Tuesday, 11 December 2018

The Star Wasps

Robert Moore Williams The Star Wasps (1963)
I've already spotted a pattern of certain themes running through what I've read by Robert Moore Williams, and Star Wasps ticks most of the boxes. Williams wrote what I've come to think of as theosophic science-fiction - for the sake of argument - and this one feels accordingly allegorical whilst making use of tropes commonly associated with certain types of schizophrenia - notably subterranean realms and ethereal beings visible only to a select few exerting a malign influence on humanity whilst moving among us undetected. The Star Wasps kicks off inside one of those pseudo-Babylonian towers reaching to heaven, in this case the headquarters of an omnipotent corporation which dominates human society in ways which reminded me a lot of the mechanised society in Vonnegut's Player Piano. A player piano significantly features in one scene and I'm inclined to wonder whether it might be an acknowledgement of just such an influence. Anyway, as with other Williams novels, we have the many-tiered tower of Babel, and also its subterranean inversion - although the caverns and tunnels which count for the purposes of this story are on the moon. The intermediary point is a bar incongruously styled as something from the old west and populated by characters who speak like people from movies of the thirties and forties - specifically outlaws, because naturally this is a novel about the resistance.

'I'm not so sure about that,' Mom answered. 'People learn to like their chains. Sometimes they fight you when you try to take their chains away from them.'

Robert Moore Williams was a man with certain psychiatric idiosyncrasies, many of which are revealed in the kind of stories he told, and the ways he tried to tell them. The Star Wasps is undeniably cranky with a distinctly dreamlike quality, actions which don't quite make sense, random narrative swerves, and things which never quite add up; the star wasps, for example - not once referred to by this name which appears nowhere in the text - are never fully explained, and never convincingly tied into whatever is going on.

On the other hand, Williams writes well enough to fool us into feeling as though we're getting a coherent story, and he makes up for continuity glitches with an atmosphere which remains arrestingly weird for the duration.

There were thousands of tunnels here, she had to be careful to pick the right turn. Vague memories of pictures illustrating Dante's Inferno in an old book flashed through her mind. Some of the people in the depths of hell the poet had visioned had been doomed to flee forever through dark and twisting tunnels like these caves under the moon's surface. There was something nightmarish about this situation. She felt like she was having a bad dream in which she was doomed to flee forever from something. There was also in this situation something of that terror that sometimes comes into the minds of young girls when they dream of snakes.

Never having been a young girl, I'm not sure I can really say anything useful about that last one.

This is the fifth I've read by this guy, and the fifth which, despite being about as nutty as they come, hasn't let me down. Whatever the hell Robert Moore Williams may have been about, I'd say he was potentially anything but just another forgotten pulp author hacking out tales of rocket ships and space monsters. His ambition clearly outstripped his ability in certain respects, but he was at least able to communicate something.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Small Talk at the Clinic

Thomas Moore & Steven Purtill Small Talk at the Clinic (2018)
I've never heard of either of them, but it seemed worth a punt given Amphetamine Sulphate's thus far exceptional track record combined with the ominous suggestion of this being a somewhat limited run, possibly due to it being a slightly more lavish production than usual, perfect bound with colour images.

The title seems to describe the form taken by the narrative rather than the promise of anything too literal - snatches of muttered conversation stripped of most context and perhaps a little more intimate than should be entirely comfortable. The text serves as written counterpart to the images, low resolution snatches of what may as well be webcam footage affording ominous glimpses of the someone's world, leaving ample gaps for horror within all of the information which has been left out. This is private mania described by that which the text excludes; and because this sort of focus places no onus on the authors - or perhaps even editors given that most of this reads like found material - to nail anything to a specific set of descriptions, it would seem to communicate a truly universal experience; which may actually be the most hopelessly pretentious sentence I've ever written, but never mind.

Small Talk at the Clinic works a little like poetry, a little like film, and somehow achieves a terrifying intensity without really seeming to do much - and to the point that I was kind of relieved to come to the end of the thing, but in a good way, I think.

I spend quite a lot of time proofing and editing my own shite, whipping it into shape for publication in forms which hardly anyone will buy but which nevertheless give me a sense of purpose and make me happy. I therefore appreciate that book publishing takes a lot of time and hard work when you're doing it yourself, so each time a new Amphetamine Sulphate title appears, my flabber has grown increasingly and exponentially ghasted. The quality and quantity they have maintained in terms of both production and material has been exceptional, and it's still their first year.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Our Children's Children

Clifford D. Simak Our Children's Children (1974)
The entire human race from five-hundred years in the future take refuge in the present, fleeing voracious alien monsters which will one day visit themselves upon our world. This presents a number of problems: the impossibility of clothing, feeding and housing several billion refugees, and the fact of the aforementioned voracious alien monsters having followed them back through their time tunnels. On top of this, there's also the matter that we weren't doing that great even before all these people turned up, what with the environment and everything. The solution seems to be using the time tunnels of our visitors to relocate humanity back to the pre-technological idyll of the Miocene era.

Our Children's Children is a fairly typical Simak, thematically speaking - strong ecological message, everything used to be better than it is now, and so on and so forth.

The problem is that the story is relayed by much the same method as that which kept Roy of the Rovers ticking along all those years, with those two anonymous blokes in the crowd helpfully describing what's happening on the pitch. Here we have presidential types and generals filling entire chapters with so much exposition that it reads like a play; also, an intrepid reporter - who may as well have been called something like Scoops Jackson - talking about stuff with his photographer. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of the kind of descriptive pastoral narrative at which Simak usually excels, and what little we have features angry kids protesting outside the White House while waving handily explanatory placards, just like you might see on the cover of a sixties Superman comic.

I don't know what went wrong here. The idea itself isn't bad - although the explanation of the nature of the voracious alien monsters is so pitifully shabby* that it could have come from a Russell T. Davies episode of Who. Simak did this about a thousand times better in The Visitors, and in almost all of his other novels, come to think of it. Our Children's Children isn't irredeemable, but it's not great by any description.

*: They're dinosaurs, and the time travelling events of the novel may serve to explain how they ended up back in the Cretaceous in the first place, or summink.

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Third Hotel

Laura Van Den Berg The Third Hotel (2018)
Here's a strange one, the story of Clare, a grieving woman who, having lost her husband, attends a film festival in Havana with the vicarious intent of immersing herself in the obsessions of her late partner, specifically his interest in the moving image and in particular a Cuban horror movie called Revolución Zombi. As may be apparent from the title, it's a zombie flick which seems to be echoed in Clare's own life as she spots her husband, alive, well, and hanging out around the film festival.

At this point it could all have gone horribly wrong, except it's not actually that sort of novel. Van Den Berg eschews the use of inverted commas to distinguish dialogue, blending spoken word in with the body of the text so that all which Clare experiences is presented as part of her psychological reaction to whatever the hell is going on; so we don't really learn whether the hubby returned from beyond the grave is actually happening, because it doesn't matter. Clare's progress is reported as though it might be a film she's watching, registering a degree of separation from her own existence underscored by all the metaphors and allusions to cinematic horror conventions, which is almost certainly intentional. It therefore reads a little like a written equivalent of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, in which we have ideas and possibilities rather than concrete events in conventional sequence.

At her laptop, she would think back to Revolución Zombi, the hero's plan to record the zombie apocalypse and put it up for sale, about all the curious worlds that would have been exposed in the background, all the unseen corners pulled into the light. When a person did not know they were being watched, what they would do when they believed themselves to be in a state of true privacy—that was the lure of found footage, that clarification of human mystery, and that was why surveillance was so lethal; a true erosion of privacy inevitably led to an erosion of self.

This is a story told out of the corner of one eye, in a manner of speaking, something which couldn't be communicated with a clearer focus or a more linear narrative - as desired by those online critics who apparently expected something tidier and probably more in the line of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Third Hotel might almost be considered an existential novel, and as such succeeds in spite of occasional pop culture references which otherwise usually reduce everything to smug post-modernism. The reader is required to undertake some of the heavy-lifting, but that's why it works so beautifully.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Zen Gun

Barrington J. Bayley The Zen Gun (1983)
My friend Carl reports having read at least one stinker by the otherwise mostly wonderful Bayley. I keep on spinning that barrel but this game of used book roulette has thus far been kind to me where Bayley is concerned, and continues to be approximately kind with The Zen Gun. It's not a terribly ambitious novel in so much as that it's essentially yer basic space opera of a type which you can see would have looked good on the CV when Bayley pitched his Warhammer 40,000 tale. We have a galactic empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, and something wrong with reality, but the joy is in the peculiarly nutty wallpaper with which he decorates this basic structure. Starting at the bottom, Bayley has rewritten the laws of physics in terms of such complexity as to warrant a separate essay on the subject; and he's repopulated the resulting cosmos with both talking animals and a human race in which anyone over the age of seven is considered adult; and in case you were wondering, the ultimate weapon is made of wood. Pout, a creature combining the genetic material of the entire primate family, first uses said weapon to tweak the nipples of a woman he secretly watches through her bedroom window.

It's nothing life changing, but it's enthusiastically weird and fun, and you can see why Moorcock held him in such high regard.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Empire of the Atom

A.E. van Vogt Empire of the Atom (1947)
Empire of the Atom, published in 1956, is a fix-up of five short stories originally published within eighteen months of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's a sequel, The Wizard of Linn, which was actually one of the first van Vogts I read, but I can't remember much about it and I don't think it made any strong impression on me; so I came to this more or less blind. In fact, based on the title, I had always imagined it would be some sort of subatomic precursor to Stephen Baxter's Flux.

Anyway the existence of the atom bomb clearly brought about a significant rethink in popular culture, representing a moment in which the world and the course of the future lost its established cohesion, and science-fiction authors realised it might not turn out quite so shiny as Hugo Gernsback would have had us believe. Without actually bothering to check, beyond noting that John Wyndham's Chrysalids was published in 1955, I suspect that Empire must surely have been amongst the earliest projections of life after the atomic bomb. A.E. van Vogt tended to examine his subject in terms of the biggest picture possible, so it makes sense that he should depict our post-nuclear future as something dynastic, something grand on the scale of the rise and fall of the Roman empire. To this end, Empire of the Atom is, more or less, van Vogt's Slan mashed up with Robert Graves' I, Claudius, even to the point of including a dynastic family tree as preface.

I'm afraid I don't actually remember Claudius in any great detail, although this may have helped more than it hindered, but van Vogt's take is fairly compelling with a deformed mutant offspring standing in for the stammering historian, trying to get by within a court of scheming relatives. The star of the book, however, seems to be its environment, an ingenious hybrid where those left with only bows and arrows in the wake of atomic collapse are nevertheless able to fly what spacecraft have survived the disaster miraculously intact, waging war between Venus, Mars and even colonies on the moons of Jupiter.

The tale is told with a certain gravity through van Vogt eschewing his usual disorientating literary techniques in favour of a more classical style. I've a feeling it makes some fairly profound statement about humanity repeatedly kicking itself up the arse, but I seem to be the only person who noticed so I probably imagined it; because for all its promise, while Empire of the Atom is certainly respectable, it's some way short of van Vogt's best. On the other hand, that he managed to pull off such a ludicrous premise at all speaks volumes about the man and his enduringly underrated talent.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Deadpool Classic volume one

Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid & others
Deadpool Classic volume one (1997)
Having decided Deadpool wasn't for me, I quickly expunged this first volume from my Amazon wish list, but apparently not quick enough given the temporal proximity of my birthday. Oh well, I thought, I'll give it to the kid - no doubt he'll think it's amazing, although I dutifully had a quick look, seeing as how it was a birthday present and all.

This one reprints Deadpool's first appearance in an impressively fucking awful issue of New Mutants, then a couple of four-issue limited series, and then the debut issue of the animé balloon animal version with which I am already unfortunately familiar.

I quite enjoyed Fabian Nicieza's Psi-Force at the time, and would say he scored above average as a writer of caped stuff providing you don't object to a certain reliance upon generically embittered mercenaries as narrative pivot; and most of this collection is rooted firmly in the nineties, so it's mostly wisecracking assassination and grimacing men with too many scratchy lines on their faces. Yet somehow I found I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and certainly more than the more recent, arguably more imaginative version. I suspect this is because Deadpool simply works better as an unreconstructed Judas Priest album with jokes. Tarting up as violent, ironic Archie only serves to accentuate the flaws of both the character and the genre Deadpool inhabits. It feels thoroughly self-conscious, and at least as grave a mistake as going the other way and doing a Watchmen.

You were better when you were crap, to borrow the chorus of an old song by the Dovers.