Last week I read a post on Facebook about a cat, a family pet, pictured curled up and cutely asleep. This helpful creature had gone out, hunted down a rabbit, and as though aware of the current value of home delivery, had left it on the doormat as an offering to her family. This reveals a history of a human/feline link stretching back to the beginnings of farming 10,000 years ago, when people started keeping cats to protect their food and grain stores. And of course any small-time hunting returned to the house was a welcome addition to the cooking pot. Female cats in particular would do this to feed their kittens, and also to teach them how to hunt. People would value these home delivery habits, which were so engrained that thousands of years afterwards, cats continue to bring back mice, birds and rabbits for their owners.
In this time of lock down, cats, and pets generally, are sought after, not for rabbit deliveries, but for companionship. Novels are equally popular, also for companionship. Here’s a thought – perhaps both cats and novels drag in an ancient offering for the benefit of their owners. Let me explain:
Until relatively recently, people in general did not read. They had to listen to their reading matter, whether that meant some kind of theatre, story-telling or singing. Ancient Greece had its epic poems. Today readers treat the Iliad or the Odyssey as if they were novels written in verse. Back in the eighth century BC, at their time of writing, you would sit with a select group of friends and listen to someone reciting them.
It took a while for society to make the step to the solitary experience of novel reading. The new form did not start to catch on in Europe until the early seventeenth century when Cervantes published Don Quixote. After that, even as novels became increasingly popular, echos of the past remained. A major requirement of a novelist is that they find a “voice”. It must seem as though someone real is talking to you through the writing. It’s as though an actual human voice, once reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey, still remains in all the books read today by solitary readers the world over. A novel brings in an atavistic, ancient offering for its owner. Instead of dragging in a dead rabbit, a novel drags in a live voice.
In America they have this thing. They’ll have a film or a TV show about a policeman or soldier. He or she will be good at their job but suspicious of authority. Showing up bureaucrats and making them look stupid or corrupt is a favourite pastime. They will break the rules and do their own thing to get better results. Think various sheriffs operating off the grid in the Wild West, John McLane of Die Hard, Jack Cates of 48 Hours, Rambo, Starsky and Hutch, Dirty Harry, Maverick of Top Gun, Stella Gibson of The Fall, Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon, Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop, Frank Drebbin of Naked Gun. There are so many of them.
From Here To Eternity is reminiscent of those stories, like the features of an adult are reminiscent of the child they used to be. This is a book about the United States Army stationed in Hawaii in 1941. It follows the lives of a diverse range of characters in the months before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. There are characters reminiscent of John McLane, highly competent but bucking authority. And quite often, authority figures are portrayed as self-serving or incompetent. But the difference with From Here To Eternity is that nobody is the star of this show, whether it’s a careerist major, a major’s frustrated wife, or a talented but awkward-squad private who does what he thinks is right, even if it’s not politically wise. They are all part of the Army, which is the real star.
It’s a remarkable achievement of observation and empathy, to see inside the lives of so many individuals making up this bigger character of the Army. We see the struggles of stubborn individualists who refuse to accept the stupid rules of the game. We see the struggles of those implementing the rules, and those in the middle trying, with greater or lesser success, to take rules laid down by those above in the hierarchy, and implement them in a way that accommodates the individualists – who ironically in a series of powerful scenes in military prison, often turn out to be socialists.
This wide ranging portrayal of a military society, also moves into spiritual areas. In the military prison chapters, for example, some soldiers use meditation to get through periods in solitary confinement. They seem to leave their individual identities behind for a while, which is very fitting for a book where individual identities blend in with the idea of the Army as a whole.
From Here To Eternity is a fascinating and insightful book, which it seems would have required an army of writers to create. There’s not just its massive size, but also the scope of the characters and their viewpoints. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the book that an army of writers could be accommodated in just one James Jones. A great achievement.
We are living through a period of intense isolation. Personally I am looking at the prospect of not being able to leave my house for three months. The coronavirus has caused a very sudden and unprecedented scattering of people. But this is happening in the context of a period of centuries during which humanity has slowly become more physically alone. Even by reading this article, you are engaging in an activity which is almost always solitary. In fifteenth century England, only about 5% of people could read. To gain information or entertainment, 95% of the population needed to talk or interact with others. Today virtually everyone in the UK is able to partake in a defining cultural activity, which requires you to be alone.
A similar change happened in music. Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the only way to experience music was as a group of people, who had to actually sit in front of musicians. But Edison had patented his phonograph in 1877, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, record buying was beginning to catch on. After that, music became a largely solitary activity. The thousands who attended live music were as nothing compared to the millions listening to records on their own.
And so we come to 1967 and the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is fitting that in an age of increasing isolation, this is probably the most famous album ever made. It consists of a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness.
Now, do you want to go on a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness? In normal circumstances, I’m sure most would generally pass. No doubt there would be better things to do. But these are not normal times. Years ago I wrote an entire book about the poetry of the Sergeant Pepper album, but I won’t push my luck. I’ll confine myself to the first line of the opening song:
“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…”
These words introduce what sounds like a live concert. This Sergeant Pepper concert is happening at a particular time – twenty years to the day after a mysterious mentor first taught the band to play. The sound of an audience which we hear clapping and cheering over that opening line, gives the suggestion of a particular place, a concert hall somewhere. In complete contrast is the album itself, which you can play anytime and anywhere. For someone playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the special anniversary day can be any day. Similarly, the concert hall can be any bedroom, living room, or tube train shut out by headphones. People are stuck in certain times and places, but there’s the suggestion that this concert is free of such restrictions. Go back again to that opening line: “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. This seems very precise, but in reality no band learns to play over the course of one day. It takes time to learn a new skill. Mastery comes gradually rather than arriving on a particular Tuesday. That day twenty years ago is impossible to pin down. We have no date for it. All the specifics here are artfully vague. Perhaps we can think of the vagueness of the Sergeant Pepper concert as an access all areas ticket.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people have played music at windows, and staged concerts for on-line audiences. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a performance in that same tradition.
Conspiracies often proliferate in troubled times. What are they and what can writers learn from them?
Let’s start by thinking about what a conspiracy actually is. These odd narratives take bits and pieces of observation and make them into a pattern. In this sense they are not so different to theories in science, or to stories which a reader enjoys by working out the bigger picture from clues and hints – as in a detective story, for example. But typically, while conspiracies make sense of what we see, they do so in a very self-centred way, reflecting and bolstering the views which are important to the people who create and believe in them. Conspiracies also tend to describe the secrets of shadowy and powerful authority, which are hidden from most people. This allows believers to enjoy a feeling of superiority that comes with special knowledge denied to others; and crucially, you get this supposed insight without working too hard. Why go to university to study a subject for years to win esoteric knowledge, when it is so much easier to get the same thing from a conspiracy? In keeping with a populist age which denies expertise, everyone can feel they are in possession of truths hidden from ordinary folks, just by going to certain areas of YouTube and watching videos about faked moon landings and the like. And the more out-there the conspiracy, the more special it makes an adherent feel. So, conspiracies provide a double whammy of self regard, making their adherents feel important by bolstering preconceptions and preferences, and by giving the illusion of rare insight into powerful authority.
So, what is a writer going to learn from this? Some, realising the influence of a conspiratorial narrative might try to simply reproduce it in book form. After all, a conspiracy is in effect the equivalent of a successful but trashy novel. Such novels might flatter the prejudices of their readers and, following a few puzzles, give them a sense of possessing special and powerful knowledge without working too hard for it. There are novels like that out there. I might, for example, mention the Da Vinci Code, with its dodgy history, fancy sounding but frequently inaccurate references to historical artefacts and architecture, and puzzles which reveal the workings of supposed hidden power. However, a good book won’t just flatter you with the illusion of special knowledge. You’re probably going to see things from different angles. Characters are likely to give varying perspectives on events. A good novel will be an exercise in empathy and openness. After all, reading a novel is to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. A conspiracy, by contrast, is only interested in seeing things one way. Everything will bend to that cause. If you see things as the conspiracy demands then you will fit right in. If not, you are out of the select group of believers.
In the weeks and months ahead we should read good books and ignore conspiracies.
Writing and pandemics have gone together for centuries. Boccaccio’s Decameron has twelve people escaping from the Black Death in fourteenth century Florence. They tell each other stories while isolating themselves in a secluded villa just outside the city. In a similar way Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims travelling in a time of plague, once again entertaining each other with storytelling.
More recently a whole genre of speculative and science fiction has grown up around diseases which wipe out significant portions of humanity. Starting with zombie tales, traced back to Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, we move through John Windham’s The Day of the Triffids in the 1950s, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in the 1960s, to a whole host of modern films and stories about disease apocalypse.
So what’s this all about?
Part of it I think is simply technical. To tell a story you need a manageable scenario. Disease has the natural effect of shrinking the scene, of focusing things on a small group of people. The world is all big, bustling and unmanageable one minute: the next you have a handful of people hunkered down in a villa outside Florence.
More significantly, disease also has the effect of stripping back complex situations into simple ones. Pandemic fiction asks basic questions – are people more human when they focus on themselves as individuals, or when they reach out as widely as possible to work with others? How do you balance living for yourself against living for others? Is it better to compete or cooperate?
Look at Bill Masen in John Wyndham’s 1951 book The Day of the Triffids. After getting over the shock of civilisation falling apart following the onset of widespread blindness, Bill begins to feel oddly empowered. He thinks of himself as “emerging as my own master,” no longer a cog in a huge society where an individual can feel lost. But the whole book is also a graphic depiction of the misery that comes when people lose a society where they are linked up, each playing a small, specialised role in something bigger. Without this kind of society, an individual is reduced to scraping a living on a lonely farm somewhere.
This classic pandemic fiction theme is reflected in our present, situation, dealing with coronavirus. Many people react by wanting to compete for what they see as scarce resources, grabbing excessive toilet rolls, bottles of hand sanitiser or bags of spaghetti. In fictional terms this compares to Bill Masen facing a lot of cut throat competition for resources in The Day of the Triffids. While Bill enjoys feeling all individual and empowered, the downside is endless and dangerous disputes with other survivors. It is no surprise that eventually Bill decides on a more cooperative approach.
People tend to divide at a time like this, and of course some distancing is very wise. But equally people also have an instinct to work together. National governments shut borders, but unusually we also see the work of a truly global authority in the World Health Organisation. Disease knows no borders, and in the end the struggle against disease is best achieved by working together as widely as possible.
Disappointment is the lot of the writer. Following a recent and particularly bruising rejection, I used my time wisely to look up the derivation of the word disappointment. It comes from a French word, “disappointer” meaning to undo an arrangement or remove from office. There’s a suggestion not just of your plans falling through, but also of losing your job.
Having a book rejected is like losing your job. You put in many hours of writing, editing and redrafting, all of which organise your time, for months or even years. Like any job, this effort gives your life shape, provides a sense of identity and self worth and gives hope for a better and more prosperous future. Then with a rejection, or a series of rejections, all of this can disappear.
That’s how it feels. So how to deal with it? There are two approaches. First, there is denial. You ignore the rejection and push on. With this approach, you simply refuse to be disappointed. While there is much to be said for this stubborn philosophy, it can become a refusal to think you’re ever doing anything wrong. Denial in this sense is not so much the signature of writers as that of dictators, fundamentalist preachers, cult leaders, and, unfortunately, presidents of the United States.
Alternatively, you can accept that things have not worked out as planned. This puts you in the sad, passive, reflective state which we call disappointment, where it’s hard to do much of anything, let alone be resilient. But at least you are in a frame of mind which encourages quiet reflection. It might even be nature’s way of making you rest and reassess. Maybe it is no accident that writers are a famously disappointed lot, because as long as it does not suck the motivation right out of you, the pain of a setback can be creative. It shakes you out of routine, allowing in new ideas, and thoughts. If you never allow yourself to feel this way, then you are just blasting along like that bus in the film Speed, running over everything in your path, never stopping because stopping, or even slowing down, will result in an explosion.
So, if you have suffered a disappointment, you’ll feel bad now, but after this reflective time is over, another bus will be along. And this bus will be the normal, pleasant sort of public service vehicle which allows people on and off at stops. The driver will have time to wish you a cheery “good morning”, what with not having to drive at seventy miles an hour all the time. Rather than careering nonstop through Los Angeles with a bomb strapped to its undercarriage, this will be the sort of easygoing London Routemaster that takes you to places you want to go. This service is on its way and will be stopping to pick you up very soon.
Last week I received a report on my new novel. As usual with these things I had got my hopes up. There would not only be publication, there would be a film. We could move house and my day job would be a distant memory. As usual this did not happen. The editor, amongst other things, said my book was not really science fiction.
Science fiction is writing set in the future dramatising the impact of various new technologies. Ok, but there’s a recent science fiction novel by Ian McEwan, which is set in the past, the 1980s to be precise, a reimagined 1980s where there are robot companions. So, sci-fi can be set in the past or future, and it involves futuristic technology; except that sometimes the tech in the story is not futuristic, it’s rather more Victorian, as in the sub genre known as steam punk. Sometimes there isn’t really any tech at all, which gives a us another sub genre known as speculative fiction, which focuses on social change. Often these social changes are portrayed in the future, except where they involve some kind of reimagining of the past, as with Ian McEwan’s book, which is a type of science fiction usually referred to as alternate history. Sometimes the future and the past are muddled up, as in Star Wars, where people fly around in space ships, even though we are told right at the beginning that everything happened long, long ago. Sometimes the story is set in the present, but fantastical elements come in from some more powerful, futuristic place, as in a super hero story. Then of course there are occasions when the story is not set in past, present or future but in a totally different universe, which takes us across a border into what is often called fantasy.
So where are we? Science fiction seems to be so many things that we might agree with writer Damon Knight who describes science fiction as “what we point to when we say it.”
So science fiction is a great big open goal. The goal keeper is confused, looking as though match preparation involved drinking large amounts of alcohol and not sleeping for three nights. You are taking a penalty and just have to kick the ball past that swaying, stumbling goalie, into the waiting net. So I take my run up, go for the kick, trip over the ball and send it flying backwards. Picking myself up, I wonder how this happened. How is it possible to write a science fiction book which misses that great big science fiction goal? I must have written the only science fiction book in history which is not science fiction. That must be some kind of achievement. Damon Knight could say that science fiction is anything except that book Martin Jones wrote.
A related question to the definition for sci-fi is the definition of tea. Let me explain.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent, an exile from a destroyed Earth tries to use a computer to recreate a nice cup of tea.
“After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shellshocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”
I do wonder if publishers are sometimes like Nutri-Matic machines. They try to conduct spectroscopic analyses on potential readers’ brains, metabolisms and literary taste buds, to ascertain what certain groups might like to read. Apparently the sci-fi crowd are not likely to favour stories about an imagined future for the royal family. That’s what my book is about, by the way. My story imagines a future world with a single government, which has adopted a version of what was once the British royal family as a figure head monarchy. The King makes plans to extend the monarchy to Mars, in an attempt to ease tensions between Mars and Earth. The young heir to the throne thinks this whole plan is crazy and wants out. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of rowing, as in the University Boat Race, where in a good year there’s a sinking.
Science fiction is apparently a lot of things, but not this. I was asked to consider how many science fiction readers out there are royalist rowing fans? I could say that the Boat Race has twice as many viewers as the British Grand Prix, and most people in then UK want to keep their monarchy; but let’s not get into statistics. It is true that the sci-fi demographic might not buy into rowing royals. But who knows? Sometimes a Nutri-Matic machine will do all its clever brain and taste bud checking and give you something which is almost but not quite entirely unlike tea. And Arthur Dent wanted tea. Maybe this demonstrates that in the end, tea just has to be itself. It can change for an individual drinker, but then it’s not tea anymore. My story is the one I wanted to write, set in the future, playing out in traditional locations surviving from the present day, as people try to cope with the new whilst maintaining the old. I don’t know about the future, but I do know about the contradictory ways I react to change, and the way I see people in general reacting to change. That’s what drove me to write my royals in the future story.
Best wishes, whether you are a writer or a reader.
Rendezvous With Rama describes the exploration of a vast alien space ship. This vessel takes the form of a spinning cylinder, fifty kilometres long by twenty kilometres wide. Centrifugal forces anchor a miniature world of cities, fields and seas against its inner surface. With Rama apparently abandoned, this is a detective story where the explorers look for clues to its origins and intentions.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
For me, the best thing about this book was the idea of Rama. I found all kinds of thought provoking contradictions in its circular topography. Rama can actually cause you to ponder on space and time, specifically whether they are rather more circular than linear. We live on a world with a surface that bends away from us over the horizon, which makes us prone to thinking in terms of straight lines. But by turning things inside out, by taking away the horizon and letting the landscape sweep around overhead, we get a more intuitive model of how things might really be.
So that was the positive. Now we come to the negative. I have seen Arthur C. Clarke’s prose described as “workmanlike” or “functional”. To describe my view of his writing, I suggest you imagine a technically minded 1970s school boy, with odd views on women, marriage, and – bizarrely – farming. After an A in a physics exam goes to his head, he decides to write an adventure story in which he and his thinly disguised friends explore an alien space ship. But, damn it, for the most part I still enjoyed the story because of that great revolving idea of Rama.
Books like this show that people are often more interested in ideas than good writing. There’s even a name for a type of book which is built around a single idea, which can be expressed in a few words, or even in one word – it’s called high concept. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters are high concept: Planet Of The Apes, Snakes On A Plane, Jaws, Speed. The power of an idea is sobering as you sweat over editing your adverbs. If you haven’t got an idea that appeals to people, then polished prose probably won’t help. But I suppose, on a more reassuring and philosophical note, if the universe is circular, then there’s a chance that even poor writing can go all the way round and meet up with an interesting story somewhere at the back. That’s what seems to have happened with Rendezvous With Rama.
What is this book about? It’s about an eccentric New England family. Second question – what exactly is a family? That’s not so easy to answer. The Wapshot Chronicle sets out to show that the lines we draw between families or types of people in general, are like the lines the Babylonians or the Greeks drew between stars, creating heavenly hunters, crabs or scorpions. The fact is, those patterns are not really there. No real crabs sit in the night sky.
Here’s Cousin Mildred discussing family characteristics:
“Coverly has the nose,” Cousin Mildred said. “I’ve told him that I could have picked him out in a crowd. I mean I would have known that he was a Wapshot.”
So a family might have a recognisable nose. But what about people marrying in? They don’t have the nose, but they are still part of the family. What does Cousin Mildred have to say about that? Here she is talking about her husband:
“Harry’s mad for New England. He’s an adorable man and a wizard in the carpet business, but he doesn’t come from anyplace really. I mean he doesn’t have anything nice to remember and so he borrows other people’s memories. He’s really more of a Wapshot than you or I.”
That summed up the Wapshot Chronicle for me. People divide things too readily – families, races, borders, sexualiity. The Wapshot Chronicle leaves things as they are:
“The surf spoke in loud voices of wrecks and voyages and the likeness of things; for the dead fish was striped like a cat and the sky was striped like the fish and the conch was whorled like an ear and the beach was ribbed like a dog’s mouth and the movables in the surf splintered and crashed like the walls of Jericho.”
The Wapshot Chronicle is an interesting, funny, sad family chronicle which makes you wonder what a family is. When the social lines people draw threaten their happiness, when they give rise to bigotry and intolerance, for example, then a reminder of their arbitrary nature is timely. John Cheever’s reminder was timely in the straight-laced 1950s when the book was first published, and equally valuable now.
Will democracy survive? That’s a bold question. It would be equally bold to assert that Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett gives a clue to the answer.
First, a little history. Democracy is a fragile device that only functions in certain social conditions. A community needs to be sufficiently integrated and stable for one group of people to accept the ascendency of another group, at least until the next general election. When there are fierce divisions, religious, political, cultural, then this arrangement is ill advised and even dangerous. After the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito in 1980, for example, the introduction of democracy in that part of the world went horribly wrong. Groups of people who very much did not get on were given the chance to jostle for power via elections. Tragedy ensued. The UK was in a similar position up until the 1830s, when acts of Parliament finally ended centuries of discrimination against Catholics. In a country where huge numbers of people were violently divided along religious lines, it was very difficult to have democracy. It is no accident that the 1832 Reform Act laying the foundations of modern government followed on from parliamentary acts of Catholic emancipation. Britain was beginning to become a more integrated, secular society, capable of having people walk along to polling stations on a bright May morning, exchanging cheery greetings with candidates wearing variously coloured rosettes, before casting votes for parties that may or may not win. This wasn’t a smooth process, however. We are still waiting in some parts of the UK for circumstances suitable for democracy. The religious and cultural conflicts of Northern Ireland meant that at the height of The Troubles in 1972, local government there had to be suspended in favour of direct rule from Westminster, which has continued in a sporadic fashion ever since.
Local complications aside, democracy by and large appeared to work well in Western Europe and America through the 20th Century and into the early 21st; until, all of a sudden, things started to go backwards. The present day sees an unfortunate polarisation of attitudes. In America, Democrats and Republicans seem in many cases to truly hate each other, driven on by a president whose only understanding of “winning” is the demonising and crushing of the other side. In the UK we don’t see quite such a dramatic situation, but we do have main parties that have become more extreme, with divisions between them growing wider. It makes you wistful for the 1990s, when political commentators bemoaned the lack of “clear blue water” between moderate Labour and Conservative parties. The fact is, democracy needs a situation where there isn’t much choice. The choice between leaving and staying in the EU, for example, was not suitable for a process that works less well in proportion to the starkness of the choice on offer. If polls tap into totally different outlooks on life, or make decisions where there is no opportunity for reversal in the foreseeable future, then serious divisions can open up, even making it possible that a referee, a Josip Tito, will have to take control and impose rules in the best interests of both sides. And you’ll be fortunate if they’re a relatively benign referee, like Tito.
Which, finally, brings me to Good Omens. Good Omens is a story about the battle between heaven and hell. This is a story about conflict, and there will never be a story that doesn’t involve some element of conflict in one form or another. People thinking you can have a conflict-free novel tend to bring up Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, but really this is clutching at straws. Even if, courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke, you are on an alien space ship where nothing much happens except for long descriptions of said space ship, the whole thing works because an Earth perspective is coming into contact and collision with a totally different perspective. Conflict always lurks, giving excitement, doubt, anticipation – all of the things that drive a reader to keep reading. But the thing is, if a fight scene is to become a narrative, then the combatants have to find a common ground in their struggle. That’s what keeps the story moving along. Without it, one side wins, the other loses and that’s that. The end. By contrast, a writer has to fill hundreds of pages, and to do that it’s a massive help if good guys are not as virtuous as they appear, and bad guys have hidden qualities. In effect, the needs of continuing the story lead to a situation where, to bring my thoughts full circle, democracy just might work.
So democracy is like a story. There are different sides. There is conflict. But there also has to be understanding and empathy, light and shade, if the story is to go anywhere beyond the first few pages. Think Good Omens where, through thousands of years of history, an angel and a demon head off the final battle between heaven and hell, and keep things muddling along, by staying friends.