Saturday, 13 September 2014

Granta 128: American Wild

Sigrid Rausing (editor) Granta 128: American Wild (2014)

I picked this up out of simple curiosity, and have ended up enjoying it so much as to prompt the uneasy suspicion that I have perhaps tired of science-fiction as a genre, science-fiction being the section of the book store in which the majority of my reading material is generally found. It's not that I ever regarded science-fiction as necessarily superior to anything else, just that it has held a particular fascination for me over the years. The absurdity of such a bias were it to be based on qualitative terms is demonstrated by moronic internet arguments about whether fantasy is better than reality as the substance of written fiction, and unfortunately I have seen such arguments. Those who say yes often state cases amounting to because real life is boring innit, which probably says more about them and their lives than it does about literature of any form.

I would rather gouge out my own eyes out with a spoon than sit through the tedium of a Mike Leigh film, opined one facebook dwelling Doctor Who fan in defence of a recent episode of the shit kids' show in which actors had spent an entire hour holding torches beneath each other's faces whilst delivering portentous lines such as the time is upon us and the future changes now because no-one had bothered to write a script that week.

The key word here is fan. The fan is a person who makes choices based on the logo or identification of a product, on whether that which is chosen belongs to an established canon or series of related - even interchangeable - products. In terms of fancy pants books without pictures, the fan will not prioritise great literature over literature featuring specific familiar characters or ideas which will hopefully seem great, or great-ish, or at least not too pants-shittingly awful. Fan has been grasped as a status of which one should be proud, which is partially taking the piss out of oneself before anyone else gets around to it, and partially dressing up insular tendencies as something clannish and somehow indicative of effort or dedication; because no-one likes to think of themselves as a sad, wilfully ignorant fucker. This is aided by a cultural climate in which it is no longer seen as permissable to quantify anything as definitively shite or worthless just in case it causes someone somewhere to feel a little bit inadequate and have themselves a sad. Boo hoo.

Unfortunately, some things just are definitively shite and worthless whichever way you look at them. Terrance Dicks may well be an efficient - if not necessarily great - writer if you're eight, but if you're stood in front of me gushing over Doctor Who and the Face of Evil at the age of anything over twenty, then I have no resource by which I can summon benefit of the doubt in sufficient quantities to view you as anything other than a bit of a berk, which apparently means I have an elitist attitude. This applies equally if you're dressed as Batman, or if you have more opinions about Torchwood than can be encapsulated within a single sentence of just three words; and as for games are really sophisticated these days with storylines and everything - oh piss off, you stupid wanker.

Anyway, my point is that it's really not what you write as how you write about it which matters, and that spacecraft are not in and of themselves interesting, and that whilst I try to avoid anything that's too obviously generically hacked-out science-fiction landfill, sometimes I feel like I may as well be reading one of Junior's fucking Pokémon books; or at least this was the thought which came to me when I started reading this, the American Wild themed edition of Granta. Being a bit thick, I had always assumed Granta was probably not for me, an eggheady boffinfest of Hampstead based tales of Guradnia subscribers experiencing existential nausea over a Waitrose kumquat, or something, but really it's mostly just short stories, albeit extraordinarily well-written short stories.

River So Close by Melinda Moustakis relates the almost surreally miserable lot of a worker in an Alaskan canning factory, and is probably the most startling and visceral thing I've read since The Darkening Light by Ted Curtis earlier this year, albeit without the orange diarrhoea. I found Callan Wink's Exotics particularly enjoyable for its being set in the very familiar territory of rural Texas, and it was nice to recognise so much of the landscape and its people; and nearly everything else here within these 256 pages is of equal calibre. The voices are dynamic, seemingly incapable of cliché or generic sentiment. This is what writing is supposed to do but so rarely does. The standard is so high that it borders on exhausting.

That said, I personally found two of the stories less satisfactory than the rest, and I could have lived without both Andrew Motion's contribution and the pointless Kerouac talk show thing - both the work of poetic types and of no real interest to me; besides which, I'm not sure why anyone would care what Andrew Motion thinks about the great American wilderness. I suspect it's just one of those deals where we assume that an Oxford graduate will always have something fascinating and insightful to tell us, regardless of the subject we set before him. Then again, the few less engaging contributions doubtless make sense to someone, and with such an otherwise thoroughly gripping collection, I'm not complaining. It seems a little worrying that one of the two stories I failed to enjoy might be deemed speculative if not actually full-blown science-fiction. Hopefully I haven't outgrown my own reading habits.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The High Crusade

Poul Anderson The High Crusade (1960)

The universe has been chucking Poul Anderson at me with some frequency of late, a trend which reached its peak when the writer turned up as a character in a short story by Philip K. Dick, and then The High Crusade was mentioned somewhere online in relation to Philip Purser-Hallard's The Pendragon Protocol - a more recent example of science-fiction with knights in armour - although I can't recall whether it was Andrew Hickey or Philip himself who made the reference. Anyway, the point is that I'd never before heard of The High Crusade, so when I noticed it sat perkily upon the shelf of a second hand book store I hadn't quite intended to enter, it seemed like the decision had already been made on my behalf; besides which, excepting the later and somewhat disappointing Genesis, I have the idea that I generally enjoy Poul Anderson's writing and I'm not sure why I haven't read more of it.

The High Crusade is probably intended for a younger audience, given the ludicrous premise and generally wholesome turn of phrase, but that isn't a problem. Blue skinned invaders land their spacecraft in mediaeval England, only to have said craft appropriated by the entire population of the local village who then go off to have adventures in space, as eventually recounted by the local monk in one of those illuminated manuscripts. Apparently they were itching to go off on the crusades just as the alien craft turned up, and this seemed like the next best thing...

It's hokey and is written in a sort of clean-cut American approximation of old English - two parts Marvel Shakespearian to one part Disney's Camelot, and regular protestations of the world actually being flat serve to remind us that these people will one day turn up in the crowd scenes of Black Adder, although I seem to recall the supposed mediaeval belief in a flat Earth being mostly bollocks. Inevitably, given the premise of the story - not least its underlying imperialism - there's a lot of this which doesn't really work if you think about it too hard, or even at all; but sufficient liberal concessions are nevertheless made so as to avoid anything too unsavoury, and our knights regard of the races they encounter can probably be justified as genuine Christian compassion - as distinct from the sort of Christian compassion which extends no further than one's own kind which one might reasonably expect of our heroes, given their cultural heritage. It also helps that Anderson writes with an understated wit which does its job without digging you in the ribs and winking every two minutes as Douglas Adams tended to:

Sir Roger himself conferred with two other emissaries. These were the representatives of the other starfaring nations, Ashenkoghli and Pr?*tans. The odd letters in the latter name are my own, standing respectively for a whistle and a grunt. I will let one such conversation stand for the many that took place.

As usual, it was in the Wersgor language. I had more trouble interpreting than I was wont, since Pr?*tan was in a box which maintained the heat and poisonous air he needed, and talked through a loudspeaker with an accent worse than my own. I never even tried to know his personal name or rank, for these involved concepts more subtle to the human mind than the books of Maimonides. I thought of him as Tertiary Eggmaster of the Northwest Hive, and privately I named him Ethelbert.

The High Crusade falls a long way short of being the greatest science-fiction novel ever written, and truthfully Anderson probably could have done better with the basic concepts, but it's short and relatively sweet with enough going on to keep it interesting, and is as such hard to fault.

Warring States

Mags L. Halliday Warring States (2005)

I had quite a poor impression of this one prior to this - my second or possibly third re-reading - recalling Warring States as either impenetrable, or merely a reconditioned version of one of those Doctor Who adventures in which a series of scrapes leads to the grand finale of everyone meeting up in the town square just in time for our hero to ram the magic quantum sink splodger of destiny up his own arse, reversing the timestream and saving the day. Happily my impression turns out to have been completely wrong, although I can nevertheless see how it came to be formed, even without accounting for the fact of my having had considerably less of a working attention span back in 2005. I seem to recall beginning Warring States two or three times before achieving the momentum to get all the way through, and in recent years I've put this down to it being a novel which was published more or less without editing or even proofreading; except I can't remember who told me that so I'm not sure how true it may be, and in any case I've only noticed one significant typo somewhere near the beginning.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Warring States was a lot more enjoyable this time around, and with hindsight some of my initial criticisms have been similar to those levelled at my own Faction Paradox novel, Against Nature*, specifically that it's impenetrable with no clear indication of who is doing what or why they're doing it. Whilst I'm inclined to suggest that this sort of thing is only a problem when one can't be bothered to read the actual words which appear as print on the page, I must admit I still found it occasionally difficult to retain just what motivates Cousin Octavia and the others, what objective drives them forward through the narrative.

It's not so much that these details are glossed over as that, I would say, the level of descriptive detail pouring from the narrative is rich and quite intense, demanding that one pay attention, and so some elements become muddied here and there. That said, I suppose the setting of the Boxer Uprising does not easily lend itself to the sort of passages in which one might pause to catch breath. However, through the use of a special technique of thinking about the words as I read them, I was able to keep the important details in mind - that Cousin Octavia is seeking the quality of immortality associated with the mummified relic from the Warring States era of ancient Chinese history, for one example; and so ultimately my main criticism of this novel is that I probably could have done with a little more background detail, specifically with regard to the Boxer Uprising, the Warring States era of ancient Chinese history, George Morrison and so on. The narrative seems to assume one will be familiar with the setting and historical details, but then apparently I myself did the same thing despite my best efforts to keep everyone in the loop. Never mind.

Leaving aside such criticisms, this is actually a fairly rewarding novel, or at least certainly more so than I realised. There are some nice ideas - particularly a sort of written equivalent of that stuff in Chinese action films where people run up walls and the like. There is a lot going on here, and a lot which invites the reader to think about just what may or may not be happening. My initial reservations included a minor objection based upon this being the Faction Paradox novel which wasn't really about anything, just people in skull masks having an adventure in time and space. Thankfully, I also seem to have been wrong on that score, although what Warring States is about seems dependent on some understanding of Chinese folklore, yin and yang, the union of opposing forces, and all that sort of business. At least I think it does.

So in summary, this is a much better novel than at least some may realise, but you really do need to pay attention because it isn't going to do all the work for you.

*: Which you need to buy if you haven't already done so. Don't worry about reading it. Just buy it.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Jenny Sparks

Mark Millar, John McCrea & others Jenny Sparks (2001)

Ordinarily I would cross the road to avoid an American comic so self-consciously saturated in Union Jacks and the Houses of Parliament in silhouette because such efforts so often feel either like someone is trying too hard or else may be hoping to pull an Alan Moore, who at least usually managed to get away with this sort of thing without looking too much of a berk; but this is written by Mark Millar who may well be the Jim Davidson of superhero comics, but is nevertheless often very entertaining, or at least he is to me.

I think the key to Millar's success - at least on the evidence of this and Red Razors - is that he doesn't seem to give a shit about what is likely to work in terms of story and is more concerned with cheap laughs. He jams together whatever raises either an initial chuckle or shiver of disgust or some related emotional response, and then finds a way to make it all work in spite of itself, and so here we have a superhero comic based around a chain smoking woman who is essentially a character from Viz and who once shagged Hitler. The details go out of their way to serve up peurile laffs and Vic Reevesisms whilst the whole is somehow smoothed over into something which, if possibly lacking anything you could describe as greater purpose, at least tells a decent story with unexpected apparent sincerity.

John McCrea's art still makes me think of all those early nineties fanzines done by overly earnest teenagers trying to remake the X-Men, but somehow it sits just the right side of caricature to work, or to at least to keep things moving with a straight face.

Jenny Sparks is hardly the most cerebral comic I've read, and it's ambitious almost to the point of absurdity, and yet it just about pulls off everything it attempts. With hindsight, it reminds me somewhat of Steven Moffet's version of Doctor Who Man Telly Time, except without insulting the audience or being hopelessly shite, the difference being that Millar bothers to go further than just serving up a list of ingredients and expecting you to be impressed. Surprisingly, this is very good of its kind.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Casebook of Sexton Blake

David Stuart Davies (editor) The Casebook of Sexton Blake (2009)

I've never been particularly drawn to detective fiction, so this collection is some way outside my normal fare; but Obverse Books have acquired the rights to publish new Sexton Blake material, and Mark Hodder has written one, and I'm probably going to be writing one - or at least attempting to do so - so here I am, doing my homework like a good boy.

Sexton Blake was, according to the usual internet sources, either the poor man's Sherlock Holmes or the Sherlock Homes who wasn't afraid of a bit of a scrap every once in a while, depending on where you look. More helpfully, he was a character who emerged from the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century as written by numerous authors, and who most recently appeared with name changed to Victor Drago in the short-lived Tornado comic back in 1979; at least up until the publication of Mark Hodder's The Silent Thunder Caper this year. The parallels with Holmes are difficult to miss, but Blake - whose character remains both consistent and distinct throughout the writing of the six different authors collected here - has sufficient appeal of his own to explain his having remained generally popular for more than a century. I've not read any of Conan Doyle's Holmes since my school days back in the late 1600s, and having recently read and strongly disliked The Lost World I'm disinclined to renew my acquaintance with Arthur's works, but based on what little I can recall, Blake seems an altogether more fallible, likeable, and plausible character. He detects, but not to the point of absurdity or to the detriment of the story. He misses details here and there, and so there's no the angle at which this goldfish bowl is placed clearly indicates that the gentleman who purchased the bus ticket was wearing women's knickers, most likely a pair stolen from his wife's sister; and I doubt he could be portrayed on the telly by anyone quite so annoying as Cucumber.

I realise that with this collection being what it is, it's unlikely to include any of the real stinkers, but all the same, these seven tales testify to Blake as considerably more engaging than I expected him to be. As Mark Hodder points out in the introduction, each provides a genuinely fascinating snapshot of the times, specifically England at the turn of the century. The writing is generally lively and not lacking in gentle humour. As tales churned out to a series of deadlines, it seems they were at least churned out with a generous spirit, being well written above what one might anticipate considering their supposedly inauspicious origin. Additionally, there's a sense of experimentation here, of wishing to avoid the bed-wettingly generic or gung ho which one might, perhaps wrongly, associate with detective fiction; and so Blake and Tinker play for England in The Football Mystery, or turn the other cheek and let a criminal escape, having decided that the poor fucker has already suffered enough in The Black Eagle. My only criticism is that I generally found these stories to be longer than seemed necessary - particularly The Slave Market - which is either down to the word count required by the original publishers or my being unaccustomed to the genre.

I may have groaned at the size of this thing when it first came in the mail, but I'm nevertheless glad to have read it.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Promethea book one

Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray,
Promethea book one (2000)

Without having really drawn up any formal plans, I was sort of avoiding this one. I first encountered this same collection in my local library about ten years ago. At the time I'd more or less given up on comics, Grant Morrison's excruciating Unreadables having pretty much driven the last nail in the coffin of that sort of thing so far as my dipping toes into any fresh waters was concerned. The odd thing was that, having at last fully converted to reading proper books, I found I lacked the patience to read a comic, which I know doesn't seem to make sense given the art form supposedly being the more immediate, the less demanding in terms of attention span; but the notion that Alan Moore was still at large, so to speak, was of course enough to inspire curiosity, and so I picked out a couple of collections. Top 10 I quite enjoyed, but Promethea I found incomprehensible, although I now have no idea why this should have been. Maybe I was reading a later volume rather than this one, or maybe my attention span really had developed some sort of incompatibility with comics as a medium. Anyway, whatever the case may have been, I didn't warm to the title, and more recently - at least since I rediscovered the form to some extent - I've been warned off Promethea as just the sort of thing I would probably hate. Much as I love Alan Moore, I've sometimes found his work a little more indulgent than I like, and I tend to avoid certain flavours of esoteric wittering because they remind me too much of the sort of hopeless bollocks that has kept Genesis P. Orrible in Franklin Mint monographed Aleister Crowley collector plates and breast implants for the last couple of decades.

Oh yes, you're really into Spare, are you? How interesting.

Still, I'd just popped into my local Android's Dungeon to pick up the first issue of Multiversity out of curiosity and just in case it doesn't turn out to be complete shite, and Nine Lives Books was next door, and I wasn't going to buy anything but oh fuck it...

Assuming this was the same volume I read way back whenever, I'm not entirely sure what it was that I didn't get. Promethea manages to pile on all of the usual layers of self-conscious magickal weirdness whilst remaining a fairly straightforward and engaging supertale; well - straightforward aside from being way above average and introducing a variety of female characters performing functions other than having breasts and being feisty whilst asking some bloke what he thinks should be done. It's not so funny as Moore's Top 10 from the same era and possibly the same mythology, but it's nevertheless decent, pulling some of the same tricks, not least building a retroactive back story so convincing as make one wonder if there really was a P. Craig Russell version of Promethea knocking around back in the seventies. There seems to have been rather a lot of fiction as magic tales doing the rounds of late, unless I've only just noticed it, and this is definitely one of the more entertaining efforts.