If you're reading this site at all it is not unreasonable to assume that you have some passing familiarity with the works of the late, great Douglas Adams , and the five-book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 'trilogy' in particular. This of course marks you out as a person of taste and discernment, and in fact means you probably already know all about Robert Rankin because you've read all his books, too. However, on the off chance that you haven't, prepare to be introduced to another author who has written a five-book trilogy, as well as a lot else besides...
A Little Bit of Background
Robert Rankin worked in the '70s as a prop supplier in the film industry. Luck and timing meant that he can rightly claim to have worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, among others. One of his contributions to Star Wars1 was to supply the glasses used by the aliens in the cantina scene.
A New Literary Genre
Rankin's style is unusual and difficult to classify - his books are not really science fiction, and they're not really fantasy, they're certainly not factual, but it's hard to say what kind of fiction they are. The only thing it's possible to say with certainty is that they are funny. This uncategorisability is a deliberate policy decision on his part. He claims he wants to create a new literary genre - 'far-fetched fiction' - in the hope that by doing so he'll get a shelf to himself in the bookshop. Sadly, this plan has not worked, and he always ends up stacked in 'anorak corner' with the Terry Pratchetts , the Douglas Adamses, and the Tom Holts. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, however, because if you like Adams or Pratchett, odds are you'll like Robert Rankin.
So what is far-fetched fiction? Well, first and foremost, it's funny. Not just amusing in a slight-smirk-I-can-see-what-he-did-there way, but laugh-out-loud-on-the-train-so-people-shuffle-away-from-you funny. It's full to the brim with puns, running gags, double entendre, gleeful movie references, and memorable characters, significantly, hardly any actual naughty words2. It is also, at times, disturbing. There is a dark side to most of the stories, and some in particular aim to be as disturbing as possible. Think Harlan Ellison and The Twilight Zone and you're in the right ballpark, probably after dark when the gates are locked, just as all the dead baseball players are coming back for one last run around the diamond before the end of the world...
Although it is, as stated, difficult to classify Rankin's work, it can be characterised. Over the course of 23 paperback books so far published, certain elements are either common to all or recur frequently enough to warrant comment. So when reading Rankin, you can reasonably expect to encounter one or many of the following elements:
The End of the World, Armageddon, the End of Days.
Fear and distrust of technology.
An infectious delight in the sounds words make when put together in certain combinations, such as in The Book of Ultimate Truths, which describes an early morning on Star Hill, Brentford: 'Foxes fiddled in the thickets'. Say it out loud. It's lovely.
The presence of a global conspiracy of one sort or another.
A strange world, like our own but somehow not quite right - eg, a place where pubs have computerised arcade games (1980s or later) but charge for their beer in pre-decimal coinage (1960s or earlier).
Popular culture references, eg, The Spice Girls.
A woman in a straw hat.
Brentford (a suburb of London).
Occult, mythological and biblical references, especially the Book of Revelation, as well as references to common urban myths.
The Ministry of Serendipity, and its headquarters at Mornington Crescent.
Traditions, or old charters, or something.
Dimac, the most deadly of martial arts, as practiced by the legendary Count Dante himself.
Incredibly beautiful and mysteriously competent and knowledgable young women.
PP Penrose, author of the Lazlo Woodbine detective novels.
Particularly worthy of mention is the central position across many of Rankin's novels of Brentford. The dedicated Rankin reader will come to know Brentford as though born and raised there. They will know of the Butts Estate, Moby Dick Terrace, The Wife's Legs Café, the allotments, Star Hill (where all the ley lines4 in England converge), the gasometer (which is apparently not a gasometer at all), and in particular the pub, the Flying Swan, wherein one can buy a pint of Large from Neville, the full-time part-time barman, and where you're likely to be prevailed upon to buy a round for Brentford's most famous inhabitants, Jim Pooley and John Arbuthnot Omally (owner of Marchant, the wonder bike). Brentford is described lovingly as a Shangri-la, a Utopia of sunshine and contentment, and a place where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, many of whom don't seem in the least surprised.
If you want to read Robert Rankin - and everybody should read at least one - the next question is 'where do I start?'
If you've never read a Rankin book before, try The Brentford Triangle. This is the second book in the five-part Brentford 'trilogy', but don't worry, all five are independent stories, and are connected only by common characters and locations. Once you've read that, read the rest of the Brentford books.
Alternatively, try starting with Nostradamus Ate My Hamster. An excellent story, punctuated with some nicely nightmare-inducing asides.
Or if you can't find that, try Sprout Mask Replica, which purports to be Robert Rankin's autobiography, and is punctuated before every chapter with the great man's poetry.
The following books are available in the UK in paperback at the time of writing:
The Brentford Trilogy
- The Antipope
- The Brentford Triangle
- East of Ealing
- The Sprouts of Wrath
- The Brentford Chainstore Massacre
The Armageddon Trilogy
- Armageddon: The Musical
- They Came and Ate Us: Armageddon II, The B Movie
- The Suburban Book of the Dead: Armageddon III, The Remake
Books featuring Cornelius and Tuppe
Not a trilogy, exactly, although the second follows on from the first fairly directly.
- The Book of Ultimate Truths
- Raiders of the Lost Car Park
- The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived
- The Greatest Show Off Earth
- The Garden of Unearthly Delights
- A Dog Called Demolition - arguably his most conventionally science fictional novel.
- Nostradamus Ate My Hamster
- Sprout Mask Replica
- The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag
- Snuff Fiction
- Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls
- Waiting for Godalming
- Web Site Story
- The Fandom of the Operator
Mr. Rankin is a prolific novelist, and so far is showing no signs of slowing down. You can find out more about him, his books, and join the 'now official' fan club, at the Sproutlore website.
Related BBC Link
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