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When we got the call saying we were going to be on the show, Mom went nuts. She kept saying, “I knew they’d pick us!” It was kind of sad – does she think they chose us because we’re so fascinating? But I know the truth. They picked us because they think we’re this big mother-daughter bomb ticking away with secrets and they’re just waiting for  us to explode.

The other night I was still looking for book recommendations and I found this list on Popsugar about titles currently being adapted to. The seventh out of the fifteen books listed is The Dogs of Babel, the first book by author Carolyn Parkhurst. Once again sadly my library did not have a copy, but thanks to the Wollongong council online  service I reserved this book.

Which was handy.

We join a number of contestants participating in a globe-hopping reality television show that bears a strong resemblance to The Amazing Race. The fictional show is called ‘Lost and Found’ and also features teams of two competing in a race around the world, having to solve riddles and race down foreign streets yelling at the native passersby for location of certain landmarks. They also have to carry an increasing number of exotic objects, including some cacophonous parrots, from city to city.

Yes it all seems somewhat familiar. There are also questions as to how ‘real’, all of this is. Laura and her daughter Cassie are dealing with what appear to be typical parent and child dilemmas. Christian evangelist couple Justin and Abby have gone on the show to preach the joys of abandoning a homosexual lifestyle for the love of Christ. Brothers Jeff and Carl are the comedians of the group, although both have recently been divorced from their respective wives. Finally Dallas and Juliet are former child stars making one last break for fame. A million dollars is at stake for the contestants, but their dignity is also at risk, their lives being exploited for entertainment value.

Each of the people involved in the Lost and Found contest are hiding secrets. As time passes, the stress mounts and alien cultures are boiled down to a series of travelogue pre-scripted moments for the viewers back in the States. What constitutes a genuine ‘emotional journey’, for the individuals on camera and what is nothing less than the callous exploitation of people, reduced through the show to one-note clichés.

Parkhurst cleverly tells the story from the perspective of each of the individuals taking part in the show. Often the differing accounts reveal more about the events described and the reader learns more about each of the people’s past, including repressed sexuality, infant illness, hidden pregnancy and hypocrisy. At base, however, this story begins and ends with the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

What I admire most about this book is how neatly the author avoids the trap of pointing the finger of blame at reality television for being an entirely corrupt and exploitative  medium. Juliet and Dallas are not the only actors – everyone on the show is performing, to some degree or another, pretending to a sense of normality that does not exist. The book is hopeful where others might be snide, or cynical, which is something I find greatly endearing.

Yes the issues featured here are quite emotionally draining, but at the same time there is a surprising sense of positivity throughout.

Timely and mature storytelling.

Henry told Carson about Marleen.

Carson wanted to know if he got into her pants.

Henry told him no, but that he probably would before long.

“What? You probably will?”

“I don’t know. I’ve changed my ideas about a lot of things.”

“What happened?”

“I started reading the Bible.”

Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s top. Like many bookish teenagers I suspect I first sought it out because it is quoted so liberally in poorly written sf dystopias. See also for Yeat’s The Second Coming. This is what the apocalypse was for me – an entertaining mythological fantasy. It’s got monsters and vast armies and cataclyms. Great stuff.

Of course the Bible on the whole, as observed by both Douglas Rushkoff and Alex Droog, is filled with fantastical creatures and horrific violence. Not quite the stern moral text familiar to us from childhood religion classes.

This novel touches on the ambiguity of the Bible itself as an analogy for the seeming innocence of its principle character, Henry Dampier, a young Bible-salesman. Henry is picked up by Preston Clearwater, a professional car-thief and con-man on the look out for a gullible mark to help him rip off a number of cars. With his polite Baptist manners and folksy stories about his family, the criminal believes he has hit the jackpot.

He tells Henry that he is an undercover FBI operative, on the trail of a car-theft ring, operating between North Carolina and Georgia. The young man swallows the lie whole and excitedly promises not to reveal to anyone Preston’s secret. Together they scope out likely targets, steal cars and divide the proceeds – all, Preston assures his young ward, in the aid of preserving their cover.

What he does not realize is that Henry is actually quite a deep thinker. For one thing, he’s been reading his Bible and begun to notice a number of inconsistencies. His whole moral compass has become thrown out of skew. When he meets the charming Marleen Green, a girl working at a fruit-stall by the side of the road, he figures if sex outside of marriage is good enough for Abraham, it’s good enough for him.

I really enjoy how this book plays with stereotypes of the naieve young man with devout beliefs and then turns them on their head. Henry is introduced to us as this simple-minded Bible salesman, but slowly as he comes to question the word of God, we learn more about his past and his complicated family history. His Baptist background, once again, is assumed to be dominated by religion, but he is encouraged by his Uncle Jack, for one, to notice how people who identify religious curiousity as blasphemy generally don’t know the answer to the question.

Cleverly the judgement call made by Preston Clearwater is linked to the reader’s initial perception of poor Henry. By challenging this, Clyde Edgerton transforms a seemingly simple yarn about a con-artist and his dupe into something more thoughtful.

Personally it called to mind my own adolescent hero-worship of Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, fiercely intelligent and fond of claiming that he was not just a comedian, but a modern-day preacher. When he died at age 32 he had single-handedly created a critical ethos that transformed contemporary political satire.

The book is written with a dry sense of humour, with several comical moments notably involving cats. The character of Mrs Albright enjoys ventriloquism and throws her voice so that her many cats, named after the apostles, seem capable of speech. There is also a hysterical burial scene, which gives an early hint at Henry’s powers of improvisation.

However, at times the narrative is too dry, the plot progression too sedate. I never really felt Henry was in any danger. Everything just resolves itself quite nicely, as if in a easy-going Biblical parable set in the American South. What starts as ostensibly a two-man story about Henry and Preston quickly comes to concern the former almost entirely, with the con-man shoved to the narrative margins.

To my mind this creates an imbalance in the story and I found myself wondering what Patricia Highsmith would have made of similar material. Something more poisonous no doubt, but wickedly funny.

All in all this is a pleasant and diverting satire, with a wise young hero whose inquisitiveness introduces much of the humour. Good fun.

Watching the Dyalo snipe and bicker had disabused Martiya of the naive notion that tribal peoples would live in peaceful harmony with one another, just as watching the villagers hack down virgin forest and set it on fire for their fields had disabused Martiya of the notion that the Dyalo would live in placid harmony with nature. But as an anthropologist, she couldn’t indulge in such diverting pleasures as blood quarrels. She needed to be a neutral Switzerland, an unencumbered Sweden.

There is an amusing moment in this novel when the father of a family of Christian missionaries, attempting the save the souls of a little-known (and entirely fictional) tribe called the Dyalo from ‘enslavement’, by their pagan deities and spirits, discovers that America is in thrall to a film called Star Wars. This seeming embrace of neo-paganism, in particular the significant phrase ‘May the Force be with you’, strikes him as a revolt against two thousand years of Christian tradition. He comes to this conclusion after reading an evangelical magazine titled ‘Christian Family Alert!’.

I suspect Mr Belinski and I were reading the same magazines sometime back in the eighties, for my grandmother had a subscription to a very similar publication which in turn memorably featured a hysterical broadside against the mystic mumbo-jumbo George Lucas served up in his space-opera/swashbuckler. I became alarmed at the thought that my enthusiasm for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends was in fact a betrayal of my faith. In tears I confessed everything to my grandmother. She snorted in contempt and told me that I read too much.

On reflection, she was quite right, but sadly I never grew out of reading.

Berlinski’s astonishing debut began as an earnest anthropological study based upon his own experiences in Thailand as a journalist. Then slowly mutated into a fictional account of a different Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, in Thailand, who stumbles upon the remarkable life of a woman jailed for murder, who wrote an in-depth anthropological study while she was behind bars.

The story is in effect a murder mystery, albeit a post-modern one, with Berlinski-narrator seeking to explain the circumstances of Martiya van der Leun’s imprisonment. As his fascination with the mystery grows, his relationship with his own partner and any plans for a return to America to find a real career, raise a family, etcetera, begin to drift away.

A large section of the novel is concerned with the proselytising American family he meets in Chiang Mai and their history. The Walkers (a significant family name in American history) have for three generations preached the word of the gospel in Asia, only arriving in Thailand after being forcibly removed from China following the Communist Revolution. David Luke Walker (Berlinski perhaps setting up the Star Wars joke early on in the novel…) was the latest scion, a young man who was gifted with incredible charisma and charm, born to Dyalo culture. After all he had been born in the jungle. The narrator slowly worms his way into the trust of the clan to discover how Martiya van der Leun first met them – and then killed their favourite son under the influence of demons.

This novel manages to parallel the two Western intrusions into native culture quite ably. On the one hand the missionaries have arrived to rescue the Dyalo tribe from themselves; van der Leun comes to study them in their native habitat, hoping to interfere with their day-to-day lives as little as possible. The Walkers continually refer to America as ‘home’, despite only  David’s mother having spent more than eight months at a time there. They also euphemistically insist on referring to a person’s death as having been called ‘Home’. The apocalypse is on the horizon and it is their duty to save as many souls before the Rapture.

There is a wonderful moment when a teenage David, in a flash of rebellion, sneaks into a cinema to watch a screening of Blacula. Similar to Paul Schrader’s experience of encountering film for the first time as an adult, following a sheltered, religious upbringing, the young man is hooked by the silver screen and abandons his faith for a brief time, before his return to the jungle villages, where his fate waits along with Martiya. The scene is beautifully captured by Berlinski. Much of the novel carries a knowing insight into the minds of these characters.

A former manager recommended this book – I am very grateful. A wonderful debut.

The rim of the Ringworld grew from a dim line occluding a few stars, to a black wall. A wall a thousand miles high, featureless, though any features would have been blurred by speed. Half a thousand miles away, blocking ninety degrees of sky, the wall sped past at a hellish 770 miles per second. Its edges converged to vanishing points, to points at infinity at either end of the universe; and from each point at infinity, a narrow line of baby blue shot straight upwards.

This is a book I have been aware of for many years, but never took the time to read. In fact just last week I saw a copy, the very same edition from The Gollancz Space Opera Collection (pretty covers) in fact, in Elizabeth’s Books in Sydney, but passed it up in favour of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Then on the weekend while I was browsing in the library I came upon it again. This was fate I decided. I have no idea why I never got round to reading Ringworld before, or its sequels, as I have read Niven. In 1971 he wrote an infamous parody called Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. Lampooning the, already existing, fanboy fascination with the sex life of Superman, it has inadvertently influenced writers of the comic book itself in the years since.

Louis Wu has turned 200 years old and is so bored by his birthday party that he is racing daylight across the Earth itself, by jumping from city to city to extend his special day as much as he can. Halfway through a jump – the primary method of transportation on Earth in the 29th century – he finds himself redirected to an anonymous room with a most unusual occupant. Calling himself Nessus, Louis finds himself in the company of a representative of that mysterious alien race referred to as the puppeteers, a two-headed non-humanoid, covered in fur and standing upright on three legs. Nessus explains that Louis has been chosen for a special mission, one which he may be especially suited for. Known for his repeated sabbaticals from human space, Louis is a xenophile. He has lived so long that only the very peculiar remains interesting to him and the puppeteers have something very unusual they want him to inspect.

Nessus selects a crew of three companions for a journey to a structure in space detected by the puppeteer race. He chooses a Kzin ambassador named Speaker-to-Animals to accompany them, as this aggressive space-faring race, recently humbled by a series of disastrous wars with humans, has been judged suitable for the rigours of the mission. Finally there is Teela Brown, also human and a recent romantic conquest of Louis’. Nessus explains that as she is the result of several generations of successful breeding, thanks to population control lotteries on Earth, she has been judged to have evolved the trait of luck itself. Louis finds the thought somewhat amusing, but fails to dissuade either Nessus, whom he thinks is superstitious, or the fatally curious Teela, not to come.

The prize is a puppeteer vessel the Long Shot, which will change the destinies of both the human and Kzin races. In reality though the Ringworld itself, the structure that fascinates the puppeteers, is prize enough, as it may be the solution to the problems of all races. A self-sustaining artificial structure that encircles a star.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps you have heard of the Dyson sphere, a heady example of blue-sky thinking here utilized for Niven’s purposes. I have often wondered how many crazy ideas that may one day be plausible are hidden away in the annals of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the use of a planetary body’s gravity to slingshot a vessel into space. NASA eventually accomplished the feat.

In fact Niven’s book resembles one of Clarke’s, Rendezvous With Rama, despite predating it by only two years. In both we have humans arriving on an alien structure that appears to be artificial, yet is capable of sustaining life. Niven, however, has a healthier sense of humour, especially where sex is concerned. Louis and Teela’s lovemaking is at one point interrupted by a hunting Kzin bounding over them.

Flirting with theories of evolution and religion, this is a quick page-turner with a fascinating premise. An enjoyable yarn.

‘This is all the land of Blarnia,’ said the Faun. ‘From the traffic light in the western woods to the great castle of Cair Amel on the eastern sea, bordered on the south by Oz, on the west by Middle Earth, and on the north by Made-upistan.’

‘I – I got in through the wardrobe,’ said Loo.

Mr Dumbness looked at her in disbelief. ‘You got here through a wardrobe?’ he asked. ‘What are you, high?’

The explanatory title to this book is ‘The Lying Bitch in the Wardrobe’. This is all you need to know about it before diving in.

The plot of this novel is startlingly familiar to that of some obscure book published some seventy years ago by a little-known hermit called Jack Lewis. The afterword by author Michael Gerber expresses mystification at his having being plagiarised years before his own birth. It would seem the publishing industry is even stranger than anyone suspected.

Four children are sold by their parents to a crotchety old professor, who needs subjects for his invasive medical experiments.  Pete, Sue, Loo and Ed Perversie were told by this was to protect them from the ‘invisi-bombing of London’. Of the four children, only Ed has the common sense to realize this is a colossal fib. He despairs that he has been laboured with three such idiotic siblings. Pete is a hyperactive thug suffering from ADD, whose solution to every problem is to try and dig a hole. Sue is marginally more intelligent, but insists on thinking the best of everyone. Loo is determinedly suicidal and bears a suspicious resemblance to a neighbour who lived down the street from the family home.  One afternoon, while hiding from the demented professor who now legally owns them, the younger sister discovers a magic wardrobe (as well as a looking glass, a deep hole and a tesseract). Loo is transported to the weird world of Blarnia and meets the conniving Faun Mr Dumbness. In typical fashion she ignores every sign that he intends to feed her to the Wide Witch.

When Ed follows his sister he discovers strange and very adult feelings towards the ruling monarch of Blarnia, a compulsive eater obsessed with trying the delicacy known as ‘Son of Atom and Daughter of Steve’. Precocious to a fault, Ed fails to recognize the danger posed to his own life by the Wide Witch and agrees to bring the other Perversie children to her castle. On their travels across the winter wonderland the kids encounter other exotic creatures, such as a pair of lesbian beavers, a gin-loving Father Xmas and the cat-messiah Asthma, whose carpentry skills leave a little to be desired.

This very special book comes with an extra feature, called CensorVision, which spares readers from any offensive ideas and/or words. Also most of the characters have already read ahead to the end of the novel, just so they know how to move the plot along when required. Which is a good thing too, as the land of Blarnia is teeming with unnecessary plot devices and thinly disguised allegorical characters, not to mention a long suffering messiah, who wonders if his believers will ever understand his simple message that ‘Killing People is Bad!’

Unfortunately the relentless mockery of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe feels like shooting fish in a barrel. There have, after all, been many other piss-takes of C.S. Lewis’ rigidly allegorical Christian fantasy, including the cartoon South Park. What I love is the idea that Edward is actually the voice of reason. Throw in some amusing authorial asides and the laziness of this parody itself becomes the chief joke of the book.

It makes me wonder what a more ambitious take on the material might have been like. What if Jadis was in fact a democracy and climate change activist, attempting to enlighten the pagan people of Narnia to the realities of science. They insist on worshipping a lion, who can allegedly talk, although all he ever seems to do is eat people. Then four agent provocateurs from a foreign land agitate the natives into a frenzy of mob violence and establish a horrific fundamentalist junta.

Comedy!

There are six thousand New Men on Earth, ruling with the help, such as it is, from four thousand Unusuals. Ten thousand in a Civil Service hierarchy that cuts everyone else out…five billion Old Men with no way – He lapsed into silence and then he did a surprising thing: he raised his hand, and a plastic cup of water floated directly to him, depositing itself in the grip of his hand.

 

It is the 22nd century and mankind has been divided into three distinct strains. The New Men are an intellectual race of humans, capable of advanced computation and extremely arrogant towards the others. The Unusuals are gifted with psychic abilities and maintain an uneasy peace with the New Men overseeing the administration of the world. Finally, the Old Men, so named for their lack of notable advantages, trapped in dead-end jobs and prevented from entering the Civil Service, which is designed to exclude all applicants from their caste.

 

Nick Appleton is a law-abiding Old Man whose last hope is that his son Bobby passes the test and is accepted into an administrative role. When his son is rejected, Appleton finally snaps and sets out on a course of action that unwittingly leads to a revolution.

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 reads like a mash-up of Aldous Huxley and Orson Welles, with Philip K. Dick‘s own recurring themes setting the pace of the novel. Characters pop pills in order to experience emotion, but drinking alcohol is a criminal offense. Television is strictly controlled by the New Man/Unusual government, but viewers are fooled into thinking the media is interactive as when they speak out loud the news anchor replies. There’s even a revolutionary saviour, Thors Provoni, an Old Man who fled into space to find a solution to the tyrannical oppression of his people. After Appleton’s son is rejected by the Civil Service, the long-vanished rebel leader sends a communique to the Under Men revolutionary movement from deep space. He is returning and he is bringing help.

 

Dick’s novels always manage to impress. The science fiction genre is employed as a vehicle for his own musings on religion, identity and morality. There is a poignant moment in this novel when a character states that the ‘aging disease’ was cured in 1985. Dick died in 1982, shortly before the release of Blade Runner based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Often when reading Dick’s novels I feel he was attempting a personal dialogue with his readers, even going so far as to insert his fictionalised self into the narrative. In engaging with his stories on such a personal level, Dick sought to export his personal problems onto the typed pages of manuscript. His own personal therapy released to the world.

 

Dick was married five times and his protagonists are often themselves unhappily married. Shortly after their story begins they encounter a younger, more attractive woman, although disenchantment soon follows the initial attraction. Our Friends from Frolix 8 is no different. Appleton meets a young seller of revolutionary pamphlets named Charlotte, then leaves his wife to live a life of adventure with her. Dick was also known to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and it’s amusing to read his take on a society that has repealed anti-drug legislation, but has then arbitrarily ruled against alcohol.

 

 

Our Friends from Frolix 8 is a book inspired by professional and romantic frustrations. I describes a world controlled by forces that can see into people’s minds and manipulate their thoughts. The New Men/Unusuals oligarchy is callous in its treatment of the human population under its control, imprisoning and executing anyone who dares to read the contraband of Thors Provoni. Yet when the are faced with a force more powerful than they, Dick elicits a surprising degree of compassion for the bewildered one-time oppressors.

 

I would recommend this, or in fact almost any book by Dick to readers. Just get started! This is why I chose one of his novels at such an early stage of this blog. I knew that I could fly through the clipped prose and terse dialogue in a single day, then sit back and enjoy the exhilarating thoughts of his extraordinary imagination. Give him a go.

 

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