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#1968Club – a guest post considers a sci-fi classic!

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It seems fitting that I should feature another guest post by one of my family members, since the three Offspring have all provided a post at one point or another through the life of the Ramblings. When I mentioned to OH that the 1968 Club was upcoming, he volunteered to review something for it, knowing I might be a little pushed for time as I was away in Edinburgh the week prior. So here is OH’s review of a sci-fi classic which appeared in 1968 – 2001 a space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

Not many books involve a twenty year gestation, as was the case with “2001”, published in 1968 in conjunction with the similarly titled movie (but which gained a colon). The germ of the novel began life as a short story, “The Sentinel”, penned by Clarke in 1948, and when the author began collaborating from 1964 onwards on a screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick the idea was partly resurrected. The eventual “2001” novel writing was credited to Clarke, with an added tag that it was based on the screenplay.

A pair of 1968 hardbacks and paperbacks were published respectively in the US by New American Library and Signet, and in the UK by Hutchinson and Arrow Books. The latter softcover edition (pictured later in this review) is the version I bought after seeing the film, still in my possession a half century later, along with the vinyl soundtrack album. As a small point of detail, each of the books’ cover titles appeared all in lower case lettering.

New American Library and Hutchinson first edition 1968 hardbacks

Clarke’s initial short story dealt with the finding of a strange object on the moon, seemingly deposited by unknown beings from a distant past. The subsequent fully developed book and film built up to the lunar discovery by tracing Earth’s own journey through time, from prehistoric apes to thousands of years later, with advanced technology and space travel. No doubt the race between the US and Russia at the time to be the first to put a human on the moon provided a spur for Kubrick to embark on creating the ultimate cosmic screen experience, with Clarke’s astronomical knowledge and deep interest in science fiction adding the fuel. The two men were even able to present their joint galactic vision a full year before the 1969 moon landing.

In the story, the buried sentinel is excavated and suddenly activates when sunlight touches its surface. The writer’s original concept was a beacon, warning that an intelligent species had at last reached the spot, a remote outpost of whatever civilisation had left behind the sensor. Its signal path is later plotted and an exploration mission is launched. An additional potential source of inspiration might well have been the timely arrival of the 1960s “Star Trek” TV series, its opening narration referring to space as “the final frontier”, with a starship journeying light years from Earth, intending to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

However, in “2001” Clarke’s imagination stretched far beyond the edge of space, the writer crafting a dimension separate from the physical universe, with the notion of beings existing as energy. Such entities would have evolved past the point of any tangible form, having mastered the gaining of absolute awareness and expertise, transcending all worldly needs. Clarke was not suggesting the creation of deities, nor offering any metaphysical approach. His perception was of a future which would one day be reached with an advanced level of technology, allowing Man to gain knowledge and learn from those who passed before.

Signet and Arrow Books 1968 paperbacks

Woven into the story is a murderous on board computer HAL, an intelligence operating on logic and self-protection; Clarke envisioned HAL having a weakness, leading to a dangerous malfunction. In this way, the author was foreseeing today’s challenging debate as to whether artificial intelligence will in the future contain human traits, or develop different ones which cannot be controlled. Interestingly, in the big screen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) an entity aboard the space vessel regards crew members as an infestation, the humans being viewed merely as “carbon units”. Machine or alien, either could be a threat to Mankind along the way, in the search for a pure life form as the ultimate goal. As Clarke was famously quoted, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

The plot’s main character, astronaut David Bowman, finds himself alone on the mission vessel after a series of calamitous events, leading to his having to depart from the stricken craft in a small escape pod. At the end of the ensuing mind-bending journey, through other dimensions and parallels, the space traveller ‘lands’ in a virtual hotel room, prior to transforming and taking the first step towards gaining the ultimate life form, beyond which there is no further advancement. The visitor has reached a place created and left for him by the Ancients, a departure platform from which the new arrival will travel to the next stage. In this way Clarke compared the millions of years which led to the development of the human race with what could lie ahead, not requiring an infinite amount of time to progress, but simply needing to find the key to whatever celestial door might await future explorers.

Clarke’s space travel fantasy was a creative vision, one of time becoming irrelevant, a perception of a state of immortality, being the norm for ‘bioforms’ able to ascend to the final limitless state. At the end of the book a “Star-Child” appears, having succeeded in passing through the initial galactic portal and materialising above the Earth as a planetary ‘embryo’ embarking upon the next stage of the voyage across space and time. Clarke believed that whenever a truly intelligent computer is made, such a machine will learn faster than humans and adopt new approaches, setting off an intellectual chain reaction. His futuristic confection of extraterrestrials, cosmos and computers was blended with symbolism and an aspiration to emerge as superior beings.

Whether “2001” was the book of the film, or vice versa, or both, for me they created a memorable fantasy which I remember well from a half century ago. Clarke was knighted in 2000 and died in 2008, having written a trio of eponymous sequels, referencing 2010, 2061 and 3001.

#1968Club – Revisiting an old Russian favourite…

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I had hope to revisit one of my favourite Russian authors for the 1968 Club, but alas, life rather got in the way… However, as I’ve reviewed the book on the Ramblings before, I thought I would share my earlier thoughts on it – it’s a wonderful read. (First published 14.3.2013)

I confess to being well and truly sunk into a Bulgakovian frame of mind at the moment. The TV version of “The Master & Margarita” has me thoroughly hooked but I’m putting off a reading of the Hugh Aplin translation till it’s finished (today, alas!) So it seemed somewhat sensible to pick up my lovely Hesperus edition of another of the great man’s works (again translated by Aplin) to keep me going.

heart of dog

“A Dog’s Heart” is a much shorter work than M&M but is very well known and packs quite a punch! The initial narrator is a poor injured stray dog called Sharik. Scalded by a mean cook, out in the cold and ready to die, he is found and rescued by the eminent surgeon Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky. Initially Sharik cannot believe his luck as he is taken back to a nice warm flat, fed and cared for, and in typical dog-like fashion he becomes devoted to the Professor. However, there is more to this kindness than meets the eye, as the Professor is caught up in the scientific crazes that were sweeping Soviet Russia and is planning a transplant operation that will put the glands of a human into the dog.

And the results are surprising and shocking – the dog turns human but combines the worst characteristics of both! Remarkably, he takes the rather odd name of Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov and starts to move upwards in the hierarchy of the communist authorities. Meanwhile, the Professor is battling with the House authorities who want to take away some of his space and it is only the fact that he is surgeon to some high-ranking Communists that enables him to hold them off. Sharikov’s uncouth behaviour continues to get worse, he causes havoc in the flat, molests the women servants and generally disrupts the Professor’s life so much that it becomes unbearable. The end is maybe predictable but the only option available to the Professor, who has had his eyes well and truly opened by the results of his experiment.

bulgy

It’s a few years since I read this book, but I remembered it remarkably well. Bulgakov is such a great satirical writer – he captures the voice of Sharik wonderfully, giving him a distinctive doggy voice all of his own, much of which is retained when he becomes humanised. It’s a funny, tragic book and not afraid to tackle larger themes of the role of science vs the role of nature – as the Professor admits towards the end of the story,  “Explain to me, please, why one needs to fabricate Spinozas artificially, when a woman can give birth to him any time you like”.  Bulgakov seems to be aiming his sights not only at the medical profession and the ethics of the scientific experiments they are undertaking (a subject also touched on in Platonov’s “Happy Moscow”) but also at a regime that could allow such a bizarrely created “human” to have a position of authority.

One of the things I love about MB’s characters is their moral ambiguity – the Professor is firstly perceived as well-meaning, then seen as possibly selfish and greedy against the backdrop of the Housing committee, then again as cruel in his operation on poor Sharik, but becoming once more a sympathetic person when we perceive what he is going through at the hands of Sharikov. Likewise, the dog is just a dog with all the usual traits, but once these are present in a human body they become completely unacceptable – although he fits in well with the new Communist Man and Woman, so perhaps Bulgakov was simply saying the new regime consisted of dogs!!

And it’s fascinating to notice Bulgakov’s obsession with housing and space issues – obviously in the early days of the Soviet Union, large ex-nobility dwellings were divided up into flats, and as people fled from the country to the cities, the lack of living areas became a major problem. In fact, in M&M Woland refers to the housing problem having spoiled the Muscovites, and space is also an issue in one of the stories I’m currently reading, ‘Quadraturin’ from “Memories of the Future” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

For anyone with more than a fleeting interest in Soviet literature and satire, this is an essential read. The translation by Hugh Aplin is eminently readable, as usual, and comes with discreet and useful notes plus a helpful introduction. High recommended!

#1968 – exploring strange worlds from near and far with M. John Harrison

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M. John Harrison is an author I’ve been enjoying rediscovering in recent years; I’ve blogged about his work here and here, and so when the year was chosen for this club week, I had a look to see if any of his work was from that particular one. I suspected there might be some, as I’d discovered that his first published short story was from 1967 – and indeed, there were three titles which came out in sci-fi magazines in 1968 so after a little bit of research on the rather wonderful ISFDB I searched them out.

Harrison is best known, perhaps, for his Viriconium novels and his more recent Empty Space trilogy, but he’s also a fine short story writer. The three I’m covering here are all excellent pieces of work, and the fact that only one of them has been anthologised in a book of Harrison’s makes me think that he’s crying out for a Complete Short Stories Collection. If Ballard and Aldiss can have one, then Harrison most definitely deserves one…

But to the stories themselves: the first 1968 title listed by ISFDB is “The Macbeth Expiation”, and this was published in “New Writings in S-F 13”. For some reason I seem to have obtained two copies – just don’t ask….

Set on a distant unnamed planet, “Macbeth” tells the story of four men who are on some kind of exploratory trip. Their characters are gradually revealed: the titular Macbeth, an aggressive, nervy type ready to shoot first and ask questions later; Edwin, described as resembling a schoolmaster; Boardman, notionally in charge of the expedition, and still suffering the effects of an unwanted divorce; and Retford, the ‘poet’, also nicknamed Jesus.

This rather ramshackle group is not one on a military mission; rather, on a business style reconnaissance, checking out planets. The first act of the story is when Macbeth takes fire at some bulbous aliens, apparently killing them. Yet the group is uneasy with this action and the tensions amongst them start to come out. When the alien bodies have disappeared the next morning this brings events to a head, and Macbeth’s actions, in particular, start to show traces of his classical namesake…

“Visions of Monad” was a story reprinted in the collection “The Machine in Shaft Ten”, which I read back in 2016. Set in what was contemporary London at the time, it relates events surrounding a man called Bailey who is obviously suffering from some kind of neurological disorder. Finding himself overwhelmed with the city, he seeks treatment by taking on a couple of weeks in a sensory deprivation tank. The vision this brings on is particularly singular and his grip on reality seems to depend on a woman called Monad, busily painting a picture, the subject of which is unclear, as Bailey lays around in her apartment in a vegetative state. The effects of the SD go deep and it soon becomes obvious that Bailey is tapping into another pivotal memory which is influencing his mental state…

He was considered cured. He did not remember being ill.

“Baa Baa Blocksheep” (which appeared in Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6), however, is a very different kettle of fish, and in many ways reminded me more of Harrison’s Viriconium stories. The writing is elliptical, elusive and allusive; the characters slip in and out of the narrative, and motivations are not always clear. The story is definitely more experimental than the other stories from that era (as stated in the introduction by Michael Moorcock) and I was left very curious by the hint that there would be more ‘block’ stories to come from Harrison – that’s something I need to explore myself with the help of ISFDB! The subject matter is not always pretty – vivisection and murder feature, for a start – but the writing is always hypnotic and intriguing, even if the meaning appears evasive.

So these are stories that on the surface don’t necessarily appear to have a lot in common; although there are threads running through them that can be picked out. In particular, both “Monad” and “Blocksheep” feature characters who cannot cope with the pressure of city living, whichever city that happens to be.

I hardly dare leave the studio; outside, it becomes impossible to choose from a thousand ways to go; I lose my identity immediately and travel blindly, in a frantic nightmare of Underground maps and back streets.

There are themes of alienation, either that of the travellers in physical space, or those in mental space, and also blurring of the lines between reality and hallucination. And consistent in all of this is Harrison’s writing, which can vividly conjure a landscape or a character quite brilliantly in a few words or lines.

As I said earlier, I really would *love* to see a volumes of the complete short works of MJH, because he really is a one-off – a unique writer who I think is totally underappreciated and deserves much more recognition than he gets (although he may prefer working in the cracks and margins of the mainstream where at least he can write what he wants). Meantime, I shall be checking my trusty list of uncollected stories to see which ones I can track down…

*****

Excitingly, Harrison has a new collection of short stories coming out called “You Should Come With Me Now” which I’m intending to track down when I have a moment to catch my breath. Not all of his writing is sci-fi, so even if you aren’t fond of that genre I still recommend you track down some of the work of this fine author!

#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

****

There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read pre-blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

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