In turns out Montgomery is in the service of the eponymous doctor, who for the previous ten years has been…

Well, the three men are not alone on the island. Moreau has been busy with the animals Montgomery has provided for him. Using surgery and other, more obscure scientific means, he has given the beasts the semblance of human appearance, human speech, and human thought, and provided them with a pseudo-religious moral framework to govern their actions. But Moreau’s creations always deteriorate, revert back towards their original bestial state, and the dominance of the human beings is built on a fragile foundation…

So: while Moreau himself is a barely two-dimensional character, and not in the book much, by far the biggest issue with this book, in a structural critique-your-novel sense, is that the narrator has no real agency. None of his choices impact the development of the story, which would – we may assume – have developed in a virtually identical manner had he not been there. (Curiously enough, one may note that the makers of the now-rather-obscure 1977 film adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York, seem to have come to an identical conclusion, for their own corrective surgery on the story rectifies just this issue – in addition, of course, to providing a role as love interest for Barbara Carrera, who if memory serves gets her kit off at one point somewhat gratuitously.)

And yet none of this matters. The narrators of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds have equally passive, onlooker-ish roles in those books. What The Island of Doctor Moreau shares with them is an astonishing capability to crowbar open your brain and insert extraordinarily vivid and imaginative ideas and images there: there’s a reason why other writers, especially in the mainstream, have been patiently ripping Wells off over and over again for the last century.

What makes The Island of Doctor Moreau different to those other books is that, with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, it’s relatively straightforward to decipher what those books are actually about – The Time Machine is a fable which satirises the British class system, while The War of the Worlds is, on some level, an allegory about the development of the British Empire. With The Island of Doctor Moreau, if there is a particular subtext to the story, it’s not immediately clear what it might be.

Not that there are any shortage of candidates. Like The Time Machine or the best works of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s impossible to read this book and not be struck by a sense of a generation of intelligent, thoughtful men struggling to come to terms with the question of humanity’s place in the universe, post-Darwin. The book suggests that there is nothing privileged or unique about this – by the conclusion the narrator finds he can no longer truly distinguish between Moreau’s beast-men and the genuine kind in any meaningful way. Beasts can become people, and vice versa.

Of course, the book works as science fiction of the purest kind, about a scientist with questionable ideas misusing his power – a cautionary tale, whether it’s about vivisection or genetic engineering or any other form of uplift. But, given Wells’ interest in British society, another, slightly uncomfortable interpretation is also available, what I suppose I would have to call the post-Imperial reading. The Europeans have seized upon the animals and remade them into something approaching a more civilised state, but at the same time they are only too aware of the precariousness of their own position: at one point Montgomery stresses the importance of their remaining dignified at all times, lest they lose the respect of the beast-men.

It reads all too much like one of George Orwell’s pieces about the last days of the British Empire, and the problem, of course, is that this reading – Moreau’s transmogrification of the animals into something approaching human as an allegory for the ‘civilisation’ of indigenous people by the empire – seems incredibly racist to someone today. It equates non-Caucasians with animals (several of the beast-people are explicitly described as ‘negroid’), and suggests that the ‘civilised’ state is only a veneer which will inevitably crumble sooner or later. That Wells implicitly objects to Moreau’s project and is, by and large, sympathetic to the beast-people is really neither nor there.

As I said, this is a really uncomfortable reading of the book – everyone by now surely knows that Lovecraft was grotesquely racist, so we’re used to that, but you kind of expect better from someone like H.G. Wells, don’t you? I usually baulk at judging works and people from so long ago by modern ethical standards, but even so. That said, I think Wells redeems himself and the book by making it clear this is not solely a book about the empire and race, in that sense at least. The only race he’s interested in is the human variety, undifferentiated, and the nature of our own society.

He spends a lot of time detailing the Law under which the beast-people live – they have their own mock-priest, and various of the injunctions placed upon them (to keep their animal nature in check) are detailed. Impulsive creatures descended from animals whose baser instincts are supposedly controlled by a spurious religion…? One gets a strong sense of yet another level of satire going on here.

Wells was one of those people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ – organised religion and its representatives often come in for a kicking in his books, and this one seems to me to be no exception. And the satire here is general enough for us to suppose it is not limited to adherents of those religions off in those funny other places, but to the good folk of the C of E and other faiths closer to home. The closing section of the book, thankfully, reinforces this more generalist view – on his return to civilisation, the narrator finds himself unable to live around other people any more, for he has become uncomfortably aware of the bestial nature they all share. All people, everywhere: the nameless island is, after all, described as ‘the whole balance of human life in miniature’.

Perhaps it’s slightly odd that the subtext you would expect to find in The Island of Doctor Moreau – one about animal rights, and the destructive impact of humanity upon nature – is the one that isn’t really there: Wells’ narrator expresses outrage and horror at the suffering undergone by Moreau’s animal subjects, but you never get the sense that this is what the book is in any way about. Wells seems to have been more interested in people than in beasts – although it may equally be the case that the lack of a meaningful distinction between the two is really what the book is about. There are many choices; that’s one of the things that makes this book so great.

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Isherwood Williams, a graduate student, is bitten by a rattlesnake while on a camping trip in a remote Californian wilderness. After a lengthy convalescence, he emerges from seclusion to discover that in the meantime a virus has all but exterminated the human race. Only a handful of people are still alive in the entirety of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the survival and future destiny of the human race will depend on their efforts. So begins George R Stewart’s Earth Abides, first published in 1949, and you might be forgiven for thinking that you could write the rest of it for yourself.

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Perhaps so, but at the heart of the novel is something odd and almost paradoxical. There have been many, many stories written around this theme since the end of the Second World War – indeed, the post-apocalyptic narrative has become something of a mainstay of science fiction and horror. Earth Abides is by no means the first such story, but it is surely a colossus of the genre. Never mind Ish Williams’ role as the progenitor of a new human race, from him also spring Bill Masen, John Custance, Robert Neville, Abby Grant, Greg Preston, and the protagonists of so many stories partly or largely inspired by this one. He contains multitudes.

But then again, this is also a very different kind of story to all of those others. At its most excitable, post-apocalyptic fiction can devolve to little more than formerly mild-mannered citizens discovering their inner barbarian and learning how to skirmish in the ruins of the old civilisation, while even the more thoughtful examples of the form take a fairly optimistic view of the prospects of some form of civilisation making a fairly speedy comeback.

Earth Abides is a quieter story with a different perspective. Ish is not instantly infused with a sudden desire to resurrect society and get things back to how they were: he quickly realises that this will be impossible, given the scale of the devastation. Given that the psychological trauma seems to have driven most of the survivors insane, one way or another, he decides that humanity has little chance of survival and contemplates suicide: but in the end opts to continue to live, simply out of curiosity about how the world will progress in the sudden absence of man.

And throughout the book Stewart inserts little asides, describing just that: the slow encroachment of forest and field into the cities, the lot of the domesticated animals now left unattended, the fate of the crops and flowers once cultivated by man. Writing in the late 1940s, he has no doubt as to the resilience of nature or just how little impact, really, the human race has had on the natural world. Set against the vastness of deep time, the sovereignty of man is just a brief and curious interlude. There is a profound and rather wonderful calmness in Stewart’s presentation of this – he finds not much cause for sorrow or anger in man’s demise.

But set against this is Ish’s abandonment of his detachment and re-engagement with the human race. He meets a woman, Em, and together with a small group of others they do set about ensuring the survival of the human race, founding a settlement and raising many children. Ish’s private ambition is to ensure the return of technological civilisation as soon as possible, and he protects books as the greatest treasure left to the survivors by the old civilisation. But is he capable of inspiring the other survivors to share his vision?

This is where Earth Abides diverges sharply from most other stories in this genre. I’m going to compare it to the BBC series Survivors (1975-7), partly because it’s one I’m very familiar with, but also because Survivors is very clearly inspired by this novel (the episode Law and Order contains one scene taken virtually whole cloth from Stewart’s novel, for instance).

The most major difference, of course, is that Survivors occurs over a handful of years following the plague, while Earth Abides covers decades – it’s somewhat discombobulating to think that, if the book’s opening is set around the time it was written, its final, ‘distant future’ segment could well have been meant to occur around now, early in the 21st century. But you can’t do a TV show with that kind of scope – at least no-one’s attempted it yet – so you can kind of forgive the BBC for telescoping events somewhat.

But Survivors is tonally different also. Terry Nation’s characters energetically embrace their do-it-yourself, back to the land philosophy, within a handful of episodes – presumably because Nation himself was apparently a great advocate of people being more practically-minded. Stewart’s survivors, quite believably, see no reason to abandon the comforts of civilisation and the rich pickings left behind, and the piecemeal collapse of the old systems of power, lighting, and water (over what seem to me like an improbably long period) are major events in their lives. Only Ish sees the need to build anew rather than simply scavenge, and he lacks the charisma he needs to persuade the others of this.

The final series of Survivors concludes, symbolically, with the electric lights coming back on only three or so years after the annihilation of well over 99% of the UK’s population. Earth Abides accepts that this is wildly optimistic – as the book concludes, Ish’s tribe of descendants are well on the way to being little more than hunter-gatherers, deeply superstitious, their highest technological achievement being the pounding of coins into arrowheads, with no grasp of the calendar, no literacy, and losing what Ish is able to recognise as English.

Yet this does not seem in any way a dismal or overly bleak conclusion – it is surely the lot of every very old person to not recognise the world that the younger generations have made. I have read and watched many stories of this kind, and I do find them to be amongst the saddest and most poignant in all of fiction – perhaps because, when we contemplate the death of civilisation, we must inevitably contemplate our own, and in the crumbling of the ruins of our world lies the implicit truth of how insignificant it really is. All of this is here, elaborated quite simply and elegantly by Stewart’s beautiful prose. But, as mentioned, there is also a wonderful serenity and sense of acceptance, a deep humanism, but also a profound love of nature.

There are no zombies, no killer plants, no gun-toting packs of petrol-hungry raiders in Earth Abides – there is, in truth, very little in the way of action in it at all. And yet this very quiet book is, in a strange way, the ur-text of the modern post-apocalyptic story, the one that encompasses all the others, and perhaps surpasses them too. This is a great, great book, full of intelligence and wisdom and sadness and compassion. It will surely be with us as long as civilisation endures, although I’m sure its author would have been the first to suggest that this is, in the wider view of things, perhaps less impressive than it first sounds. But then the wider view is the whole point of Earth Abides.

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