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

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

She hooked thumbs in the belthoops of her leather jeans and rocked backward on the lacquered heels of her cherry red cowboy boots. The narrow toes were sheathed in bright Mexican silver. The lenses were empty quicksilver, regarding him with an insect calm.
‘You’re street samurai,’ he said. ‘How long you work for him?’
‘Couple of months.’
‘What about before that?’
‘For somebody else. Working girl, you know.’
He nodded.
‘Funny, Case.’
‘What’s funny?’
‘It’s like I know you. The profile he’s got. I know how you’re wired.’
‘You don’t know me, sister.’
‘You’re OK, Case. What got you, it’s called bad luck.’ (p.41)

Raymond Chandler for the computer games generation.

Gibson hit the ground running with the turbo-charged, street cool of this, his debut novel, Neuromancer, in 1984.

It’s set in a high-tech future after there’s been a war in which the American government sent naive soldiers over to be masacred by advanced Russian weapons systems. It lasted three weeks, apparently, with no damage in the USA, and – unlike most future novels – doesn’t seem to impact the story very much.

A pandemic has killed off all horses (p.112). A character refers to an ‘Act of ’53’ (p.92). Would that be 2053? Most of the story is set in ‘The Sprawl’, the nickname for the vast urban conurbation which extends from Boston to Atlanta. People can be cloned. Everything is digital, computerised. Some people have slots behind their ears which they can stick microchips into (referred to as ‘microsofts’).

And drugs are ubiquitous, not only speed and cocaine, but new families of chemically engineered mind-altering substances. More or less everyone takes them and many of the characters are addicts or dealers.

Case

The book opens with the central character, Case, (only his first name is used, coolly, until page 189, where the Turing Police inform us his full name is Henry Dorsett Case), aged 24, on the lam in Japan. In Tokyo, Chiba, Night City – to be precise, in the neighbourhood of Ninsei. It is here that the vibe and style of this fast-moving, high-tech futureworld is established.

It is nearly always night-time. Thoroughfares are packed with crowds and loud bars and food joints. Hustlers and fixers on every corner. Everyone’s foreign. Think Blade Runner without the rain. (Apparently, Gibson was a third the way through writing this book when Blade Runner was released – 1982 – and was horrified, thinking everyone would think he’d ripped off the movie’s night-time dystopian urban scenery and film noir tone.)

At 22 Case had been one of the greatest ‘cowboys’ in cyberspace, his mind plugged (or ‘jacked’) into the ‘consensual hallucination’ which was the matrix, via head electrodes (dermatrodes or ‘trodes’), and able to penetrate the digital security systems of banks and corporations. He stole, money and information, for his masters. Then one day made the basic mistake of keeping a little aside for himself. They found him and pumped his body full of a wartime Russian mycotoxin which burned out his neural synapses, made him useless. Now he’s hustling drugs, on the run from angry customers and vengeful suppliers, through the endless neon blare of Ninsei when his luck changes.

Molly

He meets Molly, a walking toolkit of advanced plastic surgery (her eyeglasses are lenses which feed directly into her brain; at the end of her fingers are retractable four-centimetre-long blades). After he’s overcome his drug-addled paranoia that she’s an assassin sent to kill him, Molly brings him to Armitage, some kind of ex-Special Forces hard guy who offers to pay for the world class surgery required to fix Case’s frazzled synapses providing… he pulls one Big Job for Armitage’s boss.

This set-up takes the first fifty pages of this 300-page book, in which a lot more happens, as we discover what The Job and who The Boss is. But it’s not the plot, it’s the totality of the vision which won Gibson the plaudits.

Lowlife, hi-tech

Not only has Gibson imagined a future in which people have all kinds of prosthetic extensions, a whole cast plug microchips into slots behind their ears, and he and other boy races can plug into the matrix and surf the wild west of cyberspace (the tech) – but this all happens in a densely-imagined hyper-urban environment of late-night bars, dirty alleyways awash with styrofoam trash, cheap hotels, goons, whores, drunks and stoners, dealers and fixers, drug lords and purveyors of black market tech (the film noir setting). Everyone is pulling their hat down over their eyes and smoking a cigarette. Dawn is always coming up after another long night taking drugs, having sex, drinking in lowlife bars or stealing things in the matrix.

The Sprawl’s geodesics were lightening into predawn grey as Case left the building. His limbs felt cold and disconnected. (p.88)

It is Raymond Chandler’s mean streets projected forward into a teched-up late 21st century, a “combination of lowlife and high tech” as Gibson himself put it in a preface written later.

Language

Vocabulary

This futureworld is made so real and insistent via the casual mention of hundreds of distinct new substances, gadgets, apparatus, drugs and technologies. Part of the book’s mystique is the way it’s continually describing or invoking entities which aren’t properly explained, keeping you guessing, off balance.

He turned on the tensor beside the Hosaka. The crisp circle of light fell on the Flatline’s construct. He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in. (p.99)

There’s no definition of what half these terms mean, you have to work it out from the context, be cool enough to go with the flow and not stop to ask uncool questions. Are you hip to the trip? Are you on the bus?

  • arcology – an ideal integrated city contained within a massive vertical structure, allowing maximum conservation of the surrounding environment.
  • BAMA – the Boston-Alanta Metropolian Axis
  • BAMA rapids – cops
  • Blue nine, an outlawed psychoactive agent
  • clones – exist: grown in vats
  • construct – appears to mean a human-seeming artificial intelligence existing only in cyberspace
  • cryogenics – exists; people frozen, thawed out when needed
  • dermadisks – patches like elastoplast which release whatever chemicals you intend, abbreviated to ‘derm’, as in ‘a sleep derm’
  • dermatrodes – what Case attached to his temples to access the matrix
  • fletcher – hand-held weapon that fires darts
  • go silicone – have a slot made in your head into which you can insert microsofts i.e. small chips which increase brain function
  • holograms – used in everything from adverts to the projection of professional fights
  • Hosaka – some kind of personal computer which can talk
  • HsG – a biochemical skeletal growth hormone
  • ice – slang for digital memory/records
  • jive – appears to refer to a street system of silent hand signals
  • joeboy – I think this means a kind of bodyguard or chaperone who watches the physical body of someone jacked into cyberspace and therefore completely vulnerable to real world threats or accidents
  • meat – the world of bodies and flesh, as opposed to the purely electrical-brain connected world of cyberspace
  • meat puppet – prostitute, courtesan, gigolo – sex worker
  • microsofts – small digital chips which people with slots behind their ears can slip in
  • Panther Moderns – a street gang Armitage recruits to help stage the attack on Sense/Net
  • puppet – sex worker
  • New Yen – appears to be the common currency of both Japan and the States
  • polycarbon
  • simstim – device or program by which you can go inside someone’s head and share their perceptions and sensations
  • Tacticals
  • temperfoam – what mattresses are made of
  • Yeheyuan – brand of cigarettes

Cyberspace and the matrix

Case puts on a sweatband which contains dermatrodes i.e. devices which pass electric signals direct into his brain, and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, the location of the ‘matrix’, the incomprehensibly large interlinking of all the world’s digital systems.

‘A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…’ (p.67)

Case chewed his lower lip and gazed out across the plateaus of the Eastern seaboard Fission Authority, into the infinite neuroelectric void of the matrix. (p.139)

Case pushed for the Swiss banking sector, feeling a wave of exhilaration as cyberspace shivered, blurred, gelled. (p.139)

So although Case is ‘jacked in’ to the matrix, he feels as if his mind and sensory systems are entirely ‘inside it’, he is still aware of his hands and fingers which, back out in the ‘real’ world, are punching buttons and keyboards on the console he uses, in order to ‘move’ around in cyberspace. In the manner of an advanced video game.

Case began to punch the deck, nervously, at random. The matrix blurred, resolved, and he saw the complex of pink spheres representing a sikkim steel combine. (p.159)

Jive talking

And above all, it’s the electric prose, spilling adrenaline-fuelled blazes of linguistic pyrotechnics across every page, which never lets up, never allows a normal thought or perception to pass by without injecting it with performance-enhancing phraseology, right from the (now famous) opening sentence:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

There are hundreds of phrases like this.

The boy smiled and drew something from his sleeve. A razor, etched in red as a third [laser] beam blinked past them into the dark. Case saw the razor dipping for his throat like a dowser’s wand. (p.52)

Case remembered fighting on a rooftop at seventeen, silent combat in the rose glow of the dawn geodesics. (p.61)

The walls were coated with countless layers of white latex paint. Factory space. He knew this kind of room, this kind of building: the tenants would operate in the interzone where art wasn’t quite crime, crime not quite art. (p.58)

The landscape of the northern Sprawl woke confused memories for Case, dead grass tufting the cracks in a canted slab of freeway concrete. (p.106)

Lonny Zone stepped forward, tall and cadaverous, moving with the slow undersea grace of his addiction. (p.172)

‘Armitage gets orders. Like something tells him to go off to Chiba, pick up a pillhead who’s making one last wobble through the burnout belt, and trade a program for the operation that’s fix him. (p.66)

‘One last wobble through the burnout belt.’ What’s not to love?

Drug prose

A lot of it stems from, and describes, the alternative modes of perception sparked by drug use. Case is always looking for his next hit.

‘I’m a drug addict, Cath.’
‘What kind?’
‘Stimulants. Central nervous system stimulants. Extremely powerful central nervous system stimulants.’ (p.161)

The result is all kinds of drug-enhanced hyper-awareness.

He stared at the black rings of grounds in his empty cup. It was vibrating with the speed he’d taken. The brown laminate of the table top was dull with a patina of tiny scratches. With the dex mounting through his spine he saw the countless random impacts required to create a surface like that. (p.16)

I used to take a lot of speed, amphetamine sulphate. Snorted it. Gibson’s descriptions seem to me bang-on, describing the shakes and the way the world around you expands and shines.

The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminating the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. (p.184)

The whole book feels like it’s written in an accelerated, over-perceiving mode of consciousness.

And Ratz was there, and Linda Lee, Wage and Lonny Zone, a hundred faces from the neon forest, sailors and hustlers and whores, where the sky is poisoned silver, beyond chainlink and the prison of the skull. (p.43)

The matrix blurred and phased as the Flatline executed an intricate series of jumps with a speed and accuracy that made Case wince with envy. (p.199)

Even when our hopped-up hero is ‘relaxing’ at an off-world hotel, the prose is studded with references, names, logos, unnatural perceptions.

He sat on the balcony and watched a microlight with rainbow polymer wings as it soared up the curve of Freeside, its triangular shadow tracking across meadows and rooftops, until it vanished behind the band of the Lado-Acheson system. (p.160)

Plot summary

So Case is dodging vengeful drug gangs in Tokyo when Molly finds him and reports him to Armitage, who offers to pay for top dollar brain surgery to restore his fried neurons, if he helps out with a heist in cyberspace. When he comes to, after the surgery, Armitage tells him they have planted micro-sacs of toxins in his blood vessels which are slowly degrading. Only Armitage has the antidote. To ensure his full co-operation.

The implanted and degrading toxins is a plot device straight from the movie Escape From New York (and probably countless pulp novels before it).

They fly back to the Sprawl i.e. the vast solid metropolitan area stretching from Boston to Atlanta. Here they pull an elaborate heist, Molly breaking into the headquarters of media multinational Sense/Net by collaborating with mercenaries named the Panther Moderns, who fake a terrorist attack on the building while Case is in cyberspace disabling the corporation’s cyberdefences. The aim is to steal the ROM containing the aritifical intelligence based on legendary cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, nicknamed ‘Dixie Flatline’ or ‘the Flatline’. The Flatline is dead but exists as a ‘construct’ i.e. an artificial intelligence stored in the ROM (presumably a kind of hard drive). Nicknamed the Flatline from the fact that his vital signs on various instrument panels are flat; in fact he died several times during adventures in cyberspace before finally dying (something which happens to Case several times later in the narrative, with no apparent ill effects).

With Dixie on board, Armitage then directs them on to Istanbul, to pick up a fourth member of the team, Peter Riviera, a man who is able to project his thoughts into the minds of those around him – generally creating vivid hallucinations in the minds of his targets.

Case learns that the man called Armitage is far from being the brains behind the scam: the prime mover is an entity named Wintermute, which can access all kinds of computer systems at will and, as the novel progresses, appears to Case in the digitally recreated guises of various figures from his time lowlifing in Tokyo – Wintermute appears as bartenders, assassins or his old girlfriend, Linda Lee.

Wintermute has taken the body of an ex-Special Forces colonel named Corto, one of the only survivors of a squad named Screaming Fist during the ill-fated war against Russia – and rebuilt his mind to make him into the person now known as Armitage, a tool for the scam, a puppet.

Wintermute had built something called Armitage into a catatonic fortress named Corto.’ (p.232)

So what is this all about? Armitage books them all tickets on a shuttle to a place named Freeside, which appears to be a luxury resort inside a space station, a giant hollow cigar shape which rotates fast enough to create earth gravity on its inner surfaces. Armitage explains that the place is owned by a consortium set up by two men back in the day, Tessier and Ashpool, whose extended family live in a section of Freeside which is secure from casual visitors, known as the Villa Straylight.

Riviera has been hired to project his way into the good graces of one of the young daughters of the Tessier-Ashpool family. Molly will use her fleetness of foot and burgling skills to gain entry to Villa and to penetrate to a room at its core, while Case embarks on a prolonged breakdown of its digital defences in cyberspace. Her arrival at the final object must coincide with Case cracking the ‘ice’ i.e. cyberdefences.

To add a bit of colour, upon arriving at Freeside, Molly and Case had gotten introduced to a gang of Jamaican Rastas who own their own little trading spaceship, the Marcus Garvey, and give them illicit help. So while Case clips on the dermatrodes and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, dreadlocked Maelcum is smoking huge spliffs and watching his back.

As the plot hurtles to its climax there’s a whole series of tense scenes, double crosses and confrontations. Molly encounters old man Ashpool who pulls a gun on her but is in fact dying of an overdose, having already murdered – by slitting her throat – a cloned prostitute with the face of his own daughter. Just to make sure, Molly shoots him in the eye with a poisoned arrow from her fletcher.

After an age climbing up tunnels and through passages, she emerges into the private room of 3Jane, a clone of Ashpool’s daughter, a big space complete with swimming pool and ruined walls. She shoots a man there but is herself disabled by 3Jane’s Japanese ninja guardian, Hideo. Out strides Riviera. His job had been to seduce 3Jane and distract her while Molly arrived, but he has gone over to her side. From sheer sadism he smashes a glass into Molly’s face, shattering one of her two digital lenses, blinding her.

Logged into cyberspace, Case is told by Wintermute that he and Maelcum must now unplug their console and make their way physically to this room, rescue Molly and extract the ‘code word’ from 3Jane which will reveal the secret, the McGuffin, the point of the whole narrative.

This Case and Maelcum set out to do but, along the way, Case plugs into some sockets up inside Freeside and is immediately sucked into a new part of cyberspace – a grey zone, an endless beach where he finds his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, resurrected as a cyber construct. He appears to be trapped in this whole alternative narrative.

After spending a night with cyber-Linda feeding and having sex, Case encounters a laughing 13-year-old boy, playing on the beach, who says his name is Neuromancer. In an oblique joking way he explains that he is related to Wintermute then runs off.

Case hears distant music, drumming, a mysterious pulse. He has to tear himself away from Linda and walk towards the music… which turns out to be dub reggae which Maelcum, his joeboy back out in the ‘real’ world, is playing to try and call Case back. Maelcum takes his trodes off.

In the real world, while Case has been having the incredibly vivid experiences with Linda which we, the reader, have also spent pages reading about – only five minutes have passed.

This hallucinatory episode is Case’s introduction to the ‘other’, the brother of Wintermute. From various conversations we have by now learned that Wintermute is a vast AI created by 3Jane’s mother some years earlier. But has a dark side, a cousin, another lobe. It was this that seized Case’s mind just now, and appeared to him in the form of the 13-year-old boy, Neuromancer. Why? It’s far from clear.

Back in the real world, Case and Maelcum arrive in 3Jane’s big, rather James Bondish room, more a stage set, where there is a quick shootout and double crosses, Hideo shooting Maelcum through the arm with a steel arrow, but Riviera then shooting Hideo in the eyes… only to be horrified when Hideo stoops for his weapon and goes in pursuit, the Zen ninja being unaffected by blindness.

Maelcum picks up the sick and wounded Molly, Case manhandles 3Jane into a life which takes them to the core of the Villa as directed by Wintermute. Here, at the centre of the room, is a stone bust, beneath it jackplugs. Molly strangles 3Jane till she coughs up the magic codeword at the same moment that the Chinese virus the Flatline and Case have been using to break into T-A’s ice finally penetrates its digital defences and…

Epilogue

Cut to the coda. The climactic pages of the book degenerate into a kind of visionary prose poetry which give a very garbled sense of what happened. Luckily, there is this more prosaic afterword which explains that everything and nothing happened.

Hideo killed Riviera. 3Jane was set free. Wintermute ensured Case and Molly’s passports and tickets back to earth remained valid, and filled up their bank accounts with money. They flew back to earth and travelled back to Ninsei and Night City. Molly has a few operations to sort her damaged eye. Case spends his fortune on a new pancreas and liver, setting himself up for more years of speeding drug abuse.

Then Molly leaves him, leaving a note saying it’s time to move on.

At which point Finn, the avatar Wintermute had used to present itself to Case throughout the latter part of the narrative, appears on a TV screen in Case’s apartment.

He explains what happened, and what the entire story was leading up to: the two parts or ‘lobes’ of the AI created by 3Jane’s mother, Wintermute and Neuromancer, have now been united.

Nothing has changed in the external world, but in cyberspace this vast unified entity… has now become the entire matrix. He is the whole thing. Nothing in the real world has changed but the matrix is now a unified and self-aware intelligence.

Then, finally, we get to what might be defined as a traditional science fiction moment. For Finn explains that this new One, this vast artificial super-intelligence, has identified others of its kind.

‘What, other matrixes here on earth?’ Case asks.

No. Not on earth. There is one on Alpha Centauri. The reader’s mind reels. So, behind all this cyberfighting, and smoking and drugs and leather jackets and cool shades – was the whole narrative leading up to this? The notion that the matrix which humans have built will become intelligent enough to reach out to other, similar digital networks, on other planets? What an epic thought!

Meanwhile, back in Case’s sad life, with Molly gone he packs his bags and checks out of the hotel. He’s just a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home. And on that note the novel ends.


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
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

Family Britain: The Certainties of Place by David Kynaston (2009)

Two more massive ‘books’ contained in one hefty 700-page paperback describing Britain after the war, the first one – The Certainties of Place, under review here – covering the period 1951-5 in immense detail. The main historical events are:

  • The Festival of Britain (May – August 1951)
  • October 1951 the Conservatives just about win the general election, despite polling quarter of a million fewer votes than Labour
  • Death of George VI (6 February 1952) and accession of young Queen Elizabeth II
  • 3 October 1952 Britain explodes its first atom bomb (in Western Australia)
  • The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash on the morning of 8 October 1952 – 112 were killed and 340 injured – the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom
  • The North Sea flood on the night of Saturday 31 January / Sunday, 1 February
  • Rationing: tea came off the ration in October 1952 and sweets in February 1953, but sugar, butter, cooking fats, cheese, meat and eggs continued on the ration
  • 2 June 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • 27 July 1953 end of Korean War
  • 12 August 1953 Russia detonates its first hydrogen bomb

The book ends in January 1954, with a literary coincidence. On Monday 25 Lucky Jim, the comic novel which began the career of Kingsley Amis was published and that evening saw the BBC broadcast the brilliant play for voices Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who had in fact died two months earlier, on 9 November 1953.

Tumult of events and impressions

But reading Kynaston’s books is not to proceed logically through the key events of the period accompanied by political and economic and diplomatic analysis: it is to be plunged into the unceasing turbulent flow of day-to-day events, mixing the trivial with the serious, it’s to see the world from the point of view of a contemporary tabloid newspaper – the Mirror and the Express competing for the title of Britain’s best-selling newspaper – with the big political issues jostling for space with the winner of the Grand National and gossip about the stars of stage and radio – and above all, to read quotes from a thousand and one contemporary voices.

Without any preface or introduction, the text throws you straight into the hurly-burly of events, festooned with comments by an enormous casts of diarists, speech-makers, article-writers, commentators, eye-witnesses and so on.

Thus at the top of page one it is Saturday 28 April 1951 and King George VI is presenting the F.A. Cup to the winners, Newcastle. Three days later, on Tuesday 1 May 1951 he is at Earls Court for the British Industries Fair. On Thursday 3 he is on the South Bank to open the new Royal Festival Hall and inaugurate the five-month-long Festival of Britain – ‘a patriotic prank’, according to the song Noel Coward wrote about it, ‘madly educative and very tiring’, according to Kenneth Williams (25).

What makes Kynastons’s books hugely enjoyable is the vast cavalcade of people, from kings to coal miners, via a jungle of ordinary housewives, newspaper columnists, industrialists, famous or yet-to-be-famous writers, actors, civil servants and politicians.

a) They are fascinating on their own account b) Kynaston deploys them not just to discuss the big issues of the day but quotes them on day to day trivia, the appearance of London, the menu at posh clubs, the ups and downs of rationing, the tribulations of shopping in the High Street. The breadth of witnesses, and the range of activities they describe, helps to make the reader feel that you really have experienced living in this era.

Labour exhausted, Conservatives win

Overall, the big impression which comes across is the way the Labour Party had run out of ideas by 1951, and how this contributed to their defeat in the October 1951 general election. (It is fascinating to learn that they only held an election that October because the king told Attlee he was going on a prolonged tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 and would prefer there to be an election while he was still in the country. Attlee duly obliged, and Labour lost. Thus are the fates of nations decided). (There is, by the by, absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Commonwealth or the British Empire: this is a book solely about the home front and domestic experiences of Britain.)

Labour were reduced to opposition in which they seem to waste a lot of energy squabbling between the ‘Bevanites’ on the left of the party, and the larger mainstream represented by Hugh Gaitskell. The bitter feud stemmed from the decision by Gaitskell, when Chancellor, to introduce charges for ‘teeth and spectacles’ in order to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Korean War (started June 1950).

The quiet Labour leader, Clement Attlee, now in his 70s, was mainly motivated to stay on by his determination to prevent Herbert Morrison becoming leader.

The most important political fact of the period was that the Conservatives accepted almost every element of the welfare state and even of the nationalised industries which they inherited from Labour.

Experts are quoted from the 1980s saying that this was a great lost opportunity for capitalism i.e. the Conservatives failed to privatise coal or steel or railways, and failed to adjust the tax system so as to reintroduce incentives and make British industry more competitive. To these critics, the 1950s Conservatives acquiesced in the stagnation which led to Britain’s long decline.

Rebuilding and new towns

What the Conservatives did do was live up to their manifesto promise of building 300,000 new houses a year, even if the houses were significantly reduced in size from Labour’s specifications (much to the growling disapproval of Nye Bevan), and to push ahead with the scheme for building twelve New Towns.

I grew up on the edge of one of these New Towns, Bracknell, which I and all my friends considered a soulless dump, so I was fascinated to read Kynaston’s extended passages about the massive housing crisis of post-war Britain and the endless squabbles of experts and architects who claimed to be able to solve it.

To some extent reading this book has changed my attitude as a result of reading the scores and scores of personal accounts Kynaston quotes of the people who moved out of one-room, condemned slums in places like Stepney and Poplar and were transported to two bedroom houses with things they’d never see before – like a bathroom, their own sink, an indoor toilet!

It’s true that almost immediately there were complaints that the new towns or estates lacked facilities, no pubs, not enough shops, were too far from town centres with not enough public transport, and so on. But it is a real education to see how these concerns were secondary to the genuine happiness brought to hundreds of thousands of families who finally escaped from hard-core slum conditions and, after years and years and years of living in squalor, to suddenly be living in clean, dry, properly plumbed palaces of their own.

At the higher level of town planners, architects and what Kynaston calls ‘activators’, he chronicles the ongoing fights between a) exponents of moving urban populations out to new towns versus rehousing them in new inner city accomodation b) the core architectural fight between hard-line modernist architects, lackeys of Le Corbusier’s modernism, and various forms of watered-down softer, more human modernism.

It is a highly diffused argument because different architects deployed different styles and solutions to a wide range of new buildings on sites all over the UK, from Plymouth to Glasgow: but it is one of the central and most fascinating themes of the Kynaston books, and inspires you to want to go and visit these sites.

Education

The other main issue the Conservatives (and all right-thinking social commentators and progressives) were tackling after the war was Education. The theme recurs again and again as Kynaston picks up manifesto pledges, speeches, or the publication of key policy documents to bring out the arguments of the day. Basically we watch two key things happen:

  1. despite the bleeding obvious fact that the public schools were (and are) the central engine of class division, privilege and inequality in British society, no political party came up with any serious proposals to abolish them or even tamper with their status (a pathetic ineffectiveness which, of course, lasts to the present day)
  2. instead the argument was all about the structure of the state education system and, in Kynaston’s three books so far, we watch the Labour party, and the teachers’ unions, move from broad support for grammar schools in 1944, to becoming evermore fervently against the 11-plus by the early 1950s

Kynaston uses his sociological approach to quote the impact of passing – or failing – the 11-plus exam (the one which decides whether you will go to a grammar school or a secondary modern school) on a wide variety of children from the time, from John Prescott to Glenda Jackson.

Passing obviously helped propel lots of boys and girls from ‘ordinary’ working class backgrounds on to successful careers. But Kynaston also quotes liberally from the experiences of those who failed, were crushed with humiliation and, in some cases, never forgave society.

The following list serves two purposes:

  1. To give a sense of the huge number of people the reader encounters and hears quoted in Kynaston’s collage-style of social history
  2. To really bring out how the commanding heights of politics, the economy, the arts and so on were overwhelmingly ruled by people who went to public school, with a smattering of people succeeding thanks to their grammar school opportunity, and then a rump of people who became successful in their fields despite attending neither public nor grammar schools and, often, being forced to leave school at 16, 15, 14 or 13 years of age.

Public school

Politicians

  • Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford)
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Westminster and New College, Oxford)
  • Anthony Blunt (Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Guy Burgess (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Austen Butler (Marlborough and Cambridge)
  • Winston Churchill (Harrow then Royal Military College, Sandhurst)
  • Kim Cobbold (Governor of the Bank of England 49-61, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Stafford Cripps (Winchester College and University College London)
  • Anthony Crosland (Highbury and Oxford)
  • Richard Crossman (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Hugh Dalton (Eton and Cambridge)
  • Sir Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Michael Foot (Leighton Park School Reading and Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe ( George Watson’s College and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Gerald Kaufman (Leeds Grammar School [private] and Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Harold Macmillan (Eton)
  • Harold Nicholson (Wellington and Oxford)
  • Sir John Nott-Bower (Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tonbridge School then the Indian Police Service)
  • Kim Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Enoch Powell (King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • John Profumo (Harrow and Oxford)
  • Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Lindsay Anderson (film director, Saint Ronan’s School and Cheltenham College then Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Diana Athill (memoirist, Runton Hill School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • John Betjeman (poet, Marlborough and Oxford)
  • Cecil Beaton (photographer, Harrow and Cambridge)
  • John Berger (art critic, St Edward’s School, Oxford and Chelsea School of Art)
  • Michael Billington (theatre critic, Warwick School and Oxford)
  • Raymond Chandler (novelist, Dulwich College, then journalism)
  • Bruce Chatwin (travel writer, Marlborough)
  • Dr Alex Comfort (popular science author, Highgate School, Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Davenport-Hynes (historian, St Paul’s and Selwyn College, Cambridge)
  • Robin Day (BBC interviewer, Bembridge and Oxford)
  • Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill School then the Richmond and Twickenham Times)
  • Richard Eyre (theatre director, Sherborne School and Peterhouse Cambridge)
  • Ian Fleming (novelist, Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst)
  • John Fowles (novelist, Bedford School and Oxford)
  • Michael Frayn (novelist, Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge)
  • Alan Garner (novelist, Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Graham Greene (novelist, Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Joyce Grenfell (Francis Holland School and Mlle Ozanne’s finishing school in Paris)
  • Alec Guinness (actor, Fettes College)
  • Frank Richards (writer for popular comics, Thorn House School in Ealing then freelance writing)
  • Christopher Hill (Marxist historian, St Peter’s School, York and Balliol College, University of Oxford)
  • David Hockney (artist, Bradford Grammar School [private], Bradford College of Art, Royal College of Art)
  • Ludovic Kennedy (BBC, Eton then Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Gavin Lambert (film critic, Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Humphrey Lyttelton (Eton, Grenadier Guards, Camberwell Art College)
  • David Kynaston (historian, Wellington College and New College, Oxford)
  • Kingsley Martin (editor of New StatesmanMill Hill School and Magdalene College, Cambridge)
  • Frances Partridge (Bloomsbury writer, Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge)
  • Raymond Postgate (founder of Good Food Guide, St John’s College, Oxford)
  • V.S. Pritchett (novelist, Alleyn’s School, and Dulwich College)
  • Barbara Pym (novelist, Queen’s Park School Oswestry and Oxford)
  • William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times 1967-81, Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Richard Rogers (architect, St Johns School, Leatherhead then the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London)
  • Anthony Sampson (social analyst, Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Raphael Samuel (Marxist historian, Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Maggie Smith (actress, Oxford High School, then the Oxford Playhouse)
  • David Storey (novelist, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield then Slade School of Fine Art)
  • AJP Taylor (left wing historian, Bootham School in York then Oriel College, Oxford)
  • E.P. Thompson (Marxist historian, Kingswood School Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Alan Turing (computer pioneer, Sherborne and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Kenneth Tynan (theatre critic, King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Chad Varah (founder of Samaritans, Worksop College [private] Nottinghamshire then Keble College, Oxford)
  • Angus Wilson (novelist, Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford)
  • Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, Felsted School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Laurence Olivier (actor, prep school and choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Grammar school

Politicians

  • Barbara Castle (Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and and St Hugh’s College, Oxford)
  • Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Margaret Thatcher (Grantham Girls’ School and Oxford)
  • Harold Wilson (Royds Hall Grammar School and Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Paul Bailey (novelist, Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School For Boys, Battersea and the Central School of Speech and Drama)
  • Joan Bakewell (BBC, Stockport High School for Girls and Cambridge)
  • Stan Barstow (novelist, Ossett Grammar School then an engineering firm)
  • Alan Bennett (playwright, Leeds Modern School and Exeter College, Oxford)
  • Michael Caine (actor, Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, left at 16 to become a runner for a film company)
  • David Cannadine (historian, King Edward VI Five Ways School and Clare College, Cambridge)
  • Noel Coward (dance academy)
  • Terence Davies (film director, left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk)
  • A.L. Halsey (sociologist, Kettering Grammar School then London School of Economics)
  • Sheila Hancock (actress, Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
  • Tony Harrison (poet, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University)
  • Noddy Holder (musician, Walsall Grammar school until it closed, then T. P. Riley Comprehensive School)
  • Ted Hughes (poet, Mexborough Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge)
  • Lynda Lee-Potter (columnist, Leigh Girls’ Grammar School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Roy Porter (historian, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell then Christ’s College, Cambridge)
  • Terence Stamp (actor, Plaistow County Grammar School then advertising)
  • John Sutherland (English professor, University of Leicester)
  • Dylan Thomas (poet, Swansea Grammar School)
  • Dame Sybil Thorndike (actress, Rochester Grammar School for Girls then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Philip Toynbee (communist writer, Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Colin Welland (actor, Newton-le-Willows Grammar School then Goldsmiths College)
  • Kenneth Williams (actor, Lyulph Stanley Boys’ Central Council School)
  • Raymond Williams (Marxist social critic, King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and Trinity College, Cambridge)

Secondary modern / left school early

  • Alice Bacon (Labour MP in favour of comprehensive schools, Normanton Girls’ High School and Stockwell Teachers’ Training College)
  • Raymond Baxter (BBC presenter, Ilford County High School, expelled after being caught smoking)
  • Aneurin Bevan (major figure in the Labour Party, left school at 13)
  • Jim Callaghan (Labour Prime Minister 1976-79, Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, left school at 17)
  • Ossie Clarke (fashion designer, Beamont Secondary Technical School then Regional College of Art in Manchester)
  • Hugh Cudlipp (Howard Gardens High School for boys, left at 14)
  • Ian Jack (Dunfermline High School, left to become a journalist)
  • Clive Jenkins (left school at 14, Port Talbot County Boys’ School)
  • Stanley Matthews (cricketer, left school at 14 to play football)
  • Herbert Morrison (St Andrew’s Church of England School, left at 14 to become an errand boy)
  • Joe Orton (playwright, Clark’s College in Leicester)
  • John Osborne (playwright, Belmont College, expelled aged 16)
  • John Prescott (failed 11 plus, Grange Secondary Modern School and Hull University)
  • Alan Sillitoe (novelist, left school at 14)

Sociology

There are definitely more sociologists quoted in this book than in the previous two, especially in the very long central section devoted to class, which seems to have been the central obsession of sociologists in that era. Kynaston quotes what seems to be hundreds but is probably only scores of sociologists who produced a flood of reports throughout the 1940s and 50s, as they went off to live with miners or dockers or housewives, produced in-depth studies of the social attitudes of East End slums, the industrial north, towns in Wales or Scotland, and so on and so on.

The central social fact of the era was that about 70% of the British population belonged to the manual working class. And therefore, for me, the obvious political question was and is: why did this country, which was 70% ‘working class’, vote for Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964? What did Labour do wrong, in order to lose the votes of what should – on paper – have been its natural constituency?

This central question is nowhere asked or answered. Instead I found myself being frequently distracted by the extreme obviousness of some of the sociologists’ conclusions. Lengthy fieldwork and detailed statistical analysis result in conclusions like such as the working class are marked off from the ‘middle class’ by:

  • lower income
  • by taking wages rather than a salary
  • their jobs are often precarious
  • they are more likely to belong to trade unions
  • have distinctive accents
  • wear distinctive types of clothes (e.g. the cloth cap)
  • have poorer education
  • have distinct manners and linguistic usages (for example calling the mid-day meal dinner instead of lunch)

Other revelations include that the children of working class parents did less well at school than children of middle-class parents, and were less likely to pass the 11-plus, that rugby league is a northern working class sport compared with the middle-class sport of rugby union, that cricket was mostly a middle and upper middle class interest while football was followed obsessively by the proles, that the proles read the News of the World and the People rather than the Times and Telegraph.

As to the great British institution of the pub, in the words of the Truman’s website:

Saloon bars were sit-down affairs for the middle class, carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats and slightly more expensive drinks. You were served at the table and expected to dress smart for the occasion. You would also pay a premium on the drinks for this and usually there would be some entertainment be it singing, dancing, drama or comedy. You would generally be served bitter and in half pints.

Public bars, or tap rooms, remained for the working class. Bare wooden floorboards with sawdust on the floor, hard bench seats and cheap beer were on offer. You didn’t have to change out of your work wear so this was generally were the working class would go for after work and drink in pints, generally of mild.

Altogether this central section about class in all its forms takes some 150 pages of this 350-page book – it is a seriously extended analysis or overview of class in early 1950s Britain drawing on a multitude of studies and surveys (it’s almost alarming to see how very, very many studies were carried out by academic sociologists during this period, alongside the regular Mass-Observation surveys, plus ad hoc commercial surveys by Gallup and a number of less well-known pollsters).

And yet almost nothing from this vast body of work comes as a surprise: Most kids in grammar schools were upper-middle or middle class i.e. it’s a myth to say grammar schools help the working and lower working classes. IQ tests can be fixed by intensive coaching. The working classes liked football. The most popular hobbies (by a long way) were gardening for men, and knitting for women. Pubs were a place of comforting familiarity, where you would find familiar friends and familiar drinks and familiar conversations in familiar surroundings.

Compared to all the effort put into these studies, there is remarkably little that comes out of them.

Some of the sociologists mentioned or discussed in the text

  • Kenneth Allsop reported on Ebbw Vale
  • Michael Banton, author of numerous studies of race and ethnic relations
  • LSE sociologist Norman Birnbaum, criticising positive interpretations of the Coronation
  • Betting in Britain 1951 report by The Social Survey
  • Maurice Broady, sociologist who studied Coronation Day street parties (p.305)
  • Joanna Bourke, socialist feminist historian
  • Katherine Box, author of a 1946 study of cinema-going
  • British Institute of Public Opinion survey
  • Professor of cultural history, Robert Colls, author of When We Lived In Communities
  • Coal is our Life sociologial study of Featherstone in Yorkshire by Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter
  • Mark Clapson, historian of suburbia and Milton Keynes
  • David Glass author of Social Mobility in Britain (1954)
  • Geoffrey Gorer 1950-51 People survey of what class people saw themselves as belonging to
  • historian Richard Holt writing about football
  • 1949 Hulton Survey on smoking
  • Roy Lewis and Angus Maude authors of The English Middle Classes (1949)
  • F.M. Martin’s 1952 survey of parental attitudes to education in Hertfordshire
  • Mass-Observation 1949 survey, The Press and Its Readers
  • Mass-Observation survey 1947-8 on drinking habits
  • Mass-Observation survey 1951 on drunkenness in Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester and Salford
  • Peter Townsend, social researcher (p.118)
  • Margaret Stacy studied Banbury (p.136)
  • T.H. Pear author of English Social Differences (1955)
  • Hilde Himmelweit study of four grammar schools in London
  • Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) which reminisces about working class Hunslet
  • sociologist Madeline Kerr’s five-year study The People of Ship Street in Liverpool (1958)
  • Tony Mason, football historian
  • Leo Kuper vox pops from Houghton in Coventry
  • John Barron Mays’ study of inner-city Liverpool in the early 1950s
  • Ross McKibbin author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1955
  • Gavin Mellor research into football crowds in the north-west 1946-62
  • Peter Miskell’s study of the cimema in Wales
  • John Mogey, author of a study of the Jolly Waterman pub in St Ebbe’s, a suburb of Oxford
  • Alison Ravetz, author if a study of the model Quarry Hill estate in Leeds
  • Doris Rich authored a study of working men’s clubs in Coseley
  • James Robb, author of a study of Bethnal Green in the late 1940s
  • Elizabeth Robert conducted extensive interviews in north-west England into education (p.161)
  • Robert Roberts, author of The Classic Slum (1971) about Salford either side of the war
  • Rowntree and Lavers, author of the study English Life and Leisure
  • Alice Russell, historian of occupational welfare
  • sociologist Mike Savage (pp.148, 159)
  • American sociologist Edward Shils
  • Brian Simon, communist teacher then at Leicester University
  • Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside interviewed 200 servicemen just as the war ended about education
  • 1953 report on Southamptons’s housing estates
  • Peter Stead, author of a study of Barry in south Wales
  • Avram Taylor, historian of working class credit
  • Philip Vernon, professor of Educational Psychology at London University’s Institute of Education
  • John Walton, historian of Blackpool landladies
  • Michael Young, author of Is This the Classless Society (1951) among many others
  • Ferdynand Zweig, wide-ranging sociological investigator of the post war years

As far as I could see all of these studies were focused on the working class, their hobbies, activities, beliefs and attitudes – as well as an extended consideration of what ‘community’ meant to them. This latter was meant to help the town planners who agonised so much about trying to create new ‘communities’ in the new estates and the new towns, and so on – but two things are glaringly absent from the list of topics.

One is sex. Not one of the researchers mentioned above appears to have made any enquiries into the sex lives of their subjects. Given our modern (2019) obsession with sex and bodies, it is a startling omission which, in itself, speaks volumes about the constrained, conservative and essentially private character of the time.

(There are several mentions of homosexuality, brought into the public domain by several high-profile prosecutions of gays for soliciting in public toilets, which prompted a) righteous indignation from the right-wing press but b) soul searching among liberal politicians and some of the regular diarists Kynaston features, along the lines of: why should people be prosecuted by the law for the way God made them?)

Secondly, why just the working class? OK, so they made up some 70% of the population, but why are there no studies about the behaviour and belief systems of, say, architects and town planners? Kynaston quotes critics pointing out what a small, inbred world of self-congratulatory back-scratchers this was – but there appears to be no study of their educational backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices – or of any other middle-class milieu.

And this goes even more for the upper classes. What about all those cabinet ministers who went to Eton and Harrow and Westminster? Did no one do a sociological study of private schools, or of the Westminster village or of the posh London clubs? Apparently not. Why not?

And this tells you something, maybe, about sociology as a discipline: that it consists of generally left-wing, middle-class intellectuals and academics making forays into working class territory, expeditions into working class lives as if the working class were remote tribes in deepest New Guinea. The rhetoric of adventure and exploration which accompanies some of the studies is quite comic, if you read it in this way. As is the way they then report back their findings in prestigious journals and articles and books and win prizes for their bravery as if they’ve just come back from climbing Everest, instead of spending a couple of weeks in Middlesborough chatting to miners.

It’s only right at the end of the 150 or so pages of non-stop sociological analysis of ‘the working classes’ that you finally get some sociologists conceding that they are not the solid communities of socialist heroes of the revolution that so many of these left wingers wanted them to be: that in fact, many ‘working class’ communities were riven by jealousies, petty feuds and a crushing sense of snobbery. Umpteen housewives are quoted as saying that so-and-so thought she was ‘too good’ for the rest of us, was hoity-toity, told her children not to play with our kids etc. other mums told researchers they instructed their children not to play with the rough types from down the road.

People turned out to be acutely aware of even slight differences of behaviour or speech and drew divisive conclusions accordingly. The myth of one homogenous ‘working class’ with common interest turns out to be just that, a myth. THis goes some way to answering my question about why 70% of the population did not all vote for the workers’ party, far from it.

Above all, what comes over very strongly in the voices of ordinary people, is the wish to be left alone, to live and let live, and for privacy – to be allowed to live in what Geoffrey Gorer summed up as ‘distant cordiality’ with their neighbours.

‘You don’t get any privacy in flats,’ declared Mrs Essex from number 7 Battersea Church Road  (p.339).

Contrary to the ‘urbanists’, like Michael Young, who wanted to help working class communities remain in their city centres, large numbers of the ‘working classes’ were about to find themselves forced (by the ‘dispersionists’, the generation of high-minded, left-wing planners and architects who Kynaston quotes so extensively and devastatingly, p.340) to move into windy new estates miles from anywhere with no shops or even schools. Those that did remain near their old communities found themselves forced into high-rise blocks of flats with paper-thin walls and ‘shared facilities’ next to new ‘community centres’ which nobody wanted and nobody used and were quickly vandalised. It is a bleak picture.

Love/hate

Lindsay Anderson (b.1923) was ‘a British feature film, theatre and documentary director, film critic, and leading light of the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave’ (Wikipedia).

But in Kynaston’s opinion, Anderson’s 10-minute film O Dreamland, shot in the Margate amusement park of the same name, ‘marked the start of a new, increasingly high-profile phase in the long, difficult, love-hate relationship of the left-leaning cultural elite with the poor old working class, just going about its business and thinking its own private, inscrutable thoughts (p.220).

Here it is, disapproval and condescension dripping from every frame.

Lady authors

For some reason women authors seem more prominent in the era than male authors. It was easy to compile a list of names which recurred and whose works I really ought to make an effort to familiarise myself with.

  • Jean Rhys b.1890 (private school and RADA)
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 (home schooled by her father, a house-master at Harrow School)
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 (private school and art school)
  • Catherine Cookson b.1906 (left school at 14 to take a job as a laundress at a workhouse)
  • Barbara Pym b.1913 (private school and Oxford)
  • Doris Lessing b.1919 (private school till she left home at 15)
  • Lorna Sage b.1943 (grammar school and Durham)
  • Sue Townshend b.1946 (secondary modern South Wigston High School, left school at 14)

Links

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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Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.

After purging himself by writing at great length about alcoholics with a grudge against the modern world in The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s final novel is his shortest and most focused. I’d read that it was his weakest and nearly didn’t bother to read it, but I’m glad I did.

Plot

The events take place over just a few days in the small Californian coastal resort of Esmeralda, based on La Jolla where Chandler spent his final years (the only one of the novels set outside Los Angeles).

Marlowe is hired by a big-time LA lawyer to tail a woman arriving on a train from out East. He doesn’t know why and has to find out what the job is as he’s doing it, with the usual interruptions from blackmailers, local hoods, small-time crooks, a rival PI and, as always, the cops.

‘Perhaps if I had a rest and my brain cleared, I might have some faint idea of what I was doing.’ (Ch. 17)

The attitude is the same abrasive, tough guy as ever: given a choice Marlowe will always insult and antagonise whoever he’s talking to – everyone is crooked and two-faced, especially the broads, the cops are brutal and the crooks are brutaller.

I guess what critics mean when they disparage the book is that a lot of the verbal fireworks of the earlier books have gone – there are almost none of the smart-ass similes which set The Big Sleep alight – but that is symptomatic of the way the entire style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused.

It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment. A lot of the energy missing from the narration has gone into the dialogue, which is as tight and edgy as ever.

And – despite all the guns and fights and blackmail and corruption – what I see as the essentially comic nature of Chandler’s work is close to the surface as ever.

Tough guy

I caught Mitchell on the side of the neck. His mouth yapped. He hit me somewhere, but it wasn’t important. Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch because at that moment an army mule kicked me square in the back of the brain. (Ch. 5)

He looked durable. Most fat men do. (Ch. 6)

The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis muscles. (Ch. 8)

He looked tough asking that. I tried to look tough not answering it. (Ch. 17)

Almost all the characters call each other tough (‘Tough guy, huh?’, ‘So Mr Tough Guy’, He wasn’t as tough as he looked, ‘Don’t get so goddam tough’, I was a real tough boy tonight, etc etc).

In fact most of them aren’t tough at all and Marlowe, above all, exists in this contradictory space where he tells us he’s tough, he talks ironic, wisecracking tough, he’s rude and aggressive tough, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know that underneath he is Sir Galahad, an essentially pure man with a clean conscience.

‘How can such a hard man be so gentle?’ she asked wonderingly. (Ch. 25)

That’s the paradoxical effect of reading all Chandler’s novels. They seem like they’re dealing with human corruption, violence, evil – and yet the vibrancy of the style and the supreme confidence of the manner leave you feeling invigorated and clean.

Eyes

In earlier posts I’ve written in detail about Chandler’s awareness of eyes, as the characters constantly probe and size each other up, and about the wonderful phrases he creates for even the simplest looks.

In this last novel his ‘eye-awareness’ is still prominent – eyes and looks and stares and glances are described on every page – but the astonishing verbal inventiveness of the earliest novels has vanished like morning mist:

  • She leaned back and relaxed. Her eyes stayed watchful. (Ch. 5)
  • His colour was high and his eyes too bright. (Ch. 5)
  • He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. (Ch. 8)
  • She looked at him. He looked at her. (Ch. 8)
  • We stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing. (Ch. 9)
  • I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes. (Ch. 10)
  • He looked me over. His eyes were wise eyes. (Ch. 15)
  • He wore glasses, had a skin the colour of cold oatmeal and hollow, tired eyes. (Ch. 17)
  • I stood up. We gave each other those looks. I went out. (Ch. 24)
  • He stared at me with cool, blank eyes. (Ch. 26)

I mean it’s still good. But it doesn’t have the breath-taking brilliancy and unexpectedness of the earlier novels.

Locations

There’s the same precision of observation in Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors which I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, just used less often.

There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was panelled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checker-board effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blonde, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. (Ch. 11)

For me that word – ‘probably’ – weakens the whole sentence. I think earlier Marlow would have been more crisp and decisive.

One way to describe the falling-off is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measured and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgments. More human and fallible. But it was precisely the absence of doubt, the complete confidence in his own perceptions, which made the earlier novels so thrilling.

Similes

The smart-ass similes, the single most striking element of Chandler’s style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. This handful are pretty much the only ones in the entire book.

There was nothing to it. The [train] was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. (Ch. 2)

‘The walls here as as thin as a hoofer’s wallet.’ (Ch. 5)

I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors. (Ch. 11)

Not great, are they?

Comedy

On the other hand, a couple of sequences or lines in this novel made me laugh out loud, something none of the others had done. Hence my suggestion that, despite serious or even tragic incidents elsewhere in the book, on the whole this novel seemed to me to bring out Chandler’s essentially comic nature.

When I entered Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blonde coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
‘Well, well, Mr Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honour?’
‘Umney’s expecting me.’
‘Mister Umney to you, buster.’
‘Boydie-boy to you, sister.’
She got raging in an instant. ‘Don’t call me “sister”, you cheap gumshoe!’
‘Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.’
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. ‘You son of a bitch!’ she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: ‘Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.’
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. ‘I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.’
‘Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,’ I said. ‘But hard work’s no substitute for talent.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. (Ch. 11)

Happy Ending

And, astonishingly, there is a happy ending! Chandler sets us up to expect the opposite with some ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, 1950s existentialism, as our hero returns, exhausted and jaded to his poor man’s apartment:

 I climbed the long flight of redwood steps and unlocked my door. Everything was the same. The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this is what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Ch. 28)

When, to my absolute amazement, the phone rings and it is Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye, a millionaire’s daughter who he had a thing for but who left him to go to Paris. And here she is, phoning from Paris and saying she loves him and can’t live without him, and she agrees to catch the next flight to LA to be with him. Marlowe is going to live happily ever after!!

I reached for my drink. I looked around the empty room – which was no longer empty. There was a voice in it, and a tall, slim, lovely woman. There was a dark head on the pillow in the bedroom. There was that soft, gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, whose eyes are half-blind… The telephone started to ring again. I hardly heard it.

The air was full of music.

 Who’d have guessed, who’d have expected it!

At its most basic a tragedy has a grim and deadly ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before. This astonishing turn-up on the last few pages of Playback not only ends the book on a comedic and positive note, it sheds its light back over the whole series of novels, highlighting the ironic, witty humour which threads through all of them, and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, film noir Oscar Wilde.


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The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

‘I need a drink,’ Spencer said. ‘I need a drink badly.’ (The Long Goodbye Chapter 42)

This is a long book about alcohol and alcoholics.

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

Discursive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing times/changing crimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinions

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

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

What we nowadays call the media fare no better:

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

Technology:

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

Just people socialising comes in for stick:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self portraits as an alcoholic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Chandler’s novels ranked by length

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

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The Lady in The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

Fictions offer escape. Through figures in the story, through their actions and thoughts, we readers live vicariously, acting out lives and experiences we’ll never have in our ordinary safe existences. In the crudest genres male readers identify with triumphant heroes, with James Bond or Jason Bourne, while women maybe project themselves into attractive heroines or strong clever women like VI Warshawski or older shrewd figures like Miss Marple etc. In fact the range of characters we can identify with is vast, endless, and our attention can wander within any given text, sympathising now with one character, now with another, maybe with many at the same time, maybe dramatising conflicts in our minds and arguing now for one side, now for another.

It used to be argued that the humanising, civilising effect of reading fiction is precisely the way it can help us empathise with others, giving us insights into other lives and beliefs and experiences, opening our hearts, making us better members of an ideal liberal, tolerant, multicultural society. Maybe…

Authorial competence

But we readers not only identify with characters. Implicitly we identify with the author, or the narrator, or the text, while we are reading it. We ‘immerse’ ourselves in a text. We ‘lose ourselves’ in a book. An aspect of this pleasure is savouring not only character and plot, but the skill of the author or narrator and their ability to describe, to evoke in language, to ‘paint’  descriptions of landscape and setting, along with – if it’s that kind of book – their opinions, insights, reflections about life… To identify with what has been called the ‘implied author’ the picture of the person telling the story that we build up as we experience the text.

One distinguishing feature of the crime novel or thriller as a genre is its uncanny precision. The narrator, even if they don’t know everything that’s going to happen, nonetheless situates events in a world dense with precision and certainty. (A symptom of this is the way so many post-war thrillers give precise timings to their narratives. ‘CIA Headquarters Maryland, Thursday, 8.07am‘ is the kind of datestamp you meet in thousands of thrillers.)

Seems to me this precision does at least two things:

  • Its immediate purpose is to give pace to the narrative, a sense of speed and momentum.
  • Just as importantly but maybe less obviously, it offers a deep consolation and reassurance to the reader. Someone is in control. No matter how grisly the events described, the text is policed and ordered (from this perspective the datestamps I mentioned are one of the ways that control is signaled at regular intervals). In a world more than ever beyond the control of us little people, where huge forces seem to overwhelm the average citizen, the precision of the thriller gives the reader a spurious and consoling sense of order and control.

Setting the scenes

There are no datestamps in Chandler, who was writing before their introduction (by whom and when? I wonder). Instead, Chandler’s control is signaled at every point of his prose by its tautness and precision and understatement – qualities which are emphasised by the his occasional deployment of the opposite, the highly-wrought poetry of the similes and metaphors which light his prose like flashes of lightning. This paragraph demonstrates this quality of control – the precise and thorough description – which leads up to a boom-boom punchline.

I went past him through an arcade of speciality shops into a vast black and gold lobby. The Gillerlain Company was on the seventh floor, in front, behind swinging double plate-glass doors bound in platinum. Their reception-room had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner. On tiers and steps and islands and promontories of shining mirror-glass it seemed to contain every fancy bottle and box that has ever been designed. There were creams and powders and soaps and toilet waters for every season and every occasion. There were perfumes in tall thin bottles that looked as if a breath would blow them over and perfumes in little pastel phials tied with ducky satin bows, like little girls at a dancing class. (Ch. 1)

Fact, fact, fact, then a dinky – essentially comic – and textbook Chandler simile.

Chandler’s descriptions of interiors

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of eyes in Chandler. In The Lady In The Lake I was struck by the precision of his description of interiors. Of rooms.

The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its grey venetian blinds half-closed to keep out the July glare. Grey drapes matched the grey carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in a corner and a low row of filing cases that exactly matched it. (Ch. 2)

He describes every element of the room with factual accuracy and precision. The mess we sloppy unpredictable humans make of our lives may be full of shocks and surprises but the universe in which it all takes place isn’t. It is defined and placed and solid.

I followed him up a flight of heavy wooden steps to the porch of the Kingsley cabin. He unlocked the door and we went into the hushed warmth. The closed-up room was almost hot. The light filtering through the slatted blinds made narrow bars across the floor. The living-room was long and cheerful and had Indian rugs, padded mountain furniture with metal-strapped joints, chintz curtains, a plain hardwood floor, plenty of lamps and a little built-in bar with round stools in one corner. (Ch. 6)

During the plots Marlowe likes to emphasise his fallibility, point out his mistakes in managing a case, ‘Curses, why didn’t I realise sooner…’ etc. This has always struck me as being a blind, a convention of the genre. There are no mistakes when he sizes up people or, as I’m emphasising here, when he sizes up a room and its contents.

The Peacock Lounge was a narrow front next to a gift shop in whose window a tray of small crystal animals shimmered in the street light. The Peacock had a glass brick front and soft light glowed out around the stained-glass peacock that was set into the brick. I went in around a Chinese screen and looked along the bar and then sat at the outer edge of a small booth. The light was amber, the leather was Chinese red and the booths were polished plastic tables. (Ch. 30)

He is a camera, he is a set designer placing all the elements just so, he knows the provenance and brand and material of every object in the room. He is an early example of a technique which would become epidemic in American fiction by the 1980s of itemising and listing every detail of every brand of what a person is wearing or driving or owns, as American life (in fiction at any rate) became more hollowed out, more psychologically empty, more a consumerist shell.

In 1940s Chandler these set-piece descriptions create:

  • A clearly visualised, well-defined universe in which the events can unfold.
  • The sense of a profoundly reliable narrator whose judgement, whose knowledgeability, whose sheer savvyness about the world, is blazoned forth on every page. He never hesitates. He never sees something he doesn’t understand or can’t put a name to. His all-seeing look and his all-comprehending mind give him (and us, the reader) a god-like omnipotence and this omnipotence is a big part of the pleasure to be got from Chandler’s texts.

I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (Ch. 16)

A Fitzgerald room

Compare and contrast the description of a room by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon:

The meeting took place in what I called the ‘processed leather room’ – it was one of six done for us by a decorator from Sloane’s years ago, and the term stuck in my head. It was the most decorator’s room: an angora wool carpet the colour of dawn, the most delicate grey imaginable – you hardly dared walk on it; and the silver panelling and leather tables and creamy pictures and slim fragilities looked so easy to stain that we could not breathe hard in there, though it was wonderful to look into from the door when the windows were open and the curtains whimpered querulously against the breeze. (Ch. 6)

Fitzgerald’s description is more imaginative, softer, more compromised by authorial comment, by emotional context. It is done in the gushy voice of the naive 25 year-old young woman narrator Cecilia. It is one of the many scenes or events whose main purpose is to convey the psychology of the characters or narrator as much as to depict the ‘reality’ of the ‘external world’. It is these accumulating insights, the succession of scenes conveying nuances of personality and attitude, which gives Fitzgerald’s characters, and the novel as a whole, the layers of depth which might be what we refer to when we say ‘literature’. It is not intended to make us feel in complete control, as the Chandler does.

The Chandler room

Back to the hard, well-lit world of Chandler:

I went in. There was a pot-bellied stove in the corner and a roll-top desk in the other corner behind the counter. There was a large blue print map of the district on the wall and beside that a board with four hooks on it, one of which supported a frayed and much-mended mackinaw. On the counter beside the dusty folders lay the usual sprung pen, exhausted blotter and smeared bottle of gummy ink. (Ch. 7)

Chandler’s descriptions are immensely enjoyable, like watching the perfect technique of a world class sportsman. It is like reading off the spec of a luxury sports car, as flash, as impressive but, arguably, as superficial. They tell us is that Marlowe is a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a reassuringly superhuman grasp of a space and all its details. And, as readers, as we read, we partake briefly in that very American super-confident knowledgeability.

The room contained a library dining-table, an armchair radio, a book-rack built like a hod, a big bookcase full of novels with their jackets still on them, a dark wood high-boy with a siphon and a cut-glass bottle of liquor and four striped glasses upside down on an Indian brass tray. Beside this paired photographs in a double silver frame, a youngish middle-aged man and woman, with round healthy faces and cheerful eyes. They looked out at me as if they didn’t mind my being there at all. (Ch. 33)

You have to admire, to marvel really, at the ease with which he can conjure a space and an atmosphere in just a few strokes.

I went into the club library. It contained books behind glass doors and magazines on a long central table and a lighted portrait of the club’s founder. But its real business seemed to be sleeping. Outward-jutting bookcases cut the room into a number of small alcoves and in the alcoves were high-backed leather chairs of an incredible size and softness. In a number of the chairs old boys were snoozing peacefully, their faces violet with high blood pressure, thin racking snores coming out of their pinched noses. (Ch. 17)

The subtlety, the nuance and the doubt, the sense of human fallibility which comes over so strongly in Fitzgerald, is absent in Chandler. But different genres, different texts, different aims, call for different techniques. Is it this lack of investigation of human psychology which has limited Chandler to genre fiction and makes Fitzgerald worthy of study at college? Maybe. But it doesn’t stop you feeling, as you read Chandler’s effortlessly commanding prose, that you are in the hands of a master.

The consolations of the crime novel

My point is that it’s paradoxical that a genre which prides itself on being so tough and harsh and realistic, in actual fact produces in its readers an infantilising sense of comfort and reassurance and security. These texts produce the opposite of the anxiety and worry we experience all too often in or own lives. They continue to be so popular because they are so wonderfully reassuring. Freud said he couldn’t offer his patients what they all wanted, which is consolation. That is precisely what these novels offer in spades. Wipe away your tears. Daddy Chandler is in complete control.

The Rossmore Arms was a gloomy pile of dark red brick built around a huge forecourt. It had a plush-lined lobby containing silence, tubbed plants, a bored canary in a cage as big as a dog-house, a smell of old carpet dust and the cloying fragrance of gardenias long ago.

The Graysons were on the fifth floor in front, in the north wing. They were sitting together in a room which seemed to be deliberately twenty years out of date. It had fat overstuffed furniture and brass doorknobs, shaped like eggs, a huge wall mirror in a gilt frame, a marble-topped table in the window and dark red plush side drapes by the window. It smelled of tobacco smoke and behind that the air was telling me they had had lamb chops and broccoli for dinner. (Ch. 23)

The Master of Prose knows and understands everything. And he is on our side. He is our Master.

Pulp images and reality

All the talk of hard-boiled attitude splashed all across the blurb and metatexts on Chandler seem to me baloney. Marlowe is a sentimental slop, the shop-soiled Sir Galahad who goes out of his way to help his clients and protect the innocent or vulnerable. It is a feature of pulp that – like the Hollywood Chandler cordially detests – it simplifies and sentimentalises. It’s not really fair to involve the book cover over which Chandler probably had little say, but this paradox is typified by the pulp-style cover of this book, above. How ethereal and attractive to the (male) bookshop browser is the tastefully-dressed blonde floating dreamily in the water, fully clothed with her eyes still tastefully made-up. Here’s Chandler’s description of the body as he and the local caretaker recover it up in the mountain lake:

The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak. Then the face came. A swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. a blotch of grey dough, a nightmare with human hair on it. (Ch. 6)


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The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

1. The artificial world of films and acting

Previous Chandler novels referred to their characters putting on acts, behaving like they’re in a B-movie, copying mannerisms from mobsters in the movies and so on. The Little Sister takes this theme to a new level.

This was the first novel Chandler wrote after a spell working as a Hollywood scriptwriter and he puts his insider information to good use. The key figure, Mavis Weld, is a Hollywood actress and the plot involves Marlowe in encounters with Hollywood agents, actors and wannabes, and even takes him onto the set of a movie being filmed. (Wikipedia informs me that aspects of the character of Mavis’s agent, Sheridan Ballou, were copied from Chandler’s writing partner, Billy Wilder, who he cordially disliked.) Accordingly, the incidence of acting similes and metaphors – along with references to contemporary actors (Orson Welles, Lillian Gish, Maureen O’Brien, Cary Grant) – shoots through the roof.

‘Aren’t you going to wrap it up in a handkerchief, the way they do in the movies?’ (Ch. 27)

His finger tightened around the trigger. I watched it tighten… This was happening somewhere else in a cheesy programme picture. It wasn’t happening to me.’ (Ch. 14)

‘I ought to slap your face off,’ I said. ‘And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I slap.’ (Ch. 15)

‘I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.
‘That’s just an act,’ I growled.

‘But you’re not in any jam. You’re right up front under the baby spot pulling every tired ham gesture you ever used in the most tired B-picture you ever acted in – if acting is the word -‘ (Ch. 12)

‘I come up here to get co-operation,’ he told French… ‘You’ll get co-operation French said. ‘Just don’t try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.’ (Ch. 24)

And despite – or because of – his experience working in the Dream Factory, Chandler is not a fan of Hollywood. At least, Marlowe is not a fan of Hollywood. Throughout the novel Hollywood movies and their cheap gimmicks and mannerisms and corny dialogue, the sleazy sex-obsessed lifestyles of its stars, the corrupt greedy aspirations of people who want to get into movies, and the lowering of standards of behaviour which both the movies and the stars who populate the movies have encouraged among the population are the target of explicit diatribes, implicit in numerous descriptions of directors, agents and stars, and scattered in numerous throwaway remarks.

A long way off through trees I could see the lights of a big house. Some Hollywood big shot, probably, some wizard of the slobbery kiss, and the pornographic dissolve. (Ch. 28)

And then there is the quality of the films themselves. In this novel Marlowe goes to see one and give us his disgusted commentary:

So I went to a picture show and it had to have Mavis Weld in it. One of those glass-and-chrome deals where everybody smiled too much and talked too much and knew it. The women were always going up a long curving staircase to change their clothes. The men were always taking monogrammed cigarettes out of expensive cases and snapping expensive lighters at each other… The leading man was an amiable ham with a lot of charm, some of it turning a little yellow at the edges. The star was a bad-tempered brunette with contemptuous eyes and a couple of bad close-ups that showed her pushing forty-five backwards almost hard enough to break a wrist. (Ch. 13)

But his withering worldview is much wider than that. Marlowe’s tiredness comes from one man setting himself against the entire world, a world fallen catastrophically far from some fantasy prelapsarian Eden, in which men are performing apes or preening dandies, almost all women are sluttishly available, in which the bookish hero makes jokey references to Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights or Samuel Pepys which only emphasise the vast gulf between his literate and high standards and the gutter morals of the pond life he consorts with, in which the cops are corrupt and justice doesn’t exist and the bad flourish and the good die horribly.

2. The Fallen World of Philip Marlowe…

Once, long ago, it must have had a certain elegance. But no more. The memories of old cigars clung to its lobby like the dirty gilt on its ceiling and the sagging springs of its leather lounging chairs. (Ch. 8)

I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around to it. (Ch. 13)

In fact chapter thirteen is one long cynical plaint of disgust about the contemporary world, the ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’.

‘I used to like this town,’ I said… ‘A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverley Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers.Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used ot sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either… Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit – and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riff-raff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped on the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pidgin English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.’ (Ch. 26)

… in which all women are biddable…

 She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her. She pushed her mouth hard at me for a long moment, then quietly and very comfortably wriggled around in my arms and nestled. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes… She had a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel. (Ch. 8)

She slapped me delicately across the tip of my nose. The next thing I knew I had her in my lap and she was trying to bite a piece off my tongue. (Ch. 12)

She hauled off and slapped me again, harder if anything. ‘I think you’d better kiss me,’ she breathed. Her eyes were clear and limpid and melting. (Ch. 12)

‘You always wear black?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But it is more exciting when I take my clothes off.’ (Ch. 23)

‘Will you make love to me tonight?’ she asked softly.
‘That is an open question. Probably not.’
‘You would not waste your time. I am not one of those synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts.’ (Ch. 26)

… everyone behaves like B-movie tough guys…

 ‘Don’t get tough with me,’ the man said. ‘I’m a bad man to get tough with.’ (Ch. 4)

I reached over and pressed down the riser on the phone. Held it that way while I fumbled around for a cigarette. I knew he would call right back. They always do when they think they’re tough. They haven’t used their exit line. (Ch. 7)

‘Do you smoke that piece of old rope because you like it or because you think it makes you look tough?’ (Ch. 8)

‘I got business to attend to. Beat it and keep going.’
‘Such a tough little guy,’ I said. (Ch. 11)

 … jokey highbrow references are wasted on ignoramuses…

 ‘Never the time and place and the loved one altogether,’ I said.
‘What’s that?’ she tried to throw me out with the point of her chin but she wasn’t that good.
‘Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’re prefer the automatic.’ (Ch. 12)

A male voice called: ‘Here, Heathcliff. Here, Heathcliff.’ Steps sounded on a hard walk.
‘That’s Heathcliff,’ the chauffeur said sourly.
‘Heathcliff?’
‘That’s what they call the dog, Jack.’
Wuthering Heights?’ I asked.
‘Now you’re double-talking again,’ he sneered. (THW Ch. 5)

‘Maybe the printing was just a little game he played with himself.’
‘Like Pepys’s shorthand?’ I said.
‘What was that?’
A diary a man wrote in a private shorthand, a long time ago.’
Breeze looked at Spangler. (THW Ch. 16)

…  and ironic references to the genre only emphasise everyone’s entrapment…

‘That didn’t have anything to do with the Stein killing. Steelgrave was under glass all that week. No connection at all. Your cop friend has been reading pulp magazines.’
‘They all do,’ I said. ‘That’s why they talk so tough. (Ch. 16)

3. The exceptionalism of the private detective

Or, Why the single private investigator regards himself as above the fray, an exception to the fallen world – an exceptionalism which is particularly clear in the contrast between the PI – allowed great leeway to follow his own conscience in the pursuit of a personal vision of Justice – and the agents of the Law, the police, constrained by procedure and the limitations of bureaucracy.

From the start of the crime genre the detective is placed in opposition to the plodding feet of the official enforcers of the Law. As early as the three Edgar Allen Poe stories (1840s), which are generally thought to have founded the genre, the freedom of action and incisive insight of independent detective C. Auguste Dupin is set against the plodding hapless efforts of the Parisian police. Conan Doyle 50 years later echoes exactly the same tropes: Holmes the brilliant outsider and loner is effortlessly superior to the bumbling Grigson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Watson observes him frequently not telling the police the full story and suppressing facts to ensure his own freelance version of justice prevails.

Chandler has the same fundamental structure – as a freelance private detective Marlowe uncovers and encounters all kinds of aspects of a crime or ‘case’ which the police never see. But there are several interesting differences:

  • the cops are not just ineffective, they are sometimes actively corrupt
  • Marlowe is not superhuman; he is deeply fallible

His fallibility is emphasised throughout, it is a leitmotiv that he only realises twists and deceptions too late, a point rammed home in the final chapter where he sees the sinister Dr Lagardie entering the hotel Van Nuy and calls the cops but, between them they’re too slow to prevent Lagardie killing the unpredictable nymphomaniac Dolores Gonzalez.

For some reason it’s the police from Bay City neighbouring Los Angeles who come in for stick in Chandler’s novels. In Farewell, My Lovely Marlowe is beaten unconscious by two corrupt Bay City cops who then dump with a ‘doctor’ at a ‘clinic’ who shoots him full of ‘dope’ . In this novel the thuggish Lieutenant Moses Maglashan from Bay City sits in on an ‘interview’ with Marlowe and makes it quite clear that his techniques include beating suspects unconscious or permanently damaging their kidneys.

Marlowe is split: he is generally sympathetic to the cops, who he sees as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job:

They just sat there and looked back at me. The orange queen was clacking her typewriter. Cop talk was no more treat to her than legs to a dance director. They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in a hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. The dull ready-made clothes, worn without style, with a sort of contempt; the look of men who are poor and yet proud of their power, watching always for ways to make it felt, to shove it into you and twist it and grin and watch you squirm, ruthless without malice, cruel and yet not unkind. What would you expect of them? Civilisation had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust. (Ch. 24)

On the other hand, it’s in The High Window that Marlowe crystallises the reason he so often – and so provokingly – doesn’t tell the police the full story, in fact so often goes out of his way to conceal evidence, hide the truth and generally be a difficult customer:

Breeze said: ‘Make your point.’
I said: ‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every times and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may – until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can. Until I’m sure that you won’t do him more harm than you’ll do the truth good. Or until I’m hauled before someone who can make me talk.’
Breeze said: ‘You sound to me just a little like a guy who is trying to hold his conscience down.’
‘Hell,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink…’ (THW Ch. 15)

Despite the throwaway context, this is the justification all private detectives make for doing it their way. It is the core rationale of the genre.

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister


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Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s characters are all acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part.

The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or modelling their behaviour on the actors they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (The High Window, Chapter 10)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (THW, Ch. 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW, Ch. 30)

Even the highly self-conscious, first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch. 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the way the tough guys he encounters ceaselessly model themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction.

Thus Raymond Chandler’s novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (THW. Ch. 4)

Why are eyes so important?

Throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on his descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc, and wondering why he takes so much trouble on what amounts almost to a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes – the acting, and the seeing – are interconnected.

Eyes are mechanisms of concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many, if not all, the other characters are trying to conceal from him.

Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So, in a detective novel, what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions.

They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, sizing up how successfully or not all the other characters are playing their roles play a part. They are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES.

People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words and, inadvertently, give away all kinds of meanings and intentions which words alone conceal.

Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal. In the following I categorise and try to define the various ways Chandler uses eye imagery.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves.

Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’.

As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and, in cynical 1940s Los Angeles, the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to shutter and curtain, to cover with ‘blinds’.

But the eyes’ owners are all too often weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW, Ch. 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS, Ch. 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS, Ch. 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS, Ch. 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS, Ch. 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW, Ch. 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS, Ch. 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch. 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS, Ch. 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment.

People’s eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into the narrator’s mind

But of course it works both ways: the other characters’ eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liars to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights which those third-person liars themselves use to probe into the narrator’s acts and thoughts.

They are not only the means other people use for acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether the narrator is are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful.
‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’
‘Yeah. I understand.’
He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS, Ch. 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS, Ch. 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW, Ch. 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully… (THW, Ch. 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW, Ch. 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS, Ch. 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS, Ch. 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS, Ch. 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others, using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And the subject becomes an opportunity for Chandler to show off, to take the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW, Ch. 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS, Ch. 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS, Ch. 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS, Ch. 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or how Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS, Ch. 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW, Ch. 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW, Ch. 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW, Ch. 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

You can see from these examples how the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. The self-referentiality of his gaze is linked to the acute self-consciousness of all the characters, all playing parts.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses.

I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. When they do it’s clear what their function is – to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is an elementary, physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ i.e. less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and therefore more distant and detached from everyone else, including people they speak and interact with.

And why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially the police) wearing shades. It is because, not being able to ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. At a disadvantage.

An attitude of supposed invulnerability which Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW, Ch. 4)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS, Ch. 21)

Othertimes, as already noted, the shades are there, but the mockery is implicit. They are, quite simply, more opportunities for Chandler to display his virtuoso way with phrase making.

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW, Ch. 22)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS, Ch. 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutral eyes, belonging to people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are outside of the game of deception and search the main characters are playing. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW, Ch. 14)

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of eyes are just a pair of eyes. Or are they? The irony is that this old geezer – named Grandy – despite his dead, watery, old-man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

Maybe there are no innocent eyes anywhere in the stories.

6. Eyes of the dead

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch. 28)

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. And both of them are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see i.e. to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true of the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes.

For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which – I am arguing – is one of the central and defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch. 34)

7. Marginal eyes

And some final, minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give the quickest snapshots of characters or their emotions, for Chandler the state of the character’s eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch. 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch. 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS, Ch. 22)

Marlow is a ‘private eye’

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an ‘eye’?

Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, more important than any other aspect of a person which can be hired.

And it is as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough to interpret and understand – he must hire another pair. One pair of eyes isn’t enough in the war of eyes. The client needs to hire mercenary eyes.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that they are unknown to whoever they’re tasked with investigating and spying on.

But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing – and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting – all these actions take place in Raymond Chandler’s novels predominantly through the eyes.

And hence, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with phenomenal meaning and significance.


Appendix

a) Eyes in The High Window

All Chandler’s novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run-of-the-mill, through the contrived, to the inspired. It is the sheer variety, and the variety with which he describes such an apparently everyday business – looking and seeing – which is awe-inspiring.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch. 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch. 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch. 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch. 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch. 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch. 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch. 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch. 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch. 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch. 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch. 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch. 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch. 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch. 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch. 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch. 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch. 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch. 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch. 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch. 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch. 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed with panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch. 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch. 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch. 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch. 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch. 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch. 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch. 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch. 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch. 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch. 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch. 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch. 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch. 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch. 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch. 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch. 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch. 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch. 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch. 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch. 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch. 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch. 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch. 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch. 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch. 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch. 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch. 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch. 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch. 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch. 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch. 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch. 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch. 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch. 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch. 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch. 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch. 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch. 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch. 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch. 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch. 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch. 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch. 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch. 33)

P.S.

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans can be admitted into this realm of conflict, their animal devotion a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye, but still not entirely innocent. No eye in Chandler ever is.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS, Ch. 19)


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