MARTIN AMIS IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S BEST-KNOWN writers. Martin Amis' work sometimes mimics classic science fiction. That the first fact is better known than the second gives Amis a bit more reputation for originality than he deserves.
Imitation science-fantasy makes up nearly half of the collection Heavy Water and Other Stories. The results are mixed: “Straight Fiction” reads like a knockoff of Charles Beaumont's dark 1955 fable “The Crooked Man.” Both stories posit a world in which gay is normal and straight is queer, but Beaumont's mirror-image vignette shoved its heterosexual readers into a pitch-black awareness of sexual persecution, while Amis' tale is a mere pastiche of gay and straight culture.
In another reverse-universe fable, “Career Move,” screenwriters and poets have exchanged roles; Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber both based sci-fi stories on similar reversals. Amis' version is neither pointed nor funny enough to work. “The Janitor on Mars,” on the other hand, is rip-roaring wise- ass sci-fi with an original plot turn. But again, the perils of aping a genre are evident: A good sci-fi editor would have corrected Amis' slipshod science.
The pick of the litter, however — “State of England,” a lustrous novella that gnaws the very guts of Tony Blair's tight little polycultural island — is “serious,” not science, fiction. It's Martin Amis at the top of his form, and best of all, he's most vigorously influenced by . . . Martin Amis. Who ought to accept that he writes better straight fiction than sci-fi.
FOR WILLIAM GREIDER, AUTHOR OF SUCH SPRAWLING works as One World, Ready or Not and Secrets of the Temple, the 202-page Fortress America, originally serialized in Rolling Stone, barely amounts to a pamphlet. But now that the U.S. has proven yet again that it can level any aspirin factory in the world with its awesome forces of destruction, this may be his most important work to date.
Greider asks how this indebted nation of ours got to be the world's self-appointed policeperson. His answer is that, 10 years after the Cold War ended “in the greatest bloodless revolution in human history,” defense spending is rising again — but not fast enough to please the defense industry. He notes how, in the absence of a superpower threat, U.S. death merchants are now trying as never before to sell their lethal wares to Third World nations and former Soviet satellites. (While Greider decries the pointlessness of such expenditures, he misses the key issue of how tragically destabilizing high-tech weaponry can be in the hands of tinpot generals — Idi Amin, after all, needed only four World War II tanks to take over Uganda.) He notes that by playing the world bully, the U.S. actually alienates itself from the role of world leader, and even from its own people: Greider claims that the U.S. public — despite a popular president's call for a $110 billion defense-spending increase — opposes more spending and supports a greater role for the United Nations in world policing. He also claims that this public would prefer that the U.S. wield its global influence to protect the environment rather than to force poor nations to buy its ordnance. But where's the profit in that?
BORN A LATVIAN JEW, THE LATE JOURNALIST, philosopher and knight of the realm Isaiah Berlin emigrated to England with his wealthy parents after the Russian Revolution and early began his leisurely soar on the wings of acute intelligence and personal charm to the pinnacles of British academia. He's best known for two perceptions: the “hedgehog and the fox” concept of thinkers as divided between sedentary types and their hyperactive counterparts, and the idea of “negative” as opposed to “positive” liberty. The latter concept considers freedom to be a zero-sum game in which any liberty earned by one class of individuals must be forfeited by another class. His faith in this notion may explain why the establishmentarian Berlin avoided facing the most thorny Western social-equity issues (e.g., black liberation and women's rights) of his time.
Berlin's career was rooted in his social virtuosity. As famous for palling around England and America with the likes of Winston Churchill, JFK and the Rothschilds as he was as a standard-bearer of modern liberalism, Sir Isaiah schmoozed McGeorge Bundy to get the Ford Foundation to build him Wolfson College at Oxford, and his final public glory was as Margaret Thatcher's court fool. He could also assume the role of the Establishment hatchet man. Nominally anti-totalitarian, Berlin was so strongly anti-Marxist that he took public credit for blackballing historian Isaac Deutscher out of a tenured university post, leaving Deutscher to struggle during his last months to earn a living. (Thanks to the abundantly tenured Berlin, we've only one brilliant, incomplete chapter of Deutscher's planned three-volume Lenin biography.)
Although heaped with scholarly honors in recognition of his essays and lectures, Berlin was an indifferent writer. I searched friend, devotee and official biographer Michael Ignatieff's fascinating A Life: Isaiah Berlin for the single punchy quote from or about this Oxford enigma of extraordinary reputation that would pin him down. I didn't find it. So here's one from Franco-American writer Ted Morgan: “Charm is the virtue of the weak.”
AT ONE POINT IN A LIFE, IGNATIEFF HAS BERLIN bemoaning that “armed black students took over the campus at Cornell [University].” That isn't the way I recall it, and, it turns out, that wasn't the way it was. “Saturday, 18 April, 80-100 black students occupied the [Cornell] Student Union” for a single day, according to Arthur Marwick's relatively humorless but exhaustive The Sixties. This may be the first authoritative textbook on — versus survey of — the decade that Angela Carter called “a brief period of public philosophical awareness [such as] occurs only very occasionally in human history.” The Sixties, perhaps inevitably, has a few flubs of its own — Marwick has the address for Andy Warhol's Factory wrong, doesn't seem to realize that more draft dodgers joined the National Guard than ever went to Canada — but most of the time the author has done his research and got things right.
A professor at England's Open University, Marwick is light-years away from Berlin's ruling-class Oxford, reveling in the '60s freedom that, for him, began in 1958 and ended in 1974. But like Berlin, he's an anti-Marxist who deplores what he calls the “Marxisant” flavor of the '60s' youthful revolts against Western society. The innate vapidity of the then-prevalent Marcusian Marxist orthodoxy was, Marwick believes, why so many '60s radical movements disappeared without a trace.
Whether you agree with him or not, The Sixties is a treasury of analysis, period insight and information, relating the more familiar English and American cultural revolutions to contemporaneous eruptions in Italy and France. For those who were in those places at that time, this is both the story of what happened and the 900-page reference book of your life.
HEAVY WATER AND OTHER STORIES
By MARTIN AMIS | Harmony Books
208 pages | $21 hardcover
FORTRESS AMERICA: The American Military
and the Consequences of Peace | By WILLIAM
GREIDER | PublicAffairs | 202 pages | $22 hardcover
A LIFE: ISAIAH BERLIN | By MICHAEL
IGNATIEFF | Metropolitan | 356 pages
THE SIXTIES | By ARTHUR
MARWICK | Oxford | 903 pages