Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Dream Makers

Charles Platt (editor) Dream Makers (1980)
Well, this was a nice surprise - something added to an Amazon wish list way back whenever, mainly out of passing curiosity, then promptly forgotten until Santa saw fit to bring a copy forth from his mighty sack. Here Charles Platt - former art director for the Michael Moorcock version of New Worlds - travels around America, hangs out with a substantial cluster of big knobs of sixties and seventies science-fiction, and interviews them. It's mostly conversational, often illuminating, and does well to capture an era which seems to be slowly and unfortunately disappearing from the collective memory. There are a few writers whose work I wouldn't touch with yours, mate, but who nevertheless prove sufficiently fascinating to have me wishing I could work up the enthusiasm to read their books. Weirdly, A. E. van Vogt, whose work I find compelling, even fascinating, is about the only author who didn't have much of interest to say, possibly because he spent the time discussing his writing system with which I am already intimately familiar; but everyone else scores highly, even Asimov, and Moorcock's observations regarding the work of Larry Niven had me punching the air and barking ha! loud enough to scare the cat. Also, Brian Aldiss has gone up a little in my estimation, so that's nice.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume two

Chris Lowder, Gerry Finley-Day, Dave Gibbons & others
Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume two (2016)

Here's the rest of the Joe Strummer version of Dan Dare, namely the stuff which didn't fit in volume one. The collection is thus unfortunately lacking Bellardinelli's fascinatingly peculiar interpretation of the character and is therefore a little dry by comparison - not quite Jacob's crackers, but something in that direction. This version of Dare doesn't square too well with the original, which we can probably take as given and instead concentrate on what it does have going for it.

One thing it had going for it was that it seemed wild and original when I was thirteen, so the nostalgia compensates for what is now revealed as having been pretty thin. This volume divides mainly into the second half of the Lost Worlds storyline and Servant of Evil. Lost Worlds was an episodic Star Trek variant with more explosions and generic schoolboy nihilism, which works in places despite the limitations of the form, particularly the gorgeous full page splashes of Waterworld. Lost Worlds ends with a massive explosion because I guess they couldn't come up with a better resolution, following which an amnesiac Dare is recruited by the Mekon and so becomes a Servant of Evil. This storyline has been criticised for not going anywhere, then ceasing after umpteen weeks with the promise of a conclusion which never came; and while it suffers from some of the same conventions as Lost Worlds - and whoever thought of giving Dan a super powered glove and making him into the chosen one was obviously an idiot - it also seems to be an attempt to do something a bit more satisfying, even mythic, than yet another planet of slimies blown up every few weeks concluding with final panel puns based on which item of starship canteen fare is now banned due to a resemblance to whichever alien race has just been driven to judicious extinction. My guess is that Servant was an attempt to turn Dan into Star Wars, or thereabouts, and for the most part it sort of worked, or at least worked on me when I was thirteen, which I suppose is what mattered.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Fight Your Own War

Jennifer Wallis (editor) Fight Your Own War (2016)
This is a collection of essays on the subject of power electronics and noise music, which I'll admit I hadn't actually thought of as different and distinct things until reading this. I'll assume most of you understand what is meant by the terms power electronics and noise music, although maybe I'm assuming too much given the inclusion in this collection of an essay by some bloke from a group called Deathtripping seemingly aimed at those who've never heard of either and who presumably bought the book by accident. It's not about playing nice tunes on a guitar, our source helpfully reveals, and sometimes even though the noises you hear are unpleasant, they're also kind of interesting to listen to.

This extended statement of the bleeding obvious isn't the only thing letting the side down. There's also an essay on the Finnish power electronics scene which is actually just a very long list converted into prose by insertion of linking terminology such as and then or meanwhile in Helsinki; and there's a review of someone's album which proposes that whilst Black Sabbath and the like merely referred to dark forces in their music, the music of Psychic TV and others actually feature dark forces from beyond the veil, because ghosts and ghoulies definitely really exist; there's an unusually repetitive essay on how audiences react to live performance which says the same thing over and over and reads like an Alan Partridge monologue; and then - oh happy day - there's Streicher, named after Julius Streicher, much misunderstood editor of Der Stürmer.

As in many forms of media today, licence was taken to endorse and drive home a political opinion in accordance with the prevailing ideology. During the war he held no rank within the NSDAP, no military position, and participated in no killings. His sole 'crime', it seemed to me, was to publicly promulgate a vision which, in the witch-hunt atmosphere of immediate post-war Nuremberg, was not going to be tolerated.

I suppose the prevailing ideology to which our boy refers would have been that of the politically correct types who shut down the concentration camps and put everyone out of a job. Being a fully grown man, I'm old enough to understand that the politics of the art may be quite different to those of the artist, and that they may be proposed in furtherance of some point other than that which they appear to say; but if you're able to use the term witch-hunt in context of the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, basically you're a massive fucking cock regardless of whether you actually believe your own propaganda. Smirking it's just nihilism innit doesn't really make much difference, and neither do claimed philosophical credentials when said philosophy is expressed on a level of sophistication equivalent to your average motivational meme garnished with a few mentions of Baudrillard just so we know you've read him. Furthermore, whilst the notion of destroying the status quo of consensus reality by offending it into submission may be all well and good, when those transgressive things we're supposedly not allowed to think are actually being said out loud on national television to a daily schedule by those in government, you probably need to have a word with yourself, you complete fucking plum.

These objections aside, and that a couple of the contributors can't actually write, most of the collection is pretty decent - informative, thought provoking, genuinely interesting and illuminating as you would hope. Particularly welcome were those essays addressing various elephants in rooms by Spencer Grady and Sonia Dietrich, and I found Grady's likening a Sutcliffe Jugend performance to Benny Hill particularly satisfying.

The sense of historical detail is a little sketchy, and I could have stood to read a little more about at least Con-Dom and the Grey Wolves, but the broad focus is probably inevitable with this sort of collection. Furthermore, the inclusion of material by Streicher's Ulex Xane arguably serves as a refutation of his position, whatever it may be, so taken as a whole it might be argued that the collection documents without editorial comment, or without strong editorial comment, as is often claimed of the extreme imagery favoured by certain proponents of the genre; and best of all, unlike certain other laboured histories of supposedly industrial music, this one has been written by those who were actually there and can thus be taken as authoritative by some definition. As stated, I have problems with parts of it but that comes with the territory, and all which Fight Your Own War gets right greatly eclipses the negative.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Bell from Infinity

Robert Moore Williams The Bell from Infinity (1968)
The plot thickens, as the cliché would have it: another Robert Moore Williams novel lives up to my expectations whilst further cementing an impression of the man as an overlooked visionary, additionally adding a few more of his recurring themes to the list of those I've begun to look out for.

Firstly there's the music heard across the full span of creation, also featured in The Sound of Bugles which I assume to have ended up rewritten as King of the Fourth Planet. Although there's nothing to specifically identify this trope as akin to the trumpet blasts of Revelation, its difficult to miss the parallel - or at least I found it so. Here we have a sound which resonates from within a vast diamond, seemingly the jewel in the crown of our reality, to which the title refers and which possesses both people and objects, causing them to dance uncontrollably; and once again we find ourselves in the tunnels of a labyrinthine underworld, and specifically mines - a setting that I now recall featured in Beachhead Planet. It seems safe to assume that mineworkers are one of his things, possibly combining a subterranean fixation with a tendency to fill his books with blue collar types bordering on frontiersmen, the grizzled characters from westerns who also featured in The Star Wasps. Perry Chapdelaine's 2014 memorial to Williams accordingly describes the writer as an affirmed populist who was quite happy to be labelled a pulp author due to his strong dislike of literary science-fiction, which probably explains the suggestion of these being people you would encounter in a saloon.

Anyway, again we have a distinctly surreal novel which feels profoundly allegorical, even if whatever Williams was scrabbling at was maybe a little too personal, rooted in his own unique psychology, to fully translate into anything more than a general impression of a call for mankind to unite against its own worst tendencies. Williams' prose is occasionally clumsy or awkward, and the narrative twists and winds, seemingly following its own internal logic, yet for a pulp author, this guy weaves a mood seemingly unique to his own books - albeit one which stands some comparison to van Vogt's weirder efforts - and his more ponderous passages can be strikingly beautiful, even poetic. I continue to find myself impressed.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Null-A Three

A.E. van Vogt Null-A Three (1985)
I'm struggling to find anything to say about this one that I didn't already say about The Pawns of Null-A back in September. Null-A Three is the third and final part of what became a series following the exploits of Gilbert Gosseyn, a non-Aristotelian detective whose adventures serve as a platform from which van Vogt evangelised at length about Korzybski's General Semantics; and I still fail to see what's so special about General Semantics or that it amounts to anything more profound than not judging books by their covers.

'Hey—' excitedly— 'is that what you mean by an assumption? You didn't see it yourself. So you have to assume that people who did see it, are giving you the facts?'

'That's part of it. But the assumptions you should really be interested in are those that you've got sitting deep down inside, and you don't notice that they're there, or what they are. But in life situations you act as if they're true.'

See, this seems obvious to me, but I suppose the results of the last presidential election speak for themselves regarding assumptions and gullibility. From the viewpoint of the reader, my problem is that it's hard to really see how Gosseyn's ability to distinguish between map and territory really gives him any advantage, which leaves van Vogt to bang on about something with seemingly negligible influence on the thrust of the narrative, and it all starts to sound a little like Tom Cruise.

Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it's not like anyone else, it's, you drive past, you know you have to do something about it. You know you are the only one who can really help. That's what drives me.

You know you are the only one who can really help? More so than the emergency services? The only one? Really?

'You haven't noticed anything?'

Gosseyn had already done a swift, mental survey of his actions since awakening; and so General Semantics did something for him now, when the direct question was asked: He had no need to re-examine what had already been evaluated. He simply shook his head.

Sounds like an assumption to me, but never mind. I think what van Vogt is trying to get at here is something closer to the weirder end of quantum theory, but it's unfortunately not very well expressed.

It was an event in space-time so colossal that, finally, it seemed to him only that General Semantics could offer a conditional answer. With that thought, he said, carefully, 'There is a possibility that at the base the universe is a seeming, not a being; and that if, by any means that seemingness is triggered, the nothingness momentarily asserts. During such a split-instant, distance has no meaning.

The fact of Gilbert Gosseyn being a single individual apparently inhabiting multiple bodies must figure in there somewhere, but this detail feels more like a typically peculiar science-fiction trope than part of whatever van Vogt was trying to describe.

Nevertheless, Null-A Three begins well with Gosseyn feeling his way through an unfamiliar environment, and van Vogt telling only half of the story so as to leave us guessing. This third iteration of Gosseyn wakes in the court of a society ruled over by a boy king, whom he engages by thinking outside the box with a challenge to see which of them can hold their breath the longest. Then follows a brief hint at van Vogt's views on sexuality - whatever the hell they were by this point - in terms of the boy king's royal mother, something about the two of them going into a room for about an hour and locking the door mutter mumble…

Sadly, after about a hundred admittedly moderately gripping pages of this, I lost my way, and spent the rest of the book struggling to get a grip on what the hell was happening and why - which tends to be a common problem with van Vogt.

The Nose

Nikolai Gogol The Nose (1836)
A man goes into a cafe and orders a bread roll. When the roll arrives, he discovers a foreign object within, specifically a human nose. Elsewhere, an academic gentleman realises that his own nose is missing, leaving just smooth, blank skin at the centre of his face. The nose is seen about town, dressed as an official, somehow passing itself off as a person and acquiring quite a reputation. Eventually it returns to our guy's face.

The story is riddled with inconsistencies, not least being how the nose in the bread roll figures in any of this, and of course the issue of scale; but that's because it's a story, for fuck's sake. It can do what the hell it likes. Gogol says as much himself in wrapping up the tale with an admission that he doesn't actually understand any of it, adding that it seems absurd, but then daily life is itself absurd. In directly addressing the reader as part of a tale of nebulous reality, Gogol might be seen as foreshadowing all sorts of stuff more recent and more familiar to members of this congregation, but then again, it was 1836, so maybe it's simply that the novel was yet to settle into its current habit of pretending to present a window on reality with author as no more than the individual cranking the handle of the projector.

Either way, I really have to read more by this guy. I'm not even sure why I'm only getting around to it now at the age of fifty-three.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Black in Time

John Jakes Black in Time (1970)
I was a bit underwhelmed by Jakes' Mask of Chaos from the same year, but the promise of the cover - not to mention the creaking and possibly just a little bit crass pun of the title - made this one impossible to resist. It's the American future - meaning 1977 in this case - and we have time travel as an educational resource. Unfortunately though, one of those black militants has gone back in time to change the past so as to get rid of all white people and make Earth a black planet - just like one of those evil liberals behind the new Star Wars movies would probably appreciate; and worse, some right wing televangelist nutjob has also gone back in time hoping to change history and make it a white Christian planet; and thus does chaos ensue.

It probably doesn't need stating that this could quite easily have gone horribly wrong, and yet Jakes just about gets away with it, albeit at the expense of a coherent story. Online dunderheads have dismissed the novel as racist seemingly by application of the same logic which prompted my fifteen-year old overly literal stepson to announce that the television show Black-ish is racist, apparently because the word black appears in the title. Black in Time deals with race, obviously, and while it's certainly guilty of stereotyping, the stereotyping is consistent with the sort of broad brushstrokes you should probably expect from this kind of novel - basically a Richard Allen style pulp thriller with time travel.
Harold felt unwashed, hot around the eyeballs, queasy in the stomach. The buckets of Smackin-Good Chikkin from the Robt. E. Lee Chik-ateria eventually fetched in by Little Che did nothing to soothe his condition. In fact they worsened it. The stink of the greasy batter raped his sensibilities. The notion of eating fried chicken—or peanut butter, vichysoisse, anything—just prior to maybe toppling civilisation as they knew it struck him as perverse and frightful.

Aside from having been written by a white dude, Black in Time is a blaxploitation novel, more or less, at least by virtue of Jomo, our time travelling black power activist loosely based on Huey Newton and pals. Jomo isn't so much a bad guy as someone who needs to step back and think about what he's doing, and while he's a composite of numerous easily identified cliches, Jakes takes great care to account for why he's angry, and why he has every right to be angry, so he's never an entirely unsympathetic character; and for the record, he doesn't refer to anyone as jive turkey anywhere in the book. Jomo's white supremacist nemesis is, on the other hand, shown to be an unreasonable character, a believable evil presence without the need for either cackling or twirling of moustaches. These extremes are balanced out by Harold, our main character, whom it should be noted is 1) the lead in a mainstream seventies science-fiction novel published a mere six years since the abolition of segregation in America, and 2) a black man written without any of the stereotyping to which Jomo is subject.

Jakes eventually made his reputation with historical novels set during the American civil war, so his attention to detail is impressive and convincing despite the demands of the form. On the other hand, the time travel aspect is a bit of a mess and makes for an occasionally bewildering and even silly progression of narrative elements, but not so much as to muddy the message or the impact of the message. Black in Time may be hokey and dated, but I don't see the alleged racism, casual or otherwise. It's far from being a classic, but considering what it tried to say and when it tried to say it, it's anything but run of the mill.