Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

One of the particular pleasures of infiltrating my family’s parties, as I do a couple of times a year, is the opportunity to catch up with my semi-cousin, His MBEship. In addition to being the only person even vaguely connected with the clan to have been honoured by HRH, His MBEship is a well-read fellow and seldom lets a visit go by without pushing a book in my direction and saying ‘take a look at this.’ Many of these are things which would not necessarily show up on my radar in the usual course of events, but they have always turned out to be interesting and worth taking a look at. Back in July, His MBEship’s pick was Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which is such a substantial tome (nearly 950 pages) that I’ve only just finished reading it.

It’s a little difficult to pin down exactly what kind of book this is. A brief summary of the plot makes it sound like a thriller: the protagonist, an Australian escaped convict whose real name we never learn, arrives in Bombay on a stolen passport at some point in the early 1980s. He finds he rather likes the place, makes friends with a comic-relief local guide, falls in love with another member of the expat scene, becomes a black-market fixer, slum doctor, prisoner, gangster, peripheral member of the Bollywood scene, and unwilling mujahideen, all over the course of about five or six years.

However, one must also bear in mind that this rollicking tale of an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ends up living in India for years has been written by an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ended up living in India for years, and one of the questions floating around this book is just to what extent it is some sort of roman a clef, and how much of it is based on stuff which actually happened to Roberts. ‘They’re novels – it doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not,’ is the author’s official position on the topic, and whatever else you can say about his writing, he hides the joins supremely well. My personal suspicion (apologies to the author if I’m wrong) is that he did not, in fact, nearly die of frostbite in Afghanistan after being hit by a mortar shell while fighting the Soviets, but he tells this part of the tale with all the vividness and detail that he does the rest of it.

And there is rather a lot of it, as I mentioned before. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good epic, and the author mixes things up and varies the tone rather deftly – the narrative goes from a nerve-wracking visit to the chilling madam of a high-class brothel, to a considered discussion of the nature of good and evil with an Afghan crime lord, to a comic vignette about trying to get a bear bailed out of jail, in the space of as many scenes. Some of the transitions are so outrageous it’s hard to believe they’re not based on true events.

And as a thriller it’s a good story, set in a world not much covered by mainstream western media – you can see why a film version has been in the works for years (it is such a no-brainer that Joel Edgerton will be playing the protagonist that even I was able to guess as much), although I wish the screenwriter luck in getting the story down to under six hours of screen time.

The thing is, though, that Shantaram (the title is Marathi for ‘Man of peace’, and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be ironic or not) seems to have aspirations to be more than just a hefty airport novel and actually become Proper Literature. It tries really, really hard on this score; so hard that I would say the strain occasionally shows.

Well, look, there are lots of books and movies about gangsters – it’s one of those genres that never seems to go out of fashion. Roberts’ protagonist cloaks himself in the dubious glamour of the outlaw, the gangster, the wanted man, in addition to the various other ways he arguably self-aggrandises himself – he talks a lot about guilt and regret but it never feels particularly palpable. The subtext seems to be ‘Yeah, I was a bank robber and a gangster, but it’s not as if there’s much wrong with that, because I did it as honourably as I could, never personally killed anyone, and I came away with all these valuable life lessons which I will now proceed to share with you.’ Gee, thanks, I think.

One of the reasons His MBEship was so impressed with Shantaram is the sheer level of detail and local colour woven into the text. Well, yes, Roberts clearly knows Bombay well, but I suspect there was less research involved – when you live in a place even for a short time, you do pick this stuff up surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of practical bits and pieces from reading the book: how to win a knife fight in the prison laundry, how to make a fortune by dealing in stolen passports, various philological and geographical tidbits too.

For me the problematic stuff comes when Roberts decides to start waxing eloquent about the important truths of life. He writes naturalistic dialogue and action scenes very well, but whenever he gets his descriptive hat on you get a sense of someone slightly overreaching himself – we get lots of mentions of ‘the psalm of her hair’ and ‘the archery of her mouth’, and my gut reaction was ‘what on Earth are you on about.’ Roberts’ slightly overenthusiastic approach to this sort of thing gets its fullest expression in the Bad Sex Scenes he occasionally includes – ‘our tongues writhed and pulsated in their caves of pleasure,’ he helpfully informs the reader, as one amorous interlude gets underway. Maybe that gets you in the mood; I just want to go ‘ugh’.

Beyond this, not a chapter goes by without Roberts making multiple portentous declarations about What It Is All About – Every dead body is a temple in ruins. Every door is a portal to both the past and the future. Now, he does occasionally come up with some very good lines – ‘some truths don’t make us love the world more, but they help us to hate it less’, for instance. But I found a lot of this wisdom to be Reader’s Digest-standard and not nearly as profound as Roberts appears to think it is: things frequently get just a bit pretentious. It also seems to smack of a certain level of self-regard – we are frequently reminded that Shantaram‘s semi-autobiographical hero is an outlaw, a gangster, a tough man, a man of peace, a writer (other characters occasionally come up to him and tell him what a good writer he is, even though this has zero bearing on the plot) – luckily we’re never told what a humble and modest chap he is, because that really would be pushing it.

So I was never really able to fully commit to Shantaram – ‘to enfold my heart in the quiet wisdom of its many pages’, as Roberts might possibly put it – even as I enjoyed its colour and vibrancy. It’s an interesting and extremely readable book, very funny in places and occasionally quite moving. But too often it almost feels like Paulo Coelho trying to write Goodfellas – a promising epic adventure-thriller frequently sidetracked by philosophical and poetic discursions which are not really all that insightful. But the ratio of impressive storytelling to pretentious waffle is good enough to make this worth a look, I would say.


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The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

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It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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In terms of the cardinal sins a book or film can commit, having a title that no-one is quite sure how to pronounce is not especially high on the list – after all, Koyaanisqatsi seems to have done pretty well for itself, along with the entirety of the Cthulhu industry. The problem only becomes acute if the title itself is not that great to begin with. Here we begin to get to the nub of the issue as it applies to John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, which for all the world sounds like a placeholder title that the author never got back to. Never mind that it’s possibly the least gripping title in the history of literature – should one pronounce it to rhyme with kitchen or as a homophone of liken? (Wyndham himself offers no guidance.)

Oh well. Trouble with Lichen was originally published in 1960, by which time Wyndham himself had made his name with the four great novels he is best remembered for – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, and The Midwich Cuckoos – and tried his hand at some slightly more conventionally science-fictional space futurism with The Outward Urge, with arguably less success. Trouble with Lichen is something else again, being in some ways the softest of soft science fiction.

Even disregarding the fact that this is not a long novel, we’re quite a long way into the story before the SF element openly appears. The early chapters concern the progress of a brilliant young biochemist, Diana Brackley, whose combination of intelligence, beauty, and willingness to challenge social convention tends to unsettle those around her. She ends up at Darr House, a small research company run by Francis Saxover, a reserved, slightly diffident older man in the classic Wyndham mould. One day there is an accident in the lab, or perhaps one should say a serendipitous occurrence – a tiny flake of lichen, part of a batch of samples being tested for possible medical applications, falls into a saucer of milk, which is left overnight.

The next day Diana and Francis are alone in discovering that the milk has not completely turned – that in the vicinity of the lichen has been preserved. Francis says he’ll see if the lichen has antibiotic properties, but his eventual attempts to avoid the subject, not to mention a certain awkward shiftiness, leads Diana to mount her own researches.

Well, to cut to the chase, what Francis and Diana have independently stumbled upon is what Wyndham christens an antigerone – a drug which slows the ageing process. The upper limit of this is never made clear, as it partly depends on what dosage you’re on, but it’s implied that a life expectancy of three or four hundred years is entirely possible. The problem is that the lichen from which the antigerone is derived grows only in a small and remote region of Manchuria, and even if the source can be kept secret, there is only enough to provide a steady supply of the drug for a few thousand people.

Francis hides the discovery, fearful of the chaos and upheaval that will result when the antigerone becomes a fact in society; Diana hides the discovery, fearful that vested interests will conspire to suppress widespread use of the antigerone. While Saxover is content to limit use of the drug to himself and his immediate family, she is more ambitious, putting a (necessarily) long-term plan into action to ensure the arrival, and ultimate survival, of what she calls homo diuturnus – Enduring Man…

I say that Trouble with Lichen is soft science fiction, even though it is predicated on a biochemical concept. This is because the exact nature and operation of the antigerone is rather skipped over in favour of discussion, of a rather abstract kind, of its potential impact on society. The book is all about discussing what could happen, rather than showing what is happening – the whole thing feels rather like the opening movement of a much more ambitious, more epic (and rather longer) novel about an absolute phase shift in the nature of human existence.

Wyndham enjoys himself a lot with some gentle social satire about the response of various vested interests to the existence of the antigerone, when news of this inevitably leaks, but on the whole the novel is rather short on incident and the kind of vivid imagery and memorable dialogue that epitomises the Big Four. In the end, the status quo has not significantly changed.

The novel manages to glean a happy ending from the fates of the main characters, however. Another reason for thinking of this as soft SF is because… well, I’m not going to try and claim it’s written like a Mills and Boon book or some other mass-market romantic novel, but at the same time… notions of romance are more prominently featured than in anything else Wyndham wrote. In addition to his usual wry and forensic analysis of how society functions, the relationship (or lack of it) between Francis and Diana is simmering away under the surface for most of the book.

I imagine many readers will find that a bit dispiriting, for elsewhere Wyndham goes out of his way to establish that Diana is an unusually intelligent and ambitious woman, quite capable of taking care of herself and dealing with the establishment forces set against her. Presumably he felt that making her entirely self-sufficient and independent would prevent readers from sympathising with her at all (which may even have been true in 1960) – the theory being that a sympathetic female character had to be at least partly defined by her romantic interests.

This kind of links to the other thing that makes the book seem horribly dated to a modern reader. Diana’s plan is to introduce the antigerone invisibly into society, so that by the time it is discovered, a corps of influential people prepared to fight for their right to an extended lifetime already exists. Fair enough: but she does this by investing in a beauty parlour and offering women the chance to look younger for longer. The book offers some fairly astute observations on the limited social options available to women around 1960, but much of its nitty-gritty still feels dated and chauvinist. The movement of women fighting for life extension is implicitly compared to the suffragettes at more than one point, which if nothing else is simply odd.

The thing about John Wyndham’s books is that either they are too epic to easily film – this is true of three of the Big Four – or just not cinematic enough to easily adapt for the screen. Trouble with Lichen falls into the later group – and you can imagine Wyndham himself, having hit upon the (very strong) notion of the discovery of the antigerone and its potential impact on society, trying to find a way to tell a real story about it and really, really struggling. There’s a good idea at the heart of this book, but Wyndham doesn’t really find a way to turn it into a proper narrative – at least, not one which contemporary readers are likely to find completely satisfying. Definitely one of the great man’s minor works, but not without points of interest.


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The most interesting couple of books I’ve read so far this year have been Sapiens and Homo Deus, both by Yuval Noah Harari – regular readers (may God have mercy on your souls) will perhaps recall the way in which Harari’s ideas have informed my response to all manner of, um, 1970s BBC SF series. They go together well as a pair, as you might perhaps expect: Sapiens is an attempt at an account of the forces underpinning and influencing the development of human culture, while Homo Deus builds on this and speculates as to what ideologies may become dominant as technology progresses throughout this century. It is, I think, safe to say that Harari’s ideas are at best a little unsettling, for he predicts a world in which human experience and uniqueness loses much of its value.

Then again, most attempts at predicting the future tend to be rather bleak. Then again (again), most attempts at predicting the future are really nothing of the sort, and are more accurately polemics or jeremiads about the state of the world today. Everyone’s favourite hellish dystopia is probably that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, and it remains a monumental piece of 20th century fiction. The last occasion that I properly read it, though, it was around the same point that I properly gave some attention to Brave New World for the first time. Orwell’s writing is more powerful, and his book more compelling as a result, but in many ways I found the world of the Huxley novel somehow more plausible – it’s an equally grim depiction of a society which has lost all moral focus and become utterly dependent on facile hedonistic entertainments, but I could see why people tolerated and even enjoyed living in it. The world of Nineteen Eighty Four is just ghastly, benefiting nobody; why would anyone tolerate it?

Perhaps I was being naive, or at least not paying attention – for, again, around the same time I read The Grapes of Wrath, another colossal work of literature which is in some ways predicated on the notion of the systems we have created to enable society to function going out of control. The banking system no longer exists for the benefit of human beings; human beings exist for the benefit of the banking system, and must modify their behaviour accordingly. Personal relationships are irrelevent – the rules must be followed. It was ever thus, we are told, thus must it ever be, just accept it.

One quite little-known fact is that Nineteen Eighty Four owes a huge debt to a Russian novel from a couple of decades earlier – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. I must confess to never having heard of it until a student gave me a copy as a gift, but it’s a striking piece of dystopian SF in its own right, as well as resonating quite alarmingly with some of Harari’s ideas about the way society and culture are heading.

The narrator of We is D-503, a citizen of the all-encompassing OneState, a society run along lines of the strictest mathematical accuracy and precision (citizens do not have names – they are simply Numbers). D-503 is the chief designer of a new spacecraft, the Integral, which is intended to spread the perfect creed of OneState throughout the rest of the universe, and the text of the novel is supposedly intended for the benefit of members of less-advanced societies.

Well, of course, D-503’s perfectly ordered existence – daily routine precisely scheduled, regular Sex Days with his assigned partner O-90, and so on – is shaken up when he meets I-330, an inexplicably alluring woman not afraid to break the laws and social codes of OneState. It turns out there are plans afoot to strike against the unquestioned dominance of OneState, and D-503 and the new spacecraft are central to this.

I should say that the book is much less of a thriller than I’m probably making it sound, being of a decidedly literary bent; the fact it was obviously written around 1920 inevitably dates it as well. The parallels with Nineteen Eighty Four are obvious, in terms of both theme and plot (Orwell himself said he took We as his model when planning his own novel), although Zamyatin’s writing is less visceral and a little more abstract.

Nevertheless, time and time again the novel chimes with the direction that you could argue our world is heading in now – D-503 and the other numbers live in what’s effectively a glass city, permitted privacy only during their scheduled sexual encounters. I am irresistibly put in mind of Harari’s prediction of the rise of Dataism as the next great world ideology, where privacy – withholding of information about your activities, not putting every detail of your life and experiences on-line – is socially unacceptable and the world functions as, effectively, a data economy (not so very different from society as a mathematical construct, as Zamyatin proposes). Far from being central to a liberal humanist ideology, qualitative human experience will have little or no value in a Dataist society, Harari argues, and goes on to discuss the rise of non-conscious intelligent systems and how this will affect our lives. Arguably similar is the concluding movement of We, in which the authorities OneState introduce a surgical procedure which supposedly eliminates the imagination (it appears to limit self-awareness and make the subject suggestible) – the population are reduced to being drone-like ‘tractors in human form’.

The reader of We is invited to find this nightmarish, and few would disagree with Zamyatin. Harari presents it as a logical development of the way our society is currently progressing, although he himself suggests that predictions of the future have a tendency to change the future themselves. Both these books are fascinating, not least for the extent to which they agree with each other. Do they genuinely predict the future any more than Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty Four? You could argue that both Huxley and Orwell got it partly right. I’m not brave enough to suggest that Zamyatin and Harari didn’t, at least to some extent.


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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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