A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “Novels”

Modernism without Confirmation: The Exclusion of W. Somerset Maugham from Modernist Canon

W Somerset Maugham Books
The Novels of William Somerset Maugham

Was it because his books were bestsellers? Was it because Virginia Woolf never invited him to tea with the rest of the Bloomsbury set and never had his work published by Hogarth Press? Was it because he tempered liberalism with the unpopular idea of patriotism? Was it because his prose did not require a road map and a shovel to decipher its meaning?

Without a doubt, Maugham’s first novel, Liza of Lambeth, is in the tradition of the Realists, depicting unrelenting poverty and consequence. But his later – and more successful – work shifted to those characters of middle class aspiration and upper class desperation. Disaffected with society, disturbed by colonialism, and detached from the past, Maugham’s oeuvre embraced those same themes as his contemporaries, yet remains conspicuously absent from most Modernist study (and anthology) because his style is not considered as abstract/experimental. Gore Vidal accuses the author of an “unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way”[1] because Maugham’s prose was without nuance. But should stylistic metaphor alone account for defining Modernism?

Elizabeth Bowen accused him of being “without pity” in his treatment of words and the world.[2] It is true that Bowen’s characters were often pitiable creatures in a cruel world, but Modernism must surely have meant more than empathic treatment of those swallowed by the world. If Maugham’s characters appear cold, it’s because he himself was known to be icy and aloof, hiding his own homosexuality and pained feelings of being unloved. Virginia Woolf said the Modernist author is most inspired by “the dark places of psychology”[3] and there is no doubting that Maugham was a tormented individual whose psyche spilled over into his characters.

In the 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Maugham takes an almost Postmodern and experimental turn by including himself in the narrative (not metaphorically, but as himself). But Maugham also had experience in playing himself – an author – when he worked as a spy for the British SIS between the wars. This later became the character Ashenden, British spy, a dapper, aloof fellow preceding the development of James Bond. Many other Modernists included autobiographical elements of their lives into their works – from Woolf’s family holidays in To the Lighthouse to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so accusations of too-much autobiography should not be cause for exclusion.

Maugham’s work on the twilight of colonialism (i.e. The Moon and Sixpence and The Painted Veil) is no different in theme from, say, Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India. His sweeping commentary on the frippery of wealth and shallowness of society (à la Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge) echoes the same as The Good Soldier (Ford) or Howard’s End (Forester). Maugham is not merely imitating these other works, but publishing contemporaneously the same social stumbles and evolutions seen by his peers, whether they counted him as such or not.

If I have a contention here at all, it is that Maugham has been unjustly omitted from the Modernist canon by those contemporaries who defined themselves by their work as much as their social circle, and Maugham felt much the same about his exclusion from Bloomsbury.[4] Flipping through the indexes of four different general academic books on Modernism, not one mentions Maugham, where Hastings’s biography of him doesn’t miss any of his contemporaries. While his works mostly remain in print (Vintage being the primary publisher) and Hollywood will pick them up from time to time for star-studded period piece, Maugham seems in danger of disappearing from academic study and reading lists, relegated to the shadows of his fellow Modernists.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Gore Vidal, February 1, 1990, The New York Review of Books, 10

[2] https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0217/p14s02-bogn.html

[3] Peter Childs, Modernism, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 80.

[4] Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, New York: Arcade, 2009, p. 360.

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REVIEW – “The Unincorporated War”

The Unincorporated War[The Unincorporated War – By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (Tor, 2010, 462pp, $25.99)]

Corporate greed, political unrest, epic battles, warring AI programmes, good guys who say all the right things and bad guys who do all the wrong things. For those readers looking to revisit the fascinating drama and intrigues of corporate earth in Dani and Eytan Kollin’s first book, The Unincorporated Man, there is some disappointment to be had in their second foray into the incorporated world, which takes a sharp left turn into space opera and choral preaching.

The sequel, The Unincorporated War, picking up a year on from the events of the last book, is not so much the socio-economic gedankenexperiment of its predecessor, exploring what it means for individuals to be incorporated and owned. To be fair, it would be far less interesting to rehash the same ideas over another 400+ pages, but the space operatic-styling and larger cast of characters in this new book seem so far removed from the tight focus of the former as to leave readers wondering if they have picked up a novel from the same authors, or been led down a similar path as the viewers of Troll 2, mistakenly thinking there might be some connection to the first.

Certainly it is not fair to compare The Unincorporated War to what the internet has deemed to be the worst movie ever made, but as a follow-up to a unique novel that made a splash when first published and went on the win the Libertarian Futurist Society’s 2010 Prometheus Award, the plot comes up short and frayed. Justin Cord is back as the “Unincorporated Man” – this time as President of the Outer Alliance that oppose incorporation – full of twenty-first century capitalist zeal for freedom and democracy, and always with a rousing speech on hand to reinforce it. His wife, Neela Harper, so integral to the previous tale, is quickly sidelined into an uninspiring, almost needless thread that is given little attention. Arch-nemesis Hektor Sambianco remains the devious, power-hungry, self-aggrandising character (who also always has a good speech on hand) that he was in the first book, now President of the United Human Federation. If anyone is looking for serious character development, or even realistic dimensionality beyond that of the pulps, the disappointment will continue. As well, the voices of these characters that were so integral to the first story are diluted among the multitude of other observers and participants, several of them minor actors from the first novel being granted new rolls and specialities in order to shoehorn them into the plot. With just a little review of the events that came previously scattered through the first chapter, The Unincorporated War ploughs ahead on a tangent that almost leaves it a standalone book.

The corporate and political machinations and questions of individual freedom are harped upon at length once again, but also supplemented significantly with war councils and real-time space battles and strategising reminiscent of David Weber’s Honor Harrington work, though with far less attention to technical details that make warfare in space possible. Without a great deal of explanation, a former corporate attorney and antagonist for Justin in the first novel reappears as a brilliant naval tactician, who not once, but repeatedly, steals fleet ships from the Earth navy to supplement the Alliance’s hodgepodge of vessels. Recognising that too many plot conveniences to keep the Outer Alliance from falling to superior forces would probably not go unnoticed by readers, the Kollins make use of the secretly sentient avatars (thought only to be neural interfaced digital assistants to their human companions) by employing them as clandestine assistants in the war effort.

Among the most interesting characters in the novel, the avatars are becoming more human – in all of the wrong ways – as they evolve, including fear, susceptibility to propaganda, the use of torture and murder. Barely utilised in the first book – the avatars’ sentience and semi-control over human affairs taking a flying leap over the proverbial shark half way into that novel – they are front and centre in The Unincorporated War, embroiled in a civil war between the corporate-loyal and unincorporated-loyal AIs, the latter led by Justin Cord’s own avatar, Sebastian. The antagonist AI programme is Alphonse, who wants to expose the sentience of the avatarity to humanity and fights on the side of the corporations. Rather than applying logic to this choice, Alphonse is portrayed as having gone mad by splitting his programme too many times and rules the others in the Neuro-network through fear and the horrific manipulation of their base codes. Avatar civilisation itself, with its own laws and customs, mythologies and procreation, would have made for an interesting novel without being forced to mesh with the human events. The battles fought in space between human star ships are paralleled by soldier avatars fighting their mutated kin in cyber-space. Essentially the same story of politics, war, loss and betrayal is being twice told, once from the perspective of the human civil war, and once from the avatarity conflict.

All philosophising is not abandoned in favour of pugilism, though, as the Kollin brothers do bring up religion – or nearly lack thereof – in a human society whose technological achievements have essentially eliminated death. In the first novel, a portion of the blame for the twenty-first century’s collapse is placed on religion, thereby engendering an innate distrust of people of faith. Also, nanotechnology and reanimation technology have removed the necessity of having to consider an afterlife for one’s soul, with the result that religion has been relegated to the fringes – literally – of human society, in the outer solar system, forced to unite together for survival in religious enclaves when followers fled Earth. Religion begins to reassert itself, though, in response to the unchecked power of the corporations and Hektor Sambianco, and anyone else who thinks that they can decided what is right or wrong, engaging in the classical argument of moral relativism. Faith is considered a psychosis in the captured Alliance personnel, replaying the old trump card that those who know God are psychologically more powerful than the rest of us. The POWs’ own minds resist attempted neural reprogramming (“psych audits”) to eliminate faith and it kills them, but no physiological or psychiatric explanation is forthcoming as to why faith alone is the exception to psych audits, thus rendering the plot line little more than apparent wish-fulfilment. Nor do the authors fully enumerate why the stigma against religion is so rapidly repealed other than the fact that there is a war on and thousands are dying who cannot be reanimated. The substitution of over-worn arguments on the need for human faith in place of the discussion on incorporation and personal freedoms lends little to the development of the narrative.

What so distinguished the first book was its intriguing idea of people who, from birth, do not own themselves, but are bought and sold as stock with their “investors” collecting a percentage of their earnings. What kind of life do these people lead? What works in this system, and what does not? The Unincorporated War spends little time continuing to explore these questions. Incorporation no longer has meaning for Justin and the Outer Alliance beyond that of an epithet. As for Hektor, his character is only capable of pushing the limits of all that is wrong with the system by denying suffrage to those who hold a minority interest in themselves, and drafting them into the war. Beyond that, this unique sf economic concept is given little further consideration.

The politic philosophy of The Unincorporated War and its predecessor are a research paper unto themselves, as the authors seem to be extolling Heinlein libertarianism, yet also the virtues of a not-too-limited government and taxation, free market capitalism, and the moral turpitude of unchecked corporations that built the greatest civilisation humanity has ever known. A reader can be forgiven for being left a little unsure of what to believe the preferential structure for this society should be. The present situation of the global economy and continuing political discourse about the power wielded by financial institutions makes the Kollins’ lack of reflection on contemporary issues all the more disappointing. Nor is subtlety amongst the tools of Kollin brothers; as long as the reader does not mind having long dialogues and heavy-handed metaphors about what is good and what is bad constantly smashed into their brain via the optic nerve because another battle is on the next page, then all will be well.

Despite any narrative deficiencies, readers who have stuck it out for the first two books will undoubtedly go on to read the next book after the cliff-hanger ending.  Yes, the book actually ends with the words “To be continued.” Rather like The Empire Strikes Back or The Matrix: Reloaded, the middle child of a three part symphony that started out looking like the first movement was a visionary standalone of intriguing concepts, suffers from the growing pains of continuing the story and setting up dark twists and hopeless situations for the characters to overcome (possibly) in the third movement. We can only hope that once The Unincorporated Woman makes its appearance that it will reignite the uniqueness and excitement of the first book.

The Wise Man of the Desert

land-of-the-headless

Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:

“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, SnowGradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”[1]

Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire.[2] For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:

“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”[3]

This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?

A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:

1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.

2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves  under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.

3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.

4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.

So again, why deserts?

Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:

“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”[4]

Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious. 


[2] Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/

[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.

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