The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was suppressed or ignored when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham were my favourite sci-fi authors as a boy, as an eleven, twelve, thirteen year old at the start of the 1970s. Clarke was still happily writing, I remember excitedly swapping Rendezvous with Rama with friends soon after it came out.

Childhood’s End is his fifth novel and one of the best books I had ever read. The memory of the book’s artful pacing, and the cumulative revelations leading up to the nihilistic final scenes, made an impact on my young imagination which has lasted all my life.

Premise

The idea behind the plot can be relatively simply stated.

There are lots of inhabited planets in the universe. Most of the inhabitants proceed through a similar cycle, from agriculture to industrialisation and scientific literacy, then the start of space travel and so on. It’s at this point that they are ready to move on to ‘the next stage’. A race called the Overlords is dispatched to guide them. Under the tutelage of the Overlords – who abolish war and poverty – the pupil race becomes wise and peaceful, experiencing a Golden Age.

But this is all deceiving. The Overlords have not been sent to supervise this golden age and are not there for the good of the pupil race at all. Another power, a power deeper and older and more powerful than them, the ‘Overmind’, has detected that the supervised species is about to move on to the next stage of evolution, to abandon physical bodies and become pure minds, initially as individuals, then uniting together to form a group mind, and then abandoning the host planet altogether to take to the stars and join the Overmind.

This is the basic plot of Childhood’s End. It is an epic story about the near future transformation of the human race into a completely new species and the end of the world as we know it, so big, so awe-inspiring, it reminds you of the galactic prophecies of H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon.

What makes it so powerful is that Clarke turns this story into a thriller. We don’t see this narrative told as a whole through the eyes of some future historian. Instead we discover it piecemeal through the eyes of a succession of pretty normal human characters, each of whom experiences a particular phase of the development, each of whom is granted a waystation revelation, learns a part of the truth, each of which is as much of a shock and surprise to them as it is to the reader, as the narrative as a whole slowly peels off skins like an onion, giving the reader a succession of imaginative jolts and marvels, a sense of mounting horror and suspense, right up until the shocking end-of-the-world scenes of the last few pages.

Key episodes

1 Earth and the Overlords

Thus the book opens by describing the work of two German rocket scientists, one captured by the Soviets, one by the Americans at the end of the Second World War. They are both nearing completion of plans for man-carrying rockets for their respective Cold War masters, when one day they look up and see the vast silver ships of the Overlords in the sky above them. At a stroke the world’s population realises that ‘we are not alone’. At a stroke, the rocket scientists realise their work is futile.

Five years later a lengthy section lets us get to know Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish Secretary General of the United Nations. We learn that within days of their arrival the Overlords (an earth nickname, not the name they give themselves) gave one speech across the whole world’s radio sets explaining that they are here to help not harm, to prevent the nuclear wars which might lead to humanity’s extinction – and then had settled down into a routine of inviting Stormgren to a weekly conference to discuss the management of earth.

To attend, Stormgren enters a metal pod via a set of retractable steps, then the pod zooms up into the stratosphere, entering a brief opening in the spaceship which immediately closes. When the pod door opens he finds himself in a comfortable room with a grille and a big screen which is blank and opaque. He hears the voice of the being named Karellan, who speaks perfect English, is always calm and polite, knows all about earth politics, and always gives wise advice about international problems. Despite questioning from Stormgren, Karellan gives little or nothing away about the Overlords.

The Overlords only interfere in earth affairs twice: in South Africa apartheid has collapsed and been replaced with persecution of the white minority which the Overlords intervene to put an end to. And – in a scene I have remembered my whole life – in Spain, at a bullfight, when the first toreador sticks a spear into the bull, the entire audience of 10,000 experiences what the bull feels and shrieks in agony (p.37). The Overlords abolish cruelty to animals.

Unsurprisingly, a movement has grown up resenting the Overlords’ intrusion in human affairs, the ‘Freedom League’ led by a man named Alexander Wainwright. One night Stormgren is kidnapped and – in scenes more reminiscent of a thriller – smuggled out of his house, swapped from a car to a lorry in a deep tunnel (to escape the Overlords’ detection devices), driven south then flown to South America where he wakes up in the hands of some goons from the Freedom League. They are fairly civilised, just want to know more about Stormgren’s weekly meetings with Karellan. As you might expect he is soon rescued by the all-powerful Overlords. In a compelling scene, the interrogators suddenly freeze in mid-sentence and Stormgren hears a polite voice emanating from a small metal sphere hovering at head height, which guides him out of the old mine works where he’s being held hostage, into one of the Overlords’ little flying machines, and so back to freedom (p.38).

Fifteen pages are then devoted to another episode featuring Stormgren as he discusses with his number two, Pieter van Ryberg, and the senior scientist at the UN, a Frenchman named Duval, a plan to see beyond the opaque screen in the ‘meeting room’. It takes Duval a few weeks to work up a super-powerful torch which Stormgren can hide in the base of the briefcase he always takes with him to the meetings. When the time seems right he can swing it up to face the screen and see if the torch’s beam illuminates what they all guess must be the room on the other side – and the Overlord who occupies it.

At this next meeting, Stormgren repeats the complaints of much of the population that they want to know what their rulers and masters look like. Karellan promises to make a global announcement that the Overlords will reveal themselves in fifty years time. Only then, he argues, will humanity have become completely acculturated and used to their presence, and their appearance won’t have the same impact.

As the conversation comes to an end Stormgren leaps up and swings the flashlight towards the opaque screen. He is just in time to see a room like the one he’s sitting in and a huge figure exiting an enormous door. What he sees shocks and stuns him for the rest of his life. We, the readers, have to wait till the next section to find out why.

2 The Golden Age (pp.56-119)

The fifty years are up. An Overlord flyer touches down on earth. The world’s press is gathered expectantly for the first Overlord to show himself. A doorway opens and gangway descends. Two little earth children from the crowd are invited up it. And then an enormous figures steps down the gangway, holding the sweet children in his arms. It is the figure of an enormous devil, deep red in colour, complete with horns and cloven hooves, leathery wings and long pointed tail! The social impact is immense. Now we learn what Stormgren had glimpsed in the spaceship fifty years earlier. And the meaning of his speculation that the two races must have met, sometime back in the mists of time, and something gone very badly wrong between them to leave such a diabolical folk memory.

But fifty years was the right period. Most people alive now accept the Overlords’ rule completely. Also, organised religion has faded away under the Rule of reason instituted by the Overlords and so there isn’t a great population of fundamentalists to stir up trouble (pp.56-58).

Clarke then embarks on a long description of the Golden Age of peace and plenty which the human race experiences. Ignorance, disease, poverty and fear cease to exist. Everyone speaks English. New agriculture supplies all food needs. Robots man the factories which supply a world of new consumer goods. The end of the Cold War, and all war, frees up resources and skills to be devoted to entirely peaceful ends. New technology creates flying machines which can get to anywhere on earth in under a day. Most people have at least two houses, often in exotic locations such as the top of Mount Kilimanjaro or deep in the Pacific depths.

With so much time on their hands humanity, as so often in these kinds of utopian visions, turn out to be immensely bookish, takes to higher education till age 25, becomes philosophers and poets and artists. Nobody has to do any work they don’t want to.

Like a good liberal Clarke imagines that all religious faiths will wither away. The Overlords give historical institutes a kind of historical TV machine which can show scenes from the past. Human historians immediately go back to check out the real people behind the legends of Moses, Mohammed, Jesus and so on. Organised religion does not survive the immense disillusionment of what they find (p.63). So religion disappears and the human race turns into millions of bookish, thoughtful, jolly nice chaps rather like, well, Arthur C. Clarke.

All this is exemplified in the social set around Rupert Boyce and his mixed-race wife, Maia, who give a stylish party at Rupert’s mountain-top home. Guests include a famous film producer, a minor poet, a mathematician, two famous actors, an atomic power engineer, a game warden, the editor of a weekly news magazine, a statistician from the World Bank, a violin virtuoso, a professor of archaeology and an astrophysicist. The world has turned into Hampstead.

Among the guests are George Greggson and Jean Morrel who are going to turn out to be tremendously important to the story, and the future of the human race.

They are astonished to discover that one of the guests is an Overlord, Rashaverak, who is quietly reading through Rupert’s world-famous and priceless collection of antique and ancient books about astrology, parapsychology, clairvoyance and so on.

Half way through the party, a bit drunk, George finds himself on the roof with another guest, a black man named Jan Rodricks, who is half-brother to the host’s wife, Maia. Jan is an astrophysicist, quiet and self-contained so George soon returns to the noisy party below,but Jan also will be a key player in the last stages of the novel.

George is talked by Rupert into attending a drunken session of Ouija the host has organised. It uses an up-to-date design by consisting of a round table of ballbearings on which is placed a circular tray. All the members – Rupert, Maia, George, Jean and, latterly, Jan – place hands on the tray while Rupert asks questions. Then the tray moves around the table towards the words Yes or No printed on the edge, along with all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 1 to 10.

They seem to get half sensible answers to some of Rupert’s questions but drunk George thinks it’s all nonsense until Jan, out of nowhere, asks the identity of the Overlords’ home star. To his surprise the board immediately spells out the number NGS 549672 and most people are too puzzled by this to notice George’s partner, Jean, faint.

Jan recognizes this as a star-catalog number and travels to the Royal Astronomical Society in London where he looks it up and confirms it is a star which really exists and has been logged. Earlier we had observed him watching from Rupert’s roof one of the Overlords’ supply ships taking off from the moon and leaving a long tracer line across the sky: along with their appearance the Overlords no longer conceal that a) there is not in fact a fleet of ships but only one, the one hovering over New York, all the others were holograms and b) that they receive supplies from their home planet via a transhipping base on Pluto.

We cut to a discussion between Rashaverak – who witnessed the Ouija board scene – and Karellan. The latter says ‘it has begun’ creating a tremendous sense of suspense and anticipation in the reader, and they both indicate that Jean must, somehow, have been the channel through which this inaccessible knowledge had reached the Ouija board.

Jan then goes to visit Professor Sullivan in his research lab miles and miles underwater in the South Pacific Basin. For some time the Overlords have been collecting examples of earth’s flora and fauna. Jan has discovered that Professor Sullivan has been asked to supply examples of the world’s two largest creatures, the giant squid and the blue whale, for them. In fact they are going to build and design them from scratch with metal skeletons, cover them with rubber and plastic and paint them. Real samples would be difficult to get hold of and would stink and rot.

Jan proposes a scheme: that they build a hidey-hole into the metal whale and Jan stows away and flies to the Overlords’ home planet. Sullivan enthusiastically agrees to help. This storyline takes up twenty pages and brings us to the end of part two. Jan successfully stows away, the artificial whale is lifted up to the Overlord spaceship and it departs for its home planet.

Before departing Jan thoughtfully writes his sister Maia a letter laying out some of the practical issues: since the Overlord ships travel at near light speed, and Jan has identified that star NGS 549672 is 40 light years from earth, he will be gone for 40 years there and, assuming they send him right back, 40 years coming back. However, due to the weirdness of relativity, because he’s flying at near light speed, Jan himself will only age a few months. (Clarke gives an additional explanation that the line of light which Jan saw behind the departing spaceship wasn’t caused by anything so banal as flames from rockets, but due to the bending of light or maybe of the fabric of space-time itself, by the near light speed passage of the ship: he is not seeing a line of fire but a line of the bending of space into which the light of multiple stars is strained in order to create the impression of a line of light.) Jan is taking a supply of food, oxygen and will inject a narcoleptic to create a state of drug-induced hibernation for the duration of the flight.

This second section ends with Karellan holding a press conference at which he announces to the world’s press that the Overlords have discovered the presence of a stowaway, Jan, on one of their ships: he will be sent right back. But the incident has raised the whole issue of humans and space travel. The Overlords have allowed humans to develop the technology to fly to the moon and set up bases there. But now Karellan demonstrates why humans will never go to the stars. He conjures up a three dimensional hologram of the whole galaxy and then the universe. He points out that when the Overlords arrived mankind was on the bring of sparking a nuclear war. They saved them from that fate but if they can’t even manage the affairs of one little planet how, he rhetorically asks, would they cope with this: and the gorgeous fabric of millions upon millions of stars in the Milky Way strikes the attending press and scientists dumb.

3 The Last Generation (pp.120-189)

This final third of the novel is extraordinarily powerful and has two main threads. In the first we follow Jan Rodericks as he arrives at the Overlords’s home planet and what he finds and sees there. In the second, we follow Jean and George Greggson, who we met at Rupert’s party and now the significance of that seance session finally becomes clear.

We had already met the kind of people Clarke thinks will flourish in the future – film directors, poets, philosophers and the like. Now a group of these bien-pensant liberals establishes an artists’ colony on an island in the Pacific, which they immodestly name New Athens.

Among them are George and Jean Greggson, who by now have a seven year old son, Jeffrey, and a baby daughter Jennifer Anne. One day Jeffrey is playing on the beach when he feels a distant rumble and then the tide goes out out out and continues going out. Having seen footage and movies of this phenomenon I know this indicates a tsunami is coming but Jeffrey, inevitably, wanders down the beach following the tide until… a voice speaks in his ear telling him to Run run, and he turns and sets off up the beach and then up apath into the surrounding cliff as fast as his feet can carry him. It is a sweet bit of thriller detail when he finds a big rock blocking his way, the voice tells him to close his eyes, there’s a loud fizzing sound and when he opens his eyes the rock has gone so he can continue running.

All this is made that much more dramatic and involving by being told by Jeffrey in his own boyish words to his parents, who initially think he is making it up… until George himself visits the path and finds a rock which has clearly been blasted to nothingness. Only the Overlords could have done this. But why?

Then odd things start happening with Jennifer the baby. Her mother has a fit when she hears the rattle rattling but goes into the baby’s room to find it being shaken a metre above the baby’s head, unheld by any human hand. Jennifer begins to exercise other telekinetic powers. Soon food finds its way from the fridge to her cot by itself. She feeds and looks after herself, while her mother retreats into shock and George desperately tries to figure out what’s going on.

Eventually Kerallan tells them, explaining the basic premise of the narrative which I described above: the Overlords serve the Overmind, a vast cosmic intelligence, born of amalgamated ancient civilizations and freed from the limitations of material existence. The Overlords themselves are unable to join the Overmind, but serve it as a bridge species, fostering other races’ eventual union with it.

Now, Karellen explains, the time of humanity as a race of single individuals each with a concrete identity is coming to an end. The Overlords have been present at four such metamorphoses and know that it always starts with one member of the species ‘breaking through’. Then like the first crystal in a solution that one example catalyses all the others. Which explains why George and Jean become aware that other people’s children on New Athens are developing the same skills. Jeffrey had gone a long way down the road to individuality, but now he is called back into the group mind, also becoming indifferent to his parents’ existence.

All the children on new Athens become infected. Their minds reach into each other and merge into a single vast group consciousness. If the Pacific were to be dried up, Karellan explains, the islands speckling it would lose their identity as islands and become part of one new continent. Their children are now ceasing to be the individuals which their parents knew and are becoming something else, completely alien to the ‘old type of human’.

Adult society takes the decision to move all the transforming children to one continent, for their own safety and because their parents can’t bear their proximity, and cannot do anything for them now. Cameras are placed around their settlements to observe their strange behaviour. Sometimes they wander with their eyes closed. Sometimes they join hands and dance. They become filthy and ragged, their bodies mattering less and less.

The members of New Athens – that ideal colony of Hampstead intellectuals – are plunged into such grief and despair they blow themselves up with an atomic bomb planted at the base of the island. All over the planet the adult humans have to come to grips with the realisation that – their culture, their race, their species is ceasing to exist. Many choose not to live on.

Meanwhile, 40 light years away, Jan Rodricks emerges from hibernation on the Overlord supply ship and arrives on their planet. Clarke is really good at depicting a place which has physical reality but almost every aspect of which is genuinely alien and incomprehensible to him, not least the vast volcano-shaped mountain in the far distance which emits vast rings of smoke which then fly over the Overlord city. None of the Overlords were expecting him so no-one speaks English, until one slowly learns the language enough to give him a broken insight into their ways and purposes.

But then he is politely told that he will be placed on the next freight ship heading to earth and off he goes. Months later, as the Overlord shuttle enters earth orbit, Jan realises there’s something wrong. It takes him a moment and then he realises that there are no lights on the dark side of the earth, facing away from the sun. Almost as if those hundreds of brightly illuminated cities have… gone.

And of course this is what he discovers when the Overlord pod deposits him back on the surface. Karellan meets him and explains everything that has happened. The entire adult human race has either died out or killed itself. Jan is now the last man alive.

Only hundreds of millions of children – no longer fitting Jan’s definition of ‘human’ – remain on the quarantined continent, having become a single intelligence readying themselves to join the Overmind.

Jan finds that some Overlords have remained on Earth to study the children from a safe distance. When the evolved children mentally alter the Moon’s rotation and make other planetary manipulations, it becomes too dangerous to remain. The departing Overlords offer to take Rodricks with them, but he chooses to stay to witness Earth’s end and transmit a report of what he sees.

Before they depart, Rodricks asks Rashaverak what encounter the Overlords had with humanity in the past, according to an assumption that the fear that humans had of their ‘demonic’ form was due to a traumatic encounter with them in the distant past. But, in a really imaginative touch, Rashaverak explains that the primal fear experienced by humans was not due to a racial memory, but a racial premonition of the Overlords’ role in their metamorphosis. Time, as the Overlords have repeatedly told their human proteges, is much stranger than we can imagine. It was fear and anger and hatred of this future which endowed the figure of the devil with such terror.

Right up to the end the Overlords want to study what happens. They candidly explain to Jan that they are sad at their barrenness. Why do other species transform into mind and join the Overmind? Why can’t they? Hence their intense interest at studying, for example, all the books in Rupert Boyce’s library, hence their remaining on to study the children long after the rest of the human race has gone extinct.

Now Jan remains behind to witness the end of planet earth and relay his impressions and thoughts via radio to the Overlords whose spaceship retires to a safe distance, namely ‘six thousand million kilometres beyond the orbit of Pluto’ (p.189).

Jan describes earthquakes and spots of fire in the sky, and then how different fires come together to form a vast burning column which ascends from the planet into space. As the column disappears he experiences a terrible sense of emptiness when the children have gone. The atmosphere is leaving the planet taking with it everything which isn’t secured. Then everything around him and the earth itself become transparent and he can see a great white light emanating from the core of the planet upwards towards him.

The Earth evaporates in a flash of light. The children have used every atom of it as fuel to drive their final metamorphosis and journey to join the Overmind. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System, reflects on the fate of the Overlords to obey, and the incomprehensible fate of the human race.

Critique

The everyday

It is a fantastic book, convincing and thrilling. Some critics think the human settings of each episode – the minutiae of Rikki Stormgren’s living arrangements and his kidnapping, or the immense labour spent describing the ins and outs of George and Jean Greggson’s marriage detract from the story, but I agree with Clarke’s approach and it’s what I like about Wyndham’s novels, as well. That these awe-inspiring changes happen to perfectly ordinary – or in fictional terms, ordinary – people. For me the fantasy is far more effective for being rooted in the everyday.

Anglocentric

When I read the long central section, the Golden Age, I thought, Wow! This is what the future’s going to be like! Clarke predicts that:

  • Everyone will speak English
  • Technology will do all the dirty jobs, giving everyone masses of leisure time
  • Everyone will have advanced university educations, often to age 25
  • organised religion will have withered away
  • quick cheap travel will be available for all

You can see how these assumptions grow out of faith that the post-war American economic boom would prove endless, and spread around the world, providing a never-ending stream of gee whizz technology.

When Clark wrote the Yanks were perfecting and marketing a dazzling array of household white goods – fridges, freezers, fridge freezers, ice machines, toaster, barbecues, hoovers, washing machines, tumble dryers. Futurologists, politicians and advertising companies thought it would never stop.

In economic, technical, scientific and cultural terms America emerged as the leader of the world. Hence the Overlords’ space ship hovers – as so many alien spaceships before and since have done – over New York, the only city which really counts in these kinds of stories.

But the 65 years since the book was published have proved otherwise. There are other countries in the world besides America. Not everyone wants to be American or to speak English. A whole load of angry Muslims can testify to that, not to mention Indians, Indonesians, the whole of South America, and so on.

The poor have not been eradicated. There is not enough food for everyone. There is not so little work to be done that everyone devotes their lives to leisure, poetry and philosophy. It’s striking how sci fi prophets from Wells to Clarke have all made exactly the same set of mistaken predictions based on:

  1. complete ignorance of economics
  2. complete ignorance of human nature

Economics Capitalism works through companies achieving competitive advantage. No company is going to introduce a new labour-saving technology which gives them a competitive advantage – and then let the whole workforce have half the week off. More likely they’ll introduce the technology and make everyone work harder, attending training courses and keeping up with the machines’ new higher levels of demand.

All through my teens in the 1970s Tomorrow’s World and every other magazine and new programme, all the articles by Asimov and Clarke and blizzards of other futurologists told us that technology was just about to usher in a new world of leisure. The great struggle of life by the early 21st century would be deciding how to spend all this leisure time, which course to take at the free universities, whether to become a poet or a painter.

Human nature Educated white men, bookish writers like Asimov and Clarke, imagined that in the future everyone would become educated and bookish like, well like them. That the future would be full of swots who, freed from the need to do work, would dabble in philosophy or art.

Has it turned out that way? Or was that just a laughably self-centred and blinkered view of human nature.

From Dickens through Wells and Huxley and then the great waves of 1950s sci fi gurus, right through to the present day, liberals all pin their hopes on education to bring about social reform. For me, this is a doomed approach. Maybe because I grew up among a lot of working class people who didn’t just not want an education, and were itching to leave school at 16 so they could get a job, money, a car and a girlfriend – but who also actively despised, bullied, threw stones and spat at anyone they caught reading.

Most people are not bookish. Plenty of people never read a book from one Christmas to the next. Those who do read, tend to read very intensively and make the cardinal error of thinking that everyone else is like them. Like all liberals, Clarke assumes that people want to be educated, want to be jolly bookish chaps like himself.

But they don’t, they really don’t.

Religion A massive tell-tale symptom of this secular liberalism is Clarke’s confidence that all religions will fade away, wither and die, disappear.

The numbers of people who admit to religious belief in the post-industrial west may well continue to decline, but in the rest of the world? In the Muslim world? In Latin America? In south-east Asia? In Africa? In nationalist India? All around the world passionate and sometimes violent religious belief continues to flourish.

It seems to me that sci-fi fantasies like this are messages from a specific place and time and culture which made the great mistake of assuming its very narrow and specific values would spread out to conquer all humanity.

Asimov, Clarke, Blish, they write stories in which techy white male Americans end up running everything, everyone speaks English, everyone uses American tech, everyone adopts American values, everyone is behind America’s efforts to colonise space.

As that period of American triumphalism (roughly 1950 to 1975) recedes, these works become more dated, period pieces, insights into a worldview which is becoming as remote as the medieval Europe which thought that the great Day of Judgement was just around the corner.

Maybe you could almost make the generalisation that science fiction, as a genre, expects just such a great change is just around the corner, comparable to all those feverish end-of-the-world predictions which seized men’s minds from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

In science fictions from Wells to Wyndham a great event is just about to take place which will change everything.

Maybe, not so deep down, science fiction as a genre feeds on that profound human wish that there should be an apocalyptic change or ending or transformation, now, within our lifetimes, something, anything, to relieve the boredom, oppression, grinding, numbing grind of the daily struggle for existence.

It’s true there have been real changes and great turning points over the past century – the beginning and end of the two world wars, the atom bombs on Japan, the Soviet detonation of a hydrogen bomb, Sputnik, men on the moon, the collapse of the communist bloc in 1990 – these have been big cultural, social, scientific and political changes.

But deep down they didn’t change anything. People everywhere have still had to scrape a living, worried about their children, got ill and died in the same old way. Only above a certain level of education and literacy, and from a particularly Western perspective, do better-educated professional people care much about these kind of historic events.

For most people most of the time there are no such transformations. Life carries on being as much of a struggle as it ever was.


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 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
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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

‘Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,’ said Mrs. Bowles. ‘Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!’

It is 1999 and books are banned. Why? Because they make people think, ponder, reflect – and that ends up making them unhappy. And society in 1999 is dedicated to making people happy.

How? By offering them the all-day-long totally immersive experience of room-sized TVs playing endless soap operas in which you, the viewer, are included through computer-controlled scripts designed to tailor the storylines to suit your age and gender. By ensuring that even if people go out walking they have seashell-type little earpieces pumping raucous meaningless music into their brains all the time. By providing a world of physical activities, sports and gymnastics for the disciplined and, for the not-so sporty, building highways where you’re not allowed to drive slower than 55mph, and are encouraged to hit anything which trespasses onto them, cats, dogs, even people.

Or you can:

head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.

Anything, anything at all, to stop people reading or thinking. Books are banned, religion is banned, festivals are banned, all art is abstract, and politics has died out due to lack of information or interest. People are just ruled.

In this world firemen protect citizens from the risk of being infected by ‘ideas’ by burning books wherever they are found. Enemies, snitches and gossips can anonymously report work colleagues or neighbours as suspected to be hiding books, and then the firemen turn up in their salamander-shaped fire engine, beat up the suspects to find the stash of forbidden books, throw them all in a pile and torch them with their kerosene flamethrowers.

The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.

Part one – The Hearth and the Salamander

Guy Montag is one of these firemen and his story opens with this poetic invocation of the joys of incineration:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Wow. Bradbury is nothing if not vivid!

Guy’s story is simple in outline. He becomes disillusioned with being a fireman, rebels against the powers that be, and escapes.

More specifically, after one particularly brutal burning, where the old lady who owned the house where books were hidden, not only refused to leave the building but herself lit the match which sent it up like a bonfire, thus turning herself into a human torch, Montag finds he has, almost without realising it, secreted a book in his jacket, which he then brings home.

Next day he takes off sick with a temperature. His wife, Mildred, is an extreme case of the bored suburban housewife. She has nagged Guy into paying a fortune to have three of the four walls in their living room converted into wall-sized TV screens, the ones which run the endless soap which the computer tailors to include her in the plots and scenes and conversations. Even when Guy is sick in bed, she won’t turn the deafening volume of the TV soap down, and listens to his complaints for the bare minimum before running back to her ‘real’ life, her ‘real’ family.

For Guy is having a crisis of conscience. Watching the woman prepared to incinerate herself rather than live in a world without books has shaken him. And, over the past few weeks, he’s found himself bumping into the idealistic young woman who’s moved in next door, Clarisse McClellan.

‘She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.’

Clarisse is mercifully uninfected by the repressive culture. She likes flowers and nursery rhymes. She despises the people who go car-racing or window smashing. She yearns for a simpler time.

To his dismay Guy finds himself agreeing with Clarisse, beguiled by her honesty and openness. It makes returning to the gloomy house where his wife is either a) totally immersed in her wall-to-wall TV soap or b) even in her bed (they have separate beds) has the seashells plugged in, hissing stories and music, so that even in the darkest midnight hour, when he tries to tell he his secrets, his worries, his fears… she’s not listening, she can’t and won’t hear him. He is alone.

The hollowness of Mildred’s drugged, media-addicted life is emphasised by an earlier scene, when Guy returns home dirty and sweaty from a hard day burning books, and in the darkness of their bedroom his foot hits an object. When he stoops, it is an empty bottle of painkillers. Mildred has taken an overdose.

Guy calls emergency but instead of an ambulance, or concerned medics and nurses, the two guys who turn up are bored technicians who poke a tube with a digital camera lens down her throat guts and pump her stomach empty, at the same time administering a complete blood transfusion. They stand around yacking and one smokes a cigarette as the machines pump. It’s just another job. They tell Guy they get about ten of these a week. Once finished, they pack up and tell him she’ll probably feel hungry in the morning, bye, and he is left feeling bereft and uncomforted.

Indeed Mildred does feel hungry in the morning and has no memory whatever of her suicide attempt. When Guy describes the whole thing she laughs and says what a vivid imagination he’s got. He’s left wondering whether it was a suicide attempt, or whether she just took a few pills before going to sleep, woke up and took some more, woke up and took some more, and so on.

And worse, he wonders if it makes any difference. To her or to him. Her life is such a matter of indifference to her and, he realises with a start, to him, too.

While Guy is still in bed feeling feverish, his boss at the firestation, Captain Beatty pays a call. There is something uncanny and wise about old Beatty. At the knock at the front door Guy hastily stuffs the book he took from the old lady’s house under his pillow and remains in his sick-bed. When Beatty comes into his bedroom, takes a seat, lights his pipe and makes himself at home, Guy is paranoidly certain, certain… that Beatty knows he is hiding a book.

The scene is handled as powerfully as a fairy tale, as a fable: old man Beatty wisely and tolerantly explains that all firemen, sooner or later, experience a moment of doubt about their work, may even take a book home to read in secret. The authorities don’t hold it against them. Everyone has to find out for themselves how empty and pointless books are. So long as the fireman in question hands it in within, say, 24 hours, no more will be said about it. He looks at Guy. Guy, lying in his sickbed, sweats and turns red. Surely he knows!

Beatty takes his time. He leisurely explains how the firemen came about, how society willingly turned its back on books and learning. Why their job is so important.

Eventually the captain leaves. Guy gets up, shaking. Now is the time. He makes Mildred turn the bloody TV off and listen to him and watch him as he gets a chair, stands on it and reaches up to the ventilator grille in the hall. Guy stretches out and pulls over and down a sack which he lowers to the floor, gets down and opens up. The sack is full of books. Mildred is horrified and squirms away from these infectious objects. Guy himself sits there stunned. What has he done?

At that moment there is another ring on the front door bell and Guy and Mildred freeze in terror. Is it the captain back again? Panic sweat silence. After a few more rings, whoever it was goes away. The reader’s heart has stopped alongside Guy’s and Mildred’s. We are caught in Guy’s terror and guilt.

Part two – The Sieve and the Sand

For the rest of that cold November afternoon, Guy reads at random passages from his forbidden stash of books out loud to his bewildered wife, who keeps complaining that they don’t make sense. He mentions how the books remind him of Clarisse. Who? asks the wife. The young woman who moved in next door. Oh, says Mildred, I forgot to tell you. She was killed by joyriders. The rest of the family have moved away. Guy is devastated. How can all that young beauty and innocence just be snuffed out like that?

Then there comes a snuffling at the door.

The Hound? Is it the Hound? At the firestation there is an eight-legged machine nicknamed the Hound. Every human has a distinctive combination of hormones and secretions which gives them a unique chemical ‘small’. The Hound’s sensors can be set to this combination, then it is set loose to hunt them down. Being mechanical it tracks down its prey unrelentingly, unceasingly, until it finds and brings him down, holds him splayed with his mechanical legs and then the target is:

gripped in gentling paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.

Lying there now, with his wife huddled in a weeping neurotic ball, with the pile of incriminating books sprawled across his hallway, Guy is certain, sure that he can hear… a mechanical sniffling and snorting at his door. It is the Hound! The Hound has come to trap and kill him with its merciless shining needle!

They wait and wait. the snuffling ends. Guy opens the door. Nothing there. Guy takes one of the books, an old Bible, and goes to visit an old man he met once on a park bench, months ago, years ago. The old man was convinced Guy was going to turn him in, but they got talking and Guy was sympathetic to his stories of books and literature. The man gave Guy his card. He’s named Faber. He was a literature professor until one term, forty years ago, nobody turned up for his class. Society had lost interest.

Now Guy turns up on his doorstep, initially terrifying Faber who thinks he’s going to be arrested. But Guy shows him the Bible and they talk. Faber fills in some of the history which he lived through, how the government slowly got rid of books as part of its campaign to make everyone equal and happy.

Together they stumble towards an idea that maybe the books can be saved somehow. Maybe they can get back to the literate society which Faber remembers from his youth. Maybe – here’s a plan – they could plant books on every firemen in the land and so get the firemen abolished – by themselves! Obviously not just the two of them, it would need a network. Hmmm.

Faber gives Guy a device he’s built, an emerald-green earpiece. Via it Faber can hear Guy talking and Guy receives Faber’s messages. They are two-become-one.

Guy goes home. His wife’s two ghastly suburban wife friends come round for a party with the immersive TV show. Montag appals them by turning the TV walls off and then insisting on reading poetry to them, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, to be precise, which is indeed a bleak and nihilistic poem.

Not surprising that the women are all upset and one bursts into tears. Mildred forces Guy to put the book in an incinerator, and tries to cover up by saying it is part of a fireman’s training to occasionally dip into these nonsensical books in order to ridicule them – but the two women don’t really believe it and anyway Guy runs them out of the house.

Faber hears all this via the earpiece and is appalled at Guy’s rashness. What Faber thought they’d agreed should be the next step was for Guy to return to the station and confront Beatty.

Captain Beatty is waiting for him, with his hand open. Without a word Guy hands over the book to him. Beatty greets him like the prodigal son returned to the fold, reinforces the idea that books are pointless, silly, contradictory, only make people unhappy.

(His role – as wise father confessor who has himself experienced all the urge to rebel, has had all the illegal thoughts, and has overcome them in order to obey the system – reminds me very much of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Captain Beatty invites Guy to sit down and play cards with the rest of the men. Then the alarm goes off, they jump down the pole to the garage, suit up and race off to fire someone else’s house.

Part three – Burning Bright

Except that the fire engine stops in front of Guy’s house. Beatty teases Guy: is he really surprised, after his performance with the poetry? First the two housewives turned him in, then his own wife, Mildred. And Mildred blunders past him carrying a suitcase, weeping, without makeup, stumbles into a taxi and is gone.

And Guy is so conflicted, transported, bewildered by the contradictions of his situation, that he has no hesitation at all about burning his entire house down, burning the house of lies and alienation and unhappiness to the ground, and burning the books which fly along the hallway.

Then Beatty arrests him, smacking him in the face. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the emerald earpiece link to Faber fall out of Guy’s ear (Faber has been listening in to everything that’s happened). ‘Hello, hello,’ says Captain Beatty, picking it up. ‘I thought you were doing more than just muttering to yourself. So you have an accomplice. Well, we will track him down and arrest him, too.’

And Guy snaps. He is still holding the flamethrower. ‘No,’ he says, and before he knows it, his hands have flicked the switch and turned Beatty into a flaming torch. Stunned, dazed, Guy makes the other two fireman turn their backs and coshes them unconscious.

Then in a nightmare of terror, just as he thought he could relax, the Hound appears out of nowhere and leaps at him, jabbing its steel needle into his leg, but Guy still has self-possession enough to turn the flamethrower on the Hound and burn out its innards, making it spring backwards, having administered a fraction of the fatal dose.

Rummaging in the garden where he had stashed a few remaining books, Guy turns and hobbles, one leg completely anaesthetised and numb from the Hound’s partial injection, down the alleyway.

Then there is the terrific scene I remember from reading the book as a boy, where Guy has to run across one of the ten-lane highways that ring the city. It is completely empty and floodlit like a gladiator’s arena. He sets off limping and is half-way across, when he hears the roar of a carful of joyriders revving up and aiming straight at him. At the last minute Guy trips and falls headlong and the car swerves a fraction to avoid him, the driver knowing that going over a bump at 150 mph would fling the car into the air and crash it. That’s all that saves him. No morality or sympathy. And while the car decelerates a few hundred yards further on down the highway, and spins to a turn in order to come back and try to hit him again, Guy limps to the other side of the highway and melts into the dark alleyways.

He gets to Faber’s house and tells him what’s happened. Faber turns on the TV. There is a massive manhunt out for Guy and they have brought in another Hound from another precinct. They watch as a police helicopter equipped with a camera sets off following the new Hound as it lollops through the city on its eight mechanical legs.

Quickly, Guy tells Faber to disinfect the entire house, burn the bedspread they’re sitting on, the rug he walked across, the chair he sat in, dowse everything in disinfectant, turn on the garden sprinklers. He asks Faber for a suitcase of the old man’s clothes to change into later. They take a swig of scotch, shake hands, then Guy runs off.

He makes a detour to the house of fireman Black, one of his colleagues, creeps in through the porch, hides some of his books in the kitchen and sneaks out again. Black will be betrayed. The fireman’s house will be torched. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Through the city’s darkened back alleys Guy runs, glimpsing through people’s windows, on their giant TV screens, live footage of the police helicopter following the Hound as it beetles towards Faber’s house, encounters the wall of sprinklers, hesitates, then picks up Guy’s scent.

Faster faster Guy runs in a breathless, terrifically intense chase, until he makes it to the river, the river on the edge of the city, just a minute or two before the Hound, strips off his clothes, wades far out, clutches the suitcase and lets himself be carried fast fast fast by the current away from the Hound, the city, the helicopters, the police, the fire service, his burned house, his murdered captain, far away into the cleansing healing countryside.

Saved and lost

Faber had told him to look for the old disused railway lines. When Guy has drifted down the river, moiled in the water, until he breathes country air, trees, hay – he clambers out naked and reborn, dresses in Faber’s old clothes, smells the countryside, looks up at the stars. Free!

His foot clinks against something. It’s a disused rail. He sets off stumbling along it wondering what he’ll find. What he finds is a small fire with four or five old geezers crouching round it for warmth. They welcome him to the circle, make a simple meal of bacon fried in a pan. the leader is Granger. He explains there is a very loose network of them all across the country, rebels, outcasts, who have memorised entire books. A community of memorisers, ‘bums on the outside, libraries inside’.

They hear the jets screech overhead. All through the book conversations have been interrupted by the roar of jet engines, and the narrative has been punctuated by radio announcements of looming war, of enlistment and call-ups. Now Bradbury goes into full-on hallucinatory, poetic prose mode to describe the nuclear war which ends the book.

‘Look!’ cried Montag.
And the war began and ended in that instant.

He gives a slow-motion nightmare description of the bombs falling, the last hundred feet, the last yard, the last inch. And then – Whoomf – the entire city jumps into the air, cartwheels, and falls as ashes.

The bums are knocked flat, and then slowly clamber up again, covered in dust and spume from the river. That’s it. The war is over. The city is gone, as hundreds of other cities all round the world are gone. Granger makes a speech about how people back there will be needing them, about how they’ll try to rebuild, about how they won’t flaunt their book knowledge but how, just maybe, the wisdom they carry might just about maybe prevent there being any more future wars. Guy joins the scruffy old men as they set off back towards the ruins, wondering what they’ll find.


Themes

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 after all these years, I see it through the prism of the two books of short stories I’ve just read as:

  1. less a novel with a plot than as a series of linked set-piece descriptions, often very brilliant and evocative
  2. less a novel than one of Bradbury’s many fables – that’s to say, a simplified story with a strong moral message
  3. an expansion of the theme which occurs in at least three of his short stories, that the future will burn books

Political correctness

I was astonished to see that the book contains an attack on political correctness. It attributes the death of books and literacy to a politically correct wish not to offend. When Captain Beatty calls on Guy, he explains how the books came to be banned, how the entire present state of civilisation came about. It was a question of not wanting to upset anyone’s sensibilities, particularly the sensibilities of minorities.

‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of this.’

And:

‘The bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat -lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.

‘Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God!’

The population did it to themselves. Not wishing to offend any of the thousand and one minorities, authors censored themselves till their books, plays and movies were so bland no-one wanted to read them. Meanwhile, comics, sex and soap operas proliferated because they a) made people happy b) didn’t upset any particular minorities, in fact c) didn’t upset anyone. They were, in a sense, content free.

‘The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them…’

America’s once and future wars

I had forgotten that the whole story is set against the looming prospect of war. According to the novel, America has started and won two atomic wars between 1960 and 1999. Now another one is in the offing. The characters’ conversations are continually interrupted by the deafening roar of jet bombers flying overhead.

Faber, for example, tells Guy not to even bother trying to overthrow the system; just let there be another war and society tear itself to pieces.

Guy hears the official radio announcing the mobilisation of a million men (in reality, ten million, Faber tells him.) When Mildred’s ghastly housewife friends come visiting they all empty-headedly declare the war will be over in 48 hours, just like the government promises.

A radio hummed somewhere. ‘. . . war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its –‘ The firehouse trembled as a great flight of jet planes whistled a single note across the black morning sky.

And as he walked he was listening to the Seashell radio in one ear… ‘We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes…’

‘Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the TV `families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.’

‘The Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be, back next week. Quick…’ [said Mrs Phelps]

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy discs, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

Thus ever-present threat of war is as much a part of the fabric of the story as it is of George Orwell’s contemporary dystopia, Nineteen Eight-Four. Contributes as much to the sense of dread and menace, as if Guy’s personal tragedy is reflected by the whole world coming to grief.

And then of course the entire world does blow up. Guy’s story turns out to be an invisible footnote to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Anti-Americanism

It is also striking that Bradbury was aware, in 1953, of America’s unpopularity.

‘Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?’

Was he aware of this in 1953, or was he predicting it for his dystopian future? Either way it was remarkably prescient to anticipate the anti-American feeling which certainly dominated the world I grew up in in the 1970s, the left united against American commercial and military imperialism, against its support for dictators all round the globe and, right at the heart of the inferno, the epic mess of the Vietnam War.

The future will be stupid / TV / the internet

Beatty/Bradbury makes it quite clear – there will be no need for government intervention or oppression – ‘technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure’ will manoeuvre the whole population into willingly abolishing books, literature and thinking.

The thrust of the book is that American society is dumbing down into a brainless landscape of immersive video experiences and cheap thrills (wrecking balls, fast cars).

It would be easy to extract from the book all the moments when people’s experiences are mediated through the media: the centrepiece is Mildred’s addiction to her TV soaps, supported by the little TV party she has with her friends who are also fully paid up members of the TV ‘family’.

But, more subtly, the radio is present in the background, at his house, at the firestation, whispering rumours of war.

And then, during his terrified flight, Guy watches his own running relayed, first on Faber’s TV, and then through the lounge windows of the houses he runs past, Guy can see the live helicopter footage of the police chasing him. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous car chase.

On one level the entire book is a sermon against the dumbing down of America. 65 years later how does that message, that fear, hold up?

Personally, despite all temptations to the contrary, to throw your hands in the air and bewail the dumbing down of the social media age, I wonder, I’m more inclined – like Nietzsche – to confront all the woes of the age but, by an effort of will, to overcome them and assert that I don’t think it is.

More books are being sold and read than at any time in human history. Despite its visual content and the streaming of TV and video over laptops and smartphones, in reality the internet is still largely a reading experience. People read texts and tweets and emails. And argue and discuss them, all the time, in epic, unprecedented numbers.

Sure, most of the twitter storms and media frenzies which make the headlines are pitiful and stupid: but so was most of the arguing in pubs and front rooms and beauty salons for the last hundred years; the only difference now is that anyone can read the outpourings of everyone else.

We may be appalled at the stupidity of much of what appears on the internet, but a moment’s reflection suggests there is also an unprecedented wealth of highly intelligent, thoughtful and stimulating material out there – TED talks, millions of interesting blogs, countless new sources of detailed statistics, data and information.

In fact probably more people are taking part in written-down debates and arguments than at any point in human history. You may not like a lot of what is being written and debated and discussed, but books are not being burnt. There is no tampering with free speech in the free West. Quite the opposite: there has been an unprecedented explosion of quite literally, free speech.

If you give in, if you submit to the headlines about Trump and Brexit it is easy to despair. But then there was much more to despair about when Europe went to war in 1914, about the chaos of the 1920s, about the rise of fascism in the 1930s, about the world war of the 1940s, about the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s, about the widespread economic collapse of the 1970s, about the renewed Cold War confrontation of the 1980s. Relative to all those periods of global chaos and holocaust, the present seems amazingly peaceful and free.

The affluent society

In the 1950s and 60s American intellectuals worried that people were becoming so affluent, so comfortable and easy, that their lives were becoming hollow and meaningless. Mildred is the symbol of that feared, valium future, with her addiction to immersive TV soaps and her seashell headphones and the telltale suicide attempt in the opening pages which reveals for all to see how hollow and empty that life really is.

It was only reading some of the critiques of the book by young contemporary bloggers that I realised how this is an overlooked aspect or theme of the book, because that sense of American wellbeing has disappeared.

In the book everyone is middle class and has pretty much all they want. Money and jobs aren’t an issue. The problem is that everyone is entertaining themselves to death. The fundamental basis of the book is that America is too wealthy and how corrupting that affluent complacency became.

Whereas the last ten to twenty years have seen the reverse. For the first time American living standards have fallen. For the first time children can expect to be worse off than their parents. For the first time the ‘squeezed’ middle class is experiencing declining wages and standards of living. This – from everything I read – is the background to the revolt against the political establishment which gave rise to Trump, the unhappiness of huge parts of America which have experienced long-term economic decline.

Behind the louder themes of dumbing down, and nuclear war, and burning books, and a repressive society – possibly this quiet subtler thread is now the most telling part of the narrative. It foresaw an America which got steadily richer and richer and more and more hollow. For some decades, into the Me Generation 1970s, this seemed to be the case. But now, from the vantage point of rust belt, opioid-addicted America, Bradbury’s concern about the country becoming too wealthy, affluent and complacent seems like a period piece.

Although, on the face of it, a nightmare dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 is in fact a message in a bottle from a much happier, much more optimistic era in history.

Movie adaptation

Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by French director François Truffault. He was hot property in the 1960s. His adaptation looks incredibly clunky to us, now,


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 – 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
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

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

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1953)

This is the third of the original Foundation trilogy of books although, as explained in my reviews of the previous two, these books are not in fact ‘novels’ at all. They are volumes into which the original linked short stories Asimov wrote about the Foundation for Astounding Science Fiction magazine were later collected.

This third volume contains the final two stories of the original eight Asimov wrote between 1941 and 1950, namely Search By the Mule (originally published in the January 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title “Now You See It—”) and Search By the Foundation (originally published in the November and December 1949 and January 1950 issues of Astounding Science Fiction under the title “—And Now You Don’t”).

1. Search By the Mule (74 pages)

It is just five years since the events of the previous story i.e. about 315 years since the establishment of the Foundation or 315 F.E. (Hard core fans of the stories can read a detailed timeline of the events in the original and all the later spin-off stories, on Wikipedia.)

The human mutant known only as ‘The Mule’ has taken over the Foundation and used it as a base to expand his power across that Quadrant of the Galaxy. He is now referred to as the First Citizen.

During the previous story, he had learned that there is a Second Foundation, somewhere at the opposite end of the galaxy. The dying psychologist Ebling Mis had been on the verge of telling him its location when he (Mis) was blasted to oblivion by his companion, Bayta Darell, thus temporarily frustrating the Mule’s plans to locate and conquer it.

This story opens with the Mule commissioning two men to set off together to locate the Second Foundation – Han Pritcher, originally a Foundation man opposed to the Mule, who has been ‘converted’ by into a slavish follower by the latter’s psychic powers, and Bail Channis, an ‘unconverted’ man who has impressed the Mule with his unscrupulous ambition.

The reader can be pretty sure that a Second Foundation does exist because after just one chapter Asimov inserts the first of what turn out to be five INTERLUDES in which we briefly overhear the thoughts of the Executive Council of the Second Federation as it reacts to news that the Mule is looking for them.

Channis has a theory the Second Foundation is on a star system named Tazenda, so that’s whither he and Pritcher head in their hyperspace-travelling space ship.

Meanwhile, Pritcher broods on the Mule’s account of what he had seen, via telepathy, in the mind of the dying psychologist, Ebling Mis at the end of the previous story. He had seen that Mis had been surprised. There was something unexpected about the Second Foundation. What could that be?

Oooh, the suspense!

Channis and Pritcher dislike each other. They land on the planet Rossem, an outlier of the sector where Channis thinks the Second Foundation is located. There are some quite entertaining descriptions of the peasant inhabitants of this out-of-the-way planet – in effect caricature peasants out of a children’s book about the Dark Ages transplanted into a sci-fi environment.

But the real thrust of the story, as so often in Asimov, is nothing to do with planets or aliens or space: it is a power struggle between humans, in this case the odd couple Channis and Pritcher.

The latter becomes convinced that Channis is a Second Foundation plant. He pulls out an atom blaster and confronts him. Channis replies by pointing out that he’s noticed Pritcher getting more and more moody. Is it possible that Second Foundation telepaths have been interfering with Pritcher’s mind. As Channis describes why they might do this and what it would feel like, Pritcher begins to doubt his own moods and motivations.

As they stand in this tableau, Pritcher covering Channis with his atom blaster, the Mule walks into the room! Yes, he has been following them!

The Mule adds his interpretation to what is going on, initially making Pritcher think that he is indeed under Second Foundation mind-control but then – switching things round to accuse Channis of being a Second Foundation spy, thus proving initial Pritcher’s suspicions correct.

Hopefully it’s as obvious to you as it is to me that, in its basic structure, this is next to nothing to do with science fiction. It bears much more resemblance to a detective story, even to an Agatha Christie mystery where the great Hercules Poirot commands a grand final scene in which he reveals the true identity of the murderer.

Like a Christie novel, Asimov is very talky. There’s little or no action. The ‘interest’ is in the revelation of the ‘real’ motives of the characters. And ever since he introduced the idea that the Mule is a telepath who can take over people’s minds, and that the Second Foundation are also telepaths who can take over people’s minds, the result is that even the main characters come to doubt their own motives. Nobody knows what’s going on.

There’s a tense moment when the Mule, having taken the atom blaster from Pritcher, and having proved to both of them that Channis is indeed the traitor – at just the moment the Mule is about to pull the trigger and obliterate Channis, the latter uses his telepathic powers to remove the ‘conversion’ from Pritcher’s mind – in other words, removes Pritcher from the Mule’s control.

In that split second the Mule feels a surge of hatred from Pritcher – once his bitter enemy and now restored to that position – and Channis points out that if he, the Mule, zaps him, Channis, that will give Pritcher the milliseconds he needs to throw himself upon the Mule, grab the blaster and zap him, the Mule.

In actual fact, a moment’s reflection suggests this isn’t so – that the Mule could zap Channis then turn and zap the newly liberated Pritcher, as we have all seen happen in literally thousands of American cop shows and movie thrillers. But it’s enough of a pretext for the trio to be brought to an impasse.

Cut to the next scene in which just the Mule and Channis confront each other, because Pritcher, under the mental strain of having been liberated from the Mule’s mental control, has lapsed into unconsciousness.

Except that now the First Mind of the Foundation is also present in the dialogue. In a series of telepathic conversations the Mule tells the First Voice that he knows that Tazenda is the Second Foundation, which is why his fleet has just destroyed it and is now on its way to collect him from Rossem.

Under extreme emotional pressure from the Mule, Channis reveals that Tazenda is not the Second Foundation, Rossem (where they are standing) is. So the Mule announces that his fleet will now come to Rossem and destroy it.

At which point the First Speaker reveals that he and the other Second Foundationers had brainwashed Channis into thinking Rossem is the Second Foundation – but it isn’t!! What??

The Mule hesitates a moment at this new revelation and, it turns out, this is the moment the entire plan has been waiting for. In that millisecond of hesitation, the First Speaker slips into the Mule’s mind, bringing him a new peace and contentment.

The Mule looked up and said: ‘Then I shall return to Kalgan?’
[First Speaker] ‘Certainly. How do you feel?’
‘Excellently well.’ His brow puckered: ‘Who are you?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Of course not.’ He dismissed the matter, and touched Pritcher’s shoulder: ‘Wake up, Pritcher, we’re going home.’
It was two hours later that Bail Channis felt strong enough to walk by himself. He said: ‘He won’t ever remember?’
[First Speaker] ‘Never. He retains his mental powers and his Empire – but his motivations are now entirely different. The notion of a Second Foundation is a blank to him, and he is a man of peace. He
will be a far happier man henceforward, too, for the few years of life left him by his maladjusted
physique. And then, after he is dead Seldon’s Plan will go on – somehow.’

So, as with all of these stories, there’s little or no science or outer space-type content: a) what it boils down to is the confrontation of just a few human characters and their psychological powerplays and b) it ends with a twist.

The multiple revelations of who was controlling whose mind to reveal multiple levels of deceit all turn out to be decoys leading up to that one moment of weakness the First Speaker had been waiting for all along, the moment when his telepathic powers could infiltrate the Mule’s mind and pacify it.

And it works. The Mule goes quietly away and lives out the remaining five years of his life in peace and contentment, ceases looking for the Second Foundation, rules wisely on an empire centred on the planet Kalgan. Then dies.

Search By the Foundation (146 pages)

Twice the length of the previous story, Search by the Foundation is an even more contorted version of bluff, double bluff, triple bluff, quadruple bluff, before bringing the series to an unlikely and rather disappointing conclusion.

It starts 60 years after the first part, 55 years after the Mule’s death by natural causes. Asimov centres the entire long story on a teenage girl, the grand-daughter of the heroic Bayta Darrell who we followed in The Mule. Arcadia Darell is 14, a wide-eyed innocent who likes dressing up like movie stars, wishes she was a grown-up, plays with make-up, her head full of romantic ideas.

We are introduced to her father and a small group of Foundation experts who are concerned about the existence of the Second Empire. The premise of the story is that the Foundation itself risks falling into complacency under the illusion that the mysterious Second Foundation, wherever it is, will protect them forever. Arcadia’s father and his small group are concerned not only about this, but with the fear that the Second Foundation is actively taking over people’s minds.

Which is why he is developing the science of electroencephalography i.e. the reading of people’s brain waves in order to a) identify them, like fingerprints b) identify who has been taken over by telepaths.

The group of five meet in top secrecy, convinced that ‘they’ are out to get them. They decide to send one of their number, Homir Munn, an academic with the largest home collection of Muliana, to the planet Kalgan, in order to enter the Palace which has been kept locked up since the Mule died, and find out if the solution to the mystery is there.

They think the Second Foundation must be on Kalgan. Why? Anthor, the newest youngest recruit to the band of conspirators argues this theory based on the fact that a) although it was not his planet of origin, the Mule chose to make Kalgan the base for his short-lived rule. Anthor argues that the Mule did that, because he was influenced by the Second Foundation to stay close to their base, to stay under their control.

Long story short – Arcadia, full of school girl naughtiness, stows away on Munn’s little spaceship and hops a ride with him to Kalgan. After his initial surprise and dismay, he discovers she’s a confident girl / young lady and they get along fine. Indeed, Arcadia turns out to be useful when they get to Kalgan.

Kalgan is now under the rule of an heir to the Mule, Lord Stettin, and he turns out to be under the thumb of his tubby, ageing mistress, Lady Callia. The idea is that, although Lord Stettin is tall, brutal and imperious, and is constantly vowing to rid himself of her simpering presence, somehow Lady Callia lingers on in the court, continues – to his great irritation – to call him ‘Poochie’, and somehow the Lord ends up making the decisions that she first suggests.

After various melodramatic scenes in which Munn is at first refused permission, and then granted permission, to enter the Mule’s old palace – and after the rather embarrassing scenes where Asimov takes it upon himself to describe encounters between a skittish schoolgirl and an aged courtesan – Arcadia has a sudden insight: she realises that plump Lady Callia is in fact a Second Foundation agent; and she realises where the Second Foundation is!!!

She realises all this while the Lady Callia herself helps Arcadia to run away because the beastly Lord Stettin is thinking about making her (Arcadia) his new consort!!

Evading Munn and the First Lord’s police, Arcadia makes her way to Kalgan’s space travel terminus, where she bumps into a kindly married couple, Preem Palver and wife. They cover for her when the police come to check everyone’s identity papers, and then take her with them to Trantor (which, as you’ll remember, was once the capital city of the First Galactic Empire, before it was sacked by barbarians and fell into ruin).

Why Trantor? Because,now that she knows where the Second Foundation is based, she wants to throw the bad guys off the scent.

Settled into the nice suburban household of Pappa and Mamma (as Preem and wife call each other) on Trantor, Arcadia is horrified to learn that war has broken out between the Lord of Kalgan and the Foundation, in which the Kalgan forces destroyed a Foundation fleet.

Through a convoluted bit of explication, Asimov persuades us that this Pappa figure is head of an agricultural combine on Trantor; and that it’s occurred to the now-pastoral Trantorese that the Foundation planets, currently under siege, will need food.

So Preem sets off to visit Terminus (location, in case you’ve forgotten, of the First Foundation). Under this pretext Preem will be able to visit Arcadia’s father and she (Arcadia) gives Preem her father’s address and a message to give to her father. It consists of just five words: A circle has no end!

It is a riddle. But what does it mean?

The final scenes take place in Arcadia’s dad’s house, among the ‘conspirators’.

What Asimov does is have each of the characters present, with lots of evidence, their version of where the Second Foundation is. Munn, just returned from the Mule’s Palace on Kalgan, is now convinced that The Second Foundation doesn’t exist.

There’s a lot of palavah with Dr Darell’s new encephalography machine to determine whether he is under the control of Second Foundation telepaths.

In fact, the encephalography machine shows that Munn has been telepathically interfered with. This gives the fiery young gun, Pelleas Anthor, the chance to leap up and harangue the group, saying this proves that Kalgan is the home of the 2nd Foundation, and he has a few pages to pull together the evidence making his case.

Darell then takes the floor and blinds his fellow conspirators (and the reader) with the supposed science behind the Big Idea he’s been working on – namely the possibility of a Mind Resonating Organ, which can control human minds.

He has built it to try and replicate the effects of telepathy. But simultaneously, he has been working on a Mental Static device which counters telepathic control.

Now Darell reveals to his startled colleagues that the Second Foundation is here, on planet Terminus!

He reaches that conclusion by interpreting the ancient words of Hari Seldon, namely that he placed the 2nd Foundation at ‘the other end of the galaxy’. But the galaxy has no end. It is not a straight line, it is a circle. If you follow a circle right the way round you arrive back… where you started!

Thus Darell believes the Second Foundation has grown up among the First Foundation without anyone realising it! Which means that everyone on Terminus will need a copy of Darell’s new invention, the Mental Static device, to protect them from Second Foundation mind control.

So the assembled conspirators decide to try the Mental Static device on themselves and… Anthor falls to the ground in agony!

Yes. Anthor is a second Foundation infiltrator!!

Under questioning the weakened Anthor now admits that a) he is an agent of the 2nd Foundation b) the 2nd Foundation is worried by increasing animosity against it c) they know Darell was on the brink of discovering anti-telepathy technology d) they have fifty or so agents scattered around Terminus and beyond but e) Terminus is not the home of the Second Foundation.

The conspirators arrange for the Second Foundation agents to be rounded up.

A few weeks later Arcadia is now safely back in the suburban home of Dr Darell. He quizzes her and she tells him (and for the first time reveals to the reader) that at the key moment, when Lady Callia was dressing her to escape Lord Stettin’s palce in disguise, that was when she realised, in a flash, through intuition, that Terminus was the seat of the second Foundation. She explains how she gave Preem the message to pass on to her dad, and then fled to Trantor in order to throw them off the scent.

But Darrel panics. He realises that this moment of ‘intuition’ came to Arcadia when she was with Lady Callia – who has been confirmed as a Second Foundation agent!

In other words, the thought that Terminus was home of the Second Foundation was planted in her mind!

In panic fear Darell now runs his famous Encephalographic test on his daughter and… she passes!

Arcadia is not under mind control. The Second Foundation is indeed on Terminus, as she said and Anthor said. And having captured the fifty telepaths they have solved the problem and broken its power.

Can you see why, by this stage of the book, I just didn’t care where the bloody Second Foundation was? It is quite clear it has no real importanceto the story. Figuring out its location doesn’t affect anything, since the conspirators have postulated that a) it doesn’t exist b) it’s on Kalgan c) it’s on Terminus, and none of the options made a scrap of difference. Obviously it doesn’t really matter much where it is.

I was on my knees with boredom when I came to the last few pages of the book. Here, in the final chapter in the story and thus of the original Foundation sequence, is (as so often in Asimov) a dialogue which reveals the real story behind events. The wise old First Speaker of the Second Foundation explains everything to a young trainee telepath, tying up all the loose ends and tucking us into bed.

It is, as so often, more like the denouement of a detective story than the climax of a science fiction epic.

Here at last we learn that the Second Foundation is on Trantor!

When Seldon said he planted the Second Foundation at the ‘other end of the galaxy’ he knew that the galaxy is neither a sphere nor a circle: it is a spiral. The other end of a spiral from the outermost tip where Terminus is, is not the opposite end of the rim, but the centre of the spiral.

Trantor – former capital city of the Empire, where all its resources were.

When the barbarians sacked it they unaccountably left the Great Library untouched – because the Second Foundation telepaths prevented them from entering.

When Ebling Mis expressed surprise after all his research in the Trantor archives – it was surprise to find that the secret was under their very noses!

And when Arcadia passed the encephalography test? It was because she was born on Trantor and the Second Foundation took control of her mind, as soon as she was born. Her brain patterns were consistent all the way through her life, and also after her trip to Kalgan when she had been decoyed away from the truth by the telepath Lady Callia – because Arcadia had spent her entire life under Second Foundation control. They had foreseen that she would have a vital role to play. they had co-opted her as a baby.

Now, having fooled the Foundation, the Second Foundation can let it proceed peacefully on its allotted course to rebuild civilisation and remake a Second Empire more glorious than the first – under the impression that they are doing all this free from fiendish Second Foundation telepath control – but in fact the Second Foundation will continue to guard and protect it.

All according to the great Hari Seldon’s plan.

Ta-dah!

But Asimov has one last gag up his sleeve. The identity of the First Speaker, the solemn, all-wise figure who has guided the Second Foundation through this crisis and successfully preserved its secret identity and location and who is even now explaining all of this to the young trainee?

Preem Palver, the supposedly bumbling, kindly old man who took Arcadia under his wing when she was fleeing to Trantor, and who she then begged to take her father a message! It was all a cunning plot after all.

Boom boom!!!!


Asimov’s style

I took Asimov’s style to pieces in my previous post, maybe a bit harshly. A lot of the time he writes fairly clearly and comprehensibly. For example, I’ve just read this scene, where Channis is using a 3-D map of the galaxy to explain something to General Pritcher:

The Lens was perhaps the newest feature of the interstellar cruisers of the day. Actually, it was a complicated calculating machine which could throw on a screen a reproduction of the night sky as seen from any given point of the Galaxy.

So far, so good. But as soon as he tries to describe emotion, intent, or interaction between characters, Asimov’s cack-handedness kicks in:

‘What is it you’re trying to show me?’ Pritcher’s level voice plunged icily into the gathering
enthusiasm of the other.

Not elegant phraseology, is it? You can see what he’s driving at, but have to help him out a bit. Then comes a good, clear descriptive paragraph.

Pritcher had watched the phenomenon of Lens Image expansion before but he still caught his breath. It was like being at the visiplate of a spaceship storming through a horribly crowded Galaxy without entering hyperspace. The stars diverged towards them from a common center, flared outwards and tumbled off the edge of the screen. Single points became double, then globular. Hazy patches dissolved into myriad points. And always that illusion of motion.

Good, strong, clearly visualised images conveyed in clear declarative prose. Unfortunately, as so often happens, Asimov then strives for an effect which he can’t quite put into words –

The darkness was spreading over the screen. As the rate of magnification slowed, the stars slipped off the four ends of the screen in a regretful leave-taking. At the rims of the growing nebula, the brilliant universe of stars shone abruptly in token for that light which was merely hidden behind the swirling unradiating atom fragments of sodium and calcium that filled cubic parsecs of space.

The ‘regretful’ thought could have been expressed more clearly, more elegantly. And I don’t understand the second sentence.

So it might be fairer to summarise Asimov’s style as frequently clear enough to convey his meaning – but routinely disfigured by a striving for visual, logical or emotional effects which he lacks the skill, as a writer, to bring off. By a regular flatfooted cack-handedness.

The Elders of this particular region of Rossem were not exactly what one might have expected. They were not a mere extrapolation of the peasantry; older, more authoritative, less friendly… The dignity that had marked them at first meeting had grown in impression till it had reached the mark of being their predominant characteristic.

What? All through the book are numerous occasions on which the reader sort of understands what Asimov appears to be driving at but has to give the writing quite a lot of help. It’s like watching a toddler learning to ride a bicycle – long stretches of unexpected success, but then – whoaaah! – he falls off and needs to be helped back onto the bike with a few words of encouragement.

There are perhaps men in the Galaxy who can be confused for one another even by men at their peaceful leisure. Correspondingly, there may be conditions of mind when even unlikely pairs may be mis-recognized. But the Mule rises above any combination of the two factors.

What does that mean? Even when Asimov is writing Flash Gordon / Dan Dare-type dialogue, chances are he will trip over his own shoelaces.

‘You clumsy fool! Did you so underestimate me that no combination of impossible fortuities struck you as being too much for me to swallow?’

Worldly wise

One element of the appeal of the thousands of space opera sagas like this is the way they flatter the reader.

Asimov – still only in his 20s – is able to assume lofty man-of-the-world pose in his prose (despite knowing little or nothing about the actual world we live in) because he has created a world, a galaxy, about which he can make grand sweeping statements, without having to worry about contradiction.

And those readers who buy into this premise enjoy the benefits of bethinking themselves into his shoes, colossuses who bestride planetary systems, star quadrants, sectors of the galaxy, who eat imperial politics up for breakfast.

Rossem is one of those marginal worlds usually neglected in Galactic history and scarcely ever
obtruding itself upon the notice of men of the myriad happier planets.

Ah, one of those systems, eh? Yes, I know all about them, a seasoned old hyperspace traveller like myself.

And this is connected to the theme of the series, the decline and fall of great empires. In reality actual, real-world history is extremely difficult and contested. I have now read enough books on the subject to realise that modern historians no longer speak of a Dark Age after the fall of the Roman Empire. The legal and economic structures of the Roman Empire lingered on for centuries, and were co-opted in different ways by successive non-Roman rulers. It is an extremely complicated and contradictory picture, which modern archaeology is making more complex all the time.

By contrast, this space opera trilogy not only uses cardboard cutout characters (goodies versus baddies, the shrewd versus the dumb) in often grating prose and painful dialogue – but it is based on a cartoonishly simple-minded caricature of how history and politics work.

A cartoon version which allows Asimov to make great sweeping gestures, untroubled by having to deal with the inconvenient complexities which characterise actual human history. This can be hugely enjoyable. so long as you’ve switched your brain off.

Imperial history flowed past the peasants of Rossem. The trading ships might bring news in impatient spurts; occasionally new fugitives would arrive – at one time, a relatively large group arrived in a body and remained – and these usually had news of the Galaxy.
It was then that the Rossemites learned of sweeping battles and decimated populations or of tyrannical emperors and rebellious viceroys. And they would sigh and shake their heads, and draw their fur collars closer about their bearded faces as they sat about the village square in the weak sun and philosophized on the evil of men.

Oooh ar, me hearties! Hairy old peasants sitting in the sunshine reflecting on the evils of men. It is like a scene from Asterix the Gaul.

Preposterous premises

The plot immerses you straight into its world of Galactic Empires and drags the reader along into its thriller-style, detective story mechanisms of suspense quickly enough to nearly make you overlook the fundamental problems of the entire conception. In the Foundation books:

  1. The entire galaxy is populated with human beings, and no other life forms.
  2. All humans speak the same language – all the characters from no matter which planets, no matter how many billions of miles apart, speak and understand English, and American English at that – I enjoyed how the taxi driver on Trantor who gives Arcadia a lift is made to talk like a New York taxi driver – it’s another of Isaac’s little jokes, but symptomatic of the oddly parochial feel of the stories.
  3. All these people without exception understand and use the same technologies, whether they’re at the supposed agriculture or coal-and-oil, or atomic power levels of civilisation. I.e. none of the characters, even the peasants, are confused by anything they see or hear. Everything is clear.
  4. There are no alien species anywhere in this galaxy. The more I think about it, the weirder that is, for science fiction.
  5. Which is just part of the way that there is little or no surprise or confusion or wonder or awe in any of the stories. The only surprises are the Hercules Poirot style revelations at the climax of each story when we realise is was the butler all along.
  6. Nothing at all happens which can’t be explained by basic GCSE-level history or psychology.  At bottom, the same thing happens in all of the stories; one bunch of people try to outwit another bunch, the good guys win, but there’s a surprise twist in the tail.

There is, in other words, a complete absence of the weird, the strange, the uncanny, the inexplicable, the horrifying – all the qualities which I, personally, enjoy in the best science fiction.

Instead it is just a preposterous space opera told in barely literate English.

Book covers

The original 1950s Gnome Publishing editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation

The original 1950s Gnome Publishing editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation

Space opera

Only now, having read and reflected on the trilogy, do I feel I understand what space opera is. Having looked it up, I learn that ‘space opera’ is defined by two critics, Hartwell and Cramer, as:

colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.

Foundation ticks these boxes. It is set not just in the future, but in the far distant future. It is entirely in outer space i.e. earth makes no appearance. The protagonist of each story is usually a clean-cut hero, from wise old Hari Seldon to swashbuckling trader Hober Mallow: there is certainly never any doubt who the good guys are. The stakes could hardly be higher – the future of the Galaxy.

And, what for me is the defining characteristic, it is optimistic in tone. The good guys win. Society is saved. Everything’s going to be just dandy, reflecting the enormous optimism of 1940s America. Honey, I’m home and the boss just gave me a raise!


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
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

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 Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. (p.191)

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist and diplomat. He worked for the state radio company before the war and went underground in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. After Poland’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, Miłosz was initially sympathetic to the communist regime and served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. But in 1951 he defected and spent the rest of his life in the West, teaching in American universities and, in 1970, became a U.S. citizen.

He wrote a lot. The Penguin edition of his collected poems runs to 800 pages. And this poetic output ran alongside numerous essays of literary criticism. In 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Captive Mind

Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind in Paris after his defection, in the years 1951 and 1952. As he explains in the preface, French intellectuals of the post-war period were bitterly resentful of America for liberating them and turned to the Soviet Union as a model for post-war society. He aimed to set them straight on the reality of life under a communist regime.

The result is a long, often circuitous, but in the end comprehensive and compelling description of the mentality, the climate of thought, the experiences and mind-set of intellectuals in Poland and the surrounding countries as they emerged from the ruinous Second World War and found their nations and cultures slowly taken over by Russian communism, forcing them to decide whether to collaborate, acquiesce or – eventually – defect, as Miłosz did.

Literary comparisons

Miłosz is a poet not a political analyst, and the early chapters use some pretty roundabout methods to make their point.

For example, the first chapter takes a detour through Insatiability, an avant-garde novel by pre-war Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz which describes a decadent, faithless, modern society being menaced by an approaching Asiatic army. This army is fortified by the philosophy of Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher who preached acceptance of life and whose beliefs, through the wonders of modern science, can now be replicated by taking Murti-Bing pills.

As the army approaches, an advance guard of peddlers starts hawking the pills of Murti-Bing to the inhabitants of the decadent society and everyone who takes one suddenly forgets all their troubles, all the questions about life which were making them anxious, becoming calm and accepting. Outcome: the Eastern hordes conquer the country and impose Murti-Bingism on the population; everyone takes Murti-Bing pills and becomes happy but, deep down, still feel an unappeasable unease. Miłosz uses this story as an analogy for the way communism invaded and converted his people, and strings the analogy out for an entire chapter.

The third chapter focuses on ‘Ketman’, a concept Miłosz came across in a book written by the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau – namely his Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. According to Gobineau, Ketman is a protective attitude of silence and opaqueness adopted by men living in Muslim-dominated lands who are not themselves Muslims, a way of keeping your most personal beliefs to yourself. There are several pages of direct quotation from Gobineau and explications of Ketman, before Miłosz goes on to apply this idea to people living under Soviet rule who conform but don’t believe. Because under a communist regime, everyone is an actor. Everyone acts all the time till it becomes second nature. Everyone lies, deceives, keeps their thoughts to themselves.

As these examples suggest, The Captive Mind is a very literary book, the opposite of a history or sociology or philosophical analysis. It covers numerous issues and ideas around the fatal allure of communist belief, but by way of thoughts and feelings, personal stories, anecdotes and insights, more than structured argument.

Four portraits

The central 100 pages of the book are made up of four portraits of Polish writers who Miłosz knew when they were youths together, and who each capitulated, in different ways, to the demands of the Communist state. They are given abstract names –

  • Alpha, the Moralist
  • Beta, The Disappointed Lover
  • Gamma, the Slave of History
  • Delta, the Troubadour

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a moment’s search reveals them to be, respectively:

  • the Catholic novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski (b.1909) who, in this telling, is argued round into submission to communism and writes a lengthy self-criticism of his previous objections to the system
  • the poet and short story writer Tadeusz Borowski (b.1922) who experiences two years in Auschwitz and emerges bitter and angry, before throwing his nihilistic flame into the service of the party
  • the poet, novelist and politician Jerzy Putrament (b.1910) of rough peasant stock, whose sojourn in Russia leads him after many tribulations to become a cultural supremo, controller of magazines and publishers, with the fate of scores of other writers in his gift
  • the absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (b.1905), a wonderfully eccentric-sounding man whose carefree imagination was crushed by the system

I vaguely remember that, when I first read this book in the late 1980s, I was disappointed with the psychological aspect, the literariness of these portraits because I was looking for political argument and debating points. Now, rereading them, I am really impressed by the depth of insight and sympathy he shows for these talismanic members of his generation, and his feel for the terrible things they lived through and the fateful choices they made.

His portrait of Tadeusz Borowski, a scornful young poet who survived two years in Auschwitz and wrote pitilessly accurate stories about it, before deciding to return to Poland and become a journalist writing increasingly hectic and vitriolic articles against the West and its corruption, before committing suicide at the age of 28 – is particularly haunting and terrifying.

Also, because each writer’s biography passes through the same walls of fire – the Russian invasion of 1939, the German invasion of 1941, the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army liberation and then the slow strangling of civil life by the New Faith – it is like seeing the same scenes through different windows, or captured by different photographers, retold from different points of view. Taken together – and because each portrait itself references the subject’s other friends and colleagues, wives, lovers or children – the four portraits build up into an insightful and terribly moving portrait of an entire generation.


The appeal of communism

So rather than follow the ‘argument’, it might be better to pick out key points which emerge from the text. Here are some of the key reasons Miłosz describes as explaining the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and its strong appeal to people of all classes.

Revulsion from fascism The pre-war period was dominated by extreme right-wing parties whose main policy was anti-Semitism. Society was visibly unjust with huge discrepancies in wealth. Land ownership, in particular, was flagrantly unfair. Therefore, like many other educated young people, Miłosz thought only leaders true to a socialist programme would be able to rebuild Poland in such a way as to abolish the obvious unfairnesses.

The destruction of liberal values The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe devastated existing values. Westerners, particularly Americans, simply can’t conceive what it is like to have your city divided into sections, each to be inhabited by different races, one of which is randomly shot in the streets, packed in cattle cars and taken off to be incinerated, while anyone who complains or even makes the wrong facial expression, can be arrested and tortured to death. Streets full of ruined houses, the inhabitants reduced to scrambling for mouldy bread in the ruins. People taking false names, going underground, while neighbours disappear without explanation. The complete abolition of all the fixed points of civil society which those in peaceful societies, or the West, take for granted.

But the New Faith stood the test of this destruction. It encountered and prevailed against the most nihilistic ideology in history. Its true believers organised and survived even the worst atrocities. Communism seemed to be an earthy, practical politics, which taught how to organise and fight back. The Nazis created a devastated environment which went a long way to destroying bourgeois liberal ideals, and preparing the ground for the communist takeover.

Stealthy takeover But, Miłosz says it’s important to realise that, even under these circumstances, the post-war communist takeover didn’t happen all at once, but proceeded by slow steps. Initially, social democrats and peasant parties were allowed to take part in government and everyone thought there would be true democracy.

The wish to fit in Intellectuals and Western commentators underestimate the basis human wish fit in. ‘There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness’ (p.6) in most people. Once the New Faith gains ground, many people go with it in order to conform, to be happy. They’re not particularly afraid, they just don’t want to stand out.

Communism as an alternative religion For centuries, the highest and lowest in the land, intellectuals and peasants, kings and carpenters, shared the same belief system and so felt united, joined, linked, at home, shared a common faith and language of symbols, and rituals. The death of God not only plunges intellectuals into crisis but deprives an entire people of their cultural unity. Communism restores this: everyone in a communist society reads the same books, thinks the same thoughts, reveres the same symbols. Many rebelled from the start and many came to see them as a stupid sham – but many, many people were deeply nostalgic for that ideological unity and wanted to feel part of a movement whose language and beliefs could be understood by illiterate peasants and the most sophisticated intellectuals. The solidarity of belief offered a refuge from the miserable alienation of so many between-the-wars intellectuals, so many of whom fantasised about becoming one with ‘the masses’, throwing in their lot with the workers etc. But it wasn’t just them: communism offered a mental home to everyone.

(This prompts the thought, What unifies us, now, today in 2017, if we don’t have religion or communism? How come we aren’t all stricken with the alienation and angst that the writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on about so?  I would hazard a guess that it’s consumerism. From kings to carpenters, peasants to princes, we are all united in our worship of mobile phones, cars, TVs and trainers. Consumerism has been the religion of the West for some time, maybe since the 1950s, and, with the advent of digital devices, shows no sign of going away, in fact is invading every aspect of our lives. What else unites rich and poor, black and white, in such a shared set of values and symbols?)

The importance of writers More than giving them a new sense of meaning and purpose, communism also gave far more respect to writers, artists and composers than the pre-war regimes, which by and large ignored them. That’s because the Soviet programme of re-engineering society requires constant propaganda and it is writers, artists and composers who must perform this propaganda role. Big rewards for those who comply – prison or exile for those who don’t.

Revenge But Miłosz also points out the pleasures of revenge offered by the triumph of communism. Pre-war artists were despised by the bourgeoisie. Under the New Faith these same writers were praised while the bourgeoisie who had once looked down on them, was arrested. Ha ha ha. And of course it goes much wider than artists. All kinds of people who were despised and humiliated in bourgeois society, now triumph – workers and peasants lord it over factory owners and aristocrats. Communism catered to a very human appetite for revenge.

Socialist realism Unfortunately, it took a while for these artists to realise that the doctrine of Socialist Realism runs directly counter to the role of the artist through the ages, at least a Miłosz defines it. Miłosz thinks the role of the artist is ‘to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, and to tell the truth as he sees it’. Many sincerely thought they needed to repress this bourgeois subjectivity in order to join the March of History. The four portraits of Polish communist writers each indicate the price they had to pay for obeising themselves to the new regime’s demand for Socialist Realism.

Significance Tied to the psychological issue of conquering absurdity and finding meaning in life, is the related idea that most artists, writers etc not only want to write and publish, they wish their work to mean something: to have significance. In the communist states they could either soldier on, producing their own individualist ‘visions’ against the increasingly monolithic state culture; or they could join ‘the March of History’ and all their work would, at a stroke, become validated and meaningful.

The West Some Eastern writers and artists looked to the West for inspiration or alternative paths, but most saw – with disgust – that art and culture in the West was carrying on as if nothing had happened, no Holocaust, no extermination of peoples or destruction of cities or undermining of all bourgeois values. They carried on churning out glamorous movies and high fashion and decorative art for the rich. Disgusting! Communist ideology not only supplied objective reasons to justify the disgust of many Easterners for Western ignorance, but had the additional bonus that communism predicted the West would, in due course, also go through the fire and brimstone of revolution. In other words, communist ideology encouraged Eastern writers and artists to feel not only morally superior to their silly bourgeois counterparts in the West, but to consider themselves pioneers, way ahead of the West in experience and social development

Hence, Miłosz laments, the attitude of the Eastern intellectual to the West is that of a disappointed lover. He wishes the West were better. He wishes the West used its freedoms and technological superiority to better purpose. He wishes the West was free for something useful, noble and uplifting, instead of shiny vulgar consumerism.

Snobbery For Eastern communism also offered a simple appeal to snobbery. Eastern intellectuals were encouraged to feel superior to the shocking ‘vulgarity’ of Western culture: Hollywood movies, chewing gum, popcorn, fast cars, jeans, sneakers – what shallow, vulgar materialists! From Paris via Berlin to Moscow, adherents of communist ideology were convinced that the New Society would produce, alongside a superior economy, a superior culture, a culture proclaiming the New Socialist Man and a New Socialist Society of freedom and equality.

This was to be their weakest point. It turns out that, whatever ‘intellectuals’ might say, everyone else in the world does want to wear jeans and shades, to own cars, fridges and televisions which work (unlike the awful, malfunctioning communist products), to own the latest mobile phone.

Informers The ‘new socialist man’ is an informer. Snoops thrive, the more cunning and duplicitous the better, leading to a constant but unspoken war of all against all and ‘the survival of the craftiest’ (p.76). Everyone is watched, or suspects they are being watched. The result is that, in absolutely every social encounter, everyone must act – act a part, act a role, stop yourself saying what you think, run it past your inner censor to see if it could be interpreted as being against the Party, against Russia, against the Leader.

The state which, according to Lenin, was supposed to wither away gradually is now all-powerful. It holds a sword over the head of every citizen; it punishes him for every careless word. (p.219)

The failure of communism

The two long final chapters are devastating indictments of life under Russian communism. The first one gives a searing analysis of how the different classes in Poland have responded to the imposition of Russian-style communism. What came home to me most was the way that any kind of personal initiative whatsoever was not just banned but punished. Sell off a few eggs from your hen – you are a ‘speculator’, 5 years in a labour camp. Organise a strike – ‘bourgeois reactionary’, off to labour camp. Set up a youth group without permission – ‘subversive’, labour camp.

You can at least see the logic, according to their own lights, of punishing the bourgeois and the speculator. But the really unbearable irony of the communist system was that the whole grim repressive set-up was supposed to exist for the sake of ‘the workers’ and yet it was the workers who were most dissatisfied with it. The much-vaunted proletariat ended up having to work in the same factories, having ever-increasing demands for productivity imposed on them, with anyone speaking out of turn being arrested and sent to Siberia. And all for worse pay with which they could no longer buy half the things they needed, products which, under the inefficient communist system, were either no longer available or of shockingly bad quality.

Miłosz shows how this inefficiency was the inevitable result of having to factor into the cost of production – whether of agricultural products or factory outputs – the enormous bureaucracy which now infested every level of the communist economy: the huge number of middle managers who counted and tallied every input and output, measuring it all against the Five Year Plan. And the immense cost of the secret police, the state police and the huge army.

All of this was paid for by the sweat of the workers who found their living standard under communism actually declining. No wonder it was workers who led the spontaneous strikes and demonstrations which broke out all across East Germany in 1953.

Russia

Another reason for discontent was the unavoidable fact that the sort of communism they were being forced to submit to was unmistakably Russian in origin and technique, with all that that implied for East Europeans from Warsaw to Berlin, namely that it was backward, crude, unsophisticated, brutal and stupid. Here are some of Miłosz’s references to the wonderful Motherland.

  • It isn’t pleasant to submit to the hegemony of a nation which is still wild and primitive. (p.19)
  • …the Russian inferiority complex… (p.35)
  • Russia has always hated and despised the West, for its prosperity and decadence. (p.43)
  • Russia’s inferiority complex leads her to demand constant homage and assurances of her unquestionable superiority… (p.45)
  • One has but to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. (p.47)
  • Russians, who do not possess the virtue of moderation… (p.51)
  • … a nation which has never known how to rule itself, and which in all its history has never known prosperity or freedom. (p.52)
  • The chief characteristic of the people who practice National Ketman is an unbounded contempt for Russia as a barbaric country. (p.61)
  • The New Faith is a Russian creation, and the Russian intelligentsia which shaped it had developed the deepest contempt for all art that does not serve social ends directly. (p.74)

Communist crimes The result of a failed system imposed by crude barbarians was:

  • Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups… (p.63)

The Terror And so, the grand result of all these factors, is that an inefficient and unpopular system can only possibly be kept in place by the rigorous suppression of all opposition, indeed of all free thought. Insofar as the slightest deviant thought or the slightest outbreak of selling things for a profit contain the germ of the resurgence of hated capitalism, everyone must be spied on and listened to, no heretical thought or word dare go unpunished. The result?

  • When one considers the matter logically, it becomes obvious that intellectual terror is a principle Leninism-Stalinism can never forsake, eve if it should achieve victory on a world scale. The enemy, in a potential form, will always be there… (p.214)

The Baltic states

The final chapter is an essay on the horrible post-war fate of the Baltic states i.e. complete absorption into communist Russia, the collectivisation of their agriculture, the lowering of living standards, the mass deportations to Siberia, the colonisation by Russian civilians, the imposition of Russian culture and language. Because Miłosz was born in Lithuania and later in life insisted on being thought of as a Lithuanian rather than a Polish writer, he is particularly heart-broken by this devastation of his homeland.

The manifold humiliations of the Balts, and the casual references he makes to living under a state of permanent terror, of the liquidation of entire classes and peoples (e.g. the Crimean Tartars), the falsification of culture, the lies about industrial production, the waves of purges and mass arrests, the way everyone is forced to play act and lie, even to themselves, due to the ubiquity of spies and informers – it all builds up to a horrific vision of life in hell and a hell which, amazingly, many leading intellectuals in the West wanted to import into their countries, too. And here he returns to his stated aim of lifting the scales from the eyes of the idiotic pro-communist sympathisers in the West.

Western communists

  • The writer, in his fury and frustration, turn his thoughts to Western communists. What fools they are. He can forgive their oratory if it is necessary as propaganda. But they believe most of what they proclaim about the sacred Centre, and that is unforgivable. Nothing can compare to the contempt he feels for these sentimental fools. (p.20)

Credit

Zniewolony umysł by Czesław Miłosz was published in Polish in Paris by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. This translation into English by Jane Zielonko was published in 1953 by Secker and Warburg. Page references are to the 1985 King Penguin paperback edition.

The translation is excellent. Having waded through the terrible Penguin translations of Albert Camus into stilted, unidiomatic English, it is a joy to read Zielonko’s graceful, clear and compelling prose.

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The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

Related links

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

‘It’s not difficult to get a Double O number if you’re prepared to kill people.’ (p.64)

The casino in question is in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux, just north of Dieppe, near the mouth of the river Somme (p.34), based on the holiday resorts of Deaville and Trouville – ie not the sunny south of France

James Bond is an agent for the British Secret Service. Their offices are in a gloomy building overlooking Regents Park. Its head is ‘M’ (p.14) whose personal secretary is Miss Moneypenny (p.23) who ‘would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical’. Bond has a Double O number because he has killed in the line of duty: to be precise, a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm (p.64 and p. 142).

Bond Biography

Bond lives in a flat in Chelsea. His only personal hobby is ‘one of the last of the 4.5 litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers’, a battleship convertible coupé which he bought in 1933 (p.36). He is given penetrating awareness of everything around him, especially other people’s appearances, particularly women (eg the page-long description of Vesper Lynd pp.38-39).

Vesper thinks Bond looks like a cold, ruthless version of the popular singer and pianist Hoagy Carmichael (p.40), though when Bond himself looks in the mirror he sees cold grey-blue eyes, and a vertical scar down his right cheek, not much like Carmichael (p.57). Asleep, when the warmth and humour have left his eyes, Bond’s features relapse ‘into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.’ (p.13) He is a ‘harsh, cold’ man (p.151).

Le Chiffre

Bond has been sent to Royale-les-Eaux on a mission. The man known as ‘Le Chiffre’ has risen from being a Displaced Person after the War, to become one of the KGB’s top agents in France and undercover paymaster to the 50,000-strong communist-controlled Trade Union of Workers of Alsace, on the border with Germany and therefore an important fifth column if war with Russia breaks out. He is controlled by KGB ‘Leningrad Section III’.

Le Chiffre is a clever man, a cunning strategist, a cool gambler. But he has made a bad mistake. He embezzled a big sum of funds from the Union – funds ultimately belonging to the Russians. With them he bought a chain of a dozen or so brothels and porn shops. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the French government passed a law banning both brothels and porn. He lost the lot. In fear of what will happen when his Soviet paymasters find out, le Chiffre travels to Royale-les-Eaux (which has become a notorious high-stakes gambling centre) and, in the time-honoured fashion of embezzlers who need to pay back their funds, is hoping to get lucky in the casino and win back the money.

The mission

Bond’s mission is to beat le Chiffre at the gambling tables. To humiliate a major Soviet agent and the large communist union he manages, probably leading to le Chiffre being eliminated by his own side, an organisational and propaganda victory for our side. The execution would be done by SMERSH, the Soviet execution agency – a word formed by joining two Russian words smyert shpionam Death to spies! (history & overview given on pages 21 and 147).

Bond has been handed a large amount to gamble with and the ‘cover’ of being a playboy millionaire inheritor of a large fortune in Jamaica. He is helped by Mathis, an agent from the French Deuxième Bureau, and Felix Leiter, from the American CIA (full description page 53).

A connoisseur spy

‘I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink.’ (p.61)

Bond is a connoisseur of good food and drink, of guns, cars and women. Rereading Casino Royale it struck me that:

  • In previous literature, this level of connoisseurship was restricted to aristocratic characters, and not a usual characteristic of the special agent genre, as embodied by John Buchan, Bulldog Drummond or the ordinary bloke heroes of Eric Ambler. One element of Bond’s success is combining the visceral excitement of the spy thriller – traditionally thought of as a pulpy or low genre – with a level of upper-class connoisseurship previously restricted to more high-brow literature.
  • Bond really enjoys the things he likes, and Fleming manages to convey this enjoyment very powerfully. There are not that many stereotypical thriller scenes (one bomb goes off, there’s a very long card game, a car chase and an extended torture scene). What dominates the text is Bond’s supremely sensual enjoyment of what he likes: food, cigarettes, fast cars, fancy drinks, looking at a beautiful woman in expensive clothes.

Bond’s likes

In fact, the word ‘like’ crops up frequently. ‘Bond liked to make a good breakfast’ (p.28): in this instance, half a pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon, and a double portion of coffee without sugar, followed by the first cigarette of the day, ‘a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street’.

The pleasure of good food

When he orders paté de foie gras he makes sure it comes with a porcelain pot of very hot water to dip the knife in so it will cut through the paté more easily (p.45). He gives the barman at the casino very precise instructions to make him a cocktail from – three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken very well until it’s ice-cold, then garnished with a large thin slice of lemon-peel. ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.’ (p.51)

He has one large dinner with the woman assigned to assist him on the mission, Vesper Lynd, which is described in loving detail: Vesper orders caviar (Bond ensures it comes with plenty of toast, always the issue with caviar) then plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes soufflés, and for dessert fraises de bois with a lot of cream; while Bond shares the caviar starter before moving on to a very small tournedos, underdone, with sauce Béarnaise and a coeur d’artichaut, and then (surprisingly) half an avocado with a little vinaigrette for dessert. And champagne to drink, Bond thinks the Taittinger 45, though the sommelier tactfully suggests the Blanc de Blanc Brut 1943 might be more appropriate. Wow.

The pleasure of gambling

During the long scene in the casino where Bond battles Le Chiffre at baccarat, Fleming explains the rules with crystal clarity so that even a non-gambler like myself gets drawn into the exciting battle of wills. Not only explains what’s at stake, but conveys the enjoyment.

‘Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card-rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants… He liked being an actor and spectator… Above all he liked it that everything was one’s own fault…’ (p.47)

The pleasure of BDSM sex

When, after pages of the very long card sequence, Le Chiffre finally loses all his money (and thus Bond’s mission is complete) Bond is fantastically relieved. He cashes his checks and tokens in at the casino bank, then takes Vesper for a drink. Coming down off the tense high of the card game, he imagines having sex with Vesper, but not vanilla sex; rather, sex which involves domination and pain, tears and ecstasy.

He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his. (p.98)

Later, he repeats the same feeling only that, knowing Vesper better, and having become more intrigued by her mystery, he imagines the sexual act with deeper intimacy and fervour.

And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape. Loving her physically would each time be a thrilling voyage without the anticlimax of arrival. She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed. (p.167)

Where it is clear from the context, and from the descriptions of his deepening feelings for Vesper, that the word ‘rape’ is used in a BDSM context, meaning the agreed, permissive role-playing of violent or aggressive domination and submission, which is designed to take its participants to higher levels of sensuality and intimacy. Emphatically not the backstreet violence, the ugly violation of actual real-world rape.

The pleasure of driving a fast car

But before this can happen, Vesper is kidnapped by Le Chiffre’s people and Bond gives chase in the Bentley. Although there are technical descriptions of rear-wheel drives and superchargers and so on, what comes over most in this car chase is the sheer physical pleasure Bond gets from driving a superbly engineered car with supreme skill.

The baddies wait on a bend and lace the road with anti-tyre nails so that Bond’s lovely Bentley crashes at high speed and he is pulled unconscious from the wreckage, taken in the baddy’s car, along with the unconscious Lynd, to an isolated farmhouse and there tortured by Le Chiffre.

The masochistic pleasure of being tortured

Le Chiffre cuts away the seat of a cane chair and has Bond tied naked to it so his genitals are hanging down through the gap. Le Chiffre then proceeds to beat his genitals very hard with a domestic carpet beater until Bond is unconscious with pain, covered in sweat and there is a pool of blood under the chair from his damaged body. As he does so Le Chiffre’s eyes look at him ‘almost caressingly’ (p.120).

Linked to the S&M vision of sex with Vesper, this gross torture scene is part of the sensual world the book inhabits, a world of physical pleasures and terrifying pains. The horrifying torture is the mirror image of the cold showers, the slick grooming, the smooth shaves and bow ties which precede the fine dinners.

It reaches its climax when Le Chiffre, mock sorrowful that Bond has not revealed to him the location of the vast cheque of his winnings (which, understandably, he wants to steal) takes out a big kitchen knife and advances on Bond to emasculate him. ‘Say goodbye to it, Mr Bond’ (p.127). Presumably this means Le Chiffre is going to cut Bond’s penis off.

Le Chiffre had earlier assured Bond that this wasn’t the kind of ‘romantic adventure’ in which the hero is rescued by magic. But in fact it is. As Le Chiffre advances to castrate Bond, a mysterious voice sounds in the gloom. It is an agent of SMERSH sent to terminate him for his stealing of the KGB funds, which Russia has, after all, found out about. ‘Phut’ goes the silenced gun and Le Chiffre falls dead. The SMERSH agent whispers in Bond’s ear that, unfortunately, he has no orders to kill him, but he sadistically carves the Russian character for the first letter of Spionam into his right hand, and departs.

The pleasure of recovery

Out of a fog of anaesthetics Bond surfaces in a French hospital. The police had found his crashed car, searched nearby houses and discovered him and Vesper with the corpses of Le Chiffre and his henchmen. The doctors are (of course) amazed at Bond’s superhuman powers of endurance and, indeed, recovery. Miraculously ‘he’ will heal – ie his testicles, which you would have thought would have been mashed to pieces, will be restored to good working order. What is more restful and pleasurable than lying in a hospital bed, doped with local anaesthetic, being ordered to do nothing, think of nothing, and just be fed and watered day and night?

Vesper’s betrayal

The novel could have ended about here, when Bond – surprisingly – tells Mathis, who’s come to visit him in hospital, that he’s going to quit his job. In a couple of pages of schoolboy philosophising he says it’s getting harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Well, don’t fight for principles, Mathis advises him; fight for the people you love and against the people who are threatening them.

Bond is worried he won’t have healed enough to have sex with Vesper (or anyone) so is sensitive when she visits him in hospital. After visiting every day for a week or more, Vesper says she has found a quiet little boarding house down the coast and arranged for them to stay. They drive there with basic belongings and begin what should be an idyllic beach holiday. There is a sensuous build-up with swimming from the deserted beach, an immaculate home-made French dinner, and then passionate love-making.

But almost immediately Vesper becomes tense and nervous. Next morning Bond catches her making a secretive phone call which she unconvincingly lies about. She is convinced someone has followed them to the boarding house, and when a passing commercial traveller stops for lunch, she tenses with fear.

They continue the days of sunbathing and nights of good food and sex, but Vesper cries half the time and is irreparably sad. There is one last night of love before which Vesper insists on getting tipsy, and then the terrified patron wakes Bond early the next morning (it is the respectable 1950s, so Bond and Vesper had been given separate rooms). Bond rushes down to the hall to find Vesper dead in her bed. She has committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Next to her is a farewell letter in which she reveals that she has been a double agent working for the Soviet MWD for years, ever since the Russians got hold of her Polish RAF pilot lover. The Russians promised he’d be safe if she spied for them. And so for years – years, Bond reflects bitterly, during which he has been gallivanting round the globe like a schoolboy adventurer bumping off cartoon baddies – the real traitor has been working in the heart of his organisation, quietly copying top secret files and sending their contents to Moscow.

Vesper admits that she betrayed every detail of the Le Chiffre mission to Moscow, including Bond’s cover story and aims. In the casino, she distracted Leiter so Le Chiffre’s would-be assassin could come close to killing Bond, with a silenced concealed gun. And, she reveals, her kidnap by Le Chiffre was all a put-up job to entrap him. Vesper goes on to say she genuinely fell in love with Bond but didn’t want to betray her Polish lover, and when she stopped regularly messaging her Paris contact, she knew they would send someone for her, someone from SMERSH. Which explains her irrational fear of the ‘commercial traveller’. So now she’s taken the only way out of her hopelessly tangled, compromised plight.

The bitch is dead

Bond crumples up the letter, all sentiment for her evaporated. All this time she was a spy doing her country inestimable damage. And he had grand-standed in front of Mathis, saying he was ready to marry Vesper and quit the service because he was all confused about the morality of spying. Not any more.

The novel ends with his determination to combat the fear which stands behind all the Soviet agents, the whip hand of SMERSH itself, the instrument of terror which keeps the whole system running. He phones the hot line to London to leave a coded message, that agent 3030 was a double all along. Yes, he said ‘was’ – because ‘the bitch is dead now.’

If Bond was cold and heartless before, he is even colder and more heartless now. If he was wavering about his job and his role, this mission crystallises his determination to shake himself out of it, and take the fight to the enemy.

Thoughts

This is an excellent kick-start to what turned out to be a never-ending series of fictions about the cold, pitiless, sensual, cruel connoisseur spy. All the key ingredients are here, including the final determination to fight the foe forever. And Bond may indeed go on forever…

This first book establishes the narrative pattern: Bond combats one big, central baddy, preferably in exotic foreign locations, where he displays his connoisseur-like enjoyment of the finer things in life and survives numerous physical attacks, before the plot intensifies, he falls into the baddy’s clutches and endures sadistic levels of punishment, before just about defeating the enemy, all accompanied by a sexy lover whose initial coldness he triumphantly overcomes.


Credit

Casino Royale published in 1953 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1953

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler (1953)

‘Funny things some of these old inheritance cases,’ observed Mr Sistrom absently. ‘They make perspectives. A German dragoon of Napoleon’s time deserts after a battle and has to change his name. Now, here we sit, over a hundred years later and four thousand miles away, wondering how to deal with a situation arising out of that old fact.’ (p.63)

These post-War novels of Ambler’s feel slower, more elaborate, more careful and therefore a lot more plausible than the smash-and-grab pre-War thrillers. I thought The Schirmer Inheritance was starting off slowly, as Judgment on Deltchev does – but in fact it carries on slowly. Slow and methodical turns out to be its style.

The story

It is 1807, during the Napoleonic wars. Retreating from defeat through a frozen wasteland a Prussian sergeant named Schirmer deserts his company, rides for days through barren snowbound wastes to a hut with smoke rising. Confronts the inhabitant, a starving woman, she with an axe, he with his carbine. Offers food in return for shelter. She says what food; he shoots his horse: this is the food. They unite and survive, in the winter sow crops, he is integrated into the family as a worker, marries the daughter who had threatened him with the axe, has a son, Karl. More war brings the Russians dangerously close so he and family move west into Germany, but here he risks being identified as a deserter so he changes his suname to Schneider. Wife dies, he marries again and has ten Schneider children, but doesn’t bother to change surname of his one son, Karl Schirmer.

100 years or so later, in 1938 an old lady, Amelia Schneider Johnson, dies in Pennsylvania with no relatives or heirs. When police examine the house they find a tin under her bed with bonds worth some $4 million which she inherited from her brother, Martin Schneider, a soft drinks tycoon, who has no children.

A local law firm is charged with finding if there are any blood relatives. The press get hold of it and some 8,000 (!) people apply for the money (it is still the great Depression in America). The lawyers quickly establish that Amelia was the daughter of German immigrants. The law firm dispatches an investigator to Germany whose work is interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two.

The novel proper gets under way when, soon after the end of the War, junior lawyer George Carey is lumbered with the job of clearing out the entire basement room, which is overflowing with the folders and correspondence from this old case. He stumbles across a box left by the investigator full of intriguing papers and photographs, so he goes to see the retired and ill investigator at his home.

Interviews

This sets the pattern of the novel: piecing together the story by interviewing people, each interview filling in a bit more of the Schirmer family tree and throwing up leads of more people to interview.

  • Moreton: retired investigator. Had established Franz Schirmer’s marriage to Maria Dutka, births of Karl and Hans, his name change, his remarriage, his subsequent ten further children. Establishes that none of them survived to outlive Amelia. Pursues Karl through provincial German records: he had six children: tracked down five who had left no heirs. Which left the sixth, Friedrich b. 1887. He did survive Amelia but had died before Moreton arrived in Bad Schwennheim. But had a son, Johann. Here the trail runs dry, WWII breaks out, Moreton returns to the US, the legal firm drops the case. A key witness had been Father Weichs who knew the Schneider family. So Carey is despatched by his law firm to Paris, where he is provided with a top knotch translator, the young and attractive and ice-cold Miss Kolin, before travelling to Bad Schwennheim to interview…
  • Father Weichs: was confessor to Friedrich Schirmer. He had a bad falling out with his son and daughter-in-law and was sent away. He never met the son, Johann. But he met his son, Johann’s only child, Franz Schirmer, who had become a parachutist during the War, was wounded and chose to convalesce near the last reported location of his beloved grandfather. Father Weichs concedes there were more photographs than Moreton took and stored in the legal file: but they were pornographic, and he burnt them.
  • In Cologne, from old Army records, they find the full biography of Franz Schirmer, reported missing presumed dead in Greece 1944. Next-of-kin Ilse Schirmer, Elsass Strasse. That address is a bombed-out ruin. They discover it actually belongs to the neighbour, Frau Gresser. She tells them that Friedrich, the father, was the real brain, a trained book-keeper. Johann the son was a drunk. However, the family bust up after a fateful evening when Friedrich tried to seduce his daughter-in-law. Johann threw him out, but was useless without him. Meanwhile, she has the letter from Franz the parachutist’s officer, Leubner, informing Ilse that her son was killed in an ambush by Greek partisans at the end of the War.
  • In Geneva, they interview M. Hagen of the Red Cross who was in Greece during the War who provides background to the civil war in Greece, communists versus nationalists. When told where Sergeant Franz was attacked, Hagen says it will have been by communist partisans (ELAS) under the command of one ‘Markos’.
  • They travel to Salonika with an introduction to Colonel Chrysantos of Greek Military Intelligence. His subordinates dig out records which record details of the attack, its location and the partisan leader, Phengaros, who led it. He is still alive, though in prison.
  • They interview Phengaros in Salonika prison. He confirms his leadership of partisans but claims everyone who took part in that particular attack is now dead. The lieutenant accompanying them points out this is simply because Phengaros is protecting any living colleagues and offers to torture him to get the names which Carey embarrassedly rejects.
  • They go to the mountain village of Vodena, to the scene of the actual ambush, and find the graves the German army dug for their comrades killed by the partisans. An old man in the village says the partisans came from a nearby village called Florina.
  • In Florina they meet captain Streftaris who says he can find the truth. he passes them onto the morbidly obese owner of a wine shop, Madame Vassiotis. She confirms that Schirmer was in the lead vehicle of the German convoy, it was blown up by a partisan land mine, his body was in the road, her contacts even secured the burnt strap of  his water-bottle with his name on it. Since Carey hadn’t told the captain the name of the German they were looking for, in his legal opinion this counts as definitive proof that the quest is over. The last possible inheritor of the Schirmer legacy is dead. Case closed. That night he is depressed. it had been colourful and exciting…

So why, when he goes up to his hotel room that night, does he find it has been comprehensively searched and a man is waiting for him in the dark with a gun?

Part two

The man – incongruously a Cockney-accented Brit – puts down his gun, accepts a cigarette from Carey and says he knows all about his investigations. Would he like to know more? Well, be at a certain cafe between 4 and 5pm. Carey is there and finds his bill returned with a scribbled note: be outside the cinema at 8pm. He is and is collected in a battered lorry which drives him and Miss Kolin high up into the mountains, from where they are met and have to stalk over landslides, across country, up paths to a ruined house which is now the HQ of bandits. And into the lighted room where they are sampling the local plum brandy walks – Sergeant Schirmer!

The text then recounts what happened after Schirmer’s convoy was attacked by the Greek partisans in ’44, in a prolonged section of historical flashback which parallels the opening narrative about Franz’s great-great-grandfather. This parallelism between a German on the run in Napoleon’s Europe and in post-Hitler Europe is neatly captured by the jacket illustration of the 1953 Heinemann hardback edition I read. All is explained to Schirmer who is delighted above all to find out the parallel with his ancestor – both sergeants, both deserters, both wounded in the arm, both survivors.

My true inheritance is the knowledge you have brought me of my blood and of myself. So much has changed and Eylau is long ago, but hand clasps hand across the years and we are one. (p.269)

The end

Schirmer refuses his inheritance. Turns out he and the cheeky cockney British Army deserter who accompanies him everywhere, fought together for the Greek communist bandits for four years. But when Tito closed the Yugoslav border to them, the band’s days were numbered and they and a handful of others evolved into genuine bandits and bank robbers. They rob banks and financial houses with the inside help of old communist sympathisers, then retreat a few miles across the border into Yugoslavia where such a small gang is tolerated. To go to America and claim the inheritance would inevitably result in publicity, his photo being everywhere, and risk being extradited back to Greece for his crimes. Instead, he writes George a farewell letter and leaves along with Miss Kolin for parts unknown.

In the most startling twist, Miss Kolin who has been upright and proper and frigid and distant (despite tucking away formidable quantities of brandy at every port of call), Miss Kolin – of slavic birth – who has vehemently denounced German soldiers as murdering rapists, Miss Kolin who – on their second visit to Schirmer’s hideout in the hills, leaves a trail of coloured markers behind them to lead the Greek military to the safe house, Miss Kolin who – when her treachery is revealed – attacks Schirmer and throws bottles at him only to have him punch her, slap her, and punch her again so hard she can’t get back up – against all probability, later that night George hears Schirmer visit Miss Kolin in the room they’ve locked her in – and have sex with her. Loud enough to be heard through walls. In the morning she voluntarily leaves with Schirmer. His note even hints that she wants to marry him and have his children. She has become devoted to him. Funny old world.

a) It is a further parallel with the situation of his great-great-grandfather, who had the stand-off with the starving young peasant woman with the axe. One minute they were going to kill each other. Then they killed and ate the horse. In the spring they married and had children. Same here. Deadly enemies right up to the moment when… they fall into bed together!

b) The Cockney, Arthur, says it takes all sorts. Maybe all she needed was ‘a damn good seeing-to’ all along, though one is wary of such an outrageously sexist interpretation.

c) Maybe it’s an early example in fiction of a woman masochist. Though in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) there is some wild sado-masochistic sex. It’s certainly a first and a new note in Ambler.

d) The same year Schirmer came out, 1953, saw the publication of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Fleming’s novels were to contain large amounts of sadism and masochism. Maybe it was in the spy-pulp-thriller air. Maybe it was socially permissible to write openly about people’s peculiar sexual proclivities. Maybe it was now permissible to describe such things in print as it hadn’t been even a decade earlier…

Anyway, George’s quest has failed. The Schirmer Inheritance will end up reverting to the Commonwealth of Philadelphia ie the government.

George put the letters in his pocket, got his briefcase from his room and walked up through the pine trees. It was a fine, fresh morning and the air was good. He began to think out what he would have to say to Colonel Chrysantos. The Colonel was not going to be pleased; neither was Mr Sistrom. The whole situation, in fact, was most unfortunate.
George wondered why it was, then, that he kept laughing to himself as he walked on towards the frontier. (Last page)

Related links

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

‘I need a drink,’ Spencer said. ‘I need a drink badly.’ (Ch42)

This is a long book about alcohol and alcoholics.

At 464 pages in the current Penguin edition, The Long Goodbye is by some margin the longest of Chandler’s novels. There is the same tough guy attitude as in the earlier novels, the same obsessive notation of eyes and looks (‘They had watching and waiting eyes, patient and careful eyes, cool, disdainful eyes, cops’ eyes.’ Ch 6), the same smart similes (‘I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.’ Ch 13) – but they are less frequent, less helter-skelter than in the taut, supercharged Big Sleep and other earlier novels. All spread across a much bigger acreage of more relaxed, more reflective prose.

Discursive

What distinguishes TLG is its discursiveness: it feels a lot more rambling and long-winded than all the previous books. Whereas in an earlier book he would have been just lighting a cigarette when the phone rang, in this one he has three consecutive customers come into the waiting room and tell him all their woes at length, and then Marlowe reflects on the sorry role of the private eye – and only then does the phone ring and the plot resume.

So passed a day in the life of a P.I. Not exactly a typical day but not totally untypical either. What makes a man stay in it nobody knows. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot or tossed into a jailhouse. Once in a while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting-room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money. (Ch 21)

The world-weary tough guy attitude is still there, but it all moves slower and longer. Eg Marlowe has to track down an absconded alcoholic husband, finds a note by the abscondee mentioning a Dr V, speculates that he is being looked after by a crooked dope doctor whose surname starts with V, spends chapter 15 visiting a friend in a big intelligence company who has files on such doctors, then spends chapters 16, 17 and 18 slowly visiting three crooked doctor Vs, and then chapters 19 and 20 ‘rescuing’ the missing husband and driving him home to his wife. It is all very enjoyable, and the pen portraits of the three doctors are vivid and funny, but that’s 5 chapters just to track a guy down.

In a similarly discursive mood, Chandler takes a couple of pages in chapter 13 to give us a memorable typology of blondes, irrelevant to the plot, but interesting colour. This unbuttoned, rambling chapter is also the one in which he gives Marlowe a famous self-description:

‘I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. the cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.’ (Ch 13)

Loosely phrased, isn’t it? Long sentences, particularly the last one which wears out its welcome before it ends. Whereas the earlier books described things, this one reflects on them, thinks about them – which makes it an enjoyable experience but in a different way.

Changing times/changing crimes

Chandler began writing stories for pulp magazines in 1933 when what was required was blondes and guns and quick bang-bangs and Jimmy Cagney was the screen gangster. The twenty years between then and 1953, when The Long Goodbye was published, saw incredible changes – the Second World War and the Holocaust and the atom bomb and the Cold War – along with the post-War rise of American consumer culture which transformed the settings of the stories, the lifestyles and vocabulary of its characters.

If the earlier books were (very high quality) entertainment, The Long Goodbye is all that with elements of social history which give it a new interest. In particular, the criminalisation of American society which must have seemed a startling new development in the 20s and 30s has settled in to become the American character.

‘I don’t like hoodlums.’
‘That’s just a word, Marlowe. We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us and we are going to keep it.’ (Ch 3)

‘We all made plenty in the black market after the war.’ (Ch 11)

Makes me think of The Godfather which covers the period 1945 to 1955 when the mafia entrenched its control of crime and diversified into all kinds of ‘legitimate’ business ventures until it becomes all but impossible to tell the difference between Big Business and Big Crime.

‘There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,’ Ohls said. ‘Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut from under them and had to sell out for nickels, decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like a pennyweight of old gold, and the five per centers and the big law firms got paid hundred grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn’t, on account of it cut into their profits. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t mu Ivory Soap deal.’
‘You sound like a Red,’ I said, just to needle him. (Ch 39)

In fact the criminals, the big time criminals, are treated with a sort of respect; they are smooth, urbane, confident like Mendy Menendez, and Marlowe enjoys his antagonistic back-chat with them. Chandler’s acid cynicism is reserved for the so-called ‘honest’ professions, for doctors and lawyers and, above all, the police. The depiction of American police as violent, stupid and corrupt is far more terrifying than that of the criminals.

Opinions

Chandler’s dyspeptic view of society is on show more than ever. He was complaining about the sexualisation of his society in the 1940s. It’s only got worse:

Once in a while in this much too sex-conscious country a man and a woman can meet and talk without dragging bedrooms into it. (Ch 22)

What we nowadays call the media fare no better:

  • I threw the paper into the corner and turned on the TV set. After the society page dog vomit even the wrestlers looked good. (Ch 3)
  • [An old chess game he plays through is] a battle without armour, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. (Ch 24)
  • ‘I own newspapers but I don’t like them. I regard them as a constant menace to whatever privacy we have left.  Their constant yelping about a free press means, with a few honourable exceptions, freedom to peddle scandal, crime, sex, sensationalism, hate, innuendo, and the political and financial use of propaganda.’ (Ch 32)

Technology:

There is something compulsive about a telephone. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it, loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish. (Ch 27)

Just people socialising comes in for stick:

It was the same old cocktail party, everyone talking too loud, nobody listening, everybody hanging on for dear life to a mug of the juice, eyes very bright, cheeks flushed or pale and sweaty according to the amount of alcohol consumed and the capacity of the individual to handle it. (Ch 23)

(Another long sentence which starts off with the old brio but fizzles out into banality.) And the Law/ the whole apparatus of law enforcement and justice?

‘Let the lawyers work it out. They write the laws for other lawyers to dissect in front of other lawyers called judges so that other judges can say the first judges were wrong and the Supreme Court can say the second lot were wrong. Sure there’s such a thing as law. We’re up to our necks in it. About all it does is make business for lawyers.’ (Ch 43)

Psychiatrists are given a hammering in chapter 44. And then there’s the stupid gullibility of his own countrymen:

The coffee was overstrained and the sandwich was as full of rich flavour as a piece torn off an old shirt. Americans will eat anything if it is toasted and held together with a couple of toothpicks and has lettuce sticking out the sides, preferably a little wilted. (Ch 45)

(Side note: the McDonald brothers reorganized their business as a hamburger stand using production line principles in 1948, and Ray Kroc joined as a franchise agent in 1955, before buying them out and turning McDonalds into the worldwide business with annual revenues of $27.5 billion we know and love today.) Not many aspects of contemporary American life escape Marlowe’s withering criticism. Take advertising, a boom industry in post-War America:

‘Getting so I don’t care for the stuff,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’s the V commercials. They make you hate everything they try to sell. God, they must think the public is a half-wit. Every time some jerk in a white coat and a stethoscope hanging round his neck holds up some toothpaste or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer or a mouthwash or a jar of shampoo or a little box of something that makes a fat wrestler smell like mountain liclac I always make a note never to buy any.Hell, I wouldn’t buy the product even if I liked it.’ (Ch 46)

Bitch bitch bitch. But the real theme of this book is alcoholism.

Self portraits as an alcoholic

Chandler was an alcoholic, chain-smoking 65 year-old when the book was published, and most of it was written while his beloved wife Cissy suffered her final illness. His age, his weakness, her illness, all seem to have encouraged the tendency to rambling reflectiveness, about life, about his characters, about his work.

The plot is not as convoluted and improbable as in the earlier books, in fact it’s relatively simple: so why is the novel so long? Because it rotates and repeats around the figures of the two central male figures, lost, depressed, demoralised crashing alcoholics who draw Marlowe into their ambits to make up a drunk trio who have the same repetitive, getting-nowhere long conversations about life and booze and broads.

  • The alcoholic war hero Terry Lennox, scarred and aimless but good-natured – the opening 3 or 4 chapters are about the friendship Marlowe strikes up with him and they announce the tone of the novel with their meandering, unrushed portrait of a very male friendship.
  • Richard Wade, the spoilt alcoholic writer who, despite his commercial success writing genre novels (‘He has made too much money writing junk for half-wits.’ Ch 13), has come to doubt his entire career and is facing crippling writer’s block. (‘All writers are punks and I’m one of the punkest. I’ve written twelve best-sellers… and not a damn one of them worth the powder to blow it to hell.’ Ch 23)

Marlowe seems to have the same rambling conversation with Richard Wade about six times, each time Wade getting drunker and more abusive till he passes out. Marlowe’s repeated visits out to the Wade place to ‘help’ him don’t make any sense, specially as he explicitly turns down the job of being Wade’s minder: they just allow Marlowe/Chandler to make the same kind of remarks about the awful empty lives of the rich and successful who spend their time getting drunk and being unfaithful to each other, obsessively repeating the actual process of getting drunk in words.

Everyone drinks too much in Chandler’s books, but in this one Marlowe for the first time starts drinking in the morning and the narrative persuades us that’s OK. At a key moment when Mrs Wade is trying to seduce him, he breaks free but instead of going home, goes downstairs in the Wade mansion and drinks a bottle of scotch till he passes out. In all the other books, although events were always ahead of him, nonetheless Marlowe was sharp and alert and eagle-eyed. In this one he seems strangely passive, unable to prevent the deaths of his friend Lennox or the drunk writer he’s sort of hired to protect.

From the repetitive drunk structure, to the drink problems of the three male characters, though to a score of vignettes of excess alcohol consumption, the whole book reverts obsessively to images of drink and drunkenness.

There was a sad fellow over on a barstool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world. (Ch  13)

There is much to enjoy here, Chandler’s unique style is still priceless – but the meandering repetitive structure of the plot embodies and re-enacts the tedious repetitiveness of the alcoholic. The same drunk again and again and again, the same moans and whines and bitching which can only be ended by a bullet in the head.

Raymond Chandler’s novels ranked by length

  • Farewell, My Lovely 320 pages
  • The Lady in the Lake 304 pages
  • The Little Sister 304 pages
  • The High Window 288 pages
  • The Big Sleep 272 pages
  • Playback 208 pages

Related links

Pulp cover of The Long Goodbye

Pulp cover of The Long Goodbye

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