Count Zero by William Gibson (1986)

He drank off the black bitter coffee. It seemed to him, just for a second, that he could feel the whole Sprawl breathing, and its breath was old and sick and tired, all up and down the stations from Boston to Atlanta…’ (p.286)

The setting

This is the second novel in what came to be known as Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (because there ended up being three of them: his debut, Neuromancer, and the third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

It is the future. Vast urban sprawls cover half of America, housing estates and huge malls under enormous geodesic domes blocking out the sky. Japanese culture and cuisine is widespread and everyone uses the New Yen as currency. Computers and digital technology, chips and disks, fuel a digital economy. Oil appears to have run out – possibly because Russia took control of the global supply after a brief war which America and the West lost – to be replaced by hydrogen cells. Electricity is generated by the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority whose well-protected gleaming towers of data can be seen by hackers in cyberspace. The real power in the world lies with vast multinational corporations known as zaibatsus. At the other end of the food chain, down on the littered streets, cheap bars and derelict spaces are full of veterans from the war, damaged physically or psychologically, many of whom turn up as protagonists in the Sprawl novels and in some of the Sprawl-related short stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986) published at the same time as the novels.

‘Sprawltown’s a twisty place, my man.Things are seldom what they seem.’ (Lucas, p.205)

This setting – ‘the street’ – is characterised by two things:

  1. a Raymond Chandler film noir sensibility in which the world is entirely made up of crime and gangs –  especially the terrifying Yakuza gangs
  2. drugs, lots of drugs, everyone is on one type of drug or another, the hero of Neuromancer is off his face a lot of the time, and the drugs range from cheap street drugs like amphetamine (known on the street as ‘wiz’) to new, biochemically-engineered mind-enhancing substances (like ‘the most expensive designer drugs’ which the character named The Wig devotes himself to taking, p.173)

The result is a prose style which combines the basic mood of a thriller – the permanent edginess of protagonists on the run from threatening crime lords or criminal organisations or the cops or someone  – but soaked in slangy, hip, knowing references to the ho-tech, drug-soaked, street gang components of this louche futureworld.

The feel

All that said, Count Zero immediately feels much broader and lighter than Neuromancer. That debut novel was set mostly at night, in often claustrophobic settings, bars, clubs, hotel rooms, dingy back alleys. Also the prose was extremely dense, studded with references to arcane technology or drugs or street gangs. There was barely a run-of-the-mill sentence in the whole book.

Count Zero is much more relaxed and diffused in several ways: its prose style is a lot less hectic – there are plenty of straightforward, factual sentences in it – but also the settings are more varied, and some of them even take place in daylight!

In fact whereas Neuromancer stuck pretty closely to the adventures of its computer hacker hero, Case, Count Zero is a complicated and canny weaving together of what start out as several completely distinct plotlines, featuring completely freestanding characters. Only as the story progresses do we slowly discover how they are linked.

Turner

Turner is an experienced kidnapper of top scientists. In the future this is a recognised profession. The huge scientific multinational corporations which control the world are prepared to pay kidnappers like Turner to poach the star scientists of the rival corporations.

‘You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsky.’ (0.68)

Turner is – like the protagonist of every thriller ever written – an outsider, a rebel, the man who doesn’t fit in. Oh how we all wish we could be like him!

Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a permanent outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. (p.128)

‘A rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics’ – cool!

Strikingly, the novel opens with a chapter describing how Turner was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb in India, and expensively fitted back together using future technology bythe clients who find him useful. Recuperating in Mexico, he hooks up with a pretty woman he meets in a bar and they have an idyllic romance, with sex on the beach, and sex in the bedroom.

Then – as with half the protagonists in the Burning Chrome stories and in Neuromancer – she walks away, leaving him devastated.

Turns out she was a therapist hired by the client to get Turner back into shape. The client now shows up and tells him this. Turner, super-tough guy that he is, accepts it without a flicker. (This opening reminded me of the idyllic Third World setting at the start of the second Jason Bourne movie, where Jason and his true love are enjoying idyllic times in a beach-front shack in India, till she is killed by mistake by an assassin sent to terminate Jason.)

These are rock solid, straight down-the-line, Hollywood-level, tough guy thriller clichés, and you can see the appeal.

  1. Every timid, shy, boring salaryman and commuter (like myself) thrills to the adventures of people like Turner – young (he is 24, p.131), super-fit, super-alert, super-trained, no-nonsense, super-brave, possessor of ‘a ropey, muscular poise’ (p.129): faces down men bigger and harder than him, immediately wins over the tough bitch in the team, wow, what a man! (it was, apparently, in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in the Sunday Times in 1963 that the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Nothing has changed in 56 years.)
  2. And yet, just as predictably, it turns out this tough guy has a heart of soppy mush — for the right woman he can be a perfect gent, picnics on the beach and cunnilingus in the bedroom. What a guy!

We follow as Turner is hired for a new job by his former partner, Conroy. He is to be in charge of setting up a base in the desert with a ragtag bunch of fellow mercs, ready to receive the absconding scientist, Christopher Mitchell, who will be escaping from Maas Biolabs’ high security research base in Arizona. Mitchell is a star science researcher who had developed the ‘hybridoma techniques’ on which much contemporary technology is based (p.127). A very important guy. the client is Hosaka Corp who want his brains and expertise. It’s a major assignment. You won’t be surprised to learn that things go disastrously wrong,

Marly

The Turner chapters are intercut with chapters following Marly Krushkhova, the pretty, rather naive ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’. She promoted a painting which turned out to be a forgery, so she was fired by the shareholders. Now she’s going for a job interview with a business owned by Josef Virek, rumoured to be the richest man in the world.

Marly is disconcerted to discover that Virek is not present in person, but that she is transported to a life-size hologram of a street in Barcelona, where she sits next to a hologram of him on a park bench and they chat.

In fact, the hologram tells her, the actual ‘Virek’ exists only as a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat in a him security compound in Stockholm.

He doesn’t want to hire her for some straightforward gallery job. Virek wants Marly to track down the artist who created a particular artwork which he once saw and was taken with – a Damian Hirst-style vivarium full of a random collection of detritus.

Virek will authorise money for her use to hire an apartment, planes, whatever she needs in her quest. ‘How long do I have?’ she asks. ‘The rest of your life,’ he replies. It takes a while for her to really understand that he is giving her an unlimited supply of money, over an unlimited period of time, to use all her contacts in the art world to track down the artist who made this one piece.

And, once she has staggered out of the hologram room to be met by Virek’s smooth-talking assistants and given the first instalment of money, she begins to realise that she is being followed and monitored at every step, not least by a suave Spanish man, Paco, who keeps appearing in the background whenever she meets contacts and begins her investigation.

This Quest will turn out to be the central driving force of the narrative, but the fact that Virek is so obscenely rich also gives Gibson plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of money, lots of money, super-money, and the effect it has on its owners and on those around them. In this futureworld where people routinely alter their consciousness either with mind-bending drugs or by encountering 3-D holograms or by entering the dizzying world of cyberspace, the rich can quite literally bend reality to their wishes.

‘The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit…’ (p.27)

How could she have imagined that it would be possible to live, to move, in the unnatural field of Virek’s wealth without suffering distortion? Virek had taken her up, in all her misery, and had rotated her through the monstrous, invisible stresses of his money, and she had been changed. (p.107)

Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will… (p.2420

Count Zero

Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’, still lives with his mom in a crappy apartment in the vast area of cheap, high-rise housing known as Barrytown, New Jersey. He is an apprentice computer hacker, a cowboy of cyberspace, a ‘hotdogger’, hanging round the estate’s chrome-lined bars, trying to be fit in with the local gang members, but keenly aware that he is only a beginner with only a basic, entry-level hacker’s view of cyberspace.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes of the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline. (p.62)

A local crime boss, Two-A-Day, hands Bobby a state-of-the-art console and asks him to hack into the financial records of some company. Things are going OK when Bobby suddenly experiences an enormous counter-surge of energy directed against him which stops his heart in the real world. Bobby starts to die, when some other undefined force leans in to cyberspace, releases him, and he regains consciousness on his mom’s carpet throwing up.

What the…?

He goes looking for Two-A-Day at the local crappy bar, Leon’s, where Gibson gives us florid descriptions of the drug-selling, computer-game-playing lowlifes. On the TV news he sees that his mum’s flat, indeed the entire row of apartments on that block, have been destroyed by a bomb. Christ! They’re after him.

Bobby goes and hides down a back alley by a dumpster which turns out be a bad idea because someone savagely mugs him. Whoever it is, slashes his chest open and also steals the console Two-A-Day gave him.

When Bobby comes round he is being sewn up using futuristic technology, and then delivered to Two-A-Day’s vast penthouse apartment where he meets a couple of soft-spoken, nattily-dressed and terrifying black men, Beauvoir and Lucas.

Beauvoir explains what’s happened: Two-A-Day had been given some new, high-powered anti-ice (ice being security software devised by corporations to protect their digital assets in cyberspace) program to by unnamed powerful agents. Unwilling to risk anything himself, Two-A-Day had sub-contracted the thing to Bobby – the idea being that, if it’s booby-trapped or dangerous it’ll only be worthless Bobby who gets wasted.

Well, something bad certainly happened to Bobby when he tried to use it. 1. Was that a failure of the program, or was it booby-trapped, or did it trigger a prepared defence mechanism in the corporation Bobby tried to hack?

But 2. and more importantly, whoever mugged him stole the console with the software inside. Now the very High-Ups who sub-contracted testing it to Two-A-Day are pissed off with him… and he is pissed off with Bobby, who needs to get it back.

Three mysteries

These are the three storylines which we follow in short, alternating chapters of Gibson’s over-heated, amphetamine-fuelled prose.

As the night came on, Turner found the edge again. It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. (p.126)

All the characters hover on the edge of mind-altering psychotropic drug highs, or mind-expanding plug-ins to the dizzying landscape of cyberspace, or are involved in terror-inducing chases by cops or all-powerful threatening powers. With the result that the prose, and even more the plot, has you permanently on edge. It is a fantastically thrilling, gripping and exciting novel but which can also, partly because of the permanent obscurity Gibson maintains around some of the key motivators of the plot, become quite wearing and draining.

Basically, the narrative hangs around three cliffhanging challenges:

  1. Will Turner’s handling of the defection of the high-level scientist work out as planned?
  2. Who made the artwork that Virek hired Marly to track down, and why is Virek so obsessed by it?
  3. Will Bobby ‘Count Zero’ manage to find the people who mugged him and stole his console, and what is the truth about the new super-program inside it?

Continuities with Neuromancer

I thought the book would be part of the Sprawl trilogy because set in the same futureworld, I hadn’t realised it would literally follow on from the first book, referencing many of the characters and incidents mentioned in Neuromancer and taking them further.

For example, you will remember that the climax of Neuromancer is set on a space station orbiting the earth, only much more than a space station, more like a miniature town set inside a vast offworld which rotates to give it gravity and includes luxury hotels, swimming pools and pleasure gardens. One whole end of this was sealed off and the home of the legendary Tessier-Ashpool family which are the richest in the world and built it.

The Quest in Neuromancer is that Case and the ferocious Molly Millions, she with the 4-centimetry retractable razor blades under each fingernail are hired to co-ordinate an attack on the heart of the Tessier-Ashpool stronghold – Molly has to kidnap the daughter of old man Ashpool, named 3Jane because the wicked old man has manufactured clones of his daughters, and drag her to a jewel-studded head, there to utter the codeword which activates it, at the same time as Case the hacker has hacked into the Tessier-Ashpool security system and disabled it.

Straightforward as this may sound the novel kind of crumbles or disintegrates into increasingly visionary prose as the goal of the Quest is reached and we learn, through welters of mystical-cum-hi-tech prose, that two separate artificial intelligences crafted by 3Jane’s mother, are, at the mention of the codeword, allowed to unite thus creating a sort of super-intelligence which, at that moment, becomes identical with all of cyberspace. In a sort of apocalyptic vision the matrix becomes self-aware, and although it doesn’t affect the material reality of humans out in the real world, it is a transformative event in the collective consensual hallucination of all the world’s data which we call ‘cyberspace’.

‘It’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, cyberspace…’ (the Finn, p.170)

What happens in Count Zero is this story continues. It is seven years after the events of the first novel (p.177) and the sharp-dressed spades Bobby has met are privy to what’s happened to cyberspace since that seismic event, namely that the One has split into a variety of entities which share the names of traditional voodoo gods and goddesses. Yes, voodoo. The latter half of the book is coloured by what Beauvoir and Lucas tell Bobby about the presence in cyberspace of these gods who represent primeval forces, though it is very hard to understand whether they existed before cyberspace, since the dawn of time and have infiltrated it, or are entirely man-made constructions, or what.

‘Jackie is a mambo, a priestess, the horse of Danbala…Danbala rides her, Danbala Wedo, the snake. Other times she is the horse of Aida Wedo, his wife…’ (p.122)

Beauvoir brings Bobby to a bar, Jammer’s, on the 14th floor of a high-rise block in New York.

The most important event in the Turner plotline is that, when the ultralite arrives at the reception site prepared by Turner and the other mercs, it is carrying not Mitchell, but his teenage daughter Angie. Even as she arrives a ferocious firestorm breaks out, presumably Maas Biolabs’ security people having followed its course and now attacking. Turner unstraps the girl from the ultralite and runs with her to a small, high-powered, self-steering jet which takes off at terrific speed just as Turner watches the campment and all the mercs manning it – who we have spent half the book getting to know – vaporised in some kind of semi-nuclear blast.

Bloodied and half conscious Turner steers to plane to crash land near the ranch of his long lost brother, Rudy, and his partner, Sally. Here they fix up the girl, whose name is Angie and have a couple of scenes reminiscing about the old days, about mom and pa and huntin’ and fishin’ in the unspoilt countryside.

This is precisely the kind of low-key interlude you get in Hollywood thrillers, a break after an over-tense fight/crash/conflict sequence. Then it is time to load up into a spare hovercraft (yes, hovercraft are a popular form of transport in this futureworld) and head off, with a vague plan of hiding out in the Sprawl, the name given to the vast urban conurbation stretching from Boston to Florida.

Meanwhile Marly’s investigations keep turning up the name of Tessier-Ashpool and her quest leads her to buy a ticket to the off-world satellite, named Freeside – exactly the place where Neuromancer climaxed. Now, though, the entire section of the satellite which contained the Tessier-Ashpool compound has been hacked off and set into a separate orbit.

Here Marly discovers a mad old cyberhacker, Wigan Ludgate known as The Wig hiding out, guarded by a young crook on the run, Jones (‘me, I came here runnin” p.274) – both of them protective of the core of the complex which is a vast space in which great clusters of waste objects and detritus float in zero gravity. ‘The dome of the Boxmaker’ (p.312)

Attached to a wall is a multi-armed computer-driven robot which uses its arms to grab passing flotsam, cut and shape them with a laser, and then place them in vivariums. This is the robotic creator of the work of art which so entranced Virek.

But along the way, being sent messages from Virek in cyberspace, when she jacks into simstim, by couriers and agents, she’s slowly come to realise that the artist is in danger. Virek doesn’t just want an art work. And now, here in this gravityless dome, a screen flickers into life and his face appears, explaining.

He explains that for some time he’s known that a Christopher Mitchell working at Maas Biolabs has been fed information from some source in cyberspace, this being the real source of Mitchell’s astonishing tech breakthroughs. And his numerous agents and researches have led him to believe that the source of this information, the superbrain behind it, also made the vitrines he set her to track down. Now she has found the source, and is agents, having followed her all the way, are at the doors of the Tessier-Ashpool satellite.

Meanwhile, in the Jammers bar in New York, Bobby and his minder Beauvoir are joined by Angie and Turner. On his long journey – interspersed by attacks from various unnamed opponents (Maas? Hosaka? Conroy?) – Turner has had plenty of opportunity to learn that Angie’s brain has been laced with some kind of physical entity (‘a biosoft modification has been inserted in his daughter’s brain’). This may or may not explain her ability to see visions. While asleep she dreams of voodoo gods and talks to them and, sometimes, they speak through her mouth, as one possessed. At one point she retales to Turner the events at the climax of Neuromancer which we recognise though mean nothing to him.

By the time Turner and Angie meet up with Beauvoir and Bobby in the New York bar, all these characters have had quite a few conversations about what is going on in cyberspace, what the voodoo gods represent, and how they’re linked to the events in the Tessier-Ashpool offworld compound (which, of course, most of them only know about from confused rumour).

The result, for the reader, is to be in a state of sort of permanently confused tension. Turner is chased and attacked, the girl Angie has premonitions of disaster, Bobby is mugged and then on the run from Two-A-Day and whoever his bosses are, the New York nightclub is surrounded by threatening mobs who are under someone’s control, when they open the door laser guns are fired through it.

Only right at the end is Turner contacted by the man who hired him, Conroy, who explains at least part of the plot. According to him, Josef Virek, the world’s richest man, has heard about a new form of biosoft developed by Mitchell and his investigators were all over Mitchell’s attempt to escape Maas. But when he sent his daughter out instead – her head actually laced with the new biosoft invention) Maas’s own men pursued Turner and Angie, observed by Virek’s men, and complicated by the fact the corporation who was paying for Mitchell to be extracted, Hosaka, thought they’d been double crossed and were also tracking Turner.

By the end of the book I think that one of Beauvoir’s speculations may be close to the truth, that The One created at the end of Neuromancer has, for reasons unknown, split into multiple lesser entities and that these, having ranged through all mankind’s systems of signs and symbols, have settled on the voodoo gods as appropriate interfaces with mankind that humans will understand. The least incomprehensible, anyway.

In Jammer’s Bobby jacks into the matrix to find out why the club is surrounded and how to get rid of the mob and the attackers, when a series of things happens. He is sucked into a powerful programme and suddenly is sitting in the same park on the same bench next to Josef Virek as Marly had early in the novel. But the women he jacked in with, one of Beauvoir’s black associates, was killed almost immediately. Virek has no idea who Bobby is and orders his sidekick, Paco to shoot him but, just as Paco lines up a gun, another far bigger program and presence erupts out of the flower beds and chases Virek’s screaming figure down the path and obliterates him.

It is Baron Samedi, one of the voodoo presences and he is taking his revenge for one of their number being killed by a Virek programme. In his vat in Stockholm Virek’s life support fails. He is dead with the result that a) up in the dome of the Boxmaker his face suddenly disappears from the screen where Marly had been listening to his orders and b) outside Jammer’s the assassins and mercs who had assembled to grab Angie – which was the goal of them surrounding the place – are abruptly called off.

Conroy, the menacing merc who had hired Turner for the extraction job and who appears on a videocall right at the end explaining to Turner the combination of forces who’ve been pursuing him, well in the attack on the merc’s camp back at the moment when Angie’s ultralight touched down and which killed all the other mercs Turner had assembled – one of them (Ramirez) had a girlfriend, Jaylene Slide, a mean bitch who is plenty angry at Conroy.

‘I’m Slide,’ the figure said, hand on its hips. ‘Jaylene. You don’t fuck with me. Nobody in LA,’ and she gestured, a window suddenly snapped into existence behind her,’ fucks with me.’ (p.292)

Turns out she has been tracking him down to his current location in a hotel in New York, Park Avenue to be precise. And, as we and Turner are watching Conroy’s face on the screen, we hear her order her buddies to blow up the entire floor of the building where Conroy and his team are based. Conroy hesitates a moment and then there’s a loud bang then the picture flickers off.

Before being blown up Conroy had told Turner that Hosaka and Maas, the two giant corporations had reached a settlement about Mitchell’s death, a discreet payout with no publicity in the way of giant corporations.

And so, in the space of a few pages, all the baddies who have been chasing our heroes and fuelling the nail-biting narrative, disappear! Turner, Angie, Bobby – suddenly they’re all safe.

Loose ends

So once again, as in Neuromancer, the novel’s climax is an odd mix of the entirely worldly thriller element (Slide’s revenge against Conroy) and typical corporate cynicism (Maas and Hosaka making up) with a strangely mystical and difficult to understand element (the voodoo gods who destroy Virek). And I think that is a deliberate point – the point that the complexity of cyberspace has produced entities which are literally beyond human comprehension and with goals and aims of their own which interact and overlap with human motivations but are extra to them.

Anyway, most of the human characters survive and in a couple of pages at the end of the main narrative we are given a little of their subsequent careers. The teenager Angie, bloodied by some of her experiences, but unbowed, uses her access to the voodoo gods to establish a career as a simstim star for the global entertainment corp, Sense/Net.

If you remember, right back when Bobby jacked into Two-A-Day’s console and was being killed, it was she who stepped in to save him. Thereafter, for the rest of the book, they have a close psychic ink which neither can quite explain and becomes more important as Bobby jacks in in subsequent sequences. The upshot is that Angie hires Bobby as her ‘bodyguard’ in the new life she carves out for herself in California.

Marly returns to Paris unscathed by her adventures and ends up curating one of the largest art galleries in the city.

Turner returns to the ranch where he had briefly holed up with Rudy and Sally earlier in the book. It’s typical of the plot’s complexities that during those brief few days he managed to fall in love with Sally (his brother’s partner) and impregnate her (p.194). Rudy himself was, with the inevitability of a Hollywood thriller, killed by Turner’s pursuers when they tracked the crashed jet to their ranch – but they let Sally live and she gave birth to Turner’s child nine months later. He’s quit the kidnapping business.

But behind all this is the uneasy knowledge that the matrix of cyberspace has, apparently, become home to sentient beings, who take the shape of voodoo gods and can intervene in human affairs. Should we be worried? Is this all going to lead to some Terminator-style apocalypse? You have to read the third in the trilogy to find out.

P.S. the Finn

I should add that Beauvoir at one stage takes Count Zero to see the Finn, an outrageously foul-mouthed, dirty and senior hacker who, it turns out, was the man who passed on the dodgy console to Two-A-Day. It’s only right at the end of the book, and after reading the ending a couple of times, that I think I worked out that the console is one of many objects made by the machine in the Dome of the Boxmaker, which Wigan Ludgate, in his madness, sends off to an unnamed fence back on earth, who I think we are meant to deduce is the Finn. So the program inside the workaday-looking console is in fact an advanced product made by the voodoo AIs. And which explains why Angie, who is a separate creation of the voodoo AIs via her father, Mitchell, was able to lean into it when it began to overpower and kill the Count back in the early pages of the novel.

I mention all this a) because it ties up a loose thread, b) because it gives you a sense of the complexity – and the wacky characters – which the narrative delights in c) because the Finn will turn up in the next novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Credit

Count Zero by William Gibson was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1986. All references are to the 1993 Grafton paperback edition.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

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

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

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

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

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.

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

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


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinterlands (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Rose Hotel (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winter Market (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pattern recognition

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Audit of War by Correlli Barnett (1986)

‘The time and energy and thought which we are all giving to the Brave New World is wildly disproportionate to what is being given to the Cruel New World.’ (British economist J.M. Keynes, quoted page 40)

The full title of this book is The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, which very accurately states its aim and its Manichaean structure. It is not your average leisurely, rather reassuring history book but a fierce and forcefully argued polemic which, if you’re British, is intellectually and emotionally devastating.

The basic premise is this: When Barnett wrote the book, received opinion tended to think that Britain fell behind its industrial competitors (America, Germany and Japan) and prey to the so-called ‘British disease’ of abysmal industrial performance, in the decades after the end of the Second World War. During the war itself, the nation had pulled together and demonstrated wonders of industrial production, showing what you can achieve if your economy is planned and centrally controlled towards one great aim i.e. fighting for survival. Celebration of the scientific, industrial and manufacturing triumphs of central planning – radar, the Spitfire, countless ships – helped to justify the 1945 Labour government’s policy of nationalising ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy – namely the coal and steel industries, gas, railways, and so on – in order to continue that spirit of wartime unity and success. It was only in the decades that followed that timid management and obstructive unions undermined the crowning achievement of the war years in the 1950s and 60s. Thus received opinion.

Barnett is at pains to show that this entire narrative is completely untrue, a myth, the product of wartime propaganda which those in charge knew at the time was profoundly misleading.

Barnett ‘drew on a mass of once secret and hitherto unpublished Whitehall and Cabinet-committee files’ which had only just become available in the early 1980s, as well as published reports, surveys and data, to show in excruciating detail that far from being a shining beacon of industrial success, the war years in fact represented the shambolic climax of over a century of mismanagement, short-sightedness, governmental and business failure at all levels.

In other words, it was during the war itself that the worst aspects of British economic mismanagement came to a head and set the tone for the post-war decline. These included:

  • the shameful lack of technical schools and colleges, resulting in chronic shortages of decently educated let alone skilled workmen, supervisors and management
  • the fragmentation of all Britain’s industries into small, scattered, often family-run companies overseen by narrow-minded and jealously protective sons and grandsons of the founders
  • the dominance of what Barnett calls ‘the practical man’, the man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and learned on the job and worked things out by rule of thumb – a pitiful contrast to the regiments of highly trained, superbly educated engineers found in America and Germany
  • the ruinous, lazy, jobsworth attitude of the workers in every industry who generally a) hated the management b) rejected any changes or improvements or suggestions for greater efficiency c) clung on to petty privileges through d) the mechanism of scores of petty-minded trade unions and their stroppy shop stewards who used almost any excuse to stage a sudden wildcat strike, or walkout, or go-slow

Chapters three to nine depict in excruciating detail – really mind-blowing, life-altering detail – the deep-rooted and profound failings of Britain’s core industries – coal mining, steel-making, shipbuilding, tank and truck manufacture – and then goes on to highlight the failings of the ‘new’ technologies like radar and radio.

Reading in such detail about the bad design, the failure to co-ordinate design and manufacture, the failure to invest in the right plant and factories, the refusal of trade unions to accept new technologies or working methods, the excruciating delays, and then the crappiness of the end products (Britain’s tanks and lorries being good examples) is more than depressing, it is devastating.

All the more so because Barnett polemically opened the book with a portrait of the high-minded, bien-pensant, liberal elite of left-leaning politicians, ethical thinkers, art directors, liberal columnists and so forth who focused all their thinking and powerful rhetoric NOT on how the British economy needed to be rescued from its parlous state and comprehensively overhauled, but on how society needed to be changed and improved after the war.

He is excoriatingly, blisteringly critical of what he calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ which produced numerous books, articles and pamphlets calling for the end of the war to be followed by the creation of a welfare state, the building of a ‘New Jerusalem’, a national health service free to all, millions of new houses – he shows in detail how these purely social and reformist aims became the top priority of politicians from all parties – rather than retooling British industry to compete in a harsher economic world.

This opening chapter is flagellates what Barnett satirically calls ‘New Jerusalemism’, the anti-science, anti-industrial mindset cultivated by hundreds of posh public schools which taught their pupils Horace, cricket and little else – an education in high-minded uselessness which melded with the parallel, non-conformist religious tradition which lies behind the Labour Party – to create a high-minded, loftily ‘moral’ concern for welfare and social security – without giving any thought to who would pay for it.

(In this, Barnett echoes the conclusions of the American academic Martin J. Wiener in his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, which was, to quote Wikipedia:

a concerted attack on the British elite for its indifference to and wariness of industrialism and commercialism. Although the commercial and industrial revolutions originated in England, Wiener blamed a persistent strain in British culture, characterised by wariness of capitalist expansion and yearning for an arcadian rural society, which had prevented England – and Britain as a whole – from fully exploiting the benefits of what it had created. He was particularly scathing about the self-made industrial capitalists of the 19th century who, from the middle of that century onwards, increasingly sent their children to public schools where ‘the sons of businessmen were looked down upon and science was barely taught’.)

Chapter two investigates in more detail the precise policies of the ‘New Jerusalemers’ – that Britain must be rebuilt whatever the cost as embodied in the famous Beveridge Report of November 1942, which is generally seen as setting out the framework for the post-war Welfare State, guaranteeing every citizen a decent standard of living, good housing and free education. Barnett shows how Beveridge very successfully publicised his report, through the press and via the army’s influential Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), and how allies recruited powerful liberals in the media such as the owner of the best-selling weekly magazine Picture Post, along with scores of other opinion formers, creating an unstoppable momentum. All this had far more impact than the cautious, sometimes very pessimistic, reports about the economy commissioned by the Treasury under Chancellor Kingsley Wood. Barnett shows that even Labour figures like Clement Attlee were aware of the economic plight; but chose to ignore it in order to fulfil what they thought of as higher, moral and political obligations.

In chapter three Barnett examines more closely the state of the economy which all the New Jerusalem zealots were assuming would steam ahead in the post-war period, providing the money for the new welfare state and the promised massive rebuilding programme. It makes very bleak reading, key points being:

  • Barnett’s previous book, The Decline of British Power, had anatomised the failure of British industry to invest, modernise and compete between the wars. Instead it was able to rest on its laurels and export sub-standard products to the captive markets of the colonies.
  • This helps explain why Britain’s economy and industries only survived the war because of American money. The Lend-Lease scheme provided the tooling machines, raw materials and food which kept Britain afloat. Lend-Lease was cancelled almost immediately the war ended, leaving Britain to fend for itself and facing certain bankruptcy.
  • American money allowed the British ruling and industrial class for six long years to completely drop all thoughts of competitive exporting i.e. being a commercial success, in order to entirely focus on producing war munitions and goods.
  • Barnett quotes a riveting report produced by the Board of Trade which extensively surveyed the likely post-war effectiveness of individual British industries: out of 53 sectors, only two evinced unqualified optimism (cosmetics and sewage systems)
  • He shows how British goods produced during the war (guns, trucks, tanks) were consistently poorer in design and performance than those produced by the Americans or Germans. I was brought up to think the world-famous Spitfire fighter plane outclassed the German Messerschmitt: but it takes Barnett to point out that it took nearly double the man hours to produce a Spitfire as to produce a Messerschmitt. This is one example from hundreds which he provides in devastating detail demonstrating over and over again the uncompetitive, low productivity, bad design, go-slow trade unions and incompetent management which, once the war ended and industry returned to having to sell things abroad, produced worse products at higher prices than their European and American competitors.

Just reading the contents page of the book gives you the main message:

Part 1 Dreams and Illusions
1. The Dream of new Jerusalem
2. the Illusion of Limitless Possibility

Part II – The Industrial Machine
3. ‘The prospect is bleak’: 1943-45
4. An Industrial Worst Case: Coal
5. ‘In Great Need of Modernisation’: Steel
6. ‘The Fossilisation of Inefficiency’: Shipbuilding
7. A Mass Industry Improvised: Aircraft 1936-39
8. New technology and Old Failings: Aircraft 1939-44
9. The Dependence on America: Radar and Much Else

Part III Reality – Human Resources
10. The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution
11. Education for Industrial Decline

Part IV The Limits of the Possible
12. New Jerusalem or Economic Miracle
13. Tinkering as Industrial Strategy
14. The Lost Victory

The guilt of ‘the practical man’

Each chapter in part two is a brutally critical analysis of the failure of a key British industry. Since virtually all energy was provided by coal (coal playing the central role in the economy now taken by oil), Barnett makes you want to weep tears of frustration and grief at the complete failure of the coalmine owners, managers, workers or government to devise any workable plans to modernise the industry and bring it up to the levels of efficiency and productivity achieved by mines in America, Germany, France and Belgium.

One vast theme which emerges is the fragmentation of these industries which stretches right back to the origins of the industrial revolution when any landowner who discovered coal on their land set up their own mine, run their own way, with their own quirky systems, layout, technology and ad hoc railways lines.

In coal and steel it was this fragmentation which dragged down productivity, with the promise made by the national government during the second World War to guarantee wages and prices, merely delaying the howling need to close down unproductive pits and consolidate profitable ones and invest in more modern (i.e. German) equipment.

But Barnett also has it in for the type of management which ran so many of these small to medium size operations. Early on he starts calling this figure ‘the practical man’, and uses the same rhetorical device of scornful repetition to castigate this bogeyman as he used with his mocking repetition of ‘New Jerusalemites’ in the opening chapters.

‘The practical man’ is an amateur, who has learned on the job, is proud of his practical experience and uses rule of thumb and intuition to make decisions. All this is contrasted with Germany, in particular, which by the mid-1800s, yes, a century before the Second World War, had already set up a network of technical schools and colleges, and – as Barnett shows – were consistently turning out ten times as many skilled workers with useful apprenticeships, as well as trained industrial chemists, physicists, scientists of all kinds.

Barnett lays out side by side the systematic way in which the German state set about creating an education system which guaranteed a highly educated general population, from which it then selected the best and brightest to go on to world-leading technical schools, colleges and universities, next to the shambolic, uncentralised, ad hoc way the British relied on individual cities, local councils and even parishes, or the occasional philanthropist to rig up a ramshackle unco-ordinated mosaic of half-cocked and inefficient schools and colleges. The result was the ‘deep ignorance’, the illiteracy and lack of education of the vast bulk of the British population which appalled visitors during the 1930s.

With, of course, the notable exception of reams of graduates from top public schools and Oxbridge who had been drilled in Classics – that vital requirement for ‘the English gentleman’ – but didn’t know one end of a steam lathe from the other.

Big ideas

Britain only survived the war because of American funding Britain was bankrupt by 1941. It was given a loan of gold by the Belgian government which would have tided it over for another year at most, but was rescued from complete collapse by the signing of the Lend-Lease arrangement with America which prevented Britain actually going bankrupt. Britain was only able to fight the Second World War because of American money, materials and equipment.

Britain’s good luck on stumbling across industrial production was also its doom Britain was lucky to stumble into the Industrial Revolution but the seeds of its later failure were sown by the very thing which made it the pioneer. This was the lucky confluence of iron, coal and water in a number of places – Lancashire, South Wales, some parts of the north-east – which tended to be far from centres of population.

It was the convenient proximity of these raw materials which enabled the industrial revolution to take place in Britain first – but it had the fatal effect of fragmenting the companies and industries which were set up to exploit it. It led to a huge number of disparate enterprises scattered all over the UK.

It also created a tradition of strong independent founders of each individual mine and factory, ‘masters’, practical men, with little or no education or training. It entrenched in their minds and the minds of their descendants the notion that profitability stemmed from long hours and hard wages, not from fancy new technological innovations. We’ll be ‘avin’ none of your fancy new university ideas, Obadiah.

It led the great industrial towns to grow like mushrooms from little villages, with no urban planning at all, little more than barracks with no water or sewage for the new armies of the proletariat who were worked, literally, to death by their masters.

And it was this, the untrammeled brutality and naked exploitation of the Georgian Industrial Revolution (i.e. up to about 1837) which led the British working class to become a race apart, living in slum work camps, working seven hours a day, filled with anger and resentment, and determined to cling on to every scrap of privilege and entitlement, resolutely set against any kind of change to long-established practices.

It led to the smouldering war between employers and employees which even a sympathetic witness, like Harold Wilson, noted in his 1945 study of the British coalmining industry. And which continued down to the catastrophic 1970s, when I grew up, and burst into flames during the great miners strike of 1984-5.

Barnett shows in unrelenting detail how all these ills derived directly from the unique conditions pertaining at the birth of the industrial revolution in the 1770s, and then never went away. In 1945 people were still living in damp, filthy slum terraces with no running water and no sewage facilities which had been built in 1800.

Thus was born the tradition of the British muddling through, while the Germans planned A Frenchman touring British industry between the wars noted that because of this lucky confluence of coal, iron and running water in key parts of Britain, from the start, an enterprising ‘master’ who could raise a little capital could just build a factory or works close to coal and iron deposits and on the nearest river to start making money.

Whereas in Germany and France, where iron, coal and water were not so conveniently placed together, potential industrialists had to carefully plan how to transport the raw materials they needed and how to process them to make the maximum profit from a more elaborate operation.

From the very start of their industrial revolutions, the French and Germans were forced to think and plan more carefully than the British, and so were motivated to set up technical and managerial colleges and courses to teach the skills of production management and planning – something which the British didn’t think of doing until generations later.

The workers the most reactionary force in society Reading Barnett’s innumerable accounts of the workers’ and trade unions’ stubborn resistance to any kind of change, to any kind of technological development or improvement in working practices, reading about their fierce opposition to women doing any work in the factories – all this forces on the reader the conclusion that – diametrically opposite to what Marx and all his followers down to E.P. Thompson claimed – the ‘working class’, far from being the spearhead, the avant-garde of society, was in fact the most conservative, small-minded, narrow and reactionary part of society.

This insight sheds new light on the entire kitchen sink, working class school of literature which grew up in the late 1950s / early 1960s and which I’ve been reading about in David Kynaston’s sequence of post-war histories. All the protagonists of those ‘new’ novels about working class life – in the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Billy Liar – want to escape not just the poverty of their slums, but much more so the narrowness of expectation and the poverty of imagination, the profoundly repressive conservatism of the culture they’ve grown up in.

Reading Barnett gives you a whole new appreciation of the depth and scale of working class ignorance and fear of any change or innovation. From very early on, from the time of the Luddites, the appallingly mistreated workers in the cotton areas of Lancashire or coal minders learned to associate the introduction of any new machinery with layoffs and outright starvation. No wonder they resisted change. Change meant unemployment and inconceivable misery. Resistance to any kind of change became bred in the bone, an attitude which lasted for nearly 200 years (1770 to 1970).

Some doubts

1. Critical rhetoric

The impression given by the opening chapters which lampoon and satirise the high-minded feelings of a bien-pensant liberal elite gives the impression that the wish to create a welfare state, a national health service, and build decent housing was a vast conspiracy by the ruling class to foist feelgood social welfare on the nation.

It is rammed home by his strategy of repeating his ironic references to ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ and ‘New Jerusalemism’, and highlighting the exceptional privilege of the key opinion formers by emphasising how they all, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, went to jolly good private schools where they had imbibed what Barnett takes to be a fatal combination of high-minded Christian principles and profound ignorance of industry or trade.

In fact, all his facts and figures may well make an excoriating case, but I also noted his rhetorical devices, deploying a powerfully sarcastic vocabulary when describing the New Jerusalem do-gooders who are always described as ‘prophets’, zealous, they ‘proselytise’ with ‘quenchless fervour’, they conduct ‘New Jerusalem evangelism’ and have ‘visions’ of a Brave New World, in fact they act ‘on the best romantic principle that sense must bend to feeling, and facts to faith’ (p.37). It is a sustained rhetorical attack which helps to give the book its powerful emotional charge, much more so than is usual in a history book.

Sometimes his language becomes virulent and intemperate:

The message that it was no longer politically possible openly to try to block or stall New Jerusalem was thrust down Conservative throats by the results of six by-elections held that February, all held in Conservative seats. (p.31)

‘Thrust down Conservative throats’ is obviously emotive and loaded language. It sounds like the Gestapo have taken over. More temperate phrasing might have been to say that in six by-elections in February 1943 the Conservative vote dropped by 8% or so, which told party leaders that the national mood was moving in favour of Labour and its support of the Beveridge Plan. There need not be any ‘thrusting down throats’. It is symptomatic of the barely concealed anger and contempt which fuel the book and make it such a thrilling read.

2. Brings into question the nature of democracy

Barnett describes how the 1942 Beveridge Report was greeted with enthusiasm not only by the working class newspapers, the Daily Mirror and Herald, but by the Times and the Telegraph too i.e. by all shades of political opinion. He claims that those newspapers, along with the influential magazine Picture Post, the BBC, the ABCA, and a host of other organisations, have all been ‘captured’ by the ‘romantic delusions’ of the ‘New Jerusalemites’. In other words, at various points, he gives the impression that there was a kind of conspiracy to foist the new Jerusalem, the welfare state and the NHS on an unsuspecting public.

But, at some point, I think almost any reader will step back from Barnett’s virulent rhetoric, and be tempted to think – well, everything you say about the absolutely dire performance of British industry and the British economy is obviously correct; and everything you say about the entire war effort only existing because of huge American subsidies is true; and everything you say about a huge cross-section of society – from the Archbishop of Canterbury to communist coalminers – refusing to face these economic facts, and instead agreeing that a new society must be built after the war, is also true, but…

But that is what the people wanted. The people had fought for six long years. Hundreds of thousands died and lost their homes, the entire nation suffered from the blackout and rationing and the prolonged psychological impact of war. It was not altogether irrational of them to want all this sacrifice to have been for something. And those old enough to remember it emphatically did not want a repetition of the last war when the politicians promised a land fit for heroes and a few years later there was a great slump, unemployment and the slums stayed as wretched as ever.

Barnett’s interpretation may be 100% correct and the decision to spend on a welfare state may have been, from the purely economic point of view, a disastrous choice and waste of resources when the rational thing would have been to invest in a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of Britain’s creaking infrastructure and lamentable industrial base.

But I can see at least three objections to his thesis:

  1. It was what the overwhelming majority of the population wanted and in a democracy, like it or not, you have to do what the majority vote for. To have resisted the calls for reform which swept over all aspects of British society in 1945 would have required a dictatorship.
  2. If it had not been done then, when would it have been done? If successive governments had embarked on the plan for complete economic overhaul which Barnett advocates, does he think the social and economic conditions which allowed the creation of a welfare state would have ever come again? It’s one thing to say you have to earn the money before you can spend it, any child can grasp that message. But in the enormously complicated running of a huge country, does he imagine that one year, five years, ten years later on, the same unity and determination to create a centralised welfare state and national health system would have still existed? I doubt it.
  3. Lastly, the very power of his case undermines itself. What I mean is that Barnett shows in harrowing detail how economic fragmentation, bad management, terrible industrial relations and an appalling education system had placed Britain fifty years behind America or Germany by 1939 and were far more profoundly and deeply rooted in every aspect of British culture than is usually thought. In which case: what makes him think that a mere five years of economic investment, directed by the same old Oxbridge-educated mandarins who had presided over the previous hundred years of decline, would have made very much difference? If the problem was really as deep-rooted as he very persuasively shows it to be, who knows whether even ten years, or fifteen years, of systematic retooling and investment would have been enough. Would anything have been enough to cure the British disease, short of asking the Germans to come and run our entire society for us?

Agree or disagree, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.


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Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith (1986)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the series of eight novels he’s written about Moscow-based police detective Arkady Renko, which kicked off with the international best-seller Gorky Park. Having read all eight I was dazzled by Smith’s ability to create memorable characters, to conjure up eerily powerful scenes, and to make the English language dance and shimmy like a sand snake. He is a marvellous, magical writer. Before during and after writing the Renko series, however, he has written over 20 other novels, in a variety of settings.

This one is set in 1945 in New Mexico at the famous Los Alamos facility, which was built to house the hundreds, and then thousands, of scientists and military personnel involved in the creation of the world’s first atom bomb.

It’s a third-person narrative but it’s told very much from the perspective of Sergeant Joe Peña, a ‘huge, attractive’ native American. Joe left his parents’ pueblo, or village, young and headed to the big city where he made a name for himself as a boxer, but also as a mean jazz pianist in the era of swing and stride piano. (There are several extended descriptions of what it feels like to play jazz piano, with technical descriptions of Joe changing tempo, melody, how he syncopates left and right hand, in the styles of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so on.)

One drunk night he and his band-mates broke into a nearby US Army base with the cack-handed idea of entertaining the troops. But they were caught, arrested, and given the choice of gaol or enlisting. He enlists. After basic training, Joe found himself packed off to the Philippines, shortly before the Japanese invaded (December 1941). Joe is wounded but his squad of Filipinos managed to get him into a rowing boat, which they pushed off from a remote bay, and he was eventually picked up by an American submarine and repatriated to the States.

Here he recovered from his wounds and was on garrison duty when he made the bad mistake of sleeping with the colonel’s wife, who finds out about the affair and has Joe sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. The novel opens with Sergeant Joe Peña locked in solitary confinement at the Military Corrections Complex, Fort Leavenworth, in Texas.

Ten days of solitary confinement have given Joe hallucinations, visions – we later discover – related to his Indian heritage. To his surprise he is visited by Captain Augustino, head of security at the top secret Los Alamos facility. Augustino reminds him that, years before, Peña’s father had worked on the old ranch out at Los Alamos (which is near Joe’s pueblo) and that Peña often helped out. It was a ‘dude ranch’, offering a taste of desert living, horse-riding and so on, to city slickers and their families. Among the many urbanites Peña had taught to ride, to hunt a little, and so on, had been a scrawny, sickly kid from New York named Oppenheimer.

Now that very same J. Robert Oppenheimer is all grown up and head of the top secret ‘Manhattan Project’, leading a team of top physicists (mostly European emigrés) working to build the world’s first atom bomb. Augustino says he can spring Peña from the hole on one condition – that he goes to work for Oppenheimer as his driver and fixer and – spies on him; that he reports back to Augustino everywhere Oppenheimer goes, everyone he meets and every conversation he has.

OK says Joe, and the novel begins.

Plot

A lot happens in this novel and Cruz Smith is an expert at intertwining half a dozen different plot strands in a deliberately demanding, teasing way. The reader struggles to keep up sometimes and Smith likes springing surprises with no warning.

Driver for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (who everyone calls ‘Oppy’) is delighted to be reintroduced to Joe as his driver, a man who knows the local country intimately, can liaise with the various Indian staff and locals, and can reminisce with Oppy about happier days.

Joe sleeps with Augustino’s wife

At a party for the faculty Joe plays jazz piano and, to his horror, finds Augustino’s bored wife flirting with him. That night he returns to his room to find her already stripped naked in bed waiting for him. They have sex. Bad idea. Augustino is not the forgiving type. In an eerie scene, the next day Augustino takes Joe hunting up into the snow-covered hills and then suddenly turns the gun on Joe. Joe scarpers through the snow just in time to throw himself behind the body of the deer they’ve just shot, pulling out his army Colt .45. But as quickly as he got angry, Augustino relents, puts his gun up and they return to the base; but Joe realises the man really hates him and, when his usefulness is up, won’t be merciful.

Augustino thinks Oppenheimer is a Soviet spy

One of the central threads of the novel is that Augustino is convinced that Oppy is a Soviet spy, taking as evidence the fact that Oppy’s wife, brother and girlfriend are communists, and he has hired lots of dubious Europeans to work on the project. Augustino has taken his suspicions to the ultimate head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, who overruled Augustino – for the time being.

We see and hear a lot from Oppy, who gets progressively more emaciated and tense as the deadline for testing the bomb (in July 1945) approaches. He is, of course, a real historical personage, so it’s fascinating, as it always is, to see a novelist imagining the character and dialogue of someone we know was a real person. Similarly we also introduced to a number of the other key scientists on the project who were real people – the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Englishman Foote, the Hungarian Edward Teller, and so on.

Joe and Indian culture

But Joe’s role in the novel is not only player in the Oppenheimer-spy plot, but as doorway to alternative cultures. He hangs out with some of the common soldiers assigned to guard this and that, and sympathises with their gripes, so that we get the ordinary soldier’s perspective on the grandiose ‘project’.

Most obviously, Joe is part of the local native American culture. He grew up not far from Los Alamos and he returns frequently to the pueblo of Santiago where he still owns the family house. His mother, Dolores, was a stern taskmaster. She never forgave him for setting a macho example to his kid brother, Rudy, who enlisted in the Army and never came back from the Philippines. Dolores always blamed Joe. She was also a leading maker of native-style clay pots, one of the staple products of the local Indians, who make money selling them to tourists.

It is through this connection with neighbours and kin that Joe finds himself getting drawn into a strange sub-plot about two old Indians, Ben Reyes and Roberto (who is blind). This odd couple carry out traditional ceremonies at some of the remoter canyons which surround Los Alamos. Joe is tasked with escorting a new arrival at the facility, the attractive female German émigré mathematician, Anna Weiss and the aloof and arrogant physicist Klaus Fuchs, on a trip into the surrounding countryside, when the latter gets lost. Joe comes across steps to some kind of cave and discovers Fuchs being held at gunpoint by blind Roberto. Fuchs is petrified and Roberto seems inclined to shoot him for intruding on a native ceremony. Slowly, calmly Joe talks Roberto round and extracts Fuchs to safety.

This incident snowballs into a major plotline for it triggers the arrival on the scene of two goons from the Indian Service, who have been tasked with tracking down Roberto and Ben Reyes and arresting them. Joe finds himself forced against his better judgement into helping the fugitives hide and eventually escape to Mexico, which brings him into conflict with both the Indian Service toughs and his ever-vigilant boss, Augustino.

The lightning wands

Along the way Joe discovers that the Indian pair are also indulging in some kind of voodoo. they have carved a set of native wooden lightning ‘wands’ and are getting collaborators inside Los Alamos to scatter them at the sites of mysterious fires in the facility. It’s not quite clear to this reader whether one of them is starting the fires or whether they are just taking advantage of a sudden rash of bolts of lightning which have come with the hot summer weather and seem to be triggering random acts-of-nature fires, and which they drop the wands at to give the impression that they are somehow controlling the weather.

Anyway, they’re doing it because they believe the work going on at Los Alamos is blasphemous and should be stopped. There’s a conversation with Joe where they quote Hopi Indian prophecies about a gourd of ashes being spilt from the sky which will burn the earth – they suspect this is an ancient prophecy predicting the super-weapon being built at the facility, and they’re doing their little bit to discourage it…

The wands are found at the sites of various outbreaks of fire. When Augustino finds a few wands which had been stashed in a hiding place by the conspirators, it gives him the opportunity to plant them on Joe with a view to framing him for arson. He doesn’t necessarily want to get Joe, he just wants to have him completely under his thumb in order to achieve his obsessive goal of getting Oppy arrested.

The real spy is Klaus Fuchs

The irony of Augustino’s spy obsession is that there is a Red spy at Los Alamos (in fact we know from the historical record that there were actually three) but the most important one is arrogant, creepy Klaus Fuchs. Joe stumbles across Fuchs meeting his go-between, Harry Gold, in Santa Fe, sees them swap newspapers (presumably Fuchs is passing secrets to Gold folded in his newspaper) and then latches onto Gold and is about to question him when Oppy and Anna suddenly emerge from a hotel right in front of them. There have to be polite introductions and Joe is powerless to prevent Gold leaving.

Joe and Anna Weiss’s affair

Meanwhile the prim German mathematician, Anna Weiss, who we have seen accompanying the equally severe Fuchs, who Oppy obviously fancies (as is made clear at a party the Oppenheimers host and where his wife, Kitty, gets drunk and indiscreet with Joe) starts to flirt with Joe. Joe is, after all, a big handsome Indian, previously a prize fighter – ‘Big Chief Joe Peña’, as various characters mockingly or affectionately refer to him.

Joe and Anna end up having an affair. Cruz Smith describes them having sex in front of the fire, sex on the bed, sex when they go out skinny dipping under the stars, sex up against the wall – quite a lot of big-dark-Indian-on-white-skinned-German-blonde sex. As always, detailed descriptions of sex in a novel run the risk of making the reader squirm with embarrassment.

Once they are an item, Anna finds out about the help Joe is reluctantly giving to the two old Indians who are on the run. In the end she gets so involved that she offers to drive them hidden in an old pickup truck to the Mexico border, at the novel’s climax.

Joe is offered ownership of a jazz nightclub

Things speed up towards a climax in the last fifty pages or so. An old black guy Joe knows, Pollack, is the owner of the only decent jazz club in all New Mexico, the Casa Mañana. But he’s selling up and moving to the East Coast. Pollack laments, over a drink and a cigarette with Joe, that the buyers are going to knock the club down and turn it into flats. As jazz fans, both are appalled.

In a separate development a local hustler-turned-politician, Hilario, had been needling Joe from time to time about going back in the ring to make some bucks in one last big prize fight. Quite blatantly, Hilario is only interested in the huge winnings he can make by organising the gambling on such an event.

The two plotlines come together when Pollack, on the spur of the moment, offers Joe the freehold of the nightclub for half what he’s selling to the property developers – $50,000 – in order to save it for jazz. Joe doesn’t have that kind of money but realises that, if he accepts Hilario’s offer to do one last fight, the prize money combined with betting everything he possesses on the result, will just about scrape together the required sum. He says, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it,’ to Pollack. He tells Hilario, ‘Yes I’ll fight – but has to be in the next 7 days.’

Joe’s big fight

In the event, the fight is arranged for the very evening of the test of the first atom bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. And the very night that Anna has volunteered to drive the two raddled old Indian renegades to safety in Mexico.

The fight goes ahead in the car park of a motel in a town to the south of Santa Fe. There is an extended description of the four brutal rounds, which is fought in an impromptu ring, with knuckles bandaged not gloved, and time called erratically by the crooked Hilario, based on stopping at dramatic points to provoke more betting (and maximise his cut). Joe takes a lot of punishment from an angry youth half his age, but the kid fades in the fourth and Joe suddenly finishes him with a fierce attack.

Augustino’s deal

Joe takes his money but Augustino is there – turning up as he always does when least expected – having watched the whole thing. He tells Joe he knows Anna is taking the Indian runaways to the border; he’ll tip off the Indian Service toughs so that Ben and Roberto get arrested and Anna along with them as an accessory, unless Joe does what he tells him i.e. plants decisively incriminating evidence on Oppy, namely Harry Gold’s business card, which Augustino has got hold of. This would link Oppy with Gold who the authorities know is a spy.

This is the crux at the climax of the novel: what should Joe do? Save his lover by incriminating the man he likes and respects? Sacrifice his lover and the Indians (by extension his heritage) and betray his friend?

Joe tells Augustino he’ll do it and drives back to the test site. He had covered his absence for the fight by claiming to be policing the perimeter of the test site for Indians – based on the notion that only he would know where they would hide or break in. After all the local Indians have not been told anything about the bomb (no-one has) and just think it’s another example of the U.S. Army fencing off their ancestral lands. Oppy accepts this excuse but is glad to see him back just before the test explosion.

Climax at ground zero

The climax of the novel comes when Joe returns to Ground Zero, to be in attendance on Oppy as the final hours tick down to the test of the prototype atom bomb.

Throughout the novel we’ve met some of the more technical scientists, the ones responsible for building and assembling the prototypes. Now we watch them assemble an actual live bomb, with much back chat and jokes about ‘Don’t drop it!’ Oppy is a bag of nerves, emaciated as a walking skeleton, convinced – like some of his colleagues – that the wretched thing won’t work.

Joe knows that, if it fails, Augustino will present the failure as proof to General Groves that Oppy is a spy and that the ‘meeting’ between Oppy and Gold in Santa Fe – which Joe was present at and knows was purely accidental – was in fact Gold passing on Soviet instructions to ensure the test fails.

For the first time in months it starts to rain, jeopardising the test. Oppy is devastated. Should they abandon the test? A pessimistic Oppy is persuaded simply to delay it. Joe is tasked with guarding the bomb itself which is located in a kind of shed on top of a hundred foot tall scaffolding tower. He’s in the shed right next to the device when Oppy trips over some ropes where Joe had temporarily hidden the wretched lightning wands which he’s been carrying round trying to find a definitive hiding place.

Oppy recognises them and leaps to the conclusion that Joe is the arsonist who seems to have been sabotaging the base. He accuses Joe, they have a brief scuffle, then Oppy climbs down the ladder to his car and drives off to the security of the bunker seven miles away.

Last fight with Augustino

Out of the darkness appears Captain Augustino, Joe’s nemesis, like the proverbial bad penny. Augustino He asks whether Joe planted the incriminating evidence – Gold’s business card – on Oppy then. But in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Augustino sees the card lying on a desk where Joe had left it. So Joe has rejected the deal. They fight. Augustino pulls a gun and shoots Joe in the chest. Despite this, big strong Joe grips Augustino by the throat and dangles him over the edge of the platform. Augustino gets a few movie-like last words, then Joe lets him drop to the ground a hundred feet below.

The end

Joe climbs painfully down the ladder, bleeding. Augustino’s car is there, he limps over to it but – there are no keys in the ignition! Not under the floormat nor behind the sunscreen, nowhere! He tries to jimmy open the nearby tool-shed to see if there are any tools he could use to jump start the car but it is chained and padlocked shut. In the distance he hears the hooter announcing the start of the countdown, and he starts to run. 25 minutes. Run, run, run with blood dripping from his wound. The prose becomes a kind of dazed prose poetry: Come on, old fighter. Come on, old jazz pianist. Come on, lover of Anna Weiss and lithe Mrs Augustino. Come on, helper of crazed, old Indian men. Come on, the man who saved Oppy from Augustino. Run run run.

Joe hears the countdown reach its climax. He sees a culvert just a few yards ahead. Throws himself towards it and –

From the eye of the new sun, a man diving.
(p.341 – last sentence)

Scenes

So – a fairly convoluted plot with numerous different strands. But it’s not the plot, it’s the characters, the taut and evocative  poetic prose and above all, the weird, eerie, memory-tickling scenes, which you read Cruz Smith for. A day after finishing it I remember:

  • Joe and Anna skinny dipping under the stars
  • the strange native American dance with clowns, put on for the tourists in Santa Fe, in which Joe has to take part to take the place of blind Roberto who the Indian Service toughs have come to arrest
  • the duel between Joe and Augustino in the mountains in the snow which is suddenly interrupted when two local Indians emerge from the trees, walk slowly across the clearing where our two guys are shooting, and just as calmly disappear into the trees on the other side
  • Joe bare knuckle fighting in the parking lot of a backstreet motel
  • the fight with Augustino at the top of the Trinity test scaffold

Conclusion

Like the Renko series, this novel is packed with information and characters. Cruz Smith has clearly set out to provide a panoramic overview of the key players at Los Alamos, as well as a cross-section of the other classes and cultures caught up in this historical moment. Above all, he goes very heavy on Joe’s Indian background and the beliefs, customs, economic plight and so on of his Indian family and friends.

Nonetheless, for some reason it doesn’t have quite the same bite as the Renko books. Maybe this is because we know too much about 1940s America from countless movies – and we also know a lot about the atom bomb project from general knowledge and histories. Therefore it doesn’t have the frisson which all the Renko books have, of introducing us to a completely alien culture (the underworld of Soviet Russia, with its complicated cross-currents of power and corruption.)

And it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise to take us into its setting: it isn’t really a novelisation of life among the physicists – they only really provide a backdrop to Joe’s story – but simultaneously, it isn’t quite enough about Indian life, because Joe left it in his teens and is more a New York jazzman than believer in any of the old magic, which he thinks is horsecrap.


Related links

Reviews of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (1986)

If we seek the roots of the success of European imperialism, we must be off to the Middle East, to Abraham, to Gilgamesh and the cultural ancestors of all of us who eat wheaten bread, smelt iron, or record our thoughts alphabetically… We – you who read and I who write this sentence – are part of that continuity; these words are in an alphabetical form of writing, a very clever Middle Eastern invention produced by peoples even more directly influenced by the Sumerian example than we are. The Sumerians and the inventors of the alphabet, and you and I, no matter what our genetic heritage, are in one category: heirs of post-Neolithic Old World cultures. All Stone Age peoples, including the few living, and all pre-Columbian Amerindians, however sophisticated, are in another. The indigenous populations of the Neo-Europes were in the second category until Europeans arrived from beyond the seams of Pangaea. The transition from one category to another was a harrowing one, and many individuals and even peoples faltered and failed. (Ecological Imperialism, pp.21-22)

Until I started reading it I hadn’t realised this book was published in 1986 (I was brought up short by the references to the Soviet Union and that world population was ‘thrusting towards 5 billion’ – it is, of course, now 7.4 billion). 1986 is a long time ago, especially in science, where new discoveries and perspectives arise each year. A lot of the argument – that European triumph over the rest of the world was as much to do with biological advantages as military skill or morality or civilisation etc – was familiar to me from Jared Diamond’s best-seller Guns Germs and Steel. Now I look closely I see the latter was published in 1998. Maybe it had the advantage of following up ideas Crosby pioneered.

Pangaea

Crosby takes a doggedly chronological approach and starts several hundred million years ago with our knowledge of Pangaea, the supercontinent consisting of all the world’s land surface compacted into one unit that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. Pangaea began to break up into our present continental units 175 million years ago, each continent driven apart by fault lines where new molten magma was forced to the earth’s surface, creating new crusts. Life forms on the newly separated continents evolved along different lines.

Some areas remained connected by land bridges for a while, but, after a long sequence of ice ages, the final ice age ended about 13,000 years ago, the ice caps melted, and the land bridges connecting Britain to Europe, Russia to America across the Bering Sea, and New Guinea to Australia, were flooded. The continents were sealed off in their isolation.

By about 100,000 years ago the human brain had evolved to the same size as it is today. By 40,000 years ago our species, Homo sapiens, had arrived. We spread out of Africa, across Asia, walked into Australia and across the land bridge into America. Then the seas flooded.

The Neolithic revolution

Crosby moves swiftly on to the Neolithic revolution(s). This began when humans started to grind and polish rather than chip their stone tools, and went on to include the development of agriculture, the domestication of farm animals, the beginning of food surpluses which gave rise to denser settlements and social hierarchy, eventually to cities with rulers who wanted records of their possessions and so to writing. The revolution was complete as humans learned how to smelt metal and work it into tools that stayed sharper for longer.

To some extent ‘the rest is history’, the history of successive empires which used these technologies to conquer (and generally enslave) their neighbours – the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the astonishing success of the Islamic caliphates, the long slow growth of the Chinese empires, alongside the rise of a Japanese state and more obscure (to us) empires in Thailand, Burma, the East Indies. Europe, abandoned by the Romans, slowly regrouped with strong leaders carving new empires, notably Charlemagne’s north European empire, crystallised by about 800, with King Alfred and his successors’ efforts to unify England under one king, complete by about 900.

All this is interesting but the key fact for the history of European empire was the fact that all the other human populations not directly linked to the Middle East (where the Neolithic revolution took place, starting in Sumeria, modern Iraq) fell behind and were outstripped. In Saharan Africa the empire of Mali arose and in South Africa several empires, latterly the Zulus. But in Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific islands and in North America there was no Neolithic Revolution. The people continued the old style of hunter-gatherer living. Only in Central America was there a semi-revolution – when the conquistadores arrived they found the Aztecs could smelt metal – but only to use as decoration, not weapons; and they had invented the wheel – but only as a decorative toy, not to carry heavy weights long distances. Why? Because they had no domesticated large mammals to pull any wheeled vehicle (unlike us Eurasians, blessed with domesticable horses, cattle, oxen and so on).

Thus when the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch and – right at the end – the British set sail in their advanced ships, with highly developed sailing and steering technology, maps, knowledge of the winds, horses, armour, cannons and guns, it was all too often to encounter indigenous peoples who were still living in the Stone Age and were easy to fight, kill, round up and enslave, shoot and loot and dispossess of their land.

Eurasian biology

There is not as much biology as the title suggests, in fact the book is rather disappointing from this point of view, and not as focused and memorable as Diamond’s book. Why was agriculture more successful in the West? Because:

  • There was a broader variety of domesticable edible plant species to begin with e.g. wheat, barley, peas and lentils.
  • Wheat was highly productive of edible seed from the start, encouraging agriculture and surpluses, whereas new World maize was far less productive and took a lot longer to be developed.
  • The growing seasons of a temperate climate are more supportive for arable crops (unlike tropical rainforest or desert).
  • And for the simple but amazing reason that the Eurasian land mass runs East-West with a broadly similar climate all through it – what can be grown in the Caucasus can be grown in France or southern Britain and grown on the Russian steppe. Agriculture, and agricultural innovation, could spread unhindered across this vast area (albeit very slowly). There just wasn’t the same geographic scope for the Central Americans to spread and share innovations because they were blocked by the Mexican desert to the north and Amazon rainforest to the south. North America turned out to be fantastically fertile but having never had a Neolithic/agricultural Revolution the native Americans weren’t in a position to realise this. Similarly, the Aborigenes in Australia remained a relatively small scattered population of doggedly hunter-gatherer tribes in a vast and generally inhospitable land.

Which brings us to animals and the bald fact that Eurasia simply happened to possess more and more easily domesticable animals – horses, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, reindeer, ducks. At the opposite end of the scale no-one managed to tame Australian fauna – the kangaroo, dingo, koala bear. Native Americans hunted and killed bison but never tried to produce tame populations of them in fenced farms – they didn’t need to.

We had all kinds of advantages. An apparently minor one, which becomes more important the more you think about it, is that Western people have a gene which allows us to digest milk after we’ve stopped being babies. Many other peoples – Amerindians, Aborigenes – don’t.

Few adult black Africans or East Asians, and fewer yet of the adult indigenes of Australasia or the Americas, can tolerate milk in any but small amounts after infancy. In fact, it makes them quite sick. (p.27)

In many times and places the ability to drink cow or goat’s milk in bleak winters or times of dearth made the difference between survival or extinction for all kinds of Western settlements. Just one way in which we had more biological and technological resources than the first peoples we met.

Eurasian disease

The main biological component, however, was disease. For thousands of years Westerners lived in towns and cities large enough to foster urban diseases like smallpox and measles. Not that these were a weapon in any way consciously deployed against native peoples or that only hurt non-Westerners: Crosby shows how waves of plague and other diseases decimated the West again and again and again before any imperial voyages began. Some historians attribute the collapse of the Roman Empire to a deadly plague which decimated its population.

The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at least 13% of the world’s population). (Wikipedia)

Plague continued to ravage Europe for centuries, notably the Black Death of the 1340s when up to 200 million Europeans died, the famous recurrence in the 1660s which killed about a quarter of London’s population. Well into the 19th century Londoners were dying of cholera, typhoid and diphtheria and of course the early 20th century witnessed one of the worst pandemics of all time.

The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus. It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world’s population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. (Wikipedia)

Generations of Eurasians had survived these remorseless plagues and epidemics, and become hardened and immune. But when European explorers arrived at any settlement of humans outside the infection zone, the result was inevitably devastation, and there is a long melancholy list of native peoples in America north and south, in the Pacific islands and Australia who were wiped out by European disease.

Disease was also a major factor in limiting where white Europeans could realistically settle. Crosby gives examples of the high death rates of white people in the Tropics, which complement the accounts I’ve read in John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire and Tom Pocock’s harrowing Battle for Empire. In the early 19th century over half the British troops stationed on the Gold Coast died of disease. Joseph Conrad reported that only about 7% of white men served out their three year contracts in King Leopold’s Congo, the rest dying or being forced home by disease. Of the first freed slaves resettled to Sierra Leone about 40% died from disease. Compare with Pocock’s report that, of the 14,000 British soldiers and sailors who took part in the five-month-long siege of Havana, Cuba in 1762, no fewer than 10,000 died or were disabled by disease. Similarly, between 1793 and 1796 the British Army stationed in the Caribbean lost about 80,000 men, about half to yellow fever alone.

No wonder John Darwin points out that the best survival strategy for white settlers in the Caribbean was to pay local agents to run their plantations for them, and leave as quickly as possible. Even temperate climates were harsh for the first white settlers: in the first winter, half of the original Pilgrim Fathers who landed in New England died of disease, exposure or malnutrition.

Just one more reason why the Neo-Europes are pretty limited geographically, to the more temperate parts of America, southern South America, and Australasia, where not only do diseases not thrive, but the native populations were so thinly spread that they hadn’t incubated and helped evolve vicious strains of communicable disease. The direction of fatal diseases was almost all in the other direction, from Old World to New.

Eurasian biota

And not just disease. Europeans brought the livestock and plants they knew they wanted to farm – horses, cows, sheep; wheat, barley, peas – but also unintended passengers which played havoc with local biota. The most notorious example is the rabbit, which ran rampant in Australia, eating all the crops, but we also took the European rat wherever we went, and the rat is a key vector for disease. And among the seeds of useful crops were seeds of all kinds of European weeds. The common plantain was brought to America by Europeans and, apparently, nicknamed the ‘Englishman’s foot’ by native Americans. That infestive weed the dandelion is now found in all temperate climates around the world.

The spread of European disease, weeds and pests throughout the world is one of the greatest examples of the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

Pre-imperial European colonising attempts

I feel I’ve read quite a lot about the European conquest of India or Africa, therefore I found Crosby’s earlier chapters the most interesting, where he describes in detail the Norse voyages of exploration, to Iceland, Greenland and then onto Vinland, with detailed discussion of the crops and livestock the Vikings took with them, and the reasons for their initial success and ultimate failure, a combination of insufficient numbers, economic unviability (nobody wanted the goods the colonies could produce), conflict with the natives – the skraelings as the Vikings called the inhabitants of America.

He gives an account of the Crusades, again analysing the reasons for their ultimate failure – they came up against well-populated, well-organised native states and cultures, and not enough Europeans wanted to emigrate there. Result: collapse, withdrawal. The last Crusader territory was abandoned in 1202.

He claims that European Imperialism really begins around 1400 with the settlement of the Canary, Azores and Madeira Islands and this is a story I’d never read about before. It set the pattern for everything which followed – including long bloody campaigns against the natives – the Guanches – the eventual extermination of their populations through war but mostly waves of infectious disease, the setting up of sugar cane plantations with their insatiable appetite for manual labour solved by the importing of slave labour (often not black African, but North African Berbers or Jews or heretics from Europe).

This economic, social and technological model was to be exported to innumerable other ‘plantations’ in the centuries ahead. And it shows the general rule: a technologically more advanced society will tend to conquer, enslave and completely re-order a technologically inferior culture remodeling it to supply its economic needs. This rule applies in all times and places: wherever a more powerful population can overpower and dominate a weaker one – it will.

World winds and global exploration

The middle chapters give a highly detailed account of the early explorations by the Portuguese and Spanish pioneers, notably de Gama, Magellan and Columbus, but focusing not on armaments or economics but on winds. The story is told as the slow steady and thorough exploration of the world’s wind systems – in an age of sail, effectively the discovery of the world’s motorway systems – complete with several complex and fascinating maps. Obviously the era of great Explorations was a pre-requisite for European expansion but this chapter has nothing directly biological about it. It’s an example of the way the book has a chatty, discursive feel, and Crosby writes in a relaxed, slangy, sometimes jokey style quite unlike the sensible academic prose of John Darwin or the impassioned opinionating of Niall Ferguson. One of his catch phrases is ‘and what have you’. Thus:

The Asians and their plants and animals had existed in and around thousands of villages and cities for thousands of years, and along with them had evolved many species of germs, worms, insects, rusts, molds, and what have you attuned to preying on humanity and its servant organisms. (p.135)

The Neo-Europes

The second half of the book turns to look in closer detail at its main subject: the success of the ‘Neo-Europes’, lands with temperate climates, inhabited overwhelmingly by whites descended from European settlers and which, in an angle I hadn’t thought about before, are characterised by producing, consistently year after year, surpluses of food, something almost all the rest of humanity fails to do. He’s talking about North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the southerly part of South America.

The timing of these migrations is fascinating because it was slow slow slow – and then a torrent. Thus in 1800, after two centuries of colonisation, North America still only had a population of about 5 million whites and a million black slaves; southern South America only half a million whites; Australia 10,000 white settlers.

Then bang! The nineteenth century is the great century of mass white emigration. Between 1820 and 1930, over 50 million people emigrated to the Neo-European lands, about a fifth of the entire population of Europe! Why? The agricultural revolution fuelled a population explosion which put pressure on land and resources; war and instability; persecution of minorities in increasingly nationalist countries – and the rapid growth of transport, better long distance sailing and then steamships, train networks across the Neo-European lands opening up vast new frontiers for settlement; mass media i.e advertising campaigns giving tantalising pictures of the wealth to be won abroad.

The chapters which follow deal with the fauna and weed we exported – chief among which seems to have been plantain and sow thistle; the animals we exported – cattle, pigs, sheep, rabbits, rats; the illnesses white men took with them, most devastatingly smallpox whose ravages, destroying half or third of entire populations, again and again, rendering populous countrysides empty just as the colonists arrived.

The longest chapter in the book takes New Zealand as a case study of the colonisation of a New Europe, by all the elements discussed – flora, animals, disease, whitey – with the usual baleful impacts on local ecosystems and above all the poor Maori people. But, as Darwin pointed out, the Maori story is a bit different because they were annexed by the British Empire after requesting it themselves, and signing a formal treaty. This Treaty of Waitangi (1841) was later to form the basis of claims against the government and is the subject of dispute to this day.

The final chapter of ‘Explanations’ draws all the previous discussions together. One giant conclusion leaps out. At several places in the text, Crosby had mentioned that fossil and bone records suggest that the original large animals in America, Australia and New Zealand died out at just around the time the first humans arrived in these places. Humans arriving with stone axes and arrow tips came across enormous walking meals which were unafraid of humans – and they devastated them. When Crosby was writing this was still a controversial theory. But if true, it has the supplementary effect of providing a strong additional reason why the Neo-Europes were so vulnerable to invasion from Old World flora, fauna, disease – because all these places were still reeling from a first decimation of large mammals, their predators, their pest and the diseases they carried. Without realising it the Europeans arrived in countries with, biologically speaking, yawning gaps in their ecosystems – and their imported animals – pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, rabbits, rats – as well as the wheat and innumerable weeds – stormed into the vacant slots. From nature’s point of view the Amerindians, Aborigines and Maoris on the one hand, and the European invaders on the other, are not adversaries, with natives passive and whites active: they are both invaders of the same destructive species, the first wave acting as shock troops to clear the way for the second wave which arrived with its complex technologies, economies, biota and overwhelming numbers.

Quite a radically different way of seeing imperial history from the usual “bad white imperialist destroys eco-friendly native paradise” picture.

Rare words

  • endogeny – development or growth from within.
  • helminthic parasites – helminths, also commonly known as parasitic worms, are large multicellular organisms, which when mature can generally be seen with the naked eye. They are often referred to as intestinal worms even though not all helminths reside in the intestines.
  • indigenes – a person or thing that is indigenous
  • ‘Neo-Europes’ – a country or territory with a temperate European-style climate, inhabited by whites descended from European settlers e.g. America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
  • northing – distance travelled or measured northward, especially at sea.
  • pelagic – Any water in a sea or lake that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone.
  • virgin soil epidemic – a term coined by Crosby himself, who defines it as epidemics ‘in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless’ i.e. decimated by illnesses they have never encountered before.
Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)

Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)


Credit

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby was published by Cambridge University Press in 1986. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Canto paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Redback by Howard Jacobson (1986)

I walked back the way I’d come at a furious pace. I needed to exercise off my exasperation. No good comes of talking to old people, especially in Australia where they strike themselves as characters. Their opinions invariably lack truth and wisdom. And when they have finished listening you are denied all the usual methods of obtaining relief: you can’t really shout at them and you oughtn’t really to knock them down. (p.325)

This is Jacobson’s third novel in a row to be told in the first person by an anxious, guilty, intellectual, hyper-literary, sex-obsessed, verbose, very funny and, ultimately, rather wearing narrator.

This one is called Leon Forelock and given an autobiography distinct in incident from the two previous heroes – Barney Fugelman (Peeping Tom) and Sefton Goldberg (Coming From Behind). Unlike them, he is not Jewish. But despite these surface differences, the actual narrative voice we experience is much the same. Wordy, prolix, effortlessly articulate, addicted to showy paradoxes and subtle distinctions, self-dramatising, obsessed with women and sex, consistently humorous in tone but only occasionally prompting actual laughter.

‘But there’s no-one else here,’ I expostulated. I’m not being wordy – that’s really what I did. I expostulated. I complained and pleaded and debated in an aggrieved manner. (p.328)

(Sefton Goldberg, anti-hero of Jacobson’s first novel, actually turns up as a character, one of a loose association of expatriate Brits Leon enjoys necking tinnys with at the pub named The Whingeing Pom, p.247. Jacobson takes those opportunities to highlight that whereas Sefton is a Jew, Leon – the narrator of Redback narrator – is not.)

A tangled plot

The plot is easy enough in outline, although, at its key turning points, quite hard to follow. Broadly, Leon Forelock grows up in the wettest town in England, Partington, caught between Liverpool and Manchester. Here he is prey to a collection of stock characters from the ‘miserable North’ school of comedy – his father an ineffectual shorty, his mother a harumphing shrew who runs a hair salon assisted by two fearsome aunts named Hesta and Nesta who, the young Leon thinks, must spend all their time shoving pillows up their fronts to produce such peculiar and ever-changing shapes, and sticking black hairs into their prominent warts the better to look like old witches.

Nesta introduces young Leon to the joys of operetta, which makes for some entertaining passages about great operetta singers of the 1940s and 50s, and the silliness of their Ruritanian plots provides an amusing thread which runs through Leon’s memories and experiences.

I vas never kissed before, sang Georges Guétary, een zat kind ov vay. I knew exactly what he meant. I loved Georges Guétary. He was my ideal musical European. A voice like Georges Guétary’s, a stage presence like Nelson Eddy’s, an appetite like Mario Lanza’s. and I would have died happy. (p.234)

Like Jacobson’s other novels, although the plot is very roughly linear – moving from Partington to Cambridge to Australia – the text is made up of innumerable flashbacks, of countless detours, digressions and divagations, as the narrator rambles forwards and backwards over his life, picking up and continuing numerous storylines at various points, as well as wandering off for pages at a time on a wide range of subjects which occur to him and inspire ad hoc meditations and musings.

From this densely-woven plethora of prose we make out that Leon’s father ran off with a posh local woman, named Trilby, and that they ran all the way to Australia, from where he receives the occasional postcard inviting him to visit.

Cambridge

There is a prolonged interlude as our lower-middle-class hero goes to Cambridge (as Jacobson himself did) to study Moral Decencies (unlike Jacobson, who studied the rather more conventional English Literature) at the fictional college of Malapert. There are comic memories of Cambridge, the main one being the almost total absence of women, or ‘totty’ as they were referred to. Exceptions being an exotic, probably Hindu, princess, Ankhesenamen, whose ten little toes remind Leon of scarab beetles peeking out from under her sari (p.67). There are some funny moments, but by and large Tom Sharpe is much funnier about Cambridge in his Porterhouse Blue novels.

Recruitment for a political mission

The main event is his accident with Father Dinmont Manifest aka ‘Dinny’. Despite rereading it this whole episode remains rather opaque to me: Dinny appears to have let himself be crashed into by Leon on his bicycle in order to pick him up, take him back to his church (?) and then recruit him. ‘Recruit him?’ Yes because Father Manifest works for a CIA front named Freedom Academy International, and recruits Leon to go on a mission to Australia to combat ‘Tristanism’, the odd name they’ve given to the wave of permissiveness which is allegedly sweeping the West.

On this very slender and barely comprehensible pretext, Leon sails off to Australia, where he spends the best part of the 1960s stuck in the offices of The Black Flag magazine (named because it was seeing a black flag which led the medieval hero Tristan to his death; pretty obscure stuff.)

Mission to Australia

This idea that Leon is on some kind of undercover mission opens up a set of comic references to the Australian Secret Services who he claims are keeping tabs on him, and also explains why he gains admission to the world of Australian small political magazines, to meeting other crusaders for moral values, and so on, all of whom are painted as loons and freaks of various degrees.

Leon is credited with implementing various wacky right-wing schemes, including OPERATION POM and the mildly funny idea of creating an Immigration Test based on knowledge of the obscure medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. As an English graduate who’s read (and enjoyed) Piers Plowman I got the reference, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea, but it all feels a bit of an in-joke for literary types.

Leon repeatedly insists he is not a very political person, that – as he tells us on page 197 – he is ‘a personality rather than a principle man’ – that is, his opinions are formed by people and personalities, rather than intellectual principles – and the text bears this out, as you get very little sense of any of the political or social ideas which transformed the western world during this tumultuous decade.

Leon ends up staying in Australia for the rest of his life – from around 1962 up till the present (ie when the book was published, in 1986) and he mentions various Australian politicians whose names ring a bell (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke) but it is impressive how little sense the book gives you of Australian politics or history.

And no sense at all of Leon’s own politics. Because they are based on personal tastes and prejudices, his views are difficult to nail down, they they change as his feelings change and so the ‘Big Change’ which supposedly dominates the second part of the book – when he shifts from being a conservative to being a radical – is built up several times in the text, but actually takes place with no change of voice or attitude – because he never had very strong objective beliefs to start with.

About Australians

So off to Australia Leon sails, on this supposed mission to promote conservative values, and coincidentally to drop in on his Dad and Trilby. He’s met at the dock, for reasons I didn’t quite follow, by a Jewish academic, a humorously-titled professor of Pessimistic Philosophy, Orel Rosenfeldt, and quickly whisked back to his house.

By this stage the reader is realising that the storyline, the plot, isn’t all that important – it may even be part of the comic intention that it barely makes sense at several points. The real driver of the text is to introduce us to an unwavering line of comic grotesques and caricatures, who are often very funny indeed.

Leon’s mother – permanently hissing ‘shush!’ at the young lad – his two ugly aunts, the handful of eccentrics he met at Cambridge, all these are eclipsed from about page 100 onwards by a wall of comic Australian characters and long disquisitions on all things Australian, the food, the landscape, the culture, the lingo and so on.

The art of vilification was in its infancy in Australia when I first arrived. There was a certain rough native idiomatic vitalism around sure enough, but it was of a kind that could easily make detraction sound like flattery; it was a coarse, affectionate, bachelor style of disparagement, and it needed to settle down in the company of some cruel European contempt. I, if you like, officiated at the wedding. (p.85)

Jacobson’s basic style is a comic grandiosity, a mock pedantic orotundity, a humorously over-inflated self-importance which dresses his every thought and feeling in a grand and aggrandising rhetoric. His narrators are the superstars of their own convoluted perorations, so that one among many comic tricks is the contrast between the Jamesian complexity of their long-winded prose being brougfht down to earth with a bump by the abrupt bluntness of the external world, by some piece of Ossie repartee or the name of an obviously comic character. E.g:

Melbourne? Yes, Yes I know – it wasn’t the centre of sublunary wickedness exactly. It wasn’t Hades or Gomorrah. It wasn’t even Hamburg or Gillingham. But it had made the Festival of Light see red; it had given the world the Women’s Movement, and – no negligible claim to infamy – it had given the world Bev Belladonna. (p.300)

As his first novel was stuffed with rather dubious generalisations about Jews, so this one is stuffed with equally carefree generalisations about Australians. Most of them have enough of a germ of truth to be funny, but their function is nearly always to trigger or enable an ensuing rhodomontade of opinionated prose.

There’s no moving an Australian over forty, once his mind’s made up. (p.345)

The really nice thing about Australians is their lack of interest in finding their politicians honourable. They actually prefer them dodgy. The rougher they are – the more they pissant around where they shouldn’t – always provided they remember to blubber where they should – the more they’re trusted. In the country that idealises the ratbag and the larrikin, the scoundrel will always be a hero. (p.332)

‘Have you noticed how much time Australian men spend scratching their dicks?’ (p.202)

He was wearing one of those ascetic beards difficult Australian men sometimes take refuge in, a fringe around his face, leaving a half-moon of chin and the whole of his upper lip bare. (p.322)

Delsey pulled one of her vital-weary, arch-exasperated Australian faces – the kind that are meant to win over an imaginary third party, the sort that famous Australians employ to amuse audiences when someone else is speaking. (p.319)

Of course I should have known that Delsey had to be sitting on a pretty snazzy vaudeville routine. She was Australian, wasn’t she? All Australians – certainly all Australians of her class and generation – put a high value on snap vitality. This was part Americanisation: every girl her own Shirley Temple; and part indigenous sentimentality: nostalgia for the good old Australia of wandering shysters and mountebanks and song-and-dance men. The more serious the Australian, the more thorough-going the nostalgia. (p.313)

Jacobson published a non-fiction book about Australia, In The Land of Oz, the year after Redback (1987). It would be interesting to know whether it is any more factual, sober and logical than this fantasy, or whether it contains as many recklessly wild generalisations about Ossie life and culture.

Jacobson’s prose

Passages like these demonstrate a number of things about Jacobson’s prose. First and foremost is his ability to spin long paragraphs of comic inventiveness out of almost anything. The sheer length of the paragraphs explains why the pages look so dense – often solid blocks of text with no break or indentation – as the narrator holds forth, at length, about another thing which has just crossed his mind. There is far more comic soliloquy by the narrator than dialogue between characters. A Jacobson novel is a prolonged ‘holding forth’.

Techniques which help him spin out such lengthy prose include generalisations. Once you’ve stated a generalisation, no matter how dubious, the narrator can argue for and against it and under it and over it, and he can create characters, or whistle up conversations between characters, which also debate and discuss and digress around the invented topic. Women and Australia, in particular, come in for regular generalisations.

  • That combination of irony, tomboyishness, and country-town rawness which is to be found in all Australian women makes it difficult for them to throw themselves into public sexuality. (p.215)
  • Mind you, Australian feminists don’t need much to set them ticking, and they do make a big bang. (p.232)

Of course, the more ridiculous the generalisation, the more it’s used for comic exaggeration – the funnier it can be.

You cannot move in Melbourne, you cannot hear yourself think in Melbourne, you cannot find a spare place in a bar in Melbourne, for schoolteachers, apologists for schoolteachers, teachers of schoolteachers, and theoreticians of the teaching of apologising for schoolteachers. (p.297)

Another technique is the use of rhetorical questions. Almost any paragraph of length includes one or more:

  • Does that sound like a perfect mutuality? Well don’t forget that nothing is ever equal between men and women. It’s in the nature of their conjoining that one will always be on a more urgent mission than the other. (p.281)
  • Marriage is prostitution, Norelle Turpie made herself famous for saying. And who except Hartley Quibell would bother to deny it? (p.268)
  • Have I said enough to convey our total lack of interest both in our own and in each other’s Dreena? In that case will it surprise you to hear that when I turned up at Ruddles’s place one evening, as arranged, and learned that he was at that very moment turning up at my place, some six or seven hundred miles away, also as arranged, I was unable to stop myself taking Ruddles’s Dreena in my arms and telling her that I had wanted her ever since I’d clapped yes on her, yes, and even for some time before that? And will it surprise you to hear that although he would most certainly have been reeling with distaste from her open occidental pores, Ruddles was saying the very same thing, yes, and in the very same voice, to the Dreena who was mine? (p.190)
  • Wasn’t that what our own irregular but highly formalised arrangement implied? Wasn’t that the idea? Weren’t we meant to be disapproving of everyone except ourselves, conventional in regard to everything except what really mattered? (p.287)
  • What was before or below me now? I wondered. What did I aspire to? What was I after? (p.281)

These rhetorical and unanswerable questions create a kind of space in the text, a sort of elbow room where the narrative grinds to a halt while the narrator considers the various questions he’s posed himself and generally addresses them by asking even more questions. Some are rhetorical and don’t need answering and are left hanging; others trigger further ruminations and ratiocinations.

In fact, now I read a selection of these in isolation, I also realise they are a classic teaching method. Jacobson was a university lecturer for some 15 years and, since the time of Socrates, what has been a key pedagogic method but the posing of questions to debate and discuss? Who is the narrator asking so many questions of? His class.

Maybe this is why the tone of voice is the same in these three early Jacobson novels, despite the ostensibly different narrators: because they are all the voice of a richly and comically pontificating pedagogue.

The style of mock heroic narration, its ability to spool seemingly endless paragraphs of rumination out of very modest subjects, the rhetorical flourishes and repetitions, the deployment of grand professorial questions, maintain the narrative at a permanent level of amused urbanity. But it can, over the long run, become a bit wearing. Towards the end, as the plot grew ever more random but the prose continued at this high, rather demanding pitch, the temptation grew to skip yet another page-long purple paragraph and then, maybe, whole chapters…

Climax

The previous novel, Peeping Tom, made repeated mention of the Big Event which – it was promised -transformed his life and explains the existence of the whole narrative. It is something Big and Horrible which happened with his lover Camilla, and which affected him so badly that he is only now recovering from it. The text builds up our anticipation of this Event with repeated mentions, drumming it up to be the Climax towards which the text is hurtling and which will explain everything.

In the event, it turns out Camilla ran off with the owner of the candyfloss and seaside rock shop after, admittedly, giving him a bad fright for a few hours by pretending she’d swum out the sea and drowned. But then he discovers – No: she just dumped him.

Hmm. This isn’t quite the Great Comic Climax we had been led to expect. The rock and candyfloss man is, in fact, a lecturer in the French nouveau roman who ran away to Cornwall to start a new life and has been bitterly disappointed, which is quite funny, but being dumped by your lover is just sad, and it’s more than a bit disappointing that this banal fact turns out to be why Leon haunts the cliffs and byways of North Cornwall, alone and forlorn.

Similarly, in Redback, the title refers to a type of poisonous spider native to Australia and we are told repeatedly that, when the hero went for a poo in an out-house, a specimen of redback bit him on the testicles, causing them to swell up and our hero to be hospitalised and that the event is the Major Trigger for his change of life and attitudes, for the Big Changes which the book records, and that it will explain everything!

The spider bite is set up to provide exactly the same narrative End-Point as Camilla’s departure in Peeping Tom and, as in that novel, proves to be similarly anti-climactic, when the moment finally comes, right at the end of the novel.

First Leon dumps the synchronised swimmers he’s been going out with for years. Synchronised swimmers? Yes, apparently what persuaded two beautiful lithe athletes to agree to spend eight years sleeping in the same bed with the weedy, nerdy narrator, was his reassuringly conservative views. When – for reasons which are hard to follow – his conservative views start to crumble and he shows dangerous signs of liberalism, they dump him.

Equally inexplicably, his first reaction to being dumped by the swimmers is to seek out an Ossie woman he had sex with in Cambridge all those decades ago, and whose face he’s seen in the paper as running an all-women feminist commune in the outback. And so he sets off to find her.

He  tracks her down to a rough bar and, improbably, she drives him out to the commune and says he can stay as the resident man and fixer, so long as he doesn’t enter the actual commune building, but restricts himself to the so-called tent down the hill and uses the extremely primitive ‘dunny’, or outside loo.

These scenes around the feminist commune are very funny, particularly urban Leon (and Jacobson’s) response to the feral, malevolent Outback, with its low humming of aggrieved wildlife just waiting to take their revenge. I laughed out loud at a lot of the descriptions of the scandalised townie recoiling form the hairy, crawling critters which share his tent with him – and this kind of scandalised exaggeration suits Jacobson’s rhetorical style perfectly. But, again, it was hard to see what kind of plot logic had brought us here. It’s all very funny but seems to come out of nowhere as a whim.

In the event Leon is having a poo in the dunny when the redback spider lurking there bites the underside of his tackle. Cue fever, facial rictus and the crown jewels swelling to twice their usual size. The feminists are unsympathetic and so he hitches a ride back into town with some passing retired tourists and gets himself admitted to the local hospital. Here – in scene which takes authorial randomness to new levels – he is momentarily addressed by a British Royal Couple who happen to be visiting at just that moment, to whom he finds himself having to explain precisely what satyriasis is ie the permanent, unrelievable giant erection of the penis. They nod sagely. Unflappable, these royals.

In the last pages, a restored Leon goes to visit his father’s second wife, Trilby, the woman he ran out on young Leon for all those decades ago. Along the way, Leon’s dad has died and buried in Botany Bay. Trilby she explains that she’s going back to Blighty – she wants to be among her family. Fair dinkum, but Leon stays on in Australia and his last thoughts are about the vast jamboree which the country is going to treat itself to at its two hundredth anniversary in 1988. The Trilby scenes, his dad’s death, cast an odd shadow over the ending of this comic novel.

Timeline

It’s worth mentioning how long ago the plot is set. Leon was born in 1940 (Jacobson was born in 1942), so attends Cambridge in 1958 through to 1962, which is when he’s recruited to Freedom Academy International. He spends most of the 1960s working for a right-wing magazine in Australia, launching countless campaigns against the permissive society and trying to get smutty books banned, before, some time around the end of the Vietnam War (the mid-70s?), experiencing his conversion to radical politics which is, in fact, so barely perceivable to the reader.

Although much of the novel is set in the 1960s, if you thought it will shed any light on the 1960s, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It sheds endless light on the narrator’s favourite topics- Australians, the oddities of marriage or this or that comic character, women, sex – but it isn’t a serious analysis or meditation on anything much. There are lots – hundreds – of short comic disquisitions on minor points – but hardly any sense of the social or political background. Or the broader history of the period.

Eventually, right at the end, some years after the spider bite, it turns out the menacing figures keeping tabs on him from a dark Mercedes parked outside his door which he’s spent most of the book thinking are the Australian Security Services, aren’t at all, but turn out to be the three dim Cooney brothers – George, Bernard and Shaun – part of the right-wing group he was introduced right at the start of his Australia trip. All they want is for Leon to help them pass the Immigrant Test he devised when he was a rabid right-winger, the comic one based on detailed knowledge of the medieval poem Piers Plowman.

It is this final sequence which mentions funding for the 1988 biennial celebrations of Australia’s founding. So somehow we have flown from 1958, to 1962, to the late 60s, the end of Vietnam and – whoosh! – on to the date of publication (1986) with huge amounts of comic improvisation and humorous disquisition, but very little sense of time passing or characters changing or developing, especially the central narrator, who is as bright, perky and ironically verbose at the end as he was at the beginning.

Some comic characters

  • Leon’s Dad – tiny and forgetful, he routinely takes Leon out in the pram when he’s a baby and walks off forgetting all about him, one time absent-mindedly putting him in a litter bin in a park and coming home with the rubbish bag from a picnic. Runs off with Trilby, the nearest thing Partington knows to a classy lady.
  • Leon’s mum – runs Partington’s hair salon with mixed results for the customers.
  • Aunt Nesta – keen on operetta.
  • Aunt Hesta – keen on outings to castles and old ruins.
  • Ruddles, Leon’s friend at Cambridge, who hangs around the train station on the lookout for stunning blondes but, since he is short-sighted, needs Leon to help point them out to him.
  • Dinny i.e. Father Dinmont Manifest – priest who is in fact a recruiter for the CIA-backed  Freedom Academy International.
  • Orel Rosenfeldt, Professor in Pessimistic Philosophy at the university of Wallamaloo, like so many of Jacobson’s male characters, a hen-pecked weedy specimen. His main habit is elaborately peeling apples to that the peel forms one long spiral, before carefully depipping it, and then cutting it into sections. Can takes hours.
  • Vernie Redfern and Maroochi Ravesh, gorgeous tanned pair of synchronised swimmers who become Leon’s girlfriends.
  • Frank Whiling, mewling, feeble lefty, ‘a snuffed-out volcano, an inactive activist, a sort of soporiferous socialist who argued with his own bedclothes’ (p.128), permanently lifting his right fist and feebly yelling ‘Victory to -‘, the gap to be filled by whichever cause is fashionable this week.
  • Lobelia Sneddon: her comic trait is sprinkling her speech with French tags and then elaborately translating them for his presumed-illiterate audience. But, as Lobelia would say, c’est la vie or, that’s life!
  • Alex Sneddon – her husband, committed to the sanctity of the family.
  • Norelle Turpie, one time Senior Tutor in Women’s History, later leader of the Eastern Suburbs New Hegemonists (p.86), whatever that means.
  • Ruddles Carmody, fellow right-winger who – for a while – has a girlfriend named Dreena, which happens to be the name of Leon’s girlfriend of the time, so that in a chapter created solely for this purpose, they end up sleeping with each other’s girlfriends and not really noticing.
  • Henry Dabscheck, right-wing editor of The Black Flag.
  • The Cooney Brothers, George, Bernard and Shaun, who (comically) surround anyone they’re talking to.
  • Gunnar McMurphy, primal poet who expounds D.H.Lawrence. ‘His ambition was always to refer to the most private parts of women’s bodies in the most public places that would allow him to do so.’ (p.123)
  • Doug Kiernan, Vaughan Cantrell and Hungarian Rudi, three operatives of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who park in a Mercedes outside Leon’s flat after he converts to become a ‘radical’ (p.236). In one of the final coups of the novel, it turns out it’s not them at all, but the harmless Cooney brothers, who Leon’s been afraid of all this time.
  • Hartley Quibell, right wing conservative and owner – according to him – of the ‘last marriage in Australia’ i.e. resisting the rising tide of promiscuity and pornography.

Credit

Redback by Howard Jacobson was published in 1986 by Bantam Press. All quotes are from the 1987 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life – his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy; then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, he dumps her and moves to Cornwall and has an affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J

The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour in the inferno – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

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Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)

The area had once been called Monmouthshire but because of a decision taken in London was now called Gwent, after an ancient Welsh kingdom or whatever it was that might have formerly existed there or thereabouts. Anyway, it was Wales all right. (p.60)

Overview

A long novel by Amis’s standards, at 384 pages, The Old Devils is set in South Wales and describes in gory detail the daily lives and routines of half a dozen, heavy-drinking old men (one is said to be aged 61, another implies they’re closer to 70) and their middle-aged, heavy-drinking wives. Booze, booze and more booze, in restaurants and bars, round each other’s houses, down the pub, knocking back the whisky or wine, lighting up another tab and endlessly moaning about each other.

Into this little pool of alcoholic mediocrity arrives one-time poet, media celebrity and professional Welshman, Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon. He’s had enough of being a B-lister in Hampstead and wants to storm back into his native country, look you. In fact there is little or no description or attention paid to writing, broadcasting or thinking of any kind in these long 400 pages (the one exception being Alun revising the manuscript of a novel he knows is rubbish for a bit from page 284, and showing it to Charlie who candidly tells him it’s garbage).

Instead, the return of boy bach prompts a flurry of inter-marital liaisons: Alun has barely unpacked before he is bedding one of his best friend’s wives, Sophie, and then moves on to shag Gwen. Rhiannon, for her part, has a moving reunion with her first love, Peter Thomas, now grotesquely and unrecognisably fat, before allowing herself to be taken for a drive out to a formerly romantic church down by the sea by the hopelessly boring old sod, Malcolm Cellan-Davies. The main players are:

  • Boring Malcolm Cellan-Davies, married to Gwen
  • Fat Peter Thomas, married to cold Muriel (grown-up son Robert)
  • Philandering Alun Weaver, married to the attractive Rhiannon (grown-up daughter Rosemary)
  • Scared of the dark alcoholic Charlie Norris, married to Sophie
  • Victor, Charlie’s gay brother
  • Tarc Jones, landlord of the Bible and Crown

Decrepitude

Plenty of time is spent on unflinching portrayals of the physical and mental weaknesses of age. The first section opens with Malcolm struggling to instal his dentures and battle against his failing body to get dressed. Later we start the day with Peter Thomas (‘a bloated, beaten-up old slob’ p.346), so fat he can’t bend over enough to cut his toenails, his wife refuses to do it, so they grow long and snaggy and tear his socks, the ones with the elastic to keep them up over his varicose veins (pp.157-58).

Another chapter opens with Charlie Norris in the single bed he’s been exiled to by his wife because he is a full-on alcoholic, woken by the nightmares and visions caused by delirium tremens, and only managing to heave himself out of bed after fortification with tea and whisky.

A sequence of scenes

The plot amounts to a sequence of scenes: Three old buddies getting pissed in Charlie’s gay brother’s restaurant (the ‘Owen Glendower Tavern and Grill’). Their regular daily piss-up session in the Bible and Crown, landlord Tarquin ‘Tarc’ Jones. Charlie drinking so much before breakfast he is completely pissed by the time he arrives at the unveiling of a statue to the great national bard ‘Brydan’ (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas?).

There’s a party for oldies at the gold club where Gwen gets pissed enough to harangue Alan for being an adulterous shit. Charlie, Alun and Malcolm are getting pissed in a pub somewhere and talking loudly enough about how shit everything is to provoke three younger men to push their table over and punch harmless Malcolm on the nose. There’s quite a touching scene where all the blokes storm into Malcolm’s house and paw his priceless collection of 1930s 78 rpm jazz records, leading to moans about modern (ie anything after 1936) music; men drinking, smoking, playing their favourite records.

And so, pissedly, grumpily, on, just about this side of despair, though frank despair occasionally breaks through:

With a conviction undimmed by having survived countless run-offs he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone. (p.107)

Funny

Some of this is so grotesque it’s funny: Charlie tottering at the grand unveiling of the statue stands out for its dazed humour, for its Amis-like taking the piss out of a supposedly solemn occasion. Then again, quite a few moments make you shiver with horror at the prospect of getting old and bald, with varicose veins and bad-fitting dentures, subject to fierce pains in the side, all kinds of physical limits and ailments, unable to bend over or even stand up by yourself.

Offensive

Lots of it is deliberately offensive, what the reviewers call ‘Amis on the rampage’ ie Amis attacking the same old targets as in his previous novels: horribly modern pubs, all cheap mirrors, pointless old photos, disgusting beer and awful pumping rock music; modern roads rammed full of ghastly modern cars; young people, wandering round half-naked, speaking in their long-haired argot.

And of course, where not so long ago it had been hake and chips, bottled cockles, pork pies and pints of Troeth bitter, these days it was canneloni, paella, stifado, cans of Fosters, bottles of Rioja and – of course – large Courvoisiers and long panatellas, just like everywhere else. (p.79)

Misogynist

Women come in for scathing, bitter criticism throughout, by all the men, for being incomprehensible enemies liable to make emotionally wounding attacks at any moment.

Part of men’s earlier average age at death than women’s, perhaps a substantial part, might be traceable to wives driving husbands to coronaries single-handed by winding them up with anxiety and rage. (p.166)

Amis doesn’t make any pretences or excuses: the anger and resentment at women is nakedly connected to the men’s consuming fear, fear of women’s irrationality, of their bewilderingly obtuse thought processes, fear of being ganged-up on. Peter’s wife, Muriel, starts having a go at him in the car and he

thought as many times before of a film he had seen about half a century earlier. In it, a sadistic sergeant broke the spirit of a soldier in a military prison by beating him up at systematically random intervals, from more than a day down to a quarter of an hour, so that the victim never knew when the next attack was coming, never felt safe. Life with Muriel, it seemed to Peter, had over the last seven or eight years turned into a decreasingly bearable version of that. There were times, it was true, and this was one of them, when you could be morally certain a drubbing was on the way, not from anything she said or did but because you had spotted something disagreeable to her, either in itself or in its associations, drifting to the surface over the past few minutes or so; that was enough for her. For some strange reason, though, this kind of early warning did little to soften the eventual impact. He actually felt the sweat break out now on his forehead. (p.57)

I read these passages with a mixture of discomfort and indulgence, indulgence because I have heard, or used to hear, men making the same points in conversation; why shouldn’t these views be recorded in a novel, it is part of the human condition, it is how men of that generation (presumably) thought and spoke? Discomfort because these old bastards express their views about women far more crudely and angrily than anything I remember.

‘Once you’ve – Christ – relinquished the perverse, pig-headed expectation that women should mean what they say and say what they mean except when they’re actually lying, this sort of thing gets to be all in a day’s work.’ (p.246)

This cantankerous railing against the modern world, against women and pop music and modern pubs, and no-one fixes anything any more and no-one knows how to dress properly, it does capture a generation, an attitude, a grumpy, small-minded, ungenerous complaint which I associate with (some) older relatives.

But from the standpoint of 2015, it feels as if we came through the psychological and economic depressions of the 1980s into a less angry fraught world in the 1990s: one benefiting from the collapse of communism and the ‘peace dividend’, the release of Nelson Mandela, the Good Friday Agreement and so on; and then that the advent of digital technology, the internet, the transition to a gender-neutral service economy, not to mention the tremendous influx of immigrants from all nations, have made for a modern, globalised, cosmopolitan culture, an open rainbow culture, which makes the tight little nationalist and sexist world of Amis’s fiction feel as distant as the Middle Ages.

Wales

‘Wales is a subject that can’t be talked about. Unless you’re making a collection of dishonesty and self-deception and sentimental bullshit.’ (p.373)

The novel is set in Wales, all the characters are Welsh and there is a great deal of chat about Welshness, which is treated with varieties of cantankerous affection, with a running theme about whether the poet they all pretend to revere – the Dylan Thomas figure, Brydan – was a genius or a selfish, drunken charlatan, and whether he was really Welsh at all.

I’ve no idea what a Welsh person would make of it, or what its reputation is among the Welsh, and I’m not qualified to comment.

Old age

Amis would have done us a favour if he had produced a penetrating novel about old age since we now, in 2015, are more aware than ever of the coming boom in numbers of the elderly, living longer, dominating our society, requiring expensive healthcare and support.

But this isn’t that novel. It is dominated by the characters’ Welshness (4.8% of the UK population), by their universal drunkenness, and by the almost complete absence of thought or reflection, the space where it should be filled with rancorous, cantankerous, grumpy old git moaning and complaining and bitching about each other.

Put another way, the ostensible subject matter of this novel – old age – should make it more relevant, a more compelling read, than ever before. Instead I think it, and Amis generally, were never so marginalised and forgotten. His earlier novel about old age, the cruelly black comedy Ending Up, is more penetrating and a lot shorter.


Style

These grotesques and their dismal affairs are painted in prose which is slack, repetitive and aimless. It is like reading soggy cardboard. In my review of Stanley and The Women I itemised features of Amis’s late style and hoped they were in fact exaggerations designed to characterise the first person narrator of that novel, Stanley. But no. They are Amis’s late style.

1. Dangling clauses at the end of sentences, making them weaker and vaguer. Afterthoughts, second opinions, demotic tags and fragments, just one more bit, after all, in the end, so to speak, at the end of the day, in general, more or less, and all the rest of it, or part of it, or something…

But they were soon past there now and on to where she had not been for at least ten years, probably a good deal more. (p.205)

But when it came it was fine, in the same style as before, covering rather more ground, not much though. (p.212)

[Performances like that] brought out your awkwardness and almost your resentment of each other, or some if it. (p.218)

‘The fact you minded so much about not remembering, that’s worth as much to me as if you had remembered, very nearly.’ (p.225)

Gwen gave him a farewell twiddle of the fingers and stylised simper that made him feel sorry for Malcolm, but only in passing. (p.2540

2. Or Instead of stating something confidently and clearly, it has become a real mannerism for Amis to use ‘or’ to tack on an extra interpretation or two to even the most banal action, thus weakening and undermining countless sentences. In my Stanley review I said this has at least three effects:

  1. A wavering of meaning, a permanent uncertainty or inability to express himself which is almost senile.
  2. If there are several ‘or’ alternatives, the effect tends – explicitly or implicitly – towards a concluding ‘or whatever’, a throwaway dismissal of the attempt to be clear; a sod-you, who cares attitude, sometimes open contempt.
  3. Possibly an attempt to recreate the running-out of steam of a drunk who just doesn’t have the energy to finish a sentence clearly but runs on in a diminuendo of pointless rambling additions.

Either way it is the opposite of clarity of thought, precision of language.

In a flash Malcolm knew or as good as knew… a row of men in hats standing outside a thatched cottage in Ireland or some such place… none of his audience showed any sign of responding, then or at any future time… someone else pronounced a few phrases of thanks or thanksgiving or anyway termination… Charlie’s first breath or sniff of air brought some redolence or other… when the pain or series of pains began… ‘Mario’ or very possibly Mario… Garth’s laughter was heard again faintly, or fairly faintly… there would still be times like tonight, with her too pissed, or about to become too pissed, to drive… He poured himself a treble, or another treble…

On leaving Malcolm’s in a mood of heavily qualified satisfaction he had happened to find himself passing, or as good as passing, the house of an old friend. (p.265)… Although he often said where he was going, or might have been going, he never said where he had been. (p.269)

Short of that, she would most probably have Rosemary with her, back from her evening out (or somewhere) with William Thomas, who seemed to have been around since first light or thereabouts. (p.267)

‘You must be tremendously relieved, or a bit relieved rather.’ (p.292)

‘There are plenty of people about who talk like that for real, or semi-real…’ (p.305)

It is the opposite of alertness, curiosity, keenness of intelligence. It is in love with blurry, drunken, half-arsed incuriosity and everything’s going to hell. There are half a dozen passages which begin to capture the run-down, depressed atmosphere of South Wales in the decade when coal mines, steel and other heavy industries were being decimated by Mrs Thatcher, glimmers of something which might become interesting but then… fade into the characteristic Amis ‘something or other’.

With the end of its function as a port and the closure of the metal works and the silica quarry, Birdarthur had shown marks of unemployment, but none were visible now that the town had been designated or turned into an enterprise zone and the unemployed had gone away somewhere else. (p.279)

Oh well. It’s all a mess. Too hard to think about. Who’s up for another drink?

3. Pointless qualifications

It was miles and miles away from saying she was beginning to grow reconciled to what had taken place, what had almost failed to take place, between herself and Alun. (p.260)

From his earliest novels I noticed Amis’s tendency to produce sentences so full of qualifications, equivocations and slangy parentheses (after all, in a manner of speaking, certainly, at least, one had to admit, for instance) as sometimes to border on gibberish.

It was not very good, though surely better than nothing, and he had done his best to sound quite pleasant, at any rate for him, but nobody seemed to hear much and nobody came over, not even Dorothy, until Sophie brought him a gin and tonic, offering to fetch ice which he forbade. (p.56)

Much of the book is this badly, this contortedly and meanderingly written.

Quite a lot of time had indeed passed, but so far to surprisingly small effect. What he had said to Sophie just now about her appearance and so on was of course untrue, though it would have been much untruer, one had to admit, of most other people he had known that long. But in a general way, applied to experience, it had a bearing. All sorts of stuff, for instance what had been taking place a little earlier, seemed much as before, or at any rate not different enough to start making a song and dance about. This state of affairs might well not last for ever, but for the moment, certainly, the less it changed the more it was the same thing, and the most noticeable characteristic of the past, as seen by him, at least, was that there was so much more of it now than formerly, with bits that were longer ago than had once seemed possible. (p.100)

This is shit writing, isn’t it? Long-winded, saying nothing, full of pointless qualifications which give an impression of thought, of pausing for careful consideration where, whenever you look at it closely, there is absolutely none. Clumsy, hobbled sentences delivering nothing except rancour and unhappiness, 383 pages of them.

On the upside

From this great mass of verbiage there do emerge characters depicted with consistency and a cold eye, there are insights into the tribulations of old age, there are funny and outrageous scenes where old farts behave like naughty teenagers. You are drawn into their lives, their little kindnesses, their colossal rudeness and unhappiness. There is even an unexpectedly moving finale where wrecked old Peter and Rhiannon, at the wedding of their respective grown-up children, are reconciled, after a lifetime of being in love with each other but married to the wrong partners, and the book actually finishes on an upbeat note, with these two old lovers moving in together, smelly socks, dentures and all… There are moments of real tenderness and sweetness among the insults and blether.

The Old Devils is a long, very thoroughly imagined novel and there is much here to consider and savour and sometimes really enjoy. But God it is such a struggle, sometimes an almost physical ordeal, to wade through the strangely mannered gloop of Amis’s late style in order to see it.

TV series

The Old Devils was dramatised by Andrew Davies for the BBC in 1992, directed by Adrian Mourby and starring John Stride, Bernard Hepton, James Grout and Ray Smith. It isn’t available on Amazon or eBay and this is the only snippet on YouTube. Not, one deduces, a particularly sought-after item.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

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