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The Possessors by John Christopher (1965) 222 p.
Well-written sci-fi potboilers by authors like John Christopher, John Wyndham or Stephen King are my literary comfort food. Sometimes you’ve had enough of multi-generational American family sagas or WWII-set Booker nominees. Sometimes you’re a bit overstuffed with beautiful prose that effortlessly reveals deep aspects of the human condition. Sometimes you just want to read an old paperback thriller about an isolated group of people facing an alien threat.
The Possessors is set in a British-run holiday chalet deep in the Swiss Alps, with an eclectic cast of characters (many with ~~Dark Pasts~~) gathered together for a few days of skiing. Naturally an avalanche cuts their valley off from the outside world, then one of the children appears to keel over dead, only for his body to vanish overnight, and then return, wandering in from the snow with a cold temperature and oddly flat and emotionless voice, etc. Before long his strange sickness appears to be spreading among the others, and those as yet unaffected realise they’re struggling against something alien and hostile. (I feel comfortable giving all of this away, since the prologue is told from the point of view of a dying parasitic alien race which releases spores through the galaxy, one of which lands on Earth.)
The Possessors naturally brings to mind the classic Carpenter movie The Thing, which of course came long after it, but was based on a short story by John Campbell from the 1930s. It also has touches of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And really, to a modern reader, it’s not going to seem all that different from thousands upon thousands of stories where a monster or monsters prey upon an isolated group of people, picking them off one by one. But who cares? Christopher knows how to write a compelling, engaging thriller that sucks you in and makes you miss your stop on the tram.
There are some odd aspects to the book; I welcome Christopher’s attempts at rounding out the characterisation (never a sci-fi writer’s strongest point) by switching the viewpoints between various characters and introducing us to their personal lives when they’re not on holiday, but it dragged a bit when the the group was still dwelling on their own messy dramas even as the threat becomes truly dire and the novel approaches its climax. And I may be something of a problem drinker myself, but I was gobsmacked that even as the group dwindles to a handful of people and is at the point of nailing up the doors and windows, they still drink enough to kill a herd of elephants – and in fact Christopher details precisely what everyone is drinking all the time, which made me wonder if he wrote this while trying to stay on the wagon. I also thought the characterisation of the Swiss house staff as ignorant peasants (Swiss, really!) was amusingly British.
Despite that, and despite an ending that’s possibly a bit too neat and quick, I enjoyed The Possessors a lot. Does what it says on the tin. I wouldn’t recommend people go out of their way to find a copy, but if you chance across it at a library or second-hand bookstore, by all means pick it up.
Clade by James Bradley (2015) 153 p.
“Clade” is a term in biology used to refer to all organisms, dead or alive, which descended from a common ancestor. In that sense all of humanity is a single clade; in another sense, I think – although I’m no scientist – all life on Earth is.
James Bradley’s novel Clade follows a single family, along with their friends and connections, through several generations of catastrophic climate change in England and Australia. It begins in the present or near future, with a young couple, Adam and Ellie, trying to conceive their first child. By the time their daughter is a teenager, Sydney is facing rolling blackouts, constant bushfires at the fringes, an influx of refugees; by the time their now-estranged daughter has her own child, with Adam travelling to England to look for them, a gargantuan tropical hurricane is about to swamp the once green and pleasant land. Clade uses the common trick of following a single family to tell a story spanning many decades, with the scope rarely expanding beyond Adam and Ellie’s family, but this only serves to highlight the importance of the title. We may be focused on ourselves and our kids, we may have ape-brains that can’t concentrate on gradual threats or the hypothetical humans beyond our immediate circle, but we’re ultimately all one clade – men and women, birds and bees, species and planet – and we’re all in this terrible mess together. Even if, as with many of the characters in Clade, we often feel terribly alone.
Bradley is a good character writer; he’s not a sci-fi novelist by trade, and Clade slots easily alongside the skilfully polished contemporary sci-fi of Kim Stanley Robinson or Margaret Atwood. In some ways the accelerating catastrophes being visited upon the Earth are a mere backdrop to Adam and Ellie’s lives. This worked, for me anyway, because in some ways climate change will always be a mere backdrop. The main characters are Australian, and we know that living in a first-world country means they’ll be spared the worst of an increasingly bleak century. One of the strongest chapters in the book occurs when Ellie, approaching old age, encounters a Bangladeshi “illegal” near her property in the country; through his story, we catch glimpses of what his life has been like, fleeing rising sea levels and collapsing economies, reaching a bitterwseet sanctuary in Australia where he must eke out a living while avoiding the attention of a xenophobic, authoritarian government. Clade is a slow-burn illustration of what only a few degrees of climate change will result in: crop failures, economic meltdown, the extinction of species, the mass movement of refugees. Australia, in this fictional world, adapts and survives. Other countries perhaps do not. “When you see the news out of England,” an ageing Adam tells a younger character, “it’s easy to forget it used to be a rich country.”
Clade is largely characterised as a climate change novel, and it is, but it’s more than that as well. Bradley paints a plausible sci-fi future, not just with small details like the genetically engineered trees planted across England earning the nickname “triffids,” but in matters that are entirely unrelated to a world adapting to climate change – which is good, because any novel set generations in the future needs to recognise that small shifts in technology can create sweeping changes. (Somebody from even ten or twelve years ago, for example, would be perplexed by how everybody these days is always staring at their phones.) I particularly liked a chapter set after a devastating plague, following a character who works for a Chinese company which makes virtual sims based on social media footprints of people’s deceased loved ones – an uneasy line of work which verges on exploitative, especially when one of his clients asks him why he hasn’t made one of his own dead mother. And in the penultimate chapter Bradley touches on an entirely different genre of science fiction – one which I won’t spoil – but which rounds out the novel very nicely, bringing things back once again to the concept of the clade.
There are plenty of other sci-fi climate change novels out there, but what I particularly liked about Clade is that it’s emphatically not an end-of-the-world book. Humanity survives, humanity gets by; especially those parts of humanity fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries. But at what cost? One of the saddest moments in the novel, for me, was when a young girl many decades in the future is walking through an eerily silent forest, and then downloads a soundtrack from the internet of what the forest used to sound like – before most of the birds went extinct. Human life goes on, but human life is not the only thing that matters. We’ve deeply ravaged our own ecosystems and made the world immeasurably less healthy, less diverse, less beautiful. Bradley touches on all of these things without ever feeling preachy or moralising. Clade is a compelling, thoughtful vision of our planet and our species fifty years into the future.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter (2015) 114 p.
A father and his two young boys in London are bereft after their wife and mother’s unexpected death. In the “organisational fakery” of the days immediately following her death, they are paid a visit by the enigmatic trickster figure Crow, who has come to help them move forward – not move on, because as Crow says, moving on is for idiots. But move forward, puzzling out and understanding and coming to grips with their collective grief.
This is one of those Critically-Acclaimed-Books-of-the-Year which comes with blurbs from half the literary establishment plastered all over it. I can’t say I would have picked it off the shelf at a store if I hadn’t read what seems like a billion glowing reviews, but I certainly thought it was worth my time. Part novella, part prose poem; it’s very nice, very sweet, sometimes funny and sometimes moving. I may not have had the patience for it if it went much beyond its 114 pages, but as it stands, it’s a beautiful little book.
I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.
Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.
– From “Grief is the Thing With Feathers,” by Max Porter
Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (1990) 243 p.
Discworld #10 (stand-alone)
This is a bit of an odd one. It’s the second stand-alone in the series after Pyramids, revolving around the discovery of film by the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork. Spurred on by a newly-released hole in reality in the sunny beachside locale of Holy Wood, the Discworld soon has a thriving movie-making business going on. The main character Victor Tugelbend – student wizard, unexpected movie star and certainly one of the most forgettable characters Pratchett ever wrote – begins to uncover the origins of Holy Wood, the ancient civilisation that once lived there and the terrible danger sleeping beneath the nearby hills.
Looking at the series as a whole, Moving Pictures seems to foreshadow the twilight years of the Discworld – what some people think of as the Industrial Revolution novels, when many books would introduce new technologies or developments to Ankh-Morpork: the clacks, the newspaper, a post office, a banking system, etc. The difference was that while in each of those later books the new technology stuck around and formed part of a growing, broader fictional world, Moving Pictures may as well end with an Everything’s Back to Normal Barbecue.
It’s notable for the introduction of a few long-term characters – Gaspode the talking dog, who if memory serves will return in Men-at-Arms; Archchancellor Ridcully, the crossbow-toting new leader of Unseen University who regards most of his lazy, overweight faculty with open contempt; and that same unnamed faculty, with ludicrous professors like the Lecturer in Recent Runes and the Chair of Indefinite Studies. Oddly, the faculty aren’t introduced until about three quarters of the way through the book, and then play a part in the climax only to disappear entirely, not even worth an appearance in the sort of post-credits montage that makes up the final few pages. Yet Pratchett clearly liked them, since they’re important characters in the next book, Reaper Man. I can’t help but feel they were shoved into a late draft. We also see Detritus develop into a more complex character, although he’s still a long way from his future as a sergeant in the City Watch.
Moving Pictures, on the whole, feels too much like an excuse for Pratchett to write a bunch of jokes about the early decades of Hollywood. I actually began to find myself a little bored while reading it, which is not something I ever expect of a Discworld novel. The climax, in particular, was tiresome: creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions break through the silver screen and we have a reverse King Kong spoof as an enormous monster in the shape of a woman seizes the Librarian and climbs to the top of the Tower of Art with him. Very droll – but by my count that’s now four books revolving around the Dungeon Dimensions, three of which culminate on top of the Tower of Art.
There’s a moment in Moving Pictures where Dibbler (one of the better parts of the book – neatly going from hot-dog-selling entrepreneur to a profit-obsessed film producer) tries to explain how film works to the Patrician; Vetinari, however, has no interest in “how things work,” only in “how people work.” I think that’s true of Pratchett as well – he’s an author fascinated by human nature, by how people tick, by how we relate to each other. So I find it puzzling that even ten books into the Discworld series, when he’s already proven himself capable of writing compelling human villains (as in Pyramids and Guards, Guards) he keeps falling back on the hoary Lovecraftian trope of horrible monsters from another dimension. There’s also a lot in there about the magic of cinema and the power of human belief, the latter being one of Pratchett’s most recurrent themes, but it never solidifies into something that feels purposeful; it never seems to be elevated beyond, as I said, a bunch of jokes about Hollywood looking for a plot.
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber (2001) 66 p.
This is quite a short book, somewhere between a novella and a long short story. My library ebook edition turned out to have a preview of The Book of Strange New Things taking up the final third, so I was a bit surprised when The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps ended quite abruptly on page 66.
Under the Skin was a brilliant debut novel and a hard act to follow, and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps does unfortunately have a touch of sophomore syndrome to it. Haunted by repetitive nightmares, archaeology student Sian joins a dig at the old abbey in Whitby, Yorkshire. Here she meets an arrogant medical student from London named Mack, who shares with her an old parchment in a bottle his late father found in the foundations of a local building. Their relationship grows as they try to safely extract and decipher the message within, which turns out to be a confession about a centuries-old murder. So The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is part romance, part historical mystery. It reminded me, on reflection, of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. (Which, funnily enough, I reviewed exactly a year ago to the day.) Both are short books are about a memorable time in a person’s life, in a place they don’t normally live, visiting for a very specific task; the time and place unusual only in that it’s unusual for them, breaking them out of their normal routines and leaving them aware even as they live that time that it’s quite ephemeral. That was long-winded; I’m sure the Germans have a word for it.
Anyway, I found The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps engaging enough while I was reading it but not particularly memorable. It felt very much to me like an uncertain second novel after the huge success of Faber’s debut.
Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey (2004) 121 p.
In 2002 Peter Carey felt like taking his manga-obsessed son on a paid trip to Japan, so he pulled some strings in the publishing world and wrangled himself an advance to go interview some famous Japanese anime creators and then scratch out a book about it. (That’s not me being harsh; he openly admits his motive.) The result is Wrong About Japan, a fairly slim volume which has about enough material for maybe a feature article in the Sunday papers, but not really a book
The interviews within – ostensibly the purpose of the whole thing – tend to run along the lines of misunderstanding, of Carey’s assumptions about the artists’ intentions being sometimes flat-out wrong. I particularly liked his time with Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, in which Carey repeatedly asserts that there must be something intrinsically Japanese about the notion of children at war, particularly for a manga/anime franchise which was developed by people who were children during World War II. Tomino seems bemused by Carey’s questions and says that he specifically avoided giving Gundam any specific cultural elements at all, in order to make it more globally popular and sell more toys. Then Carey is informed by his translator:
“Mr. Tomino thinks,” said Paul, “that there is maybe something in your own character which is interested in national identity.”
Which I thought was hilariously perceptive; there’s no indication Tomino had any idea who Carey was before their meeting, but there’s no doubt that the author of books like Illywhacker and Jack Maggs is indeed obsessed with the concept of national identity.
But despite a few good moments like this, Wrong About Japan doesn’t really have the legs to be worth a full book, and I certainly preferred his other travel memoir, 30 Days in Sydney. Worth reading for Carey fans if you find it in a library or a thrift shop, but I wouldn’t bother seeking it out.
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick (2009) 220 p.
I can’t remember exactly where this was recommended to me; it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally read, since when I do dip into YA it’s usually science fiction or fantasy. Revolver takes place in an isolated cabin somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. A boy named Sig is alone in the cabin with his father’s corpse; he died yesterday after falling through thin ice, and Sig’s sister and stepmother have gone to get help. And so the boy is all by himself when a hulking, menacing stranger shows up and claims to have “business” with his father. Sig’s father’s revolver is in the storeroom next door and as he gradually realises that the stranger is a very dangerous man, his thoughts stray towards the hidden gun.
Revolver is very much a story about guns; about their mechanics, about their physicality, but also more broadly about the ethics of the use of weapons. It’s an interesting book to read – and for younger people to read – at a time when gun politics are increasingly on the agenda in the US. (Although Sedgwick is British.) There’s an open question throughout Revolver about whether guns are “good” or “bad,” one which Sedgwick rightly declines to answer. Instead, it’s a thought-provoking story about the problematic ethics of self-defence, symbolised by the very simple problem of a boy facing down a menacing man in an isolated location. Sedgwick explores the matter thoughtfully and maturely, while also telling a decent story.
Revolver isn’t really a book I’d recommend to adults; my admiration for it comes more from analysing its success as a piece of YA fiction, as a book which tells a story first and foremost, but also imparts important ideas and tries to get kids thinking. I wasn’t so much enjoying the book as I was analysing it, and nodding along with it. But it’s precisely because of that that I think it’s a solid piece of YA fiction which deserves a place in school libraries.
Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (1998) 248 p.
I’ve never been a fan of superheroes, which means in turn that I’ve never been a fan of comics, even though I like the art form. (It’s a pain in the ass to find acclaimed comics that don’t feature superheroes, although this Goodreads list is quite helpful.) Hicksville isn’t a superhero story, but it is a meta-work about superhero comics, following a journalist trying to trace the origin of a hugely successful cartoonist by travelling to his hometown of Hicksville in an obscure corner of New Zealand; an odd little place where everybody is obsessed with comics.
I can’t remember the last time I cracked out the Field of Dreams analogy, but it goes like this: you will never understand the love that certain people (always Americans or Canadians) have for the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams unless you grew up playing baseball and have a deep and overwhelming sense of nostalgia about it. Hicksville works much the same way. I can see how a comics tragic would adore it. As an outsider I can look at it, and respect it, and didn’t feel it was a waste of my time; but I could easily tell that I wasn’t the target audience.