Monday, 9 June 2014

Galaxy 666

Pel Torro Galaxy 666 (1968)

Pel Torro is one of many pseudonyms by which the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, more recently the host of Fortean TV, churned out science-fiction for the Badger Books imprint at a reputed rate of one novel every twelve days. Fanthorpe was given title and cover painting, from which he would extrapolate an entire story, apparently hiding himself beneath a rug - presumably for the sake of focus - improvising his narratives onto a tape recorder for eventual transcription by someone with a typewriter. The resulting novels - and there are at least one-hundred and fifty of the things - are distinctive to say the least, plots heavy with laborious padding, random narrative swerves and inconsistencies, and a surreal quality not unlike that invoked by A.E. van Vogt doubtless arisen from similarly automatic methods of composition. Orbit One, written as Mel Jay, for example, is probably one of the strangest things I've ever read, an experience oddly akin to an angry Vietnamese person shouting an Asimov novel at you for a couple of hours; and by the way, I have experience of angry Vietnamese people so the image isn't just thrown out there for chuckles.

The internet generally chortles over Fanthorpe's pseudonymous pulps, treating them as a sort of written equivalent to Plan 9 from Outer Space, a guilty pleasure. Even given the conceit of Plan 9 from Outer Space as the worst film ever made - a consensus with which I disagree on the grounds that it's really just very, very dull - this seems unfair. Lionel Fanthorpe isn't a bad writer, just a very weird one which, given his working methodology, surely isn't that surprising. More surprising is that Galaxy 666 could easily have been the work of someone other than the author of Orbit One - hence perhaps the variant pseudonym - so I suppose it's simply that he enjoyed some commissions more than others. At least, he seems to have written more of himself into this one.

Peculiarly, more than anything else - and including the Star Trek television series transparently invoked by the cover - Galaxy 666 reads like a very weird revision of Plato's Republic in so much as most of it comprises four blokes stood around - or running around - one of them making observations whilst the others agree what good points have been made. Of course it's padding, but given Captain Bronet's tendency to draw comparison with all manner of sources - everything from the bible to The Pilgrim's Progress - as he ruminates on life, the universe, evolution, nature, and almost everything else, it doesn't read so much like padding as simply the work of a someone who is a bit odd. In fact, such is the conversational thrust of the text that comparisons with Harold Pinter and Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty monologues arise before there's any real suggestion of an author reaching out towards a specific page count. Unlike Plato's Republic - which is by the way the one Socratic dialogue with which I am familiar and therefore the one I mention here - the metaphysical musings of Galaxy 666, dispensed as our lads encounter and are taken prisoner by amorphous aliens, are fired off at random and as such don't necessarily follow any subtextual direction given that there obviously isn't one; so whilst the sum of these contemplative parts isn't necessarily anything profound, it does at least serve to keep things interesting.

Galaxy 666 is probably unlikely to get a Victor Gollancz reprint in the SF Masterworks series because it's simply too weird, but it's actually a half decent novel considering the circumstances of its generation, and is at least more engaging than a few supposed classics which spring to mind.

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