Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Pleasures of Reading

Perhaps I ought to make clear for British readers (all three of them) that I mean reading books, and not Reading, the town in Berkshire. John Betjeman once mixed the two up when he attended a lecture by Lord David Cecil that bore the title of this very post. Fact. Allegedly.
Anyway, I don't know if it's just me or if it's a general middle-aged thing, but I've found that reading brings me less pleasure than it used to. When I was a lad I used to devour a book a day. In the late Seventies a novel or collection of stories (a much rarer treat) cost as little as 35 pence (!). Blimey. I can hardly believe it myself, but it's true. Paperbacks crashed through the one pound barrier at around the time Thatcher came into office. (I can't as yet think of a way of actually blaming her for this, but I'm working on it. )
Any road up, I read voraciously. My favourite authors, during my teen years, were sf writers of the New Wave breed (Ballard, Aldiss, Priest, Holdstock), plus a lot of the older 'hard' sf school (Niven, Asimov, Clarke) and quite a few of the less classifiable authors who might be termed 'soft' sf. The latter included Tiptree (who I've mentioned earlier), Silverberg, Le Guin, Vance, Dick, Herbert and Ellison.
It's interesting to note how that disparate crew I befriended have fared in the last thirty years. Ballard is now a grand old man of English letters, and sadly near the end of his days - prostate cancer. Christopher Priest seems to be faring reasonably well, though I've not read his newer stuff. The same can be said for Brian Aldiss and Robert Holdstock. Ursula Le Guin and Robert Silverberg are still 'in play', as is Jack Vance. Harlan Ellison is, according to one source, still feisty enough to goddam Dubya from here till Tuesday, for which much thanks. Asimov and Clarke are no longer with us, of course, and Niven has become a sharecropping old right-wing bore, which is a pity. Frank Herbert is gone, to be remembered for Dune and nothing else, which is also a pity. His other novels, such as Hellstrom's Hive and The Eyes of Heisenberg, were pretty good, and his story collections/fixups, like the Godmakers, are fondly remembered.
I suppose if you're an ageing nerd the equivalent of buying a red sports car when you pass forty is to start re-reading pulp sci-fi. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I recently revisited Philip K. Dick, friend of my adolescence, by purchasing three of his early novels in one volume. They are: The Man Who Japed, Dr Futurity, and Vulcan's Hammer. So far, so good.
The Man Who Japed has all the makings of an expanded short story, but the typical PKD ingredients are there: a future society ruled by repressive jerks, a hero who rebels by ingenious means, a few bits of sf hardware and some folderol about psychiatry and history. Throw in a temptress with a 'deep chest' and it's a full house. It's not substantial but it's enjoyable.
Dr Futurity is much better. Published around the same time as The Man in the High Castle, it's an interestingly weird take on altering history. A doctor from the near future is swept forward to the 25th century where he finds doctoring is a crime. In a fiercely eugenicist society people who are injured or fall ill are killed by officials called 'euthanors' - anti-doctors. It sounds nightmarish, but with typical quirky panache Dick presents this cruel but vital world as in many ways attractive and even admirable. And that's just the first part of a story that involves trying to assassinate Sir Francis Drake on racial grounds. Wow. I read it in a single evening and it did me a power of good.
On, now, to Vulcan's Hammer, which - judging by a synopsis on the PKD site - involves religious fanatics in a world ruled by a super computer. Ah, the joys of youth. Sometimes you can go home again, if your home is a brilliant writer's world. I wonder if there are any good deals going on Jack Vance's early stuff?


Tim Stretton said...

Most of Vance's work is pretty readily available on eBay. To my mind no writer of the period you're talking about bears re-reading better. Because he was never hung pu on technology and predicting the future, he's never dated.

And his prose from about 1956 onwards remains a thing of beauty.

valdemar squelch said...

Good point, Tim. I've always thought of Vance as 'in' sf but not exactly 'of' it. A story like The Dragon Masters (one of the first of his I read) has all the gizmos - aliens, spaceships - but the tone is very different. Detached irony is something Vance does well.
His command of the language is something to behold. I recently encountered a linguistics student who was reading The Languages of Pao. Someone young enough to be my daughter, into Jack Vance! Yay!
I have checked Amazon and other sources for Vance books. Oddly enough, though I was never a collector, I seem to have acquired most of his novels and much of his short fiction. However, I'll keep looking.

Tim Stretton said...

The Languages of Pao remains one of Vance's most interesting works (without, I think, being one of his best novels). Ironically, given my original comment, it's also one where the science probably has mildewed a bit. From my limited layman's knowledge, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of which LoP is a dramatisation, has fallen from favour in linguistics circles. But maybe that's just fashion...