Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Investigating UFOs

Larry Kettelkamp Investigating UFOs (1972)
There's not really much I can say about this one. It's a book I had as a kid, and may even have been the first book I actively chose from the shelves of my local WHSmiths - as opposed to it being something I was given by someone who assumed I would like it, and excepting the first five Doctor Who novelisations published - as was this - by Target. Anyway, it made a big impression. I'd heard of flying saucers, but didn't know much about them, and hadn't even come across the notion of alleged encounters with their occupants until I read about Betty and Barney Hill in this book. For better or worse, it had quite an effect on me, so inevitably I've tracked it down in hope of achieving a better understanding of myself as a kid. Investigating UFOs is a children's book, so the language is clear, with the subject simplified to some degree, and thankfully free of the crankier tone which informs most of the writing on this topic - because this was the era of children's books being written with some sense of educational responsibility. It took me about an hour to read it cover to cover, and at no point did I feel ridiculous, and it was very enjoyable; so there you go.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Dream Makers volume two

Charles Platt (editor) Dream Makers volume two (1983)
In addition to the first volume, Santa also bought me this, apparently thanks to my Amazon wish list having been consulted by more than one of his little helpers - so that was all very nice and tidy. Once again Platt, former editor of New Worlds, travels all over, hangs out with a number of seminal science-fiction authors, and interviews them; except it's so much more than is promised by the description. One might almost call it a manifesto, or at least something with equivalent purpose.

This time, Platt opens it out a little further, bringing in a healthy cross section of female authors missing from the first book, in addition to a few persons arguably on the fringe of what is generally termed science-fiction. Throughout the interviews, the one constant seems to have been an acidic disregard for the explosion in the popularity of sword and sorcery which came about towards the close of the seventies. Platt is clearly coaxing his people into slagging it off, but not without some justification, and Joe Haldeman's observation seems particularly broad to the point of neatly summarising what I at least would regard as still very much a problem with culture in general.

'I think I understand the kind of person who reads this stuff. It's not quite as bad as sitting watching situation comedies day after day, but I think it's the same kind of mentality: someone who likes having the same buttons pushed over and over.'

Political sympathies represented come from across the board, left, right, and all points in between, and I found it interesting that relative political polarity seemed to have no bearing on the subjective worth of what is said. Indeed, Jerry Pournelle, seemingly an author much further to the right than I would ordinarily enjoy, gave considerably more thought provoking testimony than at least a few with whom I expected to empathise. At the other end of the scale, James Tiptree, Jr. - the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon in case anyone didn't get the memo - particularly impressed me.

'Life is a denial of entropy; it's a striking manifestation of negative entropy. So I believe it can be shown that things with a high degree of organisation, meaning a low degree of entropy, seem good to us. For example, Nazism is a highly entropic form, and democracy is far more complex. An altruistic act is more complex than a selfish one.'

William Burroughs doesn't disappoint, and nor does L. Ron Hubbard, while the peculiarly humourless Robert Anton Wilson comes across as a massive tosspot, and Larry Niven was about as interesting as I expected him to be.

Naturally it's a mixed bag, but even when interviewing hopeless arseholes, Platt gets something useful from the situation; which all adds up to a collection which is both inspiring and slightly depressing - inspiring because I'm definitely going to have to hunt down the works of a few of these people, and slightly depressing because this is a world which has passed, one built upon worthwhile aspirations which I half suspect have largely been replaced by cosplay, songs about hobbits, and other stuff which serves little purpose but to pass time and signify allegiance to the consumer demographic.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The War Machines

Ian Stuart Black The War Machines (1988)
There was at least a decade, possibly as many as two, during which the only things I actually read were Target Doctor Who novelisations. We now live in such times that there are certain wankers who would probably regard this as an achievement, and it is the proliferation of these people and their ridiculous opinions which mean that every time I'm about to say something about this fifty-year old kids' show and all it has spawned, I have to check myself to make sure I'm not saying it simply in the hope of annoying someone. This seems a sad thing to have to consider in regard of how much I once loved Who, but never mind.

As you might surmise, having spent at least two decades reading Target Doctor Who novelisations, I have most of them; and because it's now possible to do so, and because they're still mostly pretty cheap, I've decided to fill in the gaps and track down the twenty or so I never owned because I like things to be tidy. I'm probably also going to try to read them too, that being the whole fucking point of having a book, but I guess I'll just have to see how it goes.

The War Machines was one of the last Hartnell stories, and was arguably the first to introduce a hypothetically global threat to a contemporary setting, specifically London in 1966. So it's arguably the first to truly present the famed, and perhaps overstated, juxtaposition of yetis and lavatories, figuratively speaking. I had the VHS reissue and remember enjoying the thing well enough, although it probably wasn't anything remarkable in and of itself. The war machines of the title seemed less than convincing on screen, which is only really a problem if you can't tell the difference between a dramatic presentation and reality, or somehow regard the visceral realism of Aliens of London as the gold standard of artistic integrity. All the same, this is a book, so let's concentrate on that.

Who has always had a tendency to recycle, and The War Machines spins upon an idea we have since come to term the technological singularity, or the rise of the robots as we thought of it in my day. The idea has been around a lot longer than Vernor Vinge, and this iteration was preceded at least by Philip K. Dick's Vulcan's Hammer, numerous things written by Asimov, even Čapek's RUR back in the twenties. The story apparently came from Kit Pedler who, as creator of the cybermen, clearly had an enduring interest in technology as a double-edged sword. Ian Stuart Black expanded upon the idea for telly, possibly further drawing on Quatermass and A for Andromeda, among other examples of alien forces escaping the corporate confines of industry and progress. Here the villain is a homegrown supercomputer named WOTAN. Ian Stuart Black expands on the television version at least to the point of naming the war machine which eventually destroys WOTAN. Specifically he names it Valk, which I suppose might be a truncated Valkyrie, and between Valk, WOTAN, and the Inferno nightclub in which we first meet Hartnell's newest companions - Ben and Polly - it's tempting to look for some sort of Wagnerian pattern to the story, even if I suspect there isn't really much to be found on that score.

It's far from being the greatest thing I've ever read, but The War Machines is a decent children's book and is reasonably well written, lacking the groaning cliches and narrative shorthand which has been a problem with at least a few of these novelisations, and the cloying sentiment which has characterised the revived show since 2005. This has been a pleasant reminder of Who as it was, back when you could tell that those responsible were at least trying.

Monday, 11 March 2019

The Darkening of the Light

Tessa B. Dick The Darkening of the Light (2012)
Philip K. Dick's final novel would, in theory, have been The Owl in Daylight. I've read that it was the novel he was working on at the time of his death, back in 1982, although in the Exegesis he describes it as the book he found himself unable to write, the novel which broke him. His widow, Tessa, published her own version of The Owl in Daylight some years after his death, reputedly utilising some of what he had written, although I could be wrong about that detail. The book was criticised for diverging from what is known of Phil's original outline, and was in any case withdrawn from publication in response to objections made by the estate of the author.

The Darkening of the Light introduces itself as an expanded version of an earlier work by the same author, and clearly makes use of certain themes attributed to her version of The Owl in Daylight, and no third party has yet tried to have it withdrawn from publication so far as I'm aware, so let's just try to enjoy the fact of its existence and current availability without getting too bogged down in whether or not it should count as the completion of his last great work; because the answer to that one is probably yes and no. If we're treating it as a forensic reconstruction of Phil's last book as it would have been, then we're doomed to disappointment, because yes, of course it diverges and strays from the outline. Most authors diverge and stray from their own outlines, or they do if they're any good; and this was never Kevin J. Anderson expanding something A.E. van Vogt scribbled on the back of a fag packet to full novel length.

To answer a different but arguably more pertinent question, The Darkening of the Light really is a great book. Possibly excepting Frida Kahlo, our culture conditions us to a certain degree of squinting whenever a woman steps out from the shadow of her better publicised husband, but we really need to get over it and judge the work on its own merit rather than by our assumptions.

The Darkening of the Light isn't a Philip K. Dick novel, although it's built upon much of that which preoccupied him in later years, and not because his ex-wife is presenting a mere impersonation, but because she spent time with the guy, understood what made him tick, and has plenty to say on the subject. Her tone actually reminds me a little of Richard Brautigan, if anything, which is well suited to analysis of the nature of reality, and - most refreshingly - she writes with a gentle sense of humour, and a wonderfully understated pleasure taken in the absurd.

When Teddy arrived home on Friday afternoon, wistfully daydreaming about Lorelei, instead of a little stucco house he found himself standing in front of a stone temple with statues of grotesque gargoyles standing on either side of the entrance, a double door made of iron that refused to open when he pushed and pulled on it. This turn of events did not surprise him, since he had found that some sort of punishment was always imposed upon him whenever he made an unethical choice.

This pleases me greatly because this is the detail of Philip K. Dick's writing which everyone misses, hence all those groaning po-faced blue and orange movies with handsome young men questioning the reality of their own photogenic existences within what usually looks like a Nine Inch Nails video.

The Darkening of the Light is significantly more playful than we might expect, and is about - as you might anticipate - our relationship with reality, death, and I suspect represents Tessa B. Dick coming to terms with the passing of a husband. Without having known the man, I've always wondered about his attitude to women, specifically the repeating cycle of partners who age into reputedly stifling harridans from which the only relief is some newer, younger model; so it's nice to get something from the perspective of a better half, and a perspective which balances boldly honest reportage of his failings with a warm regard which I personally found both moving and something of a relief - he may have been hard work at times, but I guess it wasn't all uphill.

In terms of mood, the novel additionally reminds me a little of the immersive and autobiographical A War of Witches in which anthropologist T.J. Knab describes his life amongst the curanderas of rural Mexico. Knab's book runs with the idea that we each lead a post-mortem existence in Talokan, the realm beneath the Earth, and that this is also the place we visit when we dream. The Darkening of the Light feels very much like a communication of similar spirit, and without doing anything particularly spectacular or flashy, is one of the best novels I've read in a while. Whether or not this is the closest we'll come to reading Phil's Owl in Daylight probably doesn't matter.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present

RoseLee Goldberg Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (1979)
I first picked this up at the age of sixteen or thereabouts during the initial thrill of having discovered art. I was nuts for Dada and Futurism, and this covered aspects of both whilst seemingly describing a line of continuity leading up to what was the then present day and my beloved Throbbing Gristle in their Coum incarnation. Strangely, I never actually realised I no longer had a copy of this until Amazon suggested I might want to buy it because I'd also purchased a chocolate frying pan, The Best of the Barron Knights on eight track cartridge, and The Purple Revolution: The Year That Changed Everything by Nigel Farage*. I have no memory of getting rid of my original copy, or of ever having declared it surplus to requirements, so maybe I simply lost it or lent it to someone and never got it back.

Reacquainting myself with the thing, the first surprise is that I realise I've never actually read it all the way through. I certainly dipped in here and there, but there are entire chapters I'm only now reading for the first time. This is probably because I didn't read so much as I do now, and my reading was a little too focussed for its own good. I wasn't particularly interested in broadening horizons so much as filling out the details with which I was already more or less familiar. That said, this re-reading - if we can really call it that - hasn't really changed the initial impression I'd formed through reading the Dada and Futurist chapters followed by just looking at the pictures for the remaining hundred or so pages. I've never been able to work up much enthusiasm for the Bauhaus or its theatrical experiments, or indeed much of the history of modernism from about 1940 onwards; and now having made the effort to actually read about it all in some depth, it still seems mostly as though it's all been a waste of time. Here, for example, is Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus choreographer as a character called the Turk in his Triadic Ballet of 1922.

Just fucking no.

Art lost something about half way through the twentieth century, and I'm still trying to work out what it was.

To briefly digress, reading Performance felt very much like following up the first half of the story described in Fight Your Own War, edited by Jennifer Wallis. Fight Your Own War represents an attempt to define power electronics and noise music in an historical context, and the often confrontational performances it describes seem very clearly descended from the outrages of the Futurists, Dadaists and others; and then we have the intervening years of Yoko Ono belching into a top hat for the edification of an audience of mildly distracted art connoisseurs; and I know this image is wrong, but that's nevertheless how it looks to me.

The performance which appealed to me was an expression of some broader tendency with which it shared a common purpose, and a common purpose beyond simply adding the experience of new art to the canon. The problem is that the same can probably be said of quite a lot of the stuff I regard as more or less pointless, and no quality I appreciate in the art of which I approve seems to be exclusive to the same; so I guess it's just personal taste, or even prejudice. Oh well.

Goldberg's book is firstly a roughly chronological roster of who did what and when, with some of the why. It doesn't go into great depth, but then performance was only barely established as an art form of a standing potentially equal to painting and sculpture back in 1979, so the author can probably be forgiven the occasional lapse into shorthand; and it's hardly her fault that the Bauhaus and all which came in its wake was one colossal yawn.

*: Not really.

The Man Called Nova

Marv Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino & others
The Man Called Nova (1979)

My first encounter with Marvel was at junior school. Mark McFarland showed me a couple of loose pages presumably torn from the back covers of English Marvel reprints, magazine size but glossy with full colour images of Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Captain America and others. It was the first I'd heard of these characters and I found them fascinating and bizarre, and I was apparently young enough to be uncertain as to whether or not these were actually real people. I understood that they crossed over into each other's stories, and were logically therefore distinct from the imaginary characters seen on Doctor Who, Star Trek and so on. There was a mystery here.

By October, 1977 I was old enough to have realised that the Marvel universe was a fictitious creation spread across a number of titles, and Marvel UK was printing Rampage. It seemed like a good place to start given that I could afford both Rampage and 2000AD on my pocket money, and whilst the other Marvel titles looked amazing, I doubted I'd be able to pick up stories which had already been running for several years. Anyway, Rampage was where I first read the adventures of Nova, so I picked up this collection out of the usual blend of nostalgia and curiosity.

I'm now at least four decades past the reading age for which it was written, but it remains a nevertheless pleasurable experience. Nova is the typically implausible tale of a neurotic American teenager who inherits the powers of a centurion in the galaxy spanning Nova Corps and thusly fights crime - an obvious choice given that he lives in a neighbourhood where a bank robbery takes place roughly every four hours. Muscles bulge as pantomime bad guys deliver portentous speeches, and combat is embellished with strings of creaking puns and comic put downs, so there's a lot to The Man Called Nova which is almost painfully familiar; but its appeal comes from the telling in combination with numerous weird little deviations from the supposed formula.

For a start, where the art is good, it's good enough to eclipse a few lapses in narrative momentum. The first two issues, drawn by John Buscema and inked by Joe Sinnot, are as startling as anything by Jack Kirby; and while Carmine Infantino's run on the final ten issues prior to cancellation occasionally suffers from ill-fitting inks, where the balance is struck, it's frankly fucking incredible; and at its best, Infantino's Vorticist space opera is breathtaking to the point that it almost doesn't matter what he's drawing.

Nova was written by Marv Wolfman, so it's not entirely shoddy, and that which Infantino illustrated was seldom entirely without some charm of its own. As has been said before, Nova is basically Spiderman what with his agonising over grades and family life, but Wolfman avoided a straight photocopy, throwing in peculiarities such as Richard Rider - who inherits the mantle of Nova - being something of a dimbulb with his high school nemesis cast as the one with the brain and the exam results.

Moore, Morrison and others have often praised the archetypal weird sixties comic book in which the Flash spends an entire issue as a paving slab - for one example - but I'm beginning to wonder if there was truly ever such a thing as the dull, workmanlike comic book against which the former is routinely compared as an idiosyncratic explosion of wild imagination. The seemingly unpromising Man Called Nova gets pretty screwy in places, such as when our hero visits Marv Wolfman at the Marvel offices to discuss what will be coming up in forthcoming issues; or when Bobby Rider builds a robot Sherlock Holmes - complete with deerstalker and pipe - tasked with deducing what his elder brother gets up to in the evening. Additionally, there's a slightly sketchy quality to the storytelling, one which may only be apparent over multiple issues, but which gives an impression of plot details occurring without obvious cause, and there is much which seems left unexplained - not least being where the fuck Shuffles - Nova's peculiar Huggy Bear analogue - came from. For whatever reason, this causal deficit, rather than being to the detriment of the story, simply enhances its unpredictable rhythm.

The Man Called Nova could have been tighter or more consistent and maybe it would have lasted beyond twenty-five issues. Maybe it's the loose narrative swerves and possibly unwitting hokey touches which doomed it to an early cancellation, yet it is this same texture which makes the book engrossing four decades later; and if it was never going to win awards, Nova is anything but the generic superhero landfill you might have anticipated.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019


New Juche Mountainhead (2016)
I had a feeling this one would be worth a look based on my already having been bowled over by Stupid Baby, but I've a hunch Mountainhead may even be the best thing I've ever read, if that can be considered a meaningful statement. New Juche is a man who likes big tits and masturbation. I like big tits and masturbation, but this guy really likes big tits and masturbation. He lives and works in south-east Asia, so you've probably already done the math even before we've reached the end of the sentence, and you would almost certainly be wrong.

The point at which I realised I didn't ever want to have conversations with western travellers again came months later, shortly before I moved to the mountain, when I told a female tourist in a bar about the experience with the Burmese woman. I was trying to be honest both for her benefit and perhaps to solicit some casual therapy, but she found me offensive, to a dangerous degree, and I immediately realised that all conversation was hopeless and deceitful. There is experience outside of language and ideas that you assume and allow for, if you're not a cunt.

Mountainhead communicates that experience, and if the words are familiar, the patterns they form may not be. The experience communicated might justifiably be termed shamanic and could certainly be reduced to getting in touch with nature, which is sort of funny given that those who traditionally respond to such tie-dyed phrases would probably be horrified by Mountainhead, and specifically they would be horrified by its honesty. In Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, William Shaw wrote:

All music is about geography, in a way. It's either about the place in which it's made, or the place where the maker wants to be.

I'd extend this observation to art in general, and it's demonstrably true of Mountainhead which is at core an account of the author becoming part of his environment, something existing within the fabric rather than upon its surface.

I feel I'm being slowly gathered up by the fibres and essences of the forest, beckoned and cajoled by the leaves and scents, and chased by plagues sent to precede me and to show me the way. My own face looks down on me from the trunks of these dark trees, the moist branches I grab are my own sweaty cock and the fluids that splash on me are my own issue.

The qualities which distinguish this novel - mostly autobiographical so far as I'm able to tell, but allowing for visionary interludes - from all that other crap about finding oneself through shunning Hostess products in favour of some delicious nourishing kale and how we met this really amazing old guy half way up a mountain in Baja California, are the facts of it being more about losing oneself in merging with an environment, and the unflinching honesty by which all elements of that environment are described. All the sexual effluvia of spunk, saliva, blood, sweat, bacteria, all the smells fermenting within unsightly wrinkles are celebrated as part of the forest mulch from which everything here is grown, including even the misery, grinding poverty, and casual cruelty.

Sex, like religion and drinking and smoking, is tied profoundly to ideas about place. Sick animals who graduate to Asia for sex graduate at their own pace through a succession of categories and locations, with a very defensive certainty as to their current, particular category and location. There is cruelty in it from wherever you stand, I absolutely believe that.

As a whole, and particularly as one approaches the end, Mountainhead has an almost biblical rhythm, human sacrifice yielding an encounter with God - here manifest as a life size biro rendering of Hitler drawn in a toilet cubicle at a children's school, and you can tell he's a sacred Hitler due to the halo of dobbers around his head - leading to apotheosis either with or as the mountain, which is arguably the main character of the novel; and like all of the best writing, it manages to keep hold of its sense of humour without digging you in the ribs and grinning every five seconds like Douglas fucking Adams.

Of all the books I've read, Mountainhead most closely compares to T.J. Knab's similarly sweat drenched A War of Witches, which represents the same sort of environmental immersion but amongst rural Mexican witches rather than Thai prostitutes; and like Knab's book it leaves the reader subtly changed by an improved understanding of human existence. It probably isn't the best thing I've ever read, realistically speaking, but right now I'm having trouble thinking of anything which impressed me more.