Scotland Before the Bomb by M.J. Nicholls

I’ve read this in an unconventional way and I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read a substantial portion. I began with a couple of the episodes that were on themes I warm to.

MJ Nicholls

The first, a diatribe on the Fringe Festivalisation of Edinburgh. As a resident of Adelaide, at the other end of the world, which vies each year to be bigger than Edinburgh, I entirely sympathise. These festivals suck. They suck the life out of theatre for the rest of the year. They suck the life out of originality and complexity. As Fringe Festivals around the world become more and more about extracting money ‘for the economy’ from back packers, many of whom have no English, linguistic complexity is an absolute no-no. Preferably one can dispense with language altogether. Physical ‘theatre’ take a bow.

The next one I turned to was about Amazon. Our future Amazon-driven world. I’ve listed this book under comedy, but the laughs are often bitter.

Having a couple under my belt that I immediately took to, I started dipping into others. This is a strange, compelling book, probably because the author doesn’t give a flying f*ck about the reader. He is doing what he wants. As Odetta (among others) had it:

I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler
I’m a long way from home
And if folks don’t like me
They can leave me alone

MJ makes me think of these words, it’s really lonely, doing what you want. The audience for this book is consequently niche, but I recommend you find out for yourself if you are part of it. At the very least it’ll do you good to be out of your comfort zone.

My favourite is Tickertape of Misery. Anybody who has read the book may laugh at the idea that I forced somebody to listen to me read the whole piece out loud. I’m pleased to be able to report we are still conducting conjugal relations.

Kudos to the author for employing a real artist to do pictures for the book, Alan Lyons has a striking style which genuinely adds to the finished work.

To end with a small rant about the ‘star’ system. I want to give this three stars, but we live in a world where that’s failure. I don’t think it is at all, but my opinion doesn’t count. So, I’ve given it four stars because I think that reflects how others use the star system and that probably matters.

The Machine Stops by EM Forster

I was straightforwardly gobsmacked when I first read this story . Wow. Here is our world, described one hundred years before it happens. These are just a few samples that particularly appealed to me. I don’t want to give away the story and there are lots of other interesting ideas about the future, including, indeed, the idea of the idea that I will leave you to discover for yourselves,

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously. But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said: “Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno.

Modern life indeed.

On the subject of us accepting what is inferior but convenient, interpolating the machine in our relationships with each other.

In this world all people live in isolation in their rooms with technology supplying everything. Kuno is her son and wishes to see her. When she exclaims that he is seeing her, he replies:

“I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come.”

And

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.

On globalisation:

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

On modern selection of foetuses, which shall live and which shall die, a process during which we believe ourselves to be morally correct:

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not?

And, close to my heart, on the nature of the revision of history according to the contemporary mores of the revisionist:

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element – direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine – the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” – his voice rose – “there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation

seraphically free
From taint of personality,

which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

On the modern loss of silence:

Then she broke down, for with the cessation of activity came an unexpected terror – silence.
She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her – it did kill many thousands of people outright.

It would be hard to imagine something more apposite for people now to read. You can find a pdf here and LibriVox has a free audio version here.

The Penultimate Truth by PK Dick

I was really hoping I could find somebody online who had read this and wanted to talk about the ending which seemed quite ambiguous to me. Maybe that was the intention or maybe I just don’t get it, but the title itself implies an unclear ending.

It’s another of PK Dick’s works that really suffers from lack of an editor to clean up the many issues. What one admires about it is the foresight in the picture he has of the world in 2025. How close is it to how we will actually be in six years’ time?

The gist of the story is that WWIII leads to the vast  majority of humans living underground with scarce resources, due to the war making earth uninhabitable. These people are not told when the war ends. Instead they are fed a constant stream of fake news which keeps them underground working for the rulers above them, in a state of permanent fear and servility. The idea of the ongoing war is carefully orchestrated in film studios and fed via video links to those below ground.

Sound familiar? Given that we live in a world of ‘fake news’ where it is becoming next to impossible to separate real from fake, we may see that Dick is pretty close to the mark. Slightly different, more sophisticated technology now, but the same idea.

Meanwhile on top of the earth, a tiny number of people live on huge properties Dick calls demesnes, more or less alone, surrounded by AI robots which are highly militarised and protect them against other demesne owners. These privileged people are sterile, courtesy of the war, and so it’s very much about me, me, me. Does any of this sound familiar? The planet itself is able to recover from the devastation of the war. Since most people are underground, the planet is greening itself again, though damaged hot spots still exist. It is hard to acknowledge, but if a tiny number of people inhabited the earth, the planet would be better off. And wars would be limited, as in Dick’s vision, to tiny border skirmishes between estates, leadies (the AI machines) doing the fighting. If all the people living underground were to populate the surface, the planet would suffer, real wars would begin again. The fake war of Dick’s world saves it from real ones.

It has seemed obvious to me for a long time that this is the way the world is going. Democracy is being dismantled. We have given enormous power and resources to a few men (sic) who own the corporations which are taking over from traditional government and society. The real rulers of the world now are Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, sometimes referred to as ‘GAFAM‘. A tiny number of people are buying up the water resources of the world – the new gold, as the big investment company spruikers like to call it. The same ones who didn’t go to gaol after the Global Financial Crash. Ethics 101 in the hands of Goldman, Sachs.

So we can quibble about details. Is it going to end up like Dick’s scenario or Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! ? Are we going to live underground because of WWIII, or climate change? But the fundamentals are in this book. Scarce resources, over-population, lying to ‘the people’. The role of AI, which presides at a legal level in Dick’s world – something being worked on right now in ours. Addiction to technology which doesn’t do the job well enough, but who cares? Apparently as a society we will always be happy with a tradeoff that gives us less for less effort on our part.

As is so often the case with science fiction, this book is well worth reading, but do it for the ideas, not for the characters, nor the storyline.

Ubik by Philip K Dick

It seems to me that Dick is one of those authors who has to speak for himself.  The fact that the internet is littered with forum groups trying to figure out what the ending of Ubik means attests to that.

Although back in the sixties and seventies, Dick was not the commodity he is now, nonetheless a lot of interviews exist where he does get to do just that, speak for himself. So I’m going to let him do that here.

SFR: Why do you think your books have sold so well in foreign countries, and not as well in America?

DICK: Well, the first answer that comes to mind is “Damned if I know.” Perhaps it’s the general attitude towards science fiction in European countries, accepting it as a legitimate form of literature, instead of relegating it to the ghetto, with the genre, and regarding it as sub-standard. The prejudice is not there in France, Holland, England, and Germany, and Poland that we have in this country against science fiction. The field is accepted, and it doesn’t have anything to do particularly with the quality of my writing, it has to do with the acceptance of the field of science fiction as a legitimate field. Bear in mind that many, many of the English writers wrote science fiction: Ian Foster, of course we always think of George Orwell, Huxley, and it’s just natural. It wasn’t a step down, into the gutter for them to do it, and it would be here. If Norman Mailer were to write a science fiction novel — an inter-galactic novel — I doubt if he would. Saul Bellow wrote me recently, and he said he is writing science fiction, and he of course in a very fine writer, so maybe the ghetto walls will break down here. But I think it is the fact that they have a high regard for science fiction there. And I think also one of the reasons — especially in France — is that they’re aware that it’s a field of ideas. The science fiction novel is a novel of ideas, and they’re interested in the ideas. There’s an intelligentsia in Europe among the students that appreciates the ideas. You don’t have the equivalent intelligentsia here. We just don’t have that interest in books of ideas that they have there. They appreciate the philosophical and other types of ideas in science fiction, and look forward to science fiction novels. They have a voracious appetite for them.

SFR: That would probably be the same reason, then, why science fiction books sell so well on college campuses.

DICK: Sure, yes, absolutely. I got a letter from a German editor. There are science fiction political organizations — right-wing and left-wing — there, too, that there’s no equivalent for here at all. One of them, the left-wing one, voted me a vote of solidarity, and I thought that was neat. It was something like the Workers and Peasants for Science Fiction Gameinschaft. And it was clear to me from the letter that we just have nothing like that here, a kind of political science fiction groups, where they see them in terms of the sociological and political ideas and the effects on society of the 1984 type of novel — the dystopian novel. They take those dystopian novels very seriously there, they really do. I think another thing in the fact that the American people are apolitical. The dystopian novels don’t really signify anything to the American people, because the American people are so politically naïve that the dystopian novels don’t seem significant to them, you know what I mean? They don’t have the relevance to them that they would have to the European people.

SFR: The Americans seem to get more out of things like Tolkien.

DICK: Right, fantasy. But in Europe they’re more politically aware, and in fact they will read political things into novels which are not there actually. I’ve read a lot of European criticism of my writing in which they see a lot of sociologic and political science type ideas which isn’t there at all. “The Decomposition of the Bourgeois Structure of Society” I think was the name of one article about my writing, and how I had subverted the bourgeois society by destroying its fundamental concepts in a most subversive way. A way so deviously clever that I never mention politics. And this was so fundamental that the whole thing would collapse — the bourgeois society would collapse like a house of cards if I would just write two more books like UBIK. The fact that no political ideas were ever mentioned in UBIK merely showed how subversive this book was in undermining bourgeois society.

SFR: With reasoning like that, you could say the same thing about a Buster Keaton film.

DICK: Oh, certainly. That’s your really subversive thing, where there’s no political ideas expressed at all. It’s too fundamental to be articulated.

As usual, although I don’t see reviews talking about this, Ubik’s setting captures ideas of the future that feel like they are coming our way. In particular the automatisation of everything combined with user-pays operation. You can’t as much as get a door open without either credit or coin. And the half-life – so convincing.

But also, as usual, I sat through the book thinking, oh, if only he could write. Characters. He makes them up with a thesaurus surely. They never ring true. So I was rather surprised to read in the same review that this is all he thinks he does that matters. Characters.

I think the writer falls in love with his characters, and wants the reader to know of their existence. He wants to turn what are people known only to him into people known to a fairly large body of readers. That’s my purpose. My purpose is to take these characters, who I know, and present them to other people, and have them know them, so that they can say that they’ve known them, too, and have enjoyed the pleasure of their company. And that is the purpose that I have, which, I suppose, is a purpose beyond entertainment.

The basic thing that motivates me is that I have met people in my life, who I knew deserved to be immortalized, and the best I could do — I couldn’t guarantee them immortality — but I could guarantee them an audience of maybe 100,000, like girls that I’ve met, or drinking buddies I’ve had, turn them from just somebody that I knew, and two or three other people knew, that I could capture their idiosyncratic speech mannerisms, their gentleness, their kindness, their humility, and make them available to a large number of people.

That’s my purpose. So, I suppose in a way I have a purpose beyond entertainment. But I certainly wouldn’t say that this is why people ought to write, or that they ought to write for any purpose beyond entertainment. But this is why I write. Always.

Especially I like to write about people who have died, whose actual lifetimes are over with, and who linger on only, say, in my mind and the minds of a few other people. I happen to be the only one who can write them down, and get their speech patterns down, and record incidents of great nobility and heroism that they have shown under very arduous conditions. I can do this for them, even though the people are gone. I have written about girls that I admire greatly, who are so illiterate that they would never read the book, even if I were to hand it to them. And I’ve always thought that was rather ironic, that I would make this attempt to immortalize them, when they were so illiterate that they could not or would not read the damn thing themselves.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. Who knew that this is what Dick thought he was doing?

Perhaps that just goes to show that real life has the same nature as reality as it appears in his books, where the rug is pulled out from under your feet again and again.

The interview quoted in this post is available in full here. It first appeared in 1976.

Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan

Plenty of spoilers ahead.

There is a choice when writing this sort of book. You can put it in a near future, like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or you can apparently put it in an alternative past. This is the 1980s, but not as we knew them. I am curious to know the motivation for this. It could be that it’s harder to make up a future than edit the past to taste. Or it could be that it will make it feel more like this is how it is.

And, it seems to me, if that was McEwan’s idea, he’s succeeded surprisingly well. I wasn’t irritated once that he’d made his own version of history – but then, most movies now are bio-pics, so why not? I guess we are used to the idea now that history is just an opinion, a story, my facts versus yours.

In fact there isn’t much to choose between the two settings, both Atwood’s and McEwan’s are completely believable. Probably because we are already in them, her future and his past. It would be nice to think that the point of a book like this – or like the movie of a few years ago, Her – is that it’s important for big picture thinkers to talk about these revolutionary changes upon us in AI. The biggest of all, that we have created our own destruction, and plenty of others working down from there. It’s hard to believe that we have marginalised the role of story tellers, philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, thinkers at this crucial point in our history. Stepping onto university soil recently for the first time in a few decades, I discover that it has been completely hijacked by business. Ethics, science, thought – nothing is independent of business in these once hallowed halls of intelligence at work. How can AI possibly develop in an ethical way if it is all controlled by big money?

But is this the point of the book? A thoughtful person giving his glimpse of understanding of a difficult future? Or is McEwan, expressing the concern of a friend who raised it with me, just on a bandwagon? Writing about it because that’s the show-me-the-money thing to write about now. A decade ago it was autistic female detectives (extra money if you can write about it in Swedish).

Certainly McEwan has scooped bits and pieces from the media of late, I guess to set some of the issues out in ways that may be easily digested. The famous Go match. The problem of the driverless car’s ethical decisions. Perhaps this is also to make what he segues to more believable. The ‘human’ robot who likes good clothes, washes the dishes, is obsessed with writing haikus and despite this is way ahead of the human curve. Is that just a small step from the Go match?

Curiously, although the 1980s Britain in which this is set, is in economic and social chaos with a bad Tory government in power (is bad redundant?), McEwan not only makes it inevitable that these human robots exist, but he makes them the product of good minds. This seems odd, doesn’t it? AI is a business, controlled by enormously wealthy men (sic) who have no discernable social instincts. One wouldn’t be surprised if they were all assessed as sociopaths given the opportunity.

In McEwan’s near past, the people who create the robots are Nice Scientists, the robots are Nice and Terribly Much Cleverer than Us Really Quickly, and humans are muddling along much as in the past. The moral of the story is that these inventions are sentient, conscious, like sex in a ‘human’ like way, and are altogether better than us too.

Well, I didn’t feel like that reading the book. I can completely understand why one failed human took the ——– and – well. I’ll stop that spoiler right there. Was I supposed to? I’m not sure.

The book sucks you in, chews you up, spits you out. Completely worth reading if that’s what you want from a book. I’m just not sure if I believe his line. I suppose, though, that we’ll find out soon enough. The alternative near past is definitely catching up with us.

 

 

 

 

Play Little Victims by Kenneth Cook

To me this felt heavy handed, both the text and the pictures, done by his daughter. I dare say it would have read better in the late seventies, when it was written.

Still, it’s interesting if for no other reason than to see such a different hat for Cook, from that he is wearing when he wrote Wake in Fright and Tuna. I am going to read all his books, he is under-rated to the point of no longer existing now. It’s such a shame!

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

There are so many ways Disney can stuff this up. The odds are short, in my opinion, on these:

  • Meg will be too gorgeous, cute, sexed up.
  • She won’t have bands.

But still. We will have a sci fi movie in which there is a Strong Female Character. Maybe they will change the parts that will be non-PC for a modern audience. The Christian angle – even though the book survived attempts at banning in the US for being blasphemous. The mother being a housewife scientist – she cooks dinner in the lab while doing her experiments. Probably not allowed now? And Meg, who in the end, saves the day by loving. Not that she can’t do higher maths at some too young age, but this isn’t her contribution to saving the day. Because it’s a girl thing really, isn’t it. Loving the best. Couldn’t have a bloke in that role. I suppose Disney will just leave that how it is.

I do see why it was so popular. I don’t really understand why it would still be so – not only because of old fashioned attitudes, but because it must surely be too hard for children now. Maybe it’s for adults now?

It turns out, upon looking up goodreads, that I’ve been tricked into reading a book that has the # sign on it. Arrggghhhhhhhhh. So I guess the movie’s going to be coming out in sequels for ever.

I’m not sure how much I should like this….I sympathise with those who don’t like it, but the fact is I read it at a spritely pace until finished. That means something.

 

 

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

It’s a corker. One of those juvenile books that adults will enjoy too and it would make a splendid movie. Theoretically there is one in the pipelines, but nothing’s been heard of it for some years.

Have Space Suit has no weak points. Entertaining (some great one-liners), the science sounds plausible – not saying it is, I wouldn’t know – but one could imagine a young boy reading this and being inspired. I hope that last sentence is wrong and that girls read this too. The narrator is a teenage boy fresh out of high school. His side-kick is an 11 year old female genius, greatly admired and relied upon by the narrator. There is absolute equality. Important also is ‘The Mother Thing’, seemingly all knowing and all good.

I wouldn’t exactly say this makes the book a model of female emancipation in the science world. The mothers of both children are passive 1950s stay at home Moms. Even worst, Kip’s father married ‘his best student’, as male academics still find a handy thing to do. It doesn’t actually say she’s a good typist but…you can close your eyes and see it. Not that this is the setting time-wise. It’s sort of 1950s America set in an undated future. Loved the description of school education which was presumably a comment pertaining to the late fifties when the book was written and yet is likely pertinent today.

Some of the most interesting parts are those where great detail is made of things that I can’t see making the movie. The very long discussion of how space suits work, for example. But it will be a visual feast with some great action scenes and the trials scene near the end would do well in the cinematic version too. Love to know who is going to play the Roman Centurion. Not to mention the voice of the jury machine.

Bonus: there is no incest or paedophilia. Not that I noticed, anyway.

The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny

I don’t know why this one is largely under the radar. Imaginative, nicely written, vision of the future which isn’t so wrong -love the dog.

But is there anybody who has read this and understands the ongoing part of the man walking along the road who ends up killing himself? Is this Render? Is this how he escapes being trapped in another person’s dream? Is everything that happens in the book a dream except for this part of it?

I don’t understand it. Manny doesn’t understand it.

Having looked around online – and you have to look deep, the interesting discussions are pages into Google – I discover lots of people unhappy about the things in the book that don’t bear a relationship to the main plot, such as Render’s son. It seems that this is the answer:

Zelazny originally wrote the novella (yes, novella) “He Who Shapes”
during 1964, and it was published in the January & February 1965
issues of Amazing. It was about 31,000 words in length, and it won the
Nebula for novella, tying with Aldiss’ “The Saliva Tree.” Later, he
was convinced by Damon Knight to expand the novella into a novel, and
he did this by writing extra sections that were inserted throughout
the text, thereby creating a final length of about 45,000 words. He
did this expansion *after* writing …And Call Me Conrad. This
expanded version of “He Who Shapes” was then published under the title
The Dream Master by Ace Books, and it appeared later in 1966 – *after*
This Immortal – with the Ace code #F-403 on the cover. Thus, The Dream
Master was the second novel to be written – expanded from an earlier
novella – and it has always been recognized as Zelazny’s second novel
– including by the author, who knew when he was writing it – despite
what is currently claimed in Wikipedia. Maybe somebody will fix
Wikipedia now. Chris Kovacs Alt.books

It would be interesting to compare and one assumes that the shorter version will be more cohesive.

Whatever its faults, it’s hard to put down and I thoroughly recommend it, along with digging into Google to find the interesting sci-fi reads. I love the way they don’t all herd onto the main book sites.

 

 

The Second Tree from the Corner by EB White

I had no idea that this writer of charming children’s books wrote prolifically for adults too. He was a newspaper man and one of the things that stands out in this collection is his discussion of the way in which newspapers have to fill their pages and the consequent lowering of the standards of what is written. Like now, except that newspapers were not a bottomless internet pit. His credentials to be this critic? Well, he was the rewriter of The Elements of Style, which might be the most famous of its genre.

He writes of war, of sport, of the nuclear threat, of robots, of cheating at chess. He writes of many things in ways that speak now. Amazing!

He is humorous like this, from a section called ‘Answers to Hard Questions’ where he harvests questions to newspapers searching for advice and gives his own take.

L.D. writes: Is there any likelihood that the temporary physical condition a man is in would have an effect on his offspring? In other words, should a man hesitate about becoming a father during the time he is suffering from hay fever? – Health column in the Chicago Tribune.

This is a question many a man has had to face, alone with his God. Sensitivity to pollen, the male element of flowers, is at once an exalted and a pitiable condition and inevitably suggests to a prospective progenitor the disquieting potentialities inherent in all propagation. Like father like son is the familiar saying: big sneeze, little sneeze. There is little doubt that allergy to hay, so deep-seated, so shattering, is inheritable; and it is just as certain that a sensitive man, during the season of his great distress, is as eager for life and love as in the periods when his mucosae are relaxed. We cannot conscientiously advise any man to abstain from fatherhood on a seasonal, or foliage, basis. The time  not to become a father is eighteen years before a world war.

There it is, that fabulous juxtaposition where he kicks you in the gut, no warning, just kapow. Fantastic. Brilliant line. Brilliant timing. I’ve read it two dozen times now and it still makes my insides curl up.

This is what you got when  you read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly between 1935 and 1955, the time span of the chosen pieces.

Mrs Wienckus

The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day – a Mrs Sophie Wienckus – and she is now on probation after being arraigned as disorderly. Mrs Wienckus interests us because her ‘disorderliness’ was simply her capacity to live a far more self-contained life that most of us can manage. The police complained that she was asleep in two empty cartons in a hallway. This was her preferred method of bedding down. All the clothes she possessed she had on – several layers of coats and sweaters. On her person were bankbooks showing that she was ahead of the game to the amount of $19,799.09. She was a working woman – a domestic – and, on the evidence, a thrifty one. Her fault, the Court held, was that she lacked a habitation.

‘Why didn’t you rent a room?’ asked the magistrate. But he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’ Why didn’t you rent a room ‘(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’ We feel that the magistrate oversimplified his question.

Mrs Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under desks), [The US expectation of nuclear attack against them colours much of White’s writing in this sort of way] and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs Wienckus, all compact. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us always a terrifying conception of the social order – a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. We lean toward the order of Mrs Wienckus, who has eliminated everything except what she can conveniently carry, whose financial position is solid, and who can smile at Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond all believe.

If, like me, you don’t know the reference to Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, pancocojams discusses it here. It’s a song about paying rent.

I challenge the reader not to be moved by this, surely every bit as pertinent now as when it was written.

The Dream of the American Male

Dorothy Lamour is the girl above all others desired by the men in Army camps. This fact was turned up by Life in a routine study of the unlimited national emergency. It is a fact which illuminates the war, the national dream, and our common unfulfillment. If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants, for a soldier is young, sexually vigorous, and is caught in a line of work which leads towards a distant and tragic conclusion. He personifies Man. His dream of a woman can be said to be Everyman’s dream of a woman. In desiring Lamour, obviously his longing is for a female creature encountered under primitive conditions and in a setting of great natural beauty and mystery. He does not want this woman to make any sudden or nervous movement. She should be in a glade, a swale, a grove, or a pool below a waterfall. This is the setting in which every American youth first encountered Miss Lamour. They were in a forest; she had walked slowly out of the pool and stood dripping in the ferns.

The dream of the American male is for a female who has an essential languor which is not laziness, who is unaccompanied except by himself, and who does not let him down. He desires a beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence. She is compounded of moonlight and shadows, and has a slightly husky voice, which she uses only in song or in an attempt to pick up a word or two that he teachers her. Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a fern, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place. For millions of years men everywhere have longed for Dorothy Lamour. Now in the final complexity of an age which has reached its highest expression in the instrument panel of a long-range bomber, it is a good idea to remember that Man’s most persistent dream is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wary motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree. That’s all he really wants. He sometimes wonders how this other stuff got in – the instrument panel, the night sky, the full load, the moment of exultation over the blackened city below….

Fantastic. He’s a genius hidden away in the ephemeral nature of the daily (or weekly, or monthly) press.

This book came my way because a stranger died. She left behind a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s observation of the world as reported by the novelist, the poet, the children’s writer, the essayist. A history you can see and touch – I simply cannot understand how a USB stick can possibly have the meaning of a room of books. This is one of those I kept and I regard it as a complete treasure, falling apart paperback with cheap yellowing paper. A couple of the pieces in it puzzle me as to their presence. But mostly, oh wow. Sheer bliss.

What about this one?

Censorship

We are delighted with the recent censorship ruling in the matter of motion-picture harems. Some scenes in a Paramount picture now in production are set in a harem, and after careful deliberation the censors have decided to allow this type of polyform allure provided the boudoir does not contain the sultan. The girls can mill about among the pillows, back and side having gone bare, but no male eye must gaze upon them – save, of course, yours, lucky reader. This harem-but-no-sultan decision belongs in the truly great body of opinion interpreting the celebrated 1939 ruling on the exposure of female breasts in the Flushing World of Tomorrow, which provided that one breast could be presented publicly but not two, and thereby satisfied the two seemingly irreconcilable groups: the art-lovers, who demanded breasts but were willing to admit that if you’d seen one you’d seen them both, and the decency clique, who held out for concealment but were agreed that the fact of concealing one breast established the essential reticence of the owner and thereby covered the whole situation, or chest. That subtle and far-reaching ruling carried the Fair, as we know, safely through two difficult seasons, and we imagine that the aseptic harem will do as much for Hollywood.

and on the poet:

You read, perhaps, about the man who stole four tyres from a car in Norfolk, Virginia, and left a purse and a diamond ring untouched on the front seat, with this note: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, we like your jewels but your tyres are new.’ the papers said it was a case of a thief who had a flair for poetry. This is palpable nonsense. It was a case of a poet who was willing to attempt desperate thing, even larceny, in order to place his poem. Clearly, there was a man who had written something and then had gone up and down in the world seeking the precise situation which would activate his poem. It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose in the front seat and four good tyres on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.

The Hour of Letdown is a sci-fi chess story.

THE HOUR OF LETDOWN

When the man came in, carrying the machine, most of us looked up from our drinks, because we had never seen anything like it before. The man set the thing down on top of the bar near the beerpulls. It took up an ungodly amount of room and you could see the bartender didn’t like it any too well, having this big, ugly-looking gadget parked right there.
“Two rye-and-water,” the man said.
The bartender went on puddling an Old-Fashioned that he was working on, but he was obviously turning over the request in his mind.
“You want a double?” he asked, after a bit.
“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please … .” He stared straight at the bartender, not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.
Many years of catering to the kind of people that come into saloons had provided the bartender with an adjustable mind. Nevertheless, he did not adjust readily to this fellow, and he did not like the machine — that was sure. He picked up a live cigarette that was idling on the edge of the cash register, took a drag out of it, and returned it thoughtfully. Then he poured two shots of rye whiskey, drew two glasses of water, and shoved the drinks in front of the man. People were watching. When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.
The man gave no sign of being the center of attention. He laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar. Then he drank one of the ryes and chased it with water. He picked up the other rye, opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in. 72
The bartender watched grimly. “Not funny,” he said in an even voice. And furthermore, your companion takes up too much room.” Why’n you put it over on that bench by the door, make more room here.”
“There’s plenty of room for everyone here,” replied the man.
‘Tain’t amused,” said the bartender. “Put the goddam thing over near the door like I say. Nobody will touch it.”
The man smiled. “You should have seen it this afternoon,” he said. “It was magnificent. Today was the third day of the tournament. Imagine it — three days of continuous brainwork! And against the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly, ending with the opponent’s king backed in a corner. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over. You know how much money it won, all told, in three days of playing chess?”
“How much?” asked the bartender.
“Five thousand dollars,” said the man. “Now it wants to let down, wants to get a little drunk.”
The bartender ran his towel vaguely over some wet spots. “Take it somewheres else and get it drunk there!” he said firmly. “I got enough troubles.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “No, we like it here.” He pointed at the empty glasses. “Do this again, will you, please?”
The bartender slowly shook his head. He seemed dazed but dogged. “You stow the thing away,” he ordered. “I’m not ladling out whiskey for jokestersmiths.”
” Jokesmiths,” said the machine. “The word is “jokesmiths.”
A few feet down the bar, a customer who was on his third highball seemed ready to participate in this conversation to which we had all been listening so attentively. He was a middle-aged man. His necktie was pulled down away from his collar, and he had eased the collar by unbuttoning it. He had pretty nearly finished his third drink, and the alcohol tended to make him throw his support in with the underprivileged and the thirsty.
“If the machine wants another drink, give it another drink,” he said to the bartender. “Let’s not have haggling.”
The fellow with the machine turned to his new-found friend and gravely raised his hand to his temple, giving him a salute of gratitude and fellowship. He addressed his next remark to him, as though deliberately snubbing the bartender.
“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally, how you want a drink?”
“Certainly do,” replied the friend. “Most natural thing in the world.”
There was a stir all along the bar, some seeming to side with the bartender, others with the machine group. A tall, gloomy man standing next to me spoke up.
“Another whiskey sour. Bill,” he said. “And go easy on the lemon juice.”
“Picric acid,” said the machine, sullenly. “They don’t use lemon juice in these places.”
“That does it!” said the bartender, smacking his hand on the bar. “Will you put that thing away or else beat it out of here. I ain’t in the mood, I tell you. I got this saloon to run and I don’t want lip from a mechanical brain or “whatever the hell you’ve got there.”
The man ignored this ultimatum. He addressed his friend, whose glass was now empty.
“It’s not just that it’s all tuckered out after three days of chess,” he said amiably. “You know another reason it wants a drink?”
“No,” said the friend. “Why?”
“It cheated,” said the man.
At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.
The friend frowned. He looked as though his dignity had been hurt, as though his trust had been misplaced. “Nobody can cheat at chess,” he said. “Simpossible. In chess, everything is open and above the board. The nature of the game of chess is such that cheating is impossible.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” said the man. “But there is a way.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me any,” put in the bartender. “The first time I laid my eyes on that crummy thing I spotted it for a crook.” 74
“Two rye-and-water,” said the man.
“You can’t have the whiskey,” said the bartender. He glared at the mechanical brain. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?”
“That’s simple. Ask it something,” said the man.
The customers shifted and stared into the mirror. We were all in this thing now, up to our necks. We waited. It was the bartender’s move.
“Ask it what? Such as?” said the bartender.
“Makes no difference. Pick a couple big figures, ask it to multiply them together. You couldn’t multiply big figures together if you were drunk, could you?”
The machine shook slightly, as though making internal preparations.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine,” said the bartender, viciously. We could tell that he was throwing in the two nines to make it hard.
The machine flickered. One of its tubes spat, and a hand changed position, jerkily.
“One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty-eight,” said the machine.
Not a glass was raised all along the bar. People just stared gloomily into the mirror; some of us studied our own faces, others took carom shots at the man and the machine.
Finally, a youngish, mathematically minded customer got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went into retirement. “It works out,” he reported, after some minutes of calculating. “You can’t say the machine is drunk! ”
Everyone now glared at the bartender. Reluctantly he poured two shots of rye, drew two glasses of water. The man drank his drink. Then he fed the machine its drink. The machine’s light grew fainter. One of its cranky little arms wilted.
For a while the saloon simmered along like a ship at sea in calm weather. Every one of us seemed to be trying to digest the situation, with the help of liquor. Quite a few glasses were refilled. Most of us sought help in the mirror — the court of last appeal.
The fellow with the unbuttoned collar settled his score. He walked stiffly over and stood between the man and the machine.
He put one arm around the man, the other arm around the machine. “Let’s get out of here and go to a good place,”he said.
The machine glowed slightly. It seemed to be a little drunk now.
“All right,” said the man. “That suits me fine. I’ve got my car outside.”
He settled for the drinks and put down a tip. Quietly and a trifle uncertainly he tucked the machine under his arm, and he and his companion of the night walked to the door and out into the street.
The bartender stared fixedly, then resumed his light housekeeping. “So he’s got his car outside,” he said, with heavy sarcasm. “Now isn’t that nice!”
A customer at the end of the bar near the door left his drink, stepped to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. He watched for a moment, then returned to his place and addressed the bartender. “It’s even nicer than you think,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?” Text taken from here.

As for The Morning of the Day They Did It, I see online one comment by  Bill Christensen: “Absolutely first-rate story by White makes me think I completely misunderstood Stuart Little. A man who works on a Stratovideo plane in the nascent television industry writes the story of the end of the world. This story is so up-to-date you’ll whimper with fear by the end. Highly recommended.’ Unfortunately I can’t find the text accessible online and it’s too long to type out, but I see that it is in at least one sci-fi anthology, it is absolutely deservedly mentioned in many contexts, as you’ll see if you google it. To quote White himself, who was beset by requests to reprint it and declined them all ‘Got  my reasons. One reason is that I’m not sure it’s a public service to describe the end of the world, even in a spirit of satire. People are jumpy, right now, and I see no reason to explode paper bags.’

The man’s so damn quotable. These, from a Paris Review interview of the late sixties:

Feuds did not threaten The New Yorker. The only feud I recall was the running battle between the editorial department and the advertising department. This was largely a one-sided affair, with the editorial department lobbing an occasional grenade into the enemy’s lines just on general principles, to help them remember to stay out of sight. Ross was determined not to allow his magazine to be swayed, in the slightest degree, by the boys in advertising. As far as I know, he succeeded.

and

Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.

and

I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

and

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

and

If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.

and, asked about permissiveness (as it used to be called) in writing:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

and, of his future:

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.