Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Books finished, October 2010

Books finished in October 2010
High Rise by JG Ballard is told from the point of view of three men living at different levels of a block going to war with itself.

It's set in a grim future familiar from early 70s films – people living surrounded by concrete and fab gadgets, but where women still know their place and wait for husbands to come back from the office. Like the grim futures of Escape From The Planet of the Apes or A Clockwork Orange, violence seethes barely out of sight of their thick make-up and dinner parties, and suddenly the most respectable figures – think Margot and Jerry Leadbetter – are peeing in the swimming pool, murdering dogs, and caught up in cannibalism and incest.

It's a depressingly cruel and stupid story, playing out scenes of ever more brutal, primal violence in a dispassionate tone. There's little to differentiate our three protagonists apart from the levels at which they live in the building. There's little wit, irony or insight, and a lot of mention of exposed breasts and heavy loins. And yet its easy to get caught up in the collapse, the infantile misanthropy really striking a chord as I read it squodged in among other commuting livestock.

The book also includes various snippets of review, including the following gem:
“Ballard is neither believable or unbelievable ... his characterization is merely a matter of “roles” and his situations merely a matter of “context”: he is abstract, at once totally humourless and entirely unserious...”
That sounds rather damning until the next sentence:
“The point of his visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well, and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction.”'
Martin Amis, New Statesman, quoted in JG Ballard, High Rise, p. 1.
Unbelievable, humourless, abstract... and this is him writing well.

I read Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters' How Parliament Works (6th edition) in preparation for a job interview. It's a comprehensive, insiders' account and nicely up-to-date (to 2006), with some good thoughts on the future of the Houses and their procedures which stood me in good stead. I got the job, so woot.
“Long experience has taught me this about the status of mankind with regard to matters requiring thought: the less people know and understand about them, the more positively they attempt to argue concerning them; while on the other hand, to know and understand a multitude of things renders men cautious in passing judgement upon any of them.”
Galileo's Dream is a decidedly odd book. About half of it is a historical novel about Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), from his first hearing about the invention of telescopes and endeavouring to build one himself, through to his death under house arrest for daring to suggest, via the evidence of his observations, that the Earth orbits round the Sun.

Robinson is, as ever, expert at explaining the science bits and making them a vivid, thrilling part of the story. He's good at the petty jealousies and court politics that surround Galileo, his struggles with his family and commitments, his need to get funding for his work. It never quite needs be spelled out how little the practicalities of research have changed since Galileo's time.

A lot of this is especially enthralling as I'm studying GCSE Astronomy, and was making my own steady progress through the mathematics of lenses and focal lengths at roughly the same rate as the book. There's some interesting stuff about Galileo, the first man ever to gaze at the magnified moon, drawing prominent features bigger than they really are so that future observers would look out for them (p. 38). Observation, he realises in the book, is itself a level of magnification.

Robinson has a knack for getting into the heads of especially clever people. Galileo himself is a richly drawn character, brilliant and bombastic and impetuous. He makes a lot of enemies early on by winning debates rather rudely and not sparing egos. He's blind to how his actions affect others, estranged from family and former lovers. This all set up his enemies' revenge when they accuse of him of being a heretic.
“Galileo kept defending himself, in print and in person ... Whenever he was healthy he begged Cosimo, through his secretary Curzio Pecchena, to be allowed to go to Rome so that he could defend himself. He was still confident that he could demonstrate the truth of the Copernican hypothesis to anyone he spoke to in person. Picchena was not the only one who doubted this. Winning all those banquet debates had apparently caused Galileo to think that argument was how things were settled in the world. Unfortunately this is never how it happens.”
Ibid., p. 153.
Robinson is again good at teasing out the characters and global politics involved, as the new and liberal Pope finds himself undermined by the Medicis and needing to look strong. A war between two Catholic nations is deftly shown to play it's part in bringing Galileo to trial, while we hear of secret documents and meetings long before they play their part in the story.

The trial itself is, I think, a major stain on the history of the Catholic Church, but Robinson shows admirable restraint in depicting the many pressures on those involved. I expected the final judgement to make me angry; it just left me sad. The last part of the book, as Galileo struggles against infirmity and the deaths of loved ones, make this an effective tragedy. As a historical novel, it's quite a treat: clever, compelling and moving while at the same time an education.

And yet, that's only half the book. For the other half, Galileo travels epileptically (p.235) to the distant future, where humans are busy bothering alien life on Jupiter's moons – the very moons Galileo was first to see. This allows some rather po-faced future people to comment on and contextualise Galileo and his times, muttering about his treatment of women and his role as the inventor – and first martyr - of scientific method.

It's a little like the trick of Life on Mars, where adding a present-day policeman to a 1970s precinct lets you do all that fun cop stuff like out of The Sweeney while tutting at its prejudice and clich├ęs. But I sighed inwardly every time we jumped to the future for another interminable debate about whether we ought to make contact, or if it would have been better for society had Galileo been burnt at the stake.

There's lots on the development of science after Galileo's – and our own – time. He is brought to the future by something called entanglement which is couched in scientific terms. But this made-up science and the made-up future politics do nothing but disservice to the real man and his accomplishments. The book suggests Galileo – and also Archimedes – achieved great things because of what time travellers had told him. It's an insult to the man and his work, otherwise brought so vividly to life.

We discover that the story is being narrated by the Wandering Jew, himself a traveller from the far future, and telling the story as he awaits execution during the Reign of Terror. It's all in highly questionable taste, and is less profound or insightful as it is portentous. It reminded me too often of dreary sci-fi shows in which dreary characters plod dreary corridors earnestly discussing dreary plot. It's a not very good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or any episode of the new Battlestar Gallactica. And this is all the more galling because the other half of the book is so good.

I found John Osborne's Look Back in Anger gruelling when I read it at sixth-form half my life ago. Now it just seems painfully arch, two well-to-do young women falling for the same frustrated loser. It reminded me most of angry tirades from my fellow writers about the world failing to provide for their needs. It's not that I don't do that myself from time to time (sorry), but it's no fun to sit through and not exactly profound. The women - and the audience - would be better off walking out.


Rick McGrath said...

Too bad you bring so little knowledge of Freud, symbolism or the state of 1970s England to your plot-oriented slight overview of this classic study of middle-class housing. Ballard is a symbolist -- not interested in characters or characterization -- but how certain forces interact... the three protagonists? rethink the novel as if they were the Id, Ego and Superego in a giant brain of a building...

0tralala said...

Oh, I got the analogy but I'm not sure that necessarily makes it a brilliant book. Its about social interactions but without any interest in people.

Rob Stradling said...

Interesting to read you being negative for a change.

"High Rise" is one of the better Ballard "decay-genre" novels IMO, though I see your points. Some disaster fiction avoids character, some avoids background, but Ballard usually avoids both, which can be unsettling. More like ranting polemics than novels they may be, but I find them compelling nonetheless.

Oh, and those who deny the influence of "High Rise" on "Paradise Towers" are just bonkers.

As for BSG, well, there's no saving you on that score, is there? :-)

taloqu (adj.) - vertically striped in turquoise and purple.

0tralala said...

I did get caught up in it: it's more the idea that this avoidance of character counts as 'good writing' that amused me.