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Who Watches The Watchers?

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Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I was saddened to learn last month of the passing of the great British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss, although of course he *had* lived a long and productive life. I own quite a number of his books as you can see:

And yes, I do have two copies of “Saliva Tree”, and no I don’t know why! I’ve only read a couple of his works so far (“The Brightfount Diaries” and some of the short stories) but I’ve loved what I’ve read, so now seemed a good time to pick up one of his books, and I went for the one which had intrigued me most – “Report on Probability A”.

The blurb is interesting, and the plot – well, the plot as such is hard to pin down… The action is set around a house in which live Mr. Mary and his wife. As the book opens, we meet G, the ex-gardener who lives in a derelict building in the grounds of the Marys’ house and who is intent on watching the place even though he’s no longer employed by them. His fascination seems to be with Mrs. Mary (or Mr. Mary’s wife, as she is often referred to) and he watches the house for glimpses of her and pops over the road to the nearby cafe at one point. The second section of the book introduces S, Mr. Mary’s ex-secretary who is lurking in the loft of the Marys’ old coach house. He too is watching the house and Mrs. Mary. Then there is C, the ex-chauffeur, who lives above the garage and yes, you’ve guessed it, is also fascinated with Mrs. Mary and observing away merrily. Add into the mix a pigeon known as X and a black and white cat who stalks the pigeon and you have something of a disquieting set up.

Yet little seems to happen to these people. It rains (and roofs leak); Violet the charlady gives food to some of the watchers; Mrs. Mary goes out and comes back; the Marys have a row. The narrative is repetitious, with details and descriptions being played out again and again with slight variations, and this is unsettling. And then we have the other watchers… Because the descriptions of the events at the Marys’ house are actually a report being read by some observers. However, they in their turn are being observed, as are those watchers, and the chain of surveillance goes back and back until it’s not quite clear who is real and who is not and who is watching who. And will anything of substance happen in this strange little world?

He stared through the window at a road. The road ran south-east. On the other side of it was a wide pavement; a tall man wearing black overalls and a grey felt hat passed along the pavement, followed at some distance by two men in blue carrying a stretcher on which lay a bicycle with two flat tyres; the frame of the bicycle was covered in blood. The surface of the road was of a dark crumbling texture. Cars passed along it, four of them bearing black crepe ribbons tied to their radiators.

“Report…” is a thoroughly intriguing, thoroughly unsettling and very sophisticated book which left my brain buzzing with ideas after reading it. Although ostensibly set on Earth it isn’t really clear if this place is our world or another. Superficially the location seems normal enough, but there are places where there are little jolts, like the sudden insertion of a burrowing, live garden hose, that makes the reader wonder. Unexpected and surreal paragraphs with no explanation are dropped into the narrative and perplex. The repetitions, in themselves, give a sinister flavour to the narrative and there are times when you think you’re encountering something familiar which is then twisted and becomes something else. A case in point is a painting, a reproduction of which appears in the dwellings of G , S and C: “The Hireling Shepherd” by William Holman Hunt. The picture is described in some detail throughout the book, and a number of the watchers appear to know who Hunt is – but the Hunt in their domain is a very different one from the Pre-Raphaelite painter we know!

The Holman Hunt pic

So what, actually, is the book about, and is there a conclusion? Well, not as such, no (although Pigeon X and the cat reach closure); we can make inferences, draw certain conclusions from the oblique narrative, but there can be no real absolutes and I think that’s Aldiss’s point. I’ve seen the book described as an anti-novel and certainly it seems to deconstruct the usual constraints and structure of such a work. The various observers could be real, could live in parallel universes or could simply be figments of somebody’s imagination. Nothing much actually *happens*, yet the book is somehow gripping, and very much draws on the basic sense humans have of something else in the universe, of being watched by outside forces. Often, when alone, we think someone or something is looking at us, and in this book they really are!

Now they…were subjecting those objects to a second scrutiny. They were having to determine WHAT WAS OF VALUE; until that was decided, this life was valueless. Find significance and all is found.

I felt the need to do a bit of research on the book after I’d finished it, and apparently Aldiss wrote it in 1962 but no publisher would touch it and it eventually appeared in New Worlds in 1967. I certainly found it a stunning read, a refreshingly original tour de force and very thought-provoking, making me appreciate that actually everything *is* relative and there may well be no absolutes. Our view of the world around us is entirely subjective, depending on our own individual perceptions of it, and how do we even know others see things the same way? I’m no doubt going to keep thinking about “Report on Probability A” for some time, and also pondering on what finally happened to Mr. and Mrs. Mary and their watchers…

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Finding fun sci fi books – at Tesco….?!?!?!?

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Not only is Tesco not a store I normally shop at (I usually use a small local Asda), but it’s also not the place I would expect to find interesting books as its book section is usually stuffed to the gills with the latest bestsellers – not my cup of tea….

However, as I was lurking in the entrance area yesterday, trying to keep warm and dry while waiting for my lift, I noticed a small bookshelf with some battered old books and a charity tin. There was a notice saying how much had been raised for the local community so far, and the implication was that you took a book and made a donation. Now, I’ve never been one to turn away from a collection of second-hand books and so I had a little browse and this is what came home with me…

sci-fi-tesco

I did, of course, leave a suitable donation….

Finding older sci-fi titles in a place like this astonished me – these kind of ad hoc book sales seem to be springing up all over the place, when I think about it; there’s one in our local Wilkinsons too, but the books are mainly tatty and unpleasant and of no interest at all. These are tatty, admittedly, but the titles *do* intrigue!

aldiss-tesco

Aldiss is an author I’ve enjoyed very much, and I’ve made a mental note to pick up whatever of his I come across. I know nothing about these titles but I’m willing to give them a go!

tesco-sci-fi-others

I’ve never, ever seen a second-hand copy of New Worlds so this one was irresistible. I will, of course, have the Ballard stories in my collected volumes, but I’m hoping the rest of the contents will be interesting. The last book I know absolutely nothing about – but I couldn’t resist the cover!

I have been doing *so* well with not acquiring books lately, but alas these just *had* to come home with me. Time to go and scout for a few to take in and donate today, methinks….. =:o

Getting back to Sci Fi

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

If you happened to cast an eye over the shelves with the ‘what I’m currently considering reading next’ books piled on them, you might well notice that there are several sci-fi titles there – including titles by Clifford Simak, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, as well as all of M. John Harrison’s books. Contrary as I am, however, when I decided I *would* pick up a sci-fi title recently, it was none of those, but instead one I’ve had lurking upstairs for a while after picking it up in a charity shop – “The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle.

black cloud

I know a little bit about Hoyle from watching too many BBC4 documentaries on space-type subjects, and I had heard of this book as being a seminal title. Plus the blurb describes it as Wellsian, which is so often my style of sci-fi, and it hit the reading spot at just the right moment.

“The Black Cloud” was published in 1957 and is set slightly in the (then) future of 1964. There’s a framing narrative, set in the far future, which is reassuring for us readers as we can assume that the human race is not likely to become extinct any time soon! As the action begins, American astronomers have spotted a black cloud of some sort moving in the direction of our solar system. Simultaneously, scientists in the UK have recognised the same cloud through calculations. Fortunately, the two groups are known to each other and can get together quickly to study this strange phenomenon. And it’s a good thing that they do, because it soon becomes clear that the cloud is moving directly towards us and is likely to block the sun for at least a month. This is likely to be catastrophic, of course, but plans can be put in place to cope with it until the cloud has passed so that the human race and the earth can survive.

Complicating matters, as always, are the politicians; fortunately, chief amongst the scientific community is the British maverick Chris Kingsley who’s as brilliant at manipulating people to get what he wants as he is at understanding what’s happening in space. He quickly arranges things so that there’s a secure base in the Cotswolds which contains not only the cream of UK and American science, but even manages to get a taciturn Russian flown in. They soon become a stand-alone unit, not answerable to any authority, which is what Kingsley wants, so that they can control how the cloud is dealt with.

And soon it arrives, encircling the sun and dramatically affecting the climate on Earth so that millions perish. However, something odd seems to be happening – instead of carrying on its journey and passing the solar system, the cloud *stops*. This is unprecedented, causing untold misery to the planet and causing the scientists to rack their brains trying to work out what’s actually going on. The conclusions they reach are shattering and unexpected…

fred hoyle

I can see why “The Black Cloud” is regarded so highly, because it’s a remarkable piece of storytelling; in fact Richard Dawkins, who provides an excellent afterword, describes it as “One of the greatest works of science fiction ever written” – high praise indeed. It’s certainly a gripping book to read – the pace never slackens, there’s loads of action and to those of us who are old enough to have watched things like “Quatermass” and the original “Doctor Who”, this is familiar territory. There are constant clashes of scientists and politicians, with the latter always been proved wrong, and much tension and excitement as we watch events unfold.

Has it every occurred to you, Geoff, that in spite of all the changes wrought by science – by our control over inanimate energy, that is to say – we will preserve the same old social order of precedence? Politicians at the top, then the military, and the real brains at the bottom. There’s no difference between this set-up and that of Ancient Rome, or of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia for that matter. We’re living in a society that contains a monstrous contradiction, modern in its technology but archaic in its social organization.

Where the book differs from others I’ve read is the amount of actual scientific information it contains; there are equations and scientific theories and explanations which I’m assured are accurate, but which went a bit over my head. However, this doesn’t detract at all from the reading of the book; in fact, it just reassures you that we’re in good hands with a bunch of scientists who know what they’re talking about.

It’s difficult to discuss too much more of the book without giving away crucial parts of the plot; and I must admit that I guessed what the true nature of the cloud would turn out to be, which is perhaps inevitable nowadays, but that didn’t lessen the impact of that section of the plot. The ending was very exciting and plausible, and very satisfying.

Criticisms can (and have been) made about the book; the characters, apart from the main handful, aren’t particularly well-developed; and the role of women is somewhat in line with the time the story was written. Also, it’s rather shocking how casually the millions of deaths are mentioned, as if the higher purpose of science is the only thing that matters and in a way the ordinary people are just a lot of cannon fodder. Nevertheless, “The Black Cloud” is still a gripping and absorbing read and one that I absolutely loved. Definitely I need to read more science fiction!

… in which I am reminded why I love library sales!

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And also the local charity shops, of course. I *have* been diligently taking books to donate every week I can recently, as many as I can carry (and this week’s pile was particularly heavy). However, that hasn’t stopped the incoming volumes, and I suspect the ratio of out to in is only keeping the amount of books in the house static 😦

Nevertheless, this week’s finds were particularly lovely! The first came from the Samaritans Book Cave, where I mostly donate:

ship

 

I used to read a *lot* of sci-fi/fantasy in my youth, but have tended to drift away from it. But it’s been rather calling to me, and I never did read McCaffrey, so I thought I would give this a whirl. I think it’s one of her more famous titles, plus it has a lovely vintage cover! 🙂

Next up was a call into the Oxfam, who were having a buy one, get one half price promotion on all their fiction:

wildwood hatchett

Another Nigel Williams title – yay! And no, I don’t know why Wildwood was shelved with fiction either, but I came home with these two for less than £3 which has to be good. Roger Deakin seems to get plaudits everywhere so I’m looking forward to this.

And finally I had to return a library book, so it would have been rude not to check out their summer book sale, especially as this nice Hesperus volume screamed at me while I passed:

unmade

And it cost – 20p…..

I now have three lovely Francoise Sagan volumes, all different editions and all lovely in their own way@

sagans

I reviewed Bonjour Tristesse here a while back, and I recently read A Certain Smile, which I will eventually get round to reviewing. Sagan’s an intriguing writer, capturing very much her time and her age in the first two books I’ve read – I’ll be interested to see what her other works bring!

So some nice (and very reasonably priced!) finds! It’s a shame libraries can’t hold on to all their stock, but it does work to my advantage sometimes… 😉

 

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