The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka (1914)

Written in October 1914, this 30-page-long short story is possibly Kafka’s most harrowing and atrocious. It is also distinctly different from most of his other stories, in the following ways:

  • It does not feature a young, harrassed white collar worker
  • It is not set in Prague or a Central European location
  • It is not set over a long period of time (The Trial covers precisely one year, the Metamorphosis a number of months)

Instead the story is set in an unnamed European colony, somewhere in the Tropics, in a dry valley or canyon set amid rocky peaks and takes place in real time.

The Officer and the Explorer

The two main characters are The Explorer and The Officer.

They are inside a penal colony and since the Officer speaks French, presumably a French one. Briefly, the Officer outlines to the Explorer the nature of the big machine they’re standing next to. Prisoners who have offended against the peal colony’s strict rules are punished by being made to lie face down in the ‘Bed’ of the machine and then are firmly strapped in and have a gag inserted in their mouths.

The machine is then switched on and through an ingenious mechanical arrangement a series of sharp glass blades cut into the living skin of the prisoner, at first cutting a grim message – OBEY AUTHORITY – but then embroidering the text with an impenetrably complicated arrangement of curlicues and flourishes. The Officer shows the Explorer a piece of paper with the finished ‘design’ on it, but it looks to the Explorer like a solid mass of black. About six hours into the process the victim stops trying to scream and experiences a state of post-pain ‘enlightenment’. A few hours of further incisions later and they are dead. They are unstrapped from the machine and their body tipped into the nearby grave.

The Explorer is appalled. He keeps a dead straight face and sympathetic expression and suppresses his horror. He keeps glancing over at the condemned man who is covered in chains and kept on a leash by a soldier of the colony. The Officer tells him what brought the condemned man here. He is a servant tasked with protecting another officer. Every hour on the hour throughout the night he is meant to get up and salute the flag. One night the officer checked on him by getting up just before 2am and looking. The servant snoozed through the appropriate hour so the officer beat him, had him arrested and handed over to the Officer telling the story. It is for this ‘offence’ that the condemned man is to have the entire surface of his body covered with incised lines till he dies of shock.

So far, so horrifying. Up till about now this story gave me a strong feeling of an H.G. Wells story, because of the structure and the fact it is about a piece of machinery. By structure I mean it is told in real time, the entire story takes place in one movement without any flashbacks or change of scene. It could be very easily staged. And the focus on a fantastical piece of machinery is not unlike, for example, the way the Time Traveller explains his man-sized contraption to his hearers.

In this respect, in being a straightforward piece of exposition, the first half is oddly unKafkaesque. But about half way through the story begins to change tone, introducing two characteristic Kafkaesque qualities.

Entropy

One is decline and fall. Or entropy. The theory of entropy states that energy in a fixed system always tends towards equilibrium, towards its lowest state. In other words, the universe is running down. To put it more picturesquely, things always decay.

Thus 1. as the Officer’s exposition continues, he is forced to concede that the machine is not the perfect piece of gleaming technology it once was. A loose cog makes it appallingly noisy, spare parts are difficult to get, the gag has to be reused with successive prisoners biting down no all the previous incumbents’ sweat and vomit.

And all this is 2. symptomatic of the general decline in the penal colony itself. It used to be run by the Commandant, who the Officer reveres, who designed and had built the appalling machine. In his day the sharp glass vials which incise the skin of the victim also released acid to incise the lines deeper into their skin. The old Commandant knew about Justice and Honour, says the bright-eyed Officer. More so than the new Commandant who is inclined to be lax on the prisoners and surrounds himself with ‘ladies’ who are always begging for ‘mercy’ and who has let the incision machine run down.

Weirdness

The other element of the Kafkaesque is just the weird way that people behave. The Explorer thought he was being given a free demonstration of this appalling machine but now the Officer begins to explain his motivation. He wants to the Explorer to defend the use of the machine to the new Commandant in front of everyone, of his followers and supporters. He is spending so much time explaining its excellence because he wants the Explorer to use his independent position and his reputation to praise the machine and lobby the new Commandant for spare parts and repairs.

The Explorer refuses to do so. He says he’ll have a private word with the Commandant, and he’s due to leave soon anyway.

And then, in a Kafkaesque gesture which has nothing to do with real people or real life but is a compelling example of Kafka’s ability to incorporate dream logic into his stories, the Officer orders the intended victim (who has, by this stage, been bound and tied into the machine) to be released, and climbs into it himself, demands to be tied down (even though straps and other bits of the machine break or show signs of decay) and then the machine turned on so that he can experience the workings of the machine he fetishises.

No way would this happen in real life, but Kafka’s stories aren’t real life, they are nightmares.

And in line with Kafkaesque rule of entropy, the machine in fact begins to run riot, harrowing the Officer’s skin much more haphazardly than intended, and numerous cogs start bulging and flying out of the top part of the machinery. Within a few minutes it has blown up, its last act being to stab a long metal stud right through the Officer’s head, so that he never gets to experience the sixth-hour moment of ‘epiphany’ which he so longed for.

It is a failure, a shabby flop, like almost everything in a Kafka story.

In the last few pages the Explorer is taken back by the soldier and the prisoner, wreathed in smiles at the fate he has escaped, back to the colony proper, the populous settlement, where they show him the grave of the old Commandant before wandering off into a teahouse. The Explorer goes to the docks and descends the steps to the sea where he bargains with a rowboat to take him out to the steamer docked in the harbour which will take him away. At the last moment the soldier and prisoner come running down the steps towards him but, in the last gesture of the story, the Explorer pushes them both back and away from the boat. He is definitely not taking them with him.

Thoughts

From a stylistic point of view it is very interesting to see that Kafka could, when needed, write very clear, brief, descriptive prose. The description of the machine and the initial statements by the Officer are extremely crisp and to the point, and the Explorer’s responses are laconic and understated. It is only half way through that the Officer begins to go mad and it is fascinating to watch Kafka’s style change accordingly as the Officer stops giving an exposition of the machine, and starts making more complex, long-winded and self-justifying accusations about the new Commandant, the kind of long-winded tortuous justifications we are used to from the novels.

It is fascinating to be taken on a journey from the clear expository prose which, as I said, reminds me a bit of H.G. Wells, and then watch that slowly melt and swirl and become more imbrued with guilt and paranoia and sadism and masochism as the story turns into nightmare before your eyes, as the elements of decay and guilt and horror come to the fore and it turns into Kafka.

As to the content, I leave others to comment.


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Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1912)

Five years ago Gregor Samsa’s family fell on hard times when his father’s business went bust, owing a lot of money. Gregor had been working as a clerk, but stepped into the breach by becoming a travelling salesman and was soon earning enough money to cover all the family’s costs. During those years his father grew old and fat and used to trudging round the apartment in his dressing gown, his mother grew frail and increasingly prone to asthma attacks, and his little sister, Grete, went from being a schoolgirl to a young woman of 17. Only Gregor’s hard work and iron discipline kept the little family afloat, financially.

Then, one morning, Gregory awoke from a bad night’s sleep to discover he had been transformed into a man-sized insect, something like a wood louse.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933)

Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug. (J.A. Underwood, 1981)

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (David Wyllie, 2002)

Thus begins one of the most famous short stories ever written, The Metamorphosis. The plot, as such, is easily summarised. His family is horrified at his transformation but, once they’ve overcome their initial shock and repugnance, the main impact is financial: they realise they’ll have to go out to out to work, and so Grete takes a job as a shop assistant, Gregor’s father gets a job as a bank commissionaire and his mother takes in lingerie to darn and repair.

Gregor, for his part, on the first day of his change, is mostly concerned that he’s going to be late for work i.e. keeps on thinking the harassed thoughts of a much put-upon employee in a big firm. So he is mortified when the Chief Clerk from his office turns up to find out why he’s late. The striking feature of this early section, as of the work as a whole, is how everyone accepts the miraculous fact of the metamorphosis, and continues thinking their mundane anxious thoughts.

Quite quickly a pattern settles onto the little household: Gregor’s sister brings in leftover food for him to eat before leaving for work, then removes the leftovers in the evenings. (Kafka gives some thought to what a giant insect would eat, thus he completely ignores the initial offering of bread in milk, and he, and they, learn that he prefers rotten vegetables.)

The Samsa’s cleaning woman quits in horror, but another, more working class one is brought in, who treats Gregory phlegmatically, threatening him with a broom or a chair if he comes out from under his sofa (his favourite hiding place) when she’s trying to clean his room.

Although Gregory can perfectly understand what everyone else is saying about him, when he tries to speak it comes out as an unpleasant squeaking sound and they understand nothing. Thus, from the moment of waking that fateful morning, he continues to have entirely human thoughts and feelings but can express them to no-one. They think he has become an animal and thinks like an animal.

The third-person narrator continually explains Gregory’s feelings to us, and the striking thing about them is how little he is changed, how utterly unfreaked-out he is by what’s happened to him, but instead how he tries to make it up to his family, continues to feel guilty that he is no longer the bread-winner, wishes he could join them at the family dinner table like in the old days, and so on.

But in reality, his new body has other plans. Just as it prevents him from speaking and from expressing his human thoughts, so it foils his human wishes. Only slowly does Gregor learn what makes it happy, namely scurrying all over the walls and even the ceiling of his room, leaving sticky tracks everywhere.

In one scene half way through, his sister realises he’ll be happier if they remove all the furniture getting in his way and so gets their frail old mother to give her a hand manoeuvring heavy wardrobes and tables out of his room. Although it is also marks a psychological turning point, marking the moment when he and his family realise the old Gregor is never coming back.

It’s during the furniture moving that Gregor unwisely comes out of the bedroom, the sight of him making his mother hysterical (she has mostly refused to enter his room or accept what’s happened). And it’s at this moment that his father, much revived and invigorated by his new job as a bank commissionaire, arrives home from work, and chases Gregory round the family living room, before starting to pelt him with apples from the fruit bowl.

One of these apples lodges in Gregory’s back (it’s not explicitly described how but this fact only really makes sense if Gregory has a highly segmented shell like a woodlouse) and, over the coming weeks, rots and seems to spread infection through his body.

In the final act the Samsa family take in three lodgers, and there is some characteristically dry Kafka humour at the expense of these three pompous, formal, grey-bearded old men, exactly the kind of dry pompous nitwits he satirises in the later novels. Their role here is to demand that breakfast and dinner are served precisely on time and exactly as they like it, while the Samsa family are forced to go and eat their meals in the kitchen.

One evening Gregory’s sister Grete starts practicing her violin in her bedroom, which prompts the three worthies to ask Mr Samsa to ask her to come out and perform for them in the living room (everyone dressed, remember, in Edwardian frocks and top hats). Unfortunately, the door to Gregory’s room has been left open and he lets himself be so entranced by the music that he inches into the living room on numerous scrappy little woodlouse legs.

Suddenly the lodgers spot him. Now what makes this moment very Kafkaesque is that you or I, if we were in a room listening or playing music with friends, and a giant, human-sized insect slowly nudged its way through the door, you or I might start screaming and run for the window. But I think the most telling fact I know about all Kafka’s work is that, when he read his stories out loud to his small coterie of literary friends, they would often laugh out loud at various incidents and Kafka himself often had tears of laughter streaming down his face.

Kafka didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust, that the Bolshevik experiment would lead to mass famine and show trials, that concentration camps would be set up across Europe from Alsace to Archangel within a few years of his death. In other words Kafka wasn’t privy to the enormous weight of historical, sociological, political and cultural weight which was going to be assigned to his writings by later, especially post-war, critics and readers.

If you do read all this catalogue of disaster back into his writings then it is easy to make them prophetic of the bureaucratic dehumanisation of human beings which was the central characteristic of the twentieth century, and make him into a prophet of anxiety and alienation.

On the other hand, if you try to put to one side the enormous freight of existential angst with which the works are now cluttered, then that allows you to be more flexible in your response – for example, to see that it is genuinely funny that the three pompous old men don’t run screaming out the room when they see a giant insect aproaching, but immediately turn to Mr Samsa senior and, not only give him formal notice that they are quitting his rooms, but also insist that they are not going to pay a penny of the rent they owe, knowing as they now do, that they have been living next to a monster!

In the end Gregory dies. He stops eating and wastes away. Is it due to the infection caused by the rotten apple lodged in the plates of his back? Or to the subtler process, which Kafka records slowly coming over him, whereby he slowly loses his vision and becomes more and more insect-like in his behaviour?

Or is it because, after the three tenants serve notice to quit, Gregor for the first time overhears his family discussing what to do with it, and realises that for the first time his sister, who had been so quietly sympathetic and thoughtful (realising what kind of food a giant insect would want, clearing the furniture out of his room) has given up on him, no longer recognises the inset as Gregor, and now regards him as just an insect, a piece of vermin which needs to be eradicated.

Whatever the reason, the story has to end and the only way Kafka can think of doing so is by killing off his protagonist. As he does in The Trial and intended to do in The Castle.

Summary

So what does the Metamorphosis tell us about the ‘Kafkaesque’, what does it have in common with The Trial or The Castle?

  1. It has one central male protagonist.
  2. He is lower-middle-class but has a respectable white collar job (i.e. is not a writer or poet etc).
  3. He is oppressed by the squabbles and rivalries and office politics and pressures of his job.
  4. One day his life is changed by a catastrophic event.
  5. But the nature and meaning and character of this event remain puzzlingly obscure.
  6. But what is almost more puzzling is the way everyone carries on acting as if things are more or less normal. For example, Gregory’s main thoughts aren’t at all about finding a ‘cure’ for his condition, but, initially, are guilt about being late for work, or not turning up day after day as he has become so used to doing – and then almost entirely about wishing he could help the family with the ensuing financial crisis. So the ‘Kafkaesque’ is something to do with the clash or juxtaposition between the Weird and the extremely mundane, boring, quotidian setting and concern of the characters. For example, I was struck by the way the Samsa family doesn’t consider consulting a doctor, let alone bringing in scientists or informing the authorities – no, they just carry on life as before except that, irritatingly, they now have to go out and get jobs and, oh yes, there’s a giant insect living in one of their bed rooms.

And 6. as mentioned above, the only way the story can really end – as with most of his other stories – is with the death of the protagonist because the plights they are condemned to are lifelong, are existential, are unalterable.

Kafka’s verbosity

One of the other really consistent characteristics of Kafka’s fiction is the astonishing verbosity of the characters. They never say something in a sentence when they could take a page and a half.

This extreme verbosity also allows for another Kafkaesque quality, which is the hand-wringing-, hyper-sensitive way the characters over-think and super-worry about even simple situations, even about whether to speak to someone else, or what someone else meant when they just said something, they can agonise for paragraphs.

For example, on the first day of the transformation, a few hours after Gregory has failed to turn up for work, the Chief Clerk from his office pays the Samsa family a visit. As soon as Gregory hears the Chief Clerk’s voice through the door, he is thrown into a (characteristic) state of anxiety and resentment:

Gregor only needed to hear the visitor’s first words of greeting and he knew who it was – the chief clerk himself. Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries – assuming enquiries were even necessary – did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it? And more because these thoughts had made him upset than through any proper decision, he swung himself with all his force out of the bed.

Wherever you look it up, you’ll find definitions of the ‘Kafkaesque’ invoking ideas of the nightmareish struggle of the individual against a huge, faceless bureaucracy.

Kafkaesque – characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

But just as important and intrinsic to his style is the extreme long-windedness of the dialogue, the extraordinary inability of the characters to say in a sentence what can’t be stretched out into a couple of pages of tortuous, shifting, ambiguous and anxiously self-interrogating prose. It’s this quality more than anything else – more than the ‘meaning’ or the symbolism or even the oppressive atmosphere – which makes the novels so hard to read.

Here is (part of) the exchange between the Chief Clerk speaking through the door to Gregory.

The chief clerk now raised his voice, ‘Mr. Samsa,’ he called to him, ‘what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents and you fail – and I mention this just by the way – you fail to carry out your business duties in a way that is quite unheard of. I’m speaking here on behalf of your parents and of your employer, and really must request a clear and immediate explanation. I am astonished, quite astonished. I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims. This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honour that that could not be the right explanation. But now that I see your incomprehensible stubbornness I no longer feel any wish whatsoever to intercede on your behalf. And nor is your position all that secure. I had originally intended to say all this to you in private, but since you cause me to waste my time here for no good reason I don’t see why your parents should not also learn of it. Your turnover has been very unsatisfactory of late; I grant you that it’s not the time of year to do especially good business, we recognise that; but there simply is no time of year to do no business at all, Mr. Samsa, we cannot allow there to be.’

‘But Sir’, called Gregor, beside himself and forgetting all else in the excitement, ‘I’ll open up immediately, just a moment. I’m slightly unwell, an attack of dizziness, I haven’t been able to get up. I’m still in bed now. I’m quite fresh again now, though. I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though. It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person! I was quite alright last night, my parents know about it, perhaps better than me, I had a small symptom of it last night already. They must have noticed it. I don’t know why I didn’t let you know at work! But you always think you can get over an illness without staying at home. Please, don’t make my parents suffer! There’s no basis for any of the accusations you’re making; nobody’s ever said a word to me about any of these things. Maybe you haven’t read the latest contracts I sent in. I’ll set off with the eight o’clock train, as well, these few hours of rest have given me strength. You don’t need to wait, sir; I’ll be in the office soon after you, and please be so good as to tell that to the boss and recommend me to him!’

It seems to me that the oppressive or nightmareish quality of the stories is conveyed just as much by the long-winded verbosity and over-elaborate articulacy and self-justifying loquaciousness of the dialogue as it is by the actual ‘plots’.


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Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (1969)

This is a collection of seven short stories by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, that first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1968, during the thaw in the communist dictatorship known as the Prague Spring – but was then banned after the Russian invasion of August 1968 reasserted communist censorship and oppression.

All the stories are about love – more crudely, about sex – and about the ridiculous misunderstandings and ludicrous behaviour it provokes in people.

1. The Hitchhiking Game

A young man and his girlfriend are driving out of town to a holiday in the country. They start bickering. She needs to stop for a pee so he pulls into a gas station. She finishes and walks a way down the road, and when he pulls out of the gas station onto the road, she puts out her hand and pretends to hitch-hike. He pulls over and adopts the character of a driver offering a lift to a pretty young woman, and she slips into the character of an innocent young woman being picked up by a strange man.

And for the rest of the story they both play these roles but the point of the story is the way they both quickly find them tiring and constraining. The interest is in the way the two protagonists find the game opening up unexpected vistas within themselves, parts of their psychology they didn’t know they possessed.

To cut to the chase, they end up at some restaurant and hotel where, through a string of casual comments, the game develops into her playing a cheap hooker and he being her bored client. This excites both of them and they hurry up to the bedroom. She surprises herself because – once liberated from her usual constraint and good manners by the role playing – she becomes foul mouthed and foul-acting, really playing the part of an experienced whore and, to her amazement, having a fierce and deep erotic experience.

Unfortunately, as Kundera explains, the young man worshipped her rather than loved her. He worshipped an image of her. And the role-playing destroys that image of purity and innocence which he so wanted to possess. He fucks her and rolls off and refuses to touch or talk to her. And then hears her begin to sob. ‘Can we stop playing the game now?’ she asks. But he remains silent as her crying becomes louder and louder.

Not a very cheerful start to the collection.

2. Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead

Two characters, a man and a woman, bump into each other in the street in a provincial town. Twenty-five years ago she got married and lived here briefly before moving to Prague. Ten years later he husband died and asked to be buried here. Once a year she returns, but is upset to discover that the lease on the grave has expired and his body has been removed and replaced with another. The surly official at the cemetery gives her this gnomic excuse, which gives the story its title: ‘Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead’.’

Wandering the streets, waiting for the return train to Prague, she bumps into an old acquaintance. The local cafes are filthy so he invites her to his apartment for a coffee and a chat. He notices she is old. The veins on her hands stick out. He himself is worrying about ageing. He’s 35 and has just noticed the bald patch appearing at the back of his head.

They go back to his apartment (the reader used to Kundera’s stories feels an ominous sense of inevitability that they will end up having sex). And indeed it turns out they were in love fifteen years ago, and had a brief fling, one night of love in his student accommodation, but he was too timid and shy to really appreciate it, she stripped in the dark, he couldn’t see her face, she moaned something as she climaxed and to this day it haunts him that he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t understand. She is like a lost secret.

Now they have met again and both look back at their affair 15 years earlier, with regret, but really with a kaleidoscope of feelings which are continually changing shape and colour as their dialogue develops, shedding new light on past events, and how they’ve misinterpreted and misremembered them.

He eventually takes her in his arms and begins caressing her, and for a moment she becomes once again the mature sexual woman of 15 years ago, like riding a bike it all comes flooding back. But when he goes to french kiss her it crosses some psychological boundary and she clams up. Suddenly she sees herself as she knows she looks in the mirror, blue-veined hands, wattled throat.

And she realises that she had been seeing herself through the prism of his 15-year-old memory of her. He had been describing their night of love 15 years earlier and she had enjoyed being fifteen years younger. Now he threatens to strip her and reveal what fifteen years have done to her body and that will shatter the image he has created by his words and which she treasures. She says No.

Really, the story is like a short play, but with the author continually arranging events so as to prompt a steady stream of psychological insights. When I reviewed the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, I came across the fact that the French have a tradition of a ‘theatre of ideas’ which the Anglo-Saxon world lacks i.e. a long tradition of accepting that the ‘plot’ is arranged in order to throw up and display interesting and stimulating ideas.

Well Kundera’s fictions are ‘fictions of ideas’ in exactly the same sense. There’s a story, of sorts, in these tales, but it is swamped by the weight of witty, unexpected, paradoxical and sometimes penetrating insights which the author garlands them with.

Thus it is that the older woman has one of those blinding insights which Kundera characters are prey to, in which she realises that the past is pointless, that all monuments to human achievement will crumble, and that therefore her attachment to her dead husband (and her annual pilgrimage to his grave) and her attachment to the idealised version of herself and her body which the nameless man has preserved from their one and only, distant sexual encounter, all of this will crumble and fade.

And so, in wilful defiance of the passage of time and of her entire former attitude towards preserving the past, she stands and begins to take her clothes off. The idealised past will be annihilated by the present, no matter how imperfect.

3. Nobody Will Laugh

Klima is a lecturer in art history. He is a modernist who rattles the conservatives at his college. He is a womaniser, who has had plenty of women traipsing through his flat over the years, as well as lending it to friends, who often have loud parties, thus he has acquired a bad reputation with the building housing committee.

The story has a Kafkaesque feel in that the protagonist is subjected to an inexplicable and, ultimately, destructive persecution. It all starts when a funny little man, an unemployed scientist, contacts Klima and asks him to review an article about an obscure artist which he has spent three years researching and writing. In a light-hearted moment, over a bottle of slivovitz with his girlfriend, Klara, Klima dashes off an ironically effusive letter to this Mr Zaturetsky, vaguely promising a review. For Klima is a joker –

I waved my hand, declaring that the purpose of life is to give amusement, and if life is too lazy for this, there is nothing left but to help it along a little. (p.69)

But, as we know from The Joke, even the most casual off-hand quips can have catastrophic consequences.

Thus, in a light-hearted gesture begins a sequence of unfortunate events which ends up with Klima sacked from his job, kicked out of his apartment and dumped by beautiful Klara. Because Zaturetsky proceeds to haunt his life. He sends more letters asking when the review will be ready. He turns up at the college to find out what days Klima lectures on, and then is present every day. Klima changes the days on which he lectures (in secret, and so illegally). Zaturetsky pesters his secretary, Mary, with questions, until one day she weakens and admits  his real address.

Next day Klima is out but Klara is in when Zaturetsky knocks at the door. He is a funny little man. Klara tells him Klima isn’t there, which is true. Next day Zaturetsky catches Klima at his office, forcing Mary to let him in.

Klima has an inspiration. Trying to reverse the direction of attack, he accuses Zaturetsky of indecently propositioning his girlfriend. Zaturetsky is horrified, indignant and then furious. Flippant Klima regrets his stroke of fun. A few days later he gets a letter from Mrs Zaturetsky threatening legal action unless he withdraws his accusation.

And so it goes on. The Zaturetskies discover that Klara works in a clothes factory and bully their way into it, to track her down. Fortunately, they are both short-sighted and miss her. Still Klima now feels like a hunted animal, and so does Klara.

What gets her is that Klima won’t simply write the wretched review. Just do it, for God’s sake! Klima tries to explain that some of his lies – about Zaturetsky propositioning her and so on – are his lies which he owns, part of him, part of his character. Writing a review praising Zaturetsky’s wretched article would be an objective lie, forced out of him by alien means and an enduring untruth. Klara’s got no idea what he’s on about.

Finally he is called in to a meeting of the local communist party committee. This – like all such committees in all such stories – is populated by vengeful harpies and toxic apparatchiks who completely twist every aspect of Klima’s life to make him out to be an unreliable class enemy. The women on the committee extract admission of his womanising lifestyle which offends them and which they dress up as making him completely unsuitable for teaching the pure new young generation. The male bureaucrats accuse him of giving up lecturing altogether, thus breaking his contract. They both bring to a head his unpopularity with just about every other inhabitant of the apartment building.

Klima finally has a meeting with Mrs Zaturetsky, the tall thin unwell working woman who adores her husband and won’t hear anything bad said about his character or his essay, which she is convinced must be a masterpiece. He tries to explain why it is a second-rate collection of plagiarisms, but she can’t hear him. He loses everything.

All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events and control their course. The truth is that they aren’t our stories at all, they are foisted on us from somewhere outside; that in no way do they represent us; that we are not o blame for the queer path that they follow. They carry us away, since they are controlled by some other forces; no, I don’t mean by supernatural forces, but by human forces, by the forces of those people who, when they unite, unfortunately still remain mutually alien. (p.88)

4. The Golden Apples of Eternal Desire

The unnamed narrator is in awe of his friend, Martin. Martin is happily married to a beautiful wife who he adores, and has just turned 40. Nonetheless he carries on an extraordinary game: absolutely wherever he and the narrator go they carry out a compulsive ‘game’ of chatting up almost every single or available woman they see. It is so compulsive it has become an obsession, and has a number of rules. The most obvious is dividing the meetings with women into registrations and contacts. A registration is where you simply find out the name of a woman you’ve noticed. A contact is where you make a date. It is not at all necessary to actually take this forward to the next step i.e. physical intimacy. In fact this doesn’t appear to have a name within the system. The idea is not at all to reach consummation. It is about celebrating the Eternal Chase.

All this is explained by the narrator in the course of a particular ‘adventure’. This begins when Martin spots a pretty young woman in the cafe where they’re drinking. They follow her to the cloakroom where Martin insists on slipping into her bag the heavy book the narrator has just borrowed from the library. Perplexed by his quick talking, the woman agrees to take the book and look it over. She is a nurse at a town outside Prague. She promises to meet them at the town on the coming Saturday.

On the big day the narrator borrows a nifty little Fiat from a friend and he and Martin motor out to the town. On the way they stop at a lake and quickly slip into trunks and go for a swim (this is all so unlike my own experience of life in England – borrowing other people’s cars, pulling over when they see people with wet hair and asking the way to the lake – that it might as well be happening on another planet).

Martin spies a beauty in a bikini facing the lake, and asks a couple of local kids for her name. When one of them tells our guys her name, the narrator explains that that is a registration. One more name has been added to the ever-expanding list of names of girls they could sleep with in the future. Happy with having made a registration, they get back in the car and drive on.

Then they arrive at the hospital and find the nurse, who says she’s got a friend to pair off with the narrator. She arranged to borrow a house on a nearby lake for the evening. (There’s a lot of borrowing of cars and properties in these stories.) She has to go back to work, she’ll see them this evening.

For the next couple of hours the pair chat up more or less every woman they meet, taking names (registration) and even making more arrangements to meet (which they cheerfully fail to keep). Their insouciance is surreal. Eventually they arrive back at the hospital and park outside and wait. I’ve forgotten to mention that Martin, during the course of the afternoon, had mentioned to his pal that he has to be back in Prague by nine o’clock! His wife had a bad week at the office and he wants to be kind to her and return by 9 so he can play a nice game of rummy with her!

The narrator is surprised but not that surprised. He knows Martin loves his wife. In fact, now he thinks about it, he can’t remember any of the registrations a contacts from the last year or so getting anywhere near consummation. Not to worry. They wait a bit and become impatient. Finally the narrator sees in the rear-view mirror a couple of nurses done up to the nines emerging from the hospital. He abruptly declares they’ve waited long enough and need to leave now to be sure of getting Martin home in time for his wife. Martin doesn’t complain and off they roar.

I felt at that moment that I liked Martin and that I also liked the banner under which he had been marching all his life: the banner of the eternal pursuit of women. (p.113)

This is a strange little story about male obsession and its weirdness, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it’s in a poor translation.

5. Symposium

The interesting thing about this story is the headings. Five doctors sit around chatting about sex (of course), and even the smallest events or parts of the conversation are given their own headings. Thus nurse Alzhbeta, from the start, is flirting with handsome, mature Dr Havel and earns an admonition from him. And so the next section is headed Havel’s admonition even though it is only one paragraph long.

Thus the entire text is broken up into micro-sections and each one is given a name. This has the effect of making the whole thing extremely stagey, or like the screenplay for a movie – very artful, very arranged, very just so. Taken out of the messy river of life, these moments stand alone, cleaned up and displayed for our inspection and for the author to make an endless stream of witty, paradoxical comments about.

It is a comedy of sexual errors. Five doctors are chatting after hours, three men, two women, and the entire story is as tangled a web of erotic misunderstandings and emotional misreadings as you can imagine.

The chief physician is having an affair with a mature woman doctor. Dr Havel is wise and attractive to all women, and so has earned the nickname of Death, because ‘he takes [i.e. screws] everyone’. Although he hasn’t slept with Nurse Alzhbeta, who really fancies him, fancies him so much that, late on in proceedings, when they are all quite drunk, she does a mime striptease, elaborately bumping and grinding and pretending to take off all her clothes, while remaining fully dressed, swinging and swaying her big breasts right above Dr Havel’s embarrassed head.

When she has finally finished and goes to sit down on Havel’s lap, he moves his legs, without thinking, merely because he wants to avoid contact with her – but with the result that she falls to the floor with a bump. Humiliated, Alzhbeta gets up, marches to the door, dramatically declaring, ‘You don’t know, you don’t understand.’ and exits.

The others continue their endless droll conversations about sex and desire and the erotic, and who fancies who, they nickname the chief physician Don Juan, and there is a characteristic Kundera-esque section where he explains how, in the good old days, Don Juan was a conqueror of women but in our fallen times, with women being so much more docile and willing (and nobody believing in God any more) Don Juan is more of a collector, a different kind of figure altogether (pp.140-141).

The youngest person present is the lanky, slow-witted junior Dr Flaischman. He is comically convinced that the thirty-something woman doctor is secretly in love with him and sending him coded signals throughout the evening. In one of the genuinely comic moments, he makes it clear to everyone that he’s going outside for a leak, and winks at the woman doctor, convinced she will follow him.

Down the corridor he goes, out into the ground, finds a nearby tree and is just unzipping when he hears footsteps approaching. Without looking round he says, ‘I knew you’d come’, and the chief physician replies, ‘Yes, I prefer peeing outside’. That made me laugh.

On the way back, though, Flaischman smells gas. It’s coming from Nurse Alzhbeta’s room. The door is unlocked, he bursts through it, a ring on the oven is on spewing out gas, the nurse is lying sprawled stark naked on the bed (of course). He turns the gas off, flings open the windows and calls for help. Several hours later, after the patient has been pumped full of oxygen and had a blood transfusion and is well on the way to recovery, the remaining four characters reconvene in the drinking room to reflect on what just happened.

The story is like a play, an intellectual play, not least because it is made up almost entirely of dialogue with precious little description. Every single piece of dialogue introduces new ideas, the dialogue packed with theories and counter-theories about love and sex. Kundera loves paradox. He freely uses the word ‘precisely’, in the way of European intellectuals, to make each thought appear that much more incisive and logical.

Thus the passages where they speculate why Nurse Alzhbeta tried to kill herself are called The Chief Physician’s Theory, Dr Havel’s Theory, and the Woman Doctor’s Theory, and each one is witty, plausible and false, for they all relate her action to her strip-tease and to her frustrated love for Dr Havel. All wrong. Even wronger is poor Flaishman’s conviction that Nurse Alzhbeta (like the woman doctor) is secretly in love with him, Flaishman. He reproaches himself for having not treated her better. He blames himself for her suicide attempt. Next day he takes her flowers in her hospital bed, chats to her, pats her shoulder, convinced she is forlornly in love with him. All ludicrously wrong.

The actual reason is that much earlier in the evening, Dr Havel had given the nurse some ‘pep’ pills because she was tired after a long day and wanted to perk up for the little drinks party. Only what he gave her were actually sleeping pills, because he wanted her to feel super-tired and bugger off and leave him alone. Drunk and shattered, Nurse Alzhbeta had then gone back to her room, popped a little pan of coffee on the hob and taken the pills as she got undressed, by which time they took effect and she fell asleep on the bed (stark naked, of course), while the pan boiled over and the water put out the gas flame but the gas kept on pumping into the room.

So it was not suicide caused by any of the clever theories the doctor’s cook up. It was cock-up not catastrophe. Beneath all humanity’s grand plans and theories lies… randomness and accident.

A story like this makes you marvel at Kundera’s brevity. Whole dazzling verbal and intellectual effects are created in half-page snippets of dialogue.

But there is a downside to his technique which is that – no human beings ever spoke like this. Nobody was ever this witty and concise, and paradoxical, and intellectual and incisive. In this way, Kundera’s fictions are rather like Oscar Wilde’s. Dazzlingly witty, pithily expressed, always graceful and alert and sometimes very funny – and yet, somehow, ultimately, often, strangely empty.

And contrived. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe in any of these characters. The tone of some of the stories is more like a fairy tale than an adult fiction, and the characters are more like ciphers than human beings. In some of these stories the clockwork machinery which propels the automata around the stage for our amusement seems just a little bit too contrived and neat.

6. Dr Havel After Ten Years

Dr Havel is ten years older and no longer so attractive as he was when we met him in the previous story. In Symposium the other characters nickname him Death, because he ‘takes’ (meaning he sleeps with) everything.

Now he is old and ill, he suffers from gall bladder failure, he is often in pain, it is sometimes all he can do to walk around the block. So he sends himself off to a spa to recover. (This is yet another exotic and wonderful element of Kundera’s fiction; his Czechoslovakia is dotted with spas and his Czech characters are often popping off to them or work at them [The Farewell Party is entirely set in a spa, a key meeting in the poet’s early life in Life Is Elsewhere takes place at a spa. Whereas in my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever been to a spa, not to ‘take the waters’: I’ve been to Bath or Buxton as spas but neither time did I take any waters, just wandered around like all the other tourists.)

At the spa he is treated by a muscular blonde administrator of the cures and baths, who he tries to chat up but who completely ignores him. He flirts with a posh horse-faced woman guest who also ignores him. He tries it on with several other women who all ignore his advances. Tut tut, Dr Death’s powers have gone.

In his consultant’s room, on a whim he asks to phone his wife, who he’s left at their apartment back in Prague. She is gorgeous, a movie star, younger than him and famous. And crazed with jealousy. She almost prefers it when he’s ill, because then he knows he’s not on the pull. Whenever he’s absent from her, she knows he can sleep with any woman he wants. Or used to be able to… She can’t initially believe he is sincere, but he begs her to come and visit her at the spa, so she does, the next day.

Dr Havel is deliriously happy when he sees her bus draw in, and escorts her round the spa and the town. Everywhere they go his wife draws admiring glances and he takes special care to ensure the muscular bath supervisor, the horse-faced lady, and all the others who have turned him down, see him kissing, canoodling and joking with his stunningly beautiful and famous wife.

With the result that, the next day, after she’s left (she’s due to do some filming back in Prague) Dr Havel encounters the same series of women but this time they all make it abundantly clear that they will talk to him, and even meet for a date and a drink, with hints of lots more if he wants it. His association with the film star has transformed him in their eyes. By sleeping with him, some of her glamour and meaning will rub off on them.

This is so unlike the behaviour of any woman I’ve ever met or read about that I can only consider it a kind of middle-aged, male fairy tale. Read in this spirit it has the child-like inevitability and good humour of a parable or fable, like real life refined and purified and simplified and made charming – as real life so rarely is.

7. Edward and God

Most commentators I’ve read consider this the best of the seven stories, and I agree. I think it’s because it has the most formal beauty, it has the most satisfying shape. Most of the others are fairy tales or fantasies but ‘deformed’ by elements of adventitiousness or arbitrariness or accident. Edward and God, on the other hand, has the kind of perfection which real fairy tales have, which have been handed down over the generations and worn smooth like pebbles in a stream so that only the absolutely essential elements of the story remain, so that the narrative unfolds with  wonderfully pleasing sense of inevitability.

Edward is a young teacher. He is in love with beautiful Alice. But despite going on numerous dates with her she is prim and proper and upright, kisses him with dry kisses, won’t let him touch her breast etc. (Yes, this is yet another story about a randy young man desperate to sleep with a young woman, but in this case this plot device really works.)

One day she surprises him by asking if he believes in God. Of course not, he says. He’s a communist, a modern man. They debate the existence of God etc a little but it dawns on Edward that if he is to get into Alice’s pants he must ape her faith. So he starts going to church with her and, when he starts singing and when he kneels and prays, to his great surprise, he finds it reassuring and comforting. He becomes quite devout. He even begins to outdo Alice, kneeling more often, praying louder, and crossing himself in the street, when they come across an ancient cross pinned to a wall.

Which triggers an unfortunate sequence of events. Because Edward is spotted by the school janitor who reports him to the thin, ugly directress of the school, and Edward is called before the school committee, who are ready to come down on him like a ton of bricks. To suspend or even sack him.

But suddenly, in this fraught situation, Edward has a blinding revelation. Rather than deny their accusations and play into their hands, he must go along with their conception of him. Denying the accusation will make them angry because it defies the conclusion they’ve already reached and therefore their intelligence. Immediately confessing in full will flatter their intelligence.

And so Edward immediately admits that, although he is a modern man, a communist, a man of the people, a man of the future and so on, he just can’t help believing in God. The most vehement accusers breathe a gratified sigh. They were right all along. And now they can set about helping this poor wrongheaded young man back to the light.

To cut a long story short, Edward is handed over to the school directress for improvement and rectification. She has a reputation for being attracted to younger men. Over the course of their first few re-education sessions together, Edward continues to play the role of misguided youth, yearning to be re-educated out of his wrong-headed belief in God i.e. he lies his face off in order to play to the role his accusers have assigned him.

As you might expect from a Kundera story, the central events turn around sex, namely that, as the re-education sessions progress, the directress brings out wine, adopts a more friendly tone, says she understands the torments of youth and she is here to help – in an increasingly meaningful and suggestive way.

The comedy reaches a climax when, at the third of fourth session, she has a little too much to drink, puts on the radio and insists that Edward dances with her. He knows what is coming next and is terrified that his body won’t respond. The directress is fearsomely ugly, skinny, with a long narrow face, scrappy black hair and a prominent moustache. As they dance he feels his manhood recoiling and shrinking in terror. She kisses him. She places his hand on her breast. Then she disappears into the bathroom telling him she’ll be back in two ticks and reappears in the doorway wearing a see-through nighty.

The moment has come but as the directress approaches, Edward backs away, the directress follows him, until they end up chasing each other round and round the coffee table in the middle of her living room.

It is a farce. But a very clever, very funny one. For suddenly Edward has another of his blinding revelations. He stops dead and says he can’t. His faith won’t let him. God won’t let him. And while the directress is spluttering something about don’t be so ridiculous, Edward suddenly commands her to kneel. KNEEL. Bewildered the directress does so. AND PRAY. She begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. And, looking down at her as she prays, looking down at this image of communist power brought low, of the head of his school obeying him, and of a half naked woman paying obeisance to him… suddenly his manhood experiences a surge of power. He tears off his clothes and takes her there and then, fiercely and unforgivingly.

And to his amazement it is the most fulfilling sexual experience of his (admittedly young) life. The directress is overjoyed and tells him his re-education is coming on in leaps and bounds. Who knows, soon he may merit a promotion.

Meanwhile, Alice, remember her? The sweet virginal devoted Christian who refused barely even to kiss Edward? Next time they meet, after he’s been hauled before the school committee, she is all over him and, to his amazement she kisses him with soft wet kisses, and she lets him touch her breasts, and even… wander below the borderline at her navel. And she has arranged for them to borrow a relative’s country cottage for the weekend! Wow! Why the complete change? Because he is a martyr for the faith. The story is all over school and beyond of how he stood his ground against the persecutors and stood up for the Lord!

Edward is at first astonished that this legend about him has sprung up so quickly, and then disappointed that Alice can abandon her principles so easily. One minute she is telling him God has forbidden adultery and sex before marriage and vehemently, vigorously prevents him touching any naughty parts of her body; the next minute she’s all for illicit sex.

He realises, with a sinking heart, that in her own way she is just as malleable and manipulative of principles as everyone else. Despite now being able to get his wicked way, Edward is disappointed.

And then, as you might predict, their night of love at the borrowed cottage is similarly disappointing. She insists on closing all the curtains and having the light off, and then she ‘sacrifices’ his body to her. But everything about it seems staged and false to Edward and, again, he finds his manhood hesitating and not rising to the occasion. By various strategems he manages to keep it up and complete the act of love but next morning he finds himself having an argument with her, about her lack of principles.

So in the end he ‘wins’ Alice, but discovers her type of narrow-minded officiousness repels him and, after a harsh argument dumps her; while he discovers that he has something immeasurably better if inexplicable with the skinny ugly directress who, nonetheless, when she kneels before him and prays, unleashes erotic forces he didn’t imagine were possible.

This story feels as perfectly formed as a fairy tale in the sense that all the elements fall into place with a lovely inevitability, and that the ‘moral’ of the story is also pleasingly counter-intuitive but, on reflection, psychologically satisfying. And it contains some very funny moments: there is intellectual comedy in the way Edward strings the committee along with his play-acted shame and comradely regret; and there is basic physical comedy in the skinny half-dressed sex-mad directress chasing the harassed young man round her coffee table.

Thoughts

I know the word ‘loves’ is in the title, but after a while I got fed up of the unrelentingness of the predatory male sexuality depicted in each of the stories. I longed for even a page which didn’t mention sex or love or erotic adventures. In amidst the relentless sexualisation of the stories, I sometimes found passages about age or youth, or about politics or religion, which were like oases, where, for a brief moment, you could get away from the oppressive sense of hairy men, young and old, relentlessly obsessed with getting their end away, whatever the cost.

But just a little below the surface concern with sex and breasts and bodies, underlying all the stories, is Kundera’s very mid-European sense of the sheer Absurdity of human existence, the sense that whatever we think we’re doing, the world has other ideas.

This is the way life goes: a man imagines that he is playing his role in a particular play, and does not suspect that in the meantime they have changed the scenery without his noticing, and he unknowingly finds himself in the middle of a rather different production. (p.229)

All the characters without exception are misguided and misinterpret each other.

The narrator’s voice

The vital element in all Kundera’s fiction is the quality and character and technique of the narrator’s voice. If you concentrate just on the plots and storylines you are missing the elephant in the room, which is the immense self-confidence with which he makes himself part of the narration, with which he creates a confidential, witty and incisive narratorial voice, interrupting and arranging the narrative just so, clinically dividing it up into neat, pre-packaged sections designed for him to make a witty or thought-provoking comment about love or human nature.

Sometimes the stories approach closer to the character of a lecture than a traditional fiction. The paradox is that, the more archly and overtly intrusive the narrator is, the more effective the story often is.

Thus Edward and God is the ‘best’ story, but it is also the most artificial. Several times the narrator addresses the reader in paragraphs which begin ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’, as if he’s the impresario of a theatre appearing in front of the curtain and directly addressing the audience before or after a play has been performed.

Kundera’s books came to attention in the West in the early 1980s at the same time as the wave of Magical realists from South America. They share a rejection of the ‘naturalist’ tradition, and an openness to elements of magic and fantasy. But Kundera’s stand alone and distinct in the extreme staginess of his voice, always guiding, pushing and coaxing his characters, and constantly commenting on the action and digressing with his own thoughts about politics and death and human nature and, of course, sex.

Not just staginess, but age and wisdom. Kundera’s voice is older and wiser than those of his characters and, by implication, than of us, the reader. It gives the sense of having experienced everything, and understood everything and forgiven everything, and now he is going to present some puppets for our entertainment, put them through their paces, and take every opportunity to reminisce and share the wisdom gained from a long and rich life:

  • Let us try to understand… (p.33)
  • We should perhaps find in her dismay something akin to the dismay of a very young girl who has been kissed for the first time… (p.45)
  • We can advantageously start Edward’s story in his elder brother’s little house in the country
  • We must recall (for the sake of those to whom perhaps the historical background of the story is missing)… (p.209)
  • Ladies and gentlemen, these were weeks of torment… (p.210)
  • Let us stop and consider this word… (p.237)
  • Ah, ladies and gentlemen, a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anything or anyone seriously. (p.242)

If you can put aside the fact that he is almost always talking about sex, love and eroticism, many of these interventions could be those of a wise grandfather, telling a time-honoured tale (and, at bottom, all these tales of love and loss are time honoured, repeated in every generation).


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

So I went out into the night and the neon and let the crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be just a segment of that mass organism, just one more drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics. (p.218)

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. They include his first published work, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, and then all the stories he wrote up till 1986.

In 1984 Gibson had published his debut novel, Neuromancer, set in a future world dominated by digital techologies, in which he made great use of the ideas of cyberspace and the matrix of digital information. What made it really distinctive, though, was how all this was viewed filtered through a film noir, street level culture which mixed the tough guy crime stories of Raymond Chandler with 1980s punk culture – in which this brave future was not supervised by Arthur C. Clarke-style, clean-suited technocrats, but was at the mercy of international corporations, Japanese yakuza gangs, ninja assassins, dealers selling all manner of futuristic drugs, holograms used for viewing savage knife fights or holoporn showing the obvious – in other words, a future seen from a street-level view of crime and rackets and dealers and pimps and whores, all summed up in the word, ‘the biz’. And all conveyed in an amphetamine-driven, drug-crazed, super-charged prose, dense with a dizzy combination of street slang and tech terms.

Neuromancer was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive which, together, are now said to comprise Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, so-called because in this America of the future, the entire East Coast has become one vast, continuous urban sprawl.

The stories in this collection include several which share the Sprawl world, including one which actually features the female protagonist from Neuromancer, Molly (and where we learn her surname is the rather cartoonish Million – Molly Millions).

And then there are ‘the rest’, a miscellany of non-Sprawl science fiction stories, most of them set in the future, or a future, just not necessarily the Sprawl future.


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

It’s very short (7 pages) and it is very fragmentary. We get the protagonist’s back story in scattered fragments. We have Hints of the Damaged Future, hints that Japanese business and culture was taking over America – the kit Parker uses to get into ASP is made by Japanese corporation, Sendai; more importantly, when a teenager his parents indenture him to a the US branch of a Japanese corporation, with its barracks and corporate hymns. He runs away. He flees to a California which has declared itself independent of the USA, under a chaotic ‘New Secessionist’ movement. Up to a point these can maybe be seen as extrapolations of trends Gibson saw in his own time.

The story already contains key themes, namely the protagonist, Parker, works on Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) programmes. As in the Sprawl stories, you plug your brain into the player, play the tapes and you are there: the recording completely floods your sensorium.

And also, what I by now realise is another major theme, which is a surprisingly sentimental lost-love trope. The girls in Gibson (well, young women) are always slender as gazelles and tough as silicon razor nails. Sex is an olympic workout. His women can hold their own against gangsters and dealers. BUT, beneath this leather-jacketed veneer of modernity, the men are always loving and losing them, in a sentimental ‘I’m not going to cry’ tough guy way descended from Hemingway and Chandler.

Parker has woken at 3 in the morning (that’s another trope: it’s always the middle of the night, or the darkest hour before dawn) and is rummaging through her belongings and his memories. He finds the hologram of a rose which he unsentimentally flushes into the waste disposal unit. His last memory is watching her going off in a taxi leaving him standing there in the pouring rain. Sob.

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

Super cool and fast moving, this concerns Johnny Mnemonic, so-named because memory banks (a hard drive) has been neurally inserted into his brain, so that he can store vast amounts of data which a) he doesn’t understand b) he cannot himself access.

The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contraautism prostheses.’ (p.22)

Only clients with the password can access it. He is a storage facility or, as he himself puts it: ‘a nice meatball chock-full of implants.’

As so often the story features a meeting with a drug dealer, Ralfi, in a lowlife café. The dealer has brought a neural disruptor so, although Johnny has packed a sawnoff shotgun in an adidas bag, he is paralysed, while the dealer indicates that the hired muscle he’s brought, Lewis, is going to hurt him.

Enter a typically lean, mean, streetwise chick, who identifies herself as Molly Millions (‘She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood’) and, as Lewis leans forward to hurt Johnny, flips her hand past his, somehow lacerating his wrist down to the artery. Lewis clutches it and runs off. We later learn Molly has four-centimetre-long razor retractable blades installed under her fingernails. (She has also had her eyballs replaced with digital lenses.) The neural disruptor goes off and Johnny is free.

Molly grabs his hand and runs him along to her hiding place, a disused part of the lofty ceiling of a vast mall made of geodesic domes, overseen by an outlandish gang named the Lo Teks who dance and perform on a high-wire dance floor they call the Killing Floor.

In case this is all too mundane, Gibson throws in the participation of a cybernetic dolphin, a relic from the war (you know, that war) which is kept in a rundown zoo, but features, among its other hi-tech devices, a SQUID, being a Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector, which they use to extract the data in Johnny’s head which caused Ralfi to come after him. They reward the dolphin, whose rather dull name is Jones, by shooting him up with heroin, yes, this cybernetic dolphin is a junkie.

They use Jones’s skills to extract and place the data in a construct which they leave on a shelf in the backroom of a gift shop.

And here is another classic element of the Sprawl world: the power of multinational corporations, the real rulers of the world, controllers of entire economies, and that most of these multinational corporations are Japanese.

The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse. (p.22)

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

  1. It has all the familiar ingredients: Automatic Jack and Bobby Quine are two ex-soldiers (fought at the Battle of Kiev in the same failed war against Russia mentioned in Neuromancer). Jack, the narrator, is injured/wounded – his arm was lasered off while flying a microlight. Future technology gives him a replacement cybernetic arm, powered by nerves.
  2. There’s a sexy chick, Rikki, who within a sentence of appearing in the story, is pulling a ‘frayed khaki cotton shirt’ over her pert, twenty-something breasts. Jack falls in love with her, then loses her.
  3. Jack and Bobby are criminals who hack into business information in cyberspace for gain.

In terms of storytelling technique, it is classic Gibson in the way it’s based in a ‘present’, after the bank job, the heist, the caper – in which the narrator a) looks back on everything that’s happened b) dwells on falling in love with the woman and losing her – and intersperses this with chunks of exposition, which tell the actual story i.e. how Jack and Bobby enter cyberspace to break into the highly defended vaults of ‘Chrome’, a terrifyingly violent criminal who launders money for organised crime, as well as running a bar-cum-brothel, the House of Blue Lights.

Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold grey eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. (p.196)

Same technique is used in New Rose Hotel, where the narrator is in a ‘present’, after a big criminal caper has taken place – looking back at both the build-up to the crime, and lamenting his abandonment by a sexy, feisty woman (Sandii). (She took the money and went off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a ‘simstim’ star.)

But the most important aspect is that, by way of describing how Jack and Bobby steal all Chrome’s assets in cyberspace, it gives extended (and useful) explanations of key concepts in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe – cyberspace, the matrix and ice.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colourless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they operate behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

And I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph in this sequence because it’s a classic example of how Gibson’s mastery of a certain type of speed-fuelled prose can turn what is, basically, the boring reality of criminals hacking into computers, into soaring prose poetry.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. (p.197)

A bit later, the narrator tells us there are some 15 million legitimate console operators around the world, doing the daily trudgework of maintaining these vast castles of data. But we never meet them in Gibson’s stories. We only meet the lowlife, edgy, drug-fuelled hackers and hustlers.

On one level, Gibson is just the latest in a long line of American noir writers who make crime sound impossibly glamorous.

P.S.

Automatic Jack is referenced in the second of the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. In that novel Bobby the hacker has ended up in the 14th-floor nightclub owned by a dude named Jammer, and can’t take his eyes of the man’s cool new cyberspace deck, so Jammer hands Bobby a set of trodes:

He stood up, grabbed the handles on either side of the black console, and spun it round so it faced Bobby. ‘Go on. You’ll cream your jeans. Things ten years old and it’ll still wipe as son most anything. Guy name of Automatic Jack built it straight from scratch. He was Bobby Quine’s hardware artist once. The two of ’em burnt the Blue Lights together, but that was probably before you were born…’ (Count Zero, p.230)


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

The first-person narrator is hired to take photographs for a book of photo-journalism documenting the futuristic buildings of the 1930s, what the woman consultant to the project calls ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, what the publisher calls ‘raygun Gothic’, the book to be titled, The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.

To cut a long story short, on his cruises round provincial America looking for these architectural indicators of a future which never happened, he starts to hallucinate himself into the alternative future where they were built, soaring domes, spires and arcologies linked by high-level walkways, the sky full of flying silver vehicles, and on the ground around him tough-guy blonde 1930s men named Chuck, their arms around wasp-waisted plastic women of the future, both out of the old movies Metropolis and Shape of Things To Come.

Obviously – inevitably – this being Gibson, the narrator is popping various types of drug all the time and at first dismisses the visions as ‘amphetamine psychosis’. If this were J.G. Ballard the narrator’s mind would eventually disappear into this alternative universe, while their body remained here, catatonic.

But, throughout the story, he has been anchored in reality by constant phone calls to a colleague who spends his life writing up the weird beliefs of Americans – Elvis is alive on Mars, UFOs took my husband – and who is totally blasé about the narrator’s visions and, indeed, the opening sentence tells us that it was all an ‘episode’ which is now fading.

In other words, it doesn’t go for the full-on psychosis and so comes over as rather a conventional 1950s-type story.

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

I wonder what collaboration brings for Gibson. He collaborates quite a lot. In this case the setting is very Gibson – a perpetual night-time of clubs and bars, back alleyways, littered with broken glass and graffiti, the shabby single room of a low-paid single man.

Coretti is a shabby, badly dressed ungainly loner. He goes to a bar. A notably attractive woman (they generally are: Gibson’s stories froth over with femmes fatales) lets him chat her up. When she leaves, he follows her and is thunderstruck when, half way across a night-time road, she changes shape: her dress changes, her hair changes, the shape of her body subtly alters. She becomes a different woman.

From a distance he watches her visit other bars, chatting friendly to other strange men, echoing their conversation, fitting right in. He becomes obsessed. He loses his day job, takes a cheaper labouring job, loses that, doesn’t eat, lives only to track her down.

Finally, in the early hours (the characteristic Gibson time of day) he finds her in a bar, chatting in her easygoing manner to a man. They leave and get into a cab, at the last minute Coretti flings himself inside, but the other two don’t even notice. And when she goes to pay the river Corettit is stunned to see her reach inside her own body, through a pink slit like a fish’s gill, to bring out wet notes which dry as she hands them over.

Coretti follows the couple up to a hotel room in which he is not that surprised to discover a dozen or so other people perching on beds, sofas, chairs. Motionless, their eyes covered by a thin filament of flesh. They are, he realises, roosting. They are some kind of alien life form which lives to blend in. Maybe they started off feeling normal, eating and drinking like other folk. Then got to realise they feel restless, outside, different. Stop eating. Exist off alcohol metabolised at bars, maybe…

He realises he is one of them. The story ends with Coretti, also, pulling wet money out of his gill, paying for whatever he needs, sitting passively in bars wearing whatever is required, whatever is required to fit right in.

Hinterlands (1981)

A strange and disturbing story about a strange and disturbing phenomenon. At some in our future a Russian spaceship, an Alyut 6, en route to Mars, simply disappears. Two years later it reappears, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, out of her mind. Several other ships disappear at the same location. It becomes clear it’s the departure point of some kind of Highway, which is what Americans call it, while the French call it the subway and the Russians the river.

Over the years an entire space station is set up to a) despatch probes and individuals through the Highway b) ready to receive them back. The success rate is low. Of those who return 20% are dead on arrival, 70% are mad, gone, lost – only 10% or so alive and capable of speech or communication, although often badly damaged.

Why keep on doing it? Because the second or third returnee came back with metal into which was coded information including a cure for cancer. After that humanity had to continue sending people into this…. thing… junkyard? curio shop, whatever it is.

The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, preparing to greet a new returnee, Leni Hofmannstahl. The space station has an entire area nicknamed ‘Heaven’, which is full of grass and plants and the sound of trickling water, built on the advice of psychotherapists to provide the most calming environment possible for returnees, though it rarely works.

And, being Gibson, there is a psychic element, an interference with minds, which is that the greeter (himself) mind melds with a ‘controller’, becoming one via a device nicknamed a ‘bone-phone’ i.e. an implant in his brain.

Toby’s controller, Hiro, has genned up on Leni’s entire profile, knows her inside out, while Toby is carrying the entire arsenal of drugs know to humans to try and calm Leni. But when he enters the probe, now safely docked in ‘Heaven’, Toby immediately sees that she is ‘gone’. And in a very florid way. She is pinned in her pilot’s chair and, somehow, has persuaded the ship’s onboard medical unit to flay her right arm and pin it to the plastic work surface, skin unwrapped, nerves and tendons revealed, expertly dissected. She bled to death.

That night Toby is in bed with his squeeze, Charmian. We learn that they have been recruited from the ‘rejects’, the astronauts who bob around in a probe in the right area but, for reasons unknown, are not chosen, are not taken, who feel the crushing weight of rejection, often try to commit suicide, their brains are rewritten, ‘kinked’, adjusted, and then they are used as ‘surrogates’, almost-rans, half way towards the returnees, who an operator using the ‘bone-phone’ can meld and control. The price they pay. Clutching his woman in the dark, crying, empty drug wrappers clenched in his fist.

Red Star, Winter Orbit (co-written with Bruce Sterling, 1983)

A Russian space station – Kosmograd – has been orbiting earth for decades (since the turn of the century, apparently). It is armed, so there’s a squad of six soldiers and a KGB officer aboard.

The narrative describes the rebellion of the twenty or so civilian cosmonauts aboard the station, led by Korolev, himself badly injured in some kind of ‘blow-out’ twenty years previously, against the KGB man Yefremov, when they intercept Kremlin order that the station is to be abandoned and its orbit left to decay till it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As so often, half the interest of the story is the ‘hints’ it drops of the fictional future. In this future the Russians have won. The Treaty of Vienna gave them control of the entire Earths oil supply, then there was some kind of nuclear meltdown in Kansas, with the result that, for three decades, America has been ‘gradually sliding into isolationism and industrial decline.’ (p.110) In some kind of attempt to gain extra power they have resorted to sending enormous balloons up into the outer atmosphere to collect energy.

And yet the story reveals that the Soviets themselves have failed. There was some kind of attempt to do mining on the moon, which failed. And we learn that Korolev, the protagonist – Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev – had been the first man on Mars, back in the day. Now, as the KGB try to organise abandoning the Kosmograd, he is set to become the last man in space. Gloomily, Yefremov tells Korolev that the entire human endeavour to ‘escape’ into space has failed.

Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. (p.107)

New Rose Hotel (1984)

In the early hours it starts to rain and the protagonist lies in bed in his cheap hotel going back over recent events trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how the chick he thought he’d clicked with, got away. That’s the classic shape of a Gibson Sprawl story.

This one is interesting because it expands on the basic Gibson idea that the future will be controlled by vast multinational conglomerates, and competition won’t be so much for resources as for knowledge.

Although the protagonist takes his time piecing together the sequence of events which brought him to this cheap hotel, by the end of the story the plot is clear.

The narrator is an expert at kidnapping the scientists whose inventions fuel the vast multinationals. He is hired by a man named Fox (‘point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers’) to work alongside another freelancer named Sandii to kidnap a genius named Hiroshi Yomuri from Maas Biolabs GmbH who had him, and hand him over to another corporate client, Hosaka.

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant for of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (p.129)

Anyway, Sandii, the narrator and Fox put together the kidnap and, sure enough, Yomuri disappears from a street in Vienna, popping up again in the secure facility the narrator has arranged for him in Marrakesh. Our chaps notice a number of other top Hosaka scientists flying in to confer with him. Then – disaster.

Sandii has double crossed them. She was paid by Mass to carry out the kidnapping, but had installed a diskette at the new hideaway which released some kind of Meningococcal infection. It killed Hiroshi and all the other Hosaka researchers. Score Maas. Hosaka’s anger knows no limits. He and Fox immediately go on the run, but he sees Fox get thrown off the balcony of a shopping mall, falling to the ground and breaking his back.

Now the narrator is holed up in the cheapest, obscurest hotel he can find, trying to cover his tracks, knowing assassins are on his trail and going over it all in his mind, wishing Sandii was still with him, wishing she still loved him, wishing she was holding his hand.

The Winter Market (1986)

The narrator, Casey, is another young buck at home in the louche worlds of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. He goes on eight-hour-long bender when he learns that a recording star he’s been working for has died. But this is more complex than it seems.

We are in the future and people can record and edit other people’s experiences using ‘neuroelectronics’ – accessing and experiencing levels of consciousness which most people can only access in dreams, dream experiences. These can then be edited to create what are in effects ‘albums’, full of ‘tracks’, which recreate – which let you experience – other people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

The narrator is a kind of ‘record producer’ of this kind of content, and the story looks back, soulfully and sadly, on his working relationship with a particularly fucked-up woman he met in a bar, Lise, who is only able to move because her withered body is fitted into a carbon exo-skeleton.

She is an epitome of the doomed artist, but in a leather jacket and addicted to speed (or ‘wizz’, as Gibson calls it.) Breaking his own rule, Casey, shares a circuit with her i.e. jacks into her consciousness, and emerges seconds later weeping with shock at the huge awesome night-time infinitely sad depths of it.

So he uses some studio downtime to make a rough recording of her, plays it to his boss who is stunned, who passes it up to a record company who snap it up and send out smooth-talking, suited PR people (all a riff on a 1980s view of the record biz), give her a contract, Casey is given a promotion and bonus to edit her stuff together into the classic album which becomes known as Kings of Sleep.

But she is a doomed artist, doomed, man, too sensitive for this world and so we learn that she has ‘crossed over’, used neuroelectronics to transfer her entire mental activity into a construct, an AI, a ROM stored in some corporate headquarters. Her body is cremated. Casey is gutted.

His story is told via conversations with his good friend Rubin, an internationally famous artist who makes art works out of the sea of junk by then surrounding 21st century society.

there’s drugs, there’s heavy drinking, there’s finding yourself in no-hope bars in the early hours, watching the other losers, there’s future tech – it’s a whole world, a Gestalt, the Sprawl scenario.

The relentless leather jacket, rock chick, mainline drugs, 12 hour drinking binges, late-night bars, rock’n’roll  altered states milieu remind me of a favourite track by Jesus and Mary Chain, Coast to Coast from 1989.

Here I come, here I come
On a road
Under a sky
Coast to coast

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

Another lowlife on the run, this time it’s Deke, a career thief, caught and kicked out of Washington DC, put on a greyhound out of town, fantasises about travelling forever, maybe down to the warzone in Florida (sic) he gets out at a 20 minute stopover station, stumbles on gamers playing a 3-D fighter game based on First World War biplanes zapping each other – Fokkers & Spads – and is entranced.

He walks back to a shopping mall and steals the (commercially available) game and the kit to play it on, scams himself into a cheap hotel (ain’t no other kind in Gibsonland), unwraps, plugs in and plays it.

Bit later he tries to sell part of the kit to a girl down the hall, Nance Bettendorf, but she freaks him out with 3-D images she can project (in this case, of a rat). She has a ‘brainblock’ put on her by her parents who both work (which is, in this dystopian future, very ‘greedy’ of them) a chastity block, so no sex for Deke, then, although she wears skimpy clothes which ride up to show here crimson panties.

She’s a student (again, apparently, a rare thing in this future) and is completing a virtual reality assignment. Having rich parents, she can afford all the right kit:

‘Image facilitator. Here’s my fast-wipe module. This is a brainmap one-to-one function analyser.’ She sang off the names like a litany. ‘Quantum flicker stabiliser. Program splicer. An image assembler…’ (p.175)

These to oddballs, outsiders, loners, sort of knock up a rapport. Deke stays with her while he practices his skills at the game, his aim being to take on the dude he saw in the Greyhound station and make some money. When Nance tells him she has some ‘hype’, a mind-focusing drug, Deke has no scruples about attacking her to steal it – and seeing as she has panic attacks if anyone touches her, his assault-cum-rape is as cruel as can be.

Having prepared for weeks, Deke walks back into the Greyhound rest room ready to take on all the gamers, until the legendary Tiny Montgomery walks in. Well chugs in in his wheelchair. (Tiny Montgomery is, incidentally, a character in a song by Bob Dylan written in Woodstock and part of the Basement Tapes which, incidentally, came to mind when I reviewed the early work of New York photographer Diane Arbus.)

So the story climaxes in a 3-D battle of First World War planes controlled by the minds of the champion, Tiny, and the challenger, Deke. During the extended description of the interactions of synapse, drugs, nerves and technology, it becomes clear that both Deke and Tiny are drug-addled, screwed-up veterans of American wars in South America, Chile, Bolivia, both – seemingly – shot down and damaged, before ending up on the underside of Yank society, hanging round Greyhound stations with the other vets and losers.

As the first full flush of victory, and the drug, begins to wear off, Deke realises all the other liggers disapprove of the way he’s destroyed Tiny. Flying the digital planes was all Tiny had keeping him together. Having lost, he is crushed. Plus Deke remembers having ruined Nance’s life, to steal the drug which meant so much to him. The story ends in a mood of complete desolation.

Pattern recognition

The characteristic protagonists are men, young men – 22, 24, 28.

They take drugs – amphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of invented future drugs such as ‘hype’. A lot of the characters hang out in bars and drink to excess.

Old or young, they are often damaged – like Korosov with his shattered body, or Automatic Jack with his prosthetic arm, or Tiny Montgomery stuck in his wheelchair, or Lise with some degenerative disease which requires her to be supported by an exoskeleton. Or psychologically damaged like the receivers Toby and Charmian, or Deke and Tiny, the war veterans.

Most of the stories feature a young woman, generally thin, great figure, great boobs, but able to hold her own on the street, epitomised by Molly with the razor nails, or the mystery alien woman in The Belonging Kind, Sandii, and Rikki.

Generally, the young, lowlife, criminal male protagonist carries a torch for this cyberbabe. Generally, she leaves and breaks his heart and he spends a lot of time raking over the reasons why. Some of the stories are written more or less as letters, directly addressing this woman, who leaves, dumps, drops the writer: e.g. Rikki at the end of Burning Chrome, or Sandii in New Rose Hotel, or Lise in The Winter Market.

The male protagonists are generally criminals, most often computer hackers – Jack and Bobby the hackers in Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic who runs off with someone else’s data, Deke the thief, the kidnapping (corporate extraction) experts in New Rose Hotel – and the stories recurrent focus is on lowlife, criminal milieus, gangs, drug dealers, ninjas, assassins, all written up in fabulously street-smart, tech-savvy, turbo-charged prose.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten stories, some of them set in Gibson’s Sprawl universe, others stand-alone, and sometimes, quite disturbing sci-fi yarns
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy,

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl (1974)

I am not a voyeur. I hate that sort of thing. But in this case, I stood there absolutely transfixed. (p.130)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. Over the years these were collected together in ten or so collections, and further rounded up into six ‘collected’ or ‘best of’ selections. More recently, Penguin have published ‘Complete Short Stories’ volumes one and two.

Switch Bitch (1974) contains four 30- or forty-page stories, making up a slender paperback of 130 or so pages. Basically, they are stories for teenagers, or middle-brow readers on holiday. Undemanding, obsessed with sex, sometimes very funny, sometimes gruesome.

The Visitor (first published in Playboy May 1965)

The nameless narrator claims to be a nephew of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a rich bachelor and connoisseur, collector of spiders and scorpions, expert on Chinese pottery, and unstoppable philanderer. Upon Cornelius’s death the narrator receives a big crate containing all thirty-six volumes of the old man’s scandalous memoirs, detailing his outrageous sexual escapades, mainly during the 1940s. Almost all of them involve people (generally women) who are still alive and are therefore unpublishable without running the risk of prosecution. Except for the story he tells here.

Whereupon the text cuts directly to Cornelius’s own diary account of the incident, which commences on 24 August 1946. (Note: the Second World War had ended just nine days earlier, on Thursday 15 August, an incident Uncle Cornelius is too narcissistic to mention.)

Having set the tone by making love to a lady at the top of the great pyramid at Giza, Cornelius drops her off (he tells us he can never stand a woman’s company for more than 12 hours, ideally only eight) and motors across north Egypt towards the Suez Canal, planning to carry on up to Jerusalem.

He is driving his Lagonda sports car and singing opera – entire operas – at the top of his voice, as is his wont.

Unfortunately, pulling over at a very remote gas station in the desert, the mechanic informs him that his fan belt is just about to break. The garagiste makes a phone call and returns to tell a hot and bothered Cornelius that he’s ordered a new one from the nearest town but it won’t be delivered till the morning.

As luck would have it a Rolls Royce, no less, comes driving the long straight desert road and Cornelius flags it down. The sleek, well-dressed Syrian owner, Abdul Aziz, speaks perfect English and has immaculate manners. ‘Oh my dear chap, how ghastly for you, well, you can’t stay here, you simply must come and stay at my place,’ and so Cornelius gets into the Rolls with his overnight bag, telling the garagiste he’ll be back in the morning.

Throughout the preceding narrative Cornelius has revealed in various asides how very fastidious he is about personal hygiene, continually washing his hands and, when the filthy garagiste breathes over him, immediately taking a snifter of scotch to cleanse his mouth and nasal passages.

So he is delighted to discover that Mr Aziz’s house is a marvel of modernity and cleanliness. It is entirely alone out here in the middle of the desert, but with all mod cons. He is introduced to Mr Aziz’s dark-haired wife and daughter and they all persuade him to go for a swim in the pool. They lend him trunks and soon all four are splashing in the pool. Then it is time to retire to their rooms to wash and change for dinner, for which black tie is required (Uncle Cornelius, of course, is never without full dinner suit).

Over dinner Uncle Cornelius shares with us his extremely frank assessment of which of the two women, mother or daughter, it would be best to take to bed. The mother is a little fuller figured but would have experience. The daughter, leaner, would have more energy. Throughout the entire meal he is entirely focused on fantasising about which one to sleep with and is convinced that both of them appear to be making eyes at him. Why does their father/husband, Mr Aziz, sitting right there at table with them, not mind?

Considerably aroused, Cornelius is disappointed when both ladies simply shake his hand at the meal’s end, withdraw, and he is left to walk upstairs to his bedroom, a bit disconsolately. He tries to read to take his mind of sex. But in the small hours he hears the tell-tale sound of the bedroom door squeaking open and tiptoes across to his bed. He moves to turn on the light and speak but dainty woman’s hands stop him.

Instead he is treated to a night of passion unlike he’s ever experienced. Upside, downside, right side, wrong side, every which way he can imagine this woman’s fertile imagination treats him to. Hours later and utterly exhausted, she finally leaves him, picking up her clothes and tiptoeing out the room.

But not before he had given her a tasty little love bite on the neck. Next morning he dresses for breakfast on tenterhooks to discover which of the two ladies it was. When the wife comes in she is wearing a light scarf around her neck and Cornelius thinks oho, and yet she is strangely reluctant to make eye contact. And then he is thrown when the daughter appears, also wearing a scarf hiding the teeth marks. Hmmm.

And before he knows it it is time to leave and he bids a polite and formal goodbye to the two ladies, still mystified about which one gave him such a sexual marathon the night before. On the drive back to the garage Mr Aziz is also a little quiet. Cornelius asks, Isn’t it boring for you with only your wife and daughter for company? Oh, Azis replies, he has another daughter too. We didn’t see her, says Cornelius, is she living away? No, she lives with us but doesn’t socialise very much. You see she has leprosy! The worst, the most incurable kind.

‘But you needn’t worry my dear fellow. There is no way to contract the disease unless you have the most intimate contact with the sufferer.’

When they reach the garage and Uncle Cornelius steps out, he is shaking so badly he drops his pack of cigarettes. A classic case of the biter bit, the colonialist tricked, the white man duped, the philanderer punished. It is so neat it could be a folk story, or one of the traditional tales told in the Canterbury Tales.

The Great Switcheroo (Playboy, April 1974)

Much more straightforward in structure. The first person narrator is Vic, husband of Mary, father of Victor (9) and Wally (7). He’s at a party given by his neighbours, Jerry and the slinky Samantha. Vic has a theory that a woman’s lower lip tells you how sensual she is. He reckons Samantha is a scorcher. And all of a sudden he conceives a plan.

He goes and sits with half-drunk Jerry and tells him a story, a story about a bloke he knows who has come up with a plan for wife-swapping. This ‘friend’ came to an agreement with a mate of his, they agreed to swap, they got to know the layout of each other’s houses, and at 1am on a Saturday night, walked across the road, passing each other on the way, crept upstairs into the other man’s bedroom, gradually awoke and aroused the other man’s wife, and then made love to them, in the dark, without putting on a light or uttering a sound. Then waited for the wife to go back to sleep. Then snuck downstairs and crossed the road, saluting each other as they passed, on the way back to their own bedrooms.

All this time Jerry is watching Vic’s wife chatting to one of the party guests, himself with mounting fervour in his eye. He’s taken the bait! He suggests trying it. Vic acts surprised, but tentatively agrees.

And what follows is a peculiar combination of lechery with boys’ own enthusiasm. They decide to call the evening when they’ll do the deed D-Day. They come up with a sequence of preparations numbered one to eleven. The more Vic describes it, the more juvenile and ridiculously boyish it sounds. Both men will pretend to nip their fingers earlier that day while chopping vegetables and make a point of showing their wife a finger with a plaster on it. In the weeks leading up to it, when the wives are out, they go round each other’s houses and put a blindfold on, and practice moving from back door, down the hall, up the stairs, and into the bedroom in pitch darkness. For hours. Three hours in Vic’s case.

They discuss physical differences but agree that since Jerry is six foot tall and Vic five eleven, there’ll be little difference there. Vic stops smoking cigarettes and takes up a pipe so he’ll smell the same, and they make sure to both use the same hair lotion and after shave.

To cut a long story short, it works. They take their wives out for a double date dinner at a steak house, come home, clean teeth, go to bed, wait till wives are fast asleep. At 1am on the dot meet at the gap in the hedge between their front gardens, sneak upstairs as practiced so many times, slip into bed, begin to caress and arouse the other man’s wife, then make love to them, and so on.

In Vic’s case he touches up the beautiful Samantha for a few minutes in silence and then suddenly she jumps on him and ravishes him. And here’s the funny thing. All the excitement and interest has gone into the planning of this juvenile feat and yet, when it comes to it, a) Vic is completely unprepared, and b) Dahl is oddly reticent about the act itself.

It was only 1974 and this is, essentially, a story for teenage boys. Sex with a woman is just ‘the goal’ of this game, the actual deed itself almost comes as an afterthought, certainly he is astonished at how Samantha makes love to him, and yet it is described in the silliest boyish way.

I never dreamed a woman could do the things Samantha did to me the. She was a whirlwind, a dazzling frenzied whirlwind that tore me up by the roots and spun me around and carried me high into the heavens, to places I did not know existed. (p.75)

This sounds like the description of someone who doesn’t actually know very much about sex, just that it is this great big fireworks display.

In his tenth novel, Girl, 20 Kingsley Amis has two lecherous middle-aged men discussing the sexual practices of their much younger girlfriends and one is simply dazzled by the fact that this young woman is prepared to put his penis in her mouth. In a flash you realise the kind of absolutely straight-down-the-line, missionary position-in-the-dark kind of sex these kinds of characters had been having in the previous decades, the 1950s and 60s. It reminds you that The Joy of Sex was regarded as a breakthrough book when it was published in 1972.

From Vic’s description it sounds as if he fingers his wife until she’s aroused, then clambers on top of her and fucks her till he comes, then rolls off. That is the content or end point of all his leching, the driven wish to do the same to more or less every woman he sees. This explains why when it finally gets to the point of actually having sex the narrator here, and in the previous story, slips into a riot of metaphors about tigers and passion and whirlwinds which, you suspect, conceals something much more mundane.

Anyway, the boom-boom punchline of the story is that the next morning, Mary, his wife, is oddly distant and asks their sons to leave the kitchen and close the door as she has something to tell their father. Vic’s guts tie themselves in a knot and his heart is pounding fast as he is sure she realised he played a ‘trick’ on her.

But it is worse than that. She confesses to him that she has never once enjoyed sex with him (and, from my analysis above, we can see why), but that last night, for the first time ever, she understood the point of the whole thing, and finally enjoyed it. Oh thank you thank you thank you, she says covering him in kisses while, of course, his self-image as a great stud and pleaser of women and sexual adventurer turns to ashes in his mouth.

The Last Act (Playboy, January 1966)

This story has genuine grip. It is the least juvenile and at moments rises to what you might tentatively call a real investigation of human nature. It’s set in New York state. Anne Cooper is making dinner for her three twenty-something kids and expecting and expecting husband Edward home at any moment, when there’s a knock on the door and two state troopers are there to tell her Ed’s been killed in an auto accident. (The joy of driving, eh.)

She becomes hysterical, needs sedating and spends months in an institution, never getting used to the idea that the one great love of her life is dead. And, later, when she’s allowed home, she finds her two daughters marry in quick succession and then become increasingly distant, committed to their new husbands. And her son goes away to university, leaving her in the big empty house alone. In her darkest moments she thinks about taking an overdose of pills. Or using a razor to slash her wrists. Tricky, though, it’s easy to cut the veins, but you need to sever the artery to really bleed out and that is buried deep deep down.

Then she is rescued by a good friend who runs an agency in New York, and one day has almost the entire staff off with flu, and just won’t take no for an answer but comes and collects Anna and takes her to the busy downtown office where she is rushed off her feet, and discovers, at the end of a really gruelling day, that she feels shattered but emotionally great!

From that point onwards she throws herself heart and soul into her friend’s business, an adoption agency. Some months later she has to fly to Dallas, Texas, for a tricky case involving a mother who adopted a child but, when her husband died, changed her mind and wants to give it back. She has a terrible day and returns to the hotel where she’s staying drained and demoralised. Once again, the pills beckon… but then she suddenly remembers that an old flame of hers form high school moved down here. He always wanted to be a doctor. She looks him up in the yellow pages. Dr Conrad Kreuger. She leaves a message with his receptionist. He phones back and says, Anna! How wonderful! What brings you here! We must meet for a drink!

And so commences the heart of the story which is that 1. Kreuger is still as phenomenally handsome as ever. 2. He is rich and successful. 3. After Anna dumped him at High School for Perfect Ed, she remembered that Kreuger not only started going out with a bosomy girl in the class but the next year married her. However 4. Conrad now tells her that they had one child, a son, but divorced after two years and 5. that he never recovered from her dumping him. She has carried a torch for her ever since. Now, now is a chance for them to be together in the way he’s always dreamed.

As if this wasn’t enough information, two other things have been going on in tandem. They have met in the quiet, dark hotel bar and Anna has been drinking quite heavily. By the third martini she is positively floating. But she and we have also noticed Kreuger’s tendency to lecture her, to adopt the pose of doctor and warn her about the health risks of her behaviour. He tells her smoking mentholated cigarettes is bad for her. A little later, in the middle of discussing emotions and suchlike, he interrupts to tell her that drinking gin is also bad. Juniper extract is bad for the uterus. Turns out he is a gynacologist.

By now Anna has made herself drunk enough to be ready to be splayed and fucked like a chicken. She lets herself be paid for, guided to the lift, floated up to her floor, through the door of her apartment and into the darkened room. Here Conrad suddenly kisses her, covering her mouth and cheeks in kisses which she observes as if from a great distance. But eventually he hits the jackpot when he kisses her in the ear and her whole body lights up with lust.

She strips and unbuttons his shirt but two things happen. 1. Conrad behaves coldly and clinically. He sits fully clothed on the bed and undoes all Anna’s buttons and straps and bra and stockings and panties and pulls them off carefully and precisely. Then he himself stands and takes off all his clothes, folding them carefully and placing them over the back of the bedroom chair. At one point, looking own on her head, he notices that she is showing signs of incipient alopecia. She tells him to shut up and kiss her.

Only then does he grab her wrist and fling her onto the bed where she floats and the room spins in a great swirl of sensations as, we gather, he fingers her vulva, working her up into a state of screaming arousal, and then swings his body over hers and starts making love to her. The reader is reminded, again, that this story is from over fifty years ago. There is something very stiff and constrained and embarrassed about it all. I can see why Anna had to get drunk to nerve herself for the ordeal.

But right in the middle of sex Conrad asks if she is wearing a cap or diaphragm. Obviously the head of his penis is bumping against something. She indignantly says no, but she insists that she must be and… suddenly she is sober-remorseful, suddenly she sees the whole situation with blinding clarity, suddenly his face over hers looks like a dentist peering into her face and about to use a drill.

She starts screaming at him to get off, he argues that she can’t just change her mind like that, in mid-stream, but she carries on, pushes him off at which he, ungallantly, pushes her right off the bed. She gets up, weeping, and flees into the bathroom locking the door behind her, and Conrad hears her rooting about in the bathroom cabinet, by implication – after the running thread of suicidal thoughts – looking for an overdose of pills to take.

Quietly, Conrad dresses, wipes the lipstick off his face, combs his fine black hair, takes a last check in the mirror, and walks out.

The men aren’t coming off very well in these stories, are they? Obsessed with sex but, when it comes down to it, narrow and unimaginative, but also getting pretty rude come-uppances.

Bitch (Playboy July 1974)

Uncle Cornelius is a great creation, a fabulously shameless posh boy aesthete and philanderer. He collects women, or more accurately one-off sexual experiences with women, the same way he collects Persian carpets and Chinese porcelain. Here’s an example of his thinking:

He was a totally amoral man, that much was clear, but then so was I. He was also a wicked man and although I cannot in all honesty claim wickedness as one of my virtues, I find it irresistible in others. (p.121)

In this, the second ‘excerpt’ from his outrageous memoirs, he describes his encounter with a French scientist, Henri Biotte. This man is an expert on smells and scents and perfumes. He devised the two of the most famous perfumes in the world for a Parisian perfumier. Now Biotte persuades sceptical Uncle Cornelius to fund his attempt to carry out a revolution in smell.

To be precise, Biotte claims that dogs and other mammals are susceptible to the powerful pheromones emitted by the female of the species when they’re on heat. Biotte tells Cornelius the ability to emit or smell this scent was evolved out of humans over 100,000 years ago. Now he proposes to recreate the scent and the chemical catalyst which will activate it, spray it on a woman, and see what happens.

‘You are a dirty old man,’ I said.
‘I am an olfactory chemist,’ he said, primly. (p.125)

Cornelius forgets about the project till he gets a phone call. Biotte has isolated the chemical. He invites Cornelius to witness an experiment. Biotta has booked a short wiry boxer named Pierre Lacaille. They place his assistant, Simone, on a chair and stationthe boxer six metres away.

Biotte makes the usually fastidious Cornelius place two nose plugs in his nostrils to prevent being affected by the wonder-scent, then he sprays a little on Simone’s throat. then they instruct Lacaille to move towards her a step at a time. Nothing happens and he is puzzled and Simone bored until… suddenly the scent hits him, he whinnies like a stallion, tears all his clothes off and ravishes Simone. It is an instructive display. Biotte goes up to the copulating couple and threatens Lacaille with a revolver, he ignores him. Biotte fires the revolver right over Lacaille’s head, he ignores him.

Wow. The scent really takes complete animal possession of a man. They wonder what to call it. Cornelius suggests Bitch.

So far Biotte has only manufactured 10cc of the stuff. Cornelius insists on being given 1cc for purposes of his own. He takes the carefully sealed phial to a gadget-maker he knows in Paris and asks him to make a tiny container, no bigger than an inch which will contain the scent but also have a tiny timing mechanism and hammer, so that the phial can be set to be punctured and leak its life-changing content. This the gadget-maker does.

But when Cornelius returns to the lab the next morning he discovers that the vixenish assistant Simone had used up the entire supply of scent on herself and sent Biotte into such a frenzy that he had a heart attack and died. And he hadn’t written down the chemical formula or the process for extracting the perfume. Damn!

(All these coincidences and extremities make you realise this story is really a cartoon.)

The special plan Cornelius has is to use the spray on the American president! The current president is (according to him) a particularly loathsome, lying reptile. He plans to get close enough to spray bitch on the nearest woman (while wearing nose plugs) and watch the president turn into a horny animal.

So he flies into New York, checks into a hotel and reads in his paper that the president is due to give a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution that same evening. Cornelius discovers the head of the Daughters is one Mrs Elvira Ponsonby. He discovers which hotel she is staying in and goes round with a spray of lovely orchids and gets past reception by claiming they’re a gift from the president himself. Concealed among them is the phial of scent and the tiny little timer.

His plan is to pin the flowers onto Mrs Ponsonby’s enormous bosom, then watch as she goes off to sit next to the president, guest of honour at tat evenings dinner. And at 9pm precisely the little clockwork hammer will penetrate the little phial, bitch will spread across Mrs P’s bosom, the president will be transformed into a raging satyr, and ravish her right there and then on the table in front of all the other guests, and a television auience of 20 million. Cornelius cackles with anticipation. He will be ruined. he will be impeached. He will be thrown out in shame and dishonour.

Mrs Ponsonby answers the door to her room and, after some initial doubt, is persuaded that Cornelius is a courier bringing flowers from the president himself. Unfortunately, she is not only a very large lady, but very clumsy, and as she tries to force a pin through the stems of the flowers to attach them to her dress, the penetrates the phial, the precious drops of bitch leak out and… Dahl gives us an extraordinary description of how Cornelius feels, it is as if his entire body shrinks as his penis becomes bigger and more erect until he is nothing but penis with which he transfixes Mrs Ponsonby and they fly up into the sky, through exploding stars etc, in a sort of X-rate Disney animation.

What seems like hours later, he comes back to himself, finding himself stark naked in a hotel room which looks like it has been trampled by elephants, and, as he sheepishly finds his clothes and gets dressed, he hears a woman’s voice emanating from behind an upturned table in the corner of the room, ‘I don’t know who you are, young man, but you’ve certainly done me a power of good!’

Thoughts

The stories certainly reveal in graphic detail the thoughts of the kind of Playboy-reading male chauvinist pig which feminists have spent fifty years hunting to extinction. Nobody nowadays could write such frank assessments of women solely in terms of their fuckability as the narrators of three of these stories do.

But then, the obvious feature of the first two and fourth stories is that the male chauvinist pig gets his comeuppance: in the final one Biotte dies and Cornelius’s plans collapse into fat-bottomed farce.

The exception is The Last Act which swings in and out of sexist territory, skirts along the borderline. But I found his portrayal of a woman destroyed by grief, redeemed by finding a tough demanding job to do, and then undone on a disastrous date with a high school boyfriend, contained surprising depths and acuities.

Uncle Cornelius is a monstrous cartoon caricature and I want to read much more about his outrageous escapades and absurd pratfalls (apparently, there is a short novel about him). But it is the messy, modern story of the widow Anna Cooper which sticks in my memory.


Related links

Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (1953)

‘We’, said the golden giant, ‘are the Margraf Hazca, Vice Regent of the Duchy of Gort under his Eternal Eminence, Arpad Hrunta, Emperor of Space.’ (p.269)

Reading space opera like this means accepting the absurd, the grandiose and the preposterous. At moments Earthman, Come Home teeters on the edge of Terry Gilliam absurdity or Douglas Adams-style pastiche. But I found it very enjoyable, with a fast-moving plot of adventure and excitement, accompanied by a steady flow of discoveries or revelations about galactic adventurers 1,000 years in the future, which jolt and tickle the imagination.

James Blish (1921-75)

Blish was born in 1921 in New Jersey, and while at school published a science fiction fanzine. His first published story was in a pulp sci-fi magazine in 1940. His first successful stories were only published after the war, and it wasn’t till 1950 that he hit his stride with the first of the stories which was to develop into the ‘Okie’ series, describing entire cities which used ‘spindizzy’ technology to launch themselves and travel into space.

The first two stories, ‘Okie’, and ‘Bindlestiff’, were published in 1950, by Astounding Science Fiction magazine. ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ appeared in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in April 1953. ‘Earthman, Come Home’ followed a few months later, also published by Astounding. In 1955, Blish collected these four short stories into an omnibus ‘novel’ titled Earthman, Come Home.

More stories followed, namely ‘Bridge’ and ‘At Death’s End’ which tell how the spindizzies were developed and the early era of space exploration. In 1956 these two were published together in the volume titled They Shall Have Stars. In 1958 Blish released a third ‘Okie’ novel, The Triumph of Time. Four years later, he returned to the subject for the last ‘Okie’ novel, A Life for the Stars.

The sequence of four Okie novels was edited together into an omnibus edition, titled Cities In Flight, which was first published in October 1970. This version was then republished as part of Orion’s large-format, yellow-spined SF Masterworks series in 1999, and this is the version I borrowed from my local library.

Are these stories literature? No way. A glance at the cover of the 1953 Two Complete Science-Adventure Books which featured ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ tells you everything you need to know about the cultural level of its first publishers and readers. Pulp, with scantily clad young women threatened by purple-skinned aliens is about the level. (As far as I can tell, nothing like that scene with a woman in a red bra takes place in any of the stories: the ‘Jungle’ chapter based on the Sargasso story contains nothing like it.)

Cover of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books featuring Blish's novella 'Sargasso of Lost Cities'

Cover of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books featuring Blish’s novella ‘Sargasso of Lost Cities’ (1953). $5 value for just 25 cents!!!

Which order to read them in?

Before you start reading there’s a snag: the Cities in Flight omnibus volume doesn’t present the stories in the publishing order outlined above, but according to the order of their internal chronology, namely:

  • They Shall Have Stars
  • A Life For The Stars
  • Earthman, Come Home
  • The Triumph of Time

So, should you read them in the order published, or in the chronological order of the narrative? Well, in his introduction, Adam Roberts says the first-written stories remain the most thrilling and visionary, so he recommends you do not read the novels in the order they’re arranged in the omnibus edition, but start with Earthman, Come Home, the freshest and most exciting tales. Alright.

Earthman, Come Home

It is about the year 4,000 AD, and two key inventions have transformed the human race.

1. The first is anti-agathic drugs which enable humans to live more or less forever. The central figure of Earthman, Come Home, John Amalfi, is nearly 1,000 years old, and as young and virile and clear-headed as ever.

He was now about nine hundred years old, give or take fifty, ; strong as an ox, mentally alert and active, in good hormone balance, all twenty-eight sense sharp, his own special psi faculty – orientation – still as infallible as ever, and all in all as sane as a peripatetic starman could be. (p.325)

2. The second invention was ‘the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator’, known colloquially as the spindizzy, an anti-gravity device. Because these project a protective field around anything using them, it was realised a) that things which went up through the earth’s atmosphere (or any planet’s atmosphere) needn’t be streamlined like traditional spaceships, but could be any shape, b) could be any size, as long as they had enough spindizzies to propel them.

In an earlier wave of colonisation immediately after their invention, set off to colonise other planets. Now, 1,000 years later, entire earth cities have abandoned the mother planet and ‘gone aloft’, journeying through space protected by hermetically sealed atmospheres, supplied by self-contained water and food systems. New York, we are told, was among the last to leave, in around 3111 AD.

These city-spaceships wander the settled galaxy looking for ‘trade’ i.e. looking for planets which need their particular skill sets. There are hundreds of wandering cities, each one specialising in particular areas. They’ve acquired the nickname ‘Okies’, copied from the impoverished farmers from Dustbowl Oklahoma who headed west to California looking for work in the 1930s. At last count there were some 18,000 Okie cities (p.350)

However, there are hazards. Not, surprisingly enough, from aliens because – just as in the contemporaneous Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov – it turns out that there are hardly any ‘alien’ life forms anywhere in the galaxy. (This is worth meditating on for a moment: in both the Foundation and Okie series there are no aliens. Despite the covers of Astounding Science Fiction always featuring giant insect or octopus monsters, nothing like that appears in the stories. The threat in both series always and only comes from other humans.)

So the threats are entirely human, and come from a) ‘bindlestiffs’ or Okie cities who have gone bad, gone rogue, become predators and murderers, or b) from the cops, Earth police who still, apparently, hold sway, even out on the edges of the galaxy and dislike or even hate Okie cities for their frequent rule breaking.

So this is the background and setting for a series of adventures featuring New York, more accurately the island of Manhattan, which can magically fly through space and land on any planet it fancies. The idea is wonderful, and Blish’s realisation of it is astonishingly convincing: the basic technique is ‘less is more’. New York City landmarks are sparingly referred to, the technology only fleetingly mentioned and, most conspicuously of all, there are hardly any characters. A quick Google search shows that the population of New York in 1950 was about eight million, but only a handful of characters ever appear in the stories – I counted about eight in all. Where are the teeming bustling millions of the actual New York? And how do any of them make a living drifting through space for months and years between planetfalls? The answer to these conundrums is – not to ask them.

Lead character is John Amalfi, the city’s mayor – tall, stocky (he has a barrel-shaped body), bald, it is he who takes the chances, assesses the odds and comes up with canny plans of action when the city gets into tight scrapes. Amalfi is advised Mark Hazleton, the city’s manager and trusted side-kick, who makes all the technical calculations but, more importantly, comes up with cunning plans.

Amalfi often refers to, or rings up and talks to, the City Fathers. It’s only in about the third story that we realise ‘the City Fathers’ are in fact a super-wise computerised database which Amalfi can consult whenever he wants to, but can occasionally turn off when he wants to override their Spock-like, logical advice in order to take another of his wild risks.

1. Utopia

New York, or just ‘the city’, arrives at a star system dominated by two warring planets, Utopia which is continually under attack from the brutish Hruntans. Amalfi lands on Utopia, Hazleton returns from a recce with a pretty native woman, Dee (who will end up accompanying them on all their subsequent adventures) and the rest of his team are drilling for oil and minerals when the Hruntans attack the planet. the plot is complicated (as the plots of all the stories will turn out to be) by the presence of the Earth police, the cops, who are just raring to catch an Okie city for the slightest technical violation of either a) space law or b) breaching its contract with a planet.

In this instance the earth cops have arrived to pacify the system which means crushing the Hruntan military. In a complex piece of Machiavellian manoeuvring, Amalfi orders the city aloft, leaving Mark and Dee back on Utopia, with a view to sucking up to the Hruntans.

2. Gort (the Duchy of Gort)

A Hruntan delegation arrives on the bridge, led by the thuggish Margraf Hazca. He informs them that other landing parties have landed at key locations around the city. Amalfi makes a deal to trade Hruntan resources (particularly oil) for the city’s knowledge of friction-field technology – although the Margraf thinly threatens that they plan to take the city’s technical know-how by force, anyway.

Blish the narrator takes the opportunity of explaining that:

‘The spindizzy or Okie cities are like bees, wandering around the galaxy of earth-colonised planets (the ‘pollinating bees of the galaxy’ p.345), spreading knowledge, new technology, minerals and resources. The earth police look down on them, and try to bust them if they break trading contracts with planets, but at the end of the day the Okies perform a useful service.’

Amalfi lays out a complex and not totally comprehensible plan: Mark will lecture the Hruntans’ leading scientists and military strategists on the cutting edge tech the city possesses and the Hruntans – way out here on the edge of the galaxy – don’t.

Amalfi assumes there’ll be one or two scientists who genuinely understand the city’s advanced tech. He assumes that, within any group of such scientists, there’s always jealousy, even unto assassination. He assumes that if the Okies favour one particular scientist, they will create dissension and jealousy among the Hruntan scientists. And this indeed does seem to occur, with a certain Dr Schloss a) understanding the city’s tech and, in short order b) being threatened by his peers.

(None of this makes much sense, but then a lot of the plot doesn’t really make much sense: entering the text is like entering another world where normal motivations, human psychology or behaviour have been twisted out of recognition.)

What happens next is even more bewilderingly weird: Amalfi has gone to the penthouse suite of the city’s tallest building which has been commandeered by the thuggish Margraf Hazca and his entourage. Amalfi is having a difficult conversation with him and the Margraf is just raising his blaster to threaten him, when Mark and his assistants turn on a ‘friction-field generator’, and turn it up to overdrive. Normally the machine works to create friction-free movement of surfaces, thus eliminating the need for oil in machines; in overdrive it does the reverse and makes ‘creates adherence between all surfaces’ (p.286).

I’m not sure that explains what happens now, which is that all the Hruntans in the penthouse are stuck to their chairs and seats, unable to move. For some reason Amalfi, standing, can move, runs to the lift but finds it stuck to its shaft walls, so runs back through the penthouse (past the furious Hruntans struggling to lift their arms from the chairs they’re stuck to), onto a ledge, and then – grips the side of the building (extra adhesion) and slides the 80 storeys back to the ground, which he hits with quite a bang.

When he recovers consciousness Dee is laving Amalfi’s blistered hands and forehead, while Mark explains that he had hidden good old Dr Schloss (the Hruntan scientist whose colleagues turned on him for being too clever) in the knackered old ‘invisibility’ machine which they’d been sold by inhabitants of the planet Lyra ages ago and had never got to work. (‘You remember that old Lyran invisibility machine, boss.’)

Well, clever old Dr Schloss got it to work, the entire city was made invisible for thirty minutes, and this was enough for it to beam aloft and escape the security net which was just being cast around the planet by the earth police.

Now they’re flying free, but Amalfi worries that the cops can now bust them for, technically, breaking a treaty they signed with the Hruntans. Therefore he instructs Mark to steer the city towards the Rift. Not the Rift!

3. The Rift

The Rift is ‘awesome beyond all human experience’, it is ‘a valley cut in the face of the galaxy’, a vast space devoid of stars. Amalfi is not sure any city has ever successfully crossed it from one side to the other, but he’s going to try. Amalfi has barely explained all this to Dee, than they see a flaring in space (Amalfi uses a big video screen to steer the city by) and hear over the radio screaming pleas of SOS.

A city has been attacked and destroyed by a bindlestiff. What is a bindlestiff? An Okie city that’s gone pirate. Where will the lifeships from the destroyed city go? Well, there’s only one freak star out here in the emptiness of the Rift, so Amalfi sets a course for it.

Obviously and inevitably the star turns out to have a planet circling it which is capable of human life (as they pretty much all are: earth gravity; earth air; all very convenient). As the city comes in to land on the planet they are surprised to pick up chanting on the radio: it is inhabited.

After the huge city has dropped onto the surface (rather roughly, since a recurring theme is that the 23rd Street spindizzy is playing up), they discover a primitive tribal-level civilisation.

As Amalfi and the others exit the city onto the plain they are surprised to see a great procession of locals dressed in gowns and head-dresses and what-have-you snaking out from the nearest settlement and approaching them with singing and signs of reverence. After a cohort of children, come men in symbolic dress, and then a huge cage full of naked, filthy, unwashed women (!), drawn by two giant lizards (!!) Do they have to be naked?

Most of [the Hevian women] had been stoned for inadvertently covering themselves at one time or another, for in Hevian society women were not people but reminders of damnation, doubly evil for the slightest taint of secretiveness. (p.328)

Attendants unshackle the lizards and lead them away, leaving Amalfi face to face with a cage full of naked women, and a tall impressive man comes forward and places in Amalfi’s hand… ‘an ornate wrought-metal key’!

4. He (the planet He)

Miramon is spokesman for the local people, and tellus Amalfi the planet is named He. It seems they had a very advanced civilisation until some kind of catastrophe 8,000 years earlier. Amalfi suspects he knows why (the key feature of this book is that Amalfi knows everything and is nearly always right; it is very comforting and reassuring to be on Amalfi’s side in all these conflicts and emergencies, since he always emerges unharmed and vindicated, and saves the city yet again.)

He has a Draysonian cycle i.e. every so often it abruptly changes the axis of its rotation. Amalfi guesses that’s what happened 8,000 years ago, destroying the old civilisation and turning the entire planet into a steamy tropical jungle. Miramon explains that a new religion arose and it is now universally believed that the inhabitants of He are in a steamy tropical hell because of their sins – the kind of standard, shallow, bubble-gum religion you get in all these space operas, which lingers on into Star Trek or Star Wars.

Meanwhile Amalfi’s techs have discovered that a lifeship from the attacked city landed in another settlement, one of the rebel settlements which have broken with He‘s orthodox religion.

Having made friendly relations with Miramon and his people, Amalfi is able to cadge a rocket ship off him and get it piloted to this other settlement, because although He suffered a collapse of advanced civilisation, some elements of hi tech survived. For example, they have automobiles, which Blish enjoys using in a comic scene where Amalfi and Hazleton are driven in one to meet the settlement’s head men, disbelieving the noise and smell and discomfort of a car, as compared with the city’s own smooth, friction-free computer-driven cabs.

In an exciting scene, the little local rocketship they’re flying in comes under sustained attack from the enemy settlement, with bullets and bits of shrapnel shredding its thin metal skin, nearly hitting Amalfi et al. An attack squad suppresses the locals then locates the prison where the survivors of the destroyed Okie city’s lifeship were being tortured to reveal their tech secrets. One begs to be killed, two have gone mad, one has had his tongue torn out.

The motive for saving these guys was that, in their brief distress call, the Okie city had claimed to have a fuel-free drive, something which would be worth a fortune to New York or anyone. But Amalfi has barely begun questioning the tongueless man (who has, in the magic way of these books, somehow learned a way of speaking without a tongue) before the top of his (tongueless man’s) head is blown off by a bullet.

Back at the city, they come under dynamite and gas attack. Amalfi realises that the bindlestiff – which they had thought had disappeared into deep space – has in fact landed on the planet and is aiding the rebels. In a modern movie-type scenario the entire vast city turns out to have buried itself deep in a muddy quagmire near the leading town of the rebels, which is called Fabre-Suith.

Two things happen to make this story fast-moving and almost incomprehensible.

1. While the attack is still on (by now we have grasped that the Fabre-Suith people are attacking the city, but with weapons given them by the bindlestiff) Amalfi orders Mark to take the wild naked native women (who we saw in an earlier scene being taken to a kind of underground bathing rooms and hosed down by Dee, who joined in!) now cleaned and washed and dressed, to a clearing in the jungle near where all the weapons are being fired at the city. I couldn’t quite believe this was meant to be a serious plotline, but what happens is that the native men leave off firing weapons at the city and rush towards this clearing full of nubile young women, where they start fighting among themselves for the women. Not only that, but the bindlestiff ship emerges from its muddy hiding place, and itself sends a party of men to grab the women. The two groups of men start fighting. Eventually the bindlestiff sends a missile which annihilates the nearest settlement (in, I think, a mushroom-cloud atomic explosion) and their men make off with the women prisoners.

But all this is a distraction from Plan Two which is that, without anything having been explicitly agreed between Amalfi and Miramon, Amalfi has taken it upon himself to correct the axis of spin of the planet. This involves quite a lot of cod engineering with 40-mile wide tunnels being bored right to the core of the planet and spindizzy technology inserted. You’d expect this to take weeks, maybe months or even years to accomplish, but for the purposes of the pulp plot it all seems to be done in a day or so.

Then, just as the bindlestiff is pulling free of the vast mud swamp it had hidden in and about to pose maximum threat to New York, Amalfi presses the button to activate the deep planet drivers: Moving Day has begun; the engines buried near He‘s core kick off.

In fact it turns out be wildly more effective than Amalfi had anticipated. The vast engines they’ve buried near the planet’s core don’t slightly adjust the planet’s spin, they blast the whole thing clean out of orbiting its star. Within moments He‘s star has flashed by Amalfi’s viewing screen, and the planet is coursing through the Rift at light speed. The bindlestiff was thrown clear by the blast but New York is still attached to He.

Amalfi asks Mark to find the planet’s old star (it is part of these stories’ charm that Mark does so using a slide rule. In a similarly sweet and naive way, Amalfi guides this vast flying city using… a master space stick..’ by hand… by touch and feel, while staring at the big screen in front of him.)

By the time Mark’s done that the planet He is leaving the galaxy, departing upwards from the dish-shaped galaxy, far too far to return to its host sun, and it will take thousands of years, even at light speed, to reach the next galaxy. ‘What shall we do, boss?’ (Mark always calls Amalfi ‘boss’.)

In the kind of grand, sweeping and insouciant gesture which we’re getting used to by now, Amalfi points out that the spindizzy field which is driving He will also protect it from space cold, and supply it with heat; that by the time they reach the next galaxy they should have figured out the technology required to slow the planet down and locate it in a star orbit. Yeah, He will be alright. So they can leave.

So he orders Mark to take the city ‘aloft’, leaving He to its fate, and heading back into our galaxy. Now, it has been a recurrent theme that one of the city’s spindizzy engines, the one sited at 23rd Street, is always malfunctioning. They skip off He and and their next priority is to look for a repair or ‘garage’ planet.

5. Murphy (the planet Murphy)

Mark and/or the City Fathers tell Amalfi that they are re-entering the galaxy in the zone run by the Acolytes. They identify a sun and an engineering and repair planet but are still only approaching it when they are pulled over by cops. But these are swaggering, edge-of-the-galaxy, provincial cops, Acolyte cops (I think the analogy might be with the swaggering bully stereotype of the Deep South American cop).

Amalfi gives their bully boy leader (‘Lieutenant Lerner, Forty-fifth Border Security Group’, p.347) a five hundred Oc dollar bribe to let them pass on to the repair planet (incongruously named Murphy).

As they approach they realise that parallel to the main sun (in fact a pair of circulating stars) is a red dwarf sun and that around this feeble heart source has clustered some 300 Okie cities. It is an Okie ‘jungle’.

They touch down on Murphy which they discover to be very discouraging. The vast bays designed to take Okie cities for repairs are empty. The equipment is rusting. It is almost abandoned. An engineer comes running and Blish blinds us with pseudo-science about what needs repairing, but then a little later he returns waving a blaster around. Once they’ve calmed him down, Amalfi and Hazleton are shocked to discover that their money is worthless.

All through the story up to now Amalfi and co have used the rare metal germanium as the basis for their deals, drilling it out of planets where they could (along with oil) in return for their technological know-how. Now, the engineer informs them, germanium has ceased to be currency. A great economic collapse has swept out from earth and the new currency is drugs, specifically the anti-agathic drugs which keeps them all alive. New York’s treasury is worthless overnight.

Amalfi’s techies had been examining the only other city in the garage, an apparently all-purpose city with several functioning spindizzies. Amalfi orders his teams to cannibalise them.

At which point they hear sirens of police spaceships closing in, ready to arrest them not only for their long list of violations but for bribing Lieutenant Lerner with money which, they now know, was worthless. So Amalfi presses the ‘Get out of here fast’ emergency button.

6. The Jungle (i.e. the Sargasso sea of knackered Okie cities)

New York reappears among the ruined Okie cities clustered around the red dwarf star. He and Hazleton quickly realise that the cities are being forced to bid for work grudgingly offered out by bullying Acolyte officials. It’s like those scenes from 1940s and 50s movies where dockers turn up at the docks and the favoured ones get given work and the unlucky ones go home hungry.

Over the radio the Acolyte woman holds an auction for various mining and dirty jobs the Acolytes want them to so, in which the desperate cities undercut each other. the cop spaceships approach and foolishly some of the Okies open fire on them, only to be wiped out.

Avoiding this chaos, Amalfi goes over to the Okie city which has established rulership over these waifs. It is the city of Buda-Pesht and is run by a ‘King’. He it is who tries to enforce discipline among the cities and makes them all hold to minimum wages.

There now follows a scene which, in its byzantine complexity but childish psychology, is strongly reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation stories. The King has a grand plan which is for the 300 or so Okie cities to band together and fly to earth to ask for justice (and food).

In a long scene, Amalfi recruits the German mayor of a minor city, and then proceeds to interrupt the meeting, speak from the floor, demand to be heard from the platform, goes up and engages in head to head rivalry with the King, making a powerful counter-proposal. This is that the Okies should pool the knowledge of their City Fathers to develop new levels of hyper-technology, which they can then sell as a cartel to the galaxy. Amalfi sways the meeting, many of whom are attracted by the idea, but at the crucial moment, when the King asks him where he is from, Amalfi refuses to say. Hazleton is there in the wings, with Dee, urging him to utter the words ‘New York’, because the city has such prestige that just the mention of its name would swing the meeting.

But here’s the Asimov-like twist. As he explains to Dee and Hazleton as they leave, he didn’t want to sway the meeting. The plan to link up all the City Fathers would never work. He just wanted to present a strong enough counter-plan… to ensure that the King’s plan triumphed. Aha. Amalfi wants the so-called March on Earth to take place, because he wants to hide New York in among it.

This is the last straw for Amalfi’s sidekick Hazleton, but there’s a final last straw when Amalfi goes on to admit that he also is in love with Dee. Hazleton explodes and says the fateful words: I want off. He wants to permanently leave the city. it is a legal form of words no mayor can ignore and no starman can retract. Amalfi accepts it at face value. Only later will it become clear that this, too, is part of his plan.

What happens next is Amalfi orders his new city manager to take New York to one of the outermost Okies which seems to be abandoned. They communicate politely as they walk through the dark and empty city but one person holds out in one floor of a deserted building, firing on them incessantly until reluctantly, Amalfi’s attack team take it out. They then dismantle the city’s spindizzies and take them back to New York.

On the big screen they see that the King’s rebellion has been reported to the earth police who appear out of hyperspace to corral the Okies. Some foolishly fight back, but surprisingly manage to take out cop ships. While the battle proceeds, most of the fit Okies abandon the area, heading off into space.

7. Hern VI (the planet Amalfi steers across the galaxy)

The majority of the Okie cities have set out on the March on Earth. Luckily New York is equipped with ‘proxies’, ten-metre-long ships with cameras attached, and Amalfi has these proxies tail the March across the galaxy.

Meanwhile Amalfi’s men use the spindizzies from the all-purpose ship and from the outermost Okie which they plundered to fit them to a planet – to Hern VI, a chunk of rock circling the sun. You’d think it would take a while to equip a planet to be driven through space but, as usual in these stories, it only takes a few pages covered in dialogue and some bogus science and the job is done. Hern VI blast off into space, in pursuit of the March Okies.

Despite being ridiculous beyond words this sequence is actually very exciting, as Amalfi steers an entire planet which is travelling faster than the speed of light across the galaxy in pursuit of the Okie Marchers.

As they whizz by any number of star systems and spaceships put out warnings about a rogue planet flying across the galaxy.

The career of Hern VI from its native Acolyte cluster across the centre of the galaxy made history. (p.412)

The aim is to catch up with the Marchers. To cut a long (and exciting) story short 1. The Marchers approach the earth solar system, slow down and adopt a battle formation. 2. After radio warnings, all kinds of earth battleships appear out of nothing and start attacking them, the King orders the Okies to fight back, mayhem. 3. But Amalfi has seen something other people have noticed but not realised the significance of, that an unusual spherical object had got in among the Okies and was now in the vanguard of their approach to earth. Then 4. everyone hears a peculiar radio message given out by the sphere, in English, but a strangely mangled English threatening the ‘People of Earth’.

Barely has this taken place than there is a profound crash, seismic tremors across Hern VI, the glimpse of a blue pearly earth has gone, the sight of Sol in the big video screen has gone, Hern VI has entered and exited the solar system in seconds.

And only now does Amalfi reveal his plan. He knew that the strange ellipsoidal metal object in among the Okie Marchers, and which then threatened earth, was none other than the legendary Vegan Battle Cruiser. The Vegans ruled the galaxy thousands of years before humanity came along. Beaten back by humanity’s advance, they had retreated to their heartlands, but then sent out this cruiser to take revenge. Marching with the Okie cities gave it perfect cover.

Amalfi had realised all this, had engineered the King and other Okies to march on earth, had engineered his teams stealing the spindizzies from the other cities, equipping Hern VI and making its hot pursuit of the Marchers, and he had engineered Hern VI’s collision with the Vegan spaceship. He had piloted Hern VI half way across the galaxy in order to collide with the Vegan battle cruiser which was instantly reduced to a pile of steaming metals in a deep crater on the planet’s leading edge.

Not only was this all a cunning plan but – when Dee suggests they tell earth how they saved the planet, Amalfi reveals that they can’t. If they reveal that they defeated the Vegan ship, the Vegans will build a new one. Not publicising the fact that they blatted it will leave the Vegans uncertain what’s happened to it. Earth’s security depends on them keeping their mouths shut.

Unfortunately every cop in the galaxy will now be after them for breaching earth’s security borders etc. Which is why they are steaming on towards an area of the galaxy know as the Megallanic clouds.

One last thing. the City Fathers have made it quite clear that the 23rd Street spindizzy has had it, but so have several of the others. So their next planet-fall will be their last. So that solves the dilemma of his best buddy, Hazleton, wanting off. He will get off. But so will everyone else. Once it’s docked, New York will never fly again.

8. IMT

The city lands on a new planet in the Magellanic Cloud. They have been given permission by the planet’s ‘Proctors’. They land on a particularly barren stretch of heathland and come across ‘chocolate-coloured’ illiterate serfs ploughing the land. They take one, Karst, under their wing, and go to the nearest city to meet the ‘Proctors’ who allowed them to land. 1. the handful of Proctors use the native inhabitants as slaves. 2. this city was clearly itself once an Okie, with spindizzy tech hidden in its bowels.

Now all through the previous stories had been references to an atrocity carried back in legendary days by a particularly brutal Okie city on a planet named Thor V, I’m not sure the details are given anywhere but the general idea is the Okies massacred every man, women and child, and that this is one of the bases for the very bad reputation the Okies have across the galaxy and why the cops hate them.

What emerges slowly in this story is that – again very like an Asimov Foundation story – Amalfi knows something which we and all the rest of the characters don’t. The ‘Proctors’ are the very same men who carried out the atrocity on Thor V. Amalfi slowly reveals this to Karst, who has been undergoing hynopedia education sessions.

Karst sings an old slave folk song to him which has a refrain that IMT / made the sky / Fall – which Amalfi realises is a folk memory of the way the IMT city crushes opposition by literally landing on them.

9. Home

At the climax of the story, and the series, Amalfi fools one of the Proctors, Heldon, into letting him examine the city’s spindizzies. The pretext is that New York will trade its own tech in exchange for being allowed to settle there. The ‘Proctors’ realise Amalfi is up to something and corner him in the machine room where he’d been examining the ways the spindizzies were connected. Amalfi holds up two eggs. Very simple: they are full of plague bacillus. Shoot him, he falls, the eggs shatter, the Proctors would be dead of plague before they reach the doors.

Cursing, they let him exit the door, which he locks behind him and scampers up the main Proctor building, the Temple, to its highest point. Up here must be the control room. He discovers a secret entrance to a kind of attic, and discovers the controls to the city and just has times to make some vital alterations to the controls, before going back down to the room below and once again using the egg threat to get free.

Amalfi walked backwards out of the star chamber and down two steps. Then he bent, deposited his remaining black egg carefully on the threshold, thumbed his nose at the furious soldiery, and took off down the spiral staircase at a dead run. (p.471)

Flash Gordon. The Prisoner of Zenda. Douglas Fairbanks Junior. Mesotron rifles are fired at him, demolishing entire buildings, as he zigzags through the streets of the IMT city, eventually making it to the scrubland at the perimeter, the area which is obviously where the city joins the land. All the while the noise had been building up, the sound of screeching metal and the streets had been bucking and writhing.

Amalfi is just scrambling across the no mans land when a line of light appears all round the city’s circumference. it is wriggling free of its location ready to fly over to new York and squash it. But Amalfi fiddled with the controls, remember. Suddenly, with no warning, the IMT city rises but doesn’t hover and then head for New York… it keeps on rising uncontrollably, up up up, Amalfi had disabled the steering mechansim and jammed the engines, it is doomed to fly directly upwards and in an endless straight line.

The freed slave Karst helps Amalfi to his feet and both stand on the edge of the vast hole the IMT city left behind it, and Amalfi (and Blish) have one more trick up their sleeve. As relations with the IMT had soured, the Proctors had called the earth police (them again! they appear in pretty much every story) and warned them that the wanted Okie city of New York was likely to make a getaway from this planet.

Now as Amalfi and Karst look up into the sky at the dwindling light of the IMT city – suddenly it flares into a great white light. The earth cops were there waiting, and have vapourised it.

Thus 1. justice has been served on the genocidairs of IMT. 2. the earth cops now think they have destroyed New York and its population are now free of the threat of arrest and execution. 3. With the yoke of IMT slavery removed from their necks, the native chocolate brown people of the planet are now free.

Thus New York’s great odyssey, and the entire sequence of stories comes to a fitting end, with John Amalfi (rather like the psychohistorian Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation series) vindicated at every turn for his vast wisdom and strategic guile. And love of justice. Now he and Dee and Hazleton and all the other inhabitants of New York will turn to cultivating this planet, and making it a new Earth.

Around them, there was a murmuring of voices, hushed with disaster, and with something else, too – something so old, and so new, that it hardly had a name on the planet that IMT had ruled. It was called freedom. (p.474)

Cover art

Interesting how the same story can be illustrated so many different ways – starting in the 1950s with the half-naked woman pulp magazine cover shown above, through to just twenty years later, which saw the advent of stunning sci-fi art, like the dazzling 1970s cover shown below.

Cover of Earthman' Come Home, 1974 Arrow paperback edition, by Chris Foss

Cover of Earthman, Come Home, 1974 Arrow paperback edition, by Chris Foss


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955)

I didn’t realise until I began to read him, that science fiction accounts for less than half of Bradbury’s output of short stories and novels, though it makes perfect sense. Even in the supposedly science fiction stories you can feel the pull of the fairy tale, the fable, of horror and fantasy, and also, sometimes, of strikingly ‘normal’, non-sci-fi, naturalistic stories – the kind of sweet and sentimental sensibility which produced the idyllic stories of boyhood in rural Illinois which are captured in Dandelion Wine.

But this volume is all about the grotesque and the macabre. The October Country contains nineteen dark and twisted short stories. Fifteen of them are taken from the twenty-seven stories in Bradbury’s first collection, 1947’s Dark Carnival, with four more added which had been previously published elsewhere.

I read a reissue of the 1955 hardcover edition which features artwork by Joseph Mugnaini. I’m not sure I liked them, but Mugnaini’s illustrations certainly contribute to the dated feel of many of the stories, to the sense of 1950s American Gothick, and also to the feeling that they are, at bottom, children’s stories. Albeit for very twisted children.

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury's story The Halloween Tree

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury’s story The Halloween Tree

The stories

The Dwarf (1954)

Set in a carnival at the end of a pier. Ralph Banghart, the owner of a Hall of Mirrors, plays a cruel trick on a dwarf who is a regular customer. He spies on the dwarf and realises that he likes going to the room of mirrors which elongate your reflection i.e. make the dwarf look ‘normal’ height. So Ralph replaces the heightening mirror with a shortening one, and listens to the dwarf’s screams of horror. All this is observed by Aimee, the kind-hearted owner of the hoop stall, Aimee, who runs off to find the distraught dwarf.

The Next in Line (1947)

This is a long story made up of numerous powerful scenes. An American couple are on holiday in mexico. When they see a funeral procession passing below their hotel balcony carrying a small child’s coffin, something in the wife, Marie, snaps. Her unfeeling husband takes her to the local cemetery which features a macabre tourist attraction, a catacomb where the mummified bodies of the poor whose relatives can’t afford to keep up payments for their burial plots, are dug up and lined up against the wall. There is room for one more at the end of the line of horrific half-decayed corpses. Marie is insistent now that they leave town, but at first the husband, Joseph, refuses, and then their car breaks down and will take days to repair.

The ensuing scenes record Marie’s nervous breakdown, stumbling weeping in the street, locking herself in the bedroom with American magazines as a psychological wall against the outside world.

Outside, in the plaza, the street lights rocked like crazy flashlights on a wind. Papers ran through the gutters in sheep flocks. Shadows penciled and slashed under the bucketing lamps now this way, now that, here a shadow one instant, there a shadow next, now no shadows, all cold light, now no light, all cold blue-black shadow. The lamps creaked on their high metal hasps.
In the room her hands began to tremble.

The story reaches Edgar Allen Poe levels of macabre when she lies on the hotel bed trying to stop her breathing, to stop her pulse, screaming at her husband that, whatever happens, she doesn’t want to end up next in line to the mummies.

Then the scene cuts to the husband merrily driving his car back north to America, wearing a black armband, and alone! Did she die? Did he have her embalmed and placed in the row? Was the whole thing some kind of evil conspiracy by him?

I didn’t quite get the ending, but for most of the story, anyway, it wasn’t really about horror, it was an intense description of a marriage breaking down, marital arguments, and of a squeaky clean housewife having a nervous breakdown.

Here’s a review of the story which includes photos of the mummies which actually exist, and inspired the story after Bradbury visited them.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse (1954)

A comedy which satirises the ‘honey I’m home’ conformity of the American middle classes and the ‘hey daddio’ coolness of 1950s hepcats. George Garvey is the most boring man in the world. They have no social life because George almost instantly bores company to death. By chance the leader of a gang of jazz-loving hepcats, Alexander Pape, meets him in the hall of the apartment building and is so blown away with his stupefying dullness, that he invites his gang of swinging dudes to pay him a visit. The story recounts their jazz-slang conversations as they (afterwards) marvel at his world-stopping dullness. Eventually George becomes the epicentre of a new craze, with jiving cool dudes packing out his apartment.

But, alas, under the influence of all these precious things he himself starts to become interesting. He accidentally nips the tip of one finger in the door of his car but insists on having a gold fingertip replacement made. When his eyesight fails in one eye he posts a poker chip to Henri Matisse in France with fifty dollars and asks the master to pint it for him. Astonishingly, Matisse does and George receives the Matisse eyepiece back (along with the cheque – Matisse doesn’t need the vulgar money).

The hepcats get bored of George and abandon him, but he is now a man transformed. He insists on being called Giulio and sometimes, in the depth of the night, his wife wakes up, looks over at her snoring husband and could swear that… she sees the Matisse poker chip wink at her!

Skeleton (1945)

A really delirious story in which everyday Mr Harris develops the neurosis that his own skeleton has a life and personality of his own. Through a series of encounters, with his wife (Clarisse), his friends, a doctor, a bone specialist, the narrative becomes a kind of continuous hallucination as Harris loses weight and his skeleton becomes evermore apparent, in the street, in the mirror.

Finally, he calls back the creepy bone specialist, a Monsieur Munigant, who sits him down, bends over him with a peculiar device and…. extracts his skeleton from his body! Cut to M. Munigant strolling down the sidewalk, pulling out a long white thing which looks remarkably like a thigh bone, carving holes in it and… playing a tune on it… and then to Harris’s wife returning from the shops:

Many times as a little girl Clarisse had run on the beach sands, stepped on a jellyfish and screamed. It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name

The Jar (1944)

Charlie is a poor hick from the outback in Louisiana. At a carnival he’s entranced by one an object in a jar, something like one of those pickled foetuses. He buys it off the carny-owner for $12 and takes it in his horse and cart back to the shack by the swamp, and it becomes a talking point, a feature, a pretext for the real backwoods retards of the village to come up every evening and speculate on its contents.A poor farmer buys a jar with something floating in it for twelve dollars and it soon becomes the conversation piece of the town. However his wife begins to realize that she cannot stand the jar or him.

The Lake (1944)

Harry is twelve. It is the last day of summer. He is at the lake and his mother washes him down. He walks off a long the short remembering his childhood friend, Tally, who drowned her earlier in the summer. They used to build sandcastles together. He builds half of one leaving the rest for her to complete.

Ten years pass by. He moves to Los Angeles and grows up, goes to college, gets a job, and married Margaret. They come East for their honeymoon. When Harry takes her down to the beach where it all happened one summer long ago, he is startled that the lifeguard is carrying in a small bundle. To his fascination and horror the lifeguard unwraps the decayed face long enough for Harry to recognise the long blonde hair and (admittedly decayed) features. It is Tally. Staggering back along the beach he comes to a sandcastle, half a sandcastle… as if built by her spirit.

The Emissary (1947)

Martin is ten. Since he contracted an unnamed disease he is bed-ridden. His only contact with the outside world is the family dog who they’ve named Dog. Bradbury revels in giving acute descriptions of the smells and fragments Dog brings to Martin’s bed of woods and leafmould and fresh air and sunshine. He also often returns with the teacher Miss Haight, who sits and listens to Martin.

Autumn comes, then wet October. His mother haltingly tells him that Miss Haight has been killed in an auto accident. Martin cries. Then one day Dog doesn’t return. Martin is distraught, his two lifelines lost.

And then, one cold and rainy night three days after Halloween, there is a barking and commotion and Dog comes bounding up the stairs and leaping onto Martin’s bedcovers. And something else is with him. Something else has come into the empty house. And clumps crudely up the stairs. And swings open the door to Martin’s bedroom.

It is the living corpse of Miss Haight which Dog has dutifully dug up and brought to Martin, like a good dog.

Touched With Fire (1954)

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw used to work in insurance. They’re both now retired and chat about the old days. During this unusually hot summer it dawns on them that certain people are just destined to have accidents, certain people are made careless or negligent.

As a hobby, they have been studying people in their neighbourhood, studying the personalities and habits and trying to calculate the odds. One fat, argumentative woman in particular, Mrs Shrike, catches their attention, and they watch her storm out of her apartment building, slamming the door, nagging everyone she comes across, haranguing the shopkeepers, before storming home.

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw decide they have to help her. they come to warn her that she is just the sort of person accidents happen to. but she is outraged that they’ve been following and watching her. Moreover, there is a certain temperature, 92 F, Mr Foxes has informed us, at which the most murders are committed – the temperature at which people lose self-control and snap!

And as Mrs Shriek harangues them, Mr Shaw notices the thermometer in the room hitting 92 degrees and Mr Foxe does indeed snap, raising his cane and hitting her over the head. I thought that he would end up killing her and so it would be one of those spookily self-fulfilling prophecy stories.

But instead Foxe drops the cane and staggers out with his friend, they sit on the cool stoop and get their breath back. She was hurt but still shrieking when they left. And they are still recovering when the front door is brusquely pushed open and the enormous brute who is Mr Shrike pushes past them and clumps up the stairs. As he goes, they can’t help noticing that tucked in his back pocket is a big ugly sharp longshoreman’s hook. The strong implication is that, what with her nagging and the sweltering heat, Mr Shrike is about to murder his wife.

The Small Assassin (1946)

Alice and David Leiber are comfortably off, nice job, nice house. They consciously plan to have a baby but even before it’s born, Alice begins to have nightmares about it. the actual birth is excruciating and she screams convinced the baby is trying to kill her. The hospital psychiatrist Jeffers takes David aside to warn him that his wife may be suffering from post-partum psychosis.

In fact Alice is remarkably clear headed and lucid (I say this having known two women who had severe post-natal depression) and simply points out to her husband that their baby is trying to kill her. He goes off on a business trip. Jeffers rings him to say his wife is ill. he rushes home. She recovers from pneumonia. Things settle down. One midnight, David is sure he hears something at the bedroom door. Gets quietly out of bed, pads to the door and… stumbles over a soft toy placed in just the right place to make someone stumble. But this soft toy was in the baby’s room. How did it get here? He begins to have horrible suspicions. He takes the toy back to the baby’s room and looks down at the little creature.

David drives to work the next day full of misgivings. When he gets home he finds his wife dead at the foot of the stairs. She has tripped on the soft which he placed back in the baby’s room and fallen all the way down the stairs.

Dr Jeffers attends and David blurts it all out, convinced now that the baby is the killer. they had put off giving it a name. Now he wants to call it Lucifer. Jeffers tries to calm David down and prescribes sleeping pills. David takes them but as he’s passing out, swears he can hear something else moving in the empty house.

Next morning the doctor pops round to check up on him and finds David dead in  his bed. Someone had disconnected the gas pipe in his room and, being drugged asleep, David had asphyxiated. Convinced now that the baby is to blame, Dr Jeffers takes things into his own hands and the story ends with him leaning over the baby’s crib… holding a scalpel!

The Crowd (1943)

Mr Spallner is in a car crash and, as he passes out, hears the voices in the crowd around him. Later, in hospital, he becomes convinced something was wrong about it. It got there too fast, people were commenting on things they couldn’t have known about. He becomes obsessed and scours the archives for photos of other auto accidents – and discovers the same faces in the crowds that thronged round them as thronged round his one, even down to the colour of their dresses and coats.

He shares his theories with work colleague Morgan who thinks he’s bonkers, but as the evidence mounts, begins to be persuaded.

The story ends with Spallner in another car crash, this time nothing to do with him as a heavy truck rolls out of a side street and crushes his car. He sees the same faces bending over him, the same voices asking whether’s he’s dead. but whereas in the first accident, a voice had said, No, he’ll be alright,’ now he hears the very same voice suggesting that they move him – which he knows is that last thing you want to do to a crash victim. He tries to cry out to prevent them but a couple of guys move him onto the sidewalk and he fells his body break and erupt in pain.

As he fades Spallner realises the crowd decides who will live and die. And in the rather ambiguous final words, he manages to speak a little and seems to have realised that – the crowd are the spirits of the dead, themselves killed in car accidents and somehow condemned to eternally revisit and rewitness them.

He tried to speak. A little bit got out:
“It – looks like I’ll – be joining up with you. I – guess I’ll be a member of your – group – now.’

Jack-in-the-Box (1947)

This is one of the really weirdest stories in the collection, told from the point of view of a boy who lives with his mother in a vast secluded mansion, convinced that beyond the dense forest which surrounds them are monsters which will eat him, told that his father, the original God, was killed by beasts outside. Every day his mother prepares breakfast for him then packs him off to see the ‘teacher’, who wears a grey cloak and has her classroom up on the top floor.

A lot of effort goes into creating the detail of this 20-page story, before the rather inevitable climax, namely that the mother dies: when the boy goes to see ‘the teacher’ she is not there either and he pieces it together that the two women are one and the same.

At which point he sets off bravely through the gates of the mansion’s garden, on through the densely overgrown tunnel through the woods to emerge… into a perfectly normal American city, with cars honking and pedestrians hurrying by and two cops puzzled by the strange looking boy wandering round repeating ‘I am dead, I am dead’ to himself.

The Scythe (1943)

During the Depression a family of four are heading west to California but are pushed off the highway by their car failing then braking down, just near to an empty looking farm. Going in, the husband, Drew, discovers the owner, dressed in his Sunday best, dead on his bed, and next to him a will leaving the property to whoever finds him, on condition they use the scythe – which is there in the room – to mow the huge wheatfield out back.

Not looking a gift horse in the mouth Drew, his wife and two kids move in, quickly discovering reserves of delicious meat and milk in the barn. Next day Drew sets to mowing. He quickly discovers that the wheat he mows rots immediately. Also that it has all grown back next day. He tries to abandon the futile mowing but discovers that he can’t settle to anything, his hands and arms are twitchy. Only when the scythe is in his hand is he happy.

Worse, he slowly realises what the wheatfield is when he hears a crying out as he mows one outcrop. The wheat is human souls. He himself is the grim reaper, fated to carry out his duty whether he wants to or not.

The story comes to a climax when he realises a little clump of wheat stalks represents his wife and children. Revolted he throws down the scythe and walks away. But next day, when he is out mowing another part of the field, he sees smoke from the house and runs to find it burning to the ground. but his wife and children preserved intact inside. They should have died, but they didn’t died because he didn’t mow them.

So back out to the meadow he goes and consciously scythes the stalks representing his family and, embittered and enraged, goes on, madly, feverishly, unable to stop.

Sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night. . . .
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.

Uncle Einar (1947)

This is one of several stories about the ‘Elliott’ family which bears a close resemblance to the Addams family, being made up of monsters and ghouls.

It’s the story of Uncle Einar who has enormous wings on his shoulders, and becomes a kind of bat at night-time, but who one night flies into an electricity pylon, and wakes up on the ground, being tended by a kindly cowherd, Brunilla.

they fall in love and get married but Einar is devastated to discover that the accident with the power cable has destroyed  his sense of sonar i.e. he can’t safely fly at night. Since he cannot fly during the day because people will spot him and call the cops, he is stuck and becomes very depressed.

Then he discovers some of the Elliott children are going to fly kites and he has a brainwave: he attaches a string to his feet, goes along with them to the kite hill, then leaps into the air and swoops and soars in complete freedom, under the pretence of being their kite.

The Wind (1943)

A really atmospheric little thriller: the main character, Herb Thompson, is having friends round for drinks and his wife is hassling him to get ready. Trouble is he keeps getting rung up by his friend Allin, a former explorer who once penetrated to a mystic valley in the Himalayas which was the source of all the world’s winds.

Now the winds are coming to get him. Herb’s wife calls him away to come and be polite to the guests, but throughout their drinks and dinner are continually interrupted by calls from Allin, who lives in an isolated house thirty miles away, and describes, at each call, how a big wind is assembling on the horizon, then blowing round his house, then smashing in the windows, then blowing down the walls, so he retreats to the cellar, at which point, taking the umpteenth call, Herb hears a great shattering sound, the roar of wind and screaming.

Later that night a surprisingly strong wind comes and rattles Herb’s door and windows. He opens the door and calls Allin’s name and hears a cackling and feels a sudden gust in his face. then the winds are off, laughing, to their multiple destinations round the world.

The Man Upstairs (1947)

Young Douglas watches his grandma stuffing a chicken the old fashioned way, pulling out the innards herself, then stitching it back together and filling it with stuffing.

A new stranger, Mr Koberman, comes to rent the room at the top of the house. He is creepy and has strange demands, such as insisting on using only wooden cutlery.

Over the ensuing days Douglas follows and spies on the man, establishing that he only goes out at night and sleeps like a log through the day, despite Douglas’s attempts to wake him up by stomping up and down and banging things and singing right outside his door.

One day Doug happens to be on the landing where there’s a window with panes of coloured glass in it when he watches Mr Koberman walking down the street, experimentally watching him through each of the colours and sees… to his horror, that Mr Koberman has a completely different insides from us. He is filled with geometric shapes.

Next day, when his grandma has gone out, and Mr Koberman is asleep in  his darkened room, Doug creeps into the stranger’s room with shards of the coloured glass and… a sharp kitchen knife. To cut to the chase, Doug kills him and guts him, removing a whole series of weird-colour and strange-shaped organs.

The story ends with two hardened cop and the coroner standing over the body, examining the organs before sewing him back up and agreeing that the kid did the right thing.

There Was an Old Woman (1944)

Aunt Tildy is an ‘ornery, opinionated, down-home, no-nonsense old lady. When a smooth-talking young man comes a-calling, saying he wants to take her away, she thinks he’s an insurance salesman and kicks him out. The four men with him carry out a huge heavy casket which she doesn’t understand at first but when her young friend Emily comes to visit, the latter is terrified to discover her hand and the cup of tea she’s made go right through Aunt Tilda.

Because Aunt Tilda is a ghost! That nice young man was Death, and those other men carried her body when they carried out the casket.

Mad as hell the ghostly Aunt Tilda gets Emily to drive her down to the mortuary and makes a big scene, interrupting the service, insisting on seeing the manager, threatening to turn the whole place upside down until, at her insistence, the fetch the casket, open it and, with great effort, and much comic sound effects, she squeezes herself back into her corpse, ordering all the parts, one by one, to come back to warm life!

The Cistern (1947)

Two lonely, odd old ladies, Juliet and Anna, live in a house overlooking the street. During the long dark afternoon they tell stories about lost loves and also the urban legends about the rainwater drain outside the house, how it runs like a dark secret beneath the whole city to a magical land where lovers are reunited after death and – by sheer force of hallucinating intensity – persuades herself that that is where her long-lost lover, Frank, who never had the courage to marry her, is waiting for her.

Juliet drowses in the late afternoon, then hears the front door slam.Leaping up, by the time she gets there to open it the street is empty, but she thought she just had time to hear… the big manhole cover in the middle of street clang closed, as if someone had just climbed down into the dark wet underworld…

Homecoming (1946)

The second and longer story about the supernatural Elliott family who return from round the world for a family reunion at their spooky Gothic mansion, each demonstrating their special supernatural skills, as seen through the eyes of young boy Timothy who is one of the family but – being an orphan mortal boy left on their doorstep – has no immortal powers himself.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone (1954)

Fans track down a writer who chose to withdraw into seclusion and cease writing, and get his story from him.


Reflections on Bradbury’s approach and style

After a while I began to get a bit bored of one very prominent feature of the stories, which is that so many of the characters experience intensely altered, hallucinatory, delirious psychological states.

In story after story Bradbury describes people passing out, having delusions, fainting, besides themselves, alienated from their bodies, hysterical and so on. These may all sound like different and distinct states of mind but they’re all described in the same way, in sentences which:

  • tend to be long, with lots of consecutive ‘ands’ conveying
    • a nightmareish sense of unendingness and
    • mental collapse, the failure of the adult ability to distinguish between events, reversion to an infantile state where a thing happens and another thing happens and another thing happens
  • repeat the same phrases or words to convey the way the mind is numb and repeating like a machine
  • often include words indicating falling, swooning, fainting, passing out
  • sometimes invoke the grand concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ to give the impression that the entire universe is crashing around the characters

1. Long sentences Here’s an example of a long sentence with lots of naively consecutive ‘ands’. Marie, the wife in The Next in Line, is having a nervous breakdown:

She could not speak to him for she knew no words that he knew and he said nothing to her that she understood, and she walked to her bed and slipped into it and he lay with his back to her in his bed and he was like one of these brown-baked people of this far-away town upon the moon, and the real earth was off somewhere where it would take a star-flight to reach it. If only he could speak with her and she to him tonight, how good the night might be, and how easy to breathe and how lax the vessels of blood in her ankles and in her wrists and the under-arms, but there was no speaking and the night was ten thousand tickings and ten thousand twistings of the blankets, and the pillow was like a tiny white warm stove under-cheek, and the blackness of the room was a mosquito netting draped all about so that a turn entangled her in it.

‘and… and… and’, a headlong sequence of clauses which creates a sense of breathless, panting hysteria.

2. Clotted clauses Here is Bradbury doing hysteria – old man Foxe in Touched with Fire is being driven mad by the harridan Mrs Shrike taunting him on a blisteringly hot day until he reaches breaking point and snaps. Not the long flatness achieved by all the ‘and’s, here it’s something different, the piling up of multiple clotted clauses to create a sense of claustrophobia:

He was in a blazing yellow jungle. The room was drowned in fire, it clenched upon him, the furniture seemed to shift and whirl about, the sunlight shot through the rammed-shut windows, firing the dust, which leaped up from the rug in angry sparks when a fly buzzed a crazy spiral from nowhere; her mouth, a feral red thing, licked the air with all the obscenities collected just behind it in a lifetime, and beyond her on the baked brown wallpaper the thermometer said ninety-two, and he looked again and it said ninety-two, and still the woman screamed like the wheels of a train scraping around a vast iron curve of track; fingernails down a blackboard, and steel across marble.

Here is the dwarf driven mad by the sight of himself crushed and compressed in a distorting mirror. The first sentence is the usual concatenation of ‘ands’; the second sentence uses the piling up clauses technique to create a sense of crashing stumbling.

There was another scream, and another and still another, and a threshing and a pounding and a breaking, a rushing around and through the maze. There, there, wildly colliding and richocheting, from mirror to mirror, shrieking hysterically and sobbing, tears on his face, mouth gasped open, came Mr. Bigelow.

3. Out of body Numerous Bradbury characters suffer from a hyper-self-consciousness about their bodies, have out-of-body experiences, find themselves looking down and not recognising your own hands, feel their body disappear from under them. Here’s the husband, David, in The Small Assassin being told down the phone that his wife is very ill:

Leiber dropped the phone into its cradle. He got up, with no feet under him, and no hands and no body. The hotel room blurred and fell apart.

If this was a spy thriller, you’d think this character had just drunk a poisoned drink or been injected with a sleeping potion. In Bradbury it’s a fairly common occurrence. Here is the same husband, having flown home to be with his wife:

The propellers spun about, whirled, fluttered, stopped; time and space were put behind. Under his hand, David felt the doorknob turn; under his feet the floor assumed reality, around him flowed the walls of a bedroom…

Later, Alice ‘collapsed inward on herself and finally slept.’ Characters’ bodies bend, buckle, disappear, are suddenly empty or void or alien.

4. Repetition Another trick is the repetition of the exact same phrase, maybe for incantatory effect, sometimes to emphasise the sense that the mind being described is in such a state of shock, that it has become a stuck record. This is from The Crowd:

They were a ring of shifting, compressing, changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face…

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in

He heard their feet running and running and running

He could smell their breaths, the mingled odors of many people sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by…

Conclusion

Bradbury was young when he wrote these stories and the cumulative impression of reading a sequence of them is the impression that he was still dazzled with the tremendous impact these tricks can have.

It’s like a teenage girl discovering that if she wears high heels and a low-cut top she can have a dramatic effect on the boys. Us parents look on and think, ‘Yes, I lived through that age, I’ve had that experience, it doesn’t thrill me anymore, in fact I feel embarrassed for you.’

Thus when the story The Crowd opens with just such an out-of-body altered moment of experience, conveyed by one long sentence with lots of ‘ands’ simply and naively joining together a sequence of impressions as if the higher functions of the brain have been surgically removed – and when the story then invokes grand words like time and space – all these tricks are being used to convey the experience of being in the centre of a car crash.

There was the feeling of movement in space, the beautifully tortured scream, the impact and tumbling of the car with wall, through wall, over and down like a toy, and him hurled out of it. Then–silence.

The only problem is that by this stage in the book, we have seen same box of tricks nine times already, used variously to describe a woman having a nervous breakdown, a man learning his wife is seriously ill, an old man being goaded to snapping point, and a dwarf being goaded to madness. In other words, it is getting a bit over-familiar.

You even begin to suspect that Bradbury began the writing process with a strong personal familiarity with this kind of over-self-aware, hallucinatory, out of body, psychological state, discovered that he could reel off hundreds of pages of long incantatory sentences describing it – and then he found stories to fit the effects into.

You suspect that the sense of nervous collapse, and the giddy style which captures it, came first – and then he had to find the kind of tales and narratives which justified deploying it.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting happy stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood in small-town America in the 1920s
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)

This is a sometimes hauntingly beautiful,sometimes thumpingly obvious, collection of visions, fables, dreams and nightmares. It consists of 26 linked short stories arranged in chronological order to describe mankind’s first expeditions to Mars, the colonisation of Mars, strange encounters with Martians, and then the abrupt abandonment of the planet as almost all the settlers fly back to earth in response to a catastrophic nuclear war.

In fact that figure of 26 breaks down into about 13 substantial stores, interspersed with 13 very short linking passages or free-standing vignettes. But whereas in, say, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, the linking passages between the stories provide important factual information – Bradbury’s linkers are much softer, gentler, more evocative; if they introduce a theme it is often done only obliquely. Sometimes they are almost prose poems in their own right.

Although they come from the era of hard sci-fi, and were all first published in classic sci-fi magazines, most of the stories have an uncanny, sometimes hallucinatory effect. These two effects – dreaminess, and a concern for prose poetry over ‘facts’ – are well conveyed by the very first opening link section, itself barely a page long, and titled Rocket Summer.

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer’s ancient green lawns.

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.

Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky.

The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and oven heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land…

That’s it. Blank faced prose, super simplified, to create an often fairy tale effect, or sound like a fable, or as if translated from a simpler language. Note the use of repetition to create the dreamy effect – ‘The rocket lay… the rocket stood… the rocket made…’

For this level of simplicity is deceptive. Simple sentences can contain strange, unexpected effects, odd juxtapositions of the homely and the eerie.

The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts.

What’s true of individual sentences is true of entire stories. Bradbury’s simple diction can be really simplified down to a kind of Biblical portentousness, or lifted to a fairy tale simplicity, it can have oddities added to turn it into something strange and unexpected. But just as easily, it can topple over into stereotypes and clichés. In the story The Earth Men, the men climbing out of the shiny rocket ship are 1950s Hollywood. The Martians taking them perfectly for granted is satire. The Martians then locking them up in a lunatic asylum is Swiftian satire. Then the Martians executing them all crosses a line into horror.

Bradbury’s deceptively simple prose is capacious and flexible enough to convey enormous shifts in tone and register in consecutive sentences, or within one story.

This is one of the things which makes the stories so disconcerting. Their changeableness.

Future history

The dates and even the events are not really the point of the stories, but despite their hallucinatory weirdness, there is a coherent timeline of sorts, which Bradbury emphasises by placing precise year dates next to each story – and which can be divided into three sections.

The first six stories (January 1999 to April 2000) describes a succession of expeditions to Mars in which the Martians kill each successive little party of earth intruders.

The pivotal story, ‘—And the Moon be Still as Bright’, describes the fourth mission to Mars, which discovers that almost all the Martians have been wiped out by a plague of chicken pox brought by one of the earlier earth missions.

In the middle bloc of stories (December 2001 to November 2005) humans proceed to colonise Mars with no interference – although there are a few eerie encounters with the remaining Martian survivors. Despite the presence of the spookily empty canals and the deserted Martian cities, Mars turns out to have pretty much the same gravity as earth, albeit the air is thinner and sometimes harder to breathe. but the human settlers quick turn it into a second earth, complete with earth agriculture, earth towns with earth names, and populations and prejudices.

The second pivot comes in the story, The Off Season, in which a dumb and violent working class earthman, who has set up a hot dog stall on the main highway from the rocket landing fields to the main colonial city (a hot dog stall? – yes the stories are that American, and the earth settlers make it into that much of a replica of home) hoping to make a killing from the next big influx of settlers — watches, with his pissed-off wife, as the earth is devastated by a nuclear holocaust. They both happen to be looking at distant earth, up in the Martian sky, when –

Earth changed in the black sky. It caught fire. Part of it seemed to come apart in a million pieces, as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded. It burned with an unholy dripping glare for a minute, three times normal size, then dwindled.
‘What was that?’ Sam looked at the green fire in the sky.
‘Earth,’ said Elma, holding her hands together.
‘That can’t be Earth, that’s not Earth! No, that ain’t Earth! It can’t be.’

‘as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded’. See how simple, but dramatically effective, Bradbury’s prose can be.

Driven by overwhelming nostalgia, all the Mars colonists pack into their spaceships and head off back to earth, leaving Mars almost abandoned. A handful of earthlings remain among the now-derelict earth settlements, which are themselves built next to the long-abandoned Martian settlements. A double layer of abandonment and melancholy.

The third section (December 2005 to October 2026) describes the experiences of these last few human survivors scattered across Mars. The very last story describes the arrival of the last-but-one spaceship from earth – bringing an all-American nuclear family, Mom, Dad and three boys. They expect one other family group to follow, a family with four girls. Between them, the adults plan that these children will leave behind all the destructive values of earth and found a new civilisation, becoming ‘the new Martians’.

The stories with nominal dates and lengths

The substantial stories in bold.

  • Rocket Summer (January 1999) 2 pages
  • Ylla (February 1999) 20 pages
  • The Summer Night (August 1999) 4 pages
  • The Earth Men (August 1999) 24 pages
  • The Taxpayer (March 2000) 2 pages
  • The Third Expedition (April 2000) 26 pages
  • —And the Moon Be Still as Bright (June 2001) 39 pages
  • The Settlers (August 2001) 2 pages
  • The Green Morning (December 2001) 8 pages
  • The Locusts (February 2002) 2 pages
  • Night Meeting (August 2002) 13 pages
  • The Shore (October 2002) 2 pages
  • The Fire Balloons (November 2002) 28 pages
  • Interim (February 2003) 2 pages
  • The Musicians (April 2003) 3 pages
  • Way in the Middle of the Air (June 2003) 21 pages
  • The Naming of Names (2004-05) 2 pages
  • The Old Ones (August 2005) 1 page
  • The Martian (September 2005) 21 pages
  • The Luggage Store (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Off Season (November 2005) 18 pages
  • The Watchers (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Silent Towns (December 2005) 16 pages
  • The Long Years (April 2026) 17 pages
  • There Will Come Soft Rains (August 4, 2026) 10 pages
  • The Million-Year Picnic (October 2026) 16 pages

Dying falls

As this brief synopsis indicates, it is not an optimistic narrative. We witness the extermination of not one, but two civilisations. Hence many of the stories have a plangent, dying tone. Hence there are a good number of atmospheric moments when people find themselves alone, marooned, isolated, standing amid the ruins of a Martian city, or at the edge of a dried-up Martian sea.

There Will Come Soft Rains,

The story, There Will Come Soft Rains, epitomises this sense of abandonment, although it’s one of the few set on earth. It describes the automatic functioning of a 21st century house – alarm clocks going off, breakfast automatically prepared, little robot cleaners tidying everything away – long after its human inhabitants have been vaporised by the atomic blast which destroyed the whole of the rest of the city the house stands in.

The nuclear war left only this one house standing, with one, city-facing wall charred black by the blast, except, that is, for the silhouettes of the Mom and Pop and the two kids who were playing on the lawn when the bomb detonated and whose vaporised outlines are preserved on the crumbling wall.

You could characterise a story like that as blunt, meaning it is a creative embroidering around a basically hard, crude subject. What’s more, a hyper-clichéd subject. I wonder how many teenage stories and poems and songs describe the horrors of a nuclear war in despairing detail.

The gag, or twist in Bradbury’s story, which lifts it above the utterly clichéd, is the humorous precision with which he describes the continued functioning of all the little futuristic gadgets in the house, creating a wan sense of pathos, once we realise all the humans they work for are long dead.

The Earth Men

A similarly blunt story is the satire The Earth Men, which describes how the second spaceship full of earth explores arrives, and they are disconcerted to find the Martians taking them in their stride. ‘Yes yes,’ the Martians communicate telepathically, ‘I’m busy right now, run along to see Mr Aaa,’ so they go along to another Martian dwelling, to find a harassed official too busy with his paperwork to give them full attention.

The increasingly exasperated explorers are eventually passed onto an official who can barely be bothered to look up from his paperwork before handing them a big silver key and telling them to go down the corridor and open the door.

When the men do as told, they enter a big dome to find loads of excitable Martians who lift them on their shoulders, and hurrah and toast them. ‘This is more like it,’ say the gee whizz space crew, until it slowly dawns on the captain that this is a Martian lunatic asylum. All the Martians who sent them along to Dr so and so who referred them to Mr Aaa who told them to come to this dome – they all thought they were run-of-the-mill Martians having telepathic hallucinations, that’s to say, faking a human (alien) appearance. The Martians who greet them in the dome quickly reveal themselves as suffering from all kinds of delusions, claiming to be explorers from earth or Nepture on the sun.

Finally the earth explorers are attended by Mr Xxx, a psychologist, who diagnoses them as normal Martians who happen to possess abnormal powers of telepathic projection with which they have changed their appearance. He finds their story of being ‘from earth’ very amusing and, when they insist, agrees to be escorted out to their ‘spaceship’.

Mr Xxx enters the ship, pokes and prods around, but remains fixed in his beliefs that it is a remarkable hallucination. Then he pronounces the only cure Martians know for this level of brain sickness i.e. execution.

He took out a little gun. ‘Incurable, of course. You poor, wonderful man. You will be happier dead. Have you any last words?’
‘Stop, for God’s sake! Don’t shoot!’
‘You sad creature. I shall put you out of this misery which has driven you to imagine this rocket and these three men. It will be most engrossing to watch your friends and your rocket vanish once I have killed you. I will write a neat paper on the dissolvement of neurotic images from what I perceive here today.’
‘I’m from Earth! My name is Jonathan Williams, and these — ‘
‘Yes, I know,’ soothed Mr. Xxx, and fired his gun.
The captain fell with a bullet in his heart. The other three men screamed.
Mr. Xxx stared at them. ‘You continue to exist? This is superb! Hallucinations with time and spatial persistence!’ He pointed the gun at them. ‘Well, I’ll scare you into dissolving.’
‘No!’ cried the three men.
‘An auditory appeal, even with the patient dead,’ observed Mr. Xxx as he shot the three men down.

The satire is swift and brutal. It has barely anything to do with science fiction, more a use of science fiction tropes to satirise the self-satisfied lack of imagination of the American psychiatric profession circa 1950. The story doesn’t tap deep emotional roots, although it is effective burlesque.

Night meeting

You could compare the blunt stories in the collection with the many others which are a bit more subtle or poetic in intention.

In Night Meeting an earthman on his way to a party suddenly encounters in the bleak bare Martian landscape, a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed Martian who is on his way to a Martian festival.

Both can hear the music in the distance of their respective parties, can anticipate the warmth, the wine, the beautiful women they will meet there. But when they go to touch each other, their hands go through each other’s bodies. They are both there, but not there. Two moments in time, which are equally as unreal to each other, have somehow overlapped.

Now, even though this story has a vague sense of déjà vu about it – as if I’ve seen it in an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek or somewhere – you can straightaway see that it aims to capture something more eerie and uncanny than the blunt stories. All the details and dialogue of the story are focused on creating a mood of weirdness.

And it’s often true of these more poetic stories that, although they’re set on Mars, they could be set anywhere: this one is basically a ghost story and could just as well have been describing an encounter between, say a modern character and an 18th century highwayman on some remote midnight heath in Cornwall, as an event on planet Mars.

The Fire Balloons

Something of the same yearning, evocative quality dominates The Fire Balloons in which a Catholic priest and his colleagues come to Mars, determined to convert the rare and obscure Martians to Christianity. (For the purposes of this story, we are told that the previous species of Martians, the ones who have been wiped out, lived alongside a much smaller and rarer species, beings which look to us like luminous blue globes).

The priests have several eerie encounters with these strange, remote, hovering globes who, at a key moment, indicate their good intentions by saving the earthmen from a mountain avalanche.

Bu at the finale of the story, the blue globes communicate telepathically that they are perfectly happy, at peace, know no sin and so need no redemption.

This story contains some pretty blunt satire on religion, on Christianity, on Catholic superstition and dogma. But at its core is the wistful memories of the protagonist, Father Peregrine, of being a small boy and watching his grandfather light red, white and blue balloons to send off into the air on Independence Day. I suspected these warm happy memories would mislead the Father into trusting the blue globes who would then savagely let him down – but no, the mood of warm contentment continues right to the end as the happy, fulfilled globes float out of the story.

Civil rights

The Other Foot

Unexpectedly, there is a story strongly redolent of the Civil Rights movement in that it unmistakably set in the Deep South of America, and powerfully supports black characters against the narrow-minded hick racism of white bigots.

This us the second Bradbury story I’ve read which is fiercely critical of white prejudice against black people in America – The Illustrated Man contains the story The Other Foot, in which Mars has been entirely settled by black people, more or less exiled there from America, who have settled and made their own life and are happy. No spaceship has come from earth for twenty years and they think they have been ignored and forgotten.

When a spaceship is sighted, a black man named Willie Johnson recalls all the injustices black people suffered in 1920s and 1930s and 1950s America and whips the crowd up into a frenzy ready to lynch and string up the white folks who emerge from it.

There is real bite and anger in the story which lists in some detail the everyday social, cultural, political, economic and psychological oppression which black people have suffered in America.

Anyway, when the spaceship lands, the knackered old white man who appears in the door tells them there has been a nuclear apocalypse and earth has completely destroyed itself, nothing of civilisation remains. He and his team have patched together the last spaceship on earth and come to ask their forgiveness, come to ask if they will use their (the black peoples’) spaceships, and return to earth and help rebuild civilisation.

The plot sounds pretty silly, but the descriptions of black humiliation left me more shaken than anything else in the book.

Way in the Middle of the Air

Same goes for the ‘black’ story in this collection, Way in the Middle of the Air. It describes a bunch of hard-core, red-neck, southern bigots assembled on the porch of the hardware store owned by Samuel Teece. It describes in full their bigoted comments as a great tide of black humanity sweeps through the high street in front of them on their way to the rocket fields, where the entire black population of the South is going to take ship to Mars.

Teece, the big bully bigot, attempts to prevent two individuals going, a man named Belter riding a horse, who owes him $50. As the crowd gets wind of what’s going in they politely have a whip round and pay Teece his $50 and he is forced to let Belter go. And then Teece spots ‘Silly’, his shop boy, and pulls him over and refuses to let him go, even though the car with the rest of his family is impatient to get going and not to miss the spaceships. he begs, he pleads, he weeps, and eventually some of the other white men on the porch start feeling guilty and uneasy and one old dude says he’ll step in and replace ‘Silly’ and, eventually, Teece is shamed into letting him go, and off he roars in his family car.

Teece gets his gun and waves it around in rage and for a while there’s a real risk he’ll start shooting people in the great crowd at random. By God, he remembers the good old days, riding with the Klan and the lynchings, and Bradbury gives him some paragraphs of reminiscence.

He remembered nights when men drove to his house, their knees sticking up sharp and their shotguns sticking up sharper, like a carful of cranes under the night trees of summer, their eyes mean. Honking the horn and him slamming his door, a gun in his hand, laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s, driving off down the summer-night road, a ring of hemp rope coiled on the car floor, fresh shell boxes making every man’s coat look bunchy. How many nights over the years, how many nights of the wind rushing in the car, flopping their hair over their mean eyes, roaring, as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!

Enraged, Teece gets in his car with a few of the others, and drives off after the crowd. But they come to a great area where the entire black population of the South has abandoned all its unnecessary goods and belongings, a wasteland of trash and memorabilia. And then they hear the roar of the rockets and watch the little silver fins fly up into the sky.

In the cotton fields the wind blew idly among the snow dusters. In still farther meadows the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted, striped like tortoise cats lying in the sun.

The men on the porch sat down, looked at each other, looked at the yellow rope piled neat on the store shelves, glanced at the gun shells glinting shiny brass in their cartons, saw the silver pistols and long black metal shotguns hung high and quiet in the shadows. Somebody put a straw in his mouth, Someone else drew a figure in the dust.

Finally Samuel Teece held his empty shoe up in triumph, turned it over, stared at it, and said, ‘Did you notice? Right up to the very last, by God, he said “Mister”!’

Like The Other Foot, this is a really fierce, penetrating story and utterly unexpected in a book of otherwise quite hokey science fiction stories. It has a science fiction basis or trope, but is really all about earth and injustice in 1950. Even if you don’t like science fiction, you should give The Other Foot and this story a read, this one is the better, I think, because of the intensity with which it recreates the personality and psychology of its central character, the brute bigot Teece.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)

The unnamed narrator is on a walking holiday in Wisconsin. Over the brow of a hill comes a stranger. The narrator invites him to share his simple dinner. Relaxing in the sun, the stranger takes off his shirt to reveal that his body is absolutely covered in wonderful tattoos, lurid El Greco designs painted in sulphurous colours, inked into him by a crazy old woman who, he claims, was a traveller from the future. The illustrated man has tried every way he can to remove them – scraping them, using acid – nothing works. Not only this, but after sundown the tattoos start moving, each one telling a wondrous story.

This is the rather wonderful framing device which loosely introduces this collection of eighteen science fiction short stories. There are two editions. The America edition has the following stories:

  1. The Veldt
  2. Kaleidoscope
  3. The Other Foot
  4. The Highway
  5. The Man
  6. The Long Rain
  7. The Rocket Man
  8. The Fire Balloons
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Exiles
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. The Concrete Mixer
  15. Marionettes, Inc.
  16. The City
  17. Zero Hour
  18. The Rocket

The British edition – which I own – omits ‘The Rocket Man’, ‘The Fire Balloons’, ‘The Exiles’ and ‘The Concrete Mixer’, and adds ‘Usher II’ from The Martian Chronicles and ‘The Playground’, to produce this running order:

  1. Prologue: The Illustrated Man
  2. The Veldt
  3. Kaleidoscope
  4. The Other Foot
  5. The Highway
  6. The Man
  7. The Long Rain
  8. Usher II
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Rocket
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. Marionettes, Inc.
  15. The City
  16. Zero Hour
  17. The Playground
  18. Epilogue: Leaving the Illustrated Man

The stories

1. The Veldt – setting: earth in the future

Mr and Mrs George Hadley live in a soundproofed Happylife Home, which is staffed with gadgets and machinery which does their living for them – baths which run on command, shoelace tiers, food which appears on the table when commanded, and a state-of-the-art nursery where their two children, Peter (10) and Wendy spend hours conjuring up three dimensional scenes from fairy tales and children’s stories.

Recently they’ve been recreating the same scene from the African veldt over and gain, complete with lions feasting on something in the distance. Slowly George realises how spoilt and addicted to the nursery the children have become, and announces he is going to turn off the electric house and take them all on holiday to a real home where they’ll have to cook and manage for themselves.

As he turns things off the children go mental with anger and horror and tears and beg for just a last few minutes in the nursery. George relents as he and his wife go upstairs to pack. Then they hear screams from the nursery, run down and into it only for… the children to slam and lock the door behind them. Only then do they look around and see the lions advancing towards them, jaws slavering, under the hot African sun.

2. Kaleidoscope – setting: space

A rocket explodes and the half dozen astronauts inside are scattered in all directions. For a while they keep in radio contact, bitching, crying, lamenting, recounting their lives, as one heads towards the moon, one gets snared in the Myrmidon meteor shower which circles earth endlessly and the main character, Hollis, is pulled towards earth, burning up on entry into the atmosphere, the cause of wonder as a little boy out for a walk with his mom points up at a shooting star streaking across the sky.

Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There were only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald
mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires. There was a kind of
wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years
and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million
centuries, Stone and the Myrmidone cluster eternal and unending, shifting and shaping like the
kaleidoscope colors when you were a child and held the long tube to the sun and gave it a twirl…

3. The Other Foot – Mars

A striking if simplistic story set in 1985. In 1965 black people were sent in spaceships to colonise Mars. This they have done and now live under blue skies, in townships identical to those they left in the American South. Twenty years later, rumour spreads that the first spaceship from earth is due to arrive. One black man, Willie, rouses a mob, making them remember all the humiliations, discrimination, violence and murder black people suffered on earth. He prepares a noose for whichever white men step off the spaceship, and gets fellow citizens to begin marking out reservations for ‘whites only’ in cinemas, public parks, on trams.

But when the spaceship finally lands in front of a mob of angry vengeful blacks, the knackered old white man who emerges in the door announces that earth has suffered a prolonged atomic war in which every country, city and town has been obliterated. The survivors patched together the spaceship he’s come in and now are begging the Martian settlers to use their old unused rockets, to come and rescue the survivors, to ferry them to Mars where mankind can start again.

The white man begs and slowly the noose falls from Willie Johnson’s hand, and he tells the crowd that this is an opportunity to restart the relationship between the races again, from a clean slate.

4. The Highway – earth in the future

Hernando is a poor peasant living next to a highway which runs through his country from America. Over the years scraps from rich cars have flown off into his property – a hub cap he and his wife use as a bowl, the wheel from a car which crashed into the river, but whose rubber he cut into shoes. He is dirt poor. One day there is a flood of cars heading north, which reduces to a trickle and then… the last car. Young pleasure seekers are in it, a man and five women, in a topless convertible. It is pouring with rain, but they are all crying.

They ask him for water for the radiator, which he fetches and pours in, asking what’s up, why the flood of cars north? It is the nuclear war, the young man cries. The nuclear war has come, it is the end of the world. And they offer him some money and drive off north… Hernando goes back to his wife in their hut.

It becomes ever clearer that Bradbury is not so interested in ‘plot’ or ‘character’ as in poetic description, playing with fanciful similes and metaphors.

He returned with a hub lid full of water. This, too, had been a gift from the highway. One afternoon it had sailed like a flung coin into his field, round and glittering. The car to which it belonged had slid on, oblivious to the fact that it had lost a silver eye

5. The Man – strange planet

The first earth rocket expedition to Planet Forty-three in Star System Three lands and tired Captain Hart is pissed off that the natives just continue going about their work without coming to see them. He sends Lieutenant Martin into town to find out why and Martin returns a few hours later with news that this civilisation has just had a massive experience: the Holy Man whose return they have been awaiting for thousands of years just appeared, walking among them, preaching pace and healing the sick.

Captain Hart is at first completely dismissive, accusing his rival space captains, Burton or Ashley, of having arrived earlier and spreading this ridiculous story in order to pre-empt commercial contracts. But then the two other spaceships turn up badly damaged with most of their crews killed by a solar storm. So… it must be true! It must be him!!

Captain Hart, now persuaded that it is him, returns to the city, but when the mayor can’t tell him where He is, Hart turns nasty, threatening, then shooting the Mayor in the arm. Convinced that ‘He’ has moved on, Hart vows to travel on across the universe to find Him. He blasts off, leaving Lieutenant Martin and some other crew members behind. The mayor turns to them and says: Now, I can take you to meet Him.

6. The Long Rain – Venus

A spaceship lands on Venus. The four survivors struggle through the incessant torrential rain to find a ‘sun dome’, where there’ll be warmth, shelter and food.

I get it now that Bradbury likes stories (cheesy, teenage, boom-boom stories) but what really gets him going is descriptions. The setups and stories may be laughable, but you can’t help reacting to the vividness of his imagining.

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

At one point a monstrous electrical storm passes overhead and burns one of the men to a crisp. The description of his burned corpse really leaped out at me.

The body was twisted steel, wrapped in burned leather. It looked like a wax dummy that had been
thrown into an incinerator and pulled out after the wax had sunk to the charcoal skeleton. Only the teeth were white, and they shone like a strange white bracelet dropped half through a clenched black fist.

Like John Donne. Or photos of Iraqis incinerated on the Highway of Death. The spacemen stagger on, mentally disintegrating, first going round in a big circle to find the spaceship again, then stumbling for miles in search of a Sun Dome only to find one that has been attacked and ransacked by Venusians (who come from the vast sea, apparently, kidnap all the men and elaborately drown them), one man goes mad and sits face up in the rain to drown, another refuses to go any further and shoots himself, the last survivor walks on, going slowly mad, until he does arrive at a Sun Dome and is saved.

7. Usher II – Mars

This is one of the two stories which look ahead to Fahrenheit 451 in that they describe a future earth (in the year 2005) in which a repressive culture is burning all books, wiping out all traces of imaginative literature (and even children’s books) in the name of Moral Purity.

Literary-minded William Stendahl has fled to Mars where, with the help of a sidekick Pike, he commissions an architect to build a replica of the grim Gothic house which features in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, using robots to recreate bats, vampires and so on, using radiation to blast the landscape around it, and machines to even block out the sunlight to create an environment of menacing gloom.

Within hours of building it an Inspector of Moral Climates named Garrett turns up to demand it be torn down. Pike and Stendhal murder Garrett and quickly build a robot to replace him. But it turns out the thing called Garrett was already a robot, so they’ve simply replaced one robot with another.

Stendhal requests to hold a party in the house before it is demolished and, with wild improbability, Garrett accepts. So that evening Garrett and half a dozen other Moral Cleansers (including a number of earnest young lady reformers) attend the part – at which Pike and Stendhal arrange for them one by one to be killed in re-enactments of grim murders from Poe’s most lurid tales.

Finally Stendhal reduces Garrett to begging for his life as – bound and chained to the wall – Stendhal bricks him up into a vault, to be buried alive. As the helicopter carrying Stendhal and Pike takes off, the house of Usher (II) cracks and collapses, just like the house in the Poe story.

Like a Hammer horror story – but on Mars!

8. The Last Night of the World – earth in the future

This is one of a handful of stories where Bradbury almost completely neglects plot in order to create a strangely empty, hollowed-out piece of dialogue. We overhear the disembodied voices of a married couple who have both woken from a dream in which they knew that the world was going to end. So did everyone else at their workplaces. The go about their day, eat a meal, lock up the house and go to bed to wait.

9. The Rocket – earth in the future

Reminiscent of the deceptively simple stories about Mr Palomar written by Italo Calvino in the 1970s. In the future space travel becomes more and more accessible. Fiorello Bodoni, a poor junkyard owner, has saved $3,000 to enable one member of his family to take a rocket trip into outer space. Trouble is the family can’t agree who should go – they draw straws but whoever wins immediately attracts the resentment of the rest of the family.

One day an industrialist offers him the shell of a superannuated rocket, to melt down for scrap. Instead Bodoni uses his money to rig up car motors to the bottom of the rocket, and cine projection screens across the portholes then invites his children on board, makes them sit in the chairs, fires up the car motors and then plays the films of moon and stars and planets passing by, thus tricking them into believing they really have had a trip in space.

10. No Particular Night or Morning

Like The Last Night of the World this one is about psychology with little real plot, and feels strangely empty and disturbing.

On a space ship heading out from earth, there’s a full crew which includes Clemens and a guy named Hitchcock. Over the next 36 hours or so Hitchcock slowly goes to pieces. He becomes convinced nobody exists if he is not looking at them. He becomes convinced there is no space, no stars, no earth. He confides all these paranoid delusions to Clemens who he also thinks ceases to exist when he, Hitchcock, isn’t looking at him.

Hitchcock explains that he was a wannabe author who finally got a short story published but when he saw his name on the cover – Joseph Hitchcock – he realised it wasn’t him. It was someone else. There was no him.

These delusions are exacerbated when a meteor crashes through the skin of the rocket, killing one spaceman and injuring Hitchcock before the ship’s autorepairs seal up the hole. Hitchcock is convinced the meteor was out to get him.

Twelve hours later the alarm bells ring and one of the crew tells Clemens that Hitchcock put on a spacesuit and exited the ship. Now he’s left a million miles behind. For a while they hear him coming through on the spacesuit radio.

‘No more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars.’ That’s what he said. And then he said something about his hands and feet and legs. ‘No hands,’ he said. ‘I haven’t any hands any more. Never had any. No feet. Never had any. Can’t prove it. No body. Never had any. No lips. No face. No head. Nothing. Only space. Only space. Only the gap.’

11. The Fox and the Forest – earth in the future and past

It is 2155 and the world is at war. New, hydrogen-plus bombs are being constructed, as well as germ warfare bombs involving leprosy. The future culture doing this is intensely militarised and repressive. At the same time, time travel machines and holidays are becoming common (don’t ask me about the logic of both happening at once).

Roger Kristen is deeply involved in building the nuclear bomb and his wife Ann, in building leprosy bombs. They sign up for one of the Time Travel holidays and select 1938 as a good year. But once they have been transported back to 1938 New York, they change their clothes, appearance and papers and high tail it to Mexico.

Only trouble is they have been followed. As the story opens one of the Searchers, Simms, confronts them in a bar. It is futile trying to run. He or a colleague will find them. Roger agrees to return on condition his wife can stay. Deal, says Simms. But next morning, instead of keeping his promise to Simms, Roger runs him down and kills him in the hire car.

Released pending further investigation, Roger and Ann fall in with a rambunctious American film crew who are down in Mexico on a recce to make a movie. The brash, fast-talking director Joe Melton invites them to join in with the crew, eat meals, maybe Ann can have a role in the movie, she’s pretty good-looking.

Right up to the moment when Melton reveals… that he and the entire crew are also Searchers. Roger’s work is simply too valuable to let him go. Roger pulls out a gun and shoots some of the crew before he’s overpowered. The hotel management come banging on the door at which point Melton reveals that the camera is a time travel device: one of the crew turns it on and all the people from the future vanish, leaving the hotel room completely bare.

This is the second story to reference the notion that in the future, the authorities will destroy culture and, in particular, burn books.

We don’t like this world of 2155. We want to run away from his work at the bomb factory, I from my position with disease-culture units. Perhaps there is a chance for us to escape, to run for centuries into a wild country of years where they will never find and bring us back to burn our books, censor our thoughts, scald our minds with fear, march us, scream at us with radios . . .

12. The Visitor – Mars

Saul Williams is suffering from the incurable disease of ‘blood rust’, and so like all its other victims he is shipped up to Mars in a space rocket, left with survival rations and abandoned. All along the shore of the barren Martian ocean he sees other people like him, coughing up blood, abandoned, solitary, anti-social.

Along the shores of the dead sea, like so many emptied bottles flung up by some long-gone wave, were the huddled bodies of sleeping men.

Then a rocket arrives (carrying the usual regular rations) and a new young man, Leonard Mark. Turns out Leonard is a telepath and can create a kind of cyber-reality for people. For Saul he creates the impressions that a) Saul is in the middle of hustling bustling New York City and then b) that he is swimming in a rural stream, as he did when a boy back in Illinois.

Trouble is some of the other men have been affected by the disturbances and seen images of New York, too. They all want a piece of Leonard. Saul fights them off and carries Leonard up to a cave. There follow various trick moments – like when Leonard makes himself invisible to Saul – moments out of an episode of the Twilight Zone or Star Trek.

While they’re arguing about fantasies, the other men find the cave and threaten Saul. They want to share Leonard and his amazing ability. Eventually they end up fighting over him, one of them pulls a gun and shoots a couple of the rivals before Saul jumps on him, they wrestle with the gun and – like in a thousand hokey TV episodes – the gun goes off, killing… yes, you’ve guessed it! – Leonard, the man they all wanted to save. Golly, Isn’t life ironic! Aren’t humans their own worst enemies!

13. Marionettes, Inc. – earth now

A surprising anticipation of The Stepford Wives (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere). It’s based on the conversation of two men who suffer from henpecking wives. Usually Braling’s wife keeps him where she can see him so his friend Smith is surprised when he is allowed out for an evening.

Braling tells Smith there is a secret new company named Marionettes, Inc.  which will make a robot duplicate of you. A month ago he had a duplicate made of himself, keeps it in a trunk in the cellar, but brings it out now and then, prepares it to play him for the evening, while he slips out. It’s such a perfect replica his wife suspects nothing. Braling excitedly tells his friend he’s planning to go to Rio de Janeiro for a month while the robot duplicate robot covers for him at home. The only way to detect the difference is that, if you get up really close, you can hear the tick-tick-tick of the internal machinery.

Smith also has problems with his wife who, for some reason, has become extremely affectionate over the past month, petting and pinching and sitting on his lap and tiring him out. Braling gives him Marionettes, Inc.’s card and Smith goes home determined to get a copy made of himself, so he also can slip away from his wife.

But when Smith gets home and looks at his bank statement he is shocked to find $10,000 is missing from their account. He has an awful thought, bends over the sleeping form of his voluptuous wife, Nettie and… hears the fateful ticking… His wife has beaten him to it, and had a duplicate made of herself! God knows where the real Nettie is off gallyvanting!

Meanwhile Braling gets home and takes over from the duplicate Braling only for a classic ‘horror’ scenario to play out, namely when Braling I gets Braling II down into the cellar, the robot refuses to get into the trunk. He’s taken a fancy to Braling’s wife. In fact he likes being out and about in the air and hates being locked up. In fact…. he grabs Braling and stuffs him into the trunk, locks it, climbs up out of the cellar and locks the cellar door. Goes upstairs to the bedroom, slips into bed next to sleeping Mrs. Braling and gives her an affectionate kiss. Who’s to say the robot won’t make a better husband 🙂

14. The City – another planet, the future

This is another sci-fi horror story, the SF equivalent of a shilling shocker. A spaceship lands on an unexplored planet, and comes upon an abandoned city.

What makes the story novel and impressive is that it is told from the point of view of the city, which in fact is more like a live organism, with hearing devices, smelling devices, a central brain and a big mouth.

It turns out that (somehow) the inhabitants were all wiped out thousands of years ago by humans using biological weapons (don’t think about the logic of this too much; all that matters is that the reader submits themselves to the vehemence of the city’s hatred for humans).

So now it entices in the spacemen, who are tentatively exploring it in their spacesuit. Then it captures them – explains just what it is going to do – tips them down a chute into an abattoir-cum-torture chamber where they are eviscerated, disembowelled, and bled dry, and then…

In the kind of cheapjack, catchpenny but very effective way of these kind of horror stories, the city rebuilds them as perfect robot replicas of their original selves. Sends them robotically back to their ship, carrying with them a clutch of germ warfare bombs. They will return to earth and drop them over the entire globe… thus wiping out mankind!!

15. Zero Hour – earth now

This is a genuinely creepy story, the only one in the collection which genuinely gave me the shivers.

It’s told from the point of view of stereotypical 1950s American suburban mum, Mrs Morris, whose little girl Mink is playing out in the yard with a bunch of kids who have developed a new game, which they are calling ‘the invasion’. Bradbury spookily conveys effective facts like the way that kids going through puberty are excluded from the game, and how the game involves placing metal household objects, knives and forks etc, in particular positions, while drawing geometrical shapes in the dust and incanting chants or spells.

In casual phone calls Mrs Morris discovers that all the other prepubescent kids are playing the same game, even in cities a long way away (a call from a friend who’s moved to the other side of America). Mink tells Mrs Morris it’s all being done at the behest of someone called ‘Drill’. All the children talk about ‘Zero Hour’ being five o’clock.

At which hour there is an eerie silence across the city. Mrs Morris’s husband comes home from work (‘Hi, honey, I’m home’) and, in a sudden panic, she forces him inside, and then pelts him up into the attic, slamming and locking the door.

All the little revelations and knowledges and sense that had bothered her all day and which she had logically and carefully and sensibly rejected and censored. Now it exploded in her and shook her to bits.

They hear voices downstairs in the house. Lots of voices. The clumping of heavy feet. Her husband shouts out ‘Who’s there?’ but his wife begs him to be quiet. Up the stairs come the clumping steps.

Heavy footsteps, heavy, heavy,very heavy footsteps, came up the stairs. Mink leading them.
‘Mom?’ A hesitation. ‘Dad?’ A waiting, a silence.
Humming. Footsteps toward the attic. Mink’s first.
They trembled together in silence in the attic, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. For some reason the electric  humming, the queer cold light suddenly visible under the door crack, the strange odor and the alien sound of eagerness in Mink’s voice finally got through to Henry Morris too. He stood, shivering, in the dark silence, his wife beside him.
‘Mom! Dad!’
Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall
blue shadows behind her.
‘Peekaboo,’ said Mink.

Wow. This story sent a genuine thrill of fear through me.

16. The Playground – earth now

A similar effect is created by The Playground. This is pretty much a pure horror story. A middle-aged man, Charles Underhill, used to be mercilessly bullied as a boy. Now he’s married with a son of his own. He and his son regularly walk past the neighbourhood playground.

Charles sees it as a place of incredible violence, with kids smacking, stamping and beating each other. It can’t be that bad can it?

There were creams, sharp visions, children dashing, children fighting, pummeling, bleeding, screaming!

I think this is a sort of hallucination he has, which a) reflects his own neuroses, his own extreme fears but also b) sets the tone of exaggeration and extremity which artfully prepares the reader for what comes next.

His wife, Carol, thinks little Jim should be encouraged to play there with the other kids. If it’s a bit violent, well, that’s all part of growing up.

One particular kid keeps mocking him and calling him whenever he walks past, as if he has a secret, as if he knows something.

Eventually it comes out that this kid has the body of a boy but it contains the mind of an adult neighbour, Marshall. When Charles goes with Jim and his wife next go to the playground, in a terrifying moment, Charles’s soul or whatever it is that lives and perceives inside our bodies, is exchanged with his son’s.

Suddenly he finds himself on top of the slide – where his son had climbed – terrified of the height and of the taunting children around him – and looking over at the playground fence he sees two adults, his wife and himself!! And then he sees them turning and walking away, leaving him, abandoning him to a world of taunts and bullying.

He screamed. He looked at his hands, in a panic of realisation. The small hands, the thin hands…
‘Hi,’ cried the Marshall boy, and bashed him in the mouth. ‘Only twelve years here!’
Twelve years! thought Mr Underhill, trapped. And time is different to children. A year is like ten years. No, not twelve years of childhood ahead of him, but a century, a century of this!

I don’t think it has any sci-fi element at all. It is an ‘astounding’ tale, an ‘astonishing’ tale, but surely a horror story more than science fiction.

Fairly obvious but these last two stories – which are possibly the creepiest – are so in part because they’re about children – those creatures we think we know but who are often so alien, with their own worlds and mindsets – so often the subject of horror stories, books, movies, from The Midwich Cuckoos to The Exorcist.


The American stories

The Rocket Man – earth in the future

14-year-old Doug narrates the three-monthly return visits of his father, a Rocket Man, and the troubled relationship of his parents, his father always vowing to give up flying to Mars or Venus but always, after a week or so at home, getting twitchy and looking at the stars, his mother for the past ten years imagining he is already dead, because the opposite – actually loving him in the here and now – is too risky, risks the terrible pain of losing him on his next mission.

This account of a troubled marriage through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenager is remarkably effective. And has moments of really vivid writing. Doug asks to see his dad in his uniform.

It was glossy black with silver buttons and silver rims to the heels of the black boots, and it looked as if someone had cut the arms and legs and body from a dark nebula, with little faint stars glowing through it. It fit as close as a glove fits to a slender long hand, and it smelled like cool air and metal and space. It smelled of fire and time.

Unlike Isaac Asimov, Bradbury can write.

The Fire Balloons – Mars in the future

Some priests are the first to make the flight to Mars. As usual an alien world turns out remarkably like America, everyone can breathe fine, the sky is blue and the mayor complains about all the Irish navvies who have turned up to do the heavy labour and turned the place into the Wild West with saloons and loose women.

But it is the native Martians who interest Father Peregrine. These are floating blue globes, with no bodies or limbs, who don’t speak or communicate. But the look of them transports him back to childhood memories of his grandfather letting of big red, white and blue balloons to celebrate 4th July.

Father Peregrine makes his colleagues climb up into the mountains in pursuit of the blue globe Martians, and are saved by them when there’s an avalanche. Convinced they are intelligent beings with free will, and therefore capable of right and wrong, and therefore in need of ‘saving’, he gets his grumbling colleagues to build a chapel for the blue globes up in the mountains.

But at the climax of the story the blue globs come to Father Peregrine and, using telepathy, explain very simply that they are peaceful and virtuous and have no need of saving.

Obviously there’s a SF component to the setting and story, but the imaginative force of the story really comes from Peregrine’s poignant memories of being a boy and watching his his grandfather letting beautiful coloured balloons fly into the sky over small town America.

The Exiles – Mars

This a weird story which starts strange and then gets weirder. It is 2120. A shiny spaceship is en route to Mars crewed by shiny white American jock spacemen. But they are all having florid hallucinations – bats in space, arms turning into snakes, imagining they are wolves – and dying, of shock, of heart failure.

‘Bats, needles, dreams, men dying for no reason. I’d call it witchcraft in another day. But this is the year 2120!’

Since the story opens with three witches on Mars reciting spells familiar to any literate person as being quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth the reader knows these affects are caused by witches. So far, so SF shocker. What’s interesting is it’s the third of the stories to refer to the idea that in the future, books are banned.

‘Our whole crew dreamed of witch-things and were-things, vampires and phantoms, things they couldn’t know anything about. Why? Because books on such ghastly subjects were destroyed a century ago. By law. Forbidden for anyone to own the grisly volumes. These books you see here are the last copies, kept for historical purposes in the locked museum vaults…  All burned in the same year that Halloween was outlawed and Christmas was banned!’

OK, this much I can accept. But the story then goes to an entirely new, delirious level, when it is revealed that the witches from Macbeth are there because Shakespeare is there! Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce and H.P. Lovecraft and all the other writers of horror and the supernatural whose books were burned back on earth – somehow, they are gods, they are immortal, and they fled earth when their creations were burned by a moralising puritanical civilisation, they fled to Mars to escape… and now the earthmen are coming to Mars.

So the core of the story is Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce trying to recruit Charles Dickens for their army to oppose the invaders (he refuses, being in the midst of the Christmas celebrations in A Christmas Carol) along with Machen and Blackwood and all the other authors of the mysterious.

So when the spaceship lands, they summon up a vast army of snakes and monsters and fire to attack it. But then we switch to the spacemen’s point of view and they see… nothing at all. A bare uninhabited plain. And to mark their arrival the squeaky-clean-cut all-American captain decides they will burn the last copies of all those nonsense books, the last copies which he had brought on the ship.

And as they make a funeral pyre of The Wind In the Willows and The Outsider and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wizard of Oz, and Pellucidar and The Land That Time Forgot and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they hear thin distant screams… which are the screams of the souls of the authors perishing one by one.

What comes over is Bradbury’s investment in reading, in the imagination, in the wildest reaches of fantasy and horror – and his instinctive opposition to all those forces in Puritanical American society which are constantly trying to stamp it out.

The Concrete Mixer – Mars

The Martian Ettil Vrye refuses to join the Martian army preparing to go and invade earth. His wife, Tylla, is ashamed, his father-in-law is furious. (You can see how this isn’t really science fiction, it is human beings being described.)

It’s a would-be comic story in which Ettil is arrested, and charged with possessing earth science fiction comics, which are what have persuaded him the invasion is a bad idea. When the army threaten to throw him into a ditch of flaming oil he gives up and joins the army and flies through space in the fleet to invade earth.

But as they approach they get a radio message welcoming them. Earth is a peaceful federation now, has abolished all its atom bombs and has no weapons. There is a comic scene as the mayor of a California town makes a big welcome speech to the Martians as they emerge from their shiny spaceships, Miss California 1965 promises to give them all a big kiss and  Mr. Biggest Grapefruit in San Fernando Valley 1956 gives them all baskets of fresh fruit.

The Martians fraternise. Most of them love it and pair off with earth women to visit the movies and sit in the back row smooching. Ettil doesn’t fit in. He delivers satire about women in beauty parlours apparently being tortured by their hairdo headsets. He sits on a park bench and is propositioned by a young woman. When he won’t go to the movies with her she accuses him of being a communist. Then an old lady rattles a tambourine at him and asks whether he has been saved by the Lord.

Then he meets a movie producer, van Plank, who whisks him off to a bar, buys him cocktails, promises him a percentage of the take and some ‘peaches’ on the side, if he’ll be an adviser to his new movie project, MARTIAN INVASION OF EARTH. The Martians will be tall and handsome. All their women will be blonde. In a terrific scene a strong woman will save the spaceship when it’s holed by a meteor. there’ll be merchandising, obviously, a special martian doll at thirty bucks a throw.

Not to mention the brand new markets opening up on Mars for perfume, ladies hats, Dick Tracey comics and so on. The producer leads him back out onto the pavement, shakes hands, gets him to promise to be at the studio at 9 prompt tomorrow morning and disappears.

Ettil is left to realise that the invasion will fail because all the Martians will get drunk, be fed cocktails and hot dogs till they’re sick or got cirrhosis, gone blind from watching movies or squashed flat by elephant-sized American women. He walks towards the spaceship field, fantasising about taking the next ship back home and living out his days in his quiet house by a dignified canal sipping fine wine and reading peaceful books when… he hears the tooting of a horn and turns to find a car driven by a bunch of Californian kids, none older than 16, has spotted him and is driving full pelt to run him over, now that’s entertainment.

(And reminiscent, of course, of the classic scene in Fahrenheit 451 when the joyriders try to kill the protagonist, Montag – having already, apparently, run over and killed the book’s female lead, Clarissa.)

Epilogue

The epilogue is short enough to quote in its entirety and gives you a good sense of the simple style and vocabulary of most of the tales

IT WAS almost midnight. The moon was high in the sky now. The Illustrated Man lay motionless. I had seen what there was to see. The stories were told; they were over and done. There remained only that empty space upon the Illustrated Man’s back, that area of jumbled colors and shapes.

Now, as I watched, the vague patch began to assemble itself, in slow dissolvings from one shape to another and still another. And at last a face formed itself there, a face that gazed out at me from the colored flesh, a face with a familiar nose and mouth, familiar eyes.

It was very hazy. I saw only enough of the Illustration to make me leap up. I stood therein the moonlight, afraid that the wind or the stars might move and wake the monstrous gallery at my
feet. But he slept on, quietly.

The picture on his back showed the Illustrated Man himself, with his fingers about my neck, choking me to death. I didn’t wait for it to become clear and sharp and a definite picture.

I ran down the road in the moonlight. I didn’t look back. A small town lay ahead, dark and asleep. I knew that, long before morning, I would reach the town. . . .


Thoughts

1. Many of his stories use science fiction tropes – most obviously the use of space ships to other worlds and  encounters with aliens. But Bradbury’s heart is really here on earth . And his stories’ deep roots are more in the horror and horror-fantasy tradition than in sci-fi, as such.

2. The stories are all told in amostly flat, spare prose – flat and plain like fairy stories.

The rocket men leaped out of their ship, guns ready. They stalked about, sniffing the air like hounds.
They saw nothing. They relaxed. The captain stepped forth last. He gave sharp commands. Wood was gathered, kindled, and a fire leapt up in an instant. The captain beckoned his men into a half circle about him.

… from whose white flatness occasionally burst vivid similes, or entire paragraphs of poetic prose.

And as if he had commanded a violent sea to change its course, to suck itself free from primeval beds,
the whirls and savage gouts of fire spread and ran like wind and rain and stark lightning over the sea
sands, down empty river deltas, shadowing and screaming, whistling and whining, sputtering and
coalescing toward the rocket which, extinguished, lay like a clean metal torch in the farthest hollow.

Sometimes he uses repetition of phrases and grammatical structures to intensify the moment or to create dream-like hallucinations. But for the most part it is a verbally, grammatically and lexically simplified style, well suited, in its simple-mindedness, to conveying the spooky, spine-chilling impact of his simple and sometimes terrifying horror stories.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, is eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 awakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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