Sunday 27 January 2019

Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

I can’t tell you how much I love this book. 

I first read it when I was a little kid, voraciously devouring all the science fiction in my local library. Heinlein, a master of the genre, was a firm favourite. 

I must admit that my nine year old self was a little scandalised when I found out that the Podkayne of the title was a girl...

But I kept on reading and I was soon in love with her. 

Heinlein has written a lot of outstanding books (from Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strange Land) but I’m starting to suspect this may be his best. 

Breezy, engaging, fascinating, it has a thrilling plot beneath its deceptive surface. But what really distinguishes this book are the wonderful protagonists — the beguiling teenage Podkayne...

And her bratty, prodigiously intelligent, but utterly unscrupulous little brother Clark, who is lovingly described as having "the simple rapacity of a sand gator. He'll go far — if somebody doesn't poison him."

I'm glad nobody poisons Clark... I'm beginning to regard him as one of the great characters in modern fiction. A magnificent creation.

And Heinlein is so damned funny. Such as in this throwaway moment evoking an annoying hologram trying to sell Podkayne a beverage: "Everybody drinks Hi-Ho! Soothing, Habit-Forming, Dee-lishus!"
But the humour in the book arises  chiefly from Podkayne herself and her observations, most often perhaps in connection with Clark...

Here she is describing her brother in her diary: "anyone who handed Clark a bribe would find that Clark had not only taken the bribe but the hand as well... Clark is not hard of hearing but he can be very hard of listening... Clark would not bother to interfere with Armageddon unless there was ten percent in it for him."

Meanwhile Clark himself purveys such aphorisms as that you "Never know when you might need a bomb."

The story is told through Podkayne's diary, with some interjections by Clark who is also writing in it, without her knowledge, in invisible ink: "I find your girlish viewpoints entertaining," he notes insultingly at one point.

Quite apart from the gorgeous humour and characterisation, Heinlein has an admirable gift for description — "I swarmed up those four decks like a frightened cat." And when Podkayne momentarily believes her brother and uncle are dead she says "I felt sudden sick sorrow."

On a lighter note she observes "quizzing Clark when he doesn't want to answer is as futile as slicing water." What a great simile.

In fact, I think Heinlein was a great writer, a genius. And he was well ahead of his time in terms of enlightened attitudes to women. While Podkayne's father is a placid academic, her mother is an engineer who was responsible for building the settlement on the Martian moon of Deimos.

Podkayne herself is also a fairly shining example of feminism — by 1960s science fiction standards. 

She wants to pilot a spaceship like the one she and Clark are on as passengers — although she does pump the Captain for information about navigation in space by "listening with my best astonished-kitten look to his anecdotes."

And then, perhaps fatally, she does announce "A baby is a lot more fun than differential equations." But at least differential equations are in the running!

And, in fairness, the scene with the babies on the space ship is pretty darned terrific, as is the whole sequence of the solar storm. (You're going to have to read the book to see what I mean — and I really do urge to read it.)

Heinlein is ahead of the curve on racial issues, too. Podkayne may be a blonde, a manifestation of the Swedish half of her ancestry, but the other half is Maori

So when her beloved uncle is described by some benighted harridans as a "big black savage" it not only springs a great surprise on the reader, it also causes Podkayne to seethe with rage, and sets her off in search of some satisfying payback.

In pursuit of which she enlists the help of Clark. He's definitely the guy you want on your team when you're plotting revenge.

But there is far more to Podkayne of Mars than that, including political intrigue, abduction and torture, and some rather heartbreaking tragedy...

I just finished reading this book again, after many years, and I’m delighted to say it stands up superbly. How marvellous that something I’ve adored ever since childhood still does not disappoint. 

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads — the Italian ones are particularly nice! The NEL edition with her standing in a blue jumpsuit, a rocket behind her, is from Ceredigion Bookshop via ABE. The Berkley edition with the white cover and the Paul Lehr cover art is from my own collection.)

Sunday 20 January 2019

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

After Ira Levin's longest novel, This Perfect Day, comes his shortest — The Stepford Wives is more a novella in length, but it is perfectly judged and doesn't need a single word more to accomplish its effect, which is explosive and quite stunning.

The book immediately feels like a companion piece to A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby — there is a powerful sense of continuity here in its depiction of women being victimised by men. 

It is closer to Rosemary's Baby, though, since again we have here a tight narrative focused on a central female character who is the protagonist of the story, and its prime victim.

Indeed, the general contours of the plot of The Stepford Wives closely follow that of Rosemary's Baby — a couple move to a new place, the man is drawn into a group from which the woman is excluded, and becomes part of a sinister plot being hatched against her.

In other ways it's dramatically different, though. Here we have the suburbs versus the city (ironically, one reason Joanna Eberhart has left New York City for Stepford, Connecticut, is because she thinks it will be safer); science fiction versus supernatural horror; and a mother who is run off her feet looking after two kids versus a young woman dreaming of starting a family.

Also, Joanna's husband Walter is an attorney, not an actor like Rosemary's husband Guy — although arguably that makes both of them trained and professional liars.

Initially Stepford is idyllic: "The day was vivid and gem-edged, a signal of autumn," and Joanna and Walter are soon sitting on the porch of their new house at the end of the day savouring the "cool blue dusk twanging with crickets."

Then Walter disappears to visit a male neighbour and Joanna crosses her the lawn as night comes on, to invite the housewife next door over for coffee. "'Thanks, I'd like to,' Carol said, 'but I have to wax the family-room floor.'"
At night? thinks Joanna, experiencing the first tremor of the strangeness of Stepford...

A strangeness which will come to centre on the Men's Association with its high fence — "'To keep women out.'" Joanna wisecracks, not realising she's stumbled on a deep, dark truth.

"'I like to watch women doing little domestic chores," is the chilling remark of one Dale Coba. ("'You came to the right town,'" replies our spunky heroine.) 
Coba is president of the Men's Association, and like Guy in Rosemary's Baby, or Bud in A Kiss Before Dying, he's the smiling, self-regarding psychopath who won't hesitate to make a woman his victim.

Near the end of the book Joanna is invited to visit the Men's Association and inspect its premises. She says, "'I wouldn't set foot in there without an armed guard... Of women soldiers.'"

The Stepford Wives is simultaneously rivettingly sinister and laugh-out-loud funny — one hell of an accomplishment — as Joanna begins to realise just how odd Stepford is.

"'This is Zombieville!'" announces her new friend Bobbie, who has also come to realise, "'Something fishy is going on here! We're in the Town That Time Forgot!'"

But that's before Bobbie becomes one of them...

The Stepford Wives is plotted so deftly and with such precision that it's awe inspiring. The unravelling of a terrifying conspiracy is cunningly layered among the domestic trivia of everyday family life.

Stephen King is right when he says "Levin is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel."

Levin is also the master of the subtle, potent little moment, such as Walter hesitating to kiss Bobbie after she's undergone her transformation, like Guy avoiding Rosemary after the devil has had her — he knows what has been done.

Towards the end of the book the suspense becomes unbearable as Joanna makes a determined attempt to leave Stepford and her husband digs in his heels. My stomach ached with sympathy for her plight. Indeed I grew so angry I had to put the book down.

But you can be damned sure I picked it up again and read hungrily to the end.

I don't want to specify the exact nature of the threat against Joanna, although right on page 1 of the edition I read, the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk let's the cat out of the bag (as do some of the covers of the foreign language editions I researched for illustrating this post).

Whether or not you already know the dark secret of Stepford and its Men's Association, I urge you to read this perfectly crafted short novel. It is an exquisitely rendered masterpiece of suspense — and also a scalding piece of social criticism which is, sadly, as relevant as ever.

(Image credits: The British hardback Michael Joseph edition, with an excellent black and white photo by John Evans, and the American hardcover with the Paul Bacon painting of nine women's faces, are both scanned from my own library. The others covers I pillaged from a healthy selection — though, as noted, some contain outrageous spoilers — at Good Reads.)

Sunday 13 January 2019

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

It's hard to believe I'd never read this before, but H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is so pervasive in our culture that it seems intimately familiar even if you've never opened the cover of the book.

This is a tale told through the agency of a first person narrator who remains nameless. (I know a thing or two about this approach, since it's exactly the one I take with my own Vinyl Detective novels.) Indeed, most of the characters in this book are nameless, being defined instead by their job — the servant, the artilleryman, the curate, etc.

Wells is highly visual writer. And highly effective. Here is the second Martian ship landing: "a star fell from heaven into the pine woods to the northwest. It had a greenish colour, and caused a silent brightness like summer lightning."

And as the Martians burn a village they send a "smoky red flame leaping up above the houses... against the hot, blue sky." 

One of the really striking things about the book is the complacent normality of the humans — everybody going about their business as if nothing is wrong — which precedes the big Martian attack. Wells brilliantly achieves a contrast between the strangeness and savagery of the alien invasion with the peace and normality it disturbs.

Strangeness and savagery indeed. Wells describes the Martian heat ray as "this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat." And the troops approaching the Martians are "simply swept out of existence." Then the alien invaders attack human populations with their black smoke — a lethal gas —  “as men might smoke out a wasps’ nest.”

This is an accomplished and surprising novel — surprising because it focuses as much on the repercussions of the Martian invasion as on the invaders themselves. Most of the book, and certainly the most powerful scenes, concern the chaos and panic and flood of refugees caused by the advance of the Martians, long before the Martians themselves arrive on the scene.
(The 2005 Spielberg movie version, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, was distinctive because it emphasised this aspect of Wells' book.)

The collapse of social order here is horrific and striking: "the police... were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect ... my brother... had the luck to be foremost in the sack of a cycle shop."

Incidentally, the brother who loots the bicycle is an inspired device. By giving his narrator in the countryside this sibling in London, Wells neatly doubles his narrative possibilities and expands his locations.

Which brings us to another of the novel's great strengths, setting each horrific vignette of the invasion in an authentic locale — the use of real place names adds immeasurably to the impact: "the burning country towards Chobham... Regent's Canal, a spongy mass of dark-red vegetation... By midday a Martian had been seen at Barnes." (I live near Barnes!)

It's amazing how quickly civilization falls apart, with looting everywhere and ruthless profiteers ferrying refugees across the English Channel — for a steep price. Victorian readers must have been scandalised at this (no doubt accurate) forecast of what would happen in such a situation.

The Martians' progress is relentless, terrifying, an unstoppable advance — and they just keep on landing reinforcements. In this, and many other respects, the book is engrossingly and vividly and powerfully written.

It's 90 pages before some soldiers finally — and very briefly — score a hit with their artillery against the invaders"The shell burst clean in the face of the Thing. The hood bulged, flashed, was whirled off in a dozen tattered fragments of red flesh and glittering metal ... The decapitated colossus reeled like a drunken giant." 

This sequence provides a tremendous emotional release for the reader after all the endless defeats and atrocities inflicted by the Martians on us humans. But it's short lived... fighting the invaders with our weapons is like "bows and arrows against the lightning," as the artilleryman remarks, bleakly and accurately.

In case you're not familiar with this brilliant novel, I won't give away the ultimate secret of the Martian's defeat.

But I will mention the savage satisfaction I felt about reading about the fallen Martians being eaten by dogs and birds — "the gnawed gristle of the Martian that the dogs had left... shreds of brown, at which the hungry birds pecked and tore."

Even after the invasion has been stopped and the last invader is dead, the Martians continue to exert a threat, though. The attempts by human scientists to learn the secrets of their weapons results in "the terrible disasters at the Ealing and South Kensington laboratories." 

This is a fabulous and frightening book.

(Image credits: The wonderful Edward Gorey cover is from my own library. If you're looking for a copy to read I'd highly recommend this handsome, strikingly illustrated pocket-sized hardcover edition published by New York Review Books. All the other images are from Good Reads where I found a greater choice of covers than I've ever seen for any other book. I've hardly scratched the surface of this treasure hoard with my selection here. I particularly like the vintage 1954 Pocket Book with its George Pal movie cover and the wildly irrelevant H.R. Giger-style sexy Greek one.)

Sunday 6 January 2019

Susan Slept Here (the play) by Gottleib & Fisher

When the festive season rolls around I'm one of those people who has a ritual of watching a favourite Christmas movie. 

Which in my case happens to be an oddball and hilarious Technicolor RKO gem entitled Susan Slept Here. 

It's the story of an author with writer's block. On Christmas Eve a policeman acquaintance of his called Hanlon turns up with his partner and reminds our hero that he wanted to write a masterpiece about teenage crime (a big thing in America in the 1950s). 

So, to help the writer with his research, here is a Christmas present: a 17 year old criminal (the fashionable term is juvenile delinquent) called Susan. The cop is soft-hearted enough not to want the kid to spend Christmas in jail.

And he figures he can kill two birds with one stone, by dumping Susan on the writer — just for a day or two. Then they will collect her and put her in the slammer, but at least she will have spent the holidays free and the writer will have his story. 

As the cops leave, Hanlon's partner Maizel reminds our hero that Susan is under age: "Lay a hand on her and that's all, brother."

The writer has no intention of laying a hand on her. But this being a romantic comedy, he and Susan will end up married and living happily ever after...

I've already posted about the film, which has a memorably witty — and rather transgressive — script by Alex Gottleib, adapted from a stage play co-written by Gottleib and Steve Fisher.

This year when I watched the movie for the umpteenth time I was struck by the idea — rather late in arriving, it has to be said — that maybe I should try and track down the stage play version.

I assumed this would be difficult, if not impossible. To my joyful astonishment, it turned out all I had to do was push a button on Amazon. A few days later a copy of the play was in my hot little hands.

Comparing the movie and the play is utterly fascinating. There are many differences between the two, starting with the writer's name — Mark in the movie, Joe in the play. And in the movie he's a screenwriter, in the stage play, a playwright — naturally enough.

A lot of the best parts of the movie — and some of the best characters, like the writer's shrink — are entirely absent from the play.

Conversely, many of the finest moments are present in both. As when the writer's gorgeous but cold hearted girlfriend Isabella (seen here in cat-woman specs) turns up at Mark's and finds the two cops in attendance. 

They explain they're from the vice squad and she quips, "My favourite squad." Which is my favourite line.

There are huge differences, however. The writer's African American maid Georgette is reduced to a smiling cypher in the movie. In the play she's quite a  three dimensional, not to mention stereotype-shattering character.

For instance, she's only working as a domestic servant to pay her tuition at UCLA. "I'm a psychology major and I'm a Phi Betta Kappa," she tells the cops. In response to the latter disclosure, Maizel confidently explains to his partner, "That's a coloured fraternity." (It is in fact the highest academic distinction at an American university.)

Hanlon, the other cop, is also short-changed in the movie. In both versions he knows the writer because he previously helped him with research. But in the play Hanlon is himself an aspiring, and pretentious, would-be writer, which is a lot more fun.

The play and the movie are each quite daring in their own way. Both feature the character of Virgil, who is the hero's friend and also his sort of factotum, valet and writing assistant (amusingly, he used to be the writer's commanding office in the navy).

In the film there is the suggestion (quite unfounded) that Virgil has knocked Susan up — which leads to the writer punching him in the jaw.

In the play, on the other hand, Virgil's sexuality is called into question. "I always figured he was a swish," says Hanlon — which leads to a cherishable moment of outrage from Virgil.

In between the romantic comedy hi-jinks, there's some delectable reflections on the craft of writing. "Do you think a good plot helps a story?" asks Susan. "Well — it sort of rounds it out," says our hero. In both the movie and the play.

And in both the movie and the play, ultimately Susan and the writer end up together. As they disappear into the bedroom, Virgil tactfully makes an exit — he's going back into the navy.

But before he leaves, he makes sure that the lovebirds won't be disturbed. In the film, he switches off the oven, to make sure the forgotten roast doesn't turn into a fire hazard. 

In the play, he takes the phone off the hook.

If you want to see how to take a stage play and open it up for the big screen, taking extravagant liberties with it, yet utterly retaining its essence, then you couldn't find a better case study than Susan Slept Here. The DVD (or Blu-Ray) are currently easily available, and so is the play script. Check them out.

(Image credits: The cool black and white German press book is from the bookshop Antiquariat Heinz Tessin via ABE.Two of the colour screen grabs (Susan in her rain hat with Mark and dressed to the nines with Mark on the balcony) are from an informative article on the excellent Cineaste Magazine site. The tinted lobby card is from Royal Books. The cover of the recent Samuel French edition is from my own library. The earlier Samuel French edition is from Book Douban. The red and white poster and the other colour screen grabs — Catwoman Isabella, Susan dreamily listening to the radio — are from Cinema Clock, where Susan is cruelly, if accurately, described as "jail bait". The full colour poster at a funny angle is from Night Hawk News. The black and white still is from the Movie Poster Shop.)