Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reading group: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Trevor suggested this book, the novel on which the acclaimed film Blade Runner was based, speculatively set twenty-four years after the book's 1968 publication in a 1992 when the ecosystem has been destroyed by an apocalyptic war and humans have consequently begun to colonise other planets, served in the project by android slaves. Development of the androids has become so sophisticated, and the latest models so intelligent, that they can be detected only by the use of the 'Voight-Kampff' psychological test for empathy. The plot concerns Rick Deckard, a 'bounty hunter' working for the police, whose job it is to hunt down androids escaped to earth, and who is briefed to track down a particularly dangerous and intelligent group of six - six of the latest, most sophisticated 'Nexus-6' types - one of whom has already badly injured Deckard's boss, chief bounty hunter Dave Holden. In the process Rick falls in love with a Nexus-6 android, Rachael Rosen.

Our discussion about it is difficult to report, as it generated an excitement that seemed to cause the room constantly to break up into multiple simultaneous discussions, and I'm not sure that we each always understood what others were saying.

Trevor began quite clearly by saying he was nervous about our reaction to the book, since we had been so down on Kurt Vonnegut's Piano Player which had badly misfired in terms of predicting the technological future, and there are certain similarities here: for instance, while personal vehicles are airborne and people speak on vidphones (one thing Dick did get right), the notes on Deckard's quarry that he carries around with him are 'smudged' carbons. People immediately jumped in and said that in this novel it didn't matter: its chief concern was not in speculating on the concrete particulars of the technological future, but in, as Jenny said, the question of what it is to be human, most particularly what it is to be human in a situation of developing technology, and indeed what is reality. As Doug put in, it's not really about the technological future, but like all interesting science fiction it's about humanity now.

Everything in the novel is called into question or overturned: android Rachael Rosen almost passes the Voight-Kampff empathy test; she is human enough in the accepted terms for Deckard to fall in love with her. Conversely, right from the start the autonomous humanity of Deckard is questioned by his dependence on technology: he and his wife Iran begin their day programming their moods on 'mood machines'. His empathy - the quality at the heart of the state religion, Mercerism - is also under question: he is of course a killer, and in a domestic squabble his wife calls him a 'murderer', referring to 'those poor andys [androids]' And, as John said, what are the androids after all but slaves rising up against their oppressors? The book ends with some stunning revelations about the society the precepts of which people, including Deckard, have been living their lives by. The Voight-Kampff test questions are interesting: they are designed to test empathy with animals (many animals being now extinct, and animals thus valued, and pets prized as status symbols); passing the test requires the subject to feel horror at the portrayal of mistreatment of animals. Yet many of the examples of 'ill treatment' are things that in fact pass without comment in our own society - a calfskin purse, the eating of oysters, a mounted stag's head - which seems like a metafictional prod of the reader by Dick.

Trevor, beaming, was greatly relieved by our reaction and said that this was probably the best novel he had ever read, it was 'brilliant, brilliant.' Now Mark spoke up. He said that, after having really admired the film he had expected a lot of the book, but was sorely disappointed as it was so badly written. Others of us agreed that this was a fault of the book, the writing. However, Clare said that she had been so engrossed by the story and the ideas that she hadn't even noticed that it wasn't well written. For this reason, she said, she felt that it didn't matter, and she was backed up by Jenny who said she didn't think books had to be well written to be enjoyable or engrossing. Someone - Mark or Doug - said, But there was no tension: an android got killed and it was just flat, you just went on to the next thing. Jenny and Clare said they didn't think that mattered because the ideas, and the way you didn't know what was what, pushed you on. Clare did agree, however, that it was hard to care much about any of the characters, that you didn't get involved with them, and at that point she said she understood what we meant by tension - dramatic tension - and agreed after all that it was lacking. Ann said (I think; things were getting a bit excitable!) that it was a pity, because good ideas are best expressed through good prose, and I added that it wouldn't have mattered so much if the ideas were just mumbo jumbo as in Dan Brown, at which Jenny, who enjoys Dan Brown, asked me if I'd read it, and I had to say no, and she said I couldn't judge it then, and my plea that I'd tried but couldn't read it because the prose and sensibility were so bad was drowned out by the next interruption. As I say, things got excitable!

Trevor, however, could not agree that this novel was in any way badly written. Mark and I objected that it was full of prose errors: malapropisms and ineptnesses such as 'a potpourri' of arias, a 'fragrance of happiness', a facial expression described as 'turgid'. Trevor, said, But he makes up words! and John, agreeing, remembered the example, 'disemelevatored'. We conceded this (although I'd say 'disemelevatored is not as witty as it seems word-construction wise, since one doesn't 'emelevator' as one 'embarks'). However, there are ugly constructions - 'stiltedly', an 'indistinct, glimpsed darkly impression' - a tendency to use archaic pomposities such as 'thereupon', and downright grammatical errors (the pompous and erroneous misuse of pronouns: 'we' for and 'us'), and frequent use of the kind of lazy, tautologous phrase that any GCSE student would be marked down for writing: 'he said to himself,' and even, 'he inquired of himself'. There are also gaps and inconsistencies in the story (ironed out in the film): At one point another android introduces herself as Rachael Rosen, which is never explained, and one gets the impression of an author not entirely in charge of his story and failing to edit.

We were also in disagreement about the tone of the book. As an example of a howler which had me laughing out loud, I quoted the following which occurs at a point when Deckard is seriously angry with his wife: 'Damn her, he said to himself. What good does it do? She doesn't care whether we own an ostrich or not.' Others said that they had laughed too, but they had thought it intentionally funny. However, John said that he hadn't been able to decide whether it was intentional or not, and had specifically wondered as he read it, and since the overall tone of the book isn't comic (on the contrary) one wonders whether there is a lack of control over tone as well.

John now said that he thought all of the apparent carelessness was in a way deliberate, as Dick was strongly anti-academic, but Mark and I were were not convinced that, in order to stick one to the academic establishment, Dick would have purposefully made the kind of errors that, for us at any rate, reduce our sense of his authority over his story.

In the end we had to agree to differ over this matter, but all of us thought Dick's ideas were prescient and remain important.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reading group: Moon Tiger by Penelope LIvely

Warning: plot spoil.

This Booker-winning novel, Ann's suggestion, concerns historian and ex-war reporter Claudia Hampton who, slowly dying in her seventies in a hospital bed, decides to write in her head a history of the world pinned around the story of her own life, a life in which the central, defining event was the loss of a lover, Tom, whom she met while in Egypt covering the Rommel campaign of 1942, a soldier killed in action.

Ann said that the first time she read the book, when it was first published, the thing that impressed itself on her was that central story, but this time around she was more taken by other aspects of the novel: the highly original mode of telling and the thematic preoccupations it conveys.

The novel is told in a variety of voices and perspectives: first person address by Claudia to the reader and third person reminiscences both from Claudia's point of view and those of others, providing contrasting versions of the same incidents, all framed by an omniscient present-day narration that watches Claudia on her hospital bed. As Claudia says unequivocally, 'The voice of history is of course composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard.' And also: 'The lives of others slot into my own life'. There's a linked preoccupation with identity: 'I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.' Everyone enthusiastically agreed that they had found all of this exciting and satisfying and psychologically true. We also agreed with Ann that a real feat of the book was to make Claudia, a potentially unengaging character (pushy, opinionated, aware of her own physical beauty and happy to use it cynically, horrible to her somewhat simple sister-in-law and unable to love her own child), entirely riveting and sympathetic, by virtue of her wit, wisdom and insight, and the energy of her voice. (Jenny said that Claudia was the sort of person she would want to like her.) I did point out later that even the abrasive nature of Claudia's personality is under question: it is after all the version of herself she is presenting (even when she presents other people's perspectives), and late in the book, when she characterises herself in a bad light to one of her hospital visitors, he protests that she is not at all like that, but 'brilliant.' Jenny said she found moving the portrait of emotional damage that the book gave: the effect of Claudia's loss on her ability to form later relationships, with the father of her child and the child herself.

While characterised by Claudia's voice - tough, ironic, sometimes sarcastic - the book is also vividly imagistic. The Moon Tiger of the title - 'Moon Tiger' is the brand-name of the mosquito coil that burns beside the bed as she lies with her lover Tom - is a potent symbol of the vivid and concrete-seeming present crumbling into the uncertainty of history, its 'red eye', 'dropping away into lengths of grey ash', finally becoming, the next morning, a 'green spiral mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer.'

Mark in particular thought the book was stunning. He said it was like a William Boyd (one of his favourite writers) but much, much better in terms of the writing, the thematic preoccupations and the insights. The book describes in detail the conditions in the desert (burnt-out tanks and bodies) that the intrepid Claudia insists on experiencing, and Mark said it was clear that Lively had done a fantastic amount of military research, and research into all the historical periods on which Claudia makes frequent wry comment, yet unlike McEwan, Lively never gives you a lecture, everything she includes is absolutely necessary to the story and the theme. Everyone agreed with this, and Jenny said that she has a habit of skipping when she reads books, but this is one book where she wanted to read every single sentence. Indeed, she savoured it and read it slowly. Mark thought the revelation of the incestuous relationship between Claudia and her brother was particularly well handled: the revelation is gradual so that it seems inevitable.

Now there came a voice of dissent. John spoke up and said that he felt like this about the beginning of the book, but became disappointed in it. Partly this was because he couldn't identify with upper-class characters - which stunned the rest of us: we felt that the book overcame any such prejudices - and partly because, due to the effect of the war on his own father, he always finds it difficult to read books set in the second world war. He said though that he found that in the war sections the novel became more conventionally narrative, and he found them boring, particularly the long italicised section towards the end, which is the lover Tom's diary of his experiences after his last meeting with Claudia and up to his death. This made people think and they began to remember they too had had something of the same feeling about the diary. I said that it didn't tell you much more about Tom's war experience than he had told Claudia in person more briefly. Jenny said that the one significant thing it did show was that Tom had gone on thinking about Claudia, indeed that she had been central to his thoughts, which is true. However everyone now agreed that it was too long. Then it occurred to someone, I think Jenny, that the time Claudia spends travelling with the the army in the desert - before they break down and she consequently meets Tom - takes up more of the book than her time with Tom. I suggested that perhaps this is one way in which the book is actually skewed by the weight of research, and, after thought, people agreed that that was probably true.

This didn't prevent a final judgement that the book was wonderful (unanimous apart from John). This is a tough book, tough in tone and subject matter and unflinching in the face of tough truths. Unbelievably it has been dismissed by critics as a 'women's book' (and apparently its Booker win attracted a lot of criticism for that reason), and we were roundly agreed that this was a case of the outrageous tendency to judge the author rather than the book.

Doug, who missed the meeting, wrote later to say that he had loved the book too, and echoed many of our positive comments. He said that he 'loved the way Lively explored the idea that we carry the history of the world / a museum around with us in our heads'. He did find some of the characters beside Claudia rather two-dimensional, but he thought the book beautifully written.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here