Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Doom Patrol volume one

Arnold Drake, Bruno Premiani & Bob Brown
The Doom Patrol volume one (1966)
I was a huge fan of the late 1980s revival of DC's Doom Patrol, both the wonderfully peculiar Grant Morrison run and those earlier, more mainstream issues written by Paul Kupperberg. At the time, I wasn't really sure who the Doom Patrol were supposed to be, had never heard of the original 1960s comic book written by Arnold Drake, and had only encountered the characters in some random issue of Marv Wolfman's New Teen Titans.

When I found a copy of Murray R. Ward's Official Doom Patrol Index - reprinting the covers and summarising all those 1960s issues - my eyes were opened; although it's probably worth keeping in mind that I'm talking about comic books here, so as revelations go this probably wasn't on the scale of when Einstein invented television or whatever. Arnold Drake's Doom Patrol were freakish misfit superheroes guided by a wheelchair bound genius three months before the first Stan Lee X-Men comic hit the stands, although to be fair, there's an argument that Drake had in turn borrowed a lot from previous Marvel titles, and conversely, if Stan Lee ripped him off, he arguably ended up doing it better. I've always thought Marvels' greatest invention was the mutant superhero which in one swoop did away with the increasingly ludicrous requirement of costumed superhumans forever being born from laboratory experiments gone wrong. There's only so many times you can pull that trick before it begins to seem a bit unlikely even by the standards of the genre.

As the legend has it, 1960s Doom Patrol was indeed weird, but more so in conception than execution, which becomes apparent once you sit down and try to read the thing. As outcast heroes, Cliff Steele, Rita Farr, and Larry Trainor endure the odd remark along the lines of check out the guy with the bandages, but it's hardly on the level of torch wielding mobs picketing Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men; and whilst Garguax, the Brotherhood of Evil, and General Immortus may be engagingly odd as foes, every other issue seems either to be someone robbing a bank or stealing a rare diamond, or making a bid for world domination starting off by either robbing a bank or stealing a rare diamond in order to finance the operation. Essentially it's the usual super-powered crooks, plans explained to anyone who will listen, and low-quality gags delivered whilst fighting; and actually it's not even half so weird as some of those earlier issues of Spiderman.

That said, Bruno Premiani's artwork is lovely - clean, confident lines with just the right level of detail and the sort of figure work associated with an era of comics drawn by those who learned their craft through means other than just reading comics. If he'd been working in England at the height of Eagle, or drawing something that wasn't printed on recycled toilet paper, he might perhaps have flourished and been remembered as another Frank Hampson. Even though he succumbs to shorthand in later issues, it's the artwork that kept me going during passages where the dialogue and narrative became just a little too repetitive to be bothered with, seeing as how I'm not seven years old and this isn't 1963.

Maybe I needed to read the colour editions, or maybe twenty-two consecutive issues of one slightly repetitive comic was too much in just a couple of sittings. Doom Patrol isn't terrible, but I'm afraid I found it kind of dull in places. There's no mistaking its potential as the weird seed of what would come in decades to follow, but I'm afraid it was a bit of a plodder for me.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain

Isaac Asimov Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987)

I've had a patchy relationship with Isaac Asimov in the past. His prose was never conspicuously literary, tending towards emphasis on plot mechanics and the discussion of ideas; but on the other hand, considering he died with something like five-hundred books to his name - and we're not talking grubby eight page fanzines that no-one bothered reading - it would be pretty weird if he'd achieved that sort of word count without learning a thing or two.

Destination Brain is essentially Fantastic Voyage rewritten as Asimov wanted, with superior science and no concessions made to an existing film script, although I'm still not sure that the author's increased narrative freedom made for a better book. You can tell he had a blast writing the science, monkeying around with Planck's constant and related details of light, gravity, electrical force and so on, all in the service of a faintly plausible scientific means of miniaturising five people and their submarine; and the story itself - international politics, east-west relations, and how these impact on the life of a discredited scientist absconded by the Soviet Union - it's all lovingly told at a reasonable pace and with a level of emotional detail that one might not expect of Asimov; and he avoids making too many of those slightly weird references to women's knockers that have so unbalanced other works.

The only problem is that, given free reign, Asimov ended up writing about a hundred pages more than was really needed, so a novel that had the potential of a tense, well-written thriller actually tends to amble in places. The earlier version was certainly tighter, and although Destination Brain has room for improvement, it's nevertheless entirely readable and, I would argue, one of the man's better efforts.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Case of the Invisible College

Andrew May The Case of the Invisible College (2010)

Andrew May wrote some fairly interesting online material on the subject of A.E. van Vogt's fix-up novels, and following a link on the site in question, I arrived at a page dedicated to the man's own self-published fiction. The Case of the Invisible College with its faux Edward Young Penguin cover and the promise of tales about chimps writing Shakespeare, books bound in human skin and so on, proved difficult to resist.

Being self-published through Lulu, some would perceive a certain stigma here, an unfortunate association derived from a reasonable percentage of self-published novels being a steaming pile of shite spewn forth without recourse to grammar, editing or peer review - not even some kindly friend pulling Dave aside to point out that actually, a cross between Star Trek and Babylon 5 really isn't going to set anyone's world ablaze, or that people who don't actually read books probably have no business writing them. Whilst sadly legitimate as criticism in certain cases, it might also be pointed out that mainstream publishing has similarly produced its fair share of poop over the years, so self-publishing of itself need not necessarily be equated with low quality. Furthermore, I myself grew up with fanzines and all manner of enthusiastically photocopied horrors bound with uneven staples, all self-published, and it never occurred to me that anyone might consider such publications inferior by virtue of having been produced solely by some bloke with green hair. Sometimes it requires genuine inspiration to print up something that will be of interest to almost no-one, at least not until two decades have passed and surviving copies are turning up on eBay at fifty quid a throw. My point, I suppose, is that for all its faults, print-on-demand remains a field with great potential, and if you're expecting genuine surprises, it's a good place to look.

The Case of the Invisible College didn't quite set my world ablaze, but it's brief and a lot of fun. The customary criticisms made of the self-published are rendered irrelevant by the clear and lively prose of someone who has evidently spent time learning how to write and how to put a story together. These are, I suppose, what you might call Fortean detective tales - more Conan Doyle than Grant Morrison - weirdly ripping yarns perhaps. My only real criticism would be that most of them are pretty short, and might have benefited from expansion rather than having all that exposition crammed into such a reduced word count; and that this reduced word count also results in a slightly modular feel with information revealed in natty little blocks very much in the vein of those robot tales by Isaac Asimov that I could never quite get along with; and this is compounded by the somewhat repetitive style of denouement whereby our narrator tidily announces that the case of the such and such - invariably also the title of the story - is SOLVED in upper case, this doubling up as acronym for the Secret Oxford League of Volunteer Extracurricular Detectives of which he is a member.

That said, I gather these stories are reprinted from some periodical and such criticisms may be at least as pointless as bemoaning how those Peanuts cartoons always seem to run to just three or four panels. The seven tales collected here as The Case of the Invisible College are probably a little more hard-boiled than my standard fare, but they're well written with good humour and the odd flash of genuine inspiration.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Admittedly not science-fiction in the sense of Asimov's Foundation being science-fiction, but Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels in response to Robinson Crusoe, and I'd call that science-fiction at least on account of the Laputan interlude. This being written at the beginning of the eighteenth century, back when those parts of the globe to which Crusoe travels were largely unexplored if not exactly undiscovered, this represents a journey into the unknown, or at least a journey into the poorly understood, and is therefore speculative fiction so far as I'm concerned, the Rendezvous with Rama of its day.

And of course it's widely regarded as a classic, arguably one of the first English novels by virtue of being a story which derives no inspiration from mythology, history, myth, or existing literature, and so it has a certain reputation. The opening chapters prove therefore surprisingly unappealing for something of such stature, these being an account of Crusoe's early life, the making of his fortune, his travels abroad, his lucrative trading of slaves, and all punctuated by the sort of whining and bleating of which only the pathologically religious are truly capable. Of course the point of all this is to provide contrast with Crusoe's subsequent marooning on an island of the West Indies, and a new life of relative hardship during which he becomes somewhat more appreciative of his blessings, and one fuck of a lot more readable.

Oddly, chapter after chapter of Crusoe discussing goat maintenance or how to build a stockade using only a pointed stick proves highly engaging, and I would imagine it is this central section which has granted the novel such staying power over the last few centuries. Sadly, it all goes a bit tits up once we meet Friday, Defoe's concept of those indigenous Caribbeans who survived the arrival of Colombus being typically eighteenth century. The notion that such people may not necessarily have been overly sophisticated seems fair, but the suggestion of their being savages, and cannibals in particular, is shaky to the extreme and tends to undermine the strength of the narrative. In The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979), William Arens sets out a convincing argument for cannibalism as anomalous in the great majority of cases, and a serious taboo in most human societies - either a rare ritual practice (performed for the very reason of its being a taboo, something which goes beyond the acceptable and therefore intrudes upon the sacred) or, more commonly, a derogatory label by which all those nignogs are defined as savage and therefore suitable for whatever treatment whitey may feel inclined to dispense in the name of either God or colonial interests. Whilst my bashing Robinson Crusoe in this context may seem like political correctness gone maaaaaaaaaad (etc. etc.), statistics fail to support cannibalism ever having been as widespread as Defoe and other eighteenth century types clearly believed.

Anthropology being a subject I've gone into at some depth, the latter chapters of Robinson Crusoe are rendered unfortunately implausible for me. Some have noted Crusoe's commendably enlightened view of his bloke scoffing neighbours: in a fit of cultural relativism he wonders what right he himself has to cast judgement upon such customs; but when the chips are down, he still behaves very much as one would expect, the white guy exerting his "natural authority" over those who have yet to discover Baby Jesus for themselves. This doesn't make him a terrible person, but it does mean that once he's done with learning how to tunnel out a cave using just a kumquat, he becomes predictable and sadly somewhat dull.

Robinson Crusoe is certainly readable, and is probably a classic by virtue of what it did and when, but it seems improper to excuse its being written in relatively unenlightened times when Gulliver's Travels, which came along only seven years later, pisses all over Defoe with about five hundred times the wit, and at least as much humanity.

This was written in December, 2011 by the way...

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one (2000)
This is steampunk apparently, or at least it's steampunk according to something or other I recently saw floating somewhere on the electronic Sargasso Sea of the internet before a patch of drying paint proved too much of a distraction and drew my attention elsewhere. Fair enough really - it's important to know whether or not something is steampunk, isn't it? It's important to have that clarification, wouldn't you say?

I seem to recall having given up on comics when I first became aware of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the trade paperback of which I spotted in the window of some comic shop as I hurried past. The last I'd seen of Alan Moore had been either intermittent and seemingly impenetrable issues of From Hell - a few of which I'd missed thus rendering the story all the more difficult to follow - and 1963, which was fun but hardly what you would call a square meal; but it was the involvement of Kevin O'Neill which really caught my eye. I think I'd somehow forgotten he ever existed.

He's definitely one of the weirder artists to spring from the pages of 2000AD. You might say he covers up his not actually being able to draw with all that weird and slightly bi-polar detail somehow reminiscent of the sort of stuff that schizophrenics scrawl across the walls of their bedrooms with magic marker, except his figure-work is revealed as pretty much spot on under close inspection - it only looks like it isn't due to the harsh, angular style. About the most objective comment one can make would be that his art is unique, and I love it myself, although I'm still not sure why.

Anyway, resenting any money whatsoever spent on a comic book in case it turned out to comprise either
Sean Phillips potato print art or wearying references to chaos magick, I borrowed The League of Extraordinary Gentleman from our local library and realised I had indeed been missing out, and that the world of comics had not simply devolved into a self-conscious mass of Wolverine deconstructions simply because I'd been looking the other way. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, as even remote tribes living in what's left of the Amazon basin surely know, was Moore's Victorian version of Justice League America with characters recycled from existing fiction. It might constitute some sort of comment on the nature of storytelling, and certainly it subverts the general Victorian model of the establishment as in any way progressive or morally upstanding, but the most important thing is probably that it's a huge amount of fun. There's no real reason why the novels of H.G. Wells shouldn't all have occurred in the same universe as those of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, and this does nothing to devalue any literary territory because it succeeds in its own right rather than representing an exercise in nostalgia; and if anything, I at least prefer this Nemo and this Mina Harker to those appearing in moderately underwhelming works by Verne and Stoker.

Ignoring a somewhat unsatisfactory prose story which appears as an appendix, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman manages to be both ridiculous and yet brilliant at the same time - an absolutely solid and explosive piece of work.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Our Friends from Frolix-8

Philip K. Dick Our Friends from Frolix-8 (1969)

To briefly forestall commentary in order to make an entirely unoriginal observation, memory is a funny thing. I discovered Philip K. Dick - I'm a little embarrassed to admit - thanks to Throbbing Gristle. As an early eighties teenager following noisy atonal music with all the fervour of the newly converted, there was at least one year during which I took all my cultural cues from Genesis P. Orridge and his chums. With hindsight, I'm actually sort of surprised I don't have a huge collection of Abba records purchased on the grounds of Chris Carter being a fan, but to get to the point, Re/Search magazine interviewed the madcap industrial funsters, and that interview was embellished with a quote from A Scanner Darkly presumably on the grounds that it mentioned heroin and was therefore edgy and dangerous. I hadn't before heard of Philip K. Dick, but if it was good enough for Genesis P. Orridge, then it was good enough for me, and so that Christmas Santa came down our chimney with The Golden Man, The Simulacra, and The Man Who Japed.

Soon after, I noticed assorted Philip K. Dick novels on sale in WH Smiths, mostly the Granada editions with those lovely Jim Burns covers and titles in Roslyn font; and I bought every last one - although due to immense flakiness it actually took decades for me to get around to reading all of them. Still I can vividly remember the excitement of bringing a new one back from the shops in Leamington Spa when I went to stay with my grandparents in Kenilworth; except my grandfather died in 1979, and my grandmother moved into a tiny flat soon after, and my edition of Our Friends from Frolix-8 - definitely one of those purchased in Leamington Spa and drooled over in Kenilworth - wasn't published until 1984, so it's an impossible memory, something that could not have happened; which as you will probably appreciate is all very Dickian, or Dickesque, or whatever peculiar custom adjective you prefer.

Sadly, this anecdote is probably more interesting than Our Friends from Frolix-8 which does all the right things in the right order, but somehow fails to add up to much. The details are fine - notably the theme of aid coming to a divided Earth from the depths of space, a variation on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and precursor to VALIS - but all I can now remember are endless droning conversations with little of consequence by way of punctuation, and what may as well have been a very short story dragged out to novel length. It feels oddly like Dr. Futurity or one of those other early Philip K. Dick novels that didn't quite survive the process of being written. That said, given that this author was pretty much incapable of dull prose, it's readable, and certainly not without value, but somehow just doesn't do what it should.

Finally and briefly going back to that other matter, I recall buying the Coronet Books edition of Dick's The Turning Wheel and Other Stories which stood out for its bizarre use of Comic Sans or some similar font on the cover, the Happy Shopper of the typeface world; and I definitely recall buying shitloads of those Coronet Charlie Brown paperbacks - titled in the same font - when I went to stay with my grandparents back in the late seventies, so clearly I've somehow conflated the two. The lesson of which is, I suppose, never to underestimate the power of Comic Sans.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Gulliver's Travels

Very quickly, for anyone who may be interested, I've Lulued up a paperback collection of the first five years of these reviews - all added with more better grammar, and including a few I held back from posting for fear of pissing people off. It costs a fortune from my Lulu page - for which you should find a link on the right - and is shamelessly hawked at greater length here.

Now, returning to our regular programming, by special request, from December 2010:

Jonathan Swift Gulliver's Travels (1726)
Fuck! Can't believe it's taken me so long to get around to this one. I was expecting something within the range of worthy but dry and far too long, or at best moderately entertaining, but... wow! I can see why this is considered a classic and continues to inspire adaptations nearly three-hundred years later, albeit adaptations which miss the point and present it as a story about teeny tiny people whilst ignoring the other three quarters of the book with its giants, airborne islands, and talking horses. And the poo and wee, lots of pooing and weeing here.

It's a satire, and possibly one of the most sarcastic things I've ever read (I present this as a virtue by the way) and despite the talking horses and so on, it's also utterly convincing. For one moment the nerd in me considered that Gulliver may have breached some sort of dimensional rift and found himself alternately expanded to giant size in Lilliput or shrunk when in Brobdingnag (seeing as plants, animals and even weather conditions of those places are consistent to the native rather than the visitor), but then I realised I was missing the point.

Gulliver encounters at least four alien cultures wherein the excesses of human society, government, and progress are pushed to the point of absurdity, but human society, government, and progress being what they are, the absurdity remains plausible even at the lengths to which Swift took his creations. It's basically a great big four volume fuck off to everything that's stupid (in addition to satirising earlier, more earnest travel narratives) done with razor sharp wit, pornographic attention to detail, and plenty of bodily functions. Can't remember if the first instance of the latter is where the Lilliputians are obliged to dispose of one of Gulliver's turds with wheelbarrows, or if its the incident wherein he saves the Queen from burning to death by urinating upon her house; but the latter is the more pertinent seeing as it leads to Gulliver's exile; although the law demands that he submit to being blinded as punishment for taking a leak in public, regardless of the regal life saved by that act. It's bureaucracy gone mad. You couldn't make it up etc. etc...

The satire is gently introduced, piece by piece with a nudge and a wink, building up to Spinal Tap levels of parody when Gulliver arrives in Laputa, an island floating above the earth inhabited by a people whose science is so far advanced as to be entirely pointless: the pig method of ploughing a field by burying acorns and relaxing whilst the beasts turn the soil in search of food (presently requiring a lot more work than just ploughing it in the first place but the Laputans are convinced the method will one day prove worthwhile); the scientist busily attempting to separate turds into their constituent parts so as to reclaim the food that has been eaten. By the time Gulliver arrives in the land of the thoroughly civilised Houyhnhnms, he's clearly had enough of human society as mercilessly parodied in the preceding pages, and happily succumbs to Stockholm syndrome amongst this race of talking horses. Unfortunately, to the Houyhnhnms, Lemuel Gulliver is not much more than a civilised Yahoo, Yahoos being the brutish primal humans which plague their society and express displeasure by producing turds.

Being a classic, anything I may say about this book is probably irrelevant, but it's slightly shocking to realise that pretty much everything Swift was taking the piss out of is still with us only more so. Reading this actually reminded me of hearing Never Mind The Bollocks for the first time. Still relevant and still phenomenal.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

JLA: New World Order

Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell
JLA: New World Order (1997)
Grant Morrison's Invisibles pretty much drove me away from comics, or at least mainstream American comics. It probably didn't help that most of the titles I regularly read were either cancelled or by some other means encrappened towards the second half of the nineties, but The Invisibles really drove the nail into the coffin - the equivalent of a long haired 1970s teenager walking to school with a Gentle Giant album under his arm, obviously no bag so as to ensure all can see what a deep thinker he is, what an untameable and sexy intellect lies beneath those spots; Robert Anton Wilson recycled by the man who, without any apparent trace of irony, later likened Alan Moore's Watchmen to sixth form poetry in a move bearing some comparison with that time Russell Brand called Justin Lee Collins an unfunny fucker.

Aside from the obvious point that twenty-three really is just the number that stops twenty-two getting its soup all over twenty-four at numbers' dinner time, and nothing else, mystical or otherwise metaphysical or philosophical systems with no basis in objective reality are fine whilst they provide a useful way of viewing the world - note emphasis on word useful. I suppose the neo-Discordian bollocks of which Morrison is clearly a fan might be viewed as useful if you prioritise tattoos, hallucinogenics, piercings, and Genesis P. Orridge over things of real value; or if you really need to differentiate yourself from those sheep who wear black clothes and listen to the Sisters of Mercy without actually being like really profound or understanding how there's no such thing as coincidence because it's all connected blah blah blah yap yap yap bellyache bellyache bellyache rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb ...

So when Grant Morrison went mainstream, taking over the Justice League of America comic in 1996, I was somewhat hopeful of his having noticed that The Unreadables was in fact complete bullshit and that he might have thus decided to turn over a new leaf in a flurry of contrition. Unfortunately Aztek, another mainstream superhero title he created at roughly the same time, turned out to be pants so I didn't bother with JLA. The idea was fine, and I always liked the approach John Byrne took with his big, bold reinvestment of golden age comic heroes, an approach which gave even titles like Alpha Flight a peculiarly mythic quality; but, for Byrne - who in case anyone needs reminding is pretty much beyond reproach as a comic artist - big and bold was his thing rather than an angle.

I guess Grant Morrison was finding his feet with JLA, experimenting with the mainstream and its attendant lack of irony as opposed to deconstructing the mainstream; and the problem is that it's just not very good. The art is functional - although Superman with a mullet is a terrible idea - but the dialogue and narrative lack the snappy flourishes of even drivel like The Invisibles. It reads like a comic book trying to get in touch with its own inner-1983 issue of Firestorm the Nuclear Man.

Thankfully he went on to much better things, but this was a real low point; and it probably wouldn't have been quite so bad if this lumpen humourless bollocks hadn't been the replacement for Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis' wonderful predecessor.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Beast

A.E. van Vogt The Beast (1963)

I keep trying to give up the van Vogt but it's difficult. His stories range from incomprehensible and headachey to warped and surreal brilliance of a flavour that was almost unique to Alfred Elton himself. Each time I happen upon some hitherto undiscovered van Vogt title secreted amongst the ordinary science-fiction paperbacks, I think of the tower that is my present to-be-read pile, and how I should at least tackle Project Pope, Triplanetary, or The War of the Worlds before shelling out on another novel that will probably read like some guy having a fight with his own typewriter; but then I remember The Winged Man or The Voyage of the Space Beagle, the sheer what the fuck? factor of his best works, and suddenly I'm off the wagon again.

Just to recap with the customary generalisation, A.E. van Vogt wrote to a certain formula, something he cooked up himself entailing dream images, random plot swerves roughly every eight-hundred words, and sentences bolted together for maximum evocation by a method that seems as much modernist sculpture as literary technique. To suggest that the results were sometimes a little weird is an understatement, but when it works, it's amazing.

typical van Vogt narrative may go in almost any direction suddenly and without warning, and so it makes sense that his regular novels are not always easily distinguished from his fix-ups - the fix-up novel comprising three or more short stories welded together and relentlessly hammered into a single tale, roughly speaking, regardless of how thematically disparate the original components may have been. Some of these novel-length exquisite corpses work better than others - the bewildering and yet strangely fascinating Quest for the Future being a good example.

The Beast combines one of my favourite van Vogt shorts, The Great Engine, with some other stuff. The other stuff in question incorporates moon cowboys dominated by a despotic caveman - formerly a grunting Adolf Hitler substitute in the original war-era material according to the evidently knowledgeable Andrew May - and a drug which enhances women so as to render them equal to men, if you can imagine such a thing. It does it's best and tries hard, and almost gets there, but - never mind the usual patchwork of bits and unmatching pieces all sewn together - The Beast reads unfortunately like the author composed the latter third with a food mixer. There is van Vogt goodness here, but sadly not in the right order.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Before I get started, and so as to throw a juicy marrowbone of peace and reconciliation to those needled by my recent admittedly provocative assertion of Doctor Who being a festering pile of poop produced by twats and enjoyed by arseholes since its return in 2005 with an Easter Island statue in the lead, I offer this startling find:

'I've known Merlin seven hundred years, and he—'

'Seven hun—'

'Don't interrupt me. He has died and come alive again thirteen times, and travelled under a new name every time: Smith, Jones, Robinson, Jackson, Peters, Haskins, Merlin—a new alias every time he turns up.'

I don't really wish to ruin yet another corner of the internet with protracted discussion of something that doesn't matter, but those failing to see the significance should recall Ben Aaronovitch's Battlefield and note that Merlin is the seventh name here listed by Hank Morgan, time travelling narrator and protagonist of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.


Anyway, Twain's roughly groundbreaking satirical time travel novel, the premise of which is explained in the title, ambles along vaguely in the tradition of Gulliver's Travels as investigation by means of absurdity. It initially does a Don Quixote, pulling apart  myths of chivalry and monarchy from a distinctly American perspective, namely that of a writer quite happy to have been born in a country which rejects the European traditions of hereditary and inheritance:

It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honour king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honour the lash, or a dog has to love and honour the stranger that kicks him!

Twain seems to be at his most eloquent when explaining why nineteenth century America is better than sixth century England, and so the novel gets off to a promising start.

As Morgan acclimatises to life in the middle ages, he enlists supporters and creates a hidden society with steam technology, buried telephone lines and so on. Oddly, this is where the story seems to lose direction, or at least did for me. The imposition of a nineteenth century economy destabilises the country and represents Twain's striving for narrative balance - acknowledging that his own time is no less rife with problems, albeit different problems to those of a feudal monarchy. I'm sure he communicates his points very well to those more versed in political science - even delivering one section as rhetoric in the style of Socratic dialogues - but I found it all a little mystifying and hence unengaging. This coupled with the anachronistic introduction of nineteenth century technology as something peripheral, mostly referred to in passing, made for a slightly unsatisfying read during the last third of the novel.

I realise this may constitute blasphemy but A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court feels like a good idea that ran out of steam leaving one with the impression that whilst Twain was clearly a great writer, this could not have been his best book.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Grimm Reality

Simon Bucher-Jones & Kelly Hale Grimm Reality (2001)

In the event of either of my readers being somehow unaware of the fact, in between getting itself cancelled for trying too hard in 1989, and subsequent rebirth as a series of flashing lights in 2005, The Doctor Who Telly Show spent its wilderness years as a series of novels. Some were utter shite - yer basic button-pushing continuity landfill - and some were pretty good.

Grimm Reality belongs to the latter category, and succeeds for two reasons: firstly its having been written as a novel rather than as something to be purchased because there's a picture of the TARDIS on the cover; secondly its having been written by authors who can  form sentences without falling over or giving themselves a headache. As a recovering addict, someone who once splashed out on a couple of these things every month for about a decade, I really cannot overemphasise how greatly I appreciate authors and publishers making a bit of an effort. Too many of these books relied upon the tenuous novelty of what would happen if Cybermen teamed up with Ice Warriors to invade a Dalek nudist colony, the sort of stories in which people say things grinningly, which feature sentences like his voice went up and down, and which assume the reader to be a gurgling moron with a reading age of about nine. Pardon the acerbic tone, but I still don't understand why a few more of those Doctor Who books couldn't have been a bit more like this, given that all it would have taken is for editors to refrain from commissioning novels by people who can't actually fucking write.

Axe duly ground, Grimm Reality deposits the TARDIS crew in a world of fairy tale populated by gnomes, giants, sleeping princesses and the like, hence the industrial strength pun of the title. Happily, not only is this the more visceral pre-Disney strain of Brothers Grimm narrative, but the traditional cock-obvious plot twists are neatly anticipated and avoided:

He wanted to believe, but he had a lot of experience to put aside: in the last hundred years, nine times out of ten the banshee had been a thing from Antares 5, the foo fighters bemused alien jellyfish, and the ghost usually a teenager in a sheet. Even when he hadn't got a full explanation for things, he'd always felt there ought to be one.

In a way he'd be pleased to find indivisible Giants.

He wanted Giants that couldn't be reduced to men on stilts, or aliens from a low-gravity world in cyber-braces. He wanted Giants that rumbled the world with their ultimate bone-shaking largeness, Giants that couldn't be explained away.

Of course, an explanation is eventually delivered as the sort of bewildering nosebleed physics Simon Bucher-Jones always writes with such poetry; and its an explanation which cannily keeps the promise of the above, thus avoiding stooping to the sort of anything goes lazy writing currently informing the related television show wherein the entire galaxy is saved by someone having a bit of a cry.

I could be reading too much into it, but this rather neat solution suggests an underlying theme, perhaps a subtle commentary on narrative conventions enslaved by their own continuity: a story told for its own sake rather than that of a - shudder - franchise; and to this end, Grimm Reality reads very much as a novel featuring a character once played by Paul McGann, rather than just the four millionth exciting adventure for that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as etc. etc. It's less Harry Potter, more Clifford D. Simak writing gnomes into his science-fiction novels on the grounds that he's Clifford D. Simak and he'll write what the hell he likes.

Speaking of the accursed television show, I've found myself surprised at how the current incarnation takes so many narrative cues from novels like Grimm Reality, and yet still gets it wrong through overstatement, reducing everything to clichés, shorthand or gimmicks. This was how it could have been - intelligent, gripping, entertainingly weird with big ideas, jokes that don't outstay their welcome or require revolving bow ties to alert viewers to the occurrence of madcap antics, and pleasantly rounded characters - notably Anji Kapoor who I don't remember working quite so well in  other tales.

Both Simon Bucher-Jones and Kelly Hale have written better than Grimm Reality, and it's by no means the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, but it's pretty damn good. It just seems a shame that, with hindsight, novels of this standard should have been the average rather than upper range, but no matter.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick

Lawrence Sutin Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989)

So far as I'm aware, and leaving out those more personal accounts written by an assortment of ex-wives, there are two major biographies of Philip K. Dick, and this is somehow the third one I've read. Unless the universe really is as weird as it seemed to our boy, I'm assuming the first, borrowed from Dulwich library all those years ago, was probably this same title recalled somewhat differently because I've had a whole lot more Dick since then - and yes, I probably will continue to milk that joke for some time to come - so on this occasion I approached Divine Invasions with the advantage of a more thorough understanding of its subject;

Funnily enough, there's probably a reasonable argument to support the possibility that the universe really is as weird as it seemed to our boy given how the great majority of his science-fiction novels were largely autobiographical - providing you keep in mind that the more conspicuously fantastic elements are either metaphor or furniture. Indeed, my only minor quibble with this biography is the distinction Sutin tends to draw between Dick's science-fiction and his mainstream novels, a distinction which seems debatable aside from the obvious lack of androids or spacecraft in the latter.

I read Emmanuel Carrère's I Am Alive and You Are Dead - the other big Dick biography, if you'll pardon my further labouring the joke on the grounds that someone has to because I'm pretty damn certain there's no point leaving it to those tossers at The Guadrian book review - which was pretty great from what I remember, although Divine Invasions seems definitive. I recall acquiring a less than favourable impression of Dick as a person from somewhere or other, possibly a combination of Carrère's book and whatever related material I had on the go at the time, and it's hard not to frown upon the occasionally slightly despicable treatment of all the Mrs. Dicks, each generally traded in for younger models then portrayed as castrating harridans in one novel or another. Divine Invasions presents what seems like a more balanced view in this respect, leading one to the conclusion that he may have been messed up - hardly a revelation - but was undoubtedly one of the good guys in all senses that matter, albeit a good guy who suffered some serious brainfarts from time to time.

I'm not sure this is one to dip into unless you're already fascinated by the man's life and work, although any Dick novel read in the wake of Divine Invasions will most likely prove all the more rewarding for a more thorough grounding in the symbols of the writer's personal and very peculiar landscape.