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By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (iv)

The remainder of my larger SF paperbacks. These are on the lower shelves of the old music cupboard. Looking at these photos two of the books seem to have wriggled away from alphabetical order. (I’ve fixed that now.)

Stanisław Lem, Ken Macleod, Cixin Liu, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian McDonald:-

Large Paperback Science Fiction

China Miéville, a Tim Powers, Christopher Priest:-

SF Large Paperback Books

Alastair Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad:-

Science Fiction Large Paperbacks

Lavie Tidhar, Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe, Ian Watson, Roger Zelazny, (well half of one is):-

SF Books, Large Paperbacks

More Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

Only one photo this week.

Folio Society Books

These shelves contain beautifully produced, slip-cased books published by the Folio Society (with books from other publishers scattered among them.) Some were bought by the good lady but they all belong together.

They are so sumptuous that it is almost a crime to pick them up and read them. Of these particullar editions I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird; Goodbye to All That; Revolt in the Desert; England, Their England; Goodbye to Berlin and The Fire of Liberty.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Frank Herbert’s Dune were Christmas (or birthday) presents from my younger son. I had paperback copies already but was delighted to get these. Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram is also a doubler.

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (ii)

Large SF paperbacks this week for Judith’s meme at Reader in the Wilderness.

I keep these in an old music cupboard I inherited from my great-uncle. I’ve got so many of these they have to be double-parked, so you can’t actually see the first and third shelves shown here when the cupboard is opened. Stacking some on their sides gives me an extra 4 cm of space. Click on the photos to enlarge the pictures.

These include a J G Ballard, Iain M Banks, Chris Beckett, Eric Brown, Ursula Le Guin and Ian McDonald:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (i)

Annoyingly, even these large paperbacks do not all come in one size. The upright ones to the right here are smaller than the previous books. More McDonald, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robertson, Adam Roberts, Hannu Rajaniemi, a lesser Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (ii)

More Ballard, Banks, Beckett and Brown. Lavie Tidhar, Neil Williamson and another step down in size:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iii)

John Crowley, M John Harrison, Dave Hutchinson, Stanisław Lem:-

Large Science Fiction Paperbacks (iv)

Birthday and Christmas 2017

As you may know my birthday falls on Christmas Eve.

This means I get presents two days in a row (then I have to wait a whole year to get any more.)

No complaints though.

These are some of the things my family gave me this year.

Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst:-

Science Fiction: A LIterary History

Five 1960s SF paperbacks:-

Books for Christmas

Eight Keys to Eden by Mark Clifton
Blue Moon edited by Douglas Lindsay
Path Into the Unknown: The Best of Soviet SF
E Pluribus Unum by Theodore Sturgeon
Nine by Laumer

That cover of Blue Moon is so redolent of the time.

A box of postcards of covers from Penguin SF books. Front of box:-

Postcards of Penguin SF Book Covers

Reverse of box:-

Postcards of Penguin SF Book Covers

Kurt Vonnegut themed Christmas presents. “And Soap it Goes” plus “Breathmints of Champions.” This recognises the source of my use of “So it goes.”

Kurt Vonnegut Themed Christmas Presents

“And Soap it Goes” ingredients:-

Kurt Vonnegut Themed Soap

“Breathmints of Champions” ingredients:-

Kurt Vonnegut Mints

And last but not least, a 2016-17 Sons home shirt. Sadly it wasn’t a lucky one on Boxing Day.

Dumbarton FC Home Shirt 2016-17

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut. (Vintage, 2010.)

Reviewed for Interzone issue 231, Nov-Dec, 2010.

Look At The Birdie cover

This is a collection of fiction plus one letter of “sententious crap” unpublished in Vonnegut’s lifetime. The stories appear to have been written for the most part in the 1950s; one even mentions King Farouk. Sparingly interspersed through the book are Vonnegut’s own illustrations in his naïve style. They too appear of 1950s vintage though their copyright dates are much later.

Throughout, Vonnegut’s tendency to name his characters strikingly is to the fore; Ernest Groper, K Hollomon Weems, Felix Karadubian. Vonnegut’s characteristic dry style is also evident. He seems to have found his voice early. Though he made his name writing SF, before later disclaiming it, most of the tales here are devoid of speculative content.

The two stories that might vaguely be called SF are “Confido” and “The Petrified Ants.” In the first an ear piece designed to make people happy is “a combination of confidant and a household pet” but whispers only the worst of others. I trust Vonnegut was aware of the Latin pun of his title. The second is set in the Erzgebirge mountains in Soviet era Czechoslovakia where some newly uncovered fossils reveal ants once behaved individualistically. The revelation of their change to collectivity is hurried, though, and stretches credibility. The story is fun but too heavy-handed in its allegorisation of Soviet society.

As to the rest of the fiction, “FUBAR” is a gentle but utterly conventional story in which a crabbed bureaucrat begins to awaken to the possibility of a different kind of life when a newly trained young secretary is assigned to him. The 1950s ambience here is revealed by the F in FUBAR standing for “fouled” rather than anything more demotic.

“Shout About it from the Housetops” examines the deleterious consequences of publishing a novel whose characters are based on barely disguised neighbours, friends and the author’s spouse.

The two-part “Ed Luby’s Key Club” deals with Harve Elliot, who, along with his wife, Claire, witnesses a murder by the local gang boss. Both are then accused of it themselves. In the second part Harve alone escapes from custody and attempts to vindicate himself. The story’s conclusion, while worthy, is perhaps a little too complacent.

“A Song for Selma” tells how people’s aspirations can be transformed, for good or ill, by their expectations of themselves as mediated through those of others.

In “Hall of Mirrors” a hypnotist uses his powers to evade the police when they come to investigate the disappearances of his wealthy women clients.

“Hello, Red” is the story of a bitter wandering sailor’s return to his home town to try to claim guardianship of the distinctively flame haired daughter he fathered before his first trip abroad, and of her reaction to him.

“Little Drops of Water” concerns the subtle strategy employed by one former conquest to gain her revenge after being dumped by a confirmed ladies’ man of fixed habits.

In “Look at the Birdie” an encounter in a bar with a disgraced former psychiatrist who insists his wife photographs the narrator leads to a demand that can’t be refused.

“King and Queen of the Universe” has a very well to do teenaged couple in the Depression era on their way home from a party come face to face with the harsher realities of less privileged lives.

“The Good Explainer” is the doctor to whom a man and wife travel from Cincinnati to Chicago in order to have the reasons for their childlessness laid bare.

While all the stories in the book are never less than readable, they do not represent Vonnegut at his best. Among other faults they are too often prefaced by a brief paragraph or two of scene setting which are told to, rather than unfolded for, us and there is a tendency to repetition of such things as job titles.

Recommended to Vonnegut completists but not as an introduction to his work.

Interzone 237

Interzone 237 has been published.

This has within it my review of Lauren DeStefano’s Wither.

Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

Look At The Birdie cover

Jim Steel’s blog has confirmed that the latest issue of Interzone (no. 231) containing my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s posthumously published collection Look At The Birdie ought to be available round about now.

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