Sunday, 16 April 2017 – Having finished last night my SECOND book from the Reading List I’m putting brief notes about them first. TWO books when I usually don’t read any listed books??? Well, this month the genre is SciFi (neither book is at all gay) and that’s what I’m researching right now for my current novel (Oracle: 2121 – watch out for it in about 3-4 years time).
Clade by James Bradley. (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; 2015)
I have to say I disagree with the eminent people and journals who praised this book. What one calls “Thrilling, chilling and riveting” I thought was pretty boring and banal. The dull, steady tone of the writing seemed almost determined to stop me getting excited. And none of the events – even the supposedly sensational bit near the end (which just peters out to …. nothing) – has any pace of excitement or even real danger. Having watched TV reports on that cyclone recently, the flooding was a much more engaging experience than reading this novel. Surely, a novel is supposed to be more than an objective statement of events. There seemed to be no developing story. On page 58 I wrote a note saying that I hadn’t had any real desire to keep reading for about 20 pages and was only doing so out of “duty”. I wrote, “I keep asking when will something interesting happen? So far have never asked ‘Wonder what happens next?’” Yes, it’s very predictable. BUT the actual events aren’t by their nature boring. It’s just the bland way he writes about them. The almost obligatory autistic character had some interest but even that died off in amongst the tedious writing.
The Fold by Peter Clines. (B/D/W/Y, New York; 2015)
More interesting as a story but incredibly irritating. My interest was roused at first by the idea of folding a map so places are brought close and instant travel is possible. This is how my aliens travelled in a novel I wrote 20-odd years ago (The Eleventh Joke – never published), not that I invented the idea. I read it in a New Scientist mag and then in 1994 the Stargate movie came up with the rings business and the wormholes.
Maybe I missed the comic tone of this book and wanted a more serious approach to the adventure. I was really irritated by the constant smartarse dialogue – a total cliché now in American movies, TV & (apparently) novels. No matter how dangerous or tense the situation the characters can manage to wisecrack – in this book one of them can even manage to say “Fuck me” several hundred times and on numerous occasions the response to that goes something like, “Too busy right now. But later?” I started noting my irritation on page 23 – I rush to point out that I purchased these 2 books so allowed myself to write notes in them. I was impressed that the main guy Mike had such a high/rapid IQ that he had to count to 5 before answering so people wouldn’t think he hadn’t listened or thought about the ideas. (I know people like that!) BUT that was p37 and I got heartily sick of everyone in the damn book doing various counts for various reasons. Mike had about 10 different reasons to do a count. Also later (p189) we are given a little lecture on how all bright people have social problems (US cliché again!). At p145, I pencilled in, “If someone says sorry one more time …” The pace is fairly brisk but I still was annoyed by the constant “cultural” references to TV shows and movies. (Probably part of the jokey, let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously, style of the story-telling.) The number of pointless descriptions of minor – no, totally insignificant – details is annoying because so pointless.
Is it an interesting story? Well, sort of. Towards the end the laying on of mega-huge twists becomes a bit too “horror” rather than SciFi. But the overall tale is again marred by the standard (mostly US) approach – this is an American-male-saves-the-world while breaking all the rules and keeping everyone, even his own team, in the dark. At least Mike does have some special qualities – ultra-photographic memory & Einstein-like IQ – but even though he’s not a he-man type the book still has him wounded to the point of near death at least 3 times while allowing him to carry off amazing physical feats. To be fair, a few other characters do the same thing, including some of the women. And even though none of the team knows what is happening, how it is happening, or how to stop it, they are determined not to seek outside help. When they finally do seek a bit of help it proves inadequate and the team – led by Mike – has to resolve it all themselves. It’s an absolute cinch that the movie will star Bruce Willis as Mike.
Maybe the separate jokes and the whole-book joke just didn’t work on me. Also it seemed weird to me that in 2015 a character would name her cat “Isis” and the characters would use that word as “a safe word” when they go into a dangerous situation (p253). Is that a joke? The appearance of 2 people in black suits at the end of the book offering Mike a job in a mysterious, deeply secret organisation … Is that a joke?
Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. (Orion Books, London; 1958, 2000) (another SciFi)
Aldiss is (apparently) one of SciFi’s great story-tellers. I was fascinated by the fact that this novel was written in the late 1950s – in a note he says the 2000 version has “alterations here and there” – because he presents psychology/psychiatry as a religion in the far future period it’s set in. The common greeting from these folks is, “Expansion to your ego, son/sir/madam/ etc.” And the response is “At your expense, friend/father/etc.” Doesn’t entirely make sense to me but I probably don’t know enough about Freud. The story is hard to grasp for quite some time, in fact I gave up after 40 pages and then some months later tried it again and pushed through and felt moderately rewarded. As it takes Aldiss almost half the book before several vital bits of info are released and a further several chapters before the reader has enough data to understand the story and even then a couple of very nice twists near the end, I won’t give anything away.
It is published with a cover masthead declaring “SF Masterworks” – so it must be good. And I’m glad I read it though obviously I was a bit slow at realising what was really going on. As well as trotting out “Froyd’s” theories as religion it has a fairly backward view of women’s roles in this futuristic society. Froyd knows what might have happened if any of the characters turned out to be gay.
(NOTE – Aldiss in mid-career wrote a very explicit sexual-blossoming-of-a-young man novel. It’s cover is pornographic. It’s called The Hand-Reared Boy. The adventures are all heterosexual. An Observer reviewer wrote, “So filthy, I read it with the door of my office closed, as if afraid of being caught.”)
ADDING TO my Isherwood/Auden collection – with 1,800 pages (in 3 volumes) of CI’s diaries, 10 novels & fictional/biogs, & 2 books about his spiritual life (not to mention the various DVDs relating to “Cabaret” & his life) PLUS 3 books of WH’s poetry & philosophy & his biog, I couldn’t resist buying (on sale) the 670pp biography of Stephen Spender, famous poet who went to Oxford with Auden, and maybe/maybe-not to bed with both of them as one does when one is at Oxbridge in the early twentieth century. Stephen Spender: A Literary Life by John Sutherland (Oxford Uni Press; 2004.) Although Sutherland is a professor at a couple of impressive universities his writing is very lively and draws you in. He tells a terrific story about life amongst the great writers, great artists, and the famous of Spender’s time (Francis Bacon, Hughes & Plath, Stravinsky, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Gore Vidal, Gide & Camus, etc etc) as well as about Spender’s life and work. If anything the detail is almost too much but the number of fascinating anecdotes makes the long read worthwhile. Part way through this book I found a 2nd hand copy of his Journals (1939-1983; from 30-74) in a bookshop and find it interesting to cross-check it against the huge biog. Interesting that Spender in his journal gives 7 pages to his meeting with the gay spy Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1960, but the biog only gives it a couple of paras.
GAY LIFE – he followed Auden and Isherwood to Berlin “for the boys” and had a busy gay life. At 25 he fell in love with a woman and married her while still on with his gay lover who went off to the Spanish civil war. Spender had to rescue him. Divorce came soon after. Later (1941) he married again and stayed married until his death (1995). He had two children. His daughter married Barry Humphries who became close friends with Spencer. He was eventually knighted and lived until 85. Even near to his death a critic of Spender referred to him – “… as a nut, a pimp, a homosexual, and a woefully imperceptive husband.”
A fascinating historical view of the 20th Century through the life of one man.