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

BeteBête is a novel of well chosen sly references – lines from pop songs, other books, puns on cultural icons, TV shows, bits of well known slang – but one of the slyest, and perhaps best chosen, since we know Adam Roberts is an English academic, is on the last page. ‘This is the best of me,’ says Roberts on his Acknowledgements page. Is that an acknowledgement, or a boast? Interest aroused, I go in search.

It takes some tracking down, but the remark comes from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin. (It was also quoted by Edward Elgar on the manuscript score of The Dream of Gerontius.) Here it is in full, in quotation marks because Ruskin placed it in them:

‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’

The context is Ruskin’s definition of the difference between the sort of book that conveys news or amusement and a ‘true’ book, which is written for permanence. Of permanence, Ruskin says, ‘The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it.’ Unless I am completely misinterpreting Adam Roberts’ intentions, I take this to mean he was aiming high with Bête, a book no one else can or would write, worthy of our memory.

That’s a classy boast, and I like it. After one novel a year for the last decade and a half, and heaven knows how many parody novels, he’s entitled to that. But is it the best of him?

It’s an unusual novel, unusual even for Roberts, whose fiction has never been what might be called expectable, but also unusual within the genre of fantastika. Like much of his work it has a distinct satirical streak, but unlike the earlier novels of his I’ve read, which depended on exact but often dodgy plotting, it is almost sluttishly freeform. It therefore escapes the need to make sense in plot terms. In fact, there is hardly any discernible plot – just a sequence of events, many of which are static or internalized, and the rest of which are the sort of long rambling conversations, full of stupid generalizations and cheerful abuse, overheard in a pub.

What will happen in the course of the story seems fairly predictable, once you understand the parameters of the set-up. Animals have gained the use of words, through the fitting of an AI chip. With the gaining of words comes an animalistic point of view, and, concomitantly, the power of persuasion. It’s not long before they are running things: e.g., farms are worked by humans, with the beasts occupying the farmhouse, so to speak. A shade of Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is being summoned of course, and Adam Roberts, one of our most intelligent and well read writers, knows exactly what he is doing. The famous last line of Animal Farm is one of the many cultural references that are scattered throughout the book.

The sequence of events is not all that exciting: the oddly named narrator, Graham Penhaligon, a former abattoir worker, butcher and farmer, lives rough in and wanders around the Thames Valley. He is in squalid circumstances for most of the story: unwashed, starving, sleeping rough in Bracknell Forest, killing animals for food – he spends half the book crippled by a damaged Achilles tendon. He is living on the fringe of a weird and dysfunctional society, where isolated houses, villages and suburban towns are empty (there’s an ebola-like epidemic called Sclera killing humans in the millions), while the M4 motorway is a hell of rushing vehicles and roadside squatters. Canny animals (i.e. those fitted with AI chips) are fighting back, and in Graham’s case biting back. He’s a high-profile enemy to the new master race, having notoriously slaughtered a talking cow in the first five pages of the novel. He meets and falls in love with Anne, a cancer victim, and after her death, a haunted and lonely man, he seeks a sort of revenge on the world until another kind of solution is offered to him.

So it’s an unusual novel, but does that make it any good? Not all unusual books are. Most of us would accept Animal Farm and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) as good novels — properly referenced here, as their precedence is clear — but Will Self’s recent modernist novel Umbrella (2013) was both unusual and more or less unreadable. One also remembers with a shudder some of the modernist attempts at New Wave stories from untried SF writers in the 1960s. In large, the genre of science fiction is in formal terms unadventurous, employing conventional narratives and plot structures, depending more on its exploration of ideas than deep characterization or beautiful or experimental prose, so a book like Bête tends to stand out purely for its way of being told.

As anti-heroes go, Graham Penhaligon is a consummate act. His narrative is remarkable for his self-loathing, cynicism, intolerance, stubbornness and gritty determination. When he loses the love of his life the contrast in his feelings is telling. But most of the time his attitude and manners are appalling, and you can’t help liking him for that:

Eventually a junior officer came to fetch us. ‘You all right going upstairs with that stick?’ he asked me, in a voice plumped with the peculiar smugness of the very posh. ‘It’s just that the elevator is on the fritz.’
‘I can walk,’ I replied. ‘Unless you fancy giving me a fucking piggy back, lard-face.’

The answer to my question above (‘does that make it any good?’) is yes, but I think Bête is good mainly in what it tells us about the progress of the writing of Adam Roberts, rather than as a novel in itself. Although it is clearly likely to be one of the stand-out novels of 2014, I believe in overall terms Bête’s unusualness of attack is not enough to counteract the feeling of familiarity created by the smallness of its scale, the limits of its ambition. In the end, the society is drawn too vaguely, the revolution amongst the animals is unconvincing and slightly risible, the puns too many, the references to pop music and TV too dating, the events too meandering. However, the real reason to read this book is to see a good writer getting better, and doing so in unexpected and uncommon ways. The prospect of a new novel from Roberts is always a matter of expectation, but I believe after Bête we should be genuinely keen to see what he will come up with next.

Bête by Adam Roberts. Gollancz, 2014, ISBN: 978 0 575 12768 5, £16.99

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

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

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.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Doubleday, 2013, £18.99, 477pp, ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0
Life After LifeThis is a beautifully written book, the language precise, evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes referential, often witty, sometimes even vernacular. You can open it at almost any page and you will find good English, plausible dialogue, well-balanced narrative, attractive passages of description. Kate Atkinson is an excellent stylist and this book is a pleasure to read.

But the paradoxical question arises: does beautiful writing make a well-written novel?

While reading Life After Life, my thoughts often turned to the celebrated novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001), with which it has several features in common. (A review I wrote of the McEwan novel is no longer part of this main website, but a copy of it can be read here.) There are similarities, and not only superficial ones.

Both the McEwan and the Atkinson are centred around fearful and traumatic events in the second world war – in Atonement it was the humiliating military evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, and in Life After Life it is the Blitz on London during the winter of 1940-41. Both novels are notable for their fine prose. Both novels cover a sweep of years, although there are more years in Atkinson’s novel. Most interestingly, both books are experiments with the novel form: in Atonement McEwan toyed with metafiction (an unconvincing hidden narrator is wheeled out in a moment of last-minute authorial desperation), while Atkinson is experimenting with what might be called the unreliable event. I had not come across this before, and my interest was sparked.

The event in question is the death, in fact the multiple deaths, of the central character: Ursula Todd … the punning German meaning of the surname is probably significant. (Something is made of her given name – ‘little bear’, and so on – so this suspicion is not just fanciful.) Ursula dies repeatedly, or is killed, throughout the novel.

In the opening sequence she is depicted as a young political assassin, stalking Adolf Hitler in a Munich café in 1930 – she produces a gun, aims it at Hitler’s heart and pulls the trigger. Hitler’s henchmen instantly have their guns out and they fire back. ‘Darkness fell.’ These words, or variations of them, are used in the novel whenever Ursula dies. We might assume Hitler has been shot dead, but we are told only that she pulled the trigger of the gun, not that it went off.

She dies again two pages later: now it is twenty years earlier, February 1910, and she is being born. The house is isolated by snowdrifts, and the urgently expected doctor and midwife cannot get through. Ursula’s umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and she is strangled. Darkness falls a second time. In the next chapter the doctor is miraculously present, he snips the cord with surgical scissors and little Ursula is safely born.

The pattern is set: throughout her life Ursula will face a series of crises and threats, yielding to most of them, but managing to reboot her life afterwards. She dies of Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, almost survives another bout but succumbs again. Later she marries an abusive man and ends up being murdered. In another strand she commits suicide. In yet another she is killed when a bombed house collapses on her during the Blitz. A second attempt on Hitler’s life is described, the henchmen getting her again, but again there is a question mark. We know only that Ursula pulls the trigger. Afterwards, the second world war breaks out and continues to 1945, so are we to presume that either the gun did not fire or that she missed?

Around her, other people are affected by her reboots. A beloved brother in the RAF is killed in a bombing raid over Berlin and the evidence of his death is unchallengeable – yet does a miracle later occur? In one of Ursula’s reincarnations he survives to marry his beloved young Nancy, herself murdered by a vagrant in an earlier Ursuline life-experience. In a weird variant alternate life, Ursula moves to Germany, befriends Eva Braun, marries a German officer and becomes part of Hitler’s inner circle in the Berghof.

All of these sequences are written convincingly. The author’s research material is impressively absorbed into the background and narrative so that it is not in any way obtrusive. The sheer boredom of life with the Führer in Berchtesgaden is brilliantly evoked. Atkinson’s long scenes in the London Blitz are particularly effective, with strong descriptive writing, several hair-raising scenes of attempted rescues from the rubble of bombed buildings and a genuine sense of the chaos created by the nightly bombing. Fairly deep research has gone on, because although such matters as Hitler’s mind-numbing table talk are documented they are not widely documented. There are many popular myths about life during the Blitz, misleading for writers who do not research too closely: the American writer Connie Willis is one recent example. Atkinson is made of sterner stuff and has done her work well.

Much of this would make Life After Life a well-written but conventional family saga, or a novel of the recent historical past. It is of course more than that: everything turns on the matter of Ursula’s repeated deaths.

It is absolutely unimportant that there is no attempt to explain how they happen: this is literature, not reality. The meaning is not rational – it is elsewhere, the result of a literary device.

Literary devices have a point. They promote fiction into metafiction, demanding the reader should examine the text as well as merely read it.

It is a long book: 477 pages. For most of those pages it is not at all clear what Kate Atkinson’s point is, and in fact it is delayed (by my reckoning) until about page 440, when the author’s intention slowly starts to become clear. Even then, it is merely hinted at, almost shyly, shrinking away from tackling the subject the reader has been wondering about for the previous 439 pages.

What are we to make of these repeated deaths? Dying is traumatic: how does apparent survival from it affect her psychology? Does the character learn from repeated deaths? Is the course of history changed by them? Is there a darker symbolism to it than a mere second chance, a rebirth? Is Ursula’s life noticeably changed by death? Yes, there are alternative paths taken, but are they in themselves fundamentally different from before?

The Hitler and Blitz passages aside, most of the first 400+ pages are concerned with what might broadly be called domestic matters. We read page after page of English middle-class family life in the first half of the twentieth century: an adored but distant father, a rambunctious older brother, a sweet-natured younger brother, a problematic cook, picnics, servants, birthdays, someone being trampled by a bull, a family dog or two, shopping expeditions, tennis, neighbours, lawn mowing, trips to London, walks in the park, weather, illnesses, infatuations, boyfriends, a semi-scandalous aunt who writes YA best-sellers.

The chronology of events is never clear: the novel darts to and fro in time, returning again and again, for instance, to the day of her birth. As the complexities of Ursula’s life-after-life mount, this miasma of mundane detail starts to rise around the reader’s perception of the book, clouding concentration.

One of the real problems is that Kate Atkinson’s writing of character is rather thin. To take an example, we know that the distant father is named Hugh, that everyone loves and respects him, but that’s about it. He pops up a few times, passes through with a mild manner, and leaves no apparent trace. The name ‘Hugh’ conveys vague and paternal niceness to the reader, but that’s all. The same lack of depth is true of almost all the other characters. Ursula’s mother is called Sylvie and she is in the book for most of the way, but she acts and talks very like Ursula, and several times I found myself briefly muddling them up. We also meet George, Pamela, Harold, Derek, Old Tom, Millie, Benjamin, Bridget, Teddy, Margaret, Ralph, Fred Smith, Mrs Appleyard, Jimmy, Crighton, amongst others … and a further medley of more or less interchangeable names during the Blitz sequence. (One good and memorable character emerges from the rubble: Miss Woolf, an ARP volunteer, plausibly intelligent and humane.)

Nothing is more important in fiction, or for that matter in metafiction, than good, deep characterization. We know, for example, who Derek Oliphant is and what he is like while we are reading about him – for several pages he is a significant character in Ursula’s life, or at least during one extreme passage of it. But she dies at the end of that passage and is re-born, and the name and the character of Derek fade as quickly from the mind of the reader as they do from Ursula’s life. This is because in spite of his behaviour we learn almost nothing about Derek beyond his actions. He is a function of plot, not of character.

But this is a book with a point, even if it takes about 440 pages to make it. Until then, the reader doesn’t have much to go on, once one’s appetite for middle-class English families is first satisfied, then exhausted.

Thirty pages from the end of the novel, and not a moment too soon, Ursula starts reacting to images from her past lives. She is taken to the family psychiatrist, complaining of persistent déjà vu. The reader, still alert for the true content of the novel, perks up. This is in one of the few chapters that does not carry a date, and there is no internal evidence to indicate how old she is – Sylvie, her mother, is there with her, so perhaps Ursula is still a child at this point. We are coming to the end of the book, but chronologically the scene appears to be close to the start of her life. While in the psychiatrist’s office she notices that a photograph of his dead son, formerly placed on a side table, has gone missing. She asks about it, but the psychiatrist draws a blank. He knows of no son. Alternative reality is nudging her.

From here, it is almost as if the first long part of the novel is recapitulated synoptically, this time lightly tuned by Ursula’s ghost memories. For instance, she happens to meet again the abuser, Derek Oliphant, but this time takes fear and runs away from him. To paraphrase a thought of Ursula’s: practice makes perfect. Things are coming right – even at the moment of Ursula’s birth Sylvie is ready with the surgical scissors. Does Ursula get it right, as seems to be implied, in her second attempt on Hitler’s life?

Kate AtkinsonMy main criticism of McEwan’s Atonement was that the only interesting feature of the novel was put in as an afterthought, a rather unconvincing way of trying to address the plot weaknesses exposed at the end. For all that novel’s success and apparent popularity, and its carefully wrought high literary style, I believe it is one of McEwan’s poorest novels. I do not feel as strongly about Life After Life, even though it shares something of the same failing in not coming to terms with its formal invention until far too late. I believe Kate Atkinson stumbled across the innovative technique, became enraptured of its narrative possibilities, but did not think through in literary terms what she was tackling. It is a brave book, but the conventional family goings-on immensely clog the bulk of the novel, and work depressingly against her. There is some terrific material in her book, and some lovely prose (she is a better, less adorned stylist than McEwan), but because the author did not take on the real challenge of her interesting idea it is not the novel it might have been.

However, to conclude on a positive note – it seems likely to me that Life After Life will scoop many of the major literary awards this year. Good style counts for a lot with book-prize judges, and Kate Atkinson’s prose is almost faultless. The novel also contains its special extra, the rebirth of its protagonist, a formal surprise, another kind of literary catnip. It is not in fact an alienating surprise, but one that will seem rather more daring than it really is, a piquancy that can be argued sets it aside from, or ahead of, other novels in its year. I believe a sequel is planned.

John Clute wrote about Life After Life in his column in Strange Horizons.
Paul Kincaid reviewed it on his blog, Through the Dark Labyrinth.
Kate Atkinson writes about the background to her novel, and provides a list of her sources.

The Explorer is the second of James Smythe’s novels to be released within a few months. This UK publication is datelined 2013 although it is copyrighted 2012, perhaps from an earlier US edition. Could this be a first novel, or would that be The Testimony, released a while earlier? The instinct is of course to go critically a bit easier on a first novel, so just in case …

First impressions are good. Smythe is young, he writes good clean prose, he is obviously serious in intent (and therefore we might assume he is ambitious as a writer, ambitious in a greater sense than just becoming a best-selling or highly paid author, but maybe those too), and at a time when many young authors are coming into the field of fantastic literature equipped with not much more than a love of fantasy epics or Doctor Who, he seems to be well versed in the various tropes of serious science fiction.

The story of The Explorer is simply described: a spacecraft is launched from Earth bearing six astronauts. Within a few days of the launch the crew members start dying, and soon only one remains alive: a young journalist called Cormac Easton. Cormac is unable to steer or control the craft, so he is trapped inside while it continues with its programmed mission: to go further into deep space than any manned craft has gone before. Gradually the spaceship runs out of fuel and supplies until it is inevitable that Cormac will not escape with his life. Before the craft becomes completely unusable he activates some kind of auto-destruct system, and he and it are destroyed. This happens before the end of page 52. More than 200 pages of novel remain. What then follows I will leave to Smythe to relate as it is where the book becomes unusual and intriguing.

Stop reading here if you believe that first novelists (or even second novelists) should have their attempts rubber-stamped with routine approval. It’s also a good place to stop reading as the partial plot synopsis in the previous paragraph might well make you curious about what happens next. I certainly was curious, and in fact Smythe keeps the mystery going almost until the very end. I don’t want this blog review to make people think, even for a moment, that this is not a book worth reading. The uncommon quality of its plot makes it a novel that stands out from the rest, and certain details and anomalies add to that.

The novel has many such anomalies, some of them minor. The spaceship, for example, is called the Ishiguro, named after a Japanese scientist called Hidemori Ishiguro who designed the ship’s engine. Ishiguro is a fairly common Japanese name, so that’s OK. But it’s also the name of Kazuo Ishiguro, a well-known Japanese-born novelist who has already shown a more than passing interest in novels based on speculative ideas. The use of his surname here leapt out at me and it made me wonder if it was some kind of metaphysical cross-reference, a hint that the author was writing about something more than a straightforward journey into space. Maybe that’s just a detail.

But a larger anomaly, larger because it continues throughout the novel, is created by all manner of practical descriptions and accounts of the lives of the astronauts and the spacecraft itself. I was unconvinced by the astronauts themselves, simply because they behave like no other astronauts I have ever heard of or seen in action on television. The one thing everyone knows about astronauts (and Smythe knows it too, because he describes it) is that they go through years of selection, preparation and training, and detailed physical, mental and psychological testing. Even if all their personal idiosyncrasies are not entirely ironed out or controlled before the launch, the training imposes a high standard of teamwork and practical precision. The five or six allegedly trained and tested astronauts in The Explorer go to pieces within a few days of the start of the mission: a couple of them are shagging in a spare storeroom, they call one of the women astronauts “Dogsbody”, they bicker and argue about trivial matters, and soon they start dying in mysterious circumstances.

As for the spaceship itself, it is described as having bags of unused space (including the spare storeroom), seems clean and tidy for most of the time, but above all has a double-skinned hull. This design feature seems to have more relevance to the needs of the plot than to the operation of the craft, because it becomes essential as a long-term hiding place. I was sometimes reminded, uncomfortably, of the similar narrative device in Flowers in the Attic – not a comparison a good writer like Smythe will welcome. This double skin is apparently sufficiently wide for someone to move around in, and contains enough air, heating and, I think, plumbing for a man to occupy the area for weeks on end. Secret viewing hatches are everywhere, and these enable the story to continue. It is all too contrived for comfort.

Then we find that the craft is capable of “stopping” in space more or less at the throw of a switch, and as soon as it stops the “gravity” comes back on. When the engine is turned on again, the occupants of the spaceship immediately suffer the conditions of free fall. (Surely this, or something like it, would be more likely to work the other way round?) Astronauts carrying out maintenance or repairs during any of these “stops” have to don spacesuits and carry out space walks – throughout these EVAs they continue to argue about personal matters and disagreements, and when they do get down to perform the tasks for which they have left the spacecraft most of their work is to sort out a mass of wiring contained behind an access plate, a bit like telephone engineers repairing crossed lines in a terminal on the side of a suburban street.

None of this (or a lot of other stuff like it) convinced me on any logical or practical level, and I say this from the point of view of someone who does not have much grasp of technological or space-science procedures. But the overall falseness of the set-up, taken together with my much more instinctively dependable doubts about the behaviour of the characters, had the promising effect of making me wonder what the author might really be up to.

The text quickly starts showing evidence of these irregularities, and so I began musing about the whole thing being somehow in quotation marks, perhaps a dream or the ravings of a madman, or a description of a real-time simulation being carried out in a closed hangar somewhere in the Nevada desert, or maybe even a reality TV show. Something more than the events being described seemed to be going on. These totally implausible astronauts, flying in a spaceship like something out of Dan Dare, on a mission which appears to have no scientific or exploratory purpose at all, could not really be doing what the author insists they are doing. Could they? There must be another layer to all this nonsense. My interest was therefore held, and continued to be held for most of the rest of the novel.

Without giving too much away, because the plot of The Explorer develops in genuinely unexpected ways, the most serious weakness in the novel is the description of the characters, not just as astronauts but as people. We learn hardly anything at all about them in the first 52 pages, so that in the following sequence, the major part of the novel, the new and significant information we are given about them does not carry much surprise or interest. Smythe is experimenting with narrative unreliability here, which I find interesting, but that is a literary technique which is really only effective when the unreliable text seems convincing and thus memorable before it transpires that the author has not admitted everything relevant. For instance, the belated news of a pre-mission relationship between Cormac and one of the female astronauts emerges as additional information, not a revelation of any kind. This is because the woman herself barely comes to life whenever she is mentioned or takes a part in the action. By the time she is promoted by the author to being a major character, we are left wondering why she was so wan and bland before. The same is true in a similar way when we learn about the reality of Cormac’s marriage – not all is what it had appeared to be at first. The two male astronauts, named Quinn and Guy, are more or less indistinguishable from each other (in the way Cormac reacts to them, and because of the equal narrative weight the author gives them), even though one of them is mad and gay and German, while the other is not. Characterization is the key to all good writing but because Smythe has his attention elsewhere for most of the book, his ambitious and clever plot is significantly undermined.

These negative comments are directed to the author, should he come across them, and are intended in a constructive way. There is a lot to like in The Explorer, and I wanted to celebrate it more. James Smythe is obviously an intelligent writer, talented and seriously intended, and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next. I gather he is writing a sequel to The Explorer, news which, from the perspective of having just finished the first book, makes me wonder yet again if some numinous endeavour is going on. Some greater or more universal reality might be at hand.

To the reader I say: set aside the reservations I have expressed and read The Explorer with an open and welcoming mind. It is different in tone, subject-matter and ambition from almost any other SF novel you might read this year. No giant moles, artful coppers or talking horses here …

My Christmas present to myself was a copy of John Fowles’s novel The Magus, which I re-read over the holiday period. The copy was a well-preserved UK first edition, which I bought not all that expensively from the Fowlesian specialist book dealer: Magusbooks, run by Bob Goosmann in Sacramento. Mr Goosmann also manages the best website on Fowles, with a mass of biographical and bibliographical detail, background information on Fowles, many photographs, and much interesting trivia (such as a translation from the Latin of the last line of The Magus). The website is here, and has direct links to the bookstore.

The first copy I owned of The Magus was a paperback urged on me in 1970 by my friend Graham Hall. The cover had been torn off because it carried a photograph of the actor Michael Caine, whom Graham loathed. (John Fowles disliked him too, as I discovered many years later). Caine was the star of the 1968 film adaptation of the novel (a pretty terrible film, with a badly chosen cast). Both the film and the novel had passed me by and I had no strong feelings about Michael Caine, but it meant that when I read the book, which came into my hands lacking a blurb and descriptive text of any kind, I had no idea what was in store. Once I had started reading, The Magus glued me to a chair for an entire weekend and overall had a profound impact on me, both as a reader and as a young writer.

Four decades and several re-readings later I’m still convinced it is one of the finest and most influential novels of the last century. The writing is beautiful, in particular in the long descriptive scenes in the first fifty pages or so (the physical descriptions throughout the long novel are executed with precision, delicate language and a vivid visual flair). Much of the story is told through scenes of dialogue, and these are handled plausibly and with a real sense of place, nuance and character.

The story is gripping. In the autumn of 1952 a young English teacher takes up a position at a private school on a small Greek island. By the following summer the schoolmaster, one Nicholas Urfe, has become trapped in an existential cabal conducted by an elderly man called Conchis, who lives on the island in a luxurious villa on the south coast. Urfe’s relationship with Conchis becomes a sort of masque, a ritualistic psychodrama overseen by the self-styled mystic, for which Urfe has apparently been chosen at random. The narrative tells how Urfe is drawn into the conspiracy, how he becomes deeply entangled and what happens when he finally escapes. The plot of the novel is complex, constantly surprising the reader. Towards the end of the book, as Urfe tries to unravel the mystery that has been woven around him, the story takes on the aspect of a thriller, with one revelation after another, opening up the story not to explanation but to a deeper realization of the complexity of the conspiracy. At the end of the novel, the famous final sequence complete with its obscure Latin tag, nothing is clear or resolved in terms of practical explanation, but philosophically both the reader and the central character have moved to a different plane of understanding. It is a choice example of how an undefined or ambiguous ending to a novel places a memorable charge on the reader.

No novel is ever perfect, though, and The Magus has its imperfections. As the years go by they seem more and more problematical, partly because the novel is not yet so old that we can make excuses for it (in the way we tolerate the sexual coyness of novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance), and partly because Fowles himself was living and working in the modern age. Fowles published the original version of The Magus in 1966, and in 1977 published a fully reworked and revised version. (It was the 1977 edition I re-read last week, incidentally, not my newly acquired first edition.) Fowles should certainly have known by 1977 that sensibilities were changing. His sexualized depiction of two of the young women in the novel (they are in their early 20s, but he usually refers to them as ‘girls’) will offend some people today, as will, and much more acutely, the characterization, description and role of the (alleged) American academic Joseph Harrison.

John Fowles, who died in 2005, is of course not around to defend himself, but he might well argue that the attitudes and mores of the novel accurately reflect those of its period, the early 1950s. However, because the book was published thirteen (and twenty-four) years after its period it is technically an historical novel, a genre which usefully deploys modern sensibility in an ironic or detached way to comment subtly on the past. There is little irony or detachment of this particular social kind in The Magus.

The other problem lies in the long central section of the novel, during which Nicholas Urfe is bemused by the intricacies of the plot that surrounds him. He is constantly questioning his own take on reality. Is this mysterious old man telling him the truth or is everything a fabrication? Have these alluring young women been employed as actors, as he is told, or is a more subtle temptation being put before him? Why are people walking around in masks from Greek mythology? Are those really Wehrmacht soldiers operating in the hills of the island, or are they actors too? Is he free to leave, or is he somehow a captive? And so on. This entire sequence continues to be written in a compelling and intriguing way, and in truth it is not all that tiresome, but it is incredibly long. After the second or third time the women (or one of the women) offer him sexual favours, only to refuse him at the last minute, the reader can’t help wondering why Mr Urfe doesn’t just walk away from the whole damned thing. He sees it through, and so will the reader, with perhaps a sense that the longueurs were justified, but I felt on this re-reading that John Fowles could easily have omitted at least two of Conchis’s long autobiographical recollections, and shortened the rest.

The essential attraction of The Magus lies, I believe, in what you could call extra-literary values.

You do not, for instance, have to read far into the novel to realize that it has a strong autobiographical content. It is known that as a young man John Fowles went to a Greek island to teach English at a large private school. The real island was Spetsai (or, as it has since become, Spetses), and it is in the same part of the Aegean Sea as the fictional Phraxos. He taught there until the summer of 1953, at the end of which he was sacked, in a similar way to Urfe although not for the same reason. The villa on the southern coast of the island is a real one, it is, or was, owned by a reclusive millionaire, and Fowles visited him there. After he left Spetsai, Fowles always swore he could not return to Greece (and did not until the end of his life, when he was taken there by a film-maker), and in general he said little in public about his time on the island.

However, his Journals from that sojourn have been published, and Eileen Warburton’s biography describes his days on Spetsai in detail. Bob Goosmann’s excellent website has more about this period. Fowles himself said, in the Foreword to the 1977 edition, ‘No correlative whatever of my fiction … took place on Spetsai during my stay.’ Even so, and knowing that reality is not the same as fiction, you can’t help experiencing a sense of curiosity about the events that are described in the novel. Fowles’s own denial, or at least his apparent need to make the denial, itself fuels the curiosity. Although many novels are written autobiographically, it is unusual to find one conducted with such intensity, so intriguingly, so enigmatically, and with so many undertones of plausible or even traceable reality.

And there is a sense of something larger, less well defined, behind the book. More than the story you read, more than the language you enjoy and even relish, more than the knowledge you gain of the characters, the reader acquires a sense of complex or profound material. The Magus seems to me to be at least partly about free will and randomness – this is never stated in such explicit terms, but as Urfe begins his quest to find out what had ‘really’ happened on Phraxos, he turns up more and more evidence that the conspiracy was wider than he imagined. Even chance encounters, a girlfriend picked up in a cinema, the landlady of a rented room selected from a postcard in a newsagent’s window, waiters, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors – they all seem to be directly or indirectly connected to the mysterious events at the villa. Maybe by this time Urfe was deep in paranoia, but then so too is the reader, also seeking some kind of rational solution.

I believe it is these extra-literary qualities which have given the novel its enduring qualities, and why it has always appealed (as Fowles himself noted, apparently ruefully) to younger or more open-minded readers. It shares with fantastic fiction that vague sense of ‘something other’, of stating or implying certain truths in outline, of suggesting that life is improvable or at least capable of change, of leaving much to the imagination while exactly and precisely stimulating it with imagined events and an invented story.

A bad book provides a variety of temptations, prime among them being just to ignore the thing and put it away in the Oxfam box. Bad books are usually written by incompetents, so are bad in uninteresting ways, but occasionally a real corker comes along: a poor or careless or contemptible piece of work by a highly rated author. Then the temptation is otherwise. The recent novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo – State of England, is one such. (Cape, 2012, pp 276, ISBN: 978-0-224-09620, £18.99.)

I’m not interested in Amis or his life (although it does have a direct bearing on this novel), but I am much concerned with his writing ability. I’ve also asked myself why should anyone care about this novel? I can’t imagine the people who read this page would normally be bothered with it, but to me the subject of good and bad writing is always interesting. Lionel Asbo – State of England presents a unique example, because Amis has often declared himself to be in a class above his contemporaries. He once said that he “wrote the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write”, and is widely regarded as one of the more innovative and colourful users of the English language, a perception he accepts and enthusiastically reports.

Lionel Asbo – State of England is the story of a dysfunctional family of grown-ups in present-day London, the most prominent member of whom is Lionel, a sixth son. His five older brothers are called John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart. When Lionel’s mother ran out of Beatle names (apparently never having heard of Pete Best) she “christened” him Lionel. (Pete Asbo admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) Lionel is now a brainless thug, in and out of prison for minor offences, usually offences of dishonesty or violence. At the age of 18 he changed his name to “Asbo”, the tag being seen as a badge of honour in his circle. Although he despises the lottery he accidentally gets hold of a winning ticket and collects £140 millions. He becomes a sort of celebrity yobbo, tasting the sweet life while staying much the same lovable old Lionel: he imbibes magnums of champagne and vast quantities of artisanal baked beans. (The latter are presumably baked beans made by craftsmen.) The protagonist of the novel is not, however, Lionel himself, but his nephew, one Desmond Pepperdine. Desmond, or Des, spends most of his young life in fear of Lionel uncovering his greatest secret: that as a teenager Des had enjoyed a physical affair with Lionel’s mother, Grace. (Lionel suspected someone else and bumped him off, but Des knows Lionel will find out the truth one day.) Towards the end of the novel Lionel duly takes his revenge.

Now then, let’s start unravelling some of this.

The title, which I have quoted in full until now, has a subtitle which is an indication of the author’s intent: this is a novel examining, or satirizing, or criticizing the “state” of modern England. Martin Amis has become an expatriate, so his visits to this country are short and intermittent. Distance can lend objectivity, but it can also introduce error. Much of what is wrong with this book can be traced, directly or indirectly, to Amis’s presumptuous stance, that he, a wealthy author from a privileged background and now living abroad, can tell us anything about the place we live in, through descriptions of a benefit-receiving or working-class family.

One of the many casual errors Amis commits concerns the “Asbo” – properly, it is an ASBO, an acronym for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order”, and crucially it was a civil order, not a criminal penalty. Amis should have known at the time he was writing that the ASBO, a mis-judged Blairite “fix” like so many others in those days, was largely unsuccessful in its results and was falling into disuse by the authorities. It was never a “badge of honour”, although the tabloid press thought it was – in reality most ASBOs were deployed against street drinkers, a hamfisted attempt to cure them of alcoholism.

Amis’s novel falls into two broad parts: the divider is Lionel’s lottery win, with his activities before and after spelled out. The first half is where most of the satirical work of the novel takes place, but Amis soon loses interest in that. The second half, a dazzling sequence of almost random social or pop-cultural references to foods, magazines, TV shows, music (not much, though, about texting, social networking, gaming, etc.), becomes increasingly like a farce. The repellent creation Lionel is now almost marginalized, and all Amis is left to write about is a world of scruffs and scroungers that he obviously dislikes and does not understand. The second half of the novel involves a constantly changing cast whose names, let alone their characters, are almost impossible to tell apart: Dawn, Dawnie, Des, Dudley, Daphne, Drago, Dylis? I suspected the author found himself late delivering his manuscript, and having done as much as he could with Lionel rushed something out so he could be rid of it. The closest literary parallel with these 100+ pages of frenetically recorded births and deaths and blow-out meals and posh houses and TV appearances and illnesses and infidelities are those old Confessions of … novels by Timothy Lea, but without the jokes. Not one.

Lionel Asbo is told in two main voices: a third-person narrative, which we should assume is intended as the authorial presence, and the dialogue, sometimes phonetically rendered (“Get you tits fixed” is a favourite line), of Lionel and his associates. The one time we see a letter written by Lionel, we are given a good look at his terrible spelling – for instance CUMPEW UH, with Amis obligingly providing the glottal stop. In fact, Amis frequently comments on the dialogue, explaining pronunciation, etc. At one point Lionel unexpectedly utters the long word “labyrinth”, and the author immediately points out that Lionel’s “enunciation” was improving: he was now saying labyrinf, not as might be expected, labyrimf. Later: “The first time he said brothel he pronounced it broffle, and the second time … he pronounced it brovvle.” As the book goes on there are more and more of these italicized interjections, to such an extent they become a sort of third narrative voice, jutting interchangeably into both the dialogue and the narrative. The two main voices are not even wholly discrete: the narrative style often slips into the vernacular, such as on p.93, in a description of Lionel’s suite of rooms in a snooty hotel in St James’s: “[There was a] bedroom, lounge, office area, bathroom with two sinks (and an extra shitter in a little closet of its own).”

In a 1990 Introduction to a reprint of William Sansom’s novel The Body, Anthony Burgess warns of the dangers that exist when there is a disparity between the mundane abilities and lifestyle of a novel’s characters and “the mentality of a professional writer who has read all the fiction and poetry ever written, especially in the modern age, and learned from their example how to contrive a highly original style of his own”. Burgess goes on to say that the danger is one of appearing to condescend. He discusses the way James Joyce enclosed Leopold Bloom “in a symbolism of great subtlety and erudition”, which elevated rather than condescended. He says that Sansom also avoids condescension. I think if Mr Burgess had known about Lionel Asbo he would have had a field day, as Amis not only keeps trying to show he is one of the lads, but consistently elevates condescension into class-based sarcasm.

It is the author’s mistakes that really set this novel out on its own. These range from the practical (poor research, or unfamiliarity with everyday life) to stylistic (bad writing).

On the practical mistakes, one hardly knows where to begin. Maybe you noticed that in the plot synopsis, Lionel’s mum christened him – no, she could only name him. Christening is a Christian sacrament. In 2006, according to Amis, milk was still being delivered in London in glass bottles – no, only a tiny handful of the posher addresses still receive any milk delivery at all, and an even tinier handful receive glass bottles, but Amis is probably protected from this knowledge. Des, a 15-year-old living in a rough urban neighbourhood, still attends school. Alone in the whole of London, this teenager wears short trousers, a purple blazer and he carries a satchel. He and Lionel live on the 33rd floor of a high-rise, where the lift never works, so they bravely run up and down the stairs, sometimes carrying furniture – I bet Martin Amis has never tried even to walk slowly up 33 floors. At one point, Lionel complains that his left pillock was aching – Amis obviously means his left testicle, or (daring slip into the vernacular) his left bollock, but “pillock” has only one meaning and that’s a stupid or annoying person. It’s from a Norwegian dialect word pillicock, which means penis. Diston (Amis’s imaginary inner-London slum area) is said to have gravid primary-schoolers – pregnant 5 to 10-year-olds?

Then Amis makes mistake after mistake when he talks about the crimes Lionel Asbo is said to have committed. Does this matter? Not really, but in a novel about the criminal underclass, where offences regularly feature, the one thing anyone can be sure of is that the perpetrators will know exactly what they’re up against and why they have been banged up. Lionel has form for “Extortion with Menaces” (doesn’t exist, and anyway Amis ought to be able to spot a tautology when he writes one), and “Receiving Stolen Property” (doesn’t exist – the offence is called Handling Stolen Goods, or just plain Handling). “Attempted Manslaughter” (p.18) is another non-existent offence in England and Wales – manslaughter is usually inadvertent, or is a reduction by mitigating circumstances from a murder attempt. There are several more Amis errors of this kind, too tediously technical to keep listing here, but all this sort of detail is quickly discoverable on the internet, as I just found.

However, it is on his home turf, writing the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write, that Amis is uniquely awful.

P.10: “Dawn simmered over the incredible edifice … of Avalon Tower.” How does that work? Simmering means cooking slowly just below boiling point; people can “simmer” with rage when they are holding it back. But a sunrise? (There is also an important character called Dawn … I wondered for a surreal moment if Amis was talking about her.)

P.22: “He squinted up with his unfallen eyes.”

P.28: “The worst stretch of Cuttle Canal was as active as a geyser: it spat and splatted, blowing thick-lipped kisses to the passers-by.” Presumably Amis is saying here that the canal is so damaged by pollution that it is in constant reaction, as chemical events take place. But “blowing thick-lipped kisses”?

P.34: “Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston, a world of italics and exclamation marks.”

P.36: “… a heavy silence began to fuse and climb. A muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence, a Lionel silence, shrill enough to smother the parched whispers of Jeff and Joe …” Difficult to see how any silence can “fuse” (i.e. unite or join or integrate), let alone “climb”. The “muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence”, related to Lionel, is a flourish too far, especially as we know that Lionel is lazy, overweight and flabby. A “shrill” silence? A silence that can “smother” other sounds? (Jeff and Joe, incidentally, are two pit bulls, kept calm and domestic by being fed Tabasco every day. “Parched” is not the word for them.)

P.40: “… a film of water swam on the flagstones.” Presumably, Amis means a small puddle or a patch of water – “film” is generally used to describe a thin sheet or layer. But water is never in layers, and it never “swims”.

P.200: “They started forward, sliding sideways through the clenched teeth of the locked cars.”

P.245: “… the trail of life had frayed.”

Again, it becomes tedious to keep arguing this sort of detail – the above should serve fair warning to anyone who persists in thinking Amis is an inventive or descriptive or fluent writer. An earlier novel by Amis, the dreadful London Fields, had just as many similar solecisms. He gropes for images, he approximates descriptions, he uses the wrong words, but like a concert pianist hitting a dud note he plays it loudly, as if he meant it all along. The other guys, it is true, do not write like this – they are better at it.

Martin Amis once said (to Val Hennessy in Time Out), “My curse as a writer is that I am not read slowly enough. By reading my work fast one may perceive the local effects, the jokes, the virtuoso paragraphs but one gets absolutely no idea of the novel’s architecture or artistry.” Well, I read Lionel Asbo slowly, hoping for jokes, virtuosity and artistry, but it was a sordid experience. I wished I could have read this ill-judged and badly written novel faster.

Clearly, to quote another of his utterances, he needs frenzied editing by his publisher, and doesn’t get it. This interests me. One of my novels was published by Jonathan Cape (coincidentally at the same time as London Fields) and I was impressed by the thoroughness and sensitivity of the copy-editing, the attention to detail, the high standards on which the editorial staff insisted. I could hardly believe London Fields was from the same publisher. Yet dozens of these terrible Amisian gaffes still get through the Cape system somehow and I can’t help wondering how it happens. Perhaps his truculent style of surly ad hominem attack intimidates the editorial staff, so that he receives the lightest, most “respectful” treatment of his text? Or maybe he simply goes through the copy-edited text after Cape have finished with it, and restores his howlers?

The case of Martin Amis is not all that interesting when his work is considered in isolation, away from the white noise thrown out by his manner and his provocative and ill-informed public remarks about Islam, etc. He is a writer who was given a good start, but who peaked too early: Money: a suicide note (1984) is usually regarded as his best work, but that was three decades ago. His fiction since has been an up and down affair: sometimes no better than all right, sometimes awful. Lionel Asbo is his most recent fiction and it is at the bottom of his own mediocre scale. It reads like a terminal novel, a fizzling out of what some people thought all those years ago were the signs of a sparky new talent.

In year 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown requested members of the British public to suggest a four- or five-word slogan, perhaps in Latin, to sum up what signified modern Britain. I can’t remember if a winner was ever found, but a reader of The Times memorably suggested: Dipso Fatso Bingo Asbo Tesco. This witty remark said everything that Lionel Asbo says, but the novel is some 99,995 words longer and notably lacking in wit. I’d commend the slogan to Martin Amis, but I rather suspect he wouldn’t know what a “tesco” is.

 

I first read The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth in 1962. I was 19. I had been influenced by Kingsley Amis’s description of it in New Maps of Hell (‘many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far’). I bought the then-current paperback edition published by Digit Books and read it in a sitting. I can remember almost nothing about it now, except that I agreed with Mr Amis. Following his instruction I considered it then, as I consider it now, to be one of the ‘best’. Years later, when I was sometimes called upon to give talks to groups of general readers (i.e. not dedicated science fiction fans) I would take along my Digit paperback, and use it to illustrate the familiar argument that what you see on the cover of a book does not necessarily tell you anything about what’s inside. I would show the cover and invite people in the audience to guess what the novel might be about. The painting shows a large machine, shaped rather like a spaceship, and with a propeller whizzing at the front, bursting upwards out of the ground, knocking over a man who happened to be standing there moments before. Various wrong guesses from the audience always followed – I remember, for instance, the fairly typical reaction from one grumpy chap who was clearly not enjoying my talk, ‘Some stupid bloody thing about people flying around in spaceships and being attacked by pirates.’ When I explained that the novel was a satire on American advertising, that the ‘space’ in the title was a reference to advertising space, and that the story dealt with a copywriter who had to mount a fraudulent campaign to sell property on a bogus version of the planet Venus … the point was presumably made. (50 years)

In the same year I read (for the first and only time) George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, again partly from a recommendation in Amis’s book, but mainly because a few years earlier a BBC TV dramatization of the novel had caused a sensation in the press and among viewers. I had been too young to watch it then and I was curious. Although I have always meant to read the novel again I have not done so, although I have over the years referred to it. I see it as Orwell’s supreme novel, an unquestioned classic, but overall I consider his non-fiction to be his best work. This high regard is both for the timeliness of his thinking, a genuine and fulfilling insight into those turbulent years surrounding and during the second world war, and for the clarity, precision and sheer beauty of his writing style. (50 years)

1965: Penguin Books published Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in their science fiction package. I read it and ever since have considered it to be exceptional within Dick’s oeuvre, in that as well as the ingenious idea it contains some excellent writing. I have not read it since, and no longer even own a copy. Is the writing still excellent? I know that these days it is close to heresy to question Dick’s wonderfulness, but because so many of his other books reveal hasty passages of scrappy writing and a tendency to fall back on hack-writing techniques, I can’t help wondering if High Castle is a true exception to his norm. Still, I remember it well, and by this time I was 22 and clearly knew a thing or two. (47 years)

By 1967 I was regularly reading manuscripts for the publishers Gollancz. One day I received a phone call from them, wondering why I had not yet reported on the manuscript they had sent me three weeks earlier. (For my part I was wondering why there had been such a long gap.) When I went to the Post Office sorting depot I was handed a large, bedraggled and torn package, with sheets of paper falling out of all sides, and various loose sheets attached to the outside with a large elastic band. It was the top-copy original manuscript of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, now regarded as a classic of the genre. By some miracle none of the pages had been lost, although several were crumpled and dirty. I read it as soon and as quickly as I could, and reported positively on it – Gollancz did not publish it, as it happens. Although I knew John Brunner personally and considered him a friend, I always kept my thoughts to myself about his books. He wrote terrible potboilers and a lot of them too. Stand on Zanzibar was different: it was glib and clever, like so many of John’s other novels, but it was also ambitious in scope, innovative in form and uniquely amongst his books to that date it contained genuine passion. It was a breakthrough for him. (45 years)

We move forward fifteen years. By 1982 I had started acting as an agent for a small number of hand-picked American writers who until that date had not had anything published in Britain. One of them was William Gibson. He sent me, rather diffidently under the circumstances, the typewritten manuscript of a novel called Neuromancer. As soon as I read it I recognized it for what it was, even though it was not entirely to my own taste. I realized my opinion was irrelevant, and sent it to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz. He immediately bought it. I am still no great fan of cyberpunk, but it was in its time radical and different. Neuromancer was the first and best of that sub-genre. (30 years)

For better or worse I have come to be seen as a John Wyndham specialist, and have been commissioned to write several speeches and essays about him and his work. This has meant fairly regular re-readings of his novels. These I continue to like, but with substantial reservations. Wyndham was one of the first SF novelists I discovered, when I was 16, long before even The Space Merchants. Until I had been able to read more widely, and understand where Wyndham’s work was best placed, he was my favourite SF writer. Of his four main novels the one I continue to like most is The Kraken Wakes, but I happen to think that The Day of the Triffids is in fact a better written novel. It has certainly grown into its status as a modern classic. I last re-read it in 2005 and it remained as effective as I remembered. Incidentally, I disagree with Brian Aldiss’s familiar and often quoted put-down of Wyndham, that he wrote ‘cosy catastrophes’. I believe the sobriquet is wilfully misleading and takes no account of the time and place when Wyndham was writing his best-known work. There is something steely and uncompromising inside most of Wyndham’s work, which an attentive reading will discover. (7 years)

John Fowles died towards the end of 2005. My own response to the unhappy news was to read, for at least the third time, his best and most lasting novel, The Magus. Although not at all a science fiction novel, and barely even fantasy, it is of huge importance to the genre because of the influence it has had, not only on so many writers, myself included, but also on film-makers. I think it has become fashionable to denigrate The Magus, partly because of what Fowles himself often said about it (he seemed to be the only person in the world who thought the ‘god-game’ was worth playing), partly because of some of the second-rate novels with which he followed it, and also partly because of the execrable film that was made of it in 1968, starring Michael Caine. However, back in the mid-1960s The Magus came over as a startling and fresh and technically dazzling novel. I was certainly dazzled by it for a long time. The writing in the first third of the novel has always seemed to me among the finest descriptive passages I have ever read – the forensic last part constitutes probably the most intricate and challenging thriller-writing of the century. My last reading of the novel was the 1977 revision, which until then I had not liked as much as the original. (7 years)

In 2006, the publisher Peter Owen brought out a re-issue of one of the gems in the Owen backlist: Ice by Anna Kavan. I had first read this in the early 1970s, when it was in a Picador paperback with an amazingly appropriate cover using a detail from (I believe) a painting by de Chirico. I have always loved the book, seeing it as a core slipstream text, one that will enchant as many readers as it might infuriate others. I was pleased to be invited to write an Introduction to the new edition, if for no other reason than it gave me a chance to re-read this short and almost perfect novel. (6 years)

I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane when it appeared as a series of long stories in the magazine Impulse. I was mystified and enthralled by the stories and read them again as soon as they were published together as a novel (1968). Pavane is one of those rare novels which is not only beautifully written but also compellingly told. It is a novel set in the then present day (the late 1960s) in a world where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, and a repressive Papal-dominated kingdom was set up in Britain under the Spanish. The details of the resulting low-technology society, the subtlety of the observations and the apt choice of significant characters are all to be marvelled at. I remember Michael Moorcock belittling the novel when it was published (probably because he and Keith Roberts did not like each other) – he said disparagingly that it was no better than the sort of stuff John Brunner turned out every week. This must constitute one of the most lead-bottomed literary judgements ever. I re-read Pavane for pleasure in 2007, and it was even better than I had remembered. (5 years)

Finally, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I read this around the same time as everyone else who took an interest in such things: not long after it was published in 1969. It seemed then to be a remarkable and innovative novel – it won several prizes, and since then has remained a well-regarded and perennially popular novel. I had always remembered it in the most favourable way, feeling that it was a work of traditional science fiction that one could rely on to mount the best sort of argument in support of the genre. Some of the descriptive writing is vivid and appropriate, the characterization of the alien beings is totally plausible and sympathetic, and the idea, in its day, was suitably radical and startling. I re-read Left Hand in 2008, more out of curiosity than anything, in effect to see if it really was as good as I remembered. I discovered that it held up well, that it was a much shorter book than I expected, that the descriptive writing was still superb, but that the sexual chemistry that had seemed so unusual and alien four decades earlier was synoptic in a way I had not recalled. Overall, the novel felt more ordinary than I wanted it to be – it no longer seemed to be the paradigm shift it had once been, but this, I suspect, is a result of its own influence. It broke new ground and a generation of writers took strength and confidence from it. It remains a work of classic status, in my view. (4 years)

The point of all this:

The number of years noted at the end of each description is of course a rough estimate of the time since I last read any of these books. I have revisited these titles because throughout most of November Nina was encouraging me to take part in the Locus “All-Centuries” poll, and vote for the “best” novels and short stories from the 20th and 21st centuries.

In their publicity, Locus did not explain what they meant by “Best”, which immediately raised the usual questions of definition: best written?, best selling?, best loved?, and so on. Never mind that. I was resisting because I generally find these popularity polls a bit meaningless, rather like those internet polls you sometimes see: Do you believe in God? Vote now: Y/N. In the world of books such a poll has an extra quality of absurdity in a genre of fiction where there are so many sacred cows, so many false or misleading literary values, so much reader-nostalgia for the stuff they read when first discovering science fiction or fantasy.

Nina’s best argument in favour of making me think up my own submission was that unless a large number of people with a variety of interests actually voted for the work they believed in, those cows would remain sacred, and the familiar hegemony of the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke-Bradbury school would stay unchallenged.

Well, I finally gave in, while suspecting that there aren’t enough votes in the world to dislodge Robert A. Heinlein or Frank Herbert from their dominant position as immovable greats. Using the “memory-jogger” lists that Locus provided (which were in fact pretty good, as the net they threw was quite a wide one) I came up with about fourteen titles from the 20th century that I could argue were the “best”. After some thought I dropped four of them. I wanted, for instance, to include something by H. G. Wells, but in reality his best scientific romances were all published in the 19th century, and it felt like special pleading to put in something like The First Men in the Moon (1901) just because it was by Wells.

Then I looked again at the 10 titles that remained, and the doubts about the whole enterprise returned in force. I was and am painfully aware of how long it was since I had read most of them. Now that I have looked into my recollections of the reading of each title, I realize how unreliable my judgement must be. Not only is my reading of (e.g.) The Space Merchants half a century old, it comes from a literary culture that has disappeared, and even the corporate America that was being satirized is no more. This is the same flawed argument that makes some people cling to their liking for the Heinlein juveniles or the Asimov robot stories they read when they were 14. I was 16 when I read the most long-distance of all these books, but at least I have re-read some of them in relatively recent times, so feel I can argue for or against them with some confidence.

I have listed the books in the chronology of my most recent reading – this is not the same as the order as I would put them in for preference. In fact, now I look at the list I think that I would reverse it entirely: but with Pavane above Left Hand, and The Space Merchants below Nineteen Eighty-Four.

However, I know that my false values, my nostalgia, my sacred cows, are just as unreliable as everyone else’s. I never sent in my list. Locus will be announcing the thrilling results later this month.

 

Nevil Shute wrote several novels with speculative content, of which the most celebrated is probably On the Beach (1957). Although his style was conventional and he is often thought of as a middlebrow author, Shute often had adventurous ideas and put considered speculation into his novels. No Highway (1948) is known for containing an accurate prediction about the catastrophic effect of metal fatigue on airframes (Shute was an aeronautical engineer), and his 1938 novel What Happened to the Corbetts contains a description of the indiscriminate bombing of the city of Southampton. Until I read it recently I did not know that In the Wet (1953) is also a speculative novel:

It is perhaps the oddest book I have read this year. Odd not because of its story (which is a relatively straightforward speculative account of a possible future for the British monarchy, written shortly after the accession to the throne of Elizabeth II), but because of its intricate literary structure. It is in fact structured in such a complicated way that I am still not sure if Shute wrote it out of fiendish planning, or if the complications of the story got out of hand and he simply lost control of it.

The principal narrator (i.e. the one who starts and finishes the novel) is a vicar recently appointed to a remote part of Queensland, Australia. The first 60 pages or so of the novel are an account of his efforts to bring his pastoral work to the local inhabitants. This is not thrilling – several times during the long opening sequence I was tempted to put down the book, but in the end did not. The main story eventually emerges: the vicar is present beside the deathbed of an elderly man, a local drunk called Stevie, who is believed locally to have been a pilot in the RFC during the first world war. The two men, and a nursing sister, are trapped by torrential rains in an isolated shack in the Queensland outback. The dying man relates his life, a sort of confession, and this takes the form of a long flashback.

The first structural or narrative surprise comes with the beginning of this flashback. The dullish opening of the novel is told in the first person by the vicar, while the long narrative of the dying man (which makes up most of the book) is told in the third person. Although this is only a minor thing, you would expect it to be the other way around. Then there is the way in which the flashback begins, which Shute slides into skilfully and almost imperceptibly. One moment you are in the Queensland shack with the rain hammering down on the galvanized iron roof while the elderly vicar is straining to hear the dying man’s delirious words, then almost between one sentence and the next we enter the main narrative, the third-person story of the man’s life.

This is obviously set in the past, when he, Stevie (whose real name he now declares is David Anderson), was an Australian Air Force pilot attached in the UK to the Queen’s Flight, and operating a new kind of aircraft called a Ceres – a long-haul jet aircraft, probably based on an aircraft Shute had once worked on, called an Avro Atlantic (a civil variant of the Vulcan bomber). It soon emerges that the actual date of this memoir is somewhere in the mid-1980s. In other words, Shute, who was writing in 1951-52, was setting this sequence thirty years into his future. This of course implies to the reader that the narrative of the vicar, who is listening to and reporting the flashback, is many years beyond even that, perhaps another three decades. An alert reader might at this point be wondering at the real ages of these people. The vicar has already told us he was born in 1890, while Stevie is said to have been an operational pilot in 1914-18, yet is still alive and drinking hard in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I.e., about now.

That matter will be resolved to some extent by Shute’s story. For the time being, we are following his speculative account of the future break-up of the Commonwealth, and the growing independence of nations such as Australia and Canada. Britain in the 1980s is depicted as being in steep decline, with a wrecked economy, austerity politics and even the remains of wartime food rationing. Australia is a much better place, with a burgeoning immigration and a huge enlargement of its main cities. (Shute and his family had emigrated to Australia in 1950.) A love story develops between Anderson and a royal aide called Rosemary. Although all goes innocently and well between them, Anderson is troubled by vivid dreams and at one point suffers a lucid and apparently predictive nightmare in which he sees himself in a shack in Queensland, dying while the rain pours down and a vicar sits in attendance. However, he awakes to his normality and it appears to have been only a dream.

At the climax of the long flashback narrative, Anderson and Rosemary are about to be parted but have plans to get married. During the night before they are to part David Anderson falls into a troubled sleep, with a feeling that he and Rosemary are drifting inexorably away from each other. He comes to his senses, but finds he is lying at the point of death in a rough bed, in a shack in the Australian outback, while the rain pours down. We return abruptly to the first-person narrative of the vicar, sitting beside him, who hears the old man utter his last word: ‘Rosemary.’ Stevie’s death follows immediately.

The novel is far from finished, although there are only about 25 pages to go. One revelation after another is to come. We learn that the real name of the dead man was never ‘David Anderson’, but Stevie, or Stephen, Figgins. The vicar who has related the story admits he was delirious with fever so might have misheard or misunderstood, the nurse who was with him says he was in fact asleep for many hours through the period in which Stevie was allegedly telling his story, and furthermore she denies hearing anything at all said by Stevie. In a worried way, the vicar starts to wonder about the nature of reality. Later, apparently now recovered, the vicar comes across a man called Anderson who works in the bush, whose wife gave birth to a baby boy at more or less the exact moment that Stevie Figgins died – she can’t decide on a name for the child, but thinks it should be either Stephen or David. At this point our narrator more or less gives up trying to work out what might have happened, or indeed might yet be about to happen, and the novel ends.

This synoptic account has left out many interesting details of plot and background, particularly in the speculative section of the book, which looks forward to a time in Shute’s own future (which is of course the recent past for a modern reader). It is mildly fascinating to come across Shute’s guesses about the future, most of them wrong, but a few rather uncannily accurate. The structure of the plot is what I have described here, not the plot itself. In the Wet is indeed an extremely complex novel, written between his two other, better-known speculative novels: No Highway and On the Beach. Some of it is sophisticated and intriguing; much else is somewhat banal, inhibited in social and sexual terms, and at times (particularly in the matter of the central character’s nickname, which I have left out of this account) embarrassing to a contemporary reader. It was, though, a fascinating literary discovery, one I hope other people will make.

This is not a review of a novel so much as a recommendation of one – the best new novel I have read this year is Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. It is a first novel of impressive skill and imaginative flair, ambitiously structured and beautifully written, described by the publisher as a city in ten chapters, which in fact sums it up admirably. The central city, which might be London, or Boston, or Tel Aviv, or Melbourne, grows slowly into vivid life as you read the stories of the various people who live there.

Each chapter is different in type and is written in a slightly different style. I shrink from using the word “pastiche”, preferring the idea of literary hommage, as I suspect Mr Thompson intended. Several writers are explicitly summoned, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle among them, but to many readers there will be implied echoes of many more. I sensed the benign hovering presence of J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, M. John Harrison, Iain Sinclair, even W. G. Sebald. Even so, Sam Thompson’s voice is his alone, and this is a major work. It is the sort of book that is so well written it makes you want to declaim passages aloud to the people around you, your nearest and dearest, pedestrians passing your house, other passengers sitting opposite you on the train, anyone will do – so great is the author’s style, so deep his range, so wonderful and rich are his images.

But this amazing young writer appears to have slipped below the radar. Although Communion Town was fairly widely reviewed, the general sense I gained from reading the reviews was that almost none of the critics appeared to understand it, even those who claimed to approve. Several of them referred to the novel as a collection of short stories, which it emphatically is not. The Sunday Times called it a “dreamt-up mish-mash”, the Daily Mail said it was “frustrating”, and the reviewer in the Oxford Times said, “I’ve no idea what it all means”. I hope Mr Thompson was not too discouraged by this sort of evasive and pusillanimous journalism.

Communion Town did make it to the Man Booker longlist, although these days that can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Hope briefly rose that for once a genuinely adventurous and challenging novel would rise to the surface of the literary millpond, but a few weeks later it sank out of sight when the shortlist was announced. The judges missed a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to the arrival of an astonishing new literary talent.

A similar opportunity remains, perhaps, for the judges of the Clarke Award to make amends, partly to make up for the omission by the Booker judges, but also to try to restore confidence in the Award after this year’s dismal effort. Here is a novel of pure slipstream, nothing like traditional science fiction, but an emphatic illustration of the recent argument that the heartland of science fiction writing has become irrelevant through exhaustion. Communion Town is from what Paul Kincaid describes as the borderland of SF, a book on the edge of the fantastic, a celebration of the nature of speculative images and allusive writing and subversive imagery.

Too much to hope that the science fiction world will embrace this novel? China Miéville, for one, has said he likes it and is quoted on the cover of the hardback: “Dreamlike, gnarly and present,” Miéville writes, “Communion Town shifts like a city walker, from street to street.” My dictionary defines “gnarly” as rough, twisted and weather-beaten in appearance; perverse or ill-tempered. I think Miéville probably intended it as a recommendation. I add mine too.

Communion Town is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99, 280 pp, ISBN: 978-0-00-745476-1

Biographies of great writers, thrown together too soon after their deaths, tend towards the condition of a first draft of a life. The availability of living witnesses willing and eager to be interviewed, friends with scrapbooks and snapshots, even important locations as yet unchanged by time, seem to be too tempting to be ignored. Recent examples of this rush to be the first include Eric Jacobs’ biography of Kingsley Amis and Norman Sherry’s of Graham Greene. Both of these were inferior jobs.

Now here is John Baxter’s biography of J. G. Ballard, in print only two years after Ballard’s death. Baxter has previously written biographies of people like George Lucas and Robert De Niro, which I have not seen, but the Ballard biography is probably his first of a writer, and the first of a major author of international repute. The book has presumably not been authorized by anyone, certainly not by Ballard’s daughter, Beatrice, who has accused Baxter of hurrying this book out to make a quick buck, saying she had filled six pages with Baxter’s errors of fact.

Baxter claims to be Ballard’s literary contemporary, presumably as a justification for his rush to write this book. Technically, he’s correct: I well remember a number of stories by John Baxter in the Nova Publications New Worlds. At the end of 1962 I had discovered that J. G. Ballard was a frequent contributor to New Worlds so I started buying it regularly. What I soon realized was that with the exception of Ballard’s brilliant early work, and a few good stories by Brian Aldiss, the pages of New Worlds in the early 1960s were filled with mediocre work, mostly concerned with Earthmen solving puzzles on alien planets. Baxter’s stories were typical of this kind of thing, written in pedestrian prose and using familiar plots. The antithesis of Ballard’s stories, in fact. I feel a keen sense of anger at this faux modest attempt to present himself as some kind of equal. To be fair, Baxter’s writing style in this book is not as bad as his turgid early stories, and the uniquely interesting quality of Ballard’s work and life makes for a book that’s good enough. However, I’m left with the impression that if there is to be another biography it should be written by a writer of equal stature to Ballard himself, not a showbiz journalist who listens to gossip.

Gossip is the main weakness of Baxter’s book, because he falls foul of the temptation to rely too heavily on the memories of living witnesses. From evidence I have seen elsewhere, much of this book appears to have been heavily influenced by long interviews with Michael Moorcock. Baxter does acknowledge this: he refers to the ‘many hours’ in which Moorcock ‘recalled his memories of the man who, for three decades, was his closest friend’. Moorcock regularly describes himself as ‘Jimmy’s best friend’, as he has done in several long, rambling letters published in Pete Weston’s Relapse. Who can dare to question such an affectionate claim? As it happens I knew both men at this time, but did not see them together on any occasion. Whenever I saw Ballard alone he never once acted in the outrageous ways Baxter claims. On the contrary, he always appeared quiet, thoughtful and socially ill at ease. In his senior years, Moorcock has become a self-appointed chronicler of certain periods of the past, and in my view and direct experience (see my review of his blustering The Retreat from Liberty, published in New Statesman in 1983, in which I described how, unfortunately for Moorcock, I had happened to be present at one of the formative anecdotal experiences he claimed) he is an unreliable witness who filters every impression or experience through his own ego. One should weigh in the balance every word of his gossipy memoirs, which is something John Baxter clearly has not done.

Throughout the book, Baxter refers to Ballard as ‘Jim’, which I consider a presumption too far. First-name terms should be reserved to family and genuine friends. Baxter quotes freely from Ballard’s own utterances, presumably from articles or interviews, but does not note the source or give credit. Although there are at the back of the book a few pages of acknowledgements, and a long list of sources, none of these is cross-referenced to the quotes. How did the publisher allow Baxter to quote so much copyright material without direct acknowledgement or (apparently) permission? There is no Contents page. And how did the publisher approve the index, which not only contains a maze of passing references, but many subsidiary references without annotation? E.g. the index entry for New Worlds consists of thirty references by page number alone (and on investigation many of these turn out to be passing references). This lack of scholarly attention makes the book a poor reference work, even for an ordinary reader seeking information.

It is anyway a poor show. J. G. Ballard, now rightly recognized as one of the major 20th century writers, clearly deserves a substantial biography, but this is not it.

Dying is obviously an increasingly risky business. Get a few books published, or a few films made, and the gossips are out there, waiting for you with their unknown personal motives and their attempts to insinuate themselves into what little they can discover of your private life. I should hate to think that two years after my own death, my family would have to put up with a tabloid account written by a stranger, reporting what other people have said about me, and referring to me throughout as ‘Chris’.

For Christmas I was given a copy of John Baxter’s biography of J. G. Ballard, and this is just a note to say that I have written a review of it, published below.

If anyone is interested in my reference to a certain review in New Statesman, I will try to find it in my ancient files and post it on this site, together with some accompanying material. The Ballard biography has brought home to me the importance of what weight we should place on verbal testimony, and its reliability or otherwise. The ancient incident described in NS was trivial and (for its subject) probably embarrassing, but when the same self-centred anecdotic rambling is used as evidence in the life of a great writer like Ballard, it’s time to get our priorities right. We have a responsibility to be true about these things.

The title is a misnomer: Zwar never actually talked to Rudolf Hess, the former Deputy Leader of the Nazis and Hitler’s chosen successor. His only contact was through intermediaries, whose verbal reports as written down by the author make up much of the book. As history, then, the book exists as mere hearsay. However, by this remote means Zwar managed to obtain an interview of sorts with one of the two most interesting Nazi leaders. (Joseph Goebbels was the other.) It’s therefore of some interest, but not as an historical record.

After his flight to Scotland in May 1941, apparently on a mission of peace, Hess was incarcerated in Britain until the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946. Found guilty on two counts of war crimes, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison, in the suburbs of Berlin. Because of the intransigence of the Soviet authorities (one of the four Occupying Powers) Hess was never offered parole or any reduction in sentence. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1987, at the age of 93. He was therefore a prisoner for 46 years, half his lifetime, mostly in solitary confinement.

In the modern age the main interest in Hess is based partly on the circumstances of his incarceration, which was cruel and inhumane, but also on the many strange and sometimes inexplicable details of his flight in 1941, the motives for the flight and the reaction to it of the Churchill government. The official version of events is plausible only so long as you don’t seek confirmation of details, and much of its veracity is undermined by the fact that Churchill put a seal on the release of official papers until 2017). Why was this apparently straightforward (if misguided) event treated with such secrecy? It remains a fascinating subject for discussion, none better than in an investigative book called Double Standards, by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior (Little, Brown, 2001).

Nothing in Zwar’s book answers or challenges the many enigmas set out in Double Standards, and in a dull kind of way probably confirms much of the official version. The matters that fascinate researchers into Hess’s adventure were largely forgotten by Hess, and over the years he gave a string of vague, rambling or contradictory explanations. For most of his 46 years in captivity he was either mad or amnesiac, or feigning both, and in any case he was never possessed of the brightest brain among Hitler’s henchmen. What Hess said indirectly to Zwar is much the same as he said on the few other occasions he was questioned. None of the mysteries is settled here, and there is a sense that events soon overtook him. The crucial action of World War 2 – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – came six weeks after Hess arrived in Scotland, before interrogations of him had barely begun. The American entry into the war came seven months later. He was irrelevant to history almost at once. However, a cloud of intrigue still hangs over him. If anything, Desmond Zwar thickens parts of the cloud, but they are the least interesting parts. In all, a book for Hess completists like me, but not otherwise recommended.

This is a film famously upstaged by the stupid comments made by director Lars von Trier at a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival, which had been mounted to celebrate Kirsten Dunst’s award for Best Actress. (Von Trier himself had also been nominated for Palme d’Or as Best Director.) As I am finding with this brief notice, it seems impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the stupid remarks. This is a shame, because that storm in an eggcup seems to have distracted most people from the unusual qualities of the film itself, which are many and great. It is a serious, beautiful and imaginative film, written to a perfect pitch, full of psychological verities, a brilliantly observed dysfunctional family of adults, a brooding atmosphere, sensational acting, and photography to kill for. The writer was Lars von Trier himself. The actors are all excellent, but the two leads, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are thrilling to watch. The photography is by Manuel Alberto Claro. The atmosphere – well, the atmosphere is created by a combination of all these elements.

The opening is a series of strange and evocative tableaux vivants, isolated moments in a world where a globally catastrophic event is about to occur: the music is the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its undertones of impending doom. The main part of the film is set in two chapters. In the first, Justine, we witness the marriage celebrations of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to the son of her boss – to say that everything goes wrong would be an understatement, but the mise en scène is classically and sumptuously mounted, with terrific ensemble acting, a script full of moving insights, venomous remarks and perverse actions, and a sense that everything is indeed going to hell. The second part is called Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire, Justine’s sister), and is set in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous wedding. A great depression afflicts the remaining family, but in particular the two sisters, who are forever separated by a gulf of misunderstandings and old resentments. Meanwhile, the wandering rogue planet Melancholia is set on a collision course with our own planet. It moves ever nearer, wreaking psychological damage on the characters and, in the final few seconds of the film, terminal physical damage to the world.

Melancholia is a masterpiece, one of the finest science fiction films ever made, and if the film and arthouse worlds were not obsessively distracted by the director’s mad remarks it would be recognized as a genuine paradigm changer. It is an amazing and refreshing antidote to the ever-predictable Hollywood take on filmed science fiction, with its dull and over-familiar emphasis on action, resolute heroes, terse dialogue, knee-jerk gloom, clever technology and cute robots, and visual and CGI effects. The point most Hollywood films miss is that when disaster occurs it affects ordinary people, not presidents and heroes and Bruce Willis.

Melancholia uses the dramatic technique of microcosm: an unhappy and squabbling family surrounded by useless wealth, unable to comprehend or even momentarily adapt to the catastrophe that is about to hit them. There is no hope of reprieve, no heroics, no pseudoscience, no more special effects than absolutely necessary. Ten years from now Melancholia will be recognized as a classic: of cinema as well of cinematic science fiction, a highpoint in von Trier’s maverick but endlessly intriguing career.

Lars von Trier’s moving and sincere retraction (together with a wonderful burst of supportive outrage from Stellan Skarsgård, denouncing von Trier’s high-handed treatment by the Festival organizers), can be viewed here.

There’s a revealing passage about 200 pages into this novel. In a flashback sequence McEwan’s protagonist Michael Beard is starting his third year at Oxford, when he hears about a promisingly sexy undergraduate called Maisie Farmer. Maisie is reading English, specializing in John Milton. Knowing nothing about literature (he is Maths and Physics), Beard takes a week off and crams as much of Milton as he can manage. Later contriving a meeting with her, Beard dazzles his intended with a tear-wrenching recital of Milton’s poem ‘Light’. He follows this up moments later with the gift of a calf-bound 1738 edition of Areopagitica. Unsurprisingly, he is soon in the young lady’s bed.

The scene is uncannily similar to one in the film Groundhog Day. In this, Bill Murray cynically uses his unnaturally acquired knowledge of Andie MacDowell’s tastes and preferences to try to impress her. Murray quotes (in French) from recently crammed memory a few lines from MacDowell’s favourite poem. They too end up in bed together.

The passage in Solar is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because it is the sort of territory McEwan has visited before. Here he is once again, aware or half-aware, lifting images or making vague quotations from other people’s works. McEwan, along with several million other people, must have admired the witty contrivances of the Groundhog Day script. Audience familiarity of this sort, in the world of the supposedly challenging literary novel, breeds contentment. Much of the success of McEwan’s writing must be based on this comforting quality: readers seem instinctively to recognize and understand his images, already half-digested from somewhere else. It makes him into a reassuring, undemanding writer.

He has now done the reworking trick so many times that it is beyond accident: he is routinely careless with his sources (admitting once in a TV interview that he fills his notebook with all sorts of odd quotes and references, many of which he has written himself, but many more of which he copies down from other writers). This bad practice became apparent early on his career. It is not formal plagiarism, but in some respects is even worse – it makes him imaginatively secondhand. There was the story ‘Dead as They Come’ (1978) referencing J. G. Ballard’s 1976 story from the magazine Bananas, ‘The Smile’. McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden (1978) was compared by many to Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House (1963). Most notoriously of all, there were the rather too many line-by-line comparisons between certain passages of his novel Atonement (2001) and sections from Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography, No Time for Romance (1977). All this is too close for comfort, and every time it becomes apparent that he has done it again McEwan is diminished by it.

The second reason for our being interested is because it suggests something of the way in which McEwan crams for his own novels. Ever since Enduring Love (1997), McEwan has been including chunks of acquired knowledge in his books. He is no more a science writer (Enduring Love) or a neurosurgeon (Saturday, 2003) than he is a physicist (Solar), but there are many pages of specialist vocabulary, jargon and other references in all of these. Clearly, he has to go and look these things up, or perhaps he meets useful or important people over dinner who then invite him to sit in on a brain operation, or slam around the Arctic on a snowmobile for a week. All novelists research their material but some do it more than others. Historical novelists, for instance, also go in for this kind of mechanically acquired research, and the worst ones in that genre cannot resist downloading and pasting in every last drop of discovered information, however irrelevant to the characters or the story.

Because McEwan can actually write good English, his version of this kind of borrowed material is phrased well enough, but a good style cannot prevent it being dull, irrelevant to the novel, unenlightening of the character and, above all, obviously crammed. And with what intention? Is the author’s motive as cynical as his character’s, to give us a calf-bound copy of scientific mumbo-jumbo, to make us misty-eyed with emotion and surrender our doubts?

Let us move on to a different but not entirely unrelated matter. At the Hay Festival in 2008, McEwan gave a reading from work-in-progress. It transpired that the passage was from this novel, Solar. I was not present, but I heard about it on a couple of blogs by people who had been there and who were eager to mock the great man because of it. According to them the dubious passage concerned an encounter on a train, with two men (Beard, and a stranger) eating potato crisps from the same packet, each thinking that it was his own packet and the protagonist only discovering afterwards that he was the one who had been mistaken. Although at this stage the report of McEwan’s use of this story was for me clearly only hearsay, the extract certainly appears in the finished novel, on pp 121-127 of the Cape edition.

Now, hearsay or not, when I read about this my instinct was one of embarrassment for McEwan. I had first heard this story (which actually involved chocolate biscuits, not potato crisps) from Douglas Adams. He told it to me in 1980 as a true anecdote, something that had happened to him at Cambridge station while waiting for a train. I was amused by it and in all probability repeated it to other people. Not long afterwards I realized that it had all the qualities of an urban myth and although I trusted and believed what Douglas had told me, I soon discovered there were several variants of the story going the rounds. Whether or not it had ‘actually happened’ was irrelevant: it was in vernacular circulation.

I was embarrassed for Ian McEwan because by reading this story aloud at a public meeting he was obviously proud of it, presenting it as an attractive example of his current work. But didn’t he realize what it was? It seemed to me that here was another example of him borrowing someone else’s stuff, but this time in a way obvious to so many that he would only be humiliated by it. However, I also believed that the hostile comments from those bloggers, and other people who were aware of what had happened, would bring it home to McEwan in the nick of time so he could cut the terrible scene from his novel.

As I say, pp 121-127 bear testament to the fact that he did not cut it. Those are seven awful and unoriginal pages. What he did was much worse, unheeding of the advice that when you’re in a hole you should stop digging, and he tried to patch it up. Twenty pages after the crisp encounter, the character Beard makes a speech to a conference. Here we go into a long cut-and-paste use of the author’s research notes, a rather simplistic discourse on the problems of global warming. Bad enough on its own (and tiresomely long), but McEwan adds an extra twist. He puts into Beard’s mouth a second telling of the crisp-eating encounter, then as a peroration contrives some moralistic point from it about the follies and assumptions of industrialism.

McEwan therefore not only reminds us of his own casual use of an urban myth, he underlines its presumed importance. However, at this point it becomes clear that McEwan had been made belatedly aware of his crisp-eating folly, because a new character, one Mellon, suddenly appears and apprises Beard of the urban myth. Mellon voices the objections one would have: he even quotes the Douglas Adams connection, and names it with the title by which it is known to those who collect and categorize urban myths: ‘The Unwitting Thief’. Beard responds with what one might call the Douglas Adams Defence – that against all likelihood, and by some amazing coincidence, this urban myth had actually happened to him. It was real. (Therefore, McEwan’s argument appears to be, all the moralizing was justified.)

But it’s not real, is it? When McEwan wrote it he clearly thought of it as something that actually happened to his character Beard. McEwan had heard the story from someone, then in his habitual manner transferred it undigested into his fiction. Belatedly, perhaps months later, or when someone at the publisher pointed it out, he realized he had been caught out again in the semi-plagiarism that so diminishes him, and he tried to justify it from the mouth of one Mellon.

Ian McEwan presents a peculiarly difficult problem to those of us who see the novel as a demanding, interesting and challenging artistic form. He is clearly gifted: his use of English is always good and at times his prose is excellent. (He’s a much more rounded stylist than, say, Julian Barnes.) But a good style is not enough: compared with writers like Roberto Bolaño, Emmanuel Carrère, Steve Erickson or Daniel Kehlmann, McEwan is timid, unadventurous and derivative. Furthermore, he seems now to be entering the old-age period of being a novelist: making an attempt to sum things up, trying to tackle the issues of the day, showing his awareness of politics and the state of the nation, being obeisant to those who will reward and honour him, and displaying a witless desire to be seen as a sort of semi-critical, but always courteous, member of the establishment. None of this should be the concern of a novel, except incidentally. The role of an artist is impossible to pin down, but it doesn’t include forelock tugging to prime ministers or literary nabobs.

As for his semi-plagiaristic activities, they are to his lasting shame. He should question everything he hears before he notes it down for future use – he should digest it, subvert it, re-imagine it, make it his own.

McEwan clearly now seeks the consensus and has been amply rewarded for it, but perhaps he should from time to time remind himself what his real interest in writing is, or at least used to be. The young McEwan was or seemed to be a gratifyingly anti-establishment writer, who was blessed with a peculiar and slightly nasty imagination, and a gift for the telling image. All that has gone. In this long, tame and often dreary narrative it is hard to glimpse what he once might have become.