Gate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh

CherryhGateIvrelCoverGate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh (1976)
Review by Adam Roberts

I’ve tried reading Cherryh’s SF before and, to use the pinball idiom favoured of SF fandom, I “bounced off her, hard”. I think what put me off was an, as it seemed to me, old-fashioned trudginess about the whole: clogged, under-visualised and in some cases apparent interminability. I bogged down in Downbelow Station, said ciao! no to the myriad Chanur books, and having taken it out of the library I came to the conclusion that a lifetime was not sufficient time, and eternity barely long enough, to read the whole of Cyteen. This, I should add, is not merely a matter of length: I have read many books that were longer than hers. It was something to do with (what seemed to me) a painful slowness, indeed a drabness, about the telling.

Lately I’ve tried again: this time with her “Fantasy” series The Chronicles of Morgaine, and her first published novel, Gate of Ivrel. And to my surprise I very much enjoyed it. The story is simple: a High Fantasy world of horselords and peasants, mountains and plains has an in-effect supernatural layer of strange creatures, immortal wizards and amazing weaponry, courtesy of a network of high-tech “Gates”, set up in “the unimaginable past” as (we assume) teleportation of hyperspace portals, but now decayed into strange and dangerous loopholes into a mode of chaos. The story starts with young warrior Vanye in a tight spot: his father is king, but he is a bastard, and his two legitimate brothers have bullied and tormented them all his life. Finally they assault him with swords, and in defending himself, he kills one brother and maims the other. He is banished, disgraced, and declared “ilin”. According to the exacting code of honour of this world, “ilin” are…

… criminals, or clanless, or unclaimed bastards, and some religious men doing penance for some particular sin, bound in virtual slavery according to the soul-binding law of the ilin odes, to serve for a year at their Claiming. (p 23)

Vanye is claimed by Morgaine – the titular protagonist, a remnant from the ancient past. She was last seen on this world a century earlier. Since then she’s been hiding inside one of the gates (or something: it’s not entirely clear) after she led a disastrous military campaign against the northern kingdom of Hjemur. Her aim was to destroy the Gates, but she failed and thousands died. Now her name has positively witchy and indeed diabolic connotations: and though she calls herself human others class her as “qhal”, the race that built the Gates in the backward and abyss of time, and a word that now effectively means something like “dark elf”.

The High Fantasy tropes are laid out with respectful fidelity, which leads us perhaps into over-familiarity. Once Morgaine has claimed Vanye she binds him to a promise to help her destroy Hjemur, or if she dies to destroy it himself. Miserable, filled with superstitious terror in her presence, he is nonetheless bound so strictly by his honour code that he cannot deny her. Thereafter they go on a long quest, which entails trouble with monstrous creatures very much not referred to as orcs in the mountains, a sojourn in an Old English style horselord keep where the king is being secretly controlled by a weird mage behind his back, time in a monastery where their hurts are healed, treks past evil-haunted lakes, through dangerous forests, across great plains and to a final big showdown on the flanks of an evil mountain, the Ivrel, which is where the Boss Gate, that rules all the other gates, is to be found. The purpose of this quest is to destroy not a magic ring of power with charmed letters written upon it, but a completely different artefact: a magic sword of power with charmed letters written upon it. Bunging this sword through a gate will do the job, we’re told:

“I will tell thee,” [Morgaine] said softly, “if something befall me, it could be that thee would need to know. Thee does not need to read what is written on the blade. But it is the key. Chan wrote it upon the blade for fear that all of us would die, or that it would come to another generation of us – hoping that with that, Ivrel still might be sealed. It is to be used at Rahjemur, if thee must: its field directed at its own source of power would effect the ruin of all the Gates here. Or cast back within the Gate itself, the true Gate, it would be the same: unsheathe it and hurl it through.” (p 161)

Those rather Yorkshire-sounding ‘thees’ are how Cherryh marks Morgaine as coming from a past age of the world in which she moves. It took some getting used to, for me (Cherryh is an expert Latinist, and taught the language for many years, so she knows the difference between a ‘thee is’ and a ‘thou art’; but she insists on using the former idiom the whole way through her novel. Ah well). At the mountain they meet the Evil One, Liell – the evil counsellor they met earlier, who has been preserving himself ever-young by periodically glomming his spirit into younger bodies, with the help of the power of the Gates. He almost succeeds in doing this with Vanye, and finally does do it with another of their companions, Chya Roh, meaning that for the end of the book and, I assume, in its sequels he is the series’ Sauron. He escapes. “How?” I hear you ask: “does Roh row row his boat gently down the stream?” No. He hops through the Boss Gate. Morgaine goes after him. Determined to get back at Chya.

Now, emphasising the simplicity and (we can be honest) derivativeness of this story, as I am doing here, does not capture the flavour of reading the novel. It’s true there is something old-fashioned about the way she puts her story together: for good and ill, but the ‘good’ of it is not to be sniffed at. It feels slightly effortful, working one’s way through; but this effort correlates quite well to a world in which life is hard, travel slow and dangerous, and the (mark the scare quotes, I prithee) “reality” of pre-industrial-revolution life is scrupulously worked through and attended to. Cherryh observes this almost to a fault: Morgaine and Vanye are repeatedly waylaid, ambushed, tricked, imprisoned and so on; which kept un-suspending my disbelief – Morgaine, after all, carries with her not only the lightning-shooting by-the-power-of-grayskull Wonder Sword (She! Has! The Power!), but also a small handgun-sized laser or phaser or somesuch device. The former makes enemies disappear altogether; the latter slices through flesh like butter. It’s a little hard to see why she almost never uses them.

Cherryh’s style is brisk, almost terse. Her descriptions are nugatory and the backstory clots those portions when it is discussed with unexplained names and heritages and a welter of opaque references. Yet there are several things about this novel that work powerfully well. One has to do precisely with the style, actually: its very terseness stands in astringent and welcome contrast with the bloaty, weightless blather of so much contemporary Fantasy – padded like a stuffed mattress with pointless conversations and interminable descriptions of landscape, clothes, food served at table, military tactics and so on. There’s something pleasingly to-the-point about the way Cherryh writes; and if I sometimes found myself wrongfooted or baffled, well the upside there was the way that bafflement enhanced the estrangement of the built world. The exacting and sometimes counter-intuitive honour code of the world added to this; the kinship alliances and hostilities, the hierarchies and protocols. The drabness of her approach happens to suit a world defined by a kind of punishing drabness of climate and society.

But at the heart of the success of this novel is the central relationship: beautiful, ageless Morgaine – ruthless and unswerving, but in a noble aim; handsome, capable, muscular Vanye, sworn to serve her in everything. It is what my friend Justina Robson aptly calls “a fit bloke fantasy”, and Cherryh makes it work by with-holding most of the romantic satisfactions her readership might otherwise expecting. At any rate, when Morgaine releases Vanye from his oath at the end and rides into the Gate in pursuit of the evil Chya Roh – and, of course, Vanye turns his back on his world to follow her – it’s surprisingly affecting. The story continues in 1978’s Well of Shiuan, which I shall now read.

The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham

Penguin-a Allingham The Mind ReadersThe Mind Readers, Margery Allingham (1965)
Review by Adam Roberts

Allingham is famous as (of course) a crime writer; and it so happens that I’ve read a fair few of her Campion titles. I’d been aware for a while that she wrote a late career science fiction, or sort-of science fiction, novel, but hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. Well, the time came; and so I read it. I out-checked it. It got checked over. And out.

Verdict: it’s a strange novel, in good and bad ways. To read it as an Albert Campion novel (which it is; in the sense that he’s in it, although he never feel essential to it) is inevitably to compare it with earlier, better Campion tales and be struck by its creaky anachronisms and paper-thin mystery plotting. The first of these two problems is especially debilitating, I think. The story is set in the 1960s, and hinges on an item of miniaturised technological cleverness that magnifies and directs telepathic abilities; but apart from the occasional reference to televisions and The Cold War the feel of the novel is solidly 1930s in tone, dialogue, class-attitudes and, well, cosiness.

Most of the story happens in London, with two off-stage centres of action: a mysterious ‘island’ off the coast someplace, where scientific research into the possibilities of telepathy has been ongoing, and a famous English prep school where one of Campion’s nephews has been accused of cheating on his exam. He wasn’t cheating, or not in the conventional sense – he and his brother are telepaths, their skill aided by the pill-sized ‘Iggy’ tubes taped to their wrist or neck, and that’s how Eddie, or was it Sam, I forget, learned that the following day’s exam was going to be about ‘Horatius at the Bridge’. Anyhow, the government hush-up this scandal so as not to draw attention to the telepathy thing, or perhaps to cover up the fact that they’ve been schoolboys as guinea-pigs (again: I’m honestly not sure), and the boys come to London to stay with Campion and his wife. At Liverpool Street Station they are almost kidnapped, and Campion – apparently now employed in a semi-official though unpaid capacity by MI6, or something – looks into it.

The mystery, though, doesn’t take us very far. In her glory days Allingham was capable of constructing a properly intricate and absorbing puzzle-box textual logic. This, though, is the last novel she completed on her own before dying – cancer – in her early 60s (her husband completed subsequently one remaining unfinished manuscript, and then wrote a couple more Campion novels), and it feels underworked. Who tried to kidnap the boys? Sinister Forces of an Enemy Power. Who drugged one of the junior scientists at the Island and then left him in a room with the gas fire on but unlit, as if to try and suffocate him – only to leave the doors and windows open, so that the victim was discovered long before he died? This mystery is introduced at the quarter-point of the novel and, weirdly, tied-off at the halfway point – it turns out that one of the senior scientists at the facility was worried that his junior colleague might be about to overtake him. In order to keep him on staff – because he was making valuable contributions to the research – yet simultaneously stymie his chances of promotions, said senior scientist staged this half-hearted gassing, to make it look as though the junior chap was suicidal, hence mentally unstable, hence unpromoteable. Mystery-plotting things that make you go: hmm?

The senior scientist who staged the mock-attempted-suicide, and then stole the Iggy-tubes with a view to maybe selling it to the Soviets, or maybe just investigating them non-treacherously on his own terms—once again it’s not clear—turns up dead. He was killed, put in the boot of a car, transferred into the back of a stranger’s car to dispose of the body; but this stranger, instead of alerting the police, moved the body into the back of a van at a service station. Wha? Said van then got driven north by its innocent drivers, and co-incidentally happened to be involved in a large traffic accident. Only then did the middle, innocent-of-murder (but guilty of helping cover one up) driver go to the police to report that he’d moved the body. It’s all very strange, and takes the wind out of the narrative sails. At the very end Allingham pulls her finger out for a fairly exciting climax on the island, a tense stand-off between the elderly, feeble Campion and a younger, trained killer ready to dispose of him quickly and untraceably. But as a mystery-thriller there’s something missing in this novel.

The two schoolboys are oddly written, too: the fact that they are period pieces (samples of a now Dodo-like vanished species, the slightly precocious upper-class prep-school schoolboy) notwithstanding. Neither of them come alive in any meaningful, fictive sense, mostly because of the über-Richmal-Cromton mannered awkwardness of the way they speak and act. I might add: that could have been good thing—it could have added an estranging twang to the whole. But somehow it doesn’t. ‘Estrangement’ in the genre sense of the word isn’t Allingham’s game.

The ‘Iggy tubes’ work because they are powered by ‘carbonized Nipponanium’, a new element discovered in Japan and hence so-named. This also has a weirdly 1930s vibe, a gesture in the directions of ‘scientific plausibility’ so half-hearted as to be almost endearing (it reminds me of my favourite line from the old Flash Gordon serials, spoken by a panicking Dr Zarkhov: “he’s been infected with radioactivity! He’ll descend to the level of a brute!”) But then again, Allingham’s Iggy Tubes (a terrible name, by the way, for a piece of tech) are not offered to the reader as serious-minded attempts to extrapolate current technology, They’re a mystery McGuffin tinged faintly with social satire. But what’s really interesting about them is the way they touch in interesting ways on what Allingham does. They are, after all, a symbolic externalisation of the principle of absolute transparency; and to a writer whose whole process relies upon a strategy opacity, a playful withholding of revelation, a valorisation of the secret and the mystery, such a principle would be death.

Allingham was, in many ways, sui generis. A clever and playful novelist, always lively, usually witty and capable at her best of that truly unfakeable literary quality, charm. But in many ways, and despite the superficial fit of her imagination to the puzzle-mystery mode (and despite, moreover, her reputation as one of the giants of Golden Age detective writing), she isn’t terribly well suited to her chosen idiom. I think this is because she really can’t do menace. Her villains tend to be either narrow-minded misguided posh types, or else proletarian professional thieves and (as here) assassins who take a workmanlike pride in their labour. (Her working class characters are, without exception, grotesque sub-Dickensian caricatures too, but that’s not my main point). People talk about Tiger in the Smoke as Allingham’s masterpiece, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her only novel to centre on what we would nowadays call ‘a sociopath’. Allingham specifically wrote the book in order to put on page a portrait of ‘pure evil’ in the titular and improbably-named Jack Havoc. But he’s a milquetoast sort of psycho, is our Jack: at the final hurdle he is touched by the innate godly goodness of a priest and, given the chance to save his skin and have a bit of fun murdering the bibbety-bopperty heroine, he fluffs it. You don’t see Hannibal falling down at that sort of hurdle.

That doesn’t necessarily matter; and at her best Allingham comes within spitting distance (though we can be honest: no closer) of being the ‘Wodehouse with murders and mystery’ that some of her supporters say she is. Not here, though. Her two telepathic schoolchildren had, in truth, been gazumped by Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, published eight years previously. There’s certainly no uncanny eeriness about Allingham’s two mind-reading schoolboys, and I’d say there ought to be. Indeed, the denouement relies upon them both acting like mature and responsible adults to neutralise the potential threat of the very technology that makes them mark-worthy in the first place.

I’m concentrating on negatives, when I should be accentuating the positives. There certainly are good things about this novel, I think. What Allingham does best at her best is a kind of an ingenious and playfully morbid intricacy, a surface glitter that plays cleverly both within and in a more meta sense with the conventions of her genre. I write in some spoilerish detail about Police at the Funeral (1931) elsewhere.

What I like about that novel is the way it takes the limitation of its mode, its airless and artificial ‘puzzle’ idiom, and makes a positive feature of it. Campion comes into a hell-ish closed network aristocratic family whose members are being bumped off one after the other. The murderer is inside the family, of course; but all the murderer does is make manifest the mortal logic of this particular kind of unhappy-family intra-dynamic. I quote myself:

The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety.

There’s a whisper of something similar about The Mind Readers. The threat attendant to the stealing of the Iggy Tube is not that a super-villain will use this technology to take over the world, but something more small-scale and individual: that an unscrupulous individual will use them to pry and snoop, perhaps to nudge behaviour; something uncomfortable but still just this side of actual violation. That the notionally main character here is Albert Campion, one of the most blandly opaque detectives ever written, throws this into an intriguing sort of relief. What, after all, would the larger implications of a functioning telepathic technology be? Would it be world-shaking? Or would it join the teeming ranks of all our other many little technological advancements and gadgets? The Iggy tube conveys moods (‘feels’ the schoolboys call these) and sometimes content, but it’s no iPhone. On the other hand, the experience of so many surrounding people’s moods and thoughts is described as overwhelming for the adults who try it; oppressive and even stifling. Idiots and kids handle it better, because… well, I’m not sure what the ‘because’ is, here. Because kids are ‘naturally’ less attentive to other peoples’ emotions? It may be that Allingham isn’t so interested in self-absorption, or to put it more precisely she’s interested in the dangerous wedge-end of a new technology that erodes personal, affective space—and that, it turns out, was a pretty prescient future-fear for 1965.

This review originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.

The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

80531-masterharper.coverThe Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1998)
Review by Adam Roberts

A series that multiplied with tribble-like pertinacity, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (1968-present) is a planetary romance in which certain special individuals (like you, trufan! and me!) have a telepathic bond with a breed of marvellous magical gigantic purring cats, sorry, fire-breathing dragons. Together, trufan and dracono-moggy defend the world of Pern against nasty ‘threads’ which periodically (the period being 50 years) rain down out of the sky from a nearby ‘red star’, threatening to devour all Pernian life. The initial idea, according to McCaffrey’s son, was for a ‘technologically regressed survival planet’ whose inhabitants are united against a external threat in a way that wasn’t true of America during the Vietnam War. ‘The dragons became the biologically renewable air force, and their riders “the few” who, like the RAF pilots in World War Two, fought against incredible odds day in, day out—and won.’

As you can see from the cover, up there, this instalment in the series is ‘The Story of Pern’s Greatest Harpo’, Robinton by name. Like all great Harpos, Robinton plays the harp. He also plays the flute, the ‘gitar’ (an instrument exactly like a ‘guitar’ although, obviously, without the ‘u’) and lots of other instruments too. He is, the novel tells us over and over again, a musical genius. He is, in point of fact, Amadeus:

He began to make a copy of the sonata … he looked back over the score, to be sure he had annotated it properly. He paced back and forth, paused to pour himself a glass of wine, and then went back to the table and proceeded to copy out his Kasia songs. He finished those, drinking as he worked, and rolled up the music with a neat ribbon tying the packet. He had a final glass of wine, realizing dawn was not far away. (p 260)

You may be thinking: this doesn’t sound much like the Tolkien-plus-a-few-ancient-technological-artefacts worldbuilding idiom familiar from other Pern novels. And you would be right so to think. Robinton is sometimes presented as in effect a scop, scald or rhapsode, going from castle to castle, hall to hall, literally singing for his supper. But when it suits the novel’s fancy he is a eighteenth-century genius composer, writing staves fluently upon an endless supply of animal hides, composing melodies that make people weep instantly. We have to take this latter much-repeated fact on trust, since no actual music is included. I assume Robinton composes in D-minor which is, as is well known, the saddest of all keys. His musical ability also gives him a special bond with the giant telepathic feline dragons, because everything that happens in these novels must relate to the dragons, because, you know. Duh. What else are the novels for?

The Masterharper of Pern tells Robinton’s life story from his birth; his distant, disapproving father; his music training; his falling in love with beautiful green-eyed Kasia; their marriage; a disastrous boat trip after which Kasia catches a chill of which she subsequently dies. Robinton is made sad by this, although he’s soon engaging in no-strings-attached shagging with slinky Silvana. Then, in an odd move, he has a brain-damaged son with Silvana. Then things heat up, fight-wise, as we near the end. Most of the fixtures and fittings are castles, potions, bejewelled daggers, swords, bows, arrows and the like; although McCaffrey also says things like “the main Hall had excellent acoustics” (p 353), which isn’t the sort of line you tend to find in Chaucer; and her characters wear “heavy woollen socks” (p 276), items of clothing which aren’t anachronistic yet somehow sound as if they should be. Plus her people are forever drinking cups of tea coffee, here called “klah”. Sometimes on its own. Sometimes with Canderel (“”You are related to MasterSinger Merelan?” Silvina asked as she poured klah and passed around the sweetener”, p 335)

The novel itself is 400-pages of meh, lifted a little from time to time by a few less-feeble-than-the-rest set-pieces (Robinton and Kasia in the boat on the storm isn’t bad; and some of the fighting near the end is readable). Mostly the problem is one of style. From time to time, McCaffrey remembers that she’s writing a cod-medieval dragon-packed planetary adventure and wrenches her style into inelegances of the “many of the capping slabs were athwart the expanse” (p 294) or “he asked for conveyance a-dragonback” (p 336) kind. But the bulk of the novel is written in a could-not-be-blander grey contemporary prose, stitched together almost entirely out of cliché. Cliché is everything in this novel: the characters, the settings, the events, nothing is here to make you see things freshly or to startle you out of your comfortable familiarity. Hardly a page goes by when the author does not fall back, consciously or otherwise, on an inert, clogging, conventionalised phrase. This character finds himself “between a rock and a hard place” (p 51); that other has “a vice-like grip” (p 91). If there is a silence it must be “a stunned silence” (p 109), or indeed “an awful, stunned silence” (p 345). Characters “rue the day” (p 172), “stifle a laugh” (p 195), promise to “show him the error of his ways” (p 222). Men have “rugged good looks” (p 231) and everybody “cocks their head” at things. Actually, people in this novel are forever cocking their heads (“he cocked his head at Robinton, a sly grin on his rugged, weathered face”, p 236; “cocking her head”, p 256; “Nip cocked his head”, p 357; “Tick cocked his head hopefully”, p 375). Rather than leave, people “steal away” (p 272); storms have exactly the properties you would expect them to have (“in the teeth of the gale … driving rain” p 273); coughs are ‘hacking coughs’ [304] and people “refuse to dignify that question with an answer” (p 287). Martin Amis once declared that the primary business of a writer was to wage war on cliché. Stylistically speaking, McCaffrey evidently preferred, as far as that went, to give peace a chance. A slack, underwhelming novel.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)
Review by Adam Roberts

I decided, on the principle that one should not condemn an enemy from a position of ignorance of their work, actually to read Ayn Rand’s sumo-size Objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). This I did, over the Easter break. And what an interesting experience it turned out to be.

I was surprised, for one thing, how readable the book was. I’ll confess that somewhere around page 300 the relentlessness of the novel’s combination of gnashing, effortful intensity of outrage and the sheer pressure of industrial-economic pseudo-detail was starting to wear me out. But I pushed through, and the last eight hundred pages just slid by. Which is to say, eventually they slid by. Which is to say, what with the fact that there was nothing on the telly, and nothing much else to do, eventually I read it. Actually the novel elaborates a narrative version of society rather like Dynasty: a few brilliant, beautiful members of the super-rich, a few powerful villains, and lots of spear-carriers. Dynasty was always crap but watchable, not unlike this book. Indeed, had Dynasty had the courage of its convictions and spent a series tracing the decline of its America into a dystopian economic collapse, brought about by the ressentiment and incompetence of the masses manipulated by evil politicians via spurious slogans of ‘social equality’, and thereafter the resurrection of a cleaner, better, grander enterprise society, then it might have very much resembled Atlas Shrugged.

One of the things that surprised me was how very redolent of a particular era of American science fiction the novel is: in tone it reminded me of Robert Heinlein – the long declarative sections in which characters debate the best way to get a misfiring country working again, the stress on engineering competence as the touchstone of human value, the vigorous simplification. There’s also something of Philip K Dick, in the first half at least, in the sense of a flattened, rather greying representation of social disintegration; although Dick was too canny to invest his hopes in the Wellsian utopian idealism of a society planned and run by geniuses in the way Rand does.

In obvious ways, of course, the book is science fiction. For instance it posits the creation of certain technological nova for instance: a superstrong variety of steel, a motor engine that draws its power from ‘static electricity in the air’ as it drives along; a weapon that destroys using only sound waves. More to the point, its worldbuilding is of the sub-Orwellian, or sub-sub-Orwellian, variety, where everywhere in the world has been swallowed by malign ‘people’s republics’ (the whole of Europe, for instance, is a place of mass slavery, death camps and wicked pseudo-Communist tyranny). America seems to be the last place in which Capitalism still operates, but it’s under threat at the beginning and succumbs about halfway through. Our main characters are: brilliant and beautiful Dagny Taggart, of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (keeping the entire company operating through sheer force of her will and genius, and in the teeth of the company’s nominal director, her venal brother James); brilliant and handsome Hank Rearden, owner of Rearden Metal and inventor of the new sort of steel, trapped in a loveless marriage; and the handsome and brilliant Francisco D’Anconia. These three have a few loyal and worthwhile friends and deputies, but otherwise all the other characters manifest the physical ugliness of the self-evidently corrupt (“the pendulous face of Orren Boyle with the small slits of pig’s eyes. The doughy face of Mr Mowen with the eyes that scurried away from any speaker and any fact”, [p560]).

For about two thirds of this 1100-page novel Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden undertake heroic struggles to keep their respective companies afloat in the face of the tide of public hostility, governmental tyranny and greed. D’Anconia on the other hand, though posing as a skittish international playboy, is actually working for a hidden cabal of geniuses, organised by one John Galt. In the world at large the question with which the novel opens (“Who is John Galt?”) has become a meaningless slogan, uttered by people when they mean to say “who knows?” But John Galt is real. He has a plan to save the world.

The world he is trying to save is sketched by Rand via emblematic figures. For example, the Arts are represented by a wholly meretricious novelist called Balph Eubank who writes novels with titles like The Heart is a Milkman and The Vulture is Moulting. It might be considered, shall we say, brave of a writer who called her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to crack wise at the expense of pretentious novel titles. But never mind that for the time being. There’s also an evil Relativist philosopher called Pritchett who preaches the fluidity of all meaning and the absence of absolute values, and who, in the rigorously pared down logic of the novel, has replaced the only other philosopher in the world – a virtuous quasi-Objectivist called Hugh Akston – in public affection and influence. Akston is working as a fry-chef in a café in the middle of nowhere, but he’s perfectly happy. Indeed, as the “looters and moochers” grasp more and more power into their greedy, incompetent hands, the people of real talent (almost all such people, according to Rand, are businessmen and factory owners) are silently vanishing, whither none know. Corrupt Washington politicians enact more and more oppressive legislation, until the country grinds to an absolute standstill. Then, when Rand has squeezed every last dribble of outrage from her polemical spleen, she reverses the movement; the novel ends as the disappeared geniuses and great wo/men return, poised to set the world to rights, and get their proper reward: healthy profits, lots of money, and a world fit for rugged individualists to build railways across.

Most of the novel is written in a declarative, rather grey prose, in which characters discuss various practical matters at length.

“All right Hank,” she said, “we’re going ahead with the new Rearden Metal bridge. This is the official order of the official owner of the John Galt line.”

He smiled, looking down at the drawings of the bridge spread in the light on his desk. “Have you had a chance to examine the scheme we submitted?”

“Yes. You don’t need my comments or compliments. The order says it.”

“Very well. Thank you. I’ll start rolling the metal.”

“Don’t you want to ask whether the John Galt Line is in a position to place orders or to function?”

“I don’t need to. Your coming here says it.”

She smiled. “True. It’s all set, Hank. I came to tell you that and to discuss the details of the bridge in person.”

He was not looking at her; he was looking at a sheet of figures on his desk. “I’ve had my engineers prepare a breakdown of the cost of the bridge,” he said, “and an approximate schedule of the construction time required. That is what I wanted to discuss with you.” He extended the papers. She settled back to read them. [p204]

There’s an awful lot like this. From time to time Rand puts the declarative mode on one side in order to purple-up her style. The result is not what literary critics call “good”. Here is Dagny riding a train:

The green-blue rails ran to meet them, like two jets shot out of a single point beyond the curve of the earth. The crossties melted, as they approached, into a smooth stream running down underneath the wheels … Trees and telegraph poles sprang into sight abruptly, and went by as if jerked back. … The glass sheets of the cab’s windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead, and in the next instant she was beside it, and past.

Rand is fatally drawn to over-emphatic expression. At moments of intensity (and this novel is prodigiously over-supplied with such moments) she turns the prose-style dial all the way up to 11, and, in some cases, to 12. This is how something occurs to one character: “it was not a thought, it was like the punch of a fist inside his skull” [p224]. Nothing moves; everything whirls, or thunders, or convulses. Characters are not afraid, the fear “goes through them in spasms”. Instead of “speaking” people cry and scream. Here, from a few pages in the middle of the novel:

“Dagny,” he screamed. “Don’t go …!”

The screaming of the telephones went on through the silence.

He flung the glass door open and from the threshold, in the sight and hearing of the room, he screamed: “where is she!”

“I won’t tell you.”

Taggart’s scream rose to the shrill impotent sound that confesses a miscalculation. [p624-5]

You’ve probably had that experience yourself, of hearing somebody screaming at the top of their lungs in a way that betrays miscalculation. The point is that when intensity has no other mode, it palls. There are times – and actually, the times are all the time without exception – when it is simply more effective to write “he got to his feet and spoke” than it is to write “he shot to his feet with the stored abruptness of a spring uncoiling, his voice driving on in merciless triumph” [p620]. But the idea that less could ever be more was clearly one alien to Rand’s aesthetic. The back of my Penguin edition of the novel carries this endorsement, presumably from a 1957 review: “she writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly. The New York Times”. The bitterness comes through on every page that isn’t given over to improbable ecstasy, but the brilliance and beauty … not so much. Often the writing is really heroically bad, impossible simile following impossible simile. Here we read of “an announcer, with a voice like a machine-gun spitting smiles …” [p826]. There we read:

A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of the peaks. [p518]

If Objectivist philosophy called for people to sleep on mattresses stuffed with sloppy wads then no wonder it didn’t catch on.

But, wait, what am I saying? Objectivism not catching on? Objectivism has become, via indirect routes, the dominant ethos of the world today. Alan Greenspan may not individually have been the world’s most powerful figure, but his long period of prominence and influence reflected a half century in which the principles of profit, individualism, greed and selfishness achieved unchallenged dominance across most of the Western world. It has conquered even China and Russia now. The paradise-on-earth Rand prophesied: we’re pretty much living in it. Atlas Shrugged is about as timely a book as is imaginable.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, there’s an obvious answer and a less obvious one. The obvious one is that Atlas Shrugged is a polemical Objectivist novel, designed on every page to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophical world-view. It’s not that her authorial thumb is in the balance; it’s that she has jammed her whole arm in there – that she’s clambered her entire body into the balance and is jumping up and down to get it to register the quantity she wants. It seems to me that the flaws in Objectivist thinking are such as to render the novel inert as polemic, and without that there is only the rather empty Soapy pleasures of the narrative. But a Randian would complain, with some justice, that I’m only voicing my own ideological preconceptions.

But there is another problem here, and it has to do with dramatic conception. Atlas Shrugged is a one-dimensional novel, despite Rand’s very strenuous efforts to breathe life and depth into it. It is one dimensional because Objectivist philosophy holds to a strictly non-dialectical, one-dimensional metaphysic. Whether this is a valuable philosophical position or not is a matter about which interesting discussions, perhaps, can be had; but in a purely dramatic sense it is a fatal limitation.

Characters in the novel repeat, not once but many times, that there is no such thing as contradiction. “If you find a contradiction,” says D’Anconia, time and again, “then examine your premises. You’ll find one or other of them to be mistaken.” This is the caricature image of Objectivism as a whole: a hectoring insistence that one “examine one’s premises!” But, to put the matter in artistic terms, it robs narrative of dramatic tension. For Rand there is nothing tragic in Antigone; there cannot be a clash between Creon and Antigone. All there can be is one party (I’m guessing she’d side with the latter) in the right and one in the wrong.

But this would be to misread Antigone; or to put it another way, the reason why aesthetic theoreticians have over many generations kept banging on about the play, is that it embodies with attractive clarity precisely the motor of the greatest art: not only tragedy, but all properly engaging or moving dramatic representation. Conflict. Without conflict there isn’t drama. And for all the pop-eyed cod-intensities and enormity of scale of Rand’s novel, there isn’t really conflict, or drama, to be found anywhere in the text. Her politicians don’t really believe in social equality and justice; they’re all venal self-serving villains. It would have made a more interesting novel if they did really believe in social equality and justice, or if Rand had been able to think herself convincingly into the mindset that did. Her heroes are in the right on page 1, and in the right on 1168, and the reader is never allowed on any page to doubt that they are right.

This review originally appeared on The Valve.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by Adam Roberts

Is there anything new to say about this, one of the most discussed and reinterpreted SF novels ever published? Well, there are the standard points, of course, some of which have become platitudes: that it is the first SF novel; the first great fable of the scientific age, a penetrating story of man’s material-technical overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences; or more specifically that it is a myth about the way Western science’s masculinist bias circumvents the feminine principle with disastrous consequences. There are critics who approach the novel from a biographical point of view, and argue that it embodies Shelley’s ambivalence to the Romantic and radical circles in which she moved, or that it encodes her horror at her miscarried pregnancy. This speaks to the multivalent nature of Shelley’s success, here, although it also points up the dangers of reductionism when trying to get a handle on what makes the book (for all its clumsinesses and awkward moments) so dream-haunting.

It probably is fair to say that most people know this book through its myriad adaptations than its early nineteenth-century prose, at least in the first instance; such that actually reading it, particularly the rather prosy outer frame narrative (an Englishman called Walton is exploring the Arctic, eager to push-back the boundaries of geographical knowledge; and he writes home to his sister with accounts of his voyage), can be rather estranging. The novel starts slowly; and even when Watson encounters Frankenstein, at the point of exhaustive collapse, pursuing a strange figure across the ice, it takes a while for the novel to start generating its distinctive, eerie and suggestive tone and affect. Frankenstein’s own first-person narrative is folded into Walton’s account here; and after his detailed account of his upbringing, his desire to conquer death, his researches and the creation of his monster—not to mention his horror at his own actions, a period of hysterical amnesia—he himself relates the monster’s own life story. This first-person narration nestles, the third, as the smallest Russian-doll inside the nested structure of the novel, is the one most people think of as ‘the story’ of Frankenstein. Indeed, the celerity with which adaptors and filmmakers stripped away Walton’s frame narrative (Branagh’s 1994 movie is an exception, here) suggests that it’s the relationship between the creator and his creation that really ignites the imagination, not the third party explorer and observer, the figure akin to us as readers. The issue here isn’t really one of story-details so much as tone. Filmmakers aim for a heightened intensity, a (melo)dramatic pitch; but Shelley’s own approach reaches its peculiar dark sublimity by going, as it were, down rather than up. Bring to mind any cinematic version you may have seen of the moment where the monster is brought to life: crashing thunder and lightning, dramatic music, the hysterical scientist screaming ‘live, my creation, live!’. Now take a look at how far Shelley herself was prepared to dial-down this crucial moment:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Not quite anticlimactic, but more cannily downbeat, this. It speaks to something important about the way the novel has been creatively read, of course. Which is to say: Frankenstein the novel does deal with those intensities of the Romantic Sublime (‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’) that get the hairs stirring on the backs of our necks; but it does so by descent, rather than ascent, and via an apprehension of the guilt of creation rather than human technological hubris. If you bear with me, I’ll explain what I mean.

Here’s something I wrote about Frankenstein in a book called 50 Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge 2009):

The novel’s core story is probably well-enough known not to need extensive summary. Scientist Victor Frankenstein constructs and animates an eight-foot-tall artificial man, but, obscurely horrified by what he has done, abandons his creation and temporarily loses his memory. The creature (it is never named) comes into the world a mental tabula rasa to be written upon my experience—as it transpires, mostly the experience of others’ hostility towards its hideous appearance. It learns not only to speak but, improbably enough, to read and write by eavesdropping unnoticed on a peasant family. Thereafter it becomes murderous, a consequence not only of others’ hostility but also its reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and identifying with the outcast Satan. Lonely, it seeks out its maker demanding that he create a monstrous bride. Frankenstein agrees and builds a second, female creature, but belatedly alarmed at the implication of his two creations breeding and populating the world with monsters, he tears it to pieces. In revenge the monster kills Frankenstein’s own wife. Frankenstein then pursues his creation to the arctic wastes, where he dies; the novel ends with the creature still alive, but promising to kill itself. Summarised so baldly, this perhaps seems a little clumsily plotted (Shelley was 19 when she wrote it) and the novel itself does sometimes lapse into a rather melodramatic crudeness. But it also possesses remarkable imaginative power, not least in the embodiment, in both heart-wracked scientist and sublime monster, of two enduringly iconic archetypes of the genre.

The opinion that science fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s novel has had several adherents (and several dissenters) but is most closely associated with British SF author and critic Brian Aldiss. For Aldiss, Frankenstein encapsulates ‘the modern theme, touching not only on science but man’s dual nature, whose inherited ape curiosity has brought him both success and misery’ [Aldiss, Billion Year Spree 26]. Aldiss wrote his own oblique fictional treatment of the same story, Frankenstein Unbound (1974), in which a modern man propelled by ‘timeslips’ back to the Romantic era meets not only Mary Shelley, but Frankenstein and his monster too—this latter proving an eloquent commentator upon man’s capacity for dialectically interconnected creation and destruction. As a description of the novel, and an implicit characterisation of sf as a whole, this has persuaded many.

Frankenstein, as every schoolchild knows, is the name of the scientist, not the name of the monster (although transferring the name from creator to creation is now so widely disseminated a solecism as hardly to merit rebuke). The monster has no name (its namelessness, indeed, strikes me as being a function of its motherlessness). What, then, is Frankenstein’s creature? It is a monster. Now, monster is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin, monstrum, which means (I pluck Lewis and Short from my shelf) ‘a divine omen, indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent’. This word is in turn from moneo: ‘to teach, instruct, tell, inform, point out; to announce, predict, foretell’ (from this we get the French ‘montre’, and the English ‘demonstrate’). Originally a calf (say) born with two heads would be a monster in the sense of being ominous: through it the gods would be trying to tell us something. Though the word now has the connotation of a large and terrifying fantastical beast, the earlier meaning still haunts it. Godzilla, say, is a monster in the contemporary vulgar sense, but also in the sense that he is trying to tell us something (in his case, something about the evils of nuclear testing). Frankenstein’s monster, of course, is often read as a book trying to tell us something about science, or man’s hubris, or about the nature of creation itself. Me, I wonder if the monster’s main function, and the ground of its prodigious success, is that it demonstrates something closer to home: you. Yes, I mean you madam; and you sir. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

What about the creator’s name, ‘Frankenstein’? It’s a common-enough Germanic moniker (the invaluable Wikipedia tells us: ‘Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name “Frankenstein” from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. … The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Hesse or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate.’) But I have a fanciful theory about the name; or half-fanciful, and I intend to air it here. The half that’s less fanciful is the first syllable, which seems to me very likely, in its reference to France, to encode a symbolic allusion to the French Revolution. The half that’s more fanciful would link the stone (‘-Stein’ in German) with the French for stone, –pierre, as a sort of sidestep towards Robespierre, architect of the French revolutionary Terror … like Frankenstein, a well-bred, well-educated man impatient with old forms, who wished to conquer the injustices of the world but who ended up creating only a monster of Terror. This may strike you are more tortuously implausible than it does me, not just because I tend to see in this rebus (Frankenstein = French ‘stone’ = French [robes]-pierre) an example of the way the creative subconscious works, but because there are a great many people who share my sense than the novel is in a symbolic sense ‘about’ the French revolution. Chris Baldick’s book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford 1987) traces the many appropriations of Shelley’s monster in the culture of the century noting how very often revolution, upheaval or popular dissent was troped precisely as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Like the Revolution, the monster is a creature of power and uncanny novelty, brought into being with the best intentions, but abandoned by its architect and running into bloodsoaked courses of remorseless violence and terror. Which is to say: the monster emblematises Revolution because it focuses terror. Indeed, for an English liberal in the first decades of the 19th-century there were two key Revolutions in recent history: the French and the American. It may not be a coincidence that, after making his European monster, the French-Swiss Frankenstein is persuaded to make a second, on the understanding that the pair will emigrate to America. He changes his mind:

Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.

That last word—terror—is crucial for the novel. The word ‘terror’ chimes like a bell through the whole text. Terror, of course, was Robespierre’s touchstone: here, for example, he is in his Discours sur les principes de morale politique (February 1794):

Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste ; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible ; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu ; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie.
[If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.]

Terror is an emanation of virtue because it is the purest form of justice; and Frankenstein’s mythic heft and potency derives surely in large part from the sense that there is a cruel, implacable justice behind the monster’s violence. If people had treated him well, and seen past his hideous exterior, he would have repaid their trust. Because they treated him with violence and disgust, those are the human qualities he mirrors back. This comes close to the secret brilliance of the book: it is that our creations will punish us, they will pursue us (as we pursue them, seeking to punish them); and that this will happen because, in a crucial sense, they are us. It is that out of ourselves and against ourselves comes the fiercest and most unrelenting urge to punish, to bring to justice, the most acute terror. I’m reminded of something Hazlitt wrote (this is from his essay ‘On Will Making’ (1821):

It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is ourselves that we cannot forgive.

I can’t think of a book that is as eloquent in its apprehension of the dark truth embedded in that last sentence as Frankenstein.

What, then, is Frankenstein? It is Revolution (and its bloody aftermath) as myth; it is the excavation of the guilt of Enlightenment creation and action. It is, in short, a descent into Hell. Indeed, I would suggest, we can read the novel as a thoughtfully structured piece of mythic intertextuality about this great theme. I’m thinking of Western culture’s many narratives about infernal descent; in particular, think about Dante’s great divina commedia. Dante’s Hell is a funnel shaped cavern located inside the earth—something Shelley’s own ‘funnel-shaped’ narrative structure apes, with Walton’s frame narrative containing the smaller but deeper account of Frankenstein himself, and that circle of story containing again the smaller yet more profound narrative of the monster. Thinking in these terms perhaps explains some of the odder moments in Shelley’s text; or at least, I’m prepared to be persuaded so. For example: one stumbling block for many readers is Frankenstein’s weird hysterical amnesia—having spent months making his creation, he is so horrified by the result that he stumbles away and forgets all about it until four months later, when the monster’s murders bring it all back to him. A reader who judges by standards of psychological verisimilitude will find this hard to swallow; but if we read with a sense of the mythic provenance—for of course entry to the underworld happens only after the shades of the dead have drunk of the waters of Lethe, or forgetfulness. By the same token, the novel’s final scenes in the frozen polar wasteland (striking and memorable stuff, if something rather gnashingly written by Shelley) are modelled on Dante’s final encounter with Satan at the conclusion of the Inferno: trapped forever not in fire, but embedded in a vast field of ice. The monster’s self-identification with the devil (via Milton) only reinforces this hellish troping. The hell of Enlightenment liberalism is you, or your hideous, monstrous doppelganger, your creation, your child.

Frankenstein is amongst other things a novel about being part of a family, about the generation of life and the toll taken by familial pressures. American critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read Shelley as ‘this orphaned literary heiress’ for whom ‘highly charged connections between femaleness and literariness must have been established early’ particularly ‘in relation to the controversial figure of her dead mother.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Yale University Press 1979), 222] That mother, Mary Wollstonecroft was—of course—the author of that foundational text in Western feminist thought, Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gilbert and Gubar’s big, inspiring, occasionally wayward study of female writers was foundational in a smaller way, of the second wave of postwar academic feminist enquiry. Certainly their feminist reading of the novel, as a female appropriation of previously masculine myths of authorship and creation—a Romantic proto-feminist act of bibliogenesis—proved influential in academe.

Since the 1970s Frankenstein has been the subject of many perceptive feminist readings. Indeed, according to Diane Long Hoeveler this novel ‘has figured more importantly in the development of feminist literary theory than perhaps any other novel, with the possible exception of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre’ [Hoeveler, ‘Frankenstein, feminism and literary theory’, in Esther H. Schor (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45]. The brilliantly imaginative ways in which the novel deconstructs traditional understandings of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (not least in its new myth of the man who gives ‘birth’ to life thereby birthing death and terror too; which is to say, its effective critique of masculinist structures of society, science and literature) speaks both to the great change in conceptions of femaleness that was starting to gain momentum in Shelley’s day, and also to the potential of non-realist modes of art such as science fiction to represent, dramatise and disseminate precisely those changes. Not for nothing does Debra Benita Shaw’s 2000 feminist study describe SF as a whole as The Frankenstein Inheritance.

But having said that, I can’t help feeling that this success has its own limitations. Certainly Shelley’s own career has been overwritten by the impact of Frankenstein: she wrote many other things, but only specialists know anything about them. More to the point, it could be argued that the novel has been almost hijacked by its heritage. What I mean by this is: we tend to read it nowadays as a science fiction novel (which is to say, in ways conditioned by the habits of reading twentieth- and twenty-first-century SF) rather than reading it as it was originally read and reviewed, as a novel of philosophical speculation in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Mary Wollstonecroft’s Mary (1788) or Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). To read the book this way would be to concentrate more upon the first section as a meditation on the proper boundaries of human knowledge, and to read the Monster’s first-person narrative as a bold attempt to dramatise the theory-of-mind of John Locke, and to pay less attention to the pitiful/Satanic intensities of the monster’s violence and alienation. But violence and alienation speak more directly to us today, I suppose.