3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch

The tabloid-sounding quote on the cover is misleading.  This is a serious and thoughtful book, by a young woman who was kidnapped by a stranger at the age of 10, and remained his captive for the next eight years.

It is very disturbing to read.  At times I found the claustrophobia hard to bear, even at second hand. For the first six months Kampsuch was confined in a small hidden underground room, which could only be accessed through three doors, the last one made of concrete, which were so elaborately locked and concealed that it took her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, an hour to get through them all each time he came to visit her, and an hour again to seal it all up again when he left.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her fears was that he would have an accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him as a slave, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her with fists and with hard objects without warning.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  Yet he also kitted out her dungeon like a girl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, fetched her books and magazines at her request.

What is striking about the book (apart, of course, from the story itself) is the firm, clear, individual voice in which it is written.  Kampusch refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster, or herself as a helpless victim, whatever the pressure from the media and society to do so:

The perpetrator must be a beast so we can see ourselves as being on the side of good.  His crime must be embellished with S & M fantasies and wild orgies, until it is so extreme that it no longer has anything to do with our lives.

And the victim must have been broken and must remain so, so that the externalization of evil is possible.  The victim who refuses to assume this role contradicts society’s simplistic view.  Nobody wants to see it.  People would have to take a look at themselves.

She says that her refusal to reduce this story to thriller-like categories of black and white, but to insist on shades of grey, has led to her being criticised and subjected to abuse on the internet.  But she is absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her ability to see Priklopil as not all bad, is a symption of the Stockholm Syndrome.  She hates this label, which she says victimises her all over again, and she insists that her behaviour was essentially rational.  Priklopil was the only human being she had contact with for eight years, and she made of that the best that she could.

Her firmness in rejecting the stock narratives that others try to impose on her story, is matched by her small acts of resistance to Priklopil himself.   He demanded she call him ‘maestro’, or ‘my lord’, and tried to get her to kneel in front of him, but she steadfastly refused, knowing  that it was essential that she hold something back.  Somehow, this young woman (she is still only 24, a year younger than my own oldest daughter) managed to hold on to a sense of integrity in these appalling circumstances.

Naturally, when reading the book, one identifies with Kampusch.  The appalling claustrophobic loneliness, the miniscule scope for manouevre, the constant anxiety, the fear for the future: for many of us, it isn’t entirely alien territory, for unhappy times in any childhood feel a bit like this: helpless, trapped, alone, cut off from what you need or long for.  (The comparison of everyday unhappiness with this ordeal may seem grotesque, but it is one that Kampusch herself makes, reflecting on her own lonely and unhappy childhood before her captivity.)   These claustrophobic feelings are ones that most of us are familiar with, I imagine, to some extent, and it is uncomfortable to be reminded of them, or to have to imagine them in the unbelievably extreme form that Kampusch herself endured.

But even more disturbing is to consider Priklopil in the light that Kampusch shines on him.  Her insistence on not making him a horror-movie monster, is very powerful, forcing the reader to consider him not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a person on a continuum with the rest of us.  Priklopil, as she sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to seen other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Kampusch refers to the Greek legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who didn’t like women, but fell in love with the idealised woman he’d carved in stone.   Attempting to meet needs for intimacy by trying to bully or manipulate others into playing roles that we have assigned to them: it’s hardly unique to Priklopil.

Images of the cellar room where Kampusch was confined, from BBC News.

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas

I might as well admit it, I’ve been massively in denial about climate change.   I have worried about it in the past (I even wrote a couple of stories about the threat: ‘Greenland’ and ‘Rat Island’).  But latterly, I’ve been minimising the problem to myself, even persuading myself that there might be upsides as well as downsides. ( After all, I’ve foolishly been telling myself, there have been times in the past when the Earth was so warm that there was no polar ice at all.)

This book has certainly opened my eyes.   To deal with the ‘upsides as well as downsides’ point first: yes, there have been times in the past that were much warmer than now, but they came about as a result of gradual temperature changes over millions of years.  What we are facing now is a change so sudden that life will not have time to adapt.   It is comparable to the great extinction events we find in the geological record, which nearly ended  life on the planet.   And indeed this really could end up that way.   Lynas takes us through six scenarios, from one to six degrees (based on the average increase in the global temperature), and the six degree option is pretty grim reading.

Even the one degree option isn’t exactly pretty.

Of course, as Lynas repeatedly cautions, the science is inexact.  The global weather is an incredibly complex system in which countless different factors interact.  We know that meteorologists can’t precisely predict the weather day by day, and clearly they can’t hope to get it exactly right when looking decades into the future.  But there is no dispute that increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane will increase the global temperature, and there is no doubt that human activity has increased the presence of these gases.   The details may not all be right, but the overall story is indisputable.  And (really!) unless we do something about it, it will have a lot more implications than just things getting a bit hotter.

Nor will it just mean events like the loss of the beautiful coral reefs: sad but with little direct impact on our lives. It will mean the inundation of coastal cities, and of huge swathes of land, such as Bangladesh and the coast of China, where hundreds of millions live.  It will mean the desertification of much of southern Africa and southern Europe.  It will mean more and bigger hurricanes, wreaking destruction over a much wider part of the globe.  It will mean positive feedback loops kicking in – the release of methane from newly thawed permafrost, for instance, or the burning of the entire Amazon forest – that will accelerate these kinds of events until they are running away so fast that nothing can stop them.  And of course these things will have huge geopolitical consequences: mass migration, wars over land and water, countries defending themselves like fortresses against the desperate beating on their gates.

It struck me, reading this, and confronting my own denial (which is like the denial of alcoholics, the denial of rapists, the denial of child abusers, who simply cannot bear to face the harm they do), that if we don’t try and do something about this, it pretty much invalidates any other claim we might wish to make to be doing our bit to make the world a better place.  What is the point of working for human rights, if we let the world degenerate into the kind of dog-eat-dog place where human rights are as worthless as paper walls in a hurricane?   What is the point of thinking about the needs of developing countries, if we stand by while they become deserts or seas?

In fact, never mind these grand public issues, how can we even claim to really care about our own children and grandchildren, if we don’t do anything to stop their world being ruined?

The crazy part is that this is all the result of an almighty bonfire we’ve been having, burning up, in a matter of decades, fossil fuels that took millions of years of solar energy to form.   And, since the fuel isn’t infinite, it will run out anyway, and the bonfire will end whether we want it to or not.  So it’s not even a choice as to whether to stop or not stop the burning.  It’s a choice between stopping now, before it is too late, or in a few decades, when it will be.  We are gambling the future of our species for the sake of a decade or two of business as usual.

I’m going to write more about this.  I think there’s a task for science fiction here, a responsibility even.  Let’s get back to exploring worlds that could really happen, and move away from writing about starships and galactic empires that we know quite well will never ever come about.

Six Degrees on Amazon UK.

Six Degrees on Amazon US.


Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

The Great Depression between the wars resulted in a grassroots backlash against capitalism, and moves towards greater state intervention in the economy, but, in the US today, the most significant political movement to have arisen out of the current economic crisis, is one that calls for still less state intervention.  Thomas Frank illustrates the difference between the two eras by contrasting the ways in which the 1773 Boston Tea Party was invoked in each one.  In 1932, a farmer who took illegal direct action to support his demand for government help for poverty-striken farmers, justified his action by saying ‘Seems to me there was a tea-party in Boston that was illegal too.  What about destroying property in Boston harbour when our country was started?’   But ‘what makes the rebel’s blood boil today,’ Frank writes, ‘is not the plight of the debtor but the possibility that such “losers” might escape their predicament – that government might step in and do the things that those Iowa farmers wanted it to do eighty years ago.’  At a Tea Party rally in 2009 one sign read ‘Your mortgage is not my problem.’  (Given the popularity of Christianity on the American Right, I’m intrigued to know how ‘Your mortgage is not my problem’ can be squared with ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ [Matthew 12:31], but let that pass.)

This excellent book, packed with pithy observations, is an exploration of a bizarre phenomenon: a crisis caused by unfettered capitalism, followed by populist demands for yet more unfettered capitalism.  The apparent contradiction is explained in part by the fact that this new political movement doesn’t identify the core problem as the collapse of the capitalist financial institutions, but rather as the government bail-out that followed, not only because it resulted in a debt which the taxpayer has to pay, but because it distorted the workings of the market.  Ironically enough, given their hatred of the term ‘liberal’, this lot are extreme economic liberals.  They view the free unfettered market as being the God-given natural order, and any intervention into it as unnatural, tyrannical and ‘socialist’.  (‘Clear-thinking Americans must begin to view Socialism as a prosecutable crime and recognize those who conspire to advance it as in fact criminals,’ chillingly writes one Tea Party pamphleteer cited by Frank.)

To some degree I agree that markets are ‘natural’, in the sense that I believe that people will, almost inevitably, do deals with one another, and try and get the best return they can for their work.  (It happened even in states such as the Soviet Union which tried to abolish the market.)   But politics are also ‘natural’ in this exact same sense of stuff that is bound to happen, bound to be part of the picture, as is expecting the community as a whole to help out in a crisis, collective action etc etc.   Capitalism, and the notion of the ‘free market’ are, after all, very recent historical developments,  and, as Frank points out, the ‘pure Capitalism’ that these people dream about has never existed, and could never exist.   It is a one-dimensional concept, an essentially Utopian idea which, like all Utopian ideas, only works if you exclude reality from your worldview.

Frank is interesting on the way in which this libertarian right wing mirrors, sometimes quite consciously, the left.   It uses the language of injustice and class war, for instance, to pit ‘ordinary decent Americans’ (including billionaires!) against a ‘liberal’ elite, which it sometimes characterises as fascist or Nazi.  And Frank sees its adherents as blinkered in much the same way as the leftists who visited Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years after the Depression, and managed to avoid noticing famine, terror and gulags, and see instead a socialist Utopia.  What is terrifying in all these cases is the capacity of human beings to persuade themselves that something is its exact opposite.  ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘War is Peace’, ‘Poverty is Plenty’, went the slogans in Orwell’s Oceania, and now we have billionaires as victims, liberals as Nazis, and poor people as the cause of the problem.

Of course, as Frank points out, the misty soft-focus dream of an America consisting of decent hard-working business people (regular guys like you and me) competing in the market place, is essentially a facade (rather in the same way, I suppose, that the rhetoric and iconography of socialism was used as a facade for tyranny under Stalin).   The folksy Tea Party rhetoric distances the movement from big business, depicting the latter as monopolistic, in cahoots with the state, on the scrounge for subsidies and lucrative government contracts, but it is nevertheless big business’s purposes that the Tea Party serves.

We have no exact equivalent of the Tea Party in the UK, but there are plenty of people here who have taken the opportunity presented by the crisis in capitalism, to roll back the state still further, and give unfettered capitalism still more freedom to act.   I strongly recommend this book.

Pity the Billionaire on Amazon UK.


The City & The City, by China Miéville

I live in Cambridge where, every summer, hundreds of foreign teenagers descend on the city to attend the various language schools.   Often they move around in large crowds, instantly recognisable because of the standard issue language school backpacks and t-shirts.  Often they hire bikes (this city is, after all, the UK capital of bicycles), and can be seen wobbling along in groups, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, or even going round roundabouts the wrong way.

And the thing that strikes me about them is that they are not really here.   Physically they are in Cambridge, but they aren’t really present in it.   We notice their language school livery and their Latin looks and pay no further attention, dismissing them as transients who will soon be gone. They hardly see us at all.  I even tested this once.  A group of Italian boys were walking towards me, filling up the entire width of the pavement.  They needed to make room for me.  The only way I could have got out of their way was to press my back up against a wall.  But I kept walking, and sure enough one of them walked straight into me.  He looked startled, as if surprised to discover that I was actually solid.

You see the same thing with British tourists abroad.  Waiters fetch things for them, but they hardly even make out the waiters’ faces.  Physical location is only one aspect of where we are, and not really, most of the time, the most important one.  We are much more interested in other kinds of nearness.  Look at someone walking down the road, talking to a lover on a mobile phone.

In The City & The City, China Miéville draws attention to these other kinds of nearness and distance, by imagining a place where it is not just normal to ignore and discount much of what is physically present, but actually compulsory.  The two city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same piece of territory, and are so interwoven that, in some places, they share the same streets.   But their citizens learn from an early age to ignore the parallel city alongside their own, seeing only their own buildings, and their own people, and noticing, but then immediately ‘unseeing’, the buildings and people of the other place, whose otherness is signalled to them by small differences that they’ve learnt to instantly recognise (rather in the way that, so I’m told by people who come from there, Northern Irish folk establish almost at once whether someone is a Protestant or a Catholic) .  A person in Beszel, therefore, must not stare at, think about, speak to, or in any way acknowledge a person in Ul Qoma, even if in terms of purely physical space, they live next door to one another.  To violate this principle is to commit ‘breach’, and is a serious crime.

But this is not the same thing as saying that each city must deny the existence of the other, or that Ul Qomans and Besz must never meet.  On the contrary.  It is perfectly possible to travel from Beszel to Ul Qoma, with the necessary visas, by passing through a border post.  Having crossed over, and been issued with a visitor’s badge, a person from one city may return to the same physical spaces he normally inhabits, but as he is now legally ‘in’ the other city, he must now ‘unsee’ his own city, but may look at leisure at the sights that, when ‘back home’, he would have been forbidden to notice.  Miéville has fun with the ramifications of all this: there is even an ‘Ul Qomatown’ within Beszel, which Besz people might at first glance feel obliged to ‘unsee’, since it superficially resembles Ul Qoma.

This is one of those books (like, for instance, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, which I discussed here previously, and like much of Kafka and Borges), which works by unfolding the implications of a single odd premise, while allowing its metaphorical possibilities, its resonances with the real world we actually inhabit, to gradually take root in our minds.   The story is a police procedural, about a Besz policeman investigating a murder which turns out to have Ul Qoman ramifications, and this provides a device by which we can gradually learn more and more about the relationship between these two states.   As the policeman attempts to solve the murder, the reader (or myself at least), is equally absorbed by the possibility of in some way getting to the bottom of the nature of this cleft city, and of the shadowy institutions, beyond the ordinary police of the two states, that maintain their separate existence, by punishing breach violations that might be as small as looking at a shop window in the ‘other’ city.

It gets a little busy and plot-driven towards the end – when it is being made to deliver the solution to the crime required by the police procedural genre, this strange imagined world does feel a little as if it is being crammed into a space that is just too small for it  –  but this is an original, clever and compelling book.  The single scene which most haunts me, is one in which the detective Borlú, during a working trip to the foreign country of Ul Qoma, walks down the Ul Qoman street that, in terms of physical space, is the street he lives in back in Beszel: he passes, but carefully unsees, his own front door.

The City & The City on Amazon UK.


Incidentally (and this is the kind of thing that you learn when you have a Wikipedia dependency as bad as mine), there really does exist a pair of intermingled towns in two different countries.  The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog consists of more than twenty enclaves in and around the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau.  There are even Dutch enclaves within the Belgian ones.  See here for more.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Book coverThis is a staggeringly original and intricate piece of work, the best and most ambitious book I’ve read for a very long time.   The author begins by denying that it’s a novel, but it reads like one, has diverse and well-drawn characters and is beautifully written.   It’s just that the characters are not all linked together into a single big story, and the fictional elements (or semi-fictional, blending real historic figures and real events, with made-up characters and events) are interspersed with factual information about the Kruschev era Soviet state, and in particular its centrally planned economy.  By denying it’s a novel, the author gives himself permission to provide this stuff undigested and thereby avoids having to load down his characters with ‘As you know Bob…’ – type dialogue.  (In short: this ‘not-a-novel’ strategy is a way of avoiding – or perhaps legitimising – what SF writers and readers call ‘info-dumps’).

As it happens the info-dumps are just as riveting as the rest of the book, and are incredibly well informed, not only about the Soviet system, but about all kinds of other stuff.   About computers for example.  There is even a virtuoso account of the way that smoking causes cancer inside a cell.

I think it is a novel, though.  The main character in it is the socialist dream, which Spufford convincingly argues survived all through the time of Stalin, right into the Kruschev era and even on to Gorbachev.   These people may have been tyrants, but they genuinely believed in the idea of a socialist economy, directed by reason rather than by blind market forces.    (Why otherwise, he points out, did they not go down the Chinese road and convert the economy to capitalism, while keeping political power in the hands of the Party?)

The book is very vivid on the actual workings of a planned economy: an economy in which, if a machine breaks down in a factory, the company can’t just buy a new one, but must apply for one, and this application must then somehow be accomodated in the entire Plan for the entire country.  It is an economy which only works by finding ways of getting round its own rules.

For a little time there, apparently, in the Kruschev era, clever economists, computer scientists and mathematicians thought they might be able to find ways of making this juggernaut not only work, but actually work better than the capitalist countries with their markets.    Having seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, we, in 2011, know this isn’t going to work out, living as we do in the age of Russian oligarchs, but they didn’t know it then, and thus (as the author observes in an interesting article here)  ‘An immense overhang of obvious consequences teeters above the events of Red Plenty, invisible to characters. And so the book became a kind of comedy, an unwitting comedy whose jokes don’t exist within the world of the story.’

He goes on: ‘I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it. But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past. I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences. Whatever it is.’

I suppose history is almost entirely made up of people busying away at projects which, in the end, don’t work out.

Incidentally, when I was trying to think of another book which was not-a-novel in anything like this kind of way, a Russian instance came to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace,  also claimed by its author not to be a novel.

Red Plenty on Amazon UK.




Philip K. Dick

I came to Philip Dick’s work relatively late, but it has a big influence on me.  I would find it difficult to say  which is my favourite one of his books and stories, though at times I decide The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which many people seem to pick, and which I may write about some other time.  At other times I decide on Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, a wonderful book in which the most complex and sympathetic character is a police chief in a brutal police state, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, whose death is a turning point in the story  (one of countless references in Dick to a dead female twin: his own twin sister died in infancy).

I also particularly admire his short story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’  (I once wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on this one story, and I may at some point write more about it here.)

Although I started reading science fiction as a teenager in the seventies, I didn’t come upon Dick until some time later, and I found his work a revelation: I could use science fiction not just for sociological and political speculation, not just for ‘sense of wonder’, but to write about everything!

The first Dick book I read was  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I was blown away by the reckless, even careless, daring with which Dick flung together ideas, bothering not at all with technological plausibility, and combining  deep darkness with playful absurdity.  Dick can be very funny. The opening pages of Androids are some of the funniest writing I have read anywhere, and  who but Philip Dick would have a character (as in Ubik) engaging in an argument with his own sentient front door (he threatens to kick the door down, at which point the door threatens to sue him.)

Some people say Dick has good ideas but does not write well. I find this hard to understand.  His writing can sometimes be sloppy – many of these books were churned out at great speed – but I envy the precision and clarity of  his best prose, and at times it is really beautiful.  The following is from Androids. Isidore stands in his decaying apartment in a nearly empty building, in a decaying and depopulated world:

Silence.  It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill.  It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting.  It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there.  From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.  It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible.  Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.  Alive!  He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait.  The silence of the world could not rein back its greed.  Not any longer.  Not when it had virtually won.

But above all what stands out about Dick’s work is that, however bizarre and ludicrous the worlds he creates, the characters within them are entirely human.   The author has inhabited them and looked out of their eyes (not always the case in science fiction writing, where characters are often very much seen from the outside, their characteristics added-on, rather than integral to their nature).   Dick’s characters’ dramas are real, however strange (or even silly) the worlds in which they take place, just as the drama in a well-acted play is real, even if the actors’ costumes are absurd and the stage set is only bits of painted plywood.

And of course, famously, the great theme of Philip Dick, is that the so-called real world is like that too: painted plywood concealing something else.  We don’t know where we are, or even who we are, but yet somehow we still really do exist.

Grave of Philip Dick and his sister Jane


The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.


The Time Traveller’s Wife

I watched the film ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ recently.  I wasn’t expecting to be crazy about it, having not been that taken with the book by Audrey Niffenegger (there was something about the authorial voice that jarred, though I admired the idea of it, and admired the feat of plotting a relationship between two people for each of whom the same life events occur in a different order).  There were some irritating things in the film too, but overall I enjoyed it very much.  It seemed to follow the novel pretty closely, but this is perhaps a story that benefits from not having to have a narrator.

The Time Traveller has an affliction which means that from time to time, suddenly and without warning, he flips forward or backwards in time, leaving an empty pile of clothes, to return again after an hour, a minute, a week…  His wife first meets him, many times, when he is an adult man and she is a little girl.   Then, when she is an adult, she meets him again, a man she has known and loved most of her life, but he doesn’t know her at all, because he hasn’t yet reached the age at which he first flips back to her childhood.   Watching the film, I felt there was something rather wonderful about this notion.  It was one of those ideas that prod away at the mind.

He dies quite young, but after he is dead , he comes back again a couple of times  – not a ghost, not an apparition, but completely alive and well, younger than he had been when he died, and able to tell his wife, the precise time in their mutual past from which he’s just flipped.   The first time he meets his daughter is when he has flipped forward from a time before she was born to a time in the future when he has already died.

And these dislocations too, prodded away at my mind all the next day.   Rather in the way of the bold, simple central idea of the novel Inverted World which I wrote about here recently, this simple device of a woman having a relationship with a time traveller was one of those ideas which I find satisfying because they are rich in metaphorical possibilities, but can’t simply be translated into a single ‘meaning’.

It made me wonder, for instance, whether all relationships are really relationships between time travellers, since we all travel back and forth between our present and our past, and are in some moments grownups and in others adolescents or children, so that ever day the relationship between two people presents endless possible combinations…

It made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, for whom time is essentially the same as space, so that the idea of a person not being alive for ever is no more distressing than the fact that a person does not exist at every point in space…

It made me think of the way that I am myself a time traveller, sometimes dealing with the world in front of me, but again and again sliding back to struggles from my past, or slipping sideways into imaginary or faraway places where I don’t  exist at all.

PS  And incidentally, to return to the theme of my previous post, the fact that time travel is impossible (let alone a genetic condition that causes time travel!) is entirely irrelevant to the question of the worth of this book.  Being possible or plausible in a literal sense, is not the only way in which a story can connect with real life.

Christopher Priest: Inverted World

Feeling that I would like to steep myself a little more in the history of the genre in which I write,  I’ve been buying books in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, and have just finished this one which I had never come across before.   The cover sold it to me, and more than most covers do, sums up what the book is about.

Priest’s own website includes a scathing review of this book by Martin Amis (complete with a spitefully gratuitous spoiler),  pointing out the wild implausibility of the story.   Amis also suggests that a ‘courteous editor’ would have reduced the first 100-odd pages to more like 20.

It’s true that there are a lot of holes in the story.  It isn’t plausible and, even looked at within its own terms, there are obvious questions left unanswered (why, when the inhabitants of the city are constantly interacting with the people around them, has no one in the past 200 years ever thought of asking the locals where they actually are?)

But the central image is incredibly compelling.  A city is perpetually being very slowly hauled along railway tracks that must be laid ahead of it, and then taken up again after it has passed.   It must keep moving forward to escape annihilation which is never far behind it.   Surveyors go out ahead of it (or ‘up future’ as the characters in the story call it, for they conflate distance and time and measure their lives in miles) to try and work out the best route to follow.    Others ride out from the city to recruit locals to labour for them… and to bear them children, for the city does not produce enough girls of its own.

Amis’ comment about the length of the first 100 pages misses the point.   The joy of this book is this central image.  It’s very rich in metaphorical possibilities and we need time and the accumulation of detail to let us savour it,  let it soak in, allow us to inhabit it.    One Amazon reviewer mentions that the book prompted a very vivid dream.   Yes, this city on rails does have a feel that is like the odd places we come back to again and again in our dreams, full of meaning, yet not amenable to simply being decoded into a single, simple message.

The Space Merchants

It can be disappointing rereading a book that impressed you years ago.   When I attempted to reread Kerouac’s On the Road, which at 19 I thought was wonderful, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into it.  It was sentimental, baggy, misogynistic, and I couldn’t get past that to see the energy that had first impressed me.

But, though I must have read The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth at at even earlier age, I was just as impressed with it on recently rereading it as I was first time round the better part of four decades ago.

Like all SF of its era, it depicts a ‘future’ that falls very wide of the mark technologically (daily passenger shuttles to the moon, but no computers or mobile phones), but considering it was written in 1952, it is impressively relevant.   The global struggle between Capitalism and Communism that was occurring at that the time the book was written, has long since passed.   The adversary of rampant global capitalism is not communism but conservationism.   Consies not commies, are the pariahs.  Advertising agencies, and their huge networks of interlocking sales campaigns, rule.

I’d forgotten (or more likely did not notice aged 16) how funny the book is.  Told from the viewpoint of Mitchell Courtenay who as a star class copysmith with the Fowler Schocken advertising agency (vastly superior in his eyes to the sleazy Taunton agency), is a member of the elite who (for much of the book) accepts the rules of his own society without question, a society in which sales are everything and even to mention a concern about the environment is to mark oneself out as a consie sympathiser.

“She’d been bought up in a deeply moral, sales-fearing home…”

“…the basic drive of the human race is sex.  And what is, essentially, more important in life than to mould and channel the deepest torrential flow of human emotion into its proper directions?   (I am not apologizing for those renegades who talk fancifully about some imagined ‘Death-Wish’ to hook their sales appeals to.  I leave that sort of thing to the Tauntons of our profession: it’s dirty, it’s immoral, I want nothing to do with it.  Besides, it leads to fewer consumers in the long run, if only they’d think the thing through.)”

“The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain.  And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies…  ”

You have to read the book and read these things in context to get the full effect.  It’s brilliant satire.  Still sharp after almost half a century.