So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
The novel of 1913 that I’m resurrecting from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts is the first modern thriller, The Power-House by John Buchan. This is often overlooked because of its far more famous younger brother, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published two years later in 1915. When Buchan wrote The Power-House, he was still hoping for literary fame. He’d been a writer for nearly twenty years, but his life kept distracting him as he kept looking for the career in intellectual public service that he felt he was destined for, and for which he had been training himself. Politics was getting him nowhere (the 1911 general election, for which he had been groomed as a prospective parliamentary candidate, didn’t happen). He’d tried being a colonial civil servant in South Africa, but didn’t find a new post when his first one ended. He tried journalism, and wrote a great many excellent book reviews and opinion pieces, but only rose to become temporary deputy editor of The Spectator. He had trained as a barrister, but this didn’t seem to draw him in: perhaps the law was too dry and inward-looking, and simply not concerned enough with words as literature.
With hindsight, it is perfectly obvious that Buchan was a born writer. What is not so obvious is that, unlike many of his peers, he ignored the tug of words for over fifteen years before being able to write them full-time. Other novelists got their heads down and did this: it was their job. Buchan tended to write his fiction in the evenings of his day job, and perhaps this less intense application showed in the time it took for him to finally get it together and write the novel that the times, and the public wanted. The market and his developing writing style finally came together in the first months of the First World War and burst upon the waiting world in 1915. The Thirty-Nine Steps really was a breakthrough for him, a masterpiece in many ways. What is interesting about the over-shadowed The Power-House was that it was the last novel but one before The Thirty-Nine Steps, and contains many of the elements that made The Thirty-Nine Steps a winner.
It was written while Buchan had been steadily settling into a new career as the literary advisor for Thomas Nelson, a Scottish publisher. He was their talent spotter and editor, and an expert negotiator, but he was increasingly drawn to writing books for them himself. It’s as if he couldn’t stop himself. Buchan had to read a lot of current popular fiction and new novels, to see if they would suit Nelson’s own reprint series, and then handle the negotiations between authors and agents. He couldn’t have thought up a better way to survey the market for fiction if he’d tried. He even knew exactly how to pitch and market his own books: he did this very well with his own books that he wrote for Nelson’s: Prester John in 1910, and the biographies of Montrose and Sir Walter Ralegh a few years later. But with The Power-House, Buchan struck out on his own, and gave the novel (really a novella) to a different publisher, William Blackwood, for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. Why did he do this?
With Nelson’s he had a captive publisher he could persuade to give him good terms, and the novel was short enough not to matter too much if it failed, but Buchan was clearly after more than in-house publishing comfort. He wanted independent fame (and who can blame him?) Blackwood’s Magazine was also a lot more prestigious than Thomas Nelson, which was more known for its Christian and children’s lists. Nelson’s was not a natural home for a best-seller, and Buchan really wanted this. Getting his novel in a magazine for its first publication was also very good business. He’d be paid for that publication, and be paid again if any US magazine wanted to do the same (though, as it happened, no other magazine did reprint The Power-House). He undoubtedly expected that afterwards there would be book publication royalties, but for The Power-House these took their time, because Blackwood didn’t do anything with the story until after The Thirty-Nine Steps had had a massive success, and so The Power-House didn’t appear as a book until 1916. This must have been galling, because it proved, once again, that as a novelist Buchan was not considered (by the prestigious but stuffy and old-fashioned House of Blackwood) to be worth much investment. What Buchan needed was a real hit, and a new publisher, and The Power-House did not give him these. After The Thirty-Nine Steps was a smash success for William Blackwood, despite their almost complete lack of advertising or publicity, Buchan’s next novel went to Hodder & Stoughton, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life.
So why was The Power-House not the kind of book that Blackwood preferred to invest in? It was not steady, reliable, Victorian or safe. It did not rehash Imperial adventures and colonial values. In fact, it did the opposite. A dastardly spy plot is discovered, and an innocent man is being hunted by wicked foreign conspirators in the exotic and very nineteenth-century adventure playground of the Victorians, Bokhara and the Pamirs. But the central joke behind the novel is that all this conventional drama happens off-stage, while the really thrilling events happen in London, on the narrator’s own doorstep. With The Power-House Buchan invented the thriller that could happen to any one of us. The novel’s narrator, Edward Leithen, is a barrister and an MP, he has easy relations with the police and Embassy staff, he has a chauffeur (this was the early period of driving, when a car routinely needed a driver, because the owner didn’t know how to drive), but for all of this, Edward Leithen is One of Us, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
So the hunted man disappears off to the Russian borderlands to hide from someone or something mysterious, and Leithen is left in London wondering what can be done to help. Small coincidences keep accumulating. Leithen keeps coming across connections between the man who has had to vanish, and a house in south London, a collector of Wedgwood china, his horrible butler, an old trade union embezzlement scandal, and some odd Russian names. He knows they’re connected, but doesn’t find the key until one weekend when he has a car accident in the countryside, and is offered hospitality for the night at a gentleman’s house nearby. As we will find in pretty much all of Buchan’s novels, another coincidence appears, because the gentleman is revealed as the connecting link between all the clues. He is Mr Lumley, the super-intelligent leader of a shadowy international criminal gang who are plotting to bring down western civilisation. The rest of the novel is devoted to the excitement of Leithen’s attempts to stop Lumley, and to stop being assassinated himself.
And this is where Buchan really makes thriller writing new. Edgar Wallace had published a fair few London-based thrillers before The Power-House, but Wallace was ponderous, slangy, sensational, cheap and rather too swiftly dashed off (there‘s a great early 20th-century cartoon in which a bookstall owner offers the ‘midday Wallace’ to a perplexed customer). Buchan was a seriously good classicist, a very well-read son of the manse, and a good historian. He wrote this thriller with the example of Wallace before him, but wearing his learning lightly. He did not sacrifice the breathtaking chases and dramas in tight spots to sloppy plotting or laughable dialogue: he just wrote well, and believably, and fast. Speed is Buchan’s thing: his novels zip along just as his heroes do, and he pares the action down to the essential details which also remain completely memorable.
When Leithen is pursued by persons unknown who are determined to nobble him, he has to find a safe way through crowded London streets. Never have building sites on Oxford Street seemed so dangerous. Never has going to a seedy little restaurant in the East End seemed so worrying. Leithen also has a lot of friends who help him out, and by this London seems less of a huge anonymous city, but a familiar neighbourhood. Because he has friends in high places and low, we accompany him to rare and unusual places throughout the whole adventure.
Re-reading the novel in 1913, preparing to teach it, some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. The anti-German spy fever was at its height at this time, and Buchan does slip in references to a German spy being caught in England; as if this were a commonplace (when in fact no such creatures existed). The Russian angle is also interesting: I don’t know what the Comintern was up to in 1913, or the British-based Socialists, but it’s interesting that Buchan makes one of the chief villains a former union executive. Admittedly he did the union wrong and stole all their money, but there is a suggestion that a trade union would naturally attract that kind of evil swine. Buchan was a Conservative, which shows in the central theme of the novel: that the border between civilisation and anarchy is very thin, and could be broken by the smallest events. Civilisation, in Buchan’s view, was inherently antithetical to all that the forces of the Left, which included anarchy, and trade unions, stood for. He was certainly right that civilisation was about to be broken up pretty thoroughly, only twelve months later, but the threat wouldn’t come from the Left, but from the rotting corpse of ninetenth-century Imperialism.
Warning: part-way through this novel about the author teaching poetry and drinking with Keats and Walt Whitman, I realised that it’s a sequel, of sorts. I’ve now got a copy of it, Maxwell’s On Poetry, but I haven’t read it yet. So I might have missed something in this review. Bear with me.
Glyn Maxwell, real-life poet, playwright and novelist, wakes up in a dream where he’s a poetry tutor on Thursdays, in a small village that has more pubs than shops. It also has an Academy, whose staff are none too pleased that Maxwell has been scheduled to run his extra-mural, ungraded classes for their students, who ought to be studying more important things with the real staff. Drink and rebellion against administrative regimes seem to be important for this poet’s mission. Maxwell is confused about why he’s there with no explanations, but he gets on with the classes anyway.
He gulps, but takes it in his stride, that he’s got guest poets arriving each week to do readings and meet the students: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, both the Brownings and Yeats. Edward Lear is also in attendance, shyly sitting with the students rather than performing his own work. We encounter a clutch of almost indistinguishable British First World War poets in their cricket pavilion watching the fireworks, but I think I spotted Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.
It’s a lovely conceit that succeeds because as a practitioner Maxwell is steeped in poetry, and I personally would like to be taught by him. His classes are anarchic but also intensely informative: by making the students write poems he shows how it’s done, how poetry works. His students have strong characters, so their evolving community makes a novel out of their classes and encounters with the poets, as we learn more about them (and pick up on stories that seem to be left dangling from On Poetry). Maxwell has more scope with the students as fictional characters because he’s invented them. He can’t invent the poets, because he has restricted himself to only showing them as they are historically known to be, in their clothes, what they say, what they are known to have thought. He patches their dialogue so cleverly into the narrative that the dead poets live, magnificently: they are, variously, formidable, charming, friendly, shy, magnificent, dangerous, irresponsible, self-effacing and always elusive.
Maxwell himself works as a character because he is only confused when he’s not teaching or talking about poetry. In the episodes when he’s trying to find out where this extraordinary village is, how to leave, wondering what his real life is up to out here beyond the fog of this bubble of time, he is just a bit tiresome. When he’s fighting the Academy staff and its philistine autocracy (and, most unexpectedly, having a fling with one of them) he’s pig-headed, brave but irritating. When he’s moderating the uncontrollable poets, he’s desperate, juggling their wellbeing as ghosts with feelings, with the needs of his students and their emerging private lives that need a lot of taking care of.
What emerges is a passion for poetry, and a longing to have known how the great poets did it, how they thought about it. I loved this book. There’s a hint that he might be teaching plays next. I’m reading On Poetry now.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets. The Autumn Term (Oberon Books 2016), ISBN 9781783197415, £12.99
This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I plunge into Rudyard Kipling’s least read novel, The Naulahka. It was an absolute joy to read, because it was a rare treat: a novel by one of my favourite authors that I hadn’t already read, despite having been reading Kipling for about 40 years. I simply don’t understand how I’d never read this novel before. It’s not as if it’s a new discovery, or an obscure short story no-one’s reprinted yet. Kipling has been studied intensively in the last 30 years, and there are many editions of his stories and novels available. I’ve even read his The Light That Failed, a thoroughly depressing and gloomy novel that can’t have many fans. But somehow The Naulahka had not crossed my book radar until recently.
It is one of those novels that needs to be read, if not at a sitting, then with a lot of concentration. When I finished it I was still immersed in a part of India I had never read Kipling writing about before, and among characters I had never read him describing. So why all these differences, and obscurities, compared to Kim, and all the Kipling stories I know practically by heart? Because this was a co-written novel, a joint project between Kipling and the man who would have become his brother-in-law if he hadn’t died before the wedding. The involvement of Wolcott Balestier in the novel’s planning and creation has brought out the snobbery in Kipling critics who snoot at his role in The Naulahka’s invention. I picked up a sense that critics excuse Kipling for being saddled with this unfinished novel by his dear friend Wolcott that he obviously never wanted to co-write in the first place.
From the evidence in the early, American section of the novel, Balestier seems to have been developing a writing style and subject in parallel with Willa Cather, one that she would go on to make her own, and which Owen Wister was already exploring. Balestier writes of the American West and frontier life with clear, passionate description, and a practical awareness of the expectations from life of the women who kept the frontier houses clean and fed. But the novel is not about sod houses and shoot-outs, but the civilised life of first-generation frontier towns that already have the furnished houses, the water supply, and the town newspaper, and now want the railroad and mining investment too.
Most importantly for The Naulahka, Balestier’s impetus got Kipling to write a novel about a woman; in fact about three women, and their effect on the American hero, Nick Tarvin. He will chase halfway across the world to steal a fabulous necklace from one woman, to give to another, so that he could marry the third. Kipling didn’t normally write about women very much – Mrs Hauksbee is the only memorable and reused female character in his fiction – and he hardly wrote about contemporary Americans, except an unintelligible arms dealer in two of his South African stories. So I found that The Naulahka, to my great pleasure, has a lot of new territory for Kipling: novel-length female protagonists, an American hero who doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘no’, and the drive and business sense of the American West applied to British India and Rajput cunning. The Naulahka itself is a necklace that is the soul of the state of Gokral Seetarun, consisting of a monstrously-sized emerald, ruby, sapphire, diamond and a black diamond. The traps and mishaps that threaten Nick’s life, by the malice of his enemy the gypsy queen, are excellent reading. The corruption of the Maharajah’s court and the indifferent impotence of the British Resident are fascinating: this is British India written, for once, from a non-British perspective, and it is not complimentary.
There are flaws and annoyances, of course. The central premise of the plot is that the heroine’s desire to dedicate her life to serving the poor women of India as a nurse is a waste of time, because Indian women will not respect her since she has not yet had children. Kate’s true destiny is to be a good wife to the hero: I gritted my teeth through Nick’s self-satisfied assumptions that Kate would eventually come to her senses about this destiny. I shared her outrage on finding that he had travelled to India before she got there on her nursing mission, and that he will not go away and let her do her work. I was increasingly infuriated that Nick lies and deceives to try to steal the Naulahka, and expects Kate to share his triumph in having carried off a spectacular scam. I was horrified that the culmination of his brilliant plotting was that Kate’s life is in danger simply because Nick has tangled with the gypsy queen. Nick is a great creation, but his moral sense is distinctly shabby. One of the great satisfactions at the end of the novel is his realisation that he cannot have everything, no matter how cleverly he has planned things.
One of the strengths of the novel, according to the critics, is the portrait of the very young prince, the Maharaj Kunwar. I’m not sure I agree. Kipling has depicted young Indian boys far better – the small boys in Lucknow in his greatest novel, Kim, are more convincing – and since much of the speech of the Maharaj is in Indianised English, he isn’t his own person, he is a creature of the British Raj. The situations that the Maharaj leads Nick and Kate into, on the other hand, are definitely interesting: power and plotting follow him everywhere, and when he isn’t a protection to them, he’s a danger. Kipling worked out a fiendishly clever plotline to do with the transfer of the necklace, the safety of the prince, and how far the gypsy queen will go to get her revenge. The really refreshing thing about Nick is that he is written in Kipling’s instantly identifiable style, but he isn’t English, and my word, what a difference that makes.
Kipling’s English heroes are all steeped in an awareness of honour – their own, or other people’s – and Nick’s sense of honour is, compared to Kipling’s average British army subaltern, definitely skewed. The two other key women in the novel – the wife of the railway magnate, and the gypsy queen – are also excellent creations, making this novel the most interesting exposure of how Kipling wrote women characters. The railway magnate’s wife has tremendous power, or so we are led to believe, but doesn’t seem to realise the way of the world. If she had actually accepted a necklace of colossal value from Nick, and then tried to persuade her husband to take the railway through Nick’s town instead of through the slightly more suitable rival town, I think we’d all be justified in wondering what else she had offered Nick in exchange for such a magnificent jewel that she has not the wit to appreciate. There’s something wrong with Kipling’s understanding of human nature there, even if the railway magnate’s wife is not interested in Nick.
The only woman to try seducing Nick does it with murder in mind: the gypsy queen is a marvellous creation, and deserves her ascendancy in the corrupt zenana schemings. Kate herself is an unfinished creation. Kipling can’t convey the truth of religious fervour to convince us that her vocation comes from a revivalist meeting, but he is completely persuasive when writing about her grim months of nursing training, and her capacity for hard work in the hospital. I also believe her completely when she continues to urge Nick to just go away and let her get on with her job. It’s maddening that Nick doesn’t listen, and refuses to take her desires seriously when they don’t coincide with his own, but it’s also very modern. While a lot about this novel is great Victorian fiction, there are some highly suggestive elements which make this a thoroughly modern novel of feminist aspiration.
This is a complex novel, a very enjoyable read, and is totally gripping in its last three chapters where Nick and the gypsy queen try to outmanoeuvre each other with hostages and hidden gunmen. It’s vastly underrated, and undeservedly forgotten.
I love it when Jim Al-Khalili communicates science. He’s a physicist, a BBC Radio 4 presenter of science programmes (The Life Scientific is a great podcast, btw) and he’s written, among other books, a fine work on the history of medieval Arabic science. (I have no idea about his academic publications because I can’t read the first sentence of an abstract in Nature without gibbering.) Give me his popular science books, and I am happy.
I am even more happy when science is applied to science fiction, and Aliens does this excellently. Al-Khalili took the premise that if there are aliens out there, in the vastness of space, what will they look like, and how could we detect them? He asked twenty scientists with a foot in the field to speculate – in a nicely moderated popular style – how their specialisms could illuminate what might happen. He starts with Astronomer-Royal Sir Martin Rees, and moves from astrophysics to microbiology to psychology and neuroscience. In about half the essays, the alien extremes that we already know about on Earth are explored for what they might tell us about the possibilities for life Out There. I already knew about deep-sea thermal communities of bacteria that thrive in conditions that would slaughter most other life-forms, but did you know that communities of chasmoendoliths live inside rock?
I was most struck by Rees’ remark that our first contact will not be biological, but artificial, since that’s what we are doing already. Mars already has alien visitors: our AI vehicles and exploratory equipment are already out there, dropping Earth particles into its peculiar atmosphere. The limitations of space travel (time, energy and mass) make missions operated by AIs much more likely than sending humans out in deep sleep conditions. And then there are the places we could look at: since solar winds strip atmospheres from orbiting bodies unless their gravity is strong enough, only those orbiting bodies with the right geophysical parameters are likely to hold the conditions for life. These begin with water (or another substrate fluid for nutrient exchange and solvents: several of the contributors differ about including methane in this list), and the most common chemical elements that have created life as we know it. Most of the potential life talked about is microbial, and while it’s difficult to get excited, let alone alarmed, at the thought of a mat of proteins living between silicate layers only a few cells thick, it’s that scale, and level of strangeness, that we should be open to if we’re serious about finding life Out There.
The essays are short and snappy, and include excellent round-ups of science-fiction films and novels about alien contact that should be read or seen, or avoided. There is inevitable duplication of explanation – almost everyone carefully defines how H2O is essential – but there are also good links across chapters (evidence of a good editing hand). The consensus seems to be that Europa, Titan and Enceladus are the bodies most likely to harbour life in our own system, but my word, getting to that life will take many of our lifetimes. Even if the SETI search can detect suitable planets, identifying and contacting life on them is one of the longest-term projects we have. Assuming we’re still here on Earth when contact is made by the AIs we send out on missions lasting hundreds of years. My only complaint is that no-one, absolutely no-one, mentions the NASA press conference of a few years ago which announced with hysterical excitement that they’d found evidence of arsenic-based life on Mars. That debacle was hushed up so quickly: I really wanted to read more about the mistakes scientists make when they think they’ve found alien life, and what we learn from those mistakes.
Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) Aliens. Science Asks, Is Anyone Out There? (Profile Books, 2016), ISBN 9781781256817, £8.99
Recently I posted a collection of short hatchet jobs on books that I felt so strongly about I had to be bitter about them in public. This was one of the most popular reviews I’ve posted in the last 6 months, so you clearly like this stuff. I’ve found a few more. I haven’t included those books which everyone says are Great Novels, but which I didn’t, personally, much like. Nor have I included the books that I only feel ‘meh’ about, rather than ‘arrgh!’ Here I warn you off the ‘arrgh!’ books, because I think they’re bad.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) By the author of Dracula.This is dreadful. At first I wondered if the British place-names had been invented since they have no relation to real geography. The narrative is more like journalism than fiction, but also clumsy; and the characterisation is perfunctory and tedious, like symbols going through the motions. It’s a Victorian male quest romance with medieval adventures in magical woods infested by snakes, and still I gave up out of boredom. So much potential wasted.
Noel Langley, Cage me a Peacock (1935) Arch little number. This was Langley’s first novel (I reviewed his There’s a Porpoise on My Tailhere) and has some spectacular imaginative leaps, related in the style that Richard Garnett invented in 1888 with Twilight of the Gods, in which tales from the classical period are told in modern colloquial conversation. (Naomi Mitchison did it too, cutting out the slang to make the modern historical novel.) It’s a retelling of the Rape of Lucrece from Suetonius as if by Noel Coward, and the result is more tasteless than witty. Tonally, the novel struggles to make the sexual mores of the classical period sound like a glamorous cocktail party, and the casual executions, suicides and rapes are really desperately unfunny. It’s the novel I dislike the least from this selection, because it can’t reconcile its subject and style, not because it’s particularly bad.
Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill (1949) Historical romance and sentimental sludge. Goudge can be a bit gushing, but this is the worst I’ve read. Its manner is affected, and the plot has nothing solid to grasp. She can do so much better: The Dean’s Watch (1960), for instance, has a hard and serious edge that redeems the gloop. This one is uncontrolled, woolly, besotted and tedious. The characters are largely copied from her much more famous The Little White Horse, published three years earlier, and the dragging coincidences and characters’ secrets are signalled so blatantly that Goudge must have expected her readers to need to know where they were going to be able to enjoy the journey. I didn’t.
T J Bass, The God Whale (1974) Science fiction. I did like the automated whale built to harvest and process at molecular levels, and I love the Trilobite bot that worships her with such cheerful eagerness. But the stories of the humans escaping dystopian body-harvesting madness through tunnels and chomping machinery are much less interesting. The idea of a future society pouring vast investment into keeping alive a half-man from the past that it has no value or use for, seems wildly improbable. So many good ideas that go nowhere, and shrivel up for want of some thought-through nurturing.
Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch (1977) Detective. One of the very last Roderick Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh, in which she seems to be wandering in time. It’s set in the early 1970s (flares, drugs, T-shirts, jeans) but Ricky Alleyn (in his very early 20s) smokes a pipe, and the alluring family with whom he gets friendly are straight out of the 1930s in behaviour and attitudes. Roderick Alleyn is stuck in his 1950s period, and in any case would be aged about 100 by this time. The slang feels wrong and unexpected. The scenes of excessive violence and torture are quite unlike anything Marsh had written before. It’s a jumble of elements that can’t and don’t work well together, like a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels.
Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984) Fantasy. Its 25th-anniversary reprinting and praise from writers I admire persuaded me to buy this, and I am SO DISAPPOINTED. What a noxious, incomplete load of tosh. How can it have won the WFA Best Novel award? Or spawned a series? The central idea of a mythago, archetypes brought into being through the characters’ minds and their proximity to leylines (or something like that) is interesting, but why did it have to be so violent, misogynistic and ultimately sterile? There were some great ideas, but the whole thing is a soggy, pointless, swampish mass of ideas, not a novel. I resented being asked to accept illogical origin stories and endless tedious journeys for no purpose. The RAF photography from the air was the novel’s saving grace: the application of modern technology to a fantasy plot makes a serious contribution to telling stories about impossibilities. But everything else was desperately unsatisfactory, and historically out of whack when it should have been precise.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) Historical sf. This novel was promoted as hilarious, and I believed the hype. It is classically farcical, but not often in a good way. It has a technically challenging time-travel plot from Willis’s Mr Dunworthy series of fictions, that fails because she uses time-travel as a casual means to an end, not as the life-threatening, risk-loaded business that her Doomsday Book, for instance, tackles with proper caution. The plot is crammed with babbling, caricatured characters on a tediously slow progression along the River Thames by rowing-boat with a dog and Oxford eccentrics as drawn by an American in awe of comedy moustaches. I think that’s part of the book’s problem for me: it’s dependent on American readers finding quaint English eccentricity funny. Adding farce to the terrifying implications of being able to travel in time, and trying to squeeze jeopardy out of that, is tonally jarring. It’s a self-indulgent homage to Three Men in a Boat, but I didn’t think that was funny either.
If I’ve dissed your favourite book, I’m sorry. We all have different tastes, and I’ve tried to be fair, or at least rational. That’s the lot for 2016: I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year, all round.
The science fiction novel that moved my reading tastes from adolescent dragon wonder to feminist space opera was Sassinak (1990), by the then immensely prolific Anne McCaffrey and the fairly unknown Elizabeth Moon. I had been a teenage McCaffrey completist, but once I’d read Sassinak – an engrossing space opera about planet pirates, orphan enslavement, naval training, in-ship subversion and space heroics with the totally magnificent Commander Sassinak (her only name) – I put the Dragons of Pern into a box and moved off into space with Elizabeth Moon. It wasn’t just the fresh (to me) new subject, setting and attitude. Moon is simply a far better author than Anne McCaffrey, and I was ready for the change.
Sassinak is one of the three Planet Pirates novels, planetary romances in what the ISFDB and ESF call McCaffrey’s Ireta series (ie the name of the planet), the others being Death of Sleep (1990) by McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and Generation Warriors (1991) by McCaffrey and Moon. They were planned to overlap with McCaffrey’s earlier novels Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984). The latter are among the weakest of McCaffrey’s novels, and the time gap between their publication, at a crucial plot point cliff-hanger, shows how distracted McCaffrey was at this time, juggling the development of her Dragons of Pern novels into back-story spin-offs, and writing the first of the Crystal Singer series.
These five novels take place on Ireta, a purportedly uninhabited planet that has been chosen for Federated Sentient Planet exploration by a group of mixed ‘lightweight’ (ie regular) humans and Heavyworlders. These are humans who have adapted genetically to their strong-gravitied home planet, and who labour under a resentful and politicised sense of inferiority to the ‘lightweights’. When the Heavyworlders discover the carnivorous habits of the native animals, who appear to have been seeded there aeons earlier from Earth dinosaurs, their dissident members urge the others to embrace this chance to eat fresh meat, a taboo practice now on the ‘lightweight’ human worlds. This puts the ‘lightweights’ in serious danger, not just from the theoretical possibility of the explorers being eaten, but from the rippling implications for fragile interplanetary politics. Sassinak brings her Fleet cruiser through this system in covert pursuit of pirates, and the plot thickens.
The injection of 1980s value systems – vegetarianism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights – is not particularly subtle, but the complex action works, and the novels’ function in McCaffrey and Moon’s proliferating FSP universe contributes necessary groundwork for what Moon would later do with her two Vatta’s War and Serrano Legacy series. In short, I rate the Planet Pirates series because of what Moon would go on to do with its rich background, not for what it offers the reader on its own merits.
After Dinosaur Planet Survivors came out, McCaffrey developed different series by writing with collaborators, effectively setting up her own franchises. After the Planet Pirates, she co-wrote the Doona books with Nye (which I have not read, being put off by Death of Sleep), and the much more successful ‘Brains and Brawn’ series. This developed the feminist cyborg space-ship concept from her The Ship Who Sang of the 1960s, writing with several collaborators, almost all women (though she did co-write one of these novels with S M Sterling, a bloke). Collaboration became an important mark of McCaffrey’s brand, demonstrating her creative generosity, and her eagerness to launch new worlds and new ideas with new writers.
I asked Elizabeth Moon how her collaboration with McCaffrey came about.
Moon: My introduction to the project was my then-publisher, Jim Baen, calling me up and asking if I would consider doing a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey. I knew McCaffrey’s work and liked it, so my immediate reaction was “YES!” I did not know anything about the details during that phone call, nor which of Anne’s worlds it was, or anything else.
Later I found out that I had been asked for Sassinak because of my military background and my known appreciation of Anne’s work. I never did know who mentioned my name first; Anne herself, Jim Baen, or the series’ packager, Bill Fawcett, but clearly Anne made the final choices. Right then, several senior authors in the field were starting to do collaborations with newer writers; Anne eventually worked with quite a few.
When Anne decided to try accepting collaborators into her worlds, she worked with Bill Fawcett, whom she already knew as a fan, editor, and packager well known in the field. Collaborations were becoming popular, and different kinds of collaborations existed and continued to exist for some time. Some were between ‘equals’ (writers of equal or near-equal publishing history and status) and some, like Anne’s, were between a senior writer and a very junior one, someone with only a few books out and who would benefit from the publicity of working with a bestselling writer.
So when I was offered the chance to collaborate with Anne, the three-book package was handed out to three junior writers: Bill Fawcett’s wife Jody Lynn Nye, another writer who dropped out of the project and whose name I unfortunately don’t recall, and me. Jody’s book was the ‘prequel’: Lunzie’s life before the Dinosaur Planet books, in Death of Sleep. Mine was another semi-prequel, covering Sassinak’s early life and intersecting the second Dinosaur Planet book when Fleet arrived. The other writer was supposed to write Generation Warriors, which carried on both Sassinak’s and Lunzie’s stories into the future. These contracts were then handed to each of us, and the books were to be written simultaneously, due at the same time. I had not met any of the other people involved.
Communication was a problem. Remember, this was in the late 1980s; the books came out in 1990 and 1991. I believe (would have to call Jody or Bill to ask) that they were on GEnie, and Anne was also on GEnie [a pre-internet text service]. They could communicate by email. I had no internet (accessing GEnie meant an expensive long distance call on our landline and then a very slow dial-up connection – couldn’t afford it.) We did not get a local internet provider until 1995 (still slow dial-up, but at least not with long-distance charges. Reliable cellphone service in this area didn’t arrive until 1998-99 when they built a tower close enough. I lived over 1000 miles from Bill and Jody in the Chicago area, in a small town in Texas. I’m not sure where the third writer lived but have a vague idea it was somewhere in the northeast. Anne of course was in Ireland, accessible only by snail-mail or phone (but the phone to Ireland was even more out of my reach than the phone to Chicago.) So almost all the communication was on paper, with a few phone calls between us. The questions and rough manuscripts went from us to Anne; she was certainly one layer in the editing process as well as the writing process.
The third writer dropped out late enough in the process that neither Jody nor I could have finished the book for its original due date, and Jody had another contract she was in the middle of. So I was offered it, and started from scratch with the original notes Anne had provided. By then Anne was deep in other projects, and I had met her, so it was easier to communicate and – since she’d liked my work with Sassinak – she gave me a lot of freedom to develop some things on my own. The book required multiple point-of-view characters, and thus was a wonderful ‘stretch’ to what I understood so far.
So I wasn’t writing in daily contact with any of the others. Jody’s book and mine were separated by all of the first, and most of the second, Dinosaur Planet book – we had no real reason to compare what we were doing. Where my assignment overlapped the end of Dinosaur Planet Survivors, I just used the Lunzie as Anne had written her in that book.
It was different for Generation Warriors – and the delay in that one worked to my advantage, because I had Jody’s book, all complete, and could use all the things she had contributed to Lunzie’s history and character, to inform the Lunzie of Generation Warriors. It would’ve been very difficult to write the third without the first two already in hand. Perhaps that’s why the other writer dropped out.
Despite the difficulties inherent in communicating long-distance without internet, I found working with Anne to be a great experience. I could ask her about anything that was giving me trouble – characterization, how to make a certain kind of transition, for more background on one of her characters, and so on. She was incredibly generous with her time and attention; she never made me feel like a nuisance. And it was a master class – her answers were brief, pointed, crystal clear. (Years later, I could still ask her about problems I was having with my newer stuff, and she was just as willing to help.) She was also generous in sharing her ‘sandbox’ – letting her co-authors introduce things, including characters. I met her at the launch event for Sassinak, and after that we became friends.
The most striking example of how Moon, Nye and McCaffrey developed the same character in different ways was in the use of the Theks, floating pyramidal sentient beings of silicate origin, with enormous telepathic power, the most impressive in the Federated Sentient Planets universe. On their first appearance, in Dinosaur Planet, McCaffrey treats them with reverence and irreverence at the same time: ‘it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word’. Thus there were tonal choices for developing these lifeforms, and Moon and Nye made different choices. The importance of the Theks in this universe means that their characterisation underpins the tone of the novels. By allowing divergence in their treatment, collaborative writing made the Planet Pirates novels even less likely to work together as a sequence.
Moon developed the Theks by giving them meaningful cooperative relationships with humans, showing how mutual respect breeds collaboration (much like her own relationship with McCaffrey). Her, or their, most effective elaboration of the Thek in Sassinak was to give it a sessile life stage, inert and anchored in a tank, but fully integrated with all ship systems, and a potentially crucial part of enhanced lightspeed flight modes due to Thek mathematical abilities. This sessile larval form – more like a giant coral fan than a slug – is an inspired solution to the problem of how to get Theks integrated enough into human society and into Fleet as serving officers, without floating pyramids engulfing the ships. When humans learn enough about Theks to be able to identify individuals, that signals the beginning of a healthy working relationship. In Sassinak, the sense of wonder is multiplied by Moon’s marvellous enhancement of McCaffrey’s original idea.
My thanks to Elizabeth Moon for her cooperation with this interview, and for checking the facts. The opinions expressed are my own.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, Death of Sleep (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Generation Warriors (1991)