In a recent interview, Kurt Vonnegut rated his latest novel, Deadeye Dick, at B-. The gesture is disarming, and no doubt his critics will conclude that he has got it just about right. But if we start from the tacit assumption that Deadeye Dick is not a masterpiece, whether or not it becomes a best-seller, we can concentrate our minds on what it is that makes Vonnegut’s style of storytelling so distinctively beguiling. Vonnegut himself is there to tell us, in his author’s preface, what we can expect as a dividend from our reading: some of his favourite recipes (not to be taken literally), a passing glance at one or two of his favourite pictures, and a vicarious stay at one of his most cherished hotels – the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti. Since he has been so generous and direct with us, he might at least have let us in on a further secret – one of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. He might have explained to us, confidentially, that fiction is a machine for taking away guilt.
The strategy is unmistakable. Catastrophe haunts the pages of Deadeye Dick. But catastrophe is continually neutralised, caught up as it is in the shifting perspectives of the picaresque. The psychiatrist Winnicott cites the case of a psychotic who trembles in anticipation of a catastrophe which has already taken place. As readers of Vonnegut, we celebrate the knowledge that, in this fictional world at any rate, nothing cataclysmic takes place that will not finally be redeemed and retrieved. As the self-educated inventor Fred T. Barry assures our eponymous hero: ‘Human being [sic] always treat blizzards as though they were the end of the world.’ But the raging storms that have swept over the plains of the Middle West are due to vanish without trace, or without significant trace. ‘This will all melt in a few days or weeks ... and it will turn out that everybody is all right, and nothing much got hurt. You’ll hear on the news that so-and-so many people were killed by the blizzard, but they would have died anyway.’ Even when a neutron bomb devastates the entire region of Midland City, Ohio, the same sanguine response is offered by the hero:
So nobody lives in Midland City, Ohio, anymore. About one hundred thousand people died. That was roughly the population of Athens during the Golden Age of Pericles. That is twothirds of the population of Katmandu.
**And I do not see how I can get out of asking this question: Does it matter to anyone or anything that all these peepholes were closed so suddenly? Since all the property is undamaged, has the world lost anything it loved?
Kurt Vonnegut’s confidential message is beginning to come across to us. Fêted with descriptions of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, pampered with recipes for anything from ‘Eggs à la Rudy Waltz’ to ‘Haitian fresh fish in coconut cream’, we begin to become aware of a strange and subtle principle of economy which is at work. Rudy Waltz, alias Deadeye Dick, has been landed with his opprobrious nickname because of a regrettable accident which took place in his childhood: the nickname celebrates ironically the fact that he shot a pregnant woman dead, with a shot discharged at random out of the cupola of the family home. But it is the very guilt which attaches to this random and intrinsically absurd event that spurs Deadeye Dick to culinary creation, and eventually to dramatic art. When he arrives in Greenwich Village to supervise the premiere of the play he has written, it is to discover that his former personality had been based on the acknowledgment of guilt, and the attempt to make appropriate recompense. In Greenwich Village, this construction of identity is abandoned:
Suddenly nobody knew that I was remarkable for having shot and killed a pregnant woman. I felt like a gas which had been confined in a labelled bottle for years, and which had now been released into the atmosphere.
**I no longer cooked. It was Deadeye Dick who was always trying to nourish back to health those he had injured so horribly.
**I no longer cared about the play. It was Dead-eye Dick, tormented by guilt in Midland City, who had found old John Fortune’s quite pointless death in Katmandu, as far away from his hometown as possible, somehow magnificent.
Would we have a novel, then, if there were no authorial guilt to be discharged? The question is a blunt one, and yet it gains in significance if we compare Deadeye Dick with Max Frisch’s elegant little novella, Bluebeard. For Max Frisch is cleverly exploiting the displacement of guilt as a plot device. A middle-aged doctor who has had so many wives as to merit the name in the title is accused of murdering one of them, as a result of circumstantial evidence which points to his guilt. The convention of the judicial investigation, with its short, sharp questions and its indiscreet probing of an unlikely life, is used to explore the network of clues and tell-tale incidents that is the structure of any detective story. In the end, however, the truth of the investigation, which leads to the conviction of a quite different person, is supplanted by the intrinsic momentum of the fiction: the doctor himself acknowledges the appellation of Bluebeard by a false confession, and a self-inflicted death. Almost exactly the opposite to what happens in Deadeye Dick has taken place. Bluebeard, through its tight, teleological construction, subjects its central character to an absurdist destiny. Deadeye Dick undermines plot and character construction through its persistent and irrepressible exuberance: public catastrophe and private guilt are swept along in the stream of Vonnegut’s ingenious prose.
Of course, the generic explanation for this difference would be that Deadeye Dick is a work of Science Fiction, albeit in a muted form. Colin Greenland’s informative and entertaining study of the genre, titled The Entropy Exhibition, allows us to locate Vonnegut’s central preoccupations within a rich and specific tradition. Entropy can be tolerated, Vonnegut seems to be saying, since ‘man and the universe are no less meaningful for being absolutely finite.’ Apocalypse is a prospect that cannot be taken absolutely seriously, since history as a meaningful succession of events has not even had time to get going: as we learn in the last sentence of Deadeye Dick, ‘the Dark Ages – they haven’t ended yet.’ Faced with this ambiguous situation, the novelist’s attitude to character becomes correspondingly ambivalent. Deadeye Dick puts us immediately in mind of the Science Fiction writer’s consistent fascination with the idea of the mutant, or, as Greenland puts it, the ‘cybernetic cuckoo’. Whichever way you look at him, Deadeye Dick has to be classed as a mutant. A relation describes him paradoxically as the ‘idiot savant’. But he prefers to think of himself as a ‘neuter’ – ‘certain as I was that almost anything desirable was likely to be booby-trapped’.
A mutant, or a ‘cybernetic cuckoo’, at the centre of a novel inevitably causes mayhem. But set your cyborg in the context of an old-fashioned, morally weighty dilemma; endow your central character with an appropriate range of human hopes and fears; and you will have the recipe for a Science Fiction story by Stanislaw Lem. But what you will not have, at this stage, is the extraordinarily supple and vivid narrative style of Lem himself, which has required the services of no less than three translators for More Tales of Pirx the Pilot and is fully worthy of such an effort. Colin Greenland writes in his study that Science Fiction ‘can often seem flawed by an intrinsic incompatibility between the language of science and the language of fiction’, but that a writer like J.G. Ballard is able to perform a kind of ‘alchemy’ by amalgamating ‘sonorous, emotive words with categorical terms from the sciences’. Lem also possesses this superlative skill. The pyrotechnic parade of specialised terms and unfamiliar sensations is never gratuitous, and we willingly submit to being buffeted by the kinaesthetic effects of space travel and planetary exploration, in the knowledge that we will be rewarded by a brief moment of epiphany:
There are times when the human eye can behave like a camera lens, when a momentarily but brilliantly cast image can be not merely recalled but meticulously reconstructed as vividly as if viewed in the present. Minutes later, I could still visualise the surface of that colossus in the flare’s afterglow, its kilometers-long sides not smooth but pocked, almost lunar in texture; the way the light had spilled over its corrugated rills, bumps and craterlike cavities – scars of its interminable wandering, dark and dead as it had entered the nebulae, from which it had emerged centuries later, dust-eaten, and ravaged by the myriad bombardments of cosmic erosion. I can’t explain my certainty, but I was sure that it sheltered no living soul, that it was a billion-year-old carcass, no more alive than the civilisation that gave birth to it.
Both Lem’s technical capacities and – even more decidedly – his ethic of a belated, humanistic professionalism put one in mind of Kipling, whose splendid Science Fiction story, ‘With the Night Mail’, anticipates this collection much more clearly than the conventionally cited sources. Pirx the Pilot anthropomorphises the universe: his glimpse of the ‘billion-year-old carcass’ causes a tremor of recognition to pass from our solar system to another, inconceivably far removed. Pirx the Pilot even humanises the cyborg: that is to say, he is tempted to when the adventure yarns of ‘The Accident’ and ‘The Hunt’ bring him face to face with the possibility of free will and moral awareness being inexplicably generated by the electronic brain. In the longest and most absorbing story, ‘The Inquest’, Pirx is faced with the same problem in an inverted form: how to test the capacities of the perfectly convincing cyborg pilot by creating an emergency in which his true ‘nature’ will reveal itself.
It is worth saying (and Michael Moorcock, the chief focus of Greenland’s study, was evidently never tired of saying it) that Science Fiction hoists itself up from the general mass of popular literature only by a positive effort of style. Beside Stanislaw Lem, an Old Master in this respect, we can legitimately place the more recently achieved mastery of George Turner, whose ironically titled Yesterday’s Men is the third of a trilogy of novels set in the world of the 21st century. Ingenuity in devising new types of midway meeting between man and machine is at a premium in Turner’s work. Peter Corrigan, whose mission in the jungles of New Guinea forms the backbone of the narrative, actually is a camera: that is to say, he has only to look at a scene in order to register it, and subcutaneous circuits enable him to store his footage with maximum economy. His batman, Dunbar, however, is a very much rarer specimen, bearing a not altogether transparent relationship to the Early Modern Scottish poet of the same name and blessed with a kind of immortality which Corrigan (being, we are told, an Anglican) must find puzzling. Third of the protagonists, Sergeant Bailey is, as far as can be determined, an unadulterated human: and it comes as no surprise that this ordinary soldier bears the brunt of the action, and comes through with credit. Not for nothing does the author cite Kipling’s ‘Tommy Atkins’ in his epigraph.
The other text quoted at this point is from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Religion and Literature’: ‘It is not enough to understand what we ought to be, unless we know what we are.’ George Turner does not use this serious recommendation idly. For he has tried to write a novel in which the eudaimonist predictions of early Science Fiction are turned on their head. No longer is the world of the future contrasted programmatically with the contemporary scene. Instead, the men of the 21st century determine to reconstruct, for experimental purposes, the conditions of warfare in New Guinea during the period of the Second World War. History, being no longer available to them through continuity of development, is re-created as a kind of Utopia. The insufficiency of a universal ‘Ethical Culture’ creates an imperative need to witness, vicariously, the behaviour of fighting men under intolerable conditions. Even the apparently all-wise, all-knowing intelligence expert Caselli diagnoses the ‘beastliness flourishing below the surface of universal tolerance’, and says to himself: ‘I cease to believe that these hypocrisies and self-deceptive scurryings are germane to the sweep of history.’
Yet, when it seemed that the deserved end of man must be some final snarl of contempt from its bloodstained Jehovah, there appeared a hapless Jonesey, a dedicated Kaputin, a cheerfully iconoclastic Leonard or a floundering, willing-to-be-honest Corrigan. Or a genuinely heroic, loving, exasperated, exalted and yet down-to-earth Bailey. Then it became difficult not to hope that some day these terrible meek would inherit their desecrated Earth.
Singled out in this way, the sentiment could well appear trite. But the dense texture of Turner’s narrative, his capacity for making concrete both the familiar and the strange, contribute a real solidity to his guiding ideas. Greenland’s study notes, with reference to Brian Aldiss, the need for Science Fiction to outgrow a vapid Utopianism. George Turner takes the detour of futurology to persuade us that we will never be much better than we are.
Equally telling evidence of the crisis of Utopianism can be found in the latest novel by a veteran of Science Fiction, Harry Harrison’s Rebel in Time. Where George Turner ventures into the future for an experimental re-creation of mid-20th-century warfare, Harrison exploits that valuable generic resource, the time machine, in order to construct a narrative on two historical levels: that of contemporary America, and that of the American Civil War. As Colin Greenland reminds us, Harrison has already gone on record as a student of the theories of J.W. Dunne. He has suggested that we might envisage time not as ‘a single and uni-directional drift’ but as ‘an ever-branching tree with countless possible futures’. This concept allows him to circumvent the central paradox of Rebel in Time, and indeed of all fictional situations which posit the possibility of travel in time. We may be secure in the knowledge that the North defeated the South in the American Civil War. But this does not stop a deranged American army officer from using the time machine to try and forestall the repugnant result. Nor does it absolve the ruthlessly alert black security investigator from having to pursue him into the middle of the 19th century. In the particular future which we inhabit, the North may have emerged victorious. But the Confederate colonel can tip the balance for an alternative universe of victors and vanquished.
The idea is ingenious, and it is carefully worked out. But a corresponding sacrifice has to be made. Harry Harrison never achieves the stylistic intensity of Lem or Turner. For Lem, even the description of robots and machines is sustainedly lyrical; for Harrison, the all-important time machine is little more than ‘this billion dollar hunk of highly complicated apparatus’. Where Turner gives each of his characters a recognisable moral physiognomy, Harrison expects us to be content with the information that ‘Doctor Kleiman looked very much like the classic image of the scientist.’ This reliance on cliché and stereotype is echoed in the simplistic message of the novel. Obviously it has to be regarded as a good thing that the North defeated the South, and obviously the black sergeant can take credit for ensuring that this result holds good in all possible worlds. But the way in which this conflict is made relevant to the present is oddly unsatisfactory. Pressed to reveal the future to his benefactor, an emigrant Scottish Wykehamist, the sergeant can only answer flabbily:
It is not a bad future. There will be wars, but your country will remain sound and free. The world will change, physically that is, with machines everywhere. No beasts, the horses will vanish from the streets. The cities, all concrete and steel and pavings. But people will remain very much the same. Let it stop here, please.
Of course, one sees the author’s point. Our own modern age is not of such consuming interest to the contemporary reader as the future is to the mid-19th-century Wykehamist. But that simply illustrates the danger when Science Fiction mutates into a historical novel. Instead of the vivid conflicts of a Brave New World, we have a struggle between forces, whose beneficial outcome has already been settled. For the historical novel to have a critical bearing on the events of the present, it should presumably espouse the values of the cause that did not succeed.
These observations can perhaps be taken as relevant to Peter Vansittart’s Three Six Seven. Subtitled ‘Memoirs of a Very Important Man’, it is of course concerned with the fortunes of a type to which posterity has accorded hardly any importance at all: Drusus Antonius Muras is a Roman merchant living in Silchester during the last century of the occupation, who hitches his wagon to the Imperial chariot of Magnus Maximus, and falls finally into disgrace with the defeat of his patron. He survives the fateful year of the title, in which Picts, Scots, Scanians, Brigantes and other barbarians press south into the fat lands of Roman Britain. He carries out a personal mission to the Imperial Court at Trier, as a result of which the Spanish general Theodosius and Magnus Maximus himself are despatched to make a show of military strength on British soil. His embroilment in the personal rivalries of the Imperial claimants is reluctant though inevitable, since his ambition was to prove to Magnus Maximus that Britain could be a fortress richer and more secure than the heartlands of the Empire.
As in most of the best historical novels, the central character is a fiction, and the historical figures glimpsed from his point of view gain (as Barthes put it) a more ‘exact weight of reality’ from being ‘painted on the décor’ rather than appearing on the stage in their own right. This is how we learn of the disembarkation of Theodosius and Magnus Maximus at Richborough, an event witnessed by the Roman official Valentinus, whose unsuccessful revolt against the Imperial power will shortly be suppressed by the charismatic duo:
Despite glistening cloak woven with wolf-heads and stars, Valentinus, with his fifty, was negligible, made to stand with thousands as shields clashed, arms were reversed, for, preceded by a dwarf bearing a stark white cross, three men were now leaving the admiral’s deck as if stepping out of the low sun. Two were tall, bareheaded, with the scarlet cloaks of generals, one of them with the gilded criss-cross leggings and belt of Imperial Companion, a massive gold torque at his throat. The third, somewhat behind them, was another Theodosius, the Count’s young son, leading a troop of bristling giants, at whom a gasp went up, for they were black Ethiopians. Then we were all roaring, as Theodosius stood safe on the quay, and, emerging from the crowds, came a file of white-robed priests bearing a high ebony crucifix, before which the two generals briefly knelt, the men from the sun.
It is marvellous as ‘décor’. But it is much more than that. Peter Vansittart has not only plundered the written and archaeological sources for the last century of Roman Britain, and described with great subtlety the religious and cultural conflicts which raged in the years immediately following the Imperial reign of Julian the Apostate. He has also found exactly the right technical means for communicating this wealth of material: a series of ‘memoirs’ which vary between set-piece scene and rapid narration, courting the archaisms of a ‘Roman’ (or Tacitean) style only just so much as will keep us alive to the ‘strangeness’ of the historical milieu. Flaubert confessed after the composition of Salammbô: ‘How sad one had to be to try and resuscitate Carthage.’ By contrast, Peter Vansittart appears to have carried out his task with a genuine relish. We sense not only the rich cultural domain which imperial decline left exposed to destruction, but the perennial issue of Britain’s equivocal connection to the rest of Europe.