Murakami Murakami Murakami

Cover of "After Dark"
Cover of After Dark

I’m in the midst of a Haruki Murakami binge. I finished Norwegian Wood a few days ago, and had to go right back to the beginning and start reading it again. I’m tearing through After Dark, and have Sputnik Sweetheart at the top of the ‘To Be Read’ stack.

(The ‘To Be Read’ stack lives by my bed. It’s actually more like seven or eight stacks. If I kept all the books that need attention in one stack, it would be taller than I am and present a genuine health and safety risk. I also have a ‘To Be Read queue for e-books.)

My Murakmi love began around 2006 when I plucked a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from the shelves of the Piccadilly Waterstones in London. It’s very rare that I buy a book ‘cold’, most of my reading follows the trail of authors related to or influenced by other authors I’m interested in, and these days my schedule of reviewing. So to pick up a book by an author I had not even heard of, having no idea what to expect, was unusual. I was likely influenced by my love of Banana Yoshimoto (whose short story collection Lizard I read half a dozen times in my late teens).

I didn’t entirely understand Wind-Up Bird at first. I knew what happened. I knew I was powerfully affected by it. But I didn’t understand why. The story of Wind-Up Bird, which follows the journey Toru Okada as he loses first his job, then his cat, then his wife, would have strange resonance’s with my own life over the next few years. Murakami has a uniquely accurate bead on the lives of young men, and the growing-up process we go through to reach true adulthood.

All of Murakami’s novels are bildungsroman, or ‘formation novels’, in which a variety of young male protagonists, generally in their late teens / twenties / early thirties experience emotional trauma which then drives them towards true adulthood. In Norwegian Wood it is the loss of a first love that drives the story of Toru Watanabe, as he is torn between a profoundly damaging emotional entanglement with his first lover, and the hope of a future life offered by another young woman. Murakami’s protagonists, talking in the first person, are terrifyingly ignorant of their own vulnerability. There is a chilling edge to Murakami’s narrative, as he shows his chracters placing their trust in friends and lovers, but leaves open the possibility that they are being manipulated and betrayed even as they are being helped.

It’s that utter moral uncertainty that raises Murakami’s novels to greatness, along with his breathtaking exploration of the edges of the metaphysical. As his young characters are broken by loss and grief, Murakami shows how certainty and reality collapse in states of great emotion. In the most subtle and oblique ways Murakami is a fantasist, twisting strange eruptions of the weird and unreal in to his work to explore the inner lives of his characters. It’s as though his writing sits eternally on the border between the real and mundane and the fantastic and numinous, with every part of his story slipping freely between the two.

My latest Murakami binge has been set off by the release of the film of Norwegian Wood. Which I can now watch, having decided there was no way I wanted to spoil the book by watching the film first. Here is the trailer. If it catches your attention, but you have not read Murakami yet, I suggest you do so immediately.

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not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in

I’m writing whilst debating whether to spend £6.99 on the iTunes download of Rollerball, the original Norman Jewison version of 1975. (There are of course other options, including renting the 2002 version for £2.49, but this is not really even an option). It’s not the money alone giving me pause, but the irony of purchasing a film about the rise of ‘corporate society’ from the worlds most powerful entertainment corporation. (To add further irony Apple inc. was founded in 1976…)

I first saw Rollerball when I was ten or so, at the start of one of those summer holidays that seemed to go on forever (at least until the last day of August when we went shopping for school uniforms and pencils and text books and it all seemed suddenly far too short) and I spent much of the holiday cycling a child size BMX around the concrete playground at the heart of the housing estate, pretending to be a motorcycling Rollerballer. I’m not sure I got the poltical sub-text of the movie then, but I thought the spiky gloves were cool and the Japanese death-blow was the coolest thing EVER.

(It’s likely that one of the most formative factors in my love of weird tings was being allowed to stay up late most nights and watch really quite weird and violent telly.)

Rollerball is set in 2018, in a utopian / dystopian (depending upon your viewpoint) future society where corporations control every aspect of society. No one is poor, no one is sick, but neither is anyone free and humanities darker side is expressed in the ultra-violent future sport of Rollerball. The trailer is really rather excellent:

As we come closer to 2018 Rollerball seems ever more prescient. Behind the the rhetoric of recession and austerity, the true process at work in the current economic collapse is the complete ceding of power from nation states to corporate structures. The vast debts now carried by the industrialised nations are a stone over which to break them. The only question is how much longer the puppet shows of national politics will continue, and whether our corporate structures will develop any form of democratic process beyond shareholder privilege.

The uncomfortable truth is that for those who value material comfort and wealth, the ‘corporate society’ will be as great a step forward as was the industrial society of nation states before it. The average person will have tremendous material wealth, almost unimaginable today. But at what cost? If the trends of today continue, the price will be conformity and inequality. For the masses life will come pre-packaged and perfectly tailored to fit your biometric profile. As long as you don’t ask too many questions, you might even be able to believe you have chosen your life. But you’ll never be more than a component in closed system designed to empower others. The elite controlling those systems will have unbounded wealth, and the pick of new technologies that will transform their existence so far beyond our own that it’s hard now to even imagine. A sci-fi fantasy? I might have said so a decade ago, but as the masks which covered the staggering inequalities in our society are stripped away by the recession, it seems an ever more likely future.

There is a mind-game which asks ‘If Steve Jobs ran the whole society like an Apple product – let’s call it iSociety – so that it functioned perfectly but gave no freedom of choice, would you rejoice or rebel?’ Your answer to that question may well determine your response to the decades ahead.

Thoughts on 500 SF novels

Give or take a few. We invited readers of The Guardian to name their favourite SF novels as part of the Guardian Review SF special a week or so ago. The list of over 500 suggestions was published yesterday and has been the most viewed article in the books section all day.

It’s a list that says interesting things about the perception of SF. Firstly, for most readers SF is categorically SCIENCE FICTION. Readers nominating borderline Fantasy writing seemed almost apologetic, despite the fact my opening article had specified any form of speculative fiction. The power of genres as marketing tools remains undiminished, however far they intermingle creatively.

And the classic names of Science Fiction dominate the list. Asimov, Heinlein, Bester, Le Guin, Disch, Zelazny, Delany, Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick are among the most nominated authors. SF is a ‘slow burn’ genre. Many of these now classic books were not best sellers at release, but rather gathered their audience over the years and decades. I’m confident many of these authors will still be remembered a century or more from now.

New writers are few and far between however. It takes a very long time to establish an SF author in the mind of readers, which perhaps explains some of the genre’s struggles in an increasingly high paced publishing environment.

Iain M Banks is by far the most nominated UK author. That’s no great surprise, but I wonder how long Banks will continue to rule the roost so completely. A long time to come perhaps, unless British SF gets over its obsession with Science and starts understanding itself as Fiction, first and foremost. New Wave writers make a very strong showing. Again, that demonstrates that SF only really succeeds when it succeeds fully as literature, rather than simply as ‘a literature of ideas’.

Frank Herbet’s Dune is the most nominated book I think. And quite rightly so. More than forty years after its publication there is still no other work of SF that matches it for the combination of ideas, grand scale and depth of character. Many have tried, tried and died, but Herbet is still the Kwisatz Haderach.

If the list has any single message, it is that great SF is VERY difficult to write. There are literally thousands of good authors in the genre’s history, but only a few dozen great ones. I could spend a long time trying to define what makes them great, but perhaps the single defining factor is that readers instinctively recognise great writing when they find it, and that greatness is still treasured decades after the authors themselves have left us.

UPDATE: A good discussion with @murf61 and @nicolaz on gender in SF and the representation of women in the GU favourite SF list took place on Twitter following the publication of this post. Women writers are very underrepresented in the list, with @nicolaz pointing out that only 4% of the writers listed are women. As raw data gathered from public nominations, the list reflects the public perception of SF as a genre. And clearly that perception is focussed on male writers. I would like to think about ways to change that perception, and welcome ideas on the matter.

Mieville, Embassytown and radical SF

China Mieville
Image by ceridwenn via Flickr

Is SF becoming cool? If it is, as China Miéville claims, then the award-winning author, whose new novel Embassytown hit the shelves yesterday, may have something to do with it. In our current era of austerity, with the largest-ever protest march on the nation’s capital and a previously apathetic youth culture rallying to the UK Uncut banner, Miéville’s homebrew of weird fiction and radical politics seems ever more relevant. Despite the current slew of mindless SF-flavoured Hollywood blockbusters, Miéville reminds us that beneath SF’s skin-deep popular appeal beats a radical heart.

Read more in The Guardian.

GROWL

GROWL

for SF Fandom

I.

I saw the best minds of my genre destroyed by
sanity, well fed, rotund, naked.

dragging themselves through the convention
centre at lunch time
looking for affordable beverages

longhaired hippies hunting for the dusty hardback
collectible anthology of
Hugo winners in the dealers room at night,

who poor and t-shirted and jolly and drunk sat up
reading in the supernatural glow of an all night Firefly
marathon walking through the hotel hallways
contemplating Filk,

who bared their soul to the Internet under LJ and
saw WordPress stat counts and comments multiply
through the roof

who passed through university with sleepless red eyes
playing AD&D and WoW until light
ignoring the party next door,

who were not expelled from the academies but stayed busy
publishing obscure fanzines on the departmental photocopier,

who huddled in infinitely long signing queues, handing
their books for autograph and listening
to the Author they adore

who got questioned in their Gandalf beards returning through,
La Guardia with a box of books purchased at World Con.

who painted flames on their Warhammer miniatures in
Games Workshop’ back room, or customised their
Terminator squad at night

with dreams, with words, with Epic Fantasy, Science Fiction
Horror and endless
paranormal romance

incomparable kind, shelves of shuddering paperbacks under
strip-lighting in the mind leaping toward pretty covers in
Barnes & Noble, illuminating all the multiple realities
of worlds beyond Time,

(It’s a long poem. I like this as an ending, but I may add some more later.)