Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Things Forgotten

Daniel Maitland Things Forgotten (2010)
Some years ago, driven by a need to get my own efforts into shape, I joined a local writers' group. For some reason, my expectations regarding the sort of person I would most likely encounter in such a group were not high. I envisioned the authors of unpublished and unreadable fantasy epics turded out without recourse to established conventions of punctuation or grammar, people whom I would be unable to look directly in the eye once I'd heard them read the latest implausible exploits of Bongo the elf and his intrepid band of gnomes seeking out the sacred Quarg of Nango. I imagined authors much like the one encountered at a meeting of a San Antonio writers' group who, every two weeks, would stutter his way through another instalment of a self-published spy thriller positively oozing with the sort of lurid sexual detail you don't really want to hear from a forty year old male who lives in his parents' basement. Happily none of the above applied to my experience with the East Dulwich Writers' Group who, at my first meeting, all turned out to be terrifyingly accomplished, people who deserved to be read by many. Amongst these was Dan Maitland to whom I spoke when we both stepped outside for a ciggie. I had been well and truly knocked out by his reading a few of his There Was This Bloke, Right stories, and we got talking about that, and our mutual appreciation of Charles Bukowski, and about self-publishing as he had with him a copy of one his own books as produced by Lulu. I'd never seen a POD paperback before, and I was impressed at the quality.

Years later, in an effort to catch up with a few strands I'd let slip, I track this down on the aforementioned Lulu. Things Forgotten is a short, confusing novel. The narrative is engrossing, often surreal bordering on stream-of-consciousness, and not easily followed. I rationalised what I could understand as told from the perspective of a small girl, involving imaginary friends, an unborn and possibly miscarried younger brother, or possibly something between the two. Happily, it turned out that I was on the right track, as I learned from an interview with Daniel Maitland on the Female First site in which he suggests that Things Forgotten is about the rules and regulations of the physics of existence and whether, if we decide we aren't going to bother with them, they can be bypassed. Elsewhere he explains that it actually came from a dream I had, where a little girl was being led by an older boy - who was not officially there - to some sort of meaningful meeting that was very important. It felt important, when I woke up, so I pursued it.

This helped a lot, not so much in terms of making anything clearer as confirming that I had indeed read what I though I had read.

Things Forgotten would probably be too much were it any longer, but at novella length it's perfect. The narrative seems to smear as one proceeds, events losing definition from one page to the next, leaving something that follows the logic of a dream, or at least a film collage, and yet sparkles with the clarity of broad, bright daylight in terms of detail, thus carrying a realism which contrasts quite strangely with whatever the hell is supposed to be happening. Even more impressive is the whole thing - or at least most of it - being told from the perspective of a child, with child's logic and reference points, yet without succumbing to any of the sentimentalism or related clichés that you tend to find wheeled out by less competent authors. It's not really like anything else I've read, and more surprisingly - at least to me - is that Things Forgotten is quite unlike Maitland's There Was This Bloke, Right stories, which I would also highly recommend, by the way. Years later I'm still impressed by the sheer odds stacked against my just happening to meet someone of such undeniable ability under what might be considered almost random circumstances, except for the writing and both liking Bukowski I suppose.

Buy it here.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Epic of Gilgamesh

N.K. Sandars (translator)
The Epic of Gilgamesh (1960, material from 13th to 10th century BC)

Possibly an odd choice to be reviewed alongside such unimpressive offerings as the Star's Bottom cycle of Flanberry Beavis and Nobby Beverage's Doctor Who and the Terrific Award Winning Doctor Who Adventure, but I've just read it so here it is.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably the oldest surviving story on record, or at least the oldest story surviving in a form other than hopelessly fragmented; and I believe it survived as cuneiform script on clay tablets from various locations in and around Sumeria - modern day Iraq - which, so far as we can tell, seems to be where the first cities were founded back in the fourth millennium BC. Whilst we're here, I suppose it depends upon how geographical you like your definition of Muslim culture, but regarding Richard Dawkins' assertion that Islam has produced little of value in global terms, I would argue that cities and written script might be worth thinking about, but I digress.

I have no significant investment in Sumerian culture and therefore approach this one as a poorly informed outsider, so for anyone with any deeper understanding of those Mesopotamians, you might like to stop reading now because you'll probably just find the rest irritating. I have a reasonable understanding of the much later but developmentally parallel cultures of central Mexico, and so have attempted to appreciate Sumeria by similar terms with the assumption of its society having developed in pursuit of similar ends. It has been noted how both South American and North African civilisations built pyramid structures and might be deemed to have certain features in common. Conspiracy theorists tend to cite this common factor as evidence of ancient transatlantic contact, mistaking superficial resemblance for evidence and ignoring the detail of there being no archaeological support for the idea and, more significantly, that the notion of ancient transatlantic contact does not serve to explain anything requiring an explanation. Put simply, limited to certain materials and working at a comparable level of technology, early buildings founded upon a rectangular base will tend to be pyramids wherever they're built, that being the most logical structure for those working with similar and relatively limited means. Given that human societies tend to be formed from people sharing the same basic needs - food, shelter, security and so on - regardless of geography, I suggest that the cultural or philosophical structures they build as stories and theology will tend towards certain common forms, the philosophical equivalent of pyramids; and so, hoping there's something in this idea other than it being a string of pretty words, I read on and hope to understand something without too much contaminating bias.

Gilgamesh delineates the arguably spiritual journey of a culture hero who may be roughly identified with the fifth king of Uruk reigning around 2500BC, although as with the Mexican Quetzalcoatl, there doesn't seem to be any real way of telling whether the man inspired the legend or vice versa. The narrative describes how Gilgamesh battles and befriends Enkidu - a man of the wild possibly representing the natural and uncultured as distinct from the urban Sumerian-about-town. The two then embark upon a series of allegorical adventures, battling the Bull of Heaven - apparently symbolising drought, tempted by the treacherous Goddess Ishtar, and finally venturing into the underworld where Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, a survivor of the flood who will almost certainly become the Biblical Noah in more recent traditions. As one who has spent a lot of time obsessing over the Mexican stories that may be considered roughly parallel to this kind of tale, I am struck by both the overarching pessimism and similar narrative details. The former can almost certainly be attributed to the lack of security associated with life in the earliest cities, society being a new and conspicuously fragile structure dependent upon a lot of goodwill and the success of the harvest - conditions which no doubt also informed early Mexican society with the added emphasis of their world being one conspicuously at the mercy of the volcanoes. It is therefore logical that people living under such conditions should tell themselves stories which reflect this, and specifically stories which focus on the frailty of existence.

Gilgamesh is fascinating in this respect because, although one might argue a case for his being the first superhero - he has musclebound adventures and is described as two thirds God and one third human, however that's supposed to work - he is a superhero for the sake of contrast with a fleeting existence, the inevitability of death, and a death which in Sumerian lore did not appear to prefigure an afterlife so far as I can tell. Gilgamesh journeys to the underworld in search of immortality, only to learn that even he is himself both mortal and vulnerable to the unseen forces which define his world; and so he becomes a hero not because he stands above the rest of us, but because he is very much like us in all senses that matter.

The Epic of Gilgamesh isn't necessarily an easy read, but it's short, and very, very rich in detail, and amply rewards whatever effort the reader chooses to invest. Furthermore, as our oldest story by some definition, it informs more or less everything that has come after to a greater or lesser degree - at least with regard to western culture - not least the great Abrahamic holy books, the first seeds of which are to be found herein - serpents, temptation, men building big boats full of animals in order to survive a great flood and so on. So if it isn't obvious what I'm saying here, if you haven't read this, it really is worth your effort.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013


Stephen Baxter Moonseed (1998)
I haven't touched any Baxter for a while, having somewhat overdosed a few years ago - overdosed because whilst he's a fine writer, his books can be fucking depressing at times; but still, I always liked the sound of Moonseed, and it was always the next one I would have read had I carried on, and so it was difficult to resist when I chanced upon a copy in Half-Price Books.

Moonseed is hard science-fiction in the Asimov sense, eschewing magic wand plot devices such as warp drive and artificial intelligence, instead more or less sticking to what is known and understood, aside from the moonseed itself, although admittedly I suspect some of Baxter's reliance on quantum theory may be stretching the point a bit. As a straight disaster novel, Moonseed gets off to a good start by blowing up Venus, leaving it hanging as a baleful cloud in the night sky while Earth struggles with the collapse of the food chain - an effect of radiation levels soaring after the destruction of the inner planet. Bad turns to worse as rocks brought back from lunar missions are found to contain moonseed, an unidentified viral substance which devours and processes terrestrial minerals towards mysterious ends. As an outbreak of moonseed transforms Scotland into a huge active volcano, humanity at last understands what became of Venus and what will soon happen to Earth.

It's a big, fat housebrick of a novel which goes some very peculiar and unexpected places in the last hundred or so pages, yet still keeps the science reasonably hard. As something which sort of remakes The Blob as a geology textbook, its strengths are numerous, not least forcing a genially preposterous conclusion to work as something approaching believable with a barrage of engrossing science.

Unfortunately these strengths contrast with the regrettably weaker material which takes up the central chunk of narrative, material which prompted at least one reviewer on the Goodreads website to ponder whether Moonseed might be an early Baxter novel dating from before he got the hang of writing people. There are points at which the characters read as though they've been written by a mathematical process, their dialogue a bit too close to what you might find on one of those prime time ITV detective thrillers usually starring someone who used to be in Eastenders; and there are far too many characters, and all defined by occupation like Fisher-Price people - the doctor, the butcher, the policeman. Keeping track of them all becomes a chore, particularly under the onslaught of Baxter's characteristically overwhelming pessimism - Venus blowing up, environmental collapse, everyone having cancer, the breakdown of society, dead babies, volcanoes everywhere, extinction, the release of a new ELO album and so on.

It's frustrating because Baxter has stated that he doesn't view his writing as pessimistic.

'So,' he said, 'you're what we'd call a survivalist? You think that when it all falls apart we should pack up and head for the hills?'

'No.' Now she did sound offended. 'Of course not. We're human beings. We got where we are by cooperating, by helping each other. It's just that the future is so dangerous.'


'We're going to have to be smart to survive, on any timescale you care to think about.'

This exchange roughly encapsulates what Baxter has tried to do in a good few of his novels, namely presenting the hope that we as a species may triumph over adversity through unflinching realism and scientific endeavour, the realism being a more useful alternative to pretending that problems faced by humanity are not so great as they may seem. So whilst it's commendable that he pulls no punches when dishing out the grim, he's sometimes less able to provide a decent reason to keep reading through the relentless tide of death, cancer, and extinction. He just about pulls it off here in so much as I enjoyed the last couple of hundred pages, but it was a bit lumpy in places. Still, in terms of big ideas done well, Moonseed is up there with his best despite its shortcomings.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg Dying Inside (1972)

Apparently the novel Dying Inside is one of his very best, I wrote whilst reviewing Silverberg's Sunrise on Mercury collection back in July 2009, and despite slightly less than amazing fare here, the good bits are strong enough to suggest it's probably worth a look.

So here I am, having at last encountered a copy in a book store; and actually yes, it is pretty damn good, and quite literary in a way that's fairly rare for a science-fiction novel. Set in 1970s New York, Dying Inside has all the gritty, smelly texture of an autobiography but for the detail of its protagonist, David Selig, being a telepath and thus able to read the contents of other peoples' minds. However, rather than being a superman in the traditional sense, he is a neurotic, slightly pitiful individual now crippled by the horrifying realisation that his telepathy is fading, leaving him in some sense alone in what would be a void but for his own thoughts. The novel is roughly a metaphor for the ageing process, or at least certain aspects of the ageing process experienced once youth becomes only the memory of a different state of being - almost a mid-life crisis book. That said, as a metaphor, it's a little confused. All of David's knowledge and experience, his own unique advantage, has served only to wear him down, to grind him into a bitter, slightly paranoid figure contrasting sharply with the few other telepaths he encounters, all of whom seem to have done very well with their respective gifts. In several passages this process is defined as entropic:

Now comes a dark equinox out of its proper moment. The bleached moon glimmers like a wretched old skull. The leaves shrivel and fall. The fires die down. The dove, weary, flutters to earth. Darkness spreads. Everything blows away. The purple blood falters in the narrowing veins; the chill impinges on the straining heart; the soul dwindles; even the feet become untrustworthy. Words fail. Our guides admit they are lost. That which has been solid grows transparent. Things pass away. Colours fade. This is a gray time, and I fear it will be grayer still, one of these days.

The potential contradiction here is that whilst David succumbs to entropy as he sees it, the degradation and reduction of information to noise, his life as a mind-reader has been shaped by an unreasonable surfeit of information none of which has really done him any good. So whilst our man perceives a breakdown of the systems of his life as essentially entropic, it's actually more like an overload:

How they all hated me for my cleverness! What they interpreted as my cleverness, that is. My sly knack of always guessing what was going to happen. Well, that wouldn't be a problem now. They'd all love me. Loving me, they'd beat me to a pulp.

This is possibly why there were points at which Dying Inside struck me as a variant on Sartre's Nausea, and also points at which I wondered if the telepathic element was really essential to the story. The only significant difference between Silverberg's Selig and Sartre's Roquentin is, I would argue, that while the former experiences anxiety over the individual details from which his life is formed, the angst of the latter is inspired more by the life itself, if that makes any sense whatsoever. The distinction is subtle, and perhaps not easily made given that Dying Inside lacks the focus of Nausea, although the two novels do seem to have something in common, not least thematic depth.

The only real problem with Dying Inside would appear to be the character of Yahya Lumumba, a young black student who enlists Selig's services in the completion of an end of term paper. The depiction of this character seems astonishingly racist - references to hypothetical watermelon consumption being the least of its crimes. The inference is that Selig himself harbours racist views, but it's difficult to tell how much of it is Selig and how much is Silverberg, particularly with the narrative switching from third to first person and back again every few pages; and it seems additionally dubious that Selig's telepathy reveals Lumumba's innermost thoughts as stereotypical blaxploitation jive talk about white honkey crackers, unless the point here is that Selig's telepathy reveals nothing of use, as already suggested. In this respect the passages with Lumumba are difficult to evaluate, and whilst they may not exactly spoil the novel, in the absence of any better idea regarding the author's intention, they certainly jar, although maybe that is the point.

Dying Inside falls short of perfect, but it's not difficult to see how it has earned its reputation as a classic of the genre.

Saturday, 14 December 2013


Frank Herbert Dune (1965)
I advise you to read this book as soon as possible, I was once told by an individual posting on an internet forum under the name Gargamel. This came in response to my idly commenting that I'd never read Dune, apparently the best-selling science-fiction novel of all-time. I was put off by the strident tone of the suggestion, as though Dune should be considered essential reading for anyone with a brain, and everyone knew that! I was also put off by Gargamel's further insistence that once I was done with Dune I would be well advised to read Herbert's six follow up novels followed immediately by all the related books written by Herbert's son in conjunction with Kevin J. Anderson. As a rule I tend to discount the testimony of persons who describe themselves as fans, regardless of that which has inspired their devotion, because generally speaking most expressions of fandom require too great a suspension of critical faculties in order to keep the faith; besides which, I wasn't about to take advice from anyone named after an evil wizard from the Smurfs cartoon.

Still, here I am at last, and in its favour, Herbert's years of research have provided Dune with an impressively thorough and fully realised alien environment. The problem is that most of said alien environment is fully realised in the form of notes and essays in the appendix, leaving the five-hundred page novel somewhat top heavy with dynastic intrigue and people with funny names stood around in throne rooms exchanging vows regarding deeds to be done in the name of their children, and their children's children. In fact the balance is such that Dune might be viewed as having more in common with Tolkein's Lord of the Rings than the genre from which it emerged, at least as of when it was published. Possibly excepting Asimov's Foundation series, Dune might be regarded as the first definitively epic space opera in the Star Wars sense - empires rising and falling, yer ancient wisdom, chosen ones foretold by prophecy and in possession of mysterious powers, dynastic struggle, and a hell of a lot of sand.

So depending on your expectations, it's fairly readable in so much as it does what it does with conviction, and the background noise of pseudo-Islamic terminology serves to hint at a narrative with a great deal occurring off the page, so to speak. In the context of the mid-sixties, it's probably the written equivalent of the Beatles' Revolver or something, the teenbeat science-fiction of rockets, spacesuits, and little green men maturing into something more worldly, more ambitious, and which places emphasis on myth, ecological concerns, and supposedly mind-expanding drugs; which is nice, but five-hundred pages is perhaps too much, and the novel spends it's final chapters as a droning progressive rock uncle making portentous statements about civilisations waxing and waning...

'This was my father's ducal signet,' he said. 'I swore never to wear it again until I was ready to lead my troops over all of Arrakis and claim it as my rightful fief.' He put the ring on his finger, clenched his fists.

Utter stillness gripped the cavern.

'Who rules here?' Paul asked. He raised his fist. 'I rule here! I rule on every square inch of Arrakis! this is my ducal fief whether the Emperor says yea or nay! He gave it to my father and it comes to me through my father!'

Clench; declare; avenge; clench; argue; more clenching; prophecy; clench, and on and on and on...

I can see why it might be regarded as a great novel, provided you don't mind the absolute absence of a sense of humour and you haven't read much else, but Dune really outstays it's welcome on one's bedside table - a shame really, as it starts off so well.

So screw you, Gargamel. Smiley face. Smiley face.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


Alan Moore, Leah Moore, John Reppion & Shane Oakley
Albion (2006)

Knowing very little about this one, I'll take a wild stab in the dark and guess that Alan Moore pushed Albion in the general direction of his daughter and her husband in hope that association with the author of Watchmen would grease the wheels and get bums on seats, so to speak; roughly like when Master P started releasing CDs of his own kids rapping about life in the school playground. Albion is plotted by Alan Moore it says here, although the plot is such that it probably could have been scribbled down on the back of a beer mat.

Anyway, for what it may be worth, Albion digs up a host of forgotten cartoon characters from the pages of English comics published during the decades before POW! the comic grew up. I was a devoted Topper reader when most of these characters were in print, and only achieved a dim awareness of the Steel Claw and some of the others when a kid at school gave me a stack of back issues of Victor, Valiant, Hotspur, and the like. Even at the age of seven I found it a bit weird how so many comics remained grimly obsessed with the second world war, so I never strayed far from the pages of Topper, with the occasional Beano or Beezer or Whizzer & Chips thrown in for the sake of variety. Therefore I've never even heard of most of the characters recycled here, which somewhat deflates at least some of the point which I take to be the spotting of references, as it was with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Leah's dad. More suspiciously, both being born in 1978, I'm not convinced either Leah Moore or John Reppion could have much investment in the likes of Robot Archie, Faceache, and Captain Hurricane, and consequently the whole endeavour feels like a bit of an exercise; and not a particularly successful one being as aside from a few chuckles, it's difficult to work out who is who and what the hell is supposed to be happening. Possibly ironically, Grant Morrison did a much better job when populating his Zenith strip in 2000AD with old D.C. Thompson characters. Here, the overly stylised art and the apparent reluctance to commit to any text which might actually explain what the fuck is going on results in something which reads like it doesn't quite know what it's doing and is thus trying far too hard in the hope that no-one will notice.

'Dad! Dad?'

'What is it, pet?'

'Tell us how yuz draws them canny good comic strips, like. I'm de'en one wi' our kid y'knaa.'

'It's a piece of piss, luv. Just don't tell no fucka what's gannin' on and it'll aal look reet classy, like one of them furrun philums.'

At worst, it steers perilously close to being a dark reinvention of the kind everyone and his milkman was churning out back in the nineties.

Why the fucking fuck would you try pass off half crack and half rat poison to a crazy-ass motherfucker like Franklin? You're such a blockhead, Charlie Brown!

Okay, maybe it's not that bad. It's actually fairly readable all things considered, but it could have been a lot better - or at least up to the standard of the original Janus Stark and House of Dolmann strips reproduced in the appendix of this collected edition, both hokey as hell, but at least confident and executed with an understanding of their readership; and Faceache most definitely deserved better.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick & Lawrence Sutin (editor)
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick (1995)

Well, I've read everything else barring some of the short stories presently waiting in collected editions somewhere at the middle of the latest to be read pile, so it seemed like time I tackled a few of the essays and other writings, particularly as I've seen a few of these - notably How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later - referred to elsewhere as significant with some frequency; and although I have still to tackle the 2011 edition of The Exegesis, it's the size of a housebrick and looks terrifying.

Surprisingly, although Shifting Realities is interesting, it's not quite so interesting as I had anticipated. Whilst the background material, Phil's views on other writers or science-fiction as a genre, even two chapters from an unfinished proposed sequel to The Man in the High Castle all serve to justify the occasional raised eyebrow; and his unsuccessful - possible even unsubmitted - pitch for an episode of the television serial Mission: Impossible seems doubly bizarre for being both distinctively Dickian and yet entirely forgettable; a lot of what is said here has been said to more convincing effect in Dick's fiction. I suspect it may simply be the case that the medium of fiction allows for a safety net by which even the most ludicrous ideas may be framed as worthy speculation rather than just the rantings of a nutcase.

On his 1992 spoken word CD Human Butt, Henry Rollins delivers a eulogy for one Crazy Paul also known as Sky King, a homeless Washington resident befriended by himself and Ian MacKaye of the band Fugazi. Amongst Crazy Paul's frequently startling monologues, the following seems to have been fairly typical:

The state department took my teeth. They owe me 340 billion dollars but they need all my money to raise babies at the state department, and as you know it takes a lot of money to raise a baby boy - I'd never hurt you now, I'd never hurt you - mother, father, red, blue, green, black, kingsnakes on top of the mountain. Your mother is being eaten alive by black snakes! I try to stay as high as I can. You got money for a beer?

The appeal of Crazy Paul, as Rollins describes it, was not so much the aggressive surrealism of the guy's routinely schizophrenic announcements as those instances where great poetic truths were unexpectedly washed ashore amongst the tide of non-sequiteurs, notably the one about getting all the world leaders together for a spaghetti dinner at St. Luke's Presbyterian Church, and of course:

I remember there was a wonderful moment when Paul and reality fused for about forty seconds. It was unbelievable and I was there. He was incredible. Paul and I were sitting on a bench, right next to the pet shop, waiting for the pet shop to open and to go in and get into some shit. Waiting to get into the shit there and so we're sitting there early Sunday morning and Paul's awake and he's not drunk because the booze has worn off and the stores aren't open yet. We're just sitting there on the bench. He's kind of muttering to himself. I'm just kind of sitting next to Paul in the smell - I'm used to the smell by now - and he gets up and starts doing this soft-shoe type shuffle and I go, 'Paul, you know you got a pre-tty good step there. That's a pretty awesome dance you've got going there.'

He does this pirouette, has his back to this little fence that lines the outfield of this ballpark, scrapes his boot on the fence, turns around and looks at me and says, 'you know, I always wanted to be a dancer, but I could never get the shit off my shoes.'


I'm sat there just going, 'fuuuck! Paul, that's beautiful.'

I always wanted to be a dancer, but I could never get the shit off my shoes.

How many gas station attendants wanted to be mountain climbers? How many guys working at JCPenney in the girdle department wanted to be Yanomama warriors but could never get the shit off their shoes? How many moments have you had these incredible bursts - forty, sixty, eighty second bursts of total non-judgemental evaluation of yourself? Here I am. I see clearly, and then ugh fuck - the shit's on your shoes again and you're full of shit again; or you leave your house, perfectly wonderful day - Godamn life is nice for once! 364 days of the year it's really hard. It's mean, boring and short, but man - sometimes there's that one day even if it's like twenty seconds long and then - tadaaa! Wow! All right! and then you turn around and there's some guy, a shit dealer just smearing you with shit and I'm back in my own hole again. No matter what you do it seems there's always something or someone, usually yourself, trying to put the shit on your shoes and succeeding, and the shit goes right through your boots, right into your soul and you're full of shit, endlessly full of shit...

To swing back around into a low geostationary orbit of the original point, the above kept coming back to me as I read through Dick's discussion of the nature of reality in the later essays. His ideas work when embedded into some obviously fictional narrative because fiction allows a way in, a means by which we can pick up that sucker and take a look without getting burned. On the other hand, delivered as a rambling testimony in no coherent order by someone who actually appears to believe we're still living in ancient Rome amongst other similarly loopy ideas sprinkled with I'm aware of how crazy that may sound as disclaimer, does no favours to the author; and I like to think of Dick as having qualities beyond the occasional moment of accidental profundity concerning shitty shoes and thwarted balletic ambition.

Philip K. Dick revealed as a nutter makes no difference to the quality of his fiction, nor the worth of the philosophical discourse communicated therein, because little of this material was ever intended for publication, and in any case, his mental state was never a secret. The Shifting Realities affords a glimpse into the thoughts of the author in more detail than I really needed, although at least I feel marginally vindicated in not having bothered to buy any of the collected volumes of his letters. There's some fascinating material here, but thankfully not much which will influence the way he is remembered.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Seven Soldiers of Victory

Grant Morrison and a cast of thousands
Seven Soldiers of Victory (2006)

Seven Soldiers comprises seven four-issue miniseries plus some other stuff, each miniseries featuring one of the seven principal characters as they form a team without actually meeting. It's been collected in the four volumes I have here, which I was going to write about individually until I realised it might become too repetitive. The idea is that one is supposed to be able to read the seven miniseries in any order, and I initially began with order of publication - as they appear in the collected volumes - but it became a little too confusing so I've opted for one character at a time bookended by the two specials.


The relationship between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison was vividly and uproariously depicted in the beloved 1970s sitcom That Plonker Next Door wherein the suburban Morrison family find themselves frequently and comically at odds with their neighbours, the Moores, headed by the gruffly bearded Alan who worships Sid's Snake from the old Whizzer & Chips comic strip - with hilarious consequences; and there's probably some sort of irony that the best description of practical magick I could find in a short time just happened to preface an interview with the latter:

Moore believes magic is a grammar—a linguistic, symbolic structure for looking at the world. He has at times described interactions with gods and demons; he insists these entities are not real in the phenomenal sense. They are ideas, but they contain all the power of these gods as if they were real. Moore believes that art and magic are aspects of the same part of human consciousness: the will to create. Magic, for Moore, is not about the material world but the world of the mind. Its only authentic external expression is art.

Much as Moore and Morrison seem to harbour serious reservations regarding each other's continued existence, I'd suggest the above applies particularly well to the work of the latter; and I'm suggesting this just to make it clear what we're talking about here, given how Seven Soldiers of Victory might be deemed an alchemical work, broadly speaking - narrative as ritual.

The story, divided as it is into seven parts which intersect to a lesser degree than you might expect, is reasonably straightforward in terms of mechanics, but disorientating in regard to the whole. This is particularly so as each individual story tends to serve up an odd shaped slice of the fantastic life of its star, chronology leaping around all over before ending seemingly abruptly in a couple of cases; so the whole is some way from being a neat little jigsaw puzzle which slots happily together and dispenses a chewy gum stick of perfect sense when you press the red button at the end. There is a lot going on in this story, so I'm just going to have to concentrate on what made sense to me, otherwise we could be here all evening.

The dominant theme of Seven Soldiers of Victory seems to be that of layered realities, those of the characters and their readership and how we might intersect and so on; all with some of that trendy quantum physics thrown in for seasoning and the sort of mathematics by which it can be proven that the story is a universe in its own right - although I can't remember if I picked that up myself or from one of Andrew Hickey's excellent related essays. Grant Morrison becomes a character in his own comic, not for the first time, writing the lives of people who seem to recognise themselves as essentially fictitious.

Equally significant may be the recurrence of that which springs to life, which emerges from below the earth or the underworld, and the animation of previously unliving matter - variations on a theme which crop up time and again and may be seen as crossings made from lower to higher levels of being, or travelling towards Godhood as I suspect Morrison may see it.

This transmutation is disrupted by the Sheeda - villains of the piece identified with the Sidhe, the fairy folk of myth - creatures who devour culture, pillaging and corrupting their own history and who, it turns out, seem also to embody the aforementioned Godhead towards which everyone else aspires given that they turn out be humanity from the far future at the furthest reach of evolution. On one level this may be deemed to reflect - ooh off the top of my head - Alan Moore's Watchmen recycling the culture of a more innocent age for its own ends, or even what Morrison himself does with the Seven Soldiers in question - each one hired from DC's stable of also-rans, arguably excepting the comic book incarnation of the Frankenstein monster who, by the way, seems commendably faithful to Mary Shelley's verbose original. On another level, the story represents culture as a self-generated institution, symbolic perpetual motion, a universe bringing itself into being, which probably qualifies as magick at least as much as anything Paul Daniels ever did; and the why is addressed in an Ed Stargard newspaper column in the final chapter:

In the fury of bright crayola colours, broken bones, and sound effects that can burst your ear drums if you let them, the themes may seem unfamiliar but trust me, those are human stories, writ large, dressed in capes and riding magic carpets to other universes, and if life with the Super-Cowboys taught me anything it taught me this...

When you use your X-ray vision to really, really look... ever day is mythology.

At least it feels like an answer to me. Obviously it's all much more complicated than can be summarised in four or five paragraphs, and Seven Soldiers of Victory distinguishes itself as a comic which not only rewards repeat reading, but quite possibly demands it and certainly deserves it. I'd rank it as the best thing Morrison has written since Doom Patrol, and therefore one of the best thing's he's written by some way.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Drug and other stories

Aleister Crowley The Drug and other stories (2010)

Whilst I've never exactly been enamoured of Aleister Crowley, I've taken enough of an interest to read past the somewhat hysterical reputation of the most wicked man in the world, as someone or other once put it. So far as I can recall from reading Martin Booth's biography, the worst of the man's crimes was most probably the beastly treatment meted out to Victor Neuburg towards the end of their relationship - although it's been a while since I read the book so I could be wrong there. Personally I'd say that whilst Crowley may well have qualified as the most faintly unsavoury character in the world, when looking to give out awards for actual evil, you might do better to consider Hitler or Stalin or even Fred bleeding West rather than someone who was just a bit of an oddball, the real-life Uncle Fester as at least one website has noted in recent times.

The trouble is that it's difficult to appreciate Crowley without his reputation getting in the way, not least when he himself encouraged the spread of at least some of that reputation, leaving us today with a barely recognisable Crowley as cultural icon to a clueless horde of pseudo-goth wankers with Psychic TV albums. Obviously there's not much good to be had discussing Crowley without some reference to magick, but one should be quite clear about what is meant by such a term in this context. What shouldn't be implied includes actual contact with non-corporeal entities on the grounds of there being no such thing, spells of the kind cast in Harry Potter films, or indeed anything which contradicts the existing laws of causality and physics. Roughly speaking this leaves us with magick as philosophy, a view of the world based not so much upon that which is directly perceived as the means by which it is understood, as expressed in the words of Ida Pendragon in Crowley's The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:

'Realism,' she went on. 'We want truth, but we want beauty too. We don't want what our silly eyes call truth. We want the beauty that is seen by artists' souls. A photograph is a lie because a camera is not a God. And we would rather the truth coloured by the artist's personality than the lie that his mere eyes tell him. The women of Bougereau and Gerôme are more like what the eyes tell one of life than the women of Degas and Manet. I want the truth of Being, not the truth of Form.'

This view is further clarified by Edgar Rolles in the same tale:

'My good girl, perspective is an eccentricity, a symbol; no more. How can one ever represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions? Only by symbolism. We have acquiesced in the method of the primitives - do you think men and women are really like Fra Angelico's pictures look to the eyes of the untaught?'

Then again, later:

'So Being is not in Form; it is however only to be understood through Form. Hence incarnations. The Universe is only a picture in the Mind of the Father, by which He wishes to convey - what? It is our Magnum Opus to discover what He means.'

None of which should be confused with beliefs born of a refusal to acknowledge objective reality, for as Crowley states in Felo de Se:

It is fear of death that has fooled men into belief in such absurdities and abominations as Spiritualism and Christian Science.

So, given that our boy wasn't entirely the pantomime villain described by persons subscribing to much weirder belief systems than anything ever claimed as valid by Crowley himself, just what was his game?

In terms of art and literature, the Symbolist movement flourished during Crowley's formative years as a reaction to naturalist tendencies in painting and writing, and perhaps as a resurgence of romanticism inflamed by the ever increasing cultural impact of science and industrialisation. Crowley would most certainly have been aware of all this, not least through the associate late nineteenth century Hermetic revival giving rise to magickal societies such as the Golden Dawn and Ordo Aurum Solis, amongst others. As a young man who spent some time mingling amongst Parisian café society - to which a number of his short stories refer - he could hardly have remained ignorant of Symbolism, or unmoved by its aesthetic as may be inferred from the reference to Symbolist painter Félicien Rops in the short story T'ien Tao. To make a possibly somewhat crass analogy, I suggest it may be in some sense useful to view Crowley as the Andy Warhol of Symbolism, a figure whose life epitomised the preoccupations of the movement, just as the distinctly less interesting Warhol later came to embody the commercialisation and commodification of art; so whilst Rops and Moreau painted it, and Paul Verlaine wrote it, Crowley lived it. On which note, one more from Edgar Rolles in The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:

'Art,' said he, 'and do not imagine that Art or anything else is other than High Magic!—is a system of holy hieroglyph. The artist, the initiate, thus frames his mysteries.'

If any of that makes any sense, keeping in mind that much of what I have thus far written is suggested mainly for the sake of argument, then it's probably time to take a look at The Drug, a big, fat collection of Crowley's short stories picked up mainly out of curiosity because I'd forgotten that he ever wrote this stuff; and I was further intrigued by there being an introduction from David Tibet, who apparently stopped talking to me after I compared his singing to the mice of the mouse organ on Bagpuss.

Oh well.

As you might imagine given the author, a certain number of the forty-nine short stories gathered here - and many of them previously unpublished by the way - deal with esoteric subjects. Some of these - The Three Characteristics and T'ien Tao to name but two - may well make sense to folks who are really into that sort of thing, but were more or less incomprehensible to me, in places reading much like a man having a conversation with himself. Happily, he improved with practice, learning how to meet his readership halfway, so that by the time we come to 1913's The Testament of Magdalen Blair, if the narrative is still a little muddled in places, the whole is nevertheless rewarding; in this specific case proposing a mechanism of magick as a philosophical system, rather than just addressing those who already get the general idea.

Crowley it turns out was a capable author for the most part. The quality of his writing is rich and poetic, but is sometimes lacking focus, at worst leaving the reader wondering what the hell is going on as we swerve off into yet more digressive observations regarding characters whom we may or may not have already met. Unfortunately though, in some instances the problems are more subtle. For example, in God's Journey we read:

There was one person who had not the normal activity of the brain, that superficial quality of swift reaction without reflection, whose evidence is talk. This was a brain that apprehended situations in some deep stratum of the soul, and the result of whose subtle secret operations is to make decisions which really decide things.

When the hubbub chanced for a moment to be lulled, Nadia, who had been watching the scene silently out of the corners of her sombre eyes, came heavily across the floor towards the master of the house. Her very motion might have suggested some inexorable engine of destruction. She lurched clumsily like a tank, slow, stupid, and yet deadly.

She made the most humble reverence to Pavel Petrovich and said 'I saw Dascha with it.'

The words were quite enough. It let everybody out.

So whilst it's not terrible, the first paragraph is a mess with too much defined by that which is lacking or absent, and concluding with a clause that's pure George W. Bush; followed immediately by a less convoluted paragraph with adjectival content left laying around in awkward places, and which may nevertheless prove a little too rich to digest if one is still scrambling to decode the previous paragraph. Then we come to Dascha, and find ourselves backtracking in hope of deducing the nature of the it with which she was seen; ending with the confusion of the plural words which may or may not become the singular it by which everybody is let out. The sum total is readable, but at a pace dictated by a succession of narrative stumbling blocks. In other words, you need to be already more than averagely well-disposed towards Aleister Crowley to get something out of such passages.

Those individual tales namechecked as distinctly wonderful examples of this, that or the other in the foreword mostly left me unimpressed with the exception of The Drug about which in my notes I have written he forgot to include a story, but otherwise fairly readable. On the other hand, Cancer?, A Death Bed Repentance, The Vitriol-Thrower, The Testament of Magdalen Blair, Felo de Se, Robbing Miss Horniman, and Which Things are an Allegory all made enough of an impression to keep me reading until the end, more or less. The A∴A∴, the order which Crowley helped established in 1907 was dedicated to the pursuit of light and knowledge - as Wikipedia is my witness - an ambition expressed in the motto the method of science, the aim of religion. This seems to me a more accurate summary of that which motivated Aleister Crowley if his writings are any indication, at least more accurate than the pursuit of excess and saying important sounding things in a deep, boomy voice with too much echo; and whilst I'm not suggesting he was necessarily a misunderstood genius, he is clearly deserving of better understanding than has generally been his legacy.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Lobo: Portrait of a Bastich

Keith Giffen, Alan Grant & Simon Bisley
Lobo: Portrait of a Bastich (1992)

Six hundred pages worth of Aleister Crowley's short stories can be a tough mountain to climb, so I've taken a break about halfway through and am refreshing my palate with something which, it might be argued, could be considered the thematic opposite of Crowley's laboured symbolism. Lobo is an extraterrestrial bounty-hunter and parody of the sort of angry over-the-top violent loner types which began to infest caped comicdom during the nineties. Lobo goes out of its way to offend, shares most of its basic values with Beavis & Butthead, and is probably one of the more stupid things I've read this year; and yet it's great because it's done right and it works. Simon Bisley's artwork is as ludicrous as ever, comically violent and presumably fuelled by death metal and hard liquor, but there's nevertheless something oddly beautiful about it all - a fine balance is struck with fiddly detail in all the right places and heavy, solid figures. It almost carries the authority of classical painting and as such makes every other clown who ever drew a scowling muscleman firing a gun larger than himself entirely redundant. Although the two four-issue miniseries collected here may have set out to rip huge streaks of piss out of the art of Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, the thing works because those involved so obviously loved what they were doing; so despite a superficially similar penchant for those kicking-peoples'-heads-in gags, Portrait of a Bastich feels almost wholesome in comparison to the somewhat cynical and nasty Skrull Kill Krew to which I subjected myself t'other week.

I actually bought these when they came out back in the 1990s, then reluctantly sold them on eBay when raising funds for my move to Texas, and it's great to have them back in the collection. Portrait of a Bastich is, roughly speaking, Motorhead in space written by Douglas Adams but without the smarm, and it's very, very funny.

Better get back to old grumpy bollocks now I suppose...

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Collection of Essays

George Orwell A Collection of Essays (1954)

At last coming to the final titles of a mammoth to-be-read pile upon which I'd been working since February, I am free to read all those books purchased in the mean time and kept to one side so as to avoid further increasing the mass of the aforementioned pile, if that makes any sense whatsoever. Having made efforts to avoid buying an excess of new reading material during this period, that which I have bought has tended to be less representative of my recent reading habits, mainly comprising titles encountered more or less by chance which just seemed too good to pass on. Hence A Collection of Essays, picked up with 1984 fresh in mind, a possibly anomalous title amongst those in a San Antonio library clearance sale. It seemed like something that needed a good home, and the timing was apt.

Only a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of a minor online altercation with a droning leftie, or at least that's probably what I would call her were I politically conservative. I will anagramatically refer to this entity as Mad Oration Ho being as it seems appropriate. I vaguely knew her from dreary atheist bulletin boards frequented back in the days before I had better things to do, and I already found her obnoxious. I think our last point of contact had been whilst she was campaigning to have the image of a menora removed from where it was carved as part of the architecture of a US post office building thus, she suggested, violating the separation of church and state and giving offence to atheists, or some such shite that no-one sane could possibly care about. A few weeks ago she turned up on facebook and so I accepted her friend request, not really knowing why because sure enough she was still a fount of the very worst sort of whining arseache. I spent a couple of days biting my lip, holding myself back from posting clips of Ted Nugent or links to material in support of either the NRA or Westboro Baptist Church, anything to aggravate this steaming leftard as Encyclopedia Dramatica classifies them.

Then finally I popped. She had posted a link to an article crowing over a US survey which had revealed a correlation between political conservatives, gun enthusiasts, racism, and the southern states. I've only been in Texas two years but I'm already somewhat tired of shitheads reducing the entire population of the southern states to a fat, white guy with a gun, so I asked Mad Oration Ho how this really helped anyone given that the correlation was hardly news and the article seemed like just another example of leftards pointing fingers and sneering at the usual easy targets. Being a moron, she didn't understand the question, inevitably assuming I was arguing against the claims of her beloved survey. Perhaps inevitably she adopted the tone of the edumacated secular humanist explaining logic, reason, logical reasoning, and rational logic and reason, to a stupid person; such as I was presumably by virtue of my having failed to congratulate her on her insight.

The point of this story is that it can often be a thankless task subscribing to any view to the political left of centre if you're in possession of even a little intelligence, because one's ideological colleagues often turn out to be bigger arseholes than even those against whom you might all be hopefully united. I myself tend to believe that strong labour unions are a good thing whilst rampant capitalism should be discouraged. I would like these views to gain wider and more popular support but fear that this is unlikely to happen because no-one likes a whining self-righteous tofu-scoffing twat endlessly banging on about changing the name of the planet Jupiter to something less racist; but much as I enjoyed the thought of Mad Oration Ho fuming with rage at any Ted Nugent, NRA, or nutty fundamentalist material with which I might troll her, the problem is that I can't stand any of that right-wing crap either; and to finally get to the point, this is why I appreciate George Orwell, for he understood very well that for certain leftards the need to be seen to take a stance is often of greater importance than the thrust of the stance taken.

Politically, Orwell's views seem similar to my own, and so these essays dissecting numerous interconnected tendencies within the culture and society to which he was born are both fascinating and illuminating, not least because he writes such a clear and well-considered argument untainted by traces of any dogma, point-scoring, or tub-thumping. Of course the world has changed since Orwell's time, but probably not so much as it could have done. We're still making many of the same mistakes, even if the uniforms and the jargon are different. The class system is perhaps no longer quite so rigid as that discussed in England Your England or "Such, Such were the Joys..." but its evils persist by different means; and one might argue that popular culture has moved on from the insular juvenalia of Billy Bunter and others examined in the Boy's Weeklies essay, but many of Orwell's core arguments apply equally well to all those generic entertainment franchises which really aren't quite so sophisticated or grown up as their fans might like to believe; and I always knew there was a reason I never quite warmed to Dickens, a reason Orwell articulates as all details—rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles...

All of which might be Mad Oration Ho style arse-ache were it not for the fact of Orwell being such a lively writer; but the down side is of course that home truths can be both sobering and slightly depressing. This is how the world was in Orwell's time, and it's as bad or even worse now - although knowing this is still somehow preferable to the delusional leftard for whom the routine railing against injustice has become something like a comfort, an action born of the need to be observed in occupation of a moral high ground, a position generally associated with a degree of privilege for:

People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter.

As a fully grown man with eyes, ears, and a functioning brain, Orwell was as critical of the left as he was of those to whom he voices opposition, and it is this capacity for self-examination, to remain critical even of those with whom one might appear to be in some agreement which makes him such a valuable essayist and commentator on literature itself. In this latter capacity, his looking forward to our own age makes for pessimistic and yet prescient reading, with art subsumed by entertainment, insulated like the biblical Jonah within the whale. It's nothing that wasn't restated in 1984, but it's nevertheless an argument worth repeating.

But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer's world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. It seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that [Henry] Miller has followed—I do not mean in technique or subject matter, but in implied outlook. The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale—or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, "constructive" lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine.

Whilst I'm obviously biased, I suggest the world would be a better and fairer place if we had a few more like Orwell, and if a few more like Orwell were taken seriously. This would of course mean that we would need to be able to actually hear them over the white noise of Mad Oration Ho and her hectoring ilk. Therefore it's probably fair to say that we're all doomed, but I suppose it's better to at least be aware of the fact and to understand why than not.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Skrull Kill Krew

Grant Morrison, Mark Millar & Steve Yeowell
Skrull Kill Krew (1996)

The roots of Skrull Kill Krew can be traced back to an ancient issue of Marvel's Fantastic Four wherein green-skinned shape-shifting alien spies are defeated when hypnotised and ordered to transform themselves into cows, cows which end up in hamburgers, hamburgers which have passed viral Skrull DNA and abilities to those who consume them in a fairly arbitrary nod to the 1980s outbreak of mad cow disease. I was unaware of this title when it first appeared, having turned my back on comic books thanks largely to Grant Morrison's Unreadables amongst other Vertigo titles that really weren't anything like so clever as their authors believed them to be. Nearly two decades later, I come close to pooing myself with excitement at the prospect of a book such as this, given the above synopsis and the names involved.

With a few Keith Giffen flavoured exceptions, neither Marvel nor DC ever quite managed humour - at least nothing that worked so well as 2000AD - as evidenced by an assortment of laboured miniseries roughly on par with a you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps poster. The Uncanny Ecchs-Men...

Oh my aching sides.

Skrull Kill Krew being spiritually closer to something you might have seen in 2000AD, it might be argued, it really should have worked, but somehow nothing quite adds up. Mark Millar's trademark crass chuckles seem unusually lacking in inspiration - blunted like the one about America smelling of burgers presumably because of fat Americans eating at McDonalds blah blah blah - no doubt hilarious if you've never been to America, but slightly bewildering if you've spent any time longer than a couple of weeks here, or seen anything of the country besides some fucking comic book convention; and then there's Moonstomp, the shape-shifting neo-Nazi skinhead with a magic ball-peen hammer called Nobbler in partial homage to the mighty Thor's Mjolnir - great, except did he really have to be a white supremacist just because he's a skinhead, and this being the case would he really name himself after the Symarip song? Then there's a failure to understand Captain America who, as comic book characters go, really isn't that complicated.

I know it's all intentionally over the top and stupid and gratuitously horrible, but those involved have all done this sort of thing much, much better elsewhere. Skrull Kill Krew reads like all five issues were written in the pub about an hour before last orders, and feels just a little too lacking in sincerity or author investment to work, leaving the reader wondering why he or she, but probably he, bothered in the first place. It's still better than The Unreadables but that's hardly a boast. What a missed opportunity.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly (1973)

At the likely risk of contradicting any previous claim I may have made to the opposite effect, A Scanner Darkly might be viewed as the pivotal Dick novel, or at least a pivotal Dick novel in that it occupies a narrative space roughly equidistant to all other devices by which he attempted to describe his understanding of the universe. Take away a few minor technological details and it reads almost like straight autobiography of a kind which could sit quite happily on a shelf amongst Burroughs' Junky, the oeuvre of Charles Bukowski, and other stumbling accounts of lives failing to happen; whilst on the other, more fantastic hand, all it shares in common with VALIS is buried within the increasingly schizophrenic delusions of Robert Arctor, the main character; so it's fiction, but it's true to life.

Dick believed in a layered universe, or at least in an idea amounting to the same - the thoroughly crappy reality of the world as it is as an illusion imposed upon the world as it should or could be by an errant creator. This theme reoccurs throughout Dick's career and is here expressed in the double life of Robert Arctor, a near permanently wasted addict of the terrible substance D and federal narcotics agent whose cover is so deep that he ends up spying on himself, and who is now so affected by the drug that he doesn't seem to quite notice how he's going around in circles. His world is also going around in circles, as, Dick suggests, is western civilisation, satirised here in New Path, the drug rehabilitation organisation which turns out to be a front for the production of substance D. Almost everything in this novel is eating its own tail.

In Southern California it didn't make any difference anyhow where you went; there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere. And when finally you got hungry and went to the McDonaldburger place and bought a McDonald's hamburger, it was the one they sold you last time and the time before that and so forth, back to before you were born...

They had by now, according to their sign, sold the same original burger fifty billion times. He wondered if it was to the same person. Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.

It is this crushing sense of inertia, of entropic force which forms Dick's illusory superimposed reality, extending right down to the level of human consciousness and experience, the murk of this dreary dream world we float in, as it is later described:

Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected.

As the author stresses in the afterword, there is no moral to this novel, but then it does so much that I'm not sure it really needs one. Philip K. Dick had an extraordinary view of the world, and one that might be deemed nonetheless useful regardless of whether you believe any of it, and this is as clear a glimpse of that world as we're likely to encounter outside of the usual biographical sources. At the risk of appearing rude, if you can't appreciate this one then you're probably a moron.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Highway of Eternity

Clifford D. Simak Highway of Eternity (1986)

This was Simak's final novel, and one I approached with some caution. Whilst Simak tended to a clear and uncluttered style with little ambiguity in terms of narrative development, the meaning of his stories has often seemed ambiguous or vague, at least beyond it being obvious that he was trying to say something. He was in his eighties, had spent three years in recovery from leukemia and emphysema, and his wife Kay had passed on in 1985, so it seemed probable that there would be a lot going on in this novel, particularly given the title.

Sure enough, there is a lot going on here, but the whole is much lighter than I had anticipated, and with no sense of a subtext tangled up with convoluted rhetoric unable to decide which way it wants to go; as has appeared to be the case with a few of his novels which were, I suspect, intended simply to inspire questions, but suffered for fostering an impression of some deep and profound statement made just beyond the reader's grasp; at least that's the impression I got.

The story itself perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters, but is nevertheless readable, a pleasantly surreal tale of humans travelling through time in the hope of escaping their destiny, specifically that staple of much golden age science-fiction, transformation into beings of pure thought. As with many of Simak's novels, I can never quite tell if he has a slightly skewed view of evolution as something guided by a greater purpose, or whether it is simply presented this way for the sake of argument, but the latter is at least suggested by the human rebuttal of destiny as something imposed from outside by those claiming to know better. In this respect, Highway of Eternity is pleasantly straightforward compared to some of Simak's earlier novels in so much as its purpose is relatively clear; and as pastoral science-fiction it scores highly, particularly for the lengthy and evocative chapter of Boone making his way through the wilderness of prehistoric America. It probably isn't the crowning achievement of his career, but it's good enough to inspire regret that of all his oeuvre, I have just six as yet unread novels to go.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct

Paul Di Filippo & Jerry Ordway
Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct (2005)
Alan Moore has proven himself a tough act to follow, generally speaking, which is probably why publishers haven't usually bothered. Jamie Delano turned out some decent D.R. & Quinch strips, and both the Rick Veitch and Mark Millar versions of Swamp Thing had their moments; and of course Neil Gaiman turned in some decent issues of Miracleman - which I say as someone who isn't ordinarily a massive fan of the guy; but otherwise it seems to be either characters left well alone for one reason or another, or Before Watchmen which I haven't read but suspect I can probably live without.

Beyond the Farthest Precinct probably serves to illustrate why that which has been bequeathed to us by the bearded one is probably best left well alone, Top 10 being the kitchen sink superhero title he began with Wildstorm. Paul Di Filippo is actually a pretty decent writer, albeit one not traditionally associated with comic books, and whilst he does what would under other circumstances be a great job were this an issue of, for example, X-Factor, it can't help but look hamfisted in comparison to that which has gone before. It pulls a few distinctly Mooresque rabbits from hats with more skill than might be expected, but somehow it feels like an exercise, Stairway to Heaven meticulously plucked by someone who would rather be cranking out More Than a Feeling. Jerry Ordway's artwork is similarly competent and busy but just not quite right, resulting in something that loosely resembles Top 10 as we knew it but feels like a late eighties issue of New Teen Titans. Even the Mooresque cameos from Tintin, Captain Haddock and Buddy Bradley seem clumsy and laboured. It's a shame because there's actually a decent story in here, albeit one sorely in need of a Vicks Sinex the size of Big Ben, and it comes so close to almost getting away with it.

Nice try but no cigar.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Whilst I accept it may be poor form taking potshots at Noel Gallagher just as there's little point to protesting that water is wet or that Adolf Hitler wasn't a very nice man, it's fun nevertheless, not least with regard to comments of this sort:

People who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.

Just to be clear, I put myself considerably more than a little bit above Noel Gallagher on the grounds that I have two distinct eyebrows and have never in my life written a line as comically meaningless as how does it feel like to let forever be? I mean, what the fuck is that? How does it feel like doesn't actually work in the language to which its constituent words belong, and then we have let forever be presumably meaning let forever alone - don't be one of those people who keeps mucking about with forever, trying to force it to wear a hat and tying ribbons around its bollocks.

What a complete cock.

Anyway, predictable though it may be given Gallagher's raging inferiority complex kicking off every time someone uses one of those fancy, posh long words like what posh people use when they're looking down their posh, snobby noses at you, this week's hot topic has been his distrust of fiction in literature:

I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time. I can't suspend belief in reality ... I just end up thinking, this isn't fucking true.

I know - it's not really worth getting upset about - although by curious coincidence it sits close to some points that have occurred to me whilst re-reading Slaughterhouse Five.

Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical account of the second world war and particularly the bombing of Dresden, arguably science-fiction due to passages spent in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore and the fact of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, experiencing his life in random order having become unstuck in time. Despite how that may sound, Slaughterhouse Five has a fairly tight and coherent narrative despite the superficial resemblance to something Burroughs might have cooked up, albeit a narrative warped and distorted by its own non-linear sequence.

'There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.'

The reason for this scrambled text is more or less spelled out in the opening chapter - thus hopefully circumnavigating accusations of experimental technique employed solely for the purpose of alienating people like Noel Gallagher; this being that some occurrences, particularly those experienced during wartime, are so horrible and so outside the realm of ordinary human comprehension that it is impossible to make sense of them by conventional means, if at all. The firebombing of Dresden was, Vonnegut suggests, one such occurrence. It can be mapped and described in terms of prose, but it isn't anything one can reasonably expect to understand as such, so seemingly random or even absurd images are as good as it gets; and that may sound like meaningless artspeak, but actually he's right.

Slaughterhouse Five is a funny book about something horrible, and by extension about the very worst aspects of human nature, and it works not by pointing fingers or frowning but by compelling the reader to think in a certain way about that which it describes, which seems consistent with D.H. Lawrence's assertion from Why the Novel Matters:

The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't really like anything I've read before or since and is almost certainly one of the greatest novels ever written.