A Coot

‘Cooting’ is a slang word describing a transgressive sexual act. I had never come across it before, either the word or the act, but I discovered the meaning (as no doubt you will too, after you read this) in the online Urban Dictionary. I don’t want to repeat the definition here. It is beyond question thoroughly disgusting.

You might well wonder why I was even looking it up. I came across the word in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun.

The book includes a description of a large and noisy machine that does road work. It is coloured a dirty pale yellow and through its three funnels it emits an acrid black smoke cloud, so dense and polluting that it obscures the light from the sun. The narrator (of whom more in a moment, but for now it’s enough to say the narrator is a solar-powered AI hominoid) sees this as a symbolically destructive machine and becomes determined to destroy it. The word Cootings is painted on its side.

Later in the book, the hominoid learns of a way to damage what is now called the Cootings Machine: if a certain fluid, referred to in Ishiguro’s mumbo-jumbo as a P-E-G Nine solution, is introduced into the workings the machinery would be made useless. As it happens, P-E-G Nine solution is present inside the hominoid, in ‘a small cavity … at the back of the head, where it meets the neck’. With the help of a human friend, the AI hominoid suffers a minor incision with a handy screwdriver, and the P-E-G Nine solution is introduced into the workings. The Cootings Machine is duly disabled.

This combination of a criminal act with body horror, noxious pollution and body fluids made me wonder what on earth the author was getting at. It seemed dark and mysterious symbolism might be going on.

And why is it called Cootings? Cootings is apparently the name of the machine’s manufacturer. As the book is set in a slightly futuristic version of our own world, wouldn’t heavy industrial machinery of this sort be more realistically likely to have JCB or Kobelco or Massey-Ferguson painted on its side? Why make up a new name? Kazuo Ishiguro is self-consciously a serious writer at the top of the literary ladder: he is the author many novels, the winner of multiple book prizes, and is now a Nobel Laureate. The choice of this name was an informed, deliberate one, and this is why I went in search of the meaning of the word. When I learnt the definition given by the Urban Dictionary, I thought for a fleeting moment that I had stumbled on and opened up a whole new and stunningly original depth of dark symbolism. While the fleeting moment persisted I was shocked and daunted by the writer’s audacity.

Well, not really. The Cootings Machine turns out to be a minor sub-plot, the threat it presents is exaggerated by the narrator’s unworldly inexperience, and the attack on it with P-E-G Nine solution is carried out off-stage. And because it turns out there is more than one Cootings Machine in existence, to damage one of them is ultimately pointless. It is barely referred to again.

This is a risk of seeming to labour a point, but in fact it is one small but clear example of the many superficial and inconsequential images that litter this novel. Ishiguro clearly had no more idea than me (or anyone else reading this) what ‘cooting’ meant. Presumably he thought he was making it up. Presumably he didn’t think to spend ten seconds Googling the word (as I did earlier today) just in case it was slang for a disgusting and transgressive sexual act, just in case he wanted to think again and perhaps call it JCB Machine instead.

The book is narrated by Klara, an ‘Artificial Friend’ designed to help girl teenagers through their difficult years. Klara is referred to as a robot at one point, presumably because she has been fashioned in a human-like, i.e. hominoid, shape, with legs, a torso, a face and hair. She wears clothes, and goes to her own room at night. She is female in some undescribed fashion, so presumably male hominoids are made male in some other fashion. (If so, with what dark and mysterious reason?)

One groans at the familiarity, as one did in McEwan’s not dissimilar novel in 2019, Machines Like Me, but also at the impracticality and the sheer old-fashionedness of the idea. Walking and talking humanoids, from Robbie the Robot to Marvin the Paranoid Android, have used up the notion: they now amply fulfil the condition of intellectual decadence, as set out by Joanna Russ in her magisterial essay in 1971, ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’. Modern AI is genuinely a much more subtle thing, from the supermarket till that offers you money off next time you buy the chocolate biscuits you enjoy so much, to the intrusive data harvesting of social media engines, and to the hostile regimes who try to influence the results of elections. A walking, wondering, blank-eyed doll who calls a smartphone an ‘oblong’ and who thinks houses are painted in different colours so the residents will not enter the wrong one by mistake, is nowhere close to that league.

But Klara is our narrator for the full length of the 80,000-odd words, so we are forced to see the world through her restricted and estranged perception. Some critics call this the use of an unreliable narrator, but that is a much more sensitive and sophisticated literary device. Klara simply doesn’t get it, and the matters she doesn’t get are left to us to try to understand, as it were, on her behalf. It is a dull and sometimes maddening process having to go through page after page, and almost always without reward, mentally interpreting for a clod. It distances the reader not only from the action and the world in which it takes place, but more importantly from the characters. They are third-person ciphers, respectively referred to as ‘Manager’ (of the obsolete type of department store where Klara sits in a sales window), or ‘the Mother’ (of Josie, the teenage girl who is being artificially befriended), or ‘Mr Paul’ (father of same). In dialogue, Klara habitually addresses them by these second-person labels.

All this is bad enough, but Ishiguro adapts his style to the purpose. His English is bland, careful, circumlocutory, slightly grandiloquent, always shrinking from commitment to his characters or his subject. One is often reminded of Stevens, the clod of a butler in The Remains of the Day, 1989, who behaved like a stooge servant in a TV costume drama, following the pedantic script and missing all the hints of a real world around him. Much of the dialogue in Klara and the Sun is repeated, the characters treating each other as people who haven’t listened or understood, or who defer to each other.

As for the lack of commitment, Ishiguro is depicting a future world in which the geneticists and eugenicists have perfected the art of super-selection, in which the bright kids are ‘lifted’, given good health and schooling and higher education, plus an easy passage into the chattering classes, while the dullards are fascistically consigned to pauperdom or death. Does Ishiguro give any hint of the moral horror of such a world? No – he shrinks from that, just as he and Stevens shrank from the appeasement of the Nazi sympathizers in the big country house of Remains of the Day.

A novelist should approach a fantastic or speculative element with a full-on open mind, aware of the consequences of technological inventions, of the implicit warnings contained in social extrapolation, of the good or bad example a postulated future might set, of the impact on the people who are involved. It is not enough to watch a few sci-fi films on Netflix, or pick up futuristic-seeming slang from comics. The fantastic is a powerful and important literary strand, largely ignored or patronized or misunderstood by the literary world at large, but the best examples of fantastic literature treat their material with seriousness, responsibility and imagination. A secondrate imagining of these things leads to secondrate literature. Klara doesn’t get it, but neither does Kazuo Ishiguro.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Published by Faber & Faber, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0-571-36487-9

The Magic — now in ebook

Nearly a decade and a half ago I wrote and published a book about the making of the film The Prestige. It’s called The Magic – the Story of a Film. Over the years many readers have purchased copies, which is still available in its first edition hardcover, as well as paperback. Courtesy of David Langford at Ansible Editions I now have an ebook version of The Magic available, and details of it may be read here.

The film was of course based on my own novel. It was directed by Christopher Nolan – at that time he was not the major Hollywood director he is now perceived to be. I took a special interest in the process of transition from book to film for reasons which should be obvious. I had little to do with the actual mechanics of the production, but being a witness to a lot of bemusing activity happening over there in far California was intriguing enough. The process of adaptation appealed to me as a craft matter: I knew better than anyone what a complex and cerebral book it was, and when I heard that a film was in preparation I started wondering how on Earth anyone could make anything coherent from it. When I was able to see the finished product the answer was a welcome and rather satisfying surprise.

Years later the film of The Prestige looks better and better. It is routinely under-rated by Nolan’s fans, who prefer the three films he made about The Batman, and the special effects extravaganzas that followed those. Not being that sort of fan I disagree. The Magic is therefore a book writer’s analysis, and celebration, of what is probably Nolan’s most interesting film to date.

What to Expect

It probably seems like a school essay: “What I did in lockdown”, but I have to say that living on a Scottish island and having a lot of writing to do is the best possible way of getting through this uninteresting, worrying and as yet unfinished period. Here, in reverse order, is the product of my last seven months in enforced seclusion:

I have written an introduction to a new book with what might seem an unpromising title: My Father’s Things. When you discover that the “My” is the photographer Wendy Aldiss, the “Father” is the author Brian Aldiss and the “Things” are all the possessions he had after a lifetime of writing, travel, family and collecting, then maybe it’ll seem a lot more interesting. I found it fascinating, both for the nosey satisfaction of seeing behind the scenes of a long, productive and successful life, and for the quality of the beautiful images. Wendy took more than 9,000 photos as she went sadly through his house, and the book is a selection of the best.

Brian Aldiss’s ties

Wendy is seeking crowdfunding for the project, and is already well on the way to achieving her target. Do check out the Kickstarter page, and become a supporter.

During the short recess in the lockdown, at the end of summer, we briefly breathed the heady air of freedom and went to see the new Christopher Nolan film, Tenet. This coincided with reading for review a new book by Tom Shone, The Nolan Variations. The book consists of transcriptions of many long interviews with the great man, film by film. I take a special interest in Nolan’s films, and the review is published today.

My book, The Magic, which is about the making of Nolan’s film version of The Prestige, is still available in hardcover and paperback. Details here.

Most of the last seven months, though, has been fully occupied by a new novel, which I completed and sent to the agent this week. The title is Expect Me Tomorrow, probably the most complex book I have written to date. I’m reluctant to say anything about it at the moment. I’m still too close to it for that, but it’s a weird feeling, sending something out into the world that has been a private obsession for all these months.

New Book (old normal)

First copies of The Evidence arrived this morning, looking good. I was very pleased to see this in print at last, after what turned out to be a fairly normal process, attended distractingly and worryingly by the social upheaval and feelings of uncertainty  known to everyone. Books endure, books are a constant.

According to Amazon, the book will not be published until October 15, but our local independent bookshop has already ordered, and says Gardners are supplying from stock. They will have copies tomorrow. Independent bookshops remain the best place to buy new books.

ISBN: 978 1 473 23137 5. Gollancz 2020, 312 pp, £20.00

Choose Which Side You’re On?

This is the Brexit Biscuit, a shortbread snack of two halves. It may be eaten whole, or one half at a time, or simply broken apart in a symbolic way: one side kept forever, the other discarded. It comes in a pack of twelve, wrapped in a free but tear-up-able copy of Article 50, and packed in a beautiful old-fashioned tin box, good for keeping things in. Obtainable here.

Plague Ships!

An interesting and potentially deadly subtext to the coronavirus crisis is the fate of several luxury cruise liners. Refused entry by many ports, a few of these monster vessels with their passengers and crews isolated inside their cabins and breathing recycled air, and suffering all the horrors of COVID19, had to roam the seas while searching for a safe landing. While the coronavirus epidemic was confined to the Far East a few of these ships were named and located. They were allowed to berth for quarantine, but many more are still at sea and in all parts of the world. They are now operating with increasing secrecy and many cannot be identified or tracked by software.

A very big shipThere are approximately sixty luxury cruise liners in current operation with a deadweight greater than 120,000 tonnes. Another forty-two such ships are currently on order, or under construction.

In environmental terms, each of these ships is an abomination: they produce exhaust fumes as prolifically as 700 large trucks. They leave a vast trail of human waste in their wake. Like all ships, they secretly clean out and dump the waste from their fuel tanks at sea. They severely damage both the infrastructure of the ports they call at, and the social dynamics of the towns they visit – Venice is the most famous example of this, but it is true of many other places, including the Scottish islands.

Today, our local paper Isle of Bute News reports that this part of Scotland, with its multiple sea lochs and inlets, has recently been attracting many such luxury yachts and cruise liners. Several of these ships have been refused entry to French and Italian ports. They have all switched off their identifying transmitters, and so become invisible to tracking software. A few berthed briefly in Greenock, then moved on. They cannot land crew or passengers without health clearance, so many of them are anchored at sea, or more often in convenient inlets between the hills.

Practical information about these Flying Dutchmen, modern plague ships secretly wandering the seas, can be found here.

A case of writers’ lock

We do not use social media, so in modern terms we are fairly ‘silent’. A few kindly people have sent us emails enquiring how we are getting along in these unusual times and circumstances.

The reality of self isolation

The answer is that Nina and I are both working on new novels, sitting alone in our respective studies, a state of affairs completely normal for us but which conveniently looks like self-isolation and in general accord with the government’s recommendations about social distancing. It’s a fast-changing situation, as everyone knows. There is as yet no trace of the coronavirus on the island, nor indeed anywhere in the rest of Argyll & Bute, a huge if not massively populated county. Because of the way these things work I assume the arrival of the dreaded thing is only a matter of when, not if.

We have decided, with immense regret, not to attend the Eastercon this year.

Looking at the rest of this blog I notice that the last time I wrote an entry here was in November last year. How time flies. That appreciative review of Amy Binns’ biography of John Wyndham produced only one response, and that was a howl of protest from someone else who had been working on the same subject but had failed either to finish it or find a publisher for it. I was held somehow responsible for their failure, and a stream of vindictive emails followed. I had never before invoked the power to redirect unwanted emails from an annoying correspondent into the spam folder, but once I did a blessed silence fell. It took until mid-February for the phrase ‘self-isolation’ to emerge, when I realized what I had done had a name.

All is therefore well here (for now), and although we are absorbed in what we are doing we are anxious to keep hearing from our friends about their own experiences in this alarming time.

The Life Awakes

At last we have in Amy Binns’s new biography of John Wyndham a well-written and objectively researched book, half a century after his death in 1969. Wyndham was the first successful modern science fiction writer to emerge in Britain since H G Wells. His work, mostly written in the late 1940s or early 1950s, has acquired period charm, and some of the dialogue is middle class in tone and dated in style, but there is a hardness of vision, a satirical edge, a sense of the author’s regrets and sometimes amusement about the follies of the world at large.

His books and short stories are remarkable for their constant depiction of strong, decisive or capable women. His speculative ideas, although sometimes reworked from his own early stories or from the generality of the genre, were presented plausibly and with a nice sense of menace. For example, his second novel, The Kraken Wakes, created a genuine and growing feeling of mystery and unease while an invasion force went about a deliberate and unexplained process of destroying our planet.

Amy Binns’s excellent book, Hidden Wyndham, depicts the author as a shy, withdrawn and deeply private man. There are no shocking details to be excavated from the past, there is no scandal, no secret life, although a tinge of sadness hung around him. At first he had to deal with the effects of being born into a dysfunctional middle-class family, his mother a distant if loving presence, his father a ne’er-do-well lawyer who sponged constantly off his wife’s wealthy parents. As a young man Wyndham began a tentative writing career in the American pulp magazines, which was interrupted when the second world war began. After war service he returned to his writing and became unexpectedly a major publishing phenomenon.

When his first books were successful he became known to other science fiction writers in London, including Arthur C Clarke (then much less celebrated), William F Temple and John Christopher. Wyndham regularly attended their monthly meetings at the White Hart and Globe pubs, but they seem to have learned little or nothing about his life. Later he collaborated with them to launch the magazine New Worlds SF as a commercial venture, but he retained his privacy. He lived somewhere in London, but they had no idea where. When he signed the official papers as Chairman of the new company, his address was revealed to be at a members’ club they had never heard of. ‘Wyndham’ was a kind of pseudonym – his real name turned out to be John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris.

When in 1963 he announced that he had married a friend called Grace Wilson, with whom he had been close for more than two decades, the other writers were astonished: he had always seemed isolated, self-sufficient, closed off, a classic bachelor of choice. In fact, as we discover from the archive of his hundreds of letters written to Grace (many of them sent while he was serving in the Army after D-Day), theirs was a loving, intimate and trusting relationship. For most of that time they chose to present as just friends: they rented adjacent rooms in London’s Penn Club, a strictly run private club established by Quakers which would not condone extra-marital relationships. Because marriage, or even more the admission of an affair, would in those days have had a drastic impact on Grace’s professional career (she was a senior teacher at a girls’ school, and for years the main breadwinner of the two of them), they decided to stay unwed. John Wyndham himself was content not to formalize their relationship until late in life. Once married, he and Grace stayed happily together until Wyndham died. He was at ease for the rest of his life, and the books brought him substantial financial security.

The quality of his work takes the general form of a bell curve. His early contributions to American science fiction magazines were typical of the period and have become badly dated – many of them were reprinted in modern editions after his success, and are mainly of curiosity interest now. The war arrived and Wyndham had to stop writing. He became one of the generation of British writers whose careers were put on hold for several years: others include Elizabeth Bowen, William Sansom, Rex Warner, H E Bates, Graham Greene. The involuntary pause had a different impact on the work of each individual, but in Wyndham’s case it seems to have been the making of him. The Day of the Triffids (1951), the first book published as by John Wyndham, is skilfully told in a mature and readable style. His other three great novels followed: The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

But these four represent the peak, the upper limit of the bell curve. Four more novels followed, none of them at the same standard as his best. Trouble with Lichen (1960) was a social satire, a distinct lowering of temperature from the others. The Outward Urge (1959, published in collaboration with ‘Lucas Parkes’ as nonexistent science adviser) was another disappointment. The last novel to be published in his lifetime was Chocky (1968), which was an adult novel with a child as a main character. After his death, a novel he had been struggling with for several years was finally published. Web (1979) was a long way below par, something of which John Wyndham himself was almost certainly aware.

Forty years after Wyndham’s death, an unpublished novel called Plan for Chaos was found in his papers at University of Liverpool. After a university press hardcover appeared in 2009, Penguin later published it in paperback. (I was commissioned to write an Introduction to their edition.) For imagined commercial reasons Plan for Chaos had been aimed at the American market, but the attempts at American dialogue and slang were crude and unsuccessful through most of the opening chapters. The second half of the novel is much better, and the story of the Nazi scientists who escaped to South America, and aimed to take over the world in their flying saucers, at least has the familiar Wyndham ironic humour.

Interestingly, Plan for Chaos was written after The Day of the Triffids, but it is significantly less accomplished. In correspondence with Frederik Pohl, his American literary agent, Wyndham said he thought the Englishness of Triffids would make it difficult to sell in the States. He put the better novel aside while he wrote the much weaker book intended to replace it.

There is some evidence (noted by Dr Binns in her book) that Ira Levin and John Wyndham had corresponded, and that Levin was likely to have read Plan for Chaos in manuscript. His own novel, The Boys from Brazil (1976), has a remarkably similar plot in outline. One of his other novels, This Perfect Day (1970), contains a coded acknowledgement to Wyndham.

The mysteries of John Wyndham’s private life turn out to be trivial, and no one’s business but his own. To read his love letters to Grace feels intrusive, but they give a context to the body of his best work. He seemed diffident and aloof to some who met him, but Amy Binns reveals him as a decent and faithful man, a lover of the countryside and a gifted storyteller. His books have been continuously in print for nearly seventy years, an extraordinary achievement.

Hidden Wyndham — Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns, Grace Judson Press, pp 288, £10.95. ISBN: 978-0-9927567-1-0