• July 14th, 2017 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

The most serious car crash I have ever been in happened nearly thirty years ago.  We were driving from out of town towards the Elizabeth Way Bridge in Cambridge, returning from a trip to the sea, and my wife was just stopping for a red light at a pedestrian crossing, when a young man coming in the other direction at about 70MPH lost control of his scooter as he came down the bridge, veering wildly across the road to smash right into the front of our car.  The engine compartment was crumpled like a carboard box and the scooter lay in pieces on the road.  We were showered with fragments of our own windscreen.  There was a stink of smoke and hot oil.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but having established that none of us were hurt beyond a few small scratches, I climbed out of the car.  The scooter rider had somersaulted right over the roof of the car and was sprawled on his back on the road behind us.   He was unconscious.  His skin was grey with shock.  The only sign that he was alive was a pop-pop-pop of his breath coming out through his lips.  I had no idea what to do for him, and was in no state to think clearly about anything at all.  (Later it made me think about soldiers in wars, facing traumatic events, one after another, for hours on end: Tom Hanks in that amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan, standing in the middle of  the Normandy landings in a kind of disconnected fog.)  Other people took charge of him.  An ambulance came.  He died in hospital that same night.

People came out of houses and from the cars that had stopped behind us to attend to the injured man. Someone invited my family into their house and made drinks for our frightened kids: my oldest daughter aged three managing her fear by announcing things very loudly and firmly to everyone present.  Someone else came out with a fire extinguisher and sprayed it over our crushed engine. The whole thing -our adrenalin-flooded bloodstreams, the nearness of death, us being the centre of attention, the sudden emergence of a kind of temporary community from behind the closed doors of houses and cars- had an eerie, unreal feeling.

The next few days were strange.  A police officer came round and so did the parents of the dead man who the police had put in touch with us. He’d been their only child, and had just left their house after a meal when he had the crash.  (He’d been through a difficult time, they told us, but they’d been hoping that he’d begun to turn a corner in his life.  They had barely begun to process what had happened.)   And we experienced something that I wouldn’t have anticipated or thought possible: every few minutes for the next couple of days, the crash replayed itself in my head.   I almost literally heard and felt the moment of impact, over and over again.  My whole head ached with it.

Going back to the immediate aftermath of the crash itself, one thing I remember, because I made a particular point of remembering it, is me telling my future self, ‘Looking back on this, with all the strangeness, all the heightened physical arousal, all the drama, it may seem to have a kind of glamour, like the glamour that people imagine that war has.  But I’m telling you now, it is not glamorous, not in any way.’

* * *

I’ve just read Ballard’s Crash, which of course is all about the glamour of car crashes.  Although I’ve read a lot of his work (I’ve written about some of it here, here and here), I’ve avoided this book up to now, unable to face its perversity.   But I’ve finally read it, 44 years after it came out.

By all the rules Crash ought to be completely unreadable not only because of its subject matter -the whole book is about a sexual obsession with car crashes- but also because, in common with other books of Ballard’s, it lacks the progression, the unfolding, that you expect in a novel.  The third paragraph is already talking about ‘windshield glass frosting around her face like a death-born Aphrodite…  her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer’s medallion, his semen emptying across the luminscent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine’.   The narrator (a character teasingly named Ballard) is hooked on this stuff pretty much from the off, and the rest of the book is filled with scenes and language of this kind, which get neither more nor less extreme.  In place of progression, the book remorsely repeats, over and over, the same basic ideas.  Again and again we are presented with mixtures of some combination of blood, semen and mucus with engine oil or coolant.  Again and again the image recurs of parts of the dashboard imprinted on the human body.  Again and again the characters obsess about matching the angles of the human body (intact or mangled) and the angles of sex, with the angles of a car in its smashed or pre-smashed form.

And yet it is readable. It is actually a lot more readable than many more conventional novels I’ve read or attempted to read recently, and I’m trying to work out why.

For one thng, as I’ve noticed before, Ballard’s books work like paintings.  Words have necessarily to be read one at a time, but the time element is much less important in Ballard than is conventionally the case with novels.  What emerges is not so much a story as a picture, very detailed and intricate, which all that repetition, like repeated brush strokes, serves to consolidate in the mind.

Ballard’s writing is also emotionally very cool.  Characters are never appalled, or terrified, or horrified, or grief-stricken.  At most they are ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsettled’.  And they are viewed with a cool eye too.  There’s no authorial judgement on them.  These people are driven by a bizarre sexual obsession but the way it is presented doesn’t really invite a sexual response or even a response of disgust or revulsion, in spite of the extremely graphic details involving ‘faecal matter’, ‘anal mucus’, ‘vaginal fluid’ etc etc  You could say the presentation is clinical, but it also me makes me think of the psychological phenomenon of dissociation, an emotional detachment from reality.   In psychology, dissociation is typically a defensive response to a reality too terrible to process (again, I think of Hanks’s character standing dazed on that beach in Normandy), and in a book like this it serves the same kind of function for the reader, making it possible to continue through material which otherwise might drive one to fling the book away.  Only later, as I gradually processed what I’d read, did I see that I’ve been presented with a vision of modern consumer society as pornography, as artifical images that are simultaneously hyper-seductive and completely dehumanised.

The other thing that keeps you reading is simply the intensity of the vision:

We had entered an immense traffic jam. From the junction of the motorway and Western Avenue to the ascent ramp of the flyover the traffic lanes were packed with vehicles, windshields leaching out the molten colours of the sun setting above the western suburbs of London. Brake-lights flared in the evening air, glowing in the huge pool of cellulosed bodies. Vaughan sat with one arm out of the passenger window. He slapped the door impatiently, pounding the panel with his fist. To our right the high wall of a double-decker airline coach formed a cliff of faces. The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.

* * *

It was planes rather than cars that did it for me as a child, and specifically war planes.  It was that same glamour, that same intoxicating mixture of speed and modernity and death.

I remember when I pretty small, maybe 6 or 7, I developed for a while a fear that a plane would crash into our house.  I never told anyone about it, but it haunted me continuously, day after day.  But even then I didn’t stop playing with planes.  I can even remember noticing the contradiction once while playing on my own, noticing that I was living in fear of planes, even while I fantasised about being a fighter pilot.  I had compartmentalised my mind so effectively that planes could simultaneously be objects of desire and objects of dread.

This makes me think of Ballard’s childhood experiences in Shanghai, described in fictionalised form in Empire of the Sun.  Surrounded by horrors, completely in the power of enemies, he learns to admire and be excited by the things that most threaten him.  I guess this was where he learnt to separate emotions from phenomena in that way, so fundamental to his writing voice, that allows him to explore territory where almost no one else would go.


Hate-filled ignorant scum

• October 28th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

I’ve been struck for some time by the increasing invisibility of working class people in Britain.   Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I’ve been struck by the increasing invisibility of class as a social division.  The concerns of progressive-minded people have shifted away from class to other divisions -gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability- to a degree that, as Owen Jones points out at the beginning of his important book, Chavs*, the kind of derogatory comment that would be completely unacceptable if applied to, say, an ethnic minority, or to women, or to people with disabilities, can now be quite openly made about people who are working class or poor.  This was particularly evident to me in the wake of the Brexit referendum.  I was very stuck, not only by the way that liberal middle-class Remain voters tended to characterise working-class Leave voters as ignorant, stupid, bigoted and racist, but also by their shock at being defeated.  Many Remain voters, it seemed, only knew folk who voted Remain.  There was a whole bloc of people out there, whose lives and opinions they knew almost nothing about.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s working class people were not invisible in the same way.   The city I grew up in, Oxford, was at that time a major car-manufacturing town.  Trade unions were powerful working-class organisations and, though I came from a middle-class and not particularly political background, in my teens I would have been able to name probably nine or ten trade union leaders in the same way that I could name senior government ministers.  Changes since then have not abolished the working class, but fragmented it, disempowered it and rendered it invisible as a class to the point that some middle-class people, who clearly lead very sheltered lives, now speak of a classless society, or a post-class society, or of us ‘all being middle-class’ now.

The changes, described in Owen’s book, include, the dismantling of much of manufacturing industry, the attack, begun by Margaret Thatcher, on trade union power, and the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government, through the selling off of social housing, to encourage as many working class people as possible to begin to think of themselves as middle-class home owners, or at least to drive a wedge between them, and those that remained in social housing.  The Labour Party, a party originally established with the precise purpose of ensuring that working class people were politically represented, was to carry on with this programme.  Under New Labour, as Owen notes, the idea of emancipating the working class people morphed from improving conditions for the class as a whole, to helping individual working class people to become middle-class.  The emphasis shifted from ‘equality’ to ‘equality of opportunity’.  ‘The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair said when he came to power, though the term ‘was not originally meant to describe a desirable society…[but] was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become’ (Chavs, p 96).

Not all working class people can become middle class.  ‘If everyone became middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call-in centres?’ (Chavs, p 250).   And not everyone has the same aptitudes.  But the shift of emphasis from improving the condition of a whole class, to helping people with the necessary abilities to leave that class and join the middle class, means that those who are left behind can be blamed for their own problems, and the poorest among them can be described in terms which, if applied to ethnic minorities rather than social classes, could have come straight from some 1930s Nazi tract:

‘…that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country…good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and are incapable of feeling love or guilt’ (Carole Malone, News of the World, cited in Chavs, p 22)

One of the interesting points raised by Owen, and one which very much chimes with my own experience, is that denigration of working class people isn’t confined to the right-wing of British politics, but can also be found among liberal and even left-wing people.  I read an article in the Guardian a few years ago, reporting on a poll which found that the middle class was now more ‘left-wing’ than the working class.  And in the comment thread I came across the following, offered, as far as I could tell, without conscious irony:

… [The working class] consistently vote against their own interests. I have always imagined that the reason is that they think they are “middle-class” as was my own family’s delusion. However, I suspect that the real reason is that they are just hate-filled ignorant scum and we middle-class people should just say fuck them.

Hate-filled, ignorant scum.  ‘One of the ways people have made their snobbery socially acceptable…’ says Johann Hari (cited in Chavs, p 116) ‘[is] by acting as though they are defending immigrants from the “ignorant” white working class’.  Indeed some commentators quite specifically contrast hard-working immigrants with lazy good-for-nothing British workers.  Writing in the Times in 1994, Janet Daley (cited in Chavs, p 118-9) characterised British working-class people as a ‘self-loathing, self-destructive tranche of the population’ and contrasted them with the ‘religion, cultural dignity and… sense of family’ brought by people from ethnic minorities, who were only held back by the ‘mindless hatred of the indigenous working classes, who loathe them precisely for their cultural integrity…  I fear long after Britain has become a successful multi-racial society, it will be plagued by this diminishing…detritus of the Industrial Revolution’.

*   *   *

I heard a lot of that kind of talk from Remainers in the aftermath of Brexit.  But it seems to me that describing working class British people as ‘hate-filled ignorant scum’ and contrasting them unfavourably with immigrant workers was never exactly calculated to endear them to the European project.

*References are to the new 2016 edition of this book, published by Verso


Optimism, Stories and The Switch

• August 5th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, Audio delights, Climate, Other people's books

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.


The Party is Over

• March 21st, 2016 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.


The violent faith

• March 8th, 2016 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

The grail legend has always had certain hold on my imagination since I encountered it as a child, and I’ve often thought about using it in some way in a story.  Partly for that reason, and partly because I’m perennially fascinated by the way that stories evolve over time, I recently read a translation of the original grail romance by Chretien de Troyes and then an interesting book* by Richard Barber which looks at how the story has changed over the centuries.   It was a bit of an eye-opener.

One point that Barber makes is that the original grail stories were written for a particular audience. These tales of knightly valour were written for real-life knights and, like so many books still do, served the purpose, among others, of flattering their readers.  For instance, looking at the original de Troyes story, and at the extracts of other medieval versions cited by Barber, I was struck by the amount of bling involved. You are constantly being told about the beautiful and costly possessions of the knights and ladies in the story, and being reminded that such things are their due as members of the gentry.

More chillingly, in one early thirteenth century version of the story (The High Book of the Grail), we are reminded of the business of those real life knights:

…the Good Knight went out to scour the land where the New Law [i.e. Christianity] was being neglected. He killed all those who would not believe in it, and the country of was ruled and protected by him, and the Law of Our Lord exalted by his strength and valour. (Barber, p 51)

The High Book was dedicated to Jean de Nesle, a leading figure both in the brutal Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and in the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars that followed . I happen to have also read a book** recently about the latter.  Ordered by Pope Innocent III, it involved (among other things) the massacre in 1209 of the entire 20,000 population of the town of Beziers.

* * *

All this came back to me when, reading the commentary around David Bowie’s death, I was reminded that there had been some controversy about Bowie’s ‘blasphemous’ use of Christian imagery in his video for ‘The Next Day’.  And I was particularly struck by a comment of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey:  ‘I doubt that Bowie would have the courage to use Islamic imagery. I very much doubt it’.

What a strange and revealing remark.  People like Bowie wouldn’t mock Christianity, he is really saying, if they thought they might be killed for it.  And Carey should know!  His own Anglican church is the largest denomination in the English-speaking world, after all, not as the result of kindly Episcopalians gently persuading Catholics and others of the error of their ways, but through the use of violence and terror.  Read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels for a description of a process which included, among other things, monks who refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English church being publicly castrated and disembowelled.

* * *

Yes, and in the same way, the reason that there are no Cathars today in the South of France is not that the Roman Catholic church engaged in rational argument with that version of the Christian faith, treating its beliefs with respect, and showing the kind of sensitivity to the feelings of its adherents that Bowie was told off for failing to exercise. No. Cathars were hunted down, tortured to make them inform on one another, and burnt alive until their entire faith was completely exterminated.  In one case, the Catholic authorities learned that an elderly woman had asked for the Cathar equivalent of the Last Rites. She was taken from her death bed and thrown onto a fire.

The versions of Christianity that we know today are actually only a small subset of the ones that have existed in the past, and the Cathars are only one example of the alternatives that were annihilated by the violence of their more ruthless or more powerful rivals. It’s interesting to consider what kind of effect this Darwinian process has had on the content of Christian belief itself.  For a religion, too, is a story written for the benefit of an audience, and this religion, in the form we know it —the form that now asks for its feelings to be respected—was written for generations by or for those who regarded killing and torture as legimate ways of treating those who disagreed with them.  Lord Carey’s strange comment suggests to me that he and his church have a long way to go before they fully recognise the implications of that.  It reminded me of a husband telling his wife she ought to be more grateful that he doesn’t beat her any more.

*Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: the history of a legend.  Penguin.
**Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: the life and death of the Cathars.  Profile Books.


The high priest of swimming pools

• August 11th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

Whatever else there is to be said about J G Ballard, he is surely the high priest of the swimming pool. Bleached empty pools appear over and over in his work (dating back, I suppose to the empty pools left behind in the international enclave in Shanghai as wealthy expats fled the advancing Japanese). In his hands they are wonderfully and seductively apocalyptic. No one else writes as he did about the glamour of annihilation.

But he has an eye for the full kind too, as here from Cocaine Nights:

Sprinklers sprayed across the lawns, conjuring rainbows from the overlit air, local deities performing their dances to the sun. Now and then the sea wind threw a faint spray across the swimming pools, and their mirror surfaces clouded like troubled dreams.



Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh

• April 9th, 2015 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

do no harmOccasionally I wonder about the point of fiction.  Why make stuff up when there is reality itself out there to write about?  I bought Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, for instance, but once I’d read Natascha Kampusch’s amazing 3,096 Days – few books have made a bigger impression on me: I wrote not one but three posts about it here – I was just no longer interested in reading a piece of fiction about being confined to a single room, however interestingly written or well-reviewed it was.

Do No Harm is a series of scenes from the professional life of a consultant neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon, and, like many other people, I found it utterly compelling reading in a way that I’ve not found any book for a long time.  Why sit behind the eyes of constructed phantoms, I find myself thinking, when you can sit behind the eyes of a real flesh and blood human being?  (I hope this mood will pass!  It’s a bit like being a vicar who suddenly doubts the existence of God.)

As a general rule, I am not very interested in medical matters.  Having been brought up by a doctor, I feel I’ve had enough of the whole medical worldview to last me a lifetime.  Brain surgery, though, is a particularly pure and existential activity, not only because it involves working with the seat of consciousness itself, but because the decisions and actions of the surgeon, second by second, can have huge life-long consequences both negative and positive.   It was this that fascinated me: the business of working in a field where decisions are necessarily probabilistic, and practitioners have to cope with that fact.

In one chapter for instance, Marsh describes the case of a woman who discovers she has an aneurysm (a bulge coming out of a blood vessel, which can burst at any time).    She is perfectly fit and well, and the options facing her are (a) doing nothing, and living with the relatively small possibility that the aneurysm may at some point suddenly burst causing a stroke which may lead to death, paralysis, inability to speak, or a vegetative state, or (b) having the aneurysm closed off with a tiny clamp which, if successful, will remove that long-term threat, but carries a small risk of causing a catastrophic haemorrhage which will have any one of the above effects not in the future but immediately.   The woman elects to take the risks of surgery, and it pays off.   She doesn’t know how close it came to going wrong, when the clamp malfunctioned and refused to detach itself from the instrument used to put it in place.   In a lifetime of neurosurgery, Marsh has of course had to deal with many situations where the dice came down the other way: he’s had to go and see patients who’d been functioning perfectly normally who his own interventions have (in his own blunt but completely accurate word) wrecked.   He’s had patients thanking him for transforming their lives, but also patients angrily accusing him of negligence and incompetence when things didn’t work out so well.  The title, taken from the Hippocratic Oath, is ironic.  It is impossible to do no harm.

Marsh is disarmingly frank about the psychology of all this, the manoeuvres he uses to distance himself, the dread he feels at having to face patients and relatives when things have gone badly, the cockiness when things go well.  He admits on one occasion to reducing a man to a vegetative state when he went too far on a tumour removal operation (it had been going on for 18 hours!) and that part of his motivation had been to impress a senior.   He admits to sometimes carrying out operations that his head says will do no good at all, simply because he can’t face closing off the last avenue of hope for desperate people.  Its a very human voice throughout, and often funny, specially about the idiocies of managerialism.

I don’t know whether I possess the intellectual ability necessary for brain surgery, but I know for certain I don’t have the manual dexterity (do they actually test for this, I’ve often wondered: the book doesn’t say!)  I also don’t have the steadiness of nerve required to keep on going, without panicking, whether things are going well or not, or the resilience required to live with the memories of all those ‘wrecked’ people, and all those angry grief-stricken loved ones.   However, as a child and family social worker and social work manager, I did work for 18 years in a field which was similarly involved in making huge decisions in conditions of uncertainty.   No one died, as far as I know, as a result of decisions I played a part in, but there are certainly a lot of people who might have grown up in completely different families if it wasn’t for me.  I find that quite haunting enough.

Marsh says somewhere in the book that the hardest part of being a brain surgeon is the fact, per se, of dealing with suffering and death, but the decision-making, the knowledge that however hard you try, there may be bad outcomes for which you will be responsible.   I’m put in mind of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt which one of my daughters used to have pinned up on her wall:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Rather purple prose perhaps, but I think what fascinates about Marsh’s book is the perspective of someone who is, in Roosevelt’s words, “actually in the arena” and therefore necessarily “comes short again and again”.



• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here).

Below are some preliminary thoughts for the panel on Philip K. Dick. (Through a Hollywood Adaptation, Darkly: Thursday, August 14th, 18:00 -19:00). The other panellists will be Christi Scarborough, Grania Davis and Malcolm Edwards, and the blurb for the panel is as follows:

Thanks largely to the ever-increasing number of film adaptations of his work, Philip K Dick is one of the small number of genre authors whose names have been commoditised: “Dickian” is now a shorthand for paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities, or even for the condition of twenty-first century life in general. But to what extent is this cliché precis an accurate reflection of the breadth of Dick’s work? What other themes and preoccupations can we see in his novels and stories? How far does his influence on modern SF really extend — and what rewards does his work offer to new readers today?

No one could deny that paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities are major themes in Dick’s work, and Dick is indeed sometimes hailed as a kind of uniquely prophetic voice on ‘the condition of twenty-first century life’, a post-modernist ahead of his time. But yes, this is a cliché precis. Not only is there a lot more to Philip Dick than it suggests, but, even as a summary, it is somewhat misleading.

First of all, while Dick’s shifting realities may seem post-modern, Dick wasn’t really a post-modernist at all. Post-modernists emphasise plurality and flux: there isn’t one reality, but many different realities. Dick’s work may superficially seem to conform to this view of the world, but in fact what he depicts again and again are people dealing, not with many different equally valid realities, but rather with falsehoods and illusions which seem real, but are actually fake. Dick’s characters are always searching for authenticity, for reality in the singular. They may never find it, they may fear that it can’t be found, but they never stop looking for it. This isn’t post-modern, it’s positively pre-modern, and the more so in Dick’s later works where he is increasingly drawn to Christian theology, albeit in a particularly dark, scary and Dickian form. (No one ever describes as Dickian the belief that the world is a battleground between the followers of Christ and the servants of darkness – it doesn’t chime so well with a vision of Dick as edgy, contemporary, prescient – but it’s very much part of the vision of his later work.)

Secondly, I think the conventional precis of Dick’s work overemphasises the extent to which his work can be read as a social commentary. I would argue on the one hand that his work operates much more at the psychological level (as opposed to the sociological one), and, on the other, that he is at least as preoccupied with things that he sees as timeless, as he is with the condition of society at a particular point in history. (One of the appeals of writing SF, it’s always seemed to me, is that it does allow one to step outside the parochial concerns of the present moment.)  Of course Dick’s work reflects the time it was written in – a time which was simultaneously one of great optimism and one of terrible darkness and violence – but the two deepest roots of his writing, it seems to me, extend outwards on either side of the ‘social’. On one side, many of his preoccupations are very personal ones: for instance the figure of the dead female twin, which appears again and again in his work (Valis, Flow my Tears, Dr Bloodmoney…) comes directly from Dick’s own biography: his own twin sister Jane died in infancy. On the other side it is metaphysical, concerned with the place of the human soul in the universe (which is where Dick’s quirky version of Christian theology comes in). His greatness lies in the way he linked up the personal with the universal.

Here are some recurring themes I’ve noticed in Dick’s work:

A sense of loss.

This, I imagine, had very personal origins for Dick. Parents grieving a dead child are not best placed to welcome a baby into the world, and I would guess his life felt very lonely indeed from the start. (Look at the dark, lonely and guilt-ridden childhood depicted in the brilliant short story ‘I Hope I shall Arrive Soon.’) Dick’s experience wasn’t unique though. A feeling of loss, of absence, of insufficiency, is part of the human condition. Hence the Biblical legend of the Fall.  Valis is a particularly terrifying vision of a fallen world, a world in the sway of darkness, but the same vision is to be found in Flow my Tears and Palmer Eldritch among many others. And the figure of the dead twin sister (elevated in Valis to a dead female demiurge), which so clearly comes from Dick’s own biography, is turned into a powerful metaphor for the feeling of loss and absence which we all know.

Even those famous ‘shifting realities’ are also in a way representations of loss. That’s what loss is like. We think something is real and then it is snatched away from us. Ragle Gumm in Time out of Joint (surely the prototype for the film The Truman Show?) imagines the world he’s in is real, but it turns out to be a crude set of stage props, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream finds what seems to be a real animal, and then finds the tell-tale battery compartment.

In the story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’, we find another take on ‘shifting realities’ and their relationship to loss. The main character Victor Kemmings is starting out on a ten year journey to another planet, during which he is supposed to be in a state of cryogenic suspension. Something has gone wrong. He is still conscious and faces the prospect of spending the next ten years lying all alone in a kind of coffin. Realising that he will go completely mad, the intelligent spaceship tries to ease the situation by feeding him his own memories, but Kemmings’ past is so painful to him that this only makes things worse. Finally the ship hits on the idea of feeding him, over and over, the illusion of arrival. Again and again, Kemmings reaches his destination and disembarks, only for the illusion to unravel and the ship have to run it all over again. It keeps Kemmings sane for ten years, but at a cost. When he really does arrive, he still can’t believe it’s real.

If we have to retreat into illusion to keep ourselves sane, the story suggests, the price we will pay in the long run is that nothing will ever seem quite real. This is very much a psychological explanation for those famous paranoid scenarios – and one consistent with the work of object relations psychologists such as Bowlbly, Klein or Winnicott – as opposed to a sociological, political or cultural one.

The cherished possession

Another figure I have noticed many times in Dick’s work is what I call ‘the cherished possession’. This is some treasured object which has huge significance for the character. In Do Androids Dream, for instance, Deckard longs to possess a real animal. He keeps an electric sheep as an affordable substitute, but what his heart is set on is a real one, and he spends a lot of time hanging around outside pet shops and thumbing through his catalogue.  In High Castle, Mr Tagomi possesses a jewel which somehow exists of itself, and not simply as a human projection. In Flow my Tears both the powerful policeman Felix Buckman and his sister-lover Alys are assiduous collectors of objects of many kinds and Buckman secures his sister’s co-operation at one point by making a present to her of a particularly fine postage stamp for her to ‘put it away in your album in your safe forever’. In the short story, ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’ (about which I once wrote an MA dissertation: hence my particular emphasis!), the cherished object is a poster of ‘Fat Freddy’ from the Furry Freak Brothers comics called ‘Speed Kills’, signed by the artist Don Shelton. (Both the poster and the artist are real, incidentally. The poster in question is below.)


These cherished possessions are, of course, subject to the same anxious doubts as other aspects of Dick’s world. Supposedly real animals may turn out to be electric ones, a supposedly authentic object may turn out to be a fake. In High Castle there is a debate about the authenticity of a cigarette lighter alleged to have belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, there are letters of authenticity, but how do we know that they themselves aren’t fake? Exactly the same debate takes place about the Gilbert Shelton poster in ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.’


One other thing that isn’t so often commented on in Dick’s work is that, however dark the scenario, however terrifying the forces against which they are pitted, the characters themselves are never completely devoid of good humour or hope. ‘I mean, after all,’ says the indefatigable Leo Bulero in Palmer Eldritch, ‘you have to consider we’re only made out of dust… But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it.’

In the poisoned Earth of Do Androids Dream millions of people subscribe to the stoical religion of Mercerism, using devices known as ‘empathy boxes’ to connect themselves to the vision of their prophet, Wilbur Mercer, as he struggles eternally up the slopes of a bare mountain in spite of rocks and stones that are constantly being cast at him. At a certain point in the novel a TV programme exposes this central scene of Mercerism to be a forgery, faked up in a film studio with an actor playing Mercer against a crude painted backdrop (close examination reveals the actual brush-strokes).  And yet somehow in spite of this the truth of Mercerism – its utility in enabling people to engage with one another and with their harsh existence – remains undimmed while those who exposed the artifice turn out to be artefacts themselves.  (They are androids, famously distinguishable from human beings by their inability to experience empathy).

In suggesting that it is the would-be debunkers, not the Mercerists, who are missing the point, Dick cuts through all the paranoid doubts about reality and authenticity which are such a constant theme of his work, and challenges his own definition of reality (in Valis) as ‘that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away’. If we are to have a shared reality with other people then this has to be able to include things that are sustained only by belief. After all empathy itself depends on our belief in something that can never actually be proven to be true: that other creatures have feelings which are in some way equivalent to our own.


A time for every purpose…

• June 30th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

I spend a week every summer on my own on the North Norfolk coast – on this occasion I rented a place in Wells-Next-the-Sea – writing, thinking and reading, with beautiful North Norfolk itself to wander around in when I feel like it, and no internet, no company, no dogs, no nothing. It’s one of my highlights of the year. This time I took Karl O. Knausgaard’s strange novel, A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven, which proved to be fit in well with my state of mind.

I say novel, but it’s not a novel in the conventional sense. It begins with an account of a 17th century Italian child’s encounter with real life angels. His name is Antinous Bellori and he stumbles on them in the mountains. Skull-faced creatures with cold eyes, bloodless lips, and green and black wings, they are hunting for fish in a river with spears, and eating them raw. Bellori becomes obsessed with angels and goes on to write a lengthy scholarly treatise on them.

The book then moves on into a lengthy discussion about angels and their nature and then, by way of the fiery cherubim that guarded the gates of Eden, it revisits in some detail the story of Cain and Abel. This is very different from the biblical account. The two brothers, while very different, are both tortured characters, neither of them wholly bad or good, with complex interior lives. They still live in a place so near to Eden that the fiery light of the cherubim can still be seen in the sky, but this place is distinctly Scandinavian. (In a nice touch, the narrator suggests that the story acquired its Middle Eastern details as a result of cultural assimilation, so that the fjords and glaciers of the original setting were gradually lost and forgotten, just as the characters were gradually simplified.)

We then shift to the story of Noah. The setting is again Scandinavian, but in the forests now there are strange giant creatures born out of sexual unions (actually mentioned in the book of Genesis but never explained) between ‘the sons of God’ and humans. (It is suggested that the sons of God must have been angels.) Noah himself is a strange unworldly man, an albino who can only come out at night, and something of a geek. The story follows him for a while, but then shifts to his sister Anna, her marriage, the birth of her children and grandchildren, and it is from her viewpoint that we see the rising waters. The Ark appears when all but the mountaintops have been covered, but Noah and his sons refuse to take anyone on board, killing with cudgels anyone who tries to climb up, as they would have to have done, of course, if the ship was not to be completely overrun by desperate people. Anna and her family all drown, along with the rest of humanity. It’s not clear what purpose drowning them served, and God himself repents of his decision to flood the Earth.

Now we come to the story of Lot who survived the destruction of Sodom with his two daughters, after offering food and hospitality to two angels. It is Lot who offered his daughters to the lustful crowd who gathered outside his house, demanding to… well, sodomise… the angels, Lot whose wife was changed by an angel into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the ruined city. What strange stories these are. How little there is in them which chimes with our own sense of what is either meaningful or just. But as Knausgaard points out, this will one day be the case with the values and ideas that now seem to us to be self-evidently true. And for this reason, he wisely takes older ways of seeing, whether they are Old Testament stories or seventeenth century theological speculation, quite seriously. (If we just laugh at old ideas, we are really saying that how we see the world now, our current idea of what is real, is also worthy of nothing but ridicule.)

The tour of the Old Testament continues with the prophet Ezekiel, who had his own encounter with angels. According to the Bible, they had four faces, the front face like a man’s, the side faces like an ox and a lion, and the backwards-looking face like an eagle. They had four wings each, completely covered with eyes, and each angel was accompanied by a rolling wheel which was also covered with eyes. Strange, strange, strange.

After the birth of Christ, though, angels change. They become less divine, less majestic. Bellori has his own explanation for this, based on the heretical idea (which he has to recant to avoid the stake) that the divine itself is not constant but constantly changed its form, until it eventually became human and died. After all, the Old Testament, as Knausgaard shows, contains instances of God being caught by surprise, and changing his mind, and regretting an action he has taken: very different from the eternal, all-knowing and omnipresent being of later theology.

Having lost their original status and purpose, angels roam the earth like vagabonds – Bellori has another encounter with them, and takes the recently-dead corpse of the Archangel Michael back to his house for dissection – but they continue to diminish, gradually becoming the little cuddly cherubs that we see in eighteenth century paintings. (There is a nice moment where three of these cherubs make a nuisance of themselves in a country house and have to be chased out by servants with brooms.)  And even that’s not the end of it, because then they grow feathers and beaks until at last these cold-eyed servants of God become cold-eyed seagulls, which, in this book at least, still have tiny vestigial arms and hands dangling beneath their wings.

Seagulls take us to modern Norway, and finally to the book’s narrator, Henrik Vankel. He is an odd man, emotionally disturbed, physically clumsy, haunted by guilt and self-loathing, and he has exiled himself to a remote island because of some unspecified thing he’s done that makes him feel defiled and ashamed. At first he projects his own negative feelings onto his surroundings, but gradually they change him:

Shame is a social mechanism, it requires a tight set of relationships to function, without that it withers, and this was exactly what happened after a few weeks on the island. The sun of today pushed the shadows of yesterday further and further back, it’s the only way I can describe it, because it was as if more and more light came into my life, while at the same time I moved further and further towards the front of my consciousness, until one day I stood right on the edge and stared out, filled with an enormous ecstasy: I was here! I could see this! It took less and less to kindle the joy of life in me.

 * * *

That’s actually a pretty accurate description of what invariably happens when I spend my week on the coast: I move towards the front of my consciousness. It doesn’t happen straight away, and it even when it does happen, it comes and goes (as is also the case with Vankel’s experience, for he descends again into self-loathing and violent self-harm), but always at some point I realise that I’m at home in the world, and no longer distanced from it, to the point where even the knowledge that this state won’t last forever is something that I feel entirely calm about.

It isn’t my normal state. Often I feel far from the world, tied up inside myself, like Vankel in knots of fear, shame, doubt, worry, and with the various activities, many of them meaningless, with which I fill up my life, as if stuffing my face with junk food. Typically, even when I’m in a place which pleases me, I have a sense that I am in some way cut off from it, so that I feel kind of nostalgic ache, even when the object of that nostalgia is physically present. I’ve always assumed that this sense of separation was the common state of humanity – we only exist, after, because, over millions of years, our ancestors have successfully guarded their separateness, as lumps of highly organised matter, from the much less highly organised surroundings into which entropy is constantly tugging them – and I’ve always assumed that the legend of Eden and the Fall was in part a way of describing it.

* * *

But I digress from Knausgaard’s book. I enjoyed this novel and was sorry to reach the end of it. It is a very rich book, both in terms of earthy sensory experience, and in terms of ideas: the fact it is rich in both these ways is appropriate in a book that challenges abstraction and makes ‘spiritual’ beings like God and angels into physical entities. One of the things I liked best about it was that it doesn’t have a plot to hold it all together, and yet it hung together aesthetically and thematically, like a painting or a piece of music. Plot is such an artificial thing, and so prone to take over from everything else.


Assertively passive

• May 11th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Other people's books

My personal Ballard retrospective has continued with me reading two of his short story collections on the trot: The Voices of Time (aka The Four Dimensional Nightmare) and The Terminal Beach, both of which I first read as a teenager in the 70s when they were part of my father’s smallish but (for me) very influential SF collection.  I loved them both on re-reading as much as I did first time round.  Indeed I’ve been engrossed by them in a way that I haven’t been engrossed by any work of fiction for a very long time.   Sad to say it, but true.

I read The Crystal World immediately before these two collections and enjoyed it very much too, but reading the stories convinces me that the short form was Ballard’s natural medium.  The Crystal World, gorgeous as it is, doesn’t really have any more to say than the short story on which it’s based (‘The Illuminated Man’, included in Terminal Beach).  I remember throwing aside High Rise unfinished when I realised that the characters had accepted from the very beginning the collapse of civilized norms that the whole book was supposedly about and were going to simply watch the whole thing amusedly from the off.  My son made a very similar observation about Empire of the Sun.  Events happen, vivid scenes are shown, but there is no real progression.  Jim is already reconciled to darkness and violence before it even begins; he doesn’t change, but simply watches.   The novel is not the obvious form for an artist who is interested in inner states rather than relationships or external events.  The short story is much better suited for that (as is painting, to which Ballard frequently refers).

These stories are full of characters whose inner life is much more important to them than human relationships or the external world.   One rips out his own eyes, like Oedipus, the better to immerse himself in his inner world.   Another, with an injured foot going septic, refuses to move from the spot where he is communing nightly with legions of snakes (and feels grateful to the colleague who is meanwhile having an affair with his wife because it gets her out of his way).   Not all of the stories fall into the same mould, but the typical character is assertively passive – see also ‘The Overloaded Man’, ‘The Giaconda of the Twilight Noon’, ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Voices of Time’ – insisting on his right to sink into his obsessions and dreams and deeply sceptical of rational modernity, with its busy projects of mastery and control.   Several of the stories read like re-writes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which apparent darkness turns out to be the true light, and western civilization merely a futile neurosis:

…there was a deeper reason for his scepticism, underlined by Ryker’s reference to the ‘real’ reasons for the space-flights.   The implication was that the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the western technocracies, and that the space craft and satellites had been launched because their flights satisfied certain buried compulsions and desires.  By contrast, in the jungle, where the unconscious was manifest and exposed, there was no need for these insane projections… (From ‘A Question of Re-entry’ in Terminal Beach)

At least there was a passive repose about the Indians, a sense of the still intact integrity of flesh and spirit…   It was this paradigm of fatalism which Gifford would have liked to achieve – even the most wretched native, identifying himself with the irrevocable flux of nature, had bridged a greater span of years than the longest-lived European or American with his obsessive time-consciousness, cramming so-called significant experiences into his life like a glutton.   (From ‘The Delta at Sunset’ in Terminal Beach)