Book Review

Old Sci-Fi (Keyes, Wells, Pohl, Aldiss) & Mass Graves

they keep finding mass graves of children

Written in the first week of July 2021

There is absolutely nothing going on and I am increasingly furious about it.

Things are opening up, sure, but opening up to what, for me, you know?

Every few days the Canadian news releases a new announcement of the discovery of another mass grave of dead fucking children and this is going to happen repeatedly until the country is numb to the shock. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise, because when tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of children disappear over the course of a couple of centuries from tuberculosis-ravaged child concentration camps rife with all kinds of abuse, it is unlikely that those disappearances were just children escaping to happy, fulfilling, long lives back in the communities they had been uprooted from.

It isn’t a surprise. It won’t be a surprise.

There have been four mass graves found over the past few weeks; four of the 139 residential schools have been searched for mass graves. 

On the footbridge Cubby and I walk over whenever we walk from Parkdale down to the Lakeshore, someone (or some people) have started writing in graffiti the numbers of children’s bodies found in these grave sites.

These numbers could be tags, area codes, gang signs, whatever, but they’re not. These numbers have a weighty meaning and a grim memorable power.

215 children found dead in Kamloops.

104 children found dead in Brandon.

751 children found dead in Marieval.

182 children found dead in Cranbrook.

I’m typing this on July 1st. I’m sure there will be more dead found by the time I post this in a few weeks. (There was – 160 children found dead in Kuper Island.)

These mass graves are on my mind. So many things are on my mind. It’s why I’m not stretching myself with my reading.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)

This was, truly, a marvelous novel.

It’s good enough and interesting enough to have surprised me by its genre-fied packaging and cultural status. This is barely sci-fi. This is the kind of thing that, were it released now and some of the ableist/racist language were toned down a bit (or not, who knows?), it would be described as “speculative fiction” and be shortlisted (or maybe longlisted) for a few major literary awards.

It’s about a man with severe learning disabilities who undergoes an experimental medical procedure and then he, over the course of months, grows in intelligence until he is the most intelligent person alive, before – spoiler – he starts to disintegrate, heading back to worse than he was at the start.

It’s about family and abuse, about affection and emotion and how rooted in consciousness this is; how we evaluate everything we do, everything that happens to us, unless we choose not to or are unable to do so.

It’s really moving, heartbreaking almost,and not at all what the cover led me to expect. This shouldn’t be a pulpy “SF Masterworks”, it should be a Penguin Modern Classics. Maybe it is, I haven’t checked.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (189x)

I wish this had been an invisible book. Because it’s fucking atrocious.

From the biographic introduction about Wells that failed to mention he was a massive shagger, through the forward by one of Wells’ kids (he probably had many more than the 4 listed on Wikipedia, as – again – he was a massive shagger) that whinges and whines about culture and society like only a privileged nobody son of a left wing massive shagger intellectual who made massive bunse writing trash, often silly, fiction could whinge and whine about culture and society. From this, I should have known.

The title of the book is The Invisible Man, yet until almost halfway thru the book, whether or not there is an Invisible Man is an ongoing plot thread. Like, yes, there is an Invisible Man, it’s in the title.

Eventually the third person narrator shifts from the busybody bumpkins who – for no discernible reason – constantly interrupt the Invisible Man as he does chemistry in his hotel room aiming to deinvisible himself.

Later on, the Invisible Man (afterwards T.I.M) finds an old college friend a few villages over, but rather than give his old friend peace, quiet, a study, a place to hide and the time to figure out a cure to his transparency (which then would have monetised invisibility by rendering it non-permanent), the friend double crosses T.I.M by grassing him up to the local rozzers and T.I.M – who is about to go on a nude murder spree (when he’s invisible he’s always nude, a great detail that is the only clue to Wells’ prolific sex life) – is beaten to death by the pig ignorant provincial peasants.

Wells clearly tried to rip off the then-recent success of both Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde (and maybe Dorian Gray, too) by making T.I.M monstrous (or, at least, monstrously intentioned for a few pages before he’s beaten to death), and tho the premise and many details are great (e.g. the nudity thing, and also that any food T.I.M eats is visible in mid air until it’s absorbed into his guts) the book as a whole is structured worse than my self care routine.

Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)

This book did something I hadn’t expected.

I’ve written on here before about how good genre writing succeeds in spite of its ludicrousness, and how silly ideas are an easy crutch for a terrible writer.

Lessing, Butler, Le Guin, etc: they didn’t write the unbelievable because they couldn’t write the real: they chose to do so, and it shows.

Never at any point reading Gateway did I feel like Pohl had the creative powers necessary to write a proper novel (by which I mean his prose style, descriptive detail, characterisation etc isn’t on a par with, e.g., I don’t know, a like writer of normal/proper (“realist”) writer), but this was excellent in spite of that.

Pohl published like three novels a year for five decades, if he was secretly a literary genius, you – and I – would have heard of him before.

This novel, like many novels, bounces between the past and the present. In the present, Bob is a middle-aged rich guy attending Freudian-style therapy with a robot psychotherapist a long way in the future. We flash back and forth from therapy to his memories of winning a lottery and escaping the “food mines” where he was an indentured labourer from birth, then he became a space prospector, travelling via the weird ancient alien tech someone found orbiting the sun on the vertical axis. He has a few adventures, makes some friends, has some lovers, all the while we see – in his future – he has prosperity, but he is lonely and alone and racked with guilt.

The novel neatly, and with surprising emotional heft, builds up to its inevitable tragedy with poise and impressive pacing. Though, yes, I earlier slated Pohl’s writing, I meant that this isn’t art, it isn’t literature. It’s genre fiction, and tho it doesn’t transcend its genre in any meaningful way, it’s an excellent example of it and lots of fun – this, I suppose – is top tier space opera with no aspirations beyond itself.

It’s good, but it doesn’t belong on the same shelf as Doris Lessing’s Canopus In Argos cycle. And not just because of alphabetising.

Signing off on July 1st, still thinking about all the dead children.

Addendum:

Cryptozoic! by Brian Aldiss (1967)

This, honestly, was absolutely fucking shit and exactly the kind of stupid, terribly written, characterless, facile, boring, smug, sexist crap that I always imagined science fiction was.

It’s 1.30am on the 5th July and I need to go to sleep. This book was bad. There have been no mass grave findings announced in the last four days. (There would be one on July 12th.)

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