The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells

Second paragraph of third chapter:
And he came down the steps towards the tail of the cart as if to lay hands on the smaller crate.
Back when I reread The Time Machine a few months ago, I spotted a complete set of Wells' novels on Kindle for some ridiculously cheap price,and nabbed it, with the result that I now have a lot of Wells novels on my (virtual) unread shelf. I was surprised to realise that I had not previously read this one. It's the classic treatment of invisibility - see also Tolkien, a spinoff film, the Double Deckers and the erotic comics artist Milo Manara; and there's also a memorably crucial chapter in Diana Wynne Jones' classic The Ogre Downstairs:
“Listen, Caspar,” said the Ogre, “this is very kind of you, but I don’t like what you’ve told me about the effects of invisibility at all. It sounds as if Johnny has become all thoughts, and nothing else. And they were angry thoughts to begin with. I think he might harm himself even more than he can harm me. And another thing – I’m pretty sure he’s been invisible now for nearly twenty-four hours, and if we leave him much longer he may be warped for life. Now do you see?”
This is Wells' third sf novel, after The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau, but just before The War of the Worlds. It takes a core proposition, invisbility, and transsforms it from a technical question to a moral and ethical conundrum. The first few chapters are a bit silly, relying on the consternation of the rural folk who don't know what they are dealing with (because they haven't seen the title of the book they are in), but it picks up quickly, and once we get into Griffin explaining his own means and motivation to his old friend Kemp, we are in very interesting territory; having removed all visibile links to society, only taking what he wants, Griffin feels both divided from and superior to humanity. There is a sense, as with Johnny in The Ogre Downstairs, that Griffin is becoming only the sum of his own negative thoughts (the Ogre has presumably read Wells); the difference is that Griffin was clearly an asshole in the first place, behaving entirely out of selfish motives and succumbing, in the end fatally, to delusions of grandeur. Once we get over laughing at the villagers, there's a great sense of pace and tension, and a very satisfactory climax (though in the end we are still meant to laugh at Marvel, Griffin's accomplice). So I'm happy to continue working through the Wells I haven't previously read. You can get this one here.

This was my top unread book acquired this year, and my top unread sf book. Next on both of those piles is Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, which I'm really looking forward to.

My tweets


Two Brothers, by Ben Elton; My Century, by Günter Grass

Second paragraph of third chapter of Two Brothers:
‘I’m sorry, Frau Stengel,’ the doctor said. ‘The second child is stillborn.’
Second paragraph of third chapter of My Century / Mein Jahrhundert (the chapter set in 1902):
Damals war vieles neu. Zum Beispiel brachte die Reichspost reichseinheitliche Briefmarken in Umlauf, drauf die Germania metallbusig im Profil. Und weil allerorts Fortschritt verkündet wurde, zeigten sich viele Strohhutträger neugierig auf die kommende Zeit. Meiner hat manches erlebt. Ich schob ihn in den Nacken, als ich den ersten Zeppelin bestaunte. Im Cafe Niederegger legte ich ihn zu den druckfrischen und den Bürgersinn heftig aufreizenden »Buddenbrooks«. Dann führte ich ihn als Student durch Hagenbecks Tierpark, der jüngst eröffnet worden war, und sah, so uniform behütet, Affen und Kamele im Freigehege, wie mich hochmütig Kamele und Affen begehrlich mit Strohhut sahen. There was much new at the time. The Imperial Post Office, for instance, had just issued uniform stamps for the entire Reich featuring a metal-bosomed Germania in profile. And since progress was the keynote of the day, many straw hatters were curious about the times to come. My hat had all kinds of adventures. I shoved it back on my neck while admiring the first Zeppelin. I laid it next to the newly published scourge of bourgeois sensibility, Buddenbrooks, while sipping coffee at the Café Niederegger. Then, during my first year at the university, I wore it through Hagenbeck's Zoological Garden, which had just begun operation, and, thus protected, I observed apes and camels in the open while they covetously observed me and my hat.
One of those nice quirks in my reading lists threw me an interesting pair of novels, both looking at Germany in the twentieth century from different angles which still end up in much the same place.

I know Ben Elton mainly as a left-wing comedian from the 80s and 90s, though I did read his second novel Stark (and wasn't hugely impressed). I had not realised that his uncle was the historian Geoffrey Elton, or that the Elton family, originally Ehrenberg, had fled Nazi Germany to England. In Two Brothers, Elton takes a family situation very loosely based on that of his own father and uncle, and takes us through the brief but horrible history of Nazi Germany, looked at from the point of view of two brothers who it turns out are not biological twins after all, one of them being a non-Jewish kid adopted at birth by a Jewish couple. There is a framing narrative in the 1950s where one of the brothers, having escaped to England and joined the Foreign Office, goes back to East Berlin in search of the girl they both loved. But the core is the story of what life was like for those who were not as fortunate as Elton's own family. it's written from the heart, though I think also with an eye to educating Elton's core audience (young Anglophones) about how a normal society can swiftly degenerate to horror.

I was a bit annoyed by a couple of Elton's presentational quirks. There is a comedy MI6 sequence in the 1950s, which takes away from the seriousness of the theme. And the teenage German protagonists refer to each other by very British nicknames, which I suppose could be allowed as a translation convention, but it grated for me. Still, I give the book a lot of credit for effort and good intentions. You can get it here.

I had read both The Tin Drum and the autobiographical Peeling The Onion previously; My Century is different from both in that it is straight non-genre narrative, but telling short snapshots from every year from 1900 to 2000, mostly (though not all) with different protagonists. There are some odd choices - the second war is told in flashback by journalists reminising in the 1960s; the Holocaust is barely mentioned buring the war but intrudes on a Frankfurt wedding in 1964; reunification is recounted as experienced through election results. I think the reader is expected to be familiar with a lot of details of twentieth-century German history that a lot of people may not know so well.

But at the same time, if (against the author's expressed preference) you take the book as a sequence of 100 short stories with some internal links, rather than as a single novel, I think it works very well, with a lot of voices from various levels of society reminding us that a nation is made up of people,and so is its history. Some of the more memorable narrators are women - the actress early on, the Berlin survivor of 1946, the post-reunification Treuhand boss. It's not at the level of the other books by Grass that I have read, but I found it thought-provoking all the same. You can get it here.

Two Brothers was my top unread book acquired in 2014; next on that pile is The Arc of the Dream, by A.A. Attanasio. I mistakenly thought that My Century was non-fiction, and it came to the top of that pile; next there is Red Notice, by Bill Browder.

My tweets

Collapse )

Tuesday reading

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Last books finished
Dragon’s Claw, by Steve Moore
My Century, by Günther Grass
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 1, by Leo
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikowsky
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 2, by Leo
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
Revelation of the Daleks, by Eric Saward

Next books
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, by Stephen Zunes
She Was Good-She Was Funny, by David Marusek

My tweets


Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The youth stumbled a few paces as he walked backward, still trying to slow her down. He should have known better. She was the wife of a clan elder, and in his absence—temporary absence—she wielded his authority outside the keep.
I picked this up at Novacon in 2013, I think as a freebie. It's the second volume in a series of novels based on a game I haven't played, and while I admired the author's efforts to make a human/alien dynamic that worked, most of it sailed over my head. You can get it here.

Next book on the 2013 pile is another freebie I picked up at the same time, Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka.

Dr. Strangelove, and the books

As well as going through the films that have won the Oscar for Best Picture, I'm planning to also watch the Hugo-winning films for years where there was one to compare and contrast. After a gap of a few years since The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1958 (No Award won in 1959 and 1964, and the TV series The Twilight Zone in the three intervening years) that brings me to the 1965 Hugo, for a 1964 film, specifically Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (The 1966 Worldcon did not award a Hugo in this category, and the next two years' Hugos went to Star Trek episodes, so the next in this sequence will be 2001: A Space Odyssey which won the 1969 Hugo for a 1968 film.)

This is a year when the Hugo voters rather than the Oscar voters have been vindicated by history; Dr. Strangelove is rated top film of 1964 on one of the IMDB rankings, and third on the other, behind Mary Poppins and (oddly) The Gorgon, with the actual Oscar winner, My Fair Lady, well behind. Mary Poppins is of course also genre, as is arguably A Hard Day's Night, but I can see why Hugo voters chose as they did; the only other recorded nominee is 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Here's a trailer.

A few familiar faces here. The Russian ambassador, de Sadesky, is played by Peter Bull, who is fresh from playing Thwackum in Tom Jones.

Shane Rimmer, better known of course as the voice of Scott Tracy on Thunderbirds, is Captain 'Ace' Owens here. But he was also Seth Harper in the Doctor Who story The Gunfighters in 1966.

And Glenn Beck (not that Glenn Beck) is the navigator Lieutenant Kivel here, and appeared in another 1966 Doctor Who story, The Tenth Planet, as a TV announcer.

The plane is being flown by Scott Tracy and Darth Vader, Lieutenant Luther Zogg being an early film appearance by James Earl Jones, in restrospect the biggest star to appear in the film (I think unarguably a bigger star than Peter Sellers, taking his entire career into account).

But of course the performer that everyone remembers from Dr. Strangelove is Peter Sellers. I watched the film with F, who did not spot until I pointed out to him that the title character, the British officer and the US President were all payed by the same actor. (Stanley Kubrick is said to have complained that he got three performances out of Sellers for the price of six.)

I would have said it should lose marks for having only one woman in the entire film (Tracy Reed as Miss Scott/Miss Foreign Affairs), but I suspect that's part of the point Kubrick is making.

I had seen it before, but I must say I really enjoyed the return visit (and sharing it with F). The black humour is spot on. It's probably a bit unfair to Wernher von Braun, who is the obvious target of Dr. Strangelove, and possibly a bit unfair in its characterising of the American military ethos and culture, but the wider point of the horrific danger of nuclear war is well made, even though the precise mechanism of global destruction is fictitious. It's not very far in time or concept from here to the famous "Daisy" advertisement which helped LBJ consolidate his victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. It's only 60 seconds long - watch it, if you haven't seen it.

I found both the book the film was based on, and the novelisation of the film, quick reads. Second paragraph of Red Alert, as by Peter Bryant:
Clint Brown held the plane in a steady port orbit. As soon as Mellows had passed the word to hold at X point he had taken over manual control of Alabama Angel. There was no particular need for him to have done it. The autopilot could hold height, speed, and rate of turn, just as well as he could. Better in fact, he thought wryly, as he noticed he had lost a hundred or so feet since he took over. He made the small correction required, and wondered just why he had taken over. He thought it was almost certainly because, if the word came, he have the bomber under his control as well as his command. It occurred to him he had never felt that way before when the order had come to hold. He concentrated grimly on his instruments, waiting like the rest of the crew. But with a chill presentiment that he already knew what the message would be.
Second paragraph of Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as by Peter George (same writer as Peter Bryant):
Lieutenant Goldberg’s attention was suddenly and unpleasantly disturbed by a clicking from the CRM-114. He watched with vague interest while letters and numerals clicked into place on the dials, reached for his code book, and began decoding. When he had finished, he frowned in puzzlement, tapped the defence-systems officer, Lieutenant Dietrich, lightly on the shoulder to draw his attention, and showed him the message pad.
Neither of the books is very funny. With Red Alert that is entirely intentional; it is written as an Awful Warning, and even so a couple of the better lines survived to the film in improved form.
Red Alert Dr. Strangelove (script)
[Brigadier General Quinten]: “Paul, you can think what you like of me, and so can the rest of the world. I know that what I’ve done is right. Do you remember what Clemenceau once said about war?”
“No, I don’t.” Howard’s voice was almost normal again.
“He said war was too important a matter to be left to generals. At the moment he said it, he was probably right. But now it’s swung the other way. When a war can be won and lost an hour after it starts, then war is too important to be left to politicians. The Russians know it. And they also know we don’t work things that way. That’s why, in a couple of hours from now, they’ll have lost. There’ll be no more threats from them. In a few hours the whole shape of the world will be changed. Remember what they did to Hungary back in ’56? They won’t be able to do that again, not ever.”
General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No, I don't think I do, sir, no.
General Jack D. Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
[Brigadier General Quinten, again]: “Men, I want to impress on you the need for watchfulness. The enemy will try any tricks to fool you into letting him on the base. He may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may well come in the uniform of our own combat troops. But however he comes, we have to stop him.
“I’m going to give you three simple rules. The first is to trust no one, whatever his uniform, whatever his rank, who is not known to you personally. The second is anyone or anything that approaches within two hundred yards of the perimeter is fired on. And the third—if in doubt, fire anyway. I would sooner accept a few casualties through accident than lose a whole base and its personnel through over-caution.
“That’s about all I have to say except for two small points. Any variation on the rules I have given you must come from me. Personally. I want that clearly understood. There are no exceptions to it, whatever the circumstances. And last of all, I know you are all worried about your families both on the base here and all over our country. Well, let’s make sure we defend the families here on the base. Because you can depend on it that other Americans are defending your families elsewhere with the same unyielding spirit we’re going to show here at Sonora. Good luck to you all.”
General Jack D. Ripper: Your Commie has no regard for human life, not even his own. And for this reason, men, I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness. The enemy may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may even come in the uniform of our own troops. But however he comes, we must stop him. We must not allow him to gain entrance to this base.
Now, I'm going to give you THREE SIMPLE rules: First, trust NO one, whatever his uniform or rank, unless he is known to you personally; Second, anyone or anything that approaches within 200 yards of the perimeter is to be FIRED UPON; Third, if in doubt, shoot first then ask questions afterward. I would sooner accept a few casualties through accidents rather losing the entire base and its personnel through carelessness.
Any variation of these rules must come from me personally. Any variation on these rules must come from me personally. Now, men, in conclusion, I would like to say that, in the two years it has been my privilege to be your commanding officer, I have always expected the best from you, and you have never given me anything less than that. Today, the nation is counting on us. We're not going to let them down. Good luck to you all.

By contrast, the book-of-the-film leaves out a lot of the good lines and really brings home just how much the film owes to Kubrick's directorial genius. You can get Red Alert here, and the book-of-the-film here (thanks to Candy Jar Books).

November 2019 books

Fiction (non-sf): 10 (YTD 41)
(counting the two Dr Strangelove books in this category, even though the punchline depends on a fictional technology)
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
The Camelot Club, by Brian Killick
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
Red Alert, by Peter George
Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, by Peter George
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
One of the 28th: A Tale of Waterloo, by G. A. Henty
My Century, by Günther Grass

Plays 1 (YTD 2)
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

sf (non-Who): 6 (YTD 73)
The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
"Catch That Zeppelin!", by Fritz Leiber
In Black and White, and Other Stories, by Jan Mark
Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss
The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikowsky

Comics 4 (YTD 31)
The Highgate Horror, by Mark Wright, David A. Roach, Mike Collins, Jacqueline Rayner and Martin Geraghty
Dragon’s Claw, by Steve Moore
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 1, by Leo
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 2, by Leo

5,600 pages (YTD 60,000)
5/21 (YTD 84/218) by non-male writers (Rooney, Morrison, Mark, Traviss, Rayner)
2/21 (YTD 31/218) by PoC (Morrison, Ghosh)
2/21 (YTD 29/218) rereads (Tom Jones, "Catch That Zeppelin!")

Reading now
The Three Musketeers, by Alexander Dumas
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Coming soon (perhaps)
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, by Stephen Zunes
She Was Good-She Was Funny, by David Marusek
Being Human: Bad Blood, by James Goss
Dragonworld, by Byron Preiss
The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, by Gordon Weiss
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
"Home is the Hangman" by Roger Zelazny
Babayaga, by Toby Barlow
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka
Arc of the Dream, by A. A. Attanasio
As Time Goes By, by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder
Auguria, Tome 1: Ecce signum, by Peter Nuyten
The Last Days of New Paris, by China Mieville
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey
Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

My tweets