I am the kind of person who is happy to read a novel with weak characters and a weak plot if the ideas are still interesting. They don’t have to be fully realised or focused, but they have to be interesting in the first place. This means I love Philip K. Dick and am always willing to forgive his weaknesses and limitations; I am always so damn intrigued to find out what odd ideas he’s had this time and how they’re going to play out. This capacity of mine to forgive him was tested to its limit when I read The Simulacra, which I had to force my way through because it failed to engage me, either emotionally or intellectually. It was a mish-mash of half backed Dickian wrapped around a cast of characters whose fundamental dramas fall flat.
The Simulacra is definitely one of Dick’s weaker works, but its lack of focus means that I will probably end up forgetting it in a way that I have not forgotten some of Dick’s other lesser novels. Take Cantata-140 (otherwise known as The Crack in Space). Not one of Dick’s best regarded novels and not often spoken about; it’s a typical Dickian tale of political intrigue set against a background of social unrest, and a mixed cast of the powerful scheming for more power, and working stiffs scheming for any power at all. This all hinges around an idea: the earth is overpopulated, and we’ve been dealing with it by freezing people and shoving them in warehouses. The crisis that this precipitates means that the idea and its implications play out in an interesting way.
The Simulacra, by contrast, is all over the place. There is a way in which this could be good. The Man in the High Castle felt very similar to this while I was reading it, but that novel, as its reputation might suggest, dovetails all those stories in an incredible way. That is what Dick can do at his best. You leave the novel with a pretty clear view of what kind of crisis has just happened, and how it has effected all these characters. The Simulacra does not end that way. Multiple undeveloped plot points peter to indefinite ends, and you are left wondering just what the point was. Big reveals fall flat. The ending focuses on a small subplot that only features a couple of times. The most interesting character, Richard Kongrosian, pretty much becomes a God and then does… not much. The neo-Nazi leader secretly running the United States is a pretty cool idea, but this gets revealed and then he gets killed. Is Dick making a point about the complicity between political power and political violence? Maybe, but it’s a stretch, and the point is dropped shortly after being introduced. Any of these ideas, if spun larger, might have led to a great SF novel, but as it is its likes Dick threw all the ideas he didn’t know what to do with, together.
It’s still not bad. Dick, even at his worst (which this might not be, I haven’t read *everything*), is worth reading. That being said, The Simulacra is probably one for the fully paid up Dick-head, as they are the likeliest people to look at this tangle of threads and see the kind of novel Dick was trying to write, and was in the habit of writing.
It’s the 23rd of January and I haven’t finished a book yet this year. I need to get my ass moving, because I normally end up sandbagging December (because December every year is an unparalleled psychodrama). I can’t afford to sandbag January too.
I shouldn’t worry. I have done some reading this month, and I have gotten some work done. Just not as much as I’d like. But I never do as much as I want of what I want to do, so.
I’ve been slowly making my way through Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra. As you probably already know, I really love PKD, and this means I have already read most of his major works. This leaves me with some of the weaker, lesser-known stuff. The Simulacra is still unmistakably PKD. It’s set in an SF future where the president is an automaton and the real ruler is the first lady (who doesn’t age???), and psychoanalysis has been outlawed to force people to take medications for their mental illnesses, and time travel is a thing. Oh, and people are buying one-shot one-way rockets so they can emigrate to Mars. And there are mind controlling robots. And there’s a Neo-Nazi movement in the USA? Well, this scattering of SF concepts and lack of focus is what typifies this novel as weaker PKD, but he scatters so many ideas that some of them are bound to take off in the imagination, and some of them are bound to have happened (see; Neo-Nazi movement). The criss-crossing narrative taking in struggling working people and the very highest echelons of power, and how they are affected by that mish-mash of weird ideas, is what typifies this as a PKD novel despite its weakness. It still has that human focus. Unfortunately, none of these people have really grabbed me this time around, and the mish-mash of ideas is confusing me a bit. I will finish it, and I will say I enjoyed it, but I dunno how long it will take me.
I’ve also been trudging along with Bleak House. I’ve never done very well with fuck-off big Victorian novels and this is no different. Unfortunately for me I’d still like to try get a grasp of the classics, and that includes reading more Dickens. I am sure when I get through some more of it and the plot threads start coming together it will pick up pace and interest me more. I did finish Great Expectations last year and I enjoyed that (and it was a damn sight thinner).
Speaking of Victoria, I’ve been reading Lytton Strachey’s biography of her to my girlfriend to help her sleep. It’s been working and I am enjoying it, besides. Strachey is so even handed in his outlook and so clear and cool with his prose that I can’t help but find myself pleasantly interested in much the same way as I was when I read Eminent Victorians last year. I am not greatly interested in any of the subjects he’s interested in, but as always, I’d like a greater knowledge of the classics. I’ve certainly had worse experiences getting through something because I felt like I ought to.
(I have 15% left of Northanger Abbey and I doubt I will ever finish it. It is just so fucking boring. It’s fine for nothing to happen if you have the style to make up for it. If you’re not going to have a style, then things better happen. I think it’s considered her weakest “major” novel, so maybe I should just forgive it. I did like Pride and Prejudice.)
As a last note, I just received a copy of The Honourable Schoolboy as a belated birthday gift from my sister. Last year I got in to le Carré in a big way, and I blew through Tinker Tailor in a couple of sittings. I found a copy of Smiley’s People shortly after that but haven’t ever come across a used copy of The Honourable Schoolboy, and I didn’t want to read the Karla trilogy out of order, so I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I am sure I will let you know what I think of it.
I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius; I mean, why not take Hannibal Lecter’s advice? I won’t pretend that I am getting every nuance, because I am sure I’m not. My knowledge of the historical context is scanty and my knowledge of the Latin/Greek classics is Not Good. Which is why I am reading him. I’d like to know more.
I have a problem with him.
It’s the same problem I have with Seneca, so it’s a problem I imagine I would have with stoicism in general were I better read in it. That problem is that it asks you to be a mineral when you are, in fact, an animal.
You can’t take someone with thoughts, dreams, and desires burning inside them and tell them to just be happy with what they have, that whatever station they have is what nature fitted them for. That is a good way to make people feel unhappy, unfulfilled. You cannot look at the lack of fulfilment and ask them if they have tried limiting their horizons in an attempt to feel fulfilled. Is Aurelius telling us that we’ll never be fulfilled, so what we already have will do as well as anything? I think that’s the message, but it rings hollow coming from a king.
And the fact that it’s coming from a king is significant. I don’t know enough about the man to draw any well-reasoned historical parallels, but I will say that it has always been in the interests of a ruling class to make sure that the classes below them are happy with what they have. Who wants the working classes getting ideas above their station? Why not promote a philosophy that suggests that what you have is good enough, that if you’re enduring it, it isn’t unendurable?
In that sense, I can see why this philosophy is comforting. If I was suffering under circumstances that were truly out of my control, if there was nothing I could do about it, if I had to endure it regardless, then I might find Aurelius useful. But I suspect that we are asked to endure a lot more than we really need to.
2017 has been a long year for me. It certainly felt long. And I’m not all that sure I got much done, but I feel exhausted beyond measure. Oh well. I have more to get done in 2018 and with any luck it’ll be a bit more conductive towards the work I want to get done. On with the excuses.
If you’re reading this then you probably know already, but 2017 was the year I published my first collection of short stories, Hole in the Sky. It is available on Kindle and in paperback. You can also get it on Smashwords, if you like.
Speaking of Smashwords, I haven’t had all that much response to releasing my books on it. If you really wanna get my stuff free from the tentacles of Amazon, then please make sure to get my stuff on Smashwords, or otherwise let me know.
2017 was also the year that I decided to quit smoking. I wrote a bit about it here. I am still not smoking and I still want a cigarette, but it is getting a bit easier as time goes by.
In terms of books I read this year, here are some of the ones that had enough of an effect on me that I wanted to write about them.
I read a *lot* of John le Carré this year. He’s one of my new favourite writers. I wrote a short comparison between his works and Ian Fleming’s. We were also blessed with a new spy novel from le Carré, and I wrote about that, too.
I picked up The Martian five years after everybody else did and enjoyed it enough that I finished it in pretty much one sitting. I loved it deeply and can’t recommend it enough if you’re on the fence. It was popular enough that you’ll probably find a copy for fifty pence in any given charity shop, so have a look.
Last year was very difficult for me in a lot of ways (see; quitting smoking) but throughout it I had a companion in that difficulty, and that was Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. For those sick and sad of heart and mind, whether temporarily or otherwise, this is required reading. It won’t help, but you won’t be alone.
I also published a small piece on David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, a book I’d wanted to read ever since I was a kid and heard about it from gaming magazines. For fans of Doom and Quake, or ’90s gaming in general, it is a must.
In the same vain as my post on Joyce, I also wrote a post on Philip K. Dick, detailing where you might start if you’re new to him. We move ever further into the future he realised was coming, so now might be a good time to familiarise yourself.
Speaking of familiarising yourself, I wrote a couple of posts about all the works of literature in the public domain and how you can go about reading them. Give them a look if, like me, you start every new year thinking, “I didn’t read enough last year, next year will be different.”
Speaking of which, I read 56 books last year. My intention of gaming my Goodreads challenge worked and I am going to set my challenge this year to the same arbitrarily low 20 books.
On another tack, I did also write down a list of books that I wanted to read in 2017. Well, it’s over now, so it might be a good time to look back and think about what of that reading I did or didn’t do, and reasons why. I’ll go over this in another post.
I think that’s it. I hope you had a good new year and 2018 brings you all the things you want. As per usual I’ll be keeping you up to date with what I am doing. Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Facebook if you want to know what’s going on with my work. I am also considering starting up a mailing list, so watch this space.
I have read a lot of depressing stuff recently. Put it down to my state of mind or the time of the year or whatever. I read Twilight of the Idols, and you know Nietzsche, always a laugh riot. Then I finished The Book of Disquiet, which I’d been reading on and off all year. Then I finished Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which I didn’t understand in the slightest.
So it was time for something lighter, something nicer, something that I knew had a happy ending. I found a copy of The Martian in a charity shop for 50p, and a couple of days later I picked it up and finished it in one sitting. Something nicer and lighter? The guy is in mortal danger for literally years. But I’ve seen the film, so… happy ending!
It didn’t take me long to realise that The Martian is a masterpiece of tone. In a sense, SF doesn’t get harder than this. It’s all based on current plans and real science*. It is the definition of “this could *really* happen”. And it’s so damn accessible, just because of Watney’s voice. He’s a science teacher anybody would be thrilled to have and nothing is boring when it’s said in his voice.
I mean, here’s an example of what I mean when I say tone helps carry this novel. Moby-Dick is a masterpiece. An American classic. But most modern readers have a complaint, and that complaint is, “Did he really have to spend all that time explaining how rope is made?” A good chunk of The Martian is a guy growing potatoes and telling you about it. How interesting will most people find that, really? Sure, the stakes are high and it’s never been done (on Mars) before, but you go on to realise just how quotidian “never been done on Mars before” is. It’s the way Watney explains it that makes it interesting, his energy and enthusiasm, his sense of humour. You learn that part of the reason he got picked to go to Mars is the personality he has, and it beams on every page. You can’t help but like Mark Watney.
You get to know Watney pretty well before the narrative shifts to NASA as they slowly realise he is still alive on Mars. This is clever on Weir’s part; the drama of surviving on Mars is naturally the selling point of the novel, and it would have been very easy to tell the whole story through Watney’s mission logs, but breaking up the pace and getting us out of Watney’s head for a bit does wonders for the pace of the narrative. Watney has such a strong voice that it would be difficult to believably modulate it to add some emotional variety, and without the change in perspective the novel would run the danger of every page being like the last part of a Sherlock Holmes story; the bit where Sherlock tells you how brilliant he is. Sure, it’s exciting and satisfying, but it’d wear thin. Slowing the pace down occasionally, and foreshadowing some of Watney’s actions, stops the novel from burning up on reentry.
The changes in perspective also afford Weir the opportunity to work in a couple of subplots that give the story a sense of scale and help cement this novel as one filled with optimism in a way that doesn’t cause any knowing sighs. I mean, it is SF right? What’s more unimaginable? A future in which a man colonises Mars? Or a future in which a glacial bureaucracy can cooperate internationally with other glacial bureaucracies to save one man’s life? Both sound impossible, and yet both happen. It’s a bit techno-utopian, but at least its techno-utopian in a concrete way, and it acknowledges that this kind of thing can’t come about without teamwork, individual brilliance, iron will, massive resources, and patience. Like I said, I was in the mood for an uplifting read, and I got it.
You’d think that with the world looking more and more hopeless every day, an SF story set so close to us would be pretty damn bleak, and you’d think all the stories that are further removed would find more space for some kind of hope. And yet, we cannot imagine a future that looks good without puking, sneering, or wondering who’s getting the short end. Meanwhile, The Martian very much plays by the rules we work under right now, and using those rules manages to tell a story that is genuinely wholesome and fulfilling. I will crave this kind of thing going forwards, and fear I won’t find much of it.
*N.B. When I talk about the science being believable, I mean that it looks believable to me, someone with a (very) rudimentary education in the sciences. I have a B.A., you know? It didn’t break my suspension of disbelief, and that’s what counts.
If there’s one thing I love doing, it’s intellectualising my own unhappiness. I’m no therapist and don’t even have enough direct experience with therapy to effectively mimic it, but I would say it’s something like a mechanism that allows me to feel like I am maintaining control over my emotions.
So for example, I’m not sad just because I’m sad, or just because I miss someone. I am sad because my own choices and predilections have put me in a position where I am missing someone, and I could, if I wanted to, choose not to miss them. Or I could make choices that would maximise my ability to be with them.
Personally I blame all the anxiety self-help stuff I’ve looked at, all the stuff that recommends that you can best deal with your anxiety by taking whatever concrete steps you can to remove the cause of the anxiety. Or by recognising that you have no control over what is making you anxious, and if you can’t do anything about it, why feel anxious in the first place?
Well, what if you feel anxious because of your lack of control?
I’m intellectualising again, but you get my point.
So imagine how pleased I was when I started reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and realised I was in the company of a master, someone who examined his emotions with the detachment of a scientist and experienced them with the taste of a connoisseur. This year has been a tough one, but throughout it I have had Pessoa as my companion. I won’t say it helped, because it hasn’t, but it has helped validate some of my own feelings. Which, considering he was a depressed person who drank himself to death, isn’t really a good thing.
But why else did he document his experiences and leave them in a nice, neat envelope, if he didn’t mean for others to learn from them? Or understand the futility of learning. Ho hum.
Let’s start again. The Book of Disquiet is a collection of fragments. Some of them are strychnine shots that get right to the sick heart of modern life. Some of them are lovingly detailed descriptions of the street scenes in Lisbon. Some of them sound the depths of the vessel that was Fernando Pessoa, a vessel that he found to be much deeper and more interesting than anything he found outside of himself. It’s not quite a collection of aphorisms, because most of the entries aren’t concise enough. It’s not quite a collection of essays either, because it covers too much ground in too short a span, and often lacks an argument. His self is his limit, and his imagination has expanded his self so that his self is his world.
You might call it modernist Montaigne. Where Montaigne sought to connect man to man, to edify, and to aid understanding, Pessoa withdrew into himself, enlarging himself in the process, but severing any sense of connection. It’s that sense of disconnection and retreat that makes The Book of Disquiet one that has only become more relevant.
I mean, we talk about filter bubbles, about people closing themselves off from dissenting viewpoints, about retreat. Pessoa literally wrote the book on retreat. Page after page he withdraws into himself, the perfect filter bubble of one. There’s an acknowledgement that the world seems to exist for other people, and that other people seem to exist within it, but that’s the problem of solipsism, the seem. Pessoa deals with this problem not by pushing through it, or sidestepping it, but by withdrawing from it. His dreams and imaginings might be just that, but they exist for him in a way that he can be much more vivid and stimulating than anything outside of himself.
It’s pretty reactionary, but it looks like it’s where we’re headed. Pessoa often dismisses those that strive, those that seek to improve themselves and the world. I mean, why care about anything else if you are the world, right? At his bleakest Pessoa resembles Bukowski, who summed it up better when he said “Don’t try”. In Pessoa’s lighter moments we just see a man who is sad and trying to exert some control over his sadness. Pessoa obviously saw some value in life, because he saw some value in describing his experiences. Serious nihilists don’t write beautiful paragraphs about Lisbon sunsets, because they’ve accepted the only solution to the problem. For everyone else, this is an impractical exercise in taking control of your own suffering, in having a reason behind it, a meaning. If you can’t change the world, look to yourself. But you might not have much luck there, either.
Sometime last year I found the first couple of George Smiley novels, and the last one, on the reductions shelf at my local library. I’d read and enjoyed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold before, so I picked them up, read the first few pages of Call for the Dead, and over the next month found myself unable to read anything else. I hadn’t read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy yet, and that was an uncommon pleasure. I liked how it wasn’t high flying. I liked that it was grotty and sad. I liked that George Smiley, despite being a very smooth operator, seemed first and foremost to be a very good listener and a very good reader. I didn’t have any of the other Karla novels, so I started reading The Secret Pilgrim, and loved Smiley in his slightly more relaxed and jovial role, almost an elegist of the Cold War. Except, can you elegise something you aren’t sad to see go? Was he glad to see it go? I am sure it caused le Carré and his publishers a bit of consternation.
I didn’t expect to enjoy le Carré’s novels as much as I did. I knew they were on the slightly more realistic end of spy fiction, but hadn’t thought of them as being on the slightly more literary end. Not that I’ve ever been a genre snob, but since getting into SF a lot more I have been a lot more willing to embrace other genre fiction.
(And yes, I know literary fiction is a genre.)
Having read these novels and loved them, I was thrilled when I heard le Carré would be publishing another Cold War novel; A Legacy of Spies. I received a copy for my birthday and I finished it in a couple of days. Well, it isn’t really a Cold War novel, it’s more about how we view the exigencies of it now that we live in an ideologically free (fnar) age, and it’s not really a Smiley novel, even less of one than The Secret Pilgrim, though he does loom large, and does appear.
It’s the present day, and not-so-young Peter Guillam is summoned out of retirement to attend the service once more. Guillam was a material witness to Operation Windfall (the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), events which have come to light again, and threaten to cause the service some legal trouble. Guillam is tasked with teasing out the evidence for the interested parties, and explaining just what went so wrong as to cause the deaths of an agent and an innocent woman.
A Legacy of Spies does something that really makes me glad le Carré decided there was another story worth telling in that old Cold War milieu. Guillam has, up ‘till now, always been a faithful servant and apprentice for Smiley. Capable and intelligent in his own right, yes, but these qualities were yoked to Smiley’s tasks and put to good use. A Legacy of Spies sees Guillam as an older gentleman, and essentially in a private capacity, and it is nice to see one of the more interesting secondary characters get all this attention and development. It is also very interesting to see him cast into the role of George Smiley. As I mentioned above, in the previous novels Smiley spends a lot of his time reading, thinking, and listening. Guillam was his muscle, his means of interacting with the world. It’s Guillam who steals files, and checks logbooks, and meets with the heads of the circus. In this latest novel, it is Guillam who is tasked with sitting in a room, listening to people, and going through files.
A Legacy of Spies is told through these flashbacks and files, in a largely epistolary format. This is a different approach to any of the le Carré novels I’ve read so far, but it does fit the fact that the novel is about raking over the past, and it serves to highlight the disconnect between the past and the present. Time passes, of course, but in this case there was a definite break, and things are very much not what they used to be. The reader goes through the files along with Guillam, and ends up immersed just as he is in his memories, and is as rudely interrupted as he is when someone wants to ask him a question or interrogate him a little bit more.
This disconnect is highlighted over and over again, and is the central point of the novel. This uncovering of past, secret, grievances means that A Legacy of Spies reads very strangely in light of the conversation that’s currently happening regarding historic instances of abuse. Le Carré seems to be suggesting the difficulty of holding the past to the standards of the present, but then again, he doesn’t gloss over the fact that Operation Windfall was a massive fuckup by the standards of any time, and got people killed. It’s the unwillingness of the narrative to apportion blame that is slightly unsettling. Perhaps it would make it too simple. All of the spies in le Carré’s novels have done bad things for reasons that aren’t very clear, but in the case of Operation Windfall, it seem to be a loss of life to no great purpose. Whose fault is this?
Bill Haydon’s. But he’s dead, so, George Smiley.
Guillam’s hackles are rightly raised at this new service that seems to want nothing more than to unload the blame on Smiley and Guillam and leave them to it. But he is singularly unwilling to condemn Smiley’s part in the disaster, probably because of his prior relationship to him, regardless of his knowledge of the issue. And for Guillam’s part, well, he was just following orders. This closing of ranks, this shutting up in a world that is supposed to be becoming more open, is telling.
Le Carré doesn’t outright condemn Guillam, and he gives him a happy enough ending, but its Smiley’s happy ending that seems incongruous. By any standard, it’s him who should be sat in that room, explaining those files. But Guillam goes to bat for him as he has before, and Smiley gets to keep on studying his German poetry in peace. One doesn’t want to see any of these characters not be happy now that this is all over (for Smiley and Guillam, at least), but le Carré has bravely decided to write a novel that picks at that scab, that demonstrates that for some people, it isn’t over. If he can’t bring to bear the kind of reckoning that some of these past acts deserve, maybe he still feels the same kind of sympathy for his characters that we do. Or maybe it would be too simple, and what le Carré novel is simple?
A Legacy of Spies is well worth reading, but I imagine only someone interested enough in le Carré to have already read (most) of the other material will really enjoy it, and you particularly should have read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold before reading this. Le Carré’s work often enough resembles a mythology that you can read things out of order and not be that put out, but A Legacy of Spies is so preoccupied with the relitigation of past trauma that you really should come into it knowing the force of that trauma.
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