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Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Solar Lottery - Philip K. Dick (1955)

The debut novel of any significant author is always a fascinating prospect, particularly after most of their later works have already been read. Solar Lottery reveals that Philip K. Dick arrived nearly fully formed, with many of his typical obsessive thematic threads featuring strongly.  Although Solar Lottery is certainly flawed and is not up there amongst his finest works, it still stands out due to Dick’s unique vision and writing style. When you read a Philip K. Dick novel you know that you are in for a weird time and Solar Lottery does not disappoint.

Solar Lottery is set hundreds of years in the future and humanity has colonized much of the solar system. This future solar civilization is ruled by a person selected at random by a computer generated lottery to hold the title of Quizmaster. Although governed by the Quizmaster, society is dominated by powerful corporations and most humans survive by pledging allegiance to both corporations and individuals. Ted Benteley, a typical Dick everyman, is dismissed from a corporation he hates, allowing him to attempt to work for the current Quizmaster - Reese Verrick. He succeeds only to learn that Verrick has been usurped by Leon Cartwright. Cartwright is also the leader of a society that follows the theories of John Preston, who’s life’s work focused on finding the legendary outer planet known as Flame Disc. Dick’s typically paranoid and cynical version of future humanity also involves sanctioned assassination attempts on the new Quizmaster and the unfortunate Benteley becomes embroiled in Verrick’s attempt to assassinate Cartwright. The novel’s convoluted plot is a bit creaky in places, but Dick ultimately manages to pull off what seems like two short stories melded into one narrative.

Solar Lottery features many of the tropes that would feature heavily in Philip K. Dick novels to come. Flying cars feature briefly, (but they don’t give unsolicited advice...), there’s controlling corporations, altered consciousness, telepaths, an android and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Typically for a Philip K. Dick novel there is a lot going on for what’s only a short novel and at times the narrative pace is frantic. At this early stage Dick’s writing style features abrupt segues and some pretty unnatural dialogue, however inadvertently these stylistic flaws create a hyper-real tone to the narrative that’s in keeping with Dick’s obsession with replicated or altered reality. The novel does have a pulpy tone, but Dick’s ideas are, as usual, intriguing and weird; exploring deeper themes than the average action oriented pulp novel from that era. I wonder how readers would have reacted to this novel back in 1955?

Although future novels would be superior both stylistically and thematically, Solar Lottery is well worth reading for any Dick-head. Dick would go on to craft an extraordinary body of work that would prove to be both prescient and highly influential. Dick was a unique voice and it’s such a pity that his lifestyle choices (including over a decade of abuse of legally sourced amphetamines) led to an early demise in 1982. In keeping with Dick’s vision, perhaps one day we’ll have a replicant Philip K. Dick AI churning out new novels for our amazement. Now that’s something I’d like to see.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (2013)

Richard Flanagan, deserving winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, was inspired by his father’s experiences as a WWII POW on the Thailand - Burma death railway to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It took Flanagan twelve years and a multitude of drafts to complete. Flanagan’s father passed away on the very day it was finished, as if finally released from the burden of history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North deserves to become a modern classic both for its unflinching depiction of humanity at war and for the quality of Flanagan’s prose.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is divided into sections featuring short chapters that move through various time periods before and after the war, most featuring the novel’s principal protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. In contrast the middle section is dominated by a depiction of the horror of the death railway across two days; it is both unrelentingly bleak and emotionally draining. Flanagan’s writing is subtle but powerful, creating a profound sense of being right there with the POWs in the steaming disease ridden jungle suffering from the cruelty of both the guards and the work itself. This is by far the most visceral depiction of the horrors of war I have ever read. The reality of the death railway is both surreal and medieval in its varied cruelties and appropriately at one point Dorrigo alludes to the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno (1317) when referring to the ulcer ward.

Flanagan’s decision to utilize a linear narrative for most of the death railway section allows it to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. To be faced with chapter after chapter of the horrors of ‘the line’ and ‘the speedo’ makes for an extremely challenging read. This is leavened somewhat by a multitude of superbly written scenes throughout the novel; from a young Dorrigo marking a football in the playground, to his fellow POW survivors drunkenly smashing into a Hobart fish and chip shop to free the fish ‘imprisoned’ in the fish tank to honor their fallen comrade Darky Gardiner. Generally Flanagan’s depiction of character psychology is mostly inspired, but at times he overdoes it, extending paragraphs detailing a character’s mental and emotional states to almost unbearable lengths. This tendency to be slightly long-winded is perhaps the novel’s only flaw, although it is easily overlooked when considering the overall brilliance of the novel.

Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and former commanding officer, now in his seventies, leaves a scene of infidelity, forgetting his book of Japanese death poems. Significantly the Japanese commanders at the POW camp discuss their love of Japanese literature, most notably Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), an account of his epically dangerous journey by foot into the interior of Japan. Basho writes that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Although ostensibly Flanagan’s novel is about war and its affect on those involved, the reference to Basho reveals deeper meanings; perhaps obviously as a metaphor for the POWs dangerous journey through the jungle building the railway, but more philosophically as an analogy for each individual’s journey through life. The novel traces many lives, including, in one of the novel’s masterstrokes, the Japanese officers in the decades after the war. It also serves as a reminder that literature, as an expression of humanity, both illuminates and obfuscates the ‘truth’ and that the ‘truth’ is more often than not subjective at best.

Although The Narrow Road to the Deep North was selected to read for the Subiaco Library book club in January, the meeting coincidentally fell in the week leading up to ANZAC day. I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day; it is undoubtedly important to remember those who went to war, but there is also the tendency for nationalism and subtle glorification to creep into our remembrances. Fortunately Flanagan’s novel does not view the past in black and white terms, rather it reminds us that humanity is flawed and war is an extreme expression of our folly. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is so thematically rich and profoundly humane it should become mandatory reading not just in Australia, but throughout the world.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem (2010)

After I finished reading Chronic City I searched for some information about Jonathan Lethem and discovered that during his childhood he read Philip K. Dick’s entire oeuvre. This came as no surprise because Chronic City seems designed to make people who are already suspicious about the nature of reality even more nervous. The novel is set in what seems to be contemporary New York, however there is a gigantic escaped tiger roaming the streets, a permanent fog enshrouding the business district and newspapers that run war free editions. There is a lot going on in Chronic City, yet curiously also not that much at all. I’m still trying to decide whether the novel is a parody of western culture, a tribute to Philip K. Dick or a serious meditation about the nature of reality, or perhaps all three.

The aptly named Chase Insteadman is the narrator and principle protagonist. Insteadman is a former child star who drifts from day to day, surviving on royalty residuals and voice acting work, whilst his girlfriend is trapped on a space station because the Chinese have placed mines in a lower orbit. Enter Perkus Tooth, an eccentric former music critic who constantly smokes strong weed whilst ruminating over hidden meanings in the numerous popular (and not so popular) cultural artefacts that litter his rent controlled apartment. Chronic City is dialogue heavy and meanders along, dropping conceptual plot hints in-between joint hits that act to both confuse and illuminate; so much so that a significant amount of the first half of the book is taken up with very stoned character interactions, principally between an unruly and paranoid Tooth and the naive fresh faced Insteadman. The narrative waters are further muddied by cynical ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and beardo Richard Abneg, who also happens to work for the mayor of New York. As the novel progresses there is a nagging feeling that something significant is going on in the background, particularly when the principal characters become obsessed with Chaldrons (sic), that exist both in the ‘real’ world of the narrative and in an online simulated realm called Yet Another World.

Lethem plays around obsessively with the notion of layered realities throughout the novel, he just can’t leave it alone. There are references to people who are real, such as Lou Reed and David Byrne, but many more who are fictional, or at least variations on known entities. A band called Chthonic Youth (Sonic Youth, no doubt) is name-checked at one point and I’m sure that the “congenital sidekick” singer/actor Russ Grinspoon that Insteadman and Tooth meet at the mayor’s celebratory dinner is an alternate Art Garfunkel (one who likes to smoke big joints, of course...). Significantly Insteadman buys a book, once owned by Tooth, called Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, which is then thrown into a bottomless conceptual art hole on the outskirts of New York; a literary jape that would not be out of place in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

Chronic City is a clever and enjoyable novel, but is diminished by its unwieldy bulk and tendency to be too long-winded. Insteadman, Abneg and in particular Tooth are engaging characters and there is a lot of fun to be had amongst their labyrinthian stoned conversations, if you appreciate that sort of thing; but anyone who is familiar with science fiction tropes as utilized by the likes of, you guessed it, Philip K. Dick will find little to surprise them here. The novel teases and intrigues but unfortunately the plot reveals at the end are rendered mostly ineffectual because they are merely further variations on an all too familiar theme. Despite these flaws I intend to further explore Letham’s work, as long as I don’t fall into one of those conceptual art holes along the way whilst reading Obstinate Dust, whoops...I mean Infinite Jest.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Reading, Writing and the Value of Libraries

The promise of books to come...

A few days ago I noticed that I’d made my hundredth post with my review of Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. When I started this blog way back in September of 2011 my motivation was to get myself into the habit of writing to help me pursue my aim of writing fiction. So far the experiment has worked beautifully and not only has my discipline improved but also so has my writing. During that time I’ve read and reviewed 74 books and written who knows how many words. I’d have to say that the best book I’ve read during this time is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - it’s a crazy masterpiece. If I can produce anything half as good then I’ll be well pleased.

Lately I've been buying books perhaps a bit too regularly (from brick and mortar book stores, not those unspeakable online 'shops'), so they've been piling up and it has reminded me just how pleasing and comforting it is to have them around. It is not just for their ascetic appeal either; it's also the promise of what they hold. For as long as I can remember books have been present in my life. It's no accident that I work in a library. Every day I'm surrounded by books at work and at home. Where did this appreciation for books and the written word come from? Two places I believe. When I was growing up there was the influence of my older brothers, who always seemed to be reading and therefore gave me the impression that books were important and were a noble pursuit. The second and most important reason is because of the existence of libraries.

I grew up in a large country town in Western Australia's south west and because of the library situated in the town centre my parents were able to bring home seemingly limitless amounts of books. They weren't readers themselves, but were smart enough to recognize the importance of reading for a young person. They were not wealthy, so if it wasn't for the library I would not have had as much access to books. Studies have indicated that access to books in the home leads to greater rates of literacy for children, even if the books are not read all that often. Libraries allow parents and children access to books regardless of their economic circumstances. This is just one of a multitude of important services that libraries provide (don’t get me started!).

Here in Western Australia the conservative state government has been cutting funds to the library system, so much so that there is a strong possibility that important services offered by country libraries may be seriously affected. At the time of writing it is unclear what the outcome will be. About eight years ago the same state government announced that it was cutting funding to metropolitan libraries. The backlash from the public was so significant that before we even received pamphlets and car bumper stickers at my library to help counter this measure the government back flipped and the cuts were cancelled. Libraries in other countries have not been so fortunate. In the U.K during the post sub-prime economic slowdown many libraries were closed. Some were reopened by volunteers and squatters who could not tolerate the loss of such an important public resource.

Personally I regard the closure of libraries to be a sign of civilization in decline. Access to knowledge, regardless of economic circumstance, is fundamental. Having a highly literate society should be the aim of every government. As I sit and contemplate just what I will read next I feel grateful that I grew up in a society that valued literacy and that the adventure and value of literature and knowledge was instilled within me at an early age. Where-ever you may be in the world take a moment to think about the health of your library system. The value of libraries is immeasurable and it is paramount that this is not forgotten. Don’t let them fall by the wayside in this age of economic rationalism; they are simply too important to disappear.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Snow Kimono - Mark Henshaw (2014)

Until the publication of The Snow Kimono Mark Henshaw was one of those writers who had produced a brilliant debut novel and then had disappeared, well, almost. In 1988 Out of the Line of Fire received rave reviews, sold well and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Apart from co-writing two crime novels under a pseudonym in 1997 and 2007 Henshaw all but disappeared off the literary map. Now freshly retired from his job as curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw has written a novel that continues Out of the Line of Fire’s experiments with meta-fiction and examines the very nature of storytelling itself.

The Snow Kimono begins in Paris with protagonist Auguste Jovert, a retired police inspector whose past is catching up with him via a letter from a lost Algerian daughter. Enter Tadashi Omura, a Japanese neighbor who befriends Jovert and shares stories from his past about his problematic friendship with narcissistic writer Katsuo Ikeda. The narrative consists of stories within stories, exploring themes such as the nature of perception, ‘truth’ and identity. At one point I wondered whether I was in fact reading a transcript from one of Ikeda’s novels and in hindsight I’m still not exactly sure. Metafictional clues are offered when Jovert pores over maps of Algiers, trying to make sense of the complex street-scape of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and blind alleys. There’s also a section in which Omura’s father’s obsession with Japanese jigsaw puzzles is featured, which is essentially both an analogy for The Snow Kimono itself and a means to explore the themes of perception and subjectivity. 

The Snow Kimono is complex but beautifully written, with a spare and poetic style that is very Japanese, despite Henshaw being Australian born. The sections set in Japan are particularly resonant, with descriptions of nature that acts as a metaphor for a character’s state of being. There is often a profound sense of foreboding, that all is not as it seems; which is compounded by events and outcomes that are often only hinted at. Henshaw’s obtuse way with narrative does have its drawbacks however; although initially absorbing, the novel’s fragmented narrative resulted in a degree of alienation from the characters and a nagging frustration from trying to put all the pieces together. Whilst Henshaw adroitly resolves many of the mysteries at the heart of the novel, he also casts doubt on aspects of the narrative that were thought to be already understood. The result is that The Snow Kimono is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed; although I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve read too many self aware fragmented novels and I’m in need of the simple joys of a linear plot.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Axiomatic - Greg Egan (1995)

Greg Egan is a highly regarded writer of science fiction and somewhat of a mystery man. Despite publishing his first work in 1983 he has remained totally anonymous; never attending science fiction conventions or writer’s festivals and nor are there any verified pictures of him on the web. As a fellow Perth denizen I could have passed him on the street for all I know and perhaps I have. Axiomatic is a collection of short stories published between 1989 and 1992. Egan deals with hard science fiction and if these stories are anything to go by he shares something with cyberpunk, with most stories set in the near future and featuring themes that explore the nature of consciousness, biotechnology, technology and its psychological impact and less typically, temporal anomalies.

Axiomatic features some brilliant ideas that are extremely well executed. The first story, The Infinite Assassin, is pure cyberpunk; featuring an agent tracking  down people who take drugs that allows them to move between parallel worlds. It’s a dynamic way to begin a collection of stories and effectively draws the reader in immediately. Many of the stories give the impression that Egan came up with a great idea and then considered what would happen if that idea was allowed to occur in a certain situation. What would happen if the beginnings of ‘the big crunch’ were detected via a time reversed blue shifted galaxy?; well you’d harness it to examine the future and humanity could see exactly what was coming. This is explored in The Hundred Light Year Galaxy, but as always things are not quite what they seem. What would happen if there were axiomatic implants that could convincingly change your perception? Egan explores this possibility brilliantly in both The Walk and in the tense title story.

Perhaps the most fascinating and intellectually stimulating stories are the two involving the Ndoli device, a ‘jewel’ embedded in the human brain that allows conscious immortality when an individual ‘switches’; in other words have their brain scooped out and replaced with a mock brain that is merely an unthinking vessel for a device that will endure for a billion years. Learning to Be Me explores how a sensitive individual copes with the ramifications of doing such a thing. Egan takes this further in Closer, in which the protagonist’s obsession with knowing the unknowable subjective experience of others inspires extreme experiments with shared consciousness.

This is a superb collection of science fiction stories. A few are the kind that you only fully understand a week later whilst having a shower or laying on the couch listening to Fripp and Eno. As a fellow Perthite it was great to read stories with a recognizable Perth environment; whilst there are no specific Perth settings Egan conveys the feel of the place in many of these stories beautifully. I’m a late-comer to Egan, so it is probably a moot point to recommend him thoroughly, but maybe I’m not the only late one.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Children Act - Ian McEwan (2014)

So I’ve finally read my first Ian McEwan novel. Where have I been all these years? McEwan has only been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning it once for Amsterdam in 1998, amongst a whole plethora of other awards. McEwan was also named as one of the fifty greatest writers since 1945 by The Times. All these nominations and accolades are all very well, but it doesn’t mean much to me actually. My interest has to be piqued in sometimes curious ways for me to approach a writer with enthusiasm. In this case the book cub I run at the library has forced my hand and The Children Act ended up sharing the train journey to and from work with me. Actually it was good company; Ian McEwan is an excellent writer.

The Children Act features a brilliant opening scene in which high court judge Fiona Maye sits surround by her court papers, nursing a drink and being outraged by her aging husband who is appealing for the right to have an affair. The remainder of the novel more than lives up to this initial scene, with McEwan perfectly encapsulating the dilemma of a dysfunctional personal life interfering with professional responsibilities, in this case the complex case of a seventeen year old Jehovah Witness needing a life saving blood transfusion. The Children Act is compelling reading due to McEwan’s deft handling of character psychology and the collision between religion and secularism. Fiona Maye is a finely drawn character and the reader is totally drawn into her world across the duration of this short novel. McEwan gets everything just right with almost cold precision; his writing style is brilliantly tight and sparse. Nothing is wasted, although some readers may find the legal aspects of the narrative a bit dry, however the legal details serve to highlight the contrast between Maye’s hermetic legal world and the psychological challenge of making a sound judgement.

Although I finished reading The Children Act three weeks ago the power of the emotive penultimate scenes are still with me. McEwan’s descriptive skills are such that I can still picture the interior of Maye’s apartment and his depiction of London in winter. Such staying power is always the hallmark of a quality novel. The Children Act has made me an instant McEwan fan. It’s almost made up for the pain of the infamous Finkler Question.....