Well here’s a classic. One of those books you see in cheap anonymous editions in supermarkets and book shops. Out of copyright, low-grade editions flanged together on the cheap by various publishers you’ve never heard of. It’s famous. How’s it to read?
The story is subtitled ‘an episode of the American civil war’ and it is in essence ‘young man learns lesson’. He learns how he will cope in a fight, and it’s not all good news. Shame, fear, braggadocio, boredom.
Our protagonist is mostly referred to as ‘the youth’, and the author gets close to him but dissects him dispassionately at the same time. It means that the tone of the book takes a little getting used to, but it works very well.
The story is leavened by flashes of wit and neat turns of phrase from the author.
He made a fine use of the third person.
He evidently complimented himself on the modesty of this statement.
Some in the regiment began to whoop frenziedly. Many were silent. Apparently they were trying to contemplate themselves.
He had performed his mistake in the dark, so he was still a man.
The youth’s friend had a geographical illusion concerning a stream…
The forest made a tremendous objection.
He had continued to curse, but it was now with the air of a man who was using his last box of oaths.
But I must advise no one to buy the edition illustrated above, It is one of the most carelessly put together volumes I have ever seen. Here is the contents page:
…and I think you’ll agree it is of doubtful utility. More to the point, the book is full of typographical errors, including ‘rig2ht’ and ‘allusions’ for ‘illusions’ and the like. Most importantly, it drops two paragraphs from possibly the most crucial section of the book, such that the main character suddenly has a wound on his head and I can’t tell how. I spent a good half hour flipping through the book trying to work out when it had happened and assuming I had been distracted while reading and had not noticed; only recourse to another edition, a good one put out by a reputable publisher, was able to confirm that bits were missing.
To sum up: I can recommend this book, but not in this edition.
First, I have to point out this: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2010/11/please_allow_me_to_correct_a_few_things.html.
Brilliant and mostly spot on.
Keith Richards is of course famous. He’s been playing geetar in some band since Moses was a boy and apparently the NME voted him ‘most likely to die in the next year’ ten times in a row in the 70s. But he’s still alive. The Stones just knocked out one of their better albums of the last [[insert preferred value here]] years, Blue and Lonesome which, tellingly, is all covers; they’ve still got their chops as players, but they (Keith and Mick) aren’t writing great tunes so often. Well, they did plenty way back when and they can’t all be gems. As long as Charlie is drumming there’s something worth hearing on a Stones record.
Speaking about way back when: Life is Keith’s ghosted autobiography, put together by James Fox from many hours of recorded interviews. It’s very thick. About 550 pages. If you like thick books about rock stars, it’s got you covered. It made a bit of a splash on release ‘cos Keith says lots of rude things about Mick Jagger. Well, you know, Keith wanted to sell copies, didn’t he? But in a sense those things are very telling. They put me on alert as a reader. Immediately I wonder; how much of the negative stuff he says is true? The shots about the size of Jagger’s cock are cheap, juvenile and the kind of thing designed to stir up tabloid press interest (and stir up Mick), none of which requires them to be true. Pete Townshend says the comments are wrong, anyway. So I’m wondering; if Keith is prepared to say pretty much anything to make a stir, what else in the book is unreliable? The whole thing is tarnished.
Take another little example, trivial of itself. He critiques Jagger’s (pretty terrible) solo output. She’s The Boss, Primitive Cool, Goddess in the Doorway, yeah, they’re all pretty dire attempts are hooking into the current fashion. But he strategically leaves out Wandering Spirit, easily Jagger’s best solo outing. Why? Probably ‘cos it’s the only one that isn’t disappointing. So he just omits it. Little bits of manipulation, when they come to your attention, they cast doubt on everything else, on much bigger and more interesting topics.
There is a sense of unreality about the whole book, despite the level of detail. Oh, much of it is most likely true, and when Keith talks about the music he loves or some of the intricacies of guitar tuning, or making bangers and mash, he’s genuinely affecting. So the bullshit becomes all the more disappointing.
He threatened Billy Preston with a knife when he was playing too loudly, he threatened a record exec with a knife when he dared make suggestions in a mixing booth, he shot this with a gun, that with a gun, took this, swallowed that, nearly died when this happened, nearly died when that happened… it’s probably all true, but I’m always thinking as I read: “Is this what happened, or is this designed to gild the Richards legend?” Keith is cool enough without all the dodgy claims.
And that is the core of the problem I have with the book. I don’t know if I can trust it, so I wonder why I am reading it. I mean, the incidents are entertaining and well told, but I’d like to know if it’s fact or fiction. He’s probably never cleaned his own kitchen or put a load of washing in the machine (I’m jealous). He’s never lived in the real world since he was 20, and he’s not starting to with this book.
The other problem is Keith himself. I don’t want a book full of agonising over what might have been/should have been/how he hurt people and so on (that’s Who I Am, by Pete Townshend), but a little admission that maybe he spent a lot of his life being pretty unhelpful (to put it in very mild terms) would have leant a little more reality to the proceedings. He points out that while he was on heroin he made Exile on Main St and learned to ski, or whatever. But he also made Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock n Roll, Black and Blue and Love You Live, none of which are exactly brilliant, though there are flashes enough to suggest that had he had it together the spark might have survived. And even after he kicked it, the great songs have been intermittent at best. (I’ll say this for the book, I listened to ‘How Can I Stop’ off the forgotten Bridges to Babylon with new ears, and, yes, it’s a great track.) In the 70s Mick Jagger held the band together and made Keith wealthy and kept the money flowing, while Keith spent his time making sure there’d be a hit of heroin waiting for him when the plane landed. Jagger was the grown-up and Keith perennially a child. But the magic of the Stones was gone ‘cos, really, the Stones were great when Keith was great, and in the 70s Keith was about drugs before he was about music. They say in sport ‘don’t flirt with your form’. When you’re on a roll, don’t take your foot off the gas. By the time he got off heroin, the momentum was long gone. It’s flared up now and again since; his solo Talk is Cheap, made when he was pissed off at Jagger, is a great record if you like Keith’s riffology.
Is it a good read? Oh, yeah. If you’re a Stones fan or a Keith fan, yeah. But the Richards ego is enormous. He barely recognises the existence of contemporaries beyond the Beatles and Elvis, as if they had nothing to teach him. So if you’re a fan to 60s/70s music in the broader sense, there’s surprisingly little here for you.
Keith’s cool, Keith’s tough, Keith has played and made some great music, he’s had an amazing life. His story is worth reading. Just take it with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila).
An album a what?
Penguin, 1994, 357 pages.
Well. This book is replete with summaries of studies that on the whole show that we are creatures of habit, instinct and fear more than thought and reason. We suffer from the illusion of control. We make emotional decisions and then convince ourselves they were carefully reasoned. We avoid data that might prove us wrong, even when being proved wrong is the best thing that could happen to us.
I can’t say I was shocked. There’s a time and a place for aiming for the utmost in rationality, of course, and times when that’s not sensible, and it is useful to know the difference. If you’re being chased by a bear a quick but sub-optimal decision may be better than making the right one too late. And it’s useful to know when it doesn’t really matter and you can just please your inner reptile, and when you really do need to sit down and analyse things properly.
And in a sense that is the key point. He basically says that only by understanding statistics and by essentially falling back on some means of scoring the alternatives and then picking the one with the best score can we really make rational decisions. Otherwise we rely on impressions, feelings and hunches, none of which are actually reliable. In the end, only by breaking down the problem and applying some kind of rigorous-as-possible analysis, generally relying on mathematics, can a really rational decision be made. And what fraction of decisions are made like than? In my life, relatively few.
Each chapter tackles various forms of irrationality, and each ends with a ‘moral’ which is really a bullet-point summary, the last one of which is usually humorous/facetious. (‘Eat what you fancy.’)
There is some repetition, but the points being made deserve hammering home. There are some lovely little ‘try this yourself’ puzzles, where even though I knew there was a trick and I desperately did not want to answer like an irrational creature, I still got it wrong. The simple two card trick, for example, which I won’t describe in detail here since it would be too much like giving away the twist in the tail.
In summary, if you think you are good at making decisions, you might find this book useful. If you already believe that we’re basically animals in clothes, this will not disabuse you. It’s funny, opinionated, amusing and entertaining, but a little, I repeat, repetitive. Some of the case studies of how really really really important ‘decisions’ were made are a little worrisome, especially because (of course) human nature has not really changed in the meantime. I sometimes look around at a skyscraper, or read about a decision to go to war or spend billions of dollars on a useless aeroplane, and this book comes to mind. Will the building fall down? Is the war really worthwhile? Will the aeroplane get off the ground, and if it does will it stay up?
In some ways the book makes our achievements all the greater. Okay, the planet is in trouble. Okay, we don’t always elect great leaders or do the right thing by our neighbours, family, friends. Yet so much has been done. We’re not always rational, no, and neither should we be. Would more people be happier if the balance shifted towards more rationality? Probably. Yet on the whole we go forward, stumbling sometimes, by accident sometimes, yet we do live longer, we have sent people (okay, men) to the moon, vastly fewer children and mothers die in childbirth. It’s not all bad, this world.
Anyway, it’s a good book.
The World Swappers by John Brunner
Ace, some time in the 60s. 153 pages.
To me Brunner is a major figure of 60s and 70s SF. His ‘big 4‘ novels of the late 60s/early 70s, (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider and Jagged Orbit) form a block of work few writers can match; even so, they are perhaps more admired and respected than loved.
The World Swappers is a much earlier work — 1959 according to the imprint page, when Brunner was around 24 years old and had already been publishing for seven years, and was trying to make it as a full-time writer,
It draws on numerous conventions of space opera — matter transmission, faster than light travel, aliens, supermen (well, sort of). Brunner played with the matter transmitter off and on throughout his career. Another one that that comes to mind is The Infinitive of Go a much later tale with an asperity and astringency that I liked, though probably not to everyone‘s taste. This is a much earlier tale, and closer to the heart of space opera. Yet there remains a sense of calculation to it, as if Brunner the craftsman did not quite manage to hide the scaffolding from the reader. Someone who appears set to be a major character hardly appears again after the first chapter. Characters are wheeled in and out like gears being shunted back and forth in a gearbox, with nothing but the needs of the plot to impel them. Nowhere is there are character to root for.
The quote on the front cover says ‘very competent‘, but nothing more effusive. And it’s right. The story hangs together, every part functions, we get to an ending that manages to wrap up what went before. Did I care? No. Can I see that the author knows how to write? Yes.
For the completist Brunnerfile, Brunnerphile only.
What is there to say about this album? Contemporary with the Stone Roses making one epochal album and disappearing into legal limbo for six years, the La’s made one epochal album and disappeared completely. Stories abound about front man Lee Mavers and his obsessions with perfection. Did he really insist that he wanted a mixing console with ‘genuine 1960s dust’ on it? I don’t know. Did the band record some of the tracks repeatedly, trying to create the sound Mavers heard in his head? Probably. Is ‘There She Goes’ a drug song? Yes. Is ‘Timeless Melody’ one of the most brilliant tracks ever recorded anywhere by anyone? Yes.
As I understand it it was assembled by Steve Lillywhite from the detritus of numerous recording sessions, none of which were definitive enough for the band. The record company stepped in and insisted that an album be put together, and it was.
The result is an album that is essential for any fan of tuneful guitar pop. There are at least half a dozen great little tunes, and only a couple that drag at all — even if the band apparently complained that they had played badly, possibly on purpose because they did not really want to work with Lillywhite, just so that it would not get released….what a mess it ought to be! I recall a quote — I think it was Eric Temple Bell — who in his book Men of Mathematics said something like, ‘It takes two to make a masterpiece; one to paint it and another to shoot the painter when it is done’. And similarly, a work of art is, Da Vinci apparently said, never finished, only abandoned. Mavers needed help abandoning this album, and quite possibly never wanted it released.
But he’d struck a deal with a record company, and eventually it found its way into the public consciousness. And this is one occasional when I am glad that the creator did not get the final say, because even if this record is not exactly what he wanted it to be, it’s a bloody good listen.
So I am trying out this old Brother Deluxe 700T manual typewriter. It is is nice condition, and seems to work perfectly well. The bell sounds dull and the ribbon is faded but does feed. The machine works well and it is my only machine with a ‘1’ key (instead of using ‘l’) and an exclamation mark (!). On the other hand, it feels sloppy and tinny compared with the Dora and especially the Hermes, which feels like it was machined from solid lump of steel where this feels more like it was riveted together from pressings. Good pressings, I suspect. It’s in great nick and set me back $20, which is pretty reasonable. I’ve put a two colour ribbon in it, since the other ones have black.
I can’t be bothered inserting pictures carefully, so here they all are:
Quick wipe with a bit of Jif on the casing, no cleaning of the machine itself required, and away it goes. The case is very plasticky, and looks quite flimsy, so I am quite impressed that it is so intact; I suspect it has not been used very much. No doubt being owned by me will see to it that the plastic lugs and springs and other vulnerable bits get broken. But in the meantime it gives me another unit to, well, put somewhere.
Nagoya B75635279, means was made Feb 1977. ‘JP-7’ model, under the hood.
Conclusion: The type is clear, with excellent contrast and readability. It has a paper stand, an eraser table, 1, 1.5, 2 line spacing, fixed but useful tab stops, a carriage lock (that I cannot get to work, though I can’t see anything wrong with it, so probably it is me), a ‘1’ and an exclamation mark (bang!) and an asterisk (*). I would say the selection of characters is probably superior to my other machines. It feels tinny but actually works very well and is lighter than my other machines (because uses a lot of fairly thin plastic). If results are important and ‘feel’ is not, it is an excellent machine. If ‘feel’ is as important as results, it does not match up with the Hermes. Brand new it would have been a lot cheaper than the Hermes (and it was cheaper second hand as well, though of course none of them cost much) and probably cheaper than the competing Olivetti, though, so I can see why there are so many Brother typewriters around.
It’s hard to believe this is the whole story, or even much of it. Ballard generally played his cards close to his chest, and this is no different. It’s interesting. It’s written in his customary pithy, precise prose and the pages zoom by.
A few quotes:
“My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.”
“But bridge, alcohol and adultery are the royal cement that societies together…”
“I had … endlessly experimented with my short stories, which were becoming steadily more unreadable.” (And this is before he had published anything!)
“..,poetry readings were a special form of social deprivation.”
“My children were at the centre of my life, circled at a distance by my writing.”
“The 1960s were an exciting decade that I watched on television.”
The book does explain his characteristic distance, his ability to view the world as a kind of experiment and then extrapolate in a clear-eyed way. It will not satisfy anyone looking for salaciousness, drug stories, or gossip. Though Ballard was the most influential writer to debut in the genre science fiction magazines, SF was only accidentally his jumping-off point — he read some copies of Galaxy and F&SF and realised that maybe venues like that would take his work. Yet only two SF figures are mentioned in the whole book — editors of New Worlds, John Carnell (see also Science Fantasy) (without whom none of us may have heard of Ballard) and Moorcock.
There’s also, oddly, not that much about Ballard, even though it is all about Ballard. It gives a list of influences, and a fairly schematic view of his life. The Shanghai stuff is fascinating and detailed, and must-read for anyone in love with Empire of the Sun or Ballard’s drained swimming pools and abandoned cities, but after that it is… it’s not dishonest. He seems to be saying what he thinks, but only a selection of what he thinks. At the end, I know more about Ballard but I don’t feel like I know Ballard any better.
Written after his diagnosis with advanced cancer, the book is sharp-eyed, economical and polite but unapologetic. Ballard’s voice was to me central to the development of a genuinely 20th C literature, a voice truly of the scientific age when so much literary fiction seems to wish the motorcar had not been invented, let alone the computer. That his biggest-selling book was a fictionalised autobiography says much about us. It is his most comfortable, most conventional work. One can only wonder what readers who liked that and so bought or borrowed High Rise or Crash might have thought.
I consider his best work, whether short (‘The Voices of Time’, ‘Terminal Beach’ and the like) or long (from his first significant novel, The Drowned World) as essential; canonical. This book is neither, it is interesting, an oddly low-key word.
Fascinating, but the tip of the iceberg.
Can there be anything left to say about Asimov? Between his various volumes of autobiography, his vast and highly personal output of essays, introductions and afterwords, and the various volumes of critical material written by others, surely not much space is left. Well, there’s always room for a personal response. And The Early Asimov invites such a response possibly more strongly than any other volume of Asimov’s fiction.
Speaking of fiction, let’s get that out of the way first. This is, essentially, a leftovers collection. By the early 70s, most of Asimov’s output had been collected. The premier collections relevant to the 40s were the robot books, I, Robot and the much inferior The Rest of the Robots (which, as we say, filled a much needed gap in the literature) and the Foundation series. Other stories from the early days (bracketed as 1938 to 1949) that had already been collected elsewhere include the famous ‘Nightfall’ and his first story to see print (though not earliest written) ‘Marooned Off Vesta’.
So, it is fair to say, much of the stuff here is second-rate. If it wasn’t it would not be here. It is interesting in the context of the author’s career, but not of itself. ‘Black Friar of the Flame’ is interesting as a precursor to Foundation, but is otherwise a fairly routine adventure. There are a few forgotten gems, ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ is in volume 3, by which time Asimov was an established pro, putting most of his work into Astounding, the premier outlet of the field. These later stories read much like the stuff to be found in collections like Nine Tomorrows and Earth is Room Enough.
One of the more interesting things to look at is the evolution of the author. At the beginning the stories show signs of very careful planning — the rigging of the deck that allows the science-y core of the story to matter at all. This is most apparent in ‘Marooned Off Vesta’ (in Asimov’s Mysteries) and ‘The Callistan Menace’. By the early 50s in his second-string novels like The Stars Like Dust, Asimov was clearly making it up as he went along, then justifying the plot after the fact by putting long, unlikely speeches into the mouths of his characters. It’s not in everything he wrote, but it occurs often enough to suggest that he was not terribly fond of rewriting or, when it comes down to it, of writing a really good book when a fast and acceptable one would do. And we can see that happening before our eyes in this collection; Asimov’s goal is to publish, not to write great stories.
This is implicit in the stories, but explicit in the other main component of the book, the lengthy afterwords and introductions that bracket every story. This book is really mash-up of nostalgic autobiography and anthology, and as we go along we see, in his notes, Asimov ‘learning’ not to plan ahead too much, ‘learning’ not to rewrite. As he becomes surer of himself it becomes progressively clearer that the only metric that matters is whether the story sells. I don’t know if it is true, but Asimov appears to show very little interest in writing as an art. He notes that he ‘found the range’ and after that everything sold, but there is no critical evaluation, really, of his earlier works. Stories are evaluated in terms of how many times they were rejected before being sold (or lost) and how much money they netted him. This is, perhaps, the root of why Asimov is so frustrating as an author.
The middle section of The Gods Themselves, a handful of stories scattered through his career, some of the Foundation books, perhaps the early Robot novels and The End of Eternity; these are wonderful tales. But they are buried in so much that is little more than filler. Asimov was proud of being productive, and now and again pointed out that, when moved, he could also be ‘good’, but that was clearly not his primary objective. What books might he have written had been happy to knock out but one or two a year? Who knows.
There is little here of current interest unless Asimov himself is interesting to you; but if he is, then this is a must-read.
First, a statement of conflict of interest: I have a story in this book. Having said that, I can easily talk about the strongest stories without mentioning my own…
The book sets itself to tackle potentially distressing subject matter, things that challenge what we think is ‘right‘ by showing the justification for the dark side, for example. Or just hideous mental images. It contains the long and somewhat contentious ‘Wives‘ by Paul Haines, and it and some of the other pieces (‘No Fat Chicks‘ by Cat Sparks, the story that triggered off the whole book, for example) ask us questions about the fundamental nature of human beings.
We are animals. For tens of thousands of years, might did make right. The ancient Greeks for all their civilisation kept boys for their pleasure — not something acceptable where I live. Mores change. What is universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’? The man who rapes a lot of women will ensure that his genes stay in circulation, and is thus anything but a perversity when viewed against the imperatives of survival and evolution.
We’ve been civilised for the blink of an eye. We have decided that some of these things are wrong only yesterday, in evolutionary terms. We have to try to control ourselves using our intellects, but should we be so surprised that it so often breaks down? No, not really. Should we think about this when we punish people – men – for crimes? Hard questions to look full in
Is tolerance really a virtue, or just the top of the slippery slope, asks Ian McHugh, in ‘Tolerance’, a story that opens ‘The paedophiles are protesting again’. ‘Home and Hearth’ by Angela Slatter is one of the most powerful pieces. It asks unflinchingly about the limits of parental love.
A clutch of stories look at the unseen implications of leaving our children a world in dire straits, when we are fighting the planet itself and there are no spaces left for niceties. And some, like Alan Baxter’s ‘Bodies of Evidence’, conjure up some gruesome scenes, enough to make me (not the toughest of mind’s eyes, I must admit) squirm.
I’m extremely pleased to be in this book. Not just because for me any story that sells is a minor miracle, but because the quality of the company is so high, the production values are so high, and the book aims to do something more than the already-tough-enough task of assembling some worthwhile reading material. Nearly every story worked for me (the strike-rate is very high), and every single one made me think about my assumptions, about maybe how I was, despite my best efforts, still a creature of the darkness as well as the light. We all think about doing wrong. We all act out of base motives sometimes. It’s hard to look that in the face.
The editor, who set out to confront, trigger off new, challenging thoughts, and at the same time to entertain, has succeeded, and succeeded comprehensively. Even if she was silly enough to buy one of my stories…
Available as ebook and large format paperback in most of the usual places, but here is the publisher page.
The Professor, Rex Warner, Penguin 1944 (171 pages).
This is a decent novel and a fascinating artefact. First published in 1938, it is a direct response to the tide of totalitarianism that was then sweeping across Europe. My copy was published in 1944, when that trend had reached its dreadful apotheosis, and is distinctly of its time. Here I reproduce some of the adverts found on the back cover and inside the back of the book. ‘The front’ is a current metaphor for fighting the bristles on your chin; we have advice for extending the useful life of a nightie, and we’re told to remember how useful a product is, even though right now it is in short supply. The book itself is produced in accordance with the war economy standards, and the paper is noticeably thin and the cover rather floppy (yet here it is 70 years later, speaking something to what was considered a ‘cheap’ edition back then, and making me wonder whether some our standards might not be irrecoverably lower now than they were then). Having said that, the design is clearly pre-Tschichold, with it’s penguin that looks ready to collapse and blobby ‘Penguin Books’ logo at the top. One would think that if a book company is going to save trouble by not designing the covers individually, the least they could do would be get the one design they were using right.
To the story; it is a fable, taking place in an unspecified county (not Britain) that shares a border with a great power — rather like a Baltic state glancing fearfully at the Russians, say, or Austria in 1937. The little country knows it cannot fight and win, and there are sections of its own population attracted to the certainty that dictatorship offers. As the government is in free-fall they try offering the Chancellorship (a position akin to the German position, or to a Prime Minister in a Westminster-type government) to The Professor, a respected academic whose work has centred on Greek and Latin literature, and the like. The Professor is intelligent but not worldly, and events soon overtake him. His options narrow, the people around him have their own agendas, and eventually the inevitable eventuates. On the way we meet a cross section of the community, we see how people cope with living under the imminent cloud of envelopment — some embrace it, some disappear into fantasy and denial, many do not really understand it and so manage quite well.
The Professor himself is a somewhat unsatisfactory and pedantic figure. Some of the supporting cast, through the very fact of being drawn more economically and perhaps therefore bluntly, are more alive than he is. He never quite becomes more than the puppet the plot, and the philosophy behind the work, demands. The prose is… precise, bordering on pedantic. Every clause carefully set off, every verb correctly subjected, no infinitives even within a mile of splittedness; it is as if the words are designed to match the personality of the protagonist; prim, academic and correct.
These things add up to making The Professor a very interesting book if you like looking at books and how they work. It is not a story for the fan of plot and counter plot and subplot and action and suspense.
Is it a book that speaks to our times now? I suspect the inhabitants of Ukraine or Taiwan or Tibet would say, ‘Yes, though Rex Warner doesn’t know the half of it.’
It’s short; if you see it kicking around, give it a go.