New content?! Twice in 24 hours?! Gordon’s alive?!
Yes, things are getting back on an even keel as Christmas approaches. I’ve got a couple of Open Mike Mondays in the bag that will run shortly as well as the return of Al Dente! but first a response to an idea my friend Jen Williams. Jen is the author of The Copper Promise, out in February which you can pre-order by clicking on the title back there. It’s one of those fantasy books that politely points out I’m full of crap when I say fantasy isn’t really my thing even as it picks my pocket and gets me to hire it as a bodyguard. It’s huge fun and I’ll be talking about it shortly.
First those, the Meaningful 5. This is a twitter hashtag Jen started to discuss the books that mean the most to you and have influenced you. It’s a fascinating, simple idea and it’s produced some great lists already. Do go and click on the hashtag and join in, as well as reading Emma Maree’s list over here. When you’ve done that, here’s mine:
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
it’s an obvious choice but no less relevant for that, especially as I’m cheating. Firstly because I’m including all the novels, yes even the bad ones. Adams’ willingness to continue to play with the toys long after they came out of the box is frustrating to some but admirable to others. The way the destruction and reconstruction of Earth is played with is especially interesting, as he encodes the passage of time in the real world into Arthur’s world. Everything becomes slightly mundane, even the extraordinary, and Adams combines the slightly melancholic note that strikes with some moments of dizzying invention. The third books’ revelations about cricket (Yes, I know they were recycled from elsewhere) are especially great, balancing on the thin line between absurd and desperately sinister.
Adams’ refusal to be precious about his work led to some duds but also some moments of real genius. The soaring strains of ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ as the TV version finishes is especially great, as is the scene where Ford tells the pub landlord the world really is about to end. It’s Ford that holds my attention to this day, too, in all his various forms. Geoffrey McGovern’s laconic, unflappable Prefect is huge fun in the radio version but the two that really stick with me are David Dixon and Mos Def. Def’s constant, polite enthusiasm is remarkably sweet and he and Sam Rockwell are the two real standouts in the movie. But it’s Dixon, all manic energy, endless charm and a core of truly alien, unsettling stillness that will always be Ford for me. I watched, and was terrified by, the show at an early age and he’s fused with the Doctor in my mind; the same terribly polite, terribly British alien, here to help but not necessarily for the right reasons.
For Ford alone, Adams gets a slot here. For the rest of it, especially the idea of a wonderful, glorious, occasionally terrifying universe, Adams gets the top slot.
Some books reach in and reprogram your brain. This was one of them. Heller’s sprawling novel is, ostensibly, about a world war 2 bomber squadron and the increasingly absurd, and horrific, events that surround them. On paper, and indeed on screen in the disappointing movie version, it looks like a classic war comedy. Hogan’s Heroes with planes, that sort of thing.
In practice it’s a nightmare. The war, and the men, spiralling out of control but retaining enough awareness to realize what’s happening to them. They become the embodiment of the titular Catch, trapped in a thin bubble of constructed sanity that only degrades the more they try and hold onto it.
It’s hilarious. Also it’s terrifying.
This book didn’t leave my pocket for about two years. The combination of humour and horror and the speed with which Heller shifts between the two has not only stayed with me to this day, it’s permanently altered my tastes, leading me to actively seek out stories like that. I work with horror on a weekly basis but for me there’s nothing purer than the horror you see here. Everything, fdrom Yossarian’s line moving antics to the increasing industrialization of the war effort by a colleague, sits just close enough to reality to be plausible. At the same time it’s all patently absurd, everyone knows, but they do it anyway. War gives everyone a free ticket to shape reality to their own specifications and they all do, falling down hill in loose formation towards the end of the war and returning to the reality they may no longer know how to be part of. It’s funny and tragic and mercurial, like no other novel I’ve read. This book was the start of my love for story that knows its story, fiction where you can see the joists. It helped me understand Shakespeare, it helped me love Community and that’s why it makes this list.
Allen Steele is best known these days for the Coyote series, and it’s easy to see why. The books are sprawling in a way that appeals to Golden Age fans and detailed and character driven in a way that appeals to everyone else. They’re fiercely good books and definitely worth seeking out.
For me, though, Orbital Decay is better. His debut novel it follows a group of orbital construction workers as they realize that one of the new modules they’re being asked to fit is there for very bad reasons. Suddenly, this group of highly trained blue collar workers have to make a moral decision, and make it a couple of hundred miles over the Earth’s surface.
There are three reasons to love this book. The first is the pragmatic air that the characters bring to it. Space is the office, not the final frontier and whilst they have moments where the romance of their job sweeps them up, those moments aren’t common.
Secondly, the format is really fun. Steele unfolds the story over a long period of time and there’s plenty of digressions and vignettes about orbital life. My favourite strikes a very similar note to something in the book below too. The description of the Challenger ghost, the image detected at the exact time of the Challenger disaster, is a stunning piece of work even today. Steele combines something very unusual with the pragmatism mentioned above to create the sort of quiet, fervent spiritual belief that fits people in this line of work perfectly.
Finally, it’s one of the first pieces of SF I encountered that was actually fun. There’s no po-faced discussion of technical jargon, no sense of being battered around the head with the author’s chosen issue. It’s a perfectly designed story for its subject matter and characters, complete in and of itself and the gateway to all Steele’s other books if you choose it to be. Battered, crumpled, quietly heroic and with a jet black sense of humour, it’s the book that taught me that SF can, and should, always be about people.
The Wind in the Willows
The first book I was ever given, by my mum. I still have that copy too. It has an unfair reputation as being twee and safe. There’s certainly an element of that, one that the frequent movie versions seize on but underneath it all is a deeply weird, luscious work of modern fantasy and satire. And toads, of course.
Reading this back as an adult, the class war element hit me right between the eyes. The stoats and weasels are the working class, Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad are the local toffs and the clash between them is a small, polite revolution. One that gets turned aside too, and there’s something sinister about that if you want to find it, certainly. But underneath the cosy element of it there’s something truly unique, a willingness to not only engage with the world but gently, and affectionately, mock it. None of the characters are perfect and all of them know it but they also know that trying is enough. It’s a novel about perseverance, about moving out of your comfort zone, digging your way up to the surface and finding adventure. It’s a quintessentially British novel about how to be less quintessentially British, a polite, quiet revolution all of its own.
Then there’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. If you’ve not read the book, go read that chapter in isolation. There is, I would argue, nothing in English literature quite like it.
It bears almost no connection to the rest of the plot, is never referred to again and is the deep, resounding bass note that echoes underneath the entire book. Looking for a lost child, Mole and Ratty search the riverbank and eventually find him, with the god Pan. He’s never named but is quite explicitly identified. The animals who meet him are awestruck and the god acknowledges them with a combination of authority and compassion. There’s no threat, just total, reserved power and absolute compassion. It’s the book at its most alien but also its most familiar, as the animals encounter their god and find him to be benign, loving and present. Reading this as a child was a little like reading a foreign language. Reading it as an adult, it remains one of the most powerful, comforting pieces of spiritual writing I’ve encountered, mixed in with the sort of High Strangeness that everyone from Robert Holdstock to Doctor Who would play with in later years. It’s an intoxicating piece of writing sitting in the middle of one of the smartest, most quietly mischievous books I’ve ever read and that’s why its here.
The 87th Precinct books
Ed Mcbain’s 87th Precinct novels are one of the spines that the modern police procedural is hung off. Following a rotating cast of detectives in Isola, a fictionalized version of Manhattan, they ran from the 1950s through to Mcbain (Real name Evan Hunter which is at least as macho), in the early 21st century.
They are, to me, the definition of pulp. I used to buy these things in second hand book stores and off spinner racks in the two independent bookstores on the Isle of Man. They had names Ax, Doll, See Them Die and Money. The covers had a big stripe of crime tape across the tape with the details of the book on it, usually over a picture of a gun or a knife, or a dead body. I think there may at one point have been a dead body with a gun and a knife in it.
I found these things when I was about 13 and pretty much devoured them. Firstly because like every 13 year old I had a tremendous fondness for creatively unpleasant fictional violence but secondly because they felt like something Other. The books were a window into a city larger than the island I grew up on, a place where cabs were yellow and police officers were armed, were canolis were a thing. I had no idea what thing they were but I knew I wanted them. They were escapism in the most literal sense.
They were also a road map. My first fiction was an unholy combination of the ‘Detective Squad’ dynamic and early cyberpunk. Many of those stories were awful. None of them were dull to write. Mcbain handed me a fiction kit, a means of learning how to tell my own stories. Even better, he opened the door to the sort of critical sense that would sit me in University for an extra two years learning about metafictionality and postmodernism. Mcbain was a sly old bird towards the end, all too aware that his work had influenced the entire modern canon of police procedural TV shows. The later novels gently and affectionately mocked those shows and did so in the same way the characters would. A sly nod across a squad room, the good natured ragging that people who do awful jobs use to get to the end of the shift. Olivia Benson. John Kelly. Finn Tutuola. Lennie Briscoe. Alexandra Eames. Frank Pembleton. Jimmy McNulty. Different genres, different shows, different cities. But ask any of them if they’d heard of the 87th Precinct and they’d all tell you the same thing; those guys were the originals.