The writer on the edge of forever


© Los Angeles Times


Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.


In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.


Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.


Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.


© Pan Books


Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.


I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.


Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?


© Desilu Productions


Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.


More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”


In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.


I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.


Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.


© Pan Books


But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:


A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.


And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.


© Pan Books


Ursula departs


© The Washington Post


Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.


This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent.  I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong.  The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy.  Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title.  D’uh!


Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me.  It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose.  The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.


Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”


Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties.  One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour.  He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her.  He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion.  I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.”  He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.


Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.


One thing’s for sure.  I need to track down and read copies of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) soon.


© Penguin Books


Staying power



Back in July I was exploring Dalry Cemetery, which is a little way west of the centre of Edinburgh, when I discovered a tombstone for one George Cupples – a ‘novelist’ , ‘critic’ and ‘philologist’ who died in 1891 at the age of 69.  The stone had been erected by “a few of his very oldest friends in recognition of the various literary gifts and attainments of the author and in loving memory of the simple, upright and reverent character of the man.”


George who? I thought.


A search for George Cupples on the Internet didn’t yield much information.  (There was slightly more about his wife, Anne Jane Cupples, who’d been a children’s author and who’d corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Anne moved to New Zealand after George’s death and I assume she’s buried there.)  According to Cupples “wrote dozens of nautical novels, such as The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856), The Two Frigates: or, Captain Bisset’s Legacy (1859) and Captain Herbert: A Sea Story (1864).”  An entry on another site,, which appears to have been written in 1917 and is pretty purple in its prose, describes Cupples thus: “a happy combination of the genuine and most agreeable traits of that hearty and outspoken variety of man, the literary Scotchman.”  It also calls The Green Hand ‘one of the best sea stories ever written’.


So – with his many seafaring adventure novels, George Cupples could have been a Victorian equivalent of Patrick O’Brian, whose books about Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars are so beloved today.  But who remembers Cupples in 2015?  I hadn’t heard of him.  I only know his name now because I found myself by the gates of Dalry Cemetery the other month and decided to take a look inside.


Fame is elusive in the literary world – and even if you’re one of the few who manage to achieve some fame, there’s no guarantee that you’ll hold onto it for long.  A case in point is the early 20th-century thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who in his heyday could boast that he’d written a quarter of all the books being read in England at the time.  Yet today, he’s forgotten.  Well, not quite forgotten.  There’s a pub named after him on Essex Street in London and a website dedicated to him at  And in remote corners of the Internet I’ve discovered lovers of obscure movies enthusing about the Krimi films – a set of stylistically-distinctive movie adaptations of Wallace’s stories, filmed during the 1960s in Germany (where Wallace had also been a big deal).  Oh, and trivia experts will identify Wallace as the man who co-wrote Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong back in 1933.




But who actually reads Edgar Wallace nowadays?  Very few folk, I’d say.  Which is a big comedown for a man who, less than a century ago, provided the English public with a quarter of its reading matter.


Another name that springs to mind when discussing the here-today-gone-tomorrow fickleness of literary fame is that of Dennis Wheatley, whose wartime, espionage, historical and black-magic thrillers were ubiquitous in Britain between the 1930s and 1970s.  However, Wheatley’s books seemed to drop off the radar the moment that he died in 1977.  Twenty years later, I remember the British Film Institute Companion to Horror dismissing Wheatley with a withering comment along the lines of “hugely popular in his day, terribly unfashionable now.”


Actually, Wheatley seems slightly better remembered than Wallace is.  I doubt if many people are perusing a Wheatley novel at this moment in time, but there are things written about him on the Internet.  And they’re nearly all in regard to one part of his oeuvre – the clutch of novels he wrote about Satanism and the occult, most famously The Devil Rides Out (1935) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953).  That was the stuff by Wheatley that I read as a kid – potboilers crammed with things that seemed cool to me, such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to come to life, chalk pentacles offering protection from the powers of darkness, and blasphemous sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (that’s the Devil to you and me).  An additional attraction for my 12 / 13-year-old self was that in the 1970s Wheatley’s occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers.  Each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing around a flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a ghost’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.


(c) Arrow


With those books, Wheatley had, possibly unwittingly, tapped into the zeitgeist – because by the countercultural 1960s, many people were fascinated by magic, mysticism, meditation, transcendence and any sort of esoterica that was going.  Indeed, Wheatley is said to have based the character of Mocata, the villain in The Devil Rides Out, on the notorious English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley.  By 1967, the younger generation considered Crowley such a dude that he was one of the figures depicted on the cover of the legendary Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Yet Wheatley wasn’t embraced by the generations that came after him and he didn’t achieve any large, lasting measure of fame.  (His meagre legacy is in contrast to that of another writer who dealt in dark and macabre subject-matter, H.P. Lovecraft, who by the late 1960s had a psychedelic rock band named after him and whose influence today seems to be everywhere: in books, films, music and gaming.)  Wheatley’s fiction simply wasn’t built to last.  No matter how intrigued he or she might be by the occult stuff in Wheatley’s books, a modern reader would surely be turned off by his stuck-up and reactionary tone.  His heroes were crusty right-wing aristocrats and his villains were revolting foreigners and / or anybody whom he disapproved of politically.  For instance, he has trade unionists, pop musicians and lesbians in league with the Devil in The Satanist (1960); and the civil rights movement aligned with Auld Nick in Gateway to Hell (1970).  All in all, the snobbishness and crankiness that permeates his writing has dated it very badly.


Incidentally, one thing that’s helped Wheatley to be remembered – faintly – is the fact that a few of his books were filmed.  Most notably, The Devil Rides Out was turned into a well-regarded movie by Hammer Films in 1968.


The impermanence of literary fame was recently the subject of a blog entry by the writer Christopher Priest:  Priest presents a list of names of bestselling authors from the 1930s and asks how many of them are known today: Hervey Allen, James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Hans Werfel and Munro Leaf.  Well, you might know Hilton as the creator of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1933) and the world’s saintliest schoolmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips (1934), but that’s about it.


Then Priest lists some bestselling writers from the 1970s – Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and the lately-departed Jackie Collins – and asks how well they’re lasting in the posterity stakes.  “Most of those names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV.  I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls (1966) or The Dream Merchants (1949) or The Odessa File (1972)?”


To that second list I could add more names: Morris West, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, Alastair MacLean…  God, what has happened to Alastair MacLean?  His action-adventure books about World War II and the Cold War seemed to be regulation reading for schoolboys in the 1970s.  During my schooldays, I’d see lads everywhere with their noses deep in dog-eared copies of, say, Ice Station Zebra (1963) or Where Eagles Dare (1967).  Nowadays, though, his books seem to have slipped into the ether.  When MacLean’s name does come up in conversation, it’s usually in relation to the movies made out of his books – the two I’ve mentioned were both filmed in 1968 by John Sturges and Brian Hutton – rather than the books themselves.  (The fact that the people having those conversations are invariably aging men like myself, who remember seeing the movies on TV when they were kids, doesn’t suggest that MacLean will survive much longer in the popular consciousness.)


(c) Fawcett Crest


Priest goes on to speculate about how long the names of our current crop of bestselling authors will be remembered.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t expect future generations to be poring over the works of E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, or Jeffrey Archer, or Dan Brown on their 22nd-century versions of the kindle.  


He’s also dismissive about the prospects of those practitioners of ‘the modern literary novel, at least in Britain’: “Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by Ian McEwen, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise.  McEwen is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction.  Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism…  Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984)…”


Actually, I’d disagree with Priest here because I think McEwen’s work is likely to stay popular longer than the aloof, disdainful and stylistically up-its-own-arse oeuvre of Amis.  For example, I found McEwen’s Atonement (2001) readable and engaging, even if it was somewhat unoriginal and free in its ‘borrowings’.  (In 2006, McEwen had to answer allegations of plagiarism about Atonement.  It was claimed that he’d grafted into the novel material taken from a 1977 memoir by the romantic novelist and wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews:  Also, I think that McEwen’s early fiction – the short stories in Last Love, First Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978) and the novel The Cement Garden (1978) – is so unsettling and bizarre that it’ll continue to be read in the future, at least, by a small number of aficionados of literary weirdness.


(c) The Independent


On the other hand, Priest predicts longevity for the works of Stephen King, whose best efforts he considers “intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.”  He expects the same for J.K. Rowling, whose books will be passed from parents to children: “It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.”  And he thinks the works of Sir Terry Pratchett will survive too.  Indeed, he believes Pratchett’s books “a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience…  They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world.  The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions.”


So if you’re an author who yearns for immortality, what do you need to do?  Obviously, first of all, be popular – and properly popular.  You’re not just aiming at a highbrow readership.  You have to write for the plebs too.  As Priest says at the start of his piece, “(f)rom the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience.”


Also, if you want people to at least remember your name — even if they no longer read your books — get your work turned into films.  I’m sure the reason why some people have a vestigial memory of Dennis Wheatley is because of the film version of The Devil Rides Out, which still turns up regularly on TV.  The same reason helps explain why Edgar Wallace and Alastair MacLean are still talked about (though admittedly in small doses).  And if that’s the case, the long-term prospects for Stephen King and J.K. Rowling must be good.


And if you want your name to survive after your death even a tiny bit, make sure your readership has survived into the era of the Internet.  Thanks to the Web, fans of obscure and fading writers – no matter how dispersed they are physically – can hook up with one another, and converse, and form communities.  That’s why a sliver of Edgar Wallace remains, just about, at


Alas, that wasn’t an option for poor George Cupples, who was dead, buried and forgotten long before the advent of modern communications technology.




Anyone interested in authors who’ve been badly treated by posterity, who for one reason or other have faded into the fog of the past, should read the fascinating Invisible Ink columns penned for the Independent newspaper by another literary Christopher, the crime and horror writer Christopher Fowler.  You’ll find many of them collected here:







Although it was only recently that I moved to Sri Lanka, I’ve just spent the past four weeks doing a temporary job in Abu Dhabi, the second-biggest city in the United Arab Emirates.


Two years ago I was in Dubai, the UAE’s biggest city, and hated every moment of my sojourn there.  Afterwards I wrote a blog-entry about the experience, in which I quoted the journalist Johann Hari, who once likened Dubai to ‘a motorway punctuated by shopping centres’.  I also made some disparaging comments of my own: “It was the first city I’ve been in where the airport terminal, the hotel I was staying in and everything between and around those two places seemed to constitute a single, uniform entity – as if the city had been replicated endlessly from the same, simple scraps of architectural DNA.  It presented a soulless urban landscape of lobbies, malls, overpriced restaurants, personality-free ‘theme’ bars and acres of concrete, asphalt and glass.  In fact, I could have spent my couple of days there without leaving the airport and had pretty much the same intellectual and aesthetic experience.”


So I expected Abu Dhabi to be more of the same, though on a slightly smaller scale.  My hopes of Abu Dhabi being better than Dubai were not increased by knowing that the 2010 movie Sex and the City 2 had been set there.  Sex and the City 2 has been famously described by the Observer and Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode as “ghastly, putrid and vomit-inducing” and “vacuous and shallow and horrible and consumerist-obsessed” – indeed, he summed it up as being “an orgy of dripping, just dripping wealth that made me want to be sick”, populated by “imperialist American pig-dogs of the highest order”.  Although in a rare display of good taste, the Emirati authorities forbade Sarah Jessica Parker and co. from filming in Abu Dhabi and production of the movie actually took place in Morocco.


As it turned out, Abu Dhabi was no better and no worse that I’d expected.  To be fair, I wasn’t in the city during its most visitor-friendly time of year – the July temperatures were usually in the forties and my stay there coincided with Ramadan, meaning that everything was closed for much of the day and the city only came to life after dark and after the breaking of the Muslim population’s daily fast.


In fact, when I wasn’t working, I spent nearly all my time in my hotel, which was of a considerable size and generous in its allocation of facilities, although again, most of these were closed most of the time because of Ramadan.  I’m sure that, gradually, my confinement to this hotel began to have some odd psychological effects on me.  If the hotel didn’t, in my perceptions, become the entire world, then it certainly came to constitute the whole of Abu Dhabi for me.


I eventually felt like an inhabitant of one of those gleaming science-fiction city utopias you’d see in movies like William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), or George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971), or Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), which are seemingly composed of endless, sterile, plasticky corridors and concourses and elevator tubes.  (Despite being supposedly perfect societies, these sci-fi-movie utopias always seemed to harbour a good number of dissidents, rebels and fugitives.  That might be because what was one generation’s notion of a perfect utopian city usually ended up looking like a later generation’s notion of a giant shopping mall.)


Most science-fictional of all was the hotel’s lobby, at the bottom of a huge shaft of space 35 storeys high.  Two sides of this shaft were notched almost the whole way up to the glass ceiling by balconies, behind which were doors to countless hotel-rooms.  On the side opposite the entrance doors, meanwhile, two glass elevator-cars constantly shuttled up and down between the floors.  As they climbed towards the hooded cavity 35 storeys up where the system’s pulleys and motors were housed, they resembled two pucks whizzing up the towers and towards the bells of a pair of strength-testing fairground high-strikers.



Behind the lobby was a two-storey plaza.  Lining the upper floor of this were shop and restaurant fronts, including those of a beauty salon, a Thai restaurant, a cigar shop and, tucked furtively in a far corner, a bar-restaurant that quietly served breakfast to Western guests on the mornings of Ramadan and served alcohol to them in the evenings.  These were closed for much of the time and frequently the plaza was deserted, so that its air was more like that of a tourist hotel in the middle of North Korea than one in the middle of the UAE.  The lower floor sometimes livened up in the evenings when it became the site of an ‘Iftar’ banquet, i.e. a meal celebrating the end of the day’s fasting.  In readiness for that, during the day, it was populated silently by serving tables that supported chafers with domed stainless-steel lids, and stacks of white plates, and tight, geometrical columns of white cups and saucers.  It also contained, for the sake of local ‘colour’, some ornamental miniature camels and a supposed Bedouin tent that looked like it’d been assembled from sofas and curtains bought at Homebase.



Also on the premises were a mini-market, a swimming pool and a gym.  I spent much of my free time in the gym, using its exercise bikes and treadmills to fight off an Abu Dhabi-induced urge to give up on everything and lapse into becoming an immobile, barely-sentient blob.  All the walking, pedalling and running machines had mini-TVs mounted at their ends so that you could watch BBC World, Al Jazeera, CNN, etc. while you perspired.  There were also bigger screens mounted on the walls in front of the machines that were permanently tuned into some MTV-type channel and that broadcast non-stop horribleness by the likes of Justin Beiber, Ed Sheeran, J-Lo, One Direction, the Vamps, Smiley Virus and Coldplay.  If only they’d put these screens, emitting their vile drone, behind the machines.  Surely that would’ve inspired their users to pedal and run even harder, in a desperate if futile effort to get away from them.  At least the gym, on the 23rd-floor, had glass outer walls and allowed you a spectacular, if hazy, view of the local cityscape.



Drinking in the hotel bar – whenever I’d got so desperate that I could willingly part with seven pounds for a pint of draft Heineken – I gradually came to know some of the regular customers there.  And eventually I discovered that a few of these were long-term residents of the hotel.  For not only did it contain temporary rooms, but at the rear it also had permanent apartments.  Folk actually lived here, with the lobby, plaza, restaurants, mini-market, gym, swimming pool, etc., constituting their neighbourhood, their district, their local living space.  I discovered too that they could get a bit ratty if I slagged off Abu Dhabi.  What, they’d exclaim, didn’t I know what a good lifestyle you could have here, how much money you could make here, what a good education your kids could receive here, how safe it was here, how all-around wonderful it was here?  Well, each to their own, I suppose.


By a coincidence, one day after returning from Abu Dhabi, I took a look at the blog of the distinguished English novelist Christopher Priest and discovered that he’d just posted an enthusiastic review of a newly-published book called The Way Inn, by Will Wiles.  The Way Inn tells the story of a “professional conference-goer” called Neil Double.  He stands in for “middle-grade executives who either do not want to go to the conference, or cannot.  He attends the symposia on their behalf, takes notes and reports back.  This is his job, and he moves from one hotel, and conference, to the next.”


The Way Inn takes place in a milieu of big corporate hotels where such business conferences are held.  During his review, Priest goes to great lengths to evoke the overwhelming blandness and the sinister sterility of such places.  He talks of “the abstract paintings, the cuboid armchairs, the TV screen that displays an electronic welcome, the hum of the air-con, the room-service pan-seared salmon, the electronic door-key that stops working if you carry it next to your mobile phones…  the adjacent motorway, the half-constructed buildings next door and the muddy areas which will be developed next, the vast parking lots, the nearby airport and its lights, the attached conference centre that can only be reached by courtesy bus…  the endless corridors, the mile after mile of corporate carpet, the soundproofed windows, the view from those windows across concrete…  the ease with which you can get lost in the identical corridors and landings and the concomitant habit of always taking the same, safely memorised route to your room…”


Holy shit.  I’ve just spent a month living there.


Detours into dystopia


(c) Warner Brothers


A little while ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s troubling 1985 novel about a near-future USA where the religious right rule the roost.  Society is militarised, elitist, patriarchal and supposedly puritanical.  The majority of women are either kept as domestic servants or kept as ‘handmaids’, i.e. veiled and isolated receptacles into which the male members of the elite pour their seed during brutal sex rituals in a desperate effort to propagate the species – the ladies of the elite are too old and / or too genetically damaged to reproduce healthily themselves.  Late on in the book, we learn too that some women are kept as hostesses / prostitutes in gaudy out-of-the-way brothels because the elite’s menfolk, no matter how Christian, Bible-quoting and sanctimonious they are, still have certain needs, urges and desires to satisfy.  Because they’re still blokes, after all.


I have mixed feelings about the ‘academic’ epilogue that Ms Atwood tags on at the end of the book but overall I found it an impressive, if depressing, piece of work.  When I finally set it aside, I decided it was good enough – and spiritually bad enough – to feature among the best pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read.  And that set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?  What books would make my top dystopian dozen?


(c) Vintage


Firstly, though, I will define my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails – either because of hellish political oppression of some fashion, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s suddenly turned life into a frantic scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  Otherwise, Graham Greene – whose novels were commonly set in totalitarian or failing states (or in a combination of both, as in The Comedians) – would be king of the dystopian hill.


There’s also the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.


I will disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is, a setting.  It’s a backdrop against which a character-filled, twisting-and-turning plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters who populate it.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront.  The setting has to be so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.


And finally, I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively; but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastic that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t really disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse are both out.


Anyway, here are my literary-dystopia top twelve:


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.


A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  These include P.D. James’s Children of Men, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor and another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake.  I’ve seen the film version of Children of Men, however, and thought it was pretty darned good – despite Clive Owen being in it, acting on autopilot.


Another novel I haven’t read that might have been a contender is Harry Harrison’s meditation on the threat of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  This was also made into a film, the 1973 Hollywood production Soylent Green, which added mass cannibalism to Harrison’s story.  I remember one critic making an interesting observation about Soylent Green.  He noted that the American filmmakers seemed not to realise that the crowded, impoverished world they were showing was actually real life (apart from the cannibalism) for many people living on the planet in the 20th century.  Hence, the film didn’t really reflect American fears about the end of the world.  It reflected American fears about the USA becoming just another, bog-standard poor country.


But to the list itself.  Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  A number of J.G. Ballard’s novels could easily have made the list, like The Drought and The Crystal World, but I’ve chosen The Drowned World because it’s the first and perhaps most famous of that sub-genre of surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic post-disaster novels that Ballard pioneered and made his own.  Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is really a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.


(c) Penguin


Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters – their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a tangled, noxious-looking weed in someone’s garden to the condition of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hair.


On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types, but whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as that wrought on the societies around them.  Fugue, which was written in 1972 and which is probably regarded as a minor book in Priest’s canon, seems particularly chilling in 2014.  It sees Britain go to hell after a nuclear war breaks out in the developing world and the country gets swamped by desperate refugees.  In the 21st century, if climate change — as most scientists warn — wreaks environmental and economic havoc on certain parts of the globe, there could be a lot of refugees on the move very soon.


(c) Panther


Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos – the joke being that, in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.  Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.