This is a public service entry:

Oh, my God. / Cooper, there’s no point using our fuel to – / Just analyse the Endurance’s spin – / What’re you doing?! / Docking. / Endurance rotation is 67, 68 RPM – / Get ready to match it on the retro-thrusters – / It’s not possible – / No. It’s necessary.

When I wrote the blog entry immediately below this one I had been planning to write a review of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar, which I saw at the end of last week. That idea was hijacked by the sudden arrival of my copies of the Gollancz edition of A Dream of Wessex. Because I was thinking about Nolan I remembered I had always wanted to write about the similarities between that novel and his earlier film, Inception. So I did that instead. (See below.)

Interstellar is a problem, a long, poorly written and second-rate film with a wide popular appeal, so I briefly decided enough was enough. Other people, notably Abigail Nussbaum, have elegantly and convincingly demolished it.

But yesterday there were several stories in the press, on the radio and all over the internet about the sound level of the new film. Many audiences have complained that the music and sound effects are too loud in Interstellar, while the dialogue is too low to be heard and followed. There were stories of people demanding their money back, and a theatre in Rochester NY putting up a sign saying that their sound equipment was not at fault: the film’s soundtrack had been recorded that way. Christopher Nolan himself came forward to confirm this, calling it ‘a carefully considered creative decision’, using the dialogue as a sound effect, to ‘emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is’.

The composer, Hans Zimmer (a highly regarded film composer, and rightly so), is himself totally unapologetic, and says so here. But as writer and director of the film, and someone who presumably oversaw the editing and sound mixing, Christopher Nolan has the greater responsibility.

Anyone knows the reality. The ‘surrounding noise’ of space is silent. Space is a vacuum – it is incapable of carrying sound. How Hans Zimmer’s loud music can be heard in space is a mystery only Nolan can explain.

(An earlier Nolan film, his adaptation of my novel The Prestige, had similar problems with music and dialogue recording. Although overall I admired the film, I have always been concerned with these two crucial weaknesses. Until Nolan came forward today to explain his creative decision, I had assumed the muttered dialogue was a mistake, a consequence of inexperience.)

Returning to Interstellar: By chance I am one of the few people who had no problem with the dialogue of this extremely long film. The version we saw was subtitled ‘for the hard of hearing’, so every word of the script was plain. I can therefore report that much of the dialogue creatively hidden from the audience is similar to the short extract above, and the rest is … not exactly Shakespearean pentameters.

Nolan clearly uses dialogue as a sort of fill-in noise. He calls it a sound effect. For him, words are something he has to get the actors to come out with while they’re performing set-pieces or going through spectacular scenes.

This was particularly true of Inception, which had one of the worst-written scripts I have come across. I winced at its clumsiness several times while watching it – a later look at the shooting script confirmed the clodhopper style was not my imagination. (Christopher Nolan was credited as writer.) Interstellar came from a different source: it was originally written solo by Jonah Nolan for a planned film by Steven Spielberg – that original script was very different from the finished film. Jonah’s original can be read on the internet, where there are several discussion pages about the many differences between the two. As Christopher Nolan is credited as co-author of the final screenplay, we assume that he was responsible for the changes when he took over the project from Spielberg. He has said so himself.

Dialogue is crucial to film: the words given to actors to deliver humanize the story, make it comprehensible to the audience, create characters with whom we can sympathize or at least understand. Nolan’s argument that dialogue is just another sound effect is weak and unconvincing, and is of course an evasion of something much more serious. If the dialogue he has written consists of people mumbling to themselves, or shouting about retro-thrusters over the noise in space, then maybe he is writing the wrong kind of dialogue in the wrong kind of film.

A Dream of WessexHere is the Gollancz paperback of A Dream of Wessex, just released. The novel has been unavailable for several years, so I’m pleased to see it in this attractive stripe. For those who are interested in such things, it was first published as a Faber hardcover in the UK in 1977, which makes it getting on for forty years old. I imagine some aspects of it will now seem dated, but maybe that’s how it should be.

Wessex is not so dated, though, that some people were prevented from pointing out the similarities between this book and Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, released in 2010, a mere thirty-three years later. Both deal with the exploration of the dream state, and how that impinges on reality, or our perception of reality. I say straight away that I did not notice anything more than minor coincidences myself, and never mentioned the few bits I registered. Anyway I would be reluctant to make what might seem an allegation that Christopher Nolan had nicked some of my material. He and I have a known professional relationship, and I assume he is familiar with most of my books, even if he hasn’t read them closely.

The first time someone pointed out the several resemblances between the two I was surprised that I had missed so many of them, but after more people had gently explained them to me I began to see.

Like many people who went to the film, I had been dazzled by its surface, the astonishing CGI effects and photographic trickery. I found the plot more or less incomprehensible, though – it was a kind of mix of James Bond antics (buildings collapsing, explosions, chases, guns, snowmobiles), and men in business suits mouthing lines about reality and dreams, and finishing each other’s explanatory sentences. I gave up trying to follow the plot after this pungent exchange:

So how did we end up at this restaurant? / We came here from … / How did we get here? Where are we? / Oh my God. We’re dreaming. / Stay calm. We’re actually asleep in the workshop. (Pp. 66 – 67 of the shooting script, published by Insight Editions.)

The urge to describe and explain the plot through dialogue is incidentally a similar feature of Nolan’s current release, Interstellar. In this three-hour spaceship adventure there are extended dialogues between astronauts in spacesuits, risibly explaining orbits, trajectories, relativity and wormholes to each other, finishing each other’s explanatory sentences, and drawing primary-school level graphics to convince themselves the plot is going OK. This was so nakedly aimed at the assumed ignorance of the audience that it was embarrassing. As soon as a film engages in trying to meet the imagined comprehension of an audience, it loses itself. Consider instead the success of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), which showed everything and explained nothing.

But back to Inception. Some of it was genuinely beautiful and mysterious to watch: the city of Paris inverting, trick mirrors along the banks of the Seine, a super-slo-mo shot of a van plunging into an icy river from a bridge, a ruined city slowly collapsing into the sea. These are all Nolan’s creation, or that of the CGI studios who developed the images for him.

Some of it, I saw belatedly, did have an uncanny likeness to my novel. There is, for instance a scene below ground, in fact in the basement of Yusuf’s pharmacy, in which a large number of people are shown to be sharing a continuous dream, one from which it is impossible or dangerous to withdraw. This might be part of a dream within a dream! The situation exactly matches the MacGuffin in A Dream of Wessex, which is about a scientific experiment in which a large number of people go below ground, and create a pooled dreamworld, one which is so plausible that it becomes hard for them to distinguish it from reality. Withdrawal from it is difficult and dangerous. And both film and book deal with the risks attached to creating a second or third level of dream, within the dream.

I’m nearly forty years away from the writing of A Dream of Wessex, and looking at it now I find it has some surprises for me. I make no claim for it. It is what it is, and in my own writing chronology it was a tentative first step towards the material in The Affirmation, which followed it. Wessex is a sort of transition from what I wrote in the early days, to the fiction I wrote later. (Some people, not I, might argue this was a progress from futuristic or ‘science’ fiction to a more sophisticated ‘speculative’ fiction, which is, interestingly, the exact distinction Christopher Nolan makes in the Introduction to the screenplay of Interstellar, also published by Faber. His film about astronauts and spaceships and alien planets is, he says, speculative fiction not science fiction. It lacks futurism, he claims, and is true to the contemporary world.)

But I’ll say this of Wessex: it has the quality of a direct narrative, where the plot is revealed through the characters: their actions, their relationships, their discoveries. They don’t sit around discussing the plot, and helping each other explain complicated ideas – they get on with the story. Maybe that’s how we did it in the old days …

A Dream of Wessex: Gollancz, 2014, 240 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0-575-12153-9

Inception – the Shooting Script: Insight, 2010, 240 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1-608-87015-8

Interstellar – the Complete Screenplay: Faber, 2014, 380 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0-571-31439-3

Valancourt's The AffirmationHere is the cover image of a brand-new US paperback of my 1981 novel, The Affirmation. This is scheduled to be published in January 2015 by the superb American indie publisher Valancourt, with a new introduction written by myself.

The Affirmation has been effectively unobtainable in the USA almost from the moment it was published in hardcover by Scribner. Their edition lacked a certain feeling of conviction and the book received mediocre reviews. I have  memories of coming across three rather battered copies a few weeks after publication, on sale in a branch of Crown Books in Houston — they looked sad and unloved, and I was tempted to buy them myself to put them out of their misery. A year later, when I was back in Houston, I found the same three copies still on sale in Crown Books, but now they were priced at 5¢ each and still had no buyers. It is moments like that which remind writers of their lowly place in the universe. The Affirmation has never had a paperback edition in America until now.

It is not the best-known of my novels, but it has always had a remarkable effect on a significant number of readers. Although it was written in what now seems a distant part of my life, I still regard it as my ‘key’ novel. I go into this in more detail in the introduction.

An odd footnote: Nielsen’s Bookdata no longer lists the Scribner edition of The Affirmation, but a search in the database for the ISBN (which without fear of contradiction or error I can state is 0-684-16957-6) reveals a book called The Affirmation by one Oliver Trager. I generously assume this is not copyright theft, but what Martin Rowson the cartoonist calls (and sometimes draws) a fur cup. I assure Nielsen’s and Mr Trager that I really am the true author of the book, and I have numerous different editions to prove it. I hope that enough readers in the US will now discover the book for themselves.

Valancourt’s interesting website may be viewed here. And an essay I wrote about three years ago, concerning the maddening reviews The Affirmation received, can be found on this website.

Ian McEwan and I are almost contemporaries. He is five years younger than me, and his first book was published about five years after mine. The mid-1970s was a good time for a young, apparently radical writer to appear, because around then several literary commentators had been perceiving there was a vacuum, where no young or apparently radical writers were coming through. McEwan, an alumnus of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Course, then emerged and was greeted as the new best hope. Like a lot of people I read his first couple of books (both of them story collections), and I was impressed. I saw him as a bit of a literary rebel, independent-minded, someone who wasn’t going to be easily categorized. He was clearly gifted, had a nice sense of the macabre or disgusting, and his use of English was excellent.

I was not alone, though, in noticing that some of his stories bore remarkable similarities to stories by other writers. The first of these was ‘Dead as They Come’ (1978), which appeared in his second collection, In Between the Sheets (1978)This was almost exactly the same story as J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Smile’, published two years earlier. Several people pointed out other alleged examples of McEwan similarities, but the most publicized from this period was his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), found by many to be a retread of Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House, published fifteen years earlier. Gloag himself was so irate about his work being pilfered that he wrote a novel based on McEwan’s assumed plagiarism, called Lost and Found (1983).

McEwan himself of course denied being a plagiarist. At the time I believed him, but I also thought that he was guilty of something almost as bad for a writer serious about his work. He wasn’t imagining properly, not thinking deeply enough.

He kept producing stuff that was like other writers’ work. It happens from time to time to many writers, but most of those coincidences are one-offs. McEwan has been dogged by accusations of copying all his career – it’s beyond coincidence. So what was going on if it wasn’t plagiarism? I came to the conclusion he had a lightweight imagination: he would see something on TV, or he would read a newspaper article, or hear an anecdote of some kind, then think he could get a story out of it. If you respond in such a shallow way, it’s inevitable that somewhere else in the world another writer will have had the same ‘inspiration’. Later I discovered from a television interview that McEwan carried his notebook everywhere and filled it with thoughts – some of them were his own, but many of them were extracts he found in other books. Nearly all writers use notebooks, so that doesn’t make him unusual. But apparently McEwan neglected to note the source – he made the excuse that years later he might come across something in one of his notebooks and not realize it was by another writer.

In recent years his copying has become even less ashamed than before. He was castigated in the press for copying out (and minutely modifying) passages from Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time for Romance, and including them in his novel Atonement. McEwan wisely kept his head down and waited the storm out, which duly blew over, but the plagiarism remains like a malignant lump in a sensitive part of the body. (Atonement is one of his most widely read novels.) When I reviewed his novel Solar (2010), I pointed out that a central plot-turn was obviously based on an identical sequence in the film Groundhog Day. Later in the same novel, he reported as a real event a familiar urban myth (the one about unwittingly sharing chocolate biscuits, or potato crisps, with a stranger in a station buffet), but on second thoughts he made a belated ham-fisted attempt to convert it into a serious point about industrialization.

McEwan's new novel

McEwan’s new novel

And now here we are with his most recent novel, The Children Act, and he is still revealing either his lightweight thinking, or his willingness to copy stuff down and transfer it to his novel. It’s done a bit more subtly this time, and his source is impeccable, but he remains in literary terms a copyist.

The plot of the novel, though, is original to McEwan. Here it is: Fiona Maye is a middle-aged woman whose husband suddenly announces that he wants to have an ‘ecstatic’ sexual affair with a younger woman. He walks out on her. Fiona immediately has the locks changed. A few days later she finds her chastened husband sitting in the hall outside their apartment, his possessions scattered around. She reluctantly lets him back in, and they co-habit in separate rooms. By the end of the book they have reconciled, and are sleeping together again.

That’s a thin plot for a 200+ page novel, so there must be something more? Of course: there’s a sub-plot, and this concerns Fiona’s job. She is a High Court judge in the Family Division, and she has to make a tricky decision about an adolescent boy whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is dying of leukaemia. The parents will not agree to the blood transfusion that might save his life, which the doctors feel they have a Hippocratic obligation to provide. Fiona finds for the doctors, the transfusion goes ahead and the boy survives. She reads his romantic poetry. He begins stalking Fiona and on catching up with her asks if he could move in and live with her. They share a brief but passionate kiss. Afterwards, Fiona thinks better of this, and cuts off contact. A few months later she hears that after the boy turned 18, and was therefore capable of making his own decisions, the leukaemia returned. He himself refused another transfusion, and died.

This sub-plot is much more complex and interesting than the main plot (although it does include an overlong description of court proceedings, page after page of barrister characters, legal references, applications, statements, witnesses, meticulous post-Rumpole stuff without John Mortimer’s wit), but a sub-plot it remains.

Unfortunately, the dying Jehovah’s Witness is not a McEwan invention but an actual case, presided over by a leading Appeal Court judge in 2000. By McEwan’s own admission, freely made and repeated, he met the judge socially, rather admired the elegant linguistic style of top judges, made friends with the judge and listened avidly to his recollections of tricky decisions made in the past. (If you’re wondering how this formerly radical and independent literary firebrand came to meet top judges socially, the story is here: ‘Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a handful of judges’. As one does.)

Of course, McEwan attends to details, introduces differences – the real boy was a football fan and not a poet, the judge took him to a football match, not a quiet moment in a judges’ lodgings – but the story is the same and it carries the same literary freight as any extended passage in a novel. In this case it is in literary terms a fake.

It can be argued, and McEwan would presumably argue, that all novelists research their subjects, take notes, interview people who have had experiences, and that in this he is no different from any other novelist. There is a difference, though. A serious writer will consider the information gained from research, digest and absorb it, think about it and wonder about it, seek a significance that is greater than that of mere plotting, look for any relevance that might exist on a symbolic or unconscious level, then write it from the heart. Ian McEwan does none of this: he copies down a story, fiddles around with names and a few details, then presents it as his own, written from the head. (There is a back-page acknowledgement to the real judge, so that’s OK then. I wonder if the learned judge realizes McEwan made a similar back-page acknowledgement in Atonement, to Lucilla Andrews?)

Ian McEwan is routinely described as Britain’s leading contemporary novelist. Could that possibly be true?

The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Jonathan Cape, 2014, 213pp, ISBN: 978-0-224-10199-8, £16.99

I shall be appearing next weekend (Saturday 4th October) at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, on a panel discussion about the ever-cheerful subject of dystopian fiction. With me will be Jane Rogers (who recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb; also longlisted for the Man Booker) and Ken MacLeod (whose novel Descent was published earlier this year and will be out in paperback in November). The discussion will be moderated by the multi-award winning critic Cheryl Morgan. Details of the event can be found here.

I have been brought in at fairly short notice as a replacement for Brian Aldiss, who is indisposed – one fervently hopes not too greatly indisposed. I also note that the panel was originally to be moderated by my colleague Adam Roberts, but for reasons unknown (to me) he has pulled out. I wonder if word reached him that I am currently reading his new novel, Bête? Surely not – it’s the best of his I’ve read. So far.

My hurriedly written obituary of Graham was published in the Guardian on 10th September.

A copy is online here. I found the news of his sudden death distressing.

When I was still a teenager, in search of cheap thrills (as I hoped and expected), I bought a Penguin paperback edition of Stan Barstow’s novel A Kind of Loving (1960). I remember enjoying it – but not for the sexy bits, which were few and far between and in their depiction of youthful callowness a bit too close to home to be either educative or erotic.

The film directed by John Schlesinger came out soon afterwards. The sexy bits in this were a bit more explicit (though not much more). I was interested to see that many of the exterior shots were filmed in Stockport, a depressing post-industrial town close to where I lived as a child. For some reason the Luftwaffe had failed to flatten Stockport, so its terraced slums and empty mills and former factories remained standing until at least the early 1960s. IMDb describes some of the filming locations as ‘Greater Manchester’, which I think now includes Stockport. I’m certain that the final scenes in the film were shot in a place called Gas Lane, next to the gasworks and close to Mersey Square in the centre of the town, which even in the context of Stockport’s neglected Victorian areas was picturesquely decrepit.

(I suppose I should add that since those days Stockport’s slums and horrible old gasworks have all been demolished, and it has no doubt become a lovely place to live.)

Stan Barstow, a good writer if somewhat neglected these days, was one of those post-war novelists dubbed by the press ‘angry young men’. They were the immediate literary context in which I began writing: I read several of the books then current, by John Lucky Jim (Amis)Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse, David Storey and, of course, Kingsley Amis. His novel Lucky Jim (1954) is often said to have started that particular literary genre, even though it is different in tone from all the others, and a distinct cut above them. Although it is by far Amis’s best-known novel, and probably brought him more money than any of his others, it is not in my view his best. Some of his later novels are written more subtly (unsurprisingly), and in many cases are much funnier and their satire is more effective. However, it remains a favourite from that period.

The other day I bought a secondhand hardback of Lucky Jim on the internet. Not a collector’s item in the Stan Barstow 1957usual sense (it is from the twelfth impression, printed fifteen months after the first edition), but a nice copy in undamaged binding. I was pleased to find it. I was even more pleased when it arrived in the mail: from the inscription inside the front cover it turns out to have been Stan Barstow’s own copy.

Everything joins up in the end.

Nick Royle - Best British Short Stories 2014There are twenty short stories in this anthology: nearly all of them are good or interesting or unusual, deserving to be in a book with this title, nearly all are by writers whose work I had not previously come across. The publisher is Salt, the editor is Nicholas Royle.

Three of the stories are of outstanding quality, each one of which would alone justify the cost of buying the book.

“Getting Out of There” by M. John Harrison (first published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press – a Nick Royle imprint), is a story set in what sounds and feels like my former hometown Hastings. The sceptical, defensive mood of the seaside town on its uppers is accurately if selectively caught. The two characters have a marginal, edgy, entirely believable relationship, fleetingly based on knowing each other years before when they were kids. They both reek of authentic Hastings-ness. Mike Harrison is writing better than ever. His reputation seems overshadowed by his contemporaries – Kureishi, Swift, McEwan, etc – but they are shallow, minor, facile writers in comparison.

“The Faber Book of Adultery” by Jonathan Gibbs is the first story in the book, and it set a standard I thought would be difficult to match in what followed. A middle-aged writer seduces (or is seduced by) his best friend’s wife. They do it standing up, leaning against a bookcase. Perhaps that makes the story sound unoriginal, but the delicacy and natural observation of the writing makes the story exceptional. The sub-text is the man’s rambling, almost disorganized thoughts about books, the adultery that is always in them, the way adultery is written. Books are sexy. I particularly liked the description of a book pulled away from a shelf that is too tightly packed with titles: “When it came free, almost with a pop, the books alongside seemed to sigh into the space it left, their pages filling with air.” The story was first published in Lighthouse 1.

The book concludes with a story as good as, or even better than, the Gibbs. It is “Barcelona” by Philip Langeskov, first published by Daunt Books. A man plans a surprise anniversary celebration for himself and his wife, in Barcelona. In spite of several minor worries and problems – pre-existing plans, lost baggage at the airport, the presence of his wife’s former lover in Barcelona, a sudden illness – they arrive there more or less intact, and the holiday goes ahead. It is another story about the effects of literature: Langeskov riskily summons the ghost of Graham Greene, specifically in a short story he reads on the plane, “The Overnight Bag”, which describes a not dissimilar European flight. The uncertainties of the Greene story resound through the visit to the Catalonian city. I think the risk Langeskov took came off: “Barcelona” is a sort of post-Greenean study of a loving marriage, with its nervous ambiguities and shadows. From beginning to end the reader senses unease, things about to go catastrophically wrong, the impact of the past not fully comprehended.

The Best British Short Stories 2014, edited by Nicholas Royle. Salt Publishing, 2014, 240pp, ISBN: 978-1-907773-67-9, £9.99

A man is seeking an appointment he has to keep. He is inside a vast modernist structure, made of concrete and glass, with unsignposted stairwells and unobliging elevators. Other people are present: tourist groups, businessmen, transient visitors. Meeting rooms have long tables and reconfigurable walls to make the rooms into whatever size, shape and function is necessary. Abstract paintings hang on every wall. Members of staff are present, unfailingly courteous and blandly unhelpful. There are hints and suspicions of close personal contacts: rooms where people are eating, where there is a dance floor, where bedroom doors are firmly closed and labelled Do Not Disturb. Offices are glassed-in, or set up as boxed workstations. A motorway runs past. Could this be a hotel? Or a hospital, an office block, an airport terminal, a convention centre?

The images come from a masterpiece of the cinema, these days a forgotten and largely unseen one: Playtime. Three years in the making, and then delayed by several post-production snags, Playtime was eventually released in 1967, starring and directed by the French comedian Jacques Tati. It was then the most expensive film ever made in France, but it did not receive the worldwide success it needed to recoup the expense of filming, and Tati was bankrupted by it. It is rarely seen these days. Although Playtime is available on DVD, the original 70mm frame is cropped, and there have been cuts made to the immense running time. However, with the hindsight of nearly half a century it can be seen as a brilliant foresight into the worst and most soulless aspects of our modern life.

Playtime was made at roughly the same time as two other comparable French films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), although the delays meant it came out some time later. All three films have a distinctly Ballardian flavour – not a coincidence, because J. G. Ballard’s work has always been highly regarded in France.

The Way Inn by Will WilesTo say that Will Wiles’s new novel The Way Inn is strongly reminiscent of Playtime is intended as a compliment. The narrator, the protagonist, has the symbolic-sounding name of Neil Double. Double is a professional conference-goer, standing in for middle-grade executives who either do not want to go to the conference, or cannot. He attends the symposia on their behalf, takes notes and reports back. This is his job, and he moves from one hotel and conference to the next, frequently running into the same individuals, and always encountering the same types of people. He has relationships with some of them: he knows which of the other attendees are bores or pests, and he is constantly interested in the women he tries to pick up.

However, Double’s true passion is hotels. He loves hotels, everything about them: the furniture, the abstract paintings, the cuboid armchairs, the TV screen that displays an electronic welcome, the hum of the air-con, the room-service pan-seared salmon, the electronic door key that stops working if you carry it next to your mobile phone, and so on. He also relishes the environment of the modern business hotel: the adjacent motorway, the half-constructed new buildings next door and the muddy areas which will be developed next, the vast parking lots, the nearby airport and its lights, the attached conference centre that can only be reached by courtesy bus. Wiles describes all this with economy and precision, almost a litany of the details of that over-familiar if faintly repellent world of the chain hotel. Anyone who has stayed at the Radisson next to Heathrow Airport (location of several SF conventions in recent years) will recognize the endless corridors, the mile after mile of corporate carpet, the soundproofed windows, the view from those windows across concrete to nothing of human scale, the ease with which you can get lost in the identical corridors and landings and the concomitant habit of always taking the same, safely memorized route to your room, the particular type of bland “international” cooking, the inoffensively abstract paintings, the sense of being surrounded by a Ballardian urban wilderness which you cannot enter or understand, and which will endanger you if you try to walk through it or traverse it.

I have summoned the spirit of J. G. Ballard a couple of times, not accidentally. The Way Inn strikes me as the first authentically post-Ballardian vision of the world as it has become and as it is going to continue to be. Towards the end of his career, Ballard produced a couple of social satires: Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), with discernable elements of social satire in the two much stronger novels that preceded them: Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000). Will Wiles has taken up the satire where Ballard left off, while joyfully reviving memories of the great Ballard novels from an earlier period: The Drowned World (1962), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974).

There are also Ballardian echoes in the way Wiles characterizes women (in particular the dominant, Amazonian and sometimes enigmatic figure of the hotel para-manager Dee) – there is a constant sense of male sexual awe, without anything ever happening. (Not true of Crash, though!) Wiles’s dialogue too has that odd Ballard characteristic: an errant, oblique, declarative, almost shouted way of coming at you, non-realist but also mundane and worldly. It gives the novel the weirdest feeling, a sense that there is more going on than you think, and then you find out that there is. The final Ballardian touch I will not spoil, as the pleasure in revealing it should be Wiles’s, not mine, but I was reminded happily of one of Ballard’s Borgesian short stories published in 1982. I’ll leave it to others to trace the reference, but to narrow the search the story I’m thinking of was included in his collection War Fever (1990).

I loved The Way Inn, read it with endless pleasure and interest, and am delighted that in this year, apparently doomed to be eponymed by a class of emergent young science fiction sensation-mongers, a mature, expert and wonderfully original talent has appeared in the person of Will Wiles. For me, The Way Inn is the most satisfying and radical new novel I have read so far this year, way ahead of the rest.

The Way Inn by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 2014, 343pp, ISBN 978-0-00-754555-1, £12.99

Here is my (revised, final) programme schedule for the London worldcon, Loncon 3. We are planning to arrive on Thursday afternoon, 14th August, leaving on the Monday morning. Nina has listed her own programme items here – there is only one unfortunate clash of same-time scheduling between us (13:30 on Sunday). Everything in italics is from the convention’s schedule.

Friday 14:00 – 15:00 (London Suite 5; ExCel) – Kaffeeklatsch

Christopher Priest, Justina Robson

Friday 18:00 – 19:00 (Capital Suite 7+12; ExCel) – In Conversation: Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest

Every 10 years, Granta publishes a list of “The Best of Young British Novelists”; and every so often, a writer whose work includes the speculative and fantastic gets included. Christopher Priest was included in the 1983 list, while Naomi Alderman made the 2013 list; for this item they will discuss their work and careers, and ask to what extent literary values and attitudes to “genre” stories have changed over time.
Naomi Alderman, Christopher Priest

Friday 21:00 – 22:00 (Capital Suite 7+12; ExCel) – You Write Pretty

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, so let us behold some fine fantastical sentences. Our panel have each picked a sentence, and will have a chance to make their case for why theirs is the fairest of them all — but it will be up to the audience to decide.
Geoff Ryman (Moderator), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E. J. Swift

Saturday 12:00 – 12:30 (London Suite 1; ExCel) – Reading: Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest

Sunday 11:00 – 12:00 (Capital Suite 16; ExCel) – Becoming History

In a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, John Clute wrote, “It is not easy — it should not really be feasible — to write a tale set in twentieth century that is not a tale about the twentieth century.” A number of other recent books, including Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century, Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, and Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, are also ‘about’ historicising the near-past in this sense. How is the fantastic gaze operating on the twentieth century? Do we have enough distance to see it clearly yet?
Graham Sleight (Moderator), John Clute, Peter Higgins, Elizabeth Hand, Christopher Priest

Sunday 13:30 – 15:00 (Capital Suite 4; ExCel) – Looking Back On Anger: remembering 70s sf in the 21st century

Almost 30 years on from Jeanne Gomoll’s “Open Letter to Joanna Russ” , this panel will look at how the science fiction of the 70s is remembered today. Which works have stayed in the public eye, and which have faded away? Whose commentary still speaks to us, and what was the conversation like back then? What has proven to be problematic, and what remains unresolved?
Graham Sleight (Moderator), Jeanne Gomoll, Pat Murphy, Lesley Hall, Christopher Priest

Sunday 15:00 – 16:30 (Capital Suite 16; Excel) – SF and the English Summer

Summer is the time for picnics, discovering the countryside and falling through portals, a rainy summer day sends us into the far reaches of the old house. Winter brings mystery, spring brings sacrifice. To each season there is an adventure. The panellists will discuss the “traditional” English weather, its role in fantasy and the effect of Climate Change on our perennial topic of conversation. Bring your own umbrella and sun block.
Caroline Mullan (Moderator), Prof Euan Nisbet, Christopher Priest, Jo Walton

 

In 1967 I was living in a small basement flat in Fulham Road, London. One of the people who lived there too (I shrink from the word ‘flatmate’) was the millionaire publisher, Felix Dennis, who died at the weekend. He was neither a millionaire nor a publisher when I knew him, but a drummer in a band.

The flat was close to the epicentre of what the American press called ‘Swinging London’, and all that hippie and flower-power stuff now identified with the 1960s was going on around us. Most of it passed me by: I wanted to be a writer and was wrapped up in that, endlessly working at my typewriter.

There were four of us originally living in the flat: myself and Graham Charnock, and two others (who remain nameless). When one of these other two could stand living there no longer (he was having to share a room with the second unnamed one, another millionaire-publisher-to-be, for whom the phrase ‘personal hygiene’ would be entirely inappropriate), Felix Dennis took his place. After that, Graham and I had living with us two people who never cleaned anything, never washed themselves, never flushed the toilet or ever changed their underclothes. I already knew Dennis as a regular visitor to the flat, sometimes staying over: he was uncouth, scruffy and unintelligent. He had a sly, aggressive and cunning manner. He was a heavy drinker and a persistent user of drugs. A few weeks earlier we had had a burglary at the flat, which the local police never solved but said it had all the signs of an inside job. Graham and I were both opposed to Dennis moving in, but there were no alternatives. He came in, bringing his faux-hippie lifestyle and mates with him. Life in the flat quickly became untenable, and a few weeks after Dennis’s arrival I too moved out, but not before a rapidly deteriorating situation culminated on one memorable night, with Dennis threatening me and Graham Charnock with a knife.

He later became famous in the media when he and two others were charged with several offences, including conspiracy to corrupt the morals of minors (for which he was found not guilty) and an offence under the Obscene Publications Act (for which he was jailed). The conviction was later quashed on appeal. He went into magazine publishing and rapidly became rich. During the 1980s I was running a small software company with David Langford, and part of my job was to buy advertising space in computer magazines. We had a monthly spend in the thousands of pounds. I routinely received canvassing phonecalls from advertising departments at these magazines, but whenever one of the calls was from a Dennis magazine I invariably refused to buy space. Because we were advertising everywhere else, one day I took a call from the advertising director at Dennis Publishing – she wanted to know why we would not advertise with them. ‘Because in 1967 your boss tried to murder me with a knife,’ I said. The hilarious reaction from this hapless woman was, to say the least, intriguing. Later, when she was back in control of herself, she said in an understanding voice that we would never be bothered again. We weren’t. In 2008 Felix Dennis bragged to a reporter from The Times that he had murdered a man by pushing him off a cliff. When it became clear that the police were interesting themselves in the incident, Dennis hastily withdrew the claim, saying he had been drunk when talking to the newspaper.

He later became known as a philanthropist, tree-planter and poet. I have no knowledge or opinion of any of that. He suffered some terrible illnesses in later life, and in recent years was a victim of throat cancer, which eventually killed him.

Fay Ballard

Fay Ballard at the Eleven Spitalfields gallery

The artist Fay Ballard has an exhibition in London called House Clearance. This consists of a large number of touching and beautifully executed drawings and paintings inspired by the familiar clutter she found when clearing out the house of her father, J. G. Ballard. We were fortunate enough to visit the gallery yesterday, where Fay herself was present. Although I had met her father several times over the years, I had not met Fay before and it was a great treat to sit in the peaceful gallery and hear her memories of life at home with him.

Information about the gallery Eleven Spitalfields can be found here — the exhibition is continuing until 27th June 2014. And Fay’s own website has many of the images to be glimpsed online — but are no substitute for seeing the originals.

My new publishers in the USA, Titan Books, are doing a great job of finding my latest books some publicity. For the last month or so I have been slogging away at one interview after another. Although there is inevitably some overlap in the questions, considering that most of the interviewers had to think up their queries ‘blind’ there is a surprising amount of diversity.

As well as interviews, Tom Green at Titan also gained some space for me in the Huffington Post. So for once I feel my books have a fair chance of making a tiny impression on the greatest reading market on the planet.

Here are links to the interviews which have been published so far. I don’t expect anyone to read all of them, but here they are. Others are in the pipeline, so I will add to the list from time to time.

LitReactor.

Macguffin.

Impedimenta.

Big Shiny Robot.

Diabolical Plots.

Paste.

Screen Invasion.

Omnivoracious.

Titan Books themselves.

SFF World.

And the essay in Huffington Post.

Thanks to Tom Green, and all at Titan!

Just back from a week in France, where I was serving on the competition jury of a film festival in Tours, called Mauvais Genre. (‘Bad, Evil or Wicked Genre’: these were all non-mainstream films, some horror, some weirdness, some comedy, all broadly uncategorizable. The sort of films in fact that I love to discover.) This was the fourth festival jury I have been on, and watching movies all day can be surprisingly hard work. Enjoyable, though.

We watched nine movies in competition, plus two sets of shorts (courts métrages): eight live action films (worryingly, most of these depicted violent attacks on women: rape, torture and/or murder — can’t people think of stories any more?), and ten animated (these were of the highest quality, making a choice of winner really tricky). And any other out-of-competition films we cared to see as well.

Le Petit Fauchez - the cinema where most of the films were shown

Le Petit Faucheux- the cinema where most of the films were shown

The main competition turned out to be a bit of a problem, because as one film followed another it was difficult to pick out a clear winner. The competition opened with a Dutch film called Wolf, directed by Jim Taihuttu: a long and exceedingly violent story in monochrome, about a young man just released from prison who tries to redeem himself through kick-boxing. For most of the rest of the festival I thought this would have to be the winner, because in spite of its sordid material it was professionally and expertly made, well written and performed with conviction … but for me it seemed to lack a quality that would lift it above the familiar round of on-screen beatings and deaths. The films that followed Wolf were unexciting: two ‘found footage’ horror films (unconvincing, unoriginal and not even good for a bit of fright), a German-made broad comedy set in a forest, an American comedy about casual burglars, a lightweight Swedish drama about mind control, a couple of lukewarm Asia Extreme films … nothing that was fresh or surprising or shocking or even written particularly well.

Then came the final entry, Der Samurai, a werewolf film from Germany. I confess the heart sank horribly at the thought – the title alone was enough to slow the pulse. But from the first frame the film looked quite unlike any werewolf film I had ever seen before. What followed was subtle, well acted, unusual, radical … it even had a subtext. The ‘samurai’ of the title was violent, unpredictable and frightening, but also oddly vulnerable. We on the jury gave thanks to Till Kleinert, director and writer, and with one dissension came to a quick choice of winner.

One morning I went to Instant Cine, an excellent DVD shop in the town, and with not much warning and no script I had to give an impromptu 3-minute recommendation of recent films I had seen. Here is the result:

The other people on the jury with me were three French actors: Yannick Solier, Sofia Manousha and Julien Courbey, and the ‘president’ of the jury was a porn-video actor called HPG (Hervé Pierre Gustave).

LoireThere were enough breaks between the films to explore the town, which has a modern commercial area and an attractive old centre, close to the Loire. The festival director was Garry Constant. He had been working on festival preparations all year. Everything went well.

Then to an overnight stay in Paris, where I gave a talk and Q&A at a bookshop called Librairie Charybde (129 rue de Charenton, 75012 Paris). I was daunted by the large crowd who had turned out. They let me do the gig in English, which was to me a vast relief, but even so brought on the embarrassed suspicion that a French writer doing the same thing in London would be expected not to speak French. Charybde is one of those small bookstores that immediately you enter imparts the feeling that every book there has been selected for a reason, that it is an implicitly recommended title. For the hundredth time in my life I wanted to up sticks and move permanently to Paris.

Then home, and the inevitable piled-up backlog of emails and bills.

Late last week I received my first copies of Titan’s American editions of The Islanders and The Adjacent.

The Islanders TitanThe Adjacent -- April 2014The Islanders is published as a trade paperback — there never was an American hardcover, so this is the first edition in the US. The Adjacent is a beautifully bound hardback, with an eye-deceiving design on the cover and attractive typography inside. I’m delighted by both editions, and more glad than I can say to be back in the US market.

This website carries a selection of reviews of both books: The Islanders here, and The Adjacent here. There is usually a link to the original text, so those of suspicious mind can check to see what amount of qualification and downright hostility has been omitted, no doubt entirely by accident.

What can you ever know of a major city, a foreign country, from a short visit? For a few days in April last year I was in Kyiv (Kiev), attending the Eurocon. When you are invited as a guest, when you have never been to a country before, when you speak nothing of the language, it is not only impossible to form reliable impressions of the place, it would also be close to bad manners to assume you could. You go where you are taken, see the places and things you are shown, you try to find your way around on buses and the metro, you tend to stay in the company of the local people who can speak your own language or other visitors whom you might already know from other trips to other places, you make friends with the people who have invited you … and eventually you gain a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of what are the lives and concerns of these people who are being so generous and welcoming to you. That’s what it was like for me in Kyiv.

Babi YarI had few preconceptions before I went. I knew little of Ukraine or its capital city, but I was aware, in a horrified sort of way, of what had happened there during World War 2, when it was occupied at different times by both the Soviet Red Army and the German Wehrmacht. One of the worst Nazi massacres occurred in a ravine in a park called Babi Yar, near the centre of Kyiv – some 34,000 people were murdered in a single action. I thought before I went I should pay a visit, especially as it has gained literary connotations since. The book with that title, Babi Yar by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), was described by its author as ‘a document in the form of a novel’, but even that was a disguise, as it is clear that every event described in the ‘novel’ really happened. Anatoli’s book includes the testimony of the only known survivor and eye-witness of the events, a woman called Dina Mironovna Pronicheva: her testimony was later included, controversially, in D. M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel. However, once I was actually in Kyiv it seemed a visit was never going to be possible: several people said they had only barely ever heard of it, others said the ravine had been filled in and the park re-landscaped, hardly anyone would admit to knowing where it was. I didn’t push the point.

Independence Square 2One morning I went with a group of fellow visitors from the convention to visit Maidan Nezalezhnosti – known in the West as Independence Square. We were a multinational lot: from Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, France. The photos show what we saw that cold day. Most major cities have similar large open spaces where crowds gather, where speeches are made, where ceremonies are conducted. That was how Independence Square seemed to be. In the last few weeks the world has gained an altogether different image of the place, as many of the people of Kyiv are engaged in a violent protest against their government. The word ‘horrified’ rises again: this complex, historically important and often beautiful city is Independence Square 3tearing itself apart. Of course, the chances are remote that any of the people I met in Kyiv are directly involved, but even so it is extremely concerning. I am especially thinking of Alexandr Vasilikovsky (who invited me to Kyiv and who spent hours taking me around), of Yuliya Kiro (who gave up a day of her university studies to take me around the galleries and memorials of the city), and of Natasha Krynytskaya (who acted as my interpreter and translator). These are the people of Ukraine I know best – I can’t stop worrying about them.

Regard the photograph below. It was taken by my father with his Voigtländer Brillant camera. This model dated from 1932, and is a ‘box’ type camera, which looks a little like a twin-lens reflex, although the upper lens is used only for lining up the shot. Focus cannot be adjusted through it. The camera used 120 film, allowing 12 pictures (56mm x 56mm) per roll. The Brillant was made in Austria and was something of an improvement on the popular Kodak Brownie camera. It had three shutter speeds as well as B (Bulb) and T (Time) settings, could focus from 1.2m to infinity, and had aperture settings from f6.5 to f22.

Frinton Beach 1950

This photograph was taken in the summer of 1950 on the beach at Frinton-on-Sea, which was where my family took all their holidays at that time. My father’s parents had lived in Frinton most of their lives, and still ran a toy shop in the centre of the little town.

The two adults in the picture were called Noël and Chloë, and I think were friends of the family. For convenience they were known to me and my sisters as ‘Uncle’ Noël and ‘Auntie’ Chloë. The small child holding the sailing boat is me, aged about 6 or 7.

The reproduction here is of course a digital scan from an old print, but in the 1950s film was processed by a photographic shop (or more often by a pharmacy) and returned to the customer in the form of contact prints, together with the original negatives. The negative of this particular photo has long been lost, and because of the muddle of my unsorted old albums and packets of unmounted prints I had thought the contact print was missing too. However, I have been having a clear-out this week and rather to my pleasure this photograph came to light once more. It is the only one I can find from that particular roll, although I do remember other, similar photos taken at the same time.

A close look at the photograph reveals a certain oddness. Uncle Noël is wearing a wristwatch on his right arm, whereas most people (both right- and left-handed) usually wear a watch on their left wrist. The dress that Auntie Chloë is wearing is buttoned with the left side over the right, while nearly all women’s clothes are buttoned the other way. And the small child, me, has a plaster cast on his right arm.

A few weeks before this holiday, I had been messing about in the garden at home, and had unwisely tried to climb a large pile of logs. The pile gave way, I plunged headfirst to the ground and in a moment of astonishing agony I broke my arm. It was a memorably traumatic incident — I had never before known such pain, and hope never to do so again. However, by the time of this holiday there was no need any more to wear a sling, and the plaster was due to be removed soon after we returned home. The holiday photographs came back from the chemist’s shop at about the same time as the plaster came off, and to my surprise they showed the plaster on the wrong arm. I knew for certain I had broken my left arm, not my right … as the photos appeared to reveal.

To the adult eye, the explanation is simple: for some reason, presumably accidental, the contact prints had been made with the negative reversed. But at age 7 I had no idea how photography worked, and although no doubt my father tried to explain it to me, no doubt I failed to understand. It was a significant mystery.

By the time I was a teenager I had become seriously interested in photography and was developing and printing my own pictures. I was no longer in any doubt about the method, and I had forgotten all about this incident. However, some thirty years later, in 1980, I did remember it all over again, and usefully so while I was writing.

The Affirmation MasterworksIn Chapter 3 of my novel The Affirmation, the narrator, Peter Sinclair, describes a similar incident from his own youth. Trying to write an autobiographical account of himself Peter looks at old photos to check out details, and comes across a series of similarly anomalous reversed prints. The conclusion he draws from this (and my own intention in describing it in the novel) is how unreliable memory can sometimes be, and how even objective reality, a practical test of the past, is something you can’t always depend on. The Affirmation grew from that incident, and itself became a long elegy to the wonders of unreliability.

I am another three and half decades on from the writing of that novel, and at last I can find and reveal at least one of the photos that was behind it all. I still have my father’s Voigtländer camera. It is in full working order, and from time to time I take it out and think about trying to buy some film for it and seeing what it can do. Here it is today, taken with my much more up-to-date Japanese camera:


Voigtländer

 

 

I was 21 and my future was determined – I wanted to be a writer. For my 21st birthday my father bought me a manual typewriter: a Hermes 3000 Portable. This replaced the machine on which I had learned to type: an elderly Olivetti belonging to my parents. The new Hermes was everything I wanted: a smooth, steady action, a nice clear 10-pitch typeface, and a solid base. This meant that I could balance it on my knees while I sat on the side of my bed – already my favoured position while writing. An extra bonus was that I knew somehow it was the same machine used by Brian Aldiss, who was then something of a role model for me.

HermesI worked on the Hermes for about four years. I never thought of changing it or looking for a better machine, because I considered it to be perfect. On it I wrote all my early short stories, and a thousand letters. But then my friend Graham Hall won a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and suddenly everything changed.

Graham is now largely unknown, but he was a familiar and anarchic figure during the years of the British New Wave, in the 1960s. Like all of us he dreamed of being a writer, and in fact sold two or three remarkable short stories. The best of these was called “Sun Push”, published in the January 1967 edition of New Worlds SF. Three years later he and Graham Charnock co-edited an issue of New Worlds: December 1969. Graham Hall was a funny, highly intelligent and sensitive man, and was always entertaining and provocative company, but he had a weakness. He saw himself romantically as a doomed figure, and did whatever he could to confirm this by drinking heavily. I never once saw him drunk, but I also never saw him without a drink. He was to die of cirrhosis when he was only 32.

At the time of his scholarship to the American university, Graham had just bought his own Hermes typewriter, but unlike mine it was a huge manual, an office model. This was the period when the first electronic typewriters were coming on the market. They seemed likely eventually to replace both manual and electric typewriters. They were much quieter and less strenuous to use than manuals, and some even had a small memory bank to enable corrections. They were also much cheaper than electric typewriters, which were designed for office users and priced accordingly. Some of them used dot-matrix technology, but most of them printed with a daisywheel head. For writers, who spend hour after hour typing, the electronic machines felt lightweight and flimsy. Many writers in the USA at this time were using IBM Selectrics, with the golfball head and the distinctive typeface. (This typeface has become, incidentally, the expected and required font for all film scripts – even in these days of computers Hollywood producers will not read a single word of a screenplay unless it is in what these days we call Courier 12-pitch.) But for most of the people I knew in Britain at that time IBM Selectrics were beyond the pocket, and certainly were beyond mine and Graham Hall’s.

Graham’s reasoning for buying an office manual was sound, even if I didn’t share it. He said he wanted to future-proof himself: by buying the best-made office manual on the market he would own something that would last forever, and survive all the likely technological trends and gimmicks to affect typewriters.

To take up his scholarship in the USA, Graham needed a typewriter. His Hermes was far too unwieldy and heavy for travel. He asked me if I would be willing to trade mine for his, for the duration of his two years at Smith. I was not at all keen on this idea because I used my Portable every day and was completely at home with it. However, in the end I did reluctantly agree. I made Graham promise that he would treasure it and bring it back in one piece, and he solemnly promised he would. In any event, I would have his much larger machine as a replacement.

Shortly afterwards Graham flew away to the USA, leaving me with his Hermes Manual.

I didn’t like it much. It had a heavy action and the carriage required a hefty push at the end of every line. I had also grown attached to the Portable’s 10-pitch typeface (10-pitch = 12 characters to the inch), and was used to the smaller, neater face and could readily estimate line- and page-length. The Manual used 12-pitch (10 characters to the inch), and I kept missing the end of lines as I wrote. In short, I was disappointed with it and after a few weeks I bought a secondhand typewriter for £25 and began to use that instead. I passed Graham’s Hermes across to Charles Platt, who at that time needed a spare machine.

Time passed and several changes occurred. Charles later went to live and work in the USA, leaving most of his property (including Graham’s Hermes) in his old flat in London … which he now sublet. I continued to use my £25 manual typewriter for a while (my first two novels were bashed out on it), but it really wasn’t any good and in the end I invested in a secondhand electric machine, followed by several others as the years went by. And Graham Hall returned from the USA two years later with news that surprised and saddened me. Knowing how attached I was to my Hermes Portable he had felt unable throughout his entire sojourn at Smith to admit to me that it had been smashed by baggage-handlers on the outward flight. It was beyond repair.

Even though by this time I was used to electric machines, I had been looking forward to being reunited with my Portable. Graham felt the loss created a debt of honour. His stay abroad had given him the urge to travel, and he was planning to set out on a long worldwide tour almost immediately. He said I should keep the Hermes Manual, and added that one day he would return from his travels and buy it back from me. In the meantime he asked me to look after it, keep it in good repair, treasure it as I had asked him to treasure my own machine, and although it was a sentimental and rather silly agreement, I accepted.

Graham departed again to travel the world, and the Hermes Manual remained in Charles Platt’s sublet apartment. Graham sent occasional missives from Yugoslavia, India, Thailand, etc., but I was never to see him again. At the end of the 1970s he was in the USA, and by this time he was seriously ill. His drinking was beyond control and the inevitable hit him. He died in February 1980, a month short of his 33rd birthday.

A few years later, Charles came to visit me during one of his occasional visits back to the UK. He was getting rid of his London flat, and he asked me if I would at last take permanent possession of Graham’s typewriter. I was not all that keen, but we had another fairly sentimental conversation: we both knew Graham’s attachment to his old typewriter. Although I had no need of it, I felt I should take it.

By this time I was accustomed to working on an electric machine: I had a beautiful Adler electric, which had served me well for a long time. But I began to use Graham’s machine occasionally because I liked the change. I wrote several short pieces on it during 1982-1983.

Hermes ribbonThen came the computer revolution: I acquired my first PC in 1984, began word processing on it more or less straight away, and thoughts of typewriters, manual or electric or anything else, disappeared. I did keep Graham’s Hermes, though, storing it on a shelf in my study. I kept it clean and in repair, it had a new ribbon and I had a spare in my stationery box. The Hermes remained in the corner of my study for thirty years.

But two weeks ago I moved my study to another room in this house: a smaller room upstairs, looking out across the garden. The smaller room meant a major reappraisal of what I really needed in a work room, and drastic culling actions began. Mick Smith, our local totter, soon spotted the skip on the drive and began ferreting through it. At the end he asked if there was “anything else”. Graham’s typewriter now stood more or less alone in my former study. Reader, I let it go.

Sorry, Graham. I did keep the spare ribbon, though.

Lavie Tidhar’s new novel The Violent Century has been packaged as a general novel, with no hint of what is inside. The cover, with its silhouette of Brandenburger Tor, and anti-aircraft shells bursting in the sky around looming bombers, suggests a WW2 novel. The blurb refers coyly to a gunshot, a body in a river, a plane crashing into a skyscraper … and a perfect summer’s day. That the publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) are not letting on about something is manifest. However, I suspect most early readers of this novel, at least as long as it remains in hard covers, will have come to it because they admired Tidhar’s earlier novel, Osama. I certainly did. Those readers, like me, will not be misdirected by the cover, as our appetites for what this young writer might do after the brilliant, if slightly flawed, Osama were well whetted.

The Violent CenturyIt turns out that the publishers’ guilty secret is that the novel is about superheroes. The Violent Century presents an alternative view of the history of the 20th century, as seen by a group of Übermenschen, or super-men. But these are not Nietzsche’s Übermenschen – they are the sort of superhero characters you find in comic books. The comics of course partly originated from the Nietzschean concept of men and women who should aim to rise ‘above or beyond’ the normal – but they were no longer super-men in that philosophical sense. The comic book writers created the popular idiom, but the Nazis were there two or three years before them. Both took the concept literally and then dumbed it down.

Nietzsche of course never intended the concept to mean a body-builder in a brightly coloured skin-tight costume who can halt a hurtling train with his hands, and neither did he mean the breeding of a genetically managed master race. This interpretative misnomer provides much of the plot tension of The Violent Century, as Tidhar’s small group of super-men witness or observe or marginally take part in various violent episodes of the Nazi era.

The central character, Henry Fogg, has the ‘super power’ of creating a blinding miasma of mist or smoke or fog, with which he can confuse, obfuscate, escape, etc. His friend and would-be beau, Oblivion, has the power when sufficiently provoked to, well, cast into oblivion those who threaten him. Other super-characters appear: a Whirlwind, a Tank, a Tigerman, a Machentraum, and so on. The plot largely turns on the quest to find the Übermensch who has, so to speak, gone over to the Nazis, one Schneesturm, as well as Fogg’s more personal quest to be reunited with Klara, after a romantic and sexual interlude with her. Klara is the daughter of Vomacht, the scientist who is said to have developed the process by which these people were ‘changed’, and she was in fact the very first to be changed.

The novel concentrates on Nazi atrocities during WW2, although there is a postscript set in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, and a brief incident in the Indochinese wars during the 1960s, and an even more fleeting reference to 9/11. Because of this over-emphasis on one relatively short period of history the main events of the novel really constitute a violent decade, rather than a century. An author should not be held ransom to his title, but this one does suggest a deeper engagement with history than is in fact the case.

Fogg and Oblivion mostly observe incidents which are well known to history: the D-Day landings, the military occupation of Minsk by the Nazis, the hideous experiments of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, and so on. As observers they are inert. What is the point of these superheroes merely looking and commenting? When they do involve themselves, the brief action is almost always on the fringes, the historical outcome not being affected in any way. The implication is that superheroes should not act effectively. Wouldn’t that be contrary to the whole idea of being a superhero?

It is unclear what we are intended to learn about history that we did not know before. Fiction provides a mirror to reality, a way of testing what we believe to be known, and we can presume that this was the sort of instinct that lay behind writing the novel. In an afterword Tidhar sets out the reality behind his fiction, but it merely confirms the facts that most people are already familiar with. What he does not address is that because his characters are inert his take on history can never be more than superficial. The novel is also partial. By concentrating on the 12-year period of Nazi rule in Germany it says nothing about other events that were as bad, or worse: the Stalin purges, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the use of nerve gas by Saddam Hussein, the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Pforzheim, the nuking of Nagasaki. And there is another kind of partiality: the novel concerns itself for instance with the division of Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall, but is silent on the equally brutalist West Bank Barrier. Tidhar’s history is more or less bunk.

In essence, the novel is told on two levels: a sort of debriefing in the present day by a George Smiley figure called the Old Man, who takes a paternal interest in his young heroes, with the main narrative consisting of flashbacks to the incidents themselves. The conversations that take place in the Old Man’s office throughout the book are banal, chatty and inconclusive, so really serve as a sort of narrative continuo, quiet bits that link the exciting bits. But the main passages, the flashbacks, are also curiously uninvolving.

All of this raises the connected problem of using superhero characters in a serious novel.

Seriousness is Tidhar’s own agenda. Attempts at it spill from every page of The Violent Century, with the same sort of interest in psychological realism, human urges, emotional complexity, etc., that has been the inspiration of the recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Superheroes have become big business, at least in film, and their presence is starting to be taken for granted, a sort of donnée that by sheer persistence is no longer questioned.

In this, superheroes are similar to what has happened to zombies, a current infatuation of many writers, readers and publishers. Familiarity does not eradicate the essential silliness of such trivial notions. There is not a crumb of scientific possibility (or, for that matter, of imaginative viability) for reanimated corpses wandering down apocalyptic streets – or, to keep to the subject in hand, neither is there for adapted humans who can breathe underwater, kill with a well-aimed spit, put back time by a few minutes, and so on. The superhero comics celebrated by Tidhar in this novel are by design simplistic. Problems and crises are usually of a single issue, and are resolved in their pages in an emphatic and single-minded way. Comic book apologists often point out that the characters’ self-doubts, foibles, weaknesses and heroic shortcomings are part of the tradition too, but such sub-plot materials are resolved only by sub-plot devices. Both zombies and superheroes have become so familiar and degraded that they are clearly in what Joanna Russ described as the Decadent stage of worn-out genre materials.

The tropes of superheroes are fanciful notions, not ideas with metaphorical depth, and any attempt to dignify them with a serious purpose is to try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of narrative material that has been debased for years by shallow and exploitative work.

Finally, Tidhar’s chosen style of writing cannot be ignored. Most of the narrative is told in short, unparsed sentences. Here is a typical short section from close to the beginning of the novel:

Walks away, towards the building. Fogg follows. Nondescript building. Can’t really tell what, if anything, is inside. Could be a bank. Could be a warehouse. Could be anything.
They go around to the side of the building. A narrow alleyway. A door set in the wall. No handle. They stop in front of it. Stare. [p.17]

This is lazy, evasive writing. It is lazy because no trouble is required to type one expressionist ejaculation after another. It is evasive because it uses what amounts to bullet points to establish every image, and does not take the trouble to find the best arrangement of words to convey the message. It seems to seek to recapture the quality of narrative panels in the comics, the voice-balloons which accompany almost every action, no matter how violent. It also smacks of an attempt to reproduce the terse, effective noir style of thriller writers like Hammett or Chandler. Formal prose (which Tidhar employed well in Osama, and which as a matter of fact both Hammett and Chandler excelled in) has not been developed as a sort of posh mannerism favoured only by literary writers. English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do. It is a type of writing familiar to anyone who has read a screenplay: the words are deployed as shorthand, a simple code to convey images and ideas without distracting the presumably busy producer or director. Film scripts are never read for style – they are seen as a halfway house before the storyboard is drafted. Film people only feel safe with pictures.

In fact, Tidhar’s style is not half bad when he can be bothered to write properly. There is a short sequence in the middle of the novel, a lyrical passage describing Fogg’s affair with Klara, where the ugly machine-gun scatter of words temporarily ceases. Here he writes plain descriptive language, and although at times it teeters on the edge of being something that could be nominated for the annual Bad Sex Award, it is written in a way the reader will comprehend and so it becomes one of the best scenes in the novel.

Nor is the lack of descriptive prose the only thing that’s wrong. For some reason, Tidhar has opted in this novel to abandon the conventions of dialogue, and sets out all the characters’ words so that they blend with the rest and are indistinguishable from it. Maybe some will see this as a dramatic and even daring innovation, but it is a gimmick many have tried before and it is always tiresome for the reader. Tidhar compounds it by sometimes leaving off question marks, and although his solecisms are not as bad as those of many of his colleagues he should be more careful of details.

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘“We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

A copy editor, or Tidhar himself in a final draft, should have corrected all of these. They weren’t corrected, though, and as Tidhar is clearly being treated now as a high quality writer, the question of his style is important.

In spite of all this, Lavie Tidhar is a gifted writer. When he puts himself out he writes effectively and well, but in this novel those occasions are few and far between. He researches thoroughly and displays discernment over what he uses. He clearly has an original mind. His vocabulary, when he chooses to deploy it properly, is good and varied. I hope he will grow to see The Violent Century as an aberration, an error of judgement. Osama quite rightly drew attention to Tidhar’s real qualities and genuine promise as a novelist of the fantastic, but this is not the novel he should have written to consolidate his reputation. It is boring and shallow, clumsily written and not at all pleasant to read. It required a conscious struggle to stay interested enough to get to the end.

I am at present working slowly through the first draft of a new novel, something which of course sucks up creative energy like an adjacent neutron star. This is my excuse (probably a bit unconvincing) for not writing more on this blog. The life of a writer is externally really dull — I have been saying this for years and no one outside the world of books seems to believe it, but it means in effect that most of what I do when not writing is watch DVDs of TV programmes and films that other people have already seen, and read books ditto. On TV we are racing through the backlog of Breaking Bad — we are now up to the fourth (penultimate) season of this extraordinary story. I have never come across anything remotely like it before. There must be a total of something like 60 hour-long episodes, and yet it has genuine character development and a story that is fully structured, and it is deeply plotted and consistent throughout … as well as containing some of the most astonishing, imaginative and sometimes shocking imagery and situations I can recall ever seeing, either on TV or in a film. (It is also, at times, extremely funny in a ghastly sort of way.)

Books. It is probably best to skim diplomatically over the three last novels I have read (one of them a near-beer literary/fantastic novel, the other two being recently released SF novels), although the book in which I am currently revelling, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, is a solid masterpiece. I consider it to be at least an equal to the same author’s Pale Fire — no higher praise is possible. It is one of those books that you miss between reading sessions, and long to get back to, as I long for it as I write this. Such a reading experience is great therapy after the weak and discouraging efforts that immediately preceded it.

One of the frustrations of the autumn months was the fact that for at least two of those months The Adjacent was out of print and unavailable. It sold out in its hardcover edition in just over three months, but I am now pleased and relieved to say that the book has been awarded a reprint and is on sale again, at least for now. It can be bought from Book Depository here — not only at a decent discount but with free delivery to most parts of the world. Orders placed in the next few days will probably be fulfilled by Christmas. Although Book Depository is owned by the Amazon multinational, they manage to seem altogether more human in scale and should be supported. Amazon itself has been behaving erratically with its information about availability of books — I gather from Gollancz that The Adjacent is just one of many books which has not been properly displayed by Amazon.co.uk as available, when, in fact, some copies were in the warehouse. (It’s always virtually impossible for authors to know or discover exactly what is going on.)

At the time of writing, The Adjacent in hardback is still not being listed by Amazon … although it is possible to buy secondhand copies through them, and one “collectible” copy, apparently new, which at the moment is being offered by an outside dealer for approximately three times the cover price. If the trade hardback returns to Amazon availability I’ll mention it either here or in a later post. (PS: Now available again from Amazon.)

The Islanders is available from Amazon.co.uk: the hardback here and the paperback here, both discounted and with a choice of delivery costs/options. Book Depository also has both formats on sale: the hardback here (small discount, plus free delivery) and the paperback here (slightly better discount, and free delivery). E-book and audio copies are available of course from both these dealers, as well as others.

And in April next year, both books will be published in the USA by Titan, The Adjacent in hardback, and The Islanders in paperback.

Life seems to have become one long commercial.