Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Authority Volume Two: Under New Management

Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, Mark Millar & Frank Quitely
The Authority Volume Two: Under New Management (2000)
I seem to have heard a lot about Warren Ellis, but nothing more detailed than yeah, he's really good. I recall wincing at his Lazarus Churchyard strip in the understandably short-lived Blast!, and considering that back in 1991 it only took an X-prefix or references to Aleister Crowley to fool me into believing I had experienced quality product, that must have been some serious wank. Even the name Lazarus Churchyard - if it was music you just know it would have been some post-ironic steampunk-goggle-wearing technogoth toss buried under four tons of digital reverb. I browsed a copy of Warren's apparently amazing Transmetropolitan in a comic shop at some point, but it bore an uncanny resemblance to self-consciously edgy cyberpunk landfill so I presumed it had nothing to offer. I could be wrong, but y'know...

The Authority is a revisionist superhero series, because if there's one thing the world needs, it's another team of super-powered cartoon characters with tidily flawed personalities and erectile dysfunction...

Okay - bit harsh maybe. The Authority actually isn't bad, and no-one could possibly deny that the art is beautiful, although the Warren Ellis issues reprinted here - and keep in mind that he created this title in the first place - do little to contradict or expand favourably upon my impression of him as a writer. Snappy lines punctuated by entire pages bereft of dialogue can work, or it can read like shorthand cool - the comic book equivalent of underlighting one's face by flashlight whilst pulling stern expressions and growling Shakespeare with a German accent. I mean it's okay, but it's a bit obvious.

The key to writing superheroes used to be in getting Doctor Octopus to a branch of Subway so as to have Spiderman crack jokes specifically tailored to the situation about knuckle sandwiches or whole wheat rolls of justice or whatever, and this is surely just the ergonomic modern equivalent. I have no idea whether Warren Ellis is currently working on some steampunk title, or whether he's pooped out a fucking Torchwood novel, but I wouldn't be surprised at either.

However, once we come to the Mark Millar issues reprinted herein, things definitely look up. For some time Millar was allegedly known within the comics trade as - if you'll excuse the schoolyard sexual politics - Grant Morrison's bum boy in reference to the obvious influence of baldy's writing, unless of course those two really were engaged in red hot manly action. Millar may well be no more than the Poundland Grant Morrison, or it could be that they both tend to to laugh at the same jokes; but either way he's still immensely entertaining, writing loud and stupid without losing any of the more delicate touches - even doing a bit of a Pat Mills with a thinly disguised parody of Marvel's Avengers. If it's value brand Grant Morrison, then at least it forges the Grant Morrison who used to tell stories rather than just photocopying a pair of Genesis P. Orridge's underpants and give you a spooky look meaning it's all connected!

To pause for a moment of potentially monumental pretension, in Studies in Classic American Literature D.H. Lawrence wrote:

An artist is usually a damned liar. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.

Even with a slightly poor fit in terms of Mark Millar being writer rather than critic, he nevertheless does a good job of saving this tale from its creator. Frank Quitely still has some weird shit going on with all those massive chins, but never mind.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Quantity Theory of Insanity

Will Self The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991)

Collections of this kind traditionally suggest short stories gathered together from other, earlier sources, but The Quantity Theory of Insanity has so far as I am able to tell always been sold as Self's debut, and I've a hunch it may have been written as such. Whilst each of these six short tales is certainly self-contained, the book as a whole features such thematic blurring as to read like a novel, albeit a novel with its narrative simultaneously pointed in six different directions.

Prior to writing for a living, Will Self had a crack at stand-up comedy, and I was thinking about how both this and his stint on Shooting Stars made a lot of sense in view of these short stories, when I found an interview with The Literateur in which he says:

I did, and still do some stand up comedy so it came naturally to me, the idea of trying to make people laugh in that way. And I suppose that's how the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, my first book, came to me. They were riffs to begin with, they were things that I would entertain people with - these preposterous stories. So it was a natural outgrowth of the sort of things I’d done before, turning them into more serious fiction.

Just to be clear, this isn't Spike Milligan. The humour runs deeper and darker, as in The North London Book of the Dead wherein it is revealed that the dead of the capital don't so much die as just move to a different part of the city; or Understanding the Ur-Bororo which introduces the world's most boring tribe; and then there's the title feature which takes Rupert Sheldrake's faintly ludicrous morphic fields a step further by classifying sanity as a finite resource varying from one place to the next much like air pressure; so for example, Sid's return to mental stability sees a decrease in ambient sanity elsewhere:

And the onion-growers? Well, even though we had to wait to quantify the data, we could see with our own eyes that they had started to exhibit quite remarkably baroque behavioural patterns. With Sid palliated they now not only believed in the beneficial agricultural influence of Ceres, they also believed that Ceres was a real person, who would be visiting them to participate in a celebration of the summer solstice. Some of the really enthusiastic communards even sent out to Lerwick for twiglets and other kinds of exotic cocktail eatables, all the better to entertain their divine guest.

The stories are linked in so much as characters and themes reoccur to map out a roughly coherent territory, although as with the assorted fruitcakes of the title story, the connections are metaphysical rather than causal.

Jesus. Did I just write that?

The Quantity Theory of Insanity holds together quite well as a sort of non-linear novel, which may be intentional given Self's interest in the psychogeographical, the logic of apparently random associations and so on. It seems subdued in comparison with his more recent writings, with some individual stories having too little narrative direction to really work in isolation - Mono-Cellular, if prophetic, is otherwise barely comprehensible.

He went on to better, weirder, and probably even funnier things, but this is nonetheless astonishing as a debut.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Pump Six

Paolo Bacigalupi Pump Six (2008)

I came across Paolo Bacigalupi a few years ago when Fantasy & Science Fiction printed the short story after which this collection is named. Of all the digest magazines, Fantasy & Science Fiction can generally be relied upon to feature the good stuff, but Pump Six stood out even amongst the notably high standard of their September 2008 issue, and whilst I'm figuratively sucking dicks, it's not even the best story here.

Lawrence Miles, speaking in an interview that I'm presently unable to find, once noted the general reluctance of science-fiction authors to deal with the immediate future - although he may have been referring to Doctor Who novelists for whatever that's generally worth - the point being that the environmental issues we face are serious and depressing and hardly conducive to romping space opera. This is probably why everyone's either rewriting Flash Gordon for the umpteenth time or chortling over steam-driven computing engines called Montague.

Well, maybe not everybody...

Bucking this trend, Paolo Bacigalupi just goes for it, invoking post-technological worlds without icecaps, oil, or motorised travel as any kind of option; where patented GM crops and animals have run wild, grey squirrelling all natural competition into extinction. It's plausible, fascinating, and in places horrifying - genetically modified servants as property in The Fluted Girl, or The People of Sand and Slag who eat their dog having decided it wasn't much of a pet. It's the mundane horror of ordinary human cruelty rather than the gratuitous torture porn of Iain Banks and others; and it's all the more effective for having a narrative point beyond simple shock value. These are stories that could happen.

It also helps that the guy writes like a dream - rich, descriptive prose painting a world in which almost everything is new and alien whilst retaining disturbing familiarity. At times it's almost too rich, notably in The Calorie Man which requires the reader to wrestle the details of characters struggling with a post-technological economy amongst flashbacks which confuse as much as they explain; but at short story length you don't mind so much, and he gets away with it.

Paolo Bacigalupi has been compared to William Gibson - which isn't too far off the mark given the concern with corporations and his particularly textural descriptive flourishes; and has been described as steampunk - which is way off the mark given that his stories take us forward and lack the requisite clichéd romping bullshit in fashionable aviator goggles; but at present he's looking decidedly unique in many respects. If you only read one book this century etc. etc.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Zenith Lives!

Stuart Douglas (editor) Zenith Lives! (2012)

As a kid, Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone so impressed me in those Sherlock Holmes films as to necessitate a trip to the library in search of Arthur Conan Doyle's originals; but beyond that - and I suppose Victor Drago, the Sexton Blake that never was in the short lived Tornado comic - detective fiction has never really grabbed me. Even as Obverse announced this collection of stories featuring Sexton Blake's albino nemesis, I was thinking of Nils-Olof Franzén's Agaton Sax, probably because they're both fictional detectives and the latter was published in England with illustrations by another Blake, and they both have an x in their names. Therefore it's fair to say that I don't really know Sexton Blake from a hole in the ground, but here I am offering my pearls of wisdom regardless.

The first Sexton Blake story appeared in 1893 and the character has been solving crimes and getting into fights ever since - roughly speaking the Sherlock Holmes whose pint you really shouldn't spill, with Zenith amongst his more distinctive foes.

Mark Hodder was an obvious choice of author for this collection, his being a long time Blake aficionado - owner of the world's largest collection of Sexton Blake periodicals no less - and somewhat nifty with a biro in his own right. Of course he delivers the goods, perfectly invoking time and place without recourse to nostalgia or writing as though perched before the typewriter sucking on a pipe with Max Miller blasting away in the background. Zenith's pulp origins are acknowledged without The Blood of our Land reading like a pastiche, and as always Mark Hodder writes with a sense of purpose and moral conscience which elevate his narrative some way above being mere romp.

Others here are perhaps less faithful to the general tradition of Blake, but nonetheless enjoyable for all that the Zenith character is in part used as springboard more than subject.

Paul Magrs' All the Many Rooms roughly amounts to Michael Moorcock at his nuttiest remixed by Nurse With Wound, even resorting to non-sequiturial lists of names and somehow getting away with it - which I'm not sure I've seen before. It actually reminds me a little of the sort of thing Moorcock once published in New Worlds magazine, and I mean in a good way.

Speaking of Moorcock, he too is present - arguably another obvious choice having cut his publishing teeth at the offices of Fleetway's Sexton Blake Library, later writing Seaton Begg, his own idiosyncratic interpretation revived here for Curaré.

George Mann and Stuart Douglas round up the collection with neat little tales, both relatively low on incident but told with such engaging prose that it's not a problem. I only really know of George Mann as editor to a couple of excellent Solaris Books anthologies a few years back, but he's very clearly a talent in his own right; as is Stuart Douglas, despite his own protestations to the contrary.

Zenith Lives! may take some liberties with the Sexton Blake tradition, but is nevertheless a great collection, possibly Obverse's best thus far in terms of consistent quality. Having recently acquired the rights to originate and publish new Sexton Blake material, I'd say the detective is in good hands with Obverse, and it would be nice to see lengthier efforts from at least Mark Hodder and George Mann very soon.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Invisible Man

H.G. Wells The Invisible Man (1897)

It seems strange to consider that only a decade separates The Invisible Man from Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, both tales wherein the process of scientific investigation unwittingly exposes the darker, amoral side of its investigator. Stevenson's tale is very much the nineteenth century examination of morality with its main guy neatly bifurcated into good and evil just like the Christian and immediately post-Christian universe into which he was born. Wells' Griffin is on the other hand a man transformed rather than divided in Stevenson's sense - a man who, through the agency of science, believes himself beyond consequence and thus goes on a rampage. The Invisible Man is therefore, according to Wikipedia, an update of the Ring of Gyges from Plato's Republic, which I really should have remembered seeing as I only read the fucking thing a month ago, but never mind.

More significantly, The Invisible Man doesn't feel like a nineteenth century novel, and its compelling, amiable tone is perhaps indicative of why Wells is still deservedly regarded as a classic author. He communicates; his science is ingenious yet never overpowers its narrative; his phonetic renderings of regional accents entertain without intruding where so often such a device can come across as painfully twee or even render the narrative incomprehensible - as with certain short stories by the previously mentioned Stevenson; and he is often very funny without conspicuously trying too hard:

Elaborated in the imagination of Mr. Gould, the probationary assistant in the National School, this theory took the form that the stranger was an Anarchist in disguise, preparing explosives, and he resolved to undertake such detective operations as time permitted. These consisted for the most part in looking very hard at the stranger whenever they met, or in asking people who had never seen the stranger leading questions about him.

On close inspection, this is a pretty thin tale and there's not actually a whole lot of story beyond bloke turns invisible, goes bonkers, but the telling is delicious, amounting to a robust meal - if culinary analogies aren't too much of a stretch.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Lovecraft's Book

Richard Lupoff Lovecraft's Book (1985)

It has often been said that in respect of political views, H.P. Lovecraft was simply a man of his time, which is pretty much bollocks unless you subscribe to the notion that Adolf Eichmann was similarly no more than a man of his time. Sadly, Lovecraft was a shocking racist who took a dim view of those not blessed with Anglo-Saxon genes, or at least some tie to cultural traditions harking back to the pastier bits of Europe. The clues are to be found amongst references to all those swarthy and expressly degenerate types forever summoning Cthulhu up from the ocean depths in his fiction, and of course his 1912 poem On the Creation of Niggers might also be considered something of a smoking gun:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

It seems fair to say that Lovecraft's views were somewhat stronger than just not liking reggae. Happily, whilst such sentiments undoubtedly informed his fiction to some extent, they're most often so deeply buried within the general fog of horror as to be effectively neutered, and certainly there was never a trace of anything that could be described as an agenda - at least none that I ever noticed. Additionally, the man's talents and circumstances were arguably such as to allow us to overlook his being a bit of a twat in some respects, so it's not like reading Lovecraft is quite the same as a reassessment of the oeuvre of Jim Davidson; and, it seems he softened his more unsavoury views in later life as perhaps evinced by his marriage to Sonia Greene - a Ukrainian Jew, and certainly by regrets expressed in  private correspondence and vocal support for the moderate socialism of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Nevertheless, for someone who wrote so many letters, the man remains something of a mystery, and particularly in regard to the evolution of his personal politics. Richard Lupoff attempts to address this, not so much offering an alternate history as a set of pieces which fit existing gaps of the jigsaw puzzle with surprising finesse - a story that almost certainly didn't happen, but could have done.

Lovecraft's Book is in part a spy thriller with actual historical characters connected by improbable but entirely plausible means. Lovecraft is sought by right-wing organisations as the potential author of an American Mein Kampf, a volume to galvanise the masses and supposedly demonstrate why the United States needs to follow in the footsteps of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy - Lovecraft's naive sympathies being somewhat in that direction, and with his  culturally Anglo-Saxon background likely to grant the title a respectability it might not achieve authored by an American citizen of more conspicuously Germanic or Italian heritage. The story takes in cameos from Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and others; casts the mafia as - well, if not exactly the good guys, at least on the right side; and culminates with H.P. Lovecraft and Houdini's little brother battling Nazis in an underwater base. Lovecraft of course triumphs, defeating a plan to overrun the United States with aquatic blackshirts (who would have risen from the coastal waves to seize power) and in doing so is inspired to write A Shadow Over Innsmouth. More importantly, he gets some of his own shit rubbed in his face and duly learns from the experience, as he seemingly did in real life, although perhaps not for the same reasons.

This could have been one of the most stupid stories ever told, but Lupoff's research is impressive, and for all that the whole idea is ludicrous, it works, and it works well - so well that I'm not sure it could be legitimately termed alternate history so much as over-enthusiastic speculation. In any case, it's a damn good yarn of surprising depth, particularly in its dissection of the psychological appeal of Fascism. Much as I've admired Lovecraft's writing, it has never before occurred to me that he might have been overly endowed with redeeming qualities as a person, but Richard Lupoff has given me pause for a rethink on that score.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Triumph of Time

James Blish The Triumph of Time (1958)

James Blish impressed me on previous occasions, specifically with The Night Shapes and the Galactic Cluster collection, both of which delivered a lot more than I'd expected from an author whose name I had once associated with Star Trek adaptations. The Triumph of Time, plucked from the shelf of a second-hand book store without need of deliberation, seems typical of his style in many respects - hard science-fiction besides which even the usual big names of the genre seem soft in comparison. Blish was juggling concepts like stripped antimatter and electromagnetic flux back when even his most fiercely bespectacled contemporaries were sticking to safer subjects like rocket trajectory and escape velocity; in fact Blish now reads like Charles Stross or Alastair Reynolds or one of those guys, which is impressive when you consider his vintage.

The Triumph of Time deals with the nature of the cosmos - antimatter, m-branes, the big bang, the big bounce and all that good stuff before many of these ideas were even formally consolidated behind any ratified term - the big bang here being referred to as the monobloc, for example; and it does pretty well for a novel dated to an era prior to any strong consensus of opinion on whether the big bang was necessarily a more credible idea than the steady state model.

The only problem, at least for me, is this being the fourth novel in the Cities in Flight sequence - the Blish equivalent of Asimov's Foundation it might be argued - which, if hugely exciting in conception, I've found thus far impenetrable. I followed what was going on well enough, but much of The Triumph of Time seems unengaging, even mystifying in places - not exactly a chore, but neither is it especially rewarding beyond those few grand ideas. I know it's the fourth book of a quadrilogy, but I'm pretty sure I read a novella length version of the first part in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection edited by Ben Bova, and that was similarly bewildering.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Martian Time-Slip

Philip K. Dick Martian Time-Slip (1962)

At the risk of writing the same Philip K. Dick review over and over, and further to the general theme of the disparity between that which Dick wrote and that which everyone seems to think he wrote, we come to Martian Time-Slip, a novel which so impressed me first time around that I actually got my mother to read it, no mean feat given how she seems to regard everything written, painted and performed since about 1400 as probably crap.

Aside from Martian Time-Slip being conspicuously lacking in android bounty-hunters screaming but am I even real? as they fall to their knees, arms cinematically outstretched to the heavens just as it starts to piss down; and aside from the complete absence of hard boiled action heroes - a quality shared with every single story Dick ever wrote - like We Can Build You from the same year, this would be a mainstream novel but for a few scenic details, at least in so much as any of Dick's writing can be considered mainstream. The story revolves around the desperate lives of Martian colonists scratching out a living in a hostile environment which harks back to the old west, or even to the Australian outback; water is scarce, and autism may turn out to be the condition of those with an unorthodox relationship to the passage of time. Of course, such elements constitute narrative language, the means by which the story is told rather than its subject.

Philip K. Dick's novels examine the nature of reality, often from the schizophrenic perspective of there being a different world hidden behind that which all but a few supposedly perceptive individuals can see. This, I would argue, is a structural aspect of Dick's perception rather than its central theme, said theme being truth itself: that which should be rather than that which is, the pure forms of being unsullied by entropic forces, or gubbish as they are rendered in Martian Time-Slip. I could be getting carried away here, but what I take from this, Dick's central idea, is a desire for progression or forward motion which relates to the notion of God equating to change - as I think Octavia Butler put it - change as differentiated from stasis, Dick's nightmare:

It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again.

This passage is quoted in the foreword by Brian Aldiss - which I feel I should probably mention in case it appears that I'm trying to pass this off as some devastatingly original of my own - but it expresses a sentiment with which Dick remained preoccupied throughout his life, one which is restated a decade later in A Scanner Darkly:

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.

So, to get to the point - that's what the guy was on about, not all those Blade Runnerisms which are in any case thematically closer to the novels of William Gibson than anything Dick ever wrote.

Just sayin'.

Martian Time-Slip ambles along nicely, chuckling to itself without really trying for comic effect, its characters more in the spirit of Bukowski than Asimov; and like the man's best, it builds up a tremendous head of sorrow without conspicuously rooting for sympathy - a sad and beautiful song where most writers just about manage tunes. Instead of waiting for this to be stripped of all point and character as a shit film with some blandly photogenic cock playing Jack Bohlen - casting with all the sensitivity of Sylvester Stallone as two-fisted Franz Kafka - just read the fucking book, okay. Sometimes the book is how the story was meant to be told all along.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows Neonomicon (2011)

I'm pretty sure that isn't how you spell Jason, but never mind...

Alan Moore takes on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft and others whilst steering clear of anything too obviously resembling a nostalgic retread, the same dressing-up box most authors tend to dig into when doing their own version of Lovecraft. Thus we have Lovecraft filtered - quite intentionally, according to the bearded one - through The Wire, a contemporary setting with the sharp, visceral focus of a crime drama. It sort of does the job, except you can tell Moore was working through some stuff when he wrote this - notably being immensely pissed off at DC comics turning Watchmen into a film - so it's pretty horrible in places. Being a horror, I guess it's supposed to be horrible, but it at least seems to have some point beyond sticking fingers down the reader's throat, fingers only recently extricated from someone's bum...

The most ruthlessly unpleasant passage of Neonomicon has the main character repeatedly raped in sharper focus than might be deemed necessary. One might argue this works by exposing the repulsive details as curiously banal, presenting uncomfortably plausible violence in place of the usual consequence free cartoon variety. One might also argue that Moore goes too far, and I still have no idea what Agent Brears describing herself as a sex addict really adds to the story - unless it's bait for the sort of reader who turned up in the misguided hope of twisted thrills. I'm undecided, but then I've never quite reached a decision regarding the similarly repulsive music of Whitehouse, Ramleh, Consumer Electronics and the like. If horrible, repellent art provokes questions then that's most likely a good thing by some definition; but on the other hand, maybe it's just cheap shock effects perpetrated by arseholes who'd almost certainly shit themselves were they ever caught up in the sort of situations that seemingly inspire their efforts. Also there's the matter of Lovecraftian horror as repressed sexuality, all those throbbing nocturnal monstrosities summoned up by a writer remembered at best as a Victorian prude, Neonomicon being in some sense a Freudian take on Lovecraft; but aside from our model of the poor bugger's sexuality being based solely on the fact that he considered it his own business, who really still gives a shit?

Alice accesses Wonderland by falling down a great big earthen fanny, and all space rockets are atomic powered hard-ons penetrating a somehow vaginal sky. We get it, now piss off.

Aside from moral issues debated at greater length elsewhere, the other problem with Neonomicon is that it just isn't as good as it could have been. It's beautifully drawn, reasonably intelligent, raises all sorts of interesting points about the nature of storytelling, the medium and language itself - but Lovecraftian horror doesn't work as full frontal nastiness; so the fine balance that should have been struck isn't quite there and it reads in places like the writing of an Alan Moore imitator.