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.)
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:
2002 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 2003-4 Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle 2004 Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient. 2005 Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006 Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow 2007 Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions 2009 China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street Station, The Scar) 2010 Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel 2011 Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun 2012 Zadie Smith, NW
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Carrie (2013) is the moment when you remember that back in 1988 the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it would be a good idea to blow the best part of $10 million on a flop Broadway musical version, but it turns out the very worst thing about it comes a moment later when you realise you would much rather be in the stalls, singing along and soaked in pig’s blood…
Writing a hard-sf story is not easy. I should know – I tried it once.
After careful study, I ripped not one but two ideas from that week’s top science stories and combined them for extra unpitying induracy. For a little dazzle, I structured the whole thing around an allusion to a canonical story. Then one of the two science stories at the core of the endeavour promptly fell apart.
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about R.I.P.D. (2013) is that you get to indulge in all the pork based humour you can muster for almost ninety minutes thanks to the thoughtful casting of Kevin Bacon alongside piggy-eyed charisma vacuum Ryan Reynolds,…
We travelled over the mountains from Miami, and down to Florence. Perhaps it was the landscape we passed through to get there that made it seem in contrast so very very flat.
It is another Arizona town struggling to find a history.
Unlike Miami, its main street is now an historic downtown and, unlike Miami, it is, well, not so much pristine as shabby genteel. Scrubbed up nicely. Stripped of any sense of the passage of time. As if it was made this way and will stay this way.
Scattered over a handful of blocks are plaques. They are mostly about individual houses, recording maybe a century’s worth of possession, mostly English names but some Spanish, and how each owner in turn added bits, demolished bits, concealed bits. The five-room museum, in the former jail-turned-courthouse-turned-hospital-turned-goodness-knows-what over the years is far too spacious.
It’s as if nothing ever happened here.
Even in the afternoon sun, it feels a bit Twilight Zone.
Last year, Nerdwallet listed Florence as the number one ‘city on the rise’ in Arizona. But is difficult to imagine such an untethered-feeling place having a future. To picture it launching itself into the flow of history.
‘Nothing ever happens here’, would be a good motto. Especially if followed by ‘move along, there’s nothing to see’.
The as-yet-unincarcerated population of Florence is around 25,500, but the economy hinges on the ‘corrections industry’, on the nine separate prisons in town, so there’s a good chance the locals are outnumbered by inmates.
Arizona’s death row and death house are here, too, have been for more than a century, and in World War 2 there was even a POW camp. German and Italian prisoners, mainly from north Africa. If they signed a document renouncing the Axis war effort, they were housed in ‘Democracy Town’, and permitted to leave the camp and work in the local cotton fields; those who did not sign were kept in the ‘Nazi Town’ area of the camp.
There’s an exhibit about it at the far end of the final room in the museum.
The exhibit does not mention that the southern half of Arizona was in Military Zone No. 1, which Japanese Americans were encouraged to leave ‘voluntarily’ in 1942, and in which they were then ordered to stay, placed under a curfew, while the dispossession and internment policies took shape.
The exhibit does not mention that to the north and west, in Mayer and Parker Dam, there were ‘Civilian Assembly Centers’, temporary camps where Japanese Americans were held after being removed from their homes. Or, in the same directions, the Gila River and Poston ‘Relocation Centers’, that is, internment camps. Or, further north, in Leupp, the Citizen Isolation Centre, reserved for ‘problem’ inmates. Or, to the south, the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, which held Japanese-American draft resisters and conscientious objectors.
Perhaps these omissions are fair enough. None of that happened in Florence itself. And besides, drawing attention to systematic, institutionalised racial injustice is probably not the done thing when you’re dependent on the prison-industrial complex. No matter how desperate you are for some history – any history – with which to fluff up your downtown.
Odd though that the exhibit does not mention the Japanese American civilians held in the POW camp alongside the captured Italian and German soldiers.
I wonder whether they got to live in Democracy town, whether they got to pick cotton.
Note This is my second attempt to write up a light-hearted anecdote about Florence, but both times the opening line has led me in another direction. I will try again soon. Maybe tomorrow.
For another take on the town, try this – it is where I nicked my picture from cos I was too busy getting the ones I would need for that elusive light-hearted anecdote.
Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.
Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.
Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?
Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.
‘No Place Like Earth’ was not producer Irene Shubik’s choice for Out of the Unknown’s opener. She was concerned about its languid pace and, following the recent Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, about its old-fashioned representation of the red planet (and it was apparently taken to task over this when reviewed on the BBC’s discussion programme, Late Night Line Up (1964-72)).
Shubik would have preferred the adaptation of Alan E. Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (1952),1 and David Campton’s original teleplay ‘Stranger in the Family’ was also ready to air. But Sydney Newman,2 the Head of Drama, selected the episode based on a story by John Wyndham, by far the most famous of these authors…
Although as far as I have been able to determine, the story had still not appeared in print anywhere under Wyndham’s name.3
Wyndham’s story follows Bert, one of a small number of humans on Mars after the complete destruction of the Earth fourteen years earlier. Unlike the others, who have settled into a life of hopeless dissolution, Bert is an itinerant tinker, travelling the Martian canals from place to place, fixing pots and pans and basic mechanical devices for the indigenous population, who are unskilled at such things. They live lives of quiet contentment, without regret or strife, long after the decline of the ancient Great Ones, whose ruins dot the landscape. The gentle Martians offer Bert a home among them, even a wife, Zaylo, but he cannot bring himself to abandon his memories of Earth, his sense of difference, of human ambition. He is incapable of embracing a world he knows is dying.
Abruptly, a ship from Venus arrives. There, other human survivors are racing to transform their precarious colony into a new Earth before the Slav settlement, at the other Venusian pole, expands to threaten them. Venus, however, turns out not to be what he’d been led to expect. Behind the façade, there is a strict hierarchy of privilege, and he is put to work as an overseer of indigenous slave labour. He revolts, escapes to Mars and, after ensuring there can be no future contact between the two worlds, returns to join his new Martian family.
Such a mixture of introspection and exposition, with only a little violent action, must have seemed quite manageable for a more-or-less studio-bound production, but for the need to represent two very different alien worlds – the declining Mars and the jungle Venus of pulp sf. But the staging is quite ingenious, involving maybe half a dozen sets. The ruins of a Martian building, vaguely resembling a classical temple, appear differently dressed as the two key Martian settings. Venus is represented by a pair of enclosed spaces, a kind of train station and a small train carriage; there is also a quarry set, and two other sites which might actually be part of the same set. And there are a couple of rooms in the spaceship. A brief location shoot at Loch Lomond provided images of the canals, with Martian mountains matted into the top half of the frame; a single shot of what appears to be a quarry was presumably filmed somewhere nearby. There is also a briefly glimpsed effects shot of a spaceship blowing up in the distance, and a stock shot of quarry blasting. And when Bert (Terence Morgan) first hears of the Venus settlement and fantasises about the new and ultramodern human society being built there, an image of the Martian ruins fades into a view of a skyscraper at a sharp angle that emphasises its height, and shots of the moderne arched vaults beneath – I think it is Centre Point, constructed in 1961-66, and at the time one of the tallest buildings in London.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wyndham’s story is the way in which it thinks about colonialism, drawing on and overlapping British and American traditions, stereotypes, clichés and expressions, while also offering a gentle, if deeply compromised, critique.
Bert recalls the first human encounters with the Martians:
They were a gentle, sympathetic people, and sincere. It was a tragedy, one of a string of similar tragedies that the first Earthman to ground on Mars had seen them as a weak, effete race; the ‘natives’, inferiors, to be kicked about, and exploited when convenient. … Their quietness, their lack of hurry and their calm philosophic ways were a soothing antidote to [Bert’s] sense of drive and thrust. He found out quite soon that what his companions had called their laziness and effeteness was a misunderstanding of minds that worked differently in some ways, and certainly saw life differently; whose conception of the virtues was altogether alien, and he found out how his abilities could help their deficiencies in exchange for the foods they knew how to grow. (12, 15-16)
Despite his profound sympathy for the Martians, Bert still sees humans as the norm – he does not see his mechanical orientation or his lack of agricultural knowledge as deficiencies. And British colonial idioms recur:
The Martian grapevine wasn’t any more reliable than other bush-telegraphs. (24)
Some of the other humans
had taken Martian girls and tried to go native (13)
because almost all the humans working in space were men, and therefore the survivor settlement on Mars is all male – although briefly, and in the story’s most overtly misogynist passage, Wyndham seems to have imagined it more as a wild west town:
There had also been two women, hostesses or stewardesses. Good enough girls, and amiable at first, though no great beauties. But circumstances were against them, and the pressure was great. They had gone quickly to the astonishing depths of badness good women can reach once they start. It was reckoned they had caused a score of murders each before they were found to be susceptible to the same method of disposal. Things were quieter after that, with drinking the main amusement.
Later, as Bert contemplates leaving Mars for Venus, he hears men singing, not
drunken bawling … but men singing lustily, cheerily, with hope in their hearts … (30)
And what do they sing? A song about prospecting for gold on the banks of the Sacramento river.4
Shades of the forty-niners, ghost of covered wagon trains crawling, crawling across prairies and deserts, over mountains, forging on against hardships and hunger. With not much gold at the end, perhaps – only an arid land. But a land which their sons would make to bloom like a garden there beside the Pacific. . . . (30-1)
The episode presents the Martian women and children as somehow Mediterranean-ish. Their faces and exposed skin are in swarthy but not too dark blackface; their hair, make-up and jewellery recall stereotypical images of ancient Greece (or maybe Rome or Egypt). Their simple dresses are suited to labour rather than elegantly draped robes, and this semiotic confusion is extended by their clearly unskilled pounding with large mortars on maize- or corn-filled pestles. (They also seem to have white mouthguards in place, smoothing out their teeth, but it is quite a subtle alien effect.) I don’t think we ever see an adult Martian male, which is one of the ways in which the episode develops the differences between the two worlds. On Venus, no-one wears natural fabrics, and the setting is all male. There are said to be women – fewer in number than the men and protected from the vicissitudes of life on the planet in the compound reserved for officers and the government – but we never see them. The Venusian settlers are promised wives in the future, once they prove themselves, but somehow that day never seems to come.
Soon after Wyndham’s evocation of manifest destiny, and now on Venus, British orientalism and idiom reassert themselves:
long leaves rippled in the Wind, writhing like Medusa’s hair. Crowning the central rise of the Settlement stood the massive palisades of the seraglio. (31)
which an unnamed settler labels
Jam tomorrow (31)
(The expression, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), had gained fresh currency as a term for politician’s promises following John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’.)
This unnamed character, out of favour with the Venusian ruling class, explains how the system works, in terms that resonate with immigrant experience (in 1948, Empire Windrush had brought the first group of post-war West Indian immigrants to London). Bert will be given full citizenship if his work proves satisfactory, but reasons will always be found to test him just one more time. If and when he does become a citizen, he will discover there are no women available for him to marry, but he will be put on the waiting list. If he makes a fuss, his citizenship will be revoked. If he becomes a problem for the regime, he will just disappear.
Visually, the episode’s vision of the Venus settlement owes more to the 1954 Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The walls of the futuristic waiting room at the railway station are adorned with slogans:
VENUS IS THE FUTURE
WORK OBEDIENCE PROGRESS
STRICTER CONTROL GREATER OUTPUT
Bert’s interlocutor, named Freeman (Joseph O’Conor), drapes a coat over a surveillance camera, adding something like ‘they can watch us through these, too’, even though it is clearly not a telescreen.
In both story and episode, their ensuing conversation about the ways in which humans are failing to build the best possible world on Venus draws upon the Gettysburg Address, citing the line about ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. Obviously intended by Wyndham as part of the Americanisation of his mid-Atlantic voice, it has an acute resonance, given that Venusian civilisation, such as it is, is built upon slave labour (in the episode it stands out as implying a US pulp vision of a future populated by inevitable and endless Americans, but is contradicted by the cast’s obviously British accents). The name ‘Freeman’ also evokes the immediate post-bellum context, though it does not appear in the story, only the episode. And although the episode does include two actors of colour,5 neither is cast as Freeman; intriguingly, though, he is played by an Irishman.
Of the slaves with whom Bert is charged, he thinks:
They were intelligent little creatures, but the general opinion was that they were dead lazy. … that just showed narrow thinking. Laziness is a relative term to be measured against work. Nobody called a flower or a tree lazy. The point was that a wild griffa never had any conception of work. When it was caught and shown work, it didn’t like it. Why should it? The captives netted by a drive in the forest came in as sad-eyed, bewildered little figures, of whom a number promptly went into decline and allowed themselves to die. The rest had no great will to survive. Life in captivity was very little better to them than no life at all. The only thing that made them work at all was the desire to avoid pain. They were intelligent enough to be taught quite complicated duties, but what no one had been able to instil into them was the sacred idea of duty itself. They could not be brought to the idea that it was something they owed to these human invaders of their planet. … There was also the uneasy feeling that his position in Venusian society was not all that different from theirs. . . . (37-8).
Despite the common deployment of stereotypes about laziness, this seems to reflect British colonial thinking rather than American slavery and Jim Crow discourses.
The episode does not convey much about the Venusian griffas. Slighter than the humans, they are vaguely simian in their demeanour, but in a neat bit of cost-cutting they are invisible beneath synthetic overalls and head-encompassing helmets. Instead, it focuses on Bert’s immediate and utter revulsion at slavery while also evoking the Holocaust labour camps (remember those slogans, remember ARBEIT MACHT FREI). Bert is under the command of Khan, played by the Cypriot actor George Pastell, who was regularly cast as Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Latin Americans, Russians, Italians, Spanish, and so on.6 Here, his Mitteleuropan accent wavers in and out of sounding German, and his costume is clearly intended to invoke some kind of Venusian fascist. Later, when Bert is called upon to explain his presence on the spaceship back to Mars, he deadpans that he is ‘just obeying orders’. However, the image of the Middle Passage is perhaps evoked when, having lied about a mission to round up Martians as slaves, an Officer – played by Geoffrey Palmer! – points out that the difference in gravity between the two worlds would make them useless.7 Bert shrugs off this ‘wastage’.
Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with the episode is the same as with the story. Both versions hinge on Bert’s recognition that his memories of Earth are actually of the better world humans imagined, not of Earth as it actually ever existed. But in both, like some Candide-lite, he opts to let Venus (and the remaining humans on Mars) go to hell and settles for tending his own garden (and beautiful indigenous bride). Grrrrrrrrrrrr.
Other things to watch out for — Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian hottie
— disgruntled Jack Russels in furs as Martian bannikuks
— brief glimpses of Bill Treacher – Arfur from Eastenders — the human salute, which comes across as kind of premature, extremely white and rather awkwardly constrained black power fist
Originally published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), it was anthologised in the UK in Brian Aldiss’ More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963).
He had been poached by the BBC in 1962 from the commercial channel ABC, where his major successes included Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and The Avengers (1961-9), and where he had also produced the series of sf serials, Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Shubik worked with him as a story editor on Armchair Theatre and on an sf anthology drama series Out of this World (1962). At the BBC, Newman soon initiated The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Doctor Who (1963-89). Shubik joined him, becoming story editor on the contemporary drama anthology series Story Parade (1964-5) before proposing Out of the Unknown as a science-fictional companion; later she would oversee the transformation of The Wednesday Play into Play for Today (1974-80).
Wyndham published under a variety of monikers (John Beynon Harris, John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris), all derived from his own rather lengthy name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The publishing history of ‘No Place Like Earth’ begins with a short story, ‘Time to Rest’, which constitutes roughly its opening third. ‘Time to Rest’ was published in two magazines: in the US, as by John Beynon Harris, in The Arkham Sampler (winter 1949), edited by August Derleth; in the UK, as by John Beynon, in New Worlds 5 (August 1949), edited by John Carnell. Derleth reprinted it in a US anthology, Far Boundaries (1951), and in the UK it was included in the Wyndham collection Seeds of Time (1956), published in hardback by Michael Joseph and paperback by Penguin. Beynon’s direct continuation of ‘Time to Rest’, the longer and rather less elegiac ‘No Place Like Earth’, appeared in Carnell’s New Worlds 9 (Spring 1951) and in the US, under the misleading title ‘Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus’, in Donald A. Wollheim’s 10 Story Fantasy (Spring 1951). In October 1952, Carnell joined the two stories together as ‘No Place Like Earth’ as the lead story in an anthology of British sf, No Place Like Earth (Boardman), still as by Beynon, which enabled him also to include a John Wyndham story, ‘Survival’ (1952); the anthology was reissued by the Science Fiction Book Club in January 1954, and published in paperback by Panther in August 1961. (Joined together as a single story in this way, ‘No Place Like Earth’ also appeared under Beynon’s name in the first of an annual anthology series, Out of this World (Blackie), edited by Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen; it reversed the order of the two opening stories in Carnell’s anthology, beginning instead with Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Breaking Strain’ (1949), but otherwise the contents do not overlap.) At least, this is the publication history I have been able to cobble together from internet sources. Shubik was, by all accounts, well-versed in sf, so it is hard to tell when she might first have read the story. However, the Panther paperback would have gone on sale around the time she was starting to look for stories to adapt for ABC’s Out of this World.
There is no direct equivalent in the episode, although Bert does sing snatches of the very British ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’ and, if I recall, the ‘Eton Boating Song’.
One of them, uncredited and apparently Asian, is seated among the group of humans on Mars; the other is the Jamaican Roy Stewart who, as a Venusian security guard, actually gets to speak a line of dialogue (badly). A stalwart of British film and TV throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he is perhaps best remembered as Toberman in the 1967 Doctor Who serial, Tomb of the Cybermen.
Pastell also appeared in Tomb of the Cybermen, as Eric Kleig.
In the story, Bert merely hopes that no one will raise this objection – maybe this addition is evidence of Shubik’s anxiety about the story’s badly dated planetary science.
Sources Beynon, John, ‘No Place Like Earth’, in John Carnell, ed., No Place Like Earth. London: Panther, 1961. 9-42. Out of the Unknown boxset.BFI, 2014.