Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Big Front Yard


Clifford D. Simak The Big Front Yard and other stories (2016)
Here's the second of fourteen proposed volumes collecting all of Simak's shorts, one of three to make it to a print edition, so far as I'm able to tell. The others exist only as eBooks at the moment, but I'm hopeful given that Open Road also seem to be reprinting physical editions of Simak's novels.

Of course, in reprinting the complete anything of anyone, there will inevitably be a few duds regardless of the name on the cover. Simak maintained a generally high standard in this respect, but not every last one can be the greatest tale ever told. Part of the appeal of this series is that we'll get to read certain seldom reprinted efforts Simak referred to when interviewed by Darrel Schweitzer for Amazing back in 1980:

SIMAK: At one time I was awfully broke and wasn't able to write as much science-fiction as I wanted to, so I wrote a lot of westerns and some air war stories.
AMAZING: Whatever happened to them? Have they disappeared?
SIMAK: I hope they have.

Contrary to Simak's disparaging view of such tales, Gunsmoke Interlude, a short western reproduced in the previous volume, struck me as pretty respectable, and certainly worthy of its authors name. Unfortunately Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders as appears here is pretty fucking awful, so okay - maybe the above comment wasn't simply false modesty. The man had bills to pay and it did its job. On a similarly critical theme, not everything here is wonderful beyond compare. A couple of the stories are okay, nothing special, while others are decent, or at least interesting - Mr. Meek - Musketeer for example, a genial comedy with a bit of a Hal Roach feel to it.

Yet, regardless of objections, raised eyebrows or whatever, the collection includes So Bright the Vision, which is pretty darn great, and of course The Big Front Yard, which we may as well call a novella for the sake of argument and which must surely rank amongst the very best of Simak's writing; in fact, if you've never read Simak and need to get a handle on his work, The Big Front Yard might be just about the best place to start. If you keep in mind that Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders at least dispenses with our having to wonder whether we might be missing out, this is otherwise a characteristically readable collection made great by the presence of its two best known stories.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Utopia


Thomas More Utopia (1516)
I tried this many years ago, prompted by curiosity arisen from reading Lorraine Stobbart's Utopia – Fact or Fiction?, an academic text found in the Mesoamerican section of Foyles. Stobbart's book - which I believe was originally composed as a dissertation for some degree course, either literary or anthropological - examines the possibility of Utopia having been inspired by obscure accounts of Mayan society in the Yucatan.

It is hard to believe that in more than four-hundred-and-seventy years which have passed since the book first appeared, no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction.

So that's what drew me to More's book, and specifically to a Dover edition edited, and presumably translated, by Ronald Herder. Unfortunately it bordered on unreadable, so I abandoned it after about fifteen pages, gave it to Andy Martin, and was thusly left with an unfavourable impression of More's great work:

...events transpiring to bring characters together in order that lengthy speeches may be delivered. I read something similar in Thomas More's Utopia in which some geezer bores his friends shitless with an exhaustive account of what he saw in a mythic foreign land where no-one goes hungry and Sting is president or something - I don't remember it too well, the details weren't overly riveting. Anyway, I never finished Utopia.*

I think I bought this edition mainly because it was there, or perhaps some misplaced sense of either guilt or unfinished business. Anyway, this one is translated by one Paul Turner and is frankly gripping, which just goes to show what damage can be wrought by a dull translation; and just to get it out of the way, whilst Cortés and his band of enterprising ruffians were the first Europeans to arrive in and report upon Mexico and its people, it's true that they weren't absolutely the first. There were at least two individuals shipwrecked and integrated to a greater or lesser degree into Mayan society years before Cortés, as mentioned in early accounts by Bernal Díaz and others. I suppose there may have been others we've forgotten who somehow managed to get some subsequently buried relación back to Europe, but it really doesn't seem very likely. Furthermore, I'm reasonably familiar with the ins and outs of Mayan society as were around the start of the sixteenth century, and not only is Utopia distinctly lacking in parallels, but for the most part it quite obviously describes something both allegorical and completely different, and that would be my guess as to why no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction, Lorraine Stobbart. Just because you've stuck a question mark on the end and made a spooky face, doesn't mean there's an actual mystery.

Thomas More, as much older readers may recall, was Henry VIII's consigliere, the man with the unenviable job of pointing out when his Royal Highness was taking the piss, which, it could be argued, occurred on at least five occasions. Paul Turner's introduction paints More as having been highly intelligent, good humoured, principled, and with a keen understanding of when it was probably best to keep his thoughts to himself. Henry eventually had him wacked for failing to display sufficiently explosive enthusiasm in regard to all those divorces and beheadings, rather than for anything More actually said. Utopia therefore tactfully sets forth a model of civilisation which certain countries might like to adopt, or at least take notes, not mentioning no names or nuffink; because had More made such proposals directly, it probably wouldn't have gone very well for him. The narrative pretends to take a vaguely autobiographical course with More meeting his real life friend, Peter Gilles, a magistrate of Antwerp whilst overseas on official business.

'There's this bloke you should meet,' says Gilles. 'He's really interesting. He's just got back from this place called Utopia.'

'Sure,' says More agreeably. 'Whatevers.'

'I just come back from this place called Utopia,' says the really interesting man once an introduction is effected. 'Blinding, it was.'

'Tell me more,' says More, and thus does the really interesting man embark upon a sentence of one-hundred pages duration telling of all the things seen in Utopia, most of which seem one fuck of a lot more civilised than what you have in certain countries, not mentioning no names or nuffink. More occasionally interjects with something like, 'well, I don't know if I agree with that and I'd say the government of our own amazing king back in England probably has the right idea,' but you can tell he's just being diplomatic.

Some have interpreted More's proposed perfect society as a nascent form of Communism, although probably for the same reason one might regard Christianity as a nascent form of Communism in terms of not acting an arsehole, refraining from stealing things, and avoiding undue emphasis placed on material property. Also it should be kept in mind that this was a perfect society as envisioned by a sixteenth century man with certain prejudices of his own, and is thus better read as a stimulus to thought than as a manifesto; but most significantly, it's a genuinely wonderful book - at least in this translation - and one which should be read more widely today, given that the popularity of certain orange presidents has rudely proven how much we, as a society, have still to learn.

*: Taken from my review of something or other on a long extinct forum and reprinted in this amazing collection, which you should definitely buy, what with Christmas coming up and everything.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Tales from the Punkside


Gregory Bull & Mike Dines (editors) Tales from the Punkside (2014)
There's been some utter shite written about punk over the years, mostly by people who weren't there, and the worst of it usually being a variation on how it was the most amazing of Malcolm McLaren's many amazing ideas, a phenomenon which was like really cool for a year or so but, you know, by 1979 most of us were listening to Spandau Ballet blah blah blah...

If you're reading anything purporting to be a history of punk, if it mentions McLaren more than once during the first chapter, just stop reading. You're wasting your time.

Rather than attempt to shoehorn anything into a single narrative, Bull and Dines simply present a variety of voices and accounts from across the spectrum of experience, from free-range memories of first discovering the joys of the glue bag, to dryer, more academic discussion of, for one example, punk in Northern Ireland. Whether by accident or design, the broad span of writing seems well chosen. I found some contributions significantly more entertaining than others, but it's all part of the same thing and born from the same basic drives, and should be understood as such.

To digress, having passed the age of fifty, I find myself seemingly in a position comparable to that of all those whom I regarded as old farts back when the first Nocturnal Emissions album came out. I wasn't even particularly punky, but I understood, and it felt very much like our thing because it was always about more than just a certain style of music or dress, and anyone who needed that explaining to them was never going to get it anyway. It was about doing your own thing, making your own way, seeking out something new or different simply because it was new or different, and above all it was about escape from the future which had been mapped out for you. It was about questioning everything, taking nothing for granted, not believing whatever we were told by the media, and not being some mere product sponge. It was about all sorts of other stuff, but those were the elements which drew in all of those who have contributed here, and which also drew me in.

These days, whilst I may well be out of the loop and therefore subject to a distorted view, I see those of the generation who should be telling me that I'm past it all queueing up and paying for the privilege of becoming the very thing we once sought to avoid. Increased means of communication have seemingly served mainly to boost the signal of the brainwashing. Expression has become the fun of dressing up as your favourite corporate mascot at a comic convention, helping to pull the wool over your own eyes, and having a facebook punch up over how an adult dressed as a fucking Care Bear is supposedly challenging something or other. There are people out there who actually seem to believe that corporate entertainment is on our side, rather than just a generic identity in which we are subsumed so as to keep us docile and buying stuff. Doctor Who carries an important message about tolerance and understanding, which is why I've spunked away a thousand quid on merch, and that's just this month. They even refer to it as the brand or the franchise or the property. They're proud to wear the gang colours of their plantation. If you have a story to tell, there's always fanfic.

Anyway, I'm not particularly sociable and my facebook feed is full of science-fiction types, so as I say, I'm probably getting a distorted view; or at least I hope I am, because it very much looks as though I'm living in a world of good little consumers who believe everything they're told and for whom selling out is simply the first rung of the ladder. I realise it's not all that way, that there are still tiny pockets of free-thought and resistance to the status quo forming even now, or there should be, probably; but these currents are no longer so visible as they were when I was a spotty teenager, or at least not to me; and that's why a collection such as this is important, because it reminds us of who we were, who we could be again, or who we should aspire to be by some measure. Of course, some of this stuff is kind of grim, as will be the existence of anyone with a conscience trying to get by under the eye of a carnivorous system, to some degree; so, in case it isn't obvious, my point is not that we need to usher in a new era of glue sniffing or that the Apostles should be forced to reform*, but that we were simply doing whatever it took to keep ourselves from turning into the same boring lumps of shit as our parents had mostly been, and somehow that's one we've stopped worrying about; and that's why we have all the horrible stuff that's going on in the world and getting worse year by year.

So these are tales which should be preserved, remembered, and even taught, because they're important, regardless of where each one may sit on the academic spectrum. This is not the version of cultural history you're going to get from the likes of Robert Elms, so educate yourself because no-one else is going to do it for you.

 Get it here.

*: Although it couldn't hurt.

Skizz


Alan Moore & Jim Baikie Skizz (1994)
I drifted away from 2000AD at some point after Alien Cultures, the second Skizz story, and before The Gunlords of Omega Ceti, the final part of the saga, if we're calling it a saga. I'd actually forgotten Alien Cultures had happened, but never mind.

Skizz was born from the English comics tradition of vaguely copying whatever was popular with the kids at the time, the tradition which filed the serial numbers from Jaws, Rollerball, and the Six Million Dollar Man to bring us Hook Jaw, Death Game 1999, and M.A.C.H. 1. Skizz was therefore Spielberg's ET in Birmingham with a hint of Boys from the Blackstuff; except it ended up as so much more, and certainly a thing in its own right, at least for the duration of that first black and white story written by Alan Moore.

Skizz is very much a children's story from a children's comic, but has stood the test of time and my transformation into a fat old man sat at the computer in just his underpants, because Moore kept in mind who he was writing for without talking down to them; and it remains a joy to read even three decades later in a different country. The story is simple enough - genial alien stranded on Earth becomes pals with some kids and is menaced by authority figures. I'd say it's your traditional Children's Film Foundation narrative except I'm not sure I actually ever saw any of their efforts outside of the occasional clip on Screen Test, but that's how it reads, and is as such a familiar form in the history of British comics. It's the working classes pitted against elitist or otherwise authoritarian figures, as were more or less everyone from Alf Tupper to the Bash Street Kids.

Moore's Skizz was perfect, and probably should have been left alone, but it wasn't. The further adventures were written by Jim Baikie, artist on all three, and a genuinely wonderful artist. As a writer, he was better than might be expected. The dialogue, the pace, and the big ideas of the later tales are wonderful, taking Skizz to weird new places and commendably avoiding a simple repeat of what Moore had written; and I seem to recall it working as weekly episodes of five or so pages, but read in one sitting, the problem becomes apparent. The problem is that once you get past Skizz in quarantine for having eaten a yoghurt, time-travelling alien Teddy boys and the rest, there isn't actually much of a story holding any of the big ideas together, and what there is suggests composition by committee in a pub about thirty minutes before closing time with notes scribbled on the back of a fag packet, everyone pissing themselves with laughter as each new ludicrous suggestion is belched forth, ending with everyone stumbling home, giggling, and vowing that no fucking fucker's gunna mess about with this afuckinmazing thing which has been born upon this drunken evening. This, for me, was the problem with a lot of the stuff which got published in 2000AD around the time of Armoured Gideon and Hewligan's bloody awful Haircut. The mag had forgotten who was reading, or maybe it just couldn't tell any more. Even Judge Dredd shows up in an episode of The Gunlords of Omega Ceti, reading very much like Jim had either run out of big ideas or was past caring; which is a massive shame because, as I say, the art is gorgeous throughout.

So the collection looks fantastic, but two thirds are a bit of a dog's dinner up close, trying too hard and forgetting what they was looking for in the first place on a Steven Moffat scale of corpulent indulgence. Most frustrating of all is that it almost worked, and maybe would have done had they just roped in Jamie Delano or someone to talk Jim down from those high ledges.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Jupiter's Circle


Mark Millar & others Jupiter's Circle (2015)
Here's another revisionist superhero book, a prequel to Jupiter's Legacy, about which I couldn't actually remember much aside from having liked it; and it's another revisionist superhero book building on the back story of contemporary characters by impersonating the forties and fifties. Just like Watchmen, one might well observe, and so it's probably no coincidence that the tale should open with our heroes battling a telepathic octopus from outer space. However, this one feels quite different to most variations on this theme which I've read, and I like it more. It's essentially hokey pipe-smoking caped escapades in a world of Leave It to Beaver and J. Edgar Hoover, more or less Justice Society of America with consequences. The twist is that the dark psychological underbelly of Jupiter's Circle is relatively mild in comic book terms, more Harvey Pekar than Rick Veitch's Bratpack wherein the masks conceal fetishism and personality disorders. The lightness of touch makes for a massively refreshing change and allows Millar to set an authentic tone with big, colourful stories powered by mad science and special kinds of ray, the contrast of which gives all the more weight to how these people relate to the real world and each other. We even get walk-on parts by Bill Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Ayn Rand without so much as the faintest trace of showing off; and Rand doesn't come out of it very well, which is gratifying. We've now clocked up nearly eighty years worth of superhero comics, a genre with certain very obvious limitations, and yet I don't think I've ever read one quite like this. I know Mark Millar's shot himself in the foot a couple of times, but Jesus - hats off to the man when he can still come up with stuff such as we have here.



Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Helliconia Winter


Brian Aldiss Helliconia Winter (1985)
Helliconia is a world caught in the complicated orbit of two stars by which one full year lasts the equivalent of many centuries on Earth, a time span ranging from winter to summer and back again for the duration of a period equivalent to the entirety of our written history. Each year, according to Helliconian legend and what we can deduce from reading between the lines, this world's version of humanity emerges from its own frozen dark age, develops, invents things, and just about makes it to something which isn't quite the industrial revolution by the time the snow and ice come back around heralding the ascendancy of the horned phagors, the sentient creatures with which they reluctantly share their planet.

I've read Spring and Summer, so now it's Winter, the final part of the story, and the one in which the point of the exercise is at last made clear. Our people seem to have achieved a vaguely Georgian level of civilisation, which is possibly why this one felt a little like certain novels set in Tzarist Russia - although the excess of snow probably accounts for some of that - and it's mostly politics, battles, and problems of church and state.

Some of what Helliconia is actually about relates to the Gaia hypothesis, our role therein, our sense of perspective and so on, hence the tale unfolding in what is essentially geological time. In this respect, it makes some interesting points, but the problem is that the people of Helliconia are more or less just texture by which Aldiss maps the broader sweep of approximately human history and our war with the environment. It's not that the characters are uninteresting so much as that the narrative is uneven, varying between engrossing intrigue and some fairly dry and lengthy ruminations which read like preliminary notes, the world building which should occur prior to actually getting the novel written rather than during. Also, for the sake of comparison, we have occasional interludes set upon a seemingly pointless space station, an outpost of Earth which observes life on Helliconia; except by the time we get to Helliconia Winter their society has broken down following a decadent interlude distinguished by the production of genetically engineered genitalia creatures - presumably giant dicks and fannies with legs. Somehow even the introduction of cock monsters doesn't make life on the failing observation station any more engaging.

The problem with Helliconia is that there's just too much of it. It could have been a magnificent, much shorter book. It has its moments, but there's too much other stuff getting in the way, and page count and scale do not necessarily amount to the same thing.


I would have posted this last week, but the timing seemed inappropriate. Rest in peace, Brian, and thanks for all the ones I liked more than this one, of which there were many.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Who?


Algis Budrys Who? (1958)
This was written a year before The Falling Torch, the only other one I've read by Algis Budrys, and is informed by many of the same cold war preoccupations. I'm not sure if this is due to the era or just Budrys working out some of the baggage of his eastern European origin, hailing from a country occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union. I seem to remember enjoying The Falling Torch, even if it was a bit single-minded in its focus, and Who? is mostly the same deal. I'm not really convinced that he was ever the best science-fiction author since H.G. Wells, as Kingsley Amis put it.

The story is faithful to Asimov's edict of good science-fiction only ever containing one element of the fantastic or implausible - an edict which I'd say is proven demonstrably and unnecessarily Cromwellian by A.E. van Vogt - and here the element is Lucas Martino, our main man. He's the scientist behind some important but poorly defined breakthrough, and so he's been taken prisoner by those weasely Soviets. We don't know if he revealed his secrets, but now they've given him back, except he was a bit poorly so they fixed him by giving him a metal head; and this means we can't actually be sure it's Martino. It may even be some guy the reds have sent to steal the secret of whatever Martino was working on, and so on and so forth.

It works fine if we assume Martino's fingerprints were never taken and that they were yet to develop DNA testing, but I found it difficult to really appreciate the weight of a story so grounded in cold war politics, given that we now know it was all bluff and bullshit. There are other problems too, notably the contrast between whatever advanced technology might furnish a guy with a metal head, and the rest of the world inhabited by these people. For example, released back into society, Martino goes to a pharmacy and asks to use their telephone, all the while trailed by government agents waiting to see what he'll do, whether he'll give himself away as an imposter. Once Martino has made his call and left, our agents take the phone books from the pharmacy so as to inspect them and hopefully deduce just who it was that Martino could have called by looking for the tell tale signs of pressure left by a finger running up and down a single page in search of a particular number. They obtain the directories by ingeniously sending a guy into the pharmacy under the pretence of using the phone, a guy with a suitcase containing identical phone books which he substitutes for those to which Martino referred. The whole operation is laboured, bewildering, and doesn't do much for one's suspension of disbelief. Why? might have been a better title.

So the espionage is all unfortunately fairly dull.

On the other hand, Budrys alternates espionage with glimpses of Martino's youth, back before he had a metal head. The detail is lovely, haunting, and beautifully written, and I would assume it was such passages which inspired Kingsley Amis to draw the comparison with Wells. Who? is a decent novel, but for reasons other than those which seemed most crucial to whoever wrote the blurb on the back cover, and it probably would have made for a better short story.