The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 24: The Outward Urge (John Wyndham, 1959)

Books left: 2. Weeks left: 5 (oooh. Panicked rush produced gains. Maybe I’ll just have a little rest. Just five minutes.)

There are not, at any time, many people who have – what do you call it in English? – Divine discontent? Vision? Most men like to be settled among their familiar things with a notice on the door: “Do Not Disturb.” They would still have that notice hanging outside their caves if it were not for the few discontented men. 

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John Wyndham, best known for The Day of the Triffids, was an intelligent man of wide experience who dabbled in careers including farming, law, commercial art, advertising and the military as well as writing.

His scientific imagination is formidable – this is the man who brought us, among many other titles, not only the Triffids but The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (better known under the name of film adaptation The Village of the Damned) and The Kraken Wakes, one of my most beloved novels and one that gave me a lifelong passion for sea monsters.

His biography points out he even tried writing detective fiction, which gives me an immediate thump of excitement and urge to rush off and start Googling. But one book at a time Emma.

It’s fascinating to discover what such a man imagined would be the stages and methods of man’s exploration of space, writing as he did a decade before the first Moon landing. And he doesn’t stop at the Moon – chapters one to four are The Space Station, set in 1994, The Moon, in 2044, Mars, in 2094 and Venus in 2144. The fifth, published for the first time in another edition two years later and thereafter alongside the others in its Penguin editions, is The Emptiness of Space: The Asteroids 2194 and is a melancholic and slightly odd little addendum, only 18 pages long.

Wyndham ties them together with the device of the Troon family, whose successive generations each play key roles in the milestones each chapter relates, thanks to their unquenchable, seemingly genetic yen for space.

It’s fascinating to see how Wyndham visualises the technology involved, the characteristics of Mars and Venus, the particulars of humans dealing with life in space and zero-gravity and the politics of those left behind, dealing with the inevitable question: who owns space?

He is one of my favourite writers and his incisive political mind, which helped make The Kraken Wakes such a chillingly realistic read, is at its sharpest in dealing with questions such as these. In this book as in all others his writing is quiet, dry and mannered but crackling with suspense and the pull of the unknown.

In fact I could not detect at all the presence of another voice, namely Lucas Parkes, acknowledged as a co-author on the cover. I felt vindicated in this when a search revealed that Lucas Parkes was a pen-name Wyndham occasionally used and in this case, the book being closer to conventional hard science fiction style and less like Wyndham’s other novels, publishers decided to use the joint byline. At least this is according to Wikipedia.

The book slipped down easily enough but I must confess, not accompanied by the sense of excitement or compulsion I usually feel with a Wyndham. I suspect my indifference is due at least in part to my well-documented dislike of short stories – this book’s parts are better described as related short stories rather than chapters. Each has a new setting, time period and introduces a new principal character, though of course each is a Troon and they are linked by their blood and their singular obsession.

So it may be only a matter of personal taste, but I will pass this one on as a curiosity to amuse space buffs, to satisfy the appetites of this Project to burn away all extraneous matter and leave only what is holy. In fact, in a show of unprecedented bravery I am just going to keep The Kraken Wakes as my favourite and let the rest go.

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

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I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.