Review — “A Wrinkle in the Skin” — John Christopher

A Wrinkle in the SkinA Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another enjoyable slab of post-apocalyptic cosy catastrophe from John Christopher.

Earlier in the year, I read Christopher’s The Death of Grass. That was lean, taut, and gripping, with a particular grey bleakness. This book follows a similar pattern — ordinary people surviving a catastrophe — but here the catastrophe has a more unlikely cause: worldwide earthquakes that cause severe damage and disruption. Of course, the book was written in the early 1960s, when much less was known about plate tectonics, so colossal earthquakes perhaps had some plausibility.

Ultimately, though, the science is irrelevant, and to place post-apocalyptic novels in the science-fiction genre is perhaps mistaken. Because after the initiating disaster, such books inevitably become about people, about society and human relationships, about what makes state and society.

There is much to fear in the post-apocalytic world — rape, pillage, murder, illness, death. That much is made plain, and Christopher does not shy away from it. And in a lovely Ballardian moment involving a stranded cargo ship, there is madness and defiance too. In some ways, this is a novel that sits between the apocalyptic niche Ballard carved out in books such as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere and the very British catastrophes of John Wyndham.

The prose is as clean and lean as in The Death of Grass. It has a kind of traditional, British style I associate with Orwell, Greene and Somerset Maugham, a style I find myself favouring at the moment.

This novel is, in some ways, ultimately less desolate, less gloomy than The Death of Grass. Its conclusion offers some optimism amid the devastation and wildness. There is, in the end, a kind of hope that, however hard it might be at that moment, in the future a good, just and fair society can be rebuilt.

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A Year (and a bit) of Manic Editing

As I noted in an earlier post, things have been a bit slow on this blog for over a year now. This is because I have been editing books, preparing to send manuscripts to agents, sending them to agents, doing more editing, getting other books ready for self-publishing, and so on. And as I write every day for a living (I’m a technical author by trade), I’ve had no time to add blog-posting to the authorial mix. However, I’m hoping that I might temporarily find more time as I’ve just self-published a novel, so I’m not currently editing or writing … well, not for a couple of days, at least…

I talked about History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing in that earlier post. In addition to that book, I have published two other books over the last eighteen months.

The first of the books published was The Dead John Miscellany. Six years ago now, one of my best friends, and my co-author on In Alien Heat, died. He had made me executor of his estate, and I knew he wrote stories, poems and lyrics. I also knew he was reluctant to share them, as he could never finish editing them, and anyway thought they could never match the standard of his heroes. I also knew that though many of his friends knew he wrote, few had seen the results of that writing. I decided, therefore, to self-publish a book of his writing that I could give to the other beneficiaries, and also sell on Amazon. After all, should it by any chance sell a million, the beneficiaries would be even better off than John expected!

I finally got around to collating and editing the notebooks and scraps I had found in spring and summer last year. I worked out which were the best drafts, or, at least, which pages from various drafts made the best final draft to my eye and ear. My wife and I then typed them up, formatted them and prepared them for self-publishing. One decision I made early on was to not include in the poetry section the lyrics that John had written for a band we were both part of when we were young. A teenager of the 70s, John had long been an admirer of lyricists, starting with Marc Bolan, and then Pete Sinfield, Peter Hammill, Tom Waits, Mike Scott, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and so on. The lyrics were to have, then, their own section.

After about six months of editing, drafting, editing, and drafting again, I finally published the book. The beneficiaries were very happy to finally see his writing, and various of his friends bought a copy of the book. I think John would both hate me, and be secretly pleased, were he not an atheist who is utterly dead.

So what is John’s writing like? Odd and elliptical, full of symbolism and ritual, and making oblique references to the I Ching, religion, sirens and funerary rites. Everything has an air of elusive and illusive mystery. There is one particular obsession I will not reveal, preferring instead for leave the reader to discover.

After The Dead John Miscellany, I worked on the aforementioned History of a Mystery for six months.

Then, having chased a couple of novels around agents, and realising that I wasn’t getting any younger and that preparing and chasing manuscripts around agents was actually preventing me writing another novel, I decided to self-publish the first book in what has become a series of six (or seven) novels.

This first novel, Sorrow Mystica (Dereham Connections: Node 2) had already been drafted many times before being sent to agents. This did not, of course, prevent it being checked and edited twice more; and then, when I went through the process of publishing to CreateSpace, I checked and rechecked the proof about twenty times (and found ugliness on each occasion!). Finally, this week, I decided that I could check no more without going insane, so released it to the world. Sorrow Mystica is a tale of UFOs, human and alien relationships, deceit and obsession.

The imaginary town of Dereham in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire is one of the settings for Sorrow Mystical, and is the location for other books in the Dereham Connections series.

You can get the latest information on Sorrow Mystica and the rest of the Dereham Connections at the Come to Dereham blog.

Book Review: Profiles Of The Future

Profiles Of The FutureProfiles Of The Future by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An easy read, but a little dull. It avoided the usual problem of extrapolating and prophesying – being quickly proved wrong – by mainly discussing ideas and concepts Clarke located so far into the future they have still to come to pass. The book was written in the 60s, updated in the 70s, and last printed in the early 80s – so it is of course already old hat, and Clarke knew little about the future development of microprocessors, genetic engineering, and so on. Nonetheless, one of the entertainments of reading old books prognosticating about the future is seeing where, and how soon, projections diverge from reality. By being very vague and long-sighted, both the amusement of bad prophecy and, as somebody with an interest in futurology, the humbling realisation that nearly all prediction (especially about the future) is doomed to failure was denied to me. There is at least, at the back of the book, a table in which Clarke actually does attempt to pin down, with dates, when we would colonize planets, or when there would be a World Brain, or when we would control weather, and so on. At last, I could again be reminded that even those lauded as technological prophets are doomed to prophetic failure.

The main reason for this failure is because, as usual, everything happens too soon. Extrapolations from current technology tend toward exponentiality. For example, it is easy to look at advances in genetics in 1970s and posit replicants in 2019 (Blade Runner). Similarly, for Clarke, the space race of the 1960s iis a harbinger of planetary colonization in the 2020s, and space-mining in the 2030s.

There are occasional hits; the “World Library” by 2010 sounds a lot like Project Gutenberg, or Google, or Wikipedia. However, the mode of delivery is completely different, relying on satellite-based communications rather than the internet. Network-based computing is absent, as are pocket-sized computers. A form of GPS is foreseen, however.

Still, this is an easy enough read. It also contains one of the best explanations I’ve read about how difficult interstellar travel would be in terms of time and communication (even at near light speeds); and how it is likely that, as humans spread among the stars, each area of colonisation would be so remote from Earth it would soon develop independently, and perhaps over time, lose connection with the ancestral planet.

If you are interested in futurology and scientific prophecy, if you see this lying around a second-hand bookshop, it is worth picking up.

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Book Review – Conversations on Truth

Conversations on TruthConversations on Truth by Mick Gordon My rating: 3 of 5 stars This book is a series of conversations (edited into readable format) with various people who have an interest in the idea of “truth” from a variety of viewpoints — such as philosophers, ethicists, journalists and evolutionary psychologists. The conversations were initiated by a pair of journalist/theatre directors who were attempting to find a way into the production of some form of drama through which notions of truth might be explored.

There are fifteen conversations, and although the conversations are edited, and they begin from a set of predefined questions, the interviewers allow the direction of conversation to suggest other directions the conversations might take. Sometimes, this ends up in diversions not necessarily to do with “truth” per se. And as commentators from various fields have been brought into the conversations, there are areas that might be of more interest to readers than others. Certainly, I was much more interested in what philosophers had to say than, say, journalists. And the evolutionary psychologist opened up an interesting area by suggesting that there might be evolutionary benefits to lying. Additionally, given the discursive nature of the conversations, areas in which I wanted more depth were sometimes glossed over – this is not an academic treatise.

The book is, then, something of a curate’s egg — hence the three-star rating. Nonetheless, as an introduction to truth, and the definitional, ethical, philosophical and cultural issues surrounding the concept, I thought this was a very useful book. View all my reviews

Fifty Years of Mystery

This blog has rather been in the doldrums since before Christmas. In part, Christmas can be blamed; but I was also tidying up drafts in preparation for (self-) publishing a new book about the Warminster mystery.

The mystery was 50 years old on Christmas day 2014. Until the 1960s, Warminster had never been famous for much. It is an army town, home to the Land Warfare Centre (formerly the School of Infantry). Salisbury Plain, to the north of the town, is used for military manoeuvres and training, including live firing. Very few luminaries had come from the town, and very little had happened there. In the 1960s, that was to change. Warminster was to become famous – notorious even – for its UFO sightings. These UFOs were described in the books of Arthur Shuttlewood, a local journalist. However, these books can only be found, if at all, second-hand, and only take the story of the mystery up until the late 1970s. Much has happened since then that needed recording — not so much UFO sightings, but information on what happened to those who documented the mystery, and the mystery’s slow re-emergence from the half-light of forgotten memories.

The mystery is being discussed and celebrated at a conference in Warminster in August this year (2015). It was in August 1965, during the summer holidays, that the town was first invaded by hordes of curious skywatchers who camped on the hills surrounding the town to look for the mysterious lights and listen out for the strange sounds they had learned about through TV, radio and newspapers, caused by a phenomenon the locals called the Thing.

To provide an introduction to the Warminster mystery — for those who might be new to it or revisiting it after many years — Kevin Goodman and I have written a new book that describes the fifty years of the mystery. The book reviews what happened during the crazy, exciting years of the Warminster mystery, and also what has happened since the mystery faded away. It is not a long list of sighting reports; it is a short history of the events — the lights and sounds — and the media reports and characters that shaped the Thing.

For information on the Warminster mystery, see the UFO Warminster Website.

The Warminster mystery is described in the following currently in-print books:

History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing

In Alien Heat: The Warminster Mystery Revisited

UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact

For information on out-of-print books that discuss the Warminster mystery, see the Books page of the UFO Warminster Website.