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#1968Club – the ones that got away…

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Well, that was fun! What an amazing array of books 1968 turned out to produce – truly a bumper year for publishing it seems. In the end I had terrible trouble deciding which books to choose (compounded by the fact that I was away the week before, and also spent much of October reading “Crime and Punishment” so couldn’t really prepare). Inevitably, there were some that got away, and these are the most significant:

There were many, many more I could have chosen to read, but I was trying to draw mainly from books I already owned, and there were a surprising amount from 1968 which I hadn’t actually got to yet. I think I actually bought two for the week – the Helen MacInnes and the new copy of the Kerouac – and typically they weren’t ones I read…

Which ones do I regret missing out on? These two, really:

The Brautigan is one I really wanted to return to; I love his work dearly, first coming across it in my late teens, and I’ve gone back to his books many times over the years. In fact, I had a complete chronological re-read pre-blog and it was marvellous. I’m sure I’ll read him again, though probably not for one of our reading years unless I’m lucky.

And I bought a nice new copy of “Vanity of Duluoz” to revisit as my ancient Quartet copy from back in the 1970s is getting very brown and crumbly. I probably have a more complex reaction to Kerouac’s work nowadays, but I still wanted to revisit this one. We shall see…

So – how was 1968 for you? Any books you wish you’d got to, any that didn’t turn out as planned?  Don’t forget to leave any links to your reading on the 1968 page. And just because the week is over, doesn’t mean we should stop reading books from what really was a stellar year! 🙂

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#1968Club – A Little Vintage Crime from opposite sides of the Pond

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I have a little joke with myself that when it comes to our club reads, there’s pretty much always at least one Maigret story that I can read from the year in question. 1968 is no exception, and there were two titles available, although I only own one – and as I’m trying to read from the stacks where I can, I went for that one.

However, when I was looking through titles of books for the last Club, the name of Rex Stout came up. I hadn’t read any of his Nero Wolfe titles for absolutely ages (decades probably) and I had wanted to squeeze one in to 1951. That didn’t happen, but as I had access to a 1968 book I decided to go for that too. So a double-header today and a pair of rather wonderful, if different, crime reads.

First up I read the Stout, “The Father Hunt”; narrated by Archie Goodwin, sidekick to Nero Wolfe (who always tells the tale as far as I can recall), it’s about a young woman called Amy Denovo who asks Archie to help her find out who her father was. Her mother was killed in a hit and run accident, and she knows nothing about her missing male parent. Amy’s mother was remarkably secretive, and of course as Archie is employed by Wolfe and can’t act on his own, he draws the great detective into the quest. It turns out that Amy was left a lot of money by her mother, which came from her absent father over the years, and so she can afford Wolfe’s large fee (well, he does have a collection of rare orchids to maintain!) As usual in these stories, there are tight-lipped millionaires, starchy bankers and uncooperative policemen, all ripe for Archie to annoy (I can still remember the format even though it’s such a long time since I read a Stout!) There’s a wonderful ensemble cast and although the solution was perhaps a little rushed, it was still an enjoyable read.

The Simenon was “Maigret’s Boyhood Friend” and concerns the murder of a women known as Josee who has been shot. Josee had a number of ‘friends’ who helped her to pay her way, regular visitors with regular days; but she also had an almost live-in lover in the form of Florentin, the class clown from when Maigret was at school. It is Florentin who presents himself at Maigret’s office, claiming that Josee was murdered and it was not him – he had been hiding in the cupboard and had heard the murderer but does not know who it was.

Janvier could not help smiling. He was well acquainted with this mood, and, as a rule, it was a good sign. It was Maigret’s way, when he was working on a case, to soak everything up like a sponge, absorbing into himself people and things, even of the most trivial sort, as well as impressions of which he was perhaps barely conscious. It was generally when he was close to saturation point that he was at his most disgruntled.

Maigret is, of course, skeptical, and sets off to investigate the murdered women’s visitors. His investigation is hampered by Florentin’s antics, and the fact that Maigret really dislikes his old school classmate. Despite this, however, he finds it impossible to believe the man is a murderer, and so there has to be much grilling of the other suspects, and also of a monumental and uncooperative concierge who troubles Maigret greatly. Once again, there is a wonderful ensemble cast, plenty of Parisian atmosphere and a clever, twisty solution (as well as a little nod to one of Poe’s seminal crime stories). I don’t think I’ve ever read a Maigret that disappoints, and this one was no exception.

So, looking back over these two crime tales, how different actually are the French and the American detectives? In some ways, there are similarities: both are very individual, both detect in their own way which often baffles those around; both have an ensemble team around them and a very distinctive location. Despite the superficial differences of New York vs Paris, neither detective suffers fools gladly, neither likes to admit defeat and neither functions well without their particular foils or sidekicks. Maigret and Nero Wolfe are more alike than you might think, both these books were a marvellous read, and this double-header was a wonderful way to finish off the #1968Club reading week! 🙂

*****

As an aside, I read the Stout on my tablet (e-book! eek) but the Maigret in paperback; and the latter was a most unpleasant experience, as it was a *very* old anthology edition with crispy brown pages and as soon as I opened it these started falling out as obviously the spine glue had given up the ghost. Not fun, and it’s odd for me to have found an ebook a more enjoyable read… !

#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!

Another side to a great novelist #1968Club

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The Animals in that Country by Margaret Atwood

One of the joys of our club reads is that they prompt so much digging in the stacks and researching into books to read. And while I was digging about for 1968 I realised that one of the wonderful Margaret Atwood’s poetry books had been published in that year – which was very exciting…

Atwood’s poetry is a place I haven’t gone before; I love her fiction and non-fiction writings of all sorts, but for some reason have never picked up the selected poetry volume of hers I own. Unfortunately, getting hold of a copy of the actual 1968 book, “The Animals in that Country” has proved beyond me at the moment, as they’re so expensive, so I’ve had to go with those poems which made it into the “Selected” volume…

 

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

There are 14 works extracted from the original collection and in fact it’s worth reminding ourselves that Atwood started her writing career as a poet – her first collection was published in 1961 and this was her fifth. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Atwood’s poetry but it was the kind of verse that appealed to me from the start – beautifully written, immediate and very thought-provoking.

Her subjects range from riffing on Frankenstein and his monster, through the vagaries of living in rented accommodation to the dangers of reading newspapers, and always in a particularly Atwoodian turn of phrase and mind. A particular stand-out for me was “I Was Reading a Scientific Article”, a love poem inspired by an image of the brain, which was very resonant. In fact, there are several very beautiful love poems, including this short one which I want to share here:

Axiom

Axiom: you are a sea.
Your eye-
lids curve over chaos.

My hands
where they touch you, create
small inhabited islands

Soon you will be
all earth: a known
land, a country.

The 14 titles I read here were all marvellous, and have left me itching to explore more of this book.  I really don’t know why I haven’t read Atwood’s poetry before (I know that Middle Child has – in fact, I think she has this book too), particularly as this was the first form her published writing took.

So – a successful first read for the #1968club. There is a short interview with Atwood on the CBC site here from 1968, where she discusses poetry, and it’s worth hearing (in fact, the CBC site seems to have a number of Atwood recordings to be explored).  And if I wasn’t focusing on 1968 this week I suspect I’d be pulling more Atwood books off the shelf!! 🙂

#1968Club – here we go! :)

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So, as if recovering from a busy few days away wasn’t enough, plus returning to work after the ‘break’, it’s now time for the #1968Club! The year in question looks to be a bumper one, and it will be fascinating to see what books you all read, enjoy, recommend, discuss and link to!

I’ve put up a 1968 Club page, so please do leave a link to anything you *do* post about 1968 and I’ll round these up as the week goes in. In the meantime, I have read a few titles in preparation, and I *did* narrow down the rather large pile I’d amassed to these possibles:

Some of these are re-reads and some are new. And of course, there’s always going to be a Maigret in there (I think Simenon is the consistent feature of most of our reading years for me!) But I still haven’t quite decided which of these will be read and reviewed this week – watch this space!

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