A Good Book for a Small Angry Earth

Before I start this review, I just want to tell you about the crew of HMS Victory, the flagship of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This ship, so strongly associated with English nationalism, had a multinational crew. According to Jane’s Naval History, the crew included – 441 English, 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 22 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 French, 3 Norwegian, 3 Germans, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Swiss, 2 Channel Islanders, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 1 Russian, 1 African, 1 Manxman, and 9 men from the West Indies.

This is all by way of introduction to the crew of spaceship Wanderer, whose fortunes we follow in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A similarly mixed bunch, they crew a ship making worm hole tunnels through a universe populated by different species with conflicting opinions and customs. How all these life forms get along together is the main theme of the book.

We see, for example, the future of nationalism in characters who insist on maintaining the pure identity of particular life forms. These people seem condemned to pursue a mirage. To make this point, the story includes cloned individuals who are genetically identical, but still hate each other. There is also an interesting character formed by a host creature and a kind of parasitic virus. The viral infection confers special powers on its host at the cost of a dramatically shortened life span. The host makes persuasive arguments for this strange viral alliance, telling worried human colleagues that vital cellular elements of the human body are the result of ancient infections, incorporated into its genetic makeup. It seems that individuals themselves are a kind of cellular community trying to get along. Getting along with life different to yourself seems a basic requirement of living. It is pointless trying to isolate yourself within a single identity.

Then you run into contradictions. Accepting differences might be important, until you get to the point where acceptance becomes so pervasive that there may as well be no differences. The host of the virus might be correct about foreign cells incorporated into human bodies, but the creature is slowly dying as a result of its alliance. There is too much acceptance, too much staring out of windows, which this creature does a lot. The virus is too close to its host, so much so that the individual is referred to as “they”. It’s like one of those couples who are so into each other that they give up all their friends and it gets a bit unhealthy. Continuing with the human body parallels, some diseases corrupt body cells to make them all the same, which is of course disastrous.

Variety might cause disorder but it’s a better type of disorder to that caused by those of a totalitarian bent who seek uniformity. It’s a difficult contradiction, explored with great subtlety.

So thematically I thought this book was excellent. It really had its heart in the right place and, like all good sci-fi, said something important about the here and now. Reluctantly, I do also have to say that the quality of the writing was sometimes patchy. There was a fair amount of telling rather than showing, particularly in the middle of the book. At one point we met a new character, only for a description of their background to pop up out of nowhere, as though the author’s character notes had just been slotted in. There was also an irritating reliance on exclamation marks in some of the dialogue. By the end, however, I had forgiven all this. The wonderful sci-fi writer Douglas Adams used lots of adverbs – those things which new writers are told to avoid – but no one really holds it against him. In the end, for me, the same applies here.

Muddling Along With Les Miserables

Queen’s Theatre, February 14th 2018

We live in strange times as far as morality is concerned. People in America were willing to ignore all kinds of sleazy behaviour when they elected their president. On the other hand there is a definite hardening of lines with regard to behaviour generally.

After seeing Les Miserables recently, I was reminded how this spectacularly successful musical also portrays a world of conflicting moral extremes. There are appalling characters such as inn keeper Thénardier, who cheats his customers and gropes his staff. On the other hand there is Inspector Javert whose determination to follow the letter of the law, results in just as much misery and injustice as the behaviour of Thénardier. One side of the moral equation is a reflection of the other. The bulk of the story then focuses on people who try to get along in the grey area between extremes. Jean Valjean, the central character, spends nineteen years in forced labour – punishment for stealing a loaf of bread in a time of desperate poverty. On release he breaks his parole and goes on the run, eventually getting his life together and becoming a respected town mayor. As mayor he meets a character similar to himself, a young woman named Fantine, forced into prostitution in an effort to support her daughter. Like Valjean, this young woman is technically a criminal, even though we see the virtue of her struggle.

Inevitably, a group of students and radicals stage a rebellion against their unjust society. The rebels are sworn enemies of the government. However, the revolutionary views of rebel leader Enjolras mirror that of Inspector Javert – in the sense that they both hold to their principles regardless of circumstance. And while rebels and government inspectors are similar in their extremism, as usual we have ordinary people in between. Valjean joins the rebels on their makeshift barricade, raising initial suspicion, since he is an establishment figure as far as the youngsters are concerned. A student named Marius, is also in a somewhat ambiguous position. He has just fallen in love, a complication which the cause of revolution has no time for.

Following a government attack on the barricade, Valjean manages to carry an injured Marius to safety. Valjean lives long enough to see the young man he saved married to Cosette, the daughter for whom Fantine sacrificed everything.

At the end of the play there seems to be a place in heaven for everyone, which sort of makes sense in light of the suggestion that virtue and villainy are closer to each other than we might think. However, there is a special place in heaven not for the saints, but for ordinary people, neither saintly nor sinful, who have done their best. Maybe that is one of the reasons Les Miserables has been so successful. Les Miserables presents humanity’s extremes, only to celebrate the majority of people who muddle along in the middle.

A Rather Bitter Grammar Review

Set in the late 1930s, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart tells the story of a sixteen year old orphan girl who, after a wandering life in Europe, goes to stay with relatives in London.

The book has little plot or action, relying on evocative writing for its impact.

With that in mind, I found the quality of writing patchy, particularly in the second half. The Death of the Heart is on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of all time. I’m only a struggling writer, who has read books with names like How to Write a Damn Good Novel, imploring me to avoid adverbs, passive voice and inelegantly repeated words. It was disconcerting, then, to find relatively frequent use of adverbs, passive voice and repeated words in writing which is supposed to be amongst the best there is. You’ll just have to consult other reviews for themes and so on. I just couldn’t get past all the stuff in Elizabeth Bowen’s writing that I had been told not to do.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but have a look at the following and see what you think. We’ll start with repetition of words:

“Portia asked herself for the first time why what Mr Bursely had said had set up such disconcerting echoes, why she had run away from it in her mind.”

This sentence is awkward. The word had is repeated three times. Why is repeated twice. Just for good measure the question why collides inelegantly with the question what.

In a similar vein, look at this sentence:

“The sense of exposure this airy bareness gave them made them, with one another, at once sidelong and bold.”

“Gave them made them” sounds awkwardly repetitive to me.

If we’re talking about repetition, wouldn’t the book’s title The Death of the Heart have been better without the first the?

Moving on to Bowen’s use of passive voice:

“The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light.”

“The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety.”

“Here and there, a gull on a far-out post would be floated off by the tide.”

“There was a breakwater smell – a smell of sea-pickled planks, of slimy green boards being sucked by the tides.”

“Are met”, “is run through”, “would be floated” and “boards being sucked” are passive voice. Is that suggestive of things being acted upon by their environment? Or is it just the flat sound of passive voice?

Moving on to adverbs:

“Anna said, much more kindly.”

“Major Brutt had met her eyes kindly.”

“Thomas nosing so kindly round for cigars.”

“‘Don’t ask me,’ said Daphne kindly.”

“Kindly pulling Portia along by one elbow, she went to the end of the court.”

“When he had used the flame, he kindly looked down the row to see if anyone wanted a light too.”

In the next example, two adverbs – shingly and imperceptibly – and repetition of the word was, combine to produce a bizarre sentence:

“The shallow curve of the bay held a shingly murmur that was just not silence and imperceptibly ended where silence was.”

Similar to adverbs, we have intensifiers:

“His erect, rather forbidding carriage made him look so old-fashioned.”

“Outside gulls skimmed in the rather cold air.”

“Eddie smiled in a rather automatic way.”

In my own novels, not currently in the top 100 of all time, I would have avoided intensifiers like rather, which sits in an unfortunate category with very, pretty and quite.

Finally there are passages that just seemed plain wordy to me:

“Only Portia had this forbidding intimacy with him – she was the only person to whom he need not pretend that she had not ceased existing when, for him, she had ceased to exist.”

I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s top 100 novels in the hope that the best writing will help my own. This novel reminded me of wisdom attributed to Sam Goldwyn:

“Nobody knows nothing in this business.”

Hamilton – A History Play For Today

Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, February 1st 2018

For the first fifteen minutes of Hamilton, I wondered what was going on. What was this strange hip hop, rap version of early American history? I was just pondering on how I hadn’t seen anything like this before, when it struck me that I have. It was a theatrical presentation of national history in verse. The story involved kings and rebels – colonial Americans taking on the British authorities and facing the consequences of their rebellion. History, verse, kings, rebellion – this all made me think I was watching a modern take on a Shakespeare history play.

By the end of the first act, I seemed to be watching Henry V. There was much patriotic chest thumping, following the American victory. The British were personified by the smiling assassin King George III – who at least got the best songs. As in Henry V, however, there were quiet suggestions that patriotism is based on shifting sands. George Washington takes young firebrand Alexander Hamilton aside. Fighting for the cause might seem glorious, but fatherly Washington explains that things are more complicated than young Hamilton imagines. Washington dismisses the shallowness of sacrificing your life for a cause: “Dying is easy, young man, living is harder,” he explains.

If I was watching Henry V in the first half, it was more like Macbeth in the second. The second half opened with Hamilton sitting in his study quoting Macbeth, who famously killed a king and found misery rather than glory afterwards. It seemed as though winning the war against the British would be the end of the struggle. In fact it was just the beginning. Thinking back to school days, I recalled Henry V illustrating the fact that finding a foreign enemy is a good way to prevent trouble at home. However, this approach is dangerous when you live in a country where everyone is an immigrant. With the British gone, Americans found enemies in each other.

The second act is bleak, disillusioned and moving. It is all about the difficulties people have in working together. But in the show’s breathtaking coordination of words, music and dance, we had vivid evidence of what people can do as part of a well organised team. The show moved around that contradiction. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the king got everyone to sing along with him. Everyone was in harmony, but there was a price to pay for this love. There is also a price to pay for rejecting it. Perhaps that’s why Americans today, as their own empire declines, have tried to create an absolute monarch in their leader. “You’ll be back,” said King George. It seems he was right.

Finally, I would like to say I make the comparisons with Shakespeare advisedly. This really is an excellent show, the best musical I have ever seen. Bravo, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Four Weddings and Three AIs

Happiness for Humans – published January 2018, – tells the story of artificial intelligence attaining self awareness. While this might seem like Terminator territory, it is covered here in the form of romantic comedy, a kind of Four Weddings and Three AIs.

The book is well written and funny. Beyond that, I think in a frothy, rom com kind of way, it does have something serious to say about what it is to be human, or a human-like machine. Various characters look at the subject from different angles. There is the question of empathy, for example, and whether this quality differentiates machines from humans. An AI called Aiden shows a high degree of empathy, aware of others as well as himself. Aiden is a lovely, human-seeming character, who enjoys watching classic romantic comedies, particularly Some Like It Hot. He interacts in a warm manner with a magazine journalist called Jen. In contrast there is Matt, Jen’s lawyer boyfriend, who is human, but acts like a cold hearted machine because he lacks empathy. The good kicking that Aiden gives Matt by crashing his life via the internet is one of the most rewarding and funny aspects of the book.

Matt’s personality is mirrored in the world of artificial intelligence by a deeply unpleasant AI called Sinai. Sinai is an actual cold hearted machine. Like Matt, he is self-aware, but has no meaningful awareness of others. He doesn’t care about romantic comedy. The only romance he has is with a copy of himself.

The book also looks at the idea of life from the angle of whether it’s a matter of “doing or being”, for want of a better description. This conundrum is explored via Aiden, who, as a super intelligent AI capable of reading War and Peace in one second, is very much a doer. Nevertheless, he is perceptive enough to see that life might also involve simply existing. In contrast to high functioning machines, we meet a pet rabbit called Victor. Victor definitely takes the being rather than doing approach to life. There is a similar creature who happens to be a student at the University of Bournemouth, allegedly doing media studies.

A novel is a good place to explore both empathy and the conundrum of doing and being. To read a novel is to exercise your empathy muscles. The experience demands that you see and feel from the perspective of someone else. As far as the doing and being thing is concerned, which of those two things is reading a novel? People read novels to relax. They also work hard at reading them in universities. Students – some of them at least – busily discuss deeper meanings and write essays.

Novels like Happiness for Humans remind me how useful novels are in exploring life – as opposed to some cold hearted academic study. Who said romantic comedy couldn’t be serious

A Literary Dream

Invisible Man Ellison
Invisible Man is Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a young black man, who gets thrown out of university for accidentally offending a wealthy patron. He then tries to make a life for himself in New York.

This is a literary novel, and I sometimes found it irritating that symbolism seemed more important than a sense of reality. However, a few lines early on in the book sum up how I’ve come to feel about Invisible Man:

“People talk of metaphorical significance of this or that scene. Seems like a puzzle or a children’s game. But a dream sometimes tells us things in the shape of metaphor, and this is no children’s game. This is real and serious.”

When I wake up from a dream, I do not review it for realism, and give it a low star rating if the content of the dream has been one of personal symbolism rather than a realistic story. People who have studied dreams – Carl Jung for example – emphasise their strange, metaphorical nature. Dreams deal in the pictorial and the figurative. They reach into areas of taboo, with which the waking mind does not feel comfortable. Invisible Man often inhabits this sort of realm. A number of scenes have the dreamy power of exploring taboo – the famous one at the beginning of the book involving a sharecropper’s family, for example. There’s another telling passage towards the end, where a woman shares with the unnamed narrator a fantasy that she could not think of sharing with anyone in the normal run of life. Then almost as the book closes, the narrator actually has a dream that reproduces images from his waking life. The images are wild and chaotic, but strangely are not clearly the result of a dream until the narrator wakes up.

So that’s how I see the book, as a kind of literary dream reaching into all the dark areas of life that waking minds would rather leave alone. I don’t think it always works. Sometimes the novel seems disjointed because it is disjointed, and not because it is reproducing the fragmented nature of a dream. Nevertheless, the book is remarkable, perhaps more in the thinking about it afterwards rather than in the reading of it. Dreams themselves are rather like that.

I would give Invisible Man a three for the experience of reading the book, five for the thinking about it afterwards.

Boring Job, Good Music


As part of my irregular series on album titles, I have been thinking about Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, Tubular Bells.  I listened to this album a lot in the early 1980s, and wondered if it could be considered a musical metaphor, no less.  The cover art was fascinating, that shining tube, crossing over itself like some kind of rune, hanging in a cloudy sky above a wave breaking on a beach.  It reminded me of a mystical version of one of those tube slides at a swimming pool.

I thought if I was going to write about a musical metaphor, it would be best to check that I knew what I was talking about.  I reminded myself of the basics – that a metaphor is the describing of one thing in terms of another.  Then I did some more in-depth reading and was intrigued to discover that metaphors used to describe the act of thinking almost always involve three things – journeys, building, and food. As an example, you can ruminate on a subject, build an argument and arrive at a conclusion. This was interesting because music also seems to have a powerful link with those same three elemental things – journeys, building and food.

For millennia, people have marched to music and sung shanties to help them on journeys. There’s also a tradition of work songs involved in all kinds of building activities, from laying rail roads in America, to constructing houses in Africa. There’s a similar tradition amongst agricultural workers producing food. For centuries people have used music to help them “tote that barge and lift that bale” – as Paul Robeson sang in Ol’ Man River. Lyrics might be about anything, describing the hopes, dreams and loves of people getting through the daily grind. Music itself, however, may well derive from the rhythmic effort of work.

Show Boat

Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film version of Show Boat

This all makes me feel better about having a repetitive job in a pharmacy. Music goes with repetitive work. The rhythmic crack of stone on stone in the production of stone tools, the regular thump of mortar against pestle in food preparation, the tramp of feet on a long, laborious journey, are possibly where music – and even elements of language itself – came from in the first place.

So does this tell us anything about Tubular Bells? Well, the music often involves repeated phrases. It’s also interesting that the album ends with a sailors’ hornpipe. The album preceding this hornpipe is abstract, a journey sliding down a mystical tubular bell perhaps. But mystical or not, in the end it comes back to toting that barge and lifting that bale.  A collection of instrumental music, built around complex repetition, ends  with the kind of music which, since music began, has helped people travel, build things, and get food to our tables.

Fire, Fury and Misplaced Faith

Fire Fury

It might seem difficult to judge the accuracy of this book – not personally having had a job at the White House. Most of what I read, however, I was already aware of from watching the news. The book just gave background information to what we already know. I watched an interview this evening where a White House advisor claimed the book should be seen as a fantasy story. This statement is patently absurd, because most of it is simply common knowledge.

So, the picture portrayed rings true. The account is also generally well written give or take the odd typo or rough sentence – I too have been guilty of sending off a submission with public misspelt as pubic. Dialogue is well used at crucial moments to draw the reader in. Much as I loath his divisive politics, at least Steve Bannon is good for dialogue.

Beyond these details, the book touches on wider issues of human leadership. After all, it seems that the Trump government represents a throwback to a style of leadership based on faith rather than facts. As anthropologist Olga Soffer has said of the rise of religious leadership:

“Sacred information is the easiest to control, because it can’t be checked.”

Trump hates facts and has no respect for expertise. He says “trust me” and a certain percentage of people seem to do that, no matter what the facts might say. A quasi religious approach is well documented in Fire and Fury – in images of Trump sitting happily on thrones in Saudi Arabia for example. Trump, in the words of White House official Katie Walsh is “inspirational not operational”. Inspirational in this context is not a compliment, but an accusation of practical incompetence and reversion to decision making based on primal instincts, such as irrational fear of outsiders.

The book might be a little short on analysis as it careers through page after page of mind-boggling chaos – but there is an old rule that showing is better than telling. Fire and Fury shows that while the old style of leadership relying on blind faith might have charming echoes in, for example, a well-behaved constitutional monarchy, it becomes terrifying when applied to the government of a complex, technological society like the United States. Fire and Fury shows a government not fit for purpose both in its leader and in the anachronistic manner of its leadership.

A Great Book In My Universe

Mostly Harmless

Before reading Mostly Harmless – the fifth and last book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” – I looked at some reviews written by other readers. Many of them were negative. Douglas Adams was depressed when he wrote it. The ending was terrible. And so on.

Personally, I thought this was a great book. In saying that I refer you to the following paragraph from Mostly Harmless:

“We live in strange times. We also live in strange places: each in a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own.”

We see the truth of this statement every day on the review pages of Amazon and Goodreads. People seem to look out on the same universe. However, there’s a clue to the reality of multiple dimensions in the fact that good books in one universe are bad in another. Mostly Harmless takes – for me at least – a thrilling trip through alternative universes.

Mostly Harmless begins and ends with the story of some interstellar explorers called the Grebulons. A meteorite damages their ship, resulting in the loss of all stored memories. The crew know they set out to monitor something, but have no idea what. By chance, they end up on a planet in the outer reaches of Earth’s solar system monitoring the only material they can find to monitor – TV shows beaming out from Earth. Cagney and Lacey and M*A*S*H seem to be particular favourites. The Grebulons’ situation contrasts with that of the Vogons who hove into view as the book comes to its conclusion. The Vogons know exactly what their purpose in life is. If you compare the clear, small-minded and unpleasant purpose of the Vogons, with the benign TV watching aimlessness of memory-deprived Grebulons, things look different vis-a-vis the aimless TV viewing. The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have said. It’s like there’s an alternative universe where casual TV watching is a deeply meaningful activity, as is reading books that some people think are not very good.

I send this message from my universe to yours – Mostly Harmless is a great book.

Cop Movie Meets George Orwell’s 1984


2017 saw the publication of the 25th Anniversary edition of Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I managed to catch up with a few weeks ago.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Fatherland imagines what would have happened to history if Germany had won the Second World War.

The story itself has a plot borrowed from Hollywood, starring a talented, world-weary cop who drinks, smokes and works all the time. Naturally his personal life is a mess. American cop movies rely on this kind of ambivalent central character. The law cannot be represented by a monolithic institution imposing justice. In America that would send the wrong message. Instead law has to show itself via a maverick individual, who opposes institutional incompetence or corruption. That idea has been flogged to death in America, where perhaps the idea of the maverick individual has become too powerful for its own good. But in a world where Germany won the war, such a character is perfect in portraying a struggle against an all-encompassing nightmare of institutional corruption. It’s like John McLean of Die Hard finding himself out of his jurisdiction, not in Los Angeles but in the London of George Orwell’s 1984.

Fatherland has interesting things to say about the way people shape history, creating their own alternative narratives. That said, I did find the plot laboured at times, and on occasion the cop cliches came over as, well, cliches, rather than clever commentaries on the difference between a totalitarian and a tolerant society. This was Robert Harris’ first novel, and I agree with his observation in the introduction that he went on to write better ones. Nevertheless, the quality of ideas driving those later novels is also evident here