Thursday, January 31, 2019

the last book I read

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima.

Noboru is a pretty normal thirteen-year-old boy. Well, it's a difficult age, isn't it? Presenting an appearance of conscientiousness and helpfulness to his widowed Mum, Fusako, while at the same time furtively spying on her undressing in her bedroom via a peephole in the wall between their rooms. Presenting an appearance of general respectability (at school, for instance) while at the same time hanging around in a gang of boys of the same age (led by a charismatic figure only referred to here as The Chief) who reject all the trappings of "civilised" society for some ill-defined philosophy involving rugged self-reliance and more nebulous concepts like "honour" and "glory". A bit of harmless teenage fun, boys being boys and testing boundaries, you might say, except for the occasional more disturbing activities like mutilating stray cats that they get into at the Chief's instigation.

One day Fusako and Noboru take a jaunt down to the docks (they live in Yokohama, so there's a lot of docks) and meet up with Ryuji Tsukazaki, second mate on a commercial steamer, who Fusako initiates a relationship with. When she brings him back to the house for the night Noboru spies on them through the peephole, and, upon witnessing the enthusiastic way Ryuji makes Fusako extend his gangplank and pipe him aboard, before vigorously sluicing down her lower decks, decides that Ryuji is his new hero and embodies all the masculine traits he finds most pure and admirable.

As sailors do, Ryuji has to head back off to sea for a number of months, but keeps in touch with Fusako by letter, and upon returning and being reunited with Fusako decides that his seafaring days are over and that he wants to settle down, put down some roots, marry Fusako, be as good a stepfather as he can to Noboru and find some other form of employment. That's all lovely, then, isn't it? Not to Noboru, though, who views it as an utter betrayal of all the lofty masculine ideals that Ryuji supposedly embodied. And for what? Being a father - the most contemptible role a man can fulfil, according to the gang's ethos.

So clearly this will not do. Noboru consults the gang, and The Chief hatches a plan. Here is a perfect opportunity, he says, for the gang to cover themselves in manly glory, while at the same time redeeming Ryuji from the sad descent into middle-aged respectability, corpulence and impotence that will surely follow on the heels of his meek surrender to Fusako's wishes. And how will this redemption be achieved? By a glorious and honourable (and probably messy) death, of course! Erm, run that by us again, Chief? Well, you remember what happened to the cat....

So Noboru takes advantage of Ryuji's desire to be a good father and arranges a secret meeting with him, ostensibly to do a bit of bonding and allow Ryuji to meet up with his friends. Ryuji is tickled by the idea and accompanies the gang out to one of their hideouts in the woods. They're decent enough kids, after all, just a bit boisterous; and who wasn't, at that age? But they're flatteringly receptive to some hoary old nautical anecdotes, and trusting enough to include Ryuji in their tea ritual, even if the tea is a bit weird and bitter-tasting, almost as if it zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz..........

The book ends at this point and what follows is never described, but we get the idea clearly enough. The idea that Mishima would have his characters follow through on such a plan is reinforced by knowledge of Mishima's own personal circumstances, in particular the circumstances of his death, by ritual suicide after a doomed attempt at a coup in 1970. Furthermore the ideas espoused by The Chief and his gang are not that far removed from those espoused by Mishima's group: a sort of yearning for a simpler, more honourable time when men were men (and women, presumably, knew their place), the emperor was still revered as some sort of demi-god and no-one had had their heads turned by hamburgers and transistor radios and all the other polluting elements of Western so-called civilisation. So while it's quite possible to read The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea as a sort of slyly black satire on what would nowadays be called "toxic masculinity" (a good article on that subject by a former book reviewee, Tim Winton, can be found here), the suspicion remains that actually Mishima wasn't being satirical after all and this is all a true reflection of what he believed.

None of which matters, actually - novelists, particularly dead ones, don't get to police other people's interpretations of their work, and it works very well as a shocking little parable either way. It's hard to know, of course, how much of this is Mishima and how much is the excellence of John Nathan's translation, since the original was written in a language that I can neither read nor understand. The anecdote related here about the novel's title is instructive about how much can be lost in translation, though: one possible literal translation of the original Japanese title Gogo no Eiko would be Tugging In The Afternoon, which while perhaps appropriate to a novel featuring a thirteen-year-old-boy as its protagonist perhaps doesn't convey the sense of the book's themes properly.

A couple of further points: this is the second novel on this list to have been originally written in Japanese (after Norwegian Wood), and it was filmed in 1976, though the producers took the bold (or, less charitably, insane) decision to relocate this quintessentially Japanese tale to Dartmouth and cast Kris Kristofferson in the role of the sailor.

Friday, January 25, 2019

brought to book

I'm very conscious that we've done a run of pretty much exclusively book-related posts for a while now, and that this one is no different. So let me get this out of my system and we'll move on to something about plate tectonics or axolotls next time, honest.

This is the latest in an occasional and irregular series where I provide some pointless statistics about the previous year's blogging. Well, the headline news this year is that the long-standing gradual decline in my frequency of posting has been arrested, whereby every year since 2010 has seen fewer posts than the year before. 2018 saw a fairly paltry 58 blog posts, but that was still more than the previous year's 44. No return to the heady days of 2007 with its 282 blog posts but realistically those days are gone now that I have a) kids and b) an alternative outlet on Twitter.

Further analysis reveals that 21 of those 58 were book reviews; not only is that the highest number of books I've read in a single year since 2012, it's also 36.21% of the total number of posts, comfortably a record. They weren't flimsy little pamphlets, either, the total page count of 6598 being the highest since the all-time high of 2011 and more than double 2017's paltry 3199 pages. Only in 2015, 2011 and 2013 was the average book longer than 2018's 314.19 pages (A Man In Full was the longest book of the year at 742 pages). Some graphs can be enjoyed below.

Finally, the run of five consecutive book reviews which ran from 26th November 2018 to 3rd January 2019 and comprised Marathon Man, The Sweet Hereafter, A Landing On The Sun, Earthlight and Orphans Of The Sky is the longest unbroken run of book reviews in the lifetime of this blog, beating the previous record of four as recorded here. As I said in that earlier post, this is no cause for celebration as it just means I'm not doing enough general blogging about underwater hockey and artichoke husbandry, but it's worthy of mention anyway.

Monday, January 21, 2019

the last book I read

The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What ho, Jeeves! Hardest game in the world, the old butlering game. Having to be on top of everything that's going on in the house, organising staff rotas, coping with armies of braying hoorays turning up for dinner unannounced, keeping his lordship's eye-wateringly sordid sexual peccadilloes discreetly under wraps, while all the time maintaining rigid standards of personal presentation and deportment. It'd be easy under pressure to allow a dirty fork to slip through to his lordship's place setting, but that sort of sloppiness simply can't be allowed to happen.

Mr Stevens has things well in hand at Darlington Hall, though, so there's no cause for concern there. Which isn't to say that there haven't been some recent upheavals - Lord Darlington, to whom Stevens gave several decades of unstinting service, has recently died and the house has been purchased by an American, Mr Farraday. Mr Farraday is still mostly living on the other side of the Atlantic, so the house is making do with a skeleton staff, and Stevens is even contemplating a short holiday, especially since Mr Farraday has offered him the use of one of his fancy cars to swan around in.

It turns out that there may be an ulterior motive for this uncharacteristic adventurousness - Stevens has received a letter from the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton. Or at least she was Miss Kenton when she was employed at the house; she has since got married and is now Mrs Benn. Stevens has an eye on recruiting more staff for the house once Mr Farraday is properly installed, and has inferred that she may be unsatisfied with both her current occupation and her marriage. So with an objective in mind - visit Miss Kenton, renew their acquaintance and discreetly sound her out about a possible return to Darlington Hall - he prepares to set off down towards Cornwall.

So Stevens sets off on his road trip, and with that framing device now successfully set up, we set off on a trip back into the past to find out some details about Stevens' long service to Lord Darlington and the circumstances of his previous acquaintance with Miss Kenton. Stevens comes from a family of butlers, indeed his father had been one before him, and in fact in his later years worked at Darlington Hall as an under-butler to his son. We learn of the circumstances of Stevens senior's death on a night where the house is busy with a gathering for many international dignitaries and Stevens jr. has to divide his time between attending to the doctor who is attending to his father, and maintaining the utmost professional standards when some boorish Frenchman wants some more brandy. Stevens reflects on what makes a "great" butler and concludes that part of it is this sort of icy professional detachment and discretion.

Stevens' formative years as Lord Darlington's butler were between the wars, the 1930s in particular. Lord Darlington fancied himself as something of a facilitator of Great Men meeting up to discuss Great Things, and hosted a few dinners where diplomats, including some from the burgeoning Nazi regime, met up to do clandestine deals. It soon becomes clear that Lord Darlington hadn't taken quite as firm an anti-Nazi line as one might have wished for in hindsight, and that there was an unpleasant episode where he demanded the sacking of a couple of German-Jewish members of the housekeeping staff, much to Miss Kenton's distress.

Ah, Miss Kenton. An impeccably thorough and professional housekeeper, she and Mr Stevens develop a professional relationship based on deep mutual respect and admiration, and allow themselves some moments of informality at the end of the working day to converse in a more relaxed manner. This is not something that necessarily comes easily to Stevens, and their friendship is punctuated by occasional misunderstandings and huffy stalkings-off to the parlour. But basically in a quintessentially 1930s way Miss Kenton is wearing a sign that says AVAILABLE, or possibly RIDE ME LIKE ONE OF LORD DARLINGTON'S PRIZE MARES and Stevens is too wrapped up with his job, or, dammit, just too British to be able either to see it or act on it.

Eventually Miss Kenton gets bored with waiting for Stevens to put down the silver polish and bend her over the scullery table and accepts a proposal of marriage from a suitor she has been spending occasional evenings with (and who is called, presumably, Mr. Benn). And so Miss Kenton leaves the house, never to be seen by Stevens again, Until now, perhaps. Stevens' motoring odyssey through south-western England eventually takes him to Cornwall, where Miss Kenton now resides, and a meeting in a hotel tea-room wherein reminiscences are shared and a friendship is rekindled. But all good things come to an end and Mrs Benn must return to her husband. Mr Stevens gives her a lift in his motor car as far as the bus stop, where there is time for a brief conversation where the mask is allowed to slip just briefly and some true feelings are revealed, before the bus arrives, everyone pulls themselves together and they return to their separate lives.

Now, I want you to stay with me here, but this is not principally a novel about either English country houses or the minutiae of butlering, even though those things are discussed in some detail. It is, in its own buttoned-up and repressed way, a love story, though one primarily involving love thwarted and frustrated by societal conventions and notions of duty and service that seem quaintly old-fashioned now. Stevens is, in his own way, an archetypal unreliable narrator, although as this review says, "unwitting narrator" might be a better description, since it is not Steven's intention to deceive. Or, to put it another way, the person he is principally deceiving is himself. But how else to come to terms in his own mind with the fact that the man he devoted most of his life to serving chose the wrong side in the defining conflict of the age, and that he himself spurned the chance of love and happiness in favour of remaining in this man's service? Not to mention failing to be with his father in his final moments just to ensure he was at some drunken aristocrat's elbow in case he needed another snifter of port.

Just about my only reservation about The Remains Of The Day is the same stylistic one that I had with The Birthday Boys, i.e. it's a novel supposedly written from a first-person viewpoint in something resembling real time, but it's not completely clear by what medium the words are being delivered from the central character's voice to our ear. It could in this case be Stevens' journal, which he could be jotting in in the various inns and boarding-houses he stays in around Devon and Cornwall, but it's never entirely clear. Delivering the narrative this way allows for further stylistic tricks, though, principally the delivering of the whole thing in a very specific kind of formal circumlocutory style which never uses a couple of words where a couple of dozen will do. Part of the purpose of this, of course, is to make the moment where Stevens' icy detachment slips for a moment (and the reader has to wait until about half-a-dozen pages from the end for it to happen) all the more quietly devastating, and in that regard it works pretty well.

This is the second Ishiguro on this list after Never Let Me Go, and they're quite different books; The Remains Of The Day is written in a taut, repressed style befitting its narrator while Never Let Me Go is much more relaxed. They are both excellent, though, and I would recommend them both highly. As mentioned here Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The Remains Of The Day also won the Booker Prize in 1989, and therefore joins the list of Booker winners featured on this blog, most recently Wolf Hall. It is suggested here that four out of the six Booker nominees is the most I've managed in any given year (and that those years were 1984 and 2001); well, I've now read four from the 1989 shortlist as well, Cat's Eye, The Book Of Evidence and A Disaffection being the other three.

The Remains Of The Day was made into a film in 1993 (my Faber paperback, as you can see, is a film tie-in edition), starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and much-garlanded with Oscar nominations (although it didn't win any). I've never seen it, but it looks like a pretty faithful adaptation of the book.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

ms kondo, in the library, with the lead piping

I caught an episode of Open Book on Radio 4 in the car the other day, featuring the lovely Mariella Frostrup and including (at about 7:40 in this link) an item about de-cluttering, and whether books could be considered "clutter" and whether you should therefore get rid of some of them. The catalyst for this was the apparently phenomenally successful show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, wherein a tiny Japanese woman comes round to your house and tries to persuade you that it's probably not necessary to be hoarding four hundred Tesco carrier bags full of your own faeces. More controversially she has apparently made some pronouncements on the subject of books, which have predictably caused a variety of amusingly outraged reactions on the internet.

I do agree that there is some value in de-cluttering, and considering whether you really need all the gazillion items that are lying around your house, and if you come to the conclusion that your life would be enhanced beyond measure by getting rid of 90% of your books, then good luck to you, as long as you dispose of them in a responsible manner by taking them to a charity shop where they can be sold on (probably to me). Marie Kondo's mantra about only keeping things that "spark joy" is a bit teeth-grindingly cutesy but contains a grain of truth. If your things don't enhance your life in some way, consider having fewer things. My mother, just to provide a real-world example, is reasonably good about getting rid of books she doesn't want to keep, which suits me fine as I end up acquiring quite a few of them (my copy of Wolf Hall came to me via that route, for instance).

It just so happens that my entire book collection sparks great joy in me, and if anyone suggests getting rid of any of them they can fuck off. That said I did actually take half-a-dozen or so books to a charity shop the other day, but only because we were having a general tidy-up and they were books I had more than one copy of. They all count, though. There is a point where I am going to have to consider getting a bigger house, though, as you can see from the photo below.

Nonetheless it is worth considering why you keep books you have already read. Is it because you intend one day to re-read them? Well, perhaps; I used to be a fairly regular re-reader of books back when I was younger (and had fewer books), but not so much lately, partly because I now have a huge backlog of unread stuff to tackle (and blog about). Is it because you want to pass them on to your children? Yes, partly: Nia is a voracious consumer of books and I would certainly hope she'd want to dip into my bookshelves when she's a bit older. But mainly you just have to be honest and say: I'm highly unlikely to re-read most of them but just having them in the house brings me joy. And I'm sure Marie Kondo would be fine with that.

In fact the next Open Book item was a discussion about Franz Kafka, which provides a perfect example of what I'm talking about: I own one Kafka book, The Trial, which I bought and read when I was about eighteen, and have therefore been carrying from house to house for the last thirty years. Am I ever going to re-read it? Possible, but on balance unlikely. Will Nia want to read it one day? Possibly. Am I keeping it just to show off to visitors? I suppose it's possible, but I don't think so. For one thing the library is in the bedroom and we don't tend to usher guests in there unless we're having one of those parties.

Lastly, while this article provides a very even-handed view of the Kondo phenomenon, I must just take issue with a couple of sentences, responding to a claim that Kondo's methods amount to nothing more than "woo-woo nonsense":
Less “woo-woo nonsense” and more Japanese-style animism that comes out of the country’s indigenous Shinto beliefs. [...] In Japan, objects can have souls.
My responses to those two sentences are as follows:
  1. "indigenous Shinto beliefs" are “woo-woo nonsense”, just with a bit of cultural acceptability attached by virtue of age and its status as an "official" religion.
  2. No they can't.
I hope that clears up any confusion.

Monday, January 14, 2019

anita get to a hospital

Just trawling through a couple of book-related end-of-year round-ups and I see that I missed a couple of victims of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut, which continues to wreak a terrible toll on the world's population of novelists even when I'm apparently not paying attention.

Firstly, Anita Shreve, who occupies a unique place in the history of this blog as the subject of the first book review of all, back in the heady days of late 2006, and then featured again as the one hundredth entry in 2010. She actually pre-deceased Philip Roth but I evidently failed to notice it at the time. Secondly, Justin Cartwright, who first featured as one of the group of books I read on holiday in Austria in 2008 and then again in late 2013. Shreve therefore inevitably becomes the longest survivor of those who have died, with Cartwright slotting into second place, at 11 years and 10 years respectively. They were both in their 70s which will have pulled the average down slightly, most of the previous victims having made it to their 80s at least.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d

the last book I read

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell.

We're somewhere in Illinois in early 1918. We're also, in the first section of the book, in the head of eight-year-old Bunny Morison. Bunny is a sensitive boy who would much rather daydream on the sofa than be forced to go out and endure "fresh air" and similar hearty bracing horrors outside. Just as Bunny is mildly alarmed by the prospect of, say, a game of football, he is also mildly alarmed by his elder brother Robert, a more shouty and outgoing type despite only having one leg, legacy of an argument with a horse-drawn cart (you see? outdoor stuff is dangerous), and also by his father, a stereotypical early-20th-century American Dad, not much given to displays of tenderness or affection beyond an occasional bluff chuck on the shoulder.

The only people Bunny is not alarmed by are his mother Elizabeth, the centre of Bunny's universe, and her sister Irene, a slightly more volatile character but available for plenty of auntly duties after the disastrous break-up of her marriage. Irene has been around a lot lately, as it happens, and she and Elizabeth have been having some secretive whispered conversations out of Bunny's earshot, with lots of charged glances in his direction. Elizabeth has also engaged him in some odd conversations about how much fun it would be to have a little brother or sister. What's going on? Before Bunny can get to the bottom of these exotic and mysterious adult goings-on he is struck down with an acute fever which turns out to be Spanish influenza, and is confined to bed.

With Bunny quarantined by the doctor, the second section of the book moves the focus to Robert, a big surly intimidating lummox through Bunny's eyes but actually a perfectly normal thirteen-year-old boy, albeit one occasionally vexed by his little brother's propensity for playing with his soldiers and losing or breaking them. Robert's view of the world has him a little more on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, and therefore better able to understand things like Irene's no-good husband Boyd and Irene's indecision about whether to go back to him or not (Robert says not).

Following Bunny's illness (and subsequent recovery) the boys' mother and father announce that they are going to take themselves off to the big city for the birth, leaving the boys in the charge of their aunt Clara. Presumably the rationale for the trip is either that they are expecting complications with the birth, or that they don't want a new-born baby exposed to any lingering flu germs, but it's never completely clear. In any case, off they go and no sooner have the boys submitted themselves to aunt Clara's regime, which mainly involves the ruthless suppression of anything which might involve fun, Robert comes down with the lurgy and has to be quarantined. Not only that, but the parents' flight from the family germs proves to be a futile one, as both of them come down with the flu. The baby is born, and father James recovers, but Elizabeth dies.

Our viewpoint shifts again to James, Bunny and Robert's father, an aloof and slightly terrifying figure up to now, much given to reading out newspaper articles at the breakfast table and getting tetchy if interrupted by anyone, but revealed here to be just a regular guy, trying to do the best by his family but adrift in his own private grief at the death of his wife and facing the prospect of having to bring up two sons and a newborn baby on his own.

In comparison with the two previous books on this list this one provides a good contrast and an opportunity to ask: what is "literary" fiction? You can point to some obvious differences with, say, Orphans Of The Sky: this is less plot-driven, although there is a fairly major plot point involving the death of a central character, and it's more concerned with the inner life of the various central characters: more of the narrative happens in people's heads than anywhere else. Obviously the lines are blurred and near the lines the distinctions are largely arbitrary, as we've seen before with previous entries on this list. In this particular case the majority of the narrative takes place through the eyes and ears of the two children, with Bunny in particular finding certain aspects of adult conversation and behaviour impossible to fathom. In this way it's very like parts of The Go-Between, which also used children and adults' mutual incomprehension as a key plot point.

They Came Like Swallows was published in 1937 (though not in the UK until 2002) and was the second of only six novels Maxwell wrote in his long career. Like many early works it's largely autobiographical - Maxwell's mother did indeed die in the 1918 flu epidemic.

It's shorter than its 174 pages would suggest (my Vintage edition has quite large print), very easy to read and sharply perceptive about how families work and how mysterious other people are, even when they are members of your own family. You've got to keep your book-bargain-hunting wits about you at all times: my copy was acquired for 50p from the honesty box at the village hall in Acton Trussell while we were there for a children's birthday party a couple of years ago.

Monday, January 07, 2019

twas parsecs of time since this blog post did start

It occurs to me that I didn't do a Christmas-related post in 2018, so in the spirit of this music-related one from 2015 (but at considerably less gruelling length) I offer you my opinion that the second line of Chris de Burgh's perennially popular (but nonetheless awful) Christmas song A Spaceman Came Travelling is the worst single line of lyric in the history of music. A bold claim, I know, but I stand by it.

In fairness to Chris de Burgh, many of the established canon of Christmas pop songs are deeply awful. Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime, for instance, is pretty horrible and is redeemed only by some farty rubbery synthesizer noises and the knowledge that he knocked it off in a tea break between sessions for a "proper" album. Some kudos should also go de Burgh's way for at least trying to do something different with the narrative, even if it is a Chariots Of The Gods knock-off.

But there's really no excuse for this:
A spaceman came travelling on his ship from afar,
'Twas light years of time since his mission did start
Broadly speaking there are three crimes committed by this line - two of them are crimes against scansion and general construction of verse by competent adults, and the other is a crime against physics. Note that I am giving de Burgh a free pass on the fact that "start" doesn't rhyme with "afar", and that on reflection it might have set the ludicrous nature of the song as a whole off on the right foot to have adhered to a strict rhyming scheme and have the first line conclude "from a fart". But we'll blow that one off and let that one go, as it were. So:
  • The opening 'Twas here is either a clumsy attempt to squash two syllables into one (ironic since in a minute we're going to be scrabbling around trying to find an extra one) or an attempt to lend a folky, fable-ish, once-upon-a-time air to the song. I actually favour the latter as a theory, since it wouldn't be hard to get an It in at the start of the line if you really put your mind to it.
  • Probably the worst crime of all in my book is the insertion of the "did" to allow the line to end with the word "start". I mean, honestly, you get told not to do this in primary school, and doing it here just makes the line sound like it's been written by a six-year-old. In fact I have a six-year-old in my house, and I'm pretty sure she could do better. Alternative suggestions are pointless given the next problem on the list, but if pressed I would offer these suggestions for fixing the rhyme and replacing the "since his mission did start" bit in (in my opinion) ascending order of awesomeness:
    • on the way from that star
    • in his big airtight car
    • since his spaceship went RARRR
  • Finally, of course, there's the "light years of time" bit. Thankfully, since Chris de Burgh isn't quite such a universal icon of pop culture as Star Wars, there has't been a whole cottage industry springing up to retrospectively decide that it's not wrong at all, like the one that attempts to render the line about "making the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs" acceptable.
It's easy to mock Chris de Burgh, of course, partly because of his well-documented extreme humourlessness about being mocked, but also because there is just something inherently ludicrous about him that's hard to put your finger on. Well that's all very well, you might say, but just because it's easy doesn't mean you should do it. To which I would respond: I couldn't disagree more.

In conclusion I contend that there are only two Christmas pop songs you actually need: Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody which - despite over-familiarity - is the only properly great one from the rosy-cheeked Christmas jollity end of the genre, and Jethro Tull's Ring Out Solstice Bells to cover the atheist/secular/pagan angle.

incidental music spot of the day

Three in pretty quick succession earlier today which seemed like a blog-worthy thing. And they are:
  • The Funeral by Band Of Horses in the trailer for the new movie Life Itself, which looks epically awful, but which turns out, according to the reviews, to be even more awful than that. I have referred to this song before, here, and I still listen to it from time to time, and still have no other songs by the band, and no particular desire to own any, because I imagine (without any supporting evidence) that all their other songs will be inferior retreads of this one.
  • The You And Me Song by The Wannadies on the advert for the Mercedes GLA. A splendid piece of crunchy Scandi-pop, and also by coincidence the only only thing I own by the group.
  • S.O.B. by Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats in the opening scene of an episode of Tin Star on Channel 4. I only saw enough to know that a) I had no idea what was going on and b) Tim Roth plays his usual role of gruff slightly violent Cockney Tim Roth. The song, oddly, is in my iTunes library on the strength of a recommendation on Twitter from none other than Stephen King, and is, now I think of it, the only song by the band that I possess. So that's three out of three. Coincidence? OR IS IT?!!??!? Once again, yes, yes it is.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

the last book I read

Orphans Of The Sky by Robert A Heinlein.

Hugh Hoyland and his chums lead a decent enough life: enough to eat, a bit of light-hearted knife-combat training (with the occasional lapse into real-life duelling with the associated stabbings and death, but, hey, just boys being boys and having some TOP BANTZ, innit), a few girls to chase, that sort of thing. Basically it's all good unless you question certain prevailing religious orthodoxies or get murdered to death and eaten by the cannibalistic mutants who inhabit certain areas of the world Hugh and chums find themselves on. This is a world known (and referred to in the religious texts) as The Ship, and comprising, as well as the level Hugh lives on which features various agricultural facilities, other more spartan levels which are just long metallic corridors.

So I'm sure you can see where we're going with this. The religious texts purport to be a set of technical manuals for a large starship but are interpreted by the religious leaders as metaphorical descriptions of an entire universe. Deviation from this worldview (like, for instance, speculating on the existence of stuff "outside" The Ship) is interpreted as heresy and may earn you a trip to the Converter (the nuclear furnace that powers the Ship) as fuel.

Hugh is a clever, resourceful and inquisitive sort of bloke, and is therefore identified at an early stage as potentially troublesome. To minimise his chances of infecting his contemporaries with his fancy book-learnin' ways he is inducted into the guild of scientists, but it quickly becomes clear that even here thinking outside the box (in the most literal of senses, in his particular situation) is discouraged.

A chance to discover more presents itself from an unexpected direction, though, when Hugh is captured by mutants and taken to their leader, Joe-Jim, a creature with two heads. While this does happen, exceptionally rarely, in real life, you, as a seasoned consumer of speculative fiction, will be forgiven for thinking of Zaphod Beeblebrox here. Anyway, Joe-Jim is a bright and resourceful couple of guys and he soon spots that Hugh is a guy of a similar nature; and lucky for Hugh that he does or Hugh would have ended up as dinner for Joe-Jim's mutant henchman, Bobo.

Joe-Jim is also in possession of some information: free of the religious indoctrination and rigid enforcement of cultural rules that Hugh has lived under his whole life Joe-Jim has explored the whole ship, even up to the upper levels where gravity decreases to zero and you can zoom about weightlessly. Even more excitingly, these levels contain a control room where one can not only control the ship (if one only knew how) but see out of a viewing gallery to The Outside, where a gazillion stars demonstrate the falsehood of the religious texts (or, at least, their current interpretation). Hugh is immediately convinced, but finds others less willing to be convinced on his return to the lower levels.

Hugh and his chums eventually resort to further kidnapping activities and bring the ship's chief engineer up to the control room to see the stars for himself. On their return, a spot of judicious mutiny and assassination get the chief engineer appointed Captain, and, Hugh assumes, sanity and proper science will prevail. However, it turns out that Narby, the new Captain, was only feigning being convinced by the stellar light-show, and moreover is a bit keen on consolidating his new power by eliminating various troublesome heretics and mutants. Hugh manages to escape and his party flee to the secret locked chamber on the upper level which he has deduced contains an escape pod. Thanks to his experimentation in the control room he has a rudimentary understanding of the controls and is able to launch the craft, avoid crashing it into the nearest star, and (with a bit of help from the autopilot) land on a conveniently Earth-like planet in orbit around it and emerge, blinking, onto this new world, which, also rather conveniently, contains plant life and small animal life (of the sort which can be stabbed up by trained knife-wielders) but no instantly death-dealing large ravenous carnivores. Nice planet: we'll take it!

As I said in the last book review, Heinlein and Asimov were my guys for science fiction back in the mid-1980s. The Heinleins I read were mainly the late-period ones like Friday (probably my favourite), Job: A Comedy Of Justice and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, though I did also read his most famous book Stranger In A Strange Land, and also I Will Fear No Evil, although its depiction of a male/female mind-share merges confusingly in hindsight with the plot of the Steve Martin film All Of MeOrphans Of The Sky is a re-purposing of some of the author's earlier work in the same way as Earthlight was, in this case by being a 1963 repackaging of two linked short stories first published in magazine form in 1941. So the material is a bit older than Earthlight, but it seems like a much more modern book. Part of this is because Heinlein is the best writer of the so-called Big Three and much more interested in proper characterisation than the other two, and also inclined to include some sex and humour among all the spaceship-wrangling.

The claim is made for Orphans Of The Sky that it was the first novel to depict a "generation ship", i.e. a spaceship specifically designed with the idea that people would live, breed and die on board and that the people who reached the ship's eventual destination would be the (perhaps distant) descendants of the people who first set out. I don't know whether that's true, but the specific treatment of the idea here, where so many generations have passed that people have forgotten the true nature of their surroundings, certainly inspired other similar works. The paranoia about rooting out genetic mutations in the first half of the novel is very reminiscent of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, and the wider theme of someone gradually uncovering knowledge about their true place in the world (not necessarily involving spaceships) crops up elsewhere too, for instance in Inverted World, and can't help but be read as a satire of organised religion.

It's very good, and much more exciting and engaging than Earthlight, which is a little dry and staid for my taste. It would be remiss of me not to criticise the ending a bit, though, not so much for the extraordinary coincidence of having the protagonists escape just in time to slingshot into orbit around, and land on, a conveniently Earth-like planet (well, actually a rocky moon of a gas giant), but for the unlikely yet convenient way in which the (male) protagonists are able to stop off and collect their womenfolk (two of them in Hugh's case, the randy sod) just in time to bundle them off to a nearby planet to restart the human race. This new offshoot of the human race is given the best chance of genetic purity by having poor old Joe-Jim take one for the team and hold off the horde of religious nutters to allow the pod to escape, at the cost of his own life/lives. There's a slightly light-hearted approach taken to wife-beating as well; when the younger and more spirited of Hugh's wives questions the nature of the trip they're about to embark on, he corrects her in a loving yet violent way by punching one of her teeth out. The ladies, eh? Bless 'em.