20 Books of Summer 21 #13 – Russell Hoban

Yesterday I reviewed a SF-ish novel here by Jonathan Lethem. The next book I read from my 20 Books of Summer was another SF-ish novel. That is, a novel by a literary author who enjoys transcending genre and mixing things up in a SF way. Russell Hoban is another author who loved doing that from time to time too – he did vampires in Linger Awhile here, and post-apocalyptic dystopia with Riddley Walker here. Hoban’s 1996 novel, Fremder is ostensibly his only full-on SF book, but this is really a framework to hang a rather more human story on.

It’s 2052, and in deep space, a figure is spotted tumbling in its nothingness – no space suit at all. He should be dead but miraculously he isn’t. Luckily, being marooned a short way off the galactic staging post Badru, he is rescued quickly. Fremder Gorn is the only survivor of the Corporation tanker Clever Daughter, which just winked out of existence leaving only him. What happened? The ship should have gone into a ‘flicker’ jump.

This beginning with its description of the galactic staging post instantly reminded me of Becky Chambers’ latest novel The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, set at such a waystation, and I felt at home with Hoban’s earlier milieu (if finding the 2052 date rather hopeful), and loved I his terminology for space-time jumps.

The Corporation take charge of Fremder, but he is unable to remember what happened, whatever they try, so he’s put in the hands of Pythias, an AI interrogator that uses unusual methods. A young woman called Katya Mazur preps Fremder for his session (he is attracted to her).

She put her entry card into the slot, an aperture irised open, and we went through into what the Corporation called the Omphalos and the deep spacers called the Wank Parlour. It was a warm and humid place with a very delicate essence-of-silk-knickers smell and it was shaped like the inside of an egg with no visible high-tech male gimmickry.

First I looked up ‘Omphalos’ which is the ancient Greek word for navel. Then, I wondered if Hoban had been reading Robert Anton Wilson, a pal of Timothy Leary who co-wrote The Illuminatus Trilogy with Robert Shea and later wrote The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy of psychedelic science fantasy books in the mid to late 1970s, which were full of weird similar sex concepts. (I devoured all these books back then, they were quite pornographic, the latter especially so if I remember rightly!). To his credit, Hoban steers clear of more sleaze, but the AI machine is designed to release suppressed memories in its unique way.

What is more interesting in this novel is how Hoban pours in intertextual references from music, art, literature, Jewish history and the story of Elijah in the bible. The list of quote credits is extensive, and works mentioned run from Billie Holiday to Dory Previn to Chopin’s Mazurkas (a play on Katya’s name); Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Oscar Wilde to HP Lovecraft and many more.

But it is Elijah’s ascension to heaven and JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue that dominates, and there are several repeating themes involving Fremder’s parents, Helen and Isodor Gorn, that twine around the narrative. That both parents entered what you could call fugue states also came to mind, and teasing out their stories is an important part of the plot. ‘Fremder‘ means stranger in German and the protagonist of this book certainly is a stranger to his world at times. The novel also exhibits a similar playfulness about concepts of reality to the Lethem book, (a definite case of book serendipity as Bookish Beck often finds indeed!). As Fremder says:

Holding on to the world is mostly an act of faith: you see a little bit of it front of you and you believe in the rest of it both in time and space.  If you’re scheduled for a jump to Hubble on Tuesday you believe in you, in Hubble, in the jump, and in Tuesday.  Sometimes it was hard for me to believe all of it.

Fremder is a novel spawned from a huge imagination, and on a first reading I haven’t come close to quite fitting it all together. It was always a fascinating read, and Hoban’s prose is witty, scholarly and padding free. I have several more Hobans on my shelves, but Penguin have recently reprinted eight of his novels, Fremder included, so I can feel a top-up coming to fill in the gaps! (8/10)

Source: Own copy – old Bloomsbury paperback, 184 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

9 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer 21 #13 – Russell Hoban

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Riddley Walker is a challenge in its regressed language, but like A Clockwork Orange you get used to it – and I loved it and need to re-read it some time..

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    Russell Hoban is someone I’ve been meaning to read for years and years, which is how long I’ve had Riddley Walker sitting on my shelf (it survived my “move purge” last year). Since I’ve also had Hoban’s vampire novel, also unread, time I got started, n’est ce-pais? Your review (excellent BTW) makes me think that Fremder might be a good beginning, as it sounds a little more accessible than Ridley Walker (I oved Clockwork Orange, BTW. As you correctly note, you quickly get used to its language). That Penguin has reprinted Hoban’s work makes it all the more tempting . . ..

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I do enjoy his writing. Linger Awhile, the vampire one, was old men behaving badly and was fun if I remember correctly. Fremder was so interesting because of all the intertextual stuff!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Huge imagination indeed! I still think Riddely Walker is the benchmark for dystopian fiction. I’ve only read Amaryllis Day and Night plus The Bat Tattoo other than that but would recommend both.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’d totally agree re Riddley Walker. I have the other two you mention already, so will look forward to them.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      As you’re happy with SF, it’s as good a place as any – it’s the first of his second period novels (He had a break of ten years writing other forms). The ones I’d like to read next though, and apparently I own copies already (!) are Kleinzeit from 1974 with a man on a quest in a warped contemporary London, or The Medusa Frequency from 1987 about a strange cure for writer’s block. Both sound utterly wacky but great fun. He’s very readable (the exceptional Riddley Walker excepted, for it’s regressed pidgin language).

Leave a Reply