The Mess Inside A Writer’s Mind

I’m sat here writing on Tuesday evening, a mess of more or less unrelated ideas flying around my head.

I’ve been thinking about statistics – how numbers are absolute, but the meaning is flexible. I’ve been wondering how exactly a character gets a cult following. I’ve received a blank envelope recently, which I know is the result of an administrative error, but I’m unsure what type of error – and I’ve been wondering if there’s the potential for a story growing out of it.

I’ve had two different pieces of writing published by two different sites today, and I’ve currently got two more longish things half-written. On top of all that, I’ve only just realised in the last ten minutes that, with today being Tuesday and the last day of the month (two things I realised separately) that makes tomorrow the first Wednesday of the month, and therefore Insecure Writers’ Support Group Day.


Continue reading “The Mess Inside A Writer’s Mind”

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Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling

I’ve done something that I really don’t do often enough, and sat down with no distractions, and written a short piece of prose from beginning to end. No grand, ambitious plans for a multi-storyline epic that fizzle out into nothing, just a brief, punchy little story.

I hope you enjoy it.

Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling

Comrade Sidorova stood on the Middle Line of the Moscow GUM, looking down to the Lower and observing what capitalism had brought upon his country.

Huge arches, maybe fifteen feet across each, contained the glass storefronts of shops owned by multinational corporations. The architecture was stunning – Pomerantsev’s genius had survived communism from beginning to end, which at one point he feared nothing in his beloved homeland would manage. But their use was a barbaric joke – he could see three arches in a row containing the name and products of an American jeans company.
Sidorova had never been able to follow the logic of jeans as a luxury product. He had worn them on occasion in his younger days – they were uncomfortable against the skin, and downright abusive when wet. It was the propaganda which swung it, he had decided – marketing, to use the capitalist term. Perhaps knowing that the product itself was not much use, units of the rough material were moved out of stores worldwide by using imagery of rugged American cowboys and trendy modern party-goers.
It hurt Sidorova’s pride to know that, for many young Russians today, their ideal of masculinity was not their fathers and grandfathers who had worked without complaint in the fields and the military, but an American posing in the Texas sun.

Sidorova looked upward. Shukhov’s glass ceiling was magnificent – even a century after its construction there were few like it anywhere in the world. It flooded the building below in so much light that Sidorova could almost believe a God must have created it. There was a train station in London whose roof was also built more of glass than metal. But even there the ratio of iron to glass weighed more heavily on the side of practicality. Saint Pancreas? Some body part, but he wasn’t sure which. Even the great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest engineering nation ever to have lived – could not match the innovative genius of Shukhov.
Beauty comes from that which is natural, Sidorova felt, and man should only interfere when it is a necessity. Centralised planning is the worst form of human interference.

This building had played it’s part in Sidorova’s awakening from his propaganda induced childhood stupor. As a young man, he had been assigned here, in the days when queues for the more practical items it stocked stretched across Red Square.
Although the desperation on the people’s faces were hideous, his superiors had drilled it into him that one day this magnificent, palatial shopping centre would serve it’s purpose, to help feed and clothe the people of the world’s rising superpower. The problem was that the party simply had not had enough time to get things working the way they should.

But the offices of the shopping centre silently debated this point. A few were still used, a faded image of the days when this was the central point of planning for Stalin’s first five-year plan. Many more laid empty, abandoned.
It was as he stood here, in this very spot so many years ago, that he was struck with an idea. Simply seeing the sheer amount of light that flooded in from the ceiling, while the ceiling held solid, was a revelation to him. A combination of nature and man – the warmth of the indoors, with every inch of the hallways flooded with natural sunlight.  He saw the beauty of the natural world with eyes that he had never used before, and realised immediately that it must have been a genius who could build such a structure. A genius who built a thing of beauty before the Communist party rose to power.
It was a beauty that was misused by the party – he could see thugs in state uniforms pushing around the poor as they merely looked for enough food to keep their families alive.
Sidorova had thought of the entire building as a new form of propaganda, created not for the glorification of Stalin, but the glorification of the natural world, and the men who could tame it.
As he took the train journey back home, Sidorova appreciated the beauty of the fields, the skies, even the ramshackle huts, in a way he never had before. The thought had simply never occurred to him that Mother Russia could thrive without the party’s blessing, that his dissatisfactions were circles that could not be squared.
By the time he reached home, his mind was consumed with blasphemous ideas.

Sidorova did not consider himself a killjoy, he knew there were important things in life beside bread and water. But he also knew the profit margins on trousers, sports shoes, jewellery, and considered it a sick joke that so much of the price went to the propagandists. In Asia the clothing was crafted by workers who toiled for pennies.

Banner after banner on the Lower Line bore a single message – advertisements for a perfume company. Giant bottles were painted on the sheets, repeated over and over, lest consumers forget their implicit message – CONSUME! – in the seconds walking from one to the next.

Despite Sidorova’s melancholy, he knew that, beyond doubt, what he saw around him was better than what had gone before. He had no doubts over the side in the struggle he had chosen, and, were he required to do so, he would do the same again without a moment’s doubt. But he had dreamed – more than that, believed – that the fall of communism would see power given to the people. That they would no longer be manipulated into actions for the benefit of the powerful.
Thinking back over his life, Sidorova realised what it was he missed about communism – the struggle against it.
The secret meetings. The walks through the streets of Moscow on winter days when the poor starved and his breath seemed to freeze in the air… He was warmed by the knowledge that he and his colleagues were struggling together for the common good.
But now… Who was left who would struggle with him against the modern propaganda for over-priced trousers?


The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

The Devil Rides Out is a story of Satanic worship in upper class 1930s Britain.
Wheatley was a very prolific writer, and Devil is drawn from his Modern Musketeers strand. The titular musketeers are 4 friends – the elderly French exile De Richelau, the American adventurer Rex van Ryn, family man Richard and supernaturally curious Simon.

The characters are colourful but not that complex. Going back to the original Three Musketeers, Aramis wasn’t that good a fighter, and was waiting for his opportunity to join the priesthood; one of the others had a secret past that was slowly unveiled. They’re surprising and contradictory in ways that draw you in, make you want to learn more about them. In addition, there’s not much in the way of inner desires – D’Artagnan wanted to prove himself, Aramis to reconcile his womanising and desire to become a priest, but there’s not much of that here.
Having said that, the characters are easy to tell apart, ‘iconic’  and recognisable in their own ways, but lack depth and interesting contradictions within their characters.
The Devil Rides Out has no real mystery, though clearly by design – within about three or four chapters
Action stories (film, television or prose) tend to have action and mystery, a chain of dramatic events, each leading to the next, but also a mystery. Who’s involved, what are they doing, how deep does it go. There’s none of that here – you can tell from early on roughly how it would end, and who’d be involved in the climax.

Devil_Worship.                               Taken from Wikimedia Commons

The magic, black and white (or ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ paths) feels real – it goes beyond the stereotypical trappings of magic – eye of newt and so on – and feels like a system of magic that could have grown up over time, that has it’s internal consistencies that make sense on their own terms.
The Devil Rides Out is a ‘smart’ action adventure – the antithesis of something Michael Bay would produce.

The characters share a love of food – there’s beautiful descriptions of various meals, and the four Modern Musketeers seem to regard taking a light evening meal free from meat (something to do with sharpening the mind for the use of white magic) as a kind of torture. At one point, two characters are searching through a mansion trying to rescue a third. They may or may not be alone, and magic has been performed recently, but stop to make themselves sandwiches  from the buffet they left. It threw me at first, but it’s the kind of strangeness that adds detail and quirk to the characters

There’s not enough tension or mystery to make the story as compelling as I’d like it to be. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on the problem – the action moves pretty fast, the ‘rules’ of magic are believable, and the characters were interesting enough to make me care about them. But I didn’t feel the kind of compulsion to race back to the book in the same way I did with Reacher and The Hunger Games – it’s almost a matter of being worried that the protagonists will be okay, but with Devil, I didn’t feel for them.

Writing this review made me think about rules particular to the action genre. I’m a fan of the Jack Reacher books, and I’ve this year read the first two Hunger Games books. In The Hunger Games, it’s obvious the main character isn’t going to die in the middle of the book (partially as she’s the narrator) but there’s always the belief that other, well-developed and likeable characters will die, and horrifically.
With the Modern Musketeers being in a series of books, it feels a little like when watching an ongoing TV programme – they won’t kill him, he’s a main character – and they won’t change dramatically over the course of the story either.
The Devil Rides Out is over-written compared to them, and slows the speed of the action. It’s fine for Dickens to spend time describing the appearance of a person or building, but in an action novel, the story needs to move more swiftly than Devil does.
Each chapter with a cliffhanger, and I think they were pretty much all interesting ones, there is still a lot to enjoy here. Despite how it may seem above, I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t totally gripped by it.
The Devil Rides Out is a derring do/boy’s own adventure, fantastical and escapist, and while darkness and the possibility of failure would go against the point of what the writer wanted to achieve, the lack of real danger stops it from being a page turner.

Verdict: A well-written, well thought out action adventure, but which lacks mystery or tension.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I’ve recently finished reading Heart of Darkness, Joseph Konrad’s novella set in late 19th century Africa, which inspired Apocalypse Now. I’m one of the few people who’ve not seen the film, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons – though there was a disappointingly low number of helicopter attacks.

Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, where crews of various nationalities are working under the power of ‘the company’, who have established a more imperial than capitalist foothold.
The story begins with Charlie Marlowe on the banks of the Thames as night falls, telling the story that follows.
The blurb of my copy claims that Konrad inspired Orwell, Golding, Celine, Borges and Eliot. Being a bit of a philistine, Orwell is the only of those I’ve read, but the writers that came more to mind as I was reading were JG Ballard and Joseph Heller. Ballard’s novels use strange worlds and situations to look at what happens to seemingly civilised people when taken out of civilisation. Heart of Darkness reminded me in particular of The Drowned World, set in a London that’s became a post-apocalyptic swamp. As for the comparisons to Heller – the company appears to be a beauracratic mess. A specialist and highly skilled brickmaker is sent where there are no materials for him to work with, and when a ship runs aground and rivulets are needed to repair it, Marlowe is able to get his hands on everything but. The comedy (or it might be better to call it cynicism) is played deadpan, as opposed to the sometimes zany tone of Catch 22, but there were a few moments that were sharply funny in the same way.

The main idea running through the novel is the effect the environment (the heat, humidity, distance from home) has on people – are they driven slightly mad, or are their true selves coming out? There’s grand talk of civilising the natives, but most of the characters don’t seem to think much of them, and there’s regular use of the ‘n word’. (No, I don’t mean native.) There’s an interesting comparison with Roman soldiers travelling to primitive and remote Britannia, far from their loved ones and what they considered civilisation, so the author clearly knows what he’s doing, rather than having ‘outdated’ views himself.

There isn’t a definite, clear narrative – the novel is more a series of things that happen. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, the hero is assigned to retrieve Kurtz near the start, the plot in Heart of Darkness develops in stages. It’s personal ambition, rather than orders, that take Charlie Marlowe to Congo. He spends time adapting to the environment (where he hears a series of whispers about the missing genius Mr Kurtz) before he is assigned to bring him back to Europe.

But the absence of a strong narrative works well for the book. The substance is  the taking apart of moral frameworks – imperial worldview of the company, Marlowe’s more subtle morality, and Kurtz’ grand ambitions.
All of this is told in prose that’s detailed and enveloping without being too rich, does a lot to build the feeling that Marlowe is feeling, of the Congo getting under the skin.

Verdict: A landmark and influential novella, with provocative ideas and a dash of cynical humour.


Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

I wasn’t optimistic about Veronika Decides to Die when I first picked it out. Paulo Coehlo is a name I’m aware of vaguely, but I’d never read anything of his before I noticed Veronika on the shelf of a charity shop.
The blurb also gave me pause for thought:

Veronika has everything in life she could wish for – young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends, a steady job, a loving family. Yet Veronika is not happy and one winter’s morning she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, only to wake up some time later in the local hospital. There she is told that her heart is now irreparably damaged and she has only a few days to live…
Through these intense days Veronika comes to realise that every second of existence is a choice we all make between living and dying. This is a moving and uplifting song to life, one that reminds us that every moment  in our lives is special and precious.

While others may disagree, to me that sounds like a routine, by the numbers, ‘heartwarming’ story, in which the hero discovers the joy of life, realises there are things worth experiencing, opens her heart, instantly embraces joy, skydives from a plane, blablabla.
It’s not that I disagree with that sort of outlook on life, but in my experience it’s usually handled badly – superficially and cleanly. If I am cynical about ‘heartwarming’ stories, it’s only because it’s a story format that’s hard to pull off in my experience. Its more likely to end up cheesy and sickly sweet, rather than upbeat and optimistic as they’re intended to be.
And Veronika Decides To Die does pull this off – it’s a genuinely sweet book, with the sharp edges – dealing with subjects like misery, mental illness, the difficulty of connecting with others – intact.

Paulo Coelho: You may remember him from such poses as ‘stroking his beard’ and ‘resting his head against his left hand’.

I really like ‘magical realism’ as a style of prose – the type of world that feels more real than reality, a bigger, quirkier and more colourful version of the real world, but still rooted in the complex and sometimes dark emotions of the world around us.
This is achieved partially by the colour and poetry of the prose, and partially with playful ideas – there’s Veronika’s suicide note, Coehlo writes himself into the novel, and one of the doctors believes he’s found a single cause of all madness (one that isn’t totally implausible).

The story begins with the main character, Veronika, deciding on suicide, not because she’s been worn down and is unable to cope with life, but because, on a more intellectual than emotional level feels her life is pointless. It’s an interesting choice for the writer to make, as is the whimsical way the scene plays out – considering placing the blame for her suicide on a magazine article that was mildly rude about Slovenia, her home country.
As mentioned in the blurb, Veronika’s suicide attempt fails, leaving her, weeks from an inevitable death, in a mental institute. But she doesn’t open up straight away – the opposite in fact, shutting down and withdrawing from those around her, so as few people are hurt by her death as possible.
The book takes a long time for the positivity I was expecting to kick in – not only is Veronika consistently negative, but it’s persuasive, logical negativity as well.

As Veronika embraces her loneliness, the scope of the story expands, showing us the patients of the institute, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia, and the characters are well drawn, sympathetic and believable.
Having said that, none of the characters are given mental illnesses that place them into an unwinnable situation, and I’m not sure schizophrenia works the way it’s depicted here.
There’s also an event towards the end of the story I found hard to buy, but by the time I reached it, the book had built up enough goodwill, through its tenderness, humour and depth, that I was willing to set my objection aside.

Verdict: A genuinely inspiring and empathic novel, with tenderness and sympathy for it’s flawed characters.

Read My Fiction

Don’t Tell Me to Be Quiet

I’ve been updating this blog irregularly for about half a year now, with a variety of subjects. I’ve dropped links to my articles on Born Offside, and rather silly spoof news on The Leaky Wiki, as well as a few reviews and analysis of books and television here, and off-format silliness that wouldn’t fit on The Leaky Wiki.

But despite being an asipring fiction writer, I’ve not actually put any fiction up yet. Partially this is because of not finishing things off, partially this is about not wanting to share small things that could be developed into something bigger and longer. But I intend to start putting up some short prose on here, for your reading pleasure as you wile away a few minutes on the weekend. I hope you enjoy…

Don’t Tell Me To Be Quiet

Joanie and Mitchell had been tossing and turning through the night, woken again and again by their beautiful young genius.
As new parents, they’d followed tradition, and taken it in turns to respond to the demands of the new life they’d created – this was the third time Mitchell had been called from his bed that night. He wished he was a more old-fashioned man, wished he was some sort of horrible old-school misogynist, who left all aspects of child-rearing to his wife. He wasn’t a bad man – at least he didn’t think so – he just wanted sleep.

Already, nine days after birth, Precious Symphony Polyphonic Jones was progressing faster than the books said she should. Mitchell was sure he’d heard her say ‘ma’ the other day, but it could have been a belch.

Mitchell held his armful of joy, whispering to her in a cheerful tone.
“Who’s a special girl? You are! Yes you are!”
Holding her tightly, he swung round, hoping the motion would relax her. It was a sort of a centrifugal effect, with Precious pressed tightly against his body, in an intimate grip.
“You’re going to do something amazing with your life, because you’re my indigo princess, aren’t you? Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Mitchell was tempted to say something really awful, something he knew he shouldn’t.
“But if you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor, and save the whales or cure malaria, you’ll need to get some sleep. Sleep is good!”
Mitchell knew it was wrong to tell a child how to behave, and they should decide for themselves. He felt awful as soon as he’d said it.
But it seemed to work.
He placed the quiet Precious into her cot, hoping he hadn’t traumatised her too badly. He knew she would grow up to be something amazing – he saw it in her eyes. He just had to make sure not to destroy her natural spark.
As he turned to leave, Mitchell heard a voice coming from the cot.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet!”


52 Weeks Catch-Up

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on book reviews.
At the turn of the year, I started a commitment on another website, to read at least 52 books over the course of the year. The idea is that, with so many easy distractions – televisions that can record entire series to watch at the viewer’s convenience; a whole internet full of articles on every subject, written in sizes that can be digested in ten minutes – sometimes it’s important to arrange the time to read, as a little more effort is required.
In addition, I’ve been intending to review all of the books I read, partially in order to keep in the habit of writing, partially in order to think about why I like or dislike the stories I read, partially in order to advertise my reviewing abilities to anyone who’s interested.

However, I’ve fallen a little behind the schedule of a book a week in reading, and quite far behind in reviewing. I’ve reviewed six books so far, (one of them reviewed on another site) and am currently reading my fourteenth book. (I know, way behind schedule…)

I have made notes on each book after reading, and I intend to catch up soon, in addition to other things here on the blog and elsewhere. For the moment, here are the books I’ve read this year, with links to those reviewed:

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Ghost by Robert Harris

Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov

Up Pohnpei by Paul Watson

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2) by Suzanne Collins

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I intend to get back into the groove of reviewing as I read, so I can do so while thoughts are fresh in my mind. There will be exceptions – obviously some of the thoughts I’ve had on the two Paulo Coelho books are interlinked, so I’ll review Veronika first, to pass on the thoughts I had in the order that I had them.

Hopefully by the end of June I’ll be up to date, provided other things don’t get in my way.


05: Robot Dreams

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly the Foundation trilogy, and though I’ve read a fair few of his other books as well there’s a lot I haven’t (he’s one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, having written over 500 books). Although best known for his fiction, he also wrote numerous textbooks on subjects such as biochemistry, physics and astronomy.
The sheer number of stories he wrote means that there’s obviously a variation in quality – I remember reading one of the further books in the Foundation saga, that felt like a bland tie-in to an interesting universe – a bit like a mediocre writer being given access to write in the Star Wars or Star Trek official tie-ins. Not as low as fan fiction, but not what you’d expect from one of the giants of his genre, either.

He may be looking into the camera, but his hand is writing out his latest book.

I’m a bit unsure on how to classify and review a short story collection. A novel is a story, which has an arc, characters, emotional and story rises and falls. A collection works in a slightly different way – it’s a series of smaller, micro-stories, which may make it tempting to create groupings around the story that don’t properly fit. So apologies in advance if I do that.

It might be an odd thing to say, but while Asimov is widely thought of as one science fiction’s all time greats, in some ways he’s very underrated.
Generally its acknowledged that Asimov’s characters aren’t his strongest point – while compelling, they tend to lack the complexity and internal conflict of truly outstanding characters. While this is a weakness I agree with, I find myself tempted to associate this with an overall lack of imagination. When I’ve not read any Asimov for a while, I tend to fall into the trap of thinking of his stories that I have liked as childish enjoyments, that I’ve now outgrown – enjoyments like Thunderbirds or Power Rangers.
But Isaac Asimov does have a wild and varied imagination, and Robot Dreams is a strong sampling of his work – 21 stories first published between 1947 and 1989, across 42 years, on a range of subjects and themes.

One of the things that’s striking about the collection as a whole is a 50s sensibility. It’s hard to pin down what I mean by this, but it’s a sensation I felt for most of the stories… Think of a world of picket fences, of neatly mowed lawns, and straightforward characters who are relatively self-aware and not overly deceptive. Everything I’ve read of Philip K. Dick’s has been messy, complicated – Asimov, here in particular, feels straightforward.
Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a sensation I felt across stories. In particular,  Lest We Remember revolves around a young couple, the female of the pair referring to themselves as ‘The firm of Jonny and Sue’, which has a particularly ‘gee whizz’ feel to it.

Most of the stories are set ‘ten minutes in the future’ – dealing with developments and trends that, for all we know, could be beginning now.
The Billiard Ball is a story of two scientists, rivals since university, one a Nobel prize-winning theoretician, the other a practical engineer who’s became very rich by putting the former’s ideas into practice.
Multivac, an advanced computer used by Asimov across many of his stories, is used to decide an election in Franchise, as a dating machine in True Love, and to create new jokes in Jokester.
And Breeds There A Man? follows Ralson, a scientist working on a missile defence system during the Cold War who suffers from as a strange delusion.
All of these appear to be set either in the twenty-first century or an imagined time between Asimov’s present and ours – these stories have the feel of being both familiar and fanciful, rooted in the present, but looking out to the future.

And there are other stories that are wildly imaginative – there’s a story set on an isolated asteroid, which has its own strange society; the story of the struggles to set up an independent Mars Colony; post-humanism; a time-travelling Neanderthal; life after death; and a few stories about life that’s advanced beyond our understanding.

Despite access to a time machine, Bob the Neanderthal still wears traditional Neanderthal clothing. He's keeping it real.

Of all the stories, there’s only Eyes Do More Than See that I’d consider a bad story – because of a twist that’s heavy handedly emotional. And even that story has the virtue of being short.
The remainder of the stories are all compelling, for a variety of reasons – mystery, concern for characters, a sense of adventure.

My favourite of the stories is The Martian Way. Set in the early days of the Mars Colony, where Humans have started to settle on Mars with the cost being borne mainly by Earth and subsidised by ‘Scavengers’ who capture the debris left by various  spaceships over the years between now and then.
A charismatic politician wants to cut back on the costs of the space programme, a programme that is unlikely to break into profit during his lifetime or that of any of his voters. So, seemingly faced with no option but to return to Earth, one of the Scavengers comes up with a bold plan, that will require pushing technology further than anyone considers possible, in order to ensure Martian independence.
I don’t want to say what the action involves, as I was struck by the sense of audacity and I wouldn’t want to spoil this. But the story has a similar feel to stories about the Apollo programme – astronauts going out on highly dangerous missions, pushing back the boundaries of engineering and of known science, the boundaries of what can be done. It’s the kind of subject that I find really stirring and inspiring when done well, and it’s done really well here.
Remarkably, despite it’s similarities in feel to the Apollo programme, this story was written in 1952, five years before Sputnik was put into orbit, and nine before Yuri Gagarin became the first Human in space.

In contrast to The Martian Way, Little Lost Robot and Robot Dreams are small-scale stories, a combination of mystery and moral discussion. In the former, Susan Calvin, a leading robopsychologist and one of Asimov’s recurring characters, is called to a remote scientific base to find the whereabouts of a missing robot. The robot has had its programming, it’s Three Laws altered in such a way that would make it dangerous if it manages to stowaway back to Earth.
Robot Dreams features Calvin again, and a robot that has developed the capacity to dream.
The use of robots as a metaphor for slavery is an old idea, in fact dating back as far as the origin of the word robot.
What’s unusual is that the story would normally feature a kind, caring protagonist, one who argues for the robots’ right to be considered equals. In both of these stories the characters are hard-headed. In fact when the missing robot in Little Lost Robot hides amongst 63 physically identical machines, Calvin immediately recommends destroying all of them, and is talked out of it on economic, not moral grounds. This is despite the fact that she herself believes the robots have developed a limited form of sentience.
It’s an interesting approach – but I think by not explicitly stating the ‘moral’ of the story it’s made more powerful, and prompts more thoughts as to whether these machines genuinely are sophisticated enough to be considered worthy of equality. It also means that these two stories remain powerful and fresh – despite the former being written over half a century ago, and being made familiar by numerous imitations.

On the whole, these are stories that are positive and forward-looking – not ‘Frankenstein stories’ about humanity going too far, ‘playing God’ and being smacked down for it, but stories about the positive results of scientific advancement.

We'd all be optimistic if we had a throne as badass as his.

But there are a number of satirical and cynical stories. The Machine That Won The War, tells of a meeting in the aftermath of a victorious war, and discussion of the brilliant machine that helped them achieve victory;  Franchise is set in a world where presidential elections are decided by one vote, of a man chosen by Multivac as the ultimate average American; and Lest We Remember is the story of how gaining new, almost supernatural skills brings out the worst impulses in its hero.

One major flaw struck me was the gender politics of some of the stories. Though I get the feeling that Asimov would consider himself a feminist from the stories, I counted six significant female characters across the twenty-one stories (Susan Calvin appearing twice). Two of these six are defined to a large extent by their spouse, one works as a nanny, a stereotypically feminine role, and one is an extremely meek scientist whose husband explicitly states that there aren’t many career women like her on Earth.
The Machine That Won The War; The Last Question and The Feeling Of Power all have a number of male scientists and soldiers whose personalities aren’t important to the story, and could be changed to women by a simple change of name and pronoun, so it makes me a little uncomfortable that the characters are so overwhelmingly male.
Having said that, Susan Calvin is probably the most interesting character in the book, so Asimov is clearly capable of writing women..I think maybe he just underestimated how quickly society would move towards female equality in the workplace.
I’m honestly not sure whether to include this paragraph or not, because it feels like I’m picking on Asimov for a flaw he couldn’t realistically be expected to see as a flaw, a manner of thinking he was conditioned into by his experiences. But it was something I felt as a flaw when reading, so I think probably worth mentioning.

I really enjoyed the collection – despite being a fan, I’ve not read either I, Robot, his definitive book, (which Little Lost Robot is taken from) or The Gods Themselves and Gold, both Hugo award winners, but I am definitely more motivated to seek them out now.
Given the sheer amount of stories Asimov has written, not all of them will be worth reading – but I’d say that twenty of the twenty-one in this collection are.

Verdict:  While characters aren’t his strongest point, Robot Dreams is a collection of idea-based scifi from a master of the genre.


Book 04: The Ghost

The Ghost, written by Robert Harris, a one-time friend of Tony Blair, features a former British Prime Minister not named Tony Blair.
The character, Adam Lang, was a charismatic PM (but not named Tony Blair), was accused of lacking depth (but wasn’t named Tony Blair), and got Britain heavily involved in the War on Terror (but remember, he isn’t Tony Blair).

This Robert Harris doesn’t have a very good sense of imagination

I’m not quite sure whether to refer to The Ghost as a thriller or a satire. It definitely progresses as a thriller – the protagonist, a celebrity ghostwriter, is hired at the last minute to make sure Adam Lang’s forthcoming memoirs are completed in time for the deadline. The story follows his progress as he tries to learn more about Lang, to understand the psychology behind the former Prime Minister.

Continue reading “Book 04: The Ghost”

Comedy, Film & Television Opinion

The Developing World Throws a Hissy Fit, and I Find Someone Foolish Enough to Publish my Writing

Today I make my triumphant return to The Leaky Wiki.
I cover a speech made at the UN yesterday (why a speech would be made at the UN on a Sunday I don’t know, but give me a bit of leeway here).
Unlike previous entries on The Leaky Wiki, there’s no particular backstory you need to know, just to know what ‘the developing world’ is, and that it seems to me like the people at the UN like to talk. A lot.

Anyway, the story is here:
Developing World Objects To The Label Developing World, Finds it Patronising

And, in a quite exciting piece of news (well it excited me at least, and therefore technically counts as exciting, in a linguistic sense) I’m writing for Den of Geek.
My first piece, a defence of the recent reinterpretations of Sherlock Holmes, has gone up this morning.