There is a library in the jungle. It is a small building which has become a focal point of calm and order in the chaos of the waste ground near Calais where thousands of people are being forced to camp out. It has books, art materials, facilities for teaching children and also for them to play. As winter approaches there are plans to put in extra lighting and heating.

Jungle BooksMary Jones, a British resident in Calais, has worked with the migrants to build and equip this symbol of the quiet values. In the worsening human crisis, which the authorities seem incapable of coping with, the ramshackle, temporary building is a practical refuge but also an expression of hope for the future.

Mary Jones is seeking crowdfunding of £10,000 by 24th September. This is by most standards a modest amount, but it would enable her to buy generators, cooking kits, groundsheets, etc. She also wants to get hold of four or five laptops for the school, and for people anxious to make contact with their families through Skype. Within the first few days she has raised just under £1,000.

More details here. Do it now?

From the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience. (The only exception to this generalization that I can think of is the work of James Joyce, which has achieved classic status without a groundswell of popular support.)

Recognizing writers in the present day who are likely to achieve long-term recognition as a classic author is a risky business. Popular success often comes about because of the public’s unpredictable reaction, or a wish to find an undemanding read, or because of a response to perceived matters of the moment. Happenstance comes into it, and so does the luck of timing. Best-seller success is therefore usually ephemeral. Can anyone seriously suggest that the ‘Grey’ novels of E. L. James, the ‘Twilight’ novels of Stephenie Meyer, the nonsensical best-sellers by the likes of Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer, are destined for anything but the dustbin of literary history?

Who now reads, or even remembers, the author Hervey Allen? Or for that matter James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Franz Werfel, Munro Leaf? The works of Hervey Allen, and all the others, were discussed seriously and in detail in a book called Best-Sellers – Are They Born or Made? (1939, by George Stevens and Stanley Unwin). With the possible exception of James Hilton, who I suspect is remembered more for the iconic ideas of Shangri-La and Mr Chips than for present-day reading of the novels in which they appeared, all these writers have vanished more or less without trace. Yet in their day their books were immense popular successes. Ephemerality has struck – posterity has eluded them.

In 1981, John Sutherland published a book with a similar subject: Bestsellers – Popular Fiction of the 1970s. Sutherland then was interested in such popular novelists as Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Jackie Collins, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and a score of others. Most of these names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV. I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls or The Dream Merchants or The Odessa File?

So the correlation between popular success and impending classics status is by no means certain. Because of this, one should be nervous of pointing to this or that contemporary success and predicting that posterity will accept it into its halls.

Certainly, the modern literary novel, at least in Britain, is not the place to look. Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by writers like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise. McEwan is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction. Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism, diverted into subjects rather than passionate about them, and one day will be regarded, I believe, as having many constricting contextual class and social assumptions. Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984), and his subsequent work has depended increasingly on verbal invention, much of it rather clumsy.

We are more likely to find literary posterity, or the possibility of it, in the genres. For instance, thirty years ago who would have guessed that Philip K. Dick would be seen, at least in the world of Hollywood studio films, as a paradigm of science fiction? Most of his novels were quickly written for commercial publishers, aimed at and read by a genre audience. But as a result of several hugely successful films, Dick’s many routine SF books have returned to print, he is taught in universities and schools, and he is generally regarded as the finest modern SF writer. Yet in 1981, roughly at the time Blade Runner was being filmed, John Sutherland gave Dick no more than a passing mention. Of course, this was largely because at the time he was not actually a best-selling author, he was still alive, his writing was past its best, and he was recognized mainly for his Hugo-winning novel The Man in the High Castle (1962).

Stephen King is the one contemporary author who seems to me destined for status as an enduring classic. His books are of course aimed resolutely at a popular audience, but his social awareness, his easy use of a myriad of contemporary cultural references, and his sheer bravado as a storyteller seem to ensure a timeless quality. In these respects his work strikes me as similar to that of Charles Dickens, but like Dickens he has written too much and not always well. Some of Stephen King’s books are over-long, and (like Dickens) he has stylistic and narrative mannerisms that, once noticed, can be annoying. However, his best work is intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.

I think the jury is still out on the work of J. G. Ballard, at least as far as enduring popularity is concerned. Since his death in 2009 Ballard’s reputation has grown steadily, so there is room for hope. Although most of his best work was originally published in the kind of popular science fiction magazines despised by the literary establishment, in the years following the publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) his work was taken up and accepted not only by critics and the literary world in general but by the book-reading public too. Because some of his work from the end of the 1960s is avant-garde and ‘controversial’ (I’m thinking of his Atrocity Exhibition period, with its references to American presidents of the day, the Vietnam War, and so on), long-term status as a classic writer is not certain. But the early short stories, as well as the novels The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World and Crash, are distinctively original, metaphysical in impact and told in almost transparently lucid prose, waiting to be discovered by those who have so far not done so.

Then there are two writers of fantasy: J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett.

Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been so massively popular, and so widely discussed, that there is little point in adding a further encomium. Except to say that my own children were at exactly the right age to discover and be enchanted by the books as they appeared, so that I was a close witness to the impact the books (devotedly written for a wide and popular audience) had on them and their friends. It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.

Finally, the works of Sir Terry Pratchett. I have been provoked to write this essay today by an article in the Guardian’s blog, by the newspaper’s arts correspondent Jonathan Jones. As a display of closed-minded prejudice, and an astonishing willingness to brag about it, there have been thankfully few precedents. Here is how Jones starts:

It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short. No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.

Unsurprisingly, the online comments on this pathetic piece of ignorant journalism have swarmed in (at the time of writing, just under one thousand), and for once almost all of them agree with each other. I will be surprised and disappointed if Mr Jones retains his job with the Guardian, at least in the capacity of an arts correspondent. I have rarely seen a letter of resignation so overtly and shamelessly revealing as this. I was forcibly reminded of a letter my old friend John Middleton Murry wrote to the Observer many years ago on another, not dissimilar, matter: ‘I note your organ does not have a reporter in Antarctica, and suggest that this would be a suitable posting for Mr Martin Amis.’

I should add that Terry Pratchett and I were respectful colleagues rather than personal friends. We knew each other better in the days when we were teenage hopefuls, trying to get our first stories sold. The years went by, we found our publishers and we went our separate ways. I doubt if Terry ever read my books – I read only a few of his. Terry does not need me to defend him – Jones’s article is contemptible.

But I would say that of all the writers I have ever known, or the books I have ever read, Terry Pratchett’s seem to be a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience, so fulfilling the first condition. They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world. The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions. Uniquely, in the profession of writing, where commercial success often turns a writer’s head and (to mix a metaphor) turns him or her into an asshole, Terry Pratchett remained approachable, unpretentious, sane and generous. His immensely popular appearances at Discworld conventions were marked by his geniality, openness and amusing manner, and a shared respect between author and audiences. His premature death was a cause of sincere mourning to all those readers, most of who never had the chance to meet him.

His work is written well – no matter what Jones says about ‘very ordinary’ prose, Terry Pratchett’s novels are stylistically adept: good muscular prose, not mucked around with for effect (except sometimes!), enlivened by wit, sharp observation, a unique take on the world at large and whatever the subject of social satire might be for the time being, a brimming sense of fun and the ridiculous, and overall an approach to the reader that feels inclusive, a letting in on the joke, an amused welcome to the world he is writing about. All his books contain bizarre cultural cross-references – part of the fun is spotting them. Some of his jokes are genuinely original – I always liked the one about the Australian bush hats with the corks, and the other one about the vampire photographer who used a flashgun on his camera. Millions of people – not the appalling Mr Jones, a spectacular scorer of own goals – will recognize these references with a sense of remembered joy.

I hope Jonathan Jones packs plenty of warm underwear for his next job.

I have not been able to write here for several weeks – July 2015 appears to have vanished, as far as this site is concerned, and already we are halfway through August. The reason amounts to one matter only: I have been absorbed in writing and finishing a new novel, and, since finishing, sitting around feeling lazy. If you have emailed me in the last three months or so and have not received a reply I’m really sorry – please try again, because I know I have been a bit dilatory.

The novel is called The Gradual, and it is with the publishers now. I completed and delivered it on the last day of July, cleverly timing it for the month when everyone in publishing goes away on holiday, or is attending the worldcon in Spokane, Washington. We can be patient.

The Gradual is the first conventionally written novel I have produced since The Extremes in 1998: it is a straightforward narrative told in sequence. It is about time and the perception of the passing of time. There are those who have said they noticed certain recurring images in my recent novels: identical twins, for instance, or stage magic, or invisibility, or the sainted presence of H. G. Wells. Such critics will not find any of them in The Gradual. The narrator is also completely reliable. Hah.

Currently: working on a new collection of short stories for Gollancz. I shall be in Rennes, northern France, during part of October, on the jury at the Court Métrange film festival. Soon after that, at the end of November, I shall be at Utopiales 2015, in Nantes.

I have recently returned from a longish visit to France. Once again I was the beneficial recipient of many compliments from readers about the first line of one of my novels. In its day (now more than forty years ago) this opening sentence had a startling effect on many French readers, helping to keep the book popular ever since. The novel is called Le Monde Inverti (1974), and here is the first line:

J’avais atteint l’âge de mille kilometres.

When I hear these compliments I am of course delighted, but I also feel the slight unease of worry that it was not wholly earned. What I wrote in English at the beginning of Inverted World was an OK sentence, similar to the French version, but somehow it did not have the same kind of grand resonance: “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” Furthermore, because of the belated intervention of the American publisher, who would not leave well alone, many editions in English had a three-page Prologue shoved in before the true first sentence. Sensibly, the French publisher (Robert Louit, working with the translator Bruno Martin) dumped the unnecessary Prologue, metricated the measurement, rounded it down and created the beautiful sentence I have been dining out on ever since. Good publishing and good luck often come into these things.

But calculation comes into it too. People who run writing courses, or who publish books on the subject, often emphasize the importance of coming up with an opening line or image that will ‘hook’ the reader. I notice that the writer Andy Weir, author of The Martian (2014), has published his Four Tips for ‘Breaking the Seal’. The first of these concerns coming up with a good first line. As an example Mr Weir quotes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It’s a good choice, even if it has become slightly outdated. The 24-hour clock is now in widespread use throughout Europe, and even in Britain and the USA, since the appearance of digital technology, watches and clocks have for years been striking, or at least showing, thirteen hundred hours. The sentence still works, though. A chill sense of difference is neatly established.

As an adult reader one of the first amusing and intriguing openings I came across was in a Cold War spy thriller called Tree Frog, by Martin Woodhouse (1966):

I was in my coffin. Why had they buried me face downwards?

That’s clever. It’s racy, sharp, memorable, and contains a nonsensical question that will spark the reader’s interest. The problem is that Mr Woodhouse doesn’t follow up – his narrative becomes unfocused, it tries to raise more weird questions, the reader is given nothing back, and a long thriller written in short sentences follows.

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) starts with the following sentence:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The trouble here, again, is that it is not entirely relevant to the rest of the book. As many critics have pointed out, The Good Soldier is not an especially sad story at all. The interest of the book lies elsewhere: it’s one of the first examples of a novel written by an unreliable narrator. Therein lies the enduring importance of the book, and it’s a classic. But it’s not sad.

Some writers get the whole thing wrong, simply by being seduced by the irresistible attraction of a clever or original image. Here’s the opening line of James Blish’s Black Easter (1968):

The room stank of demons.

This is a startlingly effective opening to a fantasy novel. In five words the author economically creates an ambience, a feeling, a situation, even a background. It’s really good writing: the use of the word ‘stank’ is perfect. However, here is the paragraph that immediately follows, one I suspect few readers can get through without falling asleep:

And it was not just the room – which would have been unusual, but not unprecedented. Demons were not welcome visitors on Monte Albano, where the magic practised was mostly of the kind called Transcendental, aimed at pursuit of a more perfect mystical union with God and His two revelations, the Scriptures and the World. But occasionally, Ceremonial magic – an applied rather than a pure art, seeking certain immediate advantages — was practised also, and in the course of that the White Monks sometimes called down a demiurge, and, even more rarely, raised up one of the Fallen.

Some novelists get it completely right, though. Here is one of my personal favourites, the opening sentence of David Lodge’s brilliant campus comedy Changing Places (1973):

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1,200 miles per hour.

The scene is set, the tone is set, the story is under way. It goes on very much as it has started. The reader settles down to enjoy a novel where the author knows exactly what he is doing, and does it well.

Anyway, I was interested to read Andy Weir’s advice to other writers. No matter how long you have been at the game of writing, this sort of thing always has a fascination. You never know – it’s never too late to learn, and you might pick up something useful. Apart from a few minor quibbles about emphasis, I don’t dissent from anything Mr Weir offers as advice. But as he is the author of a famously best-selling novel, which has sold thousands of copies to thousands of presumably well satisfied readers, it did make me wonder how his own opening to The Martian goes. Here it is:

I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Fucked.

It stinks of something to me, but not of demons.

Here is a brief autobiography, my present day in pictures.

Study 1
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Study 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Study 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8th May 2015

 

We are at the end of April and I suddenly realized that I have posted nothing here since the end of March. The Devon countryside is waking up as the days lengthen: during the winter months it is bleak of colour, the hedgerows bare, the muddy soil showing through. It still looks beautiful and peaceful, and the roads are quiet and under-used, but winter is winter. Here in the southwest that mostly means rain and wind. I Exif_JPEG_PICTUREcan confirm that’s true. But for the last four weeks the narrow roads have been a blaze of colour. The modest, familiar British wildflowers have returned. At the moment we have sweet alison, red campion, bluebells, and the first flush of cow parsley is looming over the lanes. I have had nothing to say here as I am deep into the final draft of my next novel, a period when what I’m doing spreads out psychically to blot out other matters. Thankfully, because out there in the world there is an election campaign going on, terrible disasters in the French Alps and the southern Mediterranean and Nepal, and an attempt by a small group of bigots in America to take over the Hugo awards. The bathetic nature of the final part of that sentence is sort of accidental, but it reveals what a narrow world of desperation some third-rate writers live in. I hope to complete my novel during the next two months.

It’s the first day of Spring, according to Google, with an eclipse of the sun thrown in to celebrate the new awakening. According to the weather news on the radio there were not likely to be many places in the UK without cloud cover, but the west country was excepted. On venturing out we discovered that we had a clear blue sky, with a lovely silvery mist lightly shrouding the trees and the countryside.

I spent the hour of the eclipse wandering around our village centre and the huge churchyard, while the light slowly dimmed and the wild birds went into alternating bouts of mad squawking and mystified silence. Our cats took fright. No cars went through. The temperature dropped noticeably. The shadows became less dark as most of the sun disappeared briefly behind the moon. That weird quietude of an eclipse slowly spread across the countryside.

Afterwards I discovered what perhaps I should have known anyway, which is that it’s almost impossible to photograph an eclipse without special lens filters. All my efforts to capture the ever-reducing arc of remaining sunlight came to nothing. However, the light in the trees and across the graveyard was something I will never forget.

Eclipse March 2015 (1)

Eclipse March 2015 (2)

Eclipse March 2015 (3)The next eclipse is eleven years away …

My obit of Terry in the Guardian is here. I knew Terry for more than half a century: we met in 1964 at a convention in Peterborough. He was still at school – I was the world’s worst trainee accountant. We both moved on a bit afterwards. I believe his conduct as a successful author was and is exemplary. The quality of his writing never failed. I would say more, but it is already in my Guardian piece.

I went to see the new film Mortdecai (2015) with a feeling of duty to an old friend. (Kyril Bonfiglioli, who wrote the novels.) The reviews of the film have been almost universally awful, and after Nina and I saw the trailer last week I couldn’t help thinking it was going to be something to get through and keep quiet about afterwards.

Bon was such a great and long-lasting friend. He bought, published and even paid for my first story (eight guineas!), but that was not the sole basis for a friendship that lasted twenty years. In the mid 1970s he began writing the Charlie Mortdecai novels, completing three of them before the dread consequences of the demon booze caught up with him in 1985. He also wrote a non-Mortdecai novel, All the Tea in China (1978). After his death, an unfinished fourth Mortdecai novel was found in his papers – this was completed a few years later by Craig Brown.

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The Mortdecai books have recently been reprinted by Penguin Books. I read them as they came out in the 1970s – they struck me then as fabulous: fast-moving, extremely intelligent, funny, self-awarely xenophobic, ingeniously nasty, and full of bits you want to read out aloud to others. At the beginning of the first book (Don’t Point That Thing at Me) he wrote: “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.” I would recommend the books without qualification if it were not for the fact they are now more than 30 years old, and the way we perceive the world has changed a bit since then. Well, all right, then: give them a go!

MortdecaiThere is also a book called The Mortdecai ABC, by Margaret Bonfiglioli, published by Viking in 2001. This is a wonderful compendium, arranged in a kind of alphabetical order, of everything and a bit more about Bon. There is, for instance, a series of biographical sketches – a few sample headings include Car Crashes, Hidden Jokes, Food, Lies, Parrot, Waistband and Waistline, Tea. All his editorials from Science Fantasy are here, and every short story he ever wrote. Letters to his publishers. And letters to friends: a whole chapter reprints some of the correspondence between Bon and myself in the 1970s. In her Introduction, Margaret (Bon’s ex-wife) writes: “How did I happen to put together this book? Laughter began it.”

How sad it was to read the previews and reviews of David Koepp’s film Mortdecai. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote: “The poster is awful. The premise is awful. To be frank, quite a lot about it is awful: a middle-aged comedy caper of the kind not seen since Peter Sellers’s final outings as Clouseau and Fu Manchu.” Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent said: “an incredibly convoluted script involving a stolen Goya painting, random changes of location (we are whisked, for no particular reason, from London to Moscow to LA), too many gags involving vomit and rotting cheese, and some incredibly dull and dim-witted dialogue that would barely have passed muster in a bad British 1970s sitcom.” Things were no better in the USA, where box office takings were said to be some $50 millions below budget. Josh Slater-Williams in SoundOnSight wrote: “a cataclysmically unfunny, unbelievably tedious disaster of baffling misjudgments and multiple career lows that feels as long as Shoah, and only a little less harrowing.” The end of Johnny Depp’s career was doomily predicted by all and sundry.

Well, we went to see it anyway. I loved it. Nina loved it. We both laughed out loud several times, laughed quietly most of the time, and at very worst were agreeably amused for the rest. The audience enjoyed it too. It has a tremendous pace, scurrilousness, wit, a ridiculous heist, stupid violence, jokes about moustaches and penises and vomit and smelly cheese and foreigners. What more do you want?

Do try to catch the film while it is still around in theatres. And don’t miss the books!

Station ElevenI am late to the party: Station Eleven was published in the UK about four months ago and has won many favourable reviews, it was a best-seller in the USA and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I suspect more accolades are to come for this remarkable novel. We enjoy books on a personal level, and if we set out to write a favourable review afterwards what we are really doing is trying to express that feeling in objective terms. In other words, we translate enjoyment into admiration.

But this time, instead of trying for critical distance, let me give a more subjective account of this book. It involves an indirect approach.

In the early 1960s, barely out of adolescence and working unhappily in a London office, I discovered the existence of the National Film Theatre. It showed in repertory the sort of films I had never seen while a child in the bosom of the family: the NFT had foreign films, experimental films, old films, independent films, arthouse films. I joined with alacrity, and soon received their current programme: they were about to start a retrospective season of films by Ingmar Bergman. I sent off for tickets.

During the following two weeks I saw four Bergman films at the NFT: Sawdust and Tinsel, Summer with Monika, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. All were in black and white; the dialogue, of course, was in Swedish (and delivered in theatrical tones, punctuated with long silences); the subtitles were erratic and shaky; the prints were scratched. The themes were sexuality, impotence, love, humiliation, betrayal, pride, death. It was a transforming experience. Nothing before had ever intrigued or satisfied me so much. A mood of gloom, wonder, excitement and ambition gripped me. Later, I was to see many more Bergman films, but the shocking impact of those first four was never quite to be repeated. For me, ever after, Bergman’s work has been an exemplar, a precedent, a goal.

The first of Bergman’s films that I saw, and therefore the one which had the profoundest effect on me was Sawdust and Tinsel. This is set in a ramshackle travelling circus, the wagons pulled by exhausted horses. The players’ circus costumes are threadbare, their audiences minimal. The mood is defiant, jealous, defensive, mystical.

Much of the action in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven describes a ramshackle group of survivors, travelling in engineless, horsedrawn pick-up trucks, working their way through the remains of the state of Michigan after a global disaster. All the characters are actors or musicians, or people who have learned since the disaster to be actors or musicians. They call themselves the Symphony, and at each of their stops they put on their threadbare costumes and perform. Sometimes they mount King Lear or Hamlet; at other times they play classical music. They also have to hunt, scavenge and kill, but at the end of the day they set out chairs for whatever audience they can attract, the conductor taps her baton on the stand and they start playing a Beethoven symphony.

The concerns and eventual destiny of the characters are different in detail from those of Bergman’s, but the subtlety, complexity, doggedness and despair of Mandel’s characters resonate strongly with his.

Around the same time as my discovery of Ingmar Bergman, I came across a novel well liked in the SF world, although at the time I had no knowledge of that. To me it was just a book I happened to buy. It was Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. Stewart was an expert in place-names, an historian and a professor of English at Berkeley. He appears to have had no knowledge of or connection with the science fiction genre. Earth Abides was not his only novel, but it was his only purely speculative work.

It describes the collapse of civilization after a global pandemic – at first the central character, Isherwood Williams, believes himself to be the only survivor, by a fluke. Later he discovers one or two other survivors. Human society tentatively begins to re-form.

An aura of loss, death, guilt, failed responsibility hangs over the background to the novel, not unlike in Bergman’s early films. There is a broader outlook, though: Earth Abides is also about the impact humans have had on the physical environment, and there are many scenes depicting the changes to the world that follow the demise of humanity, all of them thrilling and moving to read. Stewart was an ecologist, a green, decades before that awareness had any currency outside the work of a few specialist scientists.

This was powerful stuff for a teenager to read, and it left a lasting impression on me. I still believe that because of this book my consciousness about pollution, climate change, waste of fossil fuels, the dangers as well as the benefits of a technological society, was raised many years before these issues became understood in the general world. I also know that this is not a unique reaction: the book is regarded as a classic by many of the people who came across it half a century ago.

Bergman and Stewart – they are giants in my life. I can offer no higher compliment to Ms Mandel than to say that while reading her novel these potent sensibilities were re-awakened in me. Perhaps a new generation will draw from Station Eleven something of the same understanding of the frailty of life, or of the interconnectedness of the world, or of the wonderful and inspirational gloom that I drew many years ago from these giants. Her novel is complex, subtle, wise, beautifully written, layered, original and often moving. I cannot commend it more highly.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-4472-6896-3, £12.99

The Affirmation DenoelHappy New Year!

Here is the beautiful new cover for the French edition of The Adjacent. The artist is Aurélien Police, and the book will be published in April, by Lunes d’Encre (Denoël). Editor: Gilles Dumay.

I will be in France during May, firstly at Étonnants Voyageurs in St-Malo (23-25 May), then at Imaginales in Épinal (28-31 May).

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. No point me adding to Nolan’s woes.

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