VIRTUAL GIRL by Amy Thomson (Book Review)

I have read books, lots of books, about robots – all the Isaac Asimov robot stories for a start, including the final volumes of the great Foundation series – and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its screen adaptation, the virtually perfect film Bladerunner – but I have never come across a story of a robot that so moved me, or a robot – an android – a gynoid – I so wholly identified with.

This book was published in 1993. In the last twenty, thirty, years, the world of Artificial Intelligence has without doubt made advances that would have seemed unimaginable then, but that is not the point. The technological side of this story, like that of many of the best SF books (call them Speculative Fantasy rather than pure Science Fiction) is simply a prop on which the human story is based. And of course even the purists rarely, if ever, get their future science right.

I said “a human story” and it is a very human story, but it is also the story of a humanoid. For the question posed here is: when (not if) we can make computers, Artificial Intelligences, conscious and self-aware, will they be “people” in their own right? Will owning them be tantamount to slavery.

The story is set in the fairly near future, at a time when any form of A.I. has been proscribed, although, of course, at certain universities such as MIT research goes on regardless. But Arnold, the son a of a super-rich industrialist, exaggerates, and is sent down.

But let me be quite clear about this: Virtual Girl is not the story of a machine, it is the story of a girl who at one year old, has suddenly to become a young woman and take control of her own life, albeit life on the street. In many ways the ultimate outsider, for AI has been banned and she has been created illegally by an MIT drop-out, a loner who wants the perfect companion, she proves to be the most human person in the dystopian world of this book.

When the book opens, he is living like a bum. His father refuses to have him in the house unless he gives up his research and his dreams and agrees to take his natural place as his father’s heir and successor. In a rented garage, he builds his masterpiece: a robot called Maggie, programmed to be the perfect companion. And I do not mean sex partner. On the contrary, although she is a woman, perfect in every detail, she has not been programmed for sex. Does not understand it. Our Arnold is a bit of a prude.

The description of her first faltering steps when he downloads her into her body, and the incident of sensory overload the first time he takes her out in the street, have no equal in SF so far as I am aware. And it is the fact that she has to deal with the sensory overload herself, reprogram herself to deal with the problem, that starts her on the road to autonomy. Freedom.

I am not going to tell you what happens, just that it is one of those books that keeps getting better and better and better. By page 150, you are open-mouthed. By page 200, you know you have never read anything like this before.

 

TO TELL THE TRUTH by Anna Smith (Book Review)

After reading Lin Anderson’s Easy Kill, where the easy prey are Glasgow’s multitudinous but totally unprotected prostitutes (unprotected in comparison with those of say Amsterdam or Paris) I slipped easily into Anna Smith’s The Dead Won’t Sleep. This was familiar territory. But this first book in the series is no “who-dun-it”. When the body of a fourteen-year-old prostitute and drug-addict named Tracy is washed up on the river shore, we already know who did it: a trio of corrupt and brutal senior police officers. The drama lies in the fight to the death – literally – between them and investigative journalist Rosie Gilmour, who is determined not to let Tracy’s death be covered up by the establishment.

Or the subsequent death of another prostitute, the only witness.

But it is in the sequel, To Tell the Truth, that Anna Smith really outdoes herself.

This time the setting is the Costa del Sol. I don’t know Glasgow, but I did know the south of Spain very well once upon a time, so here I really was back on familiar territory, except that now the whole place is seemingly owned and run by crime bosses from Russia and Albania. Along with one leering bastard from Glasgow, an old enemy of Rosie’s who had to leave the UK in a hurry after Rosie flashed his face on the front page of her newspaper.

In this book, believe me, no holds are barred.

The older man groaned as he spilled himself into the mouth of the teenage boy, who looked up with smiling eyes as he swallowed. He ruffled the young Moroccan’s thick wavy locks. ‘Taha. You are the sweetest boy,’ he said. Taha stood up, his naked brown body glistening in the sunlight. Then they heard the screaming.

A little girl, the daughter of two ‘Brits’ on holiday, has been kidnapped, just picked up and carried away while playing on the beach.

And the “older man” being given a blow-job by a Moroccan rent-boy on a balcony overlooking the beach at the time of the kidnapping was (why am I not surprised?) the British Home Secretary. His first concern, naturally, is to get well clear of the area before the police arrive and start questioning people. And if the boy, who might have been a witness, should turn out to be an embarrassment then his disappearance can be arranged by the billionaire on whose gigantic yacht the Rt Hon Home Sec is a guest, a Russian oligarch whose manifold business interests include trafficking girls in from eastern Europe for the straight sex trade and small children for the paedophile industry.

What we have playing out here in this story is the old vir and puer. For those of you without Latin, vir is “man” (but a real man) and puer is “boy” (though a slave would never be considered a vir; he would be called puer, “boy”, throughout his life) and you will find these words in English as the roots of ‘virile’ (manly, assertively male) and ‘puerile’ (boyish, childish, pathetic). Having his way with a boy makes an insecure but normally straight man feel manly. (And when I say “boy” I do not mean necessarily below the age of consent, I mean, as in the good old days, one who is totally at the man’s beck and call.) Very often these feelings of insecurity come from the man having to play the boy to real alpha males (be at their beck and call), which is exactly what happens here. In his own little world, the Rt Hon Home Sec is of course the master, but he knows all too well that his little world could come tumbling down at a snap of his master’s fingers. In his case the Russian oligarch whose arse he figuratively licks.

Interestingly, if the dominant figure in a straight man’s life is a woman this is likely to lead to him wanting to prove how manly he is not with a boy but with either underage girls or “working-girls” at the lower, more desperate, end of the sex-worker scale, using them and treating them with total contempt, just as happens in the case of boys in the hands of straight men. An adult form of bullying.

An interesting example of this might be the second sons in royal families. The Queen in the UK does not have total control over Prince Charles or Prince William: they are their own men, their positions assured as the direct heirs to the throne. However, she does have total control over the younger brothers, who have to shut up and behave themselves. They might react, as it seems Prince Andrew may possibly have done, by taking out his frustrations and anger on teenage girls (the Epstein scandal), or they might be saved, as it seems Prince Harry may have been, by another dominant woman who severs the threads by which the aging matriarch formerly held and controlled him.

But to return to the book (with due apologies to all and sundry) let’s just say that here, in this marvellous story. the super alpha+ male who, like God, has no master (even Putin kowtows to these oligarchs apparently) comes up against a thread-severer in Rosie Gilmour who literally does not know when (or how) to stop.

Compulsive reading. Perhaps the most impossible book to put down and go to bed that I have ever come across.

Climbing Boy (Trading Places continued)

I never stopped reading them.

But perhaps Lewis’s words only apply to those who actually grow up. (And a sign of growing up is stopping reading fairy tales.)

Either way, one of my favourite fairy tales has always been The Water Babies, and it is the world of that story which I would visit. (Yes, I’m back on Trading Places, continuing from here and here.)

When I was a child, I had a friend named Denny who lived a few doors down the road from us. She was a year older than me and although she was skinny like I was, she was much taller. But despite the difference in our ages and heights, we became friends when I first moved to Alton Sands and I saw her with her guinea-pigs and asked if I could stroke one.

At first my mother didn’t mind me being friends with Denny. I used to go to Denny’s garden to play, and that got me out of the way for a few hours. She would have minded though if she’d known that Denny’s favourite game was dressing me up as a girl and calling me Millie. After Denny’d been to the beach with me a few times (my mother thought I was in Denny’s garden, Denny’s mother didn’t mind us going) and she’d seen how much I loved swimming and how at home I was in the water, she gave me the name Millie the Mermaid from the title of a book she had which I loved – and also gave me the book.

My mother had a strict rule that I was only to read books about boys and she made me give it back to Denny, but I already knew the story by heart, and drooled over the pictures whenever I was at Denny’s house. And as my sister got older and started reading for herself – though younger, she was much quicker than me – I was able to read her books when no one was looking. All right, sometimes I got caught and was punished, but I didn’t mind, it was worth it, she had such lovely books.

Much of my time then, when I was eight or so, was spent outside because I was always “in the way” when I was indoors. Mum was teaching me how to help with the gardening, and I had to look after my guinea-pigs and my sister’s rabbits –  she had a big male one, Bobbie, which frightened me! – and an angry plucked chicken Denny had rescued and given me to look after. It always pecked at me and attacked me with its claws as if I was the one who’d plucked it! Mum said it looked ready for the oven, I said it looked better like that without all those dirty scruffy feathers, my sister said it must have hurt the poor thing being plucked and told me to be kind to it.

Sitting in the shed with the animals or up at the end of the garden where I couldn’t be seen from the house, I started reading The Water Babies, which Mum let me have because it’s about a boy called Tom. It was a children’s edition with big pages and big beautiful pictures and it soon became my favourite book – better even than Millie the Mermaid.

When I show it to Denny, she is less than impressed. But when I say, ‘I wish I was a chimney-sweep!’ that does make her sit up.

‘What?!’

‘I said I wish I was a chimney-sweep.’

‘I heard you. And they’re not called chimney-sweeps. That’s the men. The masters. The boys who went up the chimneys were called climbing-boys.

In my book, Tom is called a chimney-sweep, but I’ve learnt not to argue with Denny. She isn’t a bully and she never really hurts me like Stephanie from across the road does, but she has bony fingers and sharp nails and a pinch from her leaves a nasty bruise and two little crescent-shaped cuts. I settle for, ‘How do you know?’

‘Because my grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-great-great all the way back were chimney-sweeps and they had lots of climbing boys. Some of them had been climbing-boys themselves when they were kids, that’s how they learnt the trade.’

‘And the others?’

‘Boys who are naturally big don’t make good climbing boys. They used to start boys off when they were five or so. Big boys are already too big at that age. They took boys who were still tiny when they were between four and six – often the boys didn’t know how old they were – and kept them the size of a six or seven-year-old for as long as possible.’

She ran to the back door. ‘Mum! Mum!! … How much did a climbing-boy weigh?’

‘Thirty-five, forty pounds. Fifty pounds, they’re too big, get rid of ’em quick before they get stuck somewhere and you have to tear down a wall to get the body out.’

Denny was still standing at the door, looking back at me and talking to her invisible mum. ‘You remember that?’

‘Lived with climbing-boys when I was a kid, didn’t I. Course it was already against the law here in England by then, before the First War, that was, had been for some time. But the toffs turn a blind eye, don’t they – it’s their chimneys in them big houses they need boys to clean!’

Denny came back to me where I sat nursing one of her beautiful Abyssinian guinea-pigs. ‘You heard that. Any idea how much you weigh? You look about the right size to me.’

‘I know, cos I’m changing school, going to Thorpe Park, and they measured and weighed us.’

‘Well?’

‘I can’t remember.’

She laughed. ‘Oh, you’re so stupid. I don’t know why I bother with you. Listen, I’ll find out some more from my mum as you’re interested, like why people thought it was such a horrible job – she doesn’t agree, she says that was all nonsense. She’s got some pictures, too – old postcards and that – and you find out your height and weight. Are you going to the beach in the morning?’

‘I think so.’

‘Well, come round the back way any time, see if I’m here. Okay?’

* * *

I found Denny next morning and she took me into her house. This was unusual, because her mum didn’t like me, and her dad boxed my ears for me every time he saw me, even when I wasn’t wearing a frock, which made my ears ring and my eyes go all funny and gave me a headache. When I asked Denny why, she just rolled her eyes and said ‘Must think you need it. And ’cause you’re a sissy. No one likes sissies.’

Anyway, now they were both out, thank goodness.

‘My mum says I mustn’t take these pictures out to the garden, so let’s  look at them here.

[These pictures are not of course the actual pictures Denny showed me that day, they are ones I’ve found on the internet, but they are very similar and I think a couple are actually the same. Naturally I only remember the gist of the conversation, so I am improvising – as always with these memories of my early years back in the 1940s.]

‘This first one,’ Denny was saying, ‘is a picture of a chimney-sweep and his climbing-boy taken not long ago. Mum saw it in a magazine and cut it out. Can you tell me what’s strange about it?’

I studied it.

‘The boy looks happy.’

‘Why shouldn’t he look happy?’

‘I don’t know. I just thought – ‘

‘Look again.’

‘The ladder’s really small. What use is that?’

‘It’s the boy’s ladder, and that’s why he’s carrying it. If you’re a climbing-boy, you have your own little ladder. It’s to get up into the flues. You stand it in the fireplace – those big old ones we’re talking about – and climb up into the chimney, the flue. They all have one. Look at this New Years Card.

‘Mum says they put pictures of climbing-boys on greetings cards ’cause they’re lucky. Really! There’s things wrong with this card – he’s a bit too clean and pink and that brush he’s carrying is ridiculous, but he’s got his little ladder, you see? Dad was there and saw this card and he said it was Christmas so the boy wasn’t cleaning chimneys, he was delivering birch-rods for Christmas presents for naughty boys. He’d been collecting them in the wood and that’s how he made a bit of extra money. Then Mum said if they’re birch-twigs for making birch-rods, then probably his master had sent him to collect them and they were for using on the poor boy himself. Only she didn’t say poor, she thought it was a very good idea. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. Did climbing-boys get a lot of beating?’

‘Some boys needed more than others, I imagine. If you were a climbing-boy you’d need a lot, at least till you got used to the job. Now look back at the first picture. What’s strange about it is not that the boy is happy, it’s that he’s not hidden away out of sight. Here in this country climbing-boys are banned, so no sweep can walk around openly and happily with one like in that picture. Mum thinks this picture was taken in Poland or Germany or one of those countries where they don’t have that stupid law. Course it’s a dirty job, and sometimes dangerous, and in the old days many master-sweeps didn’t look after their boys properly, but that was no reason to ban it completely. I remember my granny talking about that. She said all they had to do was make a few rules to improve things for the boys. Anyway, here’s another card, a Christmas one.

They’re never allowed inside a house, of course, even at Christmas, they’re far too dirty for that – always black and filthy – but they sang Christmas Carols outside and people threw them coins or scraps of food.’

‘They’ve all got their brush and their ladder, too, look.’ I liked that.

‘Here’s another real one of a master-sweep with his boy. Mum thinks this picture was probably taken somewhere like Poland, too.’

I didn’t like that one so much. The man was holding the little boy by the ear and he seemed to be angry with him.

‘Mum says he shouldn’t be wearing clothes. All the best masters made their boys buff it – that means work naked. It was much better for the boy, she says. You slither up and down the chimney more easily, and – most important – garments can snag on something and in a very narrow flue you won’t be able to get your arms down to release yourself. You’ll be jammed in the chimney. But at least he’s got bare feet. Now one more picture. This is my favourite. This one belonged to my granny. Just look at their faces! And the big boy’s been greedy – look at his fat tummy – and now, though he desperately wants to stay, his master’s telling him to bugger off.’

‘Why is he carrying the little ones like that? And why don’t they have brushes and ladders and – ‘

‘This is an old cartoon, from – I dunno – a hundred years ago or whatever, when they first began making these laws, and they said climbing-boys had to be at least fourteen. Which was just stupid. Climbing-boys started at four to six and finished when they got too big. A few might last till twelve, even thirteen if their masters were hard enough on them – only a tiny amount of food every day, and absolutely no handouts from kind people or other children who felt sorry for them. Ordinary children thought there was something magical about them. They couldn’t ever play with a climbing-boy or invite one into their home – they shouldn’t even speak to them! – but because they were such outsiders other children considered them like something out of a fairy tale. You can see a bit of that in this picture here.’ She turned to another page in what was obviously her mother’s scrapbook.

‘Look, it’s winter and snowy and the other children are inside in the warm, and they’ve just had a nice dinner, and later they’ll have jelly and sweets, but the little climbing-boy has to go to work in the snow and he’s had no breakfast, and won’t get anything till he gets home – well, not home, the master’s house – where he’ll get a cup of cold broth and a crust of bread if he’s lucky.  And they’ll sleep in their beautiful beds and he’ll sleep among the soot-bags out in a shed in the cold.’

‘Wow . . . Just like Tom, in The Water Babies. And he’s got his ladder and brush and rope.’

‘Yes, but look, he’s wearing blue socks and has long blond hair sticking out from under his hat. It was never like that. It was like in the other picture, this one, where the master is carrying the four little ones. Aren’t they sweet? And they’re the real thing. But they’re supposed to be hidden in the sacking because he’s not meant to have them, but they’re peeping out – falling out! Their ladders and things will be coming separately on a cart, Mum says. They’re probably going to a big house house with lots of chimneys and the boys will all be sent up different flues and be sweeping at the same time.’

‘In that other picture, the one where he’s holding the boy by the ear – yes, that one – it looks like he uses his ladder to get up onto the chimney.’

‘Yes, sometimes they go down from the top, from the roof, not up from the fireplace at the bottom. That’s what the rope’s for. You saw they all carry a long rope, too? Hey! Someone’s coming in the front door! You want to escape out the back way?’

I scamper out out into their garden, leaving her laughing at my terror of her father, and over the fence and across an allotment and over another fence and along a narrow path between rows of back gardens then over our fence into our garden. The “back way” in and out.

It must be about midday, but there’s no one around. Then I remember they all went shopping this morning – that was why we didn’t go to the beach – and maybe Mum decided to have some lunch out.

I sit in the shed with the pets. Denny’s plucked chicken glares at me but doesn’t attack me. It isn’t kept caged like the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and usually it darts at me as soon as it sees me. It may have no feathers but there’s nothing wrong with its claws or its beak.

I take out Blackie, my favourite guinea-pig and sit down on a box with her on my lap and stroke her. She makes that guinea-pig brrr-brrr-brrr happiness noise, which always made me feel happy too.

* * *

That night, when Mum came up to tuck me in, as always she checked what I was reading. I made sure now I was never caught reading a girl’s book or comic. Did she realise? Looking back, I’m sure she must have.

‘You like that story, don’t you.’

‘I love it! I wish I was a climbing-boy!’

She laughed. ‘Really? I’m sure you wouldn’t if you knew more about them. It’s a horrible job. Don’t tell me Tom likes being a – what did you call him? Climbing-boy? I always thought they were called chimney-sweeps.’

‘It says chimney-sweep in the book but Denny says they’re called climbing-boys. And Tom doesn’t mind being one.’

‘What does Denny know about it?’

‘Her mum’s family are sweeps – her grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great – ‘

‘That doesn’t mean Denny knows about it.’

‘Her mum does. When she was a girl she lived with climbing-boys.’

‘But using boys to clean chimneys was made illegal long before Denny’s mum was born.’

‘They still did it, she says.’

‘Hmm. Actually, that doesn’t surprise me.’

‘She’s got lots of pictures. Some of them are New Year Cards, thing like that. The boys seem quite happy. Just different from all the other children.’

‘I know, yes. They considered chimney-sweeps lucky. But you didn’t answer me about Tom in your book. Well, you said he didn’t mind. But I thought the whole story was about how he ran away because his master beat him too much and the job was so hard and so awful.’

‘No, he ran away because he came down the wrong flue by accident and found himself in the bedroom of the most beautiful girl in the world. Look – here, in this picture:

‘She woke up and saw him, and she screamed! Well, of course! So he ran! And everyone ran after him thinking he was a thief or worse. But up to then he’d been quite happy in his job, really he had. He was used to his master, he was at home up chimneys, he – ‘

‘Listen, I have to go now. You can dream about being a – a climbing-boy.’ She laughed. ‘And about the most beautiful girl in the world. Goodnight.’

‘Goodnight, Mum.’

* * *

It was Denny who brought the subject up again, some weeks later. She was chattering away about dressing up for the Carnival Parade, what she might go as this year when she suddenly shrieked ‘A climbing-boy!’

I hadn’t said a word. As usual when Denny was talking I sat on the ground in front of her nursing one of her guinea-pigs and gazing up at her. Now, though, I repeated, ‘A climbing-boy? You?’

‘No, you, stupid! I’ll be Ellie, of course. The girl in the bedroom. Why? You want to be Ellie? Well, of course you do, but you can’t. I’m Ellie. you’re Tom.’

And there it was. Not difficult to organise for people like Denny and her mum, and although we didn’t win a prize everyone said how beautiful Denny was and what a cute little chimney-sweep I made and a few people laughed and said what a pity it was they didn’t have real chimney-sweeps any more, it was the perfect job for unwanted brats and gutter-snipes and the only way to get the chimneys in some of these old houses really clean . . . Then Mr Poshrat, the local chimney-sweep, who lived in our road just a few doors up from Denny, spotted us and came over. ‘You want a job, boy? Come and see me – but quickly now, while you’re still small.’

He was joking, of course, as Mum said – using small boys as chimney-sweeps had been illegal for years. But what if it hadn’t been? What if he hadn’t been?

Yes, I would love to spend a day as Tom – but, please, let it be that day: the day Tom meets the old Irish tinker-woman and talks to her on the road, then gets lost in the maze of chimneys in the Manor House, then comes down in Ellie’s bedroom and she screams and he runs for his life across the fields and through the woods pursued by men and dogs and just when they are going to catch him he reaches the river and dives in and – becomes a water-baby.

Trading Places

Continued from my previous post What Did I Want . . .

Let’s start by saying that there is a world of difference between “Which fictional character would you like to be?” and “Which would you like to be just for a day?”

In the first case you would live that person’s life, die that person’s death – end of story. So I would definitely choose someone whose story was not finished yet (I do not want to know how and when I am going to die), rather than one of the immortal dead such as Helen or Paris, or Rosalind/Ganymede, or Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe or Anna Karenina

Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina

or Catherine Earnshaw or Hester Prynne or Maisie Dobbs or Ayla (in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series) or Regeane (in Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf) or Darley in The Alexandria Quartet. A weird selection, yes, I know – and mostly female, yes, I know that, too – but all characters I would love to have been, though I would not wish to be them now (dead), and nor would I wish to be one of them for a day. (Well, perhaps Ayla. And perhaps Sinuhe, but not for only a day, for at the very least the whole wonderful time he was with the beautiful Cretan bull-dancer Minea.)

But they have all long passed away and so have the worlds they lived in.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, on the contrary, never dies, and in Methuselah’s Children I do most definitely identify with him, so why not be him? Well, one “why not” is that in other books featuring him, starting with Time Enough For Love, and then most especially in To Sail Beyond The Sunset, I always find myself identifying not with him but with his mother, Maureen Johnson – who also never dies.

So, yes, perhaps I would swap lives permanently and for ever with Maureen.

But when it comes to being someone else just for a day, much as I would like to spend a day as, say, a mermaid, or a vampire, I would in fact choose to be Tom the chimney-sweep in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.  I’ll explain why in my next post HERE.

A GLASTONBURY ROMANCE by John Cowper Powys (Book Review)

For those of you who don’t know this work, a quotation from Margaret Drabble (it was her choice of Book of the Century) will put you in the picture. It is one of several which feature on the back of the edition I have here.

“A genius – a fearless writer, who writes with reckless passion of flowers and graveyards, incest and teacups, property and religion and the occult. Everything is here in this astonishing work.” Margaret Drabble, Daily Telegraph, Book of the Century.

Let me start by saying of this 1,120-page novel that the actual story – the action – could be boiled down to, say, 150 pages. If you introduced all the unforgettable minor characters and recounted, briefly, their individual stories – the sub-plots – then perhaps 300 pages. That leaves more than 800 pages of discursive asides and purely descriptive writing. Powys is not a writer to use one word when ten will do the job better, or ten in place of a hundred, or a hundred when a thousand would really do the job properly. But who, on surveying the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican says, or even thinks, Couldn’t he have done this on a square of canvas like any other artist??

The thing is, Powys, like Michaelangelo, was right. Nine times out of ten those discursive asides and descriptive passages are masterpieces. And without those 800 pages, all the rounded and distinctive minor characters would be flat and forgettable. As would the setting and the story itself. As it is, both are branded on the brain and it is as though you not simply lived for a while in the Glastonbury of the Crows and the Dekkers and Bloody Johnny (Mayor Geard) but grew up there among them.

I cannot write a full review here – to do so would require a dissertation of many thousands of words – but I would like to pass on a thought regarding the title, “A Glastonbury Romance”. Somewhere in the course of the book (on p778, actually) Powys refers to “the invisible Watchers of the Glastonbury Divine Comedy” – simply in passing, and not to make a point. But that’s what this work is, really. Not a ‘romance’ in any sense of that term, but a divine comedy: a ‘comedy’ reminiscent in some ways of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, in others of “Hamlet” with a happy – or at least happier – ending; ‘divine’ like Homer and Blake in that the other world impinges continually on this one. (Incidentally, he also refers to it (p904) as “this modest chronicle”. Hah!)

There is no way I could ever give this book less than five stars although many times I fell asleep reading it and the book clattered to the floor. The fault is in me, not Powys, of whom, as Henry Miller said, “To encounter [Powys] … is to arrive at the very fount of creation.” Believe me, the spirit was willing but the flesh is weak.

THE REINCARNATIONIST by M. J. Rose (Book Review)

Josh Ryder is an American press photographer who was badly injured in a suicide-bomb explosion in Rome, and ever since has been suffering from what he calls “jerks” back into the past.

He lived in fear of his own mind, which projects the fragmented kaleidoscopic images: of a young, troubled man in nineteenth-century New York City, of another in ancient Rome caught up in a violent struggle and of a woman who’d given up everything for their frightening passion.

When the story opens he has returned to Rome, eighteen months later, now not as a press photographer but as a representative of the Phoenix Foundation, an organisation which specialises in investigating the claims made by children to be, or at least to have memories of being, someone else.

The elderly Professor Rudolfo and the young Professor Gabriella Chase are excavating a tomb where, it is believed, the last Vestal Virgin was buried alive in the fourth century AD. One morning, early, Josh joins Professor Rudolfo in the tomb, and sees for the first time the skeleton of the long-dead priestess. In her hands, she still clutches a wooden box. And in that box are six precious stones, the “memory stones” that reputedly hold the secret to uncovering our past lives. Suddenly, Josh experiences a powerful jerk back to the fourth century and, to Rudolfo’s horror, starts desperately clawing his way into a blocked tunnel that leads out of the tomb by another route.

Then an intruder comes down into the tomb and the elderly professor, trying to prevent him from stealing the gems, is shot. Josh, of course, who was there at the time (but stuck in the tunnel and unable to wriggle back out), becomes a prime suspect.

The story is a thriller, and none the worse for that, but the depiction of living in two (three!) different worlds simultaneously is very convincing, as also is the way in which people who have known each other in previous lives meet again in the current one.

If you know little about reincarnation, this book will be an eye-opener for you. Even if you are an expert, you will not feel let down: the author knows her subject.

I must add that I particularly like the quotations at the head of various chapters. It is amazing how many of the most eminent people believed that they had lived before and would live again. Three examples from this book:

As the stars looked to me when I was a shepherd in Assyria, they look to me now in New England. (Henry David Thoreau)

Finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or another, always exist. (Benjamin Franklin)

The tomb is not a blind alley: it is a thoroughfare. It closes on the twilight. It opens on the dawn. (Victor Hugo)

Click on the image to read M.J. Rose herself on The Reincarnationist

A TOUCH OF DANGER by James Jones (Book Review)

A book I picked up in a charity shop. When a novelist of the stature of James Jones (author of the modern classic From Here to Eternity) writes a thriller, it is either going to be a cut above the other thrillers or it’s going to be a pretentious flop. I looked at the back cover, skimmed through the first few pages. The early 70s, a Chicago / New York private dick on holiday on a Greek island – a holiday he didn’t want, but which was paid for and he was pushed into by the American millionaire he had just completed a job for in Paris.

A hippy colony. Drug smuggling. A beautiful countess named Chantal who is no longer as young as she was. (What an absurd phrase.) The same age as Lobo, our hero, in fact. About forty. And a blonde Californian girl in her early twenties who has washed up here and summers among the hippies and winters in her own little rented room. Sweet Marie she is called, and she survives by diving and spearing grouper-fish which she sells to the local tavernas, and by sleeping with all and sundry. (Obviously I identify with her.)

Lobo sleeps with the countess and manages to resist Sweet Marie despite her teasing and her invitations. (Lovely scenes of them swimming underwater together and afterwards on the boat and on a beach.)  She is too young for him. No, seriously. In his opinion, not hers. Or mine. And she certainly wouldn’t be considered too young if she were a boy. I mean no middle-aged man ever considered me too young even when I was sixteen, seventeen, let alone in my early twenties like Maria. But Lobo is a White Knight. He is violent – a warrior – yet tender – a saviour – in the authentic tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Mallory. Note the name of Chandler’s hero, Mallory, the same as the medieval author of the Morte d’Arthur. And this one’s name. Lobo. The wolf.

But Lobo, despite his heroism and fighting skills, is not an Alpha. He is an Omega. Listen to this:

It was my three months as a Chicago hero – ‘PRIVATE EYE SHOOTS MAD DOG KILLER IN FLAMING GUN BATTLE’ – that introduced me to my wife.

[…] And I couldn’t stand it. [Being a hero, that is.] After Chicago, I always left a place for the right reasons morally, and the wrong reasons financially. […] Probably I should have given in to her and become a corporation lawyer then. […] Probably, I should have given up, and settled in, and become a stuffy whatcha-ma-call-it, living off other people’s fat. Because being morally right didn’t get me anything. People didn’t admire you when they didn’t know you were a failure by choice, for moral reasons. They didn’t admire you even when they knew it. They thought you were a nut. Or a fool.

Lobo Davies is a good man in a world where goodness has gone out of fashion. And definitely a cut above most of the other private dicks.

STING – and John Kent Harrison’s HELEN OF TROY

The central focus of this film – John Kent Harrison’s version of Homer’s epic poem – is the way a powerful and arrogant macho alpha male lusts after a “slut” who dares to refuse to make herself available. The “slut” in this particular case is of course Helen (played here by Sienna Guillory – perfect in the role), and the man, Rufus Sewell (an equally perfect, megalomaniac, Agamemnon) – and the song is by Sting! Enjoy it! Then watch the film if you haven’t already seen it – or even if you have.

SHEPHERDS BY J Drew Brumbaugh (Book Review)

This is a story about what are, in effect, mermaids and mermen. However, it is not fantasy – at least not fairy-tale fantasy, though perhaps you might class it as that SF sub-genre Speculative Fantasy, rather than as hardcore Science Fiction.

In one sense, it is a little of both – as I suppose are all the best SF novels.

In a not-too-distant future, when over-fishing has depleted the seas of wild fish, shoals of millions of farmed tuna are minded out in the open ocean by genetically engineered humans and tame dolphins. Like shepherds and their sheepdogs, the humans directing operations and the dolphins keeping the shoal all together and moving in the right direction. As a situation this clearly has its good side, but one of its downsides is that traditional fishermen, who had been barely making a living before, are now unable to compete. Some turn to piracy, or to drug-trafficking, working for the big cartels. Others, like our hero Toivo, struggle on as fishermen.

Toivo, it should be pointed out, is not a shepherd. What enables him to keep going is his ability to communicate directly with dolphins. He literally “speaks dolphinese”, which he learnt as a small child spending all his time with the dolphins that his father, a marine zoologist, was studying. Now his dolphin friends help him with his fishing.

So there he is on his fishing-boat somewhere out in the south Pacific. And not far away on a submersible raft, their home, live three shepherds. Two of them are a couple; the third, Olga, whom some would describe as beautiful, others as a freak, feels left out, lonely – and that she has nothing whatsoever to look forward to. She cannot live on land, and now her kind, mutants, the product of genetic engineering, have been declared illegal by the UN.

On a third vessel, a large ship, a fishing-boat skipper turned drug-runner who hates “swimmer freaks” sails towards them. Enough. I don’t wish to spoil it.

I have loved the whole notion of mermaids and sea-people all my life, so naturally I thrilled to this story. But there is something else that makes this book stand out from the rest. The dolphins are not only intelligent but philosophically and spiritually more advanced than most of us humans – partly, of course, because they are completely unmaterialistic. There is even the suggestion that their ancestors, millions of years ago, were land-dwellers and the first civilisation on Earth, but then took the conscious decision to return to the sea. Toivo’s close friend, the dolphin Poika, believes that humans have at last begun to tire of their materialistic and self-destructive civilisation and are now ready to return to the sea. That people like Olga represent the future of our species.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (Film Review)

The Seventh Seal is, without any Hollywood hyperbole, one of the most memorable and shocking films ever made. It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.

A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.

Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.

Bergman tells us he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless, the seekers, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also certainly inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. Read it. The knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when he arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.

It is a cross between a Morality Play, with allegorical figures and events, and a novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player, of and his beautiful wife and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks in grave doubt), their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off on the horizon at the end of the film).

Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.