The Time Machine – HG Wells

What a fantastic book this is, managing to unfold a gripping and hugely imaginative plot whilst introducing some great ideas about the dangers of technological advance.

The story is pretty straightforward. An inventor and experimenter creates a time machine and travels forward tens of thousands of years. When he arrives he discovers the apparent humans – the Eloi – inhabiting the planet are small and foolish. After some time there his time machine disappears, and at that point he discovers underground-dwelling creatures, Morlocks, that seem to have stolen his machine and pose a danger to the Aloi. He befriends a female Eloi – Weena – and then embarks of the discovery of his machine, a struggle against the Morlocks and a return to Victorian Britain.

The plot is good but even better are two ideas that the narrator – the story is told in first person by the narrator – raises.

One is a pretty Marxist take on a dystopian future – he wonders if the Morlocks are the workers, forced to live and toil underground for the ruling Eloi class.

And he wonders this because of a second more interesting theory he proposes: that the Eloi are future humans; they are lacking in intellect and skills because technology has developed so fully that they no longer have any need to do or think anything for themselves and so have degenerated into a race of simpletons. It’s a great idea, and one that is surely more relevant than ever in a world where robotics, automation, AI and technological capabilities are taking away the need for human agency more and more.

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Gas Station Carnivals – Thomas Ligotti

I’m not sure this is one of Ligotti’s best stories, but the concept, the image it conjures up, is one that stays with you as much as anything he’s written.

In fact I’ve read this before and the story has been with me for over a year, urging me to have another look, so I did.

An unnamed narrator is in the Crimson Cabaret bar, and meets Stuart Quisser, an art critic he knows. The narrator reminds Quisser that he’s been rash by offending the crimson lady who owns the bar, a powerful women, and Quisser then begins an odd reminisce about when he was younger. He explains he used to go on long journeys with his parents and stop off at gas stations in the middle of nowhere where, hidden round the back, were broken down carnivals with shows by odd performers like the ‘human spider’ and the ‘showman’.

Quisser leaves the narrator to his drink (mint tea to settle his stomach for some reason), but then it transpires first that Quisser was never at the cabaret, then that it was the narrator not Quisser who offended the crimson lady, and then that actually the crimson lady is powerless in the face of a waitress working there.

It’s classic Ligotti: uncanny occurrences, obscurity around everyone’s intentions, odd interactions between characters, a series of unexplained events, and some strange and eerie images all the way through.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

There’s so much hype about the film version of The Hobbit it’s easy to forget that it’s quite an understated book with a more complex take on morality than you might think.

The novel follows the journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit torn between homeliness and adventure. He is visited by a troop of dwarves, led by former King Thorin, and the wizard Gandalf. They persuade him to join them on a journey to reclaim the dwarves’ stolen treasure, guarded by an enormous and dangerous dragon.

An epic adventure ensues, meeting trolls, goblin armies, giants, elves, men, enormous spiders, golum – when Bilbo finds the invisibility ring – and eventually arriving at the mountain on the other side of Mirkwood, where they wait to enter and steal the treasure.

Their desire for the treasure is so strong that obstinate Thorin nearly begins a war between the elves, men and dwarves. It’s only Bilbo and, more significantly, an approaching goblin army that unites the three armies against a shared enemy.

In my mind, before reading this, I associated The Hobbit with a pretty blunt good versus evil morality tale, but reading it I see there are in fact some psychological subtleties. The three races of dwarf, man and elf are all good, in contrast to the goblins, but to some extent corrupted by money. The dwarves in particular almost cause a war with the elves and men because they won’t give up any of their fortune they consider theirs. It’s a position that is understandable given the historic theft of the gold and the consequent impoverishment of the dwarf kingdom, but nevertheless is short-sighted and foolishly selfish.

My feeling is that it’s quite a male book, because it focuses on war and gallantry and power – and because there are NO women characters, not a single female of significance in the whole book. So perhaps its story of what it takes to ‘do the right thing’ has a particularly masculine bent – I’m not sure – but nevertheless it doesn’t shy away from the competing drives that reside in the main characters, making it a good story with some satisfying depth.

“All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion. Powerful connections and forces were undoubtedly at play, yet they seemed to have no faces and no names.”

Thomas Ligotti, Gas Station Carnivals

“It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Modern Gods – Nick Laird

This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.

The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.

Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.

Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.

Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.

Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.

Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.

In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?

The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.

I’ve seen the future baby; it’s murder – Tara Isabella Burton

A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.

Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.

Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.

Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.

This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.

Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.