Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Pendragon Protocol

Philip Purser-Hallard The Pendragon Protocol (2014)

I've always enjoyed Philip Purser-Hallard's writing, and to the point of believing his name deserves to be at least as ubiquitous as those of Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and all those other top billing English science-fiction authors, not least because I would say that for the most part his is probably the greater talent. He's wrought some genuinely wonderful stuff within those little patches of universe left behind by the passing of the man in the blue box, and so the prospect of his first major steps away from the shallow pools of the more conspicuously licensed reaches of genre fiction has been a source of great anticipation for me. With this in mind, I must confess to some eyebrow-raising when I first read that The Pendragon Protocol would introduce us to the technologically sophisticated Knights of a twenty-first century Round Table sworn to protect us all from villainy. It made me think of Torchwood, or Primeval, or anyone who ever considered tales of secret government agencies full of superheroes with access to alien technology as being anything other than sheer arseache of the worst kind; but, I told myself, such fears will almost certainly be unfounded given the author's track record.

Happily I was right, and whilst I wouldn't quite describe this as having a startlingly original premise, as does Simon Morden on the back cover - at least not given how many times Arthur's lads have been coaxed back onto the field by everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore to probably Pee-wee Herman - as a novel it has defied my narrative expectations, and is in all respects pretty bloody formidable. The key to this being that the author has remembered to write a book which is actually about something, as opposed to just a bunch of guys grunting and romping away with swords and cellphones for a few hundred pages.

To start with, the psychological mechanism of these Knights as the most recent expressions of an archetype is ingeniously told, precluding the need for anything so cock-obvious and hokey as reincarnated spirits, agencies of higher powers by traditional fantasy terms, or indeed anything requiring suspension of disbelief. In this sense The Pendragon Protocol does at least some of what C.S. Lewis tried to do with That Hideous Strength but without the sneering. Futhermore, reviewing That Hideous Strength, Orwell wrote:
[Lewis's beliefs] weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader's sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict, one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.

Philip Purser-Hallard avoids this problem by means of simple narrative realism in combination with lively and unflinching investigation of the nuts and bolts of belief as it may relate to an objective reality without ostentatious demonstrations of divine power getting in the way. This refusal to stoop to the flashily miraculous allows the underlying argument of the text to really breath, to expand and to examine the greater context of belief - belief in the collective understanding of what constitutes human society, and so on. In other words, The Pendragon Protocol, rather than simply being Highlander with 'O' levels, demonstrates that belief in a Deity, a noble cause, the laws by which we define civilisation, or even that a piece of paper can stand for monetary value, are essentially aspects of the same understanding and are therefore closely related.

Jory Taylor, our main protagonist and current expression of the characteristics of the legendary Sir Gawain, here finds himself torn between two schools equating to mutually exclusive views of the moral environment he inhabits, specifically amounting to the establishment and to forces opposing the establishment, without either definitively revealed as either more corrupt or any less worthy than the other; and this seems to further translate into a dialogue between faith and belief as either a personal matter or something which comes from outside and which may be embodied in a collective institution.

Anyway, this is what I took from the novel, poorly expressed though my version may well be, which, if nothing else, is at least to say that this is a philosophically meaty read yielding some truly vertiginous revelations - at least to me - whilst rattling along at fair old pace without any sacrifice to the quality of language. To reduce that further into Daily Mail English, Philip Purser-Hallard has achieved that rare balance of a way above average intellectually stimulating novel you can read by the pool with a beer and a hot dog.  The Pendragon Protocol genuinely deserves to sell so well that we're all sick of hearing about it by this time next year, and I'm already looking forward to the second part of the trilogy.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Food of the Gods

H.G. Wells The Food of the Gods (1904)

Considering the graceful perfection of Wells at his very best - as found in novels of such repute as to require no formal identification - one cannot help but be astonished by the mediocrity of his lesser works, of which this is one. The Food of the Gods concerns the development of a food substance which causes dramatic and continuous growth leading to the birth of a race of giants, amongst the inevitable rats the size of cows and other creatures which eventually came to serve as b-movie staples. The science is somewhat wonky, but the point is essentially that from which Michael Crichton extrapolated most of his career, namely a catastrophic scientific genii which cannot be stuffed back into its bottle. Here an emergent race of enormous supermen serve as a metaphor for reckless scientific advance, inspiring society towards an increasingly reactionary, even Fascist state as it attempts to control its mammoth progeny.

The story would be fine in itself, but for the manner of its telling. Whilst H.G. was more than capable of crafting a respectable sentence, this one reads like he wasn't really paying attention and was thus prone to birthing monstrosities of this sort:

And the earliness of this second outbreak was the more unfortunate, from the point of view of Cossar at any rate, since the draft report still in existence shows that the Commission had, under the tutelage of that most able member, Doctor Stephen Winkles (F.R.S., M.D., F.R.C.P., D.Sc., J.P., D.L., etc.), already quite made up its mind that accidental leakages were impossible, and was prepared to recommend that to entrust the preparation of Boomfood to a qualified committee (Winkles chiefly), with an entire control over its sale, was quite enough to satisfy all reasonable objections to its free diffusion.

That's a single ninety-nine word sentence in case you're still awake and happened to wonder, and although its length is atypical, its tone is fairly representative of the rest, at least leaving aside those passages which seem to have served as precursor to the more laboured Ealing comedies. These dominate the first part of the book, very much epitomising the sort of cosy catastrophe Brian Aldiss wrongly attributes to John Wyndham - all boggle-eyed rural types with funny names marvelling at what will they think of next, and the lisping Mr. Skinner who deliverth lengthy paragraphth of bumbling content-free phonetically rendered text thuch ath we have here prethumably entirely in the thervice of communicating how theriouthly fucking thide-thplitting it can be when thomeone thpeakth with a lithp, but poththibly altho to contheal the fact of Herbert having forgotten to include a fucking thtory. This aggravating tone wanes somewhat as we plod slowly towards the conclusion of the book, by which point the giant babies are all grown and now inexplicably talking like portentous aliens from episodes of Shatner era Star Trek with the ye and the yonder and why do the small ones beleaguer us so?

The Food of the Gods could have been up there with H.G.'s greatest hits, but it reads like the author lost interest early on and was trying hard to keep himself sufficiently amused to finish it off, and to finish it off mainly just for the sake of finishing it off. There was once a tremendous novel under here somewhere, but this is dire.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Dagon and other macabre tales

H.P. Lovecraft Dagon and other macabre tales (1967)

Lovecraft undoubtedly wrote some wonderful stuff, but in our rush to overcompensate for the obscurity in which his work languished whilst he was alive, we tend to overlook that he also wrote some utter fucking stinkers, to which end this second Grafton collection does much to redress the perceptual balance. Here we find many short stories, some juvenilia, fragments of shopping lists, and Supernatural Horror in Literature, which I already read and very much enjoyed back in April. Most peculiar and fascinating is In the Walls of Eryx, Howie's extensive expansion and revision of a much shorter work by Kenneth Sterling whom Wikipedia describes as a precocious Providence high school student who had befriended Lovecraft the previous year; peculiar and fascinating because it's full blown proper science-fiction with rockets on the front cover and set on a version of Venus reminiscent of that described by Edgar Rice Burroughs; and it's very, very good.

The other tales are similarly blessed with narratives happily lacking in spooky houses inherited from uncles whom no-one likes to talk about too much, but unfortunately that's about it for the good news. The writing is adequate, although of such portent that my inner ear heard many of these read out loud by Tony Hancock, with occasional customary asides to the obligatory nameless horrors feeling as though they should actually refer to either some bloke down the Dog and Duck, or the inland revenue, or at least someone played by Sid James.

Stone me. I might have known it would be you.

There are some interesting and unexpected Gernsbackisms in Beyond the Wall of Sleep and The Evil Clergyman, and Herbert West - Reanimator hints at having been written by someone alive in the age of electricity, automobiles and Harold Lloyd. This would be great if it didn't read like something plotted by an eight year old boy with a crayon, notably around the point at which Herbert decides he must commit murder so as to obtain a corpse sufficiently fresh as to allow him to bring it back to life. I mean aside from outgrossing himself, why is he even bothering? Does anyone actually know?

Then we have a further helping of those Dream Cycle tales in the vein of The Dream-Quest of Uninteresting Kadath, apparently influenced by Lord Dunsany and mostly sheer arseache. There's the weirdly self-referential The Unnameable which achieves the not unimpressive feat of somehow failing to take its own advice; and last but not least, the casual racism of Polaris and the aforementioned Herbert West; and not forgetting the formal evening wear racism of He and The Horror at Red Hook, in which the horror is specifically identified as immigration. Fancy that.

As an aside, I can't help but notice certain parallels with that whole neofolk thing, specifically the raging misanthropy, fear of an ethnically diverse present, and the forever harking back to some lost because it never existed in the first place Aryan Eden whilst mining the same as a source of even more terrible horrors. The message seems to be hey all you dole scrounging porch monkeys, my horror is bigger and more pure than your horror, or something of that order. Part of what makes In the Walls of Eryx such a refreshing change is its adopting an overtly anti-imperialist stance and siding with the oppressed natives, in effect taking the opposite view to that usually expressed by Lovecraft.

All that cosmic horror was great, but let's not get carried away here. Regardless of Lovecraft's supposed later and somewhat elusive refutations of earlier racist views, very little of what is found in this particular five-hundred page collection is really that great. Much of it is overwritten and turgid, very much the work of the man who bought us The Street in which our narrator pines for the days before all those blackies ruined everything; and whilst we're here he can shove The Transition of Juan Romero right up his arse too. So many of these tales seem sadly typical of the pampered only child sat in his darkened room as doting aunts cut the crust from his McDonald's hamburger for him, and he pens yet another veiled ode to mighty whitey, oblivious to his own distance from the wholesome Caucasian ideal being even greater than that of even those swarthy types who bring their thumpa-thumpa music and smelly food to the land of his fathers, or at least to the land his fathers stole from all of those red guys that no-one likes to talk about.

What a complete wanker.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Knitting with Coalsmoke

John Bagnall Knitting with Coalsmoke (2013)

I wouldn't ordinarily make the effort of setting virtual pen to imaginary paper for something so slim as a single forty-page small press comic book, but this one seems to have enough going on to justify an exception to the rule. I've been vaguely aware of the existence of John Bagnall for at least a couple of decades, and I'm fairly sure we've both contributed to the same periodicals at one point or another. I tend to think of him as a small press cartoonist due to former association with a loose group of individuals including Ed Pinsent, Carol Swain and others with whom his work exists at a similar tangent to the mainstream. I suppose, to commit an extraordinarily crass analogy, you might take it that I'm referring in this instance to the cartooning equivalent of obscure European cinema, tons of subtitles with nothing happening slowly in black and white, and before we get too carried away, I'm not saying this is a bad thing.

I'm out of my depth here in the sense of having drifted away from the small press many years ago, somewhat repelled by a glut of gratuitously self-referential autobiographical material, low content queerzines published by pierced middle-class teenagers now in their leathery fifties and still dressing like members of Haysi bloody Fantayzee, and general wank apparently justified by the idea that hey, at least I'm expressing myself. It still pains me to consider the ocean of horrible drivel in which the good stuff, such as what we have here, is but a drop; but anyway...

Bagnall doesn't really do strip cartoons so much as invoke details of times past, specifically of an England which will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the sixties or seventies. However, this is some way removed from Stewart Maconie chuckling over Spangles and the Bay City Rollers, or any Harry Enfield pastiche of a public information film. The nostalgia industry tends to focus on that which most people remember without prompts, and so our punk documentary - for arbitrary example - will be about the Sex Pistols rather than Eater, the Prats, and the Bears, despite that anything looming so large as to remain in the memory has usually become its own discreet phenomenon and as such can no longer quite be considered part of the general texture. John Bagnall's excavations, on the other hand, are all about the texture, the background noise we barely even noticed at the time, let alone ever had a chance to properly forget. His style is particularly well suited to the task, stark and simple lines tracing solid forms without strongly resembling anything which has gone before, thus allowing for these historical examinations to unfold without unnecessary caricature or kitschy nostalgia clogging up the signal.

There's something very haunting in these tales, or at least these anecdotes of subjects so small and lacking in quantifiable moment that I'm not sure they could be told by any better means than they are here. The silent panels showing the new town centre, or the trades which might be pursued by dexterous young men seem particularly affecting, unburdened by any editorial implication of a better, simpler world gone by, serving simply as an affectionate record of that which should be preserved if only for poetic reasons. This really is a beautiful piece of work.

Purchase your pleasantly musty copy here.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis (1915)
The Metamorphosis is, as everyone presently alive probably knows, the tale of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning as an enormous beetle much to the understandable distress of his family. I seem to recall its having been discussed at length in Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss's history of science-fiction literature, but I can't be arsed to have a look and see what the guy said right now. Clearly The Metamorphosis isn't science-fiction - which probably wasn't what Aldiss said in any case - but it's surprising how many other general categories it resists with equivalent certitude.

The story, which is much shorter than you may realise, focusses mainly on Samsa's physical deterioration, and the breakdown of communications with his sister and parents in whose home he lives as principle breadwinner. As is my custom, I gave this one some thought before reading, anticipating certain themes and by extension what sort of thing I should therefore be looking for. I imagined there might be something to gain from considering the general symbolism of the dung beetle, all the stuff about shit and death, maybe even the sun as a great celestial ball of poo rolled daily across the heavens as it was in ancient Egypt; but I was wrong. Samsa is not, it turns out, a dung beetle. In fact his precise entomological credentials are unclear, perhaps even irrelevant beyond their association with death, decay, and detritus, and the numerous descriptions mostly point to something along the lines of a cockroach. Furthermore, it seems I'm not the only one to get a bit ahead of myself in this respect, and two thirds of this edition are taken up with commentary and related essays to varying degrees of relevance and value. One guy argues that Samsa is in fact a woodlouse, based on his interpretation of a single somewhat vague sentence, although our boy potentially being a woodlouse makes no difference to anything. Another argues that the apple which Samsa's father hurls in anger at his six-legged son must be viewed as an apple from the tree of knowledge of the kind which the Biblical Eve famously found so nummy. This too is bollocks, as are many of the other available interpretations, because all the information you need is already present in the text, and I presume the apple to have been an apple simply because that's just the sort of thing Gregor's father would have had to hand.

Gregor, you see, has a shitty, soul-destroying job and more responsibilities than he can handle. Those of us who have found ourselves in such circumstances will therefore recognise his situation immediately and have no need for further explanation. Life repeatedly kicks Gregor in the sack, then asks him for a contribution towards its next shoe shine, over and over and over; and it isn't so much that he becomes a shit-eating beetle, but that he is revealed as one, or, as Wilhelm Emrich puts it in one of the more helpful essays Kafka does not create "surrealist" phenomena but, on the contrary, creates our reality with utter artistic truth. So it's an allegory, but not one upon which we should get too hung up in view of that which is allegorised, as detailed here in Kafka's diary:

...breakdown, impossible to sleep, impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life, or, more exactly, the course of life. The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner.

Personally speaking, I've been there. The Metamorphosis rings a lot of bells, although it should probably be noted that the metamorphosis of the title most likely refers to the transformation of Samsa's family near the close of the story, a vaguely redemptive ending which Kafka himself grew to dislike.

The Metamorphosis is good enough to preclude the need for further discussion, and is not a difficult text by any description. Everyone should read it, and not least because even without its saying all that it says, it's also very funny.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Warlords of Utopia

Lance Parkin Warlords of Utopia (2004)

Older readers may perhaps recall how when the Doctor Who television show was cancelled in 1989, never to return, Virgin publishing took it upon themselves to continue the series as a range of novels; and I'm almost certain I remember reading some suggestion of how this was also supposed to be a means of bringing exciting new voices to the field, new writers who might go on to greater things in the wider field of science-fiction. Sadly, it didn't really happen like that, given that those who went on to do anything in the wake of the New Adventures mostly ended up churning out yet more Doctor Who, which doesn't really count as greater things in the wider field of science-fiction.

No it doesn't.

Happily though, there were exceptions to this sweeping generalisation, Lance Parkin being one of them, which was nice given his having written some of the more interesting bits of post-televisual Who fiction. Warlords of Utopia was apparently formulated as a vehicle for yer man in the phone box, but ended up as part of Faction Paradox mythology as mapped out by Lawrence Miles and others, and I suspect may be the better novel for it. Whether by accident or design, it amounts to the biggest, most stupid idea you could possibly conceive hammered into a novel and forced to behave itself, with a premise rating at least eleven on the Destroy All Monsters scale: there are hundreds of alternate versions of history in which Rome never fell, all of which have teamed up for a massive multiversal pagga with all the versions of history in which Hitler won the war, happily allowing for at least one scene featuring the Council of Hitlers, hundreds of iterations of Chaplin's stunt double all ranting away beneath one of those impossible domes that Albert Speer never quite got around to building. If it isn't immediately obvious why this alone should qualify Warlords of Utopia as a wonderful thing, you may be dead and should consult medical advice at your earliest convenience.

Actually, it could all have gone horribly wrong, particularly when you consider the dog's dinner that is All New Doctor Who Adventure Time with those tales of similarly preposterous ambition which may as well have been episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe for all the dignity of their telling, Billie because we want to, because we want to Piper turning into Q from fucking Star Trek and all that bollocks; but no - the golden rule is, I would suggest, if you're going to do something really stupid, then it's best to take it extremely seriously, which is what we have here.

Apparently homaging Robert Graves' I, Claudius - which I really must get around to reading - Parkin writes with the tremendous weight and authority of an historical novelist whilst maintaining a perfect balance between keeping it moving along without tipping over into anything too lurid, no mean feat given the presence of the Council of Hitlers. Not only this, but on top of everything he even instils the novel with purpose beyond narrative acrobatics and gratuitous adventure. Although unfamiliar with Graves, I briefly wrestled with Thomas More's Utopia, at least enough to recognise shared themes and related devices; except this one's a lot more interesting than Utopia, planting its ideal society on firmer ground in acknowledging that there can be no such thing as a truly ideal society, only an approximation; and at least offering a consistent rationalisation of the more contentious aspects of slavery, criminal justice, and expansionism of such a society allowing us to read without too much wincing. By comparison, More's book occasionally has the tone of a small boy insisting he saw a dinosaur.
This world has fallen to the barbarians.

I realised this with such a start that Angela asked what was wrong. That had been Rome's ancient struggle. We had triumphed against the tribalism, intolerance and illiteracy of those around us. Provinces like Britannia had been given cities, roads, and a written language. We had lifted them from savagery. What would have been left behind if Rome had ... gone away? Ruins. These Britons had tried to comprehend the grandeur that was Rome, they had done their best. They had innovated in places, but this had led to the creation of dangerous vehicles and ugly buildings. They had embraced the Christian religion which teaches that the world is a broken, sinful place but the next life will be better.

References are well made without labouring any point so much as to suggest anyone winking at the reader - Plato's Republic, which is of course pertinent to the notion of an ideal Rome surrounded by variations on its theme, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle at the other end of the scale, and of course the Doctor Who and the Iron Legion comic strip to at least give the majority of folks reviewing this something upon which to focus and make tee hee noises before deciding that it took too long for us to find out who the baddies were.

Sorry. Did I sound a bit dismissive there?

I remember this novel being good, and it has improved with each reading. This is my third time, and I would say that Warlords of Utopia is exceptional - one of the best and strangest and yet most convincing alternative histories I've read - a narrative pie fight at a chimp's tea party which dares to take itself seriously, and comes through without so much as a hair out of place.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Father-Thing

Philip K. Dick The Father-Thing (1987)

This is the third volume of Dicks' short stories, assembled by the order in which they were written and following on directly from those collected as Second Variety. The big surprise for me as I plough through these five collections with only a vague idea of how much of this material I've read on previous occasions, is how much I'm not actually enjoying it, at least not in terms of my expectations. It could be, as I found when recently making my way through a Kornbluth collection of such volume that it could have been used to stun cattle, that God did not mean for us to read quite such a massive stack of short stories by any one author in one go, and that the twenty-three featured here probably worked better as single servings in the pages of If, Galaxy, Fantasy & Science-Fiction and others as nature intended. On the other hand it might just as well be the case that Philip K. Dick was simply doing too much, hammering these things out on a near weekly basis and thus forgetting to include the jokes that tend to make his stories so readable. There's nothing actively poor here, and certainly nothing I either regret reading or would necessarily wish to avoid reading ever again, but I really found my attention drifting at certain points.

Again the influence of A.E. van Vogt is fairly pronounced with Strange Eden resembling The Enchanted Village, and notably so in Null-O which serves in partial homage to both van Vogt's The World of Null-A and Jonathan Swift, what with the tone and its featuring a character named Lemuel. It seemingly serves as a refutation of van Vogtian supermen with a few probable jabs at bullshit of Ayn Rand type, as do The Golden Man and a few of the other stories, although the majority seem dominated by themes relating to cold war paranoia and related predictions of nuclear apocalypse. Sometimes it works - as with The Turning Wheel with its amusing portrayal of Scientology after the bomb - but at other times, it's easy to forget who wrote these.

Still, the three or four outstanding shorts are of such quality to justify the collection as a whole, so I'm not complaining; and it's also nice to remind oneself of what The Golden Man looked like before Nicholas Cage got hold of the rights and decided to set down the story he thought Dick had really been trying to tell, the little bollix.