Archives for category: Fiction

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

So I’ve reread James Joyce’s Ulysses in the last couple of months. I hadn’t read it in its entirety since I’m not sure when, but I grabbed a digital copy on Bloomsday this year and it’s been my middle of the night reading. I’ve got a couple of thoughts that probably aren’t original, but the novel has struck me rather differently at 51 than it did at 22 and 35, for certain.

Usually when I write something like this, I take the trouble to add citations and build a semi-cogent argument, but I’m not handing this one in.

Ulysses men by John Conway V2Coming to the end of the Ithaca chapter, I found Stephen’s departure more mythological than I used to. The assumption (or the presentation made by more than one college professor on the matter) is that Stephen leaves his encounter with Leopold Bloom in order to go into the world and become James Joyce. I think that while there’s pedagogical merit to stating it that way, there’s more of a mythical parallel here. Homer gives us the romantic conclusion to the story (Odysseus passes Penelope’s test by knowing their bed can’t be moved because one part of it is a tree trunk), and Tennyson extends it with Odysseus rallying his troops to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and engage once again the forces of the world. In the Greek myths that Homer retells, we never learn much of how Telemachus comes into his own. Stephen Dedalus, similarly, steps from the house of this strangely parental figure, Leopold Bloom, into the sunrise, and into his own mythology. As the last act before parting, Stephen and Leopold urinating in the back garden of the Blooms’ flat, one could argue that Stephen quite literally pisses off.

The entire effort of Ulysses is about bringing the loftiness of Homer’s epic poetry down to earth, and this is another symbol of it.

Molly Bloom’s urination and masturbation in the course of the monologue that makes up Ulysses’ ultimate chapter are redolent of this same earthiness. Leopold has his own reasons for not making love to Molly that are associated with the death of their infant son, so Molly takes her desire elsewhere. We get the impression from her recounting of her loves, that it’s also in her nature to express her desire where she will. I’m not the first to compare Molly with Emma Bovary, the difference being that Molly isn’t punished for her desire. More than one professor has argued that Joyce, through Molly’s soliloquy, has successfully portrayed women’s inmost feelings and desires. What hit me in this rereading, is that what Joyce seems to have performed more successfully is to project common fears about partner infidelity and assumed lack of respect onto Molly. Or perhaps Joyce simply represented an accurate projection of his own such fears about his partners’ inner lives.

What he’s also gotten right is the estrangement between partners who aren’t open about their desires with one another. Molly, in the last bit of her fantasy delves into topping Leopold and making him do dirty things to her. What she touches on in this fantasy is right out of Bloom’s fantasia at Bella Cohen’s brothel. While it’s hard to tell whether any of that fantasia actually happened from a story continuity point of view, we are, I think, supposed to believe that what Bloom is shown to experience is at least a projection of his own desire.

What’s disheartening is the realization that with a little discussion, Molly and Leopold could have a more mutually satisfying relationship. (The reader has this same feeling when they recognise the gap between Gabriel and Greta Conroy as The Dead shifts from the party to the time the Conroys have alone together.)

It seems that while Molly loves Leopold, she neither likes nor respects him. The fear people have about what others feel about them is here writ large. Molly considers Leopold a failure at life, in terms of job security and home security, and something of a failure in the way he goes about expressing his desire. She especially mocks how he behaves around other women. While Leopold has an emotional response to Molly’s assignation on the day of the novel’s action, he also feels out of contention regarding the partners she takes on (which he enumerates in Ithaca, though possibly inaccurately) or has taken on.

There’s also the number of traumas they’ve suffered which haunt the space between them. Molly’s first lover, Mulvey, is killed in the Boer wars, and there’s the loss of their son Rudy, and Leopold’s father’s suicide. It doesn’t seem as though they have ever examined these events together.

Leopold has an intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, approach to the world that Molly doesn’t appreciate and, in her thoughts, mocks, but which is essential to his characterization. We know a sentence or a thought of Bloom’s instantly because of its expression in his thought processes, especially in his (pseudo-) scientific examination of the world around him. Molly finds finds this ridiculous. On the other hand, when Leopold thinks about Molly’s less intellectual, more physical approach to the world, he seems to smile at it. He doesn’t berate her. He seems amused by her taste in smut, but may not even know of her love for Byron’s poetry. It’s another piece to the puzzle of their non-communication. And then there’s the matter that at the last, Molly blames her infidelity on Leopold’s redirected desire. He doesn’t want to lose another child, and so stops fucking her, and they have never yet found a way together around that.

As I said, just a few thoughts on it. Rereading Dubliners now and, again, getting a far different richness from it than I did in my first readings.

I’d not read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in at least twenty years and I’m not sure if before this week I’d ever actually finished the thing. Now I have, and on a certain level, I think I might be too old for it. It’s one of those books like Catcher in the Rye and possibly On the Road that are best enjoyed before the sheer irresponsibility of the story in the telling is too obvious. In the heart of Thompson’s drug-addled tale of not reporting on two events for which his alter ego Raoul Duke is paid, he makes a stunning indictment of what has become of the American Dream™.

In one of the novel’s more cogent paragraphs, Thompson spells out the moment when Hell’s Angels faced off on the Oakland/Berkeley border with anti-war protesters in 1965, somewhat to the detriment of the nascent anti-war movement and to the greater detriment of the American Left in general. Later, he starts discussing those Timothy Leary took down with him, followers ‘who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit’ , certain that some one or some thing was ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel’ (p. 178).

He goes on to gather several leaders together who followed in the failure of Leary to unite the movement: Jesus, Manson, Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger, and concludes with the book’s most potent idea, ‘…no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now…?’ Whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it, rather than bemoaning that we haven’t.

While I put Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s tales of their American nightmare in an unfavourable bucket with Kerouac and Salinger (both of whom wrote some brilliant, long-lasting work, just not those novels for which they’re best remembered), another comparison that comes to mind is Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. In a similar way to Sterne, Thompson invites us into a series of vignettes that insist to the reader that they’re actually going somewhere, but don’t ever really make it there. Whereas Sterne’s volume ends without ever getting to Italy (as promised in the title), and possibly in the middle of a sentence, Thompson ends his without ever producing (as far as the reader can tell) the articles his character promised. The expectation from a book that is at least tangentially about writing is that there will be a submission and maybe even a reaction to it. Thompson subverts this by his alter ego barely attending or participating in the events he goes to Las Vegas to cover. To be fair, there is one extended sequence in which Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, attend one of the presentations of the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (thoroughly ripped, as the two characters are for the entirety of the book), so our expectations are only partially subverted.

FandLinLVSubtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, what strikes the reader (or at least this reader) about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the savagery with which Thompson/ Duke treats primarily the female characters and really most of the book’s secondary characters. One way of looking at the nastiness of the interactions with the waitress in the chapter ‘Back Door Beauty & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip’ is that Thompson wants to implicate all of us in the nastiness that America became after the “Main Era” ended. The Main Era is what he names that time in the 60s when ‘You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning’ (p. 68). He continues, ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’ (I love the idea of a ‘steep hill in Las Vegas,’ a place in the middle of a desert and nearly as flat as The Netherlands.)

So that moment of mind-altered optimism was undone, or undid itself through subverted protest, Nixon’s treachery, an unwinnable war, and the crackdown of the original war on drugs that Nixon instigated with the help of Elvis Presley. But in the retelling, Thompson says, yes, it all fell apart and to a one, even me, we became nasty and crass.

Thompson shares that, beyond the Strip, you find ‘the shoddy limbo of North Vegas…out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers,’ and here Duke and Gonzo drop into the North Star Coffee Lounge for late night eats. Their waitress, extensively described as, ‘large in every way, long sinewy arms, and a brawler’s jawbone…A burned out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago…but now she was strapped up in a giant pink elastic brassiere that showed like a bandage through the sweaty rayon of her uniform, (p. 158)’ finds herself on the receiving end of a pass from Gonzo, a napkin with ‘Back Door Beauty’ scrawled on it. On receipt, she lays into our heroes with vitriol. Duke just watches while Gonzo deflects the waitress’ accusations and cuts the receiver off the pay phone with a switchblade when she threatens to call the cops.

Duke understands that Gonzo has struck a nerve, ‘The glazed look in her eyes said her throat had been cut. She was still in the grip of paralysis when we left,’ but doesn’t comment or dissuade Gonzo from his behaviour. We as readers follow along, but Thompson not only lets his narrator off the hook, he relates the events that follow as being drawn verbatim from a tape recording transcribed by the editor. He doesn’t give Duke the opportunity to respond and lets himself off the hook at the same time.

From a wider perspective, Thompson’s after roping the reader into some kind of complicity. The more you enter the heads and the behaviours of the main characters the less you can say that you’re not part of the great destruction being wrought. Thompson attempts, through the excess of his protagonists, to separate the freaks – the ones who stepped out of the mainstream before that wave receded – from the normals who flock for whatever reason to Las Vegas’s casinos from the rest of the country. However, through that excess, he implicates all who see themselves on some version of the correct side of that divide. To what we now call coastal elites as well as those citizens of flyover states, Thompson seems to say: ‘You’re all in on this. We’re all in on this. Through silence or engagement. And I’m in on it as well.’

I’m not sure that this is what the man who famously asserted, ‘I wouldn’t advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me’ meant to imply.

I wanted to add something about how Thompson’s anti-Nixon stance (against all hypocrisy propounded and promoted by the Nixon White House) had come back to taunt him when George W. Bush was selected for a second time, and might have contributed to his suicide a month into Shrub’s second term, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by a suicide note which indicated that 67 was ‘17 years more than [he] needed or wanted.’ On the other hand, In October 2004, Thompson wrote: ‘Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for—but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.’ Six months after Thompson’s death, there was a hell of a memorial.

Nourse’s 1974 novel follows three characters practicing underground medicine in the decades following the 1994 healthcare riots, Doctor John Long, Nurse Molly Barret, and their assistant Billy Gimp, a club-footed boy who scores contraband surgical supplies, the titular ‘blade runner’. 


It’s an enjoyable bit of speculative fiction about what happens when medicine in the US has to be rationed because modern science has so prolonged life spans that quality care became almost impossible to deliver. The solution: Health Control. Through legislation, care became free on delivery, as long as your genes were good. Otherwise free care came at the cost of sterilisation. Nourse himself turned to sci-fi to pay for  med school, so the medical details are all believable. (I was a medical secretary for several years, and can vouch for as much as that’s worth.)

He makes the scenario believable enough as well. Oddly, we probably should have had healthcare riots in 1994 when Clinton couldn’t get affordable care legislation past Congress, but that’s a different matter. 

When the crisis hits, an epidemic of a flu that has a deadly meningitis follow-up, Health Control, and the above-ground medical establishment, can’t cope and turn to the illegal practices to abate it. The action is mostly terse and the dialogue better than average. The only downside is several pages of almost-skippable exposition that Nourse could have handled with action. 


http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bladerunner-Prologue-Books-Alan-Nourse-ebook/dp/B00GTUYOV6/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0

AEN_BRThere’s so much to write about David Cameron and the Duggars, and nasty trade deals, not to mention the 18-month countdown to the next US presidential election. But instead I’ve been rereading science fiction and am working up an essay on the theme of replication as addressed in Neuromancer, Blade Runner (William S. Burroughs’ P.K. Dick’s, and Ridley Scott’s) , Naked Lunch, The Matrix, and Andre Breton’s Nadja.

I hope I won’t be too long with it, though I’ve just found that Alan Nourse’s The Blade Runner (Burroughs’ source for his text Blade Runner: A Movie) is available for kindle. And now waiting on my iPad. To be fair, I’m less likely to reference that, because aside from the title, there’s no resemblance to Scott’s and P.K. Dick’s work. We’ll see.