Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nice paper things with words in them

I spent a great deal of my overeducated and underemployed 20s looking for intellectual science fiction to read. By which I meant, in effect, authors like Brian Aldiss or Mike Moorcock who incorporated elements of science, philosophy, and literary modernism into their books. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd discovered Robert Sheckley back then - I probably never would have got a job at all.

Anyway, I've just finished reading Sheckley's book The Journey of Joenes (it was also published under another title, Journey Beyond Tomorrow.) Try this for a description: written by Sheckley in the 1960s, it's the biography of a 21st century historical figure, Joenes, as told by several Pacific storytellers, as compiled by an anonymous editor. As you might guess it's an extremely unreliable history, an even more unreliable future and, because the future being described in the novel is in part the present, it's a very unreliable present indeed. For one thing, apparently the Soviets are still in power, in this version of the future as imagined by Sheckley. That's a pretty common mistake for science fiction writers in the 60s, though what's nice about this is that Sheckley's style, in the Journey, is virtually made of mistakes, and mistaken interpretations of previous mistakes: so it just adds to the fun.

Here's one of my favourite passages - though it's hard to select one favourite passage out of a book that's full of them:

It is sad to relate that as Joenes flew over California an automatic radar station identified his jet as an invader and fired a number of air-to-air missiles at it. This tragic incident marked the opening phase of the great war.... Joenes jet, in the meantime, had expended its entire armament.
But it had not lost the guile its planners had built into it. It switched its radio to the missile-dispatching frequency and broadcast an alarm, declaring itself under attack and naming the airborne missiles at enemy targets to be destroyed.
These tactics met with some success. A number of the older, more simple-minded missiles would not destroy a craft they considered their own. The newer, more sophisticated missiles, however, had been alerted to just such an attempt on the part of the enemy. Therefore they pressed the attack, while the older missiles fiercely defended the solitary jet.

That's it!


Blandwagon said...

Coincidentally enough, I just re-read Sheckley's 'Dimension of Miracles' a few nights ago. It was published in 1968, when sociopolitical absurdism was at its height. Nowadays, of course, such absurdism just makes it look rather twee.

TimT said...

Well they don't call me Tim Twee for nothing. I must look out for that.

Sheckley's style does fall flat on occasion, but when he gets things right his writing is marvellous.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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