Books wot I red – short story special: Christopher Fowler, Philip K Dick & Ted Chiang

Welcome to volume something-or-other in a fairly irregular series of ‘what I’ve been reading’ posts. It’s another year past and, as with the last post, I’ve only managed to read three books. But on the plus side, this time I have a THEME (exciting)!

I had a few collections of short stories knocking around that all looked brilliant, so I decided to read them all in a row in order to then create that rarest of things for me – a coherent books post. It meant only knocking off one of my top five ‘next on the list’ books (see below), but there you go. Anyway, here it is…

It started off, as my irregular soirées into reading so often do, with a Bryant & May book: this time London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. After 13 fantastic novels, Fowler had seen fit to share this collection of shorter stories about my favourite pensionable London crime-fighting duo, and who was I to argue? I’ll take by B&M fix any way I can.

These 11 stories can be seen as a great introduction to the series for anyone not too sure if they could eat a whole one; or a fun little sidetrack for fans, as each story is preface by a little introduction from the author on how and why the little episodes came about. And while I really enjoyed the book a a whole, something niggled at me throughout.

For those who don’t know the series, the majority of the Bryant & May books centre around two elderly policemen and the small, unorthodox unit they run in central London: the Peculiar Crimes Unit. They’ve been working there since the Second World War, being given strange crimes that need to be solved before they get out to the public due to their unusual nature. The stories tend to nit towards the supernatural but don’t really go there, instead being fascinating insights into both the strange history of London and the human condition. But at least half the enjoyment comes from the characters themselves, and in particular our two slightly decrepit heroes.

So why did I struggle a little with London’s Glory? Usually the two officers play beautifully off each other’s strengths, with Bryant’s unusual methodologies being perfectly offset by May’s more straight-laced police work and his ability to read Bryant – while always also trying to keep him at least a little on track. But here, with so little time to tell each tale, it was more the Bryant show – with May little more than a bumbling Watson-esque character asking the dumbfounded, “How did he do that?” questions.

Also, while the one story featuring Janice Longbright as its main character was a great read, it highlighted what an opportunity missed this was to do more with some of the lesser known but equally well loved side characters. Hopefully these things will be addressed in future collections. I’m particularly hoping for a story featuring Bryant’s landlady Alma, but I won’t hold my breath…

Next came Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. It came to my attention after being blown away by the film Arrival, which was based on the short story (Story of Your Life) from which this collection takes its name. That film had such a fundamental affect on me, I had to read more.

Overall I found the collection frustrating. Chiang is a good writer who has some brilliant ideas for stories, but doesn’t seem to be able to turn them into satisfying endings. Either that, or they’re just academic meanderings that went well over my head.

Opener ‘Tower of Babylon’, for example, painted a fascinating story only to totally botch the landing. ‘Story of Your Life’ was much better realised as the brilliant film Arrival, where the additional plot helped create a more interesting overall narrative. The rest failed on various levels, always hinting at greatness but letting me down somewhere.

But I’m glad I stuck with the collection, as ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ was the most fascinating story of the lot. Essentially it asks, how would we deal with ideas of faith and immortality if we actually new God and the afterlife existed? Again I found the ending unsatisfying, but the story made me think enough that I enjoyed it.

But overall – for me – this was largely a collection of potentially interesting ‘what if?’ stories from a good writer, with good ideas, but a lack of ability in the storytelling department. I gave up during the final story because it was simply boring, and I wouldn’t return to his work unless it was very highly recommended. So overall, I’m glad I gave him a try but I was ultimately left disappointed.

Last up was We Can Remember it for you Wholesale by Philip K Dick. I’d recently watched ‘Electric Dreams’, the series of television adaptations of Dick’s short stories; and while it was fairly hit and miss, it did a great job of highlighting what great vision he’d had. As I had this collection on my shelf, it jumped to the top of the pile.

What I soon realised was, I should’ve bought a ‘best of’. This collection in one of a series that collate all his short stories, so is by no means the cream of the crop. But it does include the title story (which was the inspiration for the Total Recall films). And there were enough other interesting stories to make me glad I stuck with it.

My problems with the book largely stemmed from a similar recent reaction I had to TV series Madmen. I know, generally, people had a very different attitude to racism, sexism etc in the 50s and 60s. But while it’s historic fact, I really don’t like to watch/read it in action. Especially coming from the mind of such a visionary. A story where a woman is being sexually tricked into a bunker, for example; or racial references to ‘a black’; just rub me up the wrong way. Sure, it’s me – but I struggle to get past it.

On the plus side, there are many glimpses here of Dick’s powerful imagination in full flow. The War With the Fnools (about an alien race which can mimic our appearance – but who are only a few feet high); Return Match (about an evolving alien pinball machine); The Electric Ant (a robot that thought it was a man finding out the truth). They do what good sci-fi does – make you think. And this despite feeling a little folksy due to the weird things the author seemed to think would still be popular (snuff, for example).

But there’s one thing all three of these books brought to the forefront of my mind, especially We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. The short story is essentially the first act of Total Recall – Hollywood kept the interesting, insightful essence and made a sprawling classic with it. Just as they did with Blade Runner. So as we suffer yet another Spiderman reboot, I have to ask: why aren’t more screenwriters exploring the well of these brilliant visions? Do they not read anymore? Hopefully the success of Arrival will send some of them off to the library, rather than back through the list if top grossing re-imaginable movie blockbusters.

What’s next on the list?

I only knocked off number one this time around, due to the ‘theme’, so little has changed. Fowler is still writing faster than I read (I read for a living – which means doing it after work is less fun/desirable than it should be!) but I’ve not put the latest Bryant & May onto the list, as I didn’t want to knock anything off. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be bucking the list and reading it anyway. Its just sitting there, staring…

  1.  The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Third time on the list and now up to top spot. Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  2. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Also third time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Guess what? Yup – third time on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation, and my game design mojo has been somewhat invigorated of late, so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. Second time on the list. Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.
  5. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. New entry! I heard loads of good things about this, and found it in a charity shop cheap as chips, so finger’s crossed it will live up to the hype.

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