Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Authority volume four: Transfer of Power

Mark Millar, Tom Peyer, Arthur Adams & others
The Authority volume four: Transfer of Power (2002)

Somebody or other - possibly Alan Moore but I wouldn't swear to it - once made some comment about the art of storytelling being in screwing up the lives of your characters as much as possible and then spending the rest of the narrative getting them back into shape. Actually, it probably wasn't Alan Moore, or if it was, he might have been offering that as an observation on a trend rather than advice; anyway, the important point is that it's become something of a cliché. In fact I'm not actually sure that much of that caped stuff really does anything else at the moment; not that I would know admittedly, this being my impression based solely on giving up on X-Men comics all those years ago after roughly the fifth time they killed off the entire cast. Nothing ever being the same ever again becomes surprisingly repetitive after a while.

Nevertheless this is roughly what Mark Millar and Tom Peyer - whoever he may be - have done here. The Authority, in case it needs stating, is a revisionist superhero title that attempts to answer those questions like how come Superman never puts his talents to ending world hunger? by having a team of relatively believable super-types who actually do take it upon themselves to cure all the ills and evils of society. This of course places them in the somewhat Olympian position of an authority higher than that of all Earth's governments combined, hence the title; and inevitably said governments are none too happy about the arrangement, and so in this volume they have the Authority smushed once and for all then replaced with their own more obedient team of superpowered Uncle Toms.

In some ways it's become a bit of a cock-obvious story these days, a basic update of when Captain America lost his job to the Super Patriot back in 1986, and one to file away alongside tales of secret government organisations who gather up all the stuff that UFOs leave behind; but Mark Millar is such a dab hand at this that Transfer of Power may as well be the first time this particular story has been told. On paper, the basic plot sounds like pure caped cheese, but the end result is just plain chuffin' wonderful and an absolute joy to read. Mark Millar once again reheats a McDonalds' cheeseburger and serves it as haute cuisine, and I don't really know if there's anything more to be said aside from yowza!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

August Derleth (editor) Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969)

It could be argued that Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos served to reinvent a specific genre of horror just as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker revised earlier Gothic narratives to account for the changing nineteenth century view of humanity's place in the great scheme of things; although it's probably worth noting that I'm guessing here, horror fiction never really having been my thing. To varying degrees, both Frankenstein and Dracula addressed the emergent possibility that, contrary to Christian teaching, there might not be an afterlife to which the human soul migrates after death. Lovecraft's weird tales similarly revise earlier demons and spirits as creatures from realms beyond the Earth, and whose existence is defined in relation to scientific understanding specifically through being beyond the scope of quantification by its twentieth century expression. Horror defined in relation to something understood and at least partially accepted at the time - science as opposed to pure superstition - perhaps held greater emotional resonance than when grounded in ideas which no longer worked quite so well as they may once have done. That said, Lovecraft still chose an astonishingly limited genre, essentially one barely requiring narrative content, which is why much of his tales can be reduced to I hope that isn't a monster followed by well, I guess it really is a monster; although as with Frank Carson, it was all in the way he told 'em.

This much becomes painfully obvious when others have a crack at playing with Lovecraft's slimey and tentacular train set. Of the eleven authors gathered here by August Derleth, just four manage to tell 'em with anything like the conviction of the tales from which the mythos is drawn. The rest, although far from terrible, tend to suffer from trying to do a Lovecraft and simply not doing it particularly well, dropping one generic clanger after another and in one instance even trying to pass off the idea that the terrified narrator scribbled his final second by second commentary even as the nameless monstrosity from beyond the dawn of time was oozing through the keyhole.

I can hear it coming now even as I record these, my last words - it's scratching at the door - oh God! That face! Aaaaaaaaa-

Sure. That's really going to happen. The guy who delved into that which man was not intended to know is going to conclude his testimony with the word Aaaaagh written in his notebook just as the ancient bumfaced nightmare draws near.

You might hope August Derleth would himself put in a decent showing given that he was Lovecraft's friend, biggest fan, tireless promoter, and a capable writer, but still you get the impression he hadn't quite got the hang of Cthulhu and all his squelchy pals, instead writing something that relates to Lovecraft in the same way that the version of Dracula which fought Spiderman on a few occasions relates to Stoker's novel.

On the other hand, Clark Ashton Smith succeeds simply because he was a wonderful writer, and Robert Bloch manages an original spin on the basic Lovecraftian template; whilst more recent authors Ramsey Campbell and Colin Wilson provide what might be the most convincing selections by virtue of bringing new elements to the basic recipe, and I still like to think that Wilson's The Return of the Lloigor bridges a gap between Lovecraft and Grant Morrison's Zenith.

There's some great stuff here, a fair bit that's simply middling, and apropos of nothing - a shitload of material to keep fans of self-referential fiction happy, with just about everyone writing old H.P. into their own stories as an author of weird tales who somehow stumbled upon the truth; but as both collection and tribute to the big guy with the chin, it is mainly of historical interest.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids (1951)

I'd promised myself that I wouldn't buy any new books until my to be read pile had lost some of its resemblance to the sort of edifice into which religious fundamentalists crash planes, but the promise was made back in January and I was down to about nine titles; plus my friend Roberto had come all the way from Italy and we were attending the Worldcon science-fiction convention here in San Antonio, mainly because it coincided with Roberto's visit and seemed like a good opportunity for him to fill suitcases with unfamiliar editions of Simak novels. I told myself I'd hold back, and I was doing okay until I found this on the DreamHaven Books stall. A few months later and I probably would have blown hundreds of dollars, but as I say I was holding back, exercising the kind of self-denial which might have earned a sainthood under other circumstances, conditional to it having been a fairly quiet year in religious terms; but I caved in with this one.

The fact of my never having read The Day of the Triffids must seem an obvious oversight to just about everyone west of Brian Aldiss, and this is the sexed-up US edition dramatically retitled Revolt of the Triffids with heaving bosoms on the cover and a blurb which speaks of lovers caught between the heaven of their frenzied love-making and the hell of fighting the Triffids. Despite my initial reservations, this version contains no supplementary descriptions of it going in and out, and is in all respects complete and unabridged.

Even now, the quality of Wyndham's writing is astonishing - not particularly florid, but solid and engaging, absolutely compelling without any obvious trickery involved. From even just a cursory glance, it's not difficult to understand his enduring popularity, why his novels have been taught in schools, and like H.G. Wells - in whose footsteps he more or less follows - he has come to be known as an author who writes science-fiction rather than specifically a science-fiction author, if you see what I mean.

The premise of The Day of the Triffids seems to have entered the collective imagination and as such should need no introduction, triffid having become comic slang for almost anything in a garden which grows bigger than anticipated; and the notion of ambulatory and predatory plants is so ingenious that it seems peculiar that no-one had done it before - so far as I'm aware - or has done it this well since. As an aside, some time ago during a horticultural phase I bought a few pots of pitcher plants - specifically trumpet pitchers - from which the triffids are so obviously extrapolated. They were fascinating plants and did very well, but I distinctly remember finding them quite unnerving on that first night before I grew accustomed to their presence.

I can only imagine the main reason that no-one else has ever really bothered to tap into this is that Wyndham did it so well as to make subsidiary attempts seem redundant; and the great thing - the central point that at least one television adaptation seems to have missed, is that the novel really isn't about triffids, and the predatory plants in question are at best a peripheral if annoying presence - a consequence of the disaster rather than its cause.

It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine why authors writing in the early 1950s might have been concerned with threats to civilisation and the absolute collapse of society - two world wars, the most recent of which culminated with two cities destroyed by the atomic bomb, the highest expression of scientific advances previously viewed as having the potential to elevate humanity. A lot of rugs had been pulled from beneath our collective feet:

'You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realise how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.'

She was quite right. It was that simplicity that seemed somehow to be the nucleus of the shock. From very familiarity one forgets all the forces which keep the balance, and thinks of security as normal. It is not. I don't think it had ever before occurred to me that man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain, as most of the books would have one think. It is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilisation, all that he had achieved or might achieve, hung upon his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he was lost. I saw for a moment the true tenuousness of his hold on his power, the miracles that he had wrought with such fragile instruments...

The nature of the disaster by which the great majority of the human race wake up to find themselves blind is subject to speculation, and never clearly explained, but human agency seems to be the culprit, as it is for the cultivation of the triffids who capitalise on the disaster. The Day of the Triffids is then about humanity's efforts to cope with that which it has brought upon itself, a fairly simple account of what may happen in practical terms, and also in moral terms with existing rules no longer quite applying to what little is left of human society. Needless to say, the picture is fairly grim, but not unremittingly so. Brian Aldiss has described Wyndham's novels as cosy catastrophes, suggesting that his main characters tend to experience disaster as a bit of a wheeze. Whilst The Day of the Triffids may be nowhere near so relentless as, for example, 1984, this still strikes me as cobblers. Rather, Wyndham provides light amongst the darkness for the sake of both contrast and because that's how people work - finding the smallest positive in even the most dreadful of circumstances, as concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

The Day of the Triffids is a great book for a great many reasons - deservedly regarded as a classic - not least that it presents a scenario of such unrelenting horror, with no hero arriving on a white scientific charger to save the day, and yet conveys an ultimately positive message about human nature without a trace of syrup.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard Servant of the Underworld (2010)

Having something of an interest in Mesoamerican culture reaching beyond that which can be gleaned from Big Bird's Book of Aztecs, I've tended to avoid this sort of thing for fear of blowing a gasket. I can't help it. Rightly or wrongly, I take a proprietorial view of Mexican culture. I don't like the fact of it having been demonised as crude and lacking in any qualities beyond the sanguinary for the last few hundred years, and nor do I appreciate its ham-fisted appropriation by hack writers looking for something exotic and just a teensy bit weird with which to spice up their latest exercise in paying off a credit card.

Anyway, Servant of the Underworld was free, one of a big pile of paperbacks published by Angry Robot from which guests at a San Antonio science-fiction convention were invited to take their pick.

The appendix, an essay in which the author describes how she came to write this - her debut novel - and to which I first turned, should perhaps have rung alarm bells. Aliette de Bodard speaks of the inspiration drawn from Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, then from a series of French novels set in ancient Egypt, and at length describes the plotting and research of Servant of the Underworld. I raised a Paxmanesque eyebrow at de Bodard's renaming the ruler Itzcoatl as Ixcoatl, a revision which recasts the Obsidian Serpent as some bloke called either Face of a Serpent, Serpent Eye, or One Who Appears Like a Serpent; and then I read of her concerns regarding the setting of her novel, studying maps, struggling to work out the distance between certain places, and how the chinampa plantations of Xochimilco would have appeared. I wondered to myself why she hadn't just gone to Mexico City and had a look around, particularly as the chinampas are still there and the city even has an airport, no longer requiring one to endure a five day hike across the mountains on the back of a donkey.

Anyway, suspecting I was probably just being sniffy for the sake of it, I turned to the first page...

I'm not accustomed to reading murder mysteries, and I've no idea whether they're all like this, but the first few chapters, if not exactly bad, comprise little but plot textured with a wearying check-list of local details. The prose is functional and not much more. To be fair, I'm not sure I've ever seen the appeal of this genre given that most stories will necessarily be a variation on the theme of someone being murdered, leading to someone else deducing the identity of the killer; and I don't know why I should be excited about that. I suppose then it must be the mood and sense of place which draws the reader, except Servant of the Underworld has all the personality of a diagram littered with fiddly plot points laboriously picked out through characters for whom it is very difficult to care. There is no art here, no poetry, just narrative mechanism. The writing isn't terrible, but neither is it particularly inspiring, and it really isn't helped by interludes such as the little girl looking at our hard-boiled Mesoamerican investigator with eyes like liquid pools, as opposed to eyes like football pools, I suppose.

Has anyone ever in the entire history of everything just once looked into another's eyes and been struck by their resemblance to liquid pools, presumably liquid pools bearing no similarity to those of asymmetrical shape which form when you spill your beer in the kitchen whilst trying to fry an apricot at two in the morning? Aside from those composed of light, don't most pools tend to be liquid?

This wouldn't bother me were the detail - that which is supposed to distinguish Servant of the Underworld from any other recycled Agatha Christie - not quite so poor. Please feel free to skip the inevitable list which follows because I'm sure no-one else finds this stuff of any interest; but for the record, contrary to that which is suggested in this novel:

  • The honorific suffix of a name is indeed -tzin, but it only really works when replacing the existing, usually applicative suffix -tl, -li, or -tli. The name Acatl with an honorific suffix is therefore Acatzin, not fucking Acatl-tzin, which is like prefixing someone's name with Mister Sir.

  • The nahual or nagual is an animal spirit, usually twinned to a specific individual (regardless of whether or not they are aware of this) and can be of any species, not just a jaguar. It is entirely unlike a Dementor from Harry Potter.

  • There was no priesthood dedicated to the Death Gods. This is not a quirk of regional government or preference so much as something which, were it otherwise, would contradict much of the existing theology. I appreciate that Aliette de Bodard admits to taking a few liberties in regard to this, but that really doesn't make it better.

  • Mictlan is a region of the underworld, not the underworld in its entirety.

  • There is a character called Ohtli. Ohtli simply means Road, which seems reminiscent of those people with exotic tattoos of Chinese characters which actually read shirts cleaned $5.

  • Girls in Tenochtitlan were generally taught in the home, not in schools, as described in detail in Codex Mendoza.

  • The priesthood was almost exclusively male. There were very few priestesses, and none of high rank that we know of.

  • Marriages were arranged and not a case of the young girl going out and having a look for some eligible bachelor, as is also described in detail in Codex Mendoza.

There's probably more but I gave up at around chapter four. None of the nits picked above are exactly unforgivable, excepting possibly the thing with honorific suffixes and getting Itzcoatl's name wrong, but it all adds up with all period or theological detail seeming so sloppy and arbitrary and incidental to the almighty labyrinthine plot that the whole becomes difficult to take seriously; and everyone speaks as though they could have been cast in almost any murder mystery from any era with just the furniture shuffled around for the sake of local flavour, all pulling stern Bruce Willis faces and exclaiming what in the Fifth World is going on here?

I hate giving up on a book, and I've only done it on three occasions over the last five years, and never on the same day as I began reading the thing; but this is horrible, a cynical exercise in writing a by-the-numbers fantasy bestseller, and life is too short.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Red Sun Also Rises

Mark Hodder A Red Sun Also Rises (2012)

I'm afraid it takes a lot to get me reading anything popularly and presently identified as steampunk, and whilst it may be absolutely unfair to suggest that Mark Hodder is the only author of the entire bunch worth bothering with, most of the rest are still to do anything which draws my attention. The problem here is that I can't help but feel sceptical towards a phenomenon that so strongly identifies itself as a brand, a franchise, even a lifestyle - collect the set, now wear the brass goggles and join in with the cosplay fun - cosplay being a word I tend to associate with hopeless wankers on the grounds of my being a fully grown man.

It's not even that I'm necessarily opposed to a wilfully superficial romp, and I certainly have no problem with Victoriana, but I tend to prefer my fiction to do something I'm not expecting, to take chances, to make random swerves off in occasionally ludicrous directions; just anything but recycle something that's already been written, to which end all those top hatted adventurers twiddling moustaches at some generically feisty female acquaintance as the dirigible sails overhead might as well be Pokémon cards so far as I can tell, although from what I gather there's generally a bit more imagination evident in Pokémon.

The most profoundly gormless facebook comment I ever saw was in response to a status message submitted by Mark Hodder, specifically a status message which had expanded to a leisurely conversation about beer and weather. Amongst various remarks and replies, some person had left a one word comment, just steampunk on its own for no obvious reason other than this being the genre with which Mark has become associated; sort of like walking up to Stewart Lee as he's in the middle of a conversation with friends, wiping the drool from your chin and saying 'funny jokes' out loud in the expectation of chuckling recognition and pats on the back because yes, we do all indeed love those funny jokes.

I really don't know how he puts up with it.

Anyway, science-fiction often serves to pass comment on the era in which it is written by allegorical means, and this is particularly true of Mark Hodder's science-fiction. The Victoriana seems to be not only his native mythology - for want of a better term - but, for this author, a significant key to understanding the present given that, it could be argued, our society came together during the nineteenth century and by a bolder, more transparent design than it has been at any time since. In other words, whilst Mark Hodder may well write for chuckles, there is more going on with this author than, I would dare to suggest, at least a few of his brass-plated contemporaries.

A Red Sun Also Rises roughly mashes up Mark's usual themes with an Edgar Rice Burroughs style extraterrestrial excursion yielding a fiction more redolent of the era in which it is set than any of your Reynolds or Baxters, thus neatly avoiding the problem of present concerns imposed upon another age, effectively addressing that age in its own language - so there's no talk to the hand or I'll be there for you, nor any deeper incongruity. Being essentially the tale of a missionary, it examines colonialism, cultural relativism, and the dynamics of colonial interference, the ways in which the colonised are changed by the colonisers; much of which amounts to a basic and quite insightful examination of class effected most vividly when the natives of Hodder's alien world are themselves transformed into a comic echo of Victorian society; so it's philosophically meaty without once coming across as a lecture.

What additionally distinguishes A Red Sun Also Rises is the explosive imagination at work in a narrative that flies off in all sorts of peculiar and unexpected directions without once worrying about whether the aviator-goggled reader on the Clapham omnibus is getting his proper quota of dirigibles and steam-powered computing engines. Ever since all those historical characters of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack were warped into ludicrous shapes, Mark Hodder has shown a consummate skill in forcing even the most absurd narrative twists into a working story - lunatic ideas to match even the edible dinosaurs of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, things you just shouldn't do in a novel, which he does regardless and passes off without a hiccup.

Genuinely wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Time Machine

H.G. Wells The Time Machine (1895)

I was a little underwhelmed by this the first time I read it although I can no longer recall quite why; possibly due to the initially surprising contrast between the vast reputation of one of the most famous science-fiction novels of all time and it being such a short and relatively quiet little book. The story will most likely be familiar to everyone reading this - a fairly straightforward spin on earlier travelogues such as Thomas More's Utopia or even Robinson Crusoe, aside from this particular terra incognita being our distant future thus affording Wells the opportunity to offer comment on his society, its notions of progress, and the increasing class divide.

The Time Machine probably doesn't really do a great deal more than just that, but crucially it did what it does before everyone else, and did it so well as to remain pretty much the perfect science-fiction novel more than a century later. Its message is as relevant today as it ever was, and the passage of time has taken nothing from the clarity of the prose, and I'd go so far as to suggest that if you don't like this one then you've got something wrong with you.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Joe the Barbarian

Grant Morrison & Sean Murphy Joe the Barbarian (2011)

Joe the Barbarian is in essence Grant Morrison's rewrite of Harold and the Purple Crayon - the tale of a diabetic teenage boy experiencing hallucinatory adventures whilst suffering a hypoglycemic episode, an epic fantasy adventure spread across the realm of his own distorted home populated by legions of warriors that were once action figures. It's pretty much your standard Neil Gaiman or Tim Burton fare, and so obviously in the real world our boy is bullied, artistically talented, lacking a father, and about to become homeless; and thus the mystic quest for the soda which will pull Joe back from the diabetic brink leads to a letter inexplicably hidden in the frame of an old photograph by which the deceased dad bequeaths the house to Joe and his mother. It's nice enough, and if you're into this sort of thing I'm sure it will fill you with joy, but...

I don't know.

I just don't know.

It seems unfortunate that I should read Joe the Barbarian immediately after Ubik which similarly occurs in an illusory realm brought on by the approach of death. Ubik is a very difficult act to follow, particularly with the genre into which this roughly settles. Sword and sorcery so often does just the one basic thing - which is what it does here - so it rarely feels as though any of it matters, or that actions have consequences, particularly as we are informed from the start that none of this is happening, and the narrative amounts to whether or not Joe manages to get his bottle of fizzy pop.

I mean, it's decent of its type, and there are some nice lines, and the art is fucking gorgeous throughout, but I can't help feel that Morrison has scored an own goal here. It's a fine if not terribly original premise for a story, although the genuine drama of the real world events seem almost reduced to an angle by which the Duncan Goodhew of Magick justifies yet another load of nebulous guff about heroes and archetypes. In fact, in places it all felt so bolted on as to  bring to mind The Origin of Young Dan Pussey in which Dan Clowes' character is shown to be entirely unable to function or even communicate unless caped heroes are involved:


Why this story could only be told as emo Harry Potter I have no idea, and characters knowingly pointing out the cliché of their being engaged on a mystic quest does not in itself render said enterprise any less painful. Joe the Barbarian is fine, but it should have been better.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


Philip K. Dick Ubik (1966)

I'm not sure this is quite Philip K. Dick's greatest novel, or even that there's any point in making such a distinction, but it's surely amongst his very best. For those unfamiliar with the title, the story is - roughly speaking - a fine-tuning of the earlier Eye in the Sky representing a more fully expressed vision of Dick's view of the cosmos and his own place therein. Of all Dick's novels, there's already been a great deal said about this one, often by the presenter of one of those shows in which some knob from the props department mocks up a spray can of Ubik - just like from the book - which magically appears next to a typewriter with all the blinding imagination of Doctor Who documentaries in which some cockesque presenter materialises from thin air to the accompaniment of a familiar vworp vworp sound; but one aspect of Ubik which never seems to get a mention are the sartorial musings.

A bald-headed man, wagging a goatish beard, pointed to himself. He wore old-fashioned, hip-hugging gold lamé trousers, yet somehow created a stylish effect. Perhaps the egg-sized buttons of his kelp-green mitty blouse helped; in any case he exuded a grand dignity, a loftiness surpassing the average. Joe felt impressed.

'Don Denny,' Runciter said.

'Right here, sir,' a confident baritone like that of a Siamese cat declared; it arose from within a slender, earnest-looking individual who sat bolt-upright in his chair, his hands on his knees. He wore a polyester dirndl, his long hair in a snood, cowboy chaps with simulated silver stars. And sandals.

For some reason, this never makes it into those popular versions with Ben Affleck gripping stubbled technocops by the shoulders and raging but none of us are even real! Maybe Ben's agent didn't think he'd go for the kelp-green mitty blouse. Still, it's not like they really get much of the other stuff right either.

Ubik is on the surface of it a novel about layered realities, in this case the psychic half-life of a group of dying people who don't initially realise that they're dying, or that their mortality is signified by all constituent parts of their world regressing to earlier, simpler forms:

The TV set had receded back a long way; he found himself confronted by a dark, wood-cabinet, Atwater-Kent tuned radio-frequency oldtime AM radio, complete with antenna and ground wires. God in heaven, he said to himself, appalled.

But why hadn't the TV set reverted instead to formless metal and plastics? Those, after all, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato's ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real. The form TV set had been a template imposed as successor to other templates, like the procession of frames in a movie sequence.

What is so interesting here is that this isn't some prosaic prediction of virtual reality so much as an allegory of our world, or at least of Dick's world; the illusory overlay of lives sinking inevitably towards entropy and death in contrast to the world out there, the hypothetically true reality of the living and those attempting to communicate with these dying minds. Ubik of the title is a substance derived from ubique meaning everywhere, which for the purposes of this novel might translate to reality, truth, or even God; and so in the world of the dying, a spray can of Ubik affords glimpses of that other better world which has been hidden from the protagonists by another of Dick's Deities gone mad, in this case one named Jory - the archetypal embodiment of evil as a lack of empathy, the child who pulls wings from flies just like the replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Robots Have Feelings Too as I believe Ridley Scott titled his cinematic interpretation. Ubik is, in essence, Dick grappling with inertia expressed here as decay or entropy, a refutation of either death or at least the imperfect world in which death holds all the cards. It's one of his most enduring themes, and here it's taken a stage further with the concluding suggestion of those of the better world inhabiting their own version of the dying universe, in turn reaching out to the reader as we learn that salvation originates from within our environment. It has to, because nothing can come in from outside except words.

As Dick-brand brain food, Ubik is unusually coherent and strong in flavour without sacrificing any of the complexity of that which it proposes; as a novel it is almost flawless.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl (2009)

Pump Six was an astonishing collection of short stories in which Paolo Bacigalupi wrestled with life on Earth after the fossil fuels have run out - energy measured as calories, everything driven by kinetic power stored in kink springs, flooded cities and the environment overrun by out of control GM species. The big corporations have become more powerful than any government, particularly those agricultural corporations holding us all to ransom with their engineered strains of wheat being the only ones which will still grow in this oddly mediaeval landscape. It's terrifyingly plausible, not only through the power of the author's visionary writing, but because there's a lot of it that's worryingly familiar.

The Windup Girl goes one further than the short stories collected as Pump Six, attempting to paint a wider picture from this same horrible and probably impending future - the sequestration of an entire sovereign nation - Thailand in this case; corporate takeover effected by means of corporate sponsored revolution and strategic assassination as experienced by a small group of participants. Of these, perhaps the most striking is the windup girl of the title, Emiko, an engineered human bred in Japan as an executive toy, now forced to work in a Thai brothel having found herself alone in a country where her kind are despised and routinely composted as less than human. Emiko ends up serving as a metaphor for nature itself, a microcosmic echo of the ruined world she inhabits as, pushed too far by the abuse of wealthy owners, she goes nuts and starts snapping necks; except it's more convincing than that may sound.

It's one of those novels from which no-one emerges as particularly likeable, and the background noise of low-level suffering, coercion, and brutality - none of which is really so different to events unfolding right now in certain corners of the globe - is slightly depressing. Also, because it's all bound up with political and economic intrigue rendered in Bacigalupi's meticulously ornate prose, I actually found it a little hard to follow in places; and on a critical footing, I'd say the novel really could have stood to be a fair bit shorter as it seems to lose some of the focus which worked so well in Pump Six and others.

The Windup Girl probably isn't quite so amazing as reputed, but it's nevertheless impressive even if I probably won't be re-reading it again for a while. Its message is about forty times more sobering than that of any other author pointing out that we're probably fucked, and for this alone I would recommend it, or at least I would recommend the more approachable short stories of Pump Six.

I have a horrible feeling The Windup Girl is going to end up as a really shit film which misses all the points and has Bono singing about the environment on the soundtrack. I can almost see the trailer. This time, says the guy with the gravel voice who delivers his sentences in gobbets of two or three words as Keira Knightley's slow-motion Emiko decapitates Minister Somdet Chaopraya, they pushed her - needlessly lengthy pause, CGI droplets of blood float across screen - too far. This would of course constitute the massive irony of a novel about the corporate sterilisation of culture for profit itself turned into a means of selling hamburgers, although of course it wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened.

Anyway, the point is, if you're going to read The Windup Girl, then read it now before some wanker screenplays it into The Hunger Games, although be warned, it's not a happy book and it's a bit chewy in places.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Forty-Niners

Alan Moore & Gene Ha The Forty-Niners (2005)

The Forty-Niners is a flashback to the formative years of characters from Moore's Top 10 - the cop soap set in a city in which everyone has superpowers. It's probably not the greatest comic book ever written, but it's so close to perfect in almost every way as to render any attempt at criticism almost redundant. Amongst those stories intertwined here with all the languor of a plurality of legs and sheets at daybreak, we have a vampire mafia, Nazi scientists granted asylum in the US, the aftermath of a second world war fought by caped crusaders, and Jetlad - our main character - coming to terms with being gay; and all told with a minimum of fuss or clamour. Even the vampire plot seems completely original, told from unfamiliar angles whilst remaining absolutely faithful to the lore - none of that arbitrary bolting on of dubious revisions like how actually they're fine in daylight, and it's margarine that causes them real problems. The artwork too is absolutely breathtaking, and perfectly redolent of the era in which the story is set - some tosser somewhere probably really, really needs this to be decopunk or whatever, but fuck 'em - get a life. I know that not everything Alan Moore has ever written has been a certified work of genius, but when he just seems to casually poop out material of such effortless quality before breakfast, you really have to wonder if anyone else even comes close.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Man After Man - An Anthropology of the Future

Dougal Dixon & Philip Hood
Man After Man - An Anthropology of the Future (1990)

Man After Man is apparently Dougal Dixon expanding on the success of After Man, a previous and similarly themed effort imagining the next few million years worth of animal evolution in the event of our disappearance; and this theme - imagining the next few million years of human evolution - if supposedly tainted with certain visuals pinched wholesale from artist Wayne Douglas Barlow, was hardly an original idea in the first place what with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and doubtless many others; and in any case Dixon's book worked well enough for me when I first read it a couple of decades ago.

Man After Man is far from perfect. The illustrations have a bit of a folksy quality, seem anatomically awkward and all with peculiarly flat noses; and the Hiver, or Alvearanthropus desertus - a future human predicted to evolve some two million years hence - for some reason resembles an ageing Jewish comedian of the 1950s - although whether that's necessarily a bad thing would certainly be subject to debate. Also off-putting is how, despite Darwin's theory of evolution being piss-easy to understand if you just bother to read the bloody thing, Dixon joins the millions who somehow manage to get it wrong in crucial places, which is disappointing given its being the central theme of the book. Not that he drops major clangers, but he takes a loose, somehow very seventies approach which allows our descendants to evolve not only telepathy but also race memory.

Niggles aside, I'm nevertheless won over by the sheer weirdness of this enterprise. It isn't a novel, or at least it isn't a novel in the conventional sense, but it's certainly a narrative, presented as pseudo-factual by the same terms as Stapledon's Last and First Men. The premise here is that humanity has destroyed its environment and will eventually abandon planet leaving behind a scattering of engineered humans. These people, or possibly creatures, are adapted to occupy specific ecosystems from which most animal life has been extinguished. Why this is done isn't really clear - one of several fumbled balls in a sequence which might otherwise resemble the hard science-fiction of Asimov and his pals. Anyway, Earth is vacated but for a decreasing populace of subsistence farmers and numerous peculiar mammals in the seas, forests, and deserts - all engineered from human DNA, and engineered with a level of intelligence equivalent to that of higher apes. The reasoning is screwy, but the ideas are fascinating because they kind of work, and it would be interesting to read something more traditionally resembling a story featuring Dixon's Plains-Dwellers or the somewhat nightmarish Parasite/Host creatures he imagines evolving in the more distant future; but of course part of the appeal of this projection is the setting, an era bereft of anything with much in the way of language that would provide the focus of such a story - at least nothing beyond your basic grunting Tontospeak. As the inheritors of a future Earth, these are by definition creatures we would have trouble understanding, which is why Man After Man works so well as a speculative history.

It could have been a little tighter in places - maybe having Homo mensproavodorum work out how to build boats the hard way like our own ancestors rather than by means of implausible racial memories of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; or expanding on the extraordinarily heightened environmental senses found amongst, for example, the Bushmen of the Kalahari rather than souring the recipe with telepathy. Also, the environmental message has
about it a touch of Neil from The Young Ones, reiterating certain entirely too simplistic claims often made regarding overpopulation; yet still, it's difficult to avoid being drawn into the reality of this weird and fearsomely believable future Earth.

Monday, 9 September 2013


William S. Burroughs Junky (1950)

General or otherwise sweeping statements made about America or American culture can often appear hopelessly off target to those of us who live here, and whose experience is derived from life rather than a newspaper article or what some bloke said on the internet. It's not so much a single country as a massive chunk of continent divided into areas of land of which many may as well be considered countries in their own right. The population is such that any statement of how Americans are this will almost always be rendered meaningless by a silent majority of other other Americans who are that; despite which I'm going to steam right on ahead.

America has an obsession with the rebel, the outsider figure, probably inherited from the colonisation and founding of the United States as two fingers to the English Parliament. American heroes tend to be those who buck the system in some way, or else who work within the system whilst bending rules to get the job done, just like every action thriller cop since about 1972; but, these rebels tend to be commodities just as much as Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean have become evocative and marketable images framed portraits of which lend a certain ambience to your diner, letting customers know that not only are you in business, but also that you ain't fancy, no siree. It's as though America, wishing to distance itself from the stuffy monarchic establishments from which its immigrant populace have fled, can only conceive an organising system in terms of revolution, or at least that which walks, talks, and smells like a revolution; and so even the tallest pillars of the establishment are remembered in terms of outspoken moments, playing a mean saxophone, or resembling some movie star. Marx observed that revolution is permanent, meaning that true revolution is self-aware and hopefully self-correcting. The United States of America therefore ceased to be a revolution in general terms in 1812 after which it became cultural karaoke as a means of political stability achieved through the marketing and defusing of its own revolutionary tendencies - the most vivid expression of this being for me each new sanitised Disney character: he's a chipmunk, and he's looking at you with the crooked smile and raised eyebrow of attitude. He's a wild card and ain't no-one gonna tame this boy, but he still understands that you have to clean your teeth and study hard to get decent grades. This also explains Green Day, I would say.

In America, the truly revolutionary is therefore that which cannot be purchased or sanitised for public consumption - the outré, the unacceptable, the losers, the sheep-killing dogs; which is where William Burroughs came in, I guess, because much as he might have looked pretty good in a suit in a moody black and white photograph, it's happily impossible to separate the man from his legend. Fiercely loyal to his guns, his heroin addiction, his homosexuality, his endless hatred of anything in a uniform, he can never be reclaimed as an entertaining maverick in the terms by which even Charles Bukowski is slowly being drawn back into the machine. He shot his wife by accident, he was an independently wealthy former-Harvard student, and is by at least some of his own testimony, a horrible cunt - all of which we know because above all Burroughs valued truth, no matter how appalling it might seem.

Junky was his first novel, ostensibly a novel about heroin addiction here reissued in restored form, all changes and revisions made by editors and publishers excised. Contrary to the received wisdom, it isn't stylistically radically different to Naked Lunch and the other, more vigorously experimental titles by which he made his reputation. Burroughs' impartial reportage, shocking and surreal imagery, and flights of metaphysical subversion are as much in evidence here as in anything he wrote, the only difference being that the prose is delivered in traditional narrative sequence and lacks the weirder sexual excesses involving farting boys on roller skates and all that good stuff. It's brutal and disturbing - not least for the clinical language by which Burroughs describes his life in New York, New Orleans, and then Mexico City; but it's also absolutely truthful, absolutely indifferent to winning over its readership, and as such is in American cultural terms the absolute antithesis of Michael J. Fox.

The conversations had nightmare flatness, talking dice spilled in the tube metal chairs, human aggregates disintegrating in cosmic inanity, random events in a dying universe where everything is exactly as it appears to be, and no other relation than juxtaposition is possible.

Perhaps the reason why Burroughs took to chopping everything into bits was a further effort at avoiding assimilation, refusing even to play with the same building blocks by which even Mafia idols are revered for their audience identification profiles and sales figures. I'm beginning to get the impression that Burroughs may be more important as an author than previously realised, and with this in mind, Junky really is a very good place to start.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Kick-Ass 2

Mark Millar & John Romita Jnr. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick-Ass is of course the superhero comic that could almost have crossed over with Harvey Pekar's American Splendour without requiring significant amendments to the laws of either physics or biology: real people putting on masks and patrolling the streets in the name of law and order, as has been happening in the real world at least since Mexico's Super Barrio first applied wrestling holds to village politics. As will hopefully be obvious to anyone reading this, there's no such thing as super-strength, invulnerability, or a mutant healing factor outside the pages of comics, so real life superheroes are somewhat more likely to have the living shit kicked out of them than the colourful characters from which they draw inspiration; which is a significant element of Kick-Ass, vividly expressed in page after blood-soaked page of stomach-churning violence, broken bones, bruises, black eyes, people braining each other with iron bars, and a vast chasm dividing the ideal of truth, justice, and the American way from what really happens, as Battle-Guy observes in the heat of a riot:

What the Hell, man? I thought you said we'd be heroes if we showed up and fought the bad guys. I thought it'd be like a comic book with people cheering and stuff.

Mark Millar has recently come under fire for this. Kick-Ass goes too far, seems to be the general consensus of opinion, and I can see there's a thin line between telling this kind of story, and the pornography of repulsion that informs the sort of thing upon which I don't feel inclined to elaborate and which is in any case probably quite easy to find on the internet. Two specific scenes in Kick-Ass 2 have been singled out as transcending the requirements of the narrative for the sake of gratuitous brutality - both scenes which have eluded faithful reproduction in the movie adaptation because, as Millar himself rightly points out, it's a different medium and not everything translates. I won't describe the scenes in question, but in the context of the story, I'm not convinced that either is significantly more repulsive than anything else here; and one of them I would argue is actually made worse for the visual gag with which it is cinematically prefixed.

Routine beatings, murder, someone pushed off the top of a building, child abduction, shootings, and a guy hung in his prison cell - these things are shown, whilst of the two transgressive scenes, both are described entirely by threat and aftermath because it simply isn't necessary to go into detail. The horror is already implicit. I would rather not be so crass as to ask whether routine beatings, murder, someone pushed off the top of a building, child abduction, shootings, and a guy hung in his prison cell are therefore to be considered acceptable as entertainment, but it seems significant that the two highlighted offending scenes push additionally emotive buttons of misogyny and animal cruelty. I'd suggest that it is specifically because these particular strains of evil are invoked that Kick-Ass 2 refrains from showing the horrible details, which is surely significant given that neither writer nor artist have held back in other respects. In other words, it's repulsive because it's supposed to be repulsive, but not more so than it needs to be.

This issue puts me in mind of controversy surrounding the power electronics group Whitehouse. For those who have better things to do than read The Wire, Whitehouse were formed in the early 1980s. I came across them in an issue of Flowmotion fanzine and was immediately intrigued by their being the one group of whom I knew nothing, and who had been routinely ignored by the music press. Shops refused to stock their albums, and even Throbbing Gristle's habitually awkward Genesis P. Orridge seemed to hate them.

The listeners of these recordings will always enjoy the most intense reactions of all because these are the most violently repulsive records ever conceived, claimed the publicity, and so of course I just had to know what this was about. Postal orders were sent and my copy of the Erector album somehow made it through the mail without anyone being arrested. The cover was a plain pressing plant cardboard sleeve with the photocopied image of a male johnson glued to the front. The music comprised four tracks of ear-splitting noise, just headache inducing feedback with a screamed litany of sexually sadistic threats; and one of the tracks was called Shitfun, apparently in honour of romantic acts involving faeces.

Yes, I concluded, this probably is one of the most violently, repulsive records ever conceived. Older and wiser, Whitehouse now sound to me like a noisy art gallery installation, but at the time I was seriously freaked out and half considered sending the thing back. I had gone in search of the transgressive, and unfortunately I had found it, which, allowing for the fact that any sort of attempt to rationalise such extremes of artistic expression will almost certainly be bullshit, seemed to be the entire point of Whitehouse. Whitehouse, I decided, were about reaction rather than art, giving all those sick puppy fans what they want, then forcing them to accept that maybe they didn't really want it quite so bad as they thought in the first place. I wrote to William Bennett of the group sharing these thoughts, and he told me it seemed that I had understood him very well.

Years later I was given a VHS copy of Faces of Death, a banned documentary purportedly containing actual footage of executions and the like. The documentary was at the time popular amongst a certain herd of counter-cultural sheep sharing the same dreary obsessions with Charles Manson, Aleister Crowley, and the number 23, and it was one such bleating industrial buffoon who sent me the film in the assumption that I would be interested. However, I found the very idea repulsive and ended up giving the unwatched tape to some guy at work who had also heard about it.

'It's supposed to be really sick,' he grinned, tongue working its way around the edge of his mouth for no obvious reason.

He brought it back a day later. He looked pale and upset.

'It was really sick,' he muttered unhappily.

To at last return to the point, these things come to mind when I read Kick-Ass 2, and particularly when it is criticised as glorifying brutality. Simply, I don't believe it does. I believe it rubs that shit in the reader's face, because if they really want an exciting adventure full of killing and stabbing, then they probably need it rubbed in their face.

Of course, there's also the point that whilst Mark Millar probably shouldn't be regarded as a campaigner for good, clean family entertainment working the system from the inside, he clearly loves annoying people; and all that I've written may actually be so much bullshit and rationalisation in service of defending the indefensible; but the bottom line for me is that surely no-one could miss that Kick-Ass 2 is informed by a strong moral code, even a sense of social responsibility, and certainly more so than a great many other books full of caped types blowing chunks out of each other whilst reciting the usual sub-Disney homilies about everyone being different and how that's a good thing.

Finally, because I've somehow yet to mention it, the art is characteristically powerful to the point of being perfect, and Kick-Ass 2 is, for my money, a wonderful if harrowing thing; and better than the film, in my opinion.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Ghost Devices

Simon Bucher-Jones Ghost Devices (1997)

It's been some time since I read Ghost Devices, but it left an impression of being something which would reward the occasional return visit, and happily this has very much turned out to be the case. This particular re-read may have been brought to you through subconscious anticipation of The Brakespeare Voyage by Simon Bucher-Jones and Jonathan Dennis, soon to be published and over which I've been salivating at least since I first read the proposal as it briefly appeared online back in 2006 or thereabouts; the first sitting, way back whenever, was as I recall inspired by The Brakespeare Voyage - or Nebaioth as it was then known - seemingly vanishing into limbo when Mad Norwegian Press dropping the Faction Paradox imprint. I'd never really warmed to Virgin's Bernice Summerfield, a wisecracking archaeologist sprung from their New Adventures line of Doctor Who novels, but Nebaioth wasn't happening, so Ghost Devices was probably picked up as the literary equivalent of a consolation shag, if you'll pardon the simile.

Bernice Summerfield always struck me as a supermarket's own brand Douglas Adams knock off - twee references to bonking, recycled Black Adder gags, and the mistaken assumption that any surreal juxtaposition of concepts is inherently hilarious when described in the language of a politely bewildered 1930s clergyman. Excuse me, old bean - I couldn't help but notice that you appear to have landed your interstellar battlecruiser on top of Mrs. Bixby's tombola...

Oh just fuck off.

Of course, established characters are only ever as interesting as their authors are able to write them, and Simon Bucher-Jones is exceptional in this respect, in that he could turn out an Insane Clown Posse tie-in novel and still leave readers struggling to recall the last time they read anything so thoroughly convincing; and he kicks off in particularly fine form here with a passage that I would suggest rates easily amongst the all-time great opening lines, as striking as anything Lovecraft ever said about how it's good to have a small brain because that way it's much harder to think about space monsters:

In the evenings when the star Sadr was the colour of burnt umber, the Factories crawled down the continental shelf to drink. Hoses with diameters measurable in kilometres rose and fell into fluorescent waters. Bodies of water the volume of the Great Lakes were sieved for deutronium and rare earths.

Drones hissed steam from their fierce metallic grilles and banged a few detaching metal plates back on to the decrepit moorings of their various home Factories, but the servicing was increasingly slipshod and careless.

Around the shoreline, a semicircle of towering machinery grumbled in hushed voices. The younger Factories hooted to each other mainly in brief ultrasonic bursts - high frequency stutterings of supply and demand, the interchange of mission statements and the gossip of office machinery.

Furthermore, the novel maintains the same standard in the pages that follow - breathtaking, surreal, poetic, and genuinely comic in all the right places. There's an element of Douglas Adams, mind-bending scientific whimsy mixed with moments of utter absurdity, but the blend is smoother, less laboured, and is built on firmer narrative ground. Massive ideas come thick and fast, all knitted seamlessly into the story without a hint of showboating or the suggestion of plastered over cracks. It takes real art to combine such elements as these, skipping from genuine tension to the truly ludicrous without missing a beat or conspicuously swapping hats. In this respect, I particularly enjoyed the Ninjucoids, once deadly robotic assassins whose errant programming has left a yawning gap between the perception of their own aspirationally violent deeds and what actually happens:

'Excellent.' The Ninjucoid reabsorbed its flaying knives and its acid-sprayers. It was quite surprised that the human was still alive, let alone giggling like that. The base-line data stored in its systems on humanoid vulnerability to painful stimuli were clearly out of whack. Still, it could rely on its instructions: find the Vo'lach traders responsible for the sale of the useless weapons and make an example of them. A big radioactive spreading example.

Sanok Vawn watched it go, its sinister walking gait spoilt by the still visible juggling dumbbells that were flowing back into its skin. He took a deep breath, and tried to stop his hyperventilation.

When the rebels broke down the door of the storeroom an hour later after their unopposed attack on the Citadel, and found him with perfect nails, surrounded by exquisite and dainty salad, even the hardest-hearted of the revolutionaries realised that he had suffered enough.

Ghost Devices is at least equal to anything I've read by better publicised names like Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, Ian M. Banks, and Stephen Baxter whilst inhabiting similar territory. The nosebleed physics and grand scale of adventure are all there and entirely convincing, with the only obvious differences being sales figures and a more developed sense of humour.

I was not particularly well-read when I first picked up Ghost Devices, but I've made serious efforts since, and this still stands out as a landmark novel for me; at least as one of very few titles that made me want to write my own science-fiction. Never mind more widely read, this guy should be winning Hugo awards.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Anarchistic Colossus

A.E. van Vogt The Anarchistic Colossus (1977)

That's it, I told myself for the umpteenth time, no more van Vogt for me. The guy had his moments - Slan, Voyage of the Space Beagle, The Winged Man and others - and whilst he's great when he's great, his books are never what you would call a light read, and when you've made your way through to the end of one with all the ease of a piece of string pushed up a hill and it turns out to be a dud, the disappointment is comparable to unexpected bills for dental work; not crushing exactly, but something you could live without.

Then I recalled one of those online conversations, some guy praising The Anarchistic Colossus as a great title for a novel, as indeed it is; and I knew I had to return just one more time.

I get the impression that Alfred Elton developed an interest in alternate political systems in later years, judging by 1970's Children of Tomorrow and 1983's marginally superior Computerworld. Here human society is ordered according to an interpretation of anarchist principles, with criminal or otherwise aberrant behaviour policed by technological means. Chip, our main guy, thus somehow finds himself working on an Antarctic fishing boat as punishment for something or other, even as alien intelligences from somewhere out there monitor his performance as part of a game which will almost certainly result in their destroying the Earth. There are also a few commendable nods towards racial inclusivity with the introduction of Mike, a black character - although it backfires a little with such a frequency of references to his colour, he waved a black dismissing, hand, and so on, but at least he doesn't call anyone baby.

Beyond this, I have no fucking clue what happened in this novel. A.E. van Vogt writes very specifically odd sentences, highly descriptive and with characters seemingly in constant forward motion but with very little to account for motive. This can make for a distinctive and often surreal narrative, as it does in his better efforts, or it can end up reading like this:

A thought: Basic man has his roots in the belief that everybody is everybody, that everybody owns everything, all women and all men are married to each other—and, deep inside, he has a strong impulse to be, and act, this way. But, of course, that basic is no longer a truth; since he is separate, and belongs only to himself. Thus he has to rationalise his impulse, when it manifests, over the dead bodies, so to speak, of those who resist his "rationality".

I had my wife read that passage, but she had no idea what it actually said either; and most of the novel seems to be cut from the same cloth. I appreciate that if you squeeze the words hard enough some sense drips out, but it seems little reward for a lot of work when even the grammar doesn't quite join up in the right way.

Clarity arrives on the last page as we at last learn the import of the title and the purpose of the entire narrative:

Leslie had gone on. Chip followed her into the warm, brightly lighted main cabin, where he was one of three male passengers among nearly eight hundred women and girls, all of whom, including Chip, were living evidence that the colossal anarchistic complexity known as the human brain, can adjust to any system, and in the long run survive anywhere.

It's a nice idea, but ten pages would have been plenty.