Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson (1999)

Nothing dates quicker than the future. All Tomorrow’s Parties is the title of a song by the Velvet Underground recorded in 1967. The choice of a Velvet Underground track as the title of a novel supposedly set in a hi-tech future confirms the sense that Gibson, born in 1948, despite being credited with the invention of futuristic visions of cyberspace and cyberpunk, in fact has a very 1960s/70s mentality, all dark glasses and leather jackets and ripped t-shirts.

Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

This is the third in Gibson’s ‘Bridge Trilogy’ and reunites us with key characters from the earlier two novels, notably:

  • Berry Rydell (security guard and protagonist of Virtual Light)
  • derelict computer hacker Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru)
  • Shinya Yamazaki, self-described ‘student of existential sociology’ who appears in both the previous books
  • former bicycle courier Chevette

It’s ten or 20 years in the future, after a big earthquake (nicknamed ‘the Little Big One’, page 160) hit California, resulting in the state officially dividing into two administrations, NoCal and SoCal.

The earthquake rendered the famous Golden Gate bridge so unstable that it was closed to traffic and very quickly became a shanty town, a favela, people building shacks and shops out of spare parts and random kit on the lower and main levels of the bridge, then slowly building above these, using the massive cables and struts as superstructure to create a slum stretching up into the sky.

It had all been open then, just girders and railing and deck: now it was this tunnel, everything patched together out of junk, used lumber, plastic, whatever people could find, all of it lashed up however anybody could get it to stay, it looked like… (page 185)

The Bridge is populated by all kinds of lowlife, criminals, popup shops, computer hackers, fast food joints, seedy micro-hotels, wasted dudes trying to sell you drugs and so on. It sounds a lot like the rundown parts of New York in the 1970s, because William Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction. Hey man, take a walk on the wild side.

The characters use a would-be street slang which sometimes feels curiously dated. When the character Tessa refers to nightclubs she knows, she includes one named ‘Cognitive Dissidence’, quite a heavy-handed play on the modish phrase, ‘cognitive dissonance’, like the comically themed nightclubs in Idoru.

But when her friend Chevette says, ‘Yeah, she knows ‘”Cog Diss”‘ – the books seems to assume that abbreviating Cognitive Dissidence to Cog Diss indicates how wildly street and hip and in the know and down with the kids Chevette is, but – it made me laugh at its crapness. Increasingly, I am associating Gibson not with some far-out digital future, but with Lou Reed and ageing Dad Rock (def: ‘music played by old white dudes’).

This impression is bolstered by the role played in all these novels by:

  1. the very old-tech format of TV shows (Rydell wanted to be on a cop TV show, Tessa makes TV documentaries)
  2. guitar music. In fact the novel includes an actual rock band, a collection of ageing white dudes led by one Buell Creedmore (see below) and includes other (fictional) rock bands with stupid names, which Gibson has referred to throughout the trilogy, such as ‘Chrome Koran’ and ‘Blue Ahmed’

This is the seventh Gibson novel I’ve read and certain elements are a fixture:

  1. Something is about to happen, something big, he can’t tell you what it is but it’s gonna be big. Thus Laney, the guy who was experimented on at his orphanage (page 71) and as a result has developed a supernatural ability to recognise patterns in the vast reams of data flowing through the net, he knows something is coming, something which will change everything.
  2. The basic mindset is 1940s film noir, hardboiled crime genre, Raymond Chandler for the internet age. Guys are tough, dames are tough as well, but generally need rescuing by tougher guys. Thus the two main male characters in this novel are Berry Rydell, the tough security guard we met in the previous novels of the trilogy, and an even harder tough guy, a silent assassin who thinks, speaks and moves with Zen detachment, a man with no name (lol, really, I’m not kidding) until we do, finally, get his name, towards the end of the book. But for most of the text we are kept wondering, ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is he seeking?’
  3. The novel is made up of four or five storylines, each focusing on a lead character, which run separately and distinctly throughout the book but with the strong suggestion that they’re all going to link up somehow, towards the end, which is also when the Big Thing which has been hinted at throughout will finally take place.

The first and third of these elements in particular, make for a very strong narrative grip or attraction. All through the book we’re kept on tenterhooks wondering what The Big Thing is going to turn out to be, although with the nagging suspicion that, as with a number of the previous novels, The Big Thing might actually turn out to be a disappointment (as, for example, the vague and underwhelming marriage of a pop singer and a virtual woman in Idoru).

The book is 277 pages long and divided into 73 chapters giving an average of 3.8 pages per chapter, although many of them only run to 1 or 2 pages. That’s to say, the narrative moves at pace, cleverly constructed to jump between the activities of the four or five leading characters. These are:

Berry Rydell

Rydell is a rough, tough, handsome man, ‘all muscle and long legs’ (page 181). He was a cop back in Knoxville, Tennessee, till he killed a drugged-up abuser who was firing randomly into a closet where he’d locked his girlfriend’s kids. Forced to quit the police, Rydell joined a security operation, IntenSecure. Then he was hired by a TV show which turned nobodies into celebrities in order to knock them down, but became increasingly unhappy with it, specially after he was unable to prevent a woman the show was persecuting from killing herself. So he quit TV and ended up working as security in a hotel. Here he was spotted and recommended for a job as security to a pop star in Japan, Rez, who was planning to ‘marry’ a totally digital woman, and this was the plot of the previous novel in the series, Idoru.

We learn that after the events described in Idoru Rydell made it back to America, to Los Angeles, where he was working as security, again, this time for a chain of convenience stores called Lucky Dragon, owned by a Korean. For a while he lived with Chevette who he hooked up with during the previous novel and thought he was going to feature in a documentary about hard-done-by cops, made by the Cops In Trouble series. But slowly all his hopes fizzled away, and Rydell became so sad Chevette that left him (page 182) and he got the convenience store job.

It is here that, one day, he takes a phone call from Colin Laney, who was the one who fixed him up with the job in Japan, and now tells him he’s got a job for him up in San Francisco.

So Rydell quits the Lucky Dragon job and drives up to Frisco. He does so in a carshare arranged by his fellow security cop, Durius. The guy sharing the car is an aggressive drunk named Buell Creedmore. He’s a pain in the butt and when Rydell arrives in SF and parks the car, we think he’s walking away from Creedmore, but Creedmore continues to turn up through the book and we discover he is quite a decent country and western singer who sings with ‘legendary’ guitarist Randall James Branch Shoats from Mobile, Alabama (page 100).

Colin Laney

Laney was one of a cohort of kids at an orphanage in Kentucky who were experimented on without their knowledge or consent. They were given an experimental drug, 5-SB.

‘5-SB allows the apprehension of nodal points, discontinuities in the texture of information. They indicate emergent change, but not what that change will be.’ (page 194)

Its effect was to make Laney supersensitive to the flow and shape of information flooding through the (still fairly primitive) internet (page 75).

At one point in his career Laney was a quantitative analyst for Slitscan, a tabloid TV show ‘of quite monumental viciousness’ (page 222). In Idoru he was hired as co-ordinator of internet data helping to create and curate the digital woman. Now we learn the idoru has left Rez who, in mourning has undertaken a rock tour of the Kombinat states (i.e. the old Soviet Union) and Laney, ill with probable tuberculosis, poor and decrepit, has gone into hiding in a large cardboard box hidden in the bowels of Shinjuku station, which he rents off a wordless Japanese man who spends all day silently making models.

This is where Shinya Yamazaki, an ‘existential sociologist’ who featured in both the previous novels, tracks him down and tries to bring him antibiotics and food. But Laney is too obsessed to eat. Right at the start of the book he tells Yamazaki that the datasets are building towards a seismic change. ‘What’s going to change?’ asks Yamazaki. Everything, replies Laney, thus creating the sense of suspense which keeps the reader turning the next 250 pages.

We also learn what happened to Rez and the idoru after the end of the previous novel. Basically, Laney was hired in the period covered by Idoru to facilitate the ‘marriage’ of the rock star Rez and the ’emergent digital being’, Rei Toei. That novel ended with the couple getting ‘married’ and going off to a newly-built circular island in Tokyo Bay. Now we learn that after that, Laney was kept on to educate this digital being, Rei Toei but that, as she grew and learned more about the world, she grew away from Rez. Laney realised he was falling in love with this being made entirely of data and so, one day, quit his job (pages 163 to 164). Soon afterwards he heard Rei had left the island, the marriage was over, and so Laney went into hiding, hiding out in the cardboard box buried deep in Shinjuku station.

Laney now devotes himself all day long to being the unfiltered ‘eye’ through which all the data in the world passes, via DatAmerica. And he sees a massive change coming. And the change is something to do with Cody Harwood, Machiavellian CEO of Harwood Levine, the most powerful PR company in the world.

The Man with no name

He wears a long coat, a loden coat. Round-lenses glasses which hide his eyes. He was in the military. He wastes no movement or word. He is ‘Lean and concise’ (page 220). He follows the Tao. He believes only in the moment.

We meet him in a chapter where he is tailed onto the Bridge by a couple of lowlife drug addicts. When they try to mug him he kills them both with silent movement of his hands, holding a super-sharp knife, too quick to see or defend from. He is watched by the muggers’ young mute hanger-on, known as Silencio because he doesn’t talk. No name takes Silencio to a diner and buys him fruit shakes and, when the boy is fascinated by the old wristwatch he’s wearing, gives it to him.

In the middle section of the book we see the man with no name in his spartan hotel room performing his secret assassin exercises, or sharpening his super-sharp assassin’s knife in ritualised movements. Despite the cheesiness of all this I couldn’t help finding it at the same time everso ‘cool’, as it is designed to be.

Fontaine

Fontaine is ‘an angular black man whose graying hair is twisted into irregular branches that hang like the arms of a dusty houseplant in need of water’ (page 159). He is harassed by his two wives Tourmaline and Clarisse. He keeps a popup second-hand shop on the Bridge, specialising in gadgets, wristwatches a speciality. It was Fontaine who cobbled together a home-made stairlift up to the shack belonging to a man named Skinner, up on a higher level of the favella, and whic Chevette, who lived with much older Skinner, used to use to take her bike down to ground level to carry out her job as a bicycle courier, all of this described in the first of the trilogy, Virtual Light.

One morning Fontaine notices Silencio’s nose pressed against the glass. He lets him in and, after some initial nervousness about whether he’s a burglar, lets him stay, starts buying him meals, lets him sleep out back – not least because Silencio lets Fontaine have the awesome watch which the Man with No Name gave him.

Soon Silencio gravitates from staring at Fontaine’s watch collection to being given a pair of eyephones and scanning at speed through all the watches available at all the auctions round the world. Silencio starts to talk but all he does is repeat the technical specifications of the watches he’s looking at.

Chevette

In the previous novels we met Chevette-Marie Washington in her capacity of bicycle courier and carer for the ageing Skinner, who had taken her in and fed her when she was young and homeless. Then she had an affair and lived with rough tough Berry Rydell for a while. As this novel opens she is living in a house rented out to students on the coast of Los Angeles. The house is fenced off from the beach where there has been some kind of disastrous unnamed chemical ‘spill’.

Chevette’s main housemate is Tessa who’s Australian and a media sciences student at USC (page 32). Tessa wants to make a documentary about the Bridge using Chevette as a way in to its closed and secretive society. She regards the Bridge as ‘interstitial’, an adjective Chevette takes the piss out of for the rest of the book.

Tessa’s recently been playing with a camera on a small drone. Chevette has barely woken up before she and housemate Tessa spot a man snooping round the house. It is Carson, Chevette’s ex-boyfriend, smooth, handsome, in the media working for a show called ‘Real One’ (everyone works in TV in these novels). He was Chevette’s boyfriend till the night he hit her. She moved out and went into hiding in this abandoned beachfront property. Now he’s found her.

So to avoid Carson, the women sneak out the back way and round to Tessa’s van. She’s already packed. Chevette never unpacked. They slip into the van, fire the ignition and spurt away. Whither? Well, Tessa wants to make a doc about the Bridge so they head north, to NoCal and San Francisco.

Plot developments

These days Laney phones his mate Rydell at regular intervals. He instructs Rydell to contact his attorney, F.X. Tong, which he does via videoglasses. Rydell has a knackered pair given to him by the cashier at the Lonely Dragon, Miss Praisegod Satansbane (page 11). The ‘shades’ are originally from Brazil so when Rydell touches the instruction panel in the wing of the shades he often gets a street map of Rio and everything in Portuguese, but nothing’s perfect.

Through a bad connection Tong gives him instructions to use the ATM in the branch of the Lucky Dragon near the start of the Bridge, then go to the GlobEx franchise at the back, use the identity code Tong gives him and collect a package. All of which he does. The package is a couple of feet long, six inches square and very heavy. Rydell carries it further onto the Bridge, finds an anonymous popup hotel and greasy spoon, the Ghetto Chef Beef Bowl, which rents him a tiny room, really only a horizontal pod.

There’s more. Laney calls Rydell and tells him to go to a particular computer accessory shop and pick up some cables. It’s called Bad Sector and staffed by an enormous Chinese youth with an irritating under-moustache. He devises little robots which toddle around the shop counter and hand out and receive goods to and from customers.

Back in the pod Rydell finally unwraps the package to discover it contains a metal object like a thermos flask, figures out how to attach the cables, powers it up and… out appears a hologram of the emergent digital being from the previous novel, Rei Toei, beautiful, immaculate, seductive, very intelligent, and Rydell is entranced.

Chevette and Tessa arrive in San Francisco and park the van by the Bridge. They stroll around and into a bar where, by quite a big coincidence, there’s Buell Creedmore who is about to perform with ‘legendary’ guitarist Shoats. Before the performance has even begun, Chevette sees, by an even bigger coincidence, her feared ex, Carson, walk in,

Laney phones Rydell again, tells him the world is going to end. Well, the world as we know it (page 166). Laney is convinced the crisis will crystallise around a dude named Cody Harwood, a lean, rich head of a major public relations firm.

Separately, Laney becomes uneasily aware that someone is watching him when, in the dataflow, he is watching Harwood. He is shocked when two fellow hackers from Mexico City tell him it is Harwood watching him watching Harwood, because Harwood has himself taken the experimental drug 5-SB and so gained heightened awareness of the flows of information through the world’s datasets.

Laney’s informants from Mexico (Rooster and Klaus) tell him that Harwood is rich and has interests in a range of mega corporations including Nanofax AG of Geneva:

‘Nanofax AG offers a technology that digitally reproduces objects, physically, at a distance.’ (page 195)

So we know that Harwood has taken 5-SB and so has advanced nodal apprehension, and is installing Nanofax modules in every Lucky Dragon store, because he has a controlling interest in that franchise as well (page 209). But what’s he ultimately up to?

We see Harwood ordering minions to keep monitoring Laney and to find whoever it was who collected the package Laney had FedExed from Japan i.e. the thermos device which contains Rei Toei. Remember the two street hoodlums who the Man with No Name silently knifed earlier on? Now Laney phones Rydell and tells him to go to the crime scene. Why? Because it will trigger the next stage, though Laney doesn’t know what.

Rydell is tailed So Rydell goes along and, sure enough, Harwood has minicams monitoring the scene so immediately uses facial recognition to identify Rydell and access his entire past history. Harwood dispatches some toughs to tail him. Cut to Rydell being tailed for a few blocks across the Bridge, particularly by some guy in black with a scarf. He thinks he’s cleverly evaded them when he turns a corner and is punched so hard in the side by an enormous dud that he feels some ribs break. The big guy is shaping up for another punch when he goes quite, blank-faced, falls to his knees. The Man with No Name is behind him, has stabbed and killed him.

The bar with no name The Man with No Name marches Rydell away but as they pass the nightclub (with no name) Rydell takes the opportunity to nip inside. He arrives just as Buell Creedmore is finishing his set with Tessa and Chevette (Rydell’s ex) also there. So at about this point the reader sees the plotlines led by the various characters finally coming together. Even more so when, to provoke no-name, Rydell activates the thermos (which he carries everywhere with him) and Rei Toei appears in the middle of the crowded bar to everyone’s astonishment.

Shootout But at that moment the band ends its performance, Chevette leaves the light and sound console where she’s been with Tessa, goes down to the main floor to capture the mini-drones Tessa’s been using to film the performance when, to her amazement, she is spun round and punched really hard in the face. It is her ex, Carson the woman beater. He advances on her to hit her again but is pulled round and punched hard by… by Rydell, her other lover!

Dazed Chevette is amazed. But Carson gets to his feet and punches Rydell hard in the ribs and we know they’re broken so Rydell squeals with pain. At which point he is pushed out the way and Chevette sees the guy with the scarf who had been tailing Rydell and has now arrived in the bar, step forward and shoot Carson with a silenced gun. Now she knows she’s in some kind of dream.

Tessa, from up in the lighting control booth, turns the lights out in the bar and there’s a stampede, people getting hurt. Rei Toei is like a genie, a stream of white light tormenting the shooter while Rydell in great pain lifts Chevette and helps her to a side door which they kick open and emerge into a street filling up with screaming punters. Chevette runs, Rydell limps after her, then both of them are stopped by the magical appearance of the Man with No Name carrying the thermos, which Rydell in the general panic had forgotten.

Fontaine’s Next thing we know they are beating on the locked door of Fontaine’s watch shop. Fontaine wakes (it’s the middle of the night) and reluctantly lets them in. In fact – we realise with a start – it is meant to be only 24 hours since the Man with No Name killed those two muggers on the bridge. Anyway, Fontaine recognises Chevette as the pretty young thing who lived in an apartment above his and who looked after Skinner before she left for LA. And the Man with No Name calmly recognises Silencio, who is also woken up by the noise, as the boy he took to the milk bar and gave his watch to.

So the gang’s all here. All the major characters have been brought together, with 40 pages or so of the novel left to go. So what is this Big Thing which we’ve been promised throughout the text?

The Man with No Name explains that Harwood has hired mercenaries to capture Rydell because he knows he has something important to Laney but isn’t sure what. Also, that the mercs will kill anyone who stands in their way. He asks for Fontaine’s gun and explains he’s going out to kill as many of the mercenaries as he can, that everyone else should remain holed up in Fontaine’s shop, and disappears through the door into the night.

There’s a shootout. The Man with No Name, inevitably, kills two of the mercs because that’s what Clint Eastwood types do. Rydell, crouching in Fontaine’s inner room, asks Fontaine if he has a weapon and the latter discloses a vicious chain-gun, owned by Fontaine’s lawyer (a paranoid refugee from the African Union) which he has hidden in a wall recess. They get it out, Rydell steps into the shop proper, someone fires off a bevy of automatic rifle, Ryfell aims in that direction and fires the chain gun which fires razor wire at high speed. It converts anyone in its way into hamburger. So that is the messy end of the third mercenary.

Cut to the head merc headphoning Harwood who instructs him to set the bridge on fire. Back in the shop the Man with No Name arrives and hands the gun back to Fontaine. Rydell takes a call from Laney on the Brazilian shades, Laney tells him the bridge is being torched but to leave the thermos / Rei Toei on the bridge. He plugs the thermo device into a power socket and Rei appears, a shimmering beautiful slender woman. She says hello to Rydell but then addresses the Man with No Name and tells him his name is Konrad. And that he still carries a torch for a slender blonde, Lise, who he lost back in the day. Aah. So the cold-hearted killer is a softie after all.

Out of nowhere Tessa arrives trailing drones with cameras, riding on a big three wheeler driven by Elmore, the skinny lighting guy from the club. Chevette and Rydell clamber onto it but can’t persuade Fontaine or the Silent kid to join them. Elmore turns the bike and roar off towards the San Francisco end of the bridge.

But they soon run into crowds fleeing the fire and get knocked off the bike. Tessa disappears, Rydell grabs for Chevette and loses the chain gun down a sewer pipe. Oops. Chevette leads Rydell to the steps up and to the little funicular train Fontaine made up to Skinner’s home-made apartment.

Meanwhile Laney has co-opted his friends in ‘the Walled City’. These are dissident Chinese hackers who were kicked out of the actual walled city when Hong Kong was handed back to China but created a digital alternative for nerds and hackers everywhere. Mustering their support, in cyberspace Laney suddenly finds himself face to face with Harwood. The latter is suave and debonair and insouciant like the baddies in all James Bond movies are. He is not sure what is going to happen and he disappears down into the flow of data.

Meanwhile Rydell and Chevette emerge onto the roof of Skinner’s pad only to be ambushed by the man with the black scarf, leader of the mercenaries. He pistol whips Rydell and then points the gun to kneecap him but Chevette begs him not to and he doesn’t. Instead he steps into the mini-glider he’s had stashed up here all the time. But as he steps over the edge of Skinner’s roof into the night sky, Chevette runs forward and with Skinner’s knife rips a long tear in the fabric, rendering the glider utterly useless and the mercenary plunges straight down, hitting pillars and stanchions like all the master baddy’s henchmen in every James Bond movie and cheap thriller movie ever made.

Chevette runs back to big strong Rydell (‘my man!’) and helps him sit up groggily. Now the smoke from the fire engulfs them and they start choking but at that very moment a helicopter bearing a vast load of ice cold water hoves into view just over them and dumps hundreds of tonnes of water onto the Bridge.

Meanwhile back at Fontaine’s shop, Rei Toei had told Konrad to plug the thermos into the eyephones Silencio uses. He enters cyberspace and Rei is with him. She tells him to follow the watch, the last watch he could see, and Silencio with his advanced obsessive feel for watches and nothing but watches follows it across the cyberverse and is suddenly in a small room in the bowels of a castle where he meets Harwood who is astonished to see him. Then some of the avatars from the Walled City appear and we know they have used Silencio’s skills to track down Harwood to his hiding place.

Meanwhile, back out in the real world, a black kid, Boomzilla, who we met much much earlier when Tessa and Chevette paid him to mind their van, he is in the Lucky Dragon branch nearest the Bridge, watching the crazy action, huge fire, fire engines everywhere, then choppers dropping vast amounts of water, anyway all this mayhem only slightly delays the first ever use of the Nanofax gadget.

Boomzilla watches a little speech being given saying the original Lucky Dragon statuette will be inserted in the Singapore headquarters and then rebuilt in every Lucky Dragon franchise around the world. Except that the light pings and out of the microwave-looking device unfolds a naked Japanese girl, slender and black-haired, smiles at everyone and runs out the front door.

Back on the Bridge it’s dawn. Rydell has spent the night with Chevette in the heavy duty sleeping bag the mercenary had used on Skinner’s roof. Very warm and cosy. He gets up, butt naked, pads to the edge to have a pee. There’s a hovering drone with Tessa’s voice blaring at a sleepy Chevette, that she, Tessa, got loads of footage during the fire, she’s got a contract to make her documentary (TV again).

Eventually the drone buzzes off. Rydell climbs down a layer and is surprised to find Buell Creedmore holed up there. He too climbed up to escape the flames. Well, the venue’s burned down, and Buell whines that his career is over. In what is probably meant to be a comical moment he reveals he ain’t a good ole boy country-and-western dude after all, he grew up in suburban New Jersey. And he starts crying.

Rydell climbs back to the roof and realises he is overwhelmingly in love with Chevette.

Cut to Konrad, the former Man with No Name, catching a cab to TransAmerica, the main mega corporation run by Harwood. Here he presents himself and is strip searched and handcuffed and accompanied to the lift by seven goons, as per Harwood’s instructions. But his weapon is in the belt buckle at front of his trousers. By the time the lift arrives he will have killed all of them. Because like the assassin / ninjas / superheroes of so many Yank movies, he is invulnerable.

Yamazaki has brought Keith Blackwell, the enormous Australian head of security of the pop singer Rez, who featured heavily in the previous novel, to rescue Laney. They go down to the cardboard city in the bowels of Shinjuku railway station and Blackwell razors open Laney’s carton. But he isn’t there.

Fontaine returns from the Red Cross stands at the end of the Bridge. Stuff is still being cleared up but there’s more media vans than emergency services. Silencio has been sweeping up the broken glass outside the shop and doing a good job. You get the sense Fontaine will adopt him. He reminds me of the mute boy sweeping up main street in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 coming-of-age movie, The Last Picture Show. This novel is written in Gibson’s cyberstyle, but it overflows with very traditional, down-home, American sentimentality.

And sure enough, in the final chapter, in the last scene, Silencio starts to talk!. He appears to be in charge of the shop now. And another boy brings in a ruined watch. And in a token of the future, the boy asks Silencio if he can watch the weird device fix his watch. They place the damaged watch onto ‘the bed’ and watch it sink into it as a coin into mud. Within its womb molecules work and within nine minutes the watch will emerge utterly restored good as new. The future is now.

Thoughts

Well, number one, it is a major achievement to think in these terms, to conceive of plots which revolve around dataflows and nodal points within cyberspace. Most people were struggling to adapt to the dial-up versions of the internet in 1999 while Gibson had already perfected a way of creating entrancing fictions out of it.

And Gibson’s highly engineered prose poetry is phenomenal. He has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve to keep it pumping – short phrases, omitting subjects of sentences, slang, streetwise allusions to keep you constantly on your toes. Modern thriller basic tricks.

  • Fontaine looked at Rydell. Pursed his lips. Nodded. (page 234)
  • Hole there the size of a saucer, and getting bigger. (page 261)

Short sentences. Leave out subject. Makes it hipper. Cool style.

But… but… although the book has countless clever angles and is written in a highly stylised, tech savvy, thriller style… key scenes include a fight in a bar and a shootout around a shop where the good guys have been pinned down by the bad guys. It feels like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or the familiar rundown seedy future wreckage of a movie like Escape From New York (1981). In other words, at numerous places the actual storyline and events feel hackneyed, clichéd, and filled with the over-familiar tropes of ten thousand American action movies.

Paint it black

And black. Everyone wears black. Of course they do, because it’s cool. Rydell wears a black t-shirt. Chevette is wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt. The lead mercenary wears a black leather coat and a black scarf. Two other mercs were a black leather jacket and a black armoured vest (page 241). The skinny drug addict who runs the lights at the club where Buell performs and then the fight breaks out, he wears a black meshbacked cap and a black t-shirt (page 246). Everyone wears black because black is cool and fashionable, what people wear in fashion shoots, in edgy ads, in movies like The Matrix. It’s the only colour Lou Reed wore and Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

World-shattering claims, tiny cast

Gibson’s novels use the rhetoric of world-changing worldshifts. But in the end the stories only involve about fifteen characters (the speaking parts in this one are Durius, Rydell, Buell, Shoat, their girlfriend Maryalice, Tessa, Chevette, Konrad, Fontain, Silencio, Elmore, Laney, Carson, Harwood, lead mercenary).

Not only that, but they are all sane. What I mean is they’re all cut from the same basic thriller cloth, they all think with the same rational clarity, they all act with that thriller directness and logic (with the possible exception of the Man with No Name who is, therefore, the most interesting character). When the fire starts Fontaine briefly alludes to the feral kids growing up on the Bridge but, when you stop and think about it, there is absolutely no reference to the psychological impact of growing up in the Bridge favelas. In fact when you stop and reflect, there is pretty much no psychology in any of these novels. All the characters are capable and competent, good at fighting, handy with guns, behave like cardboard characters from action movies. Nobody panics, goes to pieces or doesn’t know what to do.

Compare and contrast Gibson’s fiction with the stories of J.G. Ballard who specialises in characters who collapse into private psychoses, weird private visions, and whose stories create in the reader a sense of being seriously adrift, trapped in a world completely at odds with the usual one (The Drought, The Drowned World, High Rise, Concrete Island).

There’s never any sense of the genuinely strange in Gibson – with the one shining exception of the way he describes characters like Laney experiencing cyberspace, plugging in and suddenly being amid canyons of gleaming data, the ‘grey fields of light’ (page 254). Now that is new and vivid and wonderful.

But a lot of the rest of the action could come from a standard Jack Reacher novel, with rough, tough manly hero (Rydell) saving his girl (Chevette), forging a brief friendship with the black dude (Fontaine) helped by the mysterious stranger (Konrad) and in which the baddy is, as always, the unscrupulous rich (white) head of some mega-corporation.

Rei Toei may be a cool invention, an entirely digital being, but every time she appears she is, for the first second, butt naked and very beautiful (as Chevette notices with intense jealousy first time she appears to Rydell). Beautiful, naked young Japanese girls. Hardly subverting action movie clichés, is it, or the basic stereotypes of all action narratives, whether in thrillers, movies or graphic novels or comics.

In that respect, far from feeling out there and experimental, most of Gibson’s fiction feels fantastically familiar from any number of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise action adventure movies. Die Hard With A Laptop.

Also, Rei Toei may be a cool invention, the first entirely digital being and yet…what does she actually do? What does she change or make happen? It feels a lot like Gibson can come up with these great ideas, images, digital symbols but then… really struggles to make them relevant to the real world, to come up with a plot which justifies the hype.

Oh, and the Big Thing, When The World Changed, The Thing Which Was Going To Change Everything which was heavily trailed throughout the novel, designed to keep the reader on the edge of their seat?

As so often in a Gibson novel, it doesn’t, in fact, happen. Nothing changes. The world does not come to an end. Cody Harwood seems to be trying to pull off some scam but we never understand what it is. So now an American convenience store franchise is going to be able to do 3-D printing? Hmmm. Not world shattering is it?

Instead a young, thin, naked Japanese girl steps out of a microwave. Maybe we’re meant to interpret this as the advent of a New Era in Human History because we’ve invented teleporting. But, in fictional terms, it pales into insignificance next to the classic tough guy Rydell holding his babe Chevette round the shoulders as dawn broke over the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, shucks.

A month or so after reading the book all I really remember about it is the Golden Gate Bridge being set on fire and the shootout at the shop, both of them hard-core 1970s action movie tropes.


Credit

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1999. All references are to the 2000 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Idoru by William Gibson (1996)

Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.
(Idoru page 201)

Virtual Light, the first novel in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge trilogy’, made me fall out of love with Gibson. Once I’d realised the tough ex-cop hero of the book, Berry Rydell was, underneath all the sci-fi add-ons, basically an avatar of John McClane from the Die Hard movies or Jack Reacher, i.e. a rough, tough hero of the type found in all airport thrillers, I found myself noticing on every page, barely disguised by Gibson’s gee-whizz, cyberpunk style and settings, all the clichés of the American thriller genre.

However, I think Idoru is by way of being a return to form, combining Gibson’s street-smart, cyberpunk attitude and jive prose style, with passages of genuinely visionary writing about the experience of cyberspace and virtual reality, passages as strange and poetic and haunting as anything in Neuromancer. I liked it, though with a few reservations, which I’ll explain at the end.

Plot summary

It’s a few decades into what was then the future, maybe about 2010, after a fictional mega-earthquake has devastated Tokyo and San Francisco, leading to the abandonment of the Golden Gate Bridge to thousands of squatters who’ve built a shanty town on it (which is why these three books are known as the Bridge trilogy).

Colin Laney has a natural talent for spotting patterns and nodes in information. He gets a job at Slitscan, a downmarket scandal TV channel, ‘descended from reality programming’. His boss is an intense woman named Kathy Torrance, who has jaded views about celebrity, namely that celebrities deserve to be made famous then crushed by media outlets like hers. A typical Slitscan ‘story’ is the revelation that a popular band, the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, uses Iraqi fetal tissue to remain youthful looking, supposedly a shock-horror revelation although, in this cynical world, the story leads only to a surge in the band’s record sales and a bout of hangings and executions in Iraq among the officials responsible.

Laney is employed to scour DatAmerica (which appears to be the corporate version of the internet) for links, connections, ‘nodal points’, assembling clusters out of the vast oceans of data which hint towards news and gossip which the TV channel can use.

But Laney quits the job at Slitscan after a job wrecking someone’s reputation goes too far, and he finds himself staying in an expensive hotel, ‘the Chateau’. Here the security guard, Rydell (who we recognise as the hero of Idoru‘s predecessor, Virtual Light), recommends an opening he knows about out in Tokyo, which turns out to be a tip he heard from another character from Virtual Light, the Japanese sociologist Shinya Yamazaki (still making notes in his electronic notebook with a lightpen as he did in the earlier novel) who’s now working for a new employer.

So, on this recommendation, Laney the node detector flies out to Tokyo and is met by Keith Alan Blackwell, an enormous Australian with one ear missing and a body criss-crossed by scars. Laney is tired, jet-lagged and wants to know what the job is about.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, a teenage girl, Chia Mackenzie from Seattle (page 85) also flies out to Tokyo. She is an advanced user of plug-in digital reality programs, a favourite being ‘the sandbenders’ (the hand-made product of a commune she describes on page 138) which she plugs in, then puts on the eyephones and whoosh! she’s walking around Venice in the moments before dawn, accompanied by her ‘Music Master’, a thinly disguised digital David Bowie. So she’s a teenage pop music fan.

Mackenzie is a big fan of the band Lo/Rez which appears to consist of two people, Lo the Chinese guitarist and Rez, the half-Irish singer (page 94), famous for their album, Dog Soup. Lo/Rez have a worldwide fanclub among pubescent girls and Chia is a member of the Seattle fan club. In the opening chapter we find her and a couple of girlfriends all jacked into cyberspace and discussing the scandalous news that singer Rez has declared he wants to marry a virtual woman, nothing more than a system of programs. One of the girls, Kelsey, has access to her dad’s frequent flyer account and so she buys Chia a plane ticket to Tokyo so she can go over there and find out what is going on and report back to the rest of the teenage Lo/Rez fans.

On the plane to Tokyo Chia is befriended by a suspicious-looking woman, a fake blonde with hair implants, one of which she pulls out and inserts in the DNA control which is now common at these airports of the future.

The blonde calls herself Maryalice (page 47), hands Chia a suitcase to take through passport control for her, and then disappears: clearly there’s something dodgy in the case, clearly Chia is very naive. Without her realising it, Maryalice also slipped something into Chia’s hand luggage, a cigarette carton-sized metal object

The narrative is carefully structured. The Laney and Chia plotlines alternate neatly like a tennis rally throughout the book. But there’s also extensive use of flashback to fill in backstory. It is a nicely engineered text.

Laney has barely unpacked before he’s met and is taken out for drinks and sushi by the enormous Blackwell, with skinny little sociologist Yamazaki in attendance and so, in a series of flashbacks, Laney tells his backstory i.e. the job at Slitscan and why he quit.

We learn Laney quit because he was tasked with finding out about a young woman, Alison Shires, who was having an affair with a famous movie star, and so was a ripe target for a Slitscan scandal program. But Laney’s supernatural ability to scope data had made him increasingly fearful that Shires was going to kill herself, till one feverish night he went round to her apartment, let himself in (being a data hacker he knows all her security numbers) only to find her slitting her wrists. Laney stops her, patches the wrists up, but trips and bangs his head which stuns him long enough for her to get up, walk into the kitchen and shoot herself.

The cops come quickly, but more importantly so do representatives of a media outlet called ‘Out of Control’ which makes TV programmes about TV programmes and want to screw Laney’s employers, Slitscan.

Upset by how they set him onto Alison Shires but gave the poor woman no help, Laney agrees to stiff his old employers. So the Out of Control people put him on a contract, give him lawyers to help with the cops, and put him up at the luxury hotel, ‘the Chateau’, packed with their staffers and lawyers and producers. So this is how he comes to meet Rydell, the hero of Virtual LIght, now reduced to working as a security guard there (page 69) and who, when he learns Laney is a digital whizz, gives him the tipoff about the job in Japan.

On the plane flight Maryalice had told Chia about her boyfriend Eddie, and he meets them at the airport and they offer Chia a lift into town and then invite her up to their apartment. From the whole treatment, I’d be astonished if Chia doesn’t get caught up in some criminal scam… and indeed, it’s only at this point, about a quarter into the book, that we discover that Chia is, indeed, only 14-years-old, not a young woman at all, but genuinely a naive child (p.86).

Back in the bar, Blackwell finally explains who he is to Laney. Blackwell is chief of security for the world-famous band Lo/Rez which we’ve heard so much about (page 72). Somebody has ‘got at’ Rez (maybe the Russian ‘Kombinat’, which appears to be a name for Russian organised crime) and Blackwell wants Laney to use his node analysis skills to find out who (page 73).

Meanwhile, Eddie and Maryalice take Chia up to their apartment above a bar, which turns out to be more like a warehouse, stuffed with cartons and a bank of monitors managed by a Japanese named Calvin. When Eddie and Maryalice lock themselves into the office and start having a row, Calvin whispers to Chia asking if she’s ‘part of it’ and when she says, ‘No, part of what?’, he hustles her out of the apartment, into a talking elevator, tells her how to get to the nearest tube station and the hell away before it’s too late.

So off scoots Chia and uses a public digital docking port to contact a Tokyo member of the international fan club for Lo/Rez (like the Bay City Rollers of my youth, like the Take That fans of a few decades ago). She hooks up with a local member and goes to her house. This local fan is Mitsuko, aged 13. Hmmm. So this plotline is about teenyboppers, about gushy teenage girls. The two girls pop on earclips which translate from English to Japanese and the reverse so they can talk to each other.

We learn more about ‘the Sandbenders’, virtual tech built by a commune in Oregon: to use it, you slip silver thimbles over your finger and thumb tips and affix wrist straps, put on eyephones and then you are in the virtual reality program of your choice, in Chia’s case, a beautified version of Venice, empty of tourists, just before dawn (page 89).

Idoru On page 92 we discover what an idoru is. It means ‘idol-singer’ in Japanese. This particular idoru is a virtual woman. A digital creation. Unreal. She is named Rei Toei. She is a ‘personality construct’, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers (as Yamazaki explains it on page 92).

Chia is invited to a meeting of the Tokyo chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub, which confirms more than ever that it is a fanclub of teenage girls, linked in hyperspace, dedicated to revering Lo/Rez. There is some cultural relativity stuff comparing American and Japanese fans i.e. the Japanese, even though schoolgirls, are formal and considered and first of all give Chia a thorough history of the creation of their ‘chapter’, then politely turn to her to give a similar history of the Seattle ‘chapter’. However, being a crude Yank, Chia ignores all that and blurts out her question about Rez – ‘Is it true he wants to marry a virtual woman?’

By this stage it is crystal clear that the Chia storyline and the Laney storyline are both about Rez and the virtual woman, and the reader can see that they will, at some point, converge.

It’s worth noting that the characters jack into cyberspace more in the first fifty pages of this novel than in all of Virtual Light put together (one of the weaknesses of that book) and that when they do, the descriptions of their cyber-experiences are brilliant, in a way Gibson patented and excels at. The description of the haunting empty cyber-Venice; or the meeting place the Tokyo chapter have created (since none of them are physically in the same room), a pagoda created from digital data; and the way the half dozen teenage girls in it have created their digital avatars, all this is vividly and brilliantly done.

After Chia’s left the Tokyo fanclub meeting, she has has a separate online meeting with a friend from the Seattle chapter, Zona Rosa, who lives in Mexico City and is famous for her bad temper and for the vast private cyber-program she’s created, an Arizona desert-type environment complete with lizards and cacti.

Anyway, this Zona tells Chia that someone is snooping after her data and has contacted their mutual friend Kelsey, the girl who used her dad’s frequent flyer points to buy Chia’s plane ticket. I.e. the standard thriller trope ‘Someone’s after you!’.

But the cyber-environment is brilliantly described: it’s cool how Zona’s encryption program is represented by a lizard she at first is holding, then places on the lapel of her jacket to signify that she’s turning up the security settings. That’s the kind of vivid realisation of the codes and protocols people create in this cyberworld which Gibson really excels at, which he made his own.

Back to Laney who now understands who’s hired him and why. Blackwell takes him back to an office full of other digital techs and monitors etc, introduces him round, then asks him to jack into the system, being DatAmerica, the world’s largest set of cyberdata, and look for Rez’s personal data.

With his eyephones on, Laney sees random artefacts, binoculars, a palm tree by the sea, a link fence around a stone fort. He’s been sent in to find digital traces of Rez, but can see nothing. In fact it’s eerily void of digital traces…

Meanwhile, Chia meets Mitsuko’s 17-year-old brother Masahiko. He is a digital denizen, an otaku (‘a Japanese term for people with consuming interests, particularly in anime and manga’, in Masahiko’s case a consuming interest in virtual reality hacking) who spends most of his time curating ‘the Walled City‘ a secretive digital community.

Laney returns to his hotel to find a fax (a fax!) from Rydell telling Laney a bunch of techs and staff from Slitscan came to the Chateau searching for Laney, seem have discovered that Rydell has rung him a few times in Japan, so they left and told one of the garage attendants they were going to Tokyo, presumably after Laney, it’s not really clear why.

I.e. more or less the same thriller trope as we just saw applied to Chia, namely ‘They’re coming to get you!’

Meanwhile, Matsoku takes Chia on a subway ride, then through umpteen streets, past hi-tech Tokyo buildings and adverts to track down ‘the Monkey Boxing Club’. Why? because it was in this club that Rez grabbed the DJ’s mic and announced to the world that he intended to marry an idoru, a virtual reality woman. They interview the disgruntled wiry DJ (Jun) who tells them that Lo/Rez’s people promptly bought up the club and closed it down, making all employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Remember the roomful of techs Blackwell introduced Laney to, before he put on the eyephones and entered the matrix and tried to find traces of Rez? Well, one of them now turns up at his hotel, a slender young woman named Arleigh McCrae (page 129).

In line with the book’s extensive use of flashbacks, Laney proceeds to tell her the story of why he was dropped like a hot potato by Out of Control. He was lazing by the pool at the Chateau when his minder, Rice Daniels, arrived with a wise old lawyer, Aaron Pursley, who gets Laney to confirm that when he was at a federal orphanage in Gainesville from age 12 to 17 the authorities experimented on him with an experimental new behaviour drug, 5-SB. Well, long-term studies of this drug now show it is connected to male patients becoming psychotic stalkers. I.e. if it comes to a lawsuit between Slitscreen and Out of Control, the latter’s lawyers will be able to assert that Laney didn’t go to see Alison Shires to protect her but because he is a fame-obsessed psychotic due to his early drug experience.

Laney has to admit that all these facts are correct, at which point the lawyer packs up his bag and leaves – and within hours Laney, his evidence now worthless for the TV show, finds his contract with Out Of Control has been terminated and the company ceases to pick up his hotel bills (pages 131 to 134). He’d been dumped. He’s on his own. It was at this point that Rydell, knowing the situation and having, in fact, experienced something similar himself, made the suggestion about the job in Tokyo…

Back in the present, Arleigh takes Laney out for a drink (to a downstairs bar themed after American chewing gum) and gives him the backstory of Blackwell. Turns out Blackwell rescued Rez when he gave a concert at a high-security Australian gaol and was kidnapped by Italian inmates. Blackwell, also an inmate, got into the cell where Rez was being held and killed three of the Italians with a tomahawk before the other two fled, Blackwell released Rez and handed him over to the authorities. Rez’s lawyers got Blackwell released from prison a few months later and he’s been Rez’s bodyguard ever since.

Remember how Maryalice, as well as making Chia take her bag through customs, slipped a hard rectangular object into her hand luggage? When she rediscovers this, Chia is in two minds about whether to dump it at the various locations she visits, but doesn’t… The reader rightly suspects a lot of the plot is going to be about this mystery object…

Now Chia and Masahiko are on a tube train going to meet someone at a restaurant when Masahiko receives a message on his tablet warning him that Russians are at the restaurant (above which he and his sister live) asking after them. Masahiko suspects it’s the Kombinat, the Russian criminal underworld who have been mentioned off and on throughout the novel.

In a gaming arcade they meet a mate of Masahiko’s, Gomi Boy. Gomi Boy explains that he and Masahiko have both got responsibilities to maintain ‘the Walled City’, and that, when they heard enquiries were being made about Chia’s cashcard, Gomi Boy went to Masahiko’s and removed his computer, for protection.

Gomi Boy says that a bit later Eddie and Maryalice’s car turned up at the restaurant where they were going to meet (Chia remembers the description of the car, it’s a Daihatsu Graceland). Gomi Boy asked some nearby skaterboys to report if anything else unusual happened and they phoned 20 minutes later to report a smaller car turning up and three bulky Russians getting out and going into the restaurant.

To summarise the story so far

We now know that Eddie and Maryalice are after Chia and the Russian mafia are also asking after her. By now Chia is really, really scared and wants to go home. But she can’t ‘port’ or call her friends from a public portal, she’ll be traced, similarly she cannot now buy anything with her cashcard, which has also been traced and tagged. She’s stuck.

Rock bands with teenybopper fan clubs, bars with silly themes (right at the start there’d been a Kafka-themed bar, then the one plastered with bubblegum brands), noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets and showing off smoking. Brilliant though the cyberspace descriptions are, many aspects of the plot strike me as not really being fiction for adults. Surely it’s teen fiction? Young adult fiction?

More plot developments

This dawning suspicion was reinforced by the next scene, in which Masahiko and Gomi Boy decide it’s a smart move to check into a Tokyo love (i.e. sex) hotel, because it’s a good place to port and or use cashcards anonymously.

(The hotel is humorously named the Hotel Di, presumably after Princess Diana, but with the same kind of tuppenny pun on the verb ‘die’ that you get in James Bond movie titles.) This prompts a passage about a 14-year-old girl (Chia) opening various cupboards and discovering various sex aids, dildos and rubber vaginas, sitting on the bed and it starts to move up and down etc. All this, I imagine, was intended to be comic, but in 2021’s neo-Victorian moral climate, came over as distinctly dubious.

Meanwhile, Blackwell takes Laney and Arleigh to a club which was created within days of the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake, atop a ruined building, with the lights turned out, and ironically titled ‘The Western World’. And it is here that Laney, Blackwell and Arleigh sit down with half a dozen Japanese minders and finally meet Rez himself and, even more impressively, his hologram girlfriend, THE idoru of the title.

The descriptions of virtual reality are more frequent and vivid in this than the previous novel and now we discover that a particularly disconcerting aspect of the idoru is that, when Laney looks at it, just looks, he feels like he’s falling into a vast bottomless pit of pure information: the idoru has a hypnotic, vertigo-inducing effect on the digitally sensitive like Laney. THis is weird and strange and imaginatively persuasive.

Back to Chia and Masahiko in the love hotel. Chia is plugged into the net and we get more super-vivid descriptions of Chia moving through a number of virtual realities, including Masahiko’s room, Zona Rosa’s huge desert landscape, then back to the Venice which is her own personal playground. But she senses something is wrong and when she takes off the eyephones, discovers Maryalice sitting on the bed pointing a gun at her. Oops. They’ve tracked her down.

Cut back to the party at the ‘Western World’ nightclub. Laney goes for a pee, sees a hulk he thinks must be Russian mafia combing his hair in the men’s loo, and has only just returned to the dining room when all the lights go out, there’s screaming, people are knocked over, Laney falls down, is picked up by a member of Lo/Rez – drummer Blind Willy Jude. Jude turns out to have a handy pair of infrared goggles which he pops on and guides Laney through the stampeding crowds and broken glass to the concrete steps, down the thirteen flights of stairs back down to ground level.

On the way they collect Arleigh and Yamazaki and, as they emerge into the street to find cops surrounding the building and phoning for helicopters, they are joined by Rez. So he’s alright, hasn’t been kidnapped or anything. Arleigh gets her hands on the TV crew van and they all jump in.

Cut back to Chia in the room at the love hotel, who has a perfectly civilised conversation with Maryalice who puts down the gun – and it turns out it was a joke cigarette lighter, anyway. Maryalice lights a cigarette, rustles around in the fridge looking for margarita and explains what she got Chia to smuggle through customs in her bag for Eddie.

It is a ‘nanotech assembler’, the thing they program to make all the nanotech skyscrapers sprouting up all over earthquake-damaged Tokyo. To be precise, it is a ‘Rodel-van Erp primary molecular programming module C/7a’ (page 211).

Usually, these things are tightly controlled, but Eddie bought this one and wanted it smuggled into Tokyo so he can sell it to the Russian Kombinat. Chia realises this is the thing in the carrybag she’s been toting all over Tokyo and begs Maryalice to take it please – but Maryalice says it’s too late, the Russians are coming for it and Eddie will stand back and let them kill everyone who knows about it. Sorry, babes.

Meanwhile, Arleigh is still driving the crew van with the guys who escaped from the fight at the Western World. She takes them back to the hotel where she and Laney are staying. Laney, Arleigh, Rez, Yamazaki go to her room and wait for Blackwell to arrive, which he soon does, telling Rez he’s dumb to marry a hologram, but Rez insists she is the future. Exhausted, Laney slips out their room and slopes off to his one, opens it only to discover… bloody Kathy Torrance from Slitscan TV sitting at the end of his bed watching a porno. What the devil is she doing in Tokyo?

Cut to Chia in the love hotel, where she and Masahiko jack into cyberspace and meet people from ‘the Walled City’ which turns out to be a community of very advanced hackers. One, ‘the Etruscan’, gets money for Chia from her father’s secret bank account.

Zona arrives (online). Chia reveals to all of them what she hadn’t so far mentioned, namely that she has this contraband in her bag. Masahiko whips out the nanotech assembler, scans it and confirms that it is the latest version of nanotech assembler, very illegal, automatic life sentence for all of them.

There follows a detailed explanation of the origin of ‘the Walled City’ as a place whose denizens wanted to preserve the freedom and anarchy of the original internet before governments started putting up restrictions, ‘an outlaw place’ (page 221). The descriptions of Chia floating through random surreal hyperspace, and investigating the canyons and rooftops of the Walled City are brilliantly evocative.

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room. Kathy Torrance explains that Slitscan TV have cut and spliced Laney’s face onto the body in the porno, which is of a man who appears to be raping a girl. She says they’ll make it public and also publicise the notion that the 5-SB drug made him a psychotic stalker i.e. destroy his reputation, unless he agrees to spy on Rez for Out of Control. He’s trapped.

Cut back to Chia in cyberspace. Zona, with typical aggression, tells Masahiko and Gomi Boy they must attack, also mentions she’s sensed some intruder in her desertworld. Chia says she also has glimpsed the same in Venice, and takes them all into her Venice recreation. She sees her Music Man walking towards them, but then the Venice scenery slowly gets blanked out with snow and they see that the figure walking towards them is… the idoru!

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room with blackmailer Kathy Torrance. Yamazaki phones him repeatedly from down in the car park, they’ve got things set up for him to go into cyberspace and explore Rez’s files with the addition of the fandom data, hundreds of thousands of teen girl thoughts, ideas, observations.

Laney tells Kathy he’ll think about her offer but she says there’s nothing to think about. So, deeply troubled, Laney catches the lift down to the car park, limps to the van where the techies are fixing things up, jacks into cyberspace and… encounters the idoru.

She was there before him. She shows him a small gig Lo/Rez did when Rez lectured the audience about ‘new modes of being‘. This phrase has been repeated several times throughout the novel, it is a leitmotif.

Cut back to Chia, as she talks to the idoru in Venice while Zona sulks. (It’s a joke among the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub that Zona Rosa, based in Mexico City, is wildly aggressive, but Chia has told her to shut up and so she shrinks to the size of a burping frog.) All this is weird and brilliantly described and jogging along nicely when someone takes Chia’s eyephones off and she discovers that Eddie the scary crim has got into the love hotel room. He stuns Masahiko with a stun gun, then turns and asks her, ‘Where is it?’

Cut back to Laney in the car in the underground car park. He has only just starting exploring cyberspace with the idoru when he is tapped on the shoulder by Yamazaki, removes his eyephones and is introduced to Michio Kuwayama, Chief Executive Officer of Famous Aspect corporation, who developed the idoru program.

Kuwayama invites Laney into his Land Rover in the car park, close the doors so the others can’t overhear and the idoru appears between them, a shimmering phantom. The idoru explains that she is already united with Rez, they are becoming a new mode of being. Kuwayama-san explains that this is about Futurity, they are creating futurity.

Cut back to Chia in the hotel bedroom with Eddie and an evil Russian named Yevgeny. From their conversation we learn that the Russian mafia guys knew that the teenage girl who Maryalice picked up on the plane and used as a mule (Chia) was involved with some rock band, so they’d only gone along to the party at the Western World to find out more. It certainly wasn’t some sinister kidnap plot, as Blackwell had feared, and they hadn’t expected it to turn into a huge fight and incident. As a result of all this confusion Yevgeny doesn’t trust Eddie at all.

In the middle of all this exposition, Maryalice (who had been passed out on the bed, having drunk the hotel fridge’s entire supply of miniatures) sways up off the bed gripping her little toy gun, pointing at Eddie who thinks it’s real and forcing him and the Russian back into the bathroom.

But Maryalice makes the mistake of firing it and, since it is a toy, all that happens is a little cigarette lighter flame comes out – at which point Eddie goes ballistic and grabs her and starts hitting her. So Chia grabs the stun gun Eddie had used on Masahiko and stuns him, with the result that both Eddie and Maryalice start shaking with electric shock.

Masahiko had slammed the bathroom door on the Russian, but the latter is very strong and starts to turn the metal doorhandle, so Masahiko lets go and Chia zaps the doorhandle with the stun gun, too. Very exciting fast action!

Masahiko and Chia are debating what to do when the doorknob turns again and the Russian emerges, having used one of the rubber vagina sex toys stored in the bathroom to insulate his hand (incongruous comedy). Just as he steps menacingly towards the two kids, the main door opens and Blackwell arrives, accompanied – to Chia’s delight – by Rez himself! Blackwell takes out his trademark tomahawk (the one he murdered the Italian kidnappers in prison with and has carried ever since) and we suspect the Russian is not long for this world.

But what follows is not the massacre gunfight you might have expected, but a civilised negotiation. All sides establish that the thing in Chia’s bag is the nanotech assembler. The Russian reluctantly admits his people were hoping to use it for expensive buildings and factory creation in Russia. Blackwell tells Rez not to believe it, that they only want to build drug factories.

But at this point there is a surreal development. The characters inside the room become aware that someone has announced on social media that Rez has died in the love hotel and has told all Tokyo’s teen nymphet Lo/Rez fans to go and pay tribute, light candles and hold a vigil. Looking out the window Blackwell et al see it’s true. There’s now a vast concourse of teenage girls outside the hotel and growing by the minute.

At the self-same moment, Laney, plugged into cyberspace from the car park of his hotel gets the same message. He tears off his eyephones and yells to Arleigh that they must drive to the Hotel Di as quickly as possible, so Arleigh yells at the other techs and team members to guard all the kit and she and Laney set off on an exciting high-speed drive across Tokyo.

What had happened is that Zona, back in Mexico but tuned into the cybercall with Chia, so that when Eddie tore off Chia’s eyephones the call continued and Zona saw everything that happened. Zona was previously legendary for her high cybersecurity and had kept her identity totally secret but, seeing her friends in big trouble, she had taken the risk of revealing her identity by contacting the Tokyo branch of the Lo/Rez fanclub and telling them (the fiction) that Rez had died, and to organise the vigil, and then broadcast it to as many people as she could reach.

Hence the crowds of pubescent girls assembling outside the hotel which are becoming such a public nuisance that everyone learns that police helicopters and cop cars are on the way.

At this point all parties in the hotel room realise there’s no way they can have any kind of fight and get away with it, so Blackwell and the Russian in a surly truce, Rez and Chia and Masahiko, take the elevator to the car park just as Arleigh arrives in the crew van. They all climb aboard and then drive carefully through the hordes of weeping Japanese teenage girls, get free of them and hack it back to the hotel.

Coda

And that is the end of the main plot. That’s the story. The last few chapters are brief and tie up loose ends:

Laney confesses to Blackwell that he’s being blackmailed by Kathy Torrance, so Blackwell says ‘Leave it to me, I will have a very personal conversation with her’. Among other things we have learned during the course of the book that two of Blackwell’s techniques involve a) nailing people’s hands to the bar or table b) chopping their toes off one by one. Seems probable he won’t actually have to do that to terrify Kathy so much that she drops the blackmail attempt.

So Laney is in the clear, he has fulfilled his job and a one-page chapter finds him in bed with Arleigh, they’ve clearly had sex, they’re an item and later that night he phones Rydell, who tipped him off about this whole job in the first place, to tell him everything turned out just fine.

Chia has the longest chapter. Rez pays for her to fly back to Seattle first class and we have a fairly lengthy look into her mind and feelings and see her maturing, growing up, realising the reality of her pop star crush is very different from her fantasy. On one level, the novel could almost be interpreted as a teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.

The most problematic thing about the ending is the marriage of Rez and the idoru. I haven’t managed to bring it out so far, but in the later phases of the book there were references to the way Rez believed the nanotech assembler could facilitate his marriage to the idoru. That this would happen somehow via the creation of shiny new high-rise buildings out in Tokyo Bay.

I’ve read this passage several times and I remain mystified what this actually means in practice. It feels very like a kind of imaginative sleight-of-hand whereby Gibson evades any sort of logical ending and gives us this semi-mystical one except that, unlike the conclusions of all three Sprawl trilogy novels, is not so much mind-blowing as just puzzling.

Worldview details

Gibson supplies hundreds of vividly imagined, incidental details which contribute to the sense of a totally convincing futureworld, including:

  • overnight there are rumours of rocket attacks and chemical weapons in the former Financial District, doesn’t bother any of the characters, suggesting they live in a semi warzone (page 51)
  • fridges talk, tell you what’s inside them and to close the damn door (page 53)
  • logging into the virtual world to contact friends or whoever is called ‘porting’ – ‘I have to port’ (page 75) because you plug into a ‘dataport’ (page 77)
  • a revolutionary new technology of nanobuildings which literally build themselves by tiny elements of the building intelligently replicating, like watching a candle burn but in reverse – ‘They are like Giger paintings of New York’ (page 81) watching them ripple and move makes Laney feel queasy
  • toilets flush then disinfect themselves with UV light (page 78)
  • elevators talk, well, you tell them where you want to go (page 78)
  • Chia’s phone uses GPS to locate people she’s calling (page 85)
  • Masahiko interacts with the Walled City program via a slender rectangle, much like a modern tablet
  • ‘meshbacks’ is a general term for what we call chavs
  • cigarettes are banned in America and the authorities have gone back through movies and digitally erased them (page 156)
  • the Kombinat seems to be the name of the government in Russia which is actually a mafia government (page 157)
  • cars drive on gasohol, leaving an oddly sweet polluting smell behind

Cyberpunk prose

Gibson writes highly finished, stylised, jazzy, jive prose, no doubt about that – he takes the hard-boiled prose style of the 1940s noir writers, Hammett and Chandler, itself subsequently pared down and refined by generations of American airport thriller writers, and then mixes it with his own highly distinctive combination of high tech jargon and low-life street life. Imagined tech is mashed up with multimedia imagery, skyscraper and 4-by-4 consumer products, neon signs, shiny chrome hotel rooms, black Range Rovers; the text keeps presenting vivid contrasts between the precise spec of high-end, shiny products and streets full of broken glass from the great earthquake, patrolled by hoods and skaterpunks.

It’s a dazzling mix which Gibson handles with extraordinary verve and confidence, creating hundreds of examples of vivid, chrome poetry.

The rain was running and pooling, tugging reflected neon out of the perpendicular and spreading it in wriggly lines across sidewalk and pavement. (page 161)

Blackwell thunked the door behind him, then opened the front, should’ve-been driver’s side door and seemed to pour himself into the car, a movement that simultaneously suggested the sliding of a ball of mercury and the settling of hundreds of pounds of liquid concrete. (page 161)

‘Who owns the building?’ Laney asked, watching Blackwell float up the stairs in front of them, his arms, in the matte black sleeves of the drover’s car, like sides of beef dressed for a funeral. (page 164)

Here is a description of Chia’s first shadowy encounter with ‘the Walled City’ in cyberspace, which brilliantly conveys Gibson’s vision of it as shifting shapes and images, more sensed than ‘seen’:

Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn’t even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impressions of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog. Stretching either way to the periphery of vision, and on the high, uneven crest of that ragged facade, a black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colours crawled like gasoline on water. (page 182)

Gibson can write this kind of thing by the mile and I find it beguiling and entrancing – he creates real electronic dreams.

He uses another characteristic effect – the pregnant pause, the ominous intimation, the hint that something momentous is hovering just out of range of eye and mind which recurs again and again in Gibson’s novels, giving them a constant sense of mystery and threat:

Between stations there was a grey shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being. (page 137)

Reservations

Fiction about and for teens?

Although it’s about other things as well, the weight of the novel feels dominated by the story of a teenage fan of a famous rock band. The amount of time Gibson devotes to describing the Seattle club of teenage girl fans and the Japanese fan club, and then the way the novel climaxes with all those teenage girls crowding round the Hotel Di… it felt like they… It helped to make it feel like Idoru is, at bottom, a book for teenagers or young adults.

Embarrassed teenage attitude towards sex

This sense of it not quite being a book for adults crystallises in the couple of chapters featuring sex. When Chia and Masahiko explore the ‘love hotel’ room, her discovery of the various rubber sex aids is played for laughs. ‘Yuk,’ she says, wrinkling up her nose at the rubber vaginas or extra-large dildos. So the reader sees adult sex urges and aids through this young teenager’s basically virginal, innocent eyes.

This makes the short scene right at the end which finds Laney in bed with Arleigh feel strangely… out of place. Grown-up sex somehow doesn’t fit into this book. The narrative is much more at home with made-up rock bands and their teenybopper fan clubs, taking us to bars with silly theme bars (the Kafka-themed bar, the bar plastered with bubblegum brands, the ‘Western World’ bar, notable for having a large plastic replica tank in the middle of the dance floor, and so on).

Teenage environments

It’s a book of noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets, who show off by smoking (banned) cigarettes. Even the main adult character, Laney, is himself immature, naively impressed by swanky hotels and shiny cars, impressed in the way a gawky teenager would be.

Dated rock music

Another issue is Gibson’s taste in music. His novels feature rock bands with silly names like Chrome Koran (isn’t that a terrible name?) or Dukes of Nuke ‘Em (a ‘hideous ‘roidhead metal band’).

But it’s not that these are silly names, it’s that the entire idea of ‘rock’ music seems rather retro nowadays, in 2021, a time of female singers (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) and rap artists from Kanye West to Stormzy. Gibson’s obsession with rock bands feels a bit dated.

Digging deeper into this theme, there are references to:

  • Chia’s Music Master hologram being modelled on David Bowie (he’s not actually named but there’s a reference to his unmatching eyes, which is a famous Bowie factoid)
  • the way this hologram refers to the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • the way Rez is referred to in a BBC music documentary as ‘the next Hendrix’ (p.131)

All these old references remind the reader that the third novel in the Bridge trilogy is named All Tomorrow’s Parties after the Velvet Underground song sung by Nico and released way back in 1967.

Hendrix, Procol Harum, Nico. They’re all from over half a century ago. That’s old, in fact it’s Dad Rock. So it’s a paradox that Gibson, who made a reputation for inventing the cyberfuture before it happened is, in this central respect, a central theme to all his later novels, so deeply conservative.

The odd centrality of old-world television

The numerous descriptions of what Laney and Chia see when they jack into cyberspace are genuinely visionary, beautiful and compelling. But back out in the real world (when they’re not jacked in) it’s an oddity that a key element in the plot is, surprisingly, Television.

Some people might find the satire about TV programmes which make a living dishing the dirt on celebrities, and then another TV programme which makes a living dishing the dirt on programmes which dish the dirt on celebrities, amusing and witty satire. But taking the mickey out of TV for being mostly trash feels very dated to me, reminds me of those Clive James TV shows from the 1980s which took the mickey out of Japanese TV, and the scores of programmes which have copied this simple idea.

Nonetheless, television companies and programmes are a surprisingly big component of many of Gibson’s books.

Thus the previous novel, Virtual Light, opens with Rydell being taken up by a reality TV show and the climax of that book relies on the fact that Rydell is again taken up and his story told by the same TV show – Cops in Trouble – whose lawyers spring him and his beautiful assistant, Chevette, from gaol, make them sign exclusive contracts, and make them media stars for a few weeks.

Similarly, in this novel, the central theme of the opening hundred pages is Laney’s experience working for another reality TV show company, Slitscreen, complete with a supposed exposé of its trashy, exploitative values.

My point is that this is all very old media. Rock bands and television, Hollywood producers and lawyers. I know a whole load of futuristic details have been bolted onto it, and I know a key element in the novel is the repeated and brilliant evocations of cyberspace, and yet… somehow, the core vibe feels very nineteen seventies.

A teenage coming-of-age novel?

In the end, the marriage of idoru and Rez doesn’t really come off. I read the last passage a couple of times, but still didn’t understand how they were being united in what was basically a property development project. Here’s Chia reflecting on her experiences:

But mainly it was the City taking up her time, because Rez and [the idoru] were there, shadows among the other shadows but still you could tell. Working on their Project. Plenty there who didn’t like the idea, but plenty who did. The Etruscan did. He said it was the craziest thing since they’d turned the first killfile inside out. Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren’t just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, on an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that that was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. (pages 291 to 292)

All the way through, characters including Rez refer optimistically to ‘new modes of being’ and Rez refers to his partnering the idoru as an ‘alchemical marriage’, but when it comes down to it, in these last pages, Gibson fails to give us any sense at all of what that actually means.

Whereas the absolute final chapter, an extended reflection on Chia’s feelings once she’s safely back home after her Big Adventure, is much more effective at somehow encapsulating the book’s essential adolescence.

It is fitting that the novel ends not with the evanescent idoru concept but with the much more solid and traditional trope of Chia, the adolescent girl, feeling she’s grown up a bit now and is no longer so in thrall to the Lo/Rez mystique, having seen the reality of his life, of adult life.

This final chapter helps crystallise your sense that the novel is less ‘a vision of a dystopian future’ (as the blurb on the back puts it) and far more a rather sweet, teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.


Credit

Idoru by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Virtual Light by William Gibson (1993)

Yamazaki crossed to the smooth curve of cable that interrupted the room’s floor. Only an oval segment of it was visible, like some mathematical formula barely breaking a topological surface in a computer representation. He bent to touch it, the visible segment polished by other hands. Each of the thirty-seven cables, containing four hundred and seventy-two wires, had withstood, and withstood now, a force of some million pounds. Yamazaki felt something, some message of vast, obscure moment, shiver up through the relic-smooth dorsal hump. The storm, surely; the bridge itself was capable of considerable mobility; it expanded and contracted with heat and cold; the great steel teeth of the piers were sunk into bedrock beneath the Bay mud, bedrock that had scarcely moved even in the Little Grande. (Virtual Light, page 182)

The Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s prose

Gibson is a science fiction author but incorporates a good deal of noir, pulp, thriller and other genre tropes as well as, occasionally, rising to genuinely ‘literary’ complexity of psychological affect. I just read Michael Crichton’s debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, and that has a very straightforward plot, a thriller mapped out across five days, written in extremely clear and lucid prose, written so a 9-year-old could understand it. There are occasional demanding passages describing scientific theories around biology, extra-terrestrial life and so on, but these also are written with the clarity of a school textbook. Clarity is the aim.

Gibson by contrast, is noted for the cool, streetwise, technologically savvy and drug-wired prose style which he invented for his so-called Sprawl trilogy – being Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

All three of those novels concern ‘street’ people, hustlers, living among the shanties and hi-tech canyons of a futuristic society, living lives full of violence and drugs, and in all three these hustlers are slowly introduced to the higher levels of society, to the professional middle classes, then to billionaires, and so take us on a journey of discovery to uncover the real workings of their post-war society (the Sprawl trilogy is set 50 or 60 years in the future, after World War III).

Another feature of all three Sprawl novels is you’re never really sure what is going on – even when I reached the semi-apocalyptic endings of all three novels, I wasn’t completely sure what had just happened. Since I felt the same about his collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, which also rises to a kind of visionary apocalyptic climax, I concluded that this is a consistent element of Gibson’s approach: that key aspects of the narrative are kept mysterious, giving you the feeling of something ungraspable, just out of reach.

This is one way in which his books might be said to be ‘literary’, in a way the utterly obvious and unmysterious Crichton never is. Everything is explained in Crichton; big important things are not explained, in Gibson.

The Bridge trilogy

Virtual Light is the first of what developed into a new set of three novels, the Bridge Trilogy. How are the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies different? Well, the Sprawl stories were set about fifty years in the future, in around 2035 (they were written in the 1980s), after World War III, when everyone has access to advanced digital technology, and hackers make a living ‘jacking into’ cyberspace in order to carry out hit and run raids against the vast data icebergs of the future corporations which run everything.

The Bridge Trilogy is set in the future, but not so far into the future nor in so different a society. To be precise, it is set only ten years or so after the first novel was published – in what was then the ‘future’ of 2006.

There have still been society-changing events: a mega earthquake (which seems to be named Little Grande) has divided California into NoCal and SoCal (first mentioned page 8) resulting in a steady stream of new volcanoes up in Washington state (p.32). The President is a black woman (p.9), the air is toxic from all the polluting vehicles, skin cancer is a problem, everyone wears a lot of suntan cream (p.14) (see a full list of characteristics of the Bridge world, below).

Why is it called the Bridge trilogy? Because a central feature is that San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge broke during the earthquake, and has been transformed by homeless survivors into a huge, futuristic shantytown. For some of the old-timers who ‘colonised’ it, like Skinner, it’s a place to end their days, but for others like the fresh young heroine of the book, Chevette, it’s all they’ve ever known.

She looked up, just as she whipped between the first of the [concrete] slabs, and the bridge seemed to look down at her, its eyes all torches and neon. She’d seen pictures of what it looked like, before, when they drove cars back and forth on it all day, but she’d never quite believed them. The bridge was what it was, and somehow always had been. Refuge, weirdness, where she slept, home to however many and all their dreams. (p.122)

Given that the trilogy is named after the bridge, it’s notable that the bridge, as such, doesn’t feature that much in the plot, although it is woven in as a key setting, being the temporary home of Chevette and featuring the scene where a bounty hunter comes looking for her there.

The word ‘bridge’ possibly also has a metaphorical sense in that the entire trilogy is a ‘bridge’ from the present (well, the 1990s when Gibson wrote them) to the hyper-digital future envisioned in the Sprawl trilogy of the 2030s and ’40s.

All manner of cool references are slipped into the text about this cool future, which combines a maximum of stoner, drug, derelict street savvy with the highly-armed, gun expertise of Judge Dredd. Thus there is a lot of talk about Glock machine guns, knives, flick-knives, stunguns, SWAT stun grenades and many more weapons. This is meant to be a semi-dystopian future but a) the fact that it is set in what is now our past and b) its obsession with guns, just reinforces my sense of what a screwed-up, hyper-violent society America is, now.

The cool gun expertise alternates with cool references to a new designer drug, ‘dancer’.

Seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and therefore were both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic. (p.9)

From the get-go Gibson is master of a street savvy, whip-smart, post-Beat prose. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. (page 1)

A lot is going on here, but to pick three obvious points:

  1. It’s poetic prose, designed to be savoured and reread for its sound alone.
  2. ‘The sewage flats’? This is the one and only time they’re mentioned in the book so they take their place alongside hundreds of other details which are thrown away, unexplained, and from which the reader uses their imagination to construct the functioning and appearance of this futureworld (see the list below).
  3. ‘lodged in the lens of night’ is a self-consciously poetic and imaginative image. The book is full of them. It is a self-consciously stylish book, on all levels (in its prose style and setting and characters and plot).

Cops

However, having said all this about Gibson’s zippy prose style and slick future-vision, the reader quite quickly realises the novel is about a cop, Berry Rydell, who’s become a kind of private security guard. An American novel about a cop-turned private detective? Actually this is a very old trope, going back to the noir novels of the 1930s and 40s, to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler…

And then, as the novel progresses, we watch as this tough private eye rescues the attractive young woman from the bad guys and whisks her off to safety while he tries to figure out the Right Thing To Do.

Hmmm, in this elementary respect, the basic plot structure of Virtual Light seems far from experimental or new – it is, to some extent, a cyberspace update of film noir tropes and characters and plot.

So: we learn that Berry Rydell, born 1983 (p.14) is an ex-cop from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was cashiered out of the service after shooting to pieces a drug-addled maniac who was holding his wife and kids hostage and demanding to speak to the president. He’s managed to get a job with a private security firm named IntenSecure in Los Angeles, alongside a ripe collection of freaks and allergy monkeys… Here’s a plot summary:

Plot summary

Berry Rydell is fired from the Tennessee police force for shooting a hostage-taker, the demented Kenneth Turvey.

Rydell is in his twenties looks like Tommy Lee Jones (p.81) i.e. ruggedly handsome.

The notoriety Rydell wins from shooting Turvey and being sacked leads to him briefly being taken up by the sexy presenter of a TV show, Cops With Problems, Karen Mendelson (p.16) who flies Rydell out to LA and up to her swank penthouse apartment for a few weeks of expense account living and wild sex, before a new and better story comes along, she dumps him and has him escorted from the apartment by security guards who work for IntenSecurity Corporation, a ‘rentacop’ outfit.

That’s what gives Rydell the idea of applying for a job there. He gets one driving a vast 6-wheel ‘Hotspur Hussar’ around the houses of the rich up in Benedict Canyon who’ve paid for security checks (to be precise, he is employed in ‘the residential armed-response branch’ of the IntenSecurity Corporation p.48), alongside a skinny streak of piss named Sublett, who grew up in a trailer park dominated by his born-again Christian mother, watching old movies and harangued all day by TV evangelists.

One evening Rydell and Sublett follow instructions beamed from ‘the Death Star’, the nickname they give to the Southern Californian Geosynclinical Law Enforcement Satellite (p.11).

But it’s a hoax; someone has hacked into the system in order to make Rydell think a robbery and hostage situation is taking place at some luxury home. So Rydell rams the huge truck through the house’s security gate, across the Japanese garden and through the living room wall, and is staggering into the house with his machine gun when… an LAPD helicopter descends over the wreckage and arrests him; the children were off with their father somewhere; there was no hostage situation; the wife was having kinky sex (PVC and handcuffs) with the Polish gardener. As a result she sues IntenSecurity for physical and emotional damages, and they suspend Rydell from all duties: it’s another screw-up.

Cut to San Francisco. Here Chevette-Marie Washington (p.120), who long ago escaped from a juvenile detention centre outside Beaverton (p.125), is a bicycle courier. After making a drop (or ‘pull a tag’ as they seem to call it) at the Hotel Morrisey, she bumps into a drunk in the elevator who takes her up to a party hosted by someone called Cody Harwood, where she spends 15 minutes feeling seriously out of place, gets hit on a by a slimeball with a wet cigar then, on the way out, pushed up against the slimeball by the dense crowd while his attention is distracted talking to a hooker, something is sticking out his pocket and so, on impulse, Chevette nicks it, and is out the apartment door and over to a service elevator, down to the car park, unlocks her bike and is off into the city within minutes…

This turns out to be the core of the plot. Without realising it, Chevette has stolen a very expensive pair of sunglasses. Why? Because they are Virtual Light shades, see below.

Chevette lives high up on the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken-down old man named Skinner in a shack he’s built high up amid the cabling. In the years since the earthquake, thousands of homeless people have constructed a shanty town in the sky, building home-made apartments which have slowly crept up the struts and along the cables of the old bridge till it looks like a giant crustacean, covered with Gothic excrescences.

Skinner is regularly visited by Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist who is writing a study of how the bridge was colonised and so interviews Skinner because he was one of the ‘pioneers’ of its settlement. T, this being a handy prompt for a series of flashbacks or retellings from Skinner of how it all happened. Yamazaki is not, however, an impressive or powerful figure;  when we see Yamazaki from Chevette’s viewpoint, he is ‘the Japanese nerd… the college boy or social worker’ who always looks lost.

LA Back in Los Angeles, Rydell – having been suspended from work by IntenSecurity – is told by his immediate boss Juanito Hernandez about a job opportunity, working for a freelance security operative, Lucius Warbaby, up in San Francisco. Rydell needs a job so he flies economy up to Frisco sitting next to a sweet old lady who goes on about having to arrange for her husband’s brain, which is in cryogenic storage, to be moved to a better facility. The wacky old future, eh.

Rydell is met at the airport by huge black Lucius Warbaby and his gofer, Freddie (both described on page 80). Freddie’s loud shirt is covered with images of guns, Warbaby has a brace on one leg and walks with a cane. He is the size of a refrigerator but stylish and dignified.

San Francisco Chevette works for Allied Couriers. She’s called in for a grilling by her boss, Bunny Malatesta (p.94) who asks why she checked in to Hotel Morrissey security (on the job where she strayed into the party) but never checked out. The hotel is following it up because the heat is on about the missing shades. In fact, Bunny tells her, the heat is turned up because the owner of the shades has been murdered.

In the next scene Rydell is with Warbaby when he meets two SF homicide cops who are investigating the self-same murder, of Hans Rutger Blix (p.102). The cops are Russians, Svobodov and Orlonsky. Warbaby is a big man but precise and punctilious and polite; he has beautiful handwriting (p.163). He reminds me a bit of the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon.

Chevette’s courier colleague, a beautiful black man named Samuel Saladin DuPree (p.129), or Sammy Sal, gets her to admit to stealing the shades. She shows them to him and he explains that the shades are Virtual Light sunglasses (p.113). They interact directly with the optical nerve without needing actual light. Sammy explains they’re fairly common among professionals, like a hologram.

In fact Warbaby has a pair which he uses when he takes Freddie and Rydell to the crime scene – the hotel room where Blix was murdered – and further explains that the VL shades have ‘drivers’ in the lenses and frames which affect the optic nerves directly (p.120).

Freddie takes Rydell shopping to ‘Container City’, comprised of loads of derelict cargo ships and their containers with stairways strung up and between them, very trash futuristic, maybe like the final scene in the movie I, Robot.

A character named Loveless, a hired thug, arrives at Skinner’s shack on the Bridge with a gun. Chevette is up on the roof with Sammy. Loveless doesn’t see Sammy but orders Chevette to climb down and back into Skinner’s shack. He handcuffs Skinner and Yamazaki with funky futuristic handcuffs made of flexible plastic which tighten if you struggle against them.

Loveless has come looking for the stolen shades. Chevette lies and tells him they’re in the pannier of her bicycle so he forces her down ladders towards the rigged-up lift which takes them down to road level. Here Chevette cleverly arranges for the bike’s electric defence mechanism to give Loveless an electric.

Sammy has silently followed them both down to street level and now bops Loveless on the head but not hard enough. He just has time to hand Chevette back the shades (he’d been holding them up on the roof when Loveless appeared in Skinner’s apartment) before a dazed Loveless staggers back to his feet and pumps Sammy full of lead – Sammy simply disappearing backwards between the cables off the bridge and falling to his death. Shocked, Chevette just turns and runs.

Meanwhile, Warbaby and Freddie arrive with Rydell at the base of the bridge and send him onto it to find Chevette, they being scared by exaggerated stories of its voodoo, cannibalistic inhabitants.

To ensure drama, a heavy rainstorm comes on and in the thick of it Rydell stumbles across Chevette standing in the rain. He tails her as she staggers along the bridge in the rainstorm and comes across her one-time boyfriend, Lowell, and his ghoulish sidekick Cody, sitting atop a container.

Rydell tails the three as they head off to a bar, humorously named Cognitive Dissidence. Rydell goes into the warm fug of the bar after them, taking a place at the bar and ordering a beer while he ponders what to do next. But into this bar suddenly arrives one of the two Russian homicide cops Warbaby had introduced him to soon after he arrived in SF, coming in huge and silent and with a drawn gun. He orders Chevette to come with him but then…all the lights go out.

In the darkness the fat lady who operates a dancing hologram which is a feature of the bar, makes it dance all round the Russian’s head, giving Rydell long enough to make it across the bar, scoop up Chevette and carry her kicking and screaming to the stairs out of the place. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the other Russian waiting at the top of the stairs who stops them. Rydell and Chevette are both disarmed and handcuffed and forced to trudge under the watchful guns of the Russians to the San Francisco end of the bridge.

Here Warbaby and Freddie, who commissioned the Russian heavies, are waiting for them. They unhandcuff Rydell and are beginning to explain what’s going on when there is another dramatic surprise: one of Chevette’s friends who we’d been very briefly introduced to a bit earlier, a big bear of a man incongruously named Nigel, seeing Chevette taken away at gunpoint, now attacks everyone on a heavyweight bike, ramming the Russian with the gun, grabbing him and banging his head against the hood of Rydell’s car.

As the others set about dealing with this Nigel, Rydell drags Chevette into his Patriot 4 x 4, kick starts it and they skid off, Warbaby raising his cane which turns out to be a concealed gun and shooting out the Patriot’s rear window, but then they’ve turned a corner and are escaping!

Chevette directs Rydell to Haight Street, where they drop the Patriot (which is promptly stolen) and hide out in a tattoo parlour, pretending to take their time in the waiting room deciding on a joint tattoo, while they calm down.

When they eventually leave the tattoo parlour, in a striking coincidence, who should stop and ask the way but the nice old lady Rydell had chatted to on the plane up here, Mrs Danica Elliott, who has hired a big white camper van to drive back to LA in. She asks Rydell if he can drive since she is completely lost. So he and Chevette get in and drive nice and slow out of town. Eventually they’re so tired they hand the driving back to Mrs Elliott and go to sleep in the bed in the back of the camper.

BUT – when they wake up the camper is stationary and Mrs Elliott is gone and who else but Loveless, the hired killer, is waiting for them! I had a sinking feeling that he might have murdered the old lady (one gets sick of all the murder and carnage in American novels) and so was relieved to discover she was herself an IntenSecurity operative put in place to tail and watch Rydell.

Loveless now proceeds to explain The PLOT. The Virtual Light shades Chevette stole contain the blueprint for the comprehensive rebuilding of shattered San Francisco by foreign investors. These are based in Costa Rica (which has been mentioned a number of times as the location for stored data in the same way Switzerland is for huge foreign bank accounts in our day).

The rebuilding project has to be handled carefully because the local Americans might object, but the core issue is that big corporations want to buy up the land the new city is going to be built on. So if the plans get out, all sorts of other actors (for example, the state) might buy it up instead. Thus the precise plans must be kept secret because inconceivably vast fortunes stand to be made or lost.

And it all comes down to possession of the shades. Blix was a courier tasked with delivering them to the right person in San Francisco, but instead let himself be distracted, getting drunk at that party and then stupidly losing them (when Chevette picked his pocket). Loveless had been tasked with shadowing Blix and when the latter lost the shades was only too happy to murder him, not just killing him but slitting his throat and pulling his tongue out to make it look like some South American drug killing.

While Loveless is talking he gets thirsty and orders Chevette to get him a drink from the camper’s fridge, nice and slow. Out of his sight, Chevette slips into Loveless’s drink an entire stash of the designer drug dancer, and hands it to him. Thus, as Loveless carries on explaining The Plot to Rydell and Chevette, he starts to sweat and hallucinate, and ends up firing his pistol manically. Rydell and Chevette throw themselves out the doors, and hide while Loveless runs off shooting wildly. Then they jump back into the camper and make off at speed.

Rydell and Chevette stop to get directions from an old-timer at a derelict Shell gas station. Rydell had used a phone they picked up in their adventures to ring the only person he trusts, Sublett, who we met back at the start of the story – only to discover Sublett has quit his job at IntenSecurity and gone home to his mother’s trailer on a wacky Christian base camp. Looking at the map Rydell realises it’s fairly close by, so Rydell and Chevette drive there and bluff their way in by pretending to be extreme born-again Christians.

There follows extended satire about TV evangelists, in this instance a fictional one named the Reverend Fallon. This actually feels quite old now, very 1980s. No-one cares about TV evangelists any more, compared to the power of the internet, social media, Facebook, the Russians and President Trump.

Rydell devises A Cunning Plan. First he calls Chevette’s ex, Lowell, and puts the frighteners on him to get him to give them access to the digital online place known as ‘the Republic of Desire’. Then he ascertains that one of Sublett’s nerdy friends in the born-again caravan park, Buddy, has a set of eyephones. He pays Buddy to use them, then Chevette watches as Rydell puts them on and dials into early cyberspace.

Rydell has got details of how to dial into the Republic of Desire and here, in cyberspace, sees three weird figures, a woman made of TV shows, a man mountain and a kind of Tyrannosaurus Rex with human hands. These three entities instantly access Rydell’s records and read everything about his life and history, are bored and are leaving the call when Rydell asks them whether any of them lives in San Francisco and likes it the way it is. This gets their attention and Rydell goes on to explain how the plans stored on the Virtual Light sunglasses reveal how San Francisco is going to be handed over to foreign developers and changed out of all recognition. That gets the three digital warriors’ attention.

Together they cook up a plan which dominates the last thirty pages of the novel, which feels like a scam or heist in the style of Ocean’s 11.

Chevette dresses as a courier and enters Century City II, the luxury condo where Rydell had briefly lived with top lawyer Karen Mendelson when they had their brief affair. Soon as Karen Mendelson opens her apartment door, Sublett pushes her and Chevette back into her apartment.

Meanwhile Rydell has recruited the three hackers in the Republic of Desire to help him. The man mountain figure refers to himself as the God-Eater, but they could be anyone, anywhere, Rydell reflects ruefully. Rydell makes his way to Century City II, where he’s arranged to meet Warbaby at 3pm. He watches Warbaby and Freddie and the two Russian hoods (the Bad Guys) arrive in two separate cars, then enter the mall. He follows them up inside, then phones the three hackers in the Republic of Desire again. The narrative explains that they decided to ‘help’ because they don’t want to see San Francisco over-developed and also it presented a new technical challenge, which amuses them.

What happens is: the hackers take control of SF police in order to fly armed drones into the mall which tell Warbaby, Freddie and the Russians to get on their faces. This is because the system has been hacked to identify them of being terrorists planning to blow up the entire mall.

But where’s their hired goon, Loveless? Seeing he hasn’t come along with Warbaby, Rydall guesses he must have gone straight to Karen’s apartment. Rydell dashes up there and arrives just in time, just at the split second Loveless emerges from hiding and raises his little gun to Chevette’s temple planning to take her hostage or just to shoot her. And that’s the moment Rydell hits him with the capsicum spray he carries round with him like mace gas only much worse.

Epilogue

Then – The Payoff. The cops arrest the five baddies, Warbaby, Freddie, the two Russian hoods and Loveless. Then a whole fleet of Karen Mendelson’s lawyer friends arrive, including the legendary lawyer Wellington Ma, and these media operators immediately see the TV potential of the story and so sign up Chevette and Sublett to tell their stories. While Chevette had been in the apartment with Karen she’d shown her how to play the Virtual Shades, so Karen has seen the development scams which were planned and is able to retell it to her lawyers and the cops. Rydell et al are in the clear, and a good TV show will be made about it all, and the baddies will be brought down. Rydell et al will be arrested but the head lawyer from Cops in Trouble tells him they’ll get bail within the hour and then they can start working on the documentary and then the made-for-TV movie.

In other words – despite the futuristic sci-fi trappings – this feels, in the end, like an American crime caper: the goody is a cop with a heart of the gold, the young girl assistant has nice ‘tits’ (as Rydell puts it, more than once) the baddies are crooked property developers, foreigners and blacks – and everything will be sorted out by shit-hot LA TV lawyers.

Ultimately, feels more like an episode of LA Law than genuine science fiction.

Features of Gibson’s futureworld of 2006

  • the President is a woman named Millband (p.17) and is black! (p.183)
  • there’s a vaccination against AIDS (p.18) seems you need certificates of vaccination to show partners before having sex (p.21), the origin of the vaccine is just one individual, J.D. Shapely, who was found to host a benign version of HIV which eradicated the malign version (see below)
  • cops wear air-conditioned helmets with plastic visors
  • ‘gyms’ offer injections of Brazilian fetal matter and having your skeleton ‘reinforced’
  • Italy is no longer a unified state, people come from parts of ‘what used to be Italy’ (p.40) (cf Canada, below)
  • Chevette’s motorbike has a recognition loop you slip your hand into to unlock it (p.44)
  • swimwear is designed to keep off dangerous UV rays and to keep out the dangerous poisons in the sea
  • the ozone hole is a problem (p.46)
  • a virus has destroyed palm trees (maybe all trees) (p.50), later identified as ‘some Mexican virus’ (p.273)
  • five dollar coins, suggesting inflation (p.58)
  • Thomasson is a generic name Gibson’s invented for pointless yet curiously art-like features of the urban landscape (p.61)
  • the big nations of the world (Russia, Canada, Brazil) have fragmented into numerous mini-states (p.71), Canada has broken up into five states (p.242)
  • the Cease Upon The Midnight movement and other self-help euthanasia groups prefer peaceful suicide to having your brain put in a cryogenic store (p.79)
  • it’s been illegal to manufacture cigarettes in the US since 2000 (p.101)
  • the Sword of the Pig movement (p.108)
  • after the earthquake there seem to have been waves of disease or ‘plagues’, which Gibson lists on page 117
  • New Zealand appears to have been occupied by Japanese armed forces who have to suppress resistance movements (p.190)
  • much is made throughout the book of posters and image of AIDS survivor J.D. Shapely dotted around San Francisco and, at one point, Yamazaki channel surfs to a BBC documentary which gives an extremely thorough biography of Shapely (pages 190 to 192). Shapely was a gay prostitute who ended up in prison where they discovered he had AIDS but it didn’t kill him; in him HIV had mutated to a strain which was a) benign b) ate the original virulent strain. Thus a vaccine was made from his version and was administered to everyone in the world.

Funky phrases

So rich in slang and neologisms, American writers.

  • inner trivia banks (p.14)
  • telepresence rig (p.15)
  • Thiobuscaline (3,5-dimethoxy-4-butylthiophenethylamine) – a lesser-known psychedelic drug (p.16)
  • bunny down (p.75)

Conclusion

My opening comments reflected my memories of the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s place in science fiction. As I read on into this novel I came to realise it is far less a science fiction book than a techno update of the long lineage of noir cop crime thrillers; that Gibson’s hard-nosed cop with a heart of gold has more in common with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, or Deckard in the movie Blade Runner or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise than with more standard science fiction; i.e. that Rydell is an avatar of a very familiar type, the tall, handsome, strong cop or ex-cop, rough around the edges, prepared to bend the rules, but basically a good guy.

Similarly, although Chevette is a ballsy, street girl, an urchin, a reform school runaway, she, also, has a heart of gold and has to be rescued by Sir Galahad, thus fulfilling a thousand-year old stereotype. And – sigh – she, of course, starts to fall for him.

  • She wondered if maybe she wasn’t starting to fall for Rydell… she had to admit he had a cute butt in those jeans. (p.261)
  • She was starting to really like him… (p.276)

Rydell reminds me most of Lee Child’s creation, Jack Reacher, another knight errant who combines physical prowess with basic moral rectitude (although, admittedly, Reacher didn’t make his debut till 1997, four years after this novel was published).

They all supply the reader with the same basic pleasure, which is they’re rule-breakers and naughty boys who are, at heart, good boys really. No matter how much they bend or break the law, it’s always in a good cause. And they all combine a bunch of characteristics most men wish they had – size and strength and physical prowess, expertise with guns, all kinds of practical know-how with cars and gadgets – and their basic decency wins over even the most initially independent or resistant of women.

To quote a seventy-year-old tagline, ‘Men want to be him; women want to be with him’ (James Bond memes)

In other words, the setting of the Bridge trilogy is novel and creative, and the hundreds of details Gibson works into the novel certainly convey a great fullness and plausibility to his fictional world. But the basic narrative structure is very, very old.

Nothing dates as fast as the future

One last thought: setting the novel closer to the present day, paradoxically makes it more dated. In the far future (well, the 2030s when Neuromancer is set) anything goes. But if you set something in the near future, you have to be more measured and realistic with your predictions and chances increase that whatever you predict will be wrong.

Thus some of the baddies in the book, like Warbaby, get their information via faxes; computers are used a bit but nowhere near as much as they turned out to; there are one or two remote phones but not many – in other words Gibson did not accurately predict the full impact of the great transformative agents of our time, the internet, increasingly lightweight personal computers, and mobile phones.

And his cultural references feel dated, as well. As in the Sprawl novels, many things have a strong Japanese flavour i.e. the inclusion of the Japanese character Yamazaki and repeated references to a catastrophic earthquake that’s taken place in Tokyo. But in the years since 1993, Japan has slipped out of the cool cultural and economic position Gibson gives it:

Japan’s economy has struggled with deflation since its bubble economy peaked in 1989. (Investopedia)

Japan has, since the turn of the century, in terms of culture and economy and products and even art, increasingly been replaced by China.

Also Gibson’s pop culture references have aged. The entire concept of rock music, which is referenced throughout the novel, seems old now. The character Sublett has an obsession with the movies of David Cronenberg, which might have marked him off as at the cutting edge of pop avant-garde in 1993, but not now, in 2020.


Credit

Virtual Light by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.


Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)

In the mid-1960s John Christopher switched from writing science fiction for adults to writing science fiction for teens or young adults as they’re called nowadays. The Guardians is one of the more successful of these teen novels. It won prizes – the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for the German translation. I can see why. In clear, factual, no-nonsense prose Christopher vividly depicts the adventures of a fatherless young boy in a story which is both a scary adventure, but also strangely reassuring at the same time.

It uses familiar sci fi tropes: a) it is set in a future society which b) has been divided into castes or distinct groups c) is controlled by shadowy, all-powerful forces, but d) there is a cohort of keen young idealists setting out to overthrow it. If Christopher doesn’t investigate any of these themes in any depth a) this is maybe appropriate in a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds, and b) instead of depth what you do have is tremendous speed. It’s a short but fast-moving book, good to keep easily distracted teenagers’ attentions.

Lastly, unlike The White Mountains and some of his novels for adults which consist of long, gruelling journeys which end up wearing down the reader as well as the protagonists, The Guardians has a compelling symmetry and circularity to the storyline, and it ends on a pleasing note of excitement and expectation. It is a good novel for older children (11 to 14).

The Guardians

Future It is 70 or 80 years in the future. England is divided into the ‘County’, a rumoured land of leisure beyond the ‘Barrier’, and the ‘Conurbs’, the extensive urban areas in one of which lives Rob Randall. Rob’s been living in an apartment in a high rise with his dad since his mum died after a long illness.

Conurbs The Conurbs are packed. People live in high rise blocks and have access to futuristic gadgets. Monorails run at up to 200 kilometres an hour. Cars run on predetermined routes. There are portable lumoglobes.

Games The populace is kept entertained with bread in and circuses, in this instance the high-speed often violent Games held in massive Stadiums, including terraplaning where jet-propelled cars hurtle round a cambered track, occasionally crashing, to the cheers of the crowds. Crowds entering or exiting often turn into mobs, creating hysterical crushes.

China war The world is at peace as far as we know, except for a permanent war in faraway China, which people rarely talk about, and never seems to present any threat.

Library Rob gets caught in one of these sudden mob crushes on the way back from the library. The library is falling to bits, no-one goes there. A sign outside says it was opened as long ago as 1978 (thus setting the story in what was then the future). This is because in the Conurbs hardly anybody reads books or writes anything. Everybody watches holovision (HV) or dictates messages into handheld recorders.

An accident Rob pops by the Stadium to see his dad but is met by his friend Mr Kennealy who tells him his dad’s had an accident. He’s an electrician and touched a live wire. Mr Kennealy takes him back to his house for supper and to spend the night.

Conspiracy? That evening Rob hears Kennealy discussing his father in a conspiratorial way with some men who’ve come to visit, but can’t hear the details. ‘This is a dangerous business… We better all watch out.’ Was Rob’s dad’s death not an accident? Why? Was he part of some conspiracy? What?

Dad dead Next day Mr Kennealy takes Rob to the hospital where he is shocked to be told Rob’s dad has died. Kennealy takes Rob to his dad’s apartment to collect some things, including an old box Rob finds, containing his mum and dad’s letters and old b&w photos, and then back the Kennealy flat.

Leaving Mr Kennealy’s Mr and Mrs Kennealy discuss whether Rob could stay with them but the decision is taken out of their hands at his school next day when inspectors turn up and declare Rob must be sent to a state boarding school in Barnes. Rob goes back to the Kennealy’s to get his stuff. Keannealy tells him he’ll be ‘safer’ there. Safer? From what?

Barnes Boarding School It’s horrible. Extremely regimented, with fanatical rules about making your bed just so and presenting possessions for a weekly inspection. Rob, predictably, fails the inspection and is subject to a midnight bullying, ‘the Routine’ (hit on the forehead repeatedly by a rubber-tipped hammer) by the other boys. He is given an extended detention, extra work, and the precious books we saw him borrowing from the library at the start of the book, are taken away and burned.

Running away Early the next Sunday, Rob takes a small bag, makes his way between buildings to the school gates, out into the road beyond, catches a bus into central London (through Trafalgar Square with its glass column) and to a train terminus where he takes off his school blazer and bow tie (!) then spends almost all his money on a ticket to Reading.

Reading? Yes. When he read the dusty old love letters written by his mum to his dad, he learned that she originally came from The County, beyond the wall. Well, he’s got nothing to stay in the Conurbs for. Reading is only a few miles south of the border. He’ll go there and sneak across The Barrier and see if he can find a better life in the County.

Reading carnival When the monorail has whisked him to Reading in just 30 minutes (as if any train in England could ever run that fast!) Rob discovers there’s a Carnival going on, one of the many festivals which Conurbanites fill their time with in between watching violent competitions in stadiums or immersing themselves in twaddle on the holovision.

Rob is given a lift This is bad, though, because when he asks a guy for a lift to the north side of Reading, the guy helpfully starts asking around and someone volunteers to take Rob in a ten-seater ‘Electrocar’ and others offer to come along – with the result that he can’t just hope to be dropped and slip away. Damn! These volunteers ask him where he lives so he has to invents a street on the spur of the moment. After driving around north Reading in search of this non-existent address, the volunteers stop at a police station and most of them go inside to ask directions. Rob takes the opportunity to nip out the car but some of them see him running away, so there’s a chase through the Victorian terraces of north Reading.

Rabbit man Rob nips into someone’s back garden and into their garden shed. The mob arrive moments later and the owner gives them the wrong directions. Rob realises this is because he’s keeping rabbits in his shed, which is illegal. He’s a rough, working-class, ferret-faced man who, when Rob says he’s hungry, gives him some mildewy cheese in week-old bread, then tells him to hop it.

Through the Barrier Rob walks north as the buildings of Reading peter out into bare moorland and eventually stumbles on the legendary Barrier. Instead of being vast and electrified it’s only 12 feet or so high and, when he watches a squirrel scamper across it, he realises, not electrified at all. He walks along it, comes to a bit that’s come loose from the earth, digs for a while with his bare hands and wriggles underneath. He is in the County!

Horses He immediately notices the difference. Some men ride by on horses, wearing swords in scabbards and accompanied by hunting dogs while Rob hides. He walks on getting hungry and grubbing up some potatoes to eat raw. Oh dear, this recalls the protagonists of all the other Christopher novels I’ve read, who spend weeks on the run, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements

Mike Luckily this phase is relatively brief because after a night sleeping rough, he’s making his way through fields when a figure on horseback spots him and gives chase. Rob runs but (inevitably) stumbles and there’s an exciting moment when the horse rears above him, the sun behind the rider dazzling terrified Rob. Then it speaks and turns out not to be some vengeful Viking but a boy his own age named Michael, who is jolly decent.

Bunker Mike is astonished to learn Rob has crossed from the Conurbs and decides to help him. He takes him to an old disused concrete bunker (from back during the ‘Hitler war’, apparently) which is relatively dry and secure. Here Rob rests and over the next few days Mike brings him a huge amount of stuff, fresh food every day along with blankets and bedding, a torch and a little paraffin stove.

Mrs Gifford One day Rob is cooking up a nice little meal when someone stands in the doorway. It isn’t Mike and, once again, for a moment I thought it would be some horrible police / army / militia figure who would drag Mike off to prison, but it’s the opposite. It’s Mike’s mum, Mrs Gifford. She’s realised food and clothes have been going missing and watched Mike one morning. She briskly makes a decision to take Rob in.

Big house The Giffords are an old landed family, members of ‘the gentry’. They (Mr and Mrs Gifford, Mike and his younger sister Cecily) live in an enormous old mansion staffed by at least 20 servants. Mrs Gifford runs a tight ship, keeping the servants up to snuff, so that food is served on time, the horses are well looked after, everything runs like clockwork. Mr Gifford is a very passive, understanding man. After the initial introductions, he shows Rob his collection of miniature bonsai trees and there’s a couple of pages going into some detail about how to tend and nurture them.

County living The gentry live very well. There are regular luncheon parties, dinner parties, and bigger garden parties including one where Rob turns out to have a natural ability for archery. However, this big party is also risky. Having accepted him into their family, Mrs Gifford comes up with a cover story. Rob is renamed Rob Perrott and said to be the son of a cousin of Mrs G’s, raised by an old colonial family in faraway Nepal. After dinner party guests ask him about Nepal, Rob makes straight for the big Gifford library and reads all the books about Nepal that he can find in order to improve his cover story. The family stableman teaches Rob how to ride. Mrs Gifford teaches him how to dress, speak correctly and tip the servants. He is being turned into a gentleman.

Posh boarding school Eventually the time comes for school. Mike had been ill earlier in the year. Now he returns to school along with Rob. It is a very posh boarding school, a mirror image of the Barnes state school (just one of the many parallelisms between the two societies.

Conspiracy After various details of the school routine and settling in and lessons and so on, one night Mike introduces him to a bunch of older boys who, after cocoa and biscuits, fall to having a schoolboy-level debate about the rights and wrongs of the society they live in. The group is led by Daniel Penfold who takes the view that all the peace and plenty is the result of exploitation of the masses. Rob tends to the common sense point of view that most people appear to be pretty happy with the way things are. Rob notices that Mike takes Dan’s side. Later, Mike inducts Dan into a deeper secret, the fact that Penfold is the representative in the school of an organisation of revolutionaries actively dedicated to overthrowing this society.

Debates about revolution If this had been a John Wyndham novel, there would have been a long and penetrating discussion of the merits of revolution. Being John Christopher discussion and debate is much thinner: Mike says people need to be woken up and realise the system is rotten and based on exploitation of their apathy. Rob replies that most people are actually happy enough living as they do. You’ll have a hard job persuading people to throw away the comfort and security the currently enjoy, and for what? For a handful of high-sounding words bandied around by some disgruntled sixth formers.

Christmas at the end of the term the boys go home. Mrs Gifford has always shown a penchant for Rob. He now routinely refers to her as ‘Aunt Margaret’. Now she confides in him her concerns about her son: his school reports all say he’s falling short and not concentrating. Rob and Mike have been invited over to the Penfolds house for lunch and Mrs G expresses concern about the influence of Dan Penfold.

The Penfold household Christopher draws a sharp contrast between the two households and their inhabitants: where the Giffords are tall and handsome and Mrs Gifford is brisk and commanding, the Penfold parents are short and tubby and exercise no discipline over the servants, with the result that tea is served late and cold and, in a piquant detail, Rob’s shoes, which he leaves outside his door to be polished, are done so badly he has to do them again himself.

The revolution After Christmas, back to school and another term, but now with this added tension that Mrs G is unhappy about her son, Mike is distracted and aloof from Rob and Rob wonders what is going on. Back home after that term, Rob and Mike plan to go fishing for a morning before rising on to the Penfold place for lunch, but Mike makes excuses about having to go and see a man about a horse. When Rob eventually arrives at the Penfolds he discovers it in uproar. The Revolution has begun! That’s why Mike rode off that morning, to join it.

Protecting Mrs Gifford Rob rides straight to Mike’s house to discover all the menfolk have ridden off: the radio’s down, there are mad rumours of massacres in Oxford and Bristol, the Cherwell is said to be running with blood, mobs of Conurbanites are said to have stormed the Barrier. Rob saddles up to go and join the ‘vigilantes’ (probably better described as the militia) but all the men including Mr Gifford have left and Mrs Gifford begs him to stay and protect them, so he does.

The rebellion is suppressed The next morning Mr Gifford and the male servants return in a downpour. They tell Mrs G and Rob that the rebellion has been completely suppressed. None of those rumours were true, there was no massacre, no storming of the Barrier, nothing like that. Everyone is very relieved and life goes back to normal except that… Mike is missing! His parents are understandably concerned about what has happened to him.

Mike at midnight That night Mike slips into Rob’s room. He’s on the run. Sure, the rebellion was defeated and the servant class didn’t rise up as Penfold et al hoped they would, but he hasn’t given up. He describes how the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. Theoretically guns are banned in the County, even in the Conurbs, but it turns out that, when they’re needed, the authorities had plenty to use. Plus helicopters flying overhead which released a fatal nerve gas onto the revolutionaries. Many died on the spot but Mike was out on the periphery and just felt very ill.

Escape In fact, far from deterring him, the brutality with which the revolt was put down has hardened Mike’s determination. He plans to go over the Barrier into the conurbs at Southampton. He makes Rob swear not to tell anyone, then they go down to the empty kitchen, steal some chicken and ham, then Rob sees Mike quietly mount his horse, Captain, and head off south, before going back to bed, his mind in turmoil.

Militia Next day a military patrol stops at the Gifford house led by a Mr Marshall and asks after Mike. He’s wanted. They must give up any information they have about him or face prosecution. Mr and Mrs Gifford say they know nothing and are sick with worry (worried parents; a very young adult fiction trope).

But the militiaman insists on arresting Rob. He is forced to come on horseback. At first he is terrified and the reader wonders what dungeon and tortures await. But then Rob is reassured when he discovers they’re going to the Old Manor, home of inoffensive old Sir Percy Gregory (page 141).

Sir Percy interrogates Bumbling old Sir Percy puts Rob completely at his ease, offers him coffee and cherry cake, asks a number of innocent sounding questions… and then springs a surprise. They know who he is. They know he is really Rob Randell who absconded from Barnes Boarding School made his way to Reading and crossed under the Barrier. They knew who he was within a day of Mrs Gifford finding him. Sir Percy gives a complete biographical sketch, including the dates and full names of both his parents (page 145). (This passage contains the kind of chronological information which gives all true science fiction fans a thrill, by specifying the dates of the action. We learn his father died in 2052, so if a Christmas has gone by the revolution and these scenes are set in 2053.)

The Guardians Who are ‘they’? They are The Guardians. English society was divided between the heavily populated Conurban areas full of proley families kept entertained by holovision, games and the occasional riot, and the sparsely populated County run by grand landed families with penumbras of servants, several generations ago. The division perfectly suits the majority of the population and has been preserved in a stable situation by the eternal watchfulness of the Guardians for 50 years or more.

An offer Throughout this piece of explication Rob has nervously been expecting to be told he will be sent back over the Barrier to Barnes. So he is thunderstruck when Sir Percy offers him the opportunity to become a Guardian himself. He is smart, he is resourceful, he has shown he can conceal his true identity and lie. He will be able to carry himself well either side of the Barrier. He is perfect for the role.

Gentleman’s agreement They shake hands on it. Sir Percy gives him a short-wave radio. All he has to do is report to them if Mike turns up. They don’t want him. They want the people he’ll lead them to, the ringleaders. ‘But what will happen to Mike?’ Rob asks. Oh, Sir Percy replies, he won’t be harmed. He will just have a small operation in the brain. It won’t change his memories or who he is. It will just stop him being rebellious. He will carry on living a privileged life, carry on fox hunting and archery and go to university. But with the rebel part of his brain snipped out. Sir Percy explains that this is a fundamental method which has been used to keep the populations in both societies cowed and quiescent. If by chance, young men continue rebellious despite the operation, then they are packed off to the war in distant China so they can exercise their testosterone in a safely distant arena.

Mrs Gifford reveals They let Rob go. He rides back to the Gifford House with the little radio. The Gifford family are relieved to see him. After dinner it dawns on him that he is safe, utterly safe. He has a home for the first time in his young life, a warm loving family, a life of luxury. But after Mr Gifford potters off to his greenhouse to grow Mrs Gifford surprises him with two revelations. First, she says she knows Mike was there the night before. When food goes missing from the kitchen it is reported to her. She accuses him of not telling her and her husband, but Rob says Mike pleaded with him not to.

Mr Gifford’s operation The second revelation is that Mike’s father has had that brain operation. He, in his youth, had the rebel part of his brain snipped out. At a stroke various facts fall into place. First, why Mr Gifford is so placid and content to potter among his bonsai trees. Second, that rebellion must be genetic: Mike has inherited his father’s restless streak.

A decision Reeling from this revelation, that night Rob comes to a decision. He decides he had been taken in, deluded, seduced by the comfort and luxury of this life. But it is not the real life, the whole thing is based on the neutering of the human brain to make people quiescent. He could acquiesce and lead a life of luxury, private school, university, then a life of fox hunting and harmless hobbies. Or he can make his way to the Conurbs, find Mike, and join the struggle to free humanity from its sedatives and delusions.

The novel ends with Rob leaving the Gifford house that night, heading south towards the Conurbs, with a backpack of supplies which includes a trowel for digging under the Barrier on his way to freedom.

Thoughts

The Guardians is a lot better than the first book in the Tripods series, The White Mountains. In both books 13-year-old boys are brought up in a future society which passively accepts philistinism and the submission to accepted conventions. So in both novels the boy protagonist ups stumps and goes on an arduous trek to freedom.

Christopher’s books suffer in comparison with his peer John Wyndham. They lack Wyndham’s psychological or intellectual depth. When the protagonist of The Chrysalids, David Strorm, rebels against his upbringing in a stiflingly conformist future society, it happens over a period of many years of thinking and learning, punctuated by key and highly dramatic episodes, and all accompanied by his slowly maturing conversations with Uncle Axel. You feel you have entered really deeply into David’s mind and experienced the difficulty of breaking away from family and convention.

Rob, on the other hand, goes to a rough school for a few weeks where he’s beaten up one night so he decides to run away. That’s it. It feels trivial and shallow, as if little effort went into imagining the psychological background and none at all went into really thinking about the issues involved.

Also, Christopher’s prose is pretty boring. It is plain and factual, unenlivened by metaphors or similes. Pages go by without any colour. Dull.

And, at least to begin with, I was dismayed when Rob sleeps in a ditch and is quickly reduced by hunger to eating raw potatoes plucked from a field, because that’s more or less what happens to the protagonists of the previous three Christopher novels I’ve read.

However, as you continue reading I think this book addresses and overcomes all these issues. Rob is quickly rescued from sleeping rough and quickly assimilated into a life of luxury (which is a blessed relief for the reader). And the lack of psychological or intellectual depth (for example, around the whole notion of rebelling against a conformist society) can perhaps be justified in at least two ways:

  1. Speed. What it lacks in depth, The Guardians makes up for in pace. At just 150 pages long, a lot of events and brief ideas are packed into a short exciting narrative.
  2. Target audience. Maybe it’s age-appropriate. Wyndham’s novels are all, ostensibly, for adults. In the foreword to The White Mountains Christopher dwells on the advice and guidance he was given by his American publisher which led him to comprehensively rewrite the middle of the novel. We know from his adult books that he’s not a great thinker, Maybe his publishers said, ‘Play to your strengths: put as little controversy or thought or ideas into the book as is necessary, at just the right level to get an intelligent 12-year-old thinking, and then get back to the action.’

And maybe the same thing applies to his bare prose. I went from reading this to reading a William Gibson novel and it was like going from a scratchy black and white silent movie to a modern CGI Marvel movie. Christopher’s prose is colourless. But, again, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe the prose in a young adult novel should be as bare and functional as possible to let the story and the narrative take priority.

There is also the structure of the narrative. His previous novels were straightforward linear narratives describing gruelling journeys. However, The Guardians is notably more sophisticated than that in its symmetrical structure, in the way the hero introduces us to two very different societies, ending up alienated from both of them.

Not only that but it is aesthetically pleasing the way that privileged Mike is, of course, in many ways a mirror image of working class Rob. Mike has both his parents unlike Rob the orphan; he has been brought up in luxury and privilege, unlike Rob raised in a crappy council flat, and so on.

But the most obvious mirroring is that whereas Rob has escaped from the Conurbs into the Country, Mike wants to escape the other way. It isn’t particularly prominent, it feels a natural part of the plot, but the way the two boys echo and contrast with each other lifts the novel significantly above the level of a mere trek into something much more artful and satisfying.


Credit

The Guardians by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1970. All references are to the 2015 New Windmill Series hardback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher (1965)

Christopher Samuel Youd

John Christopher was just one of the half dozen noms de plume of Christopher Samuel Youd (1922 to 2012), who was a prolific English writer of science fiction novels for adults and children, as well as writing in other genres under his numerous other noms de plume, including several cricketing novels. In all Youd wrote a staggering 57 books. His breakthrough came with his second science fiction novel, The Death of Grass in 1956, after which he published two or three novels a year for decades.

Probably a) his sheer volume of output and b) the fact that he wrote under so many names and c) that he wrote both adult and teen fiction, explain why he never establishing a clear brand and became a ‘big name’, unlike his better-known drinking buddies at the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.

A Wrinkle In The Skin

A Wrinkle In The Skin was Youd’s ninth novel writing as John Christopher and follows the same narrative pattern as two of his most popular previous novels, 1956’s Death of Grass and 1962’s The World In Winter, in that he imagines a massive worldwide disaster and then works through its impact on a small group of middle-class English people.

The disaster in this case is an epidemic of earthquakes which ripple right round the planet, from New Zealand to California, China, Russia and Europe.

As in the other novels, the opening scenes depict some characteristically nice, middle-class characters enjoying a fine dinner washed down with classic wine and discussing the latest quakes which have been reported in some remote part of the world. Just as in The Death Of Grass, they think it could never happen here. One character describes the catastrophic quakes which have hit the Far East as like the small wrinkles on the skin of an orange, to which another character replies:

‘Well, as long as our bit of orange doesn’t wrinkle. It would be awful if it did.’
(Sylvia Carwardine, page 11)

Matthew Cotter

Notable among the middle-class characters is Matthew Cotter who grows tomatoes under greenhouses on Guernsey. Matthew used to be a journalist which explains his middle-class education and inquisitive and factual frame of mind. He is divorced from his wife, Felicity (page 13) and his grown-up daughter Jane has gone to study at university on the mainland.

Matthew’s friends, the Carwardines, are always trying to fix him up with eligible widows or divorcees, as, indeed, they do on the evening of the pleasant dinner party which opens the novel. At the end of the evening Matthew drives home and goes to bed in his comfortable tomato-grower’s farmhouse. In the middle of the night he’s woken by squawking from his chicken run and goes outside armed with his shotgun to frighten off the dog or fox or whatever is worrying his chickens.

He’s half way down the garden path when a massive earthquake strikes. More than one quake, it is a series of vast convulsions and the earth doesn’t just shift, it rises, buckles, shakes and throws him into the air and across the garden. He manages to brace himself in the structure of canes which support his tomatoes and is flexible enough, now, in the chaos of the endless quaking, to act as a kind of shock absorber. In the middle of yet another huge shock he is aware of a vast roaring sound nearby and assumes it is the blood in his ears or impending death.

Survivor

When he regains consciousness, Matthew is greeted with a scene of utter devastation. His house is a pile of rubble from which it is difficult to extract any of his former belongings. He sets off to find other survivors but for quite a while it seems as if there are none. The earth has been lifted and reshaped, familiar landmarks no longer exist and every human dwelling has been razed to the ground. He sees plenty of dead people mashed to bits in heaps of masonry before he discovers a donkey up at the old donkey sanctuary kept by Miss Lucie (page 24) which is still alive by virtue of having been flung into the branches of a tree. Lonely and stricken by sympathy for another living being, Matthew labours hard to rescue the donkey, before continuing his trek across the ruined landscape.

These first chapters establish the sense of utter ruination and Matthew’s complete isolation and loneliness as the scale of the disaster starts to sink in, as he wanders across the ruined landscape in search of survivors and finds only dead bodies mangled in destroyed buildings.

The English Channel has become a drained dry stretch of land

He comes to a clifftop and experiences one of the great shocks of the book – the English Channel has disappeared. That roar he heard amid the huge earth-shaking? The entire land level has been lifted and the sound he heard was a vast tsunami as all the water in the entire English Channel poured westward, decanting off the raised land and leaving the seabed high and dry in the daylight, a vast expanse of seaweed, sand and shingle and deep dark slime.

Billy Tullis aged 11

Still processing this stunning revelation, Matthew eventually hears a voice coming from a wrecked house and digs a boy out of rubble, going on to establish that his parents and sister have all been crushed to death. The boy tells him his name is Billy Tullis (page 34) and he will become Matthew’s inseparable companion until the end of the novel.

Billy has broken his arm. Matthew remembers enough from the army to set it and make splints from sections of wood he cuts from a tree and then ties to Billy’s arm with ripped fabric. He feeds and waters Billy, they reclaim such tinned food as they can find in ruined shops and houses, then make their way into open country and make the best shelter they can against the elements. This is the first of many, many, many descriptions of what it is like to sleep rough, in the open, in England, where it rains and the cold wind blows and the temperature drops at night.

Living through these bleak, shelterless experiences with the book’s characters makes you appreciate why civilisation arose in hot climates around the Mediterranean and what a lot of energy – coal, gas and oil – it takes to make our rainy windswept islands inhabitable.

St Peter Port has been utterly swept away by the tsunami

Next day Matthew takes them to St Peter Port hoping to find rich pickings for the foragers they have become but is staggered to discover that the entire town was washed away by the Channel tsunami. The land has been swept clean leaving roads going down into an empty canyon. He looks over what was once the sea and is now drying seabed, gazing out across the rocky outcrops of what were once the islands of Herm and Sark, while he tries to get his head round the scale of the destruction.

They meet a survivor, a man who has been utterly traumatised and quotes bits of the Bible because he sees the entire thing as a result of God’s anger. Initially heartened at finding another survivor, Matthew and Billy quickly want to get rid of him.

Joe Miller’s gang

Then they meet a small gang of survivors who quickly become the focus of this first part of the novel. Three females (mad Mother Lutron in her 60s, 20-something blonde slattern Shirley, and an 11 or so year old girl) and four men (Harry, de Porthos, Andy with a broken leg and ‘simple’ Ashton). This little band is led by Joe Miller (page 52).

Miller is educated up to a point. He’s smart enough to grasp the new situation, to have established himself as leader, he can see the need for planning. But Christopher carefully distinguishes Miller from Matthew –a very decent middle-class chap – by his accent, his selfishness and, above all, by his attitude towards women. Miller makes it crystal clear that the slatternly blonde young woman, Shirley, is his. Matthew says, fine, fine and finds himself being assimilated into the gang. Makes sense to stick together.

Over the next few days there is a lot more foraging and we get to know the other characters in Miller’s gang and to explore his hold over them. He treats the shambling men in his gang harshly, punching and kicking them if they fall short, and slaps Shirley if she doesn’t do what he says. But he is practical and clear-headed, he has a plan and clear priorities – create a new community, find as much food and drink as possible, establish a base and assert his unquestioned authority.

The reader is invited to assess, along with Matthew, whether Miller is a brute or a shrewd man who has fully grasped the nature of the new situation they’re all going to have to survive in.

They find a youngish woman in a wrecked building, screaming and dying in agony. They find some aspirin to grind up and feed her mixed into gin until she dies. They find another middle-aged man named Mullivant standing stupidly outside the utter wreckage of his house which contains the bodies of his wife and two children (page 58). In other words we meet a selection of the types of survivor you might expect from a disaster like this.

The dynamic between Miller and Matthew is explored. Miller immediately knows Matthew is intelligent and an asset to the group, is open to frank discussion with him but makes sure his say prevails. The two men have quiet conversations in the evenings about what must have happened on the mainland – if no rescue planes have flown over or helicopters come, it must mean it’s as bad there as here on Guernsey. Matthew realises Miller is being lining him up as his lieutenant and confidante, a role he is happy to acquiesce in, for the time being.

Irene and Hilda are added to Miller’s gang

They find a cow that needs to be milked. They realise the madman for St Peter Port is following them. They find two young women who had been sleeping in a basement flat. The women need digging out but are essentially alright. Matthew immediately sees that Irene will look very attractive once she’s cleaned up, and indeed she is.

Irene was a very good-looking girl…Shirley was a very ordinary little slut against either of them… (page 76)

This creates tensions immediately among the menfolk and it is fascinating to see this described through a 1960s mentality. Miller asks Irene to come with him for a chat – she refuses and so he asks Matthew to come along too – but his point is not to rape her (as, we discover later, many men have been simply raping the women they encounter), it is to discuss arrangements in the camp.

Basically, he tells Irene that he is going to tell the other men that she is now his woman. It doesn’t matter whether she is or not, but they must believe she is. This will make her off-limits and prevent competition over her developing into fights. This is what he’s worried about; that the group will be weakened if the men fall to fighting over the most attractive women. He explains all this to Irene and that it doesn’t mean she has to be ‘his woman’, but it will also offer her protection from unwanted attentions.

Matthew, as ever, is impressed by Miller’s shrewdness, but he also realises Irene is no pushover. She is educated and clever too. After pausing to consider it, Irene agrees. Miller is visibly relieved. He isn’t in control of the situation, but he is definitely the nearest thing the little gang have to a leader.

Five days after the quake the weather breaks and it starts to rain, giving us plentiful descriptions of how utterly miserable it is spending nights out in the cold and the wind and the rain. One night at the campfire a stranger appears. He is named Le Perré and has walked the nine miles across the ocean floor to Guernsey. Later Matthew takes him aside and asks him what the ocean floor is like to walk on. Patchy, is the answer, some sand, some shingle, some weeds, some gloopy mud. But he made it.

Throughout all the preceding passages Matthew has periodically thought of his daughter, Jane, at uni in Sussex, hoping longingly that she is alive. When he mentions his intention of walking across the sea floor to the mainland, Matty thinks he’s mad then becomes threatening. Their little band needs every good worker they can get. He refuses to let Matthew leave. From now onwards Matthew starts making a secret stash of provisions.

Walking across the dry seabed

A few days later Matthew is woken by one of the countless minor tremors and shocks they are continuing to experience, in the makeshift ‘tent’ he shares with Billy. He quickly dresses, slips on his shoes, takes his shotgun, takes his haversack and jerrycan filled with water and slips out of the base.

He makes his way to the coastal cliffs and by slippery paths down to the beach and across and out into what used to be the English Channel. Thus begins his surreal journey across the dry seabed. As the sun comes up and he sees the wide dry ocean floor stretching out in all directions, he discovers the worst enemy is anxiety, his sense of nagging unease, as if this is so against nature, so unnatural. His unconscious expects the sea to come rushing back at any moment.

Thus it’s a relief when Matthew hears a voice calling and returns its calls. It takes a while for him to realise that it’s Billy. His departure had woken Billy who watched him leave, then slipped into his own shoes and clothes and has followed him. Matthew knows the future can only hold uncertainty and danger and tries his best to send Billy back. But Billy was rescued, had his arm set in a splint, and fed by Matthew. He is now, in effect, his father.

Alderney is riven in two

Matthew navigates by the sun to guide them towards Alderney, hoping there might be food, a spring of freshwater and even survivors. But as it comes into view he and Billy see it has been struck by an even more severe calamity – the entire island has been lifted up and split in two, is now divided by an immense fissure starting in the ocean floor and quite splitting the island in half.

The container ship with the mad captain

Matthew knows he ought to take Billy back to the safety of Miller and the little community on Guernsey but he is driven on by his obsession with finding his daughter. After spending the night near ruined Alderney they head off north again. They see shipwrecks on the ocean floor, maybe Elizabethan galleons.

Then they are stupefied to come across a vast modern container ship, which somehow got stuck in the V of some reefs and so is sitting on the ocean bed completely upright. Mystifyingly there is a rope ladder down from the deck near the control tower. They climb it and discover the ship is in excellent condition throughout. They are staggered to find the corridors and cabins are fully lit and then discover the kitchen, which contains fresh bread and working fridges and freezers packed with food, and set about gorging themselves.

They are interrupted by a ‘short, fat, swarthy man’ in a gold-braided peak cap who introduces himself as Captain Skiopos (page 116). Skiopos is hospitality itself, forcing more food and drink on them, giving them a tour of the entire ship and explaining how it was his first command. Slowly they realise he is deranged. Every day he gets up early, shaves and dresses, makes all the beds, scrubs the floor in the kitchen and keeps the ship shipshape. When Matthew points out that eventually the oil will run out and the generator will stop working, Skiopos blinks and shakes his head to shake away the thought. ‘Nothing to worry about, everything will be fine,’ he insists.

They are astonished to discover the ship has its own private projection room, in effect a cinema, but disconcerted when Skiopos insists on playing a succession of films regardless of our guys’ protests that they’re exhausted, and by the way the captain talks to the figures upon the screen.

Next morning Skiopos is a different man, uncommunicative, in fact he ignores them as they go about making breakfast. Billy is scared but Matthew realises he is what he defines as a ‘psychotic’. Our guys select food from the fridge (half a roast chicken etc) load it into their bags, along with drinks and exit the crew area and walk across the deck to the rope ladder.

They are disconcerted when they see Skiopos approaching it, still ignoring them. Matthew makes the big, big mistake of volunteering to tell the captain that they are taking some of his food, he hopes he doesn’t mind. Oh but he does. The captain flies into an insensate rage and insists they give it all back which Matthew, reluctantly does. Once satisfied Skiopos bundles up the chicken etc, ignores our guys and walks back towards the bridge.

Keen to get away, Matthew bundles Billy over the bulwark, down the rope ladder, onto to the ocean floor and away.

Arriving in ruined England

Four days later they sight the coast of England. Matthew figures they are where Bournemouth should be but the entire town was scoured and washed away by the Channel tsunami leaving blank rocks and mudslides. On the ocean floor they come across all kinds of seaside wreckage. They clamber ashore into ‘a wrecked and meaningless world’ (page 136). Rubble and wreckage everywhere. They find some abandoned fires, realise most of the buildings have been foraged already, so there are at least some survivors.

One misty morning they see New Forest ponies loom out of the mist. They spot two women who turn and flee when they shout to them. They carry on along a road Matthew thinks is the A31.

Lawrence and April’s group

A little later they see a different kind of woman, calm, stationary, self-possessed watching them. As with Irene and Hilda, Matthew’s first reaction is to her physical attractiveness.

She was in her middle thirties, he judged, of medium height and with a good figure… [in her face] intelligence and courage but not beauty. (page 143)

She introduces herself as April and is astonished and angry when Matthew tells her they’ve come from the Channel Islands. Quite quickly she makes clear that life on the mainland is much more dangerous. She is acting as lookout to her group who she now takes them to. This consists of Lawrence, a 50-something doctor, George, Archie and Charlie, a young girl Cathie, and Sybil. Matthew/the narrator assess Sybil in the sexualised way we’ve come to expect:

Sybil was about twenty-eight, a cowed-looking, not very attractive girl, hiding a thin figure under badly fitting blue overall trousers… (page 145)

Several things emerge. April used to live in the big house whose ruined garden the group now use as a base. Her husband and two children were killed in the quake. She dug them out and buried them herself. She is tough. She encountered Lawrence who was the local doctor and who, having grasped the scale of the apocalypse, was on the verge of killing himself with an overdose when he heard her calling. He is kindly, intelligent and weak. These are the two representatives of the ‘educated’ class; the others are working class (page 148).

April and Lawrence tell Matthew that the countryside is overrun with what they call the ‘yobbos’, the uneducated, chavs, gangs who steal whatever April’s group have foraged and found. Don’t kill them or hurt them, just steal everything. Hence April standing as lookout. They take Matthew and Billy back to their base.

Here Lawrence expounds on the kind of neat little theory the educated like to come up with, which he has called the Anthill Syndrome (page 153). This is that, if you disturb or destroy an anthill up to a certain point, the ants will rally round their queen and rebuild it, no matter what it takes. But if the destruction goes beyond a certain threshold the ants will descend into chaos, running round with no plan or goals, attacking each other and undermining the colony’s very survival.

At their ‘base’ – April’s ruined house with its formal gardens, vegetable garden and fields – they show Matthew the secret stash they’ve created in a cellar whose entrance they carefully cover with a huge heavy table and then wreckage. It contains not only the usual tins but such medicines as Lawrence has salvaged and some bottles of fine wine and brandy. They tell him they’ve spotted a bull, which would make an excellent meal. Matthew has his gun.

Next morning Matthew goes to wash at the nearby stream they’ve shown him and comes across April naked from the waist up (pages 162 to 163). He had noticed the shapeliness of her body from the first moment. Now his mouth dries out with desire. Not just that. Beauty. He’s forgotten what beauty was like in a world of ugliness and death. Eventually she notices him but doesn’t mind. Unashamedly towels herself down and walks over to talk with him.

Later that morning all the men bar Ashton set out on the bullock hunt. They succeed in cornering the bull and Matthew shoots it, blasting away half the animal’s face. Disgusted, he goes away while the others saw up the body. But on returning to the base they hear cries and screams. Sneaking up carefully they discover their base has been discovered by a small group of five yobbos, who have tied Archie up, pulled down his trousers and are torturing him with a wax taper. Those were the screams. They are torturing him to find out where the group’s stash is.

Blinded by anger Matthew leaps out from the bushes where he’d been hiding and blasts a shot at the two men holding Archie, which appears to catch both of them, and turns to get the apparent leader of the group, a tall, strong, bronzed, blonde man who makes a lunge at him but Matthew shoots him at virtually point blank range, obliterating his chest and face.

Two of the five have scarpered. Now April goes up to the other two wounded men and tells them to hop it. When they don’t she hits one with the shotgun butt and kicks the other viciously. They limp off bleeding, probably to die.

Matthew twisted his ankle turning to shoot at the leader of the yobbos. Now April bandages it calmly and professionally. She says she is proud of him. Matthew finds his heart bursting with desire and love. The others tend to poor sobbing Archie, then build a fire and begin to cook the hand-carved steaks. Billy asks Matthew if they can stay. He likes Cathie and Lawrence has promised to show him how to be a doctor. Remember Billy is only 11.

The group discuss plans.

  1. April says the yobbos had tortured Archie because they couldn’t believe they didn’t have a stash. Therefore what they should do is create a diversionary stash which they can admit to under duress and so satisfy the next band of yobbos.
  2. The shotgun cartridges will run out. Matthew notices some lengths of steel in the cellar. He speculates that they could try making bows and arrows.
  3. Most momentously, he, April and Lawrence discuss heading for the hills. It’ll be easier to create a fortified encampment, maybe farm animals have survived in the hills, it’ll be easier to pen and farm them.

Rape and rapists

Next day, with lookouts posted and no immediate threat, Matthew goes strolling and comes across April in the grounds of her ruined house. They walk across fields to an old oak tree. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, she tells him her boys used to love climbing this old oak tree. He feels very close to her and heavy with love/lust/emotion. She puts her hand on his sleeve, he thinks he’s going to explode with desire.

However, this idyllic lovers’ walk takes a disastrous turn for the worse when they start talking about the incursion of the yobbos the day before and Matthew lets slips remarks which imply he’s relieved that nothing worse happened to the women in the group i.e. April herself, Sybil and young Cathy.

April withdraws her hand and is disbelieving, then angry. Is he so thick that he doesn’t realise that she was raped, her three times, and Sybil twice, before the menfolk arrived back. And that she has been raped again and again by gangs of yobbos since the catastrophe, and that even 11-year-old Cathy has been raped? Didn’t he realise that’s why she kicked and hit the wounded men? Because they raped her!

Matthew’s face reveals his horror and also, despite himself, his disgust, so she goes on to tell him about the man who spat in her face while he was still ‘inside’ her. How Lawrence comforted her after the first time it happened but, more practically, inserted ‘coils’ into the three women to prevent them getting pregnant, though she wonders if any of them have contracted venereal disease. And then Lawrence so obviously, pitifully wanted to have comfort sex that she let him sleep with her. And Charley too, the young man in the group.

Now it all comes tumbling out, her contempt for men, her cold fury, her disgust… and her disgust with him (pages 192 ff.)

‘Sex and motherhood are the centres of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear. (page 195)

The conversation has wandered right out of control and now she says she doesn’t want him to stay. If he wants to pursue his stupid, foolish fantasy quest to look for his daughter Jane, then by all means go. If he doesn’t leave, she’ll have to, he has reminded her too much of everything she lost.

It’s a brilliant passage, the reader had been lulled into the false sense of security just like Matthew, so April’s revelations are genuinely shocking. But also the way their lovers’ walk is so close to falling in love and then he wrecks it beyond repair by a small remark which reveals the gulf in understanding which separates them. Christopher’s books are problematic in many ways but he has this knack for getting inside (middle class) relationship, as witness the lengthy description of the middle class affairs which open The World In Winter.

Quest for Jane

And so Matthew and Billy load up with provisions and water and embark on the next stage of their quest, heading East along the coast to find Matthew’s daughter. There follows a long, gruelling description of their horrible trek along the ruined coast, past what used to be Portsmouth, amid ruins and detritus. At one point a man waves at them from the shore and comes bounding towards them, turning out to be a harmless religious nut who is convinced the disaster is the work of God and quotes liberally from the Bible but is genuinely kindly, takes them back to the shack he’s built, gives them hot food and shelter for the night.

After this pleasant interlude they struggle on to the East. They pass the ruins of what Matthew thinks must have been Littlehampton. Here, for a moment the narrative becomes Ballardian. They see a sports car standing upright, its bonnet gripped in the earth which had opened and clasped it, with the skeletons of two bright young things rotting in it. At the same time Christopher was writing his apocalypse novels i.e. the start of the 1960s, so was J.G. Ballard. Suffice to say the reason Ballard’s are known and Christophers’ a lot less so is because:

  1. Ballard’s books convey the real psychological damage the collapse of civilisation would cause in a brilliant and completely original way, illuminated by countless weird and disorientating tableaux.
  2. Line for line, as a writer, Ballard’s sentences are full of vivid and exciting analogies, similes and metaphors; reading them is like taking acid – Christopher’s scenarios and sights are often vivid and shocking but the prose he describes them in is very workaday and practical.

The trek goes on for days. Billy falls ill with a fever, which gets steadily worse. He goes off his food. He has feverish dreams. Matthew feels guilty for taking him away from the safety of Guernsey, or Lawrence’s happy group. He imagines he can hear April’s voice accusing him of stupid, vainglorious fantasies of finding his daughter. Billy gets more and more ill but doggedly insists on going on. They advance up a long, long, long slope towards the horizon. As they finally get to the top, expecting to look out over the Sussex landscape Matthew is stunned to find himself looking out over… the sea! So this is where the sea went. The south-east of England has sunk deep enough to drain the English Channel and create a new sea. It is all under water. Nothing could have survived.

And at this moment he hears April’s voice in his head accusing him of obsession in following his fantasy of a Happy Ending.In his feverish mind they argue. Matthew says April had the chance to bury her dead, but he hasn’t. He had to do everything he could to find her. But now the scales have fallen from his eyes. It is over.

He looked, and knew himself, and understood… He had taken his fantasy to the bitter end and seen it drown… (page 215)

The journey back

So they turn right round and go back. Billy is very ill, Matthew begins to think he’ll die. There’s no medicines and no shelter. Sometimes they sleep in blankets in the pelting rain. Matthew beds Billy down in a hay barn and goes to pick some half-ripe potatoes but when he gets back a gang of foragers have found Billy and his haversack. Matthew makes up a story on the spot about having a plague which has killed off two of their companions, but the tall Northerner leading the gang takes Matthew’s much-travelled shotgun and delivers Matthew a mighty punch into the bargain.

Matthew keeps Billy’s spirits up by telling him they’ll find the religious man with the shack around Portsmouth and then press on to reunite with Lawrence and his people and go to the hills with them. But when he finally rounds some rocks and looks for the religious man’s hut, he sees at a glance that it’s been burned down. It starts to rain and Matthew tries to make Billy comfortable in the remains of the burned and vandalised hut. He goes foraging inland and discovers the preacher man’s body. Looks like he threw himself at one of the foragers and had managed to strangle him before he was himself pole-axed by an axe (page 228).

Lawrence and April have gone

Matthew is beyond desolate now. Everything is destroyed, everyone is dying. He makes a kind of rack and straps Billy’s wasted feverish body to it and then staggers on westwards. If only he can make it back to Lawrence. Half deliriously he has conversations in his mind with April, saying he has learned his lesson, and he wants to learn more from her. His progress becomes ever more painful and slow. They cease for the night and rest in a ditch in the seabed. It rains. Billy moans and fevers. Matthew is overcome by a vast sense of loneliness and failure (page 231).

Next day he staggers on bearing the rack with Billy’s wasted body tied to it. They encounter a small group who see how wasted he is and simply ignore him, laughing at his request for condensed milk for Billy. Finally, he reaches the main road he stumbled along all those weeks before and then the mound where he first saw April, staggers through the woods and comes to the stream where he saw April bathing and then on to the wrecked house where they’d made their base.

They’re not there. No sign of April, Lawrence, Cathy, Archy et al. Silence. He tries to keep Billy’s fever down with stream water and tells him the others will soon be back. He visits the graves in the rose garden which April dug for her husband and sons and notices someone has carefully placed a rose on each one.

After an enormous effort Matthew manages to budge the huge oak dining table just enough to squeeze down into the cellar where, once his eyes become accustomed… He realises they’ve taken everything practical and portable. They’ve gone to the hills as they had discussed. He will never find them. He is doomed.

He tends to Billy who is having fever dreams all the time. He gives him aspirin crushed into milk, then later in the night Billy fights hard to get up and escape. Matthew knows he’s dying now. He cuddles the skinny, feverish boy to him for warmth and falls asleep under a ragged blanket. The reader is convinced he will die, too. Where else can it go?

When he wakes the next morning Billy is quite still and Matthew is convinced he’s dead. But he touches his pale gaunt skin and discovers he isn’t. He wakes up and talks rationally. The fever has broken and he is well. He can’t remember how he got here or any of the nightmare journey. Matthew explains the others must have headed for the hills and greater safety. He starts to prepare, resting up, eating properly, sheltering them both from the rain, gathering supplies. He tries grinding the steel rods to make arrows but gives up. He loads the rucksack with provisions.

He walks the route he took with April what seems like months earlier and hears her voice mocking him. She says his plan to head for ‘the hills’ in order to find her and Lawrence is yet another quixotic fantasy. How much longer will he drag poor Billy round with him? Till they both drop dead?

Next morning they wake and Billy asks if it’s the day they’re going to set off for the hills. No, Matthew says. They are going back to Guernsey. It will be safe. He realises now he should never have left.

Back to the Channel and a happy discovery

The last chapter cuts to them walking across the dry channel seabed. They are both much rested and recovered, Matthew had time to repair their shoes and find new clothes. They skirt the vast container ship and wonder what’s become of Captain Skiopos. They won’t head for Alderney, knowing it is ruined. They make camp for the night and Matthew holds the boy in his arms. He hears April’s voice in his head but no longer mocking him. She is distant. Her and his hopes for them are in the past. Miller will be pleased to see him back and to hear news of how lucky they are to be on Guernsey.

Next morning it is thick fog. Matthew gets Billy to climb to the top of some reefs. From there he thinks he sees water, a lot of water. For a moment I thought the sea was slowly returning. But they’ve come a different route from their outward passage and so have discovered a large salty lake. It’s three quarters of a mile across, too far to swim, and they and the food and blankets would get wet, anyway, so they have to go round it.

It is a long detour, maybe ten miles before they reach the head of the lake and round it to resume their trudge south. And there to their utter amazement, they hear a familiar voice and come across Archie, Archie from the Lawrence-April group, happily fishing. In his simple-minded way Archie tells them the group decided against the hills and, inspired by Matthew’s tales of the security of Guernsey, had set out for the islands themselves.

They had come to Alderney and, Archie tells them, the island has chickens, there are fish down in this small sea, there are no yobbos, they are enjoying a healthy diet. Matthew can’t express what he is feeling, after all this time, after the agonised imaginary relationship with April. And now here she is, along with the gentle old doctor. ‘Reckon they’ll be glad to see you,’ says Archie. Not as glad as Matthew will be to see them.

And so, after 250 gruelling pages, feeling thoroughly exhausted by the relentless physical assault of the elements, the starving, the violence and the emotional extremes, with the rest of the world in ruins, somehow, the book manages to have a happy ending.


Themes

Obviously the over-riding theme is what happens when civilised society is completely destroyed and a handful of survivors are thrown back on their own resources – which is that they resort to Dark Age barbarism, only with tinned food and shotguns. But within the overarching idea, several other themes stood out for me.

Class

One was how very clear the narrator is about the distinction between ‘the educated’ and ‘the yobbos’.

The educated, such as Lawrence the doctor, can immediately be recognised by their accent (their ‘recognition of someone who talks the same language’, page 157), and will invariably be polite, well mannered, cultured, curious and respectful.

The yobbos, on the other hand, can be expected to be stupid (although often characterised by low cunning), violent to women (key sign of yobbishness) and often rapists. The educated talk, like talking, enjoy conversation, have lots of ideas and perceptions to talk about. The yobbos look after number one, constantly tell people to shut up and obey their peremptory orders. They live in their bodies, enjoying eating, getting drunk, sex and demonstrating their violent prowess.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, you wonder how much English society, deep down, has changed from this bleak duality.

Gender

Inevitably, most of the women are converted by the collapse of civilised society into sex objects and breeders. This is how Miller regards every fertile woman who joins his band, although he at least has a plan, namely to father a new generation, which entails protecting women for their function as mothers. Pure ‘yobbos’, in line with their lack of long-term thinking and slaves to immediate physical appetites, just rape women and abandon them. This may be objectionable to most female readers, but appears to reflect the real world. As soon as war breaks out anywhere and social norms are abandoned, rape becomes common. It appears to be the basic state of Homo sapiens unless moderated by social forces, conventions and authority.

Anyway, the narrating voice uncomfortably reinforces this objectifying tendency by assessing every new female character by their attractiveness. After a while I found this a bit creepy and oppressive. Shirley, Miller’s initial girlfriend, is referred to not only by Miller but by Matthew and the narrator as a ‘slut’, content ‘in her sluttish way’, and so on and so on.

But, to balance this, it also needs to be emphasised that Christopher goes out of his way create strong female characters. Quite quickly Irene steps up to become Miller’s number two, asserting her authority without really having to, and cows Miller himself. Just as April emerges as a very strong, tough-minded woman who has survived the death of the rest of her family and repeated rapes to become an unillusioned survivor, stronger than Lawrence.

The difference between John Wyndham and John Christopher

They were friends and colleagues and both wrote apocalypse, end-of-the-world science fiction stories but their works leave a very different taste in the mouth. Basically, Christopher’s books are a lot more cynical and violent, and feature really gruelling physical trials.

I’m very influenced by reading Amy Binns’s excellent 2019 biography of John Wyndham in which she brings out the way the succession of shrewd, clever, resourceful, strong women in his novels and stories are all versions of his lifelong beloved, Oxford graduate, teacher and left-wing activist, Grace Wilson. Having read that biography I understand better why Wyndham’s novels, even at their bleakest, are nonetheless anchored or underpinned by a fundamental sense of decency. The male narrators or protagonists ultimately feel safe because there is a strong woman sharing their ordeals. This contributes to the strange sense of comfort or reassurance they have, even in the bleakest moments.

Whereas in Christopher’s novels, although there are strong female characters (Carol in World In Winter, April in Wrinkle) the relations of men and women are much more troubled. Couples get divorced, fall in love but then break up, argue, realise they are incompatible. This leaves them feeling profoundly alone and isolated. Characters in a Christopher novel fall more easily into utter despair than in any Wyndham novel, as Andrew Leedon finds himself weeping uncontrollably on a Nigerian beach for the world he has lost in World In Winter and Matthew at several points feel overwhelmed with utter despair and ‘hopeless misery’ (page 99).

He was conscious only of their wretchedness, their vulnerability. (page 108)

And the reader experiences that despair for themselves. I think it’s this much harsher emotional climate of Christopher’s novels which makes them a much grittier, often more unpleasant read, than Wyndham’s.

Triffids is easily Wyndham’s bleakest novel but even there, by a quarter of the way through the story, the protagonist has met the lovely Josella who becomes his lover, his friend and support, offering the male protagonist (and the reader) a sense of feminine consolation. And Wyndham’s other three big novels all have strong women underpinning and supporting the male protagonist (Phyllis in Kraken, Rosalind in Chrysalids, the narrator’s wife Janet and Ferrelyn Zellaby in Midwich Cuckoos). What makes Wyndham’s apocalypse novels ‘cosy’ is the warm emotional climate which suffuses them; even at their most scary and bleak there is always a strong woman there, or in the protagonist’s thoughts, to help and support him (and, by extension, the reader).

There isn’t in Christopher’s novels. There are just as many female protagonists but they are, themselves, as imperilled, as compromised, as lost, as the male leads, which contributes to his novels’ sense of cold, gritty, unforgiving brutality. Maybe this is one reason for Christopher’s lack of popularity and relative obscurity.


Credit

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965. All references are to the 2000 First Cosmos paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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