I didn't save anything for the swim back…

There was an interesting discussion on the forums recently about Blade Runner: The Final Cut. I love Blade Runner. That whole Rutger Hauer speech at the end about teardrops in the rain? Brilliant. And from the Final Cut DVD documentary, I discovered that Rutger Hauer came up with that line himself – my favourite line in the film. Oh, and for the record, I am also a massive Philip K. Dick fan, too (though I was alarmed recently to find a speech by him in which he suggested that we are all really living in Judea 2000 years ago – although I’m not sure why I’m surprised by this). And actually, I quite like Total Recall, too, which may be pertinent information when you consider my next opinion…


So: yes, Blade Runner is brilliant. But I actually think there is another sci-fi film from the last decade that is on a par with Blade Runner both in depth and style. Okay, so it doesn’t quite delve into what it is to be human, as Blade Runner and PKD do, but still… I love this film. And if you have seen it, you will have guessed what film I am talking about from the title of this post: Gattaca (for GTCA, the initials of the four DNA nucleotides, guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine).

I just watched Gattaca for – what? The tenth time, maybe. And as always, I had tears in my eyes as the credits rolled. Jude Law manages not to be annoying (because the film was released just before he became annoying; actually, he’s fantastic in it, reminiscent of Richard E. Grant in Withnail And I in the way he plays his role). And the ever-reliable Ethan Hawke is great (okay, so he only ever plays the same character, but I like the character he plays; and don’t even start me off on the bit in Before Sunset where they’re in the car towards the end, because I at least want to pretend I’m all manly and stuff and don’t sob at just anything. And he has a decent future writing novels ahead of him after his looks give out, the talented bastard – The Hottest State is a damn good novel and by better half informs me the follow-up is good, too, which I have yet to read. Better get out of these parentheses now). The whole film is  – well, just perfect. Blade Runner uses replicants to ask: what is it to be human? Gattaca uses a very simple metaphor, which reminds me, in a way, of the beloved children’s book, Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish: A man looked at a star. All he thought about, dreamed about, was that star. In Gattaca, rockets leave the earth for space and the main character just wants to be on one. It’s a simple metaphor for something better. Everything from Vincent’s swimming race with his brother leading to his poignant revelation that implies he will probably never be coming back, to the doctor’s revelation about his own son… Gattaca is a masterpiece in structure and a true SF cinema classic. There’s no real action – no shoot outs, laser guns, fights or anything like that. It’s just about someone striving to go beyond their expected limitations, and the sci-fi setting provides the necessary metaphors.

To me, Gattaca – like Blade Runner – is what good sci-fi is all about: saying something about being human now, using a futuristic mythos to put into action what otherwise would have had to be put into words.

Gattaca: if you’ve never seen it, go watch it NOW. And if you don’t like it, don’t post here! (Because your opinion is in-valid.)

Whatever happened to…

Like most of the readers of this forum/blog, I read a lot. Duh. Obviously. That’s what got us would-be writers (if you are actually a real writer please don’t boast here) going in the first place. But in my twenties, I read voraciously. (These days I toss books aside if they don’t grab me within a chapter or tell me anything new or interesting – I’m halfway to being a septuagenarian this year, after all!) In my early twenties, I had a temp job which had long periods of doing pretty much nothing, mainly because my employers were of an older generation and had no idea how long it took to do basic administrative tasks on MS Excel or Access. Thus they gave me jobs that they thought would take me weeks which in fact only took days and then kept me on regardless. For a whole year I was given the job of scanning in old engineering blueprints. Any normal person would have run a mile; me, I was the longest serving temporary worker there. The reason I stayed so long was that no one bothered me – and in all that empty time I usually managed to read sneakily. Whilst scanning in blueprints, I would feed paper, press a button and then return to my book as the paper whirred through the feeder.

I wonder at the state those scans must be in; but I doubt anyone has ever looked at them since.

I lived in a shared house near Ealing in West London and Ealing was brilliant – it had a Waterstone’s and a big library (note to anybody who works at Ealing Library: I am a better person now; I am sincerely sorry that I never returned the Rachel Ingalls books, but honestly, according to the borrowing slip stuck in the cover, I was the only one who borrowed them in years, and they have a good home with me…). Even better, the local church had a book sale every two weeks in a portacabin around the back. It was absolutely brilliant; exciting. Every fortnight I would wander around the stalls of secondhand booksellers who travelled from different parts of London, and spend twenty (or about five hours of work) on ten books, carrying them out in old Sainsbury’s and M&S bags that had been stashed by the booksellers. I bought whatever took my fancy, because it was cheap: classics, authors I’d never heard of but liked the first line, books with covers that took my fancy. And then I’d walk the three miles to work with my nose between the covers and sneakily read whenever I could during the day.

Brilliant.

At the same time, I’d pilgrim over to Waterstone’s for anything that caught my eye in the Sunday Times Books section (now part of the Culture section, sob) or the Saturday Guardian Review.

This is going somewhere, trust me. Going there self-indulgently, yes, but somewhere nonetheless.

Anyway, my point is this:

During that time, I came across a number of books by new writers that I was convinced were going to be BIG. Books that I absolutely loved; writers with real style and something to say. Some of them were novels, others short story collections. Some were brilliant in and of themselves, some blew me away with their style but I felt sure there was better to come.

And then I never heard of them again.

So, I thought I’d put together a list of kind of “one-hit wonders” in literature. Except that term is too derogatory; the term, in its pop music sense, implies novelty without substance. These books aren’t like that. These books are – in my opinion – good. Most of them are from that period in my twenties when I read about twice as many books in a year as I manage now. Some are more recent. So, I decided to put my internet addiction to good use and look up all of these authors on Amazon to see what they’ve done since, if anything. Here is my list.


Edit: Since composing this list, I’ve updated it as, it turns out, some of these authors didn’t disappear at all (sorry for my ignorance!). Thank you to the posters who replied to put me right (and especial apologies to Susannah Waters, one of the authors in the list who was kind enough to reply). It is heartening to know that not all of these talented writers disappeared, though.

Jenny Offill – Last Things
Brilliant. The writing is touching without being mawkish. The narrator’s mother – really the main character – is infuriating but fascinating. How could Offill not have written another novel since? How?

Thomas Beller – Seduction Theory
Hmm, he does have some other stuff out there, just nothing that seems to fit with what I expected from this superb collection.

Bo Fowler – Scepticism, Inc
A complete Vonnegut rip-off; he had one other novel published then disappeared. But despite his huge debt to Vonnegut, there was still something fresh here, and I thought he’d shake the influence and go onto some really cool stuff… Oh well.

Sandra Newman – The Only Good Thing That Anyone Has Ever Done
Actually, Amazon reveals she did write another book recently, Cake, so I’ll have to order that.

Maria Amparo Escandon – Esperanza’s Box of Saints
Amazon tells me that this was made into a film in Spain and that she did have one book published later, in 2005. I can only hope she has more waiting to be translated into English.

Tibor Fischer – The Thought Gang
Oh, wait. Scratch this one. I read this, the Collector Collector and, uh, something else by him, too, but he’s had lots published since so I guess I just wasn’t paying attention.

Brian McCabe – In a Dark Room with a Stranger
This was a short story collection published in the early 90s, which was brilliant. He had a novel published before that, but it was already impossible to find when the story collection came out. Since then, he has published two more short story collections. Why no more novels? Why isn’t he better known?

Carsten Jensen – Earth in the Mouth
Beautiful, lyrical travel novel. Short, too, which I tend to like. Turns out he did write something else that was published in 2002, but that seems to be it. Why not more?

Kate Pullinger – Forcibly Betwitched
This was a very small short story collection that was published as a Penguin 60s edition a few years back. The Penguin 60s were fantastic – in the year that Penguin celebrated their 60th year of publishing, they produced these small, pared down special edition books that would fit in the palm of your hand and cost 60p each. They were generally excerpts of larger works – so, I bought Orpheus in the Underworld taken from a larger new translation of Ovid; a small collection of the Buddha’s teachings and aphorisms; and among the others, Kate Pullinger’s short stories, which I bought entirely on the basis of the attractive, thoughtful girl in the photograph on the front cover. The stories were very short, concise and beautiful, but I could never find the collection from which the Penguin 60s edition was culled. And now I see she has had quite a lot published (though I am alarmed to discover that she co-wrote the novelisation of The Piano), so I need to buy something by her soon. (My personal favourite story is The Wardrobe. I have re-read that dozens of times.)

Junot Diaz – Drown
This was a beautiful and brutal short story collection set in South America, and it was rightly critically acclaimed when it was published. I’ve looked for something else by him intermittently ever since. Bizarrely, now that I am writing this, I see that he has a new book being published in 2008 – the first since Drown was published 11 years ago. I hope it’s as good.
Edited to add: Apparently Junot Diaz’s new book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is receiving rave reviews in America (it still isn’t published here), so he has anything but disappeared. (Still, I wonder where he went for ten years!)

Alan Spence – Stone Garden and Other Stories
Huh. Seems he’s had a fair bit published both before and since, too.

Christopher Kennedy – No Christmas, No Kafka / Susannah Waters – Funerals
These were two superb short stories that appeared in Stand magazine a few years ago. I always looked out for other works by these writers, but never found any, much to my regret.
Edited to add: I did indeed look out for these writers, but I guess in the wrong places. Susannah Waters has had two novels published since that short story, Long Gone Anybody and Cold Comfort, both of which are available via Amazon. Apologies! (And I look forward to reading them.)

There are more, but that’s enough for now.

Actually, this has been quite heartening. A lot of the authors I thought had disappeared are actually still around, still writing and still getting published. Anyone who says the internet is killing reading or books should take stock: I haven’t seen the some of the above authors in a bookshop in years, but I can get their books from Amazon or Amazon market place. I just wish I’d heard a bit more about them in the review pages in the interim.

I have no idea whether this says more about what happens to promising authors or about my own ignorance. Probably both. Or probably just the latter.

Edited to add: It seems that this does, partly, say something about my ignorance. It also, I think, says something about review space and the fact that a few big names get all of the attention whilst there is some other real talent out there getting published without much fuss. In the end I think this leaves me somewhat optimistic.

If anybody has ever wondered what happened to a writer they thought was going to be something special but who then disappeared, please share, either here or on the forums.