Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Ralph 124C41+

Hugo Gernsback Ralph 124C41+ (1911)

As editor and publisher of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback - whose name is to this day honoured in the Hugo awards - was either the father of modern science-fiction, or the worst thing that ever happened to the genre. With this latter stance championed by Brian Aldiss, it's difficult to resist the temptation of taking the opposite position just for the sake of it, but much as it pains me to admit, he does have a point:

Gernsback's segregation of what he liked to call scientifiction into magazines designed to contain nothing else, ghetto-fashion, guaranteed the setting up of various narrow orthodoxies inimical to any thriving literature. A cultural chauvinism prevailed, with unfortunate consequences of which the field has yet to rid itself. Gernsback, as editor, showed himself to be without literary understanding. The dangerous precedents he set were to be followed by many later editors in the field.

Gernsback's brand of science-fiction typically starred the inventor as hero, a scientific superman saving the day and getting the girl usually by agency of something involving a special kind of radio wave or newly discovered energy source. It is at worst, simple-minded Victorian utilitarianism, as Aldiss states, and arguably a fairly direct ancestor to the hard science-fiction of Asimov, Clarke, Baxter and the like. On the other hand, the success of Gernsback's magazines did a great deal to popularise at least their own version of the genre, bringing in a great many new writers and ultimately expanding the field to something broader than just the stuff of which Brian Aldiss approves.

Ralph 124C41+ is one of only two novels written by Gernsback, and certainly evidence of his being without literary understanding in so much as it is essentially a series of droning predictions, descriptions of weather control technology and other marvels of the year 2660 strung upon a thoroughly flimsy narrative. Our Ralph, the world's most celebrated inventor, falls in love with a woman encountered during a wrong number. Their first date is a tour of futuristic power plants, industrial farms, floating cities, and so on, with the lucky, lucky girl presumably enraptured by Ralph's lengthy descriptions of how these things work.

'The evolution of letter-writing has been a slow and painful one. Our remote ancestors, many thousand years ago, carved their letters in stone slabs. Later on, the more civilised Egyptians wrote their letters upon papyrus. Still later, upon the invention of paper and ink, communications and letters could be written much better and faster in that improved manner. Later still, the typewriter came into use.'

What a silver-tongued fox he is, to be sure.

Gernsback's intentions are clearly educational, predictive, and populist rather than literary, and although here he apparently foresaw both The Flintstones and the Discovery Channel, it's quite surprising how spectacularly he failed to predict much of anything else. Whilst admittedly there's one device here which sounds like radar, and another which suggests a photoelectric cell, Gernsback falls on his arse time and again, not least because he doesn't even seem to have been paying much attention to early twentieth century science, let alone its possible future. In one rather gruesome passage a dog is revived from death by means of blood transfusion from a goat - all of which suggests that Gernsback, like Ridley Scott, probably thought The Island of Doctor Moreau was a novel about medical advancement. Haematology may have been rudimentary in 1900 by comparison with today, but it was definitely better than whatever Ralph was working with in this novel. Even more implausible - and I would have thought distinctly lacking in romance - is the restaurant at which our two lovebirds have their feeding tubes inserted.

While eating they reclined in the comfortably upholstered leather armchair. They did not have to use knife and fork, as was the custom in former centuries. Eating had become a pleasure.

'Do you know,' said Ralph, 'it took people a long time to accept the scientific restaurants. At first they did not succeed. Humanity had been masticating for thousands of years and it was hard to overcome the inherited habit. However, people soon found out that scientific foods prepared in a palatable manner in liquid form were not only far more digestible and better for the stomach, but they also did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills, and people began to get stronger and more vigorous.'

...and of course we get a lot of energy from all those turbines at the Diarrhoea Energy Plant. I found it difficult to read this passage without being reminded of that Simpsons episode in which Mr. Burns explains how ever since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun...

Once Gernsback has run out of things to explain, he tags on a bit of story involving the improbable kidnap of the soon to be Mrs. 124C41+, and although there's no scene in which a grinning top-hatted villain ties her to a railway line to a soundtrack of frantic piano music, it sort of feels like there is.

In summary, the story is utter crap, and the writing is fucking terrible; and yet I can't help but admire and enjoy this book somehow, even beyond being well-disposed to anything shunned by Brian Aldiss. For all of it's many, many, many, many, many, faults, Ralph 124C41+ is written with such obvious enthusiasm and delight in its own droning testimony that it generally avoids becoming boring, and the sheer novelty of science as written in Gernsback's world of screwy pre-Einsteinian physics is surprisingly engaging. It may be terrible as science-fiction, but it's nevertheless a fascinating glimpse of something or other, and mere low-brow heritage is not in itself sufficient reason to dismiss this peculiar historical artefact, the relic of an age in which man dared to dream of meals unsullied by the misery and inconvenience of cutlery and mastication.

This is available from Black Cat Press for which you should find a link somewhere on the right-hand side of this page.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The more Wells I read, the more I appreciate how graceful was the best of his writing, here defined as those novels which have remained popular; and for this reason I kick myself for not having made the effort with them earlier. As Brian Aldiss points out in the faintly superfluous afterword - superfluous because most of his observations concern themes which are already made clear within the novel and require no further emphasis, I would say - Moreau is, roughly speaking, a successor to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe with the man washed up on the beach confronting certain aspects of both himself and by extension the society from which he came.

Obviously, as I seem to recall being the great revelation of Ridley Scott's faintly annoying Prophets of Science Fiction show, Moreau may be taken as a commentary upon the practice of vivisection and as predictive of genetic engineering, although this sort of misses the point. Written in the wake of Darwin and Huxley breaking the once divine barrier by which humanity was regarded as separate from beast, The Island of Doctor Moreau more properly voices, I would suggest, Wells' fears regarding the industrialisation of mankind, flesh as a malleable commodity which can be turned to the will of an entirely human and hence fallible creator. The constructed beast folk might then be viewed as precursors to Karel Čapek's first robots, and much less the descendants of Stevenson's bestial Edward Hyde.

I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island.

A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

It's a simple message delivered with the irresistible force of Wells' meaty and yet often surprisingly lean prose, and the book is deservedly a classic. It's a shame that The Island of Doctor Moreau - a horror novel at least as much as it could be considered science-fiction - probably eventually led us to crap like The Human Centipede, but that's hardly Wells' fault.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Of the City of the Saved...

Philip Purser-Hallard Of the City of the Saved... (2004)

For anybody unfamiliar with this one, the setting of the title is a city the size of a spiral galaxy existing beyond the end of time wherein all the human beings who ever lived - and even some of the fictional ones who didn't - find themselves resurrected to eternal life. Neanderthals coexist with cybernetic posthumans, ancestors with distant descendants, and death is only a memory because everyone is both immortal and immune to injury whilst they remain within the city limits. It's heaven allegorised as science-fiction, an idea already tackled in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld books, apparently, although not having read them I couldn't really say how well they compare. On the other hand, I think I've read this three or four times now, and it's frankly fucking brilliant, as acknowledged by Lawrence Miles, editor of the Faction Paradox novels and never one to heap praise upon the undeserving, when interviewed by Andrew Hickey on Resonance FM's Reality Check podcast:

I am going to blow my own trumpet here, because I think I was quite a good writer of the Doctor Who books, but as an editor, I really, really came into my own. Phil Purser-Hallard wrote what was basically an eight out of ten book, and I said no, do that bit different, do that bit different, and turn it into a nine out of ten book. I am possibly more proud of the fact that I edited Of the City of the Saved... than I am of any of the books I actually wrote myself, because although I wrote a lot of books that I think, looking back, are quite good - that was the book which was already good, and I can't say that about any of my own books, that any of them were really good, because I look at them now and go yeah, I could do that better. [Of the City of the Saved...] was my proudest achievement.

Rightly so, I would suggest; but before we lose sight of the fact that this novel is already built upon one of the most ludicrous premises imaginable in terms of how improbably distant its setting is removed from any familiar, definitively experienced environment, it should also be remembered that here we have cameos from resurrected fictional characters, and a story the size of a galaxy told from fifteen or sixteen very different viewpoints, and Philip K. Dick himself shows up thinly disguised as a character named Rick Kithred.

By rights, this should have been the biggest, most disastrous soufflé in literary history, a deck of cards Eiffel Tower erected in the path of a hurricane, a 250 page kick me sticker, and yet not only does it hold together beautifully, the sheer scale of such an unlikely triumph accounts in part for why it works. There's a saying about the common problem of debut novels being authors who try to do far too much, and this is of course a prime example, except the basic ideas are so beautifully worked as to yield a story which seems simply tightly packed with wonders as diverse as its setting - possible evidence for the quality of the material being the continuation of the story in more recent Obverse anthologies edited by the author.

Ridiculous ambition is rarely in itself the problem so much as writers whose ideas are much bigger than the scope of their ability to communicate the same cough cough Stephen Moffat blowing up the fucking universe every five bleeding minutes which happily isn't a problem because Philip Purser-Hallard writes with the confidence and ability of someone who clearly loves his medium and greatly enjoys his art.

Thus far, I've seen only one review attempt to identify problems with this book - namely that appreciation is too greatly reliant on foreknowledge of the characters involved, and so it becomes a bit tiresome spotting all the cameos by resurrected celebrities. Even aside from the fact of Of The City of the Saved... being published as one of a series of loosely interconnected titles - which you would have to be an idiot to miss - I don't really buy the first point at all, or find the novel lacking any vital piece of information which may aid in either the reader's understanding or pleasure; and secondly I think I missed almost all of the star guests anyway, so that aspect made very little difference to me.

Having read Philip K. Dick until he was coming out of my arse - if you'll pardon the repulsive simile - or at least coming out of a sort of notional second century arse that's since been eclipsed by the iron rectums of imperial Rome - Purser-Hallard's depiction of said author is a joy, immediately familiar and entirely justified. Also, I'm fairly certain the possibly underused Dedalus character is a homage to James Joyce given the form taken by his narrative. There were other characters whom I suspect may have been borrowed from elsewhere, but nothing that impacted on the wonderfully florid momentum of the narrative, at least not for me. The conclusion, as Daphne Lawless has pointed out, echoes that of Robert Graves' Claudius novels, which I assume was entirely deliberate given the novel being, amongst other things, a discussion of free will and security as mutually exclusive in an environment which may as well be heaven; but otherwise you'll have to argue that one amongst yourselves.

It does a whole lot of fascinating and different ontological things, and I'm not going to sit here listing all of them when it would be easier for you just to read the book; but I will say that it does them with a smile on its face - and a smile quite unlike that slightly off-putting smirk of Douglas Adams congratulating himself - and it does them with the conviction of an author who knows what he's talking about, as opposed to just throwing in a few pseudo-religious allusions for the sake of texture. Even on top of everything else, I've a feeling this novel may also offer some form of commentary on our contemporary culture in which nothing is ever quite lost, and the past remains forever with us - a variation on William Gibson's idea of there no longer being any such thing as the future, which in turn feeds into Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go. This may equally well be simply a pattern I've read into the text, perhaps the inevitable crosstalk thrown up by so many rhythms all running consecutively.

This is the sort of environmentally bizarre novel I always hoped Larry Niven would write, but sadly he never quite got there; and whilst we're making free with the comparisons, we might also consider the very best of Iain M. Banks, the previously mentioned Douglas Adams, and even a touch of Alastair Reynolds or maybe Charles Stross, but in each case without whatever qualities have kept their books from creeping up into my own personal top ten. Of the City of the Saved... remains among my favourite science-fiction novels of the last few decades, and Lordy I wish there were more of such calibre.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Supernatural Horror in Literature

H.P. Lovecraft
Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927, revised prior to 1937)
In the interest of achieving a better understanding of horror fiction, having been left underwhelmed and unusually opinionated by a Clive Barker comic book, I turn to this, a brief history of the genre as of the 1920s or thereabouts by an author of pants-shitting tales that I've enjoyed without reservation.

Weirdly, I bought this book from Bill Lewis in about 1988, and have thus now had it in my possession for a quarter of a century without ever actually having read it, despite it being only a little over one hundred pages in length. Similarly, during these twenty-five years, I've read very few of the authors discussed by Lovecraft in this book - one of the few being Bram Stoker whose Dracula struck me as immensely overrated - which inspires me to wonder just what I've been doing this last couple of decades, and whether or not, without realising it, I may actually be a bit of an idiot. I suppose I got there in the end, and it's probably a little harsh to beat oneself up over a general lack of curiosity where horror fiction is concerned, but nevertheless, it strikes me as strange.

Anyway, it's been suggested by somebody or other that both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula were, in part, attempts to address the issue of life after death, the fate of the human soul following the supposed death of God as brought to term by the industrial and scientific revolution of Charles Darwin and others. By extension, I wonder if the developments here discussed and described by Lovecraft might represent a similar response by the wider literary world: just as science-fiction attempted in part to extrapolate futures from the increasing body of present scientific knowledge, horror fiction, or at least the gothic novel, was likewise a reaction, processing the unknown newly revealed in so much as the advent of science had begun to expose just how much we really didn't know; or an effort to reintroduce mystery, or at least uncertainty, into what some may have regarded as an increasingly mechanistic world, which at least explains all those symbolist painters who, it might be argued, were sort of doing the same thing but with paint.

Such interpretations are what I take from reading Supernatural Horror in Literature rather than being indicative of anything directly stated by Lovecraft himself; from which I conclude that which I already suspected, namely that mere shock effect, stories in which kidnapped hitch-hikers have fully functional human bumholes grafted onto their faces - the written equivalent of death metal - represent a mere microcosm of the horror tradition, and one that should probably be ignored just as anyone who enjoyed Tolkien's Hobbit should probably steer clear of those shitty films. Clearly there is a great deal more to this genre than one might gather from the current appetite for the gratuitously vile, and this extended essay presents a fascinating and fairly broad view of that which has since been unfortunately eclipsed by a shower of generic intestines, at least from where I'm standing.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Tapping the Vein

Clive Barker Tapping the Vein (1990)

I've never been entirely sure about horror fiction, and whilst I enjoyed Barker's The Hellbound Heart, I seem to recall Weaveworld as fairly unsatisfying. I bought a couple of issues of Tapping the Vein when it first appeared - this being comic strip adaptations of stories appearing in various volumes of Barker's Books of Blood - but either sold or gave them to someone, forgetting the things had ever existed until I came across this anthology - which probably isn't much of a recommendation.

The problems here seem to be twofold. Firstly, unless I'm somehow missing something, a great many Clive Barker horror stories tend to entail an innocent discovering something horrible and already well-established happening just to one side of the stage, then himself becoming an agent of said horrible thing, a status which might be deemed no better than that of victim. It all runs very close to being the same story told over and over with different flavours, a metaphor for how stuff is like really sick and gross and stuff but like we don't really see it even though it's all totally going on, yeah?

This by itself need not be a problem given that ultimately there are only seven different stories in the world, probably, so the details which matter are in the telling; and Clive Barker is very good at doing writing and that, which brings us to the second problem.

Tapping the Vein isn't exactly an adaptation in the normal sense, at least not in the same terms as Rob Liefeld's Finnegans Wake, possibly because those concerned were a bit nervous about plastering over Barker's wonderfully evocative prose which, after all, was what made these stories work in the first place. So we have comic book pages, beautifully painted for the most part, with fussy blocks of dense text crammed around each panel, and the end result can't quite decide whether it's a comic strip or an illustrated novel. Those passages which might have otherwise remained effectively silent, which, lacking text, would have allowed the imagery to convey some non-verbal meaning, are nevertheless clogged up with needlessy verbose paragraphs describing that which doesn't actually require a description because we can see it; which all rather dulls the impact of some otherwise quite powerful artwork by John Bolton, Klaus Janson, and others; and yet we can't read these tales quite as we would a book because the images get in the way, collapsing possibilities that might otherwise have been provided by imagination, and breaking up the rhythm of the prose.

Then, to gripe just a little further, we have How Spoilers Bleed in which amoral Amazonian land developers receive just deserts for their dreadful treatment of indigenous peoples; which is smashing, except it would have been nice to see said indigenous peoples for once granted a status above the mysterious and passive victims serving to justify the innards splashed all over the page towards the end of the tale. This is also the story in which our understanding of evil is aided by having one of the bad guys enjoy a live sex show starring a woman and a dog, which may well be an examination of evil which obliges the reader to question his or her but probably his own voyeuristic tendencies blah blah blah, or it could be an author drooling over repulsive imagery because it saves having to write an actual story, or maybe horror fiction just isn't my thing.

I'm tempted to suggest that readers of horror fiction might just as well leaf through photographs taken at Auschwitz as bother with a book for the same reason that sexual intercourse films don't really need those flimsy narratives about vacuum cleaner repairmen, but I suppose that would be terribly judgey of me, wouldn't it?

That said, In the Hills, the Cities, The Madonna, and Down, Satan have enough pleasantly weird ideas to suggest I might get something from the original prose only versions in Books of Blood; and Down, Satan in particular almost gets the balance of words and pictures just right with a more selective approach to captioning which perfectly compliments the beautiful painted artwork of Tim Conrad, whoever he may be. So it isn't all terrible, but it nevertheless seems a poor batting average for a name so famed as that of Clive Barker.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

His Share of Glory

C.M. Kornbluth His Share of Glory (1997)

As a fairly general rule I tend to approach an author of unfamiliar stripe by first dipping into the short stories, from which platform I then attempt to assess whether or not I'm likely to enjoy lengthier works. His Share of Glory seemed nevertheless a slightly daunting proposition because although it does indeed collect the short fiction of the highly praised C.M. Kornbluth, it collects all of it, or at least almost all he wrote alone and extracurricular to collaborative efforts with Frederik Pohl, Robert A. W. Lowndes, and others; so it's a 670 page hardback of such constitution that ne'er-do-wells could quite easily use it to smash the windows of jewellery stores. Reading His Share of Glory has therefore, in some respects, been a less casual undertaking than I would like, but being a birthday present from the world's greatest mother-in-law - who presented me with the Ace Double edition of Fritz Leiber's The Big Time on a previous occasion - it would have been churlish to get too sniffy about it, and not least because Kornbluth was clearly a remarkable writer.

As his still glowing reputation attests, Kornbluth was patently amongst the more talented of the Futurians - a moderately political New York based science-fiction fan group with a membership roster including Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Judith Merril, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim and others; and it's probably worth noting that he died relatively young and said reputation is thus founded on less than two decades of paid work. His characters tend to be lively, believable, and informed by strongly literary sensibilities. The stories they inhabit tend to be playful, rich in imagery and memorable phrasing, with the jerky narrative motion of van Vogt played more for comic than traditionally pulpy dramatic effect, so there's occasionally a faint tone of Marx brothers lending an absurdist spin to the proceedings, and the sort of bizarre embellishments which suggest Kornbluth's fiction as ancestral to Michael Moorcock's stranger material, or even that of Terry Pratchett in a certain light. One further element he at least had in common with these two is that of genre never once being allowed to take precedent over the progression of the narrative, or over its author taking infectious pleasure in the process.

Of Kornbluth's short stories, The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag seem to be the best known, and understandably so, but he had plenty others of equivalent quality where those came from. Shark Ship predates Neal Asher's nautically themed weird fiction by nearly half a century; and Two Dooms divided the United States between Japan and the Third Reich a couple of years before The Man in the High Castle, and to more chilling effect for my money. The final eight stories of the collection were written to specific commissions and as such read a little like Kornbluth channelling E.E. 'Doc' Smith in terms of concessions to fifties space opera, but generally it seems he would have had trouble had he ever been asked to write a dull sentence; for example, The Last Man Left in the Bar:

'Bartender,' in a controlled and formal voice. Shot of Red Top and a beer at 9:09, the hand vibrating with remembrance of a dirty green El Greco sky which might be Brookhaven's heavens a million years either way from now, or one second sideways, or (bow to Method and formally exhaust the possibilities) a hallucination. The Seal snatched from the greenlit rock altar could be a blank washer, a wheel from a toy truck, or the screw top from a jar of shaving cream but for the fact that it wasn't. It was the Seal.

Of course, 670 pages of this would be disorientating, which is probably the only weakness of either this collection, or the fact of my having attempted to digest it in one go over the duration of a couple of weeks. Kornbluth possibly shouldn't be read in such huge chunks, at least not his short stories, being as some of those more eccentrically narrated lose cohesion without due concentration. At least that was how it seemed as I worked my way through, although considering the sheer volume of material here, the guy is entitled to have fired off a few blanks now and then.

In the event of this reading like an ambiguous verdict, the points to remember are that at his best, Kornbluth was fucking tremendous, and there's quite a lot of his best to be found here.

This collection was produced - by the way - by NESFA Press who've been doing some good work keeping certain authors in print, producing similarly exhaustive short story collections by the likes of Judith Merril, Murray Leinster, A.E. van Vogt, Cordwainer Smith and innumerable others; and I've encountered a rumour of their perhaps presently wrangling over the rights to gather together all of Clifford D. Simak's short fiction, volume or volumes I would crawl naked over broken glass to own, as they say, should the rumour turn out to be true. Aside from anything else, this should therefore be considered an enthusiastic recommendation.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The House That Stood Still

A.E. van Vogt The House That Stood Still (1950)

Even if you don't know exactly what you'll get with each new van Vogt title, you usually have a reasonable idea of the direction in which it will be headed. Nineteen of these things seemed like enough, and yet here I am reading my twentieth because I can't resist the guy, even knowing with some certainty that every single van Vogt review from here on will open with a variation on this same paragraph. The bottom line is that whilst there may be an element of repetition involved, in apparent contrast to stories which are often surprisingly difficult to follow or even incoherent, when there's the chance of something at least as magnificent as a despotic caveman leading a group of Nazis who live on the moon, only an idiot would leave it sat forlornly upon the shelf of the store.

There are no lunar national socialists here unfortunately, just the internal power struggles of a group of immortals resident in a house built by an alien robot in California around the year 300AD.

So what's new? one might wonder.

In this case it seems to be that van Vogt has been trying his hand at a conventional thriller, or at least conventional by his standards. The House That Stood Still is an actual single coherent novel, as opposed to the usual group of unrelated short stories bolted together and forced at gunpoint to make sense. Of course van Vogt's characteristic rhythm of weird twists and interjections every eight-hundred words still seems to be in place, but the element of the unexpected is kept under control, limited for the most part to the relatively plausible, so there's no sudden appearance of winged dinosaurs or any of the usual rampant surrealism. Our hero is a man called Allison who investigates the aforementioned ancient house for reasons I can't quite remember, and spends a lot of time shagging by the sort of terms you would expect from a novel written in 1950, if perhaps a little more enlightened than might be anticipated. There's also a whole load of Mesoamericana thrown into the mix, but I get the impression Alfred Elton's research was probably limited to what he could remember from some show he watched whilst drunk one evening. This would get on my tits somewhat were this any other author, but fuck it - only a fool would argue with this man.

It's not the greatest van Vogt, and although it's unusually restrained in comparison to some, it still has that rhythm, the constant motion of the characters and the quality of a dream, so it does its job.