Monday, 7 August 2017

Nameless


Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham Nameless (2016)
Just to get it out of the way before anyone writes a tittering ten-volume slipcased comparison of the parallels, yes, I suppose this might be Grant Morrison revisiting H.P. Lovecraft because he saw Alan Moore do it; and I suppose the confessional we both liked the idea of creating a 'Lovecraftian' horror story without recycling H.P. Lovecraft, might indeed be suffixed with unlike certain other writers, not mentioning no names or nuffink; but otherwise, let's all just get over it. No conspicuously bearded Machiavellian allegories to see here, and aside from anything else, this might be one of the best things Morrison has done, possibly.

Oddly, more than anything, Nameless reminds me of Johan Harsted's 172 Hours on the Moon at least in terms of locale and atmosphere, although it's otherwise much better, obviously; and while it's a different story, arguably closer to all those films in which Bruce Willis saves the earth from collision with an asteroid, Nameless ticks quite a few of the same boxes as The Taking of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham. In fact, if you don't mind that we have Titans and Outsiders rather than Great Houses and the enemy, this is the closest we've had to a Faction Paradox comic book since Image's Lawrence Miles title went tits up back in 2003.

So what's it all about, Alfie?

We have an asteroid, possibly a chip off the old destroyed fifth planet, about to hit Earth, and which can only be understood in mystical terms, hence the astronauts covered in protective sigils; and it's fucking scary, and you'll just have to read it because that's all I'm going to give away. The art comes from another one of those guys who isn't quite all of the way there with his faces, but the whole is otherwise of such elaborate beauty that you don't mind in the least, and which almost gives the book the weight of something by Jean Giraud. The narrative is more like a piece of music than any conventionally linear scrape in space with rockets and monsters, and Morrison's afterword states this as having been intentional, which is nice because it works so well, doing that Nic Roeg thing of making sense despite that it feels like it shouldn't. There's also a heaping helping of mystic horseshit, but nothing which is allowed to get in the way of the story, and it all holds together beautifully without requiring that we skip to the reference section at the end of the book.

That said, I could have lived without the details borrowed from Mayan culture, presumably by way of Carlos Castaneda given the loose way in which terms such as tonal and nagual are tossed around regardless of original meaning in the actual language from which they derive; but the book works so well that I even got over that hump. Damn that Grant Morrison. Why can't they all be this good?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Player Piano


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Player Piano (1952)
Having been blown away by Slaughterhouse Five all those years ago, I somehow picked up the idea of Player Piano having been Vonnegut's other masterpiece, presumably somehow reading this into the arguably lesser distinction of it simply having been his debut novel.

Player Piano seems to aspire to inclusion in the canon of dystopian classics beginning with Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and continuing through Brave New World and 1984. Themes of men and women trying to get by within a carnivorous and capitalist society, and to which Vonnegut would return over and over, are here expressed as a future America in which mechanisation has divided society into a near useless consumer underclass and the Engineers who tend to the machines. Existence has become a routine, predictable and ultimately soulless process much like the notes plucked out on a player piano. Our main protagonist, the guy who notices how everything is actually a bit shit, is one Paul Proteus, essentially an inversion of the Gernsbackian science hero, for this is very much a novel with one foot in Hugo's tradition whether it likes it or not.

The main problem seems to be that history has outstripped Vonnegut's predictions by coming up with something arguably worse than his vaguely Gernsbackian technological society. At one point our lads pit themselves against a somewhat basic sounding games computer called Charley Checkers, and I found it quite hard to keep from thinking of Mitchell and Webb's Cheesoid; which is ironically fitting because Vonnegut's point is that the mechanisation of society has so often been seen as an end in itself, regardless of either consequences or whether the technology is actually doing anything which is worth doing, which unfortunately leaves the novel resting upon a point which isn't particularly well made.

Stranger still, at least to me, is that Player Piano is very much a linear tale with a beginning, middle, and end, in stark contrast to the rest of what Vonnegut went on to write; and whilst the humour is there, it seems hesitant. You can really tell this is a first novel. It's not without flashes of brilliance here and there, and Vonnegut's political testimony is devastating where it fully comes into focus, but I'm afraid I was just kind of bored for most of the book.



Monday, 31 July 2017

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas


Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá The Umbrella Academy: Dallas (2009)
I was interviewed for a podcast called Raconteur Roundtable. They were mostly interested in my Faction Paradox novel, Against Nature. The interview was conducted over Skype, and it was fun but exhausting. My original intention had been to present the brooding, unflappable façade of a sort of English Henry Rollins but without the weightlifting, but I suspect I came across more like Suzanne from Orange is the New Black. I kept catching myself in the webcam feed, going cross-eyed and whirling my hand in the air whilst feebly scrabbling to make the word stuff come out good.

That night, I was woken at three in the morning by the cellphone I never use - except to receive sales calls which aren't even for me - beeping to let me know that it needed recharging so that I may receive more calls from people trying to sell car insurance to my mother-in-law. I then found myself unable to get back to sleep until about 6.50AM, having lain awake for several hours giving full consideration to just how mad I sounded during the interview, and whether it would be practical to trace the invention of the beep which a phone makes when it's low on juice at three in the fucking morning back to a single individual and to smash their kneecaps with a hammer. I got up at seven to feed the cats, then went straight back to bed for yer actual sleep and a couple of hours of weird, unpleasant dreams in which Adrian Meredith, my junior school bully, coerced me into buying his girlfriend's gold necklace back from the pawn shop to which he had flogged it.

I woke at ten to discover that Jello the cat had shredded an entire bog roll for the third day running, and so I was not in the sunniest of moods, in contrast to the rest of Texas which was already 98° in the shade. I needed coffee, toast, and the routine of my daily hour or so of reading, but I couldn't face Vonnegut's dreary debut novel. I needed comfort food, so to speak, something colourful and fun requiring no expenditure of brain cells, and so I picked this.

The more I read by Gerard Way, the more I appreciate that he's very much doing his own thing. Obviously there are traces of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but Umbrella Academy somehow manages to be even more esoteric without ever quite descending into non-sequiteurs. The story ducks and weaves like Nic Roeg, Bill Burroughs, or any reference to weird European cinema you care to make, whilst also doing something suspiciously reminiscent of a garish Saturday morning cartoon serial; and where with Morrison, you can occasionally spot the gaps and sense how pleased with himself he gets over certain layered references, Way has none of that awkward self-consciousness, just confidence and expertise. The story is fucking peculiar, and the art is gorgeous. I've no idea what any of it's about, but it made my day much, much better than it had been.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Trojans


Philip Purser-Hallard Trojans (2016)
I promised myself I'd re-read the first two before tackling Trojans, the conclusion of the trilogy and the thickest of the three. The book is heavily populated with a fair few interwoven narrative strands to follow, and I really wanted to go in prepared so as to get the most out of my reading; but in the end, with the to be read pile presently towering above me at a little over fifty titles, I thought fuck it and just went right ahead.

Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy inhabits a very familiar contemporary England in which certain individuals find themselves possessed - or allied as is the more accurate term used by Alan a'Dale, the narrator - by numerous mythological or pseudo-historical heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and the gang, and even the likes of Paul Bunyan across the water. The present day incarnations - or at least expressions - of these archetypes naturally behave in ways consistent with their respective legends; and so the Round Table has become the Circle, and its Knights get around on motorbikes, communicate by cellphone, and yet nevertheless employ sword and shield in their application of justice, honour, and chivalry. It's the kind of story which really could have ended up with a particularly culty egg on its face if mistimed or not handled absolutely right, so it's a testament to Purser-Hallard's not inconsiderable talent that it not only works, but is absolutely convincing.

As we rejoin our tale, Arthur has returned to reclaim the English throne, much to the displeasure of certain royals for obvious reasons - and delightfully plausibly written they are too. Intrigue, espionage, terrorism, and kidnapping ensue, foreign interests decide to involve themselves, and an old mythic pattern strives to repeat itself with those chosen to act out its component parts all caught up in the workings. Described as such it may sound like someone going for the Game of Thrones dollar, or at worst a template for forty-five minute helpings of episodic CGI with mediaeval types composing ironic self-referential facebook posts in between scraps with baddies; but it's really nothing like that, because it's a proper novel.

This also means that it expects the reader to pay attention, which is why I experienced some confusion. It's been a while since I read The Pendragon Protocol and The Locksley Exploit, and I've never been particularly well versed in Arthurian lore, so I experienced occasional difficulties keeping track of certain details through failing to fully appreciate their significance. Nevertheless, this presented no significant obstacle, either to my being able to follow the narrative or to enjoy it, and if anything, the undercurrent of intrigue served as an inducement to read on; so in other words, if I found myself sporadically lost, it remained a pleasure; and it remained a pleasure because Trojans is very conspicuously about something more than just keeping you busy for a couple of hours a day.

Were it a simple matter to summarise what Devices has been about in a few sentences, there probably wouldn't have been any need for it to clock up such a page count, but at the root of it all seems to be a debate about morality, specifically about doing the right thing and whether such choices can be codified as ideology. Here we have the Circle and the Green Chapel as England's two principal upholders of what is generally believed to be right, but they are essentially at odds with one another whilst driven by more or less identical goals. The difference is that one represents ingrained authority, tradition and even perhaps dogma, and as such I'm tempted to regard the Circle as an allegory for certain aspects of organised religion.

'I inherited the code of honour, I didn't make it. But it's the code I have to live by now, or any claim I have to rule this country goes out of the window. And then... there'd be another war, at least. And I honestly think that would destroy us.'

Robin Hood's Green Chapel on the other is wild, anarchic, and pretty much making it up as it goes along.

'People tell stories, not the other way round. The devices forget that we made them, not they us.'

Given the mythological origin of many of the characters manifest here, the Devices trilogy also serves as a commentary upon the quality and value of the tales we tell - a theme which generally seems to have become quite popular of late, but is more than justified here by what seems like fairly profound philosophical depth, or at least more so than Alan Moore recasting Harry Potter as the Antichrist.

In certain respects it might be considered quite a tough book, given all that it has to say about English culture at this end of the twenty-first century, the responsibility of a government to its people and to the individual, and even to those ways of thinking which have fuelled the popularity of Brexit; and yet it's a breeze, and there are even jokes. As someone or other is quoted as having observed on the back cover, Philip Purser-Hallard really is a best kept secret, and I have a feeling it can't be for too much longer.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Shape of Things


Damon Knight (editor) The Shape of Things (1965)
I still find it hard to leave one of these on the shelf, which is partially nostalgia for anthologies such as this more or less having been my introduction to science-fiction which wasn't based on a TV show or else written by Philip K. Dick. Also, there's the exciting promise of getting something you didn't expect, of not really knowing quite what the fuck will happen once you get between the covers. I really don't know how anyone can resist.

Of course, these days there's also the appeal of revisiting what have become old favourites, but it's the surprises which keep me coming back, and not least because there are still surprises to be had. In this case one big one turns out to be The New Reality by Charles L. Harness. I don't recall having heard of the guy and I know nothing about him, but The New Reality is absolutely top shelf material, notable as a version of reality as construct within the eye of the beholder of some vintage, predating all those recent revisitations of the theme, and even predating the likes of Dick's Eye in the Sky. I'm sure Harness himself was only riffing on some previous telling of the story, one I've probably read and forgotten, but nevertheless he makes the convention his own.

As with any anthology, there are a couple which don't quite make the grade, but with this one the good stuff is of such quality as to render the duds forgiveable; and the good stuff from Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury are all very good indeed. Also, it's nice to read Knight's introduction to van Vogt's Dormant and to find that he did, on occasion, have a good word for the guy after all; so, very satisfying, all round.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Multiversity


Grant Morrison etc. The Multiversity (2015)
I know I said I was getting a bit tired of self-aware comic books pretending that a drawing of a man in a cape is just a different level of reality because of something a theoretical physicist said whilst off his tits on special brew, but sod it - Grant Morrison, for all his faults is occasionally great, and Captain Carrot was on the cover of the first issue. It seemed worth a punt.

I never read Crisis on Infinite Earths so most stuff about the layered realities of the DC universe has been lost upon me, and Final Crisis was incomprehensible. I'm not really sure what this one is supposed to do either, but on the assumption that Crisis happened so as to keep us from having to read about Krypto the Superdog, then Multiversity seems to reverse that particular act of po-faced revisionism and is therefore a good thing. Roughly speaking it seems to be a mash up of Morrison's Zenith and Alan Moore's 1963, or at least has elements inevitably in common with both. We have a load of alternate realities, some of them fairly absurd, under attack by something vaguely Lovecraftian from outside; in addition to which it's all massively self-referential with characters attempting to work out what's going on by reading earlier or later issues of the comic in which they appear. It's not actually big or significantly clever, but even this is acknowledged in online potshots which become caught up in the narrative.
Yet another comic-about-comics treatise retreading the same tired themes.

Ordinarily I'd agree, but what's different this time is that it just about has a story - albeit one in which individual chapters could probably be read in any order - and that it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Multiversity first appeared as a series of loosely related issues of comic books set in different parts of its reality, allowing for a great deal of horseplay. My favourite iteration is probably The Just, set on a world in which Superman's robot legion has rendered caped crime fighters redundant, leaving their offspring to lives of super-powered boredom and killing time; but equally enjoyable is the obligatory trawl through the history of superhero comics rendered in stylistic tribute to Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Kirby and all of the usual suspects. Morrison's Alan Moore fixation is expressed as an issue focused on the Charlton comics characters which inspired Watchmen, and which is clearly a comment on Watchmen, although I have no idea what it's actually saying. We also get Marvel's Avengers with the plates switched and a thinly disguised version of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, which is amusing if you like that sort of thing, and happily I do in this instance; and whilst I'm over-thinking such things, I'm sure I recall the evil one-eyed egg with bat wings as one of Dorothy's imaginary enemies from Morrison's version of Doom Patrol.

Multiversity is probably deep, meaningful, and stuffed to the gills with references I didn't get, but it doesn't actually have much in the way of story if you look closely; which isn't a problem because Grant Morrison seems to be at his best when he's all surface and can keep himself from mentioning Aleister bloody Crowley every two pages. I'm not sure this is all surface, but that was how it read to me and I therefore invoke the same difference clause; and yet it is of sufficient complexity as to yield unexpected rewards upon second and third readings. This might be one of the best things he's written in a while.

Maigret Sets a Trap


Georges Simenon Maigret Sets a Trap (1955)
Ordinarily I bristle and mutter at those who read the book because they saw it on telly, and yet here I am, because I'm nothing if not inconsistent. One set of laws for myself and a different set for the rest of you fuckers, that's how it works.

I happened upon a recent televised adaptation of this starring Rowan Atkinson, and while detective shows aren't ordinarily my thing, I was nevertheless well and truly sucked in. I vaguely knew of Maigret as a BBC series from before I was born, but hadn't realised it was based on a series of novels; and so I kept an eye open and chanced upon this, itself published so as to cash-in on a previous adaptation of the same thing starring the Singing Detective. Obviously I have no way of knowing whether or not this is a good translation from the French by one Daphne Woodward, although I'm going to assume it is based on how much I enjoyed it; so assuming that whatever I say can be applied as much to Simenon's original as to this one...

I'm a little out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, mysteries, crime, and all that stuff, and yet Maigret very much worked for me on this occasion. The narrative is tight and efficient, taking one straight to the heart of the matter, unencumbered by fatty tissue or any unnecessary fucking about in hope of getting a reaction; and the style comes across as clean and elegant rather than either rudimentary or pulpy, perhaps thanks to occasional concessions made to place and atmosphere in fleeting, yet arresting images:

All this time they had been standing up. At Doctor Pardon's suggestion they now went and sat down in a corner near the window, from where they could hear the sounds of a radio. The rain was still falling, so softly that the tiny drops seemed to be alighting gently one on top of the other, to form a kind of dark varnish on the surface of the road.

Similarly pleasing is that as mysteries go, this one seems fairly straightforward, indulging in none of the smartarsed labyrinthine plotting of modern detective fiction, at least as it is on telly. A crime occurs, Maigret tracks down the suspect, and then proves him to be the guilty party - none of this shit about some shop in Southend being the only place where you can buy shoelaces in that colour, and if Lord Ponsonby-Smythe, who famously loathes hard-boiled eggs, was indeed wearing his tartan jockstrap at the event in question, then blah blah blah...

Equally refreshing - at least from the point of view of someone who, like myself, usually only encounters this kind of thing on the box - is that Maigret is a quiet bloke who smokes a pipe and doesn't seem to go in for shouting or knackering suspects with a ball-peen hammer before chuckling oh dear - I see you've tripped, my little son. Indeed, that which is left to be read between these translated lines, suggests a thoughtful, sensitive character. For what it's worth, I am informed that views have been expressed opining that Rowan Atkinson's recent performance was somewhat flat in comparison with earlier, more emotional renderings by Rupert Davies or Michael Gambon, but I don't know - based on this one book, I'd say Atkinson pretty much nailed it.

Anyway, yes - very, very readable.