Sunday, 30 June 2013

Top 10 book two

Alan Moore, Gene Ha & Zander Cannon Top 10 book two (2002)

Not wishing to perpetuate the beef, but reading Alan Moore immediately after Grant Morrison really throws the work of the two into sharp relief, not so much because they necessarily have anything in common as with regard to their ongoing exchange of sneering commentary. The major salvoes appear to have been launched from the mystic slaphead camp, seeming particularly poorly targeted and fuelled by what looks a lot like butthurt - as keyboard warriors are wont to refer to the resource in question. Most notoriously, Morrison referred to Moore's Watchmen as the three-hundred page equivalent of a sixth form poem, which is a bit rich coming from the creator of Gideon Stargrave; and for all that Marvel Boy is readable, compared to Top 10, at best it's a precocious sixteen year old playing you his Muse albums. I'm not aware of either title being particularly suggested for mature readers - or at least no instructions of that sort appear on my copies - but Top 10 at least features themes which will be familiar to those who mow lawns, hold a driving license and are able to prepare their own meals, as opposed to themes which are only going to make sense to comic book obsessives.

Shocking contrasts aside, Top 10 is - very roughly speaking - a caped variant on Moore's D.R. & Quinch treated as photorealist soap opera. One might argue it's the last word in the engrittification of the superhero which began with Peter Parker complaining about school and acne, and ends here with characters who are in themselves more interesting and remarkable than their powers or casually absurd appearance. Top 10 is funny just as real life tends to be funny, occasionally poignant and sad without needing to break out the violins or fire puppies from a cannon, and it impresses by getting on with its own business whilst assuming that readers will be sufficiently mature to form opinions of their own. Top 10 is as perfect a superhero book as you're ever likely to find, and it shows up all the shouting and bombast of the genre for wind blown down empty tunnels; a million alternate realities collapsing into a quantum space-arse will never be so powerful as the raw force of human farts.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Marvel Boy

Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones Marvel Boy (2001)

This being over a decade old probably illustrates the degree to which I've been out of touch with what's been going on in the world of comics; that combined with my having no knowledge of its existence until it came up as a recommendation on Amazon. Marvel Boy, it turns out, reimagines Captain Marvel - the character created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, the Kree cosmic warrior as opposed to the Superman knock-off in the red leotard. Recalling very little about the 1960s Marvel Comics cosmos beyond a few names - the Kree, the Skrull, Galactus and so on - I dipped my soup spoon into the internet and came back with the following croutons from Grant Morrison:

I really began to utilise J.G. Jones' preposterous genius to its best effects and decided to rethink the prevailing vogue for cinematic panel structures and page layouts. Marvel Boy's visual style becomes more like MTV and adverts; from issue three on its filled with all kinds of new techniques; rapid cuts, strobed lenticular panels, distressed layouts, sixty-four panel grids, whatever. We've only started to experiment but already Marvel Boy looks like nothing else around. Some of the stuff J.G. is doing is like an update of the whole Steranko Pop Art approach to the comics page. Instead of Orson Welles, op art and spy movies, J.G.'s using digital editing effects, percussive rhythms, cutting the action closer and harder, illuminated by the frantic glow of the image-crazed hallucination of twenty-first century media culture and all that. Comics do not need to be like films. They do not need to look like storyboards.

This emphasis on surface is probably why it reminded me a little of contemporary Doctor Who, albeit with better writing and less transparency in terms of intention. That said, I can't say I felt like my preconceptions regarding comic book narrative felt particularly stretched, and even given that Marvel Boy dates from 2001, I can't see that it was particularly revolutionary even at the time, unless the above simply constitutes another pointless swipe at Alan Moore who, it has been noted, often tends to write to an ordered grid of panels very much in the style of a storyboard.

Still, true enough Marvel Boy looks decent, if not quite so startling as the above might imply; which leaves just the story.

Roughly speaking Marvel Boy is Captain Marvel redone from the same angle as Morrison's take on the X-Men, but stepping up the cosmic scale, casting its star as a living God fallen to Earth and not necessarily a friendly one. There are some neat twists and plenty of big ideas - the sentient corporation being one I particularly liked - and a healthy expectation of the reader paying attention rather than presuming it will all come served up on a heavily captioned plate. All the same, I had a struggle caring about any of it, what was happening or why, which is probably a consequence of Grant Morrison's enduring love of surface as an end in itself. Ultimately, Marvel Boy seems oddly inconsequential although I suspect it may reward repeat readings; and although it's no Doom Patrol, it's nevertheless amongst his better stuff.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Mark Millar & John Romita Jnr. Hit-Girl (2013)

I suppose on an artistic level this is just the sort of corporate adventure product I should loathe given that Mark Millar now has his own planet, or at least that he churns out this stuff simultaneous to its own inevitable movie adaptation, but there's just something irresistible about his writing. I'm sure he's produced plenty of generic sub-standard shite during the course of his ascent from wee highland laddie to international entertainment complex, but if so, I've yet to read it; and with the beautiful evolution of John Romita Jnr.'s artwork towards something resembling a more colourful José Muñoz, there's really not much that can go wrong here.

Although Saviour had its moments, the first Mark Millar story to really make an impression on me was Insiders printed in Crisis back in 1991 - a supposedly cautionary tale of prison life concluding unexpectedly with the joyful nihilism of our man deciding he's glad he made all those wrong turns because his shitty life is still better than yours. Millar continues to deliver these yelping challenges to both good taste and reader expectation, as hilariously brash as anything ever flashed in your face by Grant Morrison, but without the deflative ten page suffixery of bollocks about Crowley or why the 1960s were like totally awesome - which has always been a bit of a danger with the aforementioned best-selling Unreadables author and heir to the budget supermarket chain of the same name.

Hit-Girl, like Kick-Ass from which it is spawned, tells tales of real life superheroes of the kind who, lacking science-fiction powers, tend to end up hospitalised with greater frequency than Arm-Fall-Off Boy and his ilk. It's a real life narrative - at least as much as anything you're likely to find in a comic book without it actually being one of Harvey Pekar's tales about buying a pair of shoes - quick, ingeniously plotted, funny, full of sparkling dialogue and apparently lacking in either cliché or padding; also occasionally stomach churning.

Being a full-grown man with a functioning moral conscience, it's difficult for me to read the story of a twelve-year old girl who routinely decapitates her foes without some degree of squirming, and whichever fine line may apply here, I have genuine doubts of a balance being struck, or even that a balance can be struck given the story. However, one aspect which seems significant is how Hit-Girl and the world she inhabits may constitute the first genuine inversion of the usual superhero dynamic, as interpreted here with typical clarity by Alan Moore:

I believe that the whole thing about superheroes is they don't like it up them. They would prefer not to get involved in a fight if they don't have superior firepower, or they're invulnerable because they came from the planet Krypton when they were a baby.

I could be talking utter pish here, but it occurs to me that this is exactly why Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl work so well: they restore vulnerability to the genre, not with any desperate attempt to convince us that Batman is just a regular guy who farts and likes peanuts, but by making us so painfully aware of our heroes being nothing more than scrawny little kids as to inspire identification more akin to that of long-suffering parents desperately trying to keep the little fuckers in at night and safe from harm. So Hit-Girl is uncomfortable reading, and hopefully for the right reasons; shocking, but possibly shocking with purpose and actual consequences, and very entertaining.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

At the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness and other novels of terror (1964)

I was under the impression that I'd read all there was to be read by H.P. Lovecraft, albeit some time ago, but now realise that I was mistaken. The four Randolph Carter tales collected here have turned out to be familiar only by their titles, but anyway...

Opinions vary regarding the much debated talent of Howard Philips, some claiming him to be an unparalleled master of the macabre, others suggesting he was simply a hack who could barely form a sentence and didn't get out much. I think the problem may be that, very generally speaking, he was never quite a talent in the same sense as his friend and correspondent Clark Ashton Smith, and he only really had one story - namely that of the rationally minded individual inheriting a house, a book, or a packet of unspeakable Toffos from that shunned relative mentioned only in hushed tones, and then the expressed dismissal of superstition followed by a subsequent eating of words during the inevitable climatic encounter with tentacled foreigners from beyond time; or at least variations on that theme.

I'm not even sure it's fair to call Lovecraft's fiction stories in the traditional sense, most of their purpose being the contrast of a regular guy obliged to admit the existence of that which is revealed as real and squelchy on the final page. His narratives serve simply to compound the contrast, to keep things going long enough to allow for a build up of suspense, none of which should necessarily be taken as indicative of a failing on the part of the author. Whilst H.P. Lovecraft may only have told one story, he often told it with such expertise as to circumnavigate the problems of repetition; indeed, by the time he came to write At the Mountains of Madness, his mastery can surely no longer be subject to question.

By the 1930s, Lovecraft's seemingly increased interest in the sciences had rooted his best tales in solid empirical foundations, serving to provide a more startling and effective contrast with his subject than is found in earlier tales more obviously inspired by Poe or Lord Dunsany. At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Dreams in the Witch-House all work exceptionally well in this respect, framing nameless horror in a context of archaeological, genealogical, or mathematical discourse, a great improvement on juvenile efforts which would spend the first half of the story telling you how scared you were going to be. The three examples named above were amongst his longest works, and even if it really was all just one story, these tales are a testament to Lovecraft's descriptive powers, specifically in that these three sustain the reader's interest at such a page count with hardly any narrative action.

On the other hand, whilst the Randolph Carter stories may suggest that Lovecraft actually did have other tales to tell, they also support the conclusion that he never quite worked out how to tell them. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, despite entertaining digressions with talking cats and a voyage to the moon, rambles and bores with its endless sentences piling one self-consciously grandiose image upon another and then another, page after page after page without ever going anywhere of consequence. It may be one of the most laboured, indigestible pieces of writing I've ever struggled to finish. Through the Gates of the Silver Key, written much later and in collaboration with E. Hoffman Price is an improvement, greatly benefiting from the sort of cosmic and pseudo-scientific musings which informed The Dreams in the Witch-House and others; but is still unsatisfying, reading like a transitional piece or work unfinished.

Everyone is entitled to a stack of unreadable shite in their portfolio, and it's possibly only because Lovecraft left such a relative dearth of material that his more comical efforts are so well remembered. At the Mountains of Madness is at least deserving the accolade of masterpiece - the work of an author who had at last found his voice, and it seems such a terrible shame that we will never know where his fiction would have gone had he survived 1937.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Maze of Death

Philip K. Dick A Maze of Death (1968)

I'm currently forcing my way through the Science Channel's Prophets of Science Fiction, a series of eight documentaries hosted by Ridley not only getting the wrong end, but it's a different fucking stick Scott, the genius who turned Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into a film about how robots have feelings too. The first of the series explains how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written mainly as a prophecy of genetic engineering and the future of medical practice. Subsequent shows dedicated to H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov have been helpfully embellished with re-enactments of significant moments in the lives of the authors - a youthful Asimov stood amongst a group of similarly fresh-faced and hopeful looking Americans collectively awestruck by the spectacle of Sputnik's first circuit around the Earth as they gaze at a black and white screen in the window of a television retail store; or that moment when H.G. Wells was first struck with the idea for The War of the Worlds and began to frantically scribble it down in his old fashioned notebook. Were it not for these brilliantly thespianised interpretudes, I know that I for one would find it impossible to understand the concepts involved, authors thinking shit up and then writing it down.

Philip K. Dick, it turns out, invented virtual reality. That's what his books were about, you see - asking the question, are we really here or what? Unsurprisingly Ridley's actorial dramatainmentations focused mainly on a young man in a false beard frowning just as Philip K. Dick probably would have done when he was inventing virtual reality and asking himself the crucial question, I wonder if I'm real? I was hoping for giant metal faces in the sky and those other aspects of Dick's life which directly inspired his writing, but I guess they thought that stuff was all a bit bonkers and so left it out.

A Maze of Death is probably one of those novels into which certain people may have read predictions of virtual reality, given that it all takes place on a spacecraft, rather than a hostile and surreal planet as would appear to be the case, ending with Dick's equivalent of it was all just a dream. It's actually another of Dick's layered explorations of perception and theology and how the two may relate, if indeed they do, and is in some sense more or less a rewrite of Eye in the Sky, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The point of this illusory environment is to place its characters in a world of tangible spirits closely resembling those of Christian theology, notably the Christlike Walker-on-Earth who manifests before Seth Morley to advise him that the spacecraft he has chosen is likely to malfunction after lift off, so he'd better pick another. Inhabiting this universe, and specifically left alone to fend on a planet which appears to be killing them off one by one, the colonists of A Maze of Death give voice to Dick's more subtle ideas, such as are found in this discussion of Morley's earlier encounter:

'But look: what you saw was what you expected to see. You assumed that he was the Walker-on-Earth because Specktowsky's Book is virtually universally accepted. But I don't accept it?'

'You don't?' Seth Morley said, surprised.

'Not at all. Strangers - true strangers, ordinary men - show up and give good advice; most humans are well-intentioned. If I had happened by I would have intervened too. I would have pointed out that your ship wasn't space-worthy.'

'Then you would have been in the possession of the Walker-on-Earth; you would have temporarily become him. It can happen to anyone. That's part of the miracle.'

As with much of Dick's fiction, this is the dark, illusory universe overlaid upon reality partially as a means of examining those who experience it, partially because that was in certain respects just how the author saw the world; and it's further complicated by the end which suggests that even being a dream, A Maze of Death still happened in all senses that matter. You could take this as a novel predicting the advent of virtual reality, but you could just as easily take it for a prophecy regarding the interstellar popularity of orange marmalade:

She arrived a few minutes later, slender and tanned in her khaki shirt, shorts and sandals. 'Well,' she said, surveying the Morbid Chicken, 'it looks rundown to me. But if you say it's okay it is, I guess.'

'I've already begun loading,' Morley said.

'With what?'

Opening the door of the storage compartment he showed her the ten jars of marmalade.

After a long pause Mary said, 'Christ.'

'What's the matter?'

'You haven't been checking the wiring and the engine. You've been out scrounging up all the goddamn marmalade you could talk them out of.' She slammed the storage area door shut with venomous ire. 'Sometimes I think you're insane. Our lives depend on this goddamn noser working. Suppose the oxygen system fails or the heart circuit fails or there're microscopic leaks in the hull.'

See! And that isn't even the only scene expressing futuristic marmalade enthusiasm.

Finally, it has been pointed out that A Maze of Death seems quite a bleak novel by virtue of an unusually high body count. I'd disagree by virtue of it being so short, and the conclusion which subverts much of what happens in the preceding pages, and even the misleading chapter headings referring to lives lived by these characters in a completely different novel and suggesting yet another layer of existence to which the reader is not party. It's possibly not quite so tidy, nor so sporadically funny as Eye in the Sky, but I'm probably just splitting hairs - another one of his very best, I'd say.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Wind's Twelve Quarters

Ursula LeGuin The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975)

I've actually already read half of these short stories, having picked up The Wind's Twelve Quarters volume two some years ago which, bewilderingly, wasn't a further grouping of tales following on from this collection, but is actually the second half of this book divided and published as two separate volumes for no immediately obvious reason.

Ursula LeGuin writes fiction of undeniably literary character which tends to use genre as the narrative demands. Some of her work is easily identified as fantasy in that it features wizards and the like, and whilst sometimes this works fine for me, as a rule I tend to glaze over during passages in which people say 'twas and yonder or address each other as my liege. Simak pulled it off admirably in The Fellowship of the Talisman because he's Simak, and although it might be argued that LeGuin is either the better or at least the more poetically erudite writer - not that I'd necessarily agree with either - she's a lot more readable when there's some contrast between the setting and the language by which it is described; in other words those tales of Kings and their dragons to which her writing seems best-suited engage me less than the more fantastic scenarios involving space travel and life on other planets, these being rendered all the more plausible through the sharp relief of faintly Baroque prose.

I say that the collection was divided into two separate volumes for no immediately obvious reason, but having come to the end of the last and seventeenth story, I'm inclined to wonder if somebody at Panther - publishers of the bifurcated edition - didn't deem this material just a bit too chewy for 275 pages, deciding that it might work better served in smaller helpings. It isn't that LeGuin is a bad writer - far from it, given the excellence of The Left Hand of Darkness and at least a few of the stories here - but God her prose can be dry and uninviting at times.

I'm not even sure why this should be, or perhaps more fairly why I myself should find this to be the case, but even though I'd already read half of the stories included, I just couldn't get on with this collection and actually found the author's notes more engaging than many of the tales they introduced. Semley's Necklace, April in Paris, Things, The Stars Below, and Direction of the Road each stood out as wonderful and perfectly formed almost to the point of absurdity, and given that I've been unable to detect any obvious variation in quality of writing, I have absolutely no idea why the other stories did so little for me. What a strange book.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Project Pope

Clifford D. Simak Project Pope (1981)

A year or so ago I read and reviewed Simak's A Choice of Gods, one of the author's supposedly mystic novels - although that wasn't a term of his choosing - exploring ideas of religion and a spiritual dimension which might be viewed as a sort of cosmic kinship of living things. The review provoked the apparent indignation of Bongo Smallpiece, a member of an online community of Simak fans in which I occasionally participate - that's not actually his name, but let's pretend it is. My review was stuffy, Bongo told me without feeling the need to  explain quite what he meant, and I got the impression he was annoyed at my having formed an opinion of the novel without consulting him first. He offered some further nebulous comment about things you would better understand had you grown up in nature's bosom, as did I, or words to that effect, which seemed faintly ludicrous given that I grew up on a farm which is the same fucking thing so far as I'm concerned; but when people pull cloaks over their heads and talk at me, a torch held beneath the chin so as to create a scary face just like in a Tim Burton film, I find it difficult to take them seriously, particularly when they claim understanding of forces that don't actually exist as part of some weirdly misjudged exercise in oneupmanship.

Anyway, Bongo's other favourite Simak novel was Project Pope, so I approached it with some trepidation - wouldn't want to anger the wise one after all; but first, by way of an authorial recap, here's what Andy Martin of UNIT had to say, quoted here simply because it's so nicely put:

In the early 1980s I read three books by Clifford Simak yet I have absolutely no recollection of their titles. They were all rather thin (page count) but thick (in ideas and characters). Oddly, I read them one after another as almost three facets of the same book.

I do know I enjoyed them because I recommended them to Dave - I gave them to him as a present circa 1985 shortly after the release of the fifth Apostles EP. When I read them I imagined a soundtrack by Aaron Copland with occasional incursions by Carl Ruggles for those curious, slightly surreal sections that require more atonal music.

For me, Simak is the acceptable face of American ruralism - his characters really ought to be clichés and yet somehow they aren't - at least not in my opinion. Certainly it's not the kind of science fiction I normally enjoy but not once do I remember becoming irritated, impatient or offended by his style or content. He also has an ear for dialogue - I gained the impression he really liked most of his characters.

Anyway, Project Pope was written towards the end of Simak's life, and it's tempting to see this novel as an examination of mortality and  thoughts regarding death, which it may well be, although it's probably more significant that it further investigates themes explored a decade earlier in A Choice of Gods, itself expanding on ideas of universal kinship that had been running through Simak's fiction right from the beginning. I found A Choice of Gods a little underwhelming in that it didn't seem to communicate its ideas well - at least not to an intemallectual scientistic square divorced from the spirits of the Earth such as what I am. Although Project Pope seems similarly lacking in plot, it does a little better, or at least pulls together in the closing chapters.

The scenario here concerns a group of theologically inclined robots who have founded the institution of Vatican-17 on a remote planet called End of Everything. As ever, Simak's robots are probably unique in the history of science-fiction, as amiable as those of Asimov, but also thoughtful and effectively a race in their own right long divorced from mechanical servitor ancestry. In essence they can be regarded as innocent humans, enquiring spirits unburdened by the belligerent baggage of humanity. The enquiring spirits have in this case constructed a Pope, a machine designed to evolve and so to achieve such profoundly deep thought as to equal the ageless wisdom of even Bongo Smallpiece become a true intermediary between God and His creation. The true nature of that creation is similarly under investigation with the help of Vatican-17's human Listeners who telepathically explore other dimensions in search of Heaven, and it all takes a weird turn about half way through the book when it seems one of them has found it. We encounter mathematical entities strongly suggestive of those encountered by Asher Sutton in Simak's Time and Again, and a last minute revelation as Vatican-17 is attacked by Smoky and the Plopper. Smoky and the Plopper are alien inhabitants of the dimension initially believed to be Heaven. If you want to read that sentence again just to be sure, please be my guest.

The thing is, none of this is played for chuckles, and Project Pope ambles along in typical Simakian fashion, unassuming and yet endlessly thought provoking, and ultimately adding up to something much greater than the sum of its parts. I doubt there's been another author who could really have carried this story off without it all going horribly wrong, I mean seriously - Smoky and the Plopper - I'm still not sure if it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever read or a stroke of genius, although given my having to resort to such stock phraseology, it's probably the latter.

As with A Choice of Gods, the conclusion seems to be nothing more profound than that a person who claims to understand religion cannot by definition have understood religion, and so the search continues. Project Pope falls some way short of Simak's greatest, but nevertheless serves as a fine example of what made him so unique as a writer.

Saturday, 8 June 2013


Grant Morrison & Darick Roberston Happy! (2013)
Happy! is a comic book that is drawn to near perfection, IGN is quoted as having observed on the back cover. I'm not sure who or what IGN may be, and unfortunately there's no way of finding out, so I'll assume it stands for Itinerant Guantanamo Nincompoop. Anyway, to get to the point, near perfection is probably somewhat over-egging the pudding, and more than anything the art reminds me of one of those anonymous also-rans who briefly passed through the pages of 2000AD during the early 1990s, a whole ton of neat lines failing to conceal the clunky figure work and incorrectly situated mouths of an artist who was too busy copying stuff out of earlier issues to attend a life-drawing class - fan art, in other words. It's not terrible, but it lacks grace and let's the side down a bit.

The slack is taken up to some extent by the story, a crime-thriller - and one with the usual wearisomely nasty details - with the saving grace of a tiny flying horse who can only be seen by terminally debased ex-cop Nick Sax. In other words, it's a crossover of Bad Lieutenant and My Little Pony - with the latter ultimately winning out over the former by way of a pleasant inversion of the usual typically grim deconstruction. There's a few fumbled balls, and some slightly mystifying plot points which could be due to either art or script lacking clarity; and it's possibly not Grant Morrison's magnum opus but is certainly amongst his better recent efforts. This sort of thing really needs surprises to keep it interesting, and the presence of a tiny blue horse more than adequately fits the bill. I'd cautiously suggest that Itinerant Guantanamo Nincompoop speaketh with forked tongue or tongues regarding the ham-fisted pictograms of the stuff-drawer-man responsible, but Happy! stays cute in spite of everything.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Great Apes

Will Self Great Apes (1997)

Swiftian is definitely the term and in block capitals with hundreds and thousands sprinkled all around for emphasis. Great Apes describes the psychosis and social trauma of wine-guzzling media socialites through the medium of chimpanzees, specifically artist Simon Dykes who wakes to find himself trapped in a knuckle-walking world he never made, as the Marvelism would have it. It probably doesn't take a genius to point out that human interaction is mostly animal politics overlaid with a behavioural veneer which only appears civilised because we've all agreed to define it as such; but it does take a serious talent to stretch the point to such vividly ludicrous extremes as are found here. Even as our hero despairs at a world in which his former girlfriend is casually mated by four or five suitors during her daily commute, where humans are seen only in zoos, the wilds of Africa, or as authors of amusing chaos in PG Tips commercials, or as those guys dressed in their ludicrous prosthetics in the Planet of the Humans movies; there's very little of this inverted world which isn't painfully familiar.

As he lay in nest, in Hampstead, in a world dominated by the physical, the bodily, Simon stared at the dark wall, at a poster tacked there that showed a chimpanzee with a pronounced eyebrow ridge screaming into a microphone. Underneath the muzzle was the legend 'Liam Gallagher, Oasis'. Some oasis, Simon mused, more like a mirage. A mirage that should dissolve.

I've never entirely warmed to chimps, or understood their appeal - not that I necessarily have any pronounced animosity towards them, but it's probably that element of something human which isn't quite human and seems therefore all the more unpleasant in our eyes. This uneasy kinship is addressed frequently in Great Apes in so much as it's probably why the novel works so well, but conversely for myself it also foments an unsavoury aftertaste which fosters appreciation rather than full-on pleasure in the sense of Self's earlier and brilliant My Idea of Fun - although pleasure is almost certainly the wrong word.

I spent a minute there striving for some term which might do justice to Great Apes, something to encapsulate the repulsive, compelling, hilarious, scathing, and deathly depressing all roughly within the same morpheme; then realised Swiftian really does cover it all - right under my nose all along, much like the discomforting yet familiar world of Great Apes.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)

Palmer Eldritch is reckoned by some to be Dick's greatest, although having said that I can't even recall quite where I read such claims, and personally I'm not convinced. Not that it isn't an exceptional novel, but for my money he wrote at least three that were probably better for having more of a sense of humour; although to be fair, Phil wrote Palmer Eldritch almost immediately following a week spent under the terrifying gaze of a vast metal face staring down at him from the sky, so it's probably forgiveable that the funnies weren't coming quite so thick and fast as usual.

In an afterword to his short story The Days of Perky Pat which itself feeds into The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick described the experience thus:

There I went, one day, walking down the country road to my shack, looking forward to eight hours of writing, in total isolation from all other humans, and I looked up into the sky and saw a face. I didn't really see it, but the face was there, and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil. I realise now (and I think I dimly realised at the time) what caused me to see it: the months of isolation, of deprivation of human contact, in fact sensory deprivation as such... but anyhow the visage could not be denied. It was immense; it filled a quarter of the sky. It had empty slots for eyes, it was metal and cruel and, worst of all, it was God.

I drove over to my church [. . .] and talked to my priest. He came to the conclusion that I had had a glimpse of Satan and gave me unction - not supreme unction; just healing unction. It didn't do any good; the metal face in the sky remained. I had to walk along every day as it gazed down at me.

It should probably be noted that Dick was reputedly yet to try LSD, despite what assumptions might be drawn from the hallucinogenic drugs Can-D and Chew-Z which feature so heavily in the novel; but regardless of cause, the experience was clearly absolutely real for him, and this novel was an attempt to deal with it, to reconcile the encounter with the rest of his developing cosmology. So the face in the sky became Palmer Eldritch, the degenerate God infesting the hallucinatory realities of those who consume the drug he has brought back from Proxima Centauri.

If not his best novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch  distinguishes itself as Philip K. Dick with gloves off and cards on the table more than anything he had written previously. Here his view of the universe as roughly informed by gnosticism is clearly expressed without having been smuggled out inside a different story. It carries all of those signature elements which characterise a Dick novel, and all fully realised - the dark or otherwise mad Deity returning from afar, the struggle to escape from the dismal and false reality brought to the world by the errant God, with only the dry humour not quite up to its usual strength. After Palmer Eldritch, Dick recovered the use of his chortle glands and went on to write better novels, but this one is still astonishing, its only failing being that there was better to come.