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 an author who wrote a five-book trilogy, then added some more installments - oh, and 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, the Tom Holts and the Jasper Ffordes. 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.
- McGuffins readily identified as such.
- 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.
- Ready acknowledgement that it's a fictional book, often through self-depreciation or directly addressing the reader.
- PP Penrose, author of the Lazlo Woodbine detective novels. Or Laz himself (see Characters below)
- Other running gags. Most of the above could fall under this category, spread throughout his works. However, Rankin often has specific ones in single books, such as mistaking Elvis Presly with Ian Paisley4.
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 lines5 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) - see below. 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.
While some of the characters come and go with the books, there are a number who deserve special mention for regular appearances, sometimes with complete disregard for the particular series that book is in.
- Jim Pooley and John Omally - the stars of the Brentford series, but they also appear in cameos in other books. They are both (most of the time) unemployed, like to spend a lot of time in the pub (The Flying Swan), enjoy things such as a knock-about at Allotment Golf (having been banned from all golf courses in the area, they resort to playing on the allotments, with their own unique set of rules), and for some reason regularly end up saving the world. Although in their books, more often than not the world is Brentford. In Nostradamus Ate My Hamster, Raymond6 is told about them as characters in Brentford legend.
- Barry the Sprout. He first appeared in Armageddon: The Musical as a genetically engineered, alien, talking and time travelling sprout. He shortly takes to living inside the head of his companion (at the time, Elvis...yes, that Elvis), but a few books later loses the ability to time travel and starts claiming he is the bearer's (now Lazlo Woodbine, see below) Holy Guardian Sprout7. Is it the same sprout? Well, he's got the same style (calls everyone "chief" and makes rude remarks), just different abilities. It doesn't really matter, anyway.
- Lazlo ("Some call me Laz") Woodbine. His first appearance is in The Suburban Book of the Dead: Armageddon III, the Remake as a time travelling detective from the twenty-fifth century, working alongside Barry and lifted direct from the 1950s. Again, he changes through the books as to who he actually is (in The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag Lazlo is merely a fictional creation, but the main character - Robert Rankin himself - pretends to be him). However, Lazlo always has a set of catchphrases, works strictly in the first person, and works just the four sets (his office, the alleyway, the bar - Fangio', where he stands around "talking a load of old toot" - and a rooftop for the final confrontation) - although he almost always breaks the last one.
This is quite hard to define. The easiest way to understand the style is to go and read one of the books. However, let it just be said that much of what Robert Rankin writes could be written by no-one else. Some of the jokes are so bad, or things written are so ridiculous, that no-one else would consider it even publishable. But despite this - possibly even partly because of this - it's brilliant.
Andy took one look at the wandering mendicant and ordered him straight out of the bar. I considered this a bit harsh and I said so.
'I consider that a bit harsh,' I said to Andy.
From The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag
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, as are some of his other books.
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
- Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls8
- Knees Up Mother Earth
- The Brightonomicon
The Armageddon Trilogy9
- 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 Trilogy That Dare Not Speak It's Name
- Sprout Mask Replica
- The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag
- Waiting for Godalming
- The Greatest Show Off Earth
- The Garden of Unearthly Delights
- A Dog Called Demolition - arguably his most conventionally science fictional novel. Also one of the only books ever published with a soundtrack - although you have to obtain the music yourself.
- Nostradamus Ate My Hamster
- Snuff Fiction
- Web Site Story
- The Fandom of the Operator
- The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
- The Witches of Chiswick
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
- Explore the literary world with BBC Books.