The high priest of swimming pools

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

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 not 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”.


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…

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

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)

Crystal worlds

A pleasant spin-off of my recent interest in drawing has been a certain heightened appreciation of the visual world. I find myself noticing things more, asking myself what the essence is of a particular scene, and how a person might go about capturing something of that essence on paper. This April I’ve been taken a special delight in the brightness and colour of Spring, and the intricate three-dimensional patterns of light and space made by new leaves and blossom on the branches of trees. No idea how to draw it really – impressionist smudges capture the colour and light, but can only hint at the spatial complexity – but just thinking about how it might be done makes me feel more part of it.

Serendipitous that at this point, I should take it into my head that I want to read more J.G.Ballard, and specifically The Crystal World:

The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water….

Then the coruscation subsided, and the images of the individual trees reappeared , each sheathed in its armour of light, foliage glowing as if loaded with deliquescing jewels…

When Ballard imagines a forest where trees, birds, insects, crocodiles, people are slowly being encased in brilliant coloured crystals that pour out light, he’s describing a sensual delight that’s not so very different from what I am enjoying about the Spring. After all leaves and flowers – complex but endlessly repeated forms, built according to a hidden underlying algorithm – are not really such very different things from crystals.

Ballard referred to surrealists such as Max Ernst among the influences that shaped his work, and he is surely an exceptionally painterly writer, not only because of the attention he gives to visual effects, but also because he is more interested in spectacle and mood than he is in plot. Things happen in his books, but the events are pretty incidental to the evocation of his imagined world, and, insofar as there is movement, it is a movement inwards, a movement towards deeper engagement with what is there from the early pages of the book. Indeed the book itself seems to be about the allure of stasis. The crystals themselves are a product of the leaching away of time.

His is a strange kind of Spring, a Spring that runs joyfully, not towards summer, but towards a kind of shining death.

The Emperor’s Last Laugh

Because of my new-found interest in drawing, my wife gave me a book recently called A Short Book about Drawing, by Andrew Marr, the TV journalist, who turns out to be a pretty good drawer.  It’s a charming book, and much of it is simply about the pleasure to be obtained from the act of drawing itself, but at one point Marr speaks with some regret about the influence of Marcel Duchamp on our conception of art, and about all that has since emerged ‘like a vast glittery spout of magma from Duchamp’s urinal.’

He’s referring to the urinal which, in 1917, Duchamp signed with the name ‘R.Mutt’ and decreed to be a work of art called ‘Fountain’.   A work of art from then on wasn’t necessarily a painting or a sculpture.  It didn’t even have to be something that the artist had made.  It could be anything that an artist chose to designate as such.  Indeed, from what I’ve read, Duchamp deliberately chose objects for this purpose which had no meaning or significance to him at all.  What a strange, violent, mocking thing to do!  It’s as if I were to reprint a telephone directory, call it ‘Contact’ and declare it to be my next novel – and people were to accept it as such, and make themselves read it and think about it as if it meant something!

If anything can be a work of art if an artist says it is (including an object that means nothing even to the artist!) this raises the question of who gets to be an artist.  Who gets this strange fetishistic power?  In the past artists would have been identifiable to most people, at least to some extent, by the skill evident in their work.   Some artists were doubtless much better than others at acquiring wealthy patrons, but some degree of skill in the creation of images would have been a necessary prerequisite also.  Now this was no longer the case.   An artist could be created by patronage alone.   With beauty and meaning set aside, the wealthy could create artists out of whomever they chose, and those artists could then return the favour by taking trivial objects and turning them, for the wealthy, into a kind of gold.

The emperor gets the last laugh, after all.  Who cares if the clothes are real or not, as long as they can be bought and sold?

Duchamp Fountain

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Care of wooden floorsBuying books is very easy with a kindle, and I can’t even remember the impulse that made me choose this one out of all the possibilities out there.   However I’m glad I did.

The essence of this book is the old comedy routine where some mistake is made and the effort to fix it only results in more and bigger mistakes.  I remember an episode of the TV sitcom ‘Some mothers do ‘ave ’em’ in which the disaster-prone Frank Spencer tears the floor lino of his hotel room by accident and proceeds to trash the whole place in his efforts to put things right.   That (and come to think of it, all the episodes had the same basic form) is essentially the plot of this book.  However the pace is slower, the psychology of the Frank Spencer equivalent is observed from a first person perspective with meticulous care and some emotional depth, and everything is described with a rich, concrete and multi-levelled prose which reminded me at times of Martin Amis, with its extravagant metaphors, enviable command of vocabulary and its ability to move between laugh-out-loud funny and real darkness.  (A bit like Martin Amis, but without that haughty patrician sneer.)  I really admired Wiles’ ability to explore very ordinary sensations in an interesting way.  Here he is for example on the smell of a utility room:

The little room smelled wholesome and comforting.  Nothing identifiable predominated in this subtle aroma, but it was so pleasing and homely that it enticed me to pause, testing the air to see if I could anatomise it.  Dry food certainly contributed a large share, and so did cleaning products; unlikely conspirators but here successful.  They shared ground on the spectrum of the nose: there was a certain note that was just right, natural and savoury, with a hint of purifying astringency.

In this case, it isn’t a hotel room but a beautiful flat which is under threat.  The flat is in some unspecified Eastern European city and the narrator has been invited to look after it for a week or two (along with two cats) on behalf of his obsessively tidy friend Oskar.  In particular he has been asked to look after the beautiful wooden floors, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the first small disaster is a spillage of wine which soaks into the wood and leaves a stain.

Things progress from there as the narrator blunders into yet more errors and increasingly catastrophic attempts to put them right, all the while encountering notes left for him by Oskar, who seems to have anticipated every move, including even the discovery of his stash of porn magazines.   For most of the book the events that happen are really quite minor and interaction with other human beings is minimal, but the author manages to extract a great deal from this limited field of view, including real tension out of the narrator’s agonised anticipation of his friend’s response.  It’s almost as if Oskar were some kind of diety who has placed the narrator on Earth and will return at last in a kind of Judgement Day.

Towards the end of the book, I felt that the author wrong-footed himself a couple of times.   The first is when the catalogue of disasters takes a very much darker turn than hitherto.   This in itself would have been okay with a different ending, but the ending we in fact get is the second and more serious piece of wrong-footedness, for the author suddenly decides to give us a Hollywood-style feel-good conclusion in which our protagonist spells out for us the important life lessons he has learned.  (I was reminded of the ending of the film The Beach, when a hitherto dark narrative about a descent into barbarism is suddenly disrupted in the same sort of way by an awful voiceover that suggests that the whole thing has really been rather life-enhancing and fun.)  I found this move too much at odds with the tone of the book as a whole and with the rather horrific events that had occurred less than 24 hours previously, even though the life lessons themselves were as thoughtful and well-expressed as ever.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice‘Boy or girl?’ is the first question we ask when we hear about the birth of a baby and, when we hear the answer, we feel that we have begun the process of getting to know the baby as a person. Indeed we have to know the answer in order to be able to refer to the baby as a person at all and stop saying ‘it’, for in English we don’t have a pronoun that denotes personhood without also specifying gender.

Reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and finding that every new character seemed to be referred to as ‘she’, I began by assuming that all the characters were women or girls.  I fairly soon learnt that this wasn’t necessarily the case for the story’s narrator was using a language whose pronouns (as in modern Turkish) didn’t distinguish genders.  (We learn this because the narrator refers to her anxiety about speaking in other languages where pronouns do make gender, and other, distinctions.)  At this point I concluded that all would soon become clear and that I would learn the ‘true’ gender of the various characters who had so far all been referred to as ‘she’.

This assumption, though, was also confounded. We are never told. And this proves to be an interesting and powerful lesson, for it demonstrates that it is in fact possible to get to know a character, identify with a character, like or dislike a character without knowing whether that character has a vagina or a penis.  (Just as we can get to know characters without actually seeing their faces.)

* * *

The choice of narrator is another bold move. Justice of Toren is not a human being but a sentient spaceship. However, as Justice of Toren One Esk, it is also an ancillary, one of an army of captured enemies whose minds have been wiped clean so that their brains and bodies can become adjuncts of Justice of Toren itself. (They are also known as ‘corpse soldiers’).  We have a narrator therefore who is one person and many people all at once, and is capable of being in many different places at the same time.

This is pretty neat from a purely story-telling point of view because it allows the author to exploit the advantages of having a first-person narrator who is part of the action, while simultaneously having many of the benefits of a traditional omniscient narrator. To make this even more clever, Justice of Toren is able to monitor physiological data even from characters not directly under her control, and is therefore able to infer a great deal about what other people are thinking or feeling.

But the fragmented nature of the narrator is more than just a story-telling device, for one of the themes of this book is the split and divided nature of human experience. (Even a single human individual, it is noted at one point, is not much more really than a loose coalition of disparate elements, held together by a convenient narrative.) The narrator/main protagonist (herself reduced, in the most recent strand of the plot, to occupying a single body) finds herself up against a powerful antagonist who has countless bodies but who is radically divided against herself, simultaneously knowing things and denying herself knowledge of them. Civilisation itself, one character suggests, is built on this kind of splitting:

luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.

* * *

Another kind of ‘not knowing’ that this book explores is not knowing the future, not ever really being able to know what the consequences of our actions may be. The Radch civilisation, with which this book principally deals, is one in which people are given to divination by throwing handfuls of special discs and studying the way they fall, and this becomes a recurring metaphor for human action: we have no choice but to make throws, but we cannot ultimately control the way our throws will fall. So where does this leave us when making choices? How do we decide what is right or wrong, when we don’t know what the consequences may be? Is it really possible to base a decision on the rightness or wrongness of an act on calculations as to the likely outcomes, or are some acts simply the right thing or wrong thing to do regardless of their subsequent costs and benefits? The questions are not expressed in the dry language I’ve just used, but they are very much alive throughout a book in which most of the main characters, including the narrator, are in some way complicit in atrocity. Indeed the narrator’s very existence as a corpse soldier is itself the result of atrocity.

There are no straightforward good guys and bad guys in this book and the twists in the story are not simply clever plot tricks, but again and again invite the reader to reconsider the moral categories they have been applying to events.

* * *

The society described in this book is an interstellar civilisation thousands of years in the future. It is not just its language that makes no gender distinctions. As far as I could tell, such distinctions are no more significant in Radch society than, say, hair colour is in ours. I think this is not only interesting but actually realistic. It seems to me that biological differences between men and women are pretty important in pre-modern and pre-technological societies (the empirical evidence for this being the sharp distinctions in gender roles that occur in all such societies) but become progressively less so as technological advance reduces the importance of the human body vis-à-vis the human mind.

In other respects, though, Radch society has made rather less progress in shaking off the past. Thousands of years into the future it may be, interstellar gateways and sentient starships it may have, but with its powerful ‘houses’, its ruthless absolute ruler, its polytheistic idols and its aggressive expansionism, it resembles ancient Rome. Indeed, preoccupied as it is with status and territory (high/low, us/them), Radch society is not so very different, in its essence, from a troop of chimpanzees. I fear this may be realistic too though I certainly hope not. The book itself includes reformers and rebels, but does not hold out very much hope of truly radical change in the structure of society. The impulse to modify and reform and the impulse to maintain, control and expand, the book seems to argue, are just two the opposite sides of one those discs that the citizens of Radch use for divination.

* * *

The nature of the plot makes it hard to say much about the story without immediately introducing spoilers. Suffice to say that this book isn’t just full of clever ideas, but also makes you want to keep turning the pages. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, the unexpected events frequent.  As a general rule, I’m not a great enthusiast for the space opera form of SF, but this is the best new SF book I’ve read in quite a long time.

Rings and mead halls

I enjoyed hearing the late Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio the other week.  There’s something wonderfully taut and muscular about the language of this epic poem.

One phrase stuck in my mind.  A good king is described as a ‘ring giver’.   As to where the rings come from the authors of Beowulf are completely unabashed.  A good king wrecks the mead halls of other kings and extracts tribute from their people.

Nothing very much has changed.  Political leaders are still judged by whether or not they have made us better off, and, though we’re a lot more squeamish  these days about where wealth comes from, it still has to come from somewhere.  As a character observes in Ann Leckie’s excellent novel Ancillary Justice, ‘luxury always comes at someone else’s expense.   One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.’

Other people’s mead halls are still being wrecked to provide rings for the supporters of the powerful, but recent news items remind me that there are always additional options: stealing from the poor, stealing from previous generations (which is what is really happening when publicly owned resources are sold off at prices far below their real value) and of course stealing from our descendants, which is what is being done when efforts at mitigating climate change are dismissed as being too costly.