Thursday, 27 September 2012

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Philip K. Dick Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)
I've probably said it before, but regardless of the general quality of my bedtime reading material, each time I return to Philip K. Dick, I'm struck anew by the strength of his prose, the seemingly effortless wit and economy of language - nothing elaborate or showy unless absolutely justified by the narrative: knowing what to exclude being that which elevates the greatest artist above those who merely do well. More and more, now that I'm on what I suppose you'd call the second lap of his oeuvre, I'm beginning to appreciate the literary prowess that allowed for such a prolific output; also how limited is the popular appreciation of his writing, an enthusiasm which seems to have focused on just one aspect, somehow identifying Blade Runner as the quintessential expression of Philip K. Dick's fiction, which it absolutely was not.

Here, for example, we have Chuck Rittersdorf's aborted suicide attempt from Clans of the Alphane Moon, a scene which I doubt could be mistaken for the work of anyone other than Dick:

He found a smaller side window that opened; raising it, he listened to the buzz of a jet-hopper as it landed on a rooftop on the far side of the street. Its sound died. He waited, and then he climbed part way over the edge of the window, dangling above the traffic which moved below....

From inside him a voice, but not his own, said, 'Please tell me your name. Regardless of whether you intend or do not intend to jump.'

Turning, Chuck saw a yellow Ganymedean slime mould that had silently flowed under the door of the conapt and was gathering itself into the heap of small globes which comprised its physical being.

'I rent the conapt across the hall,' the slime mould declared.

Chuck said, 'Among Terrans it's customary to knock.'

'I possess nothing to knock with. In any case I wished to enter before you - departed.'

'It's my personal business whether I jump or not.'

' "No Terran is an island," ' the slime mould more or less quoted. 'Welcome to the building which we who rent apts here have humorously dubbed "Discarded Arms Conapts." There are others here whom you should meet. Several Terrans - like yourself - plus a number of non-Ts of assorted physiognomy, some of which will repel you, some which will no doubt attract. I had planned to borrow a cup of yoghurt culture from you, but in view of your preoccupation it seems an insulting request.'

Quite aside from Blade Runner inverting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - entirely revising its replicants from humanity without morality to childlike innocents - is there a single moment in the film as sad, absurd, funny or human as the above, or are viewers simply seduced by the wow factor of that which is not as it seems rendered with better special effects than Logan's Run?

Yes, I would say. Yes they are, the thick fuckers.

That argument settled, I return briefly to Clans of the Alphane Moon, not even one of his best efforts but still pretty great. The novel follows Chuck Rittersdorf and his inordinately complicated divorce to a distant moon colonised by psychiatric patients through the agency of a popular television entertainer. It's a bit of a mess in places, possibly therefore accurately descriptive of Dick's own personal life at the time, and comes slightly adrift towards the end, but it still poops big ones over even the finest efforts of other authors.

That is all you need to know.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat

Harry Harrison The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat (1972)

Collecting the first three of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels, two of which I vaguely recall from their comic strip adaptations in 2000AD. Whilst not really one of the mighty Tharg's more memorable offerings, the art of Carlos Ezquerra was impressive as ever, and it clearly did enough to instil curiosity sufficient to inspire my plucking this anthology from the shelf of Half-Price Books thirty or so years later.

The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge (1970), and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (1972) are, as I expected, ripping futuristic spy-thrillers, unlikely to have one scrabbling for a well-worn copy of Plato's Republic in search of some obscure reference or other, but then that was never really their job.  I'd say Slippery Jim diGriz - the rat of the title - is essentially James Bond in space with a slight counter-cultural twist and a more well developed sense of humour, although being as I haven't actually read anything by Ian Fleming since I was about twelve this may well be bollocks; but hopefully you get the idea.

We have bank robberies, Robin Hood moments, time travel, typically futuristic gadgetry and overpowered security guards revealed to be wearing women's knickers beneath their uniforms - all somehow amounting to a suggestion of diGriz as a young Malcolm McDowell doing comedy turns to camera whilst his long-suffering boss, played by Leo McKern, fumes in silence. It's nothing deep and it's probably dated, but it's also nicely written and a lot of fun. These are the sort of novels you whiz through over the course of a long afternoon, and I suppose my only criticism is that welding three of them together like this somehow misses a point, although it's surely worth noting that I found myself reading all three in quick succession without a trace of boredom.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Laikonik Express

Nick Sweeney Laikonik Express (2011)
Not entirely sure what to make of this debut, and my views faltered during reading, ranging from bored to amused to entirely engaged. The narrative follows writer Nolan Kennedy to Poland where he tries to coax Don Darius, his friend and also a writer, into completing an unpublished and apparently amazing novel he's been sitting on for far too long. I'd say Laikonik Express is Kerouac's On the Road except for the fact that it's set on a Polish train, and never having read On the Road there's a danger I might actually be talking out of my arse.

Much of what transpires is low on incident, largely conversational and anecdotal, inspiring the thought that this may  represent characters as much in search of a story as their author; and whilst much of the Polish detail is fascinating, I was never quite convinced that Kennedy or Darius were ever entirely engaged with their surroundings, but for all I know this may well have been the point. Clearly it is a novel which to some extent concerns itself with the process of writing a novel, possibly an examination of the relationship between the terrain and that which ends up on the printed page. When, towards the end of the book, the lads meet Krystyna and learn that she is dying of cancer it seems the harsh reality of the situation obliges them to at last engage on a level beyond that of scenes viewed from the window of a railway carriage.


I suspect there may be a great deal that I missed in Laikonik Express, and certainly it seems pregnant with the possibilities of what it might be saying, if it really is saying any one specific thing. If the point is the journey rather than the destination, I may have appreciated more focus on the journey itself, with a little less on the anecdotes of our travellers which tended to unbalance the narrative a little in my view. Yet in the final quarter it all seemingly adds up by means suggestive of a purpose to the rambling of previous chapters.

At this point I should perhaps stress that I did enjoy Laikonik Express even if I wasn't always sure of where it was going or why. Those online reviews I've checked out mostly heap glowing praise on the quality of Nick Sweeney's narrative, and rightly so. The man is clearly incapable of a dull sentence, with even the most prosaic of observations sparkling with an effortless wit that puts most of Nick Sweeney's contemporaries to shame.

Possibly an unusual debut - says the man who rarely picks up anything that doesn't have a picture of a robot on the cover - but one that may prove more rewarding with time, and one that hints very strongly at better to come.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The World of Null-A

A.E. van Vogt The World of Null-A (1948)
Just to get this out of the way before we begin, quite aside from the peculiar mention of someone called Tharg on page thirty-one of the Berkley edition - possibly the earliest albeit non-canonical reference to the editor of the galaxy's greatest comic - chapter thirty-two concludes with:
Gosseyn nodded absently. A few moments later he watched the three guards ease the vibrator into the elevator, and then Prescott motioned him to enter.

This vibrator seems to feature prominently towards the end of the novel, you may be interested to know. Snurf. Snurf.

I bought this because it's van Vogt and I've developed the habit of buying his books on sight on the grounds that it would be stupid not to even with a minor risk of brain damage. The World of Null-A proved irresistible through its reputation of being one of his weirdest, which is probably also why I'd put off reading it for so long.

The author's own introduction provides a testy defence against Damon Knight describing the novel as one of the worst allegedly-adult science fiction stories ever published in his essay Cosmic Jerrybuilder, although said defence comes across a little like Salvador Dali's later and less coherent ramblings explaining in third person how only Dali can do this because his thoughts are made of many golden circuits, with circuits pronounced cir-kweets as he rolls his eyes at the camera; but on the other hand:
There was in van Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction... Damon feels that it's bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It's like he's viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he's building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it's exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.

Well, if Philip K. Dick thought it had something interesting going on, then chance is it's probably worth a look, I reasoned.

A.E. van Vogt had a thing about evolved humans, new modes of thought and the like, a fixation which even took him so far as a brief period of flirtation with L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics, for one example. The World of Null-A and its two sequels were inspired by and serve to somehow demonstrate Alfred Korzybski's theory of general semantics and non-Aristotelian logic, this being the Null-A of the title. General semantics actually looks a hell of a lot like plain old lateral thinking from my own admittedly uninformed standpoint, only revolutionary in context of more staid perspectives inherited from certain nineteenth century tendencies, but it seems like it made Alfred Elton happy so what the fuck?

Like much van Vogt, the language is demanding, dramatic to the point of absurdity, and dense; the narrative is often bewildering, not least when our main character is killed at the end of one chapter, then revealed as safe and well and living on Venus in the next; and the story is carried by an unsettling sense of drive, constant motion which never once lets up, or allows its reader to pause and wonder what the hell is happening or why. Imagine Patrick McGoohan breaking into your home, grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you for fourteen hours solid whilst growling the scripts of all seventeen episodes of The Prisoner from start to end, possibly with The Residents covering John Barry in the background.

It can be hard fucking work at times, and it's certainly not for everyone, but it's undoubtedly unique, and probably in a good way. Of the now surprisingly numerous van Vogt novels I've read and enjoyed, The World of Null-A is possibly more coherent than Quest for the Future - if not quite so weird - and heavier going than either The Weapon Makers or The Mind Cage, but it certainly delivers in its own peculiar way. I still don't really get what the deal is with non-Aristotelian logic but it was fun not getting there.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The First Men in the Moon

H.G. Wells The First Men in the Moon (1901)
Aside from a few things at school, it took me a while to get around to H.G. and when I did it was The Time Machine which, against  expectation, left me somewhat ambivalent towards this author. I now realise why, and how I mistakenly took what I believed Wells to have been saying from what he actually said, or more probably, what he purposefully didn't say.

My error was in presuming Wells' narrative to be in essence a  precursor to the modern science-fiction novel, not - as is immediately apparent from The First Men in the Moon - the more recent expression of a much older literary tradition. I seem to recall a filmed version of this tale from the 1960s: bumbling good natured professors beating at lunar monstrosities with umbrellas as they climb back into their capsule and return to Earth just in time for the closing credits. The novel offers nothing quite so tidy or cosy, leaving one of its characters stranded on the moon, presumably to die following the last few forlorn chapters of his message beamed back to Earth that we may have an account of Selenite society unencumbered by the more bumptious opinions of Bedford, our narrator. The point of the story is not the deliverance of its characters up to a typically happy ending far, far away from the weird sublunar caverns of the insectlike Selenites, rather - like previous lunar excursion narratives dating all the way back to Lucian of Samosata's True History, written some time between the years 125 and 180AD - rather this story is wholly a commentary upon the society of its time.

Wells feared a mechanised culture run along utilitarian lines, so  his characters tend towards views through which we examine the subject - alternately scientific and authoritarian in this case - and which may not necessarily be the views of the author, hence The Time Machine leaving me with the erroneous impression that Herbert George was probably a bit of a tosser. Rather than editorialising, as a contemporary equivalent of this narrative might do, Wells presents a detailed vision of the Selenite hive dynamics of specially adapted worker drones and lets his reader decide whether it seems a desirable model, and what it may say about ourselves. It's effective, subtle and a refreshing change from the heavy-handed parables of later, lesser authors.

Additionally and possibly of no relevance whatsoever, it's annoying that something of such sly elegance could be mistaken for a boffo yarn about handlebar moustaches and nuclear-powered penny farthings by the larger unwashed herd of point-missing steampunk buffoons, but anyway...

The First Men in the Moon is justifiably regarded as classic literature, and now I see why Wells endures with such a reputation.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Tales of the City

Philip Purser-Hallard (editor) Tales of the City (2012)

Leaving aside David Louis Edelman's Infoquake and Stephen Baxter's Coalescent, Philip Purser-Hallard's Of the City of the Saved... has thus far turned out to be my favourite science-fiction novel of the twenty-first century, roughly speaking. For anyone who might be unaware, the premise of the novel is a city the size of the Milky Way existing after death of the universe and inhabited by the reincarnated and immortal forms of every human who ever lived. It's Heaven built up with just the right blend of soft science to allow plausibility without so much as a whiff of heavy handed allegory; and Stross, Reynolds, and all the usual award winning suspects read like clunkers in comparison.

Tales of the City comprises short stories set in the same environment, six authors drawn together by Philip Purser-Hallard for a themed collection that reads like a novel in its own right. The theme would appear to be change and the consequences of change unimpeded by mortality, something which, rather oddly, was not explored in such depth in Of the City of the Saved..., at least not so far as I recall. Highlights for me would be Elizabeth Evershed's tale of a reincarnated and undeniably Neanderthal Socrates causing unwitting havoc in the philosophical institution he has inspired, and Dale Smith's About a Girl in which Kurt Cobain forms a relationship with Philip K. Dick's deceased twin sister, reincarnated here as a six-week old baby - which by all rights should have been an unreadable post-modern dog's dinner considering the ingredients, but is probably one of the most poignant shorts I've read in a long time: truly a phenomenal achievement.

For the sake of balance, there are a few fumbled balls here and there, but nothing too bothersome: the Jane Austen homage Highbury is absorbing and beautifully written, let down slightly by its presenting a species nourished by fear and related emotions - seemed a bit too bog standard Doctor Who for an otherwise decent story; Lost Ships and Lost Lands didn't quite seem to go anywhere; and whilst Happily Ever After Is a High Risk Strategy provides a terrific start to the book - all tingly ideas in sharp colours - the Ravey Davey stuff didn't really work for me, interrupting a great story like some glowstick waving stranger plonking himself down at your pub table to dribble on about the amaaaaaaazing time he had in Ibiza. Cool doesn't always communicate well beyond those already well disposed towards whatever is on offer, which is possibly why Dale Smith's story works so well in that he presents Kurt Cobain as a bit of a knob rather than the tortured poster boy to whom we are unfortunately accustomed.

Whilst a chain is generally as strong as its weakest link, Tales of the City is conversely of such quality as to negate those minor niggles  mentioned above. We need more of these authors and more of the City of the Saved.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Fear & Typewriter in the Sky

L. Ron Hubbard Fear & Typewriter in the Sky (1940)

Yes, I know. I can't even remember how the conversation came about but at some point someone suggested I might like to circumnavigate my prejudice and investigate Typewriter in the Sky on the grounds of it being a darn good read. Naturally I was intrigued, and spent some time trying to find a decent paperback edition in preference to the huge more readily available and recent hardcover because I simply prefer traditional paperback dimensions. This proved surprisingly difficult, presumably due to Hubbard's innumerable fans snapping up his works like sacred texts, which I suppose in some senses they might be, but Bud Webster at last pointed me in the right direction.

I'm disinclined to get into Hubbard's later activities as it's pretty likely that everyone reading this will already have formed an opinion matching my own, but I tend to support Robert Heinlein's assertion that the man lacked a working moral compass, to put it in the most diplomatic terms, although that isn't to say that he wasn't an interesting character in himself. Received wisdom tends to view Hubbard through the lens of later activities, dismissing him as a third rate science-fiction hack who formed his own religion and got lucky.

For all the frowning this may inspire, the first part is actually and surprisingly untrue, at least on the strength of these two novellas. L. Ron Hubbard, as a writer, was pretty solid back in 1940, producing tightly plotted stories that felt more literature than pulp, and with some very strong ideas: Typewriter in the Sky is a tale of seventeenth century Caribbean pirates wherein the bad guy realises he's merely a character in a story; and Fear is hallucinatory weird fiction that must certainly have in part inspired The Twilight Zone and reads like the work of an earlier incarnation of Philip K. Dick or even Grant Morrison. Even given that both stories are quite clearly preoccupied with ideas that seem typical of an author who would go on to join Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis and to found dianetics, they are of quality sufficient to survive association with Hubbard's more recent activity.