Monday, 24 March 2014

Burning with Optimism's Flame

Jay Eales (editor) Burning with Optimism's Flame (2012)

Despite my salivating each time some new Faction Paradox commodity extends itself into noumenal reality, it's taken me an age to get around to this one, and partially because it first appeared as I was up to my eyeballs in writing Against Nature. Initially I was cautious on the grounds of fearing there might be some short story coincidentally duplicating one or more of my own vague ideas or themes, and so I wished to avoid the collection as a source of possible influence - not least due to having heard that Daniel Ribot's La Santa Muerte was not only set in Mexico but would also feature a certain Death Goddess who briefly turns up in my own extended leaflet. Since then it's just been a case of it slowly rising to the summit of a mountainous to-be-read pile.

I had been primed with slightly lowered expectations by internet mumblings along the lines of it's not as good as the last one, is it? - referring of course to 2011's A Romance in Twelve Parts, the previous Faction Paradox collection. Thankfully and possibly inevitably said mumblings translate to it's not identical to the last one, is it?, for the tone and focus of this anthology is somehow quite different. It feels more like an extension into mainstream science-fiction writing, by which I mean Isaac Asimov and all of those guys, as opposed to Babylon fucking 5 or any of those Doctor Who affiliated Short Trips collections but with more skulls. Jay Eales, it turns out, really knows how to pull an anthology together, as distinct from just asking a load of mates to come up with stories. I'm still not entirely sure how the title figures in all of this, whether it refers to some overarching theme I've failed to spot, but whatever the book does, it does it exceptionally well for the most part.

As has probably been said by someone or other, the beauty of Faction Paradox is that it really doesn't have to be about Faction Paradox to the point that no-one has yet really demonstrated that it's definitively about either the shared universe created by Lawrence Miles and others, or even just something so vague as a certain aesthetic. Some of the connections made here are accordingly very tenuous indeed, but it doesn't really matter because the only legitimate reason to pick up a book so far as I'm concerned is in anticipation of good writing, which is what you get.

Admittedly I found the opening stories a little variable - either too subtle for their own good or a little closer in spirit to Neil Gaiman than I generally like in one case, although they're all decent in their own ways. Nevertheless, the contrast - at least for me - when I came to Kelly Hale's contribution was almost shocking - a woman apparently incapable of writing a dull sentence whose work exudes the sort of effortless class that draws the reader in without the need for any obvious narrative hooks; and this quality recurs throughout the collection making the necessity of clear ties to some unifying mythology entirely peripheral.

Stephen Marley's All the Fun of the Fear, for one example, seems particularly tenuous as Faction Paradox literature, but if you can't appreciate a story in which the moon is seen to appear in the heavens wearing a hat, then maybe books aren't for you after all. Similarly sickeningly impressive are contributions from Simon Bucher-Jones, Jonathan Dennis, Sarah Hadley, and Philip Purser-Hallard all of which inspire questions as to why these four aren't yet at the stage of finding themselves buried in gold by eager publishers in the style of Edifis at the end of Asterix and Cleopatra.

They each respectively pack enough ideas for a decent novel into short form; and to concede a couple of specifics, Remake / Remodel begs the question of whether we might ever expect a full-length Faction Hollywood book, and Philip Purser-Hallard's wonderful ecclesiastically themed De Umbris Idearum only makes me resent the time and brain cells I wasted on Mary Doria Russell's Godawful Sparrow, all the more demonstrating as it does that strong religious themes can make for elegant science-fiction in the right hands.

I seem to have ended up gushing again, which can probably be safely dismissed as symptomatic of a lack of impartiality on my part. This book hasn't actually changed my life, and may not be the greatest collection I've ever read; but nevertheless it takes its subject mythology in a variety of unexpected directions, and does so with consistent style, and is as such difficult to fault; even though I didn't get to do the cover. Mutter. Mumble.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord Society of the Spectacle (1967)
This one has been on my mind for a few months now, but it was re-reading Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go which brought it to the top of the pile, there being some major themes shared by the two.

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by intangible as well as tangible things, which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

Which might be deemed to account for:

'I just think it's dangerous, that's all,' Valentine tried to explain, although he suspected he wasn't going to make much of an impression. 'You know there are kids now who grow up copying the TV ads? That's just, you know... how they see themselves. They don't want to be like people, they just want to be like the characters in the ad breaks. That's how they want to look and dress and... everything.'

Debord and the Situationist International came to my attention through a series of articles in Vague magazine, way back whenever the hell that was - not particularly engrossing articles, and Vague spent way too much time banging on about the sodding Sex Pistols Jubilee boat trip and Genesis P. Orrible, but I apparently absorbed enough for a few of the basic ideas to sink in; at least enough for connections to be made when The Apostles released their Smash the Spectacle EP - possibly the greatest punk rock record ever committed to vinyl - and when Will Self, Alan Moore, and Stewart Home all began dabbling in psychogeography.

Society of the Spectacle is, I suppose, an expansion of certain ideas generally associated with Karl Marx, although it could be argued that the Situationist International itself was as much about art as politics, or at least philosophy. Marx himself developed a fairly profound understanding of the mechanism by which society works to the point that ideology may seem a slightly limited term when applied to the larger body of his ideas. Marxist analysis might itself be deemed to go beyond politics, or at least party politics, and in many cases serves to explain the mechanism of society, and particularly capitalist society, and as such may as well be regarded as a soft science. Debord expands and refines Marxist analysis as it applies to the increasingly media-driven world of the 1960s and beyond; and for the most part it seems so well observed as to be alarming in so much as it's hardly a rosy picture which is painted; but then it is almost certainly better to understand a problem than not, particularly if we are ourselves a part of that problem.

Debord suggests that human society, with so few exceptions as to make no difference, must be viewed as spectacle, the spectacle being a representation of that society, specifically not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images - consensus reality, if you prefer, in which everything is defined as commodity. As consumers of commodity, we are separated by the spectacle, deprived the possibility of the common experience which would allow for contemplation of anything external to the spectacle. It's a fairly simple idea, and yet it's surprising how difficult it can be to truly express all of its subtleties. Debord did well, although Society of the Spectacle does require that one pay attention. I found some of the later points mystifying, although online testimonials seem to suggest this edition printed by Black & Red of Detroit might not be the best translation available.

The Situationist International could be viewed as an artistic response to the spectacle, a sort of derailing through acts falling somewhere between the Dadaist and the revolutionary which, distancing themselves from established and traditionally rational artistic narratives, defy commodification and strive to expose the spectacle for what it is, or summink. Debord's book is therefore a description of the territory, or even the canvas, and is as such an analytical rather than creative tool in respect to the more definably artistic currents of the movement.

The problem with all this is of course that the spectacle by its inherent nature reduces everything to commodity, including that which sets itself against the spectacle; and so the revolution is televised, and probably on pay-per-view, and thus rendered as sterile as that against which it was initially opposed:

Spectacular consumption which preserves congealed past culture, including the recuperated repetition of its negative manifestations, openly becomes in the cultural sector what it is implicitly in its totality: the communication of the incommunicable. The flagrant destruction of language is flatly acknowledged as an officially positive value because the point is to advertise reconciliation with the dominant state of affairs - and here all communication is joyously proclaimed absent. The critical truth of this destruction - the real life of modern poetry and art - is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture, applies, in the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means, the very strategy which constitutes its core. Thus a school of neo-literature, which simply admits that it contemplates the written word for its own sake, can present itself as something new.

It has been pointed out by its critics that the Situationist International is itself only a commodity and Situationism now amounts to flash mobs and hidden camera shows. This reduction of signal to noise can be seen in examples like that of psychochronography, the invention of a Doctor Who fan and self-published author who presumably decided that the Situationist concept of psychogeography held just the right sort of pseudo-intellectual weight to be applied to analysis of a children's television serial. Psychogeography being the deduction of narrative from physical space, the premise of psychochronography is therefore inherently absurd, purporting to deduce meaning from that which already exists exclusively as meaning, which not only leaves us with yet more overreaching spectacular juvenilia we really don't need, but serves to further clog up cultural bandwidth by the reduction of analysis itself to mere packaging.

None of this should make any difference to that which is observed in the Society of the Spectacle providing one is able to read without too much crosstalk of the kind described above; and I would suggest that as analysis it remains as relevant as ever; and whilst I see no value in placing Debord's book on a pedestal, it should be read, and it deserves better than to be remembered as a footnote to lesser works.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Second Variety

Philip K. Dick Second Variety (1987)

This is the second volume of Dicks' short stories, assembled by the order in which they were written and following on directly from those collected as Beyond Lies the Wub. Again the influence of A.E. van Vogt is fairly pronounced, notably in the surreal imagery of stories such as Martians Come In Clouds with its silent invaders simply drifting to earth, getting caught in trees and the like - although that one example probably worked better once recycled in The World Jones Made; and again, it becomes apparent that Dick's distinctive understanding of a layered reality received greater emphasis in later writings, not because it was something developed in later years, but because it took him time to devise a satisfactory means of framing his concerns in narrative form:

'They're visions.' Jon's face was alive with radiance. 'I've known it a long time. Grant says they're not, but they are. If you could see them you'd know, too. They're not like anything else. More real than, well, than this.' He thumped the wall. 'More real than that.'

Ryan lit a cigarette slowly. 'Go on.'

It all came with a rush. 'More real than anything else! Like looking through a window. A window into another world. A real world. Much more real than this. It makes all this just a shadow world. Only dim shadows. Shapes. Images.'

'Shadows of an ultimate reality?'

...or at least a satisfactory means of reframing Plato in narrative form.

So, it ticks the boxes, but even so it's hard to avoid getting the impression that Phil was getting a bit fucked off with it all whilst writing this lot, hacking out story after story for the pulps and still no novel under his belt. Some of these shorts are very pulpy, and more so than most of the previous collection, to the point of there being a few which read like they could have been written by almost anyone. The Hood Maker in particular feels like uninspired fan fiction for one of those is Arnold Schwarzenegger real? explosive action adaptations.

That said, both Project: Earth and A Present for Pat demonstrate that Dick was still having the occasional good day, that he hadn't completely lost it, and he even remembered to incorporate a sense of humour into the latter. The standard generally picks up towards the end of the collection as the first few months of 1953 come around. It makes me wonder what else was going on in the author's life at the time, because you can almost see the shape of slump and subsequent recovery of wits in the dip into relatively uninspired pulp. It would probably be easy enough to look it up and find out, but I can't be arsed; much like the man himself during the second half of 1952, so it seems. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining - even Dick's less impressive b-sides remain worth a look.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names

Bill Lewis The Book of Misplaced But Imperishable Names (2005)
I first encountered Bill Lewis back in the eighties as he'd begun to achieve some fame as one of the Medway Poets, a group of writers hailing from the next town along when I was taking a fine arts degree. At the time I actively disliked poetry, or at least a great deal of that which happily identified itself as such, and I continue to do so in a general sense. Few writers, so it seemed to me, were ever at their best in verse, and the rest may as well be chuckling Richard Stilgoe types composing odes to the amusing misery of making a claim on one's car insurance so far as I was concerned - the sort of smirking crap that eventually rendered BBC Radio 4 almost completely unlistenable. I was therefore astonished to find that I very much enjoyed the poems of Billy Childish, mainly because they resembled nothing I had experienced as poetry, and did a lot of the things I generally like writing to do, just in shorter and sharper form. I saw Billy read, sat smoking at a desk in his old man's suit, reciting accounts of his continued survival as though delivering statements in a police interview room. He'd been caught red handed, but he was fucked if he was going to say sorry.

Bill Lewis was, so far as I saw it, the other big name of the Medway Poets. He seemed to have the highest visibility and was an undeniably dynamic performer, violent and explosive where Billy seemed to brood and simmer. His material too felt more travelled, somehow more universal in compensation for lacking the visceral edge of Childish's writing. He seemed like someone who could have hung out with Ginsberg or Lenny Bruce in another life; plus he knew at least one tribal shaman and had involved himself in South American revolutions from time to time. Drawing on this wealth of experience, he generally manages to communicate something vital without it coming across like an affectation, as it could have done and has done for other more cynical and hence lesser talents; and although I must own up to never quite enjoying his use of a traditional native drum, that isn't really Bill's fault.

Anyway, still going strong thirty years later, this collection serves as a reminder of all that defined the voice of Bill Lewis as carrying such a distinctive tone back when I was younger and not quite so fat. The poetry is well represented in his consistently elegant use of language and thoughtful narrative, although the form taken tends towards short stories, essays, observations, and vignettes - probably easier to just call it writing. He shares that same roughly working class edge as Billy Childish without it serving as either a substitute for content or letting it define him, as beautifully illustrated in Tomatoes, another autobiographical snippet in which he introduces a fellow worker to the poetry of Pablo Neruda:

'Sod off! I'm reading a poem.'

The woman and the two men next to her started to take the piss 'Oh lah dee dah... we didn't know we woz mixing wiv the gentry. It's Lord Muck of Turd Hall.' They soon grew tired of it and went back to their lunch.

'Sometimes I think we're our own worst enemies. The British working classes might as well walk around with a Kick Me sign stuck on our backs,' he said and then returned to the page.

He read the title again, then he read the poem. He read slowly. I saw him smile a couple of times.

Yes, I've been there. In fact I was there for about twenty years, and for me this piece epitomises what I like best about Bill's writing and, by extension, about Bill himself: his endless enthusiasm and sheer passion for communication and that which excites him, and that he's plainly the real thing and doesn't really give a shit what the rest of us may think. That is to say, what you get in this book is not some projected persona, nor anything representing strategy in any shape or form - another aspect he shares with Childish. Of course, honesty and enthusiasm by themselves would be useless were it not for the author's willingness to get out there and experience the world on its terms, even in places where curiosity can get you killed. He dips toes - at least up to the waist - in native American lore; which is something which would ordinarily bring me out in hives for the reason that if I want to know about indigenous cultures of whatever form - as I often do - the last thing I want to know is what some white guy thinks, for that way lies Sting, Bonio, and other tosspots taking their cheap holidays in someone else's ethnic diaspora; but Bill gets away with it, and even brings back something interesting, because he understands myth and its place in common human experience; and he does it without losing his sense of humour.

Of course there are some points he makes which just don't work for me - which I mention here for the sake of quantifying the praise - but Lordy - I don't see that anyone with functioning brain cells could fail to find this an absorbing and enlightening read. Bill Lewis is a true original.

Not sure about availability but you might do worse than trying Bill's site.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Recollection of a Six Days' Journey in the Moon

Recollection of a Six Days' Journey in the Moon (1844)
Like one of those political cartoons from a 1930s Punch Magazine - Head Chef Neville Chamberlain carrying a massive Mussolini faced pie to an oven upon which is written fiscal compromise whilst a cat wearing a Union Jack waistcoat says it will be interesting to see how this turns out - it's roughly possible to appreciate the wit of this tale without having the faintest idea what it refers to. Recollection of a Six Days' Journey in the Moon was originally published in two parts in the July and August 1844 issues of The Southern Literary Messenger, a monthly periodical based in Virginia and possibly best known for Edgar Allan Poe having been its most famous editor and contributor. The identity of the author of this tale, anonymously attributed to an Aerio-Nautical Man, appears to have been lost, but never mind. At a mere twenty-two pages, it's a slim volume, but nevertheless has more than enough going on to justify this reprint by Ron Miller's consistently wonderful Black Cat imprint.

Satirical tales of fantastic trips to the moon and the inevitably comedic accounts of the people living there have been around at least since Lucian of Samosata's True History of the second century, and the narrator of this one effects his incredible journey by means of a hitherto unknown science, called Aeriotism, or the faculty of self-suspension in the air. This he achieves by basking in the admiration of his fellows to such a degree as to cause his head to expand and become lighter than air, as you do, and without too much faffing about with the sort of details he doesn't seem to think would interest us, there he is on the moon.

The moon is of course populated by people who, like ourselves, sprang from the line of Adam and Eve and were almost certainly around during the construction of the Tower of Babel. Their societies - divided mainly into handily illustrative republics and monarchies, an old world and a new world - serve to hold a comic mirror to our own, or specifically to our own as of 1844. Unfortunately my understanding of American history is so limited as to render much of the detail thematically bewildering, although the narrative remains nevertheless entertaining for such devices as magnetically driven sailing ships, lunar provinces where citizens make their own money, and the Isle of Engines which seems to be an amusingly disparaging parody of England. Clearly much of this would make more sense had I a better grasp of nineteenth century politics, but then it's not entirely inscrutable with passages condemning the practice of slavery, and even predictions such as this one providing a fascinating insight into notions of progress as viewed at the time:

Every day some new science is discovered, which renders easy what was considered impossible before, and I have little doubt that if they continue on for half a century more in the same rapid pace, they will be able to dispense altogether with a Supreme being, and construct not only worlds, but people to live in them, on purely, scientific principles.

It would probably be an overstatement to term Recollection of a Six Days' Journey in the Moon a neglected classic, but it's pretty damn sparky, and at such brief length I can think of no good reason why anyone would want to pass on it.

Available from Lulu.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

This Town Will Never Let Us Go

Lawrence Miles This Town Will Never Let Us Go (2003)

This potentially could have been one of the greatest novels ever written, or at least one of my own personal all-time favourites, and I mean in terms of top three rather than merely a right ripping read. This Town Will Never Let Us Go should have ideally fallen somewhere between William S. Burroughs and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 - albeit Slaughterhouse 5 had it focussed on culture rather than war; and it comes so close. Rather than conceding to chapters, it divides into six hours, each subdividing into sixty real time minutes of narrative, and its probably happy coincidence that these six groups of sixty invoke a sum perspective of 360°, like a pack of cards thrown into the air landing in such a way as to tell a story, and not only the right story, but the only story they could possibly tell. That anyone could mistake this for anything so crude as the Doctor Who spin-off it's okay to lend to your friend who likes Grant Morrison is both profoundly depressing and proves the novels central point about the reduction of complexity to a series of meaningless soundbites; although I suppose in all fairness there's so much going on that it may take a few reads to appreciate its subtleties.

To start at the beginning, or at least a beginning, one detail of Lawrence Miles' Faction Paradox mythos centres upon the notion of a War in heaven fought by powers we would be unable to understand, and that some of these powers, fearing what humanity may one day become, have sterilised human culture around the beginning of the twenty-first century, eliminating our potential for progress and thus resulting in what you now see as the world outside your window, or more accurately, the world as seen on your television screen - all meaningless wars, crap boy bands, and hamburgers. Faction Paradox itself is, I suppose, Miles' notional Sex Pistols - if that isn't too liberal an analogy - presenting the possibility of opposition to this ghost point of humanity, as he terms it.

Faction Paradox has ostensibly been here since the start of the universe. This is why the posters seem so familiar, and not just because you saw them on your way home from a club while you were still off your face, not just because the blacks, whites and glaring reds smashed their way into your impressionable skulls while you didn't know what you were doing. Faction Paradox is all about history, about breaking a military deadlock that's been around forever, and if it hasn't been around forever yet then that's the way it'll seem soon.

I don't see much of a Philip K. Dick influence in Miles' writing, although it may be a thematic relative, and both authors share more or less the same archetypal enemy, namely entropy, the forces which would reduce everything to gubbish or kipple or grey static; or in this case, human culture as a serpent endlessly eating its own tail. So not only does This Town Will Never Let Us Go strive to be something more than a science-fiction novel, it could be argued that it's not even fiction in the strictest sense, such is its documentary quality:

These supermen, these great empire-builders, these wonderful people capable of fighting battles which intersect with the town in such a casual fashion... if they can destroy individual buildings from a distance of a billion, trillion miles, or cause an individual to be struck down by lightning without ever leaving their homes, then why does the War exist at all? Why these "rockets", these things which tear open the pavements and leave such huge, gaping wounds in the sides of pizzerias?

Again, the only answer is that the War requires it. It's often said that the War is in some way about history, about the way it shapes the future, about the design it leaves imprinted on the face of the world. Why bomb the squares? Why send the missiles through the streets, burning away any pedestrian or vehicle that might get in the way?

Because otherwise, how would anybody know there was a War, at all?

I say documentary because in terms of actual content, it's surprising how little of the narrative serves the framework by which the discussion is supported. That is to say that it's there if you want it, and to provide a semblance of order, but the narrative is secondary to what is being said, hence the occasionally ludicrous - or at least almost entirely mythic - details such as Miss Ruth in her celestial tower of unlabelled video cassettes, or Valentine's symbolic voyage into the underworld as a weird inversion of the myth of Orpheus, all conducted in the spirit of what ultimately may be taken as a quest for meaning:

'I just think it's dangerous, that's all,' Valentine tried to explain, although he suspected he wasn't going to make much of an impression. 'You know there are kids now who grow up copying the TV ads? That's just, you know... how they see themselves. They don't want to be like people, they just want to be like the characters in the ad breaks. That's how they want to look and dress and... everything.'

The cast of characters seems initially problematic, all being conspicuously young and lacking significant experience beyond that typical of any members of their age group who understands the world almost exclusively through television - in other words the same boring fuckers who turned up in all those Doctor Who books time after time to ask what do we do now?; except, I guess that is partially the point, or at least that less generic characters may have got in the way of the story. These are youthful people, not fully formed and still learning the rules presented in contrast to a future without possibilities, change, or anything too divergent from that which appears in the media for the sake of a story.

There is a danger this all could have come across as being a bit too pleased with itself for its own good, like one of William Gibson's commentaries on the superficiality of modern media which were never actually so interesting as that which they criticised - thinking mainly of his earlier novels here, by the way - and I presume this comparison may not be entirely arbitrary given the reference to sky the colour of television near the beginning of the third hour, a perhaps deliberate echo to the increasingly mythologised opening sentence of Neuromancer. If occasionally skating dangerously close to the edge, Miles nevertheless largely avoids the pitfalls of self-conscious post-modernism by occasionally taking the piss out of either himself, or at least our expectations:

You take a family heirloom, any heirloom, say something passed down by your grandfather. You take it back in time and you give it to your grandfather when he was a child, so he can pass it down to you. Where does the heirloom come from, who makes it in the first place, insoluble conundrum, yaddah yaddah yaddah, God in Heaven even pointing out that it's tedious is tedious. (Metacliché: something so drab that it can't even be safely deconstructed any more).

Where does this leave Miles, one might wonder. Stood on thin ice, I suppose, as a novel which seemingly aspires in part to the directness of a pop song - and actually uses the term pop song without irony - stretches to the length of a sprawling concept album. It's not so much that Miles' observations lack truth as that they occasionally seem to lack perspective, apparently deriving from the views of someone with their nose pressed to one specific screen, and so that which proposes to take an apparently global view of culture, comes across as ironically parochial in some respects, for example:

There are things they've forgotten. They've forgotten that for every human being who worships a starlet, there are two who loathe her beyond measure.

This in reference to the rise and fall of Tiffany Korta, the pop star at the centre of the novel, the human sacrifice I suppose. It's not that she doesn't get the job done in terms of narrative, but comments such as the above define a focus which will only work for a limited group of people rather than, I would argue, culture as a whole, because for every three people with a strong opinion on someone resembling a conflation of Shakira and Christina Aguilera, there are another twenty who couldn't give a shit, and thirty who've never heard of her. I would suggest that culture as a coherent whole is too big to be one thing, and if it were, would be optionally dominated by no strong opinion either way and none of the above, so with the best will in the world, Tiffany Korta is reduced to the level of a conversation about a 1970s television show, which seems inconsistent to her role in the story. It probably doesn't help that as we enter the fifth hour certain aspects of the narrative suggest an understanding of culture in which the story of the Sex Pistols were accurately encapsulated by The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. There's a certain naivety which isn't quite concealed by the arch commentary.

'I used to belong to this group,' he says. 'This... kind of... revolutionary group. I thought it was revolutionary. When I was seventeen.'

'Everything is, when you're seventeen,' says Inangela the great wit and prophet.

Yes, exactly, although I'm still not sure any of this necessarily diminishes the sum total of the book which, even without the precise nature of the events described in terms so clear as those dedicated to their effect, and even with the potential cynicism of reducing human behaviour to a pattern of sentiment and habit imposed upon impermanent matter, still does what it set out to do with a fairly satisfying conclusion. It also leaves a somewhat pessimistic aftertaste, mainly because of the nature of that to which it sets itself in opposition, spectacle and hysteria:

Their ability to take new risks and think new thoughts is diminished, for fear that they'll make it happen again, or perhaps bring on something even worse. Words vanish from the English language. Certain ideas become unspeakable. The world becomes less complex, and as it becomes less complex the probability of anything this remarkable taking place again is reduced. And so on and so on, until all things are equally flat and secure and no thought can be tolerated at all.

I began this, my third or fourth re-read, roughly convinced of This Town Will Never Let Us Go as being amongst the greatest novels ever written, at least that I've read, which admittedly may not be saying much. Absorbing a lot more detail this time around, so far as I can tell, I'm more aware of its possible failings, in spite of which I think I've probably got more out of it too.

Oh bollocks. I can't deny it. Warts and all, this remains a truly phenomenal novel.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Darkening Light

Ted Curtis The Darkening Light (2014)

Many centuries ago I printed The Devil Lives in Hackney, a short story by Ted Curtis in some fanzine or other, and still regard it as easily amongst the better things I've ever helped foist upon a largely indifferent public, so I am possibly not the most impartial critic. I knew Ted, or at least knew of Ted as someone living in the same house as Dave Fanning and Andy Martin, best known as formerly of The Apostles who were by that point members of a band called Academy 23, which I'd just joined. I was sat in Dave's room, watching him draw and talking about comics as Ted maintained a silent mohicaned presence on the other side of the room. I'll be honest, it was odd. He didn't seem hostile, but it was like being in a room with an aquarium containing a fish of such volume that you couldn't help but wonder what it might be thinking.

'That Ted is a bit quiet, isn't he?' I later remarked.

'A bit pissed more like,' Dave explained.

I was surprised, because Ted had neither said nor done anything I would have identified as the actions of someone under the refreshing influence of cold drinks. I hadn't even noticed a tell-tale can or bottle, and Dave's hypothesis was illustrated on another, similar occasion, identical to the first but for Ted somehow falling out of the chair without having apparently made any preliminary effort to stand, before departing with think I might go back to bed for a bit, which is possibly the most I've ever heard him say in one go. Once again, I hadn't even realised he'd had a few, and I'd found it impossible to assess the situation, or to imagine what he could have been thinking.

I suspect he may have been thinking thoughts that felt like this novel, a couple of days in the life of vegan anarchist punks in 1986 as they visit that London to attend a Concrete Sox, Eat Shit and Heresy gig, and their van breaks down. It's almost a stream of consciousness that probably could have been written as one continuous hundred page sentence without too much difference to the tone - crappy homebrew, crappy vans, wrists cut on broken windows, self-loathing, amyl nitrate, hangovers, bright orange diarrhoea with no toilet paper, and sharing a glue bag with the bloke out of Conflict. It could have gone horribly wrong, as novels with any sort of musical or subcultural element often do - here thinking mainly of Irvine Welsh rushing to tell the members of his writers' group about the junkie he met in the pub and all the great new material he's harvested - but Ted Curtis doesn't appear to give a shit about impressing the reader with his arcane knowledge, or waving used needles under the noses of whoever is likely to take the most lucrative offence; rather, he just gets on with it and tells the story, and the rest is up to us.

It isn't exactly Bukowski or Billy Childish in tone, but it makes similar moves in describing extreme situations without the hysterics that might get in the way of our understanding them, regardless of how well we may or may not identify. It's not so much Thoreau's men leading lives of quiet desperation, as lives of extremely noisy desperation, seasoned with a reasonable dose of humour of the kind that doesn't need to stick on a red nose and pull faces in order to get its point across; and it feels quite profound, in that even if you've never had an argument about burnt tofu burgers or shat yourself in the corner of a beaten up van, then you should nevertheless still be able to appreciate what The Darkening Light says about the bullshit we all put ourselves through, sometimes because it seems like the only option. It's the best thing I've read in a while by quite some margin, and it's nice to know that at least someone is still writing real books. Buy this fucker immediately!

And buy this fucker immediately from here.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Supreme: The Story of the Year

Alan Moore & about a million others
Supreme: The Story of the Year (1997)
I was looking in the other direction by 1997, so it came as a huge surprise when I recently noticed that Alan Moore had spent some time at Image Comics, at least time beyond that spent on 1963, the six-issue Jack Kirby pastiche which Grant Morrison now claims was all his idea with wearisome inevitability. I love a Kirby pastiche as much as the next man, but six issues seemed plenty to me, and I suspect appreciation depends on how highly you regard those sixties comics in the first place. Personally, whilst I love much of the art, actually sitting down and reading them is another thing, what with my now being nearly fifty years old and all.

Anyway, Supreme is a character created by Rob Liefeld, essentially Superman with the serial numbers filed off so far as I understand. Even with Alan Moore doing his best to rescue the story from its creator, this presents a bit of a problem in so much as a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and the Ramones doing a cover of Mr. Blue Sky by ELO will only ever be a great band playing a shitty tune originated by the musical personification of a branch of Athena in Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre on a wet, windy day in 1974. Moore did his best with the title, twelve issues of which are collected here, but it was an uphill struggle.

He copes well, enlivening an underwhelming character with a fairly amusing back story, inventing for him a retroactive history stretching back into the forties through a series of interludes in the style of the comics of that era. For all that these interludes are flawlessly observed in terms of period detail, as with 1963, the idea tends to work better than the experience of sitting there and reading them, at least for me. Worse still, excepting the art of Chris Sprouse and Al Gordon on one issue - both of whom went on to draw Moore's Tom Strong - the lion's share of the present day material is illustrated by artists who aspire to be Rob Liefeld, which may actually be even worse than this stuff would have been as drawn by the man himself. Everyone looks like they're about to take a dump, massive Bill Clinton faces straining away behind a wall of unnecessary cross-hatching, tiny little mouths full of gritted teeth, each one a tiny puckered facial anus huffily demanding you take it seriously. It's surprisingly ugly, page after page of clenching, not least because it doesn't really work that well with the prose.

There's also the paradox of Supreme as a character. He's basically Superman with his own versions of Smallville, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Kryptonite, Krypto the Super Dog and so on. It's a story which is dependent upon the monolithic quality of its own legend, and yet that legend - even so transparently photocopied as it is - feels thin due to having no real existence outside this comic. Superman on the other hand is known, and has been appearing in films, television shows, comic books, and on lunch boxes for more than half a century, and so he already has the myth working for him. Supreme doesn't, and whilst Moore does his best to convince you that he has whilst you're reading the comic, crappy art spoils the illusion, and Professor Midnight and all of the others feel like characters from an issue of Flaming Carrot - which would be otherwise wonderful, but just not here. On the other hand - to get to the aforementioned paradox - I'm not sure this story actually could be told using Superman and all the attendant weight of continuity baggage and expectation. So it is what it is, and it does what it can.

Despite everything, and the feeling of earlier chapters - or issues, I suppose - having been written mainly for the sake of paying a phone bill, it gets there in the end, everything coming together quite nicely in spite of itself. It works well as a peculiarly self-aware history of superhero comics from which Grant Morrison seemingly managed to extend his career by at least another fifteen years - unless I'm just saying that to be a dick and because I like how it sounds; and whilst we're here, the character of Billy Friday the controversial British comic book writer is a lot funnier than any of Morrison's clumsily bearded pot-shots, not least because it's difficult to identify Friday as representing any one individual. Supreme also works well in so much as it quite clearly took Moore to where he wanted to be, serving as a dry run for Tom Strong and others; and just as the Ramones doing Mr. Blue Sky would be worth hearing because it's still the Ramones, Supreme is still pretty satisfying despite everything.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Mask of Cthulhu

August Derleth The Mask of Cthulhu (1958)
I seem to recall finding The Lurker at the Threshold something of a slog, this being the same Lurker at the Threshold which began life as a piece of paper upon which H.P. Lovecraft had written the word and, posthumously expanded to novel length by his friend and publisher, August Derleth. It wasn't terrible, but it really didn't need to be more than thirty pages, a length beyond which the story suffered for having a plot which wouldn't have been quite so annoying were it all over and done with a bit quicker, and for having specifically the same plot as most other tales of the Cthulhu mythos.

Well, here I am having inherited a big spooky house from an uncle whom no-one liked to talk about, the one everyone said had started worshipping a dark God called Cthulhu, even though they really didn't like to discuss it. This Cthulhu chap, as I gather from these books belonging to my uncle which are obviously undiluted mumbo-jumbo and definitely not descriptive of anything real, appears to be some sort of scary space octopus much like the one about which I've been dreaming ever since I moved in.

I wonder what that noise was?

It was therefore difficult to approach this, a collection of Derleth's own tales expanding on Lovecraft's mythos, with much enthusiasm; but happily, against expectations, it's not bad at all.

Every single story is more or less the same, following the template summarised in the passage above, but then this narrative conservatism was as much Lovecraft's vice as that of any who endeavoured to continue his legacy; and with this sort of story, as with the jokes of Frank Carson, it's they way you tell them. Derleth told them fairly well, and if he lacked the ornate flourishes of his mentor, he compensated with a breezy pace which, at least here, was never quite so pulpy as everyone seems to claim; and crucially he keeps it short and snappy, quickly building the atmosphere to a head before it has time to collapse beneath the weight of its own absurdity.

A major, and entirely legitimate criticism of Derleth's take on Lovecraft was his reduction of the mythos to your archetypal conflict between good and evil of the kind favoured by C.S. Lewis. The dark Gods of Lovecraft are amoral symbols of an uncaring universe in the wake of the supposed death of God in the late nineteenth century, innit? They embody our fear of the unknown. Derleth adds a group of nameless nice guys to the pantheon and rewrites Howard's bunch as Satanic forces.

The Elder Gods could so easily have become the Christian Trinity; the Ancient Ones could for most believers have been altered into Sathanus and Beelzebub, Mephistofeles and Azarael. Except that they were co-existent, which disturbed me, though I knew that systems of belief constantly overlapped in the history of mankind.

For the sake of argument, this doesn't actually work because whilst systems of belief may indeed overlap throughout the history of mankind, they don't always overlap in quite the same way, and the roughly Abrahamic moral duality Derleth imposes upon his friend's creation is entirely absent in a good few of the pantheistic religions he cites as examples, notably those of the Precolombian Americas; but then Derleth was a writer rather than a religious anthropologist, and I would guess he kept this in mind at least whilst writing the stories collected here. He takes liberties with the mythos, but liberties that serve as narrative garnish and can generally be taken to reflect the beliefs of the main character without conflicting too greatly with anything written by he whomst did first pen this world; and, if nothing else, it does at least show Derleth attempting to move things along, to keep things interesting in an otherwise claustrophobically limited genre.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

Mark Hodder Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (2011)

Just to get the disclaimer out of the way, and hopefully to scare off any part-timers who happen to have wandered in by accident, it's not so much that I necessarily regard steampunk - that is Victorian science-fiction as one website helpfully and twattily described it - as wank in and of itself, so much as I dislike bandwagons and cultural trends packaged with the sort of cock-obvious cynicism designed to attract the maximum quota of suckers in the shortest space of time. Steampunk qualifies for the sheer step lively, quizling, purchase your brass aviator goggles here and thusly join in the fun at your earliest convenience factor, and because it looks cute as computer generated clockwork Victorians chasing Matt Damon around a cinema screen. It's the drippy comic with a Dave McKean cover aesthetic for the twenty-first century, a fancy and ornate wrapping for what, nine times out of ten, will turn out to be, at very best, a low calorie Flash Gordon serial with handlebar moustaches and oodles of side-splitting Englishness. If you're one of those people busily clogging the arteries of our collective cultural bandwidth with anything that involves chucklesome use of the word velocipede - either by producing it or supporting it - my message to you is, generally speaking, either embrace the habit of original thought, or go fuck yourself, whichever seems easier.

That feels better.

From the general thrust of the above, one might imagine I would have a tough time with Mark Hodder's Burton & Swinburne novels. It is true that I have approached each with a degree of trepidation, but this is because we've known each other on and off for many years, at least since we met at Maidstone College of Art back in the eighties, and it's always a bit terrifying when a friend writes something, and there's the fear that you might find you hate it. Anyway, this being the fourth of Mark's novels that I've read, such fears have diminished over time, as I've come to appreciate that he really can write, and that he's never really written steampunk in quite the sense that brings on the red mist. Indeed, he terms his novels alternate history - albeit alternate history of a form which by happy coincidence seems to be popular at the moment - and the more I read, the more I view this as a legitimate identification.

Whilst inspiration drawn from the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne hardly seems unusual at present, Mark Hodder distinguishes himself in drawing thematic inspiration, rather than simply presenting a dirigible heavy pastiche of that which they wrote. I expect I've said it before, but this, I would suggest, sets him quite clearly in the tradition of Michael Moorcock's steam opera novels, dissecting the mechanism of empire rather than just pointing at it and smirking. The two previous books in this series have in addition built up a good narrative head of Moorcock-style absurdity in terms of events spiralling dramatically out of control, but Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon takes a more measured approach, mimicking the steady pace of a travelogue as suggested in the title. It's still bonkers, but unfolds with what seems a more confident tone, as is certainly appropriate given that this would seem to be the one in which the underlying message is examined in greatest depth and with most clarity. That message, as with at least Wells and Moorcock, is an unambiguous and quite severe critique of both imperial and capitalist values:

'Christian? Do you then stand in opposition to Darwin's findings? Do you also believe that your God favours some races over others?'

'I use the word merely out of habit, as a synonym for civilised,' Cornewall Lewis protested.

'Then I'm to take it you don't consider the Arabians civilised, despite that they invented modern mathematics, surgical instruments, soap and perfume, the windmill, the crankshaft, and a great many other things; despite that they realised the Earth is a sphere that circles the sun five hundred years before Galileo was tortured by your Christian church for supporting the same notion?'

Hodder's point seems to be that much of our current political systems were born to and remain most vividly caricatured by the Victorian era - or thereabouts - hence his targets, their environment, and the form or narrative by which they are exposed:

'Perhaps some still do,' Wells replied. 'But it's the fluid quality that makes language an excellent tool for imperialists. Force people to speak like you and soon enough they'll be thinking like you. Rename their villages, towns, and mountains, and before you know it, they're inhabiting your territory.'

To soar to a possibly hitherto unprecedented level of pretension, I would suggest Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon might almost represent a sort of narrative colonisation of the genre, taking it back from all the brass-goggled velocipedists, making it do what it was meant to do. Certainly Hodder's alternate nineteenth century has evolved a long way beyond the gurgling clichés - not actually much steam here, but a lot of very weird biology. It perhaps owes something to Edgar Rice Burroughs in this respect - if I'm remembering him right - but it's very much his own creation, formed according to purpose rather than ticking cosily familiar boxes, and with good reason:

The problem, as I see it, is that we don't truly understand the nature of the past. We mythologise it. We create fictions about actions performed to justify what we undertake in the present. We adjust the cause to better suit the effect. The truth is that the present is, and will always be, utter chaos. There is no story and no plan.

Having a more measured pace, I found Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little more chewy than its predecessors, although arguably also a little more flavoursome if that makes any sense whatsoever. It represents a new height scaled for the Hodder, and a renewed promise of even better to come.