Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Words


Jean-Paul Sartre Words (1964)
Words is Sartre's dissection of his own formative years, revealing the composition of the soil in which his person, and by extension his later writing, was rooted. The surprising thing, at least to me, is how much of the later Sartre seems to have already been fully-formed and living his juvenile years like some kind of experiment designed to test the relationship between reality and our understanding of the same. Of course, there's not much point pretending he was literally thinking of anything in terms which would have directly made sense in Nausea or Age of Reason, but neither does it seem useful to read this as old man Sartre retroactively superimposing a narrative on his own childhood. He reads, he writes juvenile adventure novels in exercise books, he exists within a family, and all of this is told as a continuous landscape of experiences - as distinct from the more traditionally autobiographical lists of names, dates, and yappy commentary.

Through my flights of imagination, I was trying to attain reality.

Without actively cracking jokes, there's a pleasant lightness of touch here - something in the line of a more ponderous Tony Hancock, which is as such very readable, even entertaining, whilst strongly foreshadowing what was to come; so it's Nausea Babies, roughly speaking.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Return to Mars


Captain W.E. Johns Return to Mars (1955)
A thoroughly good egg of military credentials, and his son - also spiffing - are engaged in a manly hike across Scotland when they find themselves inconvenienced by a spot of rain. They take shelter in an outhouse, and are then discovered by the owner of the outhouse - an eccentric boffin who has been working on his own spaceship, a craft resembling one of those so-called flying saucers. Naturally, the egghead recruits this lucky pair of complete strangers as companions to accompany him on the maiden flight of the Spacemaster, as it is called.

Thus began Johns' Kings of Space to which this is the sequel. Johns, as you may recall, wrote a million novels about the adventures of Biggles, another thoroughly good egg of military credentials. I'm only familiar with Biggles through the many parodies he has inspired, and so I had certain expectations of this one - some of which have been born out, although most have lain fallow.

The novel's initial tendency to reel off statistics of astronomy and physics suggests didactic motives and the influence of either Asimov or Clarke; oddly though, I get the impression that while Johns may have recalled a few science lessons at a very good school, and may even have attended a jolly interesting lecture at the village hall some years before, he seemingly felt that he otherwise knew as much as anyone really needed to know, and so forged ahead without too much time wasted on research. So the novel freewheels a lot whilst nevertheless bristling its moustache as one might expect.

A man of tremendous energy, as small men often are, he had had a great deal of experience in the tropics of disorders caused by instincts, malaria, sandfly fever, and the like. A feature of his nature was a sense of humour that could make a joke out of trouble. He also possessed, often to the Professor's bewilderment, a wonderful vocabulary of RAF slang. When Tiger had put the project before him, asking him if he would attend some patients on Mars, he had, not surprisingly accused him of being "round the bend."

Watch out, everyone! That Toby is a loose fucking cannon!

Despite the sort of level-headed temperament from which such words were born, it seems Johns was a sucker for pseudoscience, using the novel as a means of speculating upon the origin of flying saucers, invoking the alleged destruction of Atlantis, and telepathy as something we are only just beginning to understand.

Tiger frowned. 'I'm not so sure of that. People think more about these things than they used to. Governments, fearing a panic, may have made light of Flying Saucers and tried to account for them in all sorts of ridiculous ways. But nowadays the public are not so easily fooled, and a lot of people believe in them.'

Whilst the saucer phenomena was still in its first decade at the time of writing, scepticism regarding the same was similarly in its infancy, from what I can tell. Even so, John's position - either open-minded or gullible depending on how you look at it - has surprised me, as has most of the novel. The story and situations are fucking ludicrous - it being a children's book written for a generation of good little soldiers - and yet it holds together through being surprisingly well written and espousing none of the usual colonial attitudes one might associate with its vintage. If anything, Return to Mars seems relatively progressive in carrying a vaguely ecological message and even referring directly to the benefits of a welfare state. There's only one girl in the whole thing and she doesn't have a lot to say, but I suppose at least she isn't making tea, sewing or being conspicuously demure. Most unexpected is that Johns occasionally achieves poetic insight beyond the requirements of the genre, as when Rex encounters his first alien.

 
This was altogether different; an event so tremendous, so deeply moving that it awoke in him sensations not to be described in words. For there were no words to fit the case. He felt it was not true. He wanted to tell himself that this simply wasn't true. But he knew it was true. And he knew he wasn't dreaming. Here before him was the answer to the age-old question: were the people of Earth alone in the universe? They were not. What would be the effect of those three simple words on Earth when people knew what he knew? The limitless fields of speculation opened up made his brain reel.

Return to Mars is far from the greatest thing I've ever read, and is frankly ridiculous in all ways but for those I had anticipated - based on things other than actually reading the work of this author; but for what it is, this is a decent book beyond expectation, and I'll be sure to pick up Kings of Space should I happen to see it, although possibly not anything of Biggles.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Power and the Glory


Graham Greene The Power and the Glory (1940)
First recommended to me about a decade ago on the grounds of it being set in Mexico, I initially had some trouble with this one. I made several attempts to read it, but found it, at the time, too relentlessly depressing; and this surprised me because I'd always thought I liked Graham Greene. So I've come back to it a couple of years later and, for no reason I can identify, I find myself very much enjoying the thing, and appreciating it as having been written with a certain lightness of touch which maintains a general idea of optimism even as the narrative becomes relentlessly grim. I have no idea why I never noticed this before and must therefore unfortunately assume that I was once fairly stupid, or at least less perceptive than I have apparently become; unless it was just a case of right time, right place 'n' shit.

The Power & the Glory occurs during one of the darker passages of Mexican history, the forties during which the priesthood had been outlawed and were accordingly persecuted by populist rightist forces of the kind which manifested in Mexico as the Red Shirts, counterparts to Black, Brown and Blue Shirts found across the Atlantic. Our man, never formally identified, is a Catholic priest on the run from the authorities, whose flight and subsequent capture mirrors certain aspects of the life of Christ, albeit vaguely, and whose story serves to map Greene's impression of Mexico in the thirties at the lower end of the economic totem pole - the land where life is cheap and no line is clearly drawn.

The Chief said, 'You heard what he did in Houston. Got away with ten thousand dollars. Two G Men were shot.'

'G Men?'

'It's an honour - in a way - to deal with such people.' He slapped furiously out at a mosquito.

'A man like that,' the lieutenant said, 'does no real harm. A few men dead. We all have to die. The money - somebody has to spend it. We do more good when we catch one of these.'

It's a novel about faith, obviously, but one which, rather than boring us all shitless by trying to sell a product, picks up its subject in wolfen teeth and gives it a good fucking shake.

It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic too, and what he had experienced was vacancy - a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.

Opposing forces are given an equal footing in this novel, and we can appreciate the position of those hunting our unnamed priest as well as we can appreciate the inevitability and poignancy of his martyrdom; and the equal footing is expressed as the rhetoric of differing moral standpoints, so it goes substantially deeper than merely appreciating that even bad guys love their mothers. Most impressive about this, is that Greene has essentially told a story with an affirmative - if not actually what you would call happy - ending, despite that it is the story of a man whose life is turned to shit and which gets progressively worse leading up to his eventual execution. It's a story in which the composition of our environment is not only subsidiary, but borders on irrelevant to our understanding of our environment.

I'm just glad that I got there in the end.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Dreaming Void


Peter F. Hamilton The Dreaming Void (2007)
I'm still unable to work out what it is that Peter F. Hamilton does which makes his books so readable. They're the size of housebricks, this one is eight-hundred pages, and I just slip through the thing, reading fifty pages in the time it would otherwise take to read twenty. It doesn't seem to be that the print is particularly large or the language discernibly simplified, and oddly, nor is the narrative even necessarily so gripping as to account for such page-turnitude - in terms the Daily Mail would probably recognise. Yet, there it is. Whatever it is, he does it very well, and this doesn't even seem to be one of his good ones.

I wasn't going to read any more, but having loved Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy pretty much without reservation, I had a hankering; combined with coming across a copy of this one in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road and finding myself relishing the typeface used on these English versions, it being so much more alluring than on US editions of Hamilton. It turns out that the story has certain elements in common with Night's Dawn, namely technologically advanced star-spanning future humanity pitted against something powerful and devouring with religious overtones,
physiologically malleable animals, concerns with immortality, transcendence and the afterlife and suchlike. I have a vague impression of various details serving as allegories to Bush's war on terror, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, but this may just be a case of current events repurposed as archetypes; and xenophobia and fear of progress also figure. In any case, if anything specific is said, it's either been saved for a later volume or is simply difficult to unpick from disparate strands following a slightly confusing cast of fairly generic characters. It might have been easier had I read the novels preceding this trilogy, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, but I haven't and it shouldn't have been necessary.

Yes... characters...

Hamilton writes great characters, it has been said elsewhere and more than once, but actually he kind of doesn't. The narrative is told through his characters, but most of them seem fairly clich├ęd; and given that this is 3580AD, it seems odd that everyone should be talking and acting like persons starring alongside Ross Kemp in one of those grunting ITV dramas - some wearying cop show, tough guy bends rules to get the job done, tarts with hearts, hard nut with a soft center still dealing with the pain of losing his son, tip-offs from persons oozing Cockney charm - something called Thief Takers comes to mind, as it often does for me because although I never saw it, it has the worst title ever committed to telly and I feel fairly sure it must have ticked at least a couple of the above boxes*.

To be fair, this is only what Hamilton did in Night's Dawn, but Night's Dawn had the advantage of a profoundly weird setting and attendant props - the affinity bond, living starships, sentient habitats grown from engineered coral, and everyone who ever died coming back to life, not least of these being Madonna and Al Capone. Whilst Void has plenty of nice ideas of possibly equivalent potential, they're not well drawn - presumably because I never read Pandora's Star - and it all seems a bit Larry Niven, lacking anything with the surreal flair of the voidhawks. Plus, there's the occasional sprained literary ankle - something I failed to notice in Night's Dawn, if it was even there - and this sort of thing:

'Yes. He'll get his appointment the day after the Eggshaper guild announces its sculpted a ge-pig that can fly.'

Even without noting that its should probably be either it has or it's, a ge-pig is, in the story, a utilitarian creature with physical characteristics molded by agency of human telepathy, so, as we've already seen, whether or not the resulting creature has wings and the power of flight is down to the choice of the Eggshaper doing the work; and secondly, why the fuck would that particular expression still be in use in the thirty-sixth century in a different fucking universe? Additionally, why would anyone still remember either Johnny Cash or Pink Floyd - not denigrating the qualities of either, but references to the same are a little distracting.

I'm told that the conclusion to this trilogy is disappointing and not dissimilar to the conclusion of Night's Dawn, so I doubt if I'm going to bother with the other two. There are some nice ideas, but that's about as far as it goes.

*: I find titles which are simply collective nouns for whoever populates the story somewhat lacking poetry. Being as someone will eventually make a show about members of the criminal fraternity called Crime Doers, I hereby state my having thought of it first in anticipation of any royalties which may be my due.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Best of Jack Williamson


Jack Williamson The Best of Jack Williamson (1978)
Earlier in the year I read a collaboration between this guy and Frederik Pohl which impressed upon me the notion that I should probably make an effort to read something by Jack Williamson, his having been somewhat off my radar up until that point; except it appears that I have imagined the whole thing and can find no trace of whatever the collaboration may have been or my having read anything of that description. It would be nice if this were like something from a story written by Jack Williamson, but sadly it isn't.

Jack Williamson was going at it way back when we were still calling it scientifiction. His early tales tell of Gernsbackian science-heroes having the sort of adventures which kept Edgar Rice Burroughs in business, with one foot firmly planted in the nineteenth century, a world in which men were men, women were glad of it - even the liberated sciencey ones, and the canals of Mars seemed plausible. Occasionally he'd throw in a fistful of nosebleed physics just to keep it interesting, but mostly it was about as good as you'd expect.

Nonstop to Mars sees Earth imperiled by a sort of space tornado which sucks Earth's atmosphere off to the red planet, and the protagonist of the story saves the day by flying his light aircraft along the tunnel formed by the distended eye of its storm.

We return to Mars in The Crucible of Power, wherein our rosy-cheeked, two-fisted hero bests the alien weirdies by much the same terms as white people bested Africans back when we weren't quite sure whether or not they were human.
My father gathered his five or six allies at the crest of a low yellow dune, and waited for the charge. As the yelling lancers came down the opposite slope, he walked boldly out alone to meet them, with the grave statement that he was their new ruler, sent from the Sun.

Breakdown examines the rise and fall of civilisations as the process by which revolutionary tendencies ossify and become the status quo, which would be nice had Williamson chosen to build his future society on something besides labour unions with too much power, because even the term makes me uncomfortable, it being one of those phrases which has taken on the same sort of resonance as I'm not racist but...

This being said, it seems Williamson was nothing if not adaptable, and there's a massive improvement in his writing after the second world war, and so With Folded Hands reads like the work of a different author and is as such not only readable, but even enjoyable. This generally elevated standard is more or less maintained for the rest of the collection; although after another couple of hundred pages it becomes apparent that simply being better than Nonstop to Mars probably isn't enough in and of itself. The Equalizer seems to go on forever, and I had no idea what it was actually about, and thus gave up about twenty pages before the end. The remainder are of more reasonable length and more engaging content, but still tend towards the sort of creaking twist ending in which it all turns out to have been a dream, or they're actually androids, or any other variation on the kind of thing which got well and truly hammered into the ground by Tharg's Future Shocks and others.

Jack Williamson wasn't without talent or ideas, and he wrote well for the most part, but otherwise I dread to think what the turkeys must have been like if this was genuinely his best.

The Black Archive: Image of the Fendahl


Simon Bucher-Jones The Black Archive: Image of the Fendahl (2016)
I blagged a copy of this because Image of the Fendahl was great, and because Simon Bucher-Jones could publish a collection of notes left out for the milkman, and at absolute worst, it would still be worth a look.

Also, I wanted to have a look at these Black Archive books and see what it was all about. Image isn't quite so academic as reviews of the range had led me to believe, in so much as that it isn't a thesis which sets out to demonstrate the viability or otherwise of some point; but it is a very thorough dissection of not only an old TV show, but the genre which it could be said to inhabit, even though Simon doesn't actually mention what was at the top of the hit parade for the duration of those weeks. In fact, better still is that Image, as a critique, is itself an example of what made Doctor Who so great during the era under discussion, specifically that its subject serves as springboard to more expansive discussion, taking the viewer - or reader in this case - off to realms beyond self-referential reinforcement of its own mythology; so what we have is a fascinating discourse somehow incorporating evolution, the formation of the solar system, the history of our understanding of the formation of the solar system, and comparisons of gothic and post-gothic horror - subjects which would otherwise have no business hanging around with one another, yet which become beautifully entwined within this genuinely fascinating and even amusing train of thought. In other words, it makes you think innit, which is after all what Doctor Who was always supposed to do.

My view of Who might be described as somewhat cynical - although I prefer the term perceptive, personally - so it takes a lot to get past my defences, and certainly more than some idiot jumping up and down yelling Daleks!; so, possibly ironically, this one has me eyeing up my old copy of the Target Image of the Fendahl thinking maybe I'll give it a look for the first time in three decades.

Also, extra points for mentioning Robert Moore Williams.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis

 
Will Self The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996)
Here's an odd one. I'm not sure I was even aware of its existence prior to coming across a copy in some second hand place. It's a novella, under a hundred pages and arguably more like a lengthy short story with its own binding and illustrations from Martin Rowson, and so I suppose less likely to have turned up in any of the familiar lists of Self's novels. It predates 1997's Great Apes and reads a little like an early effort, something from before he found his stride - which admittedly only works providing you ignore My Idea of Fun, Cock & Bull, and The Quantity Theory of Insanity. It may read like this to me due to a certain overfamiliarity with Self's general style, although it also read somewhat like a parody, like someone taking the piss out of Will Self without quite getting it all nailed down properly. I suspect this is probably an interference pattern arisen from common elements shared by the author and his characters, given that it's a novella about grotesque coke-snorting media types in the employ of a magazine which may as well be Time Out.


They wrote articles about articles, made television programmes about television programmes, and commented on what others had said. They trafficked in the glibbest, slightest, most ephemeral cultural reflexivity, enacting a dialogue between society and its conscience that had all the resonance of a foil individual pie dish smitten with a paperclip.

This additionally articulates some of why I stopped buying The Guradian following the inclusion of several choreographers in a list of the fifty most important persons to have shaped twentieth century culture.


They earnestly debated the opening of themed restaurants, and the demise of experimental opera productions, as if they were matters of millennial import that would define an era. Even on a good day it made Richard feel nauseous.

Anyway, whilst I don't mean to suggest that Self is himself grotesque, I don't get the impression that this one required much fresh research. It's readable, pleasantly lurid and with a wonderful turn of phrase, but the absence of Self's usual preoccupation with the psychiatric profession strikes an odd note, particularly given the obvious psychoses of those described herein; which is why, to me, it feels like an early work, or possibly just something which should have been longer.