Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
Zadie Smith, NW

Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

1839lzdygndfmjpgFirst, the confession.

Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.

In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)

But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.

And you know what?

It’s all right.

It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.

That ain't no monolith...
That ain’t no monolith…

First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by

...and neither is that
…and neither is that

casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.

Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.

Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.

In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3

But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.

Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.

PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.

1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something.
2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See  this. And this excellent response.
3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.

William Barton and Michael Capobianco, Fellow Traveler (1991)

675521This is one of those books that’s been lying around the house unread for a couple of decades. I bought it on the strength of a positive review in Interzone, probably, or perhaps SF Eye. It has made at least two previous trips to the US and back with me, and tomorrow it will be on its way to the charity shop. It is not a great book, or even a particularly good one, but it is odd in an interesting way. Or interesting in an odd way. In the opening years of the 21st century, Gorbachev aborts a Soviet moon-landing in favour of a mission to divert a near-Earth asteroid, Sinuhe, into a cislunar orbit, using nuclear bombs for propulsion. There, it can be mined for materials with which to revitalise the Soviet economy, build a lunar base, stage missions to Mars and generally open up the solar system. The US, however, views it as threat to the pax Americana established by their successful SDI programme. Fellow Traveler is hard sf of a particular engineering kind, a thriller rather lacking in thrills. It reads like one of the mission checklists its cosmonaut characters religiously plod through. And the cosmonauts themselves are largely ciphers, something they seem to acknowledge about themselves when discussing problems with a pair of cabin-feverish mission specialists who threaten to contaminate the novel with melodrama:

Neither one of them’s had any training in how to hold things in. They . . . can’t suppress themselves like we can. Emotional bullshit. Not pilots. Not engineers. … What can I say? They’re wet inside. (188).

Barton and Capobianco attempt to counter this flatness by interlarding into the present (in)action flashbacks about growing up in the Soviet Union and becoming involved in the space programme. In this regard, Fellow Traveler recalls novels from Gregory Benford’s ‘when he could be bothered’ phase – In The Ocean of the Night (1976), Timescape (1980), Against Infinity (1983), Across the Sea of Suns (1984) – which imported some of the lessons of the American new wave into hard sf, but it is far less successful. What makes Fellow Traveler most worthy of comment is its rather peculiar politics. It is deeply critical of the path taken by NASA since the 1970s, arguing that the visionless, military-dominated, mission-by-mission status quo needs to be replaced by an expansive and exploratory space programme. However, it does so by giving that grand old upwards-and-outwards vision at the core of what John Clute calls Agenda Sf over to the Soviet Union, lock, stock and barrel. When Gorbachev addresses the Congress of People’s Deputies (78-9), he could be a huckster shilling for Wernher von Braun or Willy Ley on a 1950s Disneyland episode. Later, in private, he says of the Sinuhe mission,

It is not only a beautiful idea, as the torso of a woman is beautiful, it is simplicity itself. Mankind will have made a genuine leap, not the paltry step the Americans made so long ago. (91)

And, according to the first of the novel’s appendices, this mission was in 1991 ‘possible – though just barely possible – using … off the shelf technology’ (382) the USSR, but not the US, possessed. Barton and Capobianco attempt to shame the US into colonising the solar system. Furthermore, their general critique of the shallowness and tawdriness of American consumer culture implies they would prefer limitations to democracy and a degree of autocratic centralisation if it got the US an offworld foothold. While the American president, government, military and media are depicted as, respectively, weak, ineffective, paranoid and carelessly sensationalist, overt approval of autocracy is only expressed by non-American characters. One of the cosmonauts, for example, thinks

Kruschev had been such a crude old peasant, embarrassing on the world scene and, in the end, cowed by a handsome American boy. But, like Mussolini, he seemed to have the knack of making things work. Maybe that was important. (17)

And the novel is so incapable of imagining cultural difference that it repeatedly defines characters in absurdly nationalist terms. The Italian Anselm Bustamonte, contemplating the way the Soviet mission renders the Piazzi II probe to Sinuhe redundant, thinks:

It was a miracle of engineering, and would have thrust Italy into a central position within the newly reformulated ESA overnight. Certainly the country’s prestige within the EEC would have been strengthened as well, reclaiming the technological lead she had lost during the late Renaissance. (166)

Elsewhere, the stereotyping is less overtly nationalist, but every bit as hilarious. Russians, for example, are given to saying things like

Hegel would be proud of you, Academician. (23)

and (in 2002!) of a Moody Blues (!) track:

It is bourgeois and repetitive, performed by cretins with the skill of dancing bears, and, worst of all, encourages the most antisocial of behavior. (186)

Which is, come to think of it, pretty accurate, if hard on ursus terpsichoris. Russians also tend to think in terms like these:

It was May, but the winter had held its iron grip on Moskva like a true bureaucrat, deferring any real changes until the last possible moment, afraid to take responsibility for anything new. (70)

This nationalist stereotyping tendency is best captured, however, by Hermann Oberg, the imaginatively named German director of the European Space Agency.1 The voice of reason trying to mediate between Soviets and Americans, he sometimes adopts what he considers a more French approach, since French is the language of diplomacy, but other times he is a lot more, well, ‘German’:

What was it Hitler had said? Yes, on the occasion of the first V-2 launch, he said, ‘Es war doch gewaltig!‘ Too true … Bastard had the soul of a poet. … After all, anyone who loved dogs and blondes couldn’t have been all bad. (37)

And, directly before addressing the (privately disdained) UN,

He was imagining himself standing before an outdoor amphitheater, filled with thousands of black-clad, torch-wielding young men. Iron Christians. The crowd was chanting something, Horst Wessel Lied, perhaps. (148)

By the time of the novel’s epilogue, fifteen years after the principal action, Oberg is President of the Federal Republic of Europe, and the Scandinavian states have joined a renascent USSR, while the US, whose unilateral intervention nearly destroyed the world, languishes in decline. Clearly what Americans needs is a collective goal. And a vastly more ambitious space programme. And a dictatorship. That way they can get to live in space and have a thousand year Reich all of their own. Or something like that.

1 It it difficult to tell whether this is laziness or homage. Other minor character names include Zarkov (yay!) and, more peculiarly, Jo-Lee Hooker and George Buckminster Smiley.

British soft imperialism conquers the Moon, the stars! At last!

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocketHave you ever wondered why the British Experimental Rocket Group never got us to the Moon?

Sid James points Brian Donlevy in the direction of the bar

Nigel Kneale, authorised biographer of (and chief propagandist for) Professor Bernard Quatermass, was always quick to blame it on the militarisation of the British Space Programme, while American analysts tend to pin it on the UK’s lack of frontier spirit and yankee know-how (and there is certainly evidence that Britain tried to recruit some of that – though they ended up with a washed-up alcoholic who spoke so quickly you always had the sense that he was impatient for any conversation to end so he could get to the bar).

The truth, however, is revealed in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998).

Moonseed_Stephen_BaxterOn p.451 of a 534-page novel, we read that a US astronaut, who has landed on the Moon in a jerry-rigged emergency mission to save the Earth,

sipped her … tea. Even freshly made, it did not seem hot enough. One of the old clichés of lunar travel, she thought: water boils at lower temperature in low pressure.



And, as this model and the Winnerton Flats prototype reveal, the lunar domes Quatermass intended to build would not have solved the problem.

That’s right.

Basic physics robbed us of the Dan Dare future we were promised. Once it became clear quite how rare a nice cup of tea would be in space, we as a nation – an entire nation – just lost the will to go there ourselves. 8069053883_6ae139b878_z

However, the story does not end there.

A careful reading of Baxter shows that it was Britons who unleashed the planet-destroying Moonseed, thus forcing the US and Russia to co-operate in the mission that would ultimately lead to the rapid terraforming of the Moon (and then, it is implied, human expansion across and beyond the Solar System). And should anyone doubt that this is ultimately a British triumph, observe what happens on pp.489-90. Henry, the American responsible for setting the lunar expedition in motion and for sneaking along the equipment necessary to make the Moon habitable at the speed (if not quite the absurdity) of Total Recall­, knows that his crazy plan has worked the moment it starts to rain on the Moon.