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Lint’s first novel was published by Dean Rodence’s Never Never company in New York. The relationship between Rodence and Lint was one of complete mistrust, rage and bloody violence. When submitting work in person, Lint insisted on appearing dressed as some kind of majorette. ‘He was a large man and clearly wasn’t happy at having to do this,’ explains Fleece. ‘He blamed Rodence, was resentful. I still don’t know where he got the idea he had to dress that way when handing his stuff in.’
Obviously I had to come back for more.
Lint is the biography of a eccentric science fiction author named Jeff Lint, detailing his career writing for pulp magazines such as ‘Startling, Astounding, Baffling, Useless and Terrible‘ to his abortive animated show Catty and the Major and finally his retreat into reclusiveness, interrupted by the occasional obsessive fan. Steve Aylett describes the circumstances surrounding the conception of novels such as One Less Bastard, The Stupid Conversation and I Blame Ferns, as well as his controversial comic book The Caterer.
Aylett also discusses Lint’s series of failed marriages, including one union which collapsed when a presumed facial scar belonging to the author was revealed to be a sleep-crease and then there’s his fractious rivalry with fellow author Cameo Herzog, who goes out of his way to destroy the career of the bemused Lint. Success came tantalisingly close for the writer. His forays into entertainment produced scripts that eventually became Patton and Funny Girl - although the final screenplays were entirely different (George C. Scott is revealed to have been quite fond of Lint’s original piece Kiss Me, Mister Patton) He had less success with Star Trek, deciding to emphasise the essential boredom of Gene Roddenberry‘s future utopia with an episode titled The Encroaching Threat. While the teleplay was never filmed, Aylett shares with readers some highlights of the script including:
For the duration of ‘The Encroaching Threat’ the new character Chekov is said to be ‘flirting with McCoy’ and Sulu is repeatedly seen ‘lurking’ near a doorway while ‘sinister theramin music’ plays.
As it happens this book has been made into a film, a documentary in fact on the life of the mysterious Lint, with the likes of Stewart Lee, Jeff Vandermeer and Alan Moore appearing to discuss the legacy of the author. Here‘s one of the teaser trailers released.
This is possibly the funniest book I have read in….it’s the funniest book I have read! Jeff Lint is part Philip K. Dick, part L. Ron Hubbard, with a couple of other parodies thrown in to the mix as well. Aylett’s insistence on the writer’s genius, investing great meaning into his every utterance such as this line from his autobiography The Man Who Gave Birth To His Arse: ‘What I wrote then was a surrender to the bathysphere part of the human mind. Despite platitude universes beyond the door, I dealt in squalls of unimaginable intensity. I was in the fully-fledged moment. Happy and volatile, I roared through the labyrinth of bad gems,’ - making for a very amusing, neat satire of academic overanalysis.
One final story. While I was enjoying Lint on the train home from work one evening this young woman across the aisle started loudly conversing with a friend on the phone. I very quickly knew more than I cared to know about her social life, her education and opinions on said friend’s intelligence – so I, in turn, began to read from Lint, loudly and clearly, declaiming Aylett’s absurdist wonderland to the carriage at large.
I still maintain that my obnoxious performance was the more entertaining of the two.
Read Lint. It’s good.
Desjani looked intrigued, checking the orders herself. “You’re sort of tacking the old Five Five onto the bottom edge of Five Four.”
“With the Seventh Battleship Division sticking below the edge of the old Five Four?” She smiled again. “I can’t wait to see it.”
As long as we’re not talking about the likes of the literature of Holocaust denial, or of paedophilic samizdats presenting Josef Fritzl as the heroic victim of an immoral and corrupt state, then there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where the enjoyment of a work of fiction is concerned. We know this. Certainly there’s nothing in the slightest that’s immoral about Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet, an apparently never-ending series of novels concerning the attempts of “a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest” for home, as Patrick Macgee’s opening voice-over for the first series of Battlestar Galactica used to put it. In truth, these books are marked by a deliberate and principled tone which might be thought to reflect the self-restraint of a patrician cynic and his compassionate misanthropy, and Mr Campbell’s epic seems obviously meant as a cautionary tale against the tendency of human beings to fail to heed the lessons of the past, or, indeed, those of the present day either. In that, The Lost Fleet is a profoundly conservative text in terms of the need to respect authority and retain the tested values of the past, but it’s written in such a way as to also deplore such recent examples of backsliding from the principles of Western civil society such as torture, the brutalization of civilians, and the general abandonment of respect for the human rights of supposed opponents.
Beyond the central and incorruptibly heroic character of Captain “Black Jack” Geary himself, who’s both unconvincingly irresistible to women and quite incapable of slipping up in his campaign against the dastardly Syndics, the Lost Fleet is almost exclusively peopled by thinly-drawn moral idiots. This is didactic fiction of the most well-meaning and clumsy fashion. On one side, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s Captains who’d like to see Black Jack return to Earth as their tyrant, and, on the other, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s captains who’d like to dethrone our hero because, quite frankly, he keeps winning battles while denying them their chances of individual acclaim. For the military of this far future is enraptured by an individualistic fighting ethos more in keeping with Captain Bluntschli than poor noble, sensible Captain Geary, and most everyone in The Lost Fleet is at best ethically and practically short-sighted, and, at worst, some combination of mad, corrupt, confused or stupid.
I recognise this world. If the characters are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from their own ignorance, well, their ignorance is at least familiar. I’m certainly not ashamed to be consuming a product with such a world-view. And in a book that’s so obviously aimed at readers who love to lose themselves in the details of how hundreds of very big and very powerful spaceships can blow each other up, and in the context of a recognisably modern-day military structure transposed to a distant tomorrow, it’s also refreshing to note that political authority is here portrayed as being by necessity superior to that of any futuristic MacArthur’s, worthy or not.
But there’s little room that’s been made in these novels for anything but space battles and the broadest politics of the fleet, and each book’s plot is soon revealed to be an over-familiar and yet rather strangely relaxing variation upon that of its predecessors. The Lost Fleet, trapped behind the lines of the Syndics and desperate to return home after a disastrous defeat, will arrive at a new enemy star system, argue among themselves about who should be in charge, learn a new lesson about how to fight as a team under the leadership of the good and decent Captain, and then head off in the direction of another such situation. The formula is never substantially challenged, and the focus of the text never concerns itself with the lot or inner life of anyone who isn’t wearing a Captain’s uniform or carrying a politician’s brief. And, similarly, each book contains pretty much exactly the same minor notes to accompany the great and very long depictions of battle and grousing senior officers; Captain Geary indulges modestly in sex and the stiffest of philosophical debates with the perplexing and very loud Co-President Rione; Captain Geary sits in his captain’s chair and guides several hundred ships in their missions; Captain Geory gathers hints as to the existence of a secret and menacing alien race; Captain Geary attempts to convince the Syndics that their mortal enemies are jolly good chaps really; Captain Geary tries to remind his women and men about the forgotten decencies of his long-dead era; the same cards fall in almost precisely the same order every time.
There’s something about this repetition which makes the many unconvincing aspects of the future of the Lost Fleet less distracting than it might otherwise be. It’s as if the form of the books has been designed to encourage us not to linger anywhere on the page, as if pausing in our skimming would be to defeat the purpose of the text in the first place. And so, the sheer implausibility of a legendary Captain freed from a hundred year’s suspended animation who’s immediately able to command a host of spacegoing warships in a superior fashion to their own crewfolk is actually quite easy to disregard. By the time the daftness of each daft premise becomes obvious, the reader has already learned not to pay too much attention to the strangely critically-applauded “realism” of these tales. If the politics of the future appear confused, as they are with the Syndics, a North Korean-like totalitarian state with relatively autonomous and affluent corporations, or if the much-praised realism of the space battles is undermined by the presence of get-out-of-jail-free cards such as jump gates, inertial dampners and an unconvincing lack of human/AI interfaces, well, we can just skip that aspect of the story and move on to another sequence which we can, similarly and in its turn, leap-frog our way across too.
Racing dreamily through the text is a process only encouraged by the fact that little on the human scale counts for anything much in these Lost Fleet novels at all. Even the extremes of wartime experience, the maiming and murdering of thousands of crew-members of the Alliance’s ships, always occur at a celestial distance and to a spectacularly deadening degree. The focus of the books is instead always upon the smallest core of cast members, who, untouched by suffering beyond angst and safely protected in the fleet’s flagship, watch on as this cruiser and that space station are bombarded and destroyed. As a reflection of the reality of war for the elite of the officer class in a technological era, it’s a choice on Mr Campbell’s part that’s hard to argue with. But as a way of helping the reader care about these terrible events, it’s problematical, because it reduces a book about war to the status of a tale about a man watching a war progress on a desk console.
With so few characters ever interacting with Captain Geary on any level beyond the giving and taking of orders, the Lost Fleet is reduced to a great convoy of ghosts. Thinly depicted Captains are summoned up now and then for plot purposes, but they never exist beyond the brief functions which they’ve been created to serve, and the reader can so easily picture them vanishing into thin air as soon as Black Jack turns his gaze elsewhere. Mr Campbell’s writing succeeds in delivering the details of his plot, but there’s no trace of individuality and character in his prose. Entire books can pass mechanically before the reader’s eyes without the flat consistency of Mr Campbell’s prose being violated by the presence of a single purposefully memorable phrase of any sort. His is writing which is utterly endearing in the lack of authorial ambition that it displays, and for all that it might be praised for a lack of pretension, it can also be damned for its lack of any quality that isn’t connected with the orderly progression of events from A to B and back to A again.
And yet, regrettably, there are moments when careless editing has allowed certain melodramatic and pseudo-poetical lines to remain in the text, a fact which destroys the flat consistency of what’s being read as well as shocking the reader into noticing how awful the writing can in places be. It’s a truth that might be illustrated with an example from “Courageous” of President Rione’s part in a private conversation with Captain Geary;
“The ancients thought the stars were gods, John Geary. So do we, though in a very different way. But we’re not so different from the ancients, who lived but a blink of an eye ago in the sight of this universe and spent their lives trying to understand why they were here and what they were supposed to do with the gifts of their lives. I try never to forget that.”
I feel confident that we might agree that this is ferociously bad writing, grandiose, stiff and quite unbelievable even as an example of a career politician’s private conversation. (Rione would surely need the lungs of a horse to get through that third sentence without beginning to collapse for air.) But it’s so typical of the books that these moments of great meaningfulness carry little that’s essential to the plot, and so they can be left behind in search of the beginning of the next space battle. Yet, the reader is advised not to race onwards and away from the purple serious-mindedness of the conversations between Rione and Geary in particular without first scanning for any heartfelt lines worth treasuring. My favourite of these conveniently follows on directly from the quote above;
“He nodded, wondering once again at the woman inside Victoria Rione.”
If only that were an acknowledgement that the Co-President was actually sharing the inside of her body with another woman, as the genre would surely allow.
Yet if The Lost Fleet clearly doesn’t work as anything other than the most reliably wooden of genre fiction, it’s certainly a well-constructed, sincere and decent-hearted example of it. And so, the reason for my feeling somewhat ashamed of being half-way through the fourth of this seemingly never-ending re-mix of the same over-familiar elements is nothing to do the books themselves. They’re not sold as high literature, they make no claims for their own poetic virtues, and they’re not designed for anyone who’s not already seriously predisposed towards “military science fiction”. They’re respectful, populist and humane. No, my shame is directed, of course, at myself, and at the fact that I’m somewhat hesitant to admit to the business of reading my way through The Lost Fleet. As I write this, with the last of the light of a English Sunday afternoon in March slanting through the window behind me, and with a blackbird starting up its twilight song, The Lost Fleet feels as if it’s got no part in my life at all, and it’s as if reading these pedestrian epics would be a serious waste of the relatively limited book-reading time that I have left to me.
It’s not that I’ve any time for the Bloomsbury stance on what is and what isn’t art, and I no more believe under typical circumstances that what we read reflects our soul and our moral worth than I accept the premise that Jeanette Winterson shouldn’t be constantly mocked for her ignorance, arrogance and pretension. It’s just that there’s so little time and so much to get done, and it’s hard at 5.30 in the afternoon to justify a standing order for each new volume of The Lost Fleet.
But when it’s gone midnight, and as I crawl as surreptitiously as I can in beside the long-since-sleeping Splendid Wife, and with just ten minutes or so to go before I too pass out beside her, The Lost Fleet will be the most appropriate read that I can imagine. Utterly undemanding in its content, I need never worry about finding precisely where I left off the night before. It just doesn’t matter at all. Wherever I am, Black Jack will be eternally tragic, misunderstood, potent and entirely wonderful. (He’s every shy boy’s dream of sexual potency; a man who can win women without ever having to woo them through nought but his gentle soul and military prowess.) The fleet will be at terrible risk, Captain Desjani will adore Black Jack and defend his back against all-comers, the battleship captains will loathe him, the Syndics will be closing, and I’ll briefly if sleepy-headedly be a boy again. Spaceships will blink out of jump points, scanners will identify enemy targets, relativistic effects will complicate communications, and while little will make much sense to my clouding mind, the genre conventions of a dozen spaceship TV shows and a childhood spent reading little but Sci-Fi will step in to carry the sense of the story forward for me.
I have the fifth volume of The Lost Fleet waiting beside my bed and the sixth on order from Amazon too. It’s not that these books will be used to send me off to sleep, but rather that they’re good and decent and kind and undemanding companions as I decline into an unconsciousness which was already rolling towards me in the first place. And even the titles themselves might inspire the most comforting of slumbers if recited over and over again in order of publication; Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, Victorious…….
Colin Smith ,
‘We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’
‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.
It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?
Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.
To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.
The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.
Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.
While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.
However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.
I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.
Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!
Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.
I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.
There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.
I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.
Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.
This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’
Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.
His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’. Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.
Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.
Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?
Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.
People loved having time machines – but hated the government-imposed restrictions on what they could do at certain key events in history, and the Crucifixion was perhaps the most controversial. Yes, you could go there, but only in ghost mode.
‘Yeah the number of people who complain to me because they can’t save the Lord, or take His place, or who want to give Mary a hug or a biscuit. How do you stand it?’ Malaria has only recently started working at the shop.
‘Maintain a sense of humour, Malaria. It’s your best defence.’
Have you ever seen the 1960’s film version of The Time Machine? Here have a look at the trailer. I principally remember this film for its terrible attempt at showing the passage of time. The Time Machine is parked opposite a shop front window and as the Traveller goes forward in time, he notes how the fashions worn by the mannequins change with each year. It is such a cheesy way to show the abilities of a machine that can skip through history, but it perfectly illustrates the problem with time travel as a story device. As The Doctor has observed, time travel stories tend to result in ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff’, the very non-linearity of the protagonist’s adventures leading to extreme headaches for the reader in plot progression.
K.A. Bedford’s principal character, Aloysius ‘Spider’ Webb shares these frustrations. He hates time machines. Unfortunately for him, time machine repair man is the only job available to him. Drummed out of the police force despite a promising career, due to making enemies of the wrong people, Spider was broke before meeting the very charismatic ‘Dickhead’ McMahon, who offered him a job as an engineer at his business. He makes enough money to get by, has some good staff working with him and receptionist Malaria makes a mean cup of coffee.
One afternoon during what seems to be a routine repair job, Spider and his assistant Charlie discover that the second-hand time machine they’ve been called out to have a look at is exhibiting very unusual power fluctuations. Almost as if it is present in current space-time and yet also elsewhere. When they return it to shop, they manage to contain it inside a miniature pocket universe before accidentally detonating it. Amid the destroyed shell of the original unit, they see another time machine, sitting in the very same hermetically sealed space. Inside Spider finds a dead body of a woman.
As a former cop, he finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery, but knows that anything involving time travel means trouble. After all that was how he lost his job with the police force in the first place. He has a decent job that pays enough that he can tolerate Dickhead’s weird rants about angels. His personal life is a mess. His wife Molly has insisted on a trial seperation and the officer in charge of the investigation into the mysterious dead body, Iris Stone, was a former lover of his. He just wants to keep his customers happy, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and leave time well enough alone.
Then his future self shows up one evening and starts babbling about him being framed for murder, conspiracies involving a group named Zeropoint and a civil war at the end of time itself. Seems no matter what Spider does, he can’t live the life he chooses.
According to this novel’s cover jacket, it was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2009. I actually found a number of similarities to the master of bluecollar sf. Not only is the very fantastical notion of time travel itself reduced to a 9 – 5 job, Spider’s relationships also bear a strong resemblance to the complicated lovelives of protagonists in Dick’s fiction.
Sadly the book is just too long. Philip K. Dick would often introduce a scenario within a seemingly ordinary world, only to throw all sense and reason out the window within a hundred pages. Bedford has Spider meet different versions of himself from wildly divering timelines and get swept up into a chronal war spanning millenia. There’s simply too much going on.
I did like the offhand humour of the story though, the frequent references to cult shows like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, as well as the hints that Africa is the industrial capital of the world in the future.
A mixed bag for me then, but it kept me entertained throughout, despite the frequent head-scratching.
He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”
Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).
It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.
Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.
So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.
Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.
Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.
If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.
The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.
If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.
‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’
I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.
Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.
My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.
The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.
They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?
George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.
This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.
jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.
Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.
I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.