The Second Sleep
I enjoyed reading The Second Sleep, the 2019 novel by Robert Harris. The Second Sleep was cheated out of wider recognition, because it was published during a pandemic year. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel (this reveal occurs early in the story). It’s a mystery novel. The story is nicely crafted. It feels like a nice high to end my journey into post-apocalyptic fiction for this year.
James Clavell’s historical novels
Shōgun (1975), and Tai-Pan (1966) are probably James Clavell at his historical fiction best. Gai-Jin is well written but the story is slightly disappointing being mostly set in a European trading camp in Japan (without much change of location) and featuring characters who lack a satisfying story arc. The magic, in my experience, of Clavell’s historical fiction doesn’t seem to translate into his novel’s that are set in the contemporary world. Noble House, and Whirlwind feel like dated 1970s thrillers.
As a writer, it seems like you can get away with a lot more in historical fiction (with suspension of disbelief, etc) than you can with a thriller set in the present day. This is important part of what makes historical fiction such fun.
King Rat (1962) is Clavell’s best novel. The story combines his rapid point of view switching (a technique that seems less popular these days) with his incredible precision for describing the inner world of his characters. I read it without much expectation, but it is great. The story is set in a Second World War prisoner of war camp. The format switches between the POWs and their loved ones at home. The prison (POW) story shares many of its tropes with horror and post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s a group in peril story about the end of things. It’s about raw survival. The trauma of defeat and incarceration results in a new order, one in which the old world is temporarily displaced. The book was published in 1962, and set in a WW2 POW camp, so it’s not going to be on-message 2021 ‘woke’, nonetheless it has some remarkable scenes about gender fluidity that I found quite moving. The conflicts are handled well and feel genuine. Great drama isn’t just about two people arguing – it’s about the clash of world views.
- As the year wraps up, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that my (deep breath) post-apocalyptic dystopian speculative fiction phase is coming to a conclusion. The last reading burst has included One Second After (2009), which is the first and best novel in William R Forstche’s post-apocalyptic trilogy. It takes its time to get going, but once it does it’s a decent read. I’ve also read The Postman (1985), which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It has its moments, but its a fix-up novel, which is something that I always struggle to enjoy. The prose, especially interior monologue, can be overly explanatory. Whatever you might think of the 1997 film, the movie does a good job of adapting the source material.
- So far, I’m enjoying Foundation. It looks great and the pace feels about right. It shows off a bunch of visual influences: Star Wars, Game of Thrones, ancient Egypt, 2001, and Blade Runner 2049. It’s one hell of a story to adapt, and there are so many characters! It will be interesting to see where they take this, and if they can retain my interest. In the meantime, I’ll keep watching.
- Where there’s historical fiction, there’s historical speculative fiction, alternative, and counterfactual historical fiction. Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) follows in the footsteps of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) by imagining a Nazi victory in the early stages of the Second World War. The protagonist is a less interesting version of Bernard Samson (who appears in Deighton’s two 1980s spy trilogies). SS-GB is a well-crafted novel but the dull main character and perfunctory romance dragged things down for me. Alternative Second World War fictions can be chillingly creepy, and the historical remix will satisfy many readers, but I wanted more from the story, the main character, and the dramatic tension. Although Fatherland (1992) came after SS-GB, and was influenced by it, it’s a much more satisfying story.
- Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971) made the thriller novel feel more real than it had ever been before. Its authenticity comes from the author’s journalistic knowledge of the subject and the huge amounts of specific detail. This is evident in the assassin’s preparation, his procurement of a bespoke sniper rifle, and how he goes about creating a false identity (using a technique that was only circumvented in the UK in 2007). Revealing authentic ‘trade secrets’, often of a criminal nature, became something of a trend in 60s and 70s popular fiction — Arthur Hailey’s ‘Hotel’ (1965) is a good example. What also makes The Day of the Jackal remarkable is its seductive semi-literary-journalistic style, and the great characters. It also breaks with convention. The story begins with three chapters loaded with background information. It’s only when we meet The Jackal, in the fourth chapter, that things warm up. The story is like an episode of Columbo in that we know who the killer is, but we don‘t know how they’re going to be caught. The suspense is generated around the reader waiting for the assassin to slip up.
- Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015) is oddly paradoxical in the way he considers himself a loner and an ‘outsider’, but he comes off as a skilled people person who is able to call on impressive social connections when required. Frederick Forsyth: ‘My only drugs are silence and solitude.’ The early part of the book is the most interesting, followed by the section about the Biafran War. Unfortunately, as Forsyth becomes more successful, the story gets less interesting. He’s scathing about the British establishment, the Foreign Office, the BBC, the British justice system, Westminster politics, and yet the book ends with a patriotic flight over Southern England in a Spitfire.
- Reminiscence is a sci-fi film about escapism through re-experienced memories. It’s in that often problematic in-between budget territory (in this case the production cost has been estimated to be $54–68 million) which is too big and too risky to be low-budget and not enough to really go for it. It starts off looking like it could be a film about global warming with interesting CGI of ‘The Sunken Coast’, but it jumps into a kind of The Matrix, meets The Thirteenth Floor meets Vanilla Sky, with a little Inception thrown in for good measure. Half-way through it suddenly turns into John Wick. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I think it really wants to be a character-based Neo Noir story. There’s way too much heavy-handed expositional dialogue, which doesn’t help.
- Settlers is a kind of Western in space. Things are implied in the world building, but I found myself wanting to know more about the context. It’s well put together and the storytelling stays within its self-imposed low-budget boundaries. Overall, it’s not bad but the story is bleak.