Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

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In Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives at the space station positioned above Solaris.  This distant planet is unusual in that it orbits twin suns, one red the other blue.  Its surface is largely covered by an ‘ocean’ which may be sentient, a huge organism perhaps analogous to the neuronal structure of the human brain but powerful enough to be able to modify Solaris’s orbit around the binary system.  Despite a huge scientific effort exerted over the best part of a century, termed ‘Solaristics’, the planet is still little understood.

There are only two other inhabitants of the station, a third having committed suicide just before Kelvin’s arrival.  As soon as he boards it is clear something has gone badly wrong.  The others are unwilling to say what they know and are exhibiting signs of paranoia, so Kelvin has to find out what is going on with little assistance from them.  He soon learns the reason for the secrecy: Solaris is drawing on the scientists’ pasts to create simulacra of people they have known, in Kris’s case his dead lover, Rheya.

In seeking to understand what is happening, Kelvin’s study of the planet becomes intertwined with an examination of himself and his feelings for bother versions of Rheya.  The entities are not precise copies because they are drawn from memories, and while their personalities are superficially like those of the originals, they possess an uncanniness that is disturbing – the more so by returning as if nothing had happened if ejected from the station.  Initially the newcomers do not realise they have been made by the planet, though gradually Rheya becomes aware she is not human in the way Kelvin is.

Kelvin’s wrestling with his guilt at his role in Rheya’s suicide draws out a core theme of the novel: the futility of trying to understand an alien species when we do not understand each other, or ourselves for that matter.  Our knowledge of others is always approximate even when we are with them, but when they are no longer present, memory remakes them.  Kelvin knows this is not Rheya, but she is close enough for him to feel the emotions he had when he was with the original, leading to a deepening attachment.

The issue of personal identity at the individual level is mirrored by that of identity at the level of the species.  The dry Solaristics sections slow the pace as Lem describes the planet, but Solaris becomes a character as fully formed as the humans.  Lem captures the notion that any alien intelligence really is going to be alien, its motives, if any, inscrutable, and with no way of understanding it in human terms.

The problem is that we always want to cast ‘the other’ in a way we can comprehend (calling the intelligence, for want of a better word, ‘an ocean’ is a case in point), hence the volume of research analysing Solaris and attempts at communication with it, but which has produced only description and convoluted nomenclature, using terms humans can integrate into a structure based on their own experience, and generating academic controversy incapable of resolution.  Kelvin is aware that the human impulse is one of mastery, and the failure to master Solaris has led to impotent frustration.

Humans think in terms of primitive versus advanced, but there is no way to tell with the ocean.  It is impossible to decide whether the simulacra are signs of an advanced intelligence or merely one that has evolved in circumstances completely different to those on Earth (assuming there is some form of consciousness involved and not simply a kind of reflex action).  If species evolve to occupy a niche, then the idea of one being more advanced than another is illegitimate wherever in the cosmos it occurs, including Earth.

The reader is in the same position as Kelvin in speculating about the purpose, if any, of the simulacra.  Are they a benign attempt at communication?  Are they merely some random by-product stimulated by the scientists’ use of X-rays but with no significance? Are they a punishment for perceived harm?  Does the Solarian (singular or plural?) care, or not, that its planet has been invaded?  The reader, like Kelvin and his colleagues, never discovers the answers to these questions, and Kelvin is reduced to speculating about the nature of an imperfect god.  Ultimately, Solaris eludes us.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson

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Despite having been published in 1997, Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life still justifies the punning title.  Anderson lived in Cuba for three years, delved into a wide range of international archives, including those belonging to Che’s family and the Cuban government, travelled widely to interview many people who had known Che, not least his widow Aleida March, and drew on Che’s own writings in order to produce this 800-page biography.  As well as family, friends and comrades, Anderson has interviewed those on the other side, including members of the CIA and the Bolivian army.  He managed to ascertain where Che’s body was buried, hitherto a secret carefully guarded by the Bolivians.  The book is respectful but critical, and situates Che’s activities within the complex politics of the times.

The chronological account is divided into three sections. ‘Unquiet youth’ traces Ernesto’s early life up to the landing in Cuba.  ‘Becoming Che’ describes the campaign to take the island, not surprisingly the most vivid part of the book.  ‘Making the New Man’ covers the period from the flight of Batista to Che’s death.  As those divisions indicate, Che’s life follows a bell curve: the early years in an Argentinian middle-class household, vibrant though relatively impoverished; his adolescence as a keen reader and observer, but not political; his studies, the travels around South America and the radicalisation; meeting Fidel Castro and joining the July 26 Movement, culminating in his participation in the Cuban revolution as the high point, proving himself a fine strategist and leader in that remarkable campaign.

Then it is decline into a ruthless consolidation of power: administration, attempting to steer a new economic course; diplomacy, as Cuba struggles to sever its dependence on the United States and seek a new relationship with the Soviet Union (itself struggling with the Sino-Soviet split, the two communist superpowers attempting to exert their influence); frustrations at home as the reality of the Cuban revolution fails to match his vision; the abortive attempt to launch further revolutions in Latin America; the catastrophic expedition to the Congo; and the final misadventure in Bolivia where he pays the ultimate sacrifice for his ideals.  An epilogue traces the post-1967 lives of individuals who had been associated with Che.

He was a principled internationalist, dedicated to the destruction of imperialism and exploitation, and the creation of a pan-Latin America, but he was not always tactful in his pronouncements.  This perspective discomfited the Russians and led him to be accused of Trotskyism, and also of Maoism because of his emphasis on revolution among the peasants.  For his own part, Che was disillusioned by the lack of progress he saw in Russia, and the comfortable lives senior officials led compared to those of the people.  That comfort contrasted starkly with his own self-sacrifice, such as refusing his minister’s pay and undertaking voluntary physical labour.  He understood Cuba needed to industrialise if it wanted economic independence, moving away from a dependence on sugar, but Russia was an unreliable partner in these efforts, both in terms of trade and its desire to retain Cuba in its political orbit, a bid to which Castro eventually acceded, along with the recognition that Cuba’s future would for the time being remain primarily agricultural.

Much of the book’s third section moves away from Che as it recounts how the Cuban revolution was the impetus for guerrilla movements elsewhere, with Che as the guiding light, efforts not duplicating the success of the Cuban revolution (unsurprising as governments took note of Batista’s failures).  While his inclinations lay with Peking rather than Moscow, the Congo adventure was partly undertaken with the idea of reconciling the two rivals in a joint effort to bring revolution to Africa, but grossly underestimating the prevailing level of class consciousness.  The major criticism of Che has to be his engaging in adventurism in the Congo and Bolivia without sufficient backing from the local communists, mistakenly assuming his mere presence was enough to kick-start a revolution that would spread across the continent.

The villain of the piece has to be the United States, with its constant meddling to protect its own interests in Latin America in the form of American corporations (most notoriously the United Fruit Company), which entailed propping up despotic regimes.  Che was finally radicalised in Guatemala when he witnessed first-hand the US-backed coup which replaced the democratic government with a military dictatorship.  The sympathetic reader comes to share Che’s dislike of the way the arrogant ‘neighbour to the north’ behaved, including concerted attempts to destabilise Cuba itself until the CIA incompetently attacked a Spanish freighter thinking it was a Cuban vessel.  The subsequent embarrassment, and the shift of focus to Vietnam, may have lessened the pressure on Cuba, but it never eased completely.

Perhaps Che died at the right time, late enough to be mythologised in his prime but early enough not to be associated with failure as the Cuban revolution, beleaguered by the US, fell far short of its early promise and ended firmly in Moscow’s orbit.  One wonders how he would have fared as the Cuban revolution matured.  Perhaps in the long run Castro felt a sense of relief Che did not live to become a thorn in his side, while he could be used for propaganda purposes when it suited.  Despite Castro’s support for Che’s continued military expeditions, their paths had diverged as Castro acted as a statesman to ensure the survival of the Cuban revolution, even when it required compromise.  Che’s purism, which considered peaceful coexistence to be appeasement and even judged the risk of nuclear war worth taking to pursue revolutionary goals, would have created conflict between them.

While some details may have dated, this is still a fine study of a complex man based on painstaking research.  One comes to appreciate just how Che’s romanticism and idealism, his charisma, his unwavering commitment to revolutionary discipline both for himself and others, simple living, the self-control evidenced in fighting his debilitating asthma and his tolerance of hardship, his desire for self-improvement, and his ruthlessness, were all of a piece, and how he could evoke unswerving loyalty.  His paradox was that his politics were focused on the masses rather than the individual, yet he was well aware of the power of his celebrity.  Supplying sufficient detail for a non-specialist to understand the tangled and shifting politics of the period, Anderson balances the outer events with a nuanced character study, digging beneath the myth to show us Che the person as well as his place in world history.

Japanese Ghost Stories, by Catrien Ross

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The title of Japan-domiciled British writer and self-described shaman Catrien Ross’s 1996 book – Japanese Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena – suggests an anthology, and while there are brief summaries of folklore and supernatural creatures in myth, and some fuller stories recounting Japan’s uncanny heritage, they take up a small proportion of the pages.  She did not read the language at the time of writing the book so the stories have been translated by someone else, and are of higher quality than the rest of the text.

The bulk of the book covers various aspects of the paranormal, with a broad but not particularly deep coverage conveyed in an often choppy style.  Chapters look at alleged psychic abilities in legend and in more recent times (Uri Geller surprisingly pops up), covering such topics as mediumship, healing, Fukurai’s thoughtography (nensha), chi and exceptional talents.  Ross’s spiritual approach is credulous, taking psychic claims at face value with no attempt to question them.

There is information on Japan’s religions and the prominent role sects have played in the life of the nation. A section in a chapter titled ‘Strange but true’ concerns Jesus’s supposed grave site; he died at the age of 106 after he moved to Japan, his younger brother having been crucified in his place.  Much of material on religion could usefully have been omitted and space devoted to the topics indicated by the book’s title, though the living mummies section was worth including for its extra level of weirdness.  A chapter is devoted to modern-day hauntings which display a surprisingly strong tendency to superstition in Japanese companies.

Ross claims that ‘throughout the rich tapestry of Japan’s history, the supernatural has been an enduring thread that is simply being reworked to meet the emerging needs of twentieth-century civilisation,’ and her book attests to the continuity, as well as the fascination of that thread to a wider audience.  Unfortunately it is light on analysis, though to be fair Ross does say this is only intended as a starting point to an exploration of those deep-rooted influences still to be found lurking behind the modern commercial façade.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson

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The advice Mark Manson supplies in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life is fairly basic, though the author seems to think he is on to something novel, dressing it up with a sprinkling of bad language to seem edgy.  It’s all rather obvious though, with some points that are worth making conveyed in a chatty style at times descending to a fortune cookie-level of profundity.  That he has vast numbers of readers of his blog suggests he is reaching a receptive audience, albeit possibly one happier to listen to life lessons than go about the harder task of implementing them.

So what are these things for which we should withhold our f*cks?  In essence they are: life will inevitably throw up challenges, but hardships and rejection will make you stronger; don’t consider them a personal slight.  Take responsibility for your actions even though it can be hard.  A relentless emphasis on positivity does not allow personal growth, which in a world full of adversity only occurs through problem solving and a healthy dose of realism.  Embrace the fear, and accept you will make mistakes because they are inevitable.  Cocooning from life is not helpful (the 30-something Manson takes a swipe at Millennial ‘snowflakes’) and is definitely not character-building.

Constant striving for perfection will merely remind you how unhappy you are.  Accept you are not special, rather acknowledge you have limitations.  Be honest, with yourself and others, don’t play games with them.  Reject shallow materialistic values, decide which values are important, and commit to personal growth.  Change is a never-ending process.  Caring is inevitable, unless you are a psychopath, but be selective about the objects of your care.  Don’t sweat the small stuff: life is too short to worry about the minor irritations, they will only suck your emotional energy.  This is all hard to do, but the only way to overcome procrastination is to get started, etc..

Manson sprinkles ‘his’ philosophy of life with autobiographical titbits in which he adopts a peculiar obliquely bragging tone amounting to repeatedly telling the reader, ‘look, I travelled to 55 countries, took drugs, had sex with large numbers of women, most of whom I forgot immediately, but my life was shallow, and I had to struggle to develop the insights I now feel qualified to impart to you.’  It feels smug, even when he is demonstrating how much he had to learn about life so he can make his achievement seem all the more profound because of the length of the journey.  When he self-deprecatingly refers to himself as an ‘asshole’ in the acknowledgements it is hard to believe he is really being honest with himself, despite having written a book on that very topic (being honest, not being an asshole), though the reader may concur with his assessment.

Talking of brutal honesty, I did rather feel sorry for his wife, having to read about the amazing sex life the author had as a commitmentphobe before they met.  Now he prides himself on being frank with her.  This includes telling her ‘the truth’, or rather giving her his opinion, when she asks whether she looks good and he doesn’t think she does.  Most of us would either say ‘you look great’ whatever the circumstances or at least dress it up a bit, because who wants to hurt the feelings of someone they love?  But that wouldn’t be authentic for Manson.  Sadly, that his wife apparently spends a long time grooming before they go anywhere suggests a degree of insecurity.  I can imagine him gaslighting her.

The bad language becomes tediously repetitive, though thankfully he calms down a little after the first chapter.  If it weren’t for the catchy title and swearword sprinkled through the text this would just be another pop-psychology self-help book with perhaps a bit more Buddhist-inflected paradox than some.  It does feel that without the swearing Manson thought he wouldn’t be able to attract the readers he is aiming at, and I am sure he does give a f*ck about that, so he uses it as his USP (the cynic).

Country House Murders, by Thomas Godfrey (ed.)

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Thomas Godfrey’s 1989 anthology collects 22 short stories showing the evolution of the English country house as a venue for murder and mystery, though as the presence of P G Wodehouse might suggest, murder is not always on the menu.  There is a mix of well-known – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Baroness Orczy, G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Ruth Rendell, P D James, among others – and less-well-known names.  As some of these writers feature country houses in many of their plots, Godfrey had a wide choice from which to select.  Each story is prefaced by brief biographical details.  The quality is high overall, though there are one or two weak plots and the Collins story is rather longer than it need have been.

The country house format is flexible, straight cerebral whodunits mixing with gothic and thriller elements in which there might not necessarily be a detective.  Dates of publication are more or less in chronological order, allowing the reader to chart the evolution of the country house from its privileged upper-class heyday, its transformation into the preserve of the nouveau riche, to its decline in a more democratic age as ordinary people no longer buy into the toffs’ vision of an ordered hierarchy with themselves at the top.  The stories by Rendell and James towards the end are downbeat, showing just how diminished the literary country house has become outside pastiche (a state best captured by Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger where the grand building is falling apart, paralleling the psyches of those who live in it, or aspire to live in it).

In its prime, though, the country house is forever fixed as an elegant setting, and often a character in its own right.  It provides a reflection of class relations in miniature, and an opportunity to manipulate a diverse but constrained cast of characters, ideal for the crime writer.  With roots in an idealised past, its history can echo down the centuries, events of yesterday influencing those of today; even so, it is still a domestic setting, and the human characteristics on display are little different to those anywhere, base human impulses found in any type of residence.  Country houses can evoke unease as much as nostalgia (hence being a staple too of horror), and reading about them cries out for a comforting log fire and hot drink in a way the modern semi or flat somehow does not.

The Big Book of Pulps, by Otto Penzler (ed.)

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This hefty (1,150 pages) 2008 volume, edited by Otto Penzler, covers American crime short stories published in the pulps from the 1920s to ‘40s.  It is a mixed bag in terms of quality, but that is representative of pulp fiction in general.  Packed in its pages are 51 short stories and two novels (though only one is a genuine novel, the other being a series of linked short stories).  It is divided into three sections, ‘The crime-fighters’, ‘The villains’ and ‘The dames’, the last of which speaks volumes about the genre’s view of gender equality.

Penzler provides an introduction, each of the three sections has its own brief and not terribly useful introduction, by Harlan Coban, Harlan Ellison and Laura Lippman respectively, and every story has a short preface with information about the writer.  The volume is sprinkled with original illustrations.  The divisions can feel arbitrary as the trio of categories, in differing proportions, define the hardboiled pulp overall. The good and bad guys naturally enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with varying degrees of emphasis, that renders attempts to separate them artificial, and the ‘dames’ were rarely prominent, usually occupying ancillary positions to the men.

The expected range of motivations are on display – greed of course, but also lust, stupidity, recklessness caused by unwise attachments, and the desire for revenge.  Prohibition and the crime and misery it generated are often driving factors in the early period.  The stories depict a mostly urban dog-eat-dog world in which justice, whether in the form of the police or the private sector, struggles to maintain the moral balance in the face of a prolific and ruthless criminal underclass, hampered by politicians and the society elite who are frequently corrupt.

Some of the stories are excellent by any criterion, unsurprisingly tending to be by the better-known names, such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Cornell Woolrich and Lesley Charteris.  There are too some fine entries by less-well known writers.  These are all characterised by strong plots and convincing atmosphere.  Black Mask features prominently as the primary outlet for the better-quality stories.  Others suffer by comparison, particularly those drawn from low-paying magazines, with their formulaic plots, clichéd action and cardboard characterisation.  The writers were less talented or more rushed, and where house names were used accurate attribution is virtually impossible.  Whoever wrote them, these stories were churned out, with no incentive to polish them into something better.

This is a great selection though not without its faults.  Penzler could have chosen better-informed commentators, and in fact the awkward divisions could have been discarded in favour of a straight chronological progression.  The three Chandlers are familiar from frequent reprinting and with so many stories to choose from the space would have been better used on less familiar names.  But while there will always be room to quibble with the editor’s choices, there is much to enjoy.  The sub-par entries are more than made up for by the best (though one’s pleasure is occasionally tempered by instances of casual sexism and racism).  The result is a fairly representative overview of the pulp phenomenon encompassing the good, the bad and the indifferent.  It is seldom dull, though even the most hardened aficionado may feel disinclined to read it straight through from cover to cover.

Vivian Maier: The Color Work, by Colin Westerbeck

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The photography of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) has become increasingly well known in recent years, amounting to a mini-industry, through exhibitions, a series of books, and a documentary film.  This 2018 volume collects about 150 of her approximately 40,000 Ektachrome colour slides, dating from the 1950s to the 1980s, with text by Colin Westerbeck.  Maier had previously been recognised mainly for her black and white photographs but this volume helps to redress the balance.

Earning a living as a nanny in Chicago, Maier’s photographs only came to light by chance.  As she was an intensely private person she is known through what can be inferred from them, supplemented by the vague memories of those who knew her plus a few available facts mostly about her earlier life.  As a result a certain mystique has surrounded her.  While it is easy to see Maier as a naïf, snapping away as she shepherded her charges around the city, the introduction suggests she may have been immersed in photography, reading about other photographers and visiting exhibitions.

As part of this effort to place her within the canon of serious photographers, a number of comparators are wheeled out.  One is Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the grounds she too had a feel for the decisive moment.   Others are Eugène Atget (and a further similarity is that the work of both could easily have been lost), Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus.  Despite this strategy, Maier still feels like an outsider simply because she never sought to be part of a community or promote herself.  While the book is a welcome addition to our knowledge of Maier, it does not take us far in appreciating her place as an artist.

She had an eye for detail, certainly, and a good sense of humour: a jacket hanging on a circular coat stand looks as though it is wearing a crown, a child walks along a street with a large cardboard box on its head.  Many of her ‘self-portraits’ are photographs including her shadow, and one is carefully superimposed on a poster for Heaven Can Wait, next to another for Jaws 2.  One has to wonder though whether she actually liked children: a toddler on its face in sand is photographed rather than helped; a boy sitting on a chair in front of four framed handguns (strange in itself) is caught at an angle to make it look as though one is pointing at his head.

A problem is that as she was hugely prolific it is impossible to know how representative the examples in the book are of her oeuvre.  She did not edit, and may not have even taken slides out of their boxes, so it has been left to the compiler to structure a sample.  We are seeing the tip of a very large iceberg, so what is claimed as an artistic achievement may have been more luck than judgement simply because she took so many pictures and was bound to obtain striking results occasionally.

Supporting this suspicion is a comment in the foreword by Joel Meyerowitz.  He describes how John Maloof, who had bought much of Maier’s output after it was put up for auction when she could no longer afford to pay storage rental, sent him 200 scans and asked for his opinion.  ‘I can’t say that my immediate first impression was that they were fantastic, but as I clicked through the unedited raw work I kept getting glimpses of Maier’s insights and timing…’  Of course any good photographer discards failures, but one wonders what the critical view of Maier would be without severe cherry-picking.

This particular set will enhance Maier’s reputation, and it definitely gives glimpses of insight and timing, but leaves open the question whether she was an intermittently brilliant photographer, or primarily used photography as an expression of Asperger’s (taking somewhere in the region of 140,000 to 150,000 pictures without doing much with them does raise questions), leaving later curators to highlight serendipitous elegances of form and content.  Whichever, she has left wonderful images capturing life on the fly.  The moments may not always be decisive, but they are evocative of time and place.

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