Tuesday 5 December 2023

Flight 714

Hergé Flight 714 (1968)
Several people have told me I shouldn't be reading Tintin just as I shouldn't be reading the works of others on the list. Hergé was a collaborator and Nazi sympathiser, you see, except as per fucking usual he actually wasn't, just as it is with those other persons on the roll call of individuals denounced due to the contemporary equivalent of Rik from the Young Ones jumping up and down and screaming, look at me, everybody, I found one, because that's apparently all it takes. That said, I probably shouldn't mention that I picked this up as light relief from John Toland's nine-hundred page biography of Adolf Hitler on the grounds that it gets a bit depressing once you hit 1942.

Apparently I just did. Never mind.

I grew up on a farm in the middle of the rural English nowhere, and every two weeks or so we were subject to a visit by a mobile library. I was just about big enough to cope with the steps and would climb up into the rear of the truck, lined with shelves, and toddle off towards the back where they kept the children's books. The cover of this one really grabbed my attention, and so it served as my introduction to Tintin, an obsession which kept me going for the next couple of years. I came to prefer Asterix, but at the time I felt the cover of Asterix in Spain seemed smug and frivolous, whereas Tintin took itself just seriously enough to appeal to me as I struggled to make sense of the world. So this is possibly where it all started, whatever it may be.

Hergé - not actually a Nazi sympathiser by any meaningful description unless you believe my opening paragraph makes me one - seemed to be on a mission to educate his audience, to send them to far flung places and cultures without patronising them, and to portray those cultures and encounters with realism and a degree of sympathy, formative efforts predating The Blue Lotus notwithstanding. Of course, Tintin wasn't actually journalism and took an occasionally speculative digression - sending the gang to the moon for one example, and Flight 714 for another.

If Destination Moon skates fairly close to the hard science-fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, this one gets even weirder in drawing on the theories, such as they are, of Robert Charroux who significantly influenced Erich von Däniken. So not only do we have the discovery of hidden subterranean temples constructed by ancient astronauts, but also telepathy, and a lift back to civilisation facilitated by flying saucer, albeit in hallucinatory terms.

This was Hergé's penultimate Tintin adventure, assembled following failure to relaunch as an abstract artist, while significantly disgruntled by the success of Asterix, and himself somewhat bored of his own characters. This much is roughly apparent from Flight 714 only barely having a story - and the title names the flight they didn't take because they ended up on this one - with nothing so complex as the intrigue and espionage of previous escapades; and the paranormal element feels a little as though Georges was simply trying to keep himself invested. Additionally, some of the background material, notably the then fairly trendy supersonic passenger jet, were drawn by assistants.

Nevertheless, despite all that's stacked against it, Flight 714 is a great book - just stranger than we'd come to expect. The slapstick is never far away, never overdone, and remains funny throughout; and the pacing is such that it never feels as though we're treading water, waiting for the next scene, even where the lack of obvious direction has become apparent; and of course the art is, as ever, outstanding.

Even as the comeback album its author didn't really want to record, Flight 714 stands with the best of them, and enough so as to have retained its charm half a century later.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

The Man with a Thousand Names

A.E. van Vogt The Man with a Thousand Names (1974)
John Clute reckoned van Vogt's drive had gone by the seventies, and whilst it's probably true that his greatest work had been written a couple of decades earlier - greatest at least in terms of generating an atmosphere so weird as to smooth over instances where the narrative fails to join up - I'd say his success rate remained mostly undiminished. Sure there were a few duds, which was as true in the forties as in the later years. The Man with a Thousand Names kicks off in typically bewildering fashion, so I paid attention and held on tight, skipping back to re-read anything I wasn't too sure about; and for at least the first half it began to feel as though this might even be his greatest work after The Violent Man, possibly due to A.E.'s customarily foggy disregard for cause and effect being written with unusual clarity; meaning that providing one is resigned to the fact that not everything is going to add up, it sort of makes sense.

Our main guy is the thoroughly obnoxious heir to a private fortune, an amoral playboy who is used to getting what he wants without having to care less about the consequences. This seemingly presents a problem for Goodreads types who expect relatable characters, but never mind. Our guy pilots a spaceship to Mittend, our nearest habitable planet, then instantaneously finds himself back on Earth inhabiting the body and life of Mark Broehm, a bartender he once wronged. This occurs a few more times, zapping his brain into the bodies of others he's screwed over, with no real explanation as to why it's happening, and it doesn't even seem to be karma catching up with our boy who remains a heel regardless, even committing rape at one point, suggesting - at least to me - that he's probably not supposed to be relatable. Eventually we learn that this is something to do with Mother, a sort of psychic gestalt representing the first wave of an invasion from another galaxy, by which point I was lost despite my best intentions.

The narrative zips about at least as much as that of Null-A and presumably for similarly non-Aristotelian reasons, and is accordingly dreamlike, albeit a dream reported with the hard-boiled pragmatism of detective fiction; and the whole somehow reminds me of David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus in so much as that it feels heavily allegorical, even symbolic to the point of meaning eclipsing the demands of linear progress from one part of the story to another. I still don't know what it's about beyond that it's obviously about something, but as exercise for my brain, it felt good and was mostly gripping.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

The Making of the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

Joel McIver
The Making of the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (2005)

Here's an oddity, one of a series of books examining classic movies - classic movies such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Scarface and er… The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.

Me neither.

I guess the general public must have been similarly mystified given that I picked this up cheap from a remaindered section somewhere in the general vicinity of its publication date. It's been sat on my bookshelves ever since, five different bookshelves given the number of times I've moved house since my presumed purchase - presumed because it's a vague impression rather than a definitive memory. I assume it's been there sandwiched between Lydon and Milligan all this time, somehow eluding even those sweeps deliberately intended to select volumes I never got around to reading. Similarly, I've seen The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and don't remember much about that either. I rate the soundtrack album quite highly, and even Moorcock's bizarre pseudo-novelisation of the film is pretty great, but the movie itself…

McIver's autopsy handily includes a scene by scene synopsis, thus allowing me to remember why I've failed to remember the thing, specifically that it was mostly existing footage cobbled together like a last minute homework assignment which cleverly admits to being crap in the hope we won't notice that it is, in actual fact, crap; plus it was McLaren's vision of the Pistols and therefore pretty much a complete waste of time.

Nevertheless, in discussing a movie which wasn't anywhere near as amazing as I hoped it would be when I was fourteen, McIver pulls together all sorts of fascinating historical details which somehow failed to make it into other Pistols biographies, or were else so underplayed that I didn't notice. Sid, in particular, comes out of it quite well, and actual light is shed upon why he almost certainly wasn't responsible for killing his girlfriend, which is good to know; and crap as the film was, Julian Temple's justification is interesting. Even Russ Meyer comes out of it well enough to suggest his version might have been worth a look, had it been made.

It's surprising that anyone should have found something new to say about punk rock in 2005 - or if not new, at least something obvious which hadn't been said before - but McIver pulled it off. I'm still not too bothered about watching the movie ever again, but I'm glad this thing found its way onto my shelves.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Star Trek Log One

Alan Dean Foster Star Trek Log One (1974)
While I've never been a massive unreserved fan of Trek, I've enjoyed some of it, and some of it I've enjoyed a lot. I watched the animated version at the time - around four-ish on a Saturday afternoon as I recall - but have never had any burning desire to revisit the thing beyond vague curiosity about the guy with the three arms who made the cut because they couldn't afford Walter Koenig. Naturally I had no idea anyone had novelised the series in those days before VHS, but they did and so my curiosity achieved the necessary critical mass because it's Alan Dean Foster - who can generally be relied upon to do a decent job in cases such as we have here.

This one rather tidily adapts the first three episodes of the first series, the first of which is oddly familiar, so I guess I must have revisited that debut episode at some point fairly recently, unless they recycled the story for Enterprise or one of the other variations. On the subject of recycling, Beyond the Farthest Star has our cartoon Kirk and pals investigating an alien derelict of several million years vintage, formerly inhabited by massive aliens who were seemingly killed off by the thing which duly wakes up and tries to knacker the Enterprise. It's probably a coincidence that it so strongly foreshadows the half of Ridley Scott's Alien which didn't so strongly resemble A.E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle that the father of the iconic Hovis advert ended up settling out of court.

Yes, a coincidence. That'll be it. I'm sure of it.

Still talking of recycling, a fair chunk of One of Our Planets is Missing later turned up in the 1979 movie, it could be argued.

Anyway, Log One comprises three decent and generally engaging stories, all with the inevitably modular quality of Trek episodes, but which nevertheless manage to work some pleasing flashes of imagination into the formula. Alan Dean Foster has the reputation of being something of a hack, having written about a million of these things; but you can't really tell from this one which reads more like kin to the aforementioned Voyage of the Space Beagle - itself an obvious precursor to Star Trek - than words copied from a screen with linking material. Indeed, Foster's retelling crackles with character and jazzy asides and observations, possibly more so than most of what we saw on the telly. This isn't Terrance bleeding Dicks rearranging the usual phrases and expressions in a slightly different order to the last one.

I'm probably not massively likely to start hunting down the other nine volumes, but neither am I averse to the idea. Being what amounts to apple-polishing boy scouts having wholesome adventures in space, Star Trek succeeds mainly when it does something weird or spontaneous, and Alan Dean Foster really brings out the best in the mythology*.

*: I refuse point fucking blank to refer to it, or indeed to anything as a franchise.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

A William Burroughs Reader

William S. Burroughs & John Calder (editor)
A William Burroughs Reader (1982)

This was my first Burroughs, and actually the first I ever saw in a high street store, proving for me that the man existed in the real world beyond the limits of Throbbing Gristle fandom. The high street store - or more accurately shop - from which I purchased this book for £2.50 was Midland Educational in Stratford-upon-Avon. I know this because the receipt fell out from between the pages as I was reading on Friday the 11th of November, 2022, and I was interested to note that I'd bought the thing on Thursday the 11th of November, 1982. So I bought the book, read it, and then exactly forty years later to the day, I plucked it from the shelf more or less at random and decided to give it another look.

Weird, as Burroughs himself would doubtless have said whilst pulling that boggle-eyed face which people do when they've just noticed something weird.

Arguably weirder still, is that this sampler is quite a tough read, where the novels from which the various excerpts were lifted generally aren't; and given Billy's love of jamming random slabs of text together, you would think this might have been the bestest Burroughs book ever. The most surprising realisation I draw from this is that Burroughs' writing is less effective out of context, where you might think it wouldn't matter. One possible reason may be psychological in that for all their scrambled narrative, his novels tend to be quite breezy - never more than a couple of hundred pages with large type widely spaced. A William Burroughs Reader on the other hand crams everything in with type so small it could be an anarchist pamphlet from the eighties. It feels heavy, and it feels uphill, which works against what is communicated - or at least the means of its communication - by emphasising the disorientation. I suppose it could be argued that one is expected to dip into a sampler such as this rather than dutifully plough through the whole thing from cover to cover, but that's not how I read.

As a greatest hits of sorts, I was expecting to glean an overview, some sort of perspective on the shape of Burrough's career; which emerges albeit in a vague sense, and although the selections communicate why one might like to read The Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red Night, and most of those which came between, this remains a surprisingly poor second to making the effort with the actual novels.

It was nice to find a few chapters from The Third Mind included given that it's presently out of print, but otherwise I guess Burroughs is simply one of those authors who doesn't translate well into shorthand.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Empire of Glass

Andy Lane The Empire of Glass (1995)
Simply, I was in the mood for more Hartnell and had no memory of having read this - although obviously I did - thus allowing for the possibility of pleasure taken in trying to work out what the fuck is going on. Going back to old Who things which I thought were amazing all those years ago has bitten me on the ass more than once, but thankfully this turned out to be one of the good ones.

By one of the good ones I mean it's a respectable science-fiction novel in its own right, albeit one which just happens to make use of characters and situations from a television show; and, as with Perry Rhodan, Doc Savage, Sexton Blake or any other star of the written serial, the author gets to play with an existing universe without feeling obliged to spend half the page count explaining it because if we're reading, we probably already know what we're dealing with.

Of course, it all falls apart when you get a writer with nothing to say, no ambition beyond adding to the ugh - franchise or brand or property or whatever the well-dressed product-sponge-cunt about town is calling it this year; but happily, that isn't what we have here, and I'd say that The Empire of Glass dates from a lost golden age when quality still had the edge over quantity most of the time.

Our man travels to Venice in the early sixteenth century, and we learn a lot about Venice because Lane does his research and additionally bothers to make it interesting, which is nice. The environment of our tale is solid and well grounded, evocatively described without any hint of box ticking, and so much so as to support an ambitiously ludicrous narrative juggling alien incursions, extraterrestrial espionage, Venetian politics, Galileo, William Shakespeare's career as a spy for the court of King James, and a flying island drawn indirectly from Jonathan Swift. There's one passage where Galileo's biography shows through with more fidelity than we really need…

As he watched, entranced, a small shape like a flattened egg that glinted like metal rose up rapidly from the far side of the island, moving upward as smoothly and inexorably as the ebony balls that he had dropped from the tower of Pisa to test Aristotle's theory had fallen.

All the same, in the context of a novel which gets so much right, it amuses rather than annoys. Credibility is stretched to such a point as to border on the sort of thing Moorcock used to write, and yet everything holds, amounting to a substantially satisfying read of the kind I wish more science-fiction authors could achieve, not least a few of the better known guys, Alastair Reynolds and others.

As with John Peel's rendition of The Chase, it's been nice - even oddly life affirming - to find myself reminded of Who as something weird and exciting and not entirely predictable.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Chase

John Peel The Chase (1989)
Here's another Target I bought for the sake of completism, sad fucker that I am, and fairly recently too. I hadn't read one in years and noticed that I had all but about fifteen of the things, so I hit eBay on the grounds that most of them were still affordable and it would give me a massive hard on to see them lined up in order on a shelf.

Something like that anyway, and it's nice to have the option of re-reading them given that I no longer have the patience to watch it on telly. It even feels a bit weird watching the old ones which I once loved, although that's more to do with me and television in general than me and Who. At the risk of repeating myself, Who was once very special to me, and if I squint a bit - at least enough so as to occlude everything since about 2005, particularly the fans - I can still sense a bit of the magic.

When I was a kid, it felt like something which got made almost in spite of the company responsible, something which bordered on horror - as it did in the early seventies - and a fairly extreme existential horror to anyone under the age of ten. The 1973 Radio Times special was mind blowing because it hadn't occurred to me that there might have been Who before I'd started watching, or that there had been monsters I'd never heard of.

Anyway, I think The Chase may have been the first Hartnell I watched on VHS, simply because I'd taken to renting a VCR and I happened to see it in a sale. It probably wasn't a great place to start, but I thought it was wonderful regardless; and if I still frequented such places, virtual or otherwise, which rated Who stories in order of artistic merit, I'm sure I'd still be getting massively defensive over this particular dog's dinner. For those who spent their youth engaged in healthier pursuits, The Chase was apparently plotted by giving action figures to a couple of three-year olds, setting them out in the garden, then seeing what they came up with. So they start off in the sandpit, which all goes pear-shaped when someone gets their bollocks out; leading to brief experiments by the pond, or pretending the garden shed is haunted; ultimately ending up in the flower bed with a load of ping pong balls brought into play because of reasons. This at least saved Terry Nation the embarrassment of recycling the usual plot, I suppose.

All the same, The Chase bulges with beautifully stupid ideas, even if they're strung together in a rhythm which suggests everyone's treading water until Peter Butterworth can get time off from whatever Carry On they were shooting back in June 1965. Nation's script did more than we saw on the screen, and Peel's adaptation makes use of this, filling in details for which neither time nor budget allowed first time around; and it's hardly Stephen Baxter, but considering the extended Crackerjack sketch which Peel attempts to pummel into something vaguely less ridiculous, it's not half bad either.

The first part, as you may be aware, occurs on the planet Aridius, inadvertently presenting a harsh lesson in nominative determinism; but where the screen version was cut to the essentials of amusingly theatrical aliens and the notorious ballbag octopus, here we get something that could almost have been Richard Shaver thanks to just the slightest expansion of this first third of the story. After Aridius, it's mostly business as we probably expect, and not even Peel can make Morton C. Dill either funny or interesting but, you know, we're already off on a good foot, and I kept on reading, and nothing insulted my intelligence like some of the recent stuff, and mostly it reminded me of why I had once been so endlessly fascinated by Who.

See! Sometimes I do have something nice to say about it.