Thursday, 31 May 2012

A Voyage to Arcturus

David Lindsay A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
The greatest science-fiction novel ever written according to some, an incoherent pile of shit according to others, and a significant influence on the first two volumes of C.S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy. The most common complaint, if three minutes spent looking around on the internet are any indication, seems to be that A Voyage to Arcturus is  badly written, a complaint which I gather has gained such momentum over the years as to imprint the novel's cultural presence with a halo of testy defences. It's not very encouraging when even the back cover blurb quotes a review politely suggesting that its merits are conditional to sympathetic reading.

Typically, one summary nestled deep within the underpants of cyberspace and supplied by someone named Darius runs:

This really isn't a novel, and certainly not science-fiction. It is a bunch of parables, and parables that really make no sense. The book is mostly without any purpose. The only thing that kept me reading it was that I could not believe how bad it was, nor could I believe that anyone could recommend it or refer to it as a page-turner.

Followed immediately by:

Well, Darius, that just reveals the limited reach of your mind. Arcturus is a philosophical allegory, a post-Nietzschean Pilgrim's Progress. The inadequacy of successive perceptions is the point - all ultimately is illusion, facade and suffering. Twentieth century Gnosticism? A multidimensional Zen mandala? Probably both, and more.

This rebuttal, the work of someone named Schopenhauer, signs off with the suggestion that Darius should look elsewhere for phasers or lightsabers because clearly anyone picking up Lindsay's masterpiece and failing to recognise its genius would have been better off sticking with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and yes, I am being sarcastic just in case that wasn't obvious.

Whilst Schopenhauer defeats his own argument by revealing himself to be a bit of a wanker, and by suggesting that A Voyage to Arcturus might not be so much a novel as a multidimensional Zen mandala (there's no such thing by the way); and whilst the views of Darius may be perhaps a tad harsh, the sad truth lies, as always, somewhere between the two poles.

A Voyage to Arcturus, paradoxically contrary to the protests of its defenders, really isn't that badly written. The prose tends towards a certain purple quality with tinges of melodrama, but no more so than, for example, H.P. Lovecraft or A.E. van Vogt, but it does little to suggest anything fumbled for want of literary ability. The problem is that it just isn't very engaging. The visionary narrative unfolds with the pacing and logic of a dream, building up a steady rhythm of pleasantly strange images and experiences which ultimately amount to very little. Its supposedly great philosophical insights are not well expressed, and nor do they seem particularly profound - excepting I suppose the views of cretins who might be impressed by phrases like multidimensional Zen mandala.

As a tale in which a man is fired into space by dubious methods in order to have philosophical experiences amongst strangely allegorical beings, A Voyage to Arcturus is not so much early science-fiction as one of the last in a long line of novels in the loose tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac's comical history. It's fine so far as it goes, although D.H. Lawrence achieved the same brooding insights to  greater and more lucid effect without firing men into orbit or writing anything too closely resembling a philosophical shopping list.  Neither awful nor brilliant, just...

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

New Statesmen

John Smith & Jim Baikie with Sean Phillips & Duncan Fegredo unfortunately New Statesmen (1989)
Ah... the late 1980s when dance music wore sharp pastels and was easily identified by the ocean of reverb added to its snappy Yamaha RX15 drum machine; and when industrial music was essentially the same with the addition of taped televangelists proclaiming that Jesus doesn't like bummers - a conceit which even Cabaret Voltaire had abandoned by about 1984. I was surprised that the understanding of all Americans being homophobic rapture-happy bible bashers didn't really creep into comics until much later, at least not until Garth Ennis first mistook Quentin Tarantino's burger anecdotes for dialogue. There was of course Pete Milligan's run on DC's Shade the Changing Man which taught us that if you're at the Klan rally chewing rib whilst debating whether the subject of the latest public execution is either some no good son of a bitch or a real all-American hero yes siree, then you're probably in Texas.

In 1988, the Mighty Tharg, extraterrestrial editor of 2000AD, launched Crisis, a fortnightly comic featuring John Smith's first major series, New Statesman. Smith was, aside from a few one off efforts, something of an unknown quantity in 1988 so New Statesman, roughly speaking a dissection of US politics, was a bold undertaking, and one that Smith carried off well, complete with psychotic televangelists and yet happily without presenting either America or Americans as inherently evil because hey... McDonalds mkay! This earns my approval because, having moved here, Texas as the land of serial killing Baptists has come to look somewhat embarrassing in 2012. Let the country that is entirely without  xenophobic sibling-marryers cast the first cliché.

John Smith's foreword apologises for New Statesmen being an early work, bogged down with purple prose and trying far too hard to out-serious Watchmen, but there's really no need. Whilst it's true that the narrative is somewhat elusive in places, this works in the book's favour, tantalising with evocative dialogue and a subtext requiring the sort of reader involvement more commonly associated with the written word than graphic novel - a term I've never liked, but one that is for once appropriate. What some may regard as murky plotting, whether deliberate or otherwise, serves to reinforce the realism of the story, having more in common with an anecdotal and interpreted experience of daily life than the ruthless jigsaw puzzle narratives of Alan Moore, to name but one obvious example.

The art by Jim Baikie is similarly beautifully suited - solid, atmospheric, and limber; so it's a shame that some of New Statesman was drawn by Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo, both turning in pages that look like they were given to the work experience kid whilst Jim was on his break. Both Phillips and Fegredo went on to better things, it could probably be argued, although Philips never really struck me as anything better than competent, and Fegredo always seemed too messy. Unfortunately what we have here appears to be their really early work. It's clumsy, ugly, fanzine level stuff at best, and chapter five, page four is in particular so painful that it should win awards.

Aside from a few chapters having been drawn by people who very much weren't Jim Baikie, New Statesmen remains rewarding two decades later, refreshingly short on clichés, and all that is good  is so good as to cancel out crappy art bringing down the average.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel

François Rabelais The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1553)
A pedant might point out that the satirical writings of sixteenth century Franciscan monk François Rabelais might not really qualify as science-fiction in quite the same way as, for example, an episode of Blake's 7; but persons bringing Blake's 7 to the table have already betrayed themselves as simpletons and forfeited their stake in the argument so far as I'm concerned. Blake's 7 was bollocks even at the time, and Gargantua and Pantagruel features both giants and toilet humour, which is good enough for me. Some might say that's an unfair or even ludicrous comparison, but they're wrong.

No-one seems quite able to agree on the identity of the first modern novel, and the works of both Cervantes and Swift have been suggested as candidates presumably on the grounds of their having some sort of narrative progression. Whatever the case may be, it probably wasn't Gargantua and Pantagruel, the collected tales of a giant and his son belonging firmly in the tradition of early novels wherein people have long conversations about stuff. True, our heroes - mainly the giant Pantagruel and his human sidekick, Panurge - embark upon a series of adventures, visiting islands populated by the sort of beings which kept sixteenth century monks awake at night, notably a giant who eats windmills - but the ensuing japes and scrapes remain secondary to the discourse they inspire, representing a subtle difference of emphasis to the somewhat more dynamic Gulliver's Travels. This isn't a criticism. Simply an acknowledgement of this being an earlier work reflecting the efforts of an entirely different author.

Like Swift, Rabelais found endless entertainment in jokes about things plopping out of arses and landing upon human heads. Thus do we have the term Rabelaisian which may be applied equally well to both Gulliver's Travels and Viz comic, or at least Viz comic when it was funny. This was all something of a revelation for me, my previous experience of sixteenth century monks (which is more extensive than you might suspect) very much typecasting them as pious sorts with an abiding love for both Jesus and the Pope. Rabelais spends a lot of time chuckling over turds thrown as missiles, people drowning in lakes of piss, couples rubbing their bacon together, as he calls it, and taking the St. Michael out of God's alleged Earthly representative. He also spends a great deal of time discussing human concerns, society, morality and so on, and with an insight that seems refreshingly honest and open considering the writing of at least some of his contemporaries. I'm looking at you here, Fr. Sahagún.

Gargantua and Pantagruel is alternately both gripping and hilarious whilst at other times being somewhat repetitive and lacking in the energy which made Swift so engrossing, although in all fairness I  suspect this may be down to my being something of a thickie where the classics are concerned, so jokes about Pythagoras or Roman emperors tend to be wasted on me. As a satirical novel, it's pleasantly devoid of the misanthropy which infects the later books of Gulliver's Travels and is probably funnier in places, but despite all there may be in its favour, sadly it just hasn't aged as well.

Friday, 25 May 2012


William Gibson Idoru (1996)
By some definition Idoru might conceivably be the last novel William Gibson wrote before his version of the future became our present. Barring the prescient appearance of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, this is more or less our world: Japanese sex hotels, reality TV, Second Life, and Bono from U2 amongst other things. The idoru of the title is a virtual Japanese celebrity who, having developed sentience, decides to marry Bono of U2. Gibson swears blind that Rez of fictitious global megastars Lo/Rez is not Bono from U2, but let's come back to that one.

A significant element of Idoru is the divination of the future from trends found in the random cultural chaos of the present, in other words, pattern recognition. This is what Laney does - Colin Laney being one of the novel's principal characters - and what Gibson himself attempts in his writing. And apparently I was at it too, equating Rez to Bono for no immediately obvious reason, no revealing claim of I'm feeling especially Irish today, I think I'll have a potato. Then I find out that Idoru was written some time after Gibson interviewed Bono for Details magazine, a conversation which yielded this from the gurning Celtic Robin Williams impersonator:
"At first, when you're reading stories about your life in the media, who you're supposedly sleeping with, how much money you're supposed to be making, what you had for breakfast - you feel violated. Then you start to realize that the person they're describing has very little to do with you and is in fact much more interesting than you are."

This in turn inspired interviewer Gibson to mention virtual Japanese celebrities constructed from one girl's looks [and] another girl's voice. Not that this necessarily goes anywhere, but I find it interesting that I should have spotted a connection which wasn't overtly expressed in the text. Well done me.

Idoru is about surface, surface without substance, even surface as content in its own right. The narrative is relatively simplified in comparison to some of Gibson's other novels, shaping up much like a short story expanded by means of a more leisurely focus on detail. The only minor problem as I see it is that Gibson is such a master of detail - digressing into the cultural significance of a pair of trousers and all that sort of thing - he sometimes forgets to tell you what the fuck is actually happening, or perhaps assumes you'll divine it from amongst  the random signals just as Laney divines the significance of some bloke marrying a virtual woman by examining his digital entrails. The odd pointer along the lines of the famous man looked at the red cup would be helpful, but this is nevertheless beautifully written and thought provoking stuff so I'm not complaining.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Where The Evil Dwells

Clifford D. Simak Where The Evil Dwells (1982)
One of Simak's last novels and his third foray into full blown fantasy territory, Where The Evil Dwells recycles the formula of 1978's The Fellowship of the Talisman taking it somewhere much less comfortable. There's always been a streak of pessimism running through Simak's writing, a dim view of humanity's ever diminishing sense of responsibility usually taking the form of wistful acceptance that we as a species tend to make bad decisions. Here it sticks on the first Swans album and rams the volume up to ten:

"And nature, when you think of it, is cruel. Cruel and uncaring. Nature has no love; it cares not what happens to anyone or anything. There is no way in which it can be appealed to. You live according to its rules. Make one small mistake and it kills you, carelessly it kills you. the definition of evil is the lack of love. A thing cannot be truly evil except that it feels no love, perhaps doesn't even suspect the concept of love. The truly evil may not even love itself."

This is nothing new for Simak, but it's still a long way from his more customary assertion of the inherent wisdom of the natural world.

The emphasis is strikingly different from that of The Fellowship of the Talisman wherein even Scratch the demon is just some guy with horns and an unfamiliar set of values trying to do his job as best he can. Here the obligatory band of questing types are all more or less human, at least assuming the Knurly Man to be a neanderthal as implied, and the non-human is almost uniformly evil - even the unicorns and faeries. Stranger still is that none of the human protagonists are necessarily likeable. Harcourt, their leader and roughly speaking the hero, is himself a bitter, angry man who conspicuously acts like a massive cunt towards the troll who joins their less-than-merry band in search of a bridge to call his own.

Simak always had a knack for throwing the unexpected into the mix, suddenly taking the story in an entirely different direction on an apparent whim and nevertheless making it work. He does the same here, ending with the heroes realising that their quest has been a complete waste of time and their sought after grail equivalents weren't worth the effort. Whilst this may appear cynical, it works surprisingly well, suggesting that lessons have been learnt, the journey was more important than its destination and all that good stuff; and Harcourt finally stops abusing that poor troll.

I'm not convinced that Where The Evil Dwells works as a whole. It's mostly dark and conspicuously lacking in Simak's usual charm. If anything, it reads like a good idea that didn't work out because Simak himself never really had a well developed concept of evil.

Finally as a point of interest, as with The Fellowship of the Talisman, this novel sits at a particularly Simakian tangent to its declared genre, occupying a present in which Rome never quite fell and human culture was pretty much snuffed out around the time of the Renaissance by, of all things, the arrival of elder Gods of a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour - Clifford having been a fan of H.P. Himself in his younger days according to Frank Lyall. Despite the reservations stated above, thoughts are nonetheless provoked and the prose has a certain weight as is appropriate to its tone. I'm fairly certain that with a more dignified cover and less hysterical title this might have been recognised as a minor classic of the genre.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Hello and Welcome...

Some time back in 2008, having noticed there was a hell of a lot of science-fiction novels I'd never read, I upgraded my reading habits so as to branch out, take more chances, read things that had looked good in the store but which I'd never considered as anything I might myself appreciate. Additionally I wished to up my speed a notch so as to avoid ever again suffering some unengaging piece of crap dribbling away on my bedside table for three or four months at a time. Being something of a pedant and compiler of lists, and finding my hands free having given up the music reviews I'd been writing for The Sound Projector for a number of years, I took it upon myself to write about everything I read. It seemed a good way of keeping track, almost like a diary.
Suspecting that my own opinions didn't exist until someone else became aware of them, I began posting these reviews (beginning with Sphere's The Best of Robert Heinlein 1939-1942) on an internet forum under the heading Crappy 1970s Paperbacks with Airbrushed Spaceships on the Covers. It wasn't the greatest title in the world but it did a job of sorts, referencing the sort of things I'd seen on the shelves of WHSmiths when I was a kid, titles by Simak, Asimov, A.E. van Vogt and others which looked both amazing and beyond the means of my attention span; and it soon became redundant as I hoovered up novels dating from as far back as the 1500s, or which had only just been published, things that weren't really science-fiction, comic books, or whatever I felt like reading. The promise of Crappy 1970s Paperbacks was never really intended to be taken literally, particularly as I try to avoid reading anything crappy if I can help it, generic TV tie-in hackery for one glaring example.
There are reasons why I never set down my thoughts on (for example) J.K. Huysmans' Against Nature (1884) or Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) whilst nevertheless reviewing Will Self, Cyrano de Bergerac, Cervantes, or Philip K. Dick's posthumously published mainstream novels, but they're not necessarily coherent reasons, and certainly nothing so clearly formulated as Brian Aldiss insisting that Frankenstein was the first true science-fiction novel - (wrongly in my view, but never mind). Similarly there's no particularly clear reason why Pamphlets of Destiny, aside from wanting a change (coinciding with giving up on internet forums and continuing these reviews as a blog) and the word pamphlet being 22.7% funnier than paperback.
My reviews of two hundred or so other things I've read can probably still be found elsewhere on the internet if you care enough to seek them out, still lurking in virtual places towards which I no longer feel so charitable as to grant the oxygen of free publicity, or even the oxygen of oxygen for that matter. Or there's always the collected edition, itself a paperback with all of the grammar and spelling tarted up, if you're feeling compelled to order something from a website and aren't too fussed about what it is.
Anyway, enough of that which has been and gone.
Let's do this...