Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Beyond the Beyond

Poul Anderson Beyond the Beyond (1969)
Darn it! I thought I had Poul Anderson more or less figured out - perhaps not the greatest writer of all time but at least more or less reliable, a guy who could pull together a functioning sentence and usually toss something interesting in the general direction of his readers. I can tell why The Queen of Air and Darkness won a Hugo, and the rest of the stories that came in the collection of the same name were decent, as were the novels World Without Stars and The High Crusade, and although Genesis was kind of dull, they can't all be Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; but this...

Beyond the Beyond collects six short stories written between 1954 and 1967, specifically six fairly long short stories which really could have stood to be a lot shorter. Working on the assumption that it isn't simply me reaching my science-fiction saturation point, the problem may not even be the length of these efforts. It's quite difficult to really pin it down to any one thing, or unfortunately even to care that much. Some of the ideas are natty enough, and so the likes of Memory and er... one of the others but I can't even remember which one and flicking through the book rings no bells - they at least seem to have potential; and yet still I was bored throughout, a little flurry of intrigue at the beginning of each tale settling into an undifferentiated route march through the rest, struggling to remember who was who, what was happening, and why any of it should matter. The closest I can come to an analysis of the problem is too little detail at the beginning of each story, giving us only sketchy impressions of setting, character, and purpose, with this deficit further unbalanced by great lumps of exposition, material which really should have stayed in the outline, why the Quanions of Zargo should have such strong feelings about their trade embargo against the Zobulan Bongo-men, and so on, stuff about which no reader should really be required to give a shit.

On the other hand, this only seems to apply to some of the stories here, so I'm not exactly sure why they should all blend into an anonymously droning whole. Anderson's libertarian politics seem to be of the mostly humanitarian rather than toxic variety, and in any case don't seem to intrude on his storytelling, unless it occurred during one of the passages where I was thinking about something else. The Sensitive Man can probably be safely categorised as pure arseache, it being a van Vogt style superhuman spy thriller without any of the weirdness which makes van Vogt readable, and additionally burdened with the sort of ham-fisted sexism which makes it impossible to read without visualising the main characters as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse.

With those tilted gray eyes, that delicately curved nose and a wide sullen mouth, she could have been a beauty had she wanted to be.

One of the modern type, thought Dalgetty. A flesh-and-blood machine, trying to outmale men, frustrated and unhappy without knowing it, and all the more bitter for that.

Obviously a lezzer. Don't worry yourself about it, mate.

Even this sort of thing doesn't really occur with enough force or frequency to spoil the whole, so I'm at a loss. I know even the best writers have a few duds, but Beyond the Beyond really feels like the publisher had already printed all of the good stuff and was left with just these. I managed to read right through to the last page, which I suppose must be something, but I can't say that it was fun.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Walking to Hollywood

Will Self Walking to Hollywood (2010)
Returning for what seems like the umpteenth time to the subject of fiction spilling over into real life, as it did with both 1985 and The Cornelius Chronicles to one degree or another, here's Walking to Hollywood, which I hadn't even heard of prior to stumbling across it in the book store. Perhaps my curiosity summoned it into existence.

Having Ralph Steadman design the cover was clearly no arbitrary choice, it being an acknowledgement of the kinship between this and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as illustrated by Steadman. I never actually made it through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I understand to be essentially autobiographical filtered through dangerous quantities of hard drugs with a whole lot of fibbing tossed in where appropriate. That said, I very much enjoyed The Curse of Lono, also by Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, and Walking to Hollywood is in the same tradition.

It's autobiographical in so much as Will Self loves walking, and this is a book about walking, and I'm pretty sure this is a true story, literally for most of its page count and figuratively for the rest; and it's autobiographical in so much as the main character is an author by the name of Will Self, and an author who believes that the best way to understand territory is to walk it, so that's what he does.

Walking to Hollywood divides into three short stories, three main walks unified by a number of themes in such a way as to feel very much part of a whole without the reader, or at least this reader, being quite sure why. The first part deals with Self's fixation with scale as personified by a dwarf of his presumably imaginary acquaintance - an artist who fills the world with elephantine representations of his own image - although this is a fixation I'm not sure I'd
ever actually noticed. The projection of a larger than life image informs the walk to Hollywood, undertaken as a quest to discover who or what killed the film industry - killed meaning turned all to shit in this case; and this section becomes increasingly weird, being written as the film of the book of the film with Self alternately trying to work out whether he's played by David Thewlis or Pete Postlethwaite, finding himself turned away by the Church of Scientology, and then teaming up with Scooby Doo.

The perplexing thing was that during the hundred-year hegemony of the movie everything had been filmed - including films themselves. Actors had played historical personages, and those personages had also played themselves, while the actors that had played them appeared in other movies - playing themselves. This poly-dimensional cat's cradle of references had snared plenty of people with reality-testing abilities far better than my own, and I maintained a certain amused tolerance for the way I lost myself in fugal ruminations...

I'm not sure we really discover just who killed the art of film in the end, although there are some great arguments thrown up in the process of investigation, plenty of engagingly hallucinogenic surrealism, and an immensely satisfying demolition of Mike Myers. If anyone was waiting for a Faction Hollywood novel, then this is probably it.

The final section follows Self walking a crumbling coastal path in northern England, a route which is
gradually being reclaimed by the sea. Whilst all sorts of themes associate this final walk with its predecessors, I found it difficult to really settle on any one theme as being of greatest or even particular significance; and this is maybe the point, namely that the individual needs to walk the territory in order to achieve a true understanding. Second hand testimony, whether the Hollywood version starring David Thewlis as Will Self or just me trying to describe this stuff to whoever may be reading, is never entirely reliable. So whilst the first two parts dissect territories, both physical and psychological, possibly the conclusion may dissect the very fact of there even being territory to discuss, represented as the path, homes, and even villages gradually dissolving into the sea.

I can't even tell whether what I've written here amounts to anything coherent in relation to the book, or whether it's all bollocks, just a chain of vague ideas which seem related and can be nicely strung together like one of those child's games with the plastic monkeys. The important thing to take away from this is that Walking to Hollywood is pretty damned incredible, possibly even Self's best.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Mark Millar & Tommy Lee Edwards 1985 (2009)
Attending a comic book convention in North Carolina necessitated a couple of nights in an unusually uncomfortable hotel bed in a room shared with our kid - who apparently requires only two hours sleep - which made it difficult to concentrate on my current bedtime reading, Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, prompting an excursion into something less demanding, namely 1985 which I picked up at the aforementioned convention. This volume collects another title I missed at the time due to being somewhat out of the loop with monthly comics, and yet another story to blur the distinction between fiction and reality. What with Will Self and Michael Moorcock, I seem to have encountered a lot of this breaking of the fourth wall of late without it being something consciously sought out on my part, so it's tempting to wonder whether the universe might be trying to tell me something.

Admittedly 1985 is slightly different in that the fourth wall is broken for the characters of this book whilst their own fourth wall remains more or less intact, which as such prevents it from becoming a variation on Grant Morrison. 1985 is set in a world recognisable as our own but for the sudden and unexpected revelation of 1980s Marvel comics villains turning out to be real. As an exercise in nostalgia this seems initially strange to me given that I haven't had much experience of Marvel since most of the characters invoked here were still in service, so I wasn't really aware of the Shocker, MODOK, or the Stilt Man having passed into comics history, presumably having been replaced with the blood-drenched, katana-weilding assassins of Rob Liefeld vintage; and it was additionally weird reading 1985 in a hotel room above a convention centre packed with comic fans dressed as superheroes, and dressed as highly convincing superheroes. There was one guy who I'm pretty certain was actually the real Captain America, not just some impersonator.

Anyway, 1985 is set right here, and our protagonist is a young comic-obsessive kid who recognises the monsters emerging from the house in the woods because he's read about them in back issues of Spiderman, Iron Man, Avengers and so on. Unlike Grant Morrison's somewhat ponderous Joe the Barbarian, there's no real attempt to rationalise any of this, at least not by real world terms because that isn't really the point, and nor is it grittily realistic superheroes having to go to the bog and pay child support. The point, perhaps peculiarly, seems to be a reminder of the initial excitement at least some of us once had reading comics as kids, before anyone found it necessary to point out that Batman was almost certainly some sort of rubber fetishist. Accordingly the story is told with the determined earthy realism of a Harvey Pekar monologue, underscored by the beautiful, almost photorealist art of Tommy Lee Edwards, then contrasted with the absolutely deadpan intrusion of characters from old comics; and although by rights they should appear absurd, there is no doubt of their being monsters in every sense.

There he was, standing in front of me: A comic book character as real and as awesome as Mount Rushmore or Ronald Reagan. But it's the smell I remember most. Nothing can prepare you for just how bad the Hulk smells.

Thus does it continue, comic book violence replaced by real horror in this, our version of reality, but with a lightness of touch you probably might not expect of Mark Millar, with the appearance of the otherwise ludicrous MODOK presenting a particularly nightmarish interlude.

1985 is nothing profound, although it has no ambition to be anything beyond what it is; but it's a moving and highly satisfying testimony to the art form, and to that which we once took from the art form before some sneering Android's Dungeon employee called us Marvel Zombies and asked had we never heard of Love & Rockets; because apparently you should always feel ashamed for enjoying cheap, populist entertainment. This point has struck me as worth making in so much as the Captain America and X-Men comics I read back in 1985 had a more lasting impression on me than any of the independent cinematic classics I saw that year at art college. Similarly, returning to the point that I read this whilst attending a comic book convention, I couldn't help but notice how all those kids in capes or with purple wigs and fake pointy ears weren't anything like so saaaaad as I had anticipated. On the contrary, it made me feel good to see just how many of them there were, and how much effort had been expended in pursuit of their impersonations, and how happy it clearly made them. In fact, there was nothing saaaaad about them at all. In may ways I felt inspired by their example, and that's sort of what 1985 is all about.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars (1912)
Whilst I appreciate the general concept of Edgar Rice Burroughs as an institution, I've had some trouble with his books, or at least with the two I've read. Both Tarzan of the Apes and Pirates of Venus seem reasonably well written but suffer from certain cultural details so resolutely of their time that I just couldn't get past the sound of my own wincing. A Princess of Mars, so I was told, was the one to go for, written before Burroughs' prose began to crumble under the pressure of curling off yet another sequel every three days; and against all odds, I enjoyed the recent film adaptation for what it's worth.

Just to get it out of the way, I suppose we should acknowledge that A Princess of Mars is roughly what has come to be known as pulp fiction, a term deriving - at least so far as I understand it - from the more populist magazines, the Astoundings and Amazings, having been used as pulp to pad out crates of more important stuff during the war - reet classy leather-bound editions of The Lord of the Rings for example, proper books which might be read by doctors or dentists. Whilst it's true that the tastes of the reading public tended to dictate the general kind of story which appeared in the Astoundings and Amazings, pulp as a vaguely pejorative term equating to gob-punching tales for thickies is misleading and generally akin to returning that Ramones album to the record store because you got it home and found it sounded nothing like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Of course, some pulps were shite, but this is generally true of publishing regardless of whether it's the sort of thing one might find in the home of Margaret Attwood or people with 'O' levels; so it really comes down to either personal taste or snobbery, specifically the ideas that literature can do only one thing, or that there are certain things which it should refrain from doing if it wishes to hang out with the cool kids. The most amusing example of such double standards I have encountered was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the book section of a Doctor Who bulletin board where discussion of Cody Schell's SeƱor 105 novellas prompted one individual to ask but are they not a little pulpy? I suppose I can see how our man might have wished to be forewarned in the event of his unwittingly dedicating time to the perusal of something of less philosophical complexity than Doctor Who and the Giant Robot. In my view, art must be judged principally on how well it does that which it sets out to do. Whether that which it sets out to do was worth doing in the first place is a quite different thing.

Returning now to the author of Tarzan of the Apes and Pirates of Venus, A Princess of Mars turns out to be similarly of its time, but not cripplingly so, at least not beyond allowing for the fact that swashbuckling adventure aimed at a particular kind of audience will tend to involve goodies and baddies. John Carter is a proud southern gentleman with most of the attendant associations, and yet nothing reading too much like the politics of a nutcase; and of course, he arrives on Mars with certain advantages over the people who actually live there because he's a white bloke and he understands chivalry and being a good egg and suchlike, although if that is an issue then it's one you probably should have anticipated before picking up a book with Edgar Rice Burroughs identified as author on the cover.

The only real problem here is that for my money, A Princess of Mars is barely science-fiction in so much as that it does very little of the stuff I like my science-fiction to do, the things which tend to keep me interested; and for all that it's at least as well written as anything by Wells, A Princess of Mars could just as easily have been set in North Africa, the wild west, or anywhere on Earth where English isn't spoken and they eat a different part of the cow. So it doesn't really do a great deal outside of the traditional adventuring furniture of captive princesses and bad-tempered natives who grudgingly accept you as one of their own after you've beaten up that one guy on the high council whom no-one really liked in the first place. To be fair, the Martian element - presumably in part inspired by Edwin L. Arnold's Gullivar Jones - is well drawn, but low on detail beyond a few faintly unsatisfying excuses made about special kinds of ray; and so the bulk of the page count is spent on fighting, with different groups of Martians battling each other for reasons which were probably mentioned somewhere or other; or on the well-being of a Princess -  quite a nice looking one too, surprisingly; or on our man coming up with all these great ideas and everyone agreeing how brilliant he is.

I suppose how much you're likely to enjoy this sort of thing depends on how much you enjoy this sort of thing, and whilst I don't actually find it offensive, and I can appreciate that Burroughs had an agreeable turn of phrase, A Princess of Mars just isn't my bag. That isn't to say I particularly disliked any aspect. On the contrary, there's plenty to recommend this one, not only the local colour and the pleasant, well-tuned prose, but even the fact of at least one party of warring Martians almost certainly amounting to Red Indians in space and revealing, in this instance, a degree of cultural sensitivity I hadn't really expected from Burroughs.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Alan Moore, Zander Cannon & Andrew Currie
Smax (2004)

For anyone who may not know, Smax is a character from Moore's Top 10, a grunting blue giant given to thumping people whilst dispensing terse observations of a generally grudging disposition; and Top 10, in case that too should seem mysterious, is sort of a cop show set in a city populated by superheroes, but funnier than that probably sounds. The story of Smax, his background and origin, never really felt like a story which needed to be told, but I'm really glad that it was.

Smax is basically Alan Moore doing a Terry Pratchett, or if you prefer, giving fantasy fiction the treatment he dishes out to the superhero genre in Top 10; and so our blue man returns to his home dimension to defeat a dragon, and to do his best to not get married to his own sister. It's one of those tales which seems so simple and yet could have gone so horribly wrong at the hands of almost any other writer, or even at the hands of Moore himself under other circumstances; but it's cute without slipping over into twee, clever without being smartarsed, and the jokes are funny, even laugh out loud funny here and there.

After the mindfuck of nine-hundred-plus pages of Jerry Cornelius, Smax is exactly what I needed - warming and gentle without turning into Terry fucking Wogan; and in terms of this particular writer, it's also exactly what I needed after that Fashion Beast shite the other week. As with much of Moore's work for the America's Best imprint, you can really tell he had fun writing this book. Such a shame Wildstorm and DC had to go and fuck it up for everyone.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Cornelius Chronicles

Michael Moorcock The Cornelius Chronicles (1977)
I had two of the four volumes collected within this housebrick a while back, having picked them up cheap under the impression of Jerry Cornelius probably being important for some reason or other; but I ended up giving the collection away without having read the thing, and I'm not quite sure why beyond that I wasn't a big reader in the nineties. Having since recognised Moorcock as a fucking genius, I'd been quietly kicking myself on this particular score for a while, so here we are, back where I started, and this time I have all four in a single volume and my brain is probably better attuned to this sort of stuff than it once was.

Truthfully, I'd been put off Jerry Cornelius by association with Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave strips in Near Myths magazine which, according to Moorcock, were essentially photocopies of his own character coloured in with a slightly different crayon; but Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time novels were decent enough to suggest that I should at least give Jerry a look, and on close inspection I see Moorcock was right, and that Gideon Stargrave is indeed a poor substitute for the real thing - Blink 182 when you could be listening to the Sex Pistols. It was specifically the affected flamboyance of Gideon Stargrave which always irritated the living shit out of me, so I'm amazed to read the genuine article and see that it can be done right, with wit, and without coming across like one of those seventies teenagers who used to walk to school with a Gentle Giant album under his arm and without the bag which would have prevented the rest of us seeing what he had and just how cool he was, how far ahead he was compared to everyone else. He'd probably even done it with a girl and everything.

Anyway, enough about that guy. I'd been warned that Cornelius is best read by just diving in, holding on tight, and not worrying too much over whether or not it makes sense. This was sound advice, although it's not so disjointed as I anticipated - at least not in the sense of a William Burroughs novel being disjointed. The Final Programme (1966) and A Cure for Cancer (1971) at least seem to follow vague stories, or else give a good impersonation of doing so. I've a feeling that it may be the latter - scenarios and set pieces arranged so as to suggest narrative without quite amounting to one, with the novels following a non-linear logic of their own, like a dream or a piece of music, or - if this isn't too obvious an observation - one of the weirder psychedelic albums of the era to which these stories refer.

It's significant that Jerry Cornelius is absolutely of his time, the sixties arguably being the point at which the ideas of the European avant-garde in art entered the mainstream and suddenly you had pop music taking its cues from Pierre Schaeffer or Marcel Duchamp. Hindsight has possibly dimmed the significance of this particular great leap forward, coming as it did with an intellectual dimension expressed as young people rejecting whatever behavioural models had already been set up for them by their parents' generation, but reading these novels is a great reminder of how dangerous such ideas once seemed, even the fact of their being ideas.

'These old fashioned rules no longer apply. Your sort of morality, your sort of thinking, your sort of behaviour—it was powerful in its day. Like the dinosaur. Like the dinosaur it cannot survive in this world. You put values on everything—values...'

'I think I can see a little of what you mean.' Marek lost his composure and rubbed at his face. 'I wonder... is it Satan's turn to rule?'

'Careful, Herr Marek, that's blasphemy. Besides, what you are saying is meaningless nowadays.' Jerry's hair had become disarranged as he talked. He brushed it back from the sides of his face.

'Because you want it to be?' Marek turned and walked towards the stove.

'Because it is. I am scarcely self-indulgent, Herr Marek—not in present-day terms.'

'So you have your own code.' Marek sounded almost jeering.

'On the contrary. There is no new morality, Herr Marek—there is no morality. The term is as barren as your grandmother's wrinkled old womb. There are no values!'

I get the impression this is additionally what Moorcock was doing with narrative, rejecting the tightly woven plotting of Sexton Blake and others in favour of something weirder, more organic, and certainly more provocative. What has surprised me most about reading this is suddenly realising where all those loopy sixties spy thrillers came from, The Prisoner, The Avengers, and ultimately Austin fucking Powers. Even the current, painfully self-conscious television version of Doctor Who looks a lot like it's trying hard to be Jerry from where I'm sitting. To veer off at a fairly substantial tangent, the position of Moorcock as a writer seems very much parallel to that of Hawkind, the band with which he has been closely associated, as memorably summarised by Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions in issue seven of The Sound Projector:

If you look at the whole of that so-called industrial scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson, the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but Hawkwind! This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British hippie band who do science-fiction and theatrics and therefore must be naff. Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind; SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia; and what are Graeme Revell and Brian Williams doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science-fiction films - I rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early '70s, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack, infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to Sonic Attack on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged. If you look at the information war thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science-fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early seventies, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Iain Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought Hawkwind. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought Hawkwind without the lights and without the tunes. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind!

Of course, members of Hawkwind get walk-on parts in the third and fourth Cornelius books, so maybe the above isn't too great a digression. Reality logically intrudes upon Jerry Cornelius because it is our world to which his story refers, even at its wildest. Jerry is dead for much of The English Assassin (1972), or at least dead in some of its variant realities. Notable amongst the alternate worlds described in this volume are the proto-steampunk variants featuring Oswald Bastable from Moorcock's The War Lord of the Air, and Zenith from the Sexton Blake continuity for which Moorcock has also written, and there's the world - possibly our own - in which Jerry Cornelius is a fiction and A Cure for Cancer is only a novel. Generally speaking, The English Assassin is a parody of the establishment and the class system, rendered comic and ultimately stripped of meaning at a party with a guest list encompassing Frankie Howerd and numerous members of Hawkwind, amongs others. Over and over, it reveals institutions and traditions in collapse, returning to inert cultural material by a process of entropy, or even just boredom:

In the third bedroom of the Casa del Monte, seated on a black walnut panelled Lombardy bed, covered in seventeenth century carvings, the most corrupt and feeble-minded publisher in America sipped his vodka and tonic and stared sourly at his tennis shoes while one of the Oxford dons bored him with a long and enthusiastic description of the joys and difficulties involved in doing Now We Are Six into Assyrian. It was what they both deserved.

Whether intentional or not, this establishes Rupert Murdoch and J.R.R. Tolkien as essentially variations on a theme, or at least it does from where I'm sat. Only the lower orders - those with less to lose - survive more or less unscathed, as suggested at the close of the book with Mrs. Cornelius scoffing candy floss and contemplating bingo on the beach as she watches her offspring build sandcastles. When Moorcock novelised The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle he recast Irene Handl's nameless cinema usherette as Jerry's wonderfully coarse mother and its not difficult to see why. She is solid and eternal, unaffected by the broad sweep of history, history
being for her, I suppose, a bourgeois affectation - more Jerry's concern:

The image of a Britain become a nation of William Morris wood-carvers and Chestertonian beer-swillers drove him deeper into his jungle and caused him to abandon his books. He was only prepared to retreat so far. He was forced to admit, however, that the seventies were proving an intense disappointment to him. He felt bitter about missed opportunities, the caution of his own allies, the sheer funk of his enemies. In the fifties life had been so appalling that he had been forced to flee into the future, perhaps even help create that future, but by the sixties, when the future had arrived, he had been content at last to live in the present until, due in his view to a conspiracy amongst those who feared the threat of freedom, the present (and consequently the future) had been betrayed. As a result he had sought the past for consolation, for an adequate mythology to explain the world to him, and here he hid, lost in his art nouveau jungle, his art deco caverns, treading the dangerous quicksands of nostalgia and yearning for times that seemed simpler only because he did not belong to them and which, as they became familiar, seemed even more complex than the world he had loved for its variety and potential.

Note the emergent sixties obsession with Victoriana, which Moorcock rewrote as that which we now recognise as steampunk. The Condition of Muzak (1977) completes the cycle and serves better than any of the other books to define just what it has all been about, namely the complex degrading to the simple, great art, culture, or even thought reducing to background music; and furthermore that the process of entropy is itself inherent to the existence of that which it destroys:

'If time could stand still,' said Hira reflectively, 'I suppose we should all be as good as dead. The whole business of entropy so accurately reflects the human condition. To remain alive one must burn fuel, use up heat, squander resources, and yet that very action contributes to the end of the universe-the heat death of everything! But to become still, to use the minimum of energy—that's pointless. It is to die, effectively. What a dreadful dilemma.'

This final part of the story is framed within a variant of reality in which Jerry is revealed as a struggling musician and a bit of a loser, someone destined to fail, with all of those other, more glamorous realities quite possibly having been just his drug-addled juvenile fantasies, in turn serving to emphasise just how pathetic is the reality of this, his last and lowest plane of existence.

The Cornelius Chronicles are about change, the nature of change, the future, our expectations, and history as a construct; or they are in so much as they can be said to be about any one thing; at least I think they are. It's hard to tell because this is one fuck of a lot of non-linear narrative to get through, and it's routinely bewildering, even boring in places - some of which may be intentional - but as promised, the whole really is worth the effort expended in sticking with it. This is one of those rare books which could potentially change either your life, or at least the way you see the world.

Moorcock really is a genius.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Little Fuzzy

H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzy (1962)
I've never heard of him either, but this one proved impossible to resist with its cover striving so hard to be cute as to come across as slightly disturbing, and obviously not intentionally. What the fuck? can be the only logical response to this cover, followed immediately by I need to read this thing.

Novelty aside, Little Fuzzy is surprisingly decent, written by someone who clearly knew how to write whilst retaining a common touch, and is spun upon an ecological theme which put me immediately in mind of Clifford D. Simak - which can only be a good thing. The story is fairly simple and yet avoids any of the potential hokeyness you might anticipate: a pipe smoking prospector on an alien planet encounters cute fuzzy critters the existence of which threatens company interests, depending on whether or not said critters can be proven to constitute sapient beings, as opposed to just more local animal life. Our prospector is convinced the Fuzzies have culture at a more or less stone age level, whilst the company shits itself over losing all those lovely plunderable resources should the planet be granted reservation status.

More surprisingly, Little Fuzzy is essentially a court room drama, with the greater body of its page count given over to the judicial process of declaring the Fuzzies sapient whilst persuading the company to piss off and leave them alone; and yet - aside from a minor dip around halfway when a whole new load of characters show up - it remains engrossing and delightful, just as the cover promises. In fact, it reminds me a little of one of the better Asimovs, wrapping some fairly complicated ideas - in this case relating to evolutionary biology and the legal system - in a deceptively straightforward prose style with plenty of fifties science-fiction gentlemen pausing to light up thoughtful pipes. Even Little Fuzzy - our cover star and leading native after whom both the book and his species are named - pauses to light a thoughtful pipe at one point following the example of his human friend in a general spirit of experimentation; and yet it all remains funny, charming, and very, very readable without the slightest invocation of ironic yucks.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Soft Machine

William S. Burroughs The Soft Machine (1961)
This was, so I gather, Burroughs' first novel published since Naked Lunch had caused everyone to shit themselves with its tales of men's johnsons going in and out of the bottoms of other men, and with it having been written at least in part by glueing random bits of text together. High court judges and the more conservative elements of the literary establishment doubtless asked him to rein it in a bit, maybe think a bit more about what motivates his characters, maybe introduce a few witty catchphrases; but I guess he just decided to go for it, and The Soft Machine has accordingly been described by some bloke on the internet as the Burroughs novel which makes the others seem relaxing.

The body rose presenting an erection, masturbates in front of the Comandante. Penis flesh spreads through his body bursting in orgasm explosions granite cocks ejaculate lava under a black cloud boiling with monster crustaceans. Cold grey undersea eyes and hands touched Carl's body. The Comandante flipped him over with sucker hands and fastened his disk mouth to Carl's asshole.

I guess we've all had days like that. As to what any of it may mean, you should probably just read the thing, but the title is a metaphor for the human body, and some bloke on the internet reckons this is about the infiltration of the human body by hostile, alien elements. I can sort of see it in a structural sense, with a surprising majority of this text having been cut in with unrelated material to form a weird, ugly hybrid; and Burroughs was always obsessed with the notion of malign external forces intruding upon the human mechanism, almost a variant on original sin, rather oddly - language, addiction, information, or at a significantly greater stretch, the ugly spirit which supposedly overtook Burroughs during an innocent game of William Tell with his late wife. How well this idea is communicated by the text is debatable, but I nevertheless found it entirely readable; and it certainly communicates something fairly profound, even if that something isn't obvious. The Mayan Caper presents the most coherent narrative, and I'm tempted to read significance into its appearing close to the centre of the novel as relative calm at the eye of the storm, or possibly the core around which the rest forms, but it probably depends on the angle from which you look at it. Certainly it expresses the theme of language as both virus and modifier of environment in clearer terms than elsewhere in the novel.

I probably prefer my Burroughs a little more coherent than this one, but it's nevertheless worth a look, providing you don't have anything against text which rewires your brain as you read it.