As the year stumbles to its close, like an old drunk searching for a suitable spot to doss down for the night, I present you with a photo of some of the books I read, or reread in the twelve months past.
So, yes, farewell 2018. The year in which the notion of ‘Donald J. Trump, Most Powerful Man in the World’ became ‘normalised’. The year in which the verb ‘normalise’ vied in its insidious threat to civilisation with ‘monetise’. The year in which the news was dominated by an ugly six letter word beginning with B and ending with T that five years ago didn’t even exist.
As politics around the world seems to lurch ever deeper into authoritarianism or fractured crisis, Volker Kutscher’s thirties Berlin-set detective series, translated and published in Scotland, seemed to capture the mood perfectly. This year I raced through the first three in the series, Babylon Berlin, Silent Death and Goldstein. With each one better than the last, I’m looking forward to the next English installment coming out in 2019.
From the mean streets of Berlin to far flung galaxies. Flying from Glasgow via Dubai to Japan in November, I reread Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things. The Book is an extraordinary sci-fi reimagining of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in a near future where the technology for inter-galactic space travel has been invented, not by a state but USIC, a giant multinational, leading to the establishment of a fledgling colony on a distant planet christened Oasis. Meanwhile the Earth continues to plough on from one crisis to the next (published in 2014, it reads like a premonition). Peter, a born-again ex-addict preacher, is catapulted through cosmic space. His mission, to be a pastor for the Christ-curious native inhabitants. Against all his expectations, establishing ties with the Oasans and giving them the word of God turns out to be the easy part. Much harder is sustaining his relationship with his wife Bea across the unimaginable reaches of space time.
Across 500 pages, Faber immerses you in an alien world as convincing as any other I have read about. He conjures the laconic, detached dialogues of the engineers and scientists who populate the USIC base; the spectacular climate conditions – swirling vortices of rain partly making up for the fact that in terms of topography, flora and fauna, Oasis is, compared to Earth, frankly not up to much; the Oasans themselves – a meek species whose humanoid features extend only up to their faces, which, to Peter’s eyes, resemble nothing so much as two squashed foetuses, their vocal apparatus rendering efforts to pronounce English akin to listening to someone hacking wet lettuce with a machete.
Peter learns that his predecessor Kurtzberg (the nod to Conrad) went missing in action, along with a linguist named Tartaglione. But the sense of foreboding is raised not so much by events on Oasis as Bea’s increasingly frantic dispatches from an Earth in meltdown.
With such a plot, the astonishing thing is how realistic it all feels. You can’t help think that if Google invented interstellar space travel (and who’s to say they aren’t working on it now?), any attempt to colonise another planet could turn out pretty much as Faber describes. This is testament to the precision of his writing and his deep understanding of the scientific mindset. Yet for all its scientific detail, the greatness of The Book, like all Faber’s work, lies in its emotional heft – his attempt to tackle the same themes as Conrad did, while coming up with a different answer.
Actually, The Book of Strange New Things was the second novel I read this year which seemed to me like a response to Conrad’s masterpiece. The other was J.G. Ballard’s The Day of Creation. Given that it’s not so well known, you could be forgiven for thinking this might be a less than memorable addition to the Ballard canon. The African colonial setting is after all a familiar one from his early novella The Crystal World, itself an expansion of the short story Illuminated Man.
I’ve always thought that the key to understanding Ballard is to remember that he trained as a doctor himself – and struggled to reconcile the ability to heal with his pessimistic view of the innate tendencies of mankind. Ballard’s doctors are always morally compromised individuals whose understanding of the human body goes alongside a sense of futility at our species as a whole – or at least the male part of it. In The Day of Creation, Doctor Mallory’s Far East childhood and subsequent move to England to study medicine mirror Ballard’s own:
“Although a qualified physician, in the ten years that followed I had gone to any lengths to avoid actually practicing medicine in either Europe or North America, whose populations, it evidently became clear, had failed to be sufficiently ill to meet certain bizarre needs of my own.”
And so, Mallory ends up in Africa, in a fictional post colonial state, where rival military leaders fight as the population suffers poverty and disease, while an ego-maniac TV documentary maker is on hand with his loyal cameraman to film it all. The chaos makes any kind of normal medical practice impossible – which of course is exactly what Mallory wants. Fooling himself that he is still trying to help, he embarks on ‘a futile drilling project’ to irrigate a dried up lake bed. When, to his amazement, a new river is actually formed, Mallory names it after himself, then steals a ferry boat and embarks on a hazardous journey upstream with the aim of damming it at its source.
Every bit as bonkers as it sounds, like Crash, The Day of Creation is a satire on the death drive, full of typically Ballardian machine-based action. But it’s set against Mallory’s deepening desire to return to a primitive state, symbolised by his accidental companion, an African girl he christens Noon. Here Ballard could lay himself open to the same accusations that Chinua Achebe levelled at Conrad over Heart of Darkness: that the Africans in the book are not so much real characters as projections of the Western vision of what Africa means to them. Maybe so – but in the novel’s epilogue, Mallory looks back with an awareness of the dubious nature of his own sanity, and the reliability of many of the events described,
I had not invented the river or our journey, but had I invented Noon? … Was she a figment of a river itself sprung from my imagination?
Which seems to cut right to the heart of the dilemma of fiction. We emerge from these works of imagination and find ourselves back in the real world. One in which, any day it seems, we could wake up to find Boris Johnson running the country, banning burqas because women who wear them remind him of pillarboxes (which of course should be red and stationary, with the Queen’s head emblazoned proudly on them). Would it be better to stop plunging into these alternate worlds and face up to the mundane more of the time? Or should we do our best to make the fiction we love figure in that everyday world as brightly as it deserves to shine?
I know what my answer is.