It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


War, and the Pity of War…

At the beginning of this year, I bought an anthology of World War II poetry on eBay, Return to Oasis: War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East 1940 – 1946, edited by Victor Selwyn, Erik de Mauny, Ian Fletcher, GS Fraser and John Waller, and published in 1980. Unfortunately, I’d misread the description of the book on eBay and thought it contained poetry by Lawrence Durrell, but in fact he only provided the introduction. Return to Oasis was based on Oasis, an anthology published in Cairo during World War II, and used the same criteria for inclusion: “the poet must have served in the Forces in the Middle East theatre of war in the 1940s and have written his or her poems at that time.”

So I received the book, flicked through it, realised I’d made a mistake, and stuck it up on my book-shelves. Where it languished unread until today.

There is a poetry forum moderated by Marion Arnott on Interaction, the T3A Publications board. One of its threads is about war poetry and, being an admirer of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry, I’ve posted to the thread. But everyone knows Owen’s poems, so today I decided to contribute something a little different to the discussion. Remembering the copy of Return to Oasis on my book-shelves, I got it down, opened it at random… and discovered John Jarmain.

Like Wilfred Owen, Jarmain did not survive the war which formed the subject of his poetry. Unlike Owen, he seems to have been completely, and criminally, forgotten – a single collection published posthumously in 1945, and a single small press reissue of that collection in 1998. On the strength of the four poems by John Jarmain published in Return to Oasis, he certainly deserves to be remembered. Here is one of those poems:

At a War Grave
No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.

So there you go. I’m now glad I “accidentally” bought Return to Oasis. And I think I might try and find myself a copy of Jarmain’s Poems from 1945. He also wrote a novel, Priddy Barrows, described as “with a Brontë-like atmosphere and a cast of vivid characters”. That sounds like it might be an interesting read, too…

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The Stars Look Very Different Today

For the last couple of days, I’ve been watching the latest Space Shuttle mission on the Nasa TV webfeed (via the Flame Trench). It’s not the most exciting television in the world – well, it’s in orbit about the world, but you know what I mean. But it is fascinating in a minor mind-boggling sort of way. I mean, that’s space. It’s not on Earth. It’s 240 miles straight up. When you think what’s needed merely to survive there… Then you start to realise quite how amazing an achievement were the Apollo missions to the Moon.

The US says it is going back to the Moon, although I wonder how long the enthusiasm will last. Given that China, Japan and India have also expressed similar intentions, perhaps the spirit of competitiveness will keep it on the political agenda. I think they should go. It’s a great idea. And yes, after Nasa has done that, of course they should go to Mars.

But why stop there? How about Ceres next? The moons of Saturn?

It doesn’t matter that we don’t have any real reason for going. We should do it because we can, because whatever challenges it presents are solvable. It’s something to aspire to, something achievable to aspire to. It’s not a waste of money, it’s not money that would be better spent on solving earthly problems. Because, let’s face it, if that money were made available, it wouldn’t be spent on earthly problems anyway. It’d go towards another “liberation” or “police action”. Or be used to further prop up an unwieldy government apparatus. Spending billions of dollars on sending four men to the Moon is a tangible, and very visible, objective. And no one has to die, either.

There might even be some spin-off technology that will prove useful or lucrative. But that’s just gravy. And the merchandising should make a bob or two. With a bit of help, a Nasa programme could even bootstrap commercial enterprises into space. It’ll never be routine or economical – or rather, the amount of up-front investment required to make it routine is politically and economically unfeasible. Local authorities in the UK won’t even invest in trams, so I don’t consider it likely that even a nation with a GDP of nearly $14,000,000,000,000,000 will invest in an orbital elevator. So it’s either spaceplanes or “Spam in a can“.

There is some scientific benefit to going back to the Moon, and then onwards to Mars. But that’s not important. Robots could do the job just as well. But sending robots is boring. We’ve been doing that for decades, and no one really cares. Send astronauts (or cosmonauts, or taikonauts), not robots.

Project Constellation is an excellent idea. Do it.


August and September Favourites

I’ve still been reading a favourite book each month. But I was a bit too busy in August to write up something on that month’s book, Metrophage by Richard Kadrey. So I decided to roll it into the write-up of September’s book, Paul Park’s Coelestis. And here they both are…

Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage has been described as “one of the quintessential 1980s cyberpunk novels”, and yet it seems to have slipped below the radar of most sf readers. It has neither the profile of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, nor Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and yet I believe it is better than both. Neuromancer was the seminal cyberpunk novel, and that can’t be taken away from it. But I’d argue that Metrophage did something just as important.

Jonny Qabbala is a drug pusher in Los Angeles. He is also an ex-member of the Committee for Public Safety. When Jonny’s connection, Raquin, is murdered, Jonny heads off to confront the killer, Easy Money… and promptly finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for Los Angeles – between the Committee for Public Safety, drug lord Conover, and the anarchist Croakers. In this future, the US went bankrupt and was bought up by the Japanese. Who are now at war with the New Palestine Federation (shades of The Centauri Device).

Jonny spends time with each of the three factions – not always by choice – but is entirely powerless to prevent events from unfolding. There are puzzles embedded in the plot – the mysterious leprosy-like disease raging through the city, the Alpha Rats on the Moon… Metrophage resolves these by putting Jonny in position to have the truth explained to him. It helps that he has contacts in each of the three factions – and even more so that he is seen as important to the plans of at least two of the factions. Kadrey takes the reader on a wild ride through his Los Angeles – alternately wasteland and near-future neon-soaked wonderland. Clues dropped here and there help explain the resolution. There are a couple of points I couldn’t quite figure out – the game Conover plays with Jonny using a copy (or original) of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, for example. But plenty of other elements of the novel have been subsequently become well-known tropes in the language of science fiction.

Despite that, Metrophage reads as fresh today as it did twenty years ago. Few books – even cyberpunk ones – can claim to have avoided dating over two decades. But then, Metrophage is more than just a cyberpunk novel. If Neuromancer folded noir into science fiction, then Metrophage folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. I’ve always maintained that cyberpunk effectively ended with the publication of Metrophage, and after my recent reread I see no reason to change my mind. Metrophage is cyberpunk – although it features no cyberspace or hackers. Metrophage is science fiction.

I didn’t expect Metrophage to lose its place on my list of favourites, and my reread not only proved that but reminded me why it was a favourite. It’s a great book.

And after Kadrey, another book I didn’t expect to be dislodged from the list. However, its appeal is, perhaps, more personal. Paul Park first appeared with the Starbridge Chronicles – Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness – an ambitious science fiction trilogy set on a world with seasons which last centuries, much like Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. From the first page of that trilogy, it was clear that Park was a distinctive voice. And his follow-up, Coelestis, more than proved it. In some respects, Coelestis remains unique in the genre. And that’s not an easy accomplishment.

Simon Mayaram is attached to the British Consulate on the only colony world on which an alien race was discovered, homo coelestis. These aliens were actually two races – Demons, and the Aboriginals, who the Demons had telepathically enslaved. The humans hunted the Demons to extinction, and freed the Aboriginals. Who now ape humanity – the rich members of the race undergo comprehensive surgery, and require a strict regimen of drugs, in order to appear and behave human. Katharine Styreme is one such Aboriginal. To all intents and appearances, she is a beautiful young human woman.

Simon is invited to a party given by a prominent member of the human community. Katharine – whom he has admired from afar – is also there, with her father Junius, a wealthy merchant. During the party, Aboriginal rebels attack, kill almost everyone and kidnap Simon and Katharine. Without her drugs, Katharine begins to revert to her alien nature – a process that is exacerbated by the presence among the rebels of the last surviving Demon. When human vigilantes attack the rebels, Simon and Katharine are forced to flee… and Katharine’s meagre grip on humanity begins to erode even further.

Coelestis is one of those science fiction novels which follows a logic all its own. It is, in a sense, post-rational. Although the story is set an indeterminate time in the future, the community to which Simon belongs bears an uncanny, and deliberate, resemblance to early Twentieth Century colonial British and American. Even the Aboriginals themselves – particularly the Styremes, who are made to appear human, and show no alien side – are hardly convincing in any scientific sense. Earth is described as a dying planet, and the colony planet has been cut off from its nearest neighbour. If there is an interstellar federation or empire, then it bears no resemblance to any other in the genre.

John Clute described Coelestis as a “Third World SF novel”. It’s sheer hubris on my part, but I think this is wrong. Coelestis is a post-colonial sf novel. It is clearly inspired by Park’s own years in India. And to call India a member of the Third World is to ignore its long and deep cultural heritage – and the Aboriginals (or rather, the Demons) are implied to have an equally long cultural heritage in Coelestis. The novel is not about living in a Third World analogue, it is about the gentle wind-down from colonialism and its often bloody consequences. Park makes as much clear in events described in the book. Mayaram is of Indian extraction (although born in the UK), and during his abduction by the Aboriginals, he rapes Katharine. It’s perhaps a somewhat  blunt metaphor for John Company and the Raj, but it makes the point. Even the Aboriginals’ attempt to ape human ways is a reflection of the Indian adoption of some elements of British culture – and especially the English language. The Aboriginals’ ersatz humanity is little more than surface – Katharine may resemble a young human woman, but whatever gender she possesses is what’s attached to her mimicry (the Aboriginals are actually one-sexed). She is not a viewpoint on the alien – Coelestis is a description of her fall from humanity, not of her imitation of it.

Having grown up in the Middle East, I find a particular appeal in novels such as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Park’s Coelestis. To some extent, they remind me of my childhood. Both also have the added advantage of being novels which can be read many times – and there is always something new to find, or to think about, in them. I certainly plan to reread Coelestis again some time. Its place on my list of favourites is secure.

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The "Beep" heard ’round the World

Today – October 4 – is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, this planet’s first artificial satellite. And it seems all the promise of the early years of the “Space Age” hasn’t, well, hasn’t really been met. The last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, climbed back into his Apollo 17 LM almost 35 years ago (on December 14, 1972). What happened? Why didn’t we go to Mars? We’re going to have to wait until 2020 before the US returns to the Moon. And it’s likely to get a little crowded up there – the Chinese, Japanese and Indians have all said they plan to send someone to the Moon around that time.