Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

If you dive back deep into the stacks of this blog you may come across some good-natured grumbling from your correspondent about a certain lack of imagination in the titling department of some SF movies from, mostly, the 1960s. I refer to films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Day the Sky Exploded, and Crack in the World (the situation being somewhat confused by the existence – more accurately non-existence – of the Hammer-Harryhausen collaboration When the Earth Cracked Open).

At the time I was, as far as I can tell, completely unaware of the existence of Charles Eric Maine’s The Tide Went Out (‘a novel for adult minds only’, according to the original blurb), a 1958 novel which fits so smoothly into the narrative space between all these films it’s scarcely credible. This book was reissued in 1977 under the punchier (if less representative) title Thirst!; I imagine it would have felt fairly dated 45 years ago – it certainly feels like historical literature now. And yet it is back on sale as part of a new British Library imprint which boldly declares itself to be ‘Science Fiction Classics’. On the evidence I’ve seen this is only accurate if you accept a fairly generous definition of ‘classic’ – all the really good stuff has been snapped up by Orion’s long-running SF Masterworks range.

Maine’s tale concerns the travails of Philip Wade, a hard-bitten writer and journalist with a drink problem, a mildly unhappy marriage, and a young son who’s not much more than a plot device. The book doesn’t hang about and opens with a bit of a crisis at the office – the latest edition of Wade’s magazine has to be recalled and one of the articles replaced, on the orders of the government. How come? Well, the offending article is a speculative, sensationalist piece wondering if a spate of recent earthquakes and apparent falls in sea level in the Pacific region could be linked to Anglo-American H-bomb tests in the same area. Could, in fact, the bomb have cracked open the ocean floor and allowed the water to start draining away?

Needless to say, it looks like Wade has inadvertently hit the nail on the head, and those in high places don’t even want the suggestion of this getting out. His publisher, Stenniger, reveals that he is selling up and moving to Canada, a country blessed with much snow and ice, while it is intimated that in return for his cooperation Wade will be given a job with a new government department concerned with the control of information to avoid unnecessary public panic (i.e., an official censorship and propaganda bureau). All this duly begins to come to pass, even as earthquakes begin to affect Britain.

The government’s plan (and that of the other world powers) is to retreat to the polar regions, where the vast reserves of ice will allow some form of civilised existence to exist for quite a while. The vast majority of the population, however, is to be abandoned to die as water and food supplies are exhausted; Wade’s job, in part, is to jolly the masses along with fake good news stories and thus allow the authorities to quietly pull out without risking uproar and civil disturbances. But he will be one of the last of the lucky ones to leave the country – if anything goes wrong, his own survival may be in peril…

As a book in its own right, The Tide Went Out is fairly competently done. Every review of it I’ve read has commented on the implausibility of the central premise (where exactly is all the world’s water draining away to?), but the focus is not really on what is happening, but the effect this has on the characters and society at large. This is briskly, credibly done, although there is a bit too much telling rather than showing. Events lose their impact as a result – at one point Wade is dragged from his car and attacked by an angry mob, which Maine describes in the detached manner of a background event. Occasionally he slips into a mode where Wade is effectively talking to himself, roughly and angrily, and this is effective, but too much of the book is cool and distant.

It’s also, as noted, very much a book of its time – it certainly feels like it was written for a male audience, although this is probably a textbook case of unconscious bias. Wade and the other male characters are in charge of getting stuff done; the female characters are mainly there as either objects of sexual interest, or nuisances, or both. Not that they are any different from the men when it comes to cigarettes and alcohol – until supplies of both run out, Wade meanders through the book in what feels like a permanent boozed-up fug: every time he meets another character some variation on ‘they both lit up’ makes an appearance.

I’ve read worse, but the main problem with The Tide Went Out is that – if you know much about British SF literature of the mid 20th century – you’ve almost certainly read better books in an extremely similar style. And not just books – I’d be prepared to bet a substantial sum that this was the primary inspiration for the wonderful 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The similarities between the two stories are too numerous to list in detail, but they both depict the news media dealing with an apocalyptic environmental event caused by H-bomb testing and the ensuing collapse of society (the main character in the film is named Stenning; compare with Stenniger, a character in the book).

The main difference comes at the end, which in the book’s case surely makes clear its own inspiration. The first name which comes up in any discussion of the apocalyptic British SF novel is usually that of John Wyndham, but this overlooks the contribution of John Christopher. There’s certainly a touch of Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes to the decline of civilisation in Maine’s book, but its bleakness and psychological clarity are pure Christopher – taken, I would guess, from his The Death of Grass (famine destroys civilisation!), published two years earlier, but also evident in The World in Winter (a new ice age destroys civilisation!) and A Wrinkle in the Skin (immense earthquakes destroy civilisation!). All these explore the death of civilisation through the loss of the protagonists’ civilised values as they adapt to their new circumstances – something Wyndham touches on but never really examines rigorously.

I’m such an admirer of Christopher’s work in this genre that I spent a month in 2010 writing an 80,000 word pastiche of this type of story (a gaseous alien life form colonises the upper atmosphere, gradually causing the destruction of civilisation!). There was a flawed main character, a gradual collapse in civilised values, an eventual apocalypse, and all the usual stuff. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it being (my writing coach at the time eviscerated my outline for its non-adherence to the standard story structure), but The Tide Went Out is still probably a better book. That’s not much of a recommendation, I admit, but there you go. I’d recommend any number of John Christopher or John Wyndham books, or indeed The Day the Earth Caught Fire, ahead of it, but if you’re already familiar with those it might make an interesting example of the same material treated differently. But not that differently.

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For the last eighteen months or so my RPG group and I have been playing through the core storyline of the game King Arthur Pendragon. As the one who sits at the end of the table and goes ‘um’ a lot (aka the referee), this has required me to steep myself in Arthurian lore to a degree which was not previously the case – I mean, I was already familiar with the basic outline of the story, as it’s quite difficult to have grown up in the UK reading and watching a lot of fantasy and not acquire a basic understanding of what’s going on with Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest of the mob, but some of the finer points of matters concerning supporting characters and subplots – people and things like Balin, the Fisher King, the invasion of Rome, and so on – needed a little bit of study.

So I acquired and browsed through a rather nice edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, along with Peter Ackroyd’s more digestible The Death of King Arthur; also T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (for my money, the most accessible and poignant version of the story, if not the most faithful); I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail again, also Excalibur, First Knight, and The Fisher King.

And I also came across Stephen R Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, a trilogy of fantasy novels which I’m guessing I acquired from a relative round about 1996. I’d never got around to reading them, as with many of the fantasy doorstops that were handed down to me – I’ve owned a copy of the first Game of Thrones novel since long before the TV series was even mooted, but never read a word of it (hush, now, with your gasps and bemusement). Lawhead is an American writer long resident in the UK; apparently he moved here to do research for the books in question. They are, as you have probably guessed, another retelling of the Arthurian legend, albeit a rather peculiar one.

The first thing to bear in mind about the Pendragon Cycle is that it was apparently planned as a sequence of five novels, respectively entitled Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon and Grail. However, midway through production the publisher got cold feet and the saga was brought to an end after the third book (the last two have since been published elsewhere). The result, at least as far as the original trilogy is concerned, is a telling of the legend of King Arthur in which Arthur himself doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through and doesn’t get to be High King for another long while even so.

So what do we get in the first two volumes? Well, not much that feels authentically Arthurian, to be honest. The narrative voice shifts around from book to book (sometimes mid-book) but stays third-person for the opening volume. The story is split between the tales of Charis, a privileged princess growing up in one of the kingdoms of Atlantis, and Taliesin, a gifted young bard and druid coming of age in a sort of vaguely-recognisable version of Dark Ages Wales. Yes, these two are contemporaries – the book concludes with their coming together and the appearance of Merlin – which means the books are predicated on the slightly bizarre notion of Atlantis sinking not just in historical times, but during the decline of the Roman Empire. This shifts the books into an odd halfway house between quasi-historicity and pure fantasy, something which Lawhead never seems quite sure how to handle.

Certainly he’s very good at his Celtic texture, and most of the characters appear in their Celtic guises – Arthur remains Arthur, of course, but Guinevere is Gwenhwyfar, Merlin is (sometimes) Myrddin, Lancelot is Llwch Llenlleawg, and so on. (A pronunciation guide is provided but it’s still no surprise these books have never featured on Jackanory.) Nevertheless he does a lot of – to my mind – quite wilful tinkering about with the legend, to suit his own agenda.

I suppose, once you accept the presence of the Atlantean leg of the story, most of the rest of it is really small potatoes – but even so. It almost feels like most of the trilogy is setting up the pieces, getting everything to the point where the Arthurian legend can begin in earnest – but when it does, it’s really rushed-through. I felt I could honestly have skipped a lot of the stuff in Atlantis and concerning Merlin’s youth and early years as a Welsh king, because it wasn’t what I’d turned up for.

And the Arthurian material, when it does arrive, often feels peculiarly tinkered-with – and I don’t mean just the names, either. Some of the family relationships are significantly different – Galahad and Gawaine are brothers in this version, but this is a very minor detail. More striking is the fact that Merlin is the son of the Lady of the Lake and the grandson of the Fisher King; he’s also distantly related to Mordred and Morgan le Fay. The red flags really start to flutter when Lawhead explains that Arthur is actually the son of Ambrosius, not Uther (as is the case in virtually every other version of the story where the King’s parentage becomes significant to the story), something which destroys the underpinning of the whole myth as a tragedy.

Why is all of this going on? Well, given how often the characters are given to praising God for his blessings and mercy, it does seem like Lawhead had the faith-based market in mind when he was writing the book, and that the story has been tidied up and made more acceptable for a conservative audience as a result. Forget about Lancelot and Guinevere’s adulterous romance, no place for that here. The same goes for Mordred being the result of an incestuous liaison between the King and one of his sisters. (Although for some reason the very obscure character Gwenddydd, from ancient Welsh myths, is retooled as Merlin’s wife rather than his sister.) Even the inciting incident of the classical version of the saga, Uther’s demand that Merlin use his powers to get him access to the Duke of Cornwall’s beautiful wife, is neutered – it’s the Duke’s daughter, and Lawhead’s Merlin, being a good Christian, never does any of your actual magic.  Merlin, narrating the story at this point, scoffingly acknowledges the existence of false ‘legends’ about what happened – ‘Some people will believe anything!’ Especially if it has more dramatic power and mythic resonance, yes.

As a result the whole thing feels slightly bland and passionless (a non-threatening sort of religious fervour excepted). It’s frequently quite hard work, to be honest, and somewhat repetitive: characters constantly riding back and forth between the same handful of places as the plot crawls forward. I’m not yet at the point where I feel mortality breathing down my neck and can happily bail out of a book I’m not much enjoying with a clear conscience, so I stuck with the whole trilogy, but when it came to decide whether or not to get the later instalments – Pendragon and Grail – for my e-reader, I found myself strongly inclined towards giving them a hard pass. I imagine that in a post-Game of Thrones landscape, these books will seem oddly fusty and twee, no matter what you think of Lawhead’s attempts to rewrite the Arthurian story as a family-friendly religious tract.

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I am, as regular readers may not be surprised to learn, not especially inclined to be well-disposed towards that phenomenon where new writers are recruited to continue the adventures of a popular character (or characters) after the original author passes on: as I’ve mentioned before, when they recruited Eoin Colfer to write a new Hitch Hiker book, I was given a hard time for referring to it as ‘literary grave-robbing.’ Mind you, the fact that most of these books turn out to be lousy really supports my position, I feel.

I wasn’t always such a zealot on this topic, of course: back when I was a young teenager and got into the James Bond novels, I ransacked my grandfather’s bookcase (which is why I now possess about three copies of Live and Let Die and the same number of editions of From Russia With Love). Along with a decent selection of the old Pan paperbacks, I also ended up with a copy of something called Colonel Sun, written (allegedly) by someone called Robert Markham. This was the very first non-Fleming Bond, actually turned in by Kingsley Amis under a pseudonym – I remember virtually nothing about it beyond a couple of moments, and the book is not especially well-regarded, although I should point out that enough of the dialogue from one scene ended up in the screenplay for SPECTRE for the Amis estate to earn a special acknowledgement.

However – and this, I think, qualifies as a confession – even before starting properly on the Fleming books, the first Bond novel I properly read was Licence Renewed, by John Gardner: an early-80s continuation of the series with a knocking-on-slightly Bond having adventures in the usual vein (I ended up reading the first two or three of these – Gardner ended up writing more Bond novels than Fleming, in the end, along with a couple of movie novelisations). So there you go – not only do I have some kind of blind spot when it comes to the sexism and racism in the Bond series, I clearly give it a pass when it comes to literary grave-robbing.

The post-Fleming Bonds tend to labour in the shadow of the film series, anyway. However, with the commander currently AWOL from cinemas due to the pandemic, could this be the chance for literary Bond to make a comeback? Probably not, let’s face it, but I still ended up reading Forever and a Day, the most recent ‘official’ Bond book, written by Anthony Horowitz.

Horowitz certainly comes up with a striking opening for the novel: M and the Chief of Staff sitting rather dourly in M’s office, contemplating the recent death of agent 007: shot dead in the south of France in slightly mysterious circumstances. Well, they can’t let this sort of thing go on willy-nilly, and so M orders that another double-O is sent to investigate the death and mete out appropriate retribution. But it turns out the other agents in the section are all either on assignment or out of action. M decides to send in the new chap they’ve been grooming to join the section – what’s his name again? Bond, of course – James Bond.

Yes, it’s 1950 and Bond is not quite yet the icy bastard we have come to know and love from the other books – at least, such is the premise of the novel, which is basically ‘Bond’s First Case’. He pops off to the south of France, with his main leads being the local drug dealers, and an independent operator named Madame Sixtine, who may have a grudge against the British government after her experiences during the Second World War. He teams up with the local CIA agent, a man named Reade Griffith (the character name was apparently auctioned off for charity), learns an American tycoon is mixed up in it all, along with a secret chemical works, a cruise liner, and…

Well, you get the idea. To be fair to him, Horowitz has an absolutely firm grip on the essentials of Fleming-style Bond: prose which is engaging and readable without being too simplistic, vivid descriptions of action and exotic locations, an occasional touch of the sadistic and the grotesque, and a maniacal snobbery about not just living well but being seen to live well. It’s all here in just about the right proportions – the story is far-fetched, but not preposterously so, and grounded by details and also the inevitable beating which Bond takes before the final chapter. (The cover claims the book contains material by Ian Fleming himself, but this appears to extend only to plot ideas, not actual prose.)

As a Fleming pastiche it’s highly acceptable and entertaining, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the premise – which is the same as in the movie version of Casino Royale, namely that it’s the story of how James Bond, human being, becomes 007, legendary superspy. The book has the problem of not having all the props – catchphrases, dinner jacket, car – to play with, and all it really does in this respect is explain how Bond ended up choosing the brand of cigarette he smokes in the Fleming series. In terms of Bond’s character – well, there’s a little bit where Bond contemplates mortality a bit – readers of Goldfinger will know the sort of thing to expect. Apart from this, he starts the novel a cold brute and finishes it a bit more cold and brutal. There are no great character insights here. Then again, I’m not sure we really want to see Bond psycho-analysed that way.

Another thing the core Bond audience may not want is contemporary political references and subtext, especially with a liberal outlook. One of the villains is a predictably grotesque Corsican who gets a big speech to a captive Bond, telling him, as a representative of Britain, that ‘…you are a tiny island with bad weather and bad food but you still think you rule the world. You will not wake up to the fact that you are becoming irrelevant and were it not for your geographical location and your friendship… kinship with Europe, you would be irrelevant already.’ Of course, Bond doesn’t listen any more than the next Brexit voter would. I’m as prone to rage against the dying of the light as the next person, but I’m not sure Horowitz has picked the best place to do so.

Likewise with the other main villain, who is a bouffant-haired seventy-something American tycoon with wandering hands, who is determined that America should withdraw from international affairs and put its own best interests first. The idea of Donald Trump as a Bond villain is quite an amusing one – although your typical Bond bad guy is usually quite a bit more competent and credible as a mastermind than Trump – but it’s hardly done with the greatest of subtlety, and the villain’s plan to save America from itself is honestly bonkers.

Nevertheless, this was a fun read, by no means the worst Fleming pastiche I’ve ever come across. It may not do everything it sets out to, but it hits all the right notes and is slick and undemanding fun, with some memorable bits along the way. Doesn’t quite make up for the delay in the arrival of No Time to Die, but you can’t have everything.

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There is a sub-genre of science fiction known as the ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I almost think qualifies as one of those great and useful categories only slightly let down by the fact that there’s virtually nothing to go into it. It was coined by Brian Aldiss for his history of SF, Billion Year Spree, with particular reference to the work of his near-contemporary John Wyndham, his definition running as follows: ‘The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.’ In later life he was particularly scathing about conclusion of The Day of the Triffids, in which the main characters find themselves compelled to go and live on (oh, the horror!) the Isle of Wight.

The thing is, that for all that Aldiss confidently pegs Wyndham as ‘the master of the cosy catastrophe’ it’s not as if this is a genre in which he was particularly active. Day of the Triffids probably qualifies, although there is a case to be made that this book is much less cosy than it initially appears to be (there are multiple suicides throughout the story), and there is a touch of it to The Kraken Wakes, too, although the catastrophe here is a protracted one and not especially comfortable for the protagonists (one should also probably mention the original, unpublished ending of the story, in which they are implied to die off-page and the book ends on an ominously ambiguous note). But The Chrysalids is post-apocalyptic, not catastrophic, The Midwich Cuckoos concludes with a potential disaster averted, and Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge, Chocky and Web don’t come close to resembling Aldiss’ metric.

Things get to the point where articles listing ‘Ten Great Cosy Catastrophe Novels’ end up stretching to include the likes of The Time Machine and Childhood’s End, two (great) books which are surely only linked by their interest in the future evolution of human beings (an idea which they take in radically different directions). Neither of them remotely resembles Aldiss’ idea of what a cosy catastrophe is, and one finds oneself wondering if this is a genre with a single bona fide exponent.

And then one stumbles across the bibliography of John Christopher (one of the pen names of Samuel Youd) and it initially looks like the motherlode. I first became aware of Christopher as a writer of what we nowadays call ‘dystopian YA fiction’ – perhaps most famously the Tripods books, but also the really excellent Prince in Waiting trilogy. Both of these are kind of post-apocalyptic – the Tripods story is set about a century after an alien invasion, while the Prince in Waiting books take place centuries after some kind of immense natural disaster has toppled civilisation – but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Christopher himself cheerfully admitted in later life to being the greatest serial killer in the history of literature, having at various points killed off civilisation through famine (The Death of Grass), a new ice age (The World in Winter), and a plague causing premature ageing (Empty World). It looks like we have found, at the very least, a pretender to Wyndham’s unasked-for throne.

And then one reads the books. Catastrophes? Certainly. Cosy? Well, there is the issue, isn’t it? Frankly, they are not: the writer Christopher Priest once produced his own take on the genre, entitled (if memory serves) The True Nature of the Catastrophe, suggesting that the real devastation was psychological, not social or physical. Christopher’s books are not cosy, because they are to a large extent about the effects of the calamities on the minds and personalities of their protagonists – John Custance in The Death of Grass starts off as a nice middle-class chap, but is willing to condone cold-blooded murder by the end of the book – civilisation has been lost forever, in more senses than one.


Christopher tackles this theme most directly, I think, in his 1965 book A Wrinkle in the Skin (the title is not the book’s strongest feature). The story opens on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, with a glimpse of the life of Matthew Cotter, reasonably contented small-holder. Cotter is almost totally self-sufficient in emotional terms, not feeling the need to develop strong attachments to anyone – the only exception being his grown-up daughter, who has moved to the mainland. The opening chapter features a dinner party, and a discussion of a series of immense earthquakes which have afflicted New Zealand and other remote places – discussion of a casual, disinterested kind.

But at the end of that first chapter, a colossal earthquake strikes the island – and, we are invited to infer, most of the world. Cotter survives through a sheer fluke, but virtually all buildings are levelled, the lie of the land itself is shifted, and – to Cotter’s initial disbelief – the English Channel is drained, exposing most of the sea-bed.

However, Cotter is not the only survivor, digging a pre-teenaged boy from the ruins of one house, before encountering another group under the thuggish leadership of a man named Miller. Cotter is a useful lieutenant to Miller, but Cotter doesn’t much care for the role, especially when he is constantly thinking of the possible fate of his daughter, somewhere on the mainland. In the end he and the boy gather their supplies and set off, walking across the sea-bed to England in search of her. But what awaits them there? Isn’t he just risking their lives in the futile pursuit of a fantasy?

A Wrinkle in the Skin doesn’t stint on the catastrophe, but it is one of the least cosy novels imaginable. One of the strong points of Christopher’s other books is the convincing detail used to depict the gradual falling away of the old order as civilisation gradually collapses – but in this one, everything is destroyed overnight, virtually in a matter of minutes. The majority of it takes place in a physical, social and moral wasteland, as Cotter and the boy encounter various other survivors and Cotter reflects on human nature and how people are responding to what eventually gets christened the Bust.

Once again, it’s the strength of the book’s characterisation and the articulation of its moral premise that make it memorable: there are at least two things going on throughout most of it, the first being the gradual erosion of Cotter’s sense of detachment from the people around him (in favour of his absent, idealised daughter) – he discovers the capacity to take responsibility for them, to genuinely care and achieve empathy and understanding. What gives the novel its distinctive flavour is the dark counterpoint to this theme – the building awareness that the humanity Cotter is starting to appreciate is essentially base and brutal. Cotter encounters a handful of lunatics, a few decent middle-class people, but mostly ruthless and amoral scum (it’s doubtless a sign of the book’s 60s origins that only one of the female characters has any agency worth mentioning or is characterised in more than the most superficial manner – but the character that is, is probably the strongest in the story). One character suggests the catastrophe has brought on a form of mass psychosis. For much of the book Cotter is ambling along relatively comfortably, and assumes the same is true for the others – but then April, the female character I just mentioned, quietly informs him that rape (of one form or another) is a fact of existence for all the women who’ve survived the Bust: five times, so far, for her, in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Would things really be so bad? Pray God we never find out for real, but Christopher makes it all horribly and emphatically plausible. The book is fairly bleak throughout, but this sets the tone for the final section, which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Road as a man and a boy make their way through the desolation on a futile quest. Christopher’s writing does a good job of pointing up the distinction between the depressing and the tragic (this book is both, not always at the same time though); it gets so dark I almost considered bailing out before the end.

Perhaps it’s all a bit too close to reality – at least with triffids and the like, you can reassure yourselves that it’s never going to happen. But even Christopher backs away from what feels like the logical conclusion to the story. In the end Cotter repents of his foolish attachment to the dream of his daughter (not least because circumstances force him to) and there is the prospect of a somewhat happier life for the survivors in the time come. Only a prospect and a suggestion, though – it’s as though Christopher is aware this would be a total about-turn in the theme and tone of the book, and can only imply it as a possibility. Actually showing it would turn the novel into a rather hokey melodrama, and he’s too good a writer for that.

This is a pretty tough read, and conventional SF ideas are thin on the ground; it’s a lot less reserved and cerebral than a book by Wyndham, but grittier and more humane than some of the similar works that J. G. Ballard was producing at around the same time. It’s not the same kind of blitz of a thriller that The Death of Grass is, but it still shows off Christopher’s skill as a writer. Even so, you do come away wondering if we really would prefer our catastrophes to be just a bit cosy.

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When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final, tragic days of London. – the opening words of the book

There’s a quote from the writer Angus Wilson that frequently pops up on the back of Michael Moorcock books, praising Moorcock for his leading role in breaking down ‘the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing’. You might wonder just what it is that Wilson is on about – aren’t these ‘artificial divisions’ just another way of talking about genre, which is an inherent part of fiction?

Well, maybe, maybe not. But then I wandered into the local bookshop the other day and came across a copy of RC Sherriff’s 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I’d never heard of. It was in the general fiction section, presumably because Sherriff is best-remembered as a mainstream writer – these days, for the much-adapted play Journey’s End and the screenplay for that classic tale of British stoicism, ingenuity and inappropriately-christened dogs, The Dam Busters (his script for Dracula’s Daughter was apparently rejected) – but it is unquestionably science fiction, and unquestionably part of a great tradition of British SF. Back in the 1930s you could write SF without ending up in the ghetto, it would seem. I am reminded of the great Olaf Stapledon, who wrote several of the greatest SF novels of the first part of the century (most notably Last and First Men and Star Maker) without ever properly being aware of science fiction as a genre, and perhaps even John Wyndham, who hit upon a way of writing SF that was liked by people who didn’t like SF. No-one seems to think about this kind of crossover any more; even the great Iain Banks seemed to be quite careful to distinguish between his SF and non-SF output.

But The Hopkins Manuscript is SF, and part of the lineage that includes such famous stories as Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Doyle’s The Poison Belt, not to mention films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These days, when we imagine the end of the world we tend to assume that the Horseman of the Apocalypse doing all the heavy lifting will be Pestilence, but there was a time when cosmic forces were more commonly the instrument of armageddon, and so it proves here.

The novel opens with a brief description of the circumstances in which the text was discovered: expeditions from civilised lands have begun to venture into the wastelands of the former Europe, and the manuscript is the only surviving document from the long-since vanished ancient civilisation of Britain (there are a couple of other artefacts, a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ notice amongst them). The editors lament the general poor quality of the text and uselessness of the author, and conclude that virtually everything that elapsed in the British Isles between Julius Caesar’s invasion and the collapse of civilisation has been obliterated, lost to posterity forever. It is an opening by turns both drily funny but also oddly haunting.

It soon becomes clear that the editors have a point, for we soon get to know the main narrator of the book – Edgar Hopkins, a middle-aged retired schoolteacher living in rural Hampshire. He is a settled bachelor, his life concerned with his various hobbies – stamp-collecting, metallurgy, but above all else, breeding poultry for show. Another interest is astronomy, which is how he comes to be one of the first people in the country to learn of a staggering, appalling discovery – some cosmic upheaval has dislodged the moon from its orbit, and in a mere seven months it will collide with the Earth.

The secret is kept back from the general population for a while, as preparations are made to mitigate the looming cataclysm as much as is possible: shelters are prepared, and so on. Unfortunately, Hopkins himself is supremely poorly-equipped as a recorder of these events, as he is unfailingly pompous, pre-occupied with his chickens, and unable to consider the wider picture. (When summoned to an emergency meeting of his astronomical society and told of the falling moon, Hopkins’ first response is enormous relief, as he has assumed the secret meeting concerns a risky venture he has foolishly volunteered to underwrite.) There is something of The Diary of a Nobody in Hopkins’ self-regard and petty frustration and resentment of the attitudes of the people around him, and the fact that not only does he not become an important man in his village when the truth is revealed, but it has a serious impact on the poultry show calendar as well.

Time passes, and the cataclysm comes. Obviously the world is not destroyed, as some feared – the moon strikes in the Atlantic Ocean and then collapses, forming a new landmass. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastate Britain. But, obviously, Hopkins survives, and lives through the initial aftermath of the catastrophe – before realising, too late, that the cosmic impact of a falling planetoid may pose less of a menace to the human race than human nature itself…

As I say, this is clearly part of a British SF tradition, but in another way it is equally obviously a book of its time. It was written in 1939, but it often seems to have an eerie prescience when it comes to what was to follow in the next few years. The story opens in 1945 – a startling coincidence – and there is obviously talk of people digging shelters, taking refuge in the London underground, and so on. Rationing is introduced at one point, and there is a brief mention of a war being fought in Normandy. Resonating through all this, and transcending the tragi-comic figure of Hopkins himself, is a sense of terrible sadness, an anticipation of tumult to come and the mortal wound it will inflict on a certain version of England. The night before the catastrophe, the villagers assemble to play cricket under the baleful light of the vast moon – the last time, for most of them. Hopkins laments the loss of many of the social niceties and is desperate to cling onto the others, particularly the class system – in the post-apocalyptic community he helps to found, he is palpably relieved when the only member who is working class offers to sleep in the shed rather than the house. Sherriff seems to have sensed that something terrible was on the horizon, and the England he knew would not survive it, and this book is frequently a desperately sad and moving lament for a doomed way of life.

That said, of course, there is a sense in which it also feels disturbingly timely today. There are some parts of the book which are rather simplistic (and the astronomy and astrophysics have not aged at all well), but the widespread inertia and indifference which greets the announcement of the coming disaster rings true, as people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them. Following the cataclysm, there is a brief rebirth of civilisation, and for a while it seems that Sherriff has invented the cosy catastrophe subgenre well before John Wyndham thought of it, but this is only a temporary respite, and it is a grotesquely warped sense of national pride and arrogant British jingoism which is ultimately responsible for the final downfall of civilisation. Perhaps some of the voices of an elder England which Sherriff captured so well here are still with us.

As I say, this is a profoundly sad and deeply moving book, for all of its grace notes of comedy. The only thing which leaves a sour note these days is the appearance, late on, of a plot element about a vast horde of Asians who invade the stricken lands of Europe and hasten the final end. These days it inevitably reads as racist, but again it’s a fairly common motif in a certain flavour of SF – Europe being supplanted by African nations following a global catastrophe is a key plot point in John Christopher’s The World in Winter, while Moorcock himself plays with the trope in The Land Leviathan, and as late as the mid-1990s Ian McCulloch apparently proposed using the notion in a revived version of the TV series Survivors. Perhaps the best we can say of this idea is that it arises from a deep, perhaps even subconscious awareness of how the imperial European powers abused their colonial possessions, and the guilt resulting from this.

Apart from this, and assuming you cut the book some slack with regard to a few elements that feel a little naïve nowadays, The Hopkins Manuscript is a very fine book, no matter which shelf of the book shop it ends up on. It doesn’t offer very much new as an actual piece of science fiction, but as a character piece and a snapshot of anxieties at a certain key moment in recent history, it is a book of a very high quality. An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be much better known.

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One of the subtle pleasures of adulthood that they don’t tell you about as a youngling is the opportunity to revisit things from your childhood many years later and see how they match up to your fond recollections. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t – c’est la vie, as we say in the language classroom. The modern world being what it is, you don’t even have to spend hours and months trawling through second-hand bookshops in order to track down some half-remembered volume from your youth: chances are it’s already available for Kindle download. So it proved when some half-formed impulse made me return to Douglas Hill’s The Last Legionary books, nearly 35 years after I first encountered them.

At the time I didn’t get to the library that often, so my long-suffering mother would trundle off there every couple of weeks and return with a pile of sci-fi and fantasy books selected almost at random from the municipal library’s impressive collection. Most of these were pretty unmemorable and I remember labouring through a lot of them quite joylessly; I seem to recall (though, caveat lector, this was 35 years ago) that Monica Hughes’ The Keeper of the Isis Light was a particular ordeal (in the interests of balance I should probably have another look at that, too). Douglas Hill’s books were different, however: they were snappily written and easy to read, an absolute pleasure at the time.

The story concerns the adventures of Keill Randor, the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Moros (not surprisingly, Keill’s isolation does mean he tends to be quite morose, ha ha). This being pulp SF, he is an exceptional member of a planet of superb warriors, the greatest fighters in the Inhabited Galaxy (who, needless to say, only hire out their services to the virtuous and deserving). Evil forces are at work behind the galactic scenes, however, and as the first book in the main series (Galactic Warlord) opens, Moros has been cleansed of all life by a devastating radiation weapon. By a fluke, Keill Randor was not killed along with everyone else, but left with a progressive, eventually fatal dose of radiation, and he is doing his considerable best to find whoever killed his planet before he succumbs to his condition.

Well, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Keill is gathered up by a secret cabal of benevolent geniuses who have determined the existence of a malevolent being attempting to plunge the galaxy into conflict and bloodshed; this individual they have christened the Warlord, though they have no idea who or where he is. Their plan is for Keill Randor to act as their agent in the galaxy, and he is initially reluctant, even after they have cured his terminal condition (by replacing his irradiated bones with a synthetic alloy, naturally).

By the end of the first volume Keill has come to accept the existence of the Warlord and his role in slaughtering the Legions of Moros; he has also discovered the existence of the Warlord’s elite cadre of followers, the Deathwing, and sorted one of them out (with extreme prejudice). The next two books in the series, Deathwing over Veynaa and Day of the Starwind, move the story along in unflashy style – while investigating a planetary rebellion, Keill encounters the man directly responsible for the death of his people, and then later discovers a plan to breed legions of clone warriors in the Warlord’s service, happening on a planet with the worst weather in the galaxy.

Everything comes to an appropriately rousing conclusion in Planet of the Warlord, in which Randor discovers the true nature of his opponent, is briefly brainwashed by him into becoming one of his agents, and then recovers his identity so a final reckoning with the Warlord can take place.

The series also contains a further prequel volume, Young Legionary, which is basically a series of very loosely linked short stories concerning the teenage years of Keill Randor on Moros. I would advise reading these ahead of the main series, not least because they do flesh out the society and culture of Moros – well, a bit at least – making it seem like an actual place, rather than the vague piece of backstory from the other books.

So how does this series stand up to the harsh light of 2018? Well, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are juvenile pulp SF books, aimed at an audience of (most likely) pre-adolescent boys. Characterisation is minimal, the plots are pretty simplistic, and the emphasis is very much on non-stop action and adventure – the books have subheadings like ‘Betrayal in Space’ and ‘Asteroid Apocalypse’. They were written between 1979 and 1982, so very much qualify as being part of the post-stellar conflict boom in this sort of thing. Some people have suggested they are basically a simplified version of the same sort of story as in the Lensman series; I wouldn’t know about that (my to-read list keeps getting longer), but the books enthusiastically make use of all sorts of Golden Age SF tropes – needle guns, vibro-knives, mutant telepaths, cloning, and so on.

Keill himself is a protagonist in the classic mould, with his secret special power (his unbreakable bones usually save him at least once a book), and his alpha-male peak human strength, stamina, reflexes, and unarmed combat skills (‘a cybernetic Bruce Lee’ in the words of one not-wholly-impressed reviewer at the time). He’s a man on a mission with no time for soppy stuff like feelings or romance – just as well, because there’s only one major female character in the whole sequence, and that’s Keill’s alien sidekick Glr, a sort of psychic pterodactyl. Keill Randor doesn’t muck about: he’s an action man.

The books are regularly punctuated by sequences of Randor leaping into action against one or many opponents, and reading the whole series back-to-back one inevitably becomes a little fatigued by all the references to ‘flashing chops’, ‘crushing elbow smashes’, and so on. The level of violence is much greater than I recalled back at the time – fight scenes invariably conclude with someone having a crushed larynx or an impacted cranium, described in so many words. All good clean fun for the kiddies, I suppose.

One inevitably finds oneself wondering if Hill is attempting to insert any particular subtext into these books. There certainly appears to be an implicit message about self-discipline, self-reliance and rugged individualism. The notion of a superior warrior elite isn’t necessarily a political one in the usual sense of the word, but the opening sequence of Young Legionary in particular inevitably recalls the start of 300, as a pre-teen Keill is left in the wilderness by his people and required to make a hazardous journey, alone and unequipped, in order to qualify to begin his training as a full legionary. The Legions of Moros do seem very similar to the Spartans of antiquity, and – again thanks to 300 – the Spartans are now almost synonymous with a certain kind of muscular right-wing ideology. The tendency for Keill’s featured opponents to be mutants of various kinds – departures from the human norm of which he is such an exemplar – also feels slightly suspect.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Hill was the literary editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune throughout the period he was writing the Legionary books. I suppose this may just prove that if you move far enough away from the political centre ground, you eventually find yourself approaching it again from the other side. On the other hand, Hill is always at pains to point out that the Legions were not truly acquisitive, not imperialistic, not aggressors: the people of Moros are explicitly identified as collectivists. Even so, it is curious that the final movement of this series reveals it to be a story concerning an individual locked in a death struggle with a truly collectivist entity, a being with the power to consume identity and individualism. Or maybe it isn’t: Hill was apparently a socialist, not a raving communist.

None of the above occurred to me when I was first reading the Legionary books (you may not be greatly surprised to hear), and I’m not sure any of it is really important now. The values of these stories are traditional and – it seems to me – wholly commendable ones: loyalty, honour, restraint, responsibility. You can perhaps take exception to the fact they are so obviously books for boys, and to some of the subject matter (specifically the lovingly-detailed violence), but that’s about all. Looking at them again now, they remain as pacy, diverting and entertaining as they were back in the early eighties. I suppose I should call them a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I’m really struggling to feel at all guilty.

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As I write, the story of the Trump administration is one without a definite ending. It is therefore surely rather precipitate for anyone to be writing its history. And yet, at first glance, this is perhaps what Michael Wolff seems to be trying to do with his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy bits of which have been all over the news media for weeks and which I have finally got around to reading.

I find myself in a slightly odd position here, not least because I am viewing the ongoing Trumpclasm as (thank God) a foreigner, but also because anyone likely to be remotely interested in Fire and Fury will not only already know the key claims made within, but also the details of how the book came about. That said, of course, the extent to which we can all agree on anything about Fire and Fury is extremely limited, something to which we shall return.

Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility that this small corner of t’Internet is all that remains to inform and illuminate future generations (in which case: hail, posterity! I bring you greetings from the past and can only imagine the strange world you must inhabit – for instance, did Star Trek ever recover? So much to wonder about), so I suppose a little background information would not go amiss.

The transition period following the rather unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the first few months of his administration were documented by the writer and journalist Michael Wolff, who (he claimed) had more or less free access to the incoming regime. Wolff’s many hours of interviews with key players, not to mention hanging about the White House taking notes, are the basis of Fire and Fury.

Like I say, all the really explosive stuff in Fire and Fury hit the media at the start of the year – suggestions that Donald Trump is mentally incapable, or at least not up to the standards required of the job; that he spends long evenings alone in his bedroom eating cheeseburgers and looking at an array of TV screens, before making rambling, self-pitying phone calls to casual acquaintances; that his wife was reduced to tears of despair by the news he had won the election in the first place.

Certainly, the first big revelation in the book is one which kind of got lost, compared to all the others: the suggestion is that Trump did not expect to win, and indeed never expected to win – his presidential run was essentially a massive exercise in self-aggrandisement, designed to make him the most famous man in the world, which fame he would later use in the launching of his own TV network. Actually becoming president was never part of the plan.

But, of course, become president he did, and with Trump installed in the White House Fire and Fury provides a whistle-stop recap of all the peculiar things that have happened since then – the ‘alternative facts’ squabble, the tweeting, the sacking of the director of the FBI, allegations of collusion with Russia, the strange, rambling speeches, the other sackings, the strange personnel choices, the legislative ineptitude – and, if Wolff is to be believed, an almost inconceivable level of political in-fighting within the administration itself.

It’s not so much The West Wing as a cross between I Claudius and The Addams Family, a bizarre narrative populated with a coterie of grotesques – right-wing guru Steve Bannon, who for some reason seems to think that being known as ‘the brains behind Donald Trump’ is somehow a positive thing; Trump’s androidal daughter and her husband, apparently referred to as Jarvanka; the hapless press secretary Sean Spicer; the alarming Kellyanne Conway; Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramuchi… it kind of makes sense that all of these people would congregate together, as you can’t really imagine any of them finding a role in a more conventional administration.

Not that they appear to have got on, of course: the Bannonites, the Jarvankans, and the few mainstream Republicans involved all battling for control of the legislative process, not to mention the ear of the president. Wolff returns again and again to Trump’s apparent flaws – his tiny attention span, his inability to recognise his own lack of expertise, his refusal to grasp the principle of cause and effect, his almost pitiable need to be liked, and the vulnerability to flattery that comes with it. The biggest problem of the Trump presidency, Wolff suggests, is that it has Donald Trump at its heart: ‘a moron’, in the alleged words of one senior cabinet member.

It should be an alarming, or at least deeply depressing account of an epic historic misfire in the democratic process, and I suppose it is to Wolff’s credit that the book reads more like an absurd black comedy than anything else. He is unstinting in his evisceration of many of the key players, and forensic in his analysis of Trump’s many media fumbles. It almost goes without saying that if even a small fraction of this book is factually accurate, then the USA is in very serious trouble: not just because Trump is president, but because he was able to get elected in the first place.

And yet it seems to me that Fire and Fury is symptomatic of a wider problem. There’s not a lot of wriggle room here: either the book is, broadly speaking, truthful, in which case the leader of the free world is an incompetent narcissist overseeing a compromised administration notable for its ineptness and nepotism, or it is an absurd hatchet-job of blatant untruths, executed by a member of a biased liberal media determined to destroy a threat to it. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other.

And this, I think, is the main problem with the United States today – it’s not a very united set of United States. While it is notable that even people who support Trump hardly do so in an unqualified manner – there’s always a hint of ‘Yes, but…’ when they defend the latest presidential fiasco, and the general tenor of Trump’s Twitter pronouncements is certainly in keeping with Wolff’s depiction of him, the fact remains that people seem very reluctant to agree on anything beyond the most basic facts. Either you believe what you see in the media or you believe in the Trumpian ‘fake news’ conspiracy theory; there’s not much in the way of middle ground.

By being quite so gleeful in its savaging and Trump and those around him, Fire and Fury makes it rather too easy for anyone disagreeing with its central thesis to dismiss it as just another crude hatchet job. Wolff certainly seems a bit too keen to deliver a zinging phrase, even if it comes at the expense of conventional journalistic style – ‘Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt’. This near-tabloidese is largely the idiom in which the book is written, and is hardly likely to make anyone inclined to dismiss it as trash reconsider. No doubt Wolff would suggest that Trump supporters would dismiss the book no matter what, but that’s just another way of acknowledging the great divide.

The book arguably has other flaws – Wolff seems mesmerised by Bannon and all his works, and as a result arguably overlooks some other key figures – Mike Pence barely gets a mention – but this seems to me to be the key one. You have to ask yourself what this book is trying to achieve and just why it’s coming out now. One answer to the latter question is the distinct sense that the Trump presidency might implode at any moment, one way or the other, but another might be that it’s an attempt to sway how the administration is perceived and thus influence the 2020 election. As I say, the simple tone of the book makes this highly unlikely, which means that Fire and Fury is essentially just comfort reading for anyone distressed and appalled by Trump’s presence in the White House: don’t worry, Wolff often seems to be saying, he really is even more stupid and ridiculous than we all thought. Pretty cold comfort, I would say, even if it’s true, and I don’t see that mocking the darkness is much better than cursing it – though how one would go about lighting a candle right now, I’ve no idea. As I say, Fire and Fury is much more part of the problem than any solution to it.

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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as everyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any further books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

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People seem to easily forget that the word ‘is’ is different from the word ‘should’. If we choose to redress the sexual differences between the minds of men and women through policy, we are going against nature, but no more than when we outlaw murder. But we should be clear that we are redressing a difference, not discovering [that men and women are innately identical by nature]. Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favour to either sex.

We seem to be going through one of those periods in which the question of what it means to be a human is rather up for debate. Normally I’d be quite encouraged by any tendency for people to actually discuss big topics, but the current circumstances are, to say the least, dismaying: ever since the initial revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which as I write must have been nearly a month ago, there has been a ripple effect throughout every level of society – mostly taking in actors and politicians, so far, but I’m sure it has every possibility of spreading into other areas, too.

The composite picture of the masculine human created by the recent revelations is not one likely to make one feel proud of being in possession of XY chromosomes. Men are, it would seem, basically unpleasant pieces of work (when it comes to their relationships with women, anyway), and unaware of the fact of their own unpleasantness. What’s wrong with us? How did we get this way? Are we just stuck in the past, following the principles of a male-oriented chauvinistic society, something best consigned to the bin of history?

Hmmm. As it happened, I spent the last month or so reading Matt Ridley’s 1993 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, and despite the fact that the book is two decades old, I was repeatedly struck by how pertinent it was to the current discussions – also by the fact that so few of the book’s ideas seem to have entered the popular consciousness, despite the fact they seem eminently logical and reasonable.


But then I am perhaps biased: I have thought for many years that our behaviour as humans is influenced by elements of our evolutionary history that we are reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge, and that there is little prospect of widespread social happiness until we achieve some kind of accomodation with our biology and instincts.

Ridley’s thesis runs more or less as follows – humans do not occupy a special or privileged position in the world; we are the products of evolutionary processes every bit as much as chimpanzees or elephant seals or peacocks are. This extends to our social behaviour, and particularly our sexual behaviour. As evolution is solely influenced by the transmission of genes via sexual reproduction, it follows that sex is likely to have been strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures. Ridley argues that it is impossible to make sense of human behaviour without accepting the crucial influence of sexual selection.

Coupled to all of this (if you’ll pardon the expression) is what Ridley calls the Red Queen: the idea that evolution is an endless, unwinnable ‘arms race’ (the reference is to Lewis Carroll, whose Red Queen stayed in the same spot no matter how hard she ran). Mice evolve to come out at night, when it’s safer, so owls evolve to see in the dark; mice evolve better ears to hear the owls coming, so the owls evolve silent ‘stealth feathers’ for noiseless flight. You are never safe; the contest never ends.

Ridley starts from first principles, however, and begins by examining what sound like initially rather odd questions – why have sex at all? And why are most animals arranged in the manner that they are, with two sexes, a father and a mother?

It would, after all, be simpler and less stressful just to bud off a clone of yourself whenever you felt was a propitious time – you could save all that time looking for a partner and just concentrate on having children, thus maximising your genetic legacy. Or, if we absolutely have to have sex as a species, why not all be hermaphrodites? Again, this would double (on average) the number of offspring resulting from successful procreation (both participants could give birth), again improving the genetic legacy one left behind.

I must confess that this is the book I very vaguely alluded to a while back when discussing an episode of Star Trek which dealt with a triple-gendered race of aliens. I had been wondering how such an arrangement might evolve and how it would actually work in real life. Ridley’s treatment of the subject is bad news for all but the most heroic and dauntless of SF writers: while it turns out there are sound reasons for sexual reproduction to exist, the same cannot be said for species with more than two genders. (Not without a fundamentally different mechanism for recording and transmitting genetic information, anyway.)

In any case, what the book goes on to make clear is that human sexuality is not a cultural construct but something which has evolved, the focus always being on securing the maximum number of healthy children. So it is that men have evolved to be naturally opportunistic and polygamous, with very powerful men throughout the history of every culture expressing this by leaving behind vast numbers of descendants. Men are likewise particularly attracted to the appearance of youth, as this indicates the potential to produce a larger number of children.

Women, on the other hand, have much less to gain by polygamy – a man can have several women carrying his children at the same time, while a woman can only carry one man’s child at once – and are as a result more naturally monogamous. Similarly, a man’s value is less in his reproductive potential, and more his capacity to provide for his children. Hence the question of exactly what they see in each other turns out to be a matter of evolution.


This is all discussed in quite exhaustive detail, but Ridley is at pains to keep it all as accessible as possible and generally succeeds. He also takes pains to point out that there is no moral subtext to the book – his attempts to identify the ‘natural’ behaviour of humans does not imply he approves of it or considers it in any way desirable. Men may have a natural tendency for infidelity, especially with much younger beautiful women, but then we also have many other antisocial tendencies which we succeed in resisting on a routine basis. And surely it’s the case that a better understanding and awareness of this kind of behaviour is only likely to assist in controlling it.

In the end, as Ridley suggests at one point, it comes down to the question of whether you believe in original sin (our flaws are inherent and inescapable) or the perfectibility of the human race (we are born as tabula rasa, with no inherent tendencies). Neither is particularly flattering or satisfactory, and indeed the author argues this is a false dichotomy anyway.

This is all very interesting stuff, and I did find myself wondering what a discussion between Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, would sound like – Harari does ponder the mystery of why most societies have been male-dominated at once point, and I’m sure Ridley might have some ideas on the topic.

All I can offer is the suggestion that virtually every major culture has developed in a male-dominated form, and as a result they embody certain intrinsically masculine values and attitudes. However, we are still in the middle of a cultural shift to another set of values, ones which may even be rationally- rather than evolutionarily-derived. Hence the current conflict between opportunistic and exploitative masculine instincts, with millions of years of evolutionary pressure behind them, and notions of equality, respect, and human rights, some of which are very recent adoptions, culturally speaking. What can be done about this? I’m not sure. But as Ridley suggests in the quote at the top of this review, recognising that men and women are some levels innately different creatures, rather than being essentially identical and even somehow interchangeable, might be a good start. The key thing to bear in mind about men, is that they are men. On the other hand, being men is something that men are quite good at. We just have to figure out what that really means, and how to make the knowledge work for everyone.


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