Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Strange Creatures from Time and Space

John Keel Strange Creatures from Time and Space (1975)
I read this when I was a kid, as borrowed from a friend at school whose dad was obsessed with such things and had a UFO detector in his back garden - procured through the classifieds in Abduction Monthly or something of the sort. I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye when in my twenties I'd taken to reading more or less just comic books and UFO literature. This changed when I discovered Richard Dawkins around 1995 and went a bit fundamentalist for a while. I got rid of all my crackpot paperbacks but always regretted ditching this one, plus a few by Brad Steiger. Keel and Steiger always seemed to deliver the goods, regardless of whether or not you actually believed any of it.

Here John Keel takes the position that UFOlogy and related paranormal investigations have been historically held back by a desire for logic, or at least for accounts which we can just about believe because they hint at some sort of science-fiction narrative with which we are already familiar - visitors from the stars and so on. Clearly he has a point, and it seems that many well-known accounts of unexplained phenomenon have often left out the weirder details for fear of ridicule; leaving us with the amusing possibility that the more hypothetically probable accounts are going to be the least plausible because anyone feeling inclined to just make something up for chuckles isn't going to bother trying to fence some of the wacky shit related herein as anything which could really happen - therefore maybe it did. John Keel is very much in the tradition of Charles Fort as one who chronicles the improbable or impossible for the sheer joy of contradicting consensus reality.

That said, whilst he writes well and generally stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, Keel is himself not without his blind spots. Much literature of this kind has an unfortunate habit of fixating on established science as the enemy so as to forge a bond with the more paranoid readers who never trusted those book-learnin' guys in the first place. It needs science to be its enemy to the point of refusing even to negotiate, because negotiations will inevitably work in the favour of the other side. Most crucially, science as a scapegoat shifts focus from the fact that there's really not much to say about the bloke who insists he saw a strange light in the sky and it didn't seem like a plane and then he felt a bit funny.

Keel tends not to dwell on the sceptics so much as others often do, but still descends to pointless sniping at what he describes as Type B scientists. Type A are the ones who invent shit, the guys you're not going to pick a fight with because you'll end up looking like a fucking idiot - Edison, Einstein and so on. Type B scientists are the university types which television stations call in when something needs denouncing as light from the planet Venus refracted through swamp gas; or in one specific case to suggest that something weird found washed up on a beach might be the supposedly more prosaic remains of a recently defrosted mammoth, prompting Keel to fume accordingly:

The iceberg hypothesis is not merely unscientific, it is moronic. So far as is known, no animal - modern or prehistoric - has ever been found encased in a floating iceberg.

Which is great except that he invokes the same frozen in an iceberg explanation for some other peculiar beastie discussed a couple of pages later, so it's fine when he makes certain suggestions...

Happily, there's not too much of this kind of defensive argument, and even if he doesn't state it directly, I would guess that Keel appreciates there's not much joy to be had in pouring scorn upon the laws of physics. Indeed, his strength is that he thinks about his subject and even engages in a degree of scepticism over and above that which is customarily adopted by UFOlogists aspiring to present a ludicrous veneer of scientific rigour, a veneer of scientific rigour which tends to exclude all the wackier tales.

The buffs tend to lump everything hopelessly together and try only to categorise the descriptions of the objects which are, as we pointed out earlier, so varied that the data negates itself. We must, to be successful, turn our attention to studying the witnesses and the psychological and physiological effects they experience. The answer to the whole mystery probably lies in that direction, not in the stars.

Leaving aside the major problem that what we have here are essentially anecdotal accounts of anecdotal evidence, this book works because much of this stuff is bananas - hence hugely entertaining, even thought-provoking, and genuinely scary in a few cases - and because while Keel speculates aplenty, he avoids didactic conclusions and never assumes the reader to be either an idiot, or even necessarily on his side.

As to whether I've just re-read a couple of hundred pages of nothing at all, I just don't know. A great many of these accounts describe events which seem to have the logic of a dream or a hallucination - winged creatures rising into the air without said wings actually flapping, for one example - but hallucinations shared by a number of people; and then there are the parallels - similar stories of similar occurrences told by people who have never met. In certain respects we don't actually know much about the human brain and almost certainly hold an excess of faith in what is generally regarded as objective experience, as distinct from the imagined. I'm inclined to wonder if visions of - for example - mothmen with glowing red eyes, might simply turn out to be a glitch of consciousness, just as certain phantom odours can sometimes signify more serious neurological problems; but there doesn't seem to be a single simple explanation for any of this stuff which covers everything, not even the possibility of it all having been made up. The best that can be said is that one hell of a lot of people appear to have experienced something weird, regardless of whether that experience was real in objective terms; and of all people, John Keel does a great job of trying to beat some sense out of the subject.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Doom Patrol #1

Gerard Way & Nick Derington Doom Patrol #1 (2016)
I very rarely review either single issues of a comic or anything freshly squoze from the presses - partially because I tend to wait until I have some sort of confirmation for a comic book not being a massive pile of shit before I'll grudgingly shell out for a collected edition, and partially because I just don't read comics like I used to; but this is the first of a new run of Doom Patrol, which feels like a special occasion.

Back in the nineties, Doom Patrol was the first thing Grant Morrison did which could be described as fucking brilliant in a way that not even Zenith had managed. It had been a superhero book in the sixties, albeit a fairly weird superhero book, and Morrison rewrote the thing as unrestrained Dadaism, possibly as a reaction to the increasing emphasis on superheroes making sense in the wake of Watchmen. The title was revived again about a decade later, but I can't even remember who was supposed to be involved and I'd more or less given up on comics by that point. I know I haven't heard much that is good about that more recent Doom Patrol; but anyway, now we have this...

I first heard that Gerard Way was writing comics when Charlie Adlard told me. Charlie draws The Walking Dead and was surprised to have found himself sharing a convention table with the former singer of My Chemical Romance. 'He's quite a nice bloke though,' he reported with the expression of a man surprised to find himself saying such a thing. Neither of us liked My Chemical Romance, but Way's earlier Umbrella Academy was decent, according to Charlie.

Clearly the lad gets Doom Patrol and what made it work, so this is no reversion to superheroes with neatly modular problems, and with not the faintest whiff of X-Men about it either. Way clearly gets why Morrison's Doom Patrol worked and has somehow invoked the same disjointed brilliance without it feeling like a cover version. Derington's art is happily understated, suggesting freewheeling European comics rather than anything with too many spandex clad ninjas swearing vengance. It's maybe a bit Tintin, a bit Rian Hughes, and otherwise perfectly suited to the tone of this thing.

As we rejoin the gang, Robotman has been in yet another automobile accident and is reduced once again to just a head; Casey Brinke's singing, tap-dancing telegram has accidentally blown-up her room-mate; Danny the Street is about to be launched as a meat-style consumer product, and there's a possibility that our universe might be just a microcosm within some vast existential doner kebab. I've no fucking clue what is going on or what is likely to happen next, but for the first time in over two decades, I'll be heading back to the comic shop in another couple of weeks to find out.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)
I reviewed the first one about a month ago. In fact the main reason I hunted the first one down was because I found The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in a branch of Half-Price, and a copy with the proper cover no less, and it would have been weird reading book two once again without first reminding myself of its predecessor; and - as already stated - it was in part a journey of discovery, namely discovering whether I'd been wrong about Adams all these years; and if I'm to subject myself to something I know I'll probably dislike, I reasoned, then it's going to be with books sporting the proper covers or not at all - the proper covers being those dating from when I read this stuff first time round, as opposed to some of the self-consciously wacky crimes against design in which Adams has since been wrapped - cartoon comedy planets blowing raspberries just in case anyone mistakes this stuff for Stephen Baxter.

To recap, my problem with Adams is that he was never as funny as claimed, and whilst his writing was fine for radio or television, it's just not that great applied to a novel, or at least to these novels. I mean it's not actually terrible, but these books really don't belong in any of those balls-achingly predictable lists of fifty science-fiction classics you must read.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe suffers from the same problems as the first part of the story, namely that it's a series of static scenes in which a bunch of guys stand around passing wry commentary upon some absurd aspect of their situation before a magic wand plot device whisks them off to the next set piece for more of the same. There are three women in the whole thing. Trillian doesn't get to say much, whilst the other two are introduced as love interest on the second to last page and are typically a bit dumb, which probably isn't too surprising given that the central part of the book all seems a bit Jeremy Clarkson with hindsight - chaps lusting after sporty spaceships in the restaurant parking lot followed by excessively loud rock band jokes, Led Zeppelin blowing up planets and so on and so forth; and all held together by a glue of purportedly witty observation which, as a number of people have since pointed out to me, is pretty much dollar store P.G. Wodehouse. I say, old chap, I hope you won't think me impolite but I can't help noticing that you appear to have parked your spacecraft atop my greenhouse, and I wouldn't mind but I was rather hoping to make the rounds with the jolly old flit gun at some point this afternoon blah blah blah...

Yet, for all it's flaws and annoyances, I kind of enjoyed this one. It may simply be nostalgia for the first time I read it, but it seems less laboured than the previous instalment. Also, it has a fairly satisfyingly rounded conclusion, and so much so that it feels like these first two volumes really should be considered a single novel so as to allow the positives to cancel or at least balance out the worst of the clunk. Unless it really is my imagination, my guess is that Adams was simply a better writer by the time he sat down to pull this one together, so while it remains a radio script shoehorned between two covers, the shoehorning isn't so laboured, and there are passages without the author digging you in the ribs and asking if you get it every three seconds.

It's still some way short of being the classic everyone seems to think it is, and Terry Pratchett did this sort of thing so much better, and six times nine isn't forty-two last time I looked - unless that's Adams admitting that the cartoon philosophies bolted onto his narrative are genuinely meaningless - but The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is certainly readable. He really should have left it at just the two books.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Outpost of Jupiter

Lester Del Rey Outpost of Jupiter (1963)
Lester Del Rey isn't an author whose work I'd actively seek out, but I don't like to see his books sat on the clearance shelf waiting to be pulped, so that's how I came by this one. It's the third I've read by him, and another juvie aimed squarely at teenagers - as distinct from the raging maturity of all those books Isaac Asimov wrote for fully grown men who'd done it with a lady and everything. Anyway, my last two Del Rey juvies were fairly decent so here I am again.

Del Rey doesn't talk down, but peppers his narrative with all the edumacational stuff about mathematics, thrust ratios, and the challenges of terraforming - just like Isaac - with concessions made to the age of his target audience through it being the story of a fifteen-year old kid who goes into space with his dad and has realistic adventures. Del Rey grew up on a farm in Minnesota in the twenties and you can sort of tell.

Mrs. McCarthy was a short, plump woman with a red face and a beaming smile. She dried her hands on her apron and greeted Bob warmly. Her voice was soft and seemed filled with the sheer joy of living and cooking and watching her family eat. 'Sit down,' she told them. 'You must be starved after all those space rations. Bob, you sit right there. And Penny, you let him alone, you hear?'

In many ways it reads as though someone has novelised the art of Chesley Bonestell, which would be great but for the fact that Outpost of Jupiter reads at least a little like it was Hank Hill doing the novelising, I tell you what. It's not that it's dull, but given the narrative occurring on one of Jupiter's moons and encompassing contact with an alien race, a little bit of wonder wouldn't have been out of place amongst all the discussions of Bob's immune system and space horticulture.

Likeable but surprisingly dry.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Cosmic Checkmate

Katherine MacLean & Charles V. De Vet Cosmic Checkmate (1962)
Having written mostly short stories, Katherine MacLean is one of those authors who came up through Astounding, Galaxy and the like and who appears to have subsequently slipped through the net. On the strength of The Diploids collection, this seems a terrible shame. Even without considering whatever factors you may wish to consider regarding her being a woman writing in what was a predominantly male field, I'd suggest it's really only the greater page count clocked up by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the like which could possibly justify her not having been ranked alongside them as one of the giants. She wrote well, and she wrote her own highly distinctive kind of story - science fiction concerned mostly with systems theory, games logic, social interaction and biology. It's difficult to confuse a good MacLean with the work of anyone else.

Cosmic Checkmate is written in collaboration with Charles V. De Vet, whom I hadn't heard of and apparently doesn't even rate a Wikipedia page. Being unfamiliar with the guy, it's difficult to say for sure what his contribution to Cosmic Checkmate might have been; but given that MacLean's involvement is obvious, and that this is fairly disappointing for a book with her name on the cover, I guess De Vet's ideas encompass all those elements which just aren't that interesting.

Our story takes a lone human to the one planet which refuses to have anything to do with Earth's galactic empire. There he finds a bizarrely formal pseudo-human society with all sorts of elaborate honour codes evolved from its unorthodox biological cycle - most likely all designed by Katherine MacLean and very interesting too. Honour demands that the fate of our man and the galaxy depend upon him playing an elaborate chess-like game upon which the alien society is founded. Beyond this, the narrative is unfortunately just not that engaging, and briefly inspired bursts of MacLean - or what I would imagine must have come from her - don't really elevate the tale above something which you read until the point at which you've finished reading it, which is a pity. Even in the context of stories in which the protagonists decide the fate of something much bigger than themselves over a game of chess - never the most mind-boggling subgenre - Cosmic Checkmate just isn't that good. There's a fairly pleasing conclusion about the benefits of a varied and multicultural society - both social and biological - but it really should have been tagged onto a better story.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hocus Pocus

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Hocus Pocus (1990)
Back in May I read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by the same author and was inspired to opine:

I've just noticed how my favourite Vonnegut is the first one I read and I've enjoyed each successive title a little less than its predecessor, which seems unfortunate and is probably more to do with my noticing a pattern than whatever qualities the books may have.

The pattern in question is a rambling quality, a tendency to digress at the expense of a coherent, or at least linear, narrative, even when the digressions inevitably feed back into said narrative. Hocus Pocus does the same thing, and although the promise of a return to Slaughterhouse Five greatness made on the cover might be stretching a point, it certainly makes a better go of it than the last few I've read. It's not quite like Vonnegut ever reads as though he's sat at the typewriter tittering to himself, but it helps when the book feels as though it's going somewhere, as this does for most of its page count.

Hocus Pocus purports to be an autobiography written in a prison library on disparate scraps of paper - bus timetables, cigarette cartons, ticket stubs and whatever else was at hand. It's the autobiography of a Vietnam veteran who teaches at a university, or a prison, or at a university occupied following a prison break out - I couldn't quite work out which, so maybe the point is that it's all the same thing. The title refers to the verbal agreements to which we all adhere in order that human society may continue as it does, but which are more or less so much horseshit when you look closely.

He hadn't killed nearly as many people as I had. But then again, he hadn't had my advantage, which was the full cooperation of our government.

It doesn't say anything Vonnegut hasn't already said by this point, but the digressions work better and with more purpose than in the previous few I've read, so it's both funny and satisfying; and it says something which really needs to be said, and says it clearly and without ambiguity.

It says that we, as a race, need to stop being dicks to each other, and we need to stop fucking up the planet. Of course, many others have expressed the same sentiment, and continue to do so. Often their arguments are countered by the forces of dickery by means of linguistic hocus pocus. You've probably seen the sort of thing on social media - the notion that we might want to stop bombing kids or pouring nuclear waste into the lakes of a national park countered by the suggestion that there are two sides to every story and we have to consider the grass roots employees of the munitions or nuclear industry and what they will do if we take away their jobs - in other words, evil fuckers talking shit so as to get their own way without having to grow up and face consequences. Hocus Pocus is about that. It presents its argument in terms which simply can't be disputed by the Adolf Hitler loved his kids crowd.

The orgy of butchery followed a virtually unopposed attack by the Japanese Army on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, long before this country became part of the Final Rack. Hiroshi Matsumoto had just been born. Prisoners were tied to stakes and used for bayonet practice. Several people in a pit were buried alive. You could see their expressions as the dirt hit their faces.

Their faces disappeared, but the dirt on top kept moving as though there were some sort of burrowing animal, a woodchuck maybe, making a home below.

See, this is the sort of horrifying shit which has actually happened in the world beyond the book, and which is still happening, and which needs to stop right now; and we need to stop kidding ourselves that it makes the slightest bit of difference which flag or ideology is flapping in the breeze behind the man holding the spade.

I don't even know why it should still need stating in the year 2016, but for what it may be worth, Hocus Pocus nevertheless states it very well.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood

John Smith, Sean Phillips & others
Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood (2004)

I bought the Judge Dredd megazine for a while then eventually drifted away without really taking any of it with me, and certainly nothing resembling either nostalgia or pronounced affection for anything I'd read therein. It wasn't that it was bad so much as that it just didn't do a lot for me, and so I picked up this reprint principally because it's John Smith, a writer I always thought had more potential than that for which he has generally been given credit.

Devlin Waugh was proposed as Noel Coward as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and takes the role of one of those demon-hunting exorcist types in the Judge Dredd universe. It's a bit of an obvious idea in some ways - one of those characters bolted together from a combination of dramatically absurd contradictions - and yet it sort of works and even succeeds, because John Smith generally seems to know what he's doing and has a talent for working the essentially ludicrous without quite letting it all slip over into the realm of Bugs Bunny. That said, Swimming in Blood was a bit of a shaky start - nice ideas which don't quite come together in what is basically a generic eighties action movie, and while Devlin Waugh as Terry Thomas is a delight, there are a few points where Smith's revelling in Wildean dialogue forms self-conscious clots in what is already turning out to be a bit of a plod; and a plod further encumbered by the unsavoury note struck when Waugh exposes his darker side - his sadistic impulses and a deeply unappealing misanthropy expressed in his regard of the mutant inmates of Aquatraz as a vile slurry of inhuman filth.

Additionally, Sean Phillips artwork was really muddy and inconsistent on this one, torn between imitating Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz - as was fucking everyone at that end of the nineties - but without the basic understanding of human anatomy which allowed those guys to get away with it. Phillips has never been my favourite artist, but this is fanzine level stuff compared to what he's drawn since - a fair quota of which has been at least reasonably breathtaking.

Fetish, the second story in the collection, works much better. Being a Dredd saga in which Waugh features, with the shift of focus working in the character's favour, allowing for the kind of mystery which is somewhat lost when he's grinning away and describing something as utterly ghastly on every other page. Ajibayo Akinsiku's art suffers from some of the same issues of contrast and basic figure work as that of Sean Phillips, and he draws Dredd as a chin wearing a helmet, but his better pages are mind-bogglingly hallucinatory. I have some reservations about the story using Africa in pretty much the same way as everyone else uses Africa - the dark, scary continent of mystery and nature red in tooth and claw - but Fetish is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying effort showcasing the best of everyone involved.

Waugh finally convinces in A Mouthful of Dust with the art of Michael Gaydos perfectly attuned to the story it tells, sort of like Eddie Campbell with less scratching about.

Finally, there are a couple of prose stories in support of my feeling that comic book writers either need to stick to strip fiction, or accept that unillustrated text really isn't just a comic strip without artwork, or the hard-boiled voice-over delivered in short sentences at the beginning of something starring Bruce Willis.

And now he was dead. Cut and mutilated. Lying in a cold locker in a cold Monaco morgue. Dead like all Devlin's other friends. Like Pedro and Sanchez and Joel. Like dear old Bunny Beaumont. Like all the others.

William Burroughs got away with it, but if you're not William Burroughs and particularly if you're writing this kind of prose, use a comma, because distinguishing cut and mutilated as a sentence in itself just looks like you can't fucking write. John Smith patently can write - although both of his prose stories in this collection have essentially the same plot - but the occasional text stories you used to get in 2000AD specials were always pure arseache.

So that's been a fair bit of whining on my part, none of which alters the fact that I enjoyed this one a lot. That which this collection has in its favour greatly outweighs a few blanks fired here and there, and John Smith having delivered a not so much openly as rampantly gay character in the form of a mainstream comic strip without a trace of tokenism has to be applauded; and he did it with humour and genuine wit, and - if memory serves - just ahead of the curve regarding not only demon-hunting exorcist types, but vampires as good guys.