Sunday, 27 April 2014

Kingsley Amis - The Alteration (1976)

"'Go back no more than four hundred years or so. Over all the time since, Christendom has been a tyranny of a rare sort. By way of the soul it rules the minds of most and the acts of all. As effect, no wars throughout Europe but the one, a war with long breaks of peace, a war against a power that can never be crushed and can be held in only by standing in arms from year to year: the best possible form to draw off any will to rebel or quarrel. And, in the last fifty years, Christendom has finally drubbed a power much more awful than the Turk could ever be, one that now lives on as it can in New England among boors and savages: science. God be praised.'
   "'Amen,' said Lyall automatically.
   "'Amen to amen. It was a close thing. A little longer, and science would have abolished God and brought our world to ruin.'
   "'You don't mean abolish, you mean take attention from, leave on one side.'
   "'I mean abolish, I mean deny, I mean disprove.'"

In 'The Alteration', Kingsley Amis explores what the world would have happened if the influence of Catholicism had never declined. In this it echoes Keith Roberts' superlative 'Pavane', one of a number of alternate history novels that Amis tips his hat to. As in 'Pavane', Amis' story focuses on the characters in this world, allowing the way different people interact to tell us about how it's different from our own instead of relying too much on heavy exposition. This allows Amis to create a well realised alternate time line, with many historical in-jokes and nods to other works in the same field, whilst still telling a powerful and satisfying story.
   In this case, the jonbar point is the Reformation. In the world of 'The Alteration', instead of splitting with the Catholic church, in order to prevent a schism Martin Luther becomes pope. Protestantism never emerges, and so the Catholic influence over Europe never diminishes but only grows stronger. The world described in 'The Alteration' is similar in a number of respects to that in Roberts' 'Pavane'. In both books Catholicism informs and controls all aspect of life in Britain. Science is outlawed as heresy, so electricity is banned and most technology runs on steam or gas. The world wars never happened; in 'Pavane' Roberts puts this down to the lack of technological development, in 'The Alteration' one of the priests explicitly states that peace within Catholic Europe was achieved by uniting them in war against the Turks. Both books explore a society in which the power of the patriarchy is maintained by religious oppression, where dissent is swiftly and brutally punished. However the concluding tone of the books is a little different. Whereas Roberts ways up the cost of religious oppression against the technological horrors of the holocaust and nuclear destruction and finds merit in a world developing science more slowly and cautiously, Amis' book is much more cynical and dystopic. At the end of 'The Alteration', it's revealed that the pope, unwilling to change the church's stance on birth control, is trying to solve the population growth problem across Europe by secretly putting drugs in the water to reduce the birth rate, a plan he is testing out on unknowing subjects.
   'The Alteration' focuses on Hubert Anvil, a choirboy with an incredible voice who is marked for castration by the church in order to preserve his voice for the pope and the glory of God. Amis uses this central idea as both an example of the unnecessary brutality of an institution that would mutilate a child, and as a way of illustrating how much of the Catholic church's control over its people comes from control of sexuality. As a New England reverend says in the book,

"What they had intended to do to little Hubert Anvil was shocking without being surprising, considered Pellew. All their temporal over-magnificence, all their pharisaism, all their equivocation, all their ruthlessness came from one source: the celibacy of their priesthood."

Not only is Hubert denied from ever reaching sexual maturity, but priests are forced to be celibate, birth control is banned, and homosexuality, indeed any kind of sexuality outside of married heterosexuality, is banned. Amis explores the importance of sexuality in the human experience, the part sexuality plays in one's self identity, and hence how repressing this becomes a powerful tool of social control.
   Resigned to his fate but wanting to know what it is he will be missing out on, Hubert asks his family and friends what sex is like. This allows Amis to explore the complexity of human sexuality, and the confusion and mystification that surrounds it for young adolescents. From the stilted allusions from his conservative father's answer to the more down to earth answer from his brother to the crude smut he hears from his classmates and the stable boy, to his own budding feelings for a girl, Hubert is unable to collate these answers into a consistent whole. Amis deftly portrays the curiosity, excitement, apprehension and fear that adolescents face around the idea of sex.
   While it's realistic that Hubert would not feel comfortable asking friends who are girls or his mother about sex, this does mean that the book builds up a pretty one-sided, male-centric view of sex, and only heterosex at that. While you can argue that the book sidelines women and female views of sexuality, and any view whatsoever of LGBT sexuality, as an artistic choice to reflect the deeply conservative society it depicts, that doesn't mean these people wouldn't exist or have a viewpoint, albeit one they would have to keep secret, in such a society. At least Hubert's mother, Dame Anvil, is a strong enough character to resist Hubert's alteration as much as she can, and is given sexuality, though she is reduced to using it to protect her son. It's also worth pointing out that the elder castrati who select Hubert for alteration are very othered, in some part to make Hubert's fate even more awful than it already is, and again this is something that would realistically be a thing in the society depicted, but it's still uncomfortable.
   Ultimately Hubert decides that something this important must be worth keeping, even with the promise of wealth and celebrity weighing against it, and tries to escape to New England, where Protestantism has belatedly emerged. He gets as far as the airship just before takeoff before coming down with testicular torsion and having to have his nads surgically removed anyway. This is a particularly cruel diabolus ex machina on behalf of the author, but it only serves to emphasise the unstoppable power of the Catholic church in this world: an unlucky coincidence starts to look like God really is on their side.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky - Definitely Maybe (1976)

"Well then, buddy, how do you expect to explain fantastic events without a fantastic hypothesis?"

Dmitri Malianov is on the verge of a major breakthrough, a discovery that will recontextualise the entire field of astrophysics, Nobel prize winning stuff. So he's sent his wife and kid away so he can concentrate. Unfortunately poor Dmitri can't get a break. First a delivery arrives with crates of vodka and caviar, then a ludicrously attractive woman turns up in a short skirt. And when he still refuses to be put off his work, that's when the government heavies turn up threatening him. Speaking to his friends, he finds out that they too have been on the verge of great discoveries in their own quite disparate fields before becoming similarly distracted. Someone, or perhaps something, really doesn't want them to make these discoveries.
   In 'Definitely Maybe' the Strugatsky brothers examine what happens when the human spirit is faced with an immovable force that cannot be reasoned with. It is a chilling work of intense paranoia, made all the more powerful for being rooted in the Strugatskies' real life experiences writing science fiction in soviet Russia, where they frequently faced censorship. In the afterword Boris Strugatsky explains the difficulty they faced at every turn publishing this very book itself. There is an undercurrent of bitterness and frustration evident in 'Definitely Maybe' that gives its satirical humour a real bite.
   The Strugatskies are masters of tight plotting. Despite its short length, 'Definitely Maybe' is perfectly formed. The creeping sense of inescapable dread is expertly built up, culminating in a pile up of unlikely reveals, each designed only to further obfuscate and misdirect the protagonist. While he and his friends desperately try to come up with some plausible explanation to explain their circumstance, poor Dmitri is constantly having the rug pulled from under him. The explanation of a jealous supercivilisation determined to stop humanity from developing to a level where it could compete with them only makes sense to these characters because they are clutching at straws, hoping against all available sense and evidence that they are up against something that can be understood or reasoned with. Dmitri's learned friend Vecherovsky comes up with the theory that it is not another civilisation bringing humanity's brightest and best minds to a screeching halt, it is a natural force that exists to limit the extent to which a civilisation can progress. This idea is rather more interesting than the concept of malicious alien intelligence precisely because a force of nature is something physical and absolute that cannot be argued or reasoned with, like gravity. It's a potent metaphor for the force that cannot be grappled with, because it both appeals to our sense of knowledge and science, in that there are natural limits on any animal population which of course includes human, as well as invoking an almost Lovecraftian horror of a vast and indifferent cosmos next to which we will always be insignificant.
   But what 'Definitely Maybe' is really interested in is how people react in the face of such a force. The Strugatsky brothers write knowing full well that everyone has their price. If a force you cannot fight offers you everything you could possibly want with one hand and threatens to annihilate you and everyone you care about with the other, what choice do you have? Is it possible for a person still to have integrity in a system where the cards are so comprehensively stacked against you? These are the big questions 'Definitely Maybe' wrestles with. Dmitri sees his friends reduced to spineless cowards who, while they have everything they desire, will never achieve anything with their lives. However, because he has a wife and child and would be putting them in danger otherwise, he too capitulates and gives up his life's work and his shot at greatness. However, his friend Vecherovsky, who has no family ties, takes it on himself to collect Dmitri's and all the others' work so that he can work on it and preserve it for future generations to work on. The story ends on a hopeful note, albeit ambiguously. Humanity can still struggle on against such forces, because concepts such as science and the truth are important.

Kurt Vonnegut - Timequake (1997)

"Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you any different!"

'Timequake' is Kurt Vonnegut's last novel, and appropriately enough it is a novel obsessed with the past. Although it lacks the violent inspiration of his earlier works, it has enough of the trademark Vonnegut charm, wit and worldly wisdom to act as a fitting bookend to his novel writing career.
   The central conceit is that on the 13th of February 2001, the universe suffers a crisis of conscience. Unsure whether it should continue on expanding or just call it quits and  collapse, it shrinks back ten years. The end result is that everyone has to relive the past ten years on autopilot, all free will removed, making exactly the same stupid mistakes all over again. The main thread of the plot involves Kilgore Trout, homeless out of print SF writer and Vonnegut's alter ego, helping people deal with free will kicking in after ten years on autopilot with the timeless advice, "You were sick, but you're well again, and there's work to do." The timequake is a witty and apt metaphor for the sheer dismal-ness of the 90s, the effect of finding yourself in a world where people have decreasing amounts of autonomy over their own lives, where pop culture is terminally eating itself and regurgitating the same old ideas over and over again. In fact post-timequake apathy, which Vonnegut describes so well here, is increasingly indicative of our own times as much as anything else.  
   Ever since developing his signature style in 'Cat's Cradle' and 'Slaughterhouse Five' Vonnegut has tended towards unconventionally structured stories where much of the joy comes from the narrative voice and the philosophical diversions it makes. Vonnegut's frank, conversational style has allowed him to effortlessly inhabit a range of very different characters in his past novels, but whatever persona he's using his deadpan humour and warm humanism always shine through. 'Timequake' is like this but more so, with Vonnegut pretty much narrating as Vonnegut. He admits in the introduction that the book is basically a salvage operation, with the original book focusing more on the actual timequake story. The end result is that the narrative is frequently pushed to the side, as Vonnegut uses the themes and ideas raised by the skeleton of the original abortive work to reminisce on his past life in general and dispense worldly wisdom with that unlikely mix of sardonic humour and warm compassion, in the way that only Vonnegut can.

Pictured: sardonic humour and warm compassion

   Spiraling out from the story's central idea, Vonnegut reflects on the illusion of free will and how different people cope with this, leading him to look back on the various people he's know in his life, the circumstances and luck that lead to him taking the path he did through life, and the changing modern times he finds himself in. Fans of Vonnegut's work will notice several themes running through his work that are revisited here. Vonnegut remembers his experiences in World War II and ruminates on the futility of war and humanity's potential for self-destruction, as he does in 'Slaughterhouse Five' and 'Cat's Cradle', he expounds on the virtues of a supportive network of friends and family, one of the major themes of the underrated 'Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!', and he reflects on aging and death as he does in 'Deadeye Dick' and 'Hocus Pocus'. While this 'greatest hits' approach nicely ties together many of Vonnegut's major themes and concerns, it does point to my main problem with this otherwise very good book: these are all ideas Vonnegut has explored at greater length and developed more fully elsewhere.
   However, one would have to be truly churlish to hold this against 'Timequake' when the book itself is so full of warmth and laughter. Vonnegut is, after all, one of those authors that it is a pleasure to just listen to him ramble on. And 'Timequake' rambles beautifully, weaving together many laugh out loud moments with genuine pathos, and building to a suitably elegiac conclusion, seeing as it is the great man's last book.While it may not stand as the man's best work, that's a harsh grading curve to hit anybody with, and it provides Vonnegut with an opportunity to see Kilgore Trout, and by extension himself, out with style.