Kingsley Amis is best remembered today as the author of comic novels—perhaps even the pre-eminent writer in that genre during the second half of the 20th century. But you would hardly guess it if you looked just at his output from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. This was Kingsley Amis’s midlife crisis, and it showed up in the strangest sort of way. Most comedians have a secret hankering for tragedy. But not Kingsley Amis. He was now determined to aim low, not high. His new plan involved a full-fledged assault on genre fiction in every one of its manifestations. In The Anti-Death League (1966) he embraced science fiction, and in The Green Man (1969) he delivered a horror story about ghosts haunting a country inn. The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) is an old-school British detective story, while The Alteration (1976) is an alternative history about England in a world that had never experienced the Reformation. All this happened in the aftermath of Amis’s 1965 divorce from Hilary Ann Bardwell after more than 15 years of marriage. Amis was trying to make a new start with second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, a marriage also destined for acrimony and eventual divorce. He was under severe financial pressure and gaining weight during this period—while also gaining a reputation as a very heavy drinker. In the words of his biographer Zachary Leader, Amis had started treating alcohol as a “a hobby or interest, like jazz or science fiction.” Alexander Waugh would later claim that you could tell Amis had a serious drinking problem just by looking at photos of him from his late middle age onward—travails indicated by a “resplendent sheen on his forehead” which reflected a kind of boozer’s sweat, and a bewildered and aggressive demeanor known as a “Scotch gaze” to those familiar with the facial expressions of patrons leaving the bar at closing time. Other aging males in this situation would solve their midlife crisis by buying a fancy sports car, but Amis didn’t know how to drive. So instead he turned to James Bond. Agent 007 was truly the right hero for the right author, a stylish gent who could save the world, meet a deadline, and still not miss cocktail hour. If Bond could defeat SPECTRE and SMERSH, surely he could help a 40-something bloke get back on his feet again? Thus began Amis’s most ambitious genre gambit from this period, his 1968 spy novel Colonel Sun. Using the pseudonym Robert Markham, Amis had now shifted allegiances from Lucky Jim Dixon to the more debonair James Bond. This must have seemed like a huge opportunity at the time. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, had died in 1964 at the very moment when the franchise was taking off. The film Goldfinger, released almost exactly a month after the author’s fatal heart attack at age 56, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-grossing movie to date. The film, shot for a budget of just $3 million, went on to earn $125 million at the box office—the biggest moneymaker of the year. After Fleming’s death, Amis had a legitimate opportunity to step into the driver’s seat of the hottest genre property of the era. “I do expect to make quite a lot of money out of the venture,” Amis admitted in a 1968 article for The Observer. I’m hardly surprised. Ian Fleming ranks as the highest-earning British crime-fiction writer of all time, and his estate collected royalties on the sales of a staggering 60 million books during the two years following the author’s death. Amis only needed to hold on to this installed base of James Bond fans to ensure a life of wealth and luxury. But Amis also ardently defended the move on its purely literary merits. A few years earlier, Amis had responded to criticisms of Fleming’s Thunderball with one of the most cogent arguments ever made for the worthiness of escapist fiction. “I think wish fulfillment is a common and normal human activity…No adult ought to feel like an adult all the time.” Even if the Bond novels simply served as a means of compensating for adolescent inferiority complexes, they would be “praiseworthy rather than blameworthy on that ground.” This revealing comment from 1965 was made at the very outset of Amis’s plunge into genre fiction. He clearly felt that no apologies need be made for this choice, which could have unintended benefits for the psychic health of Britain’s youth. Yet there’s some heavy irony in the fact that Ian Fleming himself created the character of James Bond at the outset of a midlife crisis of his own. And he defended his decision in even more crass terms than did Amis. In 1962, in his treatise on “How to Write a Thriller,” Fleming admitted to inherent laziness and claimed that his secret to success was simply churning out 2,000 words per day and not thinking too much about it. “I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written,” Fleming boasted. “If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel?” Above all, Fleming cautioned against “introspection and self-criticism.” If you give in to those, “you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.” Could Kingsley Amis really follow in the footsteps of an author with such an untutored technique? Could the droll humorist behind Lucky Jim and One Fat Englishman—and one of the most pleasing prose stylists of the post-WWII literary world—really match the snap, flash, and slapdash approach of Ian Fleming, a man who learned how to write by drafting memorandums for British Naval Intelligence? Certainly Amis pared down his writing style for this project. He makes no attempt to draw on his nonpareil skill in comic fiction—a strange decision, given the successful moments of dark humor starting to show up in the successful James Bond movies around this same time. There’s hardly a metaphor in sight in these pages, nothing highbrow or poetic—with the strange exception of recurring parallels with the myth of Theseus inserted into Colonel Sun, a plot twist that would never have come from the pen of Mr. Fleming. Amis, in other words, took great pains to imitate the Bond formula, or at least is superficial trappings. We know for a fact that he studied Fleming’s work with care and took copious notes. (For example, on the jacket of one Bond book, Amis wrote: “B. smiles 13 times by p. 165.”) And in many passages, he comes up with a reasonable facsimile of the original. But in many other respects, the James Bond in these pages is unrecognizable. In the first big fight scene, Bond actually runs away from his attackers. In two other key confrontations, Bond comes up a duffer, incapable of effective action and forced to rely on his amateur associates to save him from sure death. He doesn’t even remember to use the fancy gadgets given him by Q at the outset of the story—in fact, James Bond’s most high-tech weapon in the decisive battle here is a knife. Above all, our superspy 007 shows himself susceptible to “introspection and self-criticism”—the two qualities most despised by Ian Fleming. In other regards, Amis actually manages to surpass Fleming. His James Bond savors his booze like a connoisseur and never settles for a boring martini, shaken, not stirred. Amis’s sense of setting and landscape is outstanding, and the reader can tell that he carefully scouted out the Greek locations that serve as the backdrop for most of Colonel Sun. The psychological aspects of the story are deft and convincing, and they reveal a protagonist with a high degree of poise and self-awareness. In other words, James Bond, in these pages, bears a striking resemblance to Kingsley Amis. Or at least to a somewhat improved Mr. Amis, as he might have preferred to see himself in his 40s. Yes, genre fiction is a kind of wish fulfillment. Alas, this was not the formula that James Bond fans were looking for back in 1968. Colonel Sun sold reasonably well but not at the level of an Ian Fleming book. Even today, after 26 Bond movies, no one has tried to turn Amis’s effort into a film. And for good reason—this story isn’t especially cinematic and skips over the very elements that fans have come to love most in 007 films: outrageous exploits, flippant attitudes, and super-duper spy equipment. The great oddity is that Kingsley Amis was perfectly well-equipped to bring those ingredients into the story. His mistake was to base his approach on the Ian Fleming novels rather than the even more successful Sean Connery movies that might have nudged him into a different direction. Instead, Amis came up with a protagonist as dry as those famous shaken martinis. But there was one silver lining to this clouded outcome. Amis gave up spy fiction and soon returned to his forte, the comic novel. In 1986, he even won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils—beating out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the process. By this point, Amis had settled into the role of the irritable and beloved curmudgeon. It wasn’t quite like being a superspy—or even the author of a superspy bestseller—but it was the best possible typecasting: the part Amis was always really meant to play. Image: Flickr/Tom Woodward
How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland -- a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky -- one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon. But that wouldn’t be true. Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders. Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont. The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life. As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden. But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen -- and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller. Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes. And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter. His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents. When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later. These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants -- for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.” When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.” His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery. Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand. His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave -- readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself. But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing. Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many. He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood? Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.” For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual. This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory. Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews. His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as "one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today." You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works -- in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book. Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight. This book is a very good place to start that process.
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities. But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader -- indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text. I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk -- one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos. Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire -- all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism. The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story -- I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories -- and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre -- yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf. In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky -- this time of his short novel The Gambler -- but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t...but Calvino can. In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity -- I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.
You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner. I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!” Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies. And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation. But now comes the sad denouement. I have just finished Martin Gardner’s last book. Gardner died in 2010 at the age of 95, with more than 100 books to his credit, and his final work, a posthumously published memoir entitled Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, was recently released by Princeton University Press. Here my guru and sage brought together, over the course of two hundred pages, the full range of his interests — math, magic, philosophy, stories, poetry, science, religion, politics — and combined these disparate topics with an account of his private life and intellectual development. I enjoyed every page of this book. Gardner’s own path to mathe-magical stardom fascinated me, but his frank, colorful accounts of the many smart and influential people he met along the way are equally compelling. What a cast of characters! Here you will encounter Mortimer Adler, the tireless advocates of “great books” education; Isaac Asimov, a populist intellectual similar to Gardner in so many ways; scam-debunker James Randi, philosopher Rudolf Carnap, author Thornton Wilder, social critic Paul Goodman, artist Salvador Dalí, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, and many other intriguing individuals. But the star is always Gardner himself, the man who can mix so easily with such diverse demigods, show them a trick or puzzle, or tell them something they’ve never heard before. James Randi tries to explain Gardner’s peculiar appeal in an afterword to Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. Wherever he traveled, Randi would find himself “mobbed as soon as my acquaintance with Martin came up for discussion.” He recalls a lecture he gave to a group of IBM systems engineers, who “besieged” him afterwards, trying to learn more about Mr. Gardner. They wanted Randi to “settle whether or not Martin was an actual individual, or perhaps an amalgamation of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and maybe a magician colleague of mine...They were appropriately amazed and edified when I assured them that this paragon was actually a single person, a real human being, and quite as accomplished as he appeared to be.” I should add, for those unaware of Mr. Randi, that he is sometimes known as the “Amazing Randi” — a name he picked up as a magician and continued to earn in later years as a detector of frauds in the fields of parapsychology and occultism. How revealing that the Amazing Randi should find that his friend Martin Gardner is, in the minds of his audience, far more amazing. How does one get to be as amazing as Martin Gardner? I’m sure I’m not the only reader who picked up this book seeking an answer to that very question. What secret skill or inborn gift allowed this youngster from Tulsa, Oklahoma to learn so much about so many subjects? Gardner’s modesty, evident throughout this book, makes it hard to pierce the mystery. But clearly his unflagging curiosity played a key part, as well as his connoisseur’s taste for the cryptic, the beguiling, and the enchanting. The same penetrating scrutiny that led him to discover the workings of a magic trick or the solution of a mathematical puzzle also spurred him to decipher literary texts and scientific theories or anything else that came within his purview. In other words, Gardner succeeded so well at his work because, for him, it never seemed like work. He only wrote about subjects that captivated him, and this overpowering enthusiasm was apparent to his readers, who usually came to share it. Even those who think they know Martin Gardner well will learn new things about him in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. He analyzes political topics that rarely showed up in his books. He outlines his own theory of religion, a peculiar hybrid of belief and disbelief that will probably irritate atheists, Christians, pantheists, and members of every other sect and anti-sect with its fanciful explanations. Above all, we get a sense of Gardner the family man, as husband, son, father, and grandfather, and learn — what we probably surmised from his good-natured, gentle writing — that he handled these familial roles with grace and devotion. These may be Martin Gardner’s final words, but they aren’t the last words on Martin Gardner. Those who want to understand his intellectual development in more detail will want to read many of his other works, most notably The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which takes on many themes developed in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus and draws them out in greater detail. And there is still a need for biography by an outside party who can tell the story of this remarkable man in more detail than this 200-page memoir offers. But for the time being, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is the best short guide to a man with a very long CV. If you don’t know the most interesting man in the world, start with this appetizer, but be ready to come back for more. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969! Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book: (1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar. (2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States. (3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.) (4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare. (5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives. (6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East. (7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment. (8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media). (9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society. (10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors. (11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city. (12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite. (13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule. (14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat. (15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.” (16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers. (17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized. Other science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel. In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA. A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story. The plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic. Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced. These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM. As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.