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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life seems to have become one long commercial.

 

The Islanders TitanFirst of all, here is the extremely attractive cover illustration for my latest-but-one novel, The Islanders, which will be published in the USA in April 2014. It is coming out in trade paperback at the same time as The Adjacent, which is being published in hardcover. I don’t know who told them that I always prefer typographical covers, but they’ve got it right as far as I am concerned.

Speaking of The Islanders, it’s been a long time since I saw any copies of the Gollancz paperback on sale in bookshops here. I gave up patrolling bookstores decades ago, prowling around to check what my publishers might be up to (or not, as the case may be). For writers, it’s a bit of no-win situation: if the book’s not on sale you wonder why it has not been stocked, but if it is sitting there on the shelf you wonder unfairly: why can’t they sell it? Not much joy in either of those. But I am a regular visitor to bookstores and I can’t help noticing if that important if slightly narrow space between the titles by T. Pratchett and R. Rankin remains unfilled. I generally hope for the best and carry on. However, Amazon.co.uk has at present no copies of the Gollancz paperback of The Islanders on sale, even though according to my editor at VG, they still have many copies in the warehouse. The only copies you can buy now through Amazon are either secondhand copies, or pricey marked-up ones from specialist dealers … or, of course, the Kindle edition.

While I grumbled about this, Amazon suddenly and inexplicably announced that The Islanders was once again available in HARDBACK! What is going on? Where have those copies come from? I was given to understand that the hardback was long out of print.

Answers have come there none. But if you have been trying to get hold of one of Gollancz’s attractively printed hardbacks, now’s your chance. I suspect the situation is likely to change without warning. Click here soon!

Autun Purser is a deep-sea ecologist and freelance illustrator, whose beautiful and witty artwork may be viewed on his website. He will be exhibiting his work at the World Fantasy Convention at the end of this month, in Brighton. I hope many people will take the chance to seek him out and see his work. I cannot be there to meet him myself, which is unfortunate because about a year ago he sent me a poster he had designed as part of his series of ‘Fantastic Travel Destinations’, based on the imaginary island of Seevl. This place has featured in two of my darker narratives, one of which is included as a whole island-chapter in my recent novel The Islanders. (I have been a bit laggardly in getting it framed, but now it is hung prominently in the stairwell of the house. Photo by Nina.)

Seevl & CP

 

Seevl poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many thanks, Autun!

Here is the beautiful and effective cover for the US edition of The Adjacent, which will be published in hardcover by Titan Books in April 2014.

The Adjacent -- April 2014

A few extracts from the reviews of the book are now available on this site. (A new page is opened.) For those doubters, the full un-extracted reviews can also be found, with links from that page.

I suddenly realize I have written nothing here since the beginning of August, just after returning from our trip to Avilés (below). I have been in that strange and unproductive realm where a new novel lurks tantalizingly out of reach. Many false starts have led to raised and dashed hopes, but I think I have finally cracked it. It doesn’t take more than a few words of draft to realize that you have found a way into a complex story, but it can take ages to reach that realization. A decade and a half ago I spent nearly six months fruitlessly trying to find a way in to the book that eventually became The Separation. I drafted some twelve different openings, only to realize that the very first attempt was actually the one I wanted and should have been using all along. Anyway, after only about six abortive attempts, the new novel now has a beginning I think will lead somewhere, and I have even worked out the title for it. Dark winter days with the comfort of something in progress lie ahead.

It has been a time of reading. I have just finished Simon Ings’s new novel, Wolves, which strikes me as certain to be one of the key books of next year. I have no idea why it is called Wolves, and I don’t like the cover (which I think separates me from everyone else), but it is a serious, ambitious and discomfiting novel.

I also gave a long and attentive reading to a new novel called Erotic Lives of the Superheroes, by Marco Mangassola. I truly wanted to like it, as in many ways it is extremely well wrought and appears to have been given an excellent translation (by Anthony Shugaar). The publisher, Salammbo Press, is a small independent house, who must have gambled heavily on the book. Good luck to them. But it’s a novel that takes superheroes seriously and literally, and because of that it walks directly into one of my blind spots. I thought Watchmen was pretty good, but firstly that was enough, and secondly it was a quarter of a century ago. I’m going to pass this copy across to Nina, as she is more receptive than I can ever be to this sort of thing. Sorry, Salammbo. Sorry, Signor Mangassola.

I am currently reading Richard House’s The Kills. I might be gone for quite a while.

We have also seen some terrific movies in the last few weeks, some of them real discoveries.

Try Chronicle (dir. Josh Trank, 2012), a fabulously entertaining found-footage sf film, written by Max Landis, son of John.

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012) was a real oddball, about a man touring Paris in the back of a limousine, performing good deeds (or otherwise) on the way. Kylie Minogue appears in a scene in a ruined department store, shades of Liebestraum, in one of the most surreal pieces of casting I can remember. The film is a lot better than David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with which it is often compared (also about a man being driven around in the back of a limousine).

Alias Betty (dir. Claude Miller, 2001) comes close to being my film of the year so far – it is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, and has a constantly intriguing structure and plot.

In spite of a long antipathy to the work of Neil Jordan (don’t ask), I rather enjoyed his new film Byzantium (2012) not least because it was filmed effectively here in Hastings, gaining little gasps of recognition from the audience in our local Odeon.

My film of the year so far: The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012). The worst thing about the film is the title, which is meaningless, pretentious and irrelevant, and I’m certain helped ensure that few people paid to get into the cinema. On one level the film is a well-made violent thriller (starring Ryan Gosling), but the truly wonderful thing about it is its structure. It drives a train through the received Hollywood wisdom that films must have a certain story arc or structure: unless you peek at the reviews first (I rarely do) you will have no idea where this film takes you, or how it is going to turn out. It breaks most of the storytelling rules that so cramp Hollywood style, and does so brilliantly.

We caught up at last with Summer of Sam (dir. Spike Lee, 1999), which was another film that did not at all develop in the direction you assume from the subject-matter (serial killer in New York) and the opening scenes.

Finally: Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell, 2012), a film about people suffering personality disorders, and unusually for a Hollywood film not softening up the awkward details. It is remarkable for a brilliant performance by Jennifer Lawrence. All of these films I recommend.

Currently: catching up with the box sets of Breaking Bad. Best thing I’ve seen on TV in years, rushing through it incontinently.

Last week we went to the Celsius 232 convention in Avilés, in the Asturias region of Spain. It was a hugely enjoyable visit, largely hosted by Ian Watson and Cristina Macia. Writers from the UK included myself, Nina Allan, Paul McAuley, Jonathan Grimwood and Joe Abercrombie; from the USA there were Robert Sawyer and David Simon; from South Africa came Lauren Beukes. Most of the best Spanish writers of the fantastic were there too. A high point, recognized by everyone, was the instant translation provided by Diego Garcia Cruz, who not only interpreted our fumbling words with precision and real inflective flair, he worked seemingly without a break for hour after hour. Unfortunately I do not have a good picture of him, as he was the star turn. We visiting writers from abroad do not exist without translators.

However, here is the pedestrianized centre of Avilés. It was siesta time, and only mad dogs and photographic Brits were about:

Aviles siesta

Our hotel, the NH Palacio de Ferrera, was a conversion from a former palace in the Plaza de España. Although most of the guest rooms were in a modern extension at the back of the old building, the main part remained. The room below had been restored to its former appearance, the spiral staircase leading to a small balcony on a tower overlooking the town:

SpiralDuring one of the free days we visted Gijon, a coastal town (part Spanish Navy, part tourism) where some eight years ago I was a guest at the annual Semana Negra, a book fair mostly concerned with thrillers and the fantastic. As I had found in 2005, Gijon seemed unphotogenic to me, but while we were having lunch in a shaded alley in the old town, I noticed this sign for the Street of Recollections:

Street of Recollections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now a few pictures of some of the people who were there.

Here is Jon Grimwood, a shy writer, who has recently re-invented himself for his literary novel The Last Banquet:

Jon GrimwoodIan Watson now lives in Gijon, and seems to be blossoming under the heat of the sun, the rejuvenating impact of the sea winds and the wonderfully tasty Spanish cuisine. Here he is, not pulling a silly face:

Ian Watson in Avilés

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here are Joe Abercrombie and Lauren Beukes, being sociable in the modern way. I read in the Guardian this morning that this activity is now known as phubbing:

Joe and Lauren phubbing

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.

NetherwoodAt the end of my appearance yesterday at Blackwell’s, in Charing Cross Road, someone gave me a beautiful copy of his book called Netherwood, about the final years of Aleister Crowley’s life here in Hastings. In the general confusion after the talk I neglected to note his name, but I assumed it would be inside the book so I could contact him later and say thanks. However, Crowley-like, the information is a bit diffuse. (Byline: “A Gentleman of Hastings”.) Please make contact with me, so I can communicate with you direct?

One of those Crowley coincidences must have been going on. Because our house is currently more or less uninhabitable (two rooms with the floors up, and builders and their equipment everywhere) we are taking many of our meals at a pub called the Robert de Mortain. This large building on The Ridge is just about the only remnant of the Netherwood estate, which was Crowley’s last home. The main house and grounds are now something called Netherwood Close, and covered with the mass-built houses of Mr Wimpy or Mr Barratt.

Thanks to all who turned out in yesterday’s sometimes foul weather to go Blackwell’s. It was great to see so many people there, and I was really sorry the thing had to end so suddenly. I would have liked the chance to chat more informally at the end. Now back to the mundane realities of Hastings.

 

Sometimes, I get things wrong. Last week I posted here a list of copies of past titles which I am selling off to free some space in this crowded house. But my timing of this was really insane.

The day after the post went up I had to go to Paris for three days. Today I am back but we have no food in the house – and anyway it is publication day for The Adjacent. At the weekend I am doing a launch of the book in London, on Sunday I’ll be moving furniture and on Monday we have builders coming in to repair part of the floors.

Meanwhile, I have received a stream of orders for the books and I’m simply incapable of dealing with them for the time being. If you have sent an order, please be tolerant. I have kept each one in the order in which I received them and for those that arrived before I went to Paris I have set aside the physical copies. The rest I will treat in strict order of receipt, and I will contact everyone direct as soon as I can. However, it might be a week or two before I can get around to everyone.

So sorry!

A few more spare and extra copies of CP’s old books have come to light, mostly in surprisingly good condition. We need to make space in this house crowded with books, so once again I am offering several of these titles for sale. Signature and/or dedication (or freedom from all such marks) available on request. A beautiful handmade bookmark, with vulgar self-commendation, is included with every copy from the main list. All the books are in the original English, some being UK editions, others from the USA. (All are described accordingly.) Most are first editions, although there are a few book club editions (again, marked appropriately).

Translated editions are also available, with a link to the dealer who now holds all available titles. Many of these are beautifully printed hardcovers with dust-wrappers. None of the translated editions is signed, but that can be arranged if you are interested.

Please note that the numbers available for each title are strictly limited, and in some cases there are only one or two copies available. It would be a good idea to email me from the Contact page on this website to check availability before sending money. The list will be kept updated, so it should give a  good general idea of availability at any time.

Prices and payment. Each book has a core price of £4.00, but I do need to charge extra for post and packing. Postage costs in particular have recently been increased in the UK, and the Post Office’s concessionary rate for books sent overseas has been abolished. The current rate works out at about £2.00 per title when sent inland, but significantly more when sent abroad. There are savings, of course, if several titles are ordered at once. I’ll quote you in advance. Payment by PayPal is acceptable (the contact email address can be used), but because the average PayPal commission is about 5.5%, direct payment by internet is to be preferred. I don’t have to pay a commission to the bank. (Details sent on request.) If you order from within the EU, I can supply SWIFT and IBAN details; if you are ordering from further abroad I can accept cheques in pounds or dollars. A receipted invoice is sent with every parcel.

The current list can be read here.

Because we had business in nearby West Byfleet, and it was a lovely day, we decided to drive on afterwards to Woking for lunch and have a look at the Wellsian sites there. I take my duties as Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society proudly and seriously, if somewhat intermittently.

Wells Maybury RoadWe went first to 143 Maybury Road, to which Wells had moved in June 1895. The house then was named ‘Lynton’, a small semi-detached villa opposite a railway line, but with a garden at the back. Woking has its own huge Common in Horsell, apparently visible from the top floor windows of the house, and there and in the surrounding countryside, Wells and his second wife Amy Catherine (who was known as Jane), took frequent bicycle rides. These trips were part of the inspiration for Wells’s 1896 novel, The Wheels of Chance. The photograph shows 143 Maybury Road as it is today. A commemorative blue plaque seems long overdue, because this is the house in which The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man were written.

Please note that the photograph of 143 Maybury Road shown on the Woking website about H. G. Wells is incorrect. It is also incorrect on Wikipedia. The house shown on both these sites is actually no. 141, and has no Wellsian connection.

Wells MartianNext, we moved to the centre of the town, where in 1998 the artist Michael Condron installed his breathtaking sculpture of the “Martian Walking Engine”. This a beautiful piece of work, not only a fine sculpture in its own right but accurate in many details to Wells’s descriptions in The War of the Worlds. It is almost the right size: Wells said the tripods were at least 60 feet high, and the sculpture is not far short of that.

Wells Cylinder SculptureClose beside it is this smaller sculpture, depicting one of the Martian cylinders after its dramatic nose-first crash landing in the sandpits of Horsell Common. And speaking of which, we concluded our mini-tour of Wells memorabilia with a walk across the Common in search of the sandpit itself. It is not at all difficult to find, as there is a large map of the Common in the car park, with the main features clearly shown. Because of the long winter just finished, and the delayed spring, British trees seem incandescent with brilliant green at the moment, and the walk under the tall pine trees (with a few large young oaks growing up between them) was an inspiring and reinvigorating experience. Wells Horsell sandpitThe sandpit itself is still much as it must have been in Wells’s days, at least before the Martians came along and ploughed everything up, and as it was a weekday we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.

I should have noted at the beginning of this post that a spoiler for The Adjacent is contained within.

Simon Spanton at Gollancz has sent me a couple of advance copies of The Adjacent. To Simon I therefore say, Thanks! No matter how many years I have been doing this, the moment when you see the first copy of your new book, when you hold the thing in your hand, is a memorable one.

The Gollancz edition of The Adjacent, I have to say, is a thing of exceptional beauty. Brian Roberts’s cover manages to be both understated and declarative (see the image on the side of this page), a lovely cool green, made iconic with silhouettes of one of the few British aircraft almost everyone can identify on sight. It’s appropriate to the story, even though it’s not a novel about Spitfires, or if so, only adjacently. I should also mention the physical shape and feel and weight of the book: it seems to me to have classic proportions, perhaps by design, perhaps by accident. It is good to hold.

Before I get too sentimental, let me add that it’s also a snip at £12.99. One of the less-advertised wonders of our age is the way that the prices of hardback books, in a time of alleged recession in the book-buying habit, and under the much spoken-of threat of downloads and e-books, remain competitive. Almost exactly twenty-three years ago, my novel The Quiet Woman came out in hardback from Bloomsbury. In 1990 it was priced at £13.99 and contained half the number of pages of my new one. The hardback of The Prestige (Touchstone, five years later) was priced at £15.99. And some books not only keep their prices but gain in value as the years go by. That hardback of The Prestige now usually sells secondhand for hundreds of pounds – there’s a copy on AbeBooks at present, going for £950. I wish I had kept a few more of them.

One final word of gratitude, this time to Charlie Panayiotou at Gollancz, charged with the responsibility of transferring my proof corrections to the final copy. In the manuscript I had devised an eccentric scheme of chapter headings and subheads, which someone in Orion’s production department rather sternly corrected. I appealed to Charlie to restore my original, and now I have seen the book I realize he did, and exactly so. Thanks, Charlie!

As part of the annual Charing Cross Road Fest, my new novel The Adjacent will be launched at Blackwell’s Bookshop (100 Charing Cross Road) on Saturday 22nd June. I will be in conversation with Simon Ings, from 12:30 lunchtime. Tickets are free, but have to be booked in advance.

Simon is the editor of Arc, the digital magazine about the future, and is the author of Dead Water, one of the novels inexplicably neglected by last year’s Clarke Award judges. He is currently writing a science fiction novel about Hampshire, a place he hates. His other books are soon to be reissued by Gollancz.

Click here for full details of the Blackwell’s event. (For “Afghanistan” read “Anatolia”, incidentally. Not my error, and not Blackwell’s, either.) Tickets can be ordered from: events.london@blackwell.co.uk

Be there?

While I am on this sort of subject, two weeks earlier, on Saturday 8th June, I will be addressing the British Humanist Association annual conference, at the Hilton Leeds City Hotel, Neville Street, in Leeds. As this is a conference you would have to join in advance – places are still available, and may be booked here.

Here are links to some recent blog entries on this site:

12 May 2013
Bomber Command memorial – the most recent entry.
‘In June 2012 a permanent memorial was created to the RAF Bomber Command campaign of the second world war. The memorial is to all lives lost during the war, notably the estimated 600,000 civilians and non-combatants killed on the ground by the bombing, but it is also, at last, a memorial to the young men, all volunteers, who served as aircrew in the air force. Theirs was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war.’

16 December 2012
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis – a review of this novel.
‘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.’

9 December 2012
Robert McCrum: “cockroach in the world of books” – a response to one of McCrum’s Guardian essays.
‘McCrum’s weakness is that he will not acknowledge his blind spots. Genre fiction, or what he thinks is genre fiction, is the prime example. He abdicates himself from addressing the problem by assuming that genre fiction abides by rules and conventions that general fiction does not, and that it has an orthodoxy he neither understands nor wishes to learn about. He thinks it is a specialist form that can only be dealt with by an editor with specialist expertise.’

27 October 2012
Communion Town by Sam Thompson – one of the best novels of 2012.
‘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.’

28 March 2012
Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3 – a polemical essay about the ineptly managed 2012 Clarke Award shortlist.
‘It seems to me that 2011 was a poor year for science fiction. Of the sixty books submitted by publishers, only a tiny handful were suitable for awards. The brutal reality is that there were fewer than the six needed for the Clarke shortlist.’

2 January 2012
The Inner Man – The Life of J. G. Ballard by John Baxter – a review of this unreliable biography of the great writer.
‘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.’

 

We are now only a few weeks away from the release of my next novel The Adjacent (to be published by Gollancz on 20th June), so it’s time to mention a debt. The background for a section of the book came from the RAF bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War. This is the second of my novels to deal with this difficult period of British history: The Separation (2002) described more directly the impact on the life of a young man who flew with Bomber Command in the early part of the war. The Adjacent does not go over similar ground, but it does touch on the same sensitive subject.

In June 2012 a permanent memorial was created to the RAF Bomber Command campaign of the second world war. The memorial is to all lives lost during the war, notably the estimated 600,000 civilians and non-combatants killed on the ground by the bombing, but it is also, at last, a memorial to the young men, all volunteers, who served as aircrew in the air force. Theirs was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war. 55,573 RAF men were killed in bombing raids during the war, and another 18,000 were wounded or taken prisoner – which was more than half the total number of crew involved (about 120,000). Serving in an RAF bomber gave a worse chance of non-survival than that of an infantry officer in the 1914-18 war. Bomber Command survivors and the families of many of the lost men have campaigned for years for the sacrifice of so many lives to be acknowledged. Winston Churchill, who through much of the war was an enthusiastic advocate of destroying German cities, and killing as many civilians as possible, changed his mind towards the end of the war, probably realizing belatedly how history might regard him. Under his orders, no Bomber Command campaign medal was ever struck, surviving career officers were demoted to their pre-war ranks, and most of the remaining civilian volunteers were demobilized and sent home as soon as possible.

The memorial is situated in Green Park, London, at the Hyde Park Corner end of Piccadilly. It contains some suitable statuary of an RAF crew, and several commemorative tablets explaining what was at stake for the ordinary people who were so terribly affected by this aspect of the war. I found it to be an unpretentious monument, and was moved by the many simple and heartfelt comments people had written on their cards and tributes.

Because none of my family or close friends were involved in RAF activities during WW2, and because I am a novelist and not an historian, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of my taking a stand on the morality or otherwise of the bombing of Germany. However, I have been reading books about this subject ever since I was a teenager, invariably torn between horror of what happened and sympathy for those caught up in it.

I have long held that many of the books written by participants in WW2 are the literary equivalent of the outpouring of poetry that appeared in the First World War. In fact, relatively little good poetry was produced in 1939-45 (Daniel Swift’s recent book Bomber County, 2010, is the best existing account of what we have — reviewed by me here), but in the immediate postwar years, starting in the late 1940s but mostly from about 1950 onwards, there was a veritable flood of books containing war stories, war memoirs, war experiences: captives escaping from prisoner-of-war camps, agents parachuted behind enemy lines, bombers attacking dams in the Ruhr, nurses and firemen in the Blitz, gunners in the rear turret of Lancaster bombers, U-boat submariners in the North Atlantic, memoirs of generals, and so on. At first, during the 1950s, these books were produced by trade publishers as general titles, but in recent years those that are reprinted come from specialist military publishers, small presses or have been sponsored by the families. Many can be found in the Military History sections of large bookstores (which like many bookshop departments can be a bit of a misleading label), and of course the internet will locate most of them. They make up a neglected but unique vernacular history of that appalling war. None of them is a literary masterpiece, but like much of the poetry from the earlier war they are written with energy and a sense of total personal experience and commitment, they are moving, they contain material that is sometimes graphic or shocking or surprising, they are above all true in every sense of the word. Here are a few, but there are literally hundreds more:

Bomber Pilot, Leonard Cheshire (1943)
The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (1949)
A WAAF in Bomber Command, Pip Beck (1989)
No Moon Tonight, Don Charlwood (1956)
The Naked Island, Russell Braddon (1952)
P.Q.17, Godfrey Winn (1947)

A postscript. I visited the Bomber Command memorial at the end of June 2012, just two days after it had been officially opened by the Queen. Many of the floral tributes and cards were still fresh. I found the one from Martin Barratt (in the photograph above, dated the day before), and took a couple of pictures of it. The poignant little message struck me as sharing the same sense of ordinary decency and pain that I had encountered many times before in these books. I moved away, looking at the other tributes. When I returned to the place where Mr Barratt’s message had been left, I discovered that it was now missing. It had not been moved to one side, it had not fallen to the floor, there was not enough of a wind to have blown it away. I looked everywhere around, but someone must have removed it. I can’t imagine why.

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 …

With writers almost universally using computers, books have been getting longer and longer. When I began publishing in the 1970s, a full-length novel was usually between 70,000 and 80,000 words, but shorter novels often appeared. During that period word-length was often an issue with publishers, or at least it was in my experience, with pressure brought to bear to make books shorter. For instance, when I delivered my fourth novel, The Space Machine, which I now know was about 120,000 words, my publishers in both the UK and the USA demanded I cut it down by about a third, mainly to save themselves some of the cost of production. The American publisher even went to the trouble of commissioning an outside editor to read my allegedly long-winded manuscript and suggest ways of cutting it down to size. I wondered at the time if the editor’s fee was going to be larger or smaller than the saving they were hoping to make – in the event it was academic, because after I had read his suggestions I declined gently and of course politely.

The UK publisher, Faber, suggested some editorial amendments to the opening chapters. While I was looking at these suggestions, and because I am helpful by nature, I took the opportunity to make a few silent excisions as well, harmless to the story or characters. These cuts overall reduced the length of the novel to just over 117,000 words, but I think no one at the publisher noticed. Their requests for me to make more radical cuts continued for several weeks afterwards, seeming to increase in desperation. The culminating event was a phone call one morning from my then editor. She told me in a panicky voice she had just seen the latest increase in the price of the glue that book binderies used on the spine. Glue! Would I not AT LAST see sense and take out the required 40,000 words of surplus text? I suppose I do not have to spell out what was my gentle and polite response.

In the end The Space Machine appeared in its 117,000-word version on both sides of the Atlantic. It was at that time the longest of my novels, but since then The Prestige, The Separation, The Islanders and now The Adjacent have all been longer. I don’t see any inherent virtue in great length for its own sake – I suppose that I am no different from many other writers, enjoying the freedoms brought to composition by digital technology – but even so my books are by no means the longest around. A few minutes in a bookshop will reveal that my stuff is modest in size, compared with many others.

Word-length aside, my books, at least in hardback, are as large as anyone else’s, and larger than some. By large I mean the dimensions of the pages, the binding.

The first hardcover novel I ever bought was John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen. In 1962 it cost me 13s 6d – 68p today, but in those days a substantial sum because my weekly pay was less than £5 a week. Trouble with Lichen was in the then-standard format for hardback fiction in Britain: 7.5″ x 5″, or what printers and binders call Crown Octavo, or C8. At a mere 190 pages it was probably no more than about 60,000 words long.

Wyndham was not at all unusual. I have just read a novel by William Sansom called The Cautious Heart, published by Hogarth Press in 1958. This was also printed in C8 and at a quick estimate was about 52,000 words in length. It was not just a good novel to read, it was enjoyable to handle the book, with its compact pages, sewn binding, clear letterpress type, and its unlaminated wraparound cover: a painting of a peaceful interior by Charles Mozley. I like to collect books from the 1950s, mostly because I’m interested in the writers of that period (Wyndham, Sansom, Linklater, Shute, Frankau, among others), but also because I enjoy the quality of the books that were printed then. They must have been the ones I used to see in bookshops during the years I was still at school, impossibly beyond my means.

When I started acquiring books seriously in the mid-1960s (becoming a reviewer was a help), many hardbacks were still coming out in C8. For instance, most of Brian Aldiss’s early books from Faber were in that format, as were the Gollancz editions of Kingsley Amis’s first books. The second hardback book I bought, later in 1962, was Amis’s Gollancz title New Maps of Hell. (16s 0d – 80p.) Perhaps because it was non-fiction it was slightly larger than the Wyndham book, more than half an inch taller and slightly wider. This was Large Crown Octavo (abbreviated to LC8, and it is still the size used for many ‘trade’ or ‘B Format’ paperbacks). By the beginning of the 1970s LC8 had become the usual size of hardback fiction. My first novel, Indoctrinaire, in 1970, was in LC8 format, in common with the rest of Faber fiction at the time (and that of most other UK publishers). All the books I published with Faber, up to The Affirmation in 1981, were LC8.

But books were getting bigger again. No different from many other titles at the time, The Glamour, 1984, was printed by Jonathan Cape in Demy Octavo (D8, or slightly larger than LC8). Novels these days are even larger: all my books since The Prestige, 1995, have been in M8 format: Medium Octavo, or 9.5″ x 6″. Even the books of my own that I had printed for Grimgrin were in M8 format – there was little choice: M8 was the only size available in that general range.

When a book is published the writer is normally consulted on many aspects: the text, of course, the cover illustration, the blurb. But other matters are at the publisher’s discretion: the typeface, the print-run, the publicity budget, the price – and the size of the pages. I sometimes wonder what the thinking must be. I assume it is partly the result of a calculation which involves the word-length, the number of pages, the type size, the costs involved, the anticipated print-run and the projected eventual retail price of the title. Also, I imagine there are practical constraints. Books are no longer printed on flat sheets (folded into ‘signatures’ of 16 pages each, then sewn into a cloth spine – ‘sewn’ binding), but on large rolls, guillotined in order and stuck with glue into a reinforced paper or plastic spine (called in a misleading way ‘perfect’ binding). You no longer see the tiny signature identifier printed at the bottom left of pages 17, 33, 49, 65 … It’s true to say that although I never really noticed them when they were there, now they are absent I rather miss them.

All the spare copies of The Affirmation and The Quiet Woman that I had for sale have now gone to their better places, and I have no more. Thank you to all who ordered, and I hope the books have arrived in good condition.

Copies remain, however, of The Glamour in its beautiful Jonathan Cape hardcover strip. The core price of this book is £4.00 a copy, with £2.00 added for p&p within the UK and Europe. If you live further afield please be prepared to add a little more for surface mail, and even more for airmail. I belatedly discovered the the UK post office has recently removed its concessionary rate for books sent abroad. No doubt this is a sign by officials of their wavering faith in the future of books, which, incidentally, I most certainly do not share.