Bardo Booker

I have not read the Booker prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, but why should that stop me … from commenting on another book completely, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. The main connection between him and the Booker which springs to mind is that blurbs on books by Adam Roberts tend to quote Dr Robinson declaring “Adam Roberts should have won the 2009 Booker Prize”. Which I am happy to  accept as an assertion if it is a reference to Roberts’ “Yellow Blu Tibia” but not if it is in relation to “I am Scrooge: A Zombie story for Christmas”. Not because I do not like zombies, I do not share the Clarkesworld bias against the coming inheritors of the earth. (In fact, I wrote a sort of zombie story.)(1) I really liked “Yellow Blue Tibia”. And “Wolf Hall” actually won the prize, so, yes. (2)

I’m not a huge Dr Robinson (3) fan. Perhaps I was biased from an early age by what I recall as the dismissive discussion of some of his earlier works in Trillion Year Spree. I recall speed-reading Red Mars and more recently, Aurora. But I really enjoyed The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternative history where most of the population of Europe was killed by the Black Death, leaving room for Asia and the East to develop in a world absent European colonialism and so on. The divergence we see in our own history, the Triumph of the West (for now), technological differences and so on, are removed by the expedient device of removing all the westerners. I enjoy a lot of alternative history, and for someone who was then (and still is) reading various popular attempts at reasoning through the divergence, it was great fun to enter into Dr Robinson’s imaginings of other possibilities. Mongol hordes, massed Chinese fleets, a rise of Islam, a first world war that lasts for decades.Coupled with that was an interesting conceit – the novel takes us through a period extending beyond any human lifetime, and is populated by characters who continue to enter re-enter history after their deaths, with interluding episodes of them catching up together in the interim between incarnations, in the bardo. Hence the connection.

The chair of judges of the Booker remarked of Saunders’ novel that (and I am stealing from The Guardian here) “The challenge is actually part of its uniqueness. It is almost saying, ‘I dare you to engage with this kind of story, in this kind of way.’ It is incredibly rewarding. For us, it really stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling, the way it, almost paradoxically, brought to life these almost dead souls in this other world”.

Makes me want to read Lincoln in the Bardo. If reading it has led you to a desire to explore the bardo; if you are interested in challenges and uniqueness and innovation and, indeed dead souls, as well as live ones, well then, perhaps you might like to read The Years of Rice and Salt.


When I was about twelve, my grandmother bought a winning lottery ticket. It was exciting of course, and not only for the cash, it caused various conspiracy theorists in my family to reconsider, if only for a moment, that the lottery was a government con job. They resumed their theory, perhaps not incorrectly, in a slightly more sophisticated form which admitted that the money could be won by actual human beings, not pretend people or paid actors, like the ones who are now busy being employed as the victims of pretend gun massacres in the States. (If you did not detect any sarcasm there, my apologies.)

Nana gave me a gift of $20, which I thought was marvellous. At school, I thought other kids would think that not-so-generous, so I qualified it as “only”. To my chagrin, they judged me ungrateful.

So as not to date myself too successfully, I won’t tell you the music I bought (though it was cassettes, rather than CDs). More importantly, I bought both volumes of Damon Knight’s 100 Years of Science Fiction. I still have it today, and I am shocked (I shouldn’t be) that the most recent story in it is itself over 50 years old. book Two was a particular delight, including “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C Clarke, with its brilliant concluding line, and “The Voices of Time” by JG Ballard. (Sometimes I wondered whether I ended up studying economics – amongst other things – as a result of reading “Business as Usual, During Alterations” by Ralph Williams.) I read and re-read these stories so many times that they became part of my mental furniture, and part of my assumption about anyone’s science fictional literacy.

A few years back I enjoyed Claire North’s “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” with its high concept Groundhog Day repetitive incarnation. It reminded me of Replay by Ken Grimwood, but with a much different tone and a different set of implications. Last year I noticed her “The Sudden Appearance of Hope”, and its story of a girl who rapidly fades from memory, so much that as a teenager her parents continue to forget her existence.  Again, I haven’t read it. What excited me most was that it reminded me of the Algis Budrys story, “Nobody Bothers Gus”, included in the Knight collection, so that I went back and read it. Gus, an evolutionary adaptation of humanity, also quickly forgotten, keeps track of record breaking athletes ignored by the public, grows his garden, and receives no mail. He can also control reality. But as a protection bestowed upon him by nature, nobody remembers him, and no one is ever curious about him. I thought about that story a lot as a boy, especially at lonely times. So, if you enjoyed “The Sudden Appearance of Hope”, you may want to read about lonely, frustrated Gus. And if you come across Damon Knight’s 100 Years of Science Fiction in a second hand bookshop, it is worth a look. No idea what it might cost these days, but at $1.95 per book, it was money well spent for me in those long ago times




(1) Clarkesworld rejected my zombie story. But they also rejected all my other stories, so that’s ok. But I am beginning to detect a kind of vibe going on here …

(2) I’m not a fan of respectability usually, and having taught on and about Thomas More makes it difficult for me to be revisionist on that subject.

(3) You earn your Ph.D on the novels of Philip K Dick, I call you doctor. Respect.



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