Saturday, 30 June 2012

My Idea of Fun

Will Self My Idea of Fun (1993)

Going over what actually happens in My Idea of Fun, whatever the novel may be trying to say, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that comparisons will be loose-fitting approximations at best. There's an element of Faust, it could be argued, although Ian Wharton initially has knowledge rudely thrust upon him and the Devil turns out to be someone other than the entirely Crowleyan figure of Samuel Northcliffe, The Fat Controller. One might equally regard My Idea of Fun as a coming of age parable; and there's also the peculiar possibility of it being a novel without any direct precedent.

Self pulls all sorts of supposedly forbidden literary stunts - writing a story without a single remotely sympathetic character, disorientating the reader by offering no distinction between real and imaginary scenarios (problematic for anyone failing to notice that they're reading a piece of fiction, none of which is exactly real in the first place), using words like egregious and thus alienating those who find unfamiliar language intimidating and genuinely believe that Dan Brown's sales figures speak for themselves. Despite all of this, and despite Self claiming I don't write fiction for people to identify with and I don't write a picture of the world they can recognise, his attention to the tedious detail of daily life is so thorough as to border on written photorealism, which in turn lends a disturbing clarity to the more nightmarish elements.

In some senses My Idea of Fun may be considered a satire on aspects of 1990s consumer culture, or more specifically that variation on Stockholm syndrome by which people once raced to be the first to pull the wool over their own eyes, by which they still buy into the norms of status and meaningless convention - American Psycho on a caravan site without the fetishism, sort of... but that's really just for starters, and I'm not sure I'd like to try to pin this novel down to being any one specific thing to the exclusion of any other interpretation. Of all the weird shite I've read, this remains one of the weirdest, and I mean that in a good way.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)

Reading this many years ago, back in the days when I would have considered three novels a year (excepting anything published by Target) good going, I read Brave New World and was left with the impression of a chilling, dystopian future resembling that of Orwell's 1984 but different. Now returning to Huxley's classic with a hopefully less gormless perspective, I'm struck by how much I missed first time around, or had at least forgotten; but probably missed given that I was something of a divvy back then.

The opening chapters - a guided tour of a factory wherein production line humans are mass produced from the egg thus doing away with motherhood, their embryos chemically predisposed towards future societal function - remain as powerful as ever; but the rest is a revelation. I'm not sure how I missed the industrial strength satire, but there you are. It appears that I have evolved from Delta to Beta Minus during the intervening years, which is nice.

Another aspect I somehow failed to spot first time around was quite how much this novel is embedded in 1930s England. There's minor dating with use of words like beastly or scenes occasionally suggesting The Man in the White Suit, although nothing so intrusive as, for example, John Wyndham's more Arthur Askified efforts; more overtly, there's a certain sensibility loosely tied into cultural details like D.H. Lawrence fucking off to live in Taos, New Mexico back in the 1920s; or even the rapid editing of modernist cinema evoked in  disjointed snippets of dialogue which bring chapter three to a close. These elements seem to betray the influence of Huxley's contemporaries, specifically people whose work remains outside of the mainstream even long after their passing so, drawing upon sources which never quite devolved to quaint - unlike the Ealing comedies which seemingly inspired Wyndham - Brave New World retains its immediacy. Such is its power that it's easy to forget the fact of it being written in the wake of the Great War with talking pictures, aviation, conspicuous promiscuity, and chewing gum as startling and new; and it probably doesn't hurt that Brave New World makes such a radically different statement to that of its arguably more popular successor 1984, as Neil Postman observed in his Amusing Ourselves to Death in terms that I'm lifting directly from Wikipedia on the grounds that I'd just look like a wanker if I tried to paraphrase something already so well argued:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

I'd hate to be so obvious as to start banging on about The X-Factor and Justin Bieber but, well - you know... As literal prophecy, Brave New World may creak a little, but as satire, it's unnerving.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Death of Art

Simon Bucher-Jones The Death of Art (1996)

Simon Bucher-Jones is, for all the sense it may make, a sort of Lovecraftian Stephen Baxter without necessarily reading quite like either of those. Whilst more favourable reviews have recently emerged from the internet's nether regions, his first novel The Death of Art seemingly remains largely unappreciated, actively disliked in certain quarters. Writing in I, Who, Lars Pearson described The Death of Art as a long and convoluted nightmare, referring to it again when summarising Bucher-Jones' Ghost Devices in I, Who 2, and in doing so neatly encapsulating the essence of the criticism most commonly levelled at this author:

What's obvious between this work and The Death of Art is that Bucher-Jones' ideas work far, far better when a co-writer follows along and strips in a bunch of sentences and paragraphs to help define everything.

I didn't really quite get this at the time, and coming back to The Death of Art a good few years later, I have to disagree.

For those who were unaware of this development, back when Doctor Who dropped off the bottom of the television screen back in 1989, Virgin publishing undertook to continue Sylvester McCoy's run in novel form. Whilst some of the books were about as good as you'd expect of something based on a TV show, with no realistic prospect of the thing returning to the screen, Virgin at least aspired to publishing stories which would stand up as decent novels in their own right, as opposed to telly surrogates or something that was at best merely collectable. There were a few duds, but for the most part the Virgin New Adventures, as they were called, lived up to that promise. In respect to this, I hate to sound like a pompous cunt, but the received wisdom of Simon Bucher-Jones as the incomprehensibubble Will Self of the New Adventures derives, so far as I can tell, precisely from the fact that he sets his sights a little higher than running around a playground yelling exterminate! He may indeed use loads of long fancy book learnin' words, but he's a writer so that's his job. I don't understand why anyone would regard this as a problem.

Contrary to at least some reviews I've seen, rather than comprising random passages of James Joyce scrambled up with William Burroughs, The Death of Art is in fact a beautifully atmospheric science-fiction novel of mutation and weird physics in late nineteenth century Paris, the plot of which may be followed with ease simply by reading the words and making a bit of an effort
rather than fixating on when that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as blah blah blah will show up in the hope that he'll slip in some amusing reference to something that happened in episode three of The Man Who Was A Bit Like Hitler. In other words, it's a novel, and it's written as a novel rather than something which, given the option, you'd much rather watch on television. Not everything is spelled out in primary colours, but then it wouldn't be quite so engaging if it were - or rewarding for that matter. Whilst it's easy to imagine Simon Bucher-Jones spending idle moments composing pun-heavy haikus referencing quantum theory in Chaucerian English, there's nothing intimidating about The Death of Art, nor a single dull sentence, nor a dearth of humour.

Simon Bucher-Jones may conceivably be one of the most underrated authors of the last couple of decades.

Monday, 18 June 2012


Neal Stephenson Anathem (2008)

In praising Anathem, the Kansas City Star suggested that Neil Stephenson has reached Stephen King and J.K. Rowling territory, whilst something called the Chicago Sun-Times opined that what some folks are calling a once-in-a-decade sci-fi classic is, in fact, a best-ever genre-crushing power script that defies simple classification.


What the fuck is a power-script?

I suppose someone called Brad might have a power-script tucked in his briefcase in between the arse futures portfolio and a manual on how to enbusiness one's potentiality by punching the air like Tom Cruise in that show me some money film.

Anyway, regardless of hyperbole, Anathem is, for better or worse, nine-hundred pages welding The Name of the Rose onto Rendezvous with Rama - sort of - providing you keep in mind that I've seen The Name of the Rose on VHS but haven't read the book so this verdict is possibly less authoritative than it may appear in the rear view mirror.

Arbre is a planet much like Earth with 7,000 years of scrupulously mapped history which plausibly yields a society wherein monasteries are full of atheist or at least agnostic monks discussing quantum theory and Platonic ideals whilst the outside world enjoys technology without wanting any more atom bombs, genetic engineering or any of that other fancy stuff thank you very much. The first half of the tale more or less comprises said monks enjoying enlightened discourse in the loose tradition of seventeenth century novels in which a couple of blokes talk about whether the sun really revolves around the Earth in the form of much speechifying. Anathem does something similar whilst remaining roughly engrossing as we learn more about the history of Arbre and dip our toes into discussion of alternate worlds and the perfect Platonic forms, all set against an evocatively monastic backdrop which feels  fifteenth century rather than extraterrestrial. Intrigue builds as the brothers and sisters discover an unidentified object in orbit of their planet which is gradually revealed as a colossal spacecraft made of gravel. This takes up the first half of the story, a lovely build up suggesting the advent of an entirely believable first contact.

Unfortunately, it flags a bit after that, once they all start doing the Arthur C. Clarke thing. The aliens turn out to be a whole lot like ourselves - due to our shared heritage as different shadows cast upon the wall of Plato's proverbial cave - and the gravel ship seems to be an intergalactic conference centre, or at least that's how it felt when I was reading about it; and after nine hundred pages I still don't have much of a clue as to why the Geometers, as the aliens are known, bothered to show up, aside from their providing a talking point by which our monks are prompted to discuss probability and really hard sums at length.

It's not bad by any means, just something of a disappointment. The first half is wonderful, the second a little dull, and most frustrating of all, the only reason I can see for this being set on an alien world is so as to provide the brief Tharg's Future Shock by revealing that one of the characters brought along on the gravel ship is from Earth just in case we were expecting to Arbre to be revealed as the distant future of our own planet. The author explains that he has translated Anathem from Orth, so most terms are likely to be closest equivalent and words like potato refer to something resembling a potato which isn't a potato as we would understand. This works so far as references to computers or mobile phones -  rendered here as syntactic devices and jeehahs - might prove distracting under the circumstances, but it also requires the reader to acclimatise to a lot of new and unfamiliar words that probably don't actually need to be new and unfamiliar words whilst nevertheless stumbling across incongruous gobbets of dialogue that apparently translate as hey, you guys are crazy! and the like. Most annoyingly, all the philosophical shite might have been a little easier to follow had I not had to spend quite so much time reminding myself which historical figure represents their Pythagoras, their Plato, and so on.

The finale is some sort of symbolic union, the marriage of two main characters - oddly lacking in impact with the female partner being someone with whom the reader is barely familiar - echoing the establishment of a new monastery combining scientific and religious schools of thought, settling an age old conflict which I'm not convinced the novel featured in significant depth. I mean it's there, but much of Anathem's disparity between secular and monastic seems cultural rather than theologically inspired.

Arthur C. Clarke did this better.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Land Leviathan

Steampunk = Wank
Presenting that venerable gentleman Mr. L. Burton's indubitably hasty treatise upon why the Steampunk genre must be regarded as wank.

Steampunk was arguably created by Michael Moorcock in the late 1960s in his thoroughly readable Sir Oswald Bastable novels wherein the eponymous hero had a series of Victorian style adventures in hot-air balloons and the like. This was of course entirely in keeping with the 1960s countercultural fascination with Victoriana, vaguely Edwardian shite, science-fiction and so on. If it hadn't been Moorcock, someone else would have done it, and it's probably telling that Moorcock himself has on occasion appeared ambivalent or even sceptical regarding the success of the baby he prefers to call steam opera. In a 2009 Guadrian review of Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection he wrote:

Steampunk reached its final burst of brilliant deliquescence with Pynchon's Against the Day and his Airship Boys. Once the wide world gets hold of an idea, however, it can only survive through knowing irony. Its tools, its icons, its angle of attack are absorbed into the cultural mainstream. The genre has started to write about itself, the way Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles addressed the western. Steampunk no longer examines context and history but now looks ironically at its own roots, tropes and clich├ęs.

Steampunk, generally speaking, updates Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, speeding them to thriller pace whilst retaining their settings, themes, and literary styles. Its recent incarnation seems to have been spawned by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's collaborative The Difference Engine, essentially a cyberpunk novel set in the Victorian era which transposes all that fetishistic technology for steam driven ancestral equivalents.

Fine... whatever...

Given the unwritten law defining the point at which a phenomenon has definitively hit rock bottom as proportional to the sum of cultural units distinguishing the Sex Pistols from Gary & the Gonads, the redundancy of anything declaring itself steampunk without either qualification, apology, or due embarrassment was recently heralded by the arrival of the steampunk What I Really meme reproduced below.

The What I Really meme, for those presently mouldering in blissful ignorance, is a frequently copied internet image comprising six illustrations exposing the side-splitting disparity between one's occupation, and the details of that of which others believe one's occupation to be comprised. To hilarious effect.

Personally I find the chucklesome gulf between perception and reality tends to be all the more amusing when the images demonstrate some conceptual variance as opposed to being, for example, a random assortment of cock-obvious images snipped off the back of a steampunk themed cornflakes packet, or have I fucking missed something? I can see perhaps what the artist's friends and mother may be getting at, but does society really view this person's occupation as frowning whilst wearing a fancy jacket and having a metal arm? I mean does it really? Or would that third panel be better served with a blank space given that society, by whatever definition, probably doesn't give a shit and has better things to do?

Okay so Michael Moorcock's efforts were decent, and both Stephen Baxter and Mark Hodder have bothered to write genre novels that go somewhat further than tittering over brass spacecraft with union flags painted across the heavily riveted prow; but now there are steampunk clothing outlets, lifestyle magazines, comics, action figures, bands, conventions, and doubtless comedians soon taking to the stage in flying goggles to crack jokes about most diverting occurrences befalling one on the way to the dirigible emporium. Aside from a few writers, steampunk is looking a lot like the biggest pile of cock to knob-cheese up our cultural bandwidth since Doctor Who nosedived in 2005. It's a one-trick literary subgenre, not a youth movement, unless the 153,954 who like the Steampunk facebook page really do wax up their moustaches every weekend and get hammered on absinthe and drawing room techno. The entire schtick is so hopelessly mannered that you could bang out your average steampunk novel on a child's origami fortune teller, never mind that generic coal-fired Babbage engine.

The comically Victorian + technology = steampunk and so we end up with The D'Israeli Undertaking, The Mafeking Modem, and The Splendiferous Escapades of Mr. Quentin Internet because this is a genre in which everything is worked out in advance and which succeeds (supposedly) through parody and collage and not a whole lot else. It probably shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that more than one former author of dispiriting TV tie-in fiction should have recently added the genre's proverbial string to his soulless, workmanlike bow, because once you've read the novels by the fuckers who actually can write, you're left with people who regard Terrance Dicks as some sort of literary gold standard.

It feels like Star Wars all over again, the tide of balls-achingly easy populism sweeping away anything that is thoughtful, at odds with the norm, anything that strives to do more than just romp along like an E.E. 'Doc' Smith hero with an issue of Dazed and Confused stuffed in his back pocket; and perhaps this is itself a clue as to the success of this phenomenon. It's a return to ripping yarns and morally unambiguous superheroes, the comforting familiarity of Victoriana spruced up with a touch of console game and a knowing wink just to confirm that this is where the cool kids hang out, the cool kids as opposed to all those nerds and sad sacks with their Isaac Asimov and hilariously intact virginity.

Of course, this is all an overreaction on my part - hyperbole being my job - and has no bearing on authors such as Michael Moorcock, Mark Hodder, or Paolo Bacigalupi - who has of late been cropping up in steampunk must-read lists for no good reason I can think of. It's bollocks and it will all blow over in due course I'm sure, but until then, a little less mindless recycling for its own sake and a little more use of critical faculties can hardly be a bad thing; and if this rant has dissuaded just one person from turning their hand to an already overpopulated subgenre, then good.

On which note:

Michael Moorcock The Land Leviathan (1974)
Including one slightly peculiar novelisation of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, this is my tenth Moorcock novel, and the number strikes me as strange seeing as he was never an author whose works I sought with particular fervour. The book stores of my childhood  bulged with a million Moorcock titles, all involving elves with swords so far as I was able to tell. This was off-putting because I've never truly warmed to elves. They seem like the self-absorbed teenagers of the faerie realm, all very pretty but otherwise lacking the honesty of gnomes. In any case, I was probably misled by wispy cover paintings and the name Elric sounding a bit like it could be headed in that general direction.

More recently I got the habit of picking up the odd second hand Moorcock title if it appeared to maintain a respectable distance from anything involving dragons or magic and was cheap. I'd read his Constant Fire in a second hand copy of the New Worlds anthology and been impressed at the sheer insanity of the tale, so had come to view him as a good risk. This caution now seems strange through the benefit of hindsight and my having noticed that I've reached double figures with the man's work, and actually, it's all been pretty great.

The Land Leviathan continues the tale of Sir Oswald Bastable from The War Lord of the Air, a man lost in alternate histories full of Victoriana that we would now recognise as steampunk but for the fact that Moorcock has purposes other than smirking at the reader whilst wearing aviator goggles. The Land Leviathan, like its predecessor, uses the trappings of empire to criticise the hypocrisies of the era and mindset it parodies, and impressively goes for the big one in terms of moral redress - a world in which a new African empire modelled to some extent upon that of Rome crushes the United States in response to centuries of slavery imposed upon the black race.

Read that summarising sentence again and take a moment to consider just how kak-handed and painful this could have been in the hands of a less able writer. Not only does Moorcock succeed in dealing with issues of great moral complexity, naming names without the suggestion of anything reduced to a slogan, but he makes it compelling, saying everything he needs to say in a novel that's barely much over the length of a novella. The Land Leviathan is unassuming and genuinely wonderful, and its author just went up a level in my own personal league table.