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 clich├ęd 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.