Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Currents of Space

Isaac Asimov The Currents of Space (1952)

Having been told I'd read all of Asimov's top shelfers, so to speak, I promised I would never again subject myself to another puzzle box narrative wherein some lady scientist with a face like a camel's arse exclaims Sizzling Saturn! and strives to keep her womanly but Einsteinian mind free of those despairing thoughts of how no man will ever ask her to be his wife by figuring out why the robots have downed their tools and taken up ping-pong instead; but this was just sat there looking at me from the shelf in Half-Price Books and I couldn't resist.

The Currents of Space turns out to be part of Asimov's Galactic Empire series, conspicuously occupying the same universe as Foundation, which I didn't enjoy at all. That said, aside from the presence of an archetypal Asimov female - obliged by cruel society to develop her intellect by virtue of being a bit of a double bagger - and the closing chapters clogged up with the usual conversation about all that has happened thus far, it's pretty reasonable for the most part.

I'm probably being a bit harsh in regard to Asimov's slightly odd depiction of females given that he was Germaine Greer by 1950s standards; and this chugs along nicely for most of the story, presenting a well constructed mystery and some interesting medium-sized ideas. It's also a reminder of how Asimov was at his best an impressive communicator with a style that, if lacking poetry, never fails to draw the reader in. The Currents of Space may not quite be up there with The End of Eternity or The Gods Themselves, but is not lacking in a charm of its own.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Skinner

Neal Asher The Skinner (2002)

Neal Asher's short story Bioship made quite an impression when I read it in one of those Solaris anthologies, and this mostly delivers on that promise of sea sick space opera to churn the stomach and leave the reader smelling faintly of fish. Despite a relatively uncluttered turn of phrase, the narrative is surprisingly dense, for everything on the somewhat nautical world of Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting and requires much qualification. This is a thoroughly alien ecology of ships with living sails, huge seafaring leeches, and the salty old dogs which hunt them for a living.

The Skinner is initially disorientating, coming perilously close to doing too much - a great many characters introduced, each with their own story, and all before you've found your sea legs. This was why I ended up reading the first hundred pages twice, but it paid off and the detail is so engrossing that there's little possibility of getting bored, even in returning to recently covered ground.

In essence it's a fairly simple tale - the hunt for a war criminal - painted in very weird colours and seeming a far more likely influence on the mollusc aesthetic of the Pirates of the Caribbean films than any more obviously Lovecraftian source. The weirdest detail is probably the environment itself, a living illustration of that no such thing as a free meal poster with a succession of increasingly large fish about to vanish in a single act of recursive gastronomy. Everything on Spatterjay eats everything else, frequently by means of circular orifices lined with teeth; and everything in the food chain is infected with a viral mechanism promoting rapid mutation and healing so that even the most voracious predators need never fear depletion of their food source; so death doesn't come easy for anyone, as vividly illustrated by the Skinner of the title who, having been decapitated hundreds of years before, lives on with head and body as two independent creatures. As I said, everything on Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting.

The Skinner isn't really quite like anything I've read before in terms of story, although it hints at what Larry Niven probably should have written. As roughly contemporary space opera, it's as good as anything by Iain Banks, and superior to the work of at least a few other big names. Given how this novel is sort of like eating chocolate cake in terms of information density, I probably could have done with it being maybe a hundred or so pages shorter, but that's not a serious complaint.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Wicket in the Rec

This isn't the cover, but I needed something visual in order to silence the inner voices and sometimes I find it very difficult to leave my GIMP alone. Whilst I don't wish to imply The Wicket in the Rec is actually a Penguin Modern Classic, it's nevertheless not something to be sniffed at.
Paul Hayes The Wicket in the Rec (2011)
I'm not sure anyone in the history of publishing has ever really isolated quite what it takes to get a novel past the slush pile firewall and into fancy-pants print, although Paul Hayes has clearly given the matter some thought. Quality might be a factor, at least in so much as published novels generally tend towards a certain minimum standard below which we find the stapled fruit of Brer Photocopier, uninviting eBooks, and other denizens of the realm of the self-published. Then again, there are plenty of self-published authors I'd rate very highly - Jason Mills, Jim Mortimore and Andrew Hickey to name but three - and whilst there will always be shite like J. Lee Mace's Naked Deceit to bring down the average, the legitimately published Dan Brown did all right for himself despite this sort of adjectival landfill :
Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

So getting into print is probably just a combination of talent, luck and blow-jobbing your way to the top of the metaphorical pile, not necessarily all of those or in that order.

Nevertheless, conscious of the unfortunate associations of self-publishing, for better or worse, Paul Hayes resists temptation, seemingly refusing even to accept the term author until given sanction by virtue of publication. Sadly, I can see exactly why he should adopt this stance, and ironically that's what drew me to The Wicket in the Rec where normally I would only click on those buy my great new free downloadable eNovel links out of the same masochistic fascination that draws me to interviews with Bobby Gillespie or those shaved chimps from Oasis.

Whilst Hayes' humility regarding his own abilities seems quite driven, perhaps even excessive, I would guess it's only the expression of a profound desire for progress, and an absolute fear of the vanity which so often blinds aspirant authors to their own failings. I suspect Hayes is harder on himself than even the most demanding editor; and if this is so, then it has at least paid off. The prose he himself describes as merely workmanlike is elegant and hits the mark every single time, never settling for a sketchy version of the point nor on the other hand labouring so hard as to build up a sweat.

The Wicket in the Rec spends roughly a month in the lives of the inhabitants of two small Sussex villages, an understated drama centred around, of all things, the late 1980s repercussions of a cricket match postponed fifty years earlier by the outbreak of the second world war. Initially reading as an exercise in nostalgia, it's more an examination of the same, drawn in part from aspects of the author's childhood. In essence, The Wicket in the Rec - which spins up the most engrossing tempest from details that initially seem inconsequential - is itself about detail, about tiny events that build to storms, and meaning gleaned where least expected:
You will find some moments in your life – some quite random, bizarre, moments that are not particularly notable for anything, but which for some reason stick in your mind. Any reminder of them, no matter how small, can take you right back to that point and place in time. For Nathan Wright, such a moment would always be that particular car journey on that hot July afternoon; in spite of everything else that was to follow that day, this was the part of it he would always remember the most clearly.

Even when he was an old man, the details would always be there. The seats in Elise's car were boiling from having been under the sunlight blazing in through the windows for so long. There was that aroma of warm vinyl, mixed with the rich smell of nicotine and tobacco from her cigarette. There was a battered copy of Melody Maker in the footwell behind the driver's seat, and an empty Cherry Coke bottle next to Nathan in the back.

Then Gemma stuck a tape into the car stereo – it was a Madonna album, True Blue. The track order was burned into Nathan's brain from many journeys in Elise's car where it was playing. Elise put her hand to the stereo and turned it up loud as they raced along the Arundel Road, towards Worthing. Forever more, whenever Nathan would hear the opening bars of 'Papa Don't Preach' at any point in his life, he would feel the rush of memories like a punch to the stomach, and would be back there instantly. He could see the interior of that car, smell the sunlight and nicotine, and be ten years old again.

Nostalgia in itself is probably not a great reason to write a novel, but that doesn't seem to be Hayes' purpose as he gets into the mechanism, casting warm familiarity over an era some may remember quite differently, and without stooping to the sentimentality of Stewart Maconie bleating on about spangles or Nick Berry giving Myra Hindley a friendly clip around the ear to a soundtrack of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. He proves that maxim I'm sure I've heard somewhere about a good story being as much in the telling as the tale; in short, he's a skilled communicator, not least for having just conned me into reading a novel about cricket.

In fact never mind just cricket, all those elements which could have gone so horribly wrong are handled with a rare lightness of touch - real emotion and pathos achieved without pulling the obvious teary-eyed rabbits from overwrought hats. It's a long time since I've been genuinely moved by an emotional reunion scene. More often I'm left only with a slightly wearying insight into the author's viewing habits begging the question of whether there's anyone left who still regards novels as novels rather than potential Hollywood source material.

The Wicket in the Rec, in case all this gushing gives the wrong impression, is by no means the greatest novel I've ever read, but it really is astonishingly good, and probably not even the greatest novel Paul Hayes will write. If there's any justice - which admittedly there may not be - this guy shouldn't have to spend too much longer worrying about getting published.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Republic

Plato The Republic (approx. 375BC)

In which Plato, philosopher and mathematician of Classical Greece, student of Socrates and tutor to Aristotle, author of Socratic dialogues, founder of the Athens Academy and by association - so it might be argued - western philosophy and the entire methodology of modern science, tells us:

When they are young, children should only tackle the amount of philosophic training their age can stand; while they are growing to maturity they should devote a good deal of attention to their bodies, if they are to find them a useful equipment for philosophy. When they are older and their minds begin to mature, their mental training can be intensified.

I suppose this is why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Plato, or at least to reading things which have pointed me in the general direction of reading Plato, these being in no particular order Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Andrew Hickey's Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and Richard Flowers' aNARCHY rULES.

Additionally, having spent a great deal of time immersed in Precolombian Mexican culture, I've come across numerous aspects of Nahua theology bearing apparent comparison with Plato's theory of forms. Said theory very generally holds that each object has an immaterial essence describing its properties in relation to which the physical form is merely an imperfect manifestation. I have long been keen to further the model of Precolombian Mexican cultures as essentially civilised and progressive by some definition, or at least very different to the popular and sanguinary image that Mel Gibson chose to reiterate in his shitty film. My basic theory has it that, for the most part, Mexica and related cultures differed from those of Ancient Greece and Rome only in terms of regional detail and methods by which intellectual achievement was preserved for the benefit of generations to come. Alphabetic script was well adapted to this latter task and so we are able to look back on Greece and Rome with due reverence. On the other hand, Mixteca-Puebla pictographic script was unfortunately less suited to the preservation of philosophical rhetoric, and oral tradition could only carry so much over to the Postconquest era given the general demonisation of the Prehispanic past, a demonisation which unfortunately continues to this day.

So with this in mind and to get to the point, it seemed like time I made the effort to read Plato rather than relying on what I imagined he might have said.

Plato was the student of Socrates, and many of his dialogues reputedly capture the philosophical discussion of his esteemed tutor and associates, which is handy seeing as Socrates himself never bothered writing any of that stuff down. What we have is therefore, in essence, some blokes talking about stuff for a few hundred pages, although the significance of this should be not underestimated given the topics discussed and the methods by which they are debated. Socratic dialogue approaches a subject - in this case society - and bombards it with questions, rhetorical and otherwise, so as to test its limits and assess relative values until a conclusion can be asserted. It's the basis for the modern scientific approach which favours evidence over supposition, and I guess Greece was either where it began, or at least where it was first described in surviving media.

The Republic builds a perfect society consistent with the values of Socrates, Plato, Glaucon and assorted buddies dropping in for a beer and a chin wag about life and that during the course of the narrative, so aside from what philosophical ideas arise during the course of debate, it's also precedent to Thomas More's Utopia and its kin. Thanks I suspect to Desmond Lee's sympathetic translation and insightful notes, The Republic is nothing like so dry as I feared it might be, and is even illuminating in places. That said, I found it a little difficult to get beyond the formula for this perfect society  delivered as part and parcel with all sorts of crazy shite that suggest not so much the cultural differences of people living in a very different world as a basic failure to understand human nature. Most obviously absurd is the notion of a society which takes infants from their mothers at birth, and which communally raises its children without the supposed weakening influence of familial affection. It's this sort of uninformed idealism which somewhat undermines Plato and his pals as being the enlightened champions of reason to which they clearly aspired, but never mind.

Equally curious - and equally redolent of more recent aspirationally totalitarian states - is the dim view Plato takes of poetry, and seemingly of artistic expression itself:
'...we shall have to follow the example of the lover who renounces a passion that is doing him no good, however hard it may be to do so. Brought up as we have been in our own admirably constituted societies, we are bound to love poetry, and we shall be glad if it proves to have high value and truth; but in the absence of such proof we shall, whenever we listen to it, recite this argument of ours to ourselves as a charm to prevent us falling under the spell of a childish and vulgar passion. Our theme shall be that such poetry has no serious value or claim to truth, and we shall warn its hearers to fear its effects on the constitution of their inner selves, and tell them to adopt the view of poetry we have described.'

I didn't quite get this at first, but then I thought of all those Doctor Who fans insisting on the mighty power of their belovedly brilliant marketing franchise by virtue of everyone else thinking it's brilliantly brilliant so your (sic) just jealous; and thinking of them in respect of all the wonders they'll never experience because, lacking screamingly brilliant jokes about brilliantly wearing a fez and shit, anything not directly related holds no interest. It's that sort of militant resistance to curiosity in respect of anything beyond the immediate object of fixation that I find terrifying, and I guess it put the wind up Plato too.

The Republic is an interesting historical document, and almost certainly fascinating if the Greeks are your thing. Oddly, and rather gratifyingly, it presents a snap shot of a society at an equivalent level of intellectual development to that of Mexico, superior in some respects, markedly inferior in others - which is what I had hoped for, but didn't really anticipate finding. I'm glad I read it, but I'm equally glad that it wasn't longer.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Philip K. Dick Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1970)

Award yourself two points if you now have the first Tubeway Army album on your internal stereo rather than the Blade Runner soundtrack. Recently on a plane I had the option of watching the remake of Total Recall, a cover version of a film loosely based on something Philip K. Dick scribbled in the margin of an overdue library book. I couldn't be arsed and instead ended up watching Ted, Mean Girls, and Men in Black 3, all of which were pretty great. The more Dick I read - or rather that I re-read by this point - the less well-disposed I become towards misjudged cinematic interpretations full of flashing lights and male models demanding to know what is real. Excepting Linklater's excellent A Scanner Darkly, not one of them has either the wit or charm of the novels with which they've taken such huge liberties. Gary Numan is therefore greater than Ridley Scott, but I expect most of you already knew that.

Flow My Tears is I suppose what you might call a transitional novel. The two halves of Dick's brain were still on speaking terms, but both had sights set on higher and different paths. It's a precursor to the full bipolar genius of A Scanner Darkly and those later, even stranger books. Here we have the archetypal Dick character as jet-setting, internationally known lounge singer and talk show host waking up to a world which contains no record of his ever having existed, a world which has adopted the habit of sending anyone lacking the requisite identification off to a labour camp.

Flow My Tears reads something like a dialogue between Dick and himself - Jason Taverner as the established but increasingly alienated author in his forties, very much aware that the world is moving on and that creatively speaking, the game is probably up: Police General Felix Buckman as the more objective voice, stood some way back, disdainful of Taverner's self-involvement, of his ever having bought into the illusion of his own fame. Throw in an incestuous relationship with a twin sister whose death restores reality, albeit a more sober reality for having been faced with its own absolute lack of meaning, and you have something which works on many levels. It would be pure autobiography but for the layered symbols.

It's been a long time since I read Flow My Tears, and I recall regarding it as one of my absolute favourite Dicks - if you'll pardon the expression - and now I remember why. One of his very best, in my view.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Wil Huygen & Rien Poortvliet Gnomes (1976)
And so we dip a toe into that peculiar netherworld of fiction presented as fact, often an overlooked genre and probably because  whether or not it constitutes any form of storytelling tends to depend on the book in question. The Book of the War or, I suppose, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men are probably good examples, titles easily identified as literature by the presence of a narrative; Stewart Cowley's Spacecraft 2000 to 2100AD seems more ambiguous, possibly because the writing made for a poor match to the wonderful illustrations of Chris Foss and others, amounting to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe with much better pictures.

Huygen and Poortvliet's seventies smash is essentially Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady with gnomes, adopting a conversational sketchbook format which works well, maintaining an amiable tone whilst cancelling out the potential for anything too excessively twee with a wealth of anthropological detail - the life expectancy of gnomes, geographical distribution, common illnesses, and so on. It's convincingly thorough, beautifully painted, and very difficult to dislike. Furthermore, whilst there's nothing too smart-arsed here - gnomes taking crystal meth or rocking out to the MC5 - the absolutely familiar folklore is captured with such a fresh approach as to make one forget that these are related to those little plaster guys who sit around in gardens holding fishing rods.

Since reading The Goblin Reservation wherein widely respected author Clifford D. Simak introduces gnomes to the science-fiction landscape for the very good reason that he felt like it, I've come to appreciate the pointy-hatted ones like no other folkloric creature. There's something pleasantly autonomous about our friend, the gnome, something that resists coercion by authors. There were no gnomes in The Lord of the Rings because their presence would have made Tolkien's great work seem ridiculous, spoiling the frowning thrust of its self-important bluster; conversely, any writer peddling ironic gnomes, post-modern gnomes, gnomes with fucking piercings who listen to Skrillex - can be automatically dismissed as an arsehole thus saving us the bother of reading their work.

Unsurprisingly, Gnomes closes with an ecological message; but it's valid, worth repeating, and is entirely in keeping with the theme. This book shouldn't work at all, but it's both a delight and an education. At the risk of sounding like an absolute twat, I can't help but wonder if Gnomes hasn't tapped into something more deeply philosophical than is immediately apparent.

That's me in Pseuds' Corner then.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Elektra: Assassin

Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz Elektra: Assassin (1987)

By the time I made it to art college, 2000AD had turned a bit shit thanks to dross like The Mean Arena and Meltdown Man, so I packed it in on the grounds of my subscription having become a financial extravagance and a possible hindrance to the likelihood of my enjoying sexual intercourse with nude ladies. I soon realised that, regardless of whether or not I read comics, no nude art college lady was particularly likely to jump my bones mainly because I had the wrong haircut - actually the haircut later popularised by members of Nirvana - so I thought fuck it, and went back to the comics again.

This was partially the fault of Charlie Adlard, then making Super 8mm zombie films as part of the same course. He'd given me a lift home and we stopped off at Sainsbury's for a pint of milk when I noticed an X-Men comic in the magazine department - Uncanny X-Men #211 for the benefit of anyone to whom such things might be important. I bought it out of rampant curiosity, having lost touch with the X-Men roughly when I was eight. Charlie filled me in on what had been happening at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in my absence, happily without recourse to any of that shit about comics growing up or whatever. I responded well to Chris Claremont's Mutant Massacre saga, so Charlie wrote me a prescription for Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and Elektra: Assassin, thus introducing me to the astonishing artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz.

Back before Frank Miller found himself forced into reincarnating as Ted Nugent by the commie pantywaistery of freedom-hating pinko liberals like myself and almost everyone I know, he wrote some pretty snappy comic books, and I'd argue the case for Elektra: Assassin being the snappiest. It was produced very much as a collaboration, the definitive and final scripts drawn up in response to what the artist had done for earlier drafts - Sienkiewicz's art being so distinctive, so powerful, that a script failing to acknowledge whatever had started happening on the page since Bill got to work with his crayon would inevitably look out of step.

All the weird effects that have been employed in comic book art since the 1980s, photocopies and objects taped or even bolted onto the page, panels looking to Gustav Klimt or abstract expressionism rather than Jack Kirby - I'm hazy on the precise details of who did what first, but I never saw anything of the kind before Bill Sienkiewicz embarked upon the experiments that were to provide Dave McKean with his entire career. Elektra: Assassin is neither deep nor particularly profound, a basic action thriller, well told with all sorts of big grisly ideas and psychological touches; and elevated to the status of Art with a capital A by the means of its telling. For those who need it, there's probably a message about corrupt politicians and the advent of spin, although with hindsight there's something a little bothersome about the villain being an evil and conspicuously liberal presidential candidate, what with Miller recently denouncing Adolf Hitler as a mommy's boy bleeding heart faggot and all.

Still, best to remember him when he wasn't a reactionary old tosser, when he worked in tandem with true genius to produce stuff like this. Elektra: Assassin is probably one of the greatest things Marvel ever did.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton Jurassic Park (1990)

I've always been a sucker for anything involving dinosaurs, and saw the film version of Jurassic Park during the first week of its release. Tellingly I was the oldest person in the entire cinema, surrounded entirely by school kids who, having seen it all before, sat idly crunching popcorn and probably wondering what the fuck was wrong with the old bloke who kept shitting himself and leaping ten foot in the air every time a CGI reptile broke wind.

Inevitably I snapped up the novel, and my girlfriend of the time thoughtfully bought me a Jurassic Park school set including pencil case, ruler, and notepad. With hindsight I can't help but wonder if she was taking the piss, but never mind. I recall the novel as amazing, but looking back I am now forced to concede that I was simply more easily impressed back then, largely by virtue of not being particularly well read. Not like nowadays...

Michael Crichton certainly has a talent, and the great strength of this novel is its science, particularly if you hold slightly evangelical views endorsing the endothermic over the ectothermic model of dinosaur metabolism and are likely to punch the air when an author namechecks palaeontologist Robert T. Bakker, as I do and did. To deal with specifics, it's not so much the letter of the science involved as the vivid thrust of massive ideas, even the truly ropey stuff like amphibian DNA as a sort of genetic polyfiller allowing us to clone dinosaurs despite it being effectively impossible - hardly a serious literary crime, or at least no more so than any tale set on another planet or featuring talkative aliens. Even more amazing is that Crichton delivers his occasionally shaky science in great big awkward chunks of exposition, lectures delivered in answer to questions that no-one asked, and still he gets away with it.

To be brutally honest, the characters are flat and the prose is extraordinarily repetitive, reading as though written for a much younger audience with protagonists directly referred to by name, sentence after sentence: Jim looked at the red cup, but then that was Jim for you; Jim scoffed a pizza, the pizza that the man had given to Jim; Jim; Jim; Jim; Jim; Jim over and over like in Peter and Jane for those with the attention span of a goldfish who might have forgotten the identity of the only person in the entire scene. This isn't to say that it's technically wrong so much as bland: none of which seems to make much difference to a story that remains gripping from start to finish despite the fact that the fucking thing shouldn't work at all. I'm not sure I've read anything else with quite such serious problems which nevertheless delivers the goods in spite of itself.

I'm not convinced that Jurassic Park was a good film even in the sense of Invasion of the Astro-Monsters being a good film, but still I loved every minute; except perhaps for Richard Attenborough's delivery of the line welcome to Jurassic Park, Spielberg's characteristic diabetes-inducing fetishisation of the kiddies, and the darling, let's have a baby shite. Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Peck, and Samuel L. Jackson are always good for business, actors who could probably wring Taxi Driver intensity from a Bob the Builder script. Somehow though, whilst there's a strong argument for the film being a story rescued from its author, the book wins out for all that it is undoubtedly flawed, even shite by some definition - a lovely song played on bum-trumpet, arse-bugle and smegma-bagpipes.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Mary-Sue Extrusion

Dave Stone The Mary-Sue Extrusion (1999)

Some may recall how when Doctor Who collapsed under the strain of its own increasingly desperate attempts to remain relevant back in 1989, Virgin publishing took it upon themselves to keep the wheels turning as a series of original novels. The New Adventures, as they were called, were for the most part decent, doing for Sylvester McCoy's version of the Doctor that which the screen version had never quite pulled off; and whilst there were a few duds, the range was as a whole pretty successful with books written as science-fiction novels that just happened to borrow from an existing mythos rather than simply trying to recreate a kid's telly show. The ambition, even if it wasn't always realised, was at least a bit more far reaching than what would happen if the Monoids teamed up with the Voord.

The BBC in their finite wisdom saw fit to take back all the licensing rights in 1996 when the advent of the Paul McGann film hinted at there being a previously untapped udder swinging somewhere beneath that big old Doctor Who cash cow; but only slightly daunted, the New Adventures continued minus the Doctor or Time Lords, shifting the focus to Bernice Summerfield, a companion introduced in one of the earlier Virgin novels and thus impervious to the machinations of the BBC legal department.

Bernice Summerfield was a character I never quite warmed to - a sort of archaeological Emma Thompson serving as conduit for wearisome jokes about hangovers and bonking, and actually using the word bonking just like in all those supposedly edgy 1980s sitcoms; but, with the emphasis still on a decent novel rather than a franchise, the better authors usually got away with it.

Of the eighty-four New Adventures that were published before Virgin decided they'd tried their best but it just wasn't happening - Doctor Who fans tending to judge quality in terms of whether or not it features a Doctor Who logo and is thus brilliantly brilliant and brilliant and stuff - Lawrence Miles' Dead Romance and Dave Stone's The Mary-Sue Extrusion were, I would argue, probably the best; and it's interesting that Bernice Summerfield doesn't feature at all in one, and is peripheral in the other.

The Mary-Sue Extrusion casually tosses out big ideas in quick succession, contains not one single clichéd or otherwise prosaic sentence, and even manages to examine itself without coming over all Grant Morrison. The term Mary-Sue refers to a semi-autobiographical stand-in, usually wish-fulfilment on the part of an author who wants to shag the main character of the novel. I sort of wonder if this story was an attempt to examine this aspect of a range with at least a few contributing Emmathompsonophiles and to get beyond the routine spacefaring archaeologist schtick. Whatever the case, it certainly made for better reading than some of the previous titles. The Mary-Sue turns out to be a personality transplant taken on by Bernice Summerfield after deciding she wants to be someone else for a while, thus becoming Rebecca. This in itself, particularly in diary extracts where Bernice discusses her relationship with Rebecca - still misleadingly identified as an individual in her own right - hints at a further level of introspection given how the range was faring under the editorial direction of Rebecca Levene. That post-modern stuff is rarely so understated as here, and The Mary-Sue Extrusion operates on more levels than most writers can juggle without looking like tits, and it does so with effortless grace.

Dave Stone has been described as a Marmite author - you either love his writing or you hate it - which I can't help but read as shorthand for you either love books trying something a bit more ambitious than pretending to be a 1970s TV show or you hate them; but different strokes and all that...

I tend to think a story stands on the strength of its telling over and above details of plot or whether there's a Doctor Who logo on the cover - yeah, I know that seems a wild and radical notion - and Dave Stone's writing is rich and expressive, a joy to read which elevates a very simple story - the private investigator on the trail of a missing person - to something greater than one might expect of a book published as part of a range and committed to furthering a continuing story.

The New Adventures range began with the intention of getting new authors in print, and I always imagined this implied a hope of one or two going onto bigger and better things. Miserably, this doesn't quite seem to have happened as it might have done, and it's a real shame because The Mary-Sue Extrusion is at least as good as Iain M. Banks' better novels, and it pisses all over what I've read of Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown and the like.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Place of Dead Roads

William S. Burroughs The Place of Dead Roads (1983)

To start at the beginning, sort of, Genesis P. Orridge is a performance artist, or at least that's as good a description as any. Amongst his more recent and better publicised deeds was a course of gender reassignment and surgical modification aimed towards meeting his wife of the time at a sort of middle ground between male and female. This was, he informed us, pandrogyny, a clever and important new subversive and playful concept challenging our preconceptions and stuff. The term is a fiendishly clever and subversive conflation of the Greek stem pan- meaning all and androgyny which refers to having both male and female characteristics (thus not actually requiring the pan- prefix at all) meaning neither quite entirely like a man nor a lady which playfully challenges our preconceptions. Do you see?

For all his finer qualities, I doubt Genesis P. Orridge can even manage a poo without redefining it in a new subversive context so as to challenge our preconceptions, probably wiping from side to side with pages torn from a Gutenberg Bible, playfully rebranding the deed as coprommunion or something. Still, it takes all sorts...

Three decades ago Genesis P. Orridge was in a band called Throbbing Gristle. I dearly loved and still appreciate their noisy, largely improvised electronic music, possibly having been primed to enjoy such things at the age of six by what the BBC Radiophonic Workshop did for The Sea Devils. In interview, P. Orridge would tend to make frequent reference to beat author William Burroughs as a significant influence, so just like all the other little suckers who would automatically rush out and buy up the entire Nolan Sisters back catalogue on the strength of P. Orridge observing how I'm in the Mood for Dancing is actually a playfully subversive challenge to our preconceptions regarding something or other, I read everything I could find. The upside of this is that I discovered Burroughs, a fascinating and thought-provoking author. More annoying was that once I'd read everything I could find, I noticed Burroughs had become the poster grandfather for humourless wankers in black clothes, which was both off-putting and an uncomfortable reminder of how close I had myself sailed towards becoming a humourless wanker in black clothes.

This, I imagine, is probably why I avoided the man for so long. I pretended I wasn't in when he called around, and I effected an unconvincing oriental accent when he phoned.

Burroughs famously wrote by means of cut-up text, although this should not detract from his already being an extremely competent writer. A cut-up is text derived from a random reordering of the words or phrases on a page, sometimes with a semblance of sense emphasised by means of fresh punctuation. The idea is in some way a literary equivalent of shamanic divination by means of entrails, tea leaves, the flight of birds, or any other effectively random source material which may be seen to reveal a pattern. Cut-ups, Burroughs believed, exposed truths hidden within the text, allowing the future to leak through to the present.

This, by way of example, is a cut-up of the second paragraph:
Probably wiping from Bible, playfully something still. It takes all with pages torn from a deed as coprommunion or side to side doubt. Genesis rebranding the new sorts for all his Gutenberg, manage a poo with to challenge our P. Orridge. Can even subversive context so as finer qualities I without redefining it, preconceptions.

Well, anyway. Whilst Burroughs incorporated cut-ups sparingly in his novels, the narrative as a whole tends to follow the random logic of the technique. Scenes are often short and to the point, heavy on ideas and dark humour, contradictions and non-sequiturs dominating as the story unfolds. If confusing, it's surprisingly engrossing and happily free of the sort of extraneous exposition required by a more obviously linear narrative; and as with anything of seemingly random order, if there's enough of it, a pattern tends to emerge whether intentionally on the part of the author or otherwise.

Written towards the end of Burroughs' life, The Place of Dead Roads reads a little like a loosely autobiographical summation as he prepares for death, although death has always been one of his themes, so that may just be me. It's roughly speaking a nineteenth century western, albeit one which follows its principal character around all the places Burroughs lived - London, Morocco, Paris, a colony on the planet Venus; and there is a sort of narrative logic, or at least more so than in many of his previous works. From this dreamlike succession of events, Burroughs applies his characteristically sharp wit to culture, conditioning, and the carnivorous nature of human society and stupidity and, for all that it makes little sense in linear terms, it hits hard as allegory.

Even if those who often hail Burroughs as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century so frequently turn out to be complete cocks, one shouldn't allow this to cloud judgement of his works, or the strong possibility that he probably
was one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

For what it's worth, anyone who regarded Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go as a work of substance and insight - as opposed to something distantly tied in to a cancelled kid's TV show - would probably find a lot to enjoy in The Place of Dead Roads.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham The Kraken Wakes (1953)

It seems somehow fitting that I should finally pop my John Wyndham novel cherry whilst staying at my mother's house with her copy of The Kraken Wakes, the same copy I began reading when I was ten, giving up after about twelve pages for fear of shitting myself. Wyndham's description of ominous objects observed falling into the sea remains psychologically potent, but thankfully I'm made of sterner stuff these days; and continuing the theme of coincidences  which seem like they should mean something but probably don't, I've just learned that Wyndham was born in Knowle, a village at about forty minutes from here by bicycle.


Anyway, Wyndham's novels were famously termed cosy catastrophes by Brian Aldiss, an accusation breaking down to what Aldiss viewed as middle class characters experiencing disaster as a bit of a wheeze in stories totally devoid of ideas, as were his exact words. Whilst it's true that Wyndham's characters tend to middle-class habits and the sort of witty observations one posthumously associates with Ealing comedies of the 1950s, the rest is bollocks; so Brian Aldiss can respectfully piss off, or better still, rewrite some of those shittier short stories about space wizards and special types of atoms thus preventing further incidents of pot driven kettle pigment designation.

Considering how many fictitious alien invasions I must have read over the years, its impressive to find one that retains such originality even half a century after it was written. These creatures, so it is reckoned, originate from a gas giant and, thus accustomed to life at immense atmospheric pressure, come to colonise the deepest reaches of our world's oceans. Once settled, they begin destroying ships, emerging briefly onto land to harvest biomass just as we send trawling vessels out across the water, before eventually melting the ice caps. They remain mysterious, pretty much invincible, and genuinely alien throughout. The novel, however, really isn't about an invasion, but rather represents a critique of human society, politics and the media all measured out by means of their reactions to the  xenobaths - ignoring the issue, finding scapegoats, infighting, assuming the problem will go away - and given current concerns about the environment and those agencies all busily devising ways by which we can get more cars out onto the roads, The Kraken Wakes remains as relevant today as it was in 1953. That something so genuinely grim can say so much and still retain its sense of humour suggests the work of a rare talent.

Cosy catastrophe, my arse.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell The Sparrow (1996)
I had this friend called Nellie, a Turkish woman who worked at Royal Mail. One night she was involved in a terrible car accident, or would have been had the Lord Jesus Christ not levitated her beloved Mini across the crash barrier at the crucial moment thus saving her life. She later offered this as proof of his divine glory, and yes I am aware of my not having capitalised the personal pronoun.

'It must have been Jesus,' she explained. 'How else would me car have ended up in the other lane, on the other side of that metal fing?'

Nellie, for all her likeable qualities, was essentially mad; and mad as in requiring serious medication in order to function within the community as opposed to just being a bit kooky. I'm not sure if her madness derived from nature or nurture but I'm inclined to blame the latter. Firstly, being lesbian, she already had a tough road to travel, born to a traditional Turkish family which viewed male children as beloved of God and which viewed a daughter as something by which one might procure a hard-working son-in-law. I'm not sure whether she was beaten as a child, although I recall darkly hinted mumblings along those lines, and I know her father sometimes left her locked inside a cupboard for up to six hours.

Eventually she found a job, a combination of pills which took the edge off the more extravagant gymnastics of her brain, and Jesus, who I would like to think helped in some way; but she was not generally speaking a happy bunny. She laughed, and was often very funny. She was a long way from being stupid or in any sense an unpleasant person, but always I had the impression of her being broken beyond repair; and she died of cancer in her forties, which was tremendously shit really.

I tended to nod, smile, and wait for it to pass when Nellie got onto the topic of himself upstairs, my reasoning being that if it was something which helped her through the day, then it wasn't really for me to point out how it was probably bollocks and in any case I wasn't interested. On one such occasion we were walking in Dulwich Park when I saw a jay, quite a rare sight in that part of London.

'Look,' I said, excited and pointing. 'A jay!'

Nellie shrugged. 'It's just some bird, innit?'

This made me sad. Colourful birds are not so common in England, and her comment struck me as typical of the attitude of a certain religious mindset which is seemingly unable to appreciate the wonder of almost anything unless viewed through its own specifically theological lens, like the moron who stands before Niagara Falls only able to consider its splendour in terms of something God did. Whilst religious themes might work as painting, particularly landscape painting, or music - forms of expression which, done right, can still communicate regardless of theological context, the written word seems more problematic, at least where The Sparrow is concerned.

I could be wrong but I get the impression Mary Doria Russell views love as the most powerful force in the universe. I myself suspect it's probably something like gravity or what you get when you smash a couple of atoms together. Her debut novel places a bunch of Jesuits in the position of being the first humans to travel to another planet and make first contact with an alien species for the purpose of learning to love them as they love all God's creations. For what it's worth, it's plausibly and intelligently done with nothing to upset Isaac Asimov in terms of the mechanics of such a voyage. The problem is that for me at least, The Sparrow lives up to few of the claims made by those glowing reviews quoted in the introductory pages, and once you get past the setting and the furniture of Christians in space or amongst the natives of the planet Rakhat, the rest is some bloke looking at Niagara Falls and thinking about Jesus a whole lot. The landing, for example, starts well before getting bogged down with ruminations upon one of the characters reconciling his Christianity with being a gay Texan through the infinite love of him upstairs. I realise this may seem a little harsh, but to paraphrase Burroughs, you cannot take bullshit into space.

Rarely is there a science-fiction novel that some bloke from some Seattle rag can recommend to his literate SF-challenged friends, it says here amongst similar accolades promising something more cerebral than the usual robots and spacecraft bollocks, the sort of mind-stretcher one expects from Margaret Attwood and her peers, the sort of sophisticated shit you can enjoy whilst sipping on some real fancy wine and that. The humour, highlighted by at least a few of the reviews, is at the level of smart comments made by characters from an episode of Friends, mostly followed by descriptions of how hard everyone laughed in response, I presume so as to show us how these are cool Christians rather than the stern, disapproving types. This actually constitutes reportage of wit rather than wit in its own right, I would argue; and these characters are neither especially memorable nor even easily distinguished from one another, not even our main man, the Priest Emilio Sandoz who just comes across as a bit of a cock. It probably didn't help that he is described as being madly in love with God, which for me places it all on the same level as Nellie's Mini Cooper miraculously levitated to safety by Jesus. I'm sure it communicates to those who are already there, but to the rest of us it suggests a lack of perspective.

On the other hand, the writing is okay, certainly readable if a little formulaic and overly reliant upon the attempted characterisation of a group of people for whom it is sadly difficult to care - a competently completed exercise submitted as part of some novel writing correspondence course.

I'm not averse to religiously themed fiction and, if anything, probably prefer it to the other tub-thumping extreme of droning atheism, but there's a way to do this stuff which communicates beyond those already converted - Philip K. Dick and Clifford D. Simak being two that spring to mind - and then there's Christian science-fiction just as there's Christian heavy metal, forms which, if they were really that bothered about engaging with the rest of us, might like to spend a bit more time on the means by which they communicate their message.

The message, or specifically the dialogue of The Sparrow is a response to the question of how a loving God can allow a universe of rape, murder, torture, and small Turkish girls locked in cupboards without food or water for six hours at a time. The subject, when at last it shows up, is handled extremely well and is presumably what has inspired those comments quoted on the opening pages. However, it's immensely aggravating that all of this good stuff should be concentrated in the concluding fifty pages with Russell finally getting serious and living up to the promise of the reviews; and it comes as so much of a contrast as to feel like the work of a different author. Following on from 450 pages with all the philosophical depth of a John Lennon motivational poster, all the supposedly spiritual shite that actually isn't anywhere near so profound as even Life of Brian, it's wonderful but still too little too late.

Onel Mehmet
 Rest in Peace
Hope you found what you were looking for, girl...

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Lurker at the Threshold

H.P. Lovecraft & August Derleth The Lurker at the Threshold (1945)
I haven't read Lovecraft in ages - ages probably equivalent in this case to about two decades, and it seems this figure still stands even after reading The Lurker at the Threshold which amounts - according to some bloke on the internet - to about fifty-thousand words of which a little over a thousand derive from a fragment penned by Chuckles before his untimely demise. Said fragment was subsequently expanded to novel length by August Derleth. One might at this juncture frown upon Derleth's sauce - although I'm told it's delightful with pheasant - but I'm not convinced this was undertaken entirely in the spirit of milking a dead cow, despite appearances. Aside from anything, the two of them were good friends - albeit solely through the postal service - and Lovecraft's name might quite possibly have vanished into pulp magazine obscurity were it not for August Derleth and Donald Wandrei publishing posthumous collections of his short stories. Furthermore, Derleth was himself not lacking in talent and contributed much to the Cthulhu mythos even to the point of providing its overarching title, to my mind an improvement on Lovecraft's preferred Yog-Sothothery which just sounds like some sort of weird and messy criminal offence. If anyone was qualified to write this novel then it was probably Derleth, and given how much use it makes of the mythos in question, it would  have been worse form to omit Lovecraft's name from the cover.

That said, for all his talents, Derleth was quite a different sort of writer to his friend, and whilst he pulls all the Lovecraftian moves you would expect, it's still not really the same. This isn't necessarily bad, for Derleth adds flourishes that Lovecraft would not have considered for one reason or another, writing from a slightly more worldly, even mainstream perspective.

The only problem is that The Lurker at the Threshold is still very much the generic Lovecraft tale and as such might arguably work better in short form. The innocent inherits the house that no-one dare discuss, assumes all those tales about his deceased relative summoning tentacled types to be bullshit, but little does he realise...

Lovecraft wrote this same tale over and over, mostly getting away with it through the sheer poetry of his prose and the immediacy of tales which demanded no suspension of disbelief lasting much longer than an hour; but after a hundred pages of our hapless and transparently doomed hero desperately maintaining that nothing funny is going on and certain nameless monstrosities from beyond the dawn of time can probably be put down to poor digestion, he begins to look like a bit of an idiot.

The Lurker at the Threshold is enjoyable enough depending on how much you're into Lovecraft, but most readers will probably be better off with the short stories.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Step to the Stars

Lester del Rey Step to the Stars (1954)
I suspect Step to the Stars was written for a juvenile audience; either that or Lester del Rey avoided making too many assumptions about the reading age of his fans. This is not, by the way, either a criticism, faint praise, or necessarily a concern which should inhibit anyone's enjoyment of this book.

Step to the Stars adopted a hard science-fiction approach to describing the construction of the world's first space station back when such ambitious ideas still seemed fresh and practical. Nothing described here was beyond the limits of 1950s technology, although much of the space program proved more difficult and considerably more expensive than del Rey envisioned. For something written during an era of bug-eyed monsters, Step to the Stars is surprisingly restrained and, crucially, perhaps a little more accessible than the likes of Asimov or Heinlein, keeping its physics within the limits of stuff that was probably taught in the average high school science class - centrifugal force, escape velocity, gravity and so on. Most peculiar of all, its subject is essentially a building site in space with astronauts floating around wondering what to do, having the foreman mumble that Hank could use a hand over by the solar panels and so on; and its central character is a promising young engineer called Jim whose talent is recognised when he makes a good job of fixing some important space guy's car. It's implausible in view of what we've learned since, but it's difficult to dislike such an amiable narrative.

Most impressive of all is the time spent proselytising for the good sense of America putting the first orbital station into space so as to leap ahead in the arm's race. As an argument it's absolutely convincing regardless of personal opinion, suggesting the author had a genuine fear of the eastern block and all that other stuff that terrified Americans in the 1950s; yet not once souring the tone with any obvious McCarthyite tendencies. So it's all the more effective when del Rey explains, quite unexpected, that the people of Communist countries are human too, and maybe having great big fuck-off sized missiles pointing at them isn't such a great idea, and perhaps we all need to do some growing up before we take all our political baggage beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

For a kid's book, or at least something that reads like a kid's book, and for a narrative spelt out in primary colours, Step to the Stars carries a surprisingly sophisticated message which remains as relevant now as I'm sure it seemed then. If more children's authors could strike such a fine balance between keeping it breezy without any dumbing down or reducing complex arguments to homilies, maybe we'd have a slightly more literate society.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)

About six months ago I flew back to England taking with me Neal Stephenson's somewhat chunky Anathem as aeronautical reading material; and here I am once again crossing the Atlantic with another arguably classic science-fiction novel occurring within a post-apocalyptic monastic order. It's a coincidence entailing no more conscious choice on my part than what leapt out at me from the to-read pile; but an odd one, not least given that a significant theme of Miller's book is that of history repeating; and as with Anathem, whilst recognising obviously worthy qualities, I'm left somehow underwhelmed.

A Canticle for Leibowitz began as three novella length shorts in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction, so closely thematically linked as to inspire the author to a realisation of having effectively  written a single coherent novel following publication of the third. The story begins with efforts to posthumously canonise Leibowitz the scientist as a Saint by the brothers of a post-nuclear Christian order, the last outpost of reason in a new dark age of American history. Over the course of the next few hundred years - or the other two short stories if you prefer - civilisation is reborn, technology and science restored, mistakes repeated as they reinvent the weapons for which Saint Liebowitz was partially responsible first time around. In the story, Liebowitz is famously remembered as having regretted his work - doubtless a nod to both Oppenheimer and Einstein - and is thus posthumously revered, in case you were wondering.

The detail of the novel is often exemplary, notably circuit diagrams designed by Liebowitz treated as sacred relics, reproduced and illuminated by the monks without full understanding of what they represent; and some good meaty points are made - not least that, contrary to the doctrine of many a tub-thumping atheist, the church has traditionally been a patron of arts, culture, civilisation, learning, and progress. Furthermore, A Canticle for Leibowitz is beautifully written - I think I noticed Graham Greene referenced in comparison in some secluded corner of the internet, which seems fair enough; so much so that even those who don't really like science-fiction could probably be coaxed into reading it.

I guess the only problem for me was that for all that there may be to recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz, it felt very much like three novellas bolted together, and three novellas which each could have stood to be a little shorter. Whilst the detail is engrossing, it sometimes ambles along without really doing much. It's a good novel, but I'm not convinced it's a great novel, and as with Anathem,  the ambition of its ideas should surely have amounted to more.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Shaver Mystery

Richard S. Shaver The Shaver Mystery books one & two (2011)

Back in the 1940s Amazing Stories ran a series of shorts and novellas submitted by Richard S. Shaver. Most of these occupied a shared mythology wherein a technologically advanced prehistoric civilisation ended with the destruction of Atlantis leaving only subhuman creatures known as Dero to terrorise the survivors; and we are those survivors, going on oblivious to our planet as host to a subterranean realm comprising a global network of caves and tunnels, this being the realm of, amongst others, the Dero. It seems that much of the cast of human history, not least the world's major religions, can be traced back to the caves by one means or another. The mythic Satan was, for example, a feared subterranean ruler known as Sathanas who, like the Dero, made great and terrible use of advanced ray technology left behind following the destruction of Atlantis, rays by which those living below are still very much able to spy on surface dwellers and cause terrible things to happen.

What set Shaver's stories apart from others of the time was their being based on discoveries made in the tunnels when the author was himself abducted by the Dero, and so these tales are presented as fictionalised accounts of actual events. Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, saw some potential in this and encouraged Shaver to keep it coming, as did numerous letters sent in from persons who said they too had experience of the Dero and their hypogean world.

It probably doesn't take a psychology degree to recognise that the Shaver mythos has about it more than a touch of paranoid schizophrenia - the conspiracy, persecution by mysterious forces, hidden worlds and messages beamed by ray operators directly into one's head. Additionally, Shaver's writing has a certain quality suggestive of a thought process which, if not exactly disordered, almost certainly made one hell of a lot more sense to the author than it does to me. Reading the stories collected here, it's difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Richard Shaver was not a well man.

That said, I can't help feel he may have been done something of an injustice by Armchair Fiction, the otherwise commendable publishers of these collections, who seem to have presented the man's work as the Plan 9 from Outer Space of science-fiction literature - although I'm not sure this is necessarily either better or worse than Ray Palmer's motives, whatever they may have been.

Taken on face value, Shaver reads a little like A.E. van Vogt taken up a few notches and channelling maybe Clark Ashton Smith, sometimes confusing, undoubtedly intense, but with a command of language that is at times quite arresting and elegant. He may have been bonkers, but it seems quite wrong to suggest that he lacked talent - and for my money I've read much, much worse written in less coherent form, but enough about Brian Aldiss...

The Shaver mythology might almost be the Cthulhu mythos if you factor in a basic assumption that advanced technology tends to involve Tesla coils and the sort of stuff you would have seen in Flash Gordon - even if the poor guy did believe it was real, it's at least as richly absorbing as anything Lovecraft wrote providing you don't mind the occasionally confusing drift from narrative purpose.

Shaver's tales might be regarded as the literary equivalent of outsider art - I've always hated that term myself, and only use it in lieu of any more convenient and potentially less divisive alternative - but if that ranks him alongside Richard Dadd, Louis Wain or any of those other painters loved by the surrealists on the grounds of their having painted some damn good stuff - then fair enough. As with A.E. van Vogt, I wouldn't recommend too much Shaver in one sitting, but that poor troubled guy definitely had something.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Essential Warlock

Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and others Essential Warlock (2012)
Know you this, that Marvel's Adam Warlock comic got off to an impressive start as an ambitious parable of a Christlike superhuman saving an alternate Earth from both its wrathful creator and his errant fallen angel, the wolfish Man-Beast, the proverbial serpent in Eden and source of all this world's ills. It began in obvious homage to Jack Kirby's cosmic scale, written with an assumption of intelligent readership, and pulling no Marvel Shakespearian punches with plenty of lo, yonder, and yet where words may fail of hearing may not soundless rage prevail?

Where such affectations sometimes come off as just plain ridiculous, Roy Thomas makes them work with lines favouring genuine gravitas over mere pomposity - including at least two words I actually had to look up - and with such aplomb that even when the inevitable group of denim clad 1970s teenage sidekicks show up, whilst the integrity of the strip bends a little under the strain of the more prosaic dialogue of I dig and don't crowd me, Dave, the whole remains strong, perhaps even a little richer for the contrast. With Gil Kane's fantastic Kirby-inspired artwork, the earliest issues seem very substantial, even referencing black power and Chicano issues without going all Ben Elton, and generally carrying themselves with the dignity of good quality children's fiction - the stuff an adult can read without wincing or looking like a complete cock. Dammit - the opener is so good you don't even mind that the snake-headed guy is named Kohbra.

Unfortunately, after the first few issues, Roy Thomas and Gil Kane handed over the title to lesser talents and the book lost its distinguishing qualities, recycling the same story over and over - always Warlock's battle against the Man-Beast or his minions, teenage sidekicks serving mainly as hostage opportunities, and with the Marvel Shakespearian now seeming faintly absurd: the orchestra had begun to regret the kebabs consumed the previous evening, but luckily the Cockney Rejects were available to fill in on the second act of Die Walküre - if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Then along came Jim Starlin, alternately influenced by Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Michael Moorcock, transforming Warlock into a weird and wonderful superhero space opera which I suspect may borrow somewhat from Kirby's Fourth World,
except I'm unfamiliar with Kirby's Fourth World aside from a few slightly underwhelming issues of Mister Miracle by which I recognise the villainous Thanos as an obvious stand-in for Kirby's Darkseid. This Starlin version of Warlock was reprinted in the UK in Star Wars Weekly which is where I first encountered it, as one of a number of back-up strips that were slightly more engaging than the title feature. Even with my being no stranger to the nutty stuff thanks to Tom Baker on the telly and 2000AD comic, Starlin's Warlock struck me as particularly weird - vampiric soul gems, a wisecracking troll, an ally who falls in love with death and hopes to win her over by destroying the universe, anatomically bizarre aliens, and the main villain being Adam Warlock's future self just like in The Trial of a Time Lord more than a decade later; all drawn in the spirit of an age of concept albums recorded by bands dressed as wizards.

Returning to these stories forty years after they first appeared, whilst not quite so amazing as they seemed to my twelve year old self - art and script trying just a bit too hard on occasion - they remain nevertheless impressive, and certainly superior to all but possibly the initial Roy Thomas and Gil Kane run. Additionally, I'd wager at least one testicle on this version of Warlock being a significant influence on the young Grant Morrison. All those elements of his early Gideon Stargrave strips not directly inspired by Moorcock seem to have come from Starlin; and whilst we're here, with hindsight even Alan Moore's Roscoe Moscow carries more than a faint whiff of the same.

Unfortunately, once Adam Warlock rejoined the wider Marvel universe in the last few issues reprinted here, it all went back to extended fight scenes with assorted superheroes explaining the plot to one another in Marvel Shakespearian as the Beast exclaimed oh my stars and garters whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. It's a sad end to a story which, for at least a few issues, managed to raise itself up above the standard Marvel landfill of the time.

Reprinting no less than twenty-seven 1970s comics in a single volume as thick as a housebrick and retailing for mere pennies, Essential Warlock is well worth a look - mostly classic material, and the filler at least provides an insight into why X-Men was such a hit when Chris Claremont took over in 1975.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Out of Their Minds

Clifford D. Simak Out of Their Minds (1970)
...and whilst we're on the subject of reality as a function of consciousness, here we have one of Simak's Marmite books, so I have been led to understand, the novel besides which The Goblin Reservation reads like Of Mice and Men, the one where Cliff really went for it, throwing his main guy into a world populated by dinosaurs, demons, and cartoon characters - notably Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and good old Charlie Brown.

Or not as the case may be, for Out of Their Minds actually turns out to be a sober and surprisingly philosophical narrative on the nature of folklore and imagination, amongst other things. Fictional characters - and I mean fictional even within the context of the story - are introduced without so much as a whiff of post-modern novelty, and it seems particularly apposite that one of these characters should be a faithful and uncommonly sympathetic rendering of Don Quixote, himself a response to the literary traditions of Cervantes' time.

Out of Their Minds treats folklore as a by-product of human evolution crossed roughly with reality found in the eye of the beholder, or at least the eye of the one who gets to tell the story. It's spelled out in analogue rather than digital terms as with much of Simaks's writing, ideas offered for consideration rather than carved in stone. This is, I suspect, the secret of Simak's success, namely that he leaves the reader something to do; actually with a lot to do in the case of Out of Their Minds which is nothing if not multi-layered. This feels like one of those novels which delivers some new perspective each time you pick it up, and whilst I can see how it might not be to everyone's taste, I can also most certainly see why it has its fans.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Blood Music

Greg Bear Blood Music (1985)

I've been labouring under a misapprehension of Blood Music - the 1985 novel expanding upon a 1983 short story - as a cyberpunk landmark of some description, the first science-fiction novel to deal with nanotechnology; and because I can't be arsed to paraphrase, Wikipedia puts it thus:

The book has also been credited as the first account of nanotechnology in science fiction. More certainly, the short story is the first in science fiction to describe microscopic medical machines and to treat DNA as a computational system capable of being reprogrammed; that is, expanded and modified.

Except the tiny machines are laboratory tailored lymphocytes, and it reads more like one of those Michael Crichton medical dramas than anything beloved of people who regard Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time. This is, roughly speaking, a good thing.

Blood Music starts off as your basic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but with more jargon as our hero injects himself with lymphocytes he's created, this being done in hope of saving them from destruction by his entirely more sensible biological research laboratory boss guy. Rather inconveniently, it turns out that the lymphocytes have developed intelligence and the ability to restructure their host on a cellular level. The situation goes increasingly tits up as every last living cell in the United States is absorbed into a single massive continent sized dollop of sentient microbes who, because reality is a function of consciousness, begin to warp the established laws of the universe simply through the act of comprehension.

Bear writes well, keeping it quick and clean without unnecessary fuss, doing that airport blockbuster page turning thing without resorting to shorthand. Aside from slightly bland characterisation, there's big ideas and not much to fault, but still I can't help feeling that a story this weird could have used a bit more poetry, and should have lived up to at least some of the hype.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Fireclown

Michael Moorcock The Fireclown (1965)

An early work from himself, and an impulse purchase made on the grounds of it having the greatest cover of all time and featuring the Fireclown, a character whose subsequent japes in The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming made for such fine and impressively weird reading.

I gather Moorcock was still finding his feet when he wrote this. It certainly has its moments, but somehow lacks character and doesn't compare well even to The Shores of Death written only a year later. The Fireclown is conspicuously a parable, a parody of political systems, specifically English political systems of the 1960s wherein Harold Macmillan shaped politicians conspire against free-wheeling counter-cultural types. There's space travel, strange powers exerted over time, and futuristic fashions; but telephone switchboards are still worked by gossip prone operators, and somehow it feels very much a product of its time. Worse still, the first half is one of the least memorable things I've read in ages, very much a fumbled ball considering that it revolves around a revolutionary super-powered clown inspiring dissent in an underground city.

The Fireclown picks up towards the end, and it's nevertheless worth reading, but the promise of the cover isn't really delivered. Still, Moorcock's written about a million books, and off the top of my head I can think of at least six or seven that were brilliant in more or less every way, so the guy's entitled the odd dud.

Friday, 12 October 2012


Jean-Paul Sartre Nausea (1938)

Driving back from CD Exchange I slipped on my newly purchased Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized, skipping straight to the sublime 'Shine a Light' which I hadn't heard in many years. Completely unexpected, as the track played I was in tears, and I realised I hadn't listened to this album since my friend Andrew died in February 2009. Andrew had taped it for me, along with the music of many other artists who became firm favourites and whom I never would have listened to but for his recommendation. He was a good friend, a huge and positive influence during a slightly crappy period living in south-east London, and I would do absolutely anything were it possible to bring him back and give him the life he should have had rather than the one he ended up with.

I first read Nausea because Andrew insisted I read it, explaining that it was quite unlike any other novel. I've now read it five or six times and I'm still not sure what to make of it, or at least whether there's anything to make of it beyond that which has already presented itself. My first impression was that Nausea might to some degree describe what it was like being Andrew at least part of the time, and I found the novel dense and difficult. Then, during one of those days so bad that you can no longer even be bothered to feel pissed off, it suddenly made absolute sense, and telling this to Andrew, he agreed that a very specific frame of mind is necessary for full appreciation of Sartre's debut novel. I've re-read a few times since, and it's always been the same, always dependent on one being just the right hue of something or other that isn't exactly melancholic.

Sartre's Antoine Roquentin lives a solitary existence, sat alone in a cafe or bar, occasional conversations with a self-taught acquaintance whom he doesn't really like that much, and an increasing sense of repulsion, a sense that no object or event is a thing in itself, and that all is tainted by his own understanding - yer basic existential nausea, not to be confused with anything so obvious as self-hatred. I could have a go at getting into the details but it would probably be easier if you just read the book, keeping in mind that it works best when approached from a quite specific perspective, and will probably never be adapted for the big screen with Bruce Willis playing the pensive historian Roquentin.

This time, for some reason, Nausea works despite my being generally happy. Possibly it feels like I'm reading Andrew's biography. The themes are soft but profound, and far too subtle for anything that could be distilled into a neat sentence upon a Wikipedia page, which is I suppose why Nausea is a novel rather than a manifesto.