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VALISPhilip K Dick is, of course, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century and most of his novels (those I’ve read, anyway) are set in the future or in an alternate reality. VALIS is rather different, though. It’s fundamentally an autobiographical account of a period of Dick’s own life – a period that saw him suffer a breakdown and come to believe in some pretty strange stuff.

The book is written in a strange combination of first and third person perspective. The first person is Philip K Dick himself and he refers to himself as being a science fiction writer and so on, although not until well into the novel. The third person is ‘Horselover Fat’ – a kind of split personality of Dick’s. (The name is a translation of ‘Philip Dick’ (from the Greek ‘Philippos’ and the German ‘dicke’ (presumably related to ‘thick’).) This device works very well, because Horselover is the one who has the breakdown and the delusions (for want of a better word) that are the core of the story.

Dick’s authorial voice has a strange relationship to his troubled alter ego. He is a patient, but slightly despairing companion to Horselover, and most of the time you can visualise him as a voice in his head (which you could interpret either way). But he is also, simultaneously, a character in the story along with Horselover. So, when meeting friends, both Horselover and the narratorial Dick are contribute to the conversation. They are even able to spend time apart; towards the end of the book, Horselover goes off travelling the world while Dick and his friends stay at home and wait for news of his exploits.

As to the actual story, it’s a kind of hippy, trippy, mystical conspiracy theory. Quite fascinating in a way, but it took a while to get into – perhaps because I was expecting something more overtly science fictional. Horselover believes that he has had divine knowledge zapped into his head; this knowledge prompts him to take his apparently healthy son to the doctor, which saves the boy’s life. He begins to write an ‘exegesis’ in which he develops his ideas about the true nature of the universe, largely based on Gnosticism, but incorporating other mystical traditions and scientific ideas of the time (1981), such as holography. Here’s an excerpt:

49. Two realms there are, upper and lower. The upper, derived from hyperuniverse I or Yang, Form I of Parmenides, is sentient and volitional. The lower realm, or Yin, Form II of Parmenides, is mechanical, driven by blind, efficient cause, deterministic and without intelligence, since it emanates from a dead source. In ancient times it was termed “astral determinism.” We are trapped, by and large, in the lower realm, but are through the sacraments, by means of the plasmate, extricated. Until astral determinism is broken, we are not even aware of it, so occluded are we. “The Empire never ended.”

Philip K Dick

Much of the first part of the book is introspective and repetitive, dealing with these ideas and the death of a pair of women in Horselover/Dick’s life. In the latter part the book, they hook up with some people who have made a film about VALIS – Vast Active Living Intelligence System – an ancient alien satellite that has changed the course of history by discrediting Nixon and has now brought about the rebirth of Elijah/Jesus/Buddha (as a girl).

This latter part is actually a little less interesting than the convolutions of delusion that are revealed in carefully judged stages. The characters that are introduced later are pretty pathetic, and, in fact, even Dick and his friends (Horselover gets temporarily subsumed back into his parent personality by the two-year-old female messiah) think they’re a bunch of crazies.

The writing is generally very direct and accessible – even when talking about mystical experiences, it does so with a cool, scientific tone. There are quite a few passages where it becomes a little bogged down with long words and abstruse descriptions, but they tend to add to the quietly deranged quality of the novel. The fact that it is pretty much a true story (from the author’s point of view) is disconcerting, but the honesty and irony of the Dick voice makes it palatable and ultimately likeable.

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The Hydrogen Sonata (not to be confused with The Seth Rogen Sonata) is a Culture novel – a tale of Banks’s trademark galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation. This one focuses on the end days of the Gzilt (a civilisation that passed up the opportunity to be a founder member of the Culture ten thousand years ago) as they prepare to ‘Sublime’. Subliming is a process that involves an entire race (usually) deciding that they’ve had enough of reality and transporting themselves to mind-boggling, paradisiacal higher dimensions.

The thing about the Gzilt is that they have a holy book that – unique in galactic history – has turned out to be correct in its prophecies. The story kicks off when a ship arrives in Gzilt space with a message from the Zihdren Remnant (the remains of a long-Sublimed civilisation called the Zihdren) that may shed light on said holy tome’s provenance. This ship is destroyed by a Gzilt faction. As inveterate galactic busybodies, the Culture – an ad hoc committee of interested ships, at any rate – decides to investigate.

Much of the cast consists of the vastly capable artificial intelligences that control Culture ships – Minds. One Gzilt woman, Vyr Cossont – artificially four-armed because of her desire to master an almost unplayable piece of music on an almost unplayable instrument called the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – is recruited to recover the stored memory of a man (a ten-thousand-year-old Culture citizen) who may know the truth. A Culture woman is similarly (well, quite dissimilarly, actually) recruited to find the man himself. A Gzilt politician schemes with increasing desperation. A Gzilt general battles with the Culture and wishes he were a machine.

If you’ve read any Iain M Banks, you know what you’re getting with these characters. The book’s heroine is particularly reminiscent of the main character from Banks’s previous Culture novel – a non-Culture woman rescued and guided by a Culture ship. She doesn’t have much of a personality herself and is mostly a foil for what’s going on around her. Her limited human capabilities are rendered pretty much pointless by the hi-tech puissance of her ship mentor. The ships are the usual quick-talking, perceptive, cocky bunch. The politician is a fairly two-dimensional, unscrupulous smooth-talker.

The most interesting characters were some of the non-viewpoint characters. Like the Gzilt artist Ximenyr who conducts body modification. When he’s first encountered, he has dozens of penises grafted all over his body (and multiple hearts to pump enough blood to get them erect) and he conducts regular self-centred orgies. Or the android Eglyle Parinherm who is brought online to protect Cossont but who believes (because the technicians haven’t had time to reprogram him) that he’s in a simulation; he informs Cossont at one point that her reactions are unrealistic and advises the simulation designers (who he assumes to be listening) to have a rethink. Both are sadly underused. Sadly overused is Cossont’s sentient but stupid flying scarf, Pyan, which interjects nuggets of less than funny comic relief.

The previous Culture novel, Surface Detail was an examination of the idea of Hell – an idea that could be made real by uploading prisoners’ consciousness to gruesome, eternal simulations – while this book supposedly looks at Subliming. Except that it doesn’t – you don’t really get any insight into what it’s like except that it’s indescribable. When, at the end of the book, the Gzilt finally take the plunge, they do so (the humans, anyway) using basically the same method that Dorothy used to get home from Oz. This is certainly a joke on Banks’s part, but not a very satisfying one. (Humans declare their intent to Sublime and are transitioned to the higer dimensions by beings already there; AIs can do it for themselves.)

All of which may make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata – I did, actually. It’s highly readable, if a little confusing in places – the various Minds and what they’ve been up to blurred together a lot. But it’s also pretty much more of the same, albeit from a great writer.

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This novel (published last year, but only recently obtained by me) is the sequel to 2010’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions; it’s own sequel, The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds comes out in a few weeks.

Only one character is reprised from that earlier story – Darwin the monkey butler – otherwise, the only thing they share is the setting: an extravagant fin de siècle steampunk universe where, in retaliation for the War of the Worlds, the British Empire has destroyed the Martian civilisation by sending sick people to Mars on back-engineered spaceships; where the three powers of the solar system are the British, the Venusians and the Jupiterians; where horse-drawn carts share the streets with electric vehicles powered by Tesla’s wireless transmission of electricity.

The story starts with quite an effective chapter with baroque descriptions of a London music hall, the Electric Alhambra, that, while cheery and full of doggerel, nonetheless have a sinister undertone. And then there’s a dramatic murder. The story – at least from the point of view of one of the main characters, Cameron Bell, a man with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the appearance of Samuel Pickwick – begins there. Colonel Katterfelto, however, has been planning for years to put together a mechanical messiah based on the plans of the mysterious but knowledgeable Herr Döktor; for the time being he’s at the bottom of the nightly bill at the Electric Alhambra displaying a mechanical minstrel – which is really a monkey butler in a tin man suit. And Alice Lovell, Bell’s unrequitable love-interest – also performs – with her acrobatic (and quite violent) kiwi birds. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece is making himself powerful enough to start a Third Worlds War.

In retrospect, all these elements don’t really work all that well together and the story would seem to be a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Who is Herr Döktor and how did he get to have so much influence on the characters and events? How did the bad guy get to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why is it only now that Colonel Katterfelto’s plans start to come together? What is the nature of Alice Lovell’s trippy guardian rabbit/kiwi bird? What happened to Aleister Crowley after Cameron shot him in the foot with a ray gun? Was the huge redding herring (the nature of which I will say nothing) really necessary to the plot?

Nevertheless, it all works quite well. In fact, this book and its predecessor represent a bit of change of style for Robert Rankin. The storytelling is a little more mature (while still being full of immature silliness), stylish and confident. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: his later work is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his earlier stuff, but it’s still a great pleasure to read.

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This is Salman Rushdie’s debut novel – from 1975 (making it slightly older than me) – and the second of his books that I’ve read – the other being The Satanic Verses, from which, despite the fact that I read it quite a few years ago, a few scenes have remained quite strongly in my memory.

Grimus is not an easy novel to categorise, as people so like to do with novels. I suppose you would say it’s magical realism – it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, contains themes from Middle Eastern and Western traditions, but is definitely literary fiction in general tone (although you can’t really pin it down as being especially British, as the main character is American).

This main character, Flapping Eagle, is, in fact, Native American, younger brother of the troubled Bird-Dog. (Avian imagery features greatly throughout the novel.) Bird-dog absconds with a mysterious man, leaving Flapping Eagle with two vials containing a liquid that will make the drinker immortal and one that will kill. Flapping Eagle drinks the immortality potion and spends hundreds of years looking for his elder sister. Eventually, he is washed up on an island – in another dimension – that is home to an ambivalent bunch of immortals who arrived there in much the same way, although much earlier. The island is governed by a kind of absentee king, Grimus; Flapping Eagle makes it his quest to challenge Grimus and find Bird-Dog.

One of The Satanic Verses‘s flaws was that there were too many disparate viewpoints, making it difficult to follow and maintain interest in the novel. Grimus‘s narritive is focused on Flapping Eagle throughout, with only the occasional diversion. Nevertheless, it’s bursting full of diverse ideas: there are anagram-loving, dimension travelling, super-intelligent frog-beings called Gorfs (they live on a planet called Thera that orbits a star called Nus), there is Sufi mysticism, philosophy, comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age, dualities and opposites, social criticism … and no doubt other stuff.

One of the main ideas is the specious attraction of creating an ideal society. The immortals who live on Calf Island (Grimus named it Kaf, after the Arabic letter, but it didn’t quite stick) come there after exhausting many lifetimes’ worth of experience on Earth, but they are an insular group. Not only is their community self-sustaining, static and sterile, but each is caught up in their own obsessions. Ultimately, Flapping Eagle’s arrival shakes things up in good ways and bad ways, but he also succumbs to the lure of the settled, comfortable lifestyle – at least until his actions catch up with him.

Although I had a big hiatus in the middle of reading this book (arriving at my sister’s and getting caught up with video games and stuff), I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not without its flaws – some of the characters are under-used or are near-superfluous (Nicholas Deggle – an ambiguous character whose presence in Flapping Eagle’s earlier life is never really explained – gets left in a hut with a madwoman for much of the latter part of the novel), and the Gorfs are definitely a weird, though minor, ingredient in the mélange. The use of quotation dashes instead of inverted commas is something I find a bit pretentious. And the protagonist is a little lacklustre – more of a foil to the interesting characters around him.

Nevertheless, Grimus is a readable read, full of ideas and intelligence and references that reward further research. My copy was also free, having been given it by my friend Lawrence.

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This edition of what is probably my favourite genre magazine was a little below par. The best stories were the longest ones, but none of them was without its flaws. The highlight of the volume, among the various reviews – which are always interesting to read – was a review of Super 8 that mercilessly painted it as a simplistic rehash of E.T.

‘Quartet and Triptych’ by Matthew Hughes was a novella-length story about an obese professional thief in a far future world that resembled that of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. The setting was well presented and the main character suited it well and was entertaining to follow. However, some of the details didn’t make sense at all; for instance, a patch of alien vegetation had remained in the area it had been planted in the grounds of a mansion for thousands of years. The story was further spoiled when the protagonist was lucky enough to be rescued from certain death by a minor character who had good reason to arrest him, but didn’t.

‘Object Three’, a space opera-ish story (or ‘novelet’, to use the official terminology) by James L Cambias also focused on the theft of an alien artefact, although the characters and writing weren’t as good – but not at all bad. The world hung together better, and the climax of the story was more satisfying, more reliant on the main character. It was also a rather open ending, with the protagonist’s main goal only about to be achieved and the vast Maguffin that inspired the story not explained at all. I had mixed feelings about that. The betrayal and counter-betrayal that formed the emotional heart of the story didn’t quite work for me as the love affair between the two women involved didn’t really come to life.

‘The Ice Owl’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman, the other novella of the magazine, was a well characterised story set in a detailed and believable universe – one where interstellar travel is a reality, but, because of relativity effects, while it seems instant for the traveller, years or decades pass in the wider world. Human settlements are therefore quite independent. The background to the story involved a Holocaust-like episode that has left a legacy of ethnic distrust. The main character explored this through her relationship with a mentor – who entrusted to her a cryonically preserved ice owl, possibly the last of its species. The protagonist, a teenage girl, came across especially believably – her angst was surprisingly not at all annoying. The ending was a little contrived and more or less happy.

The only actual ‘short story’ (according to Hugo Award rules) was ‘The Klepsydra A Chapter from A Faunery of Recondite Beings‘ by Michaela Roessner. Stylistically, this was the most interesting piece in the magazine, being a faux academic paper about a woman’s researches into a water thief – as ‘klepsydra’ literally translates. The story explains that a klepsydra is actually a water clock, but the now-deceased researcher discovered that this name was based on a spider with very strange properties. An interesting read, but not much of an actual story.

There were three other stories in the November/December edition, but, although I have the names in front of me (‘Under Glass’ by Tim Sullivan, ‘They That Have Wings’ by Evangeline Walton and ‘How Peter Met Pan’ by Albert E Cowdrey), I don’t remember anything about them – which is probably review enough.

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If you know nothing about this book – and I didn’t know much about it before reading it, other than the fact that it was famous – here’s the gist: published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo award for best novel in 1961. It’s a novel, but one made out of three short stories, each one set at different points in the future and each concerning the monks of a monastery in the desert of what is now the southern USA.

The first part, ‘Fiat Homo’, is set 600 years after a nuclear apocalypse has all but obliterated modern civilisation. What’s left resembles the Dark Ages of Europe, with only fragmentary knowledge remaining of the earlier time. The monastery is one founded by Beatus Leibowitz, a priest who, it turns out, was a Jewish scientist and who converted to Christianity in order to avoid the Simplification – the surge of destruction and murder of learning and the learned that followed the nuclear war. His monastery is a secret repository of knowledge. Helped by a mysterious pilgrim, the main character, a novice called Francis, discovers a fallout shelter (he believes that ‘Fallout’ was some kind of demon) containing holy relics – some notes and blueprints of once belonging to Leibowitz.

The second part, ‘Fiat Lux’, is set 600 years after that and sees the world having progressed somewhat, but not that much – the equivalent era of past history might be the Renaissance. Leibowitz has been made a saint and his fortified monastery (made from the ruins of the pre-Flame Deluge era) has become known as a repository of knowledge, attracting the attention of scholars and rulers.

The third part, ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’, is set a further 600 years after that and sees mankind having developed nuclear weapons and space-faring technology. With the prospect of a new all-out nuclear war looming, the monks of the monastery send a mission to one of Earth’s colonies in other solar systems in order to preserve the Apostolic succession should the Church be destroyed on Earth.

Each of these three parts started life as a short story, each published separately in magazines. Miller then rewrote them and glued them together to form this novel. This format works with mixed results. On the plus side, it gives you an idea of the grand procession of history and its depressingly cyclical nature. Each is linked not only by location, but by more subtle elements: each part of the book ends with violence, the magnitude of which escalates dramatically: the main character is murdered at the end of the first part, war sweeps across North America at the end of the second part and nuclear holocaust returns at the end of the final part; the abbot in the first part is called Arkos, while the abbot in the last part is called Zerchi, reminiscent of the Christian symbol of the Alpha and Omega and suggesting that the whole story represents everything important in human history.

On the other hand, these separate parts are separate narratives, meaning each one has to establish a new set of characters and a new plot, so the novel feels fractured and incomplete. They also diminish in quality: ‘Fiat Homo’, was the best – perhaps because it was so novel, but also because of its hapless hero; ‘Fiat Lux’ was also good and had an interesting interplay between the abbot and the scholar; ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ was OK; the return of high technology meant it didn’t have the same appeal as the earlier parts and it had some less interesting discussions – of the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, for instance.

The book contained a number of mysterious elements that were never explained. The prime example being a Jewish hermit who apparently turns up in all three parts and who may be the Wandering Jew or may be Leibowitz himself. A poet with a glass eye, which he takes out and sets on an upturned cup to watch over a meal after he leaves, may have been more than just an eccentric character. And the mutant extra head of a simple tomato-selling woman coming alive when the bombs go off was apparently a miracle, although a very bizarre one.

The writing was pretty good throughout. The novel opens with Francis spotting a wiggling dot in the distance – which turns out to be the mysterious Jew. This was great image, but really one of the few instances of especial poetry. There’s a lot of subtle humour in the book (for instance, Francis makes an illuminated copy of one of Leibowitz’s blueprints; everyone is amazed at the beauty of his work, so he’s sent to New Rome with both as a gift for the Pope; unfortunately he’s ambushed by a bandit who takes the copy believing it to be the original, while the ratty old blueprint is assumed to be Francis’s cack-handed copy), and it moves along at a fair pace – although a lot of what happens is conversation (for instance, while war engulfs the land or the world, the reader never sees it directly, but only through the speech and thoughts of the characters in the monastery).

A Canticle for Leibowitz appears to be a novel with a message – that message being the importance of religion as a preserver of knowledge, culture, tradition and morality. That’s not a message that appeals to me, but the book is undeniably evocative of the monastery as a lonely island of civilisation in a sea of barbarism (as I say, the final segment of the book lacks this feeling). Many of the obvious science fictional elements feel pretty dated – Abbot Zerchi has a translating machine that fills a cabinet, and he tries to fix it by fiddling with its wiring – another reason why the last part is the lesser of this particular trinity. The novel is also full of Latin – which gives it a unique feel of authenticity, but is not so easy to understand.

On the whole, though, definitely an interesting, entertaining and worthwhile read.

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I’ve had this book for a while, now – I bought it from a secondhand bookshop in Bristol when I was at university. I didn’t know too much about it. The front cover shows a man in a cloak with a huge sword slung over his shoulder, so I was expecting a fantasy novel, but really, it’s more science fictional.

The story takes place on a far-future Earth – known to the characters as ‘Urth’ – where advanced technology has been around for centuries and has often fallen into desuetude and incomprehensibility. Limited communication with other worlds or dimensions seems possible, but is as mysterious and menacing as trying to summon a demon. The moon sheds a green light because it was planted with forests in a previous age.

The feel of the novel – the first of a quartet, The Book of the New Sun – however, is more fantasy-like. The young hero, a junior member of the guild of torturers, is exiled to a distant posting after disgracing himself. His quest seems straightforward at first, but a bewildering series of events complicates it to near-impossibility. He is tricked into a duel to the death, crashes into a tent-temple on the way, accidentally joins a theatre troupe, is shown round a botanical gardens that may or may not be a series of portals to other worlds or times, and so on and so forth.

The world is just as confusing to the narrator’s young self as it is to the reader. It’s full of guilds and factions, intrigue and idiosyncrasy at every turn. Although Severian – the main character – is sent to this distant town, he doesn’t even get beyond the confines of his city – because of its vastness and labyrinthine detail. The narrator’s vocabulary is full of exotic words, nouns that heighten the sense of otherness of the setting.

The story is narrated from the point of view of an older Severian introducing his young adventures. The narration drops hints that in future volumes of his story, he rises far; it also suggests that his story itself is not entirely trustworthy.

All in all, <i>The Shadow of the Torturer</i>, for all the randomness of its plot and its unanswered questions, was a very engaging read. Expertly written, it trod a fine line between explicit story-telling and scene-setting on the one hand, and mystery and ambiguity on the other. It reminded me a lot of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but without the same whimsicality; it also put me in mind, a little, of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which, to be fair, I read a very long time ago).

I will definitely be purchasing the other three books, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch (the titles themselves demonstrate the baroque flavour of the story).

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