Robert Rankin

Story a day update, Dirk Gently, and Peter Tinniswood

In the first 6 days of March I wrote just over 5000 words, spread among 5 different stories – not bad for an arbitrary self-assigned task, and the wordcount doesn’t include the copious notes I’ve made on what happens between the point I reached and the end of the tale. I’d been hoping for one or two completed flash pieces; all the topics I’ve tackled so far seem to warrant a longer work than that but I’ve still got over 3 weeks left.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC iplayer I’ve watched the first episode in the new Dirk Gently series. If you approach it not as a follow-up to the incomparable Douglas Adams novels but as a programme of the sort that a Douglas Adams reader may enjoy, it’s well worth a watch. Gently and MacDuff are well cast, the plot was suitably convoluted, silly, but with a twisted logic to it, and there were a few nods to the original. And I do love the fact that he’s still driving that Austin Princess (I actually have a story in my unpublished pile which features a car of that very type – many years ago my dad had an electric blue one).

Also thanks to the iplayer, on which I’ve caught various episodes of Uncle Mort’s South Country and Uncle Mort’s North Country (never in the order they were intended), I read a Peter Tinniswood novel a couple of weeks ago. A Touch of Daniel is the first of his novels featuring the Brandon family, of which Uncle Mort is a member by marriage. Written in the late 1960s and set among working class characters in a northern town, the novel could happily sit alongside better-known classics such as A Kind of Loving or Room at the Top. However, Tinniswood wrote comedy, and comic novels are hard to pull off though he manages it here brilliantly: this is understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best. There are running gags, the on-off-on engagement which put me in mind of Bob and Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a shotgun wedding featuring a most unlikely couple, bizarre deaths and apparent miracles. All wrapped up with a houseful of elderly (and slightly potty) relatives, a staunch mother, wayward father, and taciturn Carter Brandon the put-upon young man at the centre of it all. If you like Robert Rankin and the Likely Lads, you could do worse than read this book.

 

Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

My literary life, or I Blame Douglas Adams

It’s amazing what books influence your life. It might be nice to think some weighty literary tome (or some weighty non-fiction?) had the biggest impact, but if you’re anything like me (which may be a long shot) it’ll have been some light entertainment that you may even dismiss yourself. It just might take you a while to realise it.

Take the mug on my desk now (actually, don’t – I haven’t finished with it yet): it contains camomile and spearmint tea. A couple of years ago OneMonkey and I were both drinking it while reading novels by Philip K Dick, and we commented on how he loves to run words together, usually to make something sound modern and technologically advanced. We should call it camspear, we joked (yes, maybe we should get out more). And we did, and it stuck, and we still do.

Without intentionally ‘making a reference’, I have been known to attribute something unexplained to the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter – Robert Rankin novels have clearly permeated my being.

Mark the artist was talking to me recently about my writing, and I think he must have asked how long my novel Wasted Years is (81,000 words or thereabouts). There then followed a conversation about my early attempts at writing, aged about 16; So long and thanks for all the fish being the volume of the Hitch-hikers trilogy nearest my desk, and said trilogy being apparently my paragon of noveldom at the time, I did a rough wordcount of So long… and that was my target length (45-50,000 words if I remember correctly). Even for Wasted Years (started age 25, and not in the least bit ‘genre’) it was the point at which I hit that wordcount that I felt like I was writing a ‘proper’ novel, despite most fiction being much longer than that now.

For all my attempts at ‘serious’ writing and ‘mainstream’ (non-genre) writing, is it all down to Douglas Adams in the end? Maybe it’s about time I admitted that and started having more fun.

The Well of Lost Plots

Having started with Something Rotten and been largely confused (partly because I didn’t know the plot of Hamlet), I’ve caught up with myself as far as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series goes. The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the series and I think the best I’ve read so far.

A complicated and quite thrilling plot (with very little in the way of those trying-too-hard character names that marred my enjoyment of the first two books), plenty of in-jokes, literary references, and some wonderful ideas and imagery. Unpublished novels where scenery disappears because the author’s decided to use it in his new book; a black market in plot devices; slightly steampunk-esque machinery that transmits images to the reader’s mind… Trying to write a coherent review of this novel is too hard, partly because it’s the third in a series and partly because so much goes on (and not all of it makes sense) so it would be very easy to give things away. As I said to OneMonkey earlier, while I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly, I would say that if you enjoy the works of Douglas Adams or Robert Rankin (leaving aside a Dog Called Demolition) this should probably be on your To Read list.

Reviews from a busy week

This week I’ve read two novels and been to see a film based on a comic so I thought I’d share.

Necrophenia, the most recent Robert Rankin paperback to grace my dad’s bookshelves, was pretty much what you’d expect from the founder of far-fetched fiction. While I wouldn’t perhaps recommend it to those new to Rankin (start at The Antipope and work your way through, would be my advice. Only you needn’t bother with A Dog Called Demolition, as OneMonkey is possibly the only person who’s ever enjoyed it), others with a long-held affection for Rankinesque fantasy will probably enjoy it as much as I did (which is to say quite a bit). The themes and some characters may be familiar (Elvis Presley, rock ‘n’ roll, 1950s private detectives or specifically Lazlo Woodbine and his bar-tending friend Fangio, the Ministry of Serendipity, not to mention the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter. Which he does, twice) and of course it does involve an other-worldly threat to the Earth (not just Brentford) and its inhabitants, which is (almost) thwarted by an unlikely sort of hero, but if you like that sort of thing (which I do) then it’s worth a read as it’s done very well. And he’s really toned down on the swearing these days (not that I particularly minded anyway).

The other book I borrowed from my dad (I’m not being tight, it’s an eco thing. Well OK, but I’m not just being tight) was Lullaby Town by Robert Crais, a 1990s contemporary-set novel featuring LA private detective Elvis Cole. I’ve read a few Elvis Cole novels now, and I like the character (and his friend Joe Pike: cat-loving, vegetarian, largely silent tough guy who wears shades no matter how dark it is), and I usually enjoy the plot (enough human interest without being soft, enough violence to be plausible without straying into brutal). However, the thing that really bothers me is the excess of description – yes I know it might tell you something about the bad guy that he’s wearing green socks with a sharp suit, but when he’s pointing a gun at Elvis Cole I don’t need to know which side his hair’s parted or what make of gun it is. And since it’s written in the first person, are we supposed to believe that Cole has noted all these details in the middle of the action? As usual, all the brand names mean nothing to me so maybe it would be better to say expensive/cheap/mid-range/out-moded rather than relying on all readers being familiar with American brands. That aside, Lullaby Town was a fairly fast and satisfying read: Peter, an immature, self-centred film director wants to find the wife and child he walked out on ten years earlier, before his success – all in a day’s work for Elvis Cole, but then it gets a bit more complicated and Peter learns the hard way that money can’t buy him everything, and dealing with the mafia isn’t as easy as it looks on the big screen.

The film was Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I was expecting good things from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I wasn’t disappointed. Adapted from a series of comics, set in Toronto and full of good music, the film was one of those that leaves you with a buzz for a few hours after you’ve watched it. Although Scott Pilgrim himself mostly just needed a slap, his room-mate Wallace was brilliantly portrayed by Kieran Culkin, and several characters were real enough that they kind of reminded me of people I used to know back when rock music and being cool were major themes of my life. Visually, the comic book and dodgy old pixelated computer game theme worked, though it seemed to be forgotten later on, outside of the fight scenes. It was funny, it was fast-paced, people had superpowers with absolutely no explanation or apology, and it should serve as a self-esteem boost to geeky gawky bass-players everywhere.

Teenage fanclub

Iron Maiden are apparently releasing a new album, and despite having been disappointed by the last two, I know I’ll end up buying it. I do this in the same way as I continue to read each new book by Robert Rankin or Terry Pratchett (and to a lesser and slower extent Stephen King, though I think I’ve missed a couple of his out now). I can’t decide whether it stems from some kind of loyalty, or perhaps even gratitude, to those that sustained me through my teenage years (Iron Maiden and Terry Pratchett having been constants in my life for at least 18 years now, Stephen King for 16 and Robert Rankin for 12), or a hope that each of them (though wavering a little now, at least in my opinion) will hit the mark again and delight me as they once did. It could be nostalgia for lost youth. Or just that I’m always frightened I’m missing something (as my mum’s so fond of pointing out), and I don’t want the album or novel that I don’t buy to be the best they’ve done in years.

Full of cold, surrounded by books

Full of snot and self-pity as I’ve been this week, I’ve been doing a lot of reading when I haven’t been asleep. The main book of the week was The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, which I enjoyed much more than its follow-up The Fourth Bear (I do have a tendency to read books in the wrong order these days, which occasionally gets confusing but now I have an insight into my dad’s approach to Robert Rankin’s Brentford novels, and an even greater respect for his brainpower). I honestly can’t say whether that’s because it’s better, because I’ve read a few Ffordes now and I have greater tolerance for him trying too hard (it’s the really contrived names that get to me), or because I’m not well and was therefore approaching it much less critically and more with a view to a few hours’ amusing diversion.

The Big Over Easy is one of Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division novels, and if you say ‘Humpty Dumpty’s fallen off a wall in Reading and died; DI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary are trying to find out how and why’ it just sounds a bit daft, but in fact it’s a proper gripping detective novel, a bit gruesome in places, full of twists and brilliantly built-up tension. There’s a healthy dose of satire and an affectionate (I assume it’s affectionate) poke at the classic detective canon, as well as quite Rankinesque absurdity (I was going to say Pythonesque, but it’s a lot more internally consistent than that and it does generally follow its own logic). Berkshire is a long-established safe-haven for anthropomorphic animals, apparently, and Reading has a disproportionate number of nursery rhyme characters, all of whom fall under the jurisdiction of Jack Spratt and his tiny underfunded team. And he’s happily married with five children. No wonder no-one takes him seriously as a detective.

Read it if: you like comic fantasy but watch the occasional Poirot; you like detective novels and have a sense of humour that embraces Life of Brian; you are bored, would like your brain exercised in the pursuit of a whodunnit but are sick of depressing, nasty or twisted police-related stories.

Long time writing

Having just read what is apparently the 37th Discworld novel, I was reminded of the problems of writing a series across a number of years. Aside from continuity problems (which I’ve touched on before), there’s the change in style and viewpoint on the part of both the author and the reader. I’ve noticed it with Terry Pratchett before, as well as with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, AS Byatt’s Frederica Potter novels and Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels.

I’m no longer as desperate to read the new Terry Pratchett or Robert Rankin as I once was (though I do still read them all eventually) and I can’t decide whether that’s due to a change on my part or theirs. I’ve been reading Discworld novels for twenty years, and Robert Rankin’s for about a dozen, and it’s pretty safe to say I’ve changed a bit in the meantime. Jokes that cracked me up at fourteen seem a bit worn and juvenile now, and I do sometimes get the impression that they’re doing it because that’s what they do. Rankin at least hasn’t only written one series, but how could you be Terry Pratchett and write, say, space opera? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series seemed to suffer from a waning of enthusiasm, so that to me the final volume felt like it came about because the story needed wrapping up, not because he needed to complete it. I could be wrong about that particular instance (and I apologise to Stephen King if his heart and soul was poured into that novel and I failed to appreciate it. Because of course he’d be reading this…), but I can see how that would happen with a sparse series like that – you start it when you’re young, write a few volumes when you can fit them in over the next couple of decades, then you find you’re not that interested any more but other people are and part of it’s already out there, you can’t leave it unfinished so you tie up the loose ends in some acceptable way, call it done and go back to your main concerns.

Characters change and develop, that’s only natural, but sometimes they become someone else, and you can’t see any plausible path that got them from their first appearance a dozen books ago to where they are now. Modes of speech, opinions, habits are suddenly at odds with what the reader expects. It’s more noticeable for someone who has read the series in concentrated form, discovering it perhaps years after the early volumes were published and catching up in a hurry – the origins are clearer in their mind than in that of the author, for whom book one was half a lifetime ago. Even if the author can get back into the skin of a character, they might not want to, writing instead the character as they would write it from scratch were they to begin today, perhaps with more complexity. But a revised version of the character is not what hooked that reader in the first place; I’ve given up on a series before when I realised while I was waiting for the next installment that I no longer cared what happened to any of the characters.

It took me six years (with some very long gaps) to write Wasted Years (the one I used to refer to as my serial novel), and while OneMonkey and my friend T read it chapter by chapter over the last couple of years, I wouldn’t want anyone else to read it until I’ve gone back and smoothed it out. I’m sure there are some continuity errors (hopefully not as many as the average Philip K Dick novel) but apart from that my style and ability changed (for the better, thankfully) and it’s particularly noticeable where I put the novel aside for a while and wrote other things, honing my craft as it were. I will never understand how Anthony Trollope released novels as serials, writing it from month to month as he went along.

Steampunk?

Visually taken with art and artifacts that get categorized as steampunk, and having enjoyed a few Jules Verne novels as an adolescent, I decided to delve into written steampunk (those dreaded subgenres again). OneMonkey very kindly went off to a not so local library to pick up Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology (Solaris, 2008) and I had high hopes. Unfortunately I was largely disappointed; the definition of steampunk seems vague at best, one story was what I’d class as fantasy (it did feature steam, but that’s stretching things a bit) and most of the rest were greater or lesser Verne clones. Not to say there weren’t some enjoyable stories in there, but I felt there should be something fundamentally different from HG Wells et al. For what it’s worth, I did nevertheless (subgenres aside) enjoy Steampunch by James Lovegrove (a monologue at a penal colony, telling of the rise and fall of robot boxers with enjoyable detail); Speed, Speed the Cable by Kage Baker (the laying of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, in true old-fashioned style including gentlemen’s clubs); Petrolpunk by Adam Roberts (parallel universes and her immortal majesty Queen Victoria); Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer (a fugitive’s fragile new existence disrupted). There were a couple that would no doubt be called feminist but if the gender roles were reversed there’d be an outcry at the portrayal of violence against women, but I’m not going to start on that old rant again.

When I started thinking about steampunk recently, Robert Rankin sprang to mind as an author in that line, but I didn’t think I’d heard anyone call him steampunk. Since then I’ve seen one or two magazines mention Rankin and steampunk in the same breath, and met someone who put me in mind of Hugo Rune who told me Robert Rankin had been the main guest at a recent steampunk convention. So that’s alright then.

Beware of living in the moment

This weekend I’m reading a Doctor Who novel (why do I admit these things?), featuring the eighth doctor (my favourite one, sadly underappreciated) which is, as too many of the recent adventures are, set on Earth in the year it was released (in this case 2004). I would never expect a Doctor Who novel to be a literary classic, but the way the contemporary references are shoehorned in to this one is quite annoying. I was in Britain, in my mid-twenties, in 2004 and yet I still don’t get some of the references – TV programs I’ve heard of, but never seen (haven’t had a TV since March 2002, if I remember correctly), pop stars I know the name of but don’t know enough about to fill in the background.

In general I find this kind of writing lazy (that’s not to say I never do it myself); using a currently well-known person, song or film as a shorthand for some attitude you can’t be bothered to describe. Assume for a moment that the story in question isn’t a passing fad, and someone reads it in twenty years’ time – they might have heard of Damon Albarn or Jamie Oliver or David Beckham, but will they know there was anything more to them in the public perception than a pop singer, a chef or a footballer? I find this kind of thing crops up a lot in comic fantasy (or maybe I just read too much comic fantasy), and if it was written in 1985, well I remember 1985, but I remember it in terms of what I did at school, my burgundy corduroy jacket with the hood, and the terrified dog we adopted, not in terms of popular culture and world events, and a lot of the passing jokes pass me by.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all about trying to look cool, sprinkling hints throughout the text that, despite the fact the author is a middle-aged man who writes lightly humorous fantasy novels for a living, he has an intimate knowledge of chart music, vacuous celebrities and late-night TV. How that counts for cool I’m not sure, but it would also partly explain the habit of sci-fi authors picking up on cutting-edge technology, destined to fade away within a few years, and extrapolating fifty years into the future with it. The first example that springs to mind is the Philip K Dick novel (sorry, can’t remember which one) written in the 50s and set around 2000, where owning a tape-recorder is the ultimate in cool; not only is it a tape-recorder, but it’s about as genuinely portable as the old 14-inch portable TVs that were anything but.

Which is one of the many reasons why I like Robert Rankin. Sort of comic fantasy, in the sense that it’s funny and not hugely realistic (or maybe it is, I’ve never been to Brentford to find out), but even when it’s set in 1997, the pub still closes for the afternoon, payments involve shillings more often than not, and his best loved characters are a pair of 1960s likely lads that could have had bit-parts in half a dozen classic British films. It’s so clearly not trying to stick to a particular time-frame that you forgive any anachronism he throws at you.

I’m hoping the non-specific setting might save a short story of mine which is doing the rounds at the moment. It’s what you might call (if you were into this sub-genre labelling lark) slipstream, but one of the actions that sets off the main chain of events is a character having a shower to cover up the fact that he’s been to the pub while his girlfriend was out at keep-fit. The only reason he needs a shower is the smoke, but I started writing the story a few weeks before the smoking ban for England was announced, and by the time I had a reasonable version ready to show anyone, the ban had been in force for a while. Without the shower, there is no story, and (I think) it flows naturally from the trip to the pub whereas any other situation would seem contrived. I don’t think there’s anything in it that ties the story down to any particular point between the mid-80s and 2007, but without anything definite to the contrary it makes sense to read it as though it’s happening now. With luck, an American magazine will pick it up, and unless they’re unusually immersed in British culture, the lack of smoke in pubs these days won’t be the first thing they’ll think of.