Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

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Reflections on NaNoWriMo

S l1600I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, in spite of my objections to the use of the word “National” in the title of what is by now surely a global event. GloNoWriMo works just as well.

Anyway, I squeezed out 50000 words, somehow, in this hard term for teaching with a workload to die for from.

Don’t know if I’ll finish it, or even if I could if I wanted to. I don’t know if I could come up with an ending. I’ve done it in the past: you just write and write and while you’re writing, inspiration can strike, and you suddenly get that hook, the thing that’s going to drive you towards some sort of ending. But it’s probably a symptom of general tiredness that I wasn’t really feeling it this year.

And yet: I dribbled out 50,000 words, by putting together a couple of ideas I’d had in the past and trying to make them work together.

You’ll be wanting to know what it was about. It’s about a widower who is presented with an opportunity to find out why his journalist wife was murdered fifteen years before. By resurrecting some old technology, he and a retired cop come across documents left by his wife which lead them in a direction previously unexplored.

That’s the bones. Which is all I really banged out in November, without knowing how it would end. I left it in the middle of things, on the South Bank of the Thames, with the red lights winking on the construction cranes. Just abandoned it, with relief, as I crossed the 50,000 word target.

In writing the material left by the wife, Jo, on old floppy disks, I was confronted with the problem of digging back to the turn of the century. What was it like back then? I mean, if you were travelling abroad in the summer of 2000, what network access would you have had, what phone would you have been using? How much was the internet a part of your life? I’m sure I’ve dropped things into sentences that make no sense in the world of 2000 or 2002.

I didn’t have a mobile phone till about six or seven years after that, although I did have a Palm Organiser with a colour screen and a stylus that I synched to my Mac. Had absolutely no use for it, of course (got it from Macworld for a Letter of the Month). Those days! As for the internet, I think we got that at home while I was doing my PhD, late 90s, but if I’d been abroad in 2000 (as I almost certainly was at some point), I’d not even have missed it back then.

But it’s by creating these problems and limitations for myself that I hope to unlock something interesting. I just have no idea what.

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 16.20.22
This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

isbn9781473621442I had not read the first novel set in this universe (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but I will be doing so post-haste after reading this sort-of sequel and finding myself lost in admiration. It’s a long time since I enjoyed a novel as much as this.

I understand this picks up towards the end of the previous outing, but features (in the main) different characters and a different setting. An artificial intelligence (AI), appropriately named after Ida Lovelace, wakes up in a new – illegal – body, is given a new name, and negotiates its way through the (limiting) experience of passing for human.

Such is one strand of this novel, which alternates Lovelace’s story with that of the human who has agreed to help it/her in this new life. We meet this human as Pepper, an inveterate tinkerer whose own history is gradually revealed in the alternate chapters.

What could one story have to do with the other, apart from the coincidence that one was assisting the other in establishing a new life and identity? Well, of course, it turns out that Pepper knows all about establishing a new life and identity and has a particular sympathy for AIs. Their different stories intertwine and then the title of the book makes sense, as the events in one person’s past history seem to mirror/echo the events taking place in the other person’s present.

This is space opera but not; a small and human story taking place in an imagined universe in which there is interplanetary trade and travel and in which humans are aliens living amongst other aliens. Most of all, this is an incredibly moving story about loneliness and difference and identity and coming to terms with it all.

So good. So jealous.

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Giving up on a book

Radiance-616x991I’ve walked out of a couple of films in my life, but I’ve almost never given up on a book. Especially a book I’ve bought. Especially especially a book I’ve bought in hardback.

But here it is. Radiance by Catherine M. Valente was on the honour list for the 2015 Tiptree Award and I ordered it and one of the others on the list out of interest. I often do this for the Nebula and Hugo award nominees, too. It’s a good way of discovering new authors.

It’s a hard book to describe. Some would say it was batshit crazy, which I have no objection to at all. It’s set in an alternate universe, where the planets of the solar system are like countries, relatively easy to get to, and inhabitable. And there’s a film industry which is apparently frozen in the silent era (and offworld) and, the novel is built up from documentary-like fragments, piecing together the story of a female director who went missing on Venus…

All of which sound all right. You know? But I just couldn’t get into it. It has that epistolary character, like a bad 19th century novel (like Dracula, say), and the pace drags and there’s no real narrative drive, and, well, it’s all very postmodern (or it might be modern, I didn’t get to the end), but I couldn’t suspend disbelief or get into it. I kept putting it down and picking it up, and it’s been next to my bed since the beginning of April, and I kept finding other things to read, and then trying it again. In the end, I was about halfway through and still not enjoying it – not even a little bit – and so, with regret, I give up. Fuck it.

I just couldn’t get behind this Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burrows, retro fantasy romance vision of interplanetary life, or care very much about the space whales and their milk, or the mystery of the missing director or the various other characters who have something to do with this film industry. I just didn’t see what difference it made that this was all taking place in space in an alternate universe instead of being about, say, early Hollywood and a director that went missing in Argentina or wherever.

Mixed emotions. I feel guilty and sorry for giving up, but at the same time relieved to be picking up the (2014 Nebula nominated) Golem and the Djinni instead.

 

Pill One

DrugItem_10899I went back to the doctor for a third time about my insomnia. I’ve had two scrips for sleepers, and I’ve been frugal with them, taking a maximum of three per week, in the knowledge that they are addictive and that the low dose I was on wouldn’t remain effective for long.

It was a new doctor, possibly a replacement for the one that just threw up his hands at the damage being done to the NHS by this kleptocracy and retired.

She questioned me closely about my symptoms, asking a wider range of questions, making me uncomfortable with some of the answers. I can’t say I was 100% honest, but I also don’t really know what some of the answers are. Are you happy? Fuck, no. But…

It’s not that I have much trouble getting to sleep at night (not since I went back to reading paper books and cut down on coffee). It’s that I tend to wake stupidly early (around 4 a.m.) and can’t get any more sleep. She asked about my eating habits and about the job.

It’s only when you come to describe the job to a non-teacher that you realise how preposterous it sounds. Not just impossible to do, but impossible to believe. When you get to the bit where the management burst into your room like Special Branch and start questioning your students and checking their books while you’re in the middle of a lesson, it starts to seem like you’re making this shit up. Or the bit about how – even though you already don’t have enough time to do all the things you’re supposed to do – you’ll be given even less planning/marking time with no additional pay next year – just because the head teacher has it in his power to make that happen and claims to have no budget to do otherwise.

So she gave me a sleeping pill refill but also some anti-depressants. This is a bad idea, I know. But I’m looking to get through to the end of the academic year: short term thinking. I know the side effects can make you feel worse, but I also know that people respond in a wide range of different ways, so I’ll give it a go and eliminate the possibility.

Now. I was warned that these pills would take a couple of weeks to start working as they should, and that in the meantime I might feel a bit weird. I kind of imagined that as being in about a week’s time, after a few doses, I would start to feel odd, maybe. One little pill, one little 50mg pill, couldn’t have much impact.

Welp, maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but I started to feel weird almost immediately. I didn’t take a sleeping pill as well. Read a bit (The Magus is my current bedside read) and fell asleep as normal. Woke up at 4 a.m. (as normal) and then couldn’t get to sleep (normal). But it was the way my mind was working that felt strange. I couldn’t seem to grasp at a thought. I still couldn’t get back to sleep, but neither could I think about anything. Thoughts were under water, but deeper than they appeared; I’d reach for them and my hands would close around nothing.

I went through the day feeling spaced out and headachy (all expected, according to the leaflet). Felt a bit more normal after about 11 a.m., but even now (nearly 5 p.m.) I’m feeling floaty and distant from my own thoughts.

Anyway, folks, the bit about work being shit and causing stress and anxiety? Probably the best therapy was to write a book about it. So I did. If a few hundred thousand people buy it, maybe I could give up teaching.

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.