A single sentence could render either of us insane

How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig

I love Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and his essays on mental health, plus he gives good Twitter, but I had put off reading his fiction. Why did I do that? Of course I was going to like it.

The narrator of How to Stop Time, Tom Hazard, was born in 16th century France. Now, in the 21st century, he’s working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive school. He’s not a time traveller, he has a medical condition that makes him age really really slowly. So slowly that he still looks to be in his 40s, not his 400s.

It’s science fiction that wears the science lightly but doesn’t avoid it. An explanation is given, and some details added, but the bulk of the story is about the emotional effect of the condition.

“Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?”

Continue reading “A single sentence could render either of us insane”

We miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch

occupy-me-by-tricia-sullivanOccupy Me
by Tricia Sullivan

This is a very strange genre-crossing mindbender of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though at times I had no idea what was going on.

The plot is difficult to explain. The tale is narrated by Pearl, who wakes up in a fridge in a junkyard with little knowledge of who she is, or indeed what. She has the appearance of a middle-aged tall muscular black woman, but she also has wings in a higher dimension and a strength far beyond human. She might be an angel. In alternate chapters she directly addresses a Dr Kisi Sorle, whose story initially seems to be separate from hers, though they inevitably come together.

Dr Sorle has been experiencing blackouts, after one of which he finds himself in possession of a briefcase. When he arrives at work, where he provides end-of-life care for a billionaire businessman Austen Stevens, whose corporation destroyed his home country, he finds his body taken over again, but this time he remains aware of the other man controlling him. The controlling entity opens the briefcase and the dying Stevens disappears inside it.

Continue reading “We miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch”

Too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core

William Gibson_1984_NeuromancerNeuromancer
by William Gibson

I read this book because I had arranged to take Tim to an evening with William Gibson arranged by Toppings in Bath and, having read nothing by Gibson myself, thought I might as well start with his first and most famous novel, which is 30 years old this year. It was…educational?

Gibson’s language is wonderful, both lyrical and humorous and I often felt I could visualise scenes really clearly. However, the same can’t be said for clarity of plot. Through a lot of this book I felt that I didn’t know what was happening. After I had finished it and turned to the Internet for a little guidance, it turned out I had misunderstood some early scenes and that had thrown me, but actually I had followed the majority of the action. I just somehow didn’t feel that I had.

“Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.”

The story follows Case, formerly a successful hacker in the Matrix, a kind of virtual reality, a “cyberspace” where computer data is visualised in various ways, from a pleasant beach scene to a complex maze. But at some point (before the novel begins? this bit I’m still not clear on) Case was caught stealing from an employer and a terrible punishment was wrought – a modification to his nervous system that left him unable to access the Matrix. So instead he wanders the back streets of Chiba City in Japan searching for a black market cure.

He is saved by a woman called Molly, a samurai who recruits him for a shadowy employer called Armitage, who offers to cure Case in return for a very big, dangerous job in cyberspace. He and Molly work together for Armitage but also begin to try to unravel exactly who Armitage is and what this job really is.

It’s clear from the start that this book was a major influence on the language of computing, computer games and SF films. But what’s interesting – and also no doubt part of why I got so confused about what was happening at times – is that there was a lot of terminology that’s now familiar to us all but in this book it’s not quite describing what I initially thought it was. For instance, “virtual reality” and “hacking” are words that I have clear preconceptions of but Gibson’s interpretation is wider and requires a bit of a brain shift.

Incidentally, at the Gibson talk we went to last week, he said that the only thing he felt he could predict about the future is that the division between reality and virtual reality will blur to the point that children born today won’t understand why us old folk insist on a distinction between the two. It’s clear that Gibson already thought that way when he was writing Neuromancer and it explains a lot about one of my confusions, which was that I wasn’t always sure whether a scene was happening in reality or virtual reality. But apparently the characters don’t think that way, so of course it wasn’t always distinct!

Plot confusion aside, I did enjoy this book. There are plenty of interesting, flawed characters, though none that you really get inside the head of psychologically speaking. Molly is pretty kickass, with inscrutable motivations, which I found refreshing. In fact, the whole novel felt very modern, certainly not 30 years old. I’m not sure if that’s the language or great foresight on Gibson’s part or if he’s actually managed to create something here that’s somehow timeless.

It’s also a very interesting look at addiction. Case gets physical pleasure from plugging himself into the Matrix and at the start of the novel is strung out on drugs in his attempt to achieve an equivalent high. When Armitage has Case cured of his nervous system damage, he also has Case’s pancreas altered so that no drug will have any effect on him. Initially Case is upset by this and showing signs of withdrawal, but once he gets back to cyberspace he no longer misses the drugs.

“The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”

And despite my confusion at the time, I think the start of the novel in Chiba City is a very visceral, believable depiction of poor neighbourhoods rife with prostitution, drug-taking and other crime. It’s a dark, depressing place where everyone (especially Chase) is paranoid, but not everyone is miserable. In fact, the novel as a whole has great sense of place in all its various locations, perhaps rooted in Gibson’s early travel around the globe before he settled in Vancouver.

I just wish I’d known at any point what was actually happening.

First published 1984 by Victor Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

He could almost feel his psychosoma being buoyed up

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula le Guin

Le Guin is one of the big names in modern science fiction and I had been meaning to read her for years, so I was glad to persuade my book club to join me in the adventure. Sadly, it turned out to be one of my less successful ventures into the genre, or at least a mixed result.

I loved the idea and the story built around it, and the opening chapter was for me quite attention-grabbing. George Orr is strung out on drugs in a version of Portland, Oregon that is suffering from runaway global warming, overpopulation and intense policing. As such he soon catches the attention of the authorities, who refer him to drug rehab in the form of the psychiatrist Dr Haber. Here we learn that Orr had been taking drugs to stop himself from sleeping, because when he dreams, his dreams change the world around him. Haber is initially sceptical but quickly discovers that it’s not only true, but that he can use hypnosis to influence Orr’s dreams. So begins the tug of war between the two men, fighting for control of Orr’s power.

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and dark enters it…Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defence the violence and power of the whole ocean.”

It really is a wonderfully original premise that remained original and fascinating throughout. At its heart it’s such a simple idea, but one with almost infinite possibilities, so I was glad that Le Guin kept the story focused quite narrowly on Orr. She does throw in a romance, but it’s done well, sans cheese and gives Orr another facet to consider when making major world-changing decisions.

But I must admit, for all that the idea and the story and even the details of the story thrilled me, I was not hugely impressed by the prose. I found it a little workmanlike, with sometimes wooden dialogue. Perhaps partly I was noticing aspects of the book that haven’t dated well. For instance, there’s a whole storyline revolving around skin colour that was clearly well intentioned and potentially fascinating, but the language used was so old-fashioned it made me cringe.

“Damn the stupid little bastard! He had got out of control. Haber cocked his head and maintained a tolerant, noninterfering silence; it was all he could do…
‘You said you remembered the Plague; but don’t you also remember that there wasn’t any Plague, that nobody died of pollutant cancer, that the population just kept on getting bigger and bigger? No? You don’t remember that?’
…Orr was quite white; the cheekbones stood out in his face. He sat staring up at Haber. He said nothing.”

I also struggled a little with the character of Orr. He’s so very passive, even when he tries to take control. Of course, he had to be a bit wet for the whole story to work, but it certainly makes him difficult to engage with.

However, there were elements I loved about this book. There’s a fantastic (and surreal) sense of humour that nicely balances out the more serious parts. And I like that Dr Haber is almost inscrutable, certainly neither wholly good nor wholly bad. He’s like a parable of a politician, telling himself he has the best of intentions, but in reality with all that power at his fingertips if he can just keep Orr in line… It really is a very interesting dynamic between the two men.

“After a week’s solid rain, barometric pressure was up and the sun was out again, above the river mist. Well aware from a thousand EEG readings of the link between the pressure of the atmosphere and the heaviness of the mind, he could almost feel his psychosoma being buoyed up by that bright, drying wind. Have to keep that up, keep the climate improving, he thought rapidly, almost surreptitiously.”

I have for a long time linked Ursula le Guin with Margaret Atwood because they are female North American writers of a similar age who have included a lot of SF in their back catalogues and are also friends and have discussed Big Ideas together publicly. So I suppose I expected Atwood-style prose. Instead I got an idea that was, I’d suggest, far more impressive than the basis of any Atwood book I have read, but without the mastery of language to make the most of it.

I will certainly try Le Guin again – at the very least the others of her titles included in the SF Masterworks series along with this one – but I am not yet convinced.

First published in Amazing Stories Magazine in 1971.

Source: Borrowed from Tim (who hasn’t actually read this yet, so I will have to get him to read it and have another mini book club about it!)

Dipping my toes in

Two Tales and Eight Tomorrows
by Harry Harrison

Having noticed that my last two book club reads were a tad heavy on the religion front, Tim recommended that I read the Harry Harrison short story “The streets of Ashkelon” and dug it out for me. It happened to be the first story in this collection and I enjoyed it so much I carried on reading the rest of the book.

This was my first experience of Harry Harrison (I think) and I was impressed. Each story has a unique, often complex sci-fi setting but the tales told are very human, accessible and warm. The details of space transport or alien beings are given but not lingered over, except where they are a plot point.

I liked every story but I can see why the blurb on the back cover picks out two in particular. “The streets of Ashkelon” looks at a peaceful, literal-minded alien race who have no concept of gods or religion, until man intervenes. It is an awful and thought-provoking parable. “I always do what teddy says” is just as chilling as that title suggests. Every child has a teddy bear that is programmed by the government to teach children everything from manners to morals. Which is clever but terrifying and, of course, though the idea behind it is to create a better world, there is the potential for a frightening level of manipulation.

My other favourites were “Captain Bedlam” – in which the precise details of space travel are kept a closely guarded secret from the public and space pilot Captain Jonathon Bork feels a complete fraud but can never tell anyone why – and “Rescue operation”, in which an alien falls into the ocean near the coast of a very rural Yugoslav village and visiting astrophysicist Dr Kukovic must cope with narrow-minded fear and lack of provisions in his attempt to keep the alien alive.

There was a certain tendency toward military characters, but that is really my only qualm about these stories and I look forward to reading more from Tim’s vast Harry Harrison collection.

This anthology first published 1965 by Victor Gollancz.
A publication history of each story can be found on Harrison’s website.

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3