Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Going Postal


Terry Pratchett Going Postal (2004)
Once again I find myself in a foreign country, specifically the one in which I was born and staying at my mother's house. I'm travelling light so I haven't brought anything to read, which is okay because my mother has a ton of books. Unfortunately I'm jetlagged to buggery and I'm not going to be up to anything overly demanding, so Terry Pratchett it is - light, genuinely witty, well written and well told being my expectations. Of course, he wrote a million Discworld novels so they can't all be classics, but the consensus is that Going Postal was definitely one of the good ones.

It delivers more or less everything promised by the reputation which has cohered within my expectation gland, and I can sort of identify with at least some of it, having myself been a postman for two decades. The characters are rounded, pleasurably comical without becoming annoying; the concepts and situations demonstrate ludicrous ingenuity - rewiring the internet for a pseudo-medieaval society as something involving semaphore signals, that sort of thing...

Going Postal reads like a work of elegant genius, and yet whilst I'm able to appreciate this, somehow it became a trudge. Maybe it was the jetlag. Maybe it was the page count - higher than I'm accustomed to in what Discworld novels I've read. I enjoyed it, and it made me laugh, and I can find no fault with any of it; but somehow I thought I was going to enjoy this one a whole lot more.

Monday, 22 May 2017

New Writings in SF 2


John Carnell (editor) New Writings in SF 2 (1964)
It seems oddly fitting that I should come to this directly after reading Ask the Dust wherein Fante's Arturo Bandini acquires sufficient literary stock as to attract the attention of a hopeful:

It was a manuscript of some sort. I took it from her hands. It was a short story by Samuel Wiggins, general delivery, San Juan, California. It was called Coldwater Gatling, and it began like this: 'Coldwater Gatling wasn't looking for trouble but you never can tell about those Arizona rustlers. Pack your cannon high on the hip and lay low when you see one of them babies. The trouble with trouble was that trouble was looking for Coldwater Gatling. They don't like Texas rangers down in Arizona, consequently Coldwater Gatling figured shoot first and find out who you killed afterwards. That's how they did it in the Lone Star State where men were men and women didn't mind cooking for hard-riding straight-shooting people like Coldwater Gatling, the toughest man in leather they had down there.'

That was the first paragraph.

'Hogwash,' I said.

I somehow had one of these myself a couple of years ago, a guy who worked with my wife and sent me the first chapter of his fantasy novel.

Mental concentration and discipline are important attributes for a wizard. They are requirements if one wishes to be a successful and long-living wizard. Such was the case for Hailaden, whose eyes and mind were focused on the soft white glow before him. The crystal orb, roughly a foot in length but looking like a large odd-shaped egg, sat in its small wooden pedestal in front of him. In its light, the lines on his face and the gray in his beard diminished, and his countenance took on an almost youthful appearance.

It wasn't so much that it lacked ideas of any value, but that the grammar was often just so fucking weird and crap as to render the thing almost incomprehensible. The author didn't seem like a bad guy, and I felt he might be able to tell a decent - if admittedly not wildly original - story if he could just get hold of his sentences; so I spent a couple of days going through the thing, pointing out what didn't work, which passages were too long, unnecessary, or lacking clear purpose, which sentences read as though translated into Japanese, then Swahili, then back into English. He thanked me for the time I spent then explained to my wife that I simply hadn't understood because I'm a science-fiction writer and therefore unfamiliar with the conventions of his chosen genre.

All this crap belongs - in my mind - to a genre I have labelled dinnerpunk. The label now seems ridiculous and crappy, which in turn probably makes it entirely fitting. It refers to fiction written by a person who shouldn't be writing fiction, usually an Alan Partridge level bore who has noticed how all those arty farty types and fairies seem to get published and has therefore decided that it can't be all that hard. He comes up with a story whilst smoking his pipe in the garden as a long-suffering wife prepares dinner, and it will usually be a load of half-assed and oddly parochial espionage bollocks, and there will almost always be a character identified only as the Colonel. People will look at other people and ask 'you can't mean,' their question curtailed by an ominous 'yes! I'm rather afraid that is exactly the situation, old top.'

New Writings in SF, of which I gather there were a couple of volumes, boldly published original short science-fiction tales which hadn't already seen in print in the usual magazines. Of the eight stories here, the first five are the worst kind of creaking dinnerpunk, G.L. Lack's Rogue Leonardo for one example.

Trafford smiled at the young curator. With her severe straight smock and short tightly curled hair she was typical of the rising generation of women, many in positions of responsibility by the age of twenty-five, giving their husbands time for research.

...or John Rankine's Maiden Voyage for another:

He liked the way her bottom moved in the tight blue-grey cheongsam and he was wondering if he ought to pinch it, when the debate was cut short by their arrival at the bronze doors which filled the end of the white passage.

Jesus.

Where Dag was tall and lanky, he was short and inclined to be spherical. In fact in a spacesuit he looked rather like an old time advert for Michelin Tyres.

Do you see what I mean?

To be fair the last three stories are decent, notably Steve Hall's faintly peculiar and experimental A Round Billiard Table, but otherwise this is the stuff which people who don't read science-fiction think science-fiction is like, which is why they don't read it and which is quite understandable.

This felt like a fucking route march for the first hundred or so pages. John Carnell used to edit New Worlds, so I expected better.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Ask the Dust


John Fante Ask the Dust (1939)
I first heard this guy's name on crackly old tapes of Bukowski readings in which Chuck occasionally took a break from burping, swearing, or describing a memorable hangover to tell his audience that they should be reading John Fante. Not knowing the name I assumed he was some younger, up and coming dude whose works had struck a chord with the Mighty One; but it turns out that it was the other way round, Fante being an earlier writer, one whose fame should perhaps have extended further than it did and who had served as an inspiration to Bukowski.

I had this book in my possession over ten years and somehow never got around to reading it, otherwise I would have realised the above. Rob Colson, one of the Seaton Point authors, lent it to me and then we lost touch; and shit happened, and we eventually found touch and I'll hopefully be seeing him for a pint in a week or so; and so of course it occurred to me that I should maybe get around to reading the thing before I return it.

It's not hard to see how Fante influenced Bukowski's writing. It's the same tight prose, clipped, functional and yet conveying nuances of mood and psychological subtext with a poetry that might be lost in any more floridly composed narrative. Similarly Fante's world is one of hacks, bums, and losers somehow maintaining their dignity regardless of shitty circumstances. There's a kind of romance, but nothing so cheap as sentiment.

I'm assuming Ask the Dust is at least partially autobiographical given that the main character is a struggling author lugging his typewriter around a succession of cheap rooms and dive bars, and although the territory is familiar from the novels of his more famous successor, the narrative follows quite a different course to the sort of thing Bukowski tended to write. Our boy is living off the precarious fame and earnings of having a short story published in some magazine when he falls into a love-hate relationship with a Latina working in a bar. Surprisingly though - at least to me - the guy's first short story leads to a second, then a novel and a big fat cheque with which he buys a house; but the riches seem sketchy and insubstantial, just background detail to his strained relationships with women and the not entirely appreciated admiration of Sammy, who also wants to be an author, but who writes the worst shit you've ever read. Ultimately our boy's success doesn't seem to add up to much.

Cliché though it may seem, Ask the Dust is a tale of beautiful losers, or at least losers who somehow retain their dignity in the face of adversity, and declaring it a lost twentieth century classic wouldn't be an understatement. That said, it's not without problems - our author's success doesn't feel entirely convincing, particularly not the part in which he suddenly buys a house, and Camilla's decent into reefer madness reads a bit like one of those public information films of the fifties warning about the debauched existence of the dope fiend - although that may be something to do with Fante just wanting to get published; but then neither of these details really get in the way of this being an exceptionally well written book; so Bukowski was right, just like always.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Star Winds


Barrington J. Bayley Star Winds (1978)
This is the point at which I stumble and fly arse over tit in my mad scramble to embrace Bayley as my new favourite author that you've never heard of, the fervour of which is informed by my not really having heard of him until fairly recently. The big ideas are all here within a thoroughly well-cemented setting, either a remote mediaeval future or variant history reading as swashbuckling fantasy - which I write without the faintest idea of what a swash might be or why it should require buckling. We sail to the stars in old time galleons with sails made from a material which catches the ether like wind, the hulls of our vessels caulked so as to keep in the air; except we don't sail to the stars any more because we're running out of the stuff from which the sails are woven and it can't be made on Earth on account of how we're too close to the sun. Our hero therefore sails to Mars. No-one has been there for a couple of generations, and rumour has it that Mars is of sufficient distance from the sun as to allow for manufacture of those magic sails; and this in turn leads to a voyage further out into the depths of space in search of the philosopher's stone. All that bollocks about atoms has been proven false and we're now in a new age of alchemy, in case it wasn't already obvious.

So the ideas are great. The problem is that the book just isn't very interesting. I'm not even sure why this should be given the fantastic setting and scenarios, but it just seemed to go on for a couple of hundred pages and then stop without having really said anything. In truth, whilst technically perfectly adequate, Star Winds feels a little phoned-in, like Bayley wasn't quite sure what to do with the story once he'd got past the initial excitement of such a peculiar premise. Given the dramatically increased quota of science fiction titled with Star prefixing a second noun in the immediate wake of Star Wars, and that Star Winds reads like it really just wants to romp, I'm inclined to wonder if Bayley wasn't just trying to get a few bills paid here; which is a shame because this novel should have been amazing.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Seaton Point


Robert Dellar, Ted Curtis, Rob Colson etc.
Seaton Point (1998)

This is a collaborative novel cooked up between seven different authors, each presumably contributing a passage here, a passage there, editing each other's work and so on. The process of its creation hasn't exactly made for a smooth narrative, but then that's the whole point, relating more to oral traditions of storytelling because it is forgotten that the modern novel of single authorship came into being only in the modern era, as we are told in the introduction.

I thought it might be stranger than it was to read this now. Robert Dellar, who instigated this enterprise, was a good friend who recently passed on at the age of fifty-two, someone I've known for decades. It was odd to realise that I'd never read this book while he was alive, and when we last spoke and the subject came up he was surprised that he'd never got around to slipping me a copy. I think it was simply that my attention had been elsewhere when the thing saw print. I knew of it mainly through the involvement of Rob Colson, with whom I travelled to Mexico in 2005, and I've known all but two of the other writers in a social context at various points of our respective lives. So I suppose there has always been the worry that I might hate the thing for whatever reason.

Roughly speaking, Seaton Point captures the psychological landscape in which a few of us were living for much of the eighties, nineties, and beyond. I was never quite part of a gang, but a lot of my friends seemed to be people who had fallen into the orbit of the Brougham Road squatting community in Hackney, London - loosely coalesced around bands such as the Apostles and the Assassins of Hope and numerous fanzines. They were, I suppose, my Andy Warhol's Factory crowd, my beat poets, my Bromley contingent - but hopefully without too many of the wankier associations summoned by any of those references - so, even in 2017 with me living on a different side of the planet, these are probably my people in so much as I ever had people. Andy of the Apostles would have called us the dispossessed, which seems as good a term as any; and so Seaton Point is inhabited by those left behind, the horrible fuckers who couldn't fit in if they tried, those rejected as lacking redeeming or interesting artistic qualities even by those making arts council funded punk documentaries, the working class as we were known in less aspirational times, the nutters, the weirdos, the alkies, the transexual vampires...

The narrative lurches in and out of reality, much in the same way as reality itself tends to do if you're paying attention, and so we have drugs, sex, violence, toilet humour, and psychogeography drafted in to tell of an ancient demon imprisoned in the basement of a tower block, a man trapped in an elevator in the same surviving on mystic yoghurt dispensed from a spigot, and their bid for freedom. With seven authors at the wheel, there are a lot of characters flying around, not all of them entirely likeable and it's easy to get lost, but I'm not sure it matters whether or not one is able to keep track of every last name, because the point still works despite the confusion.

Blokey sat in flat 67, his earplugs partly protecting him from the onslaught of industrial electronic bollocks about fascist barbarian armies rolling across the icy wastes of Northern Europe. As one million decibels of tripe by Coil vomited mercilessly from the speakers, the dice man stroked the sawn-off shotgun lying across his lap as if it were a furry animal.

That's my favourite paragraph, and I suspect it came from Dellar given his generally poor regard of industrial electronic bollocks. I've  read a few things by Ted Curtis, notably the exceptional Darkening Light, as well as Rob Colson's brilliant - at least from what I can remember - Descent of a Man, which he really needs to get into print one of these days; so I recognise occasional elements which remind me of specific contributors, but the focus remains, as ever, on the story which may be taken as an explanation as to why everything is shit, if you like, or if you don't like, then there are plenty of chuckles, albeit often unusually dark chuckles. My first thought was that this is Rachel Redhead rewriting Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go as a sequel to Trainspotting, which as a recommendation should probably be taken all three ways, assuming you can appreciate that as a recommendation. Martin Amis is invoked in the introduction, although not in particularly glowing terms. I haven't actually read any Martin Amis, but I've read plenty of Will Self and I'm told it's the same thing; so if you like, this is Will Self with less public school and more diarrhoea blah blah Rabelais blah blah Hogarth blah blah Reader's Wives - I'm sure it can't be too hard to work out what I'm saying here; and it has the greatest closing sentence of any novel I've ever read, which I won't give away for obvious reasons.

Seaton Point is both horrible and brilliant, and arguably a record of an era of human experience presently getting airbrushed from history as the nostalgia industry grows and grows, replacing more and more of what actually happened with Stewart Maconie chortling away over how they changed the name of Opal Fruits to Starburst. In this sense it's probably also an important book, but you wouldn't want to say it to its face.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Journey to the Goat Star


Brian Aldiss Journey to the Goat Star (1991)
This was quite a nice find, just fifty pages and evidently one of a series of short stories published by Pulphouse as self-contained paperbacks, others in the range having been by Poul Anderson, Michael Bishop, Joe Haldeman and so on. That said, I've generally loved the novels of Brian Aldiss whilst hating most of his short stories for one reason or another, but every so often he comes out with one which reads like a novel, or which is at least bereft of Space Vikings or special kinds of atom. Journey to the Goat Star probably isn't quite top ten, but it's weird enough to be worth a look. Our story opens with a theoretical physicist brained at his writing desk by a burglar, a burglar who, noticing that which the theoretical physicist was writing, waits for his victim to come round and then engages him in debate on the subjects of matter as consciousness and the nature of reality as supposedly examined in the art of Georges Braque.

He turned earnestly back into the room, gesturing with his hands. 'Braque's shadows have substance, while the whole substance suddenly turns out to be a shadow of it. Forms are flattened, flatness has form. Planes merge, what is opaque becomes transparent and vice versa. Lines define nothing, yet everything is defined. If that isn't a vivid picture of contemporary science—execute before the first World War—then I don't know what is...'

This is also a description of how Aldiss tells the story, roughly speaking, which blends seemingly unrelated scenarios into one another - the forty-six year voyage to a distant star, psychoanalysis of a child rejected by parents - using coincidence and repeating thematic patterns to imagine our first meeting with an extraterrestrial intelligence. At least I think that's what it does. Journey to the Goat Star is bewildering and yet somehow left me with the feeling of having understood something, even if the above is as good a description as I can manage. It also makes me wonder if I've been expecting too much traditional sense from those of his other short stories which I found such a chore. Maybe I need to take another look.

Monday, 1 May 2017

She


H. Rider Haggard She (1887)
It's probably all those references in Alan Moore's Extraordinary Gentlemen which imprinted me with the thought that I might read this, which seems otherwise a little out of my way. I encountered a copy in a Rockport used book store which looked as though it might once have been a cow shed, and might even still be a cow shed on certain days, and I asked myself what's the worst that could happen? I vaguely recall seeing the film of She with Peter Cushing at some point, but never really cared enough to consider whether it might be based on anything, and yet here I am. Despite its status as the best selling novel ever - or whatever it says on the internet - I had a feeling I might not like it much. It sounds a bit Indiana Jones, and I never saw the appeal of him either.

She is a vaguely immortal white woman who somehow landed the job of Queen in a lost underground African civilisation, as encountered by a couple of adventuresome Cambridge chaps. In many ways it's of its time, as they say, although to be fair, it has much more going on than might be expected of a colonial Victorian novel. She was written at the height of both the British empire and faith in its civilising influence - give or take some small change - an era of social and scientific upheaval. Western society was only just beginning to get to grips with the idea of world history beyond the usual Biblical or classical realms. Jean-François Champollion and Karl Richard Lepsius had expanded Egyptology to an unprecedented understanding of ancient civilisation in general, and W.H. Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico had awakened public interest in cultures across the other side of the globe; colonial forces were exporting a steady stream of looted arts and crafts back to the European capitals where they would soon cast their influence upon Picasso, Braque and others; Darwin was shaking things up in his own way, and western society was beginning to at least understand why social reform might not be such a terrible thing.

What surprised me most about She is Haggard's acknowledgement of Africa's past as home to innumerable developed and sophisticated civilisations at least equal to their European contemporaries. Of course most of Africa's history has been ravaged, looted, and subsequently bulldozed flat so as to make way for the myth of superstitious cannibals in mud huts requiring our civilising influence and thus allowing us to feel a bit better about both the slave trade and the wholesale destruction of more or less an entire continent. Unfortunately Haggard's take on this was a present day reality of degenerate races who, having fallen from grace, were probably better off with us lot in charge; but in his favour he tends to propose such views as opinion rather than actively rewriting history; so the racism is low level, arguably understandable given the author's heritage, and with nothing shoved in your face too hard. Indeed, most of his attitudes to race are expressed as a fairly simple fear of the unknown, which at least works in context of an adventure without leaving too foul a taste. He praises as much as he condemns, and it seems clear that his overriding motive is to instil both his tale and his readers with a genuine sense of wonder regarding the ancient world and how it relates to the modern. This still leaves us with a race of spear-chucking cannibals who have somehow chosen a white woman for their Queen, but I've nevertheless read worse.

I've seen Haggard's prose criticised as clumsy, but for the most part I found it highly enjoyable, even engrossing in places, although it probably helps if you enjoy overwrought Victorians who have to describe every last fucking thing in pornographic detail and who never quite worked out where to finish a sentence; and it's Haggard's prose which keeps this thing moving along, at least up to the point at which we meet Ayesha, and they all take to standing around having rhetorical conversations in an Arabic language, here rendered as Marvel Shakespearean with all the yonder and thou hast and methinks. It's the yacking which unfortunately spoils the book for me, downgrading it to a chore. There's so much of it, page after page and mostly dull as fuck, and somehow none of it saying anything particularly interesting - which is a shame considering the potential for discourse on the subjects of race, mythology, and so on; because I suspect if She is actually about anything, it's Haggard's lament for the passing of mythology and mysticism, represented by Ayesha herself withering in the harsh dawn of science and the world to come, or something along those lines.

In terms of literary equivalents to Jim Davidson jokes, She barely registers at all when sat next to Lovecraft's party political broadcasts on behalf of the UK Independence Party, and there's a lot to like about the first half of the book, at least until her indoors shows up and it all turns to crap; which was possibly the other point H. Rider Haggard was trying to make, but never mind.