Category Archives: Science Fiction
What happens when Mega City 1′s coldest, fiercest lawman comes in contact with the galaxy’s coldest, fiercest alien? A winning combination for a story. This graphic novel is not an attempt to say that Mega City 1 somehow exists in the past history of the Alien movies; that would be absurd. But why not take a creature from a popular movie series and drop it into a different mythos? It’s fun.
We begin with a citizen stuck in a traffic jam, desperate to get to hospital because he knows he’s going to die. It’s how he’s going to die that’s the surprising part – at least for the Judges, and those unfamiliar with the Alien movies. The creature bursts from its host’s chest and is on the loose, rapidly growing to adulthood. Where did it come from? How did the man get impregnated? Are there any more of the creatures? The answers come from an old foe of Dredd’s – someone he banished to the Cursed Earth, but who eventually found his way on to a starship. And now he’s brought something back to Earth.
“Incubus” is the name given to the Alien species here. It’s the first time I’ve heard it called this, and it’s a perfect fit, when you consider the historical meaning of the term: a spirit that comes to your bed in the middle of the night and has sex with you against you will. Not dissimilar to a run-in with a face-hugger. And after all, the Alien uses the human host as an incubator.
Incubus was first published as a four-issue comic, and can also now be obtained as a graphic novel. A highly enjoyable rollercoaster ride for fans of either Alien or Dredd. A mixture that’s likely to create a few new fans on opposite sides.
The new Dredd movie resurrected my interest this old comic book anti-hero from my childhood. In the late 21st century, America is a radiaoctive ruin known as the Cursed Earth. In the middle of this wasteland lie three vast sealed cities, one of which is Mega City 1. It’s an overpopulated dystopia of technology and squalour, where unemployment rates are high and crime runs rampant. Order is maintained by the Judges, police officers who act as arresting officer, judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. Crime is far too big a problem for the time-consuming procedures of democracy and trial-by-jury. These elite trained and heavily armoured Judges patrol the streets on bikes (known as Lawmasters). Their main weapon is a side-arm (Lawgiver) that is capable of being switched to a variety of firing modes, including “hi-ex” (high explosive). Judge Dredd is the fiercest and most uncompomising Judge of them all, utterly devoted to keeping the law. In the 30+ years of this character’s existence, from his origin in the early issues of the 2000 AD comic in the late 1970s, no one has yet seen his face (a boundary overstepped thoughtlessly in the the Stallone movie). All that is visible beneath his dark helmet visor is a permanent scowl – an expression that never changes. Fans of the comic will love the new movie, as it maintains the authenticity of the character to a tee.
Judge Dredd is basically a fascist and a fundamentalist in his thinking – traits that would ordinarily cause us to hate a character. But there is just something about Dredd that makes you root for him, and I’m not sure what it is. For whatever reason, the character has endured phenomenally. Perhaps it has something to do with the appeal of westerns. Dredd is basically the sheriff, and there are few, if any, romanticised outlaws in his world. People fit very obvious categories of good and evil. Law-breakers are greedy, murderous, and trigger-happy, while the Judges are an uncompromising force protecting civilisation. They represent a definition of good that is not weak and gentle and fawning. Although Mega City 1 is essentially a police state (which is not the most desirable thing), it’s the sort of place that we know would be hell on earth without the Judges. I’m reminded of the quote: “Evil reigns when good men do nothing.” I think we love Judge Dredd because he represents form of ethics that is happy to justify kicking your ass into next week without a qualm of conscience. Dredd is Lex Talionis, the jaw of the jungle, manifested on the side of civilisation rather than against it.
This volume contains repints of the earliest Dredd stories. There are over 300 pages of short stand-alone tales and multi-issue serials to enjoy, from the first years of 2000 AD. There’s so much material that you inevitably forget a great deal of it quickly after reading. A main highlight is the Robot War, which introduced the frequently recurring character of Walter. We also meet Judge Giant for the first time, graduating from the Academy. And Dredd encounters his clone brother Rico. Highly enjoyable reading, and merely the tip of the iceberg. There are at eighteen subsequent volumes, not to mention many graphic novels in the Dredd universe.
Blake’s 7 was a British science fiction television series that began in the late 1970s. The special effects were very low budget, but this was more than made up for by the memorable characters and interesting stories. It was far grittier than Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or Space: 1999. The series creator Terry Nation described it as The Dirty Dozen in space. The heroes were a bunch of thieves, swindlers and soundrels who managed to get hold of the most powerful spacecraft in the galaxy. Led by Blake, a political activist framed by a corrupt galactic government, they take their ship, the Liberator, on a crusade against the might of the Federation.
I was fond of this series when I was a child, and it has stuck with me through the decades, becoming a lifetime favourite. There were 52 episodes in total, over four seasons, and I know this is going to sound hokey, but when sleeping at night, I’ve actually experienced the occasional dream about the discovery of a lost episode. Now it turns out that, in a manner of speaking, I’ve had my dream fulfilled. Imagine my delight when I recently discovered that the company Big Finish were in the middle of producing a series of new novels and full-cast audiodramas (starring the original cast members!) set in the Blake’s 7 universe. Blake’s 7 lives on!
The Forgotten is the first novel release in the forthcoming series. It’s a story set between the season 1 episodes “Mission to Destiny” and “Duel.” There’s nothing blindingly original about the story, but it serves beautifully as a highly interesting missing episode. Best of all, authors Scott and Wright, pull off the characters superbly – particularly Avon and Vila, who always had the best lines in the television series.
‘I don’t know why Blake sent me down here,’ said Gan. ‘I don’t know much about computers.’
‘Think of them as complicated idiots,’ replied Avon without irony.
‘Like Vila?’ joked Gan.
‘There’s nothing complicated about Vila, he’s just an idiot.’
I could visualise the scenes perfectly, and I finished the book feeling like I had just watched a missing episode. The story itself concerns the Liberator venturing into a strange nebula cloud bordered by Federation warnings. But the crew have no choice, since they are already under attack by a horde of Federation pursuit ships. Inside, the nebula plays havoc with the ship’s electronics. Deep within, the crew find a partially destroyed space station. Blake decides to investigate, and naturally, trouble ensues.
My only criticism is that some of the writing is a little sloppy and amateurish, but that’s a small failing. I just wanted to immerse myself in the Blake’s 7 universe again, and the authors successfully captivated me. Gazing at the book on my shelf as a fan of the show, there is something marvellous about seeing the official Blake’s 7 logo appearing on something brand new, when the series has been dead and gone for three decades. I’m thoroughly looking forward to forthcoming books.
This is an alternate history novel, set in an America where the Nazis won World War II. The USA is a very different place from its reality. Japanese culture is everywhere and totalitarian rule is in place. The story darts from place to place, showing life from the perspectives of several loosely connected characters. The first is Robert Childan, an antiques dealer, coping with the discovery that some of his stock consists of fakes. We also have Frank Frink, secretly a Jew, who was fired from the company who made the fake merchandise, and who now wishes to set up his own handcrafts business. Frank’s estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor, is travelling across the country with another man who has a secret agenda. And there are others. The central aspect of the novel is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. Interestingly, this is an alternate history novel-within-a-novel, which tells the story of the Nazis losing the war. It describes a world similar to our own – a tale of how life might have been. It is a banned book, and Abendsen is rumoured to be living in a fortified castle for his own safety, hence the title of Dick’s book.
I felt ambivalent about this novel. On the one hand I was awed by the amount of research that clearly went into describing this alternate reality. The downside was that the story severely lacked drama until its closing chapters. Perhaps if I had a larger interest in World War II the novel would have captivated me more. The subtext of the story seems to revolve around the projection of illusion. All the characters, in one way or another, are dealing with false realities. Frank Frink hides his true identity for reasons of safety. Juliana has no idea what her lover is secretly up to. Childan is distressed by the fake merchandise in his position. Abendsen pretends to live in a castle while actually living in an ordinary house. There’s no doubt that Dick had something very deep in mind when he wrote The Man in the High Castle. But when subtext becomes more important than story, the entertainment value of a novel often suffers.
Some will no doubt love this novel; others will hate it. It depends on what you want out of a story. Generally, when I read fiction, I’m looking for an emotional experience, and The Man in the High Castle fails to deliver that. At times, the lack of dramatic content made the reading tedious, and I confess that I only starting appreciating the novel’s strengths when I had a chance to read about it afterwards and reflect on its themes.
A teenage boy loses his family in a car crash and is taken in by his grandparents. Some months later he loses so much more – everyone. An unusual disease breaks out in Europe, first affecting the old, but then causing rapid ageing in the young. Attempts are made to contain the disease, but due to the fact that the symptoms don’t show up until days after infection, it spreads across continents, eventually wiping out the world. There are a tiny fraction of survivors, all in their early to mid teens – an age where the immune system and the development of the human organism are in a sort of optimal balance.
This sounds like a fairly typical apocalyptic tale, but the strength is in the telling. It’s the story of one teenage boy and his struggle to survive and find companionship. This may be marketed as a children’s book, but there is nothing cotton-wooly about the events that transpire. You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s movie as harrowing as this. Christopher portrays life with a keen sense of realism, examing loss, the hostility of life, and the relationships between young people that have been freed from the restraining guidance of adults. In the end, what wins – our humanity or inhumanity? A short, strong novel – one of my favourites by this author.
The story is set in a slightly Blade Runner-esqe future. New York is a sealed city. Not physically sealed, but in the Orwellian sense – a place of constant ID checks, where the rich (known as Owners) can feel safe in their tower blocks and where aliens (illegals) are hunted down and expelled or killed. The sky is abuzz with jet-rotors, people walk the streets in masks because the air is dirty. It’s not what we would call normal life, but it’s normal to the citizens because it’s all they’ve ever known – until, that is, a rich family known as the Allbrights gets hold of a permit to fly to a place known as O-Zone, where they intend to have a New Year’s party. O-Zone is an abandoned city where nuclear waste was once stored in underground caverns. Due to a leak, the whole area became contaminated. Now, many years later, it is believed that no one lives in O-Zone. The Allbrights and their friends fly there in their jet-rotors, and discover that they are not alone.
The book is really about how this trip changes the Owners. They begin the story as incredible cowards, but by the end some of them are transformed – to the point where they cannot regard their heavily controlled indoor lives of luxury in quite the same way. Central to the story is the kidnapping of a young alien by an Owner, and the kidnapping of a young Owner by a group of aliens. This allows the author to explore the themes of racial prejudice, culture, wealth, poverty, freedom. You can tell this is a book written by a travel author. The mode of transport by jet-rotor allows Theroux to provide commentary on landscapes and cultures that are probably mirrors of some of his own experiences. We go from the extravagant waste of New York City to the poverty of Africa, and other locales. A great deal of the book is spent inside the heads of the protagonists, examining their motivations and attitudes. If you care about the author’s subtext, you’ll get a lot from this book, but if you’re looking for an exciting sci-fi story, you’ll likely be disappointed. There’s not really much drama in the story, and that’s its chief weakness. I get the feeling that Theroux had things he wanted to say, and he constructed a loose narrative around this desire.
Interesting novel, but much too long and drawn out for what little drama unfolds across its five-hundred pages.
Back in school, we read (or were forced to read) various novels as part of English class. Mostly, I found them incredibly boring, and a drudgery. How Many Miles to Babylon, I Am David, Of Mice and Men, etc. – books that were, for the most part, too sophisticated and intellectual for a boy in his early to mid teens. These book choices no doubt contributed to me being unable to view reading as a pleasurable past-time. That all changed when Z for Zachariah became the class novel. I credit this book as the catalyst that got me into reading, and I’ve never looked back.
Ann Burden lives in a secluded valley with her family, when a nuclear war happens. Her mother and father head out in the car, to see what’s going on in the neighbouring town, and they never return. Beyond the valley, all is dead and lifeless. For some reason, the valley is untouched by the nuclear fallout – not a miracle, but a meteorological mystery. Ann now lives alone, thinking that she might be the last person in the world – except for the farm animals. Then one day, months later, she sees a column of smoke in the distance – a camp-fire. Someone is coming. Who is this mysterious traveller? How can he move about unaffected? And will he be friend or foe?
What a terrific set-up for a rivetting story. This is the third time I’ve read Z for Zachariah. It’s still great. Athough marketed as a children’s novel, it’s a very grown-up story that doesn’t pull its punches. At times, I wanted to shake Ann, for her excessive fear and her inability to be ruthless when something needed doing. But this only served to illustrate how much the author really drew me into the story, and how well he was able to portray the predicament of a sensible, moral girl whose whole world had been turned upside down.
Interestingly, I learned that the author died while writing the final chapter of this novel. His family finished it for him, and the book was published posthumously. Highly recommended.
Herbert weaves another complex tapestry of religion, politics and magic in this third installment of the Dune series. Dune Messiah ended with Chani’s death during childbirth and a blind emperor Paul Atreides wandering off into the desert to die. Children of Dune begins a decade later, with the focus upon the offspring of this couple, the twins Leto II and Ghanima. Although a mere ten years old, they are not truly children, but are able to access the memories of countless generations from their genetic past.
The control of the empire has been left in the hands of Paul’s sister Alia, who has the same gift. But it is a gift with a price. The memories of those past lives can attempt to overrun the present personality. Alia is at risk of being possessed by none other than her grandfather Baron Harkonnen. Alia’s mother, Jessica, is on route from Caladan, concerned about this very possibility.
To make matters worse, House Corrino, after its defeat at the hands of Paul Atreides in the first novel, is about to hatch a subtle plot to assassinate the twins. The planet Dune is also in the midst of an ecological transformation from desert to green pastures. But what will this mean for the worms, who produce the spice? For without spice, space travel is impossible – which would mean the end of the empire.
That’s a rough summary of the main threads of the story. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, remember that this is the Dune mythos, where characters possess skills of analysis and prescience that are unheard of in the real world. This adds a whole new dimension to human relations and political intigue. These novels are not the most relaxing read; you really have to be paying attention or you can quickly get lost in the complex tapestry.
One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the religious and philosophical overtones. I’m well versed enough to be able to connect much of what Herbert says about space, time and consciousness to esoteric ideas that have their basis in the real world – ideas that are often close to my heart.
So, I’ve now completed the first three books in Herbert’s six-volume epic. The first is unquestionably the best, but the saga hasn’t lost much momentum. I am certainly keen to continue reading. But not just now; I need a rest after this one.
It’s also worth checking out the television adaptations of Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2002). The latter is actually a combined telling of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. But don’t spoil the books by watching the episodes first. The televised story is fairly faithful to the original, but not nearly as deep.
Dune concluded with Paul Atreides established as the new emperor of the known universe. He is now married to the previous emperor’s daughter, the Princess Irulan, but his true love is Chani, the girl he fell in love with when he lived in the desert with the Fremen. Chani, due to politics, is forced to play the role of concubine. Paul is a reluctant emperor, and a reluctant messiah, for he has now become the object of religious devotion. Endowed with powers of prescience due to the planet’s “spice melange,” Paul is continually cursed visions of a jihad in his name, stretching out across the universe. And no matter what course of action he takes, whether he stays or runs, the jihad is always there. In fact, it has already begun, and Paul is powerless to prevent it.
The chief focus of Dune Messiah is Paul’s struggle against several enemies who have conspired to destroy him. Frank Herbert’s mythology is so intricate that you can never tell from what angle the attack will come. The first suspect is in the form of his old friend Duncan Idaho, who had been slain but is now resurrected as a “ghola” – essentially a whole new person in Idaho’s skin, containing whispers of the previous man. But how do you attack a man who can see into the future? With the aid of a “steersman” – a creature with prescience, ordinarily used to steer starships safely through the void, because seeing the future means that you can avoid disaster. Paul is immersed in a battle of wits involving not only the ordinary skills of cunning, but prescience versus prescience. You might imagine it would be easy for the reader to get lost in such a complex tapestry, but the book is immensely readable. To cap it all, Herbert comes up with a genuinely unpredicatable and satisfying twist in the tail.
As with reading the first volume, I was in awe of Herbert’s mythmaking ability. I had the sense that I was only being shown a tiny portion of a whole universe, entirely imaginary, but so well thought out as to be almost tangible. Dune Messiah is only half the size of Dune, but is a worthy sequel. I’m really looking forward to the next volume, Children of Dune.
Instruction manuals on how to write fiction tend to feature suggestions like: “Create empathy between the protagonist and your reader.” Thank goodness not every author follows such rules, because then we would never have gems like A Clockwork Orange. The main character, Alex, from whose perspective the tale is told, is no hero. He’s not even an anti-hero; he’s a blatant hooligan of the worst kind. There is almost nothing likeable about him, save for his appreciation of classical music. Alex likes nothing better than going out with his three friends, Pete, Georgie and Dim, for an evening typically consisting of beating up some old person, stealing a car, breaking into someone’s house then raping the woman who lives there. One day he even lures a pair of ten-year-old girls to his house so that he can molest them.
But this is not pornographic fiction. It’s a tale of considerable depth about morality. Why do we do what we do? Alex asks the unaskable question:
But, brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it … But what I do I do because I like to do.
Notice the unfamiliar words in the above quote. The entire novel is written in this futuristic juvenile slang. It makes the first couple of pages hard reading, but you quickly get into the swing of assuming the natural meanings of the many strange words on display. Bezoomny = mad; creech = scream; droog = friend. There’s a dictionary at the back of the book, but you won’t need to refer to it.
The really interesting part of the book happens after Alex gets caught by the police and tossed in prison for several years. He gets selected for the Ludovico Technique, a new program designed to turn criminals into good people with astonishing rapidity and reintegrate them into society. For Alex, this means drastically early release from prison, but at what cost?
This begs the question: if one is forced to be good, is this really good? I was reminded of the Christian worldview I used to hold, where I looked forward to a future in heaven where I would not only be free from sin, but I would be unable to sin. But if a person does not have the ability to choose between good and evil, how can good be called good? It is simply action, having no ethical value whatsoever. Is there any virtue in anything, if there is no risk of choosing the opposite path? A person becomes a clockwork orange, his choices imposed upon him. The book is divided into three parts, each one beginning with the telling words “What’s it going to be then, eh?” emphasising the importance of having a will of your own.
Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of this novel is, for the most part, very faithful to the book, even to the point of his script mirroring some of the dialogue word-for-word. Both are worth tackling, especially for the philosophically minded. How many religionists have dared to ask: “Why should there be good only?” No, it is assumed that good is right and natural, whereas evil is wrong and unnatural. But the one has no substance without the existence and threat of the other. What’s it going to be then, eh?
In this, the final Starstormers adventure, our heroes Vawn, Makenzi, Ispex and Tsu crashland their ship on Volcano. While waiting for their parents to rescue them, they must contend with the planet’s strange semi-sentient vegetation and bizarre animal life. Their “magical” friends from the previous adventure, the veils of Moloch, show up to lend a helping hand. Before long, their old nemesis the Octopus Emperor makes an appearance. The Starstormers, accustomed to running, decide to make a final stand against the ruler of Tyrannopolis.
With the exception of the first volume, the rest of the Starstormers saga has been fairly mediocre, including this final episode. That said, I found myself always captivated by the characters, if not the stories themselves. I think children, who are much more forgiving of plot-holes and unoriginality, will have a great fondness for the saga. It was my own childhood memories of volume 1 that led me to take this nostalgia trip in the first place, and I’m glad I did. I can’t help thinking it might have made a great little children’s TV series, given a chance.
Volcano provides decisive closure to the saga. Farewell, Starstormers. It’s been fun.
After reading so many deep and taxing non-fiction books lately, I happened to be in the mood for some pulp fiction. What better than a good ol’ unpretentious B-movie-style alien invasion story. That’s what I thought Dean Koontz’s The Taking was supposed to be. I’ve read enough Koontz to know his penchant for melodrama, but I thought I could stomach it, as long as the story was interesting.
We begin with a woman, Molly, waking up in the middle of the night, witness to a bizarre torrent of luminous rain. She quickly learns that this is happening everywhere in the world, and she fears that it is the precursor to something more dreadful. A Lovecraftian apocalypse ensues, filled with otherworldly flora and fauna, and events so bizarre that reality itself appears to be coming apart at the seams. While many of the happenings seem more occult than extraterrestrial, our protagonist makes much of the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote about how the technology of a sufficiently advanced alien culture would be indistinguishable from magic.
As an author myself, there are certain well-known missteps in storytelling that are best avoided. Koontz, to my astonishment, blunders right into them. The first one applies to science fiction and fantasy, where liberties are frequently taken with the laws of physics: any story that fails to establish its own rules about what is possible and impossible is going to be devoid of suspense, because literally anything can happen at any moment to help or hinder the protagonist. In the worst examples of this (and this is the second storytelling blunder), some unexpected happening occurs to get the protagonist out of a tough spot, rather than the protagonist using his own ingenuity. And would you believe it? Good grief, Koontz relies on this very thing. In fact, the heroes walk their way through most of the book, protected by some unseen otherworldly force.
The protagonists are typical Koontz archetypes that he has used over and over again in his books: impossibly noble-minded pure-of-heart characters with ne’er a perverse thought crossing their minds, tainted only by some dark event in their pasts that they have had to overcome. Who but the most self-deluded can relate to these melodramatic caricatures of human beings? Furthermore, the characters glide through through their extreme circumstances with barely a dent to their sanity. It’s like reading Lovecraft with all the madness removed; it doesn’t work.
The book is just over three hundred pages long. It should have been less than two hundred. As it stands, the prose is utterly dripping with unnecessary flowery metaphors and pretentious twaddle. Here’s an example from the beginning of chapter forty:
The mystery of evil is too deep to be illuminated by the light of reason, and likewise the basement of the church, while no more than twelve feet in depth, presented to Molly a blackness as perfect as that you might find gazing outward to the starless void beyond the farthest edge of the universe.
Please! It’s one thing to write artistically; quite another to try and show off. At times, I found myself speed-reading through Koontz’s metaphorical rambles. Oddly, I don’t recall any of his other books being quite so heavy in this regard.
[SPOILER ALERT!] I don’t normally do spoilers, but this one’s too juicy to pass up. Reviews of this book promised a surprise ending. You’ll never guess what it is. After telling a story that looks like the Devil unleashing the kingdom of hell upon Earth (while the author attempts to convince us its an ET invasion), the big reveal in the final pages is … oh, it really was the Devil after all! And so, an already sub-standard War of the Worlds retelling takes a final nose-dive into pseudo-Christian quackery.
In fairness, I experienced a certain degree of enjoyment reading this book, but frankly, a writer of Koontz’s experience ought to know better than to indulge in all the things I’ve mentioned. The fans deserve more. These days, he appears to be little more than a hack writer, churning out book after book, sometimes two per year, using the same old tired formula. Well, this is one reader exiting the Koontz train. No more, thank you.
We begin with a scenario that resembles life in an 18th or 19th century country village, namely Waknuk in the land of Labrador. People live in cottages, get around on horses, farm the land. But soon we are given clues that this is not a tale from the past, but the future. The religion of this land is a version of Christianity that emerged from the ashes of a global apocalypse generations before. This was presumably a nuclear war, given that the chief religious preoccupation is the preservation of the “True Image.” Anything born with a genetic aberration is labelled an abomination in the sight of God, and is killed, including human babies.
David Strorm, the protagonist, is one such abomination, except he slipped through the net unnoticed due to the nature of his mutation. He is one of a small group of people who are able to communicate with each other mentally over distance. They all know that if they should be found out, they would be hunted down and killed. To survive they would have to run away to the Fringes – badlands where mutants of all kinds live. When the inevitable happens, only one thread of hope remains – another telepathic voice, very faint, calling from far, far away.
When I first read this book, aged fifteen, the anti-religious subtext was almost completely lost on me. Now, as a thirty-eight-year-old ex-Christian, this tale has more relevance to my life than ever, especially regarding the dangers of group-think and the need to protect oneself from the power of the religious herd, for the great “crime” of being different.
David’s Uncle Axel is an interesting character. He is a retired sailor, someone how has seen much more of the world than most people, and so he regards the small-minded religious people around him with quiet disgust. To me he represents the person who dares to educate himself beyond the confines of his upbringing. Uncle Axel is, symbolically, the old individualist who is wise to the dangerous ways of the herd. As David’s friend and confidante, he stands apart from the others adults as the one force of genuine good amid the callous hand-me-down standards of the world around him.
The book gets really brave in its closing chapters, where Wyndham uses the story to convey a message about the nature of existence as a game of survival of the fittest, where nothing is ever in stasis. Mutation, far from being a crime against nature, is the driving force of progress, and the idea of a true finished image of God in man is, by implication, a farce. The closing chapters will make or break the book for some readers, as Wyndham is conveying harsh truths about life that few are willing to face.
For me, this is perhaps Wyndham’s finest tale, topping even The Day of the Triffids. It’s also one of my personal favourite novels of all time.
Brave New World takes place in a dystopian future masquerading as a utopia. The whole world is united under a World State. Eternal peace is maintained, not by threats of punishment, but by the most intimate control of the human race – a control that begins even before a person is born.
In this future, natural reproduction has been done away with, and by means of technological advances, humans are now spawned in vast “hatcheries.” Through chemical interference, the development of a foetus is arrested, so that different social classes can be maintained, to fulfill various functions in society. Only members of the highest caste, the “Alphas,” are allowed to develop naturally. World population is permanently limited to two billion people.
Once born, all education is performed by rote, using technology called “hypnopedia” – learning while you sleep. This way, everyone is implanted with the same ideas, such as “Ending is better than mending” to promote continual consumerism. People are conditioned to view the idea of “family” as repulsive and even funny.
Life consists of work (that that lower castes are conditioned to love), frivolous entertainment, recreational sex, and drug-induced happiness. Man is made to feel content in his bondage. This is a society where there is no place for individuality, and little hope of it sprouting. People are simply cogs that service a vast, efficient social organism. The only places that have any freedom are reservations where “savages” live. Although citizens are free to take vacations to these reservations, this appearance of freedom is made grotesque by the crippled nature of the minds of the holiday-makers.
The novel is told from multiple perspectives, a technique which the author uses to allow the reader to view this strange society from a variety of angles: from those who control it (Mustapha Mond, a World Controller) to those who are alien to it (John the savage). Somewhere in between we have the interesting character of Bernard Marx, an Alpha who suffered a chemical mishap before he was born – something that left him uncommonly small of stature, a disadvantage that imbued him with a sense of individuality born out of adversity. But if you’re expecting Bernard Marx to be the hero of the story, think again. Likewise, if you are expecting John’s “savage” upbringing to bring a ray of sanity to the proceedings, nothing so uncomplicated or idealistic ensues. This is a highly unpredictable tale.
While the technology foretold in this novel hasn’t emerged in quite the same way, we see similar methods of mind-manipulation employed in television (subliminal advertising) and education (learning by rote). Brave New World is essentially a satire of our utopian pipedreams and a sober warning about the price that would have to be paid to ensure the continuance of such a “paradise.” There is not a single gun in sight, nor a single murder commited, and yet the cost of such a dream is appalling.
Brave New World is a complex novel of great insight. It taught me something about the human condition, and left me with a sense that there was more going on in the story than I could grasp with a single reading.
Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.
When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.
Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.
Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.
I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.