A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

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Don’t deny the Power…catching up with a lost Who treasure

‘Power of the Daleks’ a Doctor Who story by David Whittaker, first broadcast in 1966 was a landmark show in the series history; it was the first ‘regeneration story.’  William Hartnell, exhausted from his first struggle with the Cybermen in “The Tenth Planet,” had collapsed at the end of the previous series and the audience had gasped as his face changed before their eyes.  This story begins with that moment, and William Hartnell becomes Patrick Troughton.  Imagine the strangeness of that.  Doctor Who fans are used to this now, and new incarnations of the Doctor are always preceded at least a year in advance by an immense media buzz and speculation, as we are seeing now in the “best woman to play to Doctor” discussion.   But then this concept was as alien as the Doctor himself.  The cast, crew, writers and production team must have been holding their breath.  Would this work, or was this the show going off a cliff?
Sadly this entire show has been lost from the BBC archives, so we’ll never see this moment as the audience first saw it.  But the audio survived, and from this we have two recent constructions, a narrated audio drama using the original soundtrack, and an animation.   This gives us very good representations of this first regeneration scene, and as far as I’m concened, it does work spectacularly well.  The Doctor’s disorietntation and the baffled and frightened reactions of his companions Ben and Polly, and some hostility (from Ben), are all understandable and dramatically satisfying reactions.
And that’s not all that works well.  This is tense, satisfying and scary story that continues many of the hallmarks and repeating motifs of a great Doctor Who adventure.  Stumbling and dazed from the abrupt transformation of the Doctor, the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive on fog shrouded, swamp infested world and are hailed by an Earth official who is promptly shot.  The Doctor is then knocked unconscious, and a button pressed into his hand, to the purpose of framing someone else for the murder.  Our heroes are then taken to a human settlement on this alien world of Vulcan.  This is a colony under tremendous internal pressure from politicking and factionalism.  There is a rebellion against the Colony’s Governor that is on the verge of turning violent.  In the meantime, scientists have discovered an alien ship crashed on the planet and have taken it into the colony (never a good move!), and the chief Scientist, Lesterson (Robert James)), has discovered in the ship deactivated Daleks and is attempting revive one, ignorant of course as to the nature of this creature.  Posing as an Earth Examiner (the identity of the murdered man), the Doctor is horrified to learn of Lesterson’s experiments and even more horrified when a Dalek activates, screeching out in an iconic moment, “We…are…your..servants!”  Lesterson and others  become convinced they can get the Daleks to serve them.  (Literally) disarmed, the Daleks play along with this.  Dalek weapons are also discovered, and the scheming Bragen (Bernard Archard), conspiring with the rebels to seize power, decides to try and use the Daleks to seize power.  Meanwhile, the Daleks pursue their own agenda of extermination and conquest.  It’s all going to end in tears.
This story and prodcution has many of the hallmarks of a great Doctor Who story.  Let’s look at these:
1) Doctor and companions on top form: the chemistry and intreaction between them is a joy, given the trauma of the regeneration.  Troughton quickly brings into play the Second Doctor’s playfulness, mischief, and ‘clownish,’ antics whilst retaining the gravitas and seriousness of the first.  Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) are companion gold, stumbling into traps, voicing confuison, being kidnapped.  Listen to one show with them and you feel they have been around forever.
2) The Daleks: deadly as ever, their menace is given  a new edge by the way they ‘play’ the humans in this story, scheming and fooling them into helping them create an army! It’s such a transparently diabolical plan, and yet we accept it. We get to see, clawed, slithering Dalek mutants too, and there’s  memorable scene where we see a Dalek production line, with a mutant being placed into the case of it’s new machine.
3) The cliffhangers: they are great, from the first story’s mutant scuttling for freedom, to the “we are your servants” cry of an activated Dalek, to the monstrous production line, to the twitiching eyestalk of the final moment.
4) A human colony under pressure:  here in all its dysfunctional glory,  with it’s stratas of ruling governors, scientists, guards and citizens.  The human and Dalek schemeing coming together makes for an interesting dramatic tension.
5) Action packed, uncompromising pay off: Play with Daleks, you’re going to get exterminated.
A stand out performance must go to Robert James as Lesterson the Chief Scientist. In many ways a stereotype, he’s a compelling character in how he develops,  through his organal scientific hubris, to his dawning horror at what he’s done, to going slightly mad.
What, then, do the audio and animation bring to the story, and how well do they tell it?
 power audio
1) The audio
Released by the BBC as part of its BBC Radio Collection series in 2005, this has the original audio of the series with linking narration by the actress who played Polly, Anneke Wills.  She does a fantastic job, and the story flows with perfect clarity.  It’s immersive, tense, compelling listening.  It’s great to listen to this first before the animation, as you can then compare how you imagined the scenes with what is represented there. The audio can be found on Audible.
power dvd
2) The animation
Released by BBC DVD in 2016 this links the audio drama with a crisp black and white animation, retro and basic in style but appropriate given the similarly basic (as by today’s standards) original visuals.  It’s the closest you’ll get to seeing the original.  It’s got an impressive range of extras, with interviews from some of the original cast and production team, original stills, and the entire audio drama with the linking narration provided by the audio release above.
This is manna for Who fans everywhere, but if you are new to classic Who, do check this out, it’s a great, tense sci-fi drama in it’s own right.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama ‘Out of the Shadows.’

This is a fast paced, massively entertaining treat for ‘Alien’ fans, part of the ‘Audible Original’ range.   It’s an audio drama production as opposed to an audio book (so different cast parts, music, sound effects) based on the novel of the same name by Tim Lebbon.  You can read my review of the novel here.  The Audible Original sequel ‘River of Pain’  is due soon (26/04/2017).
In terms of the story, it’s based on-board the mining ship Marion, which in the opening chapters is devastated by a collision with a shuttle.  Chris Hooper, engineer, and his horrified colleagues watch on the shuttles security cameras as the surviving crew is decimated by a handful of Xenomorphs.  As they watch, the pilot’s chest explodes as she births an Alien infant.  The shuttle has been on planet LV178 where they have been mining Trimonite, a rare mineral harder than diamonds.  There they have made the discovery which causes their deaths.  The shuttle ‘Samson’ docks and it’s only a matter of time before the station itself is infested. Meanwhile, another ship hoves into view.  It’s the Narcissus, and on board is one Ellen Ripley and her pet cat Jones, in hyper-sleep decades after the destruction of the Nostromo and it’s one terrifying Alien.  In terms of continuity this is between the first and second films.  If you are wondering how Ripley never mentions this phase of her adventure, I won’t spoil the reason, but it works better here than it did in the novel (where I think the convenience of this particular contrivance felt rather forced) because you are carried along by the faster pace and you don’t dwell on the contrivance as you may if reading.   If you are asking how the Narcissus found the space station, then it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that one homicidal android from Alien chapter one has downloaded his programme /consciousness onto the Narcissus, and that consciousness has steered the Narcissus to the Marion’s distress call, which contained details of the Aliens.  You see, Ash is still intent on fulfilling his ‘special order’ to bring an Alien back to Earth and the ruthless company, Weyland Yutani.
Ripley is revived and is understandably none too pleased that her nightmare on the Nostromo is not over.  The stage is set for a battle between human crew, Aliens, and Ash…
The production works very well and is full of sound effects recalling the world of ‘Alien.’  The hum and beep of the computer on the Narcissus and it’s clicking of its retro keyboard, the, clanking and rumbling of industrial vessels, the hissing and chilling Alien cries.  And Laurel Lefkow’s reading of Ripley made me wonder if they had Sigourney Weaver on board as I first started to listen, so accurate is she to the weary, bitter heroism of that character.  The other standout is Rutger Hauer.  He’s superb as Ash, distinctive from Ian Holm but still capturing the cold, ruthless analytical character of Ash, inhumanly human.  And the rest of the ensemble cast complement each other well, keeping things moving at a cracking pace under the able direction of Dirk Maggs.
At 4 hours 31 minutes it compresses and follows the contours of Tim Lebbon’s novel closely.  It’s a recommended listen for those who can’t wait for Alien: Covenant (or the Neil Blokaamp re-boot).

A review of the Big Finish audio drama ‘Doctor Who: The Lost Stories; The Fourth Doctor Box set

This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’  Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music.  For more on Big Finish, see here.

‘The Foe from the Future was originally intended as the conclusion to Season 14 of the classic show, with Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor and Louise Jameson’s feisty alien savage.  However, the writer, Robert Banks, was reassigned to work on a troubled soap for Thames television.   And the story was not able to survive without him, so Robert Holmes gave us the fan favourite “Talons of Weng-Chiang” instead.
The element in ‘Foe’ that echos in its replacement concerns its chief villain.  ‘Talons’ Magnus Kreel is a genocidal disfigured maniac from the future, also a brilliant scientist.  As is ‘Foe’s’ Jainik.  Thereafter though, we have two very different stories.
Ghosts are haunting a peaceful Devon village, and a mysterious new owner of the local Mansion is not blending in.  His name is Jainik, a spurned and disfigured lover, a brilliant scientist warped by his disfigurement and his terrible plan to evacuate a doomed future into the present.  Aliens called Plantaphagens, huge insectile monsters, have invaded the future and there is only so long humanity can keep them at bay.  They are creatures who live in the time vortex and they may have just have been unleashed on the future earth by Jainik and his colleagues ill advised time travel experiments.
Jainik’s mutation (he fused his DNA with a Plantaphagen in the time vortex) has also left him with a hunger for raw meat.  So that’s a few minor characters done for then.  It’s up to the Doctor and Leela, played by the wonderful Tom Baker and Louise Jameson reprising their original roles, to save humanity by battling these foes in the present and future, helped by Louise Brealey’s Charlotte, a villager who is swept up in the adventure.
When the story leaps from 70’s Britain to the year 4000, however, the story moves from mist shrouded, country lane gothic horror to sub-Douglas Adams 80’s era Who wackiness, as we see a future with mock ups of British life from the 70’s, rehearsal areas for an invasion from the future.  There is a very ill advised scene of rescue from an alien infested desert by Ford Contina, that may work in ‘Hitchhikers Guide,’ but it just creates a massive jarring change of tone here.  Leela also lasso’s a flying alien with the Doctor’s scarf and then pilots it armed with a laser pistol.  It’s just daft, and doesn’t hold up.  It’s a huge shame, as there is some good stuff:  the cast are great, Paul Freeman as Jainik chews the scenery, portraying evil glee, paranoid rage, thwarted genius and pathos.   Tom Baker is as fantastic as ever, with disarming humour and wit.  Close your eyes and you can see him in his teatime tv glory.  Leela nails what made her companion work so well; holding back her homicidal aggression as “The Doctor tells me that in ths time it would not be considered polite.”  The cast clearly have a great time, and that is contagious, it is great fun.  The story re-cycles earlier and later concepts from Who and sci-fi;  (Time traveling parasites in the Vortex, witness “The Time Monster” in Pertwee Who,  the Jainik mutation joins a line of disfigured maniacs in Who, but also references “The Fly” in the fusion of man and insect.  The Plantaphagen’s are also distinctly “Wirrin” like.  But they are used in this story with an entertaining verve
As a coherent piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t hold up, let down by an uneven tone and scenes that are just too wacky and nonsensical for any medium.  It feels more like a Comic Relief tribute than a substantial adventure.
‘The Valley of Death’ is based on a story idea by Phillip Hinchcliffe, producer from my favourite era of Baker’s Doctor, and one of my favourite eras from the show as a whole.   His stories were rich in concepts and ideas and had a thrilling vein of gothic horror, with very physical body horror transformation scenes.
This story is less about the horror and more about the high concepts and ideas.  Here an investigation by a Grandson of a missing explorer attracts the attention of Unit and by default, the Doctor and Leela.  Soon they have crash-landed in the Amazon Jungle, apparent victim of a second Bermuda Triangle as they appear to be in a middle of a plane’s graveyard, with planes from differnt decades of modern history.  The missing explorer was looking for a lost city of gold, and it turns out that this city exists, but it’s a construction made by giant circuitry and ruled over by a Wizard of Oz like projection of a ship-wrecked Alien, Emissary Godrin.  Godrin has surrounded the city by a time bubble that interferes with navigation systems (unintentionally) causing planes to crash.  The time bubble puts him  in a small sphere of influence where time moves slower than the outside world.  This is because he wants time for a sufficiently advanced being to find him and help him fly his ship.  He’s also created giant frogs and spiders to terrify the natives and also scare away unwanted attention.  His race are called the Lurons, and they are yellow skinned, have glowing eyes, pointed ears and Piranha teeth.
You can see how many ideas are fizzing around already, and the story has hardly got going.  Godrin captures the Doctor and his party, (the grandson Edward Perkins, a mannered, polite and very decent Englishman, and Valerie Perkins, a brash US reporter who has a knack for moving at the wrong time and activating traps) and they journey to 70’s London, where Godrin hijacks the BBC transmitters to call a Luron Mothership to Earth.  Professing peace, they want to colonise the arid places of the Earth as their planet is dying.  But can they be trusted?  What do you think?
Later they create doubles of military and political figures, the Doctor and Leela, to trick Earth Authorities into giving the Lurons an easy ride.  Meanwhile their ship turns out to be powered by their captive sun, held in a force-field, which has also eroded and sapped their sanity.
So you can see, high concept piles on high concept, ideas trip over each other, and somehow it works, rattling along to deliver a fun 4 part adventure that feels like Saturday teatime adventure with a throwback to flash Gordon/Dick Barton adventure serials in its innocence and unabashed love of storytelling.  Many concepts will be familiar to Who fans; giant creatures, megalomaniac aliens, body doubles, which helps this feel part of the Whoniverse.  It’s less baggy than ‘Foe’s’ 6 parter and more consistent in tone (it’s consistently zany).   Tom Baker is on top form, sarcastically taunting villains, displaying inventive wit and anger when he has to, in well judged combination.  Nigel Carrington cackles with manic glee in his portrayal of the viciously ruthless Godrin, a classic alien Who baddie, I could picture him clearly on my childhood’s tv screen from the 70’s.  Louise Jamison is wonderful with Leela, showing the character with its winning combination of toughness and naivety, and giving her loads to do.  Anthony Howell’s Edward Perkins is a decent, bumbling Englishman much in the Harry Sullivan mode.  Jane Slavin’s brash but accident prone Valerie Carlton is a good foil to him.  They make good temporary companions.
Sound production is excellent, recreating the sound and feel of this show from the 1970’s.
This is a pricey box set and I would say that it’s not the best jumping on point for Big Finish (unless you are a pretty established classic Who fan already) but on the whole it’s a fun listen, and a fascinating attempt to bring these lost stories to life.  And how wonderful to hear Tom Baker and Louise Jameson in action again.

A review of Lindsay Buroker’s “Star Nomad:Fallen Empire, Book 1.”

This was brought to my attention by the excellent ‘BookBub’ which is a service that notifies of time limited free and bargain priced e-books, or I doubt I would have come across it.

I’m glad I did as it’s good, cheering, unpretentious escapist fun.  The writing is clear and delivers on a briskly paced, character driven space opera that sets us up for a wider saga, but is nevertheless a cracking self contained adventure in and of itself.

As the blurb says, it’s reminiscent of the ‘Firefly’ template of disparate characters bonded by camaraderie and adventure crewing a distinctive ship that itself has a strong identity.

It neatly sets up our heroes first meeting as pilot Alice Marchenko, surviving soldier from a recent Alliance / Empire War (guess which are the nominal ‘bad’ guts), salvages her Mother’s freight ship from an intergalactic junkyard only to find a veteran from the Empire, a Cyborg, stowed on the ship.  Compelled to keep him as a passenger, she builds a crew willing to pay passage off the planet to her home world of Perun where she hopes to be re-united with her daughter.  So enter a soldier fleeing from mafia entanglements, a priest-caste figure with ties to the Empire, a kooky female farmer joining Marhcenko and  her already trusted, cynical mechanic, as they take to the skies en route to an asteroid that the Cyborg has ‘requested’ they detour to.  There begins an adventure with pirates, more cyborgs,  a mysterious orb, chases and cinematic action set-pieces. The crew appears to bond, but some may be harbouring agendas of their own..

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  But no matter.  If the writing is good these well worn tropes can be wrapped around you like a duvet on a cold Winter’s night, reassuring when all around is unfamiliar, threatening and uncertain, which has been this week, basically.

So I recommend this, it does what it should, and should you want to spend longer in world of Alice Marchenko and friends a further five instalments await

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

The last of his “Space Trilogy,” this is widely held to be the most problematic of the series, and / or people’s least favourite instalment.  See my reviews of the previous books here and here.

My feelings are indeed mixed.  On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.

Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe.  In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham.  Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in.  N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day.  Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…

Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood.  Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood.  Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels.  The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.”  And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.

So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew.  What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E.  Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas.  He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress.  Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.

The baddies are hugely entertaining too.  Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage.  There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more.  Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining.  At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.

What I found problematic are found in the following strands:

Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book.  Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values.  Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror.  Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there.  This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.

This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”

In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology.  The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful.  His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging.  And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence.  It’s nothing if not audacious.

Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.

To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.

 

 

 

 

A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.