“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

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“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy (2013)

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“The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man.”

Some people (including Michele Roberts in her introduction to this collection) say that the short story fits our age better than longer narrative structures because we now live in a world where we have short attention spans and can’t or won’t commit to anything that takes up too much time. I think this is nonsense, given that the average length of a film these days seems to be about two and a half hours instead of ninety minutes. In truth, the power of the short story is that it reveals quite a lot about you as a writer. I’ve certainly written more short stories over the years than I have novels, but I find them a lot harder. You have to be so economical with your prose that I think it quickly shows up if you’re not very good at them.

Deborah Levy’s collection falls somewhat flat to me. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I can’t compare this to her other works, but I wasn’t that keen. Each of the ten stories has a European flavour, and focuses on someone who is struggling somehow in the modern world, but most of their problems are most definitely of a “first world” nature. In “Pillow Talk”, a man has an affair while on holiday, leading to a tense reunion with his girlfriend. In “Vienna”, a recent divorcee sleeps with a new woman. The most interesting is “Cave Girl”, in which a young woman radically changes her appearance and personality, leading to a change in the dynamic of her relationship with her brother.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but my overall opinion was that the stories are just an act of sheer pretension. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the actual writing is good, but the stories aren’t inspiring and feel oddly detached from anything real. I see that they are representative of “people scared of not seeming cool” as described by Michele Roberts, but that’s not something I really relate to. (Not because I’m cool, but more because I’m quite uninterested in what people think of me.) She also says the stories force us to question our places in the world, but I felt no such compulsion. Instead I just found myself slightly irritated by everyone and unsatisfied by most of the endings. I enjoy it when a story ends with an unanswered question, but here I found that even if there was a question being asked, I wasn’t totally sure often what it was, nor did I have much interest in finding the answer.

Intriguing and some very nice uses of language, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Madness” by Roald Dahl (1944-1977)

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“Louisa, holding a dishcloth in her hand, stepped out the kitchen door at the back of the house into the cool October sunshine.”

Roald Dahl is best known for his subversive and dark children’s novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The Witches, populated usually by useless and abusive adults and children who were always capable of outwitting them. Far fewer people are aware, however, that he also wrote extensively for adults. This is the first time I’ve ever delved into his adult work and, unsurprisingly, it’s quite dark. Yet, it’s still somehow not quite as dark as some of his more familiar works. Here’s the collection Madness.

Each story features someone who has gone a bit mad in one way or another. The opening story, “Edward the Conqueror” tells us of a woman who rescues a cat that she’s convinced is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt and her husband who is jealous of all the affection the cat is now receiving. “The Landlady” is a quick tale of a woman running a B&B who doesn’t seem to ever want her guests to leave. “William and Mary” is the story of a man who dies of cancer but has his brain (and eye) kept alive by a scientist friend while the rest of the body is peeled away, and the reactions of his widow. These are not stories for the especially faint of heart.

The story “Pig” is actually probably the one that most felt like the Dahl I knew, and yet is also probably the darkest of the lot. In it, we find a young boy called Lexington who is raised by an elderly aunt to be a vegetarian. After her death, he makes a visit to New York for the first time where he tastes pork and declares it to be the finest food he’s ever eaten. In his desperation to get more and learn how it is cooked, he is very quickly led astray. Despite the content, the tone is very light and breezy.

I was less taken with the stories “Katina” (set in Greece during the Second World War) and “Dip in the Pool” (set aboard a cruise ship), although both were still compelling enough to hold my attention. Like sketch shows though, short story collections can always be a bit hit-or-miss, and these come from throughout Dahl’s career. Still, it’s been an interesting look at insanity from the minds of one of the oddest writers the planet produced. I have a funny feeling I’ll be buying up the other collections too.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

 

“The Listerdale Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Mrs St Vincent was adding up figures.”

My journey through Christie is almost at an end, and I find myself back at an earlier book, The Listerdale Mystery. Published in the thirties, there is little in the way of murder here, and none of her recurring detectives put in an appearance. The stories instead focus primarily on theft (usually of jewels), deception, liars, mistaken identities, almost all with issues of class buried within. Class isn’t something I’ve focused on especially in my reviews of Christie I don’t think, but it’s always there. You wouldn’t be able to write a book set in these times without touching on the fact that servants are still common and neither the upper or lower classes respect each other.

But back to it, here are twelve tiny little stories that have been packed into a single collection. When faced with a short story collection, I find it’s sometimes hard to find something to say about them all, so I’ve just picked out some of the best, as there are a couple of duds here that don’t sparkle quite so brightly.

The titular story, “The Listerdale Mystery” is one of the collection’s best, and also notably one of the very few Christie puzzles I have solved before the answer was revealed. (About time too!) In it, Mrs St Vincent and her children move into a charming Westminster house and are asked to pay only a “nominal rent” as the mysterious owner, Lord Listerdale, would rather have someone in the house who loved it than the money. Aided only by the perfect butler Quentin, the family set about making a home for themselves and have to wonder if Mr Listerdale is even still alive, or is he boarded up in the walls? It’s quick and clever.

In “Philomel Cottage” we meet Alix Martin, who is starting to become fearful of her husband when she finds cuttings relating to a serial wife murderer in his desk. Is she about to become the next victim? Alix, however, is no slouch when it comes to secrecy herself, and soon it’s hard to tell who might be hunting whom. The story is fine, but my favourite part has to be the gardener who has such a wonderfully funny written accent that you just have to read his lines out loud.

“The Manhood of Edward Robinson” and “Mr Eastwood’s Adventure” both feature a man caught up in an adventure that is not his own after he’s mistaken for another person. In the first case, Edward Robinson longs to be like the heroes in the romantic adventure novels that he reads, which happens to him when he accidentally gets in the wrong car and ends up part of a diamond theft. In the latter, Mr Eastwood is an author struggling with his new plot, when the universe provides him one all thanks to a simple word – cucumber. Although he gets more than he bargains for. It might be my favourite story in the collection.

In “Accident”, Inspector Evans finds himself on the trail of a woman who has killed a couple of husbands, although the deaths are always played off as purely accidental. The woman, however, knows that someone is on her trail, so Evans must try and stop her before she strikes again. It’s actually a very clever story, and I hadn’t quite known what was coming until it did.

Almost identically to another story in the collection, “The Girl in the Train”, “The Golden Ball” features young George Dundas who has just been fired from his uncle’s company. He meets a girl who picks him up in her car and immediately asks him to marry her. Keeping up with the joke, they set out into the country to look at potential houses for their future, but danger is in the air and the people who own the house don’t seem so keen on snoopers. It’s a silly story, but I enjoyed it for that, and it’s fancifulness is what makes it so charming. It’s one of the wackier stories of Christie’s canon.

Finally here, “The Rajah’s Emerald” features a man called James Bond who, unlike his more famous namesake, is wetter than a weekend in Wrexham. While making use of a private beach hut, he accidentally puts on the wrong trousers and finds a stolen jewel in the pocket. Should he use it to impress the higher class lady that he loves, or should he try and return it? More than any, this story is particularly about the class war and how money and breeding doesn’t necessarily make you a decent person.

And so I leave here with a mixed bag of stories and find myself in a position where I only have one of Christie’s mysteries left to read. That’s going to be a momentous occasion, I feel, so until then, let’s savour some other stories. On we go.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

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