Review – “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange LandStranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’m not going to write a long review, there will be plenty enough on Goodreads, Amazon and all over the Web. This is my second time reading it, and I still thought it was fun and interesting enough to get three stars. Yes, it’s sexist, and yes, its writing style is not “literature” – but then, it was written for teenage boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose ideas of witty repartee would have been informed by 1940s detective movies on the television, gumshoes and newspaper men whose women knew their place.

And yet, there are enough ideas in the novel to turn a young boy’s (and girl’s) mind upside down and around about and set them all akimbo. Telepathy and telekinesis, and a man from Mars; older wiser, civilisations with mighty intellectual powers and wisdom; free love, and a lot of nakedness; criticism of religion while inventing a religion that is not a religion, and managing to confuse itself over the subject of religion, and whether God exists, whether there are immortal souls, and so on.

It’s not a great book, in the sense of great literature. But it’s fun, if a little tendentious, and perhaps a little preachy towards the end. However, there’s plenty there to set inquisitive young minds a-roaming, and more than enough that was, for the time, exciting, shocking and new.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

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Another Novel in the Series

So, finally, The Ethical Hitman is out there. Conceived third, written second, and fourth in the original series (but now fifth, or perhaps, mysteriously, sixth), it has taken ten years and fourteen drafts. Okay, a good few of those years were taken up with writing other books and trying to find an agent/publisher, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that it has taken so long.

The germ for this one was the hitman, who I’d included in a previous unfinished novel as one of the kind of unlikely people you sometimes meet hitch-hiking. After the first draft, the hitman evolved into somebody readers of previous books might think they know. I ended up writing the third or fourth draft of this novel at the same time as co-writing the first draft of a previous book in the series (Crossing the Line), and once I saw that my co-author had introduced a killer, it was obvious — to me at least –that the killer would become a hitman, and that hitman would become the hitman in this novel. Everything connects, particularly through the imaginary town of Dereham.

Also slowing down production were my own insecurities. Friends who read early draft mentioned various things, which caused me to rewrite those various things, or restructure other various things. Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, only one thing ever carried over from my friends’ comments — we get to know Molly better. The rest of the novel, despite my best efforts, remained as it was. Sections I’d taken out would wriggle their way back in, the structure would change, and then change back, characters would grow, and then diminish. In the end, at about draft ten, I looked at it all — the latest draft and the previous draft, and thought:  this is the story it is, and it can only ultimately please me. Although I do hope somebody else enjoys it too.

Set in the autumn of 1976, after the action in Raven of Dispersion, it chronicles the interactions of a hitman, a group of young friends, and Molly — who is possibly a spy, or as deluded as the hitman.  When Nick, hitching home one day, meets a hitman, he doesn’t know what to think. Should he laugh, or be scared? The hitman has ethics, of course — no women, no children. When Nick tells his friends what has happened, they laugh. Of course, it’s mad. The hitman is probably a lonely nutter, the type you sometimes meet out on the road, the type who tells tall tales. So they all forget about the hitman. Instead they worry about themselves. Nick wonders when he can get out of town, Mark obsesses about Chrissie, and Simon missing Anna, finds Jill. Gaz continues stealing things. When Molly breezes into town, and says she’s a spy, the friends are inclined to think her as mad as the hitman. She’s looking for her sister, she says, and for a man she always calls Archie even though she hates him. And then Nick see the car that had picked him up. The nutter’s car, the hitman’s car. Intrigued, he and Mark follow it. They are blithely riding into dangers they cannot understand. Because, after all, the hitman’s ethics don’t cover Nick.

It is then, a tale of love and death. But who loves, and who dies?

Review — “Sway” — Zachary Lazar

SwaySway by Zachary Lazar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing diversion that attempts to connect the occult, death, and the later hippie culture. The novel centres around the Rolling Stones, the film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil, and attempts to meld together the early anger of the Stones, the dissolution of 60s youth like Beausoleil, and the death of the hippie dream, using Anger as a device that connects those worlds.

The power of the novel lies in the descriptions of the mess that appeared to be the early, young, Rolling Stones, and, to an extent in the description of the development of Kenneth Anger.
Where it is weakest is in connecting all this somehow with Manson, and with death. Thanatomania (obsession with one’s own death) might be a theme that Anger is working through, and Mick and Keith might have written a song called “Sympathy for the Devil”, yet the connections remain flimsy. I don’t feel that the convergence and conjunction of these elements, these people, is drawing me towards the inevitable murders by The Family, nor towards tragedy at Altamont.

For all its subject matter of murder and death, the book lacks tension. For somebody of my generation (70s freak rather than 60s hippie), the stories of Brian Jones, the Family and Altamont are well-known; there is thus no element of surprise to the novel. What it provides instead is atmosphere, a kind of overarching view of a particular 60s weltanschauung.

It is, however, well-written, and well-researched. When it talks about the Stones, or about Anger, there is a feeling of verisimilitude. There are also nice turns of phrase that arrested my attention. It’s not essential, however, and it doesn’t really tell me anything new about the era, or explain why the peace and love movement ended in death. Yet, for those interested in such things, it is worth a read.

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Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

So, Where Are We

A comment by one of my readers  about whether the Panylraeans – the aliens of the first book, Sorrow Mystica – return in later novels got me thinking about how I have arrived at a position where I know there will be at least seven novels (Nodes 0 and 2-6), and possibly eight if Node 1 (Operation Flashlight) ever gets finished. And possibly more. And that the Panylraeans may not (but then again, they might) return.

So – to begin at the beginning. The first of the Dereham Nodes to be written is the one recently published, Raven of Dispersion. As it was my first novel, there were things I wasn’t happy with, so several million rewrites occurred. Okay, so several million is an exaggeration. About twenty drafts.

During these travails I helped Kevin Goodman write his UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact. After we finished that, Kevin suggested we write something else. Knowing of his interest in science fiction and UFOs, I suggested fiction with a sci fi bent. Of course, Kevin wanted aliens in there somewhere. I wanted to subvert such notions. So we kind of compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style sci fi involving aliens, contactees, relationships and… well… read it, and you’ll see how it all came together. But, because Raven already involved the paranormal and young people looking for flying saucers, I thought it might be fun if we set at least part of Sorrow in Dereham, the ufological hotspot I had already invented for Raven. The seeds for a series were thus sown.

After I’d finished writing Raven of Dispersion and was editing that and Kev’s book, I had an idea for a novel I thought of as “Band Novel”, that would move the characters of “Raven” to 1984 — older, possibly wiser, possibly madder in some cases, some of whom would be, yes, you guessed it, in a band. So I started making notes.

However, while I was making notes for “Band Novel”, I was looking at some of my old writing notes, and noticed one that involved a hitman. What, I thought, if a bunch of young Wiltshire hippies were confronted with somebody who claimed he was a hitman? Wouldn’t they just think him delusional? And what if they started following him around. What would happen? And so The Ethical Hitman – which will be the next novel published – took shape.

Meanwhile, Kevin had become interested in what had happened to some of the characters from Sorrow Mystica, and what they might get up to after that book finished. So he started sending me rough ideas for a kind of thriller spy-type book. Given that I’d already started working on The Ethical Hitman, and knew “Band Novel” would happen at some point in the future, I could see ways to tie all these together, and make fun interconnections between all the books.

Kevin wanted  what was to become Crossing the Line to be a spy-thriller-guns-explosions type of book. But I wanted to subvert that. So, we compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style spy-thriller-guns-explosions type book. Yes, we were mashing genres. We wrote Crossing really quickly, enjoying ourselves immensely, finishing it and the drafts of Sorrow while I was still on draft 12 of Raven.

Sorrow Mystica and Crossing the Line are set in 1971/1972, while Raven of Dispersion is set in 1976. It made sense then that, when I decided to self-publish, the novels should be released in the same order as their timeline.

So next then will be The Ethical Hitman, Genial (both set in 1976), and then German Overalls (set in 1984).

Kevin and I are also working on Panlyrae: A Message for Mankind and Operation Flashlight, which would be nodes 0 and 1, and will be set in the 40s/50s/60s. These could be released at any point in the series.

And then, there might well be something set on the planet Panlyrae at some indeterminate point in the age of the universe. I have ideas…

There might also be something about a couple of characters from Dereham dithering about whether to take a trip on the Settle and Carlisle railway. This one will be a hoot. I might need Kevin to subvert the rather Ruth Rendell-ish, Anita Brookner-ish nature of it with guns, bombs, aliens and spies.