Gateway to Austen – a readers’ guide

What to read and what to use for kindling – Jane Austen gets a kicking and classic sci-fi legend Fred Pohl gets a favourable mention.  By Hattie French

Jane Austen‘s work has grown mindlessly more popular in the last fifteen years or so, thanks almost entirely to the now legendary wet-shirt incident on the BBC.  TV dramatizations are a world away from the grim reality of the novel itself, as was surely discovered by the droves of viewers who rushed out to buy Pride and Prejudice on the strength of Colin Firth’s pecs.

Even the first line – which is probably Austen’s most famous – falls apart under close examination:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  All Mr Darcy wanted was to be left alone at parties, and preferably to avoid the parties altogether.  Poor Mr Darcy.  Anyway, a wife is practically the polar opposite of a fortune – Jane Austen’s luckless soon-to-be-ex-bachelors likely discovered that it was wife or fortune, but not both at the same time.

Of course Jane Austen conveniently avoided this problem by the simple expedient of ending her books as soon as her heroine was safely married off.  Why she is widely regarded as a bastion of feminism is beyond me.  Austen never married – perhaps she feared that her life would imitate her art and that she’d pop out of existence five minutes after the ceremony.

Or take Emma, for example.  Four hundred pages of so-called “comic” misunderstandings, significant glances, etiquette, and flabby, tortuous prose, only to conclude with a marriage which could safely have been predicted at about page 9.  The words massive waste of time barely begin to cover it.

But don’t just listen to us, ask Mark Twain

There’s no shame in admitting that Jane Austen is fist-eatingly, maddeningly dull and seriously vacuous.

The only enjoyment I ever took from her work was indirectly and that was when I discovered the marvellous vitriolic comments which she inspired in a far better writer, Mark Twain.  My favourite is from a letter to his friend Joseph Twichell, where Twain wrote of Austen,

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Bravo, Mr Twain! Well said!

If you confess to harbouring anti-Austen thoughts in your own mind, speak out!  You, me, and Mark Twain – we’ll form a club, and vent our bitterness, and loathing of all the blasted Bennets, without fear of a literary lynch-mob.  I’ll supply refreshments.  But then what should we read?

What’s wrong with Sci-Fi?

The application of this laughably inadequate label has cost many glorious novels the popularity they so richly deserve – simply because many readers never venture into the sci-fi section of their local bookshop, let alone into the pages of Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon.  In this column, I’d like to shed light on some of those underrated, underread masterpieces within that tragically misunderstood genre, science-fiction.

Start with Pohl

This week, I’d like to introduce you to one of the great classics of sci-fi.  It won the three major sci-fi awards on its publication in 1977.  It spawned a computer game and several sequels.  Its author is widely regarded (by those who care) as a master of the genre.  And yet, if you have heard of it, chances are it’s because you’ve met me and tolerated my raving enthusiasm (for which I’m grateful).

The novel in question is Gateway by Frederik Pohl.  Pohl, who turned ninety last Thursday, produced dozens of spectacular novels and hundreds of dazzling short stories over the course of his career, any one of which is worth picking up if you find them.

Gateway features an asteroid, discovered in an obscure Earth orbit, inside of which are spaceships – mysterious, unsteerable, almost incomprehensible.  In these ships one can hitch a ride across space but – and this is important – the only way of finding out where they go is to go.  If the journey takes longer than your food supply anticipated, or happens to terminate (no pun intended) in the vicinity of a supernova, then it’s sorry pal, but you did volunteer for this.

And people do volunteer for the dubious privilege of pioneering, because, very occasionally, they’ll discover at the other end some rare thing of value.  Basically Russian roulette on a galactic scale.

The hero is a desperate, slightly unscrupulous man with – as you’d expect – mild self-destructive tendencies (these are explored, with wonderful humour and character, by a robot psychiatrist – Sigfrid von Shrink).  Pohls writing style is of that quality which conveys the nuances of emotion as well as the broad sweep of the universe, often on the same page, but is never difficult or laborious for the reader.

…and finally

It amazes me that Gateway is only one among many Pohl novels I have read and yet none of them failed to demonstrate the same inexhaustible splendour of plot and premise, the same gift for a one-liner and talent for surprising the reader.  I could go on – and on.  But I’ll just mention one more title of his: Man Plus, which is a touch shorter (alas!) than Gateway, and features another magnificent premise:  an astronaut turned into a cyborg that can survive on the surface of Mars.  Line that up against the dire paucity of Austen’s Emma, which notoriously features only three actual “events” – two dinner parties and a picnic – and ask yourself: which is the real classic? Or, perhaps more importantly: which one would you rather read?


2 responses to “Gateway to Austen – a readers’ guide

  1. “…if you have heard of it, chances are it’s because you’ve met me and tolerated my raving enthusiasm…”

    Met, I surely can’t deny, but tolerated. That doesn’t sound like something I would do.

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