Monday, 31 August 2009

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)


Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymours, but they, and their house, appear only on the peripheries of this accomplished and much-praised novel. Centre stage is Thomas Cromwell, his rise: from bashed-about blacksmith’s son and vagrant to Henry VIII’s most powerful and trusted counselor. Mantel treads lightly, and with a wealth of leavening ordinary quotidian detail, through some rather over familiar history: Katherine of Aragorn on the way out, Anne Boleyn on the way in, Henry desperate for a male heir; and at the very end there are inklings of the coming import of Jane Seymour and the titular palace. But that’s not really what’s going on, because Mantel’s Wolf Hall is actually the court, where a higher-class of dog eats a higher-class of dog (‘The saying comes to him [Cromwell], homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man’ 572).

And indeed Mantel does the infighting and politicking of the nobles that swarm about Henry very well indeed, partly because the court is always parsed in the context of the country as a whole; the politics are to do with the larger realm, not merely a group of representative nobs. Courtiers constrained by one another and by the need to service Henry’s will; Henry constrained by his sense of what his own people, prone to riot and quick to voice their disapproval at their king shunting off his poor old wife for a younger model, will tolerate. Here’s Cromwell at home, with a servant he picked up in the continent and new to England:

It is late. Upstairs he closes the shutter, where the moon gapes in hollow-eyed, like a drunk lost in the street. Christophe, folding garments, says, ‘Is there loups? In this kingdom?’

‘I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.’ [499]


Wolf Hall, in other words, is England. That’s well observed, I think.

So how to judge this exceptional novel? I admire the writing very much indeed: the prose is flawlessly handled, beautifully paced and weighted, timed well, the dialogue is brisk and deft, the overall balance of elements expertly done. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent the fact that I am also a writer got in the way of more actual, or genuine, appreciation; because what I found myself admiring most is Mantel’s superb technical accomplishment (she is, truly, one of the most technically able and brilliant writers in English alive today), reading with one part of my brain thinking ‘that’s a good bit, that’s very good—(as it might be, “mobled queen” is good)—how is she achieving that effect? What’s she doing there?’ That of course is not how most people read; for most people technique does not trump content: character and plot come first. Calling somebody a writer’s writer is a back-handed way of saying they’re the kind of writer ordinary readers won’t like much. So the question is how well does the book manage on the reading a novel, rather than the reading to pick up tricks and techniques for one’s own writing, level?

Well, we’re given a detailed Cook’s tour of Thomas Cromwell himself, such that we may start to feel we understand him pretty well, after the interiorised, Jamesian manner of childhood-shapes-psychology, psychology-determines-behaviour sort of way. And the worldbuilding is superb; the creation of a suitably rounded, enter-into-able place. But I felt that Mantel’s thumb was in the balance when it came to judgment: her Cromwell too easy to like, too hard to dislike, her Thomas More the opposite. Too much a deliberate slapback (as Dan Hartland notes) to Man For All Seasons. Hartland says he can’t get aboard the book’s historiography. He’s the Leonardo Di Caprio character in Titanic, and historiography is the plank of wood at the end of the film. That’s his situation. Read his post now before he sinks, spookily, straight down through icy waters.

He has about a quarter of a point, in his criticism. The novel's representation of politics is indeed, arguably, a smidgen too Tudor West Wing—I don’t mean slick, I mean modern-feeling. History in this novel is not always estranged—but then again there are moments when it acquires the beautiful dislocation that separates Mantel’s representation from the twenty-first-century people in fancy dress and horsehit in the streets school of historical novelisation. Those moments lift the book.

History determines the present—as somebody, I forget precisely who, put it: ‘always historicize.’ And the Reformation still shapes contemporary England. There are deep-rooted reasons why Tony Blair could announce his conversion to Catholicism only after he had left office; and they’re dilute versions of the same reasons Charles II could only declare his faith secretly, on his deathbed.

Now, Mantel does a very proficient job of bringing the past into the present. The description (say) of a Lollard being burnt at the stake, and the climate of violence and torture, is rendered very vividly, in ways that bring the experiences to our modern sensibilities. But it wouldn’t work nearly as well if Mantel didn’t also have the instinct to balance those descriptions of violence with passages that do the opposite; passages like these:
He turns a page. Grace, silent and small, turns the page with him. The office is Prime. The picture is the Nativity: a tiny white Jesus lies in the folds of his mother’s cloak. The office is Sext: the Magi proffer jewelled cups; behind them is a city on a hill, a city in Italy, with its bell tower, its view of rising ground and its misty line of trees. The office is None: Joseph carries a basket of doves to the temple. The office is Vespers: a dagger sent by Herod makes a neat little hole in a shocked infant. A woman throws up her palms in protest, or prayer: her eloquent, helpless palms. The infant corpse scatters three drops of blood, each one shaped like a tear. Each bloody tear is a precise vermillion. [155]
This ekphrasis, by reformulating the novel’s concerns—with children, with versions of holiness, with violence and death—in a more deliberately stylized manner, works yeast into the dough of the c20th/c21st ‘well-made novel’ aesthetic that dominates elsewhere. It restores a little of the magical estrangement of history. And the fineness of writerly touch with which it is done is simply exquisite: a balance of observational beauty (‘her eloquent, helpless palms’) and symbolic beauty (the precision, for a novel about the beginnings of English Protestantism, of ‘a woman throws up her palms in protest, or prayer’). There are various other bits of ekphrasis in the novel, to do for instance with Holbien’s various portraits, although they tend to be a touch too concerned with painterly verisimilitude to work as beautifully as this prayer book scene.

So, yes: Mantel is too canny to have her characters spouting prithees and forsooths; and from time to time she strays a little too far in the other direction; by which I mean: having her characters not only talk in an inoffensive transhistorical manner, but sometimes get a little too hip, crack a little too wise. On the other hand, when she has a chessplayer touch a piece and says ‘j’aboube’ [105] it’s probably a typo. Unless it’s a really, really obscure, ‘boob’-related joke.

Friday, 28 August 2009

James Blish, Cities in Flight (1955-62)


Drafting an afterword for a Gollancz masterworks reissue of this fine quartet (Graham Sleight and I are doing a number of these between us) has given me the chance to revisit Blish's masterwork. Very good. I'll save my insights for the afterword, but will note a couple of things here. One is that I found it impossible to see the title Cities in Flight without singing it, to the tune of John Shuttleworth's 'Pigeons in Flight', something I recommend all SF fans try. The other is the variety of attempts to illustrate Blish's sublime concept. Up there, top of this post, is an early Analog cover, and very pretty it is too. But city? Judge the scale for yourself, but it looks to me barely even a city block ... 300m across at its widest point, if that. And so it strikes you; giving some sense of the proper scale of an entire city in space surrounded by its spindizzy field ... that's hard. Here's an early stab by the superb Chris Foss:
Huge Chunks of Rock and Soil in Flight. Judging by the pyramid, that's either a piece of Egypt, or else Las Vegas. Foss is more comfortable with the Big Spaceship (Model 9000: Storage Bin Exhaust Ports) in the foreground. Perhaps nonrepresentational is the way to go:

Are those coloured dots supposed to be stars, or a cloud of orbiting smarties? And why are there no houses on the IN? Who lives on IN? OK, well, perhaps botanical is the way to go, although it sounds a little odd to suggest it.
And, turns out, it looks a little odd too. A plant that releases not pollen by myriad face masks modelled on the actor who plays Mini-Me. That's a little ... nightmarish, I'd say. And of only glancing relevance to the novels. Or perhaps I'm missing something. There are other ways of dispensing with cities altogether. Like this:

An edition evidently published under the rare, variant title: Earthmen, Come Home Specially Abridged By The Author. Better, though, than this:
Which looks very much like somebody's bathtime.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

I finally persuaded my seven-year-old daughter that this was the film she wanted to see, rather than the ghastly-looking Aliens in the Attic, or title-sounds-like-porn, film-is-actually-so-wholesome-my-teeth-would-fall-out Bandslam. And it's not bad, although 'it's not very good' also applies. In essence it is a text too-obviously no longer interested in the business of winning people to the franchise: enough fans have enough momentum now to make it a hit, no matter what. But it goes through all the motions, and it has its moments. The production values are very high. The whole Horace Slughorn storyline feels, on screen, like a very circuitous faldapiffly way roundabout to the business with the horcruces, but even that's OK; and my daughter certainly lapped it up. As for me: well I found two particular pleasures in the film.

One is Ron Weasley, as played by Rupert Grint, now a gulp-inducing twenty-one years of age. The plot calls for various girls to fall desperately in love with Ron, Hermione (of course) chief amongst them; and there is exquisite irony-flavoured viewing pleasure in this, given that Ron has grown from a sweet carrot-top kid into an adult of gasp-and-point ugliness. If the Tollund Man had been dug up, electrically reanimated and given an orange wig he would barely look less physically prepossessing than Grint in this role. Of course the girls all love him. How could they not?

But best of all, though limited to only a few (too few) scenes, is Alan Rickman's Severus Snape: and in particular the way he delivers his lines, namely in an extraordinary, thespy, fruity, thrumming, very very slow manner. I could listen to such superenunciatory excessiveness all. Day. Long. I really could.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Blade Runner (1982)


Martin Lewis has edited a BSFAS pamphlet (included in the latest Vector mailing) that contains, amongst many other interesting essaylets on other interesting films, my thoughts on Blade Runner; and he's OK'd me reposting that particular essaylet to my blog. Click the images below to read what I have to say, whilst bearing in mind that there's one typo (my fault: not the BSFA's): page 24 (the first), line 8: 'sports' should be 'sport'.



Saturday, 15 August 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream

To return, for the third time, to this fine novel. I'm posting this ahead-of-time, using the nifty Blogger advance posting feature, since I'm actually now on holiday with my family. And I trust, though I can't be sure, that my review in The Guardian is out today (if not, check back next week). Since the Guardian-folk only gave me 800 words, I'm posting here some further thoughts.

One of the things I argue in my review is that Robinson’s title is a gloss upon the book—Kepler’s Dream—that some consider the first properly science fictional novel. Although by ‘some’ perhaps I mean, well, me; which in turn many explain why I feel especially gratified by the canny intertextual eloquence with which KSR’s parses the conventions of early SF: the balance between fantastical extrapolation (in this case, futuristic extrapolation) and actual scientific observation; the mode of transport from world to world; the utopian and satiric components of the imaginary worlds encountered and so on.

Hera, a sort of 31st-century psychiatrist, shows Galileo how the raging tantrums of both his fierce old mother and his equally fierce young mistress were grounded in the situation of two intelligent individuals struck in a society that permitted women little or no options. There’s a vivid little scene of the two of them going at one another hammer-and-tongs with imprecations and actual violence, Galileo in the middle trying to separate them and feeling very sorry for himself to have been saddled with such harpy women. Back in the 31st-century Hera asks: ‘Why were they fighting?’ ‘They were angry people,’ Galielo replies. ‘Choleric. They had so much yellow bile in them that if you pinched them your fingers would turn yellow.’
‘Nonsense,’ Hera said. ‘You know better than that. They were people, just like you. Except that their lives were crimped , every day of their lives. Women in a patriarchy, what a fate. You know what I would have done if I were them? I would have killed you. I would have poisoned you or cut your throat with a kitchen knife.’
‘Well.’ Galileo regarded her uneasily; she towered over him, and her massive arms were like carved ivory. ‘You said that a time’s structure of feeling has a lot to do with how we are. Maybe you would have felt differently.’
‘All humans have an equal amount of pride,’ she said. ‘No matter how much it gets crushed or battered.’
‘I don’t know if that’s true. Isn’t pride part of a structure of feeling?’
‘No. It’s part of the integrity of the organism, the urge to life. A cellular thing.’ [286]
Robinson’s talking about what Spinoza called conatus, of course; but glossing this as pride is a fascinating move.

I also note in my review that the 17th-Century stuff often has a roundedness that the 3020 scenes lack: the mis-en-scène is more immersive, more complete, and the characterization is much more effective. Indeed, the characterization is one of the great strengths of this novel: not only Galileo, although KSR does a tremendous job in fleshing out the historical façade of this alabaster saint of science, but in several of the figures around him. The scenes towards the end between Galileo and his daughter Maria Celeste are tremendously moving; and the scorpion’s nest sense of Rome, its networks and politics, its conspiracies, loyalties, paranoias and vendetti, is superb.

KSR gives us several of the most celebrated Galilean moments: eppur si muove is in there; the experiments with balls rolling on inclined planes; though not the weights dropped from the leaning tower of Pisa—historically apochryphal of course—and I might have wished the cameo appearance of John Milton fuller. It’s excellent, but over too soon. But one of the major achievements of this novel is to bring alive the excitement and epiphanic joy of scientific discovery. That process, working from first principles to extrapolate a profound understanding of the cosmos is also the theme of Egan’s Incandescence of course; and I don’t doubt many people feel I’ve said enough about that novel already. The point of the comparison is not that I feel KSR does a better job in Galileo’s Dream than Egan did in his novel; although actually I think he does. Egan’s approach, of course, was different: a rarified, arguably purified schematic of this process projected onto a far-future insectile species. Robinson does much more not only because he is an incomparably better stylistic than Egan (though he is); and not only because he draws much richer, more human characters (though, again he does); and not at all because he is telling a historical story and Egan details a wholly imaginary fable—that part, in fact, has nothing to do with it. The crucial thing, I’d say, is that Robinson evokes the sheer ontological thrill of scientific discovery; the trembling-on-the-lip of understanding. Egan, perhaps, takes that for granted; but by beautifully evoking the psychological ground Robinson is able to illuminate all of Galileo’s discoveries in shimmering brilliance. Here he sits ion the garden of the nunnery in which his daughter, starved by her piety, has recently died.
Galileo sat there looking at the strawberry plants at his feet. The new leaves came out of the ground neatly folded. Any new leaf was a remarkable thing when considered closely. The little plant emerged from brown mud that was granulated and unpromising. Wet dirt, nothing more. And yet there were the new leaves. Earth, water, air, the subtle fire of sunlight, driving the life into everything. Something in the mix of these, and something beyond them … For a long time he sat there staring, feeling on the edge of understanding, of seeing things clearly. The feeling swelled in him as he realized that it was an emotion he felt all the time, that his entire life had been one protracted case of presque vu. Almost seen! Almost understood! The blue sky quivered with this feeling. [546]
The 3020 scenes, despite a perfectly serviceable mystery about the nature and intentions of the life-form discovered beneath the Europan ice, never generate this intensity of affect. More, there are structural problems that are a function of the time-travel to-and-fro. When he is in the future, Galileo is educated super-rapidly, by the Marvellous Machines of the future utopia, brought up to fourth millennium levels not only in science but also history. On his many returns to Seventeenth-Century Italy he is, sometimes, given an amnesiac agent to forget this info; but sometimes he is not; and that may make up wonder why he doesn’t immediately sit down with his pen in 1630 Tuscany and write a 31st-century equivalent of The Brief History of Time. Historia Temporalis Brevis, I guess. KSR has a couple of strategies for negotiating this problem—and the main one is that most of Galileo’s important discoveries have already been made before the future-people contact him, for instance. But there are moments—when he starts observing what he thinks are ears on the planet Saturn, and wonders what they might be [318-19] is one. Given that he has, at this point, received a super-advanced education, and actually flown right round Jupiter in a transparent spacecraft (and not taken any forgetting-agent) made me think: wouldn’t he recognize planetary rings when he sees them? Wouldn’t he already know about Saturn?

I don’t mean to nitpick. In fact, it is not beyond belief that Galileo might forget what he has learned, because one of the novel’s main themes—one of Robinson’s perennial themes—is that memory is not a simple process. And I very much liked this insight: ‘He saw again that there were men who were both highly intelligent and deeply stupid.’ [563]

I loved the games KSR plays with psychoanalyzing his characters (‘Pride leads to a fall,’ the elderly Galileo tells a priggish young Milton. ‘You should remember that.’ But he goes on: ‘I know, I was proud. But I fell. My mother stole my eyes.’ 565) including a nifty 31st-century magic helmet that brings to life the memories with the greatest emotional charge. At the same time, I can see that other readers might not enjoy that so much; or KSR’s slightly cranky devotion to the idea that the four humours really do govern our personalities, which was one of the hobby-horses he rode (with Freud for sword and a Greimas Square for shield) in the Mars books. Still, Galileo’s mother—a splendid, rollicking portrait of a harridan—really did steal his eyes; or his telescopic lenses at any rate (she wanted to sell them to make a bit of money); and blindness, the necessary blindness of existence, connects expressively with another of KSR’s perennial fascinations, the intermittencies of memory.

At the end, it is a novel not just about doing science, but about doing good. That is what gives it its greatest profundity; the articulation of a sense in which we are all entangled with one another. The peroration with which it ends is genuinely earned by the narrative that precedes it:
And so when sometimes you feel strange, when a pang tugs you or it seems like the moment has already happened—or when you look up in the sky and are surprised by the sight of bright Jupiter between the clouds, and everything suddenly seems stuffed with a vast significance—consider that some other person somewhere is entangled with you in time, and is trying to give some push to the situation, some little help to make things better. Then put your shoulder to whatever wheel you have at hand, whatever moment you’re in, and push too! Push like Galileo pushed! And together we may crab sideways toward the good. [578]
Fine advice, that.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Mercury Music Prize 2009

Shortlist:

• Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
• Florence and the Machine – Lungs
• Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires
• Glasvegas – Glasvegas
• Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
• La Roux – La Roux
• Led Bib – Sensible Shoes
• Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
• Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
• Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men
• The Horrors – Primary Colours
• The Invisible – The Invisible

This year's shortlisting conspiracy is to show, by implication, that men are brutish grunty adolescents and women sophisticated, creatively inventive grown-ups. For on the one hand we are offered the chittering, repetitive inarticulacies of The Horrors, the dreary yowling and unimaginative melodies of Glasvegas, the second-hand goods of the yelping Friendly Fires and the been-there-done-that schtick of Kasabian, all quasi-Oasis posturing and booming. To be fair (oh must I be fair?) The Horrors’ ‘The Sea Within a Sea’ has an eerie Kraftwerkian charm; and some of the boingy plonky synthesiser effects on the Kasabian album are nice. And then again The Invisible aren’t bad, although theirs is a music that indelibly evokes mental images of middle-aged men dancing badly in their kitchens and living rooms. The thing is, it’s all a bit obvious, and blokey, and don’t-call-me-stupid Otto-ish, and especially so when set alongside the often exquisite, nuanced, well-made-song work of Lisa Hannigan (the whole of Sea Sew elaborates its nautical trope expressively and effectively, a thoroughly graceful, beautiful, touching, insightful album); or the needle-sharp suite from La Roux (let down only by the fact that her voice has too much of the expanded polystyrene scraped down a blackboard about it); or the plangent, dreamy woo of the new Bat For Lashes; or Florence and the Machine’s superb Lungs (Number 71 say perceptive things about this one: 'Quirky, angry and passionate songs soar into uplifting climaxes ... Florence Welch has a clawing cat-cry of a voice, in a good way – if you like Björk ... very pre-Raphaelite and loaded with dark symbolism.')

Otherwise there’s some jazz (which I will start liking the day they hang the royal family), a bit of this and some of that. I haven’t heard the Speech Debelle rap album, which may be brilliant or not. But I just feel that my gender has let itself down rather badly here.

[P.S: half a day later, having followed David's advice and rectified the unaccountable omission of Sweet Billy Pilgrim, I have to concede: Twice Born Men is very far from the stompy-stompy oi!-oi! version of manhood I talk about in this post. It's rather pretty, in fact, in a poor-fractured-Atlas sort of way, although it strays a little too close to being actually clapped out to really endear. Some very nice, bruised, scratchy pieces on it, though; and the 'Calypso' song is, after the John Denver track, the second-best song to namecheck Calypso that isn't actually a Calypso I know. A good album, in a slightly over-familiar, exhausted, Neil Young, Sparklehorse, Deerhunter way. But it is the exception that disproves my initial rule.]

Monday, 10 August 2009

Rena Vale, Taurus Four (1970)


Go, on: click for a larger view. And isn't it simply the most splendid, gayest SF paperback cover you ever clapped eyes upon? To see it (in a charity shop) was to fall in love with it (in a charity shop). And was also to start wondering: do they do those outfits in TXMaxx? Not just his fine strap-based onepiece; I also want-me one of those umbrellas under which he is sheltering his lady from the elements. After all ... that sky ... those clouds: I wouldn't start a cricket match under that sort of cloud cover and expect to finish it. Although I think it would be fun if professional cricketers were compelled to play dressed like that.

It is, in fact, an interesting, though not a good, novel. Partly this is because it looks like it was assembled as a bet: '... I'll wager you'll not write an SF novel that combines sociologists, an intelligent race of bear-creatures and the descendents of a lost 20th century Hippy Colony.' 'You're on! My only proviso: that I be allowed to describe them as "hippie" instead of "hippy"' 'Agreed: but you must make your tag line: A MAN MUST CHOSE BETWEEN BEING A SOCIOLOGIST, OR A HERO!'


But really what's most interesting about this novel is the logic of its representation of hippy culture. It articulates a peculiar mixture of hostile demonisation and barely-contained salacious sexualised desire for hippydom. So on the one hand, these hippies are savages, great hairy loons living naked like beasts and indulging in violent human sacrifice like some outpost of the Manson family. On the other, there's Thora, for whom the protagonist falls, whose 'small oval face was a flower, blushing the rose pink of her out-thrust nipples' and who 'turned and ran, rounded buttocks dimpling and pink heels twinkling' [42-43]. The sociologist-hero-protagonist resists his urges, although those urges are described in lubricious detail ('not until she stood before him in pale, unsoiled loveliness had he realised how much he yearned for this woman'); and ultimately he saves the girl from a fate worse than hippy. Indeed, the lengths the book goes to reconcile its desire for hippy free-love with reactionary notions of right behaviour twist it into fascinating contortions. It's not just that Dorian gets properly married to Thora at the end before there's any hankypanky, although he does; it's that (for instance) despite growing up on an alien world and never knowing clothing Thora has a natural talent for doing the laundry: '"I wash now. I think I do more better than you." He laughed. "It's instinctive I guess -- something carried in the genes that makes women want to wash clothes!"' [108]

There's a deal of very clumsy ideological coding of the human struggle against the intelligent bear-like-aliens ('Did the strong and virile men of the American old West ever doubt the rightness of pushing westward to the Pacific Ocean? ... history recorded the deeds of the strong, not of weaklings who fell by the wayside' 123) which isn't very nice. But I liked the confusion about how the hippies ended up on this alien planet in the first place. The backstory: humans fought a long war with lizard-like aliens called Saurians.
At the beginning of the Space war when the green saurians from the Cygnus chain had sent explorers to Earth to prepare to take it over, there had been some kidnappings. Several groups of people of a drug culture who had gotten reality confused with their drug dreams had not been frightened when green men in lizard skins walked among them. [54]
Those crazy hippies! But wait...
Some tried to raise an alarm, but they could get little attention. The communications media was distrustful of their ofttimes drug-inspired statements.
So, is it that the hippies were to blame because their drugs made them the only humans not to be so scared of the scary lizard aliens that they ran off? Or because their drugs meant that when they told they world they were scared nobody listened? At any rate: 'no warning was sounded until the Cygnians took some French radicals.' The moral is clear: grab all the hippies you like but leave the Althusserians alone.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Jack Vance, Lyonesse (1983)

I'm finishing off an afterword for this excellent-looking new Gollancz edition of the complete Lyonesse trilogy; so my head is full of Vance right now. That's a wonderful thing to have filling your head, by the way. What an incomparable and superb writer he is! And of all his books, Lyonesse really is one of his best. There's so much to say about it (there are, for instance, so many elements from it that have worked their way into my own novels, sometimes unconsciously) ... but for now I'll confine myself to a quick browse through the cover art of various editions. First editions first; that's the rule:


And very nice too, although Suldrun (there) is a little too sweet and pretty for the character as she appears in the book; and the enormity of the bugs alarms me a little. Plus the cover blurb ('Vintage Vance ... and you can't say better than that. It never lets you down' Frank Herbert), by suggesting that, maybe, you suspect perhaps you might be let down, tends to undersell what is, after all, a masterpiece. This one:

... has a kind of Tuner's Dido Building Carthage vibe to it, and is also very pretty. Although I'm not sure a picture of a blonde woman washing her heel quite gets to the heart of Vance's vision: which for all its intricately stylish range has almost nothing to do with heel-washing.


This is the edition I first read the story in, and it accordingly has a close place in my heart. And I like the landscape and especially the Jenga-ish, on-the-point-of-toppling castle. But the stiffly sat whitebearded gnomes in the bottom right are a false step, visually; and as with the other images there's nothing in this that captures the beautifully estranged, uniquely laminated and fine-grained splendour of Vance's prose. Still it's closer to the mood than this oddly Wagnerian Czech edition of the novel (apologies for the keystoning, and blurriness):

Those are some forearms she's got there. Here's the book in Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks livery:

Which is perhaps the loveliest of the lot, although a little, I don't know, mournful and subdued. Where, we might wonder, are Vance's pavane-like liveliness, and wit, his grotesque rapidity? And then, whilst google-image-search cycled through Lyonesse covers, my eye fell excitedly upon this one:

'Yes!' I thought: 'a weird smoking fishmouth sloth-armed monster flying past two sword-carrying, surfing hobbits! That's more like it!' For although there's nothing in the novels to suggest such a scene, this at least gets a little closer to the mood of Vance. But of course this is not Vance; this is by the, I have no doubt, excellent Sam Llewellyn and is a completely different novel. A shame, really. And now that I come to look at it, the title appears to be the much less pronouncable Lyqnesse; so I'm starting to go off it a little.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

J G Ballard RHUL Honorary Degree Citation

[On the 15th July 2009 my college, Royal Holloway University of London, awarded a posthumous honorary degree to J G Ballard. I was asked to write and deliver the citation. I reproduce it here.]

Principal, the news of J G Ballard’s death on the 19th of April this year, though grievous, was not unexpected. His last published book, the memoir Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (2008) ends with a dispassionate account of the prostate cancer which, metastasising to his ribs and spine, killed him. The writing is wholly without self-pity, and possesses the unsettling clarity and intensity that is characteristic of all his work.

I present him to you for an Honorary Degree of the University of London. The reason for this honour is, simply, his outstanding contribution to literature.

James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. Whilst still a child he was interned in a Japanese civilian World War II POW camp. He came to the UK in 1946, and from the 1950s onward wrote a unique kind of science fiction, inflected by avant-garde, Surrealist and 1960s Pop artistic sensibilities. Rarely concerned with alien monsters or distant worlds, the real theme of Ballard’s SF was ‘inner space’ (he is sometimes credited with coining the term). As he declared in 1962: ‘the only truly alien planet is Earth.’

His first four novels were powerful, poetic reimaginings of that old genre standby, the end of the world: The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), are particularly notable, treating their planet-devouring catastrophes as eerily beautiful processes of unfathomable transformation. A prolific writer with the knack of crafting masterpieces, he had by the late 1970s established a reputation as the laureate of the unnerving. Unnerved readers sometimes reacted with outrage. His collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) was tried for obscenity in the USA; and his stunning novel Crash (1973), with its potent blend of explicit pornography and lovingly-described traffic-accident violence, retains its power to shock even today. But of course a writer as revolutionary as Ballard could never be uncontroversial.

From 1960 to his death Ballard lived in Shepperton, and the landscape of Surrey figures largely in his 1970s fiction, transformed either to dystopian grimness in Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975); or else, in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), fantastically metamorphosed into an exotic, hyperfertile dream-jungle. Empire of the Sun (1984), a fictionalisation of his childhood wartime experiences, was a bestseller, and was filmed by Stephen Spielberg in 1987. Though sometimes seen as a break from Ballard’s sciencefictional mode, this novel is in fact the apotheosis of his SF aesthetic, a fantastical fable of the appalling beauty and persistent estrangement of twentieth-century existence. Two masterpieces of late-period Ballard, set amongst the gated-communities and the sterile hedonisms of the super-rich do likewise: Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), icily potent novels that paint worlds stranger than any interplanetary adventure.

Ballard turned down an MBE in 2006, describing the honours system as ‘a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy.’ But he did not refuse honorary degrees from universities (he was awarded an honorary Dlitt from Loughborough) and he has particular associations with the University of London, where he briefly studied English at Queen Mary’s College as a young man.

Ballard is the most original and influential science fiction writer of the twentieth-century, and one of the most important Anglophone writers in any genre.

In recognition, therefore, of his outstanding contribution to Literature, and his association with the University of London, I invite you, Principal, to confer, posthumously, the Degree of Doctor of Literature Honoris Causa of the University of London on J G Ballard.