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.
You can’t avoid Philip K. Dick these days. A sequel to Blade Runner just came out, the TV show Electric Dreams focuses on dramatising his short stories, and The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon Prime series. You might have watched one of these, or watched one of the other adaptations of his work, like Total Recall or Minority Report, and been interested in engaging directly with the man who came up with these ideas. But maybe you didn’t know where to start? Dick wrote more than thirty novels, and over a hundred short stories. Where should you begin? I’m no expert, but I have read most of what are considered his major works. So, here’s where I’d start if I was getting in to Philip K. Dick today.
Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?
The quintessential Dick novel that asks the quintessential Dick question: what does it mean to be human? It turns out the answer to that question is pretty complicated, but it boils down to being able to feel empathy; putting yourself in someone or something else’s shoes and imagining how they feel. This is a detective novel that happens to take place in a future where there are artificial humans, called replicants. They are so human, in fact, that all that distinguishes them from “real” humans is their lack of empathy. This novel got made into the film Blade Runner, which is very very good, and you should probably watch anyway. So, if you enjoyed that film, then you’ll probably enjoy Dick, and you should definitely read the novel. I can’t speak for Blade Runner 2049 because I haven’t seen it yet.
The Man in the High Castle
An alternative future novel that explores what might have happened to the world if the Axis powers had won World War Two. Dick tells the story from multiple points of view and cuts a good cross section of society, a fantastic feat of world building. This novel includes one of my favourite mind-bending elements in all of Dick’s work; a large part of the plot is the search for the writer of an alternative history novel in which the Allied powers won World War Two. This is one of the novels he spent the most time and work writing, and in terms of quality, it really shows. If the idea of SF puts you off, but you still want to read some Dick, this is a good place to start. I don’t know how it stack up to the Amazon series, because I haven’t seen it, but if you’ve been enjoying that then why haven’t you read this book already?
A Scanner Darkly
Another science fiction novel in the shell of a detective novel. This time, the protagonist is an undercover police officer trying to infiltrate a drug ring. The drug in question, Substance D, causes the hemispheres of the brain to separate, eventually leading to an entirely split personality. The protagonist’s addiction to this drug causes him to forget his two roles, and he ends up spying on and informing on himself. The way Dick handles this gradual breakdown of a personality is beautiful in a very sad way, and the cast is littered with funny people getting high and getting up to no good. Funny and tragic by turns, a lot of this is drawn from Dick’s own experiences with drugs and drug users, to the point where the epilogue is a list of people Dick knew whose lives had been damaged or lost because of their drug use. Dick’s name is on it. This is probably my favourite Dick novel. It was made into a film by Richard Linklater, and it has a tone and style that I can’t do justice by description, but if you’ve seen it and liked it, then yes, read the book.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
A novel about people on a Martian colony who escape the humdrum of their lives by taking a drug that allows them to project their personality into meticulously crafted dollhouses that offer a pleasant earthly experience. To be honest, it’s been a while since I read it, but I remember thoroughly enjoying it, and it was one of the first Dick novels I read. I went on to read a lot more of them. This is often considered his LSD novel, but oddly enough, he didn’t try LSD until after writing it. Other people’s experiences informed his fictionalisation of it, and when he did try LSD, he didn’t like it and never did it again. If you enjoyed other famous “drug” novels like Fear and Loathing, Naked Lunch, or as mentioned above, A Scanner Darkly, you will enjoy this.
God exists, and he comes in a spray can. A real mindfuck of a novel that romps between alternate realities and between life and death. I can’t do this justice by describing it. I wouldn’t make this the first Dick novel I read, but it does bring you around to the second central question in Dick’s work; what is real? If you’ve read a bit of Dick and you’re digging it, then definitely read this.
The Short Stories
If you’ve been enjoying Electric Dreams on Channel 4, then this would be a good place to start. Also worth considering if you’re not sure whether you’d enjoy as singular a writer as Dick and don’t want to commit to a whole novel.
Except, there’s like, loads of them. Collected in five volumes.
Well, if it’s Electric Dreams that’s piqued you’re interest, then you’re in luck, because Gollancz have published a collection of the stories that were adapted into the TV series. These are just the start, though. Here are some of the Dick short stories that I recommend:
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall)
Paycheck (filmed as Paycheck)
The Minority Report (filmed as Minority Report)
Second Variety (pretty much filmed as The Terminator but he wasn’t credited)
Faith of our Fathers
You can generally find most of the stories that have been filmed in collections like this, which bring together some of Dick’s more popular short stories. If you’re just starting with Dick, something like this is a good place to start. Some of Dick’s work is also in the public domain, in which case, you may as well check it out for the low low price of free!
I recently played the new Doom game (I wrote about it here) and I also read Masters of Doom (I wrote about it here). This got me in the mood to revisit the original games, which led to me playing all the way through Doom 2 for the first time ever. I couldn’t really say why I’d never played it all the way through before, but I can say that the first Doom means a lot more to me simply because I played it first. I downloaded the shareware episode using the 56k modem on my first computer sometime around the year 2000. Doom 2 never had a shareware episode.
Yes, I love the super shotgun. But fucking hell I *hate* the fucking arch-viles. Which bodes well for me, because despite Final Doom being the first Doom release I ever owned, I’ve never beaten either Plutonia or TNT, and will probably be playing those next.
I looked up a few levels on youtube because I got stuck, and I fell down a rabbit hole. I’ve since come across a whole bunch of interesting stuff relating to the Doom games, and wanted to link to some of it here. If I come across any more, I’ll add it. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.
First of all, there’s Doomworld, which is the main community hub for the Doom games nowadays. Forums, .wad reviews, new releases.
Then there’s the idgames archives, where you’ll find most doom .wads.
Everything has a wiki nowadays, and Doom is no different.
And here are some youtube videos I found interesting.
The new Doom game was on sale recently. I picked it up because I’d heard from a few sources that it was, contrary to everybody’s expectations, a very good game, and a very true Doom game. I was quickly enraptured and beat it in a couple of days. I wanted to write down a few of my thoughts on it, so here we are.
For context, I love the Doom games very very much. I am also very fond of the Quake games. When they announced that they were making another Doom game, I ignored it. Doom 3 was a pretty good game, and a fantastic tech demo, but it wasn’t a very good Doom game. Rage was a good tech demo, but by all accounts a very flawed game. And then John Carmack left id. The stage wasn’t exactly set for them to come good, at least not in the eyes of people like me.
But the new Doom game is absolutely fucking fantastic.
It’s fast. That’s the main thing. It’s so fucking fast. They set it up so that you can run and double jump around like crazy while you try dodge enemies that are charging at you or firing projectiles at you. You have to move, or you die. There is no taking cover, plinking at other dudes who are taking cover.
Your health does not recharge.
There are medkits, but they aren’t the main way you will regain your health.
You regain health by enacting glory kills, and you have to be in melee range to perform a glory kill.
So you run, and you jump, and you dodge. You will probably take a few hits and need to recover. But instead of running away, you are forced to stun an enemy and charge at it. The best defense is offense.
This basic gameplay loop leads to combat that feels like nothing else I’ve played. I remember hearing about the glory kills before the game came out, and thinking they were just QTEs that would get old quickly, but they’re varied enough, and have a satisfying enough gameplay outcome, that they end up gluing the whole experience together.
In fact, there is one game that combat does remind me of. I used to love playing Olaf in League of Legends. He had a mechanic where he could steal health from characters he attacked, and the lower his own health was, the faster he attacked. This lead to knife edge situations where you can see your own health going down, but your only option is to push forwards, knowing that if you stop attacking you’ll stop healing yourself; but if you keep attacking you’ll do even more damage and either sustain your health, or die trying.
Doom (2016) isn’t a story driven game, but it does do a good job of world building in a way that reminds me heavily of System Shock. You pick up data logs that you can read in your own time, or ignore completely. Ditto for the digital ghosts, that show you the history of the environments you are moving through. You are forced into none of this, but to look at even a bit of it makes the game feel a lot richer.
The soundtrack by Mick Gordon is fantastic. There’s no point me describing it, just listen.
Doom (2016) was a really fun ten or so hours. These are just some of the things about it that I think it did well. I feel bad for dismissing it before ever having played it, but when it comes to games from big studios, I increasingly feel like you should assume everything is garbage nowadays and then just be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t.
Playing Doom (2016) got me in the mood to go back to the originals. That and I recently read Masters of Doom. Would you believe I’ve never beaten Doom 2? So I’m playing that now and might move on to the Final Doom .wads soon. I’ve come across some interesting stuff on the original games and might be posting something about them soon, so watch this space/follow me if you wanna know when I post it.
I saw this personal canon on another site and thought it’d be an interesting exercise. It was very hard for me to come up with things at first, and then it was difficult to stop myself, because I guess they won’t let you take a loaded kindle. I am as annoyed as you are by the lack of women and writers of colour and am doing my best to correct it. I know this list makes me look like an asshole but I swear I am not. But then, they all do, don’t they?
Ulysses by James Joyce
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
The poems of T.S. Eliot
The (imagist) poems of Ezra Pound
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The stories of Franz Kafka
The Trial by Franz Kafka
Mrs. Dalloway by Virignia Woolf
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The Thread in the Carpet by Henry James
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Image, Music, Text by Roland Barthes
The essays of George Orwell
The poems of P.B. Shelley
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The short stories of Philip K. Dick
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Things I haven’t read (yet) but would take with me to a desert island
(I’ve talked before about grand reading projects)
The rest of the romantics
The rest of Woolf
I must stop myself, and so I stop myself.
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