Monday, 28 September 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Philip K. Dick.

This is, of course, the novel which was later filmed by Ridley Scott as 'Bladerunner', and it is easy to see the appeal to film-makers. The post-apocalyptic squalor (characterised by Dick as a relentless build up of detritus, or 'kibble') is a dystopian cinematographer's dream. The theme of a bounty hunter who is suffering doubts about his profession was not new in 1968 when the novel was first published, but the fact that his prey are androids and that Rick Deckard is experiencing a form of empathy with them is a thought-provoking take on it. Scott's film plays this up to such an extent that debates have raged ever since about whether Deckard himself is a replicant (as the androids were called for the big screen).
Here there is no such confusion, despite the attempts of Rachel Rosen, the epitome of sophisticated android intelligence, to convince him that he might be a machine too. Deckard even has a wife and, for a painfully brief time, a real live goat, instead of the electronic sheep which causes him secret shame and drives his need to 'retire' six highly dangerous androids and reap a huge bonus.
Underlying the novel, as is often the case with Dick's work, are questions of what it is to be alive: do we embrace and therefore fully experience our existence, or do we allow fears, distractions, the opinions of others, the need to pay bills, etc; do we allow all this to dampen our sensations and lessen the quality of our lives? Not for nothing does Deckard note that 'Most androids I've known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife.' If an android is capable of independent thought, if it is capable of fearing for its own life, then how exactly is it different from human beings besides the fact that beneath its organic skin it needs electronics to animate it? It could be argued that we're all somewhat android anyway - what is it that actually makes our heart beat and pump blood around the body if not an electrical charge?
When it comes to dispatching the renegade androids there are no glorious last words from Roy Baty, as there are in the film adaptation, but this does not make the novel a lesser entity. It is the fact that in the end Baty and his friends just give in to their fate that stays with the reader. Dick is clearly fascinated with decay, with the dying of the American Dream, of Enlightenment thinking itself. For the author there is something beautiful, even inspirational about the potential failure of Rationalism. We wake up, we go to work, we come home, we sleep. Unless we question the why and the wherefore of our daily lives, Dick is telling us, we might as well be pre-programmed androids shuffling from one mindless task to the next.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

Having read several so-called modern classics recently and been rather disappointed (Scarlett Thomas, step forward), I am delighted to have finally got round to reading my first Murakami novel and being swept up in the meandering, bizarre narrative.

‘Kafka On The Shore’ starts out as the story of ‘Kafka’ Tamura, a fifteen year old who has run away from his home in Tokyo to escape the clutches of a father he perceives of as overbearing and vindictive. The tale of Mr Nakata, an apparent simpleton who can talk to cats, becomes woven around and gradually into Kafka’s story as the novel twists and turns more times than a grass snake with muscle spasms.

What unfolds is a tightly managed epic, a sort of 21st century quest narrative that ponders the nature of time, of existence, and the power of music upon the human soul along the way. Masterfully translated by Philip Gabriel, Murakami’s novel delivers whimsical, baffling yet credible characters who seem to exist in a world which is slightly out of synch with the rest of Japan. Yet this is their charm: they are unlike anyone you may have read before (unless you’re familiar with Murakami’s other work, I assume).

Great writers understand the value of focusing on the fine details and also on allowing the broad brush strokes to create atmosphere and authenticity. ‘Kafka On The Shore’ is like an object lesson in the art of the novelist: it keeps you guessing all the way to the end; it is full of beautiful descriptive passages; the characters are unfathomable but entirely lovable. Not since the first time I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ have I felt so compelled to read a novel again the moment I have reached the final page.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury

The first thing that strikes me on rereading this 1954 science-fiction classic is how modern it feels. From the diatribe against an education system which equates to 'a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottoms, and them telling us it's wine when it's not' to the recognition that people no longer talk about anything, just mouth cultural reference points at one another, Bradbury could have been writing about early twenty-first century existence as much as he was critiquing aspects of the post war generation.
The narrative focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman. In the near future Bradbury imagines all homes to be fireproof and it is the job of the fire department not to put out fires but to start them. Books have been banned: they make people think too much, question too much. Just as Plato once banished all the poets from the republic for 'spreading untruths' so Bradbury's future society have encouraged the outlawing of novels, poetry and religious scripture. Montag and the other firemen burn the books and houses of those discovered to be hoarding them.
After meeting a curious and free-thinking neighbour, a teenage girl called Clarisse, Montag begins to question his vocation and the entire structure of the culture he finds himself a part of. Subtly underlying Montag's story are hints of encroaching war with an unnamed enemy country. Thus, as Montag's rebellion against his profession turns to outright revolt and the need to escape the city, the presence of war draws ever nearer. Once Montag has escaped the city and discovered there are other dissidents who have all gathered memories of book in their heads, the war begins and the symbolism of burning fully takes over. His home city and, it seems, countless cities across the country, possibly across the globe, are destroyed in the fire and death wrought by atomic weapons. Just as book-burning promised to purge the human race of anti-social thoughts and drives, so this huge-scale city-burning presumably purges the race of such huge numbers of people that it might be possible for Montag and the dissidents to contribute towards rebuilding a society which does not fear free thinking but rewards it. The narrative acknowledges such a society cannot promise utopia but it can promise personal freedom on a scale previously impossible in the conformist nightmare Bradbury has depicted:
'Stuff your eyes with as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that...shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.'
Bradbury once said that his science-fiction was not an attempt to predict the future but to prevent it. Yet this vision of a people glued to their huge television screens, with their ears permanently stuffed with 'seashell' earpieces connecting them to the world and to their friends; this vision bears too many similarities to today's society for safe assumptions that this is a future safely prevented.