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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, September 04, 2006

The Joy of Craig

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/04/06 at 05:23 AM

I think it would be fair to say that Craig Thomas writes macho novels.  It’s a genre of which I probably know too little: all those thrillers about can-do heroes, from British or American intelligence agencies, adventuring in exotic parts of the world, fighting communists or, latterly, terrorists.  It was Craig T. who wrote Firefox, which was made into a film with Clint Eastwood.  Even if you haven’t read any of his books, you know the sort of novel Craig Thomas writes.

And here is Playing With Cobras (HarperCollins 1993).  Not a novel that could with justice be called ‘well-written’.

But there’s the joy of it.  Whilst there are places where this book is badly written in a way that merely confuses or wearies the reader (‘Grinning to himself, he thrust his hands into his pockets, slouching beneath the smear of the rucksack across his back beginning to sweat as he walked towards the nearest bus stop’ 47) – there are also places where the novel achieves the kind of inadvertent comic genius of that makes you want to hug it to your chest.  It is an Ed Wood sort of book, and as with an Ed Wood film this work’s genius depends upon the perfect seriousness with which it addresses its subject; its (as the blurb says) ‘high tension, stunningly-captured backgrounds and credible characters placed in extremes of danger.’

Take, for instance, this sentence: ‘He lurched across her body, waggling his arms’ [15].  This, I suggest, is a wonderful sentence.  It is a wonderful sentence because it comes in the course of a hard-boiled thriller, an action-man adventure story of plots and counterplots, of assassination and terrorism in the Indian subcontinent into which the British Secret Services have been drawn.  There are novels (perhaps by Flann O’Brien, perhaps Tom Sharpe) in which its comic power would be diminished.  But to encounter it here is to be dazzled by it.  This sentence is a jewel set in the base pewter of Thomas’s ultra-serious spy-adventure world.  For it is in such a world, the manly, no-nonsense, stiff upper lip world of Bulldog Drummond and James Bond, that waggling one’s penguiny arms as one lurches across a female body is simply out of place.  Let’s look at that sentence again:

‘He lurched across her body, waggling his arms.’

Let’s ponder the image that creates in our minds, for a moment.


Much of Thomas’s most distinctive effects are the result, one feels, of an over-strenuous and poorly-managed attempt to avoid stylistic cliché.  Cliché, clearly, is bad; but Thomas goes too far in the other direction, and in doing so creates a world of cheeks grafted from desensitized portions of a body, and rotating heads, and dark houseboats that somehow become boiled-sweet-beetles.

And here are some more sentences from this marvellous novel, beginning with his attempt to capture in prose that difficult quality of flabby piquancy so typical of Secret Service men caught up in the life-or-death shenanigans (the gunfights, explosions, car chases and cross-double-cross) of modern-day India.

‘Cass looked up slowly, focusing on Miles’ face, which flabbily betrayed a piquant sense of humour, even a satiated revenge … Cass rubbed his unshaven cheek, which seemed deadened, like grafted skin from a less sensitive part of his body.’ [31]

‘He sniffed the air greedily, at once repelled and enlivened by the spices of ordure, crammed bodies, petrol and food. … His head began to twitch and rotate more quickly.’ [53]

‘He looked down at the sweatshirt he was wearing, as if to accuse it of ineffectuality.’ [95]

‘The travel bag drew level with the man, feeling like a dog straining at the leash in Hyde’s hands.  Then the bag leapt at the man’s groin, making him wince and expel breath, making his hand hesitate, want to move to the area of sudden pain.’ [100]

‘The sirens and the noises of the crowd were loud through the thin walls, the broken skylight –
– through which a beam of light flashed, glaring yellow, stabbing like a finger on an ant.’ [160]

‘Left hand holding, right hand climbing, stomach and crotch shrugging themselves further up.’ [172]

‘The dark beetles of the houseboats became larger, brightly coloured, like boiled sweets in the sunlight.’ [187]

‘It must be Ros, acting like a kind of moral multiple sclerosis.’ [210]

‘The suitcase slid behind them, one of its wheels squeaking like a tiny, warning voice.  Ros gripped the travel bag deliberately close to her side.  At the corner of eyesight she felt rather than witnessed a man detach himself from a newspaper stand and flit across the crowded platform.’ [274]

‘The journey kept coming back like an ill-digested meal’ [284]

‘She slammed on the brake: the sheep were so real’ [284]

‘Ros … gripping the bulging travel bag against her stomach and breasts as if to smother it’ [307]

And finally, because I love it so.

‘He lurched across her body, waggling his arms.’

[With thanks to the Arvon SF Creative Writing workshop at Lumb Bank, August 2006.]


Ah, a fine example of the genre of MST3K criticism.

By on 09/04/06 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll confess I’d never heard of MST3K until this very momment, and had to wikipede it just to find out what the acronym means.  Why is it abbreviated that way?  Is it because it makes the show’s title look a little like a mistaken txt-mssg version of the word ‘MISTAKE’?

By Adam Roberts on 09/04/06 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Probably because xK is a standard way of abbreviating x thousand.  The abbreviation predates the current commonality of text messaging.

(Incidentally, it’s very frustrating, even for short comments, when one omits the email field and, clicking on the “return to previous page” link one gets in such circumstances, finds that one’s comment text has been obliterated.)

By on 09/04/06 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s funny, given how the U.S. and UK science fiction communities are so linked, that one occasionally runs into these cross-border differences.  It’s not really like not having heard of Doctor Who (that would be like not having heard of Star Trek, I suppose), but perhaps like not having heard of Blake’s 7.  From my brief exposure to Blake’s 7, I imagine that most people watched it for the same reasons that people watched MST3K, but I could be wrong.

In any event, probably best to not get into MST3K.  198 episodes, each including a full bad movie, is the kind of time-waster that only younger people than we are can do.  For the same reason, I’m never going to read Craig Thomas, figuring that you’ve already hit on all the “worthwhile” sentences.

By on 09/04/06 at 10:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

ben, you can eliminate that problem by registering with the site.  We’ll only sell your information to seven, eight telemarketers tops.

Rich, I’m not sure this is MST3K criticism.  For me, MST3K isn’t about finding value in something so much as creating value from something.  Trapped on the Satellite of Love, they have to make due with what’s sent to them; Adam, however, has chosen to find value in something.  Equally entertaining, both are; but not analogous, I don’t think.  (Why am I writing like this, I wonder; do I have a tumor, one might ask.  Odd, it is, nevertheless.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/04/06 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add: my favorite line--"She slammed on the brake: the sheep were so real"--doesn’t seem badly written so much as ripped from its context.  Speaks to Adam’s talent for decontextualization, it does, more than Thomas’ hackery.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/04/06 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...ripped from its context...”

Scott, believe me, it’s not.  The guy slams on the brakes rather than collide with Nepalese sheep: that’s all.  It’s the implied contrary (’you mean they’re real?  But I coulda sworn I was driving past imaginary sheep ...’) that makes the line, I think.

My favourite is made clear in the post (it makes me think penguins, incidentally; but my wife says it makes her think of Dr Zoidberg from Futurama); but my second favourite keeps changing.  At the moment it’s probably the squeaky warning wheels of the case: ‘the suitcase slid behind them, one of its wheels squeaking like a tiny, warning voice, saying ‘hey already! watch out!  over there, the velcro man attached to the newspaper stand!’

It’s that, or the guy with the exorcist-style rotating head.

By Adam Roberts on 09/04/06 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nope, I’ve changed my mind.  It’s “he looked down at the sweatshirt he was wearing, as if to accuse it of ineffectuality.”

I’m looking down at my T-shirt right now, and I’m trying to compose my features into an expression that communicates ‘accusation of ineffectuality’.  Really, it’s not easy.  Try it yourself.

It’s all in the eyebrows, I think, but I can’t quite seem to get it.

By Adam Roberts on 09/04/06 at 06:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, the MST3K show as a whole picks out bad movies because the writers think that people will be amused by making fun of them.  The characters on the Satellite of Love may have to make do with what they’re given—but the Mad Scientists who force movies on them are, of course, part of the show.  Adam telling us about this novel is exactly like the writers of MST3K showing us bad movies, with surrounding mockery of the subject.

People often seem to be carried away with suspension of disbelief in this way.  Literary people as well, perhaps because the whole “death of the author” thing makes people disinclined to address the fact that narratives are written by authors for more or less well-defined reasons.

By on 09/04/06 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s taken me the better part of the day but I think I’ve got down pat an expression that exudes an accusation of ineffectuality. The problem is that my T-shirt seems entirely nonplussed by my continual mugging.

By on 09/04/06 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I isolated the mode of the show, which seemed dissimilar to Adam’s performance.  Yes, I took its conceit for granted, but since I can’t be sure why specific movies were chosen over others, I’m not inclined to speculate.  I don’t believe “bad,” alone, encompasses the criteria by which the films were selected.  Dozens of other issues—from acquiring the rights to the work to being able to condense its plot while leaving it intelligible enough for the jokes to work—factored into their decisions.  I don’t think Adam’s decision to read this novel underwent a similar vetting, hence my statement about the show and not the intent behind it. 

I don’t see this as a supplication to Barthes/Focault so much as run-of-the-mill humility; i.e. I’m often uncomfortable with speculation, a trait which suits me well in my career, but not so much in casual conversation.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/04/06 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Adam’s decision to read the novel was no doubt affected by all sorts of implicit factors, such as his available time and money, but his reason to write about the novel seems pretty clear.  I just don’t see the basic difference between the invisible-to-us factors which caused the writers of the show to choose a particular bad movie that they thought would be amusing to mock and the invisible-to-us factors which caused Adam to pick this particular novel out of the many bad novels.

By on 09/04/06 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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