Why this is subtitled ‘The Complete Peter Cook’ I don’t know. Unless it’s like an epithet, as in ‘you’re a complete twit’; I mean, Peter Cook was clearly a complete Peter Cook, but this book is not the complete Peter Cook, not even close. It admits as much itself. Anyway. If you don’t know, Peter Cook was the funniest man alive until he died, after which he became the funniest man dead, an even greater achievement. By the age of 30 he had had successful reviews in the West End and on Broadway, had starred in movies, started a nightclub and was owner of Private Eye, the satirical newspaper. By the time he was 40 we was kind of over it, and seemed to only bother to exert his still-remarkable talents when there was a point to prove or some pompous public figure to deflate. That his powers remained undimmed until his untimely, alcohol-fuelled death in 1995 is apparent. Perhaps the flood slowed to a meander, but even a cursory look (for example here, at Alan Latchley) shows that the brilliance was still there. John Cleese has come in second on lists of (Brit) ‘comedians’ comedian’ type polls, always to Cook, and he said that whereas it took he and his contemporaries six hours to produce a three minute sketch, it took Cook precisely three minutes, or so it seemed. More than one person has said he seemed to turn on a tap, tune in to some amazing stream of logical absurdity, and just let it flow.
This book samples most of the more significant corners of Cook’s career. From before Beyond the Fringe (he was writing West End shows for Kenneth Williams while still an undergraduate, sharing the writing duties with Harold Pinter and others), through the Fringe, through Not Only… But Also… and Private Eye, on to the depths of Derek and Clive and the last flashes of genius. The book is… amusing. Very funny in a few places. Would it have been as funny were I not familiar with his work? I don’t know. I’ve heard or seen quite a few of these pieces, especially the Pete and Dud and Beyond the Fringe stuff, so I hear the words in my mind’s version of his voice. Most of what he wrote was not written to be read. Indeed, there are often no ‘standard’ written versions at all. Some of the sketches reproduced here were taken from scripts but many were transcribed, because he would improvise and invent. He got bored with fixed material and would change it every night during a run on stage, though there were ‘bits’ that tended to stay.
The book is uneven, of course, because it is a book of bits, (though not bits of a book). Often the funniest stuff is the stuff that works least well on paper. Pete and Dud in the Art Gallery needs to be seen — or at least heard. Even though there are relatively few visual gags and the sketch is essentially a conversation, the gleam in Peter’s eye as he tries to make Dudley corpse, the little smile when he says, “you didn’t spit sandwich at him, did you?” or whatever it is; only when you can see those things does the relationship really come alive and then the lines come to life. The brilliance can be seen on the page, but not fully appreciated without the video. You tube, it’s all there these days.
The Private Eye stuff I did not much like. That and Derek and Clive are probably the low points. I know Cook and Moore busted boundaries and pushed back the borders of the possible with Derek and Clive. I know some people think it’s great. I don’t. The rudeness does not bother me, but the nastiness and the lack of actual humour does. This book does a decent job of selecting the few bits of Derek and Clive that are actually (mildly) witty. It always seems to me that if an artist is going to throw off strictures, if they are not going to be bound, then they need to be better than usual. Just busting limits is not funny of itself. Shocked people might titter nervously, but a good comic is, I think, not aiming for that laugh. Broaching topics and images that have been taboo is all well and good, but that needs to be a path to something. It needs to say something that is worth saying that could not be said otherwise, or at least make a joke that could not be made otherwise. It needs to be more than ‘aren’t we shocking! Tee hee hee!’ Derek and Clive fails as comedy for the simple reason that it is not funny; there were some jokes and as I said this does a decent job of picking them out. That work was the end of Cook’s partnership with Moore. He was relentlessly nasty to Moore during the taping of the last album, and drove him away. Moore was breaking into Hollywood at that time and was soon to star in 10 and Arthur, and he never worked with Cook again, apart from bringing out some old material for Galas and the like.
The work does noticeably thin out after 1980. Cook was only in his early 40s at that stage, but decided to slow down lest he fulfil his potential. You might know him as the ‘Impressive Clergyman’ in The Princess Bride, who talks endlessly about ‘twoo wuv’, as Nigel in Supergirl (unlikely — no one likes that movie. I’ve not seen it) or … no, he’s pretty much invisible these days if you don’t go looking for him.
This book is not the place to start. But for the Cook fan it’s a nice little compendium.
Goats Head Soup is a strange album. After what must have felt like eternity putting Exile together in Keith’s basement, who could blame the Stones for retreating to Jamaica and knocking out ten tracks pretty quickly? They were coming off one of the great runs in popular music history, four studio albums and their best live album, a dozen sides that have a permanent pace in rock history. And then it was job done, I reckon, ‘cos this album sure sounds like they weren’t too fussed. It’s all over the place. So much so that the only way to look at it is track by track. So here they are:
1. Dancing With Mr D
2. 100 Years Ago
3. Coming Down Again
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
6. Silver Train
7. Hide Your Love
9. Can You Hear the Music
10. Star Star
1. Dancing With Mr D
Starts with a certain slow menace, and then goes on and on and wears out its welcome. When you listen to the opener on Exile, ‘Rocks Off’, there’s just so much music and musicality in the first minute. Here there’s one or two ideas and they’re stretched out to five minutes. Hit the skip button? At least half the time.
2. 100 Years Ago
This one is like they had bits of three or four songs and just concatenated them to make one. It’s not boring. It starts off kind of jaunty and tuneful, then loses me when Mick tells me to call him ‘lazy bones’ before heading into some pretty much unconnected jam. Kind of entertaining, but not really a song as such. I like the bit about ‘bad red wine’. Hit the skip button? When I’m impatient.
3. Coming Down Again
‘Being hungry, it ain’t no crime’, Keith sings. Unless maybe you’re hungry for a hit of smack and your prioritizing of drugs over music is causing you to let your band-mates down… Having said that, he’s not singing about that kind of hunger in that song, and this is one of three pretty good slower tracks on the album. It feels like it was composed rather than flanged together. First track on the album that suggests maybe it’s not going to be a complete waste of time. Hit the skip button? Not usually.
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
Groovy funky doo doo doo doo doo etc. First track with a bit of energy, and one of only three on the whole album. A pretty solid second single, and really the only candidate. The menace here is kind of theoretical where on ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘Midnight Rambler’ it was actually felt, but the song comes along just in time to raise the pulse just enough to get you through the next track. Hit the skip button? Rarely if ever.
The big single. I read somewhere this album has sold more than 6 million copies. More than Exile, more than Beggar’s Banquet. And a big #1 hit is exactly (and solely) why. Radio play gets the sales to go beyond the fanbase. ‘Angie’ is a great tune. Not exactly fun. Nothing so far has been lyrically uplifting. Even ‘100 Years Ago’ suggests it’s sometimes wise to not grow up. But the tune is lovely and the vocals a good example of Jagger’s mannered delivery at its best. Hit skip? Rarely.
6. Silver Train
This is like lite imitation of a typical Exile track. ‘All Down the Line’ being the obvious one. The guitars honk away nicely and Jagger slurs his way through lyrics about anonymous sex, good solid Stones subject matter. Vocal hooks, a chunky tune, non-negative subject matter. One of the better ones. Hit skip? Nope.
7. Hide Your Love
I listened to this two days ago and I can hardly remember anything about it except that I was keen for it to end. This is one of (at least) three tracks that seem to have been stuck on to get the track listing up to 10 and the play time up over 40 minutes, the other two being ‘100 Years Ago’ and ‘Can You Hear the Music’. Skip? Yes.
This is the third tuneful, carefully-composed ballad n the album. Nice guitar work from Mick Taylor, well aimed vocal from Jagger. Cheerful? Well, it’s gonna be a long hot summer and the light of love will be burning bright, so it’s not all bad. Skip? Only if you’re after the danceable ones.
9. Can You Hear the Music
Man, what is this crap? Some kind of rehabilitated reject from Satanic Majesties? I can’t hear much music worth hearing on this track. Skip? How fast can I hit the button?
10. Star Star
The famously rude song that is called ‘Starfucker’ on bootlegs. Energy! Riffs! Humour! Good god, are we on the same album? Yes, it’s rude and kind of cheesy, but it’s also a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll song in the Chuck Berry tradition. Skip? Not usually.
So where does that leave us? Three rejects, plus ‘Mr D’ which is on the cusp, and half a dozen solid tracks, half ballads. Of these, ‘Angie’ is the only one in the Stones canon. Stacked up against the previous four albums of course it comes up short. But most albums by most acts would. Tackled 40+ years later, free of context, it’s really not bad. There are flashes of the brilliance of years before, as indeed there have been ever since. It is better than the album after it, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, which probably has fewer dogs on it but is more consistently mediocre. Does anyone but a Stones fan ‘need’ it? (I say ‘need’ in quotes because nobody needs pop songs to live.) No, but it’s worth a listen. I’m rather a fan of Keith’s vocal efforts, and ‘Coming Down Again’ is a good one. I listen to it more than I thought I would. Well, I listen to around 65% of it, anyway.
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.