Is Les Miserables Science Fiction (No, Obviously not, but … )

What genre is the musical Les Miserables? It’s always reminded me of something, but it was only when I watched the DVD that I realised what that was.

The novel it’s based on is a great example of social realism, a heavy tome written by an old man who, thirty years before, had himself dodged the bullets during the June Rebellion. Victor Hugo painstakingly reconstructs the period, expands on the context. When our hero makes his escape through the Paris sewers towards the end, Hugo is sure to include an eleventy-billion page discussion of the layout and construction of those sewers. Les Miserables is a great novel, but the title does make it sound a lot more fun than it actually is.

You could not mistake the musical for social realism, of course. You could easily mistake it, in fact, for bombastic nonsense. Built into the fabric of the musical version, there’s a mismatch of the medium and the source (whether you count the source as the book or the events that inspired it), and also between where the play’s set and how it’s staged. This leads to some issues when we try to categorise it, or find something else even a bit like it.

Les Miserables is not like other musicals. You can, of course, sing catchy songs about misery, personal heartbreak and social injustice. You can even do it in musical theatre. West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that’s about teen gangs murdering each other, Chicago’s about a women’s prison full of murderers, Cabaret’s about the rise of the Nazis. I’m no expert, but I’m always surprised how darn dark the genre is.

Even something as apparently cheerful as The Music Man has a story where, in its own terms, the bad guy wins. A travelling salesman persuades a small Midwestern town to put on a wholesome marching band show. But Harold Hill, the salesman, is not wholesome. He scares the townsfolk into giving him their money to solve a problem he’s created. He gets the girl, but only after mistaking her for a fallen woman, like all the others he’s bagged over the years. (‘I smile / I grin / When the gal with a touch of sin walks in / I hope / and I pray / for a Hester to win just one more A’). It’s an astonishingly sly, cynical narrative in which a wolf devours an entire flock of lambs and gets the lambs to pay for the meal. I love The Music Man.

What musicals tend to do is create a bubble, and then follow a small group of people. This is surely, function dictating form – you want to keep the cast and number of sets as small and stagey as possible. Musicals like Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera take that so literally that they’re are set within theatres. The historical setting is backdrop, or catalyst, and the end result tends to be oddly unanchored in time. They’re not typically ‘timeless’, they’re set in an imagined period in the hinterland between when they’re set and when they’re first staged. The Music Man could almost take place at any point in the first half of the twentieth century. Cabaret exists at some checkpoint on the border between the mid 1930s and the early 1970s.

Les Miserables is different: it encourages us to extrapolate and expand out. It’s not merely spectacular, its unique selling point is that it crowds the stage, that it’s absurdly lavish and opulent, that the huge and overpopulated set also moves and transforms. The movie, of course, only scales this up, so that it’s Hollywood movie stars doing it all, with great panning shots and crowd scenes.

Thematically, Les Miserables is trying to make universal archetypes out of really rather specific characters. It takes one of  many popular uprisings Paris saw in the nineteenth century, a sequence of events that lasted a few days and which barely registers in the history books. Jean Valjean is a man with superhuman strength who spent nineteen years in prison for crimes he did commit, has a religious conversion and opens a Rosary bead factory. That is not a generally applicable stock musical type like ‘small town boy’, ‘lovesick teen’ or even ‘wannabe singer’. The story asks us to identify with, say, Fantine – Crib sheet: Anne Hathaway’s character – and her specific circumstances, and at first that’s relatively easy: she’s a single mother who earns slightly less than she needs to support her young daughter. But she zooms from there to the worst case scenario within a few verses, and has prostituted herself (in a coffin!), sold her teeth and died of TB before the end of the first act.

The structure of Les Miserables goes like this: someone sings about how awful their life is, no, really it’s even worse than it was until recently, seriously it’s no fun at all, wish it was different. At this point, the character might actually drop dead – all but four of them do before the end. Then reset, change cast member and repeat. It’s basically round after round of ‘can anything get any worse … oh, yes, turns out it can’, set in a world so wretched it makes a Dickensian workhouse look like a Culture Orbital.

Yet, somehow, they ramp up the aggrometer to the point where it kind of overwhelms your emotional barricades and you find yourself identifying with Fantine because, hell yeah, you spent an hour on the phone to Comcast this morning, so you know hardship, too. No bread? It’s true, they were out of poppy seed bagels this morning at Panera. Yeah, I’m drowning in the churning waters of modern life, too, because I really need to clear out my email inbox. The system’s broken, man, we should be out on the streets. Les Miserables is really rather stirring, does make you switch off the old thinky whatchermacallit and just sweep you away.

If you’re in the right frame of mind.

If you think about it for even a second, it’s ridiculous. When you watch it critically, there is much meat for a cynical person. The plotting relies entirely on coincidence. Javert’s ‘pursuit’ of Valjean involves bumping into him at random every eight years. The whole thing is a crass product of one of the most indulgent artistic sectors of the loadsamoney decade. The makers could achieve broadly the same effect, only with slightly more nuance, if they just tear gassed their audience.

Watching it, it’s not hard to work out when Les Miserables was written, and it’s a perfect test subject for a critique of the eighties mindset. American Psycho, a novel exploring that very topic, is soaked in references to the musical. At one point, a character literally stomps on a homeless man to get past him to buy a $200 limited edition T-shirt bearing the image of the homeless. American Psycho draws attention to the fact that the audience is complicit in the disconnect between what the story’s about and the form it takes. This is never more obvious than when you remember how much it’s cost you to watch the show. Every song is about life being about scraping together the coins you need to eat that day. The price of one ticket would feed a family for several weeks. And normally, y’know, that’s not a problem because you go to the West End or Broadway to watch escapist fantasy nonsense about things with no connection to the real world, like talking cats, Spider-Man or Mormons. Les Miserables is actually about poverty, that’s the theme.

It’s tempting to see this as the height of hypocrisy. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar acceptance speech saw a woman who is paid millions to be in movies, wearing a Prada dress declaring that poverty is bad.






But the thing is … that’s basically what the musical is like, from start to finish. It is an inescapable fact. Anne Hathaway, by all accounts one of the smarter actresses out there, clearly gets it.

But ‘it’ here is a huge disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re told.

Watching Les Miserables, the thing that strikes me is that it shares a characteristic of science fiction and fantasy: while all art demands a suspension of disbelief and acceptance of conventions and necessities of the form, SF tends to raise the price of buying in. The relationship between ‘science fiction’ and ‘reality’ is a surprisingly complex boundary. Most science fiction seeks to make a point about the real world by, essentially, a process of heightening and exaggerating. Frank Herbert was inspired to write Dune, a story set tens of thousands of years in the future on a giant desert planet that’s one of innumerable worlds of a theocratic galactic empire, because he was concerned about beach erosion. It’s not the only science fiction that, at heart, goes ‘yeah, imagine a planet where it’s all like that, all the time’.

Despite the presence of Wolverine, Catwoman and Jor-El, not even the movie version of Les Miserables is science fiction. But it’s clearly not attempting something literal, either. It’s not made by idiots, they understand exactly what they’re doing. And, at some level, yes, it gets relatively rich people to empathise with the poor, and blimey, there isn’t exactly much art even trying to do that, let alone that’s packed them in for thirty years.

Les Miserables has always reminded me of something, though, and it was only when I was watching the DVD that I worked out what:

Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C

Les Miserables is in the same genre as TV commercials for pet adoption charities.

It’s actively odd, in fact, that there aren’t songs in Les Miserables called Am I Going to Die Today? or We’ve Been Caged Together Too Long. You can hear the chorus chanting For Hundreds of Others Rescue Came Too Late or She Could Be Saved For A Few Coins A Day.

Stirring music, naked emotion, and above all they’re calculated and precisely formulated to get you to throw your money at them.

(As a final note, I think it’s only right that I note that I’m not making light of animal cruelty or equating Hugh Jackman playing a man with a sad face with the thousands of real dying kittens out there. I have a rescue dog, adopted from the Philadelphia SPCA, and if you feel moved to, please donate a little to them, here.)

Russian Sherlock Holmes

Last year, a Russian version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was released on DVD in the UK. It’s part of a series that’s probably – there’s stiff competition – my favourite screen version of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes had quite a following in the Soviet Union. As outlined in the book Sherlock Holmes in Russia, a collection of all the Conan Doyle stories appeared in Russian before there was an edition in English and there was a long tradition, as in the West, of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually the sixth and seventh episodes of an eleven-part series that ran from 1979 to 1986. There is an excellent summary of history of the show here, which fills in a lot of the background and impact it had. The British Government honoured the series’ Holmes, Vasily Livanov with an MBE. He met Mrs Thatcher in Moscow. A statue of him as Holmes (with his Watson, played by Vitaly Solomin) stands close to the British Embassy.

The history and background of the show, then, is fascinating and there are far more qualified people than me to tell you about it, and I’d encourage you to have a good Google around.

I’ll tell you why I love the series. Some of the appeal is definitely the Russianness. The posh men, like Henry Baskerville, are invariably portrayed as decadent capitalist pigs who dress like Mr Monopoly. Victorian London was recreated in Riga, and so occasionally doesn’t look like London at all:


There are places where it looks like a nineteenth century Russian novel, rather than something set in the UK.


There’s also some real quirkiness. Henchmen look like wolfmen. There are some extremely odd moments. Here’s Watson getting kicked in the nadgers, and if this photo doesn’t make you want to hunt down the show, then I’m not sure what will:


But for all these slightly jarring exotic moments, this is a show that understands Sherlock Holmes, knows the original stories. This is a show that looks like Sherlock Holmes. Here’s Holmes and Watson.


Here’s Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls:


It’s not afraid to play around with the source material. It’s a series. The eleven episodes follow on from each other, and Holmes and Watson are noticeably older and changed by the last episode. The first episode is a pretty faithful adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, but one which plays up Watson’s suspicion of Holmes, who he comes to believe is some kind of master criminal. It’s a pilot episode for a TV show, one that takes pains to establish Watson first, then Holmes, with plenty of Mrs Hudson (who, in this version is a sweet old lady who’s utterly, and playfully complicit in Holmes’ activities, in places becoming almost Alfred to Holmes’ Batman).

The central performances, needless to say, are what makes the show a success. Livanov’s Holmes is instinctively secretive. It’s a Holmes who is very clearly a little mad, but can bottle everything up. We see a lot of things from Watson’s perspective, and Solomin’s portrayal is a very nice balance of a man who’s a little stiff, but extremely smart and utterly reliable.

Most modern versions of Watson are careful to show that he’s not a bumbling idiot, but the ‘strong’ Watsons tend to lapse into being an everyman who’s there just to deliver exasperated variations on ‘oh, what are you up to now?’. There’s always that element of subservience. It’s become typical to have Holmes and Watson as, basically, a relationship where Watson is the least butch soldier you’ve seen in your life and he’s happy to submit to a bullying dom uber-geek. There’s an essay to be had on gender politics, there, and I think instead of the low hanging fruit of queer readings of the relationship, it might be worth looking at how the Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jnr versions of Holmes appeal to women viewers, how Holmes is portrayed – in very interesting ways – as ‘sexy’. Watson has remained a viewpoint character, is still not sexually attracted to Holmes … but he has been feminised. Elementary just comes right out and makes their Watson a woman, but, y’know, the Robert Downey Jnr version kinda beat them to it by casting Jude Law. Watson is no longer an Everyman, he’s an Everywoman. Discuss.

Anyway, back in the Soviet Union, this Watson – uniquely, I think – isn’t Boswell to Holmes’ Johnson, he’s not looking up at him in the same way at all. It’s a relationship that’s an interesting portrayal of masculine friendship. Holmes actually seems to like Watson, not just see him as a way of explaining how clever he is.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect, though, and one that’s lost a little if you only get The Hound of the Baskervilles, is that a vast number of Conan Doyle stories have been woven into an interesting running story. The eleven episodes are a condensed version of the canon, but they’re happy to chop things up, move them around.

The most interesting example comes right at the end. The last episodes are set noticeably later than the others – suddenly there are cars and telephones. Again, this is perfectly consistent with the original stories. We tend, I think, to see Holmes as being ‘Victorian’ in the sense of Dickens, of him existing in that same chocolate box time of carol singers, gaslight and workhouses. Conan Doyle died fifty years, one month, one day after Dickens. Two generations separate them.

In the last episodes of the Russian series, Holmes comes out of retirement and the series ends with a mash up of pretty much every Conan Doyle story where foreign agents are stealing secret plans (The Second Stain, Bruce Partington, The Engineer’s Thumb and His Last Bow). In the original adventures, Doyle was usually very coy about which foreign power or powers were up to no good, it was a generic way of raising the stakes. Here, though, the enemy is specifically Germany, and it’s a co-ordinated effort. Joltingly, the story is not set in some High Victorian fantasyland, it’s 1914. The Greatest Detective has reached the  eve of the Great War.

It is, of course, the First World War that provided the catalyst for the Russian Revolution, and German aggression that would prove to be the Soviet Union’s greatest struggle. The series ends with footage of fleets of warships heading out to sea. It’s an extremely effective finale, one that shows Holmes at his most powerful, but also helpless in the face of an impending apocalypse. Holmes – like his audience – knows world war can’t be avoided, and that when it comes, it will consign his world of drawing room mysteries to history, render him quaint, quirky, something that sounds like it came from a storybook.

Track down the whole series, if you can. It’s available as a boxset in, I think, at least semi-legitimate form. It’s a beautifully-made, weird, faithful and fascinating version of Sherlock Holmes.

The Gray Tradition: Monomyth

I think it’s probably useful if I try to list the characteristics the books in what I’m calling the ‘Gray Tradition’ have. This is a working list, not a complete one. Not every book does all of these, and I’m not at the stage yet where I can say which of these are necessary or sufficient. As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m seeing what I think are patterns, where I’m starting to make links. I don’t have conclusions at this stage.

Note that the treatments of the subjects can be extremely varied. Also: some of these concepts are in ancient folklore and as old as storytelling, while, looking at them, some are clearly rooted far more locally: in the counterculture of the sixties. I would like to look at how these things originated, how they were popularised.

As you can probably tell from those caveats, I’m thinking aloud here, rather than carving into stone and I would welcome any help. I don’t give any examples here, I’m going to come up with a (similarly rough) list of books that I think fit soon. For some sense of who I’m talking about, I named some authors in the first post in this series.

So, the books of the Gray Tradition tend to:

Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.

Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.

Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.

Be written by men.

Have a protagonist who starts in the mundane world, even a hyper-mundane one. He either lives in some grimy, dark city or occasionally a faceless suburb. Their life is one of routine, although it’s often monotonous rather than actively dangerous.

The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.

People are conformist. Even a counterculture, if one is presented, is bound up in rules and hierarchies.

History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.

The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.

Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.

Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.

The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.

Characters play strategy games, often chess, and see the game board as a microcosm of real life.

They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.

There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).

There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.

The protagonist undergoes some profound and permanent physical transformation, often disfiguring or at least which leaves them unable to pass as a normal human. They often choose to do this, even though they don’t (can’t) understand all the implications until the transformation is complete.

The protagonist often develops some psychic ability: precognition, telepathy or some form of mind control. The implication is that the protagonist is the first homo superior – the next stage of human development. The characters with these gifts tend to have weird eyes – a straightforward concrete way of indicating ‘they see differently’.

The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.

Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.

Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.

The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.

If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.

The books often have utopian themes. We see a better society, or even a plan to enact utopia in our world.

They are violent. There are disasters and wars that kill millions, the protagonist often fights hand-to-hand battles. He, or at least his allies, often have no compunction about killing. (One of the things the hero must do, in fact, is lose his compunction to kill). Building a better world inevitably means destroying the old one – many will die.

Again, I don’t know if it’s significant or why it would be, but the weapon of choice is often a blade.

They tend not to explore identity issues like race or gender. At first glance, this is a very white, male genre. This is changing, I think.

Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.

Gray Tradition: The Last Battle

It’s not just me, is it?

The Last Battle is meant to be unsettling, but even as a small child the bits the author delights in creeped me out at least as much as the bits he intended to be disturbing.

The book’s a game of two halves. The first shows Narnia winding down, past its best. The second half moves rapidly from a trippy Blakean apocalypse, in which the whole of Narnia is obliterated, to a section set in, essentially, Heaven. All the children from the previous books show up (with one exception). We learn Heaven is a sunny upland where everyone is young again and reunited with old friends and it’s like real life only more real.

It’s that last bit I find particularly troubling.

The Last Battle is rather a sour book, full of a sense of a world gone wrong. CS Lewis is always accused of smuggling his Christian messages into the books, but I don’t think he does. When he has characters looking at a stable in Narnia and saying once upon a time there was a stable in our world that contained something bigger than our whole world, Lewis is not exactly ‘smuggling’. I don’t think he’s pushing a Christian message, I think he takes religion so much as read that he’d have to actively take it out, rather than actively put it in. This is a man who, during a brief period as an atheist, according to Surprised by Joy, ‘… was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world’. Even as an atheist, he believed in God.

Lewis has a very fixed idea of how the world ought to be, and firm opinions on why it isn’t that way. He is, to use a piece of literary jargon, a really grumpy reactionary old sod. As Laura Miller recounts in her survey of the Narnia books, The Magician’s Book, when Lewis and Tolkien taught at Oxford, they lobbied to remove every text written in the last hundred years from the syllabus. And he’s never more of a Meldrew than this book, where various types of Narnians moan and whinge about just about everything, fall for fads, completely deny what is plainly in front of their very eyes and are duped by a sharp conman. In a series of books that have been about childhood adventures, this is a book where seaside holidays were in the past, nice houses you remember have been knocked down and they can’t even run the bloody trains properly any more. Suddenly, after six books where epic battles are oddly bloodless and the baddies are typically bumped on the head or sent fleeing, we get a book where virtually every incident involves a serious risk of death, and even before the end, characters have died left, right and centre.

I like that, though. It’s so easy for a running series to fall into a comfort zone of giving people what they want, and not challenging them. We’re at a point now where long-running series have become consumer driven – the people who make TV nervously watch Twitter reaction, as though it’s somehow representative of anything. You’re not allowed to upset the fans, or do anything to the characters the fans won’t like, you can barely get away with introducing new characters into the mix. There’s no better example than the contrast between the end of The Lord of the Rings (book) and The Lord of the Rings (movie). The end of the movie is an interminable parade of people retiring to where they will be happiest. The book is a troubling ‘you can’t go home again’, with the characters all deeply changed and the Shire in ruins. The movie is more pleasing … and far less interesting.

Lewis doesn’t go for the easy ending, or allow Narnia to go out after a comfortable retirement. He goes out of his way to remind us that Narnia used to be much better than it’s ended up. The first half is as dark a reimagining as any eighties revamp of a beloved children’s character. The sense of things falling apart is palpable, and at the end of the book our heroes don’t save Narnia. There is a Last Battle, but the good guys don’t win it, and we see allies hacked down, Jill’s dragged off by her hair by a group of soldiers (the last time we see her alive), and it’s fierce hand-to-hand combat.

And then we go to Heaven.

Like The Invisibles, or many of Philip K Dick’s books, like many of the books I’ll be discussing, The Last Battle presents a vision of a world beyond ours and more real than ours. Lewis namechecks Plato, and this is the idea the books all work with. We’re shadows on a cave wall. A lot of these books take a step into the cave itself. Like Morrison and Dick it seems clear that The Last Battle is the author’s idiosyncratic account of How It All Works, and it seems equally clear that, bizarrely, while Grant Morrison talks in terms of intersecting hyperspaces and PKD does it using alien drugs, CS Lewis steps out of our world into the larger, richer Cave Itself using traditional Christianity. If the Narnia books were a vehicle to inform children of the Christian viewpoint, that vehicle reaches its final destination here.

It’ll all be better in Heaven, Lewis says. It’ll be Narnia+, with all the good bits and none of the bad ones. He takes it for granted here (although certainly not in his other writing) that there’s simply no problem dividing everything and everyone between purely good or purely bad – children, of course, would tend to agree with this Manichean view of the universe.

Elsewhere, authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman have criticised this last section because Susan is excluded from Heaven. (Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about an older Susan, The Problem of Susan, which appears in Fragile Things). Susan prefers ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’ over Narnia these days. She’s in her twenties by this point, her only crime seems to be acting like a young woman, not a schoolchild. She’s 21, at a time when the average Englishwoman married at 22. Lewis even concedes that she’s acting her age, which would seem to have the corollary that Peter and his pals aren’t. But that said, while we might not like it, the theology is sound – Susan’s turned her back on Aslan, sees him as a silly story. She can’t share the reward.

It turns out she can’t share the reward for a practical reason. The reason all the other children from the other books are in Heaven is that they’ve all died in England, in a single railway accident. Susan is estranged from the group, so wasn’t on the train – she wasn’t lucky enough to die young.

I don’t have a problem with Lewis bumping off basically the entire major cast of the series more summarily than Douglas Adams did at the end of Mostly Harmless. I actually quite like such a decisive ending. It’s spiky, not the line of least resistance. Ending these sagas is always a little tricky. I always liked the original ending of Return of the Jedi which resembled George Lucas’s earlier American Graffiti: the Empire defeated, the main characters no longer have anything in common, and that’s the last time they’re ever together. It was like a planetary conjunction, but the planets continue on their separate courses. No convenient marriages, emigrations or inheritances. It’s a jolting ending for Lewis to have the kids killed like that, in such an ordinary way, and off the page.

No … what disturbs me most is that they’re all so damn happy to have died. We don’t learn exactly what’s happened at first, but the children discuss why they’ve ended up where they have. They were on a train, there was a lurch, then a noise, then they woke up in brightness in fine Narnian clothes. Here’s Edmund’s description:

‘And I felt not no much scared as – well, excited. Oh – and this is one queer thing. I’d had a rather sore knee from a hack at rugger. I noticed it had suddenly gone’

Being in a train accident is exciting and doesn’t hurt, it actually fixes your gammy knee. At the very end of the book, the children are still not quite sure what happened, so Aslan helps them out. By that point, I think the reader has guessed. For me, the horrifying thing is the children’s reaction. It’s not that they don’t want to go home (the imperative in the books is the save Narnia, not to find a way home – that’s perhaps the major change made for the movies):

“Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.

‘No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leaped and a wild horse rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.’”

There is something really unpleasant about a story for children where children learn that they’ve died, their parents have died and it’s brilliant.

Heaven is better than Earth. That’s kind of the whole point, I understand that. It’s a perfectly conventional Christian sentiment that if you have God’s favour (and only if you have God’s favour) when you die you will gain an eternal life of ease that’s too wonderful to put into words. So far, so good. But it’s only half the message. Unless you stress the importance of living a good, full life this is life-negating, a view of how the universe works that can only alienate you from the people around you, one that concentrates entirely on the heavenly reward and dismisses any earthly consideration. This is suicide bomber logic.

So, the story’s set in Heaven. Edmund’s got his 72 virgins. Talking of which, the children aren’t the same age they were when they died, but they are all still children. One of the odder things about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that the Pevensies stay in Narnia for fourteen years, grow to adulthood, then return to England and revert to children. They remember everything, that’s established in the latter books. Susan might be forgiven for acting a little old for her age, given that she’s lived 27 years by her thirteenth birthday.

A modern version of the story might concentrate on the psychological impact of growing up, then physically regressing while retaining adult memories, but life in Narnia is clearly easy to compartmentalise. We learn in the last book that the various ‘Friends of Narnia’ – the kids from all the books, minus Susan – regularly meet up. It’s hard not to imagine it being a little like a support group. At the risk of bringing in an author’s biography, Lewis had fought in the trenches in the Great War (as had Tolkien, as had most young men of their generation), and I can only imagine that Lewis’ experience in peacetime was something akin to this. A journey to another world, which ran to a different logic, where boys had to act like men, where only people who were there would ever understand afterwards what you went through. It’s striking that during the last battle itself, the narrator makes confident assertions about what it’s like when you’re in a battle, how it feels, but the battle is a hand-to-hand swordfight, one where individual heroes band together, where bravery is usually rewarded. This can’t have been the wartime experience of the author.

At the end of The Last Battle, the children are resurrected in the afterlife. Most Christian commentators who’ve considered the matter assume that in Heaven we’d take the form of some idealised age. Elsewhere, commenting on Paradise Lost, Lewis has Adam and Eve as being created to look like they are in their early thirties – Christ died at 33, and so perhaps that’s the ‘ideal age’. Diggory was born in 1888, so he’s 12 in The Magician’s Nephew, and (a particularly doddery) 52 in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here he’s a young man with a golden beard, with some of his older mannerisms. Tirian can’t decide if Jill looks older than before (she should be sixteen). They’re all clearly – and presumably, now, perpetually – older children, not quite adults. To me this doesn’t sound ideal, rather it’s an appalling denial of growth and potential. When Peter Pan doesn’t grow up, we understand that he’s missing something, that however wonderful childhood is, it has to end. This won’t happen to our heroes. As Philip Pullman noted, Peter is denied the chance to become a parent himself.

It gets worse.

Escaping the dying Narnia, the population of men and talking animals and other creatures files past Aslan. Everyone looks the Lion in the eye and either feels great joy or great terror. Those who ‘looked in the face of Aslan and loved him’ go to Heaven. The talking animals who feel terror lose their sentience, and then walk into Aslan’s shadow. The narrator says no one ever saw them again and he doesn’t know what happened to them. Oblivion, I think, there’s no suggestion they are heading to Hell, but surely having your reason stripped from you is an horrific punishment. In any event, none of the people who pass the test seem in any way troubled by what happened to those who didn’t – Lucy even comments later that it’s impossible to feel worried any more, even if you try.

As we see the selection process, there are some oddities among those who make the grade:

“Eustace even recognised one of those very Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had no time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) for a great joy put everything else out of his head”

An honourable Calorman, Emeth, who has dedicated his life to the monstrous Bird God Tash, is resigned to his fate but Aslan spares him. He points out that he knew about but didn’t worship Aslan, he specifically rejected the doctrine that Tash and Aslan were one and the same. Aslan says that he did good, and all good is done in Aslan’s name, so Emeth gets to go to Heaven.

Again, the theologic is impeccable: Aslan is the perfect judge. Who are we to challenge him? But it feels deeply arbitrary, to the point of circular logic. You are good if Aslan finds you to be good, regardless of your actions, your beliefs or even your desires. What about all the great things Susan did? Does wearing lipstick really cancel out her actions as protector and High Queen? Clearly Aslan demands faith – it can be faith in Tash, but there has to be faith. Faith above action.

So I object to children celebrating their deaths like they’ve just passed their Eleven Plus, but the root of my problem, the reason it’s always disturbed me, is the way we’re told not to question anything, not to worry. The talking animals who fail Aslan’s test are stripped of their reason … but if the people who pass the test find they don’t have the time or inclination to ask reasonable questions, then what’s the point of having reason in the first place?

Part of it, surely, is that Lewis is straining to depict something more wonderful than it is possible to imagine. He wants to get across that things are indescribably lovely, but for me it comes across as a simple failure to describe.

‘What was the fruit like? Unfortunately, no one can describe a taste … If you had once eaten that fruit, all the nicest things in this world would taste like medicines after it. But I can’t describe it.’

And this is particularly disappointing, because I think in every Narnia book there’s a scene where a thirsty or starving character has managed to find a drip of water or scrap of food and it’s seemed ‘like the most wonderful meal they’ve ever tasted’. There was an example just a chapter before, when the main characters, besieged by a vast army, find a trickle of water running down a rock and take turns to drink from it. In Aslan’s Country deliciousness is intrinsic, unearned, the default value. Every meal from now on will be the most delicious one they’ve ever had. How … sad.

But this isn’t just some technical problem coming up with concrete descriptions of transcendent concepts and beauty. These are the new rules. In a lot of fairy tales, you have to be careful. In The Magician’s Nephew, Diggory is smart enough not to eat the fruit when Jadis offers it to him. He sees the trap. Here, when the children are offered fruit:

‘It’s all right,’ said Peter, ‘I know what we’re all thinking. But I’m sure, quite sure, we needn’t. I’ve a feeling.’

The concerns we have melt away in the afterlife. The issue I have with the children being stuck at one age? Well, ‘age’ doesn’t mean the same there. Everyone died? Only in our terms. OK … so what does that mean? Answer: we can’t conceive the meaning, not unless we’re lucky enough to go there. Again, it’s theologically sound, but extraordinarily dissatisfying because it’s not an answer, it’s the infinite deferral of all answers. We’re told how calm and certain and perfect and meaningful everything is, but not what that meaning is:

‘The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you get there, you will know what I mean.’

The children, who’ve been smart and resourceful and independent and curious for seven books now fall into blind acceptance. We die, and from that point everything’s all sorted for us, don’t worry about it. Earlier in the book, when a Lamb speaks up against someone claiming to represent Aslan, the Lamb is dragged away and punished, and it’s one of the parts of the book where you see true evil at work. Now Aslan’s making his proclamations, and the entire (chosen) population of Narnia runs after him, joyfully and unquestioningly. This feels like a betrayal of what the Narnia books have been about until now – the spirit of keep calm and carry on, make do and mend, of being practical and thoughtful, of not taking the easy route, or the selfish route, but working out individually and in groups what the best course of action is, what the right thing to do is. It does make me yearn for a story where Lyra from His Dark Materials meets Aslan. Not necessarily with the subtle knife concealed up her sleeve (although if that was to happen, I wouldn’t bet on the lion), but just because it would be nice to have someone go ‘hang on a minute …’.

Many of the books on my list are utopian. They offer the prospect of a more wonderful world, and make us think about how we could make our world more like it. These worlds are often transcendent – they require not just an advanced-to-the-point-of-magic technology, but much more importantly a shift in human attitude and sense of perspective.

Narnia itself isn’t a utopia. It’s pretty, and it’s the sort of place that would be wonderful to visit, but it’s always depicted as a fairly small, slightly silly country. In metafictional terms, it’s not transcendent, it’s more like a toybox with all sorts of odd things rattling around together – Greek myth, vaguely Turkish soldiers, medieval romance, ogres, dragons, sea monsters, Wind in the Willows, even Father Christmas. It’s clearly a shadow of our world, not vice versa.

What brings it alive is that the talking animals are deeply pragmatic, practical people. They have to fetch firewood, cook meals, avoid trouble with the law. And they’re curious, thoughtful people. Lewis is playful and almost postmodern about all this. We’re told one of the reasons so many of the animals have abandoned Aslan in The Last Battle is that he never shows up when there’s trouble – half a dozen times in thousands of years, some kids from a strange land have materialised to sort things out, but Aslan’s appearances are far rarer. It’s a moment when we realise that we only see Narnia at times of crisis, and we see it as the English children see it. Aslan often appears to them, but barely appears at all to the Narnians. It’s a nice moment, and although Lewis is clearly scolding these Narnian Dawkinses, he is presenting their side of the argument, and you can’t help but see their point.

There was a similar sentiment in Prince Caspian. It’s probably my favourite of the books, because it subverts so much, both in terms of story and structure, it’s practically a spoof of a Narnia novel. Narnia has been occupied by human invaders, who’ve been there generations by the time the book starts, and who have banned all mentions of talking animals, mythological creatures and Aslan. So the dwarfs have to pretend they’re just small people. And the actual talking animals huddle in their burrows, like members of the French Resistance in a war film, plotting small acts of sabotage. There’s a nice, telling bit where one dwarf suggests they give up on Aslan and try summoning the White Witch, because she was definitely real ‘and was good to the dwarfs’. Again, the guy’s clearly wicked and wrong, we’re meant to reject his idea … but we’re also encouraged to understand why we’re rejecting it.

Narnia’s always been a place where most people have that virtue that Lewis admires most of all: they are sensible. That all goes out the window in the afterlife – everyone just bounds around and oohs and ahhs, and the narrator and Aslan defer every explanation and offer no justifications. There don’t seem to be any practical limitations.

So this is utopia? Is this perfection? I’m pretty confident that Lewis thinks so. He’s describing his interpretation of the Christian Heaven, give or take. But it’s not a utopia we can aspire to. We’ll get there if we look Aslan in the eye and, in that moment, feel love instead of terror. There is inevitably something totalitarian about utopias – something I’ll discuss when I talk about the Culture novels – and fictional utopias are, as the etymology of the word suggests – impossible places. We can’t meaningfully aspire to make Earth like the Culture anymore than we can aspire to be Superman. But the Culture represents a best case scenario for human progress: thousands of years of good decisions, in the universe as we understand it, governed by the laws of science and politics and people. People like us built it. Aslan’s Country is just there. We get our golden ticket if we mean it when we tell the gatekeeper we love him, and we’re not to ask any questions once we’re inside.


I’d rather step into the shadow than go to that Heaven. If I felt terror, I wouldn’t get a choice. However, if I looked Aslan in the eye and loved him but knew that I wouldn’t be able to ask about what’s happened to those who don’t, that I would never have another troubling thought, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to walk into Aslan’s shadow myself. I would genuinely prefer oblivion to Lewis’s utopia. I wouldn’t trade my capability to ask a question for the ability to jump up waterfalls, or want to spend eternity with a group of people who all would.

Applied to the real world, I think the last section presents a terrible message for children and an infantilising one for adults. If the end is solely to be judged as fiction, though, if we don’t try to apply it to the real children reading, it’s great stuff. For seven books, Lewis has had his cake and eaten it as to whether Narnia is ‘real’ – there’s a bit in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where something preposterous happens and the narrator says he heard it from Lucy herself, so far be it for him to say it’s not true. He frequently says something like ‘if you’re lucky enough to go to Narnia one day’. But at heart, up until now, Lewis has been at pains to say this is all made up. Aslan isn’t Jesus, he’s a fictional representation of the same divine will in a Narnian setting. The Narnia books have always been stories – the narrator, an intrusive one, even by the standards of children’s fiction, has often said as much. The Magician’s Nephew starts with the line ‘this is a story’. Lewis has been very clear: this is fiction. Next time, I’m going to try to codify some of the characteristics of the books I’m talking about. One very important one is that they don’t equate ‘fact’ with ‘true’ and ‘fiction’ with ‘false’. But when, say, Grant Morrison says that fictions are ‘real’, he doesn’t mean that fact and fiction are the same. I think Lewis makes that category error – he wants us to consider Aslan’s Country as being as true for us as it is for Peter. And that’s a real shame, because while I think it’s an appalling message for real people, there is no better or more fitting Heaven for fictional characters than the one alluded to by the poetic last line of The Last Battle: ‘for them, it was only the beginning of the true story, which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before’.

Further Reading!

Instinctively, it’s hard for me to believe that the Narnia books come after the early Disney cartoons and the Wizard of Oz movie. Lewis was influenced by them, not vice versa. The Last Battle was published in 1956, it’s a product of the rock and roll years. It was published after James Dean and Jackson Pollock died, after Lolita was published, after Heartbreak Hotel got to number one. It’s the same year The Wizard of Oz was first shown on television in the US. I mention this because another thing that creeped me out as a child for reasons the creators didn’t intend, as well as for the ones they did, was the 1939 MGM cartoon Peace on Earth. While he certainly doesn’t lift anything explicitly from Peace on Earth, and I can’t be sure if he even saw it, I do wonder if Lewis took some inspiration from it. It was remade in 1955 (although I think the original is more powerful), and so the remake was released while Lewis was writing his book.

At the other end of the spectrum, try Michael Ward’s magnificent Planet Narnia, a convincing theory that Lewis based each Narnia book on one of the planets of classical cosmology.

Laura Miller’s book The Magician’s Book is a personal response of an adult who loved the books as a child and who returns them more sceptically. I just used the word ‘book’ three times in one sentence. I’m going to hell. Or, at least, Aslan’s shadow.

Gray Tradition: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appears to be a colourful, zany knockabout comedy, a Pythonesque spoof of space opera. In actuality … well, yes, it is that. It’s mainly that, in fact. It also, though, presents a profoundly depressive and ultimately depressing view of the universe.

Right … the first thing I need to say: I’m deeply suspicious of any attempt to apply an author’s biography to a discussion of their work. Obviously writers bring their own personalities and experience to their writing. But we tend to interpret all this teleologically. We take the crumbs of what we know about authors’ lives and write Just So Stories. Take a few of the writers on my list from last time: Borges becomes defined by the fact he’s blind and Argentinian, as if this was the first time such a conjunction occurred. Why, Lord Asriel must surely be representative of Pullman’s psychological yearning following the early death of his father. We ignore the facts that don’t fit the model, turn authors into nothing more than semi-autobiographers.

So we have an image of CS Lewis, say, with his books and his warm-beer-and-Anglicanism view of the world. He lived with his mother into middle age, you know. A lot of authors write themselves into their own stories (that they often do so explicitly is actually common in the books I’m discussing). Lewis is clearly the kindly Professor Kirke from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That’s obvious. Except … that wasn’t his mother. Actually he’d moved in with Jane Moore, the mother of a friend who died during the First World War. They very possibly had a sado-masochistic relationship, with her as the dominant partner. Lewis just told everyone she was his mother. So we do a 180 on our perception of CS Lewis … but, wait: now there’s a new Just So Story. Don’t you see? Remember the White Witch and her whip and furs and demands for obedience? See, that was autobiographical! It fits in with what we know about the author!

Writers tend to encourage this mythologising. Douglas Adams worked, as the biographical paragraph in his books said, as a chicken shed cleaner and bodyguard. Why, what a colourful and varied life, no wonder his books are so wacky! But … no. He got the same sort of menial summer jobs as every other young person. He was 25 when he started The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The chicken shed and bodyguard line was there to pad out his CV, not secret origin. But wait … surely it gave him insight to write for Hotblack Desiato’s bodyguard, and possibly the Vogon guard? And there’s that scene with all the birds in Arthur Dent’s ear on Brontital. Surely no one without Adams’ unique chicken shed cleaning experience could imagine a room full of birds is noisy and smelly …

I’ve read three biographies of Douglas Adams. I am – not exactly uniquely – a huge fan. He wrote nine books. According to Library Thing, I have sixty-eight of them. I met him once, for a couple of minutes at a signing. I would not go anywhere near presuming I knew him, knew how his mind worked or what made him tick, or that I have any insight into the private man.

So, when I say that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a depressive’s view of the universe, that is not to diagnose its author. When I say ‘Adams thinks’, I am not performing some act of telepathic communion. It’s a figure of speech meaning ‘I presume to think that Adams thinks that’.

And now that’s understood, here’s some autobiography: I performed my first act of literary analysis when I was nine. I recognised that when Earth gets demolished in Hitchhiker’s, it’s like Arthur Dent’s house being demolished. It’s an important joke. The galactic civilisation Arthur comes into contact with is exactly like Earth, only everything is moreso.


Lots of science fiction stories have Galactic Empires. The one in Adams’ books contains perhaps the largest of the best-known Galactic civilisations in fiction. Star Trek’s Federation contains hundreds of planets, Paul Atreides controls tens of thousands in Dune, the Old Republic in Star Wars has millions. Iain Banks’ Culture is so advanced that ‘civilisation’ doesn’t begin to cover what its thirty trillion inhabitants have going. Nevertheless, at various times the Culture, like the other examples there, faces rival powers of similar size and capability. Hitchhiker’s depicts a single galactic civilisation that dwarfs them all, one that spans the entire galaxy under a single system, can reach the farthest points of time and space.

And this should be utopia, as it’s a place of infinite possibility. Science fiction tends to focus on the technology, and Arthur Dent quickly encounters aliens, hyperspace, spaceships, talking computers, aircars and robots – all of which are absurdly advanced, to the point that hyperspace is old hat and the computers can work out the answer to everything. They built a burger bar at the Big Bang. But it’s all more advanced – the bureaucracy, the economy, even the psychiatry, philosophy and theology. And … isn’t our life complicated enough? In space everything has become so complex it’s impossible to understand anything at all. You can’t walk through a door or make a cup of tea without technology interposing. Even the secret shadow government that’s running things isn’t clear on what’s going on.

And in this infinite universe, nothing is impossible. We’re told of Veet Voojagig, a ‘brilliant academic’ who studies ‘the wave harmonic theory of historic perception’ and has worked out that there has to be a planet populated by biros, and that has to be where all his missing biros have ended up. Elsewhere, we learn that the galaxy doesn’t bother making mattresses, it gets them by going to a planet of sentient mattresses and slaughtering them.

It’s not a coincidence that the people (and also people) of the galaxy make the Encyclopedia Galactica, Oolon Colluphid’s books about the God delusion and – of course – The Hitchhiker’s Guide into bestsellers. Anything to make sense of things. But these books aren’t full of wisdom, they’re full of reassurances. God’s made plenty of mistakes, but don’t panic. (The other bestsellers we hear about are all sex manuals).

As Adams says, the problem is that anything compared to infinity might as well not exist. Here’s what a creative writing manual would describe as the ‘controlling idea’ of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘the universe is infinite, everything possible exists … so you are, to all intents and purposes, nothing and everything you do is pointless’.

A being with the brain the size of a planet considers the matter in the first book:

“Marvin regarded it with cold loathing whilst his logic circuits chattered with disgust and tinkered with the concept of directing physical violence against it. Further circuits cut in saying, Why bother? What’s the point? Nothing is worth getting involved in.”

Our philosophers and scientists would object. They would say that ‘everything’ doesn’t mean ‘everything’. An omnipotent being can’t do everything. ‘Everything’ actually means ‘everything possible’. If we live in an infinite universe (or even multiverse), it doesn’t mean that if you travel far enough, you’ll find anything you can possibly imagine, that it must exist. We can imagine a force powerful enough to instantly destroy our whole universe, for example … clearly that doesn’t exist. The way philosophers have tended to explain it is that everything (even God, the theologians chip in) is beholden to the rules of logic. 2+2=4. Even an omnipotent being can’t make 2+2=5. An omnipotent God could change one of the 2s into a 3, or miraculously change the value of all 2s to 2.5. He couldn’t make 2+2 equal anything that isn’t 4. That would lead to an absurd universe in which ‘meaning’ could not be discussed in any useful way. A planet of lost biros is not possible.

Theologians nowadays accuse Douglas Adams’ friend Richard Dawkins of being woefully ignorant of their discipline. Is Adams guilty of a fundamental failure to understand what ‘infinite’ meant? Let’s consider the evidence. According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ultimate question is ‘what do you get if you multiply six by nine?’ and the ultimate answer is ’42’.

The universe is ultimately meaningless. There are no sensible questions, let alone answers. That’s the secret of life, the universe and everything. Who is this God person, anyway?

So, how to cope? One way is ignorance. The books are full of the willfully and inadvertently stupid. Ford gets drunk (a lot of people get drunk in the books), Slartibartfast keeps his head down, Zaphod’s ego blinds him (and he’s voluntarily had a couple of lobotomies), the Vogons lack imagination. When faced with a machine that can solve the greatest problem of philosophy, the first instinct of the Philosophers’ Union is to try and get it switched off.

The other response, and perhaps the only honest one, is mental illness, and the books are full of that, too. The most famous example is Marvin, who is described as a manic depressive, paranoid android. He’s not manic, he’s never obviously paranoid. He is, as the passage I quoted just then demonstrates, depressive. One of the great joys of the series is that Marvin is endlessly entertaining and quotable. But that’s only true for the audience, and never for the characters. He’s an endless downer, who makes just about everyone he meets miserable, and he manages to get a number of other robots and computers to kill themselves after a short conversation.

Arthur Dent is the everyman figure in the book. He might seem to be normal, and much of the book is about what counts as normal. It’s easy to see him as an English stiff upper lip type, an oasis of reasonableness. The cosmic straight man among all the two-headed aliens, monsters and robots. This is how Martin Freeman plays him in the movie. It’s not how Douglas Adams wrote him or how Simon Jones plays him.

One of my favourite lines is Arthur’s reply to Ford’s question, which was surely intended to break things to him gently: ‘what would you say if I told you I wasn’t from Guildford after all, but was in fact from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?’, which is (altogether now) ‘I don’t know. Why? Is it the sort of thing you’re likely to say?’. There are no defined responses for any of the situations Arthur finds himself in. He’s glad to be told ‘Don’t Panic’ by the cover of the Book (it’s a fantastically counterproductive piece of advice, of course). Arthur has clearly gone mad by the beginning of Life, the Universe and Everything, talking to trees and hallucinating. The exact point he went mad is unclear – when we meet him the council are knocking down his house, so we’d expect him to be a little manic and upset, which he is. Throughout the radio and TV series, Simon Jones plays him as either wide-eyed and frightened or sullen and withdrawn. Arthur acts in a way that’s far more paranoid and bipolar than anything Marvin ever does. Whenever he seems to be enjoying himself, another character is always quick to shatter his momentary sense of peace. His soulmate, Fenchurch, is completely barking mad.

One key line is this one:

‘[Earth’s] been demolished … it just boiled away into space.’

‘Look,’ said Arthur, ‘I’m a bit upset about that.’

Even in the novel, which allows for introspection in a way other media can’t, this can be interpreted as Arthur possessing a Princess Leia level of nonchalance. Planet blew up, a bit upset for one scene, now let’s move on. Dig a little deeper, that’s not what’s happening. Arthur is clearly traumatised by the Earth being destroyed. He’s been uprooted, and finds himself constantly on the move, constantly finding out that everything he knew and believed is false. The best Arthur can hope for is a temporary respite – on prehistoric Earth, on the reconstructed Earth with Fenchurch, on a planet where he’s revered for his sandwich making. In those moments – all of which come to an end sooner or later – we see Arthur at rest, ‘acting normally’, in control of his situation, and the contrast with how we’re used to seeing him is so striking that he’s practically a different character.

One of the common themes of many of the books I’m grouping together is that our world is simulation, or that we are simulations. That we’re, as Plato had it, shadows on a cave wall or at the very least that the world in which all human endeavour is contained is tiny. That everything we think we know is so far off reality that it’s ‘not even wrong’. The protagonist sees his world shattered – although never more literally as it is in Hitchhiker’s.

Marvin’s depression is, technically, merely the simulation of depression. But that he has been designed this way, that it’s down to the programming of his (and this is a nested irony) logic circuits, is, of course, depressing in and of itself. One of the more horrific moments in Hitchhiker’s is when the mice propose to replace Arthur’s brain with a perfect simulation, with even his colleagues suggesting that no one, not even Arthur, would be able tell the difference.

In a lot of the books I’m talking about, the revelation that the world is not as everyone always thought it was is the first great Call to Adventure and there’s a promise of operating on a transcendent scale. There will be atonement with the universe, a point where our full understanding of what’s really going on gives way to a better future. Not a perfect one – it’s often bittersweet or ambiguous – but an empowering one. Often literally empowering, in the sense that the protagonist gains superhuman abilities. The end of the Narnia series (which I’ll discuss at great length next time, you lucky people); the founding of the Republic of Heaven at the end of His Dark Materials; Ozymandias’ brave new world order at the end of Watchmen; the Culture. These are utopias as a journey, not a destination, and there’s always a bodycount in the millions.

Hitchhiker’s never merges onto the road to utopia like a lot of those other books do. A lot of books ask the question ‘what’s the point?’. Hitchhiker’s constantly presses home that it’s a rhetorical question, that there’s no valid possible response, that it’s pointless even to ask. Out of all the stories on my list, Hitchhiker’s is the funniest, but it’s also perhaps, ultimately, the most profoundly depressing and hopeless.

The Gray Tradition

I think – I’d go as far as to say that I know – that there is a strain of literature that is extremely influential, extremely well-read and represents a tradition that straddles genre. So far, it’s been pretty well confined to the printed page. It’s a type of science fiction – although it’s not always marketed as such – that borders on fantasy, borders on satire, borders on philosophical enquiry. The books tend to be quite subversive, quite experimental, but often have a surface that appears straightforward and unchallenging.

Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of the sort of authors I’m thinking of: Douglas Adams, Ballard, Iain Banks, Roberto Bolano, Borges, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Phillip K Dick, Umberto Eco, Alisdair Gray, David Lindsay, CS Lewis, HP Lovecraft, David Mitchell, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Philip Pullman, David Foster Wallace.

Hmmm. OK. I need to say something here:

Just about all of those are writers who’ve written books I love. I am at risk of taking authors I like and lumping them together, imposing my own hang ups and bugbears on them, discerning a grand secret history of literature that looks remarkably like my Library Thing catalogue.

We can’t help but connect up the books we’ve read, until we end up with an idiosyncratic working model of literature. Borges writes at great length about this, how he read a lot of Chesterton and Wells and Verne and Cervantes and ended up with an inflected, unique idea of European literature. We’re always finding out that some authors are influenced by others, either because it’s blindingly obvious from reading it, or because the author namechecks an author somewhere.

I’m also at risk at pointing out the rather obvious. That Philip Pullman read the Narnia books, or that Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore are aware of each other is not exactly a revelation.

And while I suspect a lot of people reading this have read and enjoyed a lot of the authors I listed, I don’t think many people have necessarily seen all of them as part of a tradition, or explored what the books have in common.

I’m going to give it a go. This time round, I’ll give a rough outline of what I think this tradition is about. In future posts, I’m going to take individual books and explain how I think they fit. If the grand unified stuff doesn’t work, then I hope, at least, to write something that’s an interesting slant on books I enjoy reading and re-reading. I’d love to hear what people think, and please don’t be shy.


These books tend to have protagonists who are thinking, independent men (I think it is quite a male genre – note that every single author I cited was male), who are of the Hamlet type – self aware, often quite literate, who know from the start they are in a world that does not reward the self aware or the literate. Their imagination encompasses more than their (often remarkably mundane, at least initially) everyday surroundings. Early in the story, they see the rules of the universe. All the characters in the know in these stories have acquired an esoteric form of wisdom that represents a modern merging of art and science, of fiction and fact.

We’re often told that ‘book learning’ is somehow inferior to direct experience. This isn’t the case for these characters. Deep down, like Hamlet, they’ve come to understand – or be shown – that they’re living in a story, and so book learning is direct experience.

The world of these stories is often a heightened version of ours. Pretty much all fiction takes place in a tidied up, heightened version of reality, of course. The stories I’m talking about take place in a world that is ‘hyper real’. Often, at first, a world that seems identical to ours, or at least the author’s attempt at depicting our world. There’s often some gateway to a more real world, though – a sense that we live in a simulation or within fiction, or that a particular type of drug can be genuinely consciousness-expanding, or just that exposure to infinity will inevitably shake you out of mundane concerns. In the stories, we often come into contact with a mind or a place or sometimes a book that represents the better world. Once we’ve seen the bigger world, we can never look at ours in the same way. There are often characters who are staggeringly better than we are, paragons of virtues we can’t even conceptualise. Our world is shown to be wrong. Time is out of joint.

But while Hamlet moped around wearing a black jerkin, suffering from weltschmerz, the protagonists of these stories rebel, in their various ways. They are at least trying to do something about it, kick against it.

There’s a utopian streak to this type of postmodern story, and that’s extremely interesting, because postmodernism ought to rule out the whole concept of utopias. Dystopias are fine. We can imagine dark futures where we can all agree everything’s gone wrong. One of the characteristics of a dystopia is that one ideology won and crushed all the others. In that world, even the winner understands it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Although recent world events have made us particularly gloomy, it always has been harder to imagine a bright future, one where we all somehow get what we want. Postmodernism tells us why: everything is relative. There’s no one absolute right way to set up a society.

And that’s what these books are all, ultimately, about: ‘what might a multicultural, postmodern utopia look like … and can we get there from here?’

I recently read a novel that I’d seen mentioned in a lot of interviews as influential. That’s to put it mildly. The book is Lanark, by Alisdair Gray, and it was published in 1981. I’ll explore why I think it’s a novel that represents an important archetype of the type of books I’m talking about.

Before that, though, I’m going to talk about a book where the main character’s world is shattered and he’s driven to manic depression when he’s exposed to the infinite. He travels with an alcoholic, a manic, a depressive and a rather nice young woman he completely fails to get off with and comes to understand that the entire universe is futile, the Gods are capricious and also non-existent. It’s a story in which billions of human lives are destroyed, where the universe is exposed as less than meaningless. It’s a dark, savage, vicious, nihilistic, angry book. It’s called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.