Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Earth's Last Fortress


A.E. van Vogt Earth's Last Fortress (1960)
I assumed this was the original printing of Children of Tomorrow under a different name, but picked it up anyway. It turns out to be the novel I've already read as Masters of Time. In fact I vaguely recall having read Masters of Time with the feeling I'd already read it under another name, yet I can find nothing to support this on the internet beyond that it was originally a short story called Recruiting Station which doesn't ring any bells at all. So I've a feeling I've read this one three times now, but I don't know, although the confusion seems par for the course with van Vogt. It could just be the stark impact of the opening paragraph leaving me with an impression of more familiarity than is actually the case.

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Of course, it would be thrown out of a writing class for crimes against literature, which really says more about writing classes and literary conventions than it does about Alfred Elton.

Earth's Last Fortress is about a war fought across all of time and space wherein the all-powerful forces of the Glorious recruit combatants from each era of human history, and if you want to pretend this was a prequel to Faction Paradox, it actually sort of works. Beyond that, I couldn't really tell what it was about the last time I read it, or possibly the last two times, not with much conviction; but on this occasion I believe I've found the key.

The words scarcely penetrated, though all the sense strained through, somehow. His mind was like an enormous weight, dragging at one thought, one hope. He said, fighting for calmness now, 'Commander, by your manner to this tentacle and its master, I can see that you have long ago ceased to follow its conclusions literally. Why? Because it's inhuman. The Observer is a great reservoir of facts that can be coordinated on any subject, but it is limited by the facts it knows. It's a machine, and, while it may be logical to destroy me before you leave the ship, you know and I know that it is neither necessary nor just, and what is overwhelmingly more important, it can do no harm to hold me prisoner, and make arrangements for a Planetarian to examine the origin of the message that came to me.'

He finished in a quiet, confident tone. 'Captain, from what one of the men told me, you're from the 2000s AD. I'll wager they still had horse races in your day. I'll wager, furthermore, that no machine could ever understand a man getting a hunch and betting his bottom dollar on a dark horse. You've already been illogical in not shooting me at sight, as you threatened on the communicator; in not leaving the ship as the Observer advised; in letting me talk here even as the attack on your enemies is beginning—for there is an attack of some kind, and it's got the best brain on this ship behind it. But that's unimportant because you're going to abandon ship. What is important is this: You must carry your illogic to its logical conclusion. Retrieve your prestige, depend for once in this barren life here on luck and luck alone.'

Last time I tried to read this I didn't come away with much more than a basic anti-authoritarian message, but now I recognise a variation on one of van Vogt's most common themes, namely the opposition of conventional linear logic to the non-Aristotelian ideas he seems to have picked up from Korzybski's general semantics. Actually, I'm half inclined to wonder if this story, or at least this version of the story might not have been informed by van Vogt's falling out with L. Ron Hubbard's increasingly authoritarian promotion of Dianetics through the newly inaugurated Church of Scientology. I'm not entirely sure the dates add up, unless van Vogt undertook any rewriting when this one came to be published under this new title, and similarly I don't know much about van Vogt's involvement with Dianetics or his reasons for severing ties with Hubbard in the early sixties; but nevertheless I found myself wondering whether the Glorious might not serve as allegory to where Hubbard took what van Vogt saw as a useful psychological methodology. They seem to represent inhuman systems imposed upon human thought, eugenics, and the negation of individual will, although these things are of course similarly associated with aspirant utopian political systems arisen in the wake of the second world war, to which van Vogt also had a stated objection.

I probably got more from this reading than on previous occasions, but still found it became somewhat knotted up in its own convoluted narrative by about a third of the way through; and yet it remains enjoyable because baffling van Vogt is often more rewarding, or at least more thought provoking, than the more lucid tales of a lesser author.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Stardreamer


Cordwainer Smith Stardreamer (1971)
I'm a bit mystified as to why it should have taken me so long to stumble across this guy's work. I've known his name for some time, although I'm not sure why given his absence from the many science-fiction anthologies I've read over the years, right up until last month when his Alpha Ralpha Boulevard stamped itself firmly on my consciousness. He clearly had a reputation, fans, and an established body of highly distinctive work, so who knows? Maybe he was just a bit too weird to have ended up sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and Murray Leinster in the sort of collections I routinely read.

Cordwainer Smith turns out to have been the pen name of one Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger, a prolific author who employed various pseudonyms whilst working in adjacent genres. Significantly he was additionally a keen scholar of Chinese culture and tradition through it having played a role in his upbringing, which doubtless accounts for the form taken by his science-fiction, which has the feeling of traditional Buddhist parables in certain respects.

Stardreamer posthumously collects eight short stories, most taking place within the same peculiar mythology, a future universe governed by something called the Instrumentality of Mankind, which is described and developed with a rare literary flourish suggestive of Ursula LeGuin or more recent authors such as Iain M. Banks or China MiƩville. The narrative has a beautiful, poetic flow suggestive of something which feels substantially philosophical on some level, yet without being a bore about it.

This was a delight to read from start to finish. I wish someone had told me about this guy sooner.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Maigret Meets a Milord


Georges Simenon Maigret Meets a Milord (1931)
Originally published in French as Le Charretier de la Providence, the retitling of this one seems bizarre even by the standards of this series of translations; but milord is apparently a colloquial French term for an upper-class English tourist encountered in the French countryside, derived - as I suppose seems obvious - from my lord or m'lud, which is what English people say to their betters. I didn't really have plans to read any more Maigret books seeing as there's about a million of them and I'm way out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, but I found this alongside Maigret Stonewalled in Half Price for an improbable couple of dollars each, original Penguin editions from the sixties, and it would have seemed weird to not buy them.

I suppose having been written back in simpler times, there was less pressure for Simenon to thread his amiable creation through a cat's cradle of plot twists, sleight of hand, and ingenious deduction, and essentially what we have here is a man looking at a bunch of suspects for a little while and then announcing which one of them did it. This suits me fine as I've never been any good at crossword puzzles, and the atmosphere alone is enough to ensure my interest. For something so reliant on atmosphere, or at least reliant upon my picking up on the same, it's surprising how much is achieved by either Simenon's tight, undemonstrative prose, or possibly the tight, undemonstrative prose of Robert Baldick, his translator. There's very little fat here, no padding whatsoever, just wistful utilitarian descriptions bordering on the mathematical, pinning out the details of each scene with every so often a sudden, unexpected flash of the poetic.

And Maigret imagined himself where the carter was, seeing the partition coated with resin on his right, with the whip hanging on a twisted nail, the tin cup hooked on to another, a patch of sky between the boards above, and on the right the horses' muscular croppers.

The whole scene gave off animal warmth, a sensation of full-blooded life which took one by the throat like the harsh wine of certain hillsides.

Reaching the end of the novel we come to a description of a motor-driven propeller moving a boat through water, which is oddly the first description of anything particularly technological, excepting a couple of telephone calls and Maigret getting around on a borrowed bicycle. The appeal of this novel may therefore be, at least for me, its invocation of a world very much like the one of my childhood, muddy waterways below cold, grey European skies containing not one single cellphone signal. This is a quiet, grey world with not even the unveiling of the murderer disturbing the sombre calm, instead bringing only sadness, regret, and other seemingly Gallic moods recalling the less colourful impressionist landscapes. The novel might be tough going were it much longer than one-hundred pages, but as it stands Maigret Meets a Milord seems to represent a kind of perfection in its own quiet way.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Old Records Never Die


Eric Spitznagel Old Records Never Die (2016)
I vaguely remember a point at which I made a vow to avoid the traditional mid-life crisis, mainly due to how terminally wanky it always looked on other people. That said, having recently passed the age of fifty, I'm aware of having spent a lot of time rummaging around in my youth. I've never been very good at throwing anything away, and I've always been fairly organised with a tendency to assemble the detritus of being alive according to something resembling a system, and so I've used up much of the last couple of years working on a forensic reconstruction of my own existence, something I will eventually self-publish purely for the sake of a point of focus towards which I can work. I've been transcribing material from old diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and even copies of spoken tape letters I've sent to people. I don't think of this exercise as nostalgia because frankly, most of my life has been disappointing up until recent times - not anything I'd wish to relive - and at the risk of sounding boastful, my life has been generally fucking amazing since about 2011; so it's more like a mapping project, something which answers the question, how did I get here? My past occurred so long ago in subjective terms that it may as well have happened to someone else, which is why I find it so fascinating now.

For reasons which clearly relate to the above, albeit by means I find difficult to define with any degree of clarity, I've tended to steer clear of books by Nick Hornby, notably High Fidelity, or things in that spirit: Stuart Maconie and Peter Kay chortling over Wacky Races and Curly Wurly. I may be wrong about Hornby, but it seems sappy and sentimental to me, even slightly unhealthy. The closest I came was reading Andrew Collins' excruciatingly twee Where Did It All Go Right?, one of the worst books I've ever read and yet another drearily self-deprecating account of growing up in the seventies and having an hilarious punk hairstyle for a bit and failing to shag some girl and listening to the Smiths, because it's always the fucking Smiths.

Writing about music, or specifically about one's love of music, is an inevitably subjective undertaking because it would be pointless were it otherwise; which can additionally leave the writing in question somewhat reliant on whether or not the reader shares the same musical taste as the author, at least in cases where the author isn't up to much and you probably wouldn't be reading but for the fact that he also digs St. Winifred's School Choir. I still have Smiths records, and I can appreciate them, and How Soon is Now? was wonderful; but the first music I really began to take seriously as a kid seemed a bit more wide-ranging in certain respects, beginning with Devo - working through Crass and Killing Joke, probably ending up in the general vicinity of Throbbing Gristle. For the most part it was music beginning from the point of view that all western society is fucked, that we're all living a lie, and that maybe you need to face up to it, shithead.  Doubtless it all took itself too seriously, but that was part of its job. Then the Smiths turned up, and I recall the interviews about how they only wanted handsome people at their little pop concerts, and This Charming Man sounded like the theme tune to a kid's show, and although the second single actually had a tune, everything since has been a heavy sigh of my life is shit and I feel a bit sad. I don't understand how that could really have changed anyone's world, or how anyone could be satisfied with just that, and no-one who ever wrote about it has been able to explain it to me.

Old Records Never Die is the account of one man's mission to track down all the records of his youth, not just the songs, but the actual same copies rescued from dusty boxes in basements and thrift stores. Needless to say, I approached the book with some trepidation, reading mainly on the grounds of it having been a birthday present from my brother-in-law, a man of generally sound judgement. I still don't quite understand why Eric Spitznagel really needed to reunite with the copy of Kiss' Alive II on which his brother Mark had scrawled HANDS OFF!!! across the cover in ballpoint; and I had a tough time getting through the first couple of chapters worth of references to the Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, and other artists I'd rather not have to think about; but as the book finds its stride, it becomes clear that this is not about the music or fat old fuckers going misty-eyed over the malts and shakes of a sunnier age, not exactly. Spitznagel's quest is a genuinely bizarre one, almost a ritual working, not really trying to bring something back so much as to understand its power; and I can identify because it seems reminiscent of what I've been doing with all my own old crap. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Smiths changed anyone's life, and in any case Spitznagel writes about the change and how we understand it rather than the source of musical revelation. If anything, the sources of musical revelation seem the least important detail of whatever the guy is going through in this book, so it's communicated as what may as well be a universal experience. More than anything it reminds me of Harvey Pekar's wistful tales of stealing jazz records from a radio station or finding a cheap pair of Stetson shoes in Goodwill. It has a certain passion, a certain affection, but there's nothing sappy or sentimental here.

I still haven't read High Fidelity, although if it's anything like the film, then Old Records Never Die really isn't a particularly close relative. It's about much more, the entire experience of memory, and while it's often very, very funny, the gags come naturally as part of the discourse - none of that gormless chuckling over old photos in which people look a little bit different to how they do now.

This one has really surprised me.

Monday, 20 November 2017

All the Traps of Earth


Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.

It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.

Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.

I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Miracleman: The Golden Age


Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham Miracleman: The Golden Age (1999)
Is anyone else getting bored of the increasingly labyrinthine publishing history of Marvelman, or whatever he's called this year? I know I am. This reprints a reprint of an Eclipse comic which apparently no longer ever happened, may not actually have needed to happen in the first place, and may even have been redrawn according to some online article I can no longer find which was admittedly probably referring to Miracleman: The Silver Age, but never mind.

To briefly digress, some decades ago I went through a phase of wishing I could write superhero comics. I longed to be taken seriously as an author of frowning material involving capes, powers and important messages. The main obstacle to this career swivel was that I could barely string a sentence together. I wasn't particularly literate and what strips I had scrawled up to that point were improvised and heavily reliant on knob gags, so I sat down with a stack of my fave comics - mostly X-Men titles and things written by Alan Moore - and I tried really hard to work out what was going on so as to arrive at a method by which I too might tell a story. Eventually I accumulated a loose group of guidelines and techniques strip-mined mostly from the aforementioned Moore, methods I might employ so as to conceal my not actually having any story worth telling; roughly speaking, this sort of thing:

  • Mess up the lives of your characters and the story will form around what happens as you try to get them back into shape.
  • Don't be afraid of novelty. It looks like imagination and most people can't tell the difference.
  • Quote freely, make frequent references to music, films, or literature generally regarded as cool. References to persons generally regarded as interesting are also to be encouraged - Crowley, Jung, Shakespeare and so on.
  • Quote yourself freely, treating your story thus far as something of inherent weight and mystery. Maybe that person in the background back on page four could turn out to be some kind of mutant mastermind orchestrating everything from behind the scenes.
  • Repeat yourself. People will mistake it for a motif and assume you know what you're doing.

Unfortunately, I learned just enough to immediately recognise my own efforts as complete bullshit once I got to work; and perhaps equally unfortunately, every time I pick up something written by Neil Gaiman - although admittedly it's been a while - it really looks to me as though he's using the very same checklist.

I discovered Neil Gaiman with an early issue of Sandman, went briefly nuts for the guy and bought up everything I could get my hands on; although within about a year I'd begun to detect the faint essence of something which I found difficult to like. I kept on buying Sandman, but Lordy those faux-Shakespearean issues bored me shitless; and I wasn't that wild about Harry fucking Potter even when he was Timothy Hunter; and eventually it all became too annoying so I flogged the lot on eBay. I recall the first twenty or so issues of Sandman as essentially decent, and I'd buy the collected editions but for the bloody awful art which somehow bothered me less at the time; and then there was Miracleman.

We didn't really need any more issues of Miracleman after Alan Moore was done with it, and I'm not convinced Neil Gaiman's run really adds anything. To be fair, The Golden Age seems to be the first of a longer three-part story, and is obviously mostly just scene setting, albeit for a story with a scene already set during Moore's run; and you can tell it's scene setting because it doesn't actually have a story. In fact it barely even has forward motion. I appreciate the device of describing something indescribable through the lives of those observing it from afar, but it reads like a series of novel images of the kind I would have tried to pass of as narrative back in my youth.

Lonely bloke looks after windmills, shags Miraclewoman.

Precocious Miraclebaby has superpowers, insults doting mother.

Geezer climbs mountain but doesn't find answer.

See, they're not really stories, just single images described at length by use of selected phrases deployed so as to suggest a particular mood, and at the end we're supposed to go wow whilst remaining nevertheless touched by the subtle poetry of human interaction; but nothing actually happens, and it really feels as though the author hopes we won't notice. It's the exact same thing which Steven Moffat does on Doctor Who, or did last time I could be arsed to sit through yet another time-wasting episode. A skeleton in a space suit does not in and of itself constitute narrative.

Where was I?

To be fair, the issue spent in the company of Andy Warhol, one of the many resurrected in Miracleman's brave new world of wonders, is terrific, and possibly the best thing I've read by Neil Gaiman; so I guess I can see what he's trying to do for most of this stuff, but none of the rest really comes close, at least not for me, because I can't read past what feels like writing by formula. We have the Kid Miracleman teen cultists drawn in apparent homage to the Hernandez brothers, because Love & Rockets is like rilly amaaazing, yeah? Then there's an incomprehensible Prisoner homage with edgily xeroxed images, and God help us yet another fucking story told as a twee children's book - novelty after novelty after novelty, and of course the poetry of the writing should be sufficient to save the thing from its own neatly modular eccentricity, except it can't because as usual it's so bleeding middle-class that it may as well be set in the same universe as Love Actually; and oh lookee - everyone meets up at the Notting Hill carnival in the final episode. Fancy that.

I realise I'm in the minority, but surely I can't be the only person to have had this reaction to Neil Gaiman's writing? Maybe American Gods is amazing. I don't know. I can only base my opinion on what I've managed to read by him, and it's all been twee; and instances of spontaneity and imagination feel calculated to invoke specific reactions; and it lacks danger or the flavour of any experience beyond the somewhat limited world of a conspicuously middle-class author who wishes only to entertain; and it feels like something for which there could never be greater praise than a glowing write up in Time Out; and when I read anything by Neil Gaiman it feels as though he's sat at my side, digging me in the ribs to see whether I'm suitably full of wonder, and it feels as though he's ever so pleased with himself.

That said, I'm sure he's a lovely bloke in person.

I expect Tim Burton's fucking smashing too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The City of Gold and Lead


John Christopher The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
As you will almost certainly be aware, The City of Gold and Lead is the second of John Christopher's trilogy of children's books set upon an Earth dominated by the alien Tripods. Where The White Mountains seemed more obviously like something extrapolated from The War of the Worlds, this one represents the point at which the tale heads off into new territory. The White Mountains kept its Tripods as a mysterious but remote menace whilst focussing on more familiar human concerns with authority, and how we act when it spins out of control.

This time we go right into the Tripod city to live amongst them as they exist beyond the safety and anonymity of their walking machines. It could have gone horribly wrong in reducing something distant and fairly scary to a known, even potentially comic entity as the creatures from within the machines are revealed to be three legged, tentacled cones of alien flesh with hopes and desires of their own, and apparently based on George Melly - if the one who enslaves Will, our main protagonist, is any indication. Christopher nevertheless pulls it off with ease, crafting a horror story which comes close to hinting at the excesses of the Nazis despite that these Nazis appear to resemble the sort of rubber monsters we bought for five pence a throw and stuck on our pencil tops when I were a lad. It may even be the peculiarity of the Masters - essentially more personable variations on Lovecraft's Great Race - which maintains the fine balance of the narrative by keeping the Tripods at a slight remove from their operators, therefore preserving the menace established in the first book.

Beyond the obvious matters of facing up to tyranny, helping your pals, and generally selfless acts, The City of Gold and Lead doesn't seem quite so philosophically weighty as The White Mountains, although there's also the possibility that I may simply have been overthinking that one; but then it doesn't need to be, because it does what it does to the point of perfection, and is as such one of the best things I've read in a while. As with its predecessor, I really, really wish I'd read this back when I was of the age group for whom it was written.