Monday, March 2, 2009

Combination Plate 4: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, SF by Edgar Pangborn, Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, and JM Gregson's Remains To Be Seen

Got a real mixed bag this time:
--first is a BBC production of Tolstoy's domestic romance tragedy Anna Karenina
--second work is a collection of short SF stories by an unfortunately neglected Edgar Pangborn,
--the third work is an SF novel by Christopher Priest, The Inverted World,
--and last is a mystery novel by J. M. Gregson, Remains To Be Seen.

Anna Karenina, DVD:
This was the ten part BBC production that was first broadcast in 1977. I had read the novel years ago, so while I felt that BBC took no really outrageous liberties with the text, I couldn't tell what changes had been made. I felt the overall flow of the dramatization was close to the Tolstoy's text.

What surprised me the most was the treatment of Karenin. I had seen several other productions over the years, and one of my major complaints had always been that he was treated as a complete monster. I hadn't gotten that feeling from the novel. One of the strengths of Tolstoy's work was his refusal to make angels and demons out of his characters. Even Levin and Kitty have their faults, even though they are the most sympathetically treated characters in the novel.

Karenin is not the unfeeling insensitive creature that the previous adaptions turned him into. While he's not a sensitive 90s guy, he does have strong feelings and can be a very generous person, as several of the characters point out, especially when Anna is involved. Unfortunately, his feelings push him into unfamiliar territory, and he relies on the help of a rigid pietistic meddler. Unfortunately she gains control over him and turns him into a moralizing Christian who stifles his most generous impulses. One can see at the end that he is torn between his own generous feelings and the rigid Christian attitudes imposed on him.

Nicola Pagett played the role of Anna and did a creditable job of it, except for a few scenes during the last part when she demonstrated Anna's growing unhappiness in some situations with a series of absurd face twitches and grimaces. Aside from those, she was quite convincing.

Alexei Vronsky was played by Stuart Wilson, who also did a credible job of convincing me that he had changed from the heartless, selfish, insensitive heartbreaker who played the game once too often and now was trapped in an impossible situation. However, he did not just bow out, as he probably would have if he hadn't changed considerably.

Eric Porter, in the role of Karenin, Anna's husband, was the star of the show, as far as I was concerned. He did a masterful job of portraying a man who has a generous nature that has been entombed within the myriad rules and roles that constrain a man of importance. Under stress it does emerge though, surprising Anna and Vronsky, and I think, him also.

Overall Rating: Very good. It is long, ten episodes, but worth the time spent watching it.


Edgar Pangborn: Good Neighbors and Other Strangers
This is a collection of SF short stories by the author of Davy, A Mirror for Observers, and West of the Sun. The most significant work, and the longest also, in the collection is "Angel's Egg," probably his finest short work.

The theme throughout is the relationship between humans and alien visitors. The first story, "Good neighbors" seems to exemplify Frost's poem, "Mending Wall" and the necessity of walls when livestock is involved. The appropriate line in the poem reads, "'Good fences make good neighbors'." But, since the livestock belongs to alien visitors, the problem goes beyond that of simply grazing in a neighbor's field or trampling a garden.

"Longtooth" is the story of a lovesick Sasquatch or Bigfoot in Maine, who kidnaps a housewife whose her husband subsequently is suspected of murdering her, not without reason, as most townspeople would admit.

"The Posonby Case" is about a police officer who is trying to write a report that won't get him fired or disciplined for drinking on duty. His task is simply to explain why a naked man ended up in the elephant cage at the local zoo.

Ab Thompson, in "Pickup for Olympus," is so entranced by the pickup model that he fails to notice that the driver, who asked him if this was the way to Olympus, has cloven hooves and horns on his head, while the woman in the back of the pickup is lounging around with a full grown leopard and a half dozen "shy little goats."

"Angel's Egg" is one of those rare stories, at least for the 50s when this was written for it tells of aliens who have come here quietly to help us survive. The 'fifties was the most serious and deadly period of the Cold War. A nuclear war seemed almost inevitable at that time. It was his first published science fiction story, and it appeared in Galaxy Magazine in 1951. It immediately established him as a writer with serious potential and his novels, especially Davy and A Mirror For Observers justified that evaluation.

Overall Rating: some very good stories here, and sufficient variety for almost everyone to find a favorite.


Christopher Priest: The Inverted World, an SF novel

Imagine a city, rather long and narrow, that travels on what are railroad tracks. The city travels very slowly and sometimes it doesn't move at all. This gives the Trackmen time enough to pick up the track that the city has just travelled on and rush it to the front of the city and place it down for the city to pass over it again. And that's the most normal part of Priest's world.

Strange things happen to those who walk back where the city/train has come from or go far in advance of it. One's perspective changes or rather the geography changes. A gorge which took weeks for the Trackmen to build a bridge over it now becomes, just days later, a crack in the earth which a person's foot could easily span. Time passes differently if one goes back or goes forward in front of the city/train. A week's trip turns out to be a day or so long, or perhaps several months in duration when one returns.

Who are these people? Where are they? How did they get in this situation? Did all this really come about as an attempt to solve the energy crisis?

Overall Rating: intriguing concept. While his description of the city/train culture/society is brief, the novel is 240+ pages long, it does give one a good overview, even if the day-to-day working is obscure. The main character is sympathetic, and one can easily identify with him as he is as ignorant of the overall situation as the reader. His bewilderment is ours.

Overall Rating: good. Some problems but the story is a grabber as the reader tries to make sense of the situation.


J. M. Gregson: Remains To Be Seen, a mystery novel
Police Procedural: England

Gregson has approximately 35 novels out at this time, most of which belong to two police procedural series. This novel belongs to the "Detective Inspector Peach and Detective Sergeant Lucy Blake" series. He has a second series which features the crimes solved by Superintendent John Lambert and Detective Sergeant Bert Hook.

This is my first exposure to a work by Gregson, and perhaps it may be my last. The plot is fairly standard and characterization is about what one might expect from a writer who has churned out some 35 novels since his first was published in 1989.

The major problem that I have with him is stylistic, his descriptions of his characters. For example, the narrator tells us that his men said about Peach that "You got a fair deal, if you worked for Percy Peach...You didn't get an easy ride, but you didn't expect one. You'd get the occasional fierce bollocking, but only if you didn't stick to Percy's strict rules. If you did, he'd support you, even when things went wrong. His loyalty and affection for his team were never expressed--DCI Peach would have considered that a weakness--but they were unswerving."

We are told later that the police officer assigned to handle the phones, Brendan Murphy, "was both sensitive and patient, the ideal man to deal sympathetically with calls which had to be listened to, but which you knew within ten seconds were going to be a waste of police time. He was also shrewd and intelligent: if the one call in a hundred came through which was vital, he wouldn't miss out on it."

These descriptions of the perfect members of the police are found throughout the work--a more perfect group of people who couldn't find anywhere else.

One more quibble: the solution of the crime came through the hackneyed element of the murderer saying something and the officer recognizing that only the murderer could have known this.

Overall Rating: I might read one more of his works, but in the other series, about police officers Lambert and Hook. If that one exhibits similar characteristics, I shall spend my time more profitably reading elsewhere.


  1. "The Inverted World" seems interesting. Does it have a definite ending? Are all questions raised in the book answered? I don't like books that leave alot of loose ends.

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, it does have a resolution in which the major SF issues are resolved.

  3. That long BBC miniseries of Anna Karenina is very good, although it might be worth your while to track down some comments on it from Gary Saul Morson, who felt it made Karenin less sympathetic than the book does, etc.

    There were several very good adaptations on British TV around that time. I would like to see the late-Seventies version of Our Mutual Friend. The 1998 miniseries of this Dickens novel is excellent, but the one from ca. 1978 was appealing as well, if memory serves. It is available for British-format (PAL) players, but not for US (NTSC).

  4. Extollager,

    Yes, the problem of the portrayal of Karenin is one that appears in most of the dramatizations I've seen. While this adaptation does show him as less sympathetic than he appears in the novel, I think he is more so in this version than in the others I have seen. Are you familiar with one that shows him in a more sympathetic light?

    I've often wondered why the directors had to make him more unsympathetic. Could it be that they felt it necessary to make him more unpleasant in order to show her adulterous affair in a better light?

    I saw the later version of Dicken's _OMF_ and thought that it was quiet good also. I will watch out for the earlier one; it just may show up some day in a version I can watch.