Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Things Forgotten


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 I envisioned the authors of unpublished and unreadable fantasy epics turded out without recourse to established conventions of punctuation or grammar, people whom I would be unable to look directly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

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

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

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

Buy it here.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Epic of Gilgamesh


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Moonseed


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Yep.'

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

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

Monday, 23 December 2013

Dying Inside


Robert Silverberg Dying Inside (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Dune


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

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

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

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

Utter stillness gripped the cavern.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Albion



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

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

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

'Dad! Dad?'

'What is it, pet?'

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 December 2013

Seven Soldiers of Victory


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

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

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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