Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I Am Crying All Inside and other stories


Clifford D. Simak I Am Crying All Inside and other stories (2015)
It's been a while since I anticipated a collection quite so much as this one - the first of a proposed fourteen volumes collecting the entirety of Simak's existing short fiction - and it's been worth the wait.

Simak, for anyone who might be in doubt, is arguably the greatest science-fiction writer of all time, or at least he seemed so as I was reading this whilst struggling to recall one other author of this genre who maintained such a high standard and for so long with so few blanks having been fired. I love Philip K. Dick, but even he threw out a serious turkey every once in a while, and let's face it, you probably wouldn't want to him for a neighbour. My first encounter with Simak was a previous collection of short stories of such quality as to inspire me to buy everything I could find by the guy; and now, nearly a decade later, there remain just four of his twenty-eight novels I am still to read, and of those I have read, I found only Why Call Them Back From Heaven? in any sense disappointing.

This series has been put together by David W. Wixon, literary executor to Simak's estate and, perhaps more significantly, a personal friend of the man. Accordingly this seems more a labour of love than a clinical exercise in completism, and this first selection of ten stories has been chosen, I would guess, as a group likely to sit well together between the covers. So we have a range of themes and moods from across the broad span of Simak's career, thus avoiding some of the problems which might have arisen from a more traditional chronological plod from alpha through to omega. At the extremes we have such curiosities as Gunsmoke Interlude - one of Simak's surviving fourteen tales written for Western magazines of the thirties - and the previously unpublished I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air written for Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions anthology; but that said, none of the remaining eight tales quite settle into being standard Simak because, for an author with such an immediately recognisable style and consistent themes running through most of what he wrote, I'm not sure there quite is such a thing as a standard Simak tale.

Pastoral imagery and tone prevail throughout, as you might expect, and there's the ecological subtext and plenty of robots as pretty much only Simak wrote them - innocents, or at least humanoids without the burden of guilt prescribed by most of our history, and quite unlike the mechanoids of other authors; and there's Simak's characteristic bittersweet tone, maybe not so much pessimism as an underlying sense of sadness, which keeps his fiction from ever quite becoming The Waltons with spaceships. For want of any more precise definition, I would say the element which makes Simak's writing great is that it has soul, regardless of subject. So even Gunsmoke Interlude reads simply as a Simak tale rather than specifically as something which isn't science-fiction, and whilst The Call From Beyond invokes H.P. Lovecraft to a peculiar degree, it never reads as parody. Nowhere is the aforementioned soul more in evidence than the breathtaking All the Traps of Earth, a tale of robot redemption which I somehow doubt many other authors really could have pulled off without looking a bit silly, and - regardless of whether you'll forgive the sweeping statement - is possibly the epitomy of all that's been missing from science-fiction since Simak left for that great newsroom in the sky.

Hopefully this collection will sell by the truckload, thus meaning we'll get physical editions of the other thirteen volumes - four of which are already available as eBooks - perhaps leading to a broader discovery of this wonderful but increasingly neglected author. It certainly deserves to.

Purchase as many copies as you can reasonably afford (borrow money from friends if necessary) of this superb collection from your favourite retailer of physical books, or alternately procure electronic versions direct from Open Road Media.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My Education


William S. Burroughs My Education (1995)
This was Burrough's last book to be published whilst he was alive, and as with 1987's Western Lands you can kind of tell he was cramming for his finals, so to speak. The text comprises descriptions of dreams Burroughs' set down immediately upon waking - presumably over a long period given the quantity - worked into something which is at least as much a novel as any of the others, if more obviously autobiographical due to the general composition of many of the dreams.

For the least couple of decades I've tended to regard dreams as excursions to an actual place, namely the Precolombian Mexican underworld as described in T.J. Knab's autobiographical and ethnological A War of Witches. Knab describes indigenous Nahua belief in our entire world existing in replica down there, and how we visit this land of the dead in dreams, even meeting other dreamers as well as those who have passed on. Here I suppose I should stress that I don't subscribe to this idea as something literal so much as a useful understanding, one which lends our dreams a more interesting narrative than the traditional combination of cheese before bedtime revealing stereotypical desires to shag your own mother or whatever.

Anyway, with this in mind, My Education is both fascinating and surprisingly touching as autobiography. Whilst there's always a lot of the man in his writing, this time we additionally meet the people and things which I guess must have meant something to Burroughs, at least beyond the more familiar subjects of guns and bumholes. We meet Ian Somerville, Brion Gysin, and - oddly - Mick Jagger several times, and even Burroughs' parents; and we are taken to the places he lived, over and over, and are left with a feeling that it all adds up to something, even if what that might be eludes conventional description. My Education feels somewhat akin to setting a house in order prior to departure, as I suppose it possibly was, although this could simply be my reading of it. Whatever the case, the narrative reveals a gentle, likeable Burroughs in a way that his previous works have tended not to, without necessarily appearing out of character.

Very good.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Mask of Chaos


John Jakes Mask of Chaos (1970)
This is another of those Ace Doubles, and hence a title which has found its way to my bookshelf mainly by virtue of being stuck to the back of Barrington Bayley's The Star Virus. Typically I assumed John Jakes would turn out to be another forgotten pulp-by-association science fiction author, maybe even one in the vein of Robert Moore Williams if I was lucky. However, a quick pog at Wikipedia reveals this to be an obscure formative work by some guy who went on to shift novels by the truckload, mostly historical jobs set around the time of the American civil war and of the kind which tend to get adapted as television miniseries. North and South was one of his, if you've heard of that. I hadn't, but my wife watched it when she was a teenager. Patrick Swayze was in it and I understand there may have been some shagging and people saying that they do declare.

Mask of Chaos gets off to a start at least as promising as its wonderful cover, fast-paced and yet written with enough flair to suggest Jakes was at least trying, and with a pleasant sense of van Vogt-style Dadaism at work. There's an inventive if slightly peculiar use of language, such as space off as an expletive; but for all its screwy promise, the narrative quickly settles to a certain level of cheese which isn't exactly bad, but tends to limit one's expectations as to how good the rest of the thing is likely to be, or at least it limited my expectations:


'Poetess,' she corrected. 'That's not my real line. That's only what I write on customs forms. My real occupation is woman.'

'Yeah, I can certainly see that.'

The heavy attempt didn't go over. 'You think I'm playing word games. Wipe it. I'm not. There's little enough love out in the stars the way it is. If anybody should know that, from what Fochet explained about you, it should be you. I write poetry as a hobby. Otherwise I'm a full-time, professional woman. I've been a mother, a wife, a mistress, a sweetheart. Sometimes paid, sometimes not, depending on my need, the man's need, and the atmosphere of the situation. Do you realise, Mike, how many women on the inhabited planets work at all kinds of professions except the one profession for which they were specifically engineered? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the women everywhere are like that. Women, and everything but. But I'm a professional. Needless to say, it's not a recognised occupation. The authorities on most planets disapprove of seeing it on forms. I've learned to write poetess pretty fast.'

'I'll bet you're good at it.'

'At being a woman?'

'Yeah.'

She smiled, really smiled, then. Dazzling.

'I am. Be good and you might find out.'

Phwoar! Eh? Eh? They love it!

Mask of Chaos maroons our boy, Mike - a cyborg whose name is an inexplicable contraction of Micropig - on a world where everyone wears a mask. He hooks up with Ab, poetess and professional woman who provides the brains to his brawn, and then the two of them just sort of hang around in the vicinity of the story for the next hundred or so pages. The masks are worn because everyone is horribly disfigured, although we never discover why so it's probably some heavy-handed allegory. Mike and Ab find themselves in opposition to this masked society for no adequately explained reason given that the society in question doesn't seem particularly oppressive or dystopian. They spend most of the novel embroiled in a game - a deadly game in which the prize is etc. etc., which seems to be one of those deals such as we saw in Rollerball or any number of crappy future sport strips in 2000AD comic. Of course, it could have gone either way given that a story is as much how it is written as that which it is written about, but the problem here is that we don't actually find out what the objective of this game might be, how our couple are expected to win it, or what is at stake. There's some mumbled explanation about a game without rules, suggesting Jakes scrabbling at whatever van Vogt was trying to do in The World of Null-A, but it feels like an excuse, particularly as the same absence of either dynamic or purpose infects the story as a whole.

Mask of Chaos isn't bad, but it's hard to say what it actually is, which is a pity for something which starts off so well and with such original promise.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Jupiter's Legacy


Mark Millar & Frank Quitely Jupiter's Legacy (2015)
All I can say is Blimey! I've always liked Mark Millar's writing, or at least some of his writing, and I've always felt he had great potential; except every so often there would be something slightly shit or just plain fucking horrible and it would suddenly feel like the good stuff probably came about by accident. Throw sufficient numbers of starving transsexual Cambodians forced to consume their own dead fathers' AIDS infected penises on live television at the wall, and eventually one of them will stick and form a pattern which reminds you of Watchmen.

Jupiter's Legacy is yet more revisionist superheroics - caped types with superpowers in a world which behaves more or less like our own, at least in comparison to wherever Spiderman is supposed to live. It's been done a million times before, and yet here it is again but with such snappy vigour as to make it read like a new thing. I can't even tell how he does it, beyond that Millar seems to have an ear for natural dialogue, a great sense of timing, and a good understanding of how people work. Of course there are a couple of horrible moments as you might expect, but still nothing as bad as the slashfest of all that stuff drawn by those who look up to Rob Liefeld as an artistic role model. Millar's gore is repulsive because that sort of thing should be repulsive more than it should ever resemble something cool from a console game.

Jupiter's Legacy riffs on the whole great power equating to great responsibility equation and tries to answer the question of why Superman doesn't ever seem to get around to ending world hunger, our reliance on fossil fuels, or anything else which actually matters. This isn't a new idea, but it feels as though it is, or at least fails to resemble anything else of its kind which I can remember reading. It's a story of human - or rather superhuman frailty told on an epic scale without any of the usual pomposity or attempts to fool the reader with generic grandeur; and Frank Quitely's art is the best I've seen it, invoking the stately dynamism of Moebius and the like, and even the chins seem to be mostly under control.

As I read this I thought to myself Mark Millar is beginning to make Alan Moore and the rest look like hacks, which I know can't possibly be true even if it felt like it was. I wouldn't say Jupiter's Legacy is the greatest superhero comic ever written, but it's possibly the greatest superhero comic written since the previous greatest superhero comic ever written.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions


Edwin Abbott Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
I've read nothing but good things about this novel - or I suppose novella given its brevity - many of them on the back cover, which promises wry humour and penetrating satire, a mind-expanding journey comparable to that of Swift's Gulliver, and as prophetic a science-fiction classic as the works of H.G. Wells. The main character is a sentient square inhabiting a two-dimensional realm who encounters the denizens of three, four, one, and no-dimensional spaces and thusly tries to get his head around it all. I suppose we've been spoiled, living at the arse end of the twentieth century and having grown up with either James Burke or Carl Sagan explaining this kind of thing by means of either computer animation or a snooker table; but I still have my doubts. My copy of Flatland is published by Signet Classics, but then I suppose there's no such imprint as Signet Adequates.

The prose is breezy and readable and stuffed with the sort of ornate phraseology which has self-published CreateSpace steampunk novelists coming in their pants - or issuing most tenaciously in their finest Sunday pantaloons if you prefer; but Flatland is essentially a novelisation of one of those curly and straight animations you used to see on Rainbow in the 1970s. The humour may indeed be wry, but the satire didn't strike me as particularly penetrating, and if you were expecting a sort of mathematical version of Gulliver's Travels, then you're likely to be seriously disappointed. Whilst not without its good points, albeit good points mainly communicating ideas now so commonplace that we've seen them turn up in episodes of Scooby Doo, Flatland is written by a Victorian school teacher and is about as much fun as you would expect given this pedigree. I assume the hierarchy of dangerous, presumably elliptical two-sided females, a triangular servant class, square gentlemen, and polygonal intellectuals is what the book's fans have identified as satire, but I don't actually see anything resembling commentary on the English class system so much as a pseudo-mathematical echo composed for the sake of chuckles. Similarly the subjugation of Flatland's females described on the back cover doesn't seem to be saying anything much about emancipation, and as for the supposed sex amongst consenting triangles, I guess I must have blinked and missed that one.

Flatland is a faintly amusing novelty, but let's not get carried away here. Just because something is old and a bit cranky, doesn't mean it's a work of genius.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Consumer Guide


Simon Morris Consumer Guide (2016)
Simon Morris is the vocalist and - so far as I can tell - principal creative drive behind the Ceramic Hobs, a sort of Dadaist rockabilly band with whom you will be familiar if you've ever come into contact with the Mad Pride movement. I suppose you might also call him a raconteur, at least based on Bang Out of Order - a novella as fanzine about an imaginary version of the power electronics scene which I now deeply regret having sold on eBay - and the material he regularly secretes upon facebook and the like. Anyway, we may as well call him a writer because someone at Tegenaria Press enjoyed his writing enough to commission this, which is nice.

I've actually already read about half of the essays assembled here, but it's not a problem as there's something quite different about reading them as part of this collection. Aside from the obvious aesthetic appeal - just one hundred numbered copies of this lovingly produced hardback - the assemblage of this material brings out a personal quality I never noticed whilst picking this stuff out from amongst the digital detritus of Donald Trump, Kanye West and dresses which might be black or possibly blue.

Consumer Guide is autobiographical, although the lion's share of the page count is taken up by a series of annotated lists. The lists include overviews of the oeuvre of various bands, writers, film makers, artists, and so on, then lists of favourite pubs, drinks, and even just relationship tips. There's no really obvious progression or logic beyond these subjects being what Morris felt like writing about at the time. Some of it I skipped - although I should probably stress that I refer here to a page count in single figures - due to it seemingly having derived from a period during which Morris was channelling Mojo magazine - Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Morrissey, Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Lou bastard Reed - almost surprised that he missed out Rod Stewart and ELfuckingO; although to be fair, he finds something interesting to say about even the most militantly beige of their brethren. He also writes on Skullflower, Consumer Electronics, and his own band, most of which is fairly engrossing. Then there's the air-punchingly cathartic Your Favourite Band Are Shit which correctly identifies Billy Bragg, Primal Scream and other deserving sacred cows as the irredeemably useless wankers they are, and for which I happily forgive the author his banging on about Morrissey and Sonic Youth elsewhere.

This probably makes Consumer Guide sound a little like Steve Lowe and Alan MacArthur's Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? - nice try but still just one of those books you keep next to the toilet - but it really, really isn't. Whether dissecting obscure noise albums or comparing books written about the Moors murderers, the Morris testimony feels a lot like autobiography, something akin to mapping a room by describing its contents. It feels very much like a complete work, despite the scattered origination of the material, and might even be read as though we're following some kind of narrative. You might even call it educational.

There's not be much point trying to find a copy of this now as I understand the limited run to have sold out, but hopefully this spring will yield more of its like.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Wonder Effect


C.M. Kornbluth & Frederik Pohl The Wonder Effect (1962)
I bought this collection on the assumption that I'd probably already read it all in His Share of Glory, a car battery sized compendium of every short story Kornbluth ever wrote. I'd dedicated myself to His Share of Glory from start to finish over the course of a week, then concluded that most of the material, for all its wonderful qualities, would probably have been better digested in smaller doses; so I picked this up, it being just nine shorts and an introduction, and because I liked the cover. Happily, closer inspection revealed that due to these being collaborative works written with Frederick Pohl, I hadn't already read them after all. I'm familiar with a couple of the novels the two wrote together, and they're pretty great, leaving me with just the mystery of the title, The Wonder Effect, which doesn't actually refer to any of the stories within. I suppose it might be something to do with the sense of wonder instilled by the best sort of science-fiction short story but, to make the obvious joke for which I apologise in advance, it might just as well refer to the reader wondering why the hell these stories in particular should have been chosen.

Okay. That's unfair - a comment made mainly because the title was giving it away, and there's nothing here I'd describe as terrible. Unfortunately nor is there anything I would necessarily describe as amazing.

It's a mystery, as Toyah memorably observed. Kornbluth and Pohl were great together for Wolfbane, Search the Sky, and presumably the other collaborative novels which I haven't yet read. The same magic is evident here in lively, talkative, witty prose of a kind you don't often find in books with either a spaceship or an alien on the cover. It's intelligent and literate, and Nightmare With Zeppelins and The World of Myrion Flowers - an early and convincing indictment of segregation and racism in America - both hint at how great this collection really should have been. It's difficult to say what the problem could be or why. I assume it's some side effect of a collaborative process either failing to work as it should, or which is simply a poor fit for the short form despite having yielded great novels, resulting in stories which simply seem to go on about nothing for far too long, and narratives which slip the mind even as you're reading them. Paragraphs studied in isolation appear fine, but it is difficult to square the bland porridge of the whole with the author of The Marching Morons and the like.

Unless it was just me.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Galápagos


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Galápagos (1985)
This is the fifth Vonnegut I've read and I think I'm beginning to notice a certain consistency running through his life's work. It's the peculiar and conversational digressions coming together to form a pattern from seemingly disparate elements which make his novels so distinctive and so readable, but which threatens to become a little repetitive if the book isn't doing whatever else it should probably be doing.

Galápagos riffs on the selfsame island which proved so important to Charles Darwin's work, using the setting as birthplace for a successor to the human race, an amphibious species with much smaller brains. Their origin story is told by means of a monologue tangentially concerned with our extinction and where we're going wrong. As you might expect, there's a lot to love about this tale with Vonnegut's voice as ever giving an incongruously warm and humane testimony regardless of how horrible his characters turn out to be; and funny too, of course.

The problem, which may actually be me rather than the book, is that it just goes on a bit longer than it really needed to, its length seemingly dictated by how much fun the author was having. I rarely read anything in a single sitting, so it's a pain when I come back to a novel for the second or third stretch and realise that whilst the names are familiar, I can't otherwise remember anything about these people; and given Vonnegut's characteristically over-involved level of detail, this means I become confused and then frustrated, and then I stop caring. A paragraph picked at random from any point between the first and last pages will be full of wry observations made in lovingly crafted terms, but the whole doesn't quite hold together as well as it might. This is still an inspired book in most respects, but he's written better.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

X-Men: E is for Extinction


Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & others
X-Men: E is for Extinction (2002)

I've a feeling this may have been the one which got me back into reading comic books, and more significantly into actually buying comic books. As the nineties broke for half-time, the number of monthly titles I could be bothered to pick up had dwindled to just a few Vertigo efforts which I'd been following with ever-decreasing levels of enthusiasm. Then came Preacher in which Garth Ennis bravely experimented with references to that time we drank a million pints of Guiness and ended up in this really amazing Irish pub with this bloke playing one of those Irish tambourine things and we were all singing Pogues songs and we were sooo pissed and it was like really wild so it was and we were sooo hungover it was untrue as a substitute for narrative, and Morrison's Unreadables which was shit; and my comics habit began to feel like I'd found myself cornered by the world's most boring wanker at some party I hadn't really wanted to go to in the first place. Thusly did I pack it in.

Almost a decade later, probably not too many months before I committed to obsessively penning reviews of everything I read, I found this collection misplaced in some corner of the book store which patently wasn't comics and picked it up out of simple curiosity.

'So this is still going,' I scoffed to myself, feeling older and wiser before noticing that it was written by Grant Morrison. I'd had no idea he'd become quite so mainstream whilst I'd been looking in the other direction. X-Men was a superhero title which had once pissed over most of the competition, historically speaking, and the thought of it having been written by the author of the wonderful Zenith and Doom Patrol intrigued the shit out of me. I skimmed through the collection there in the shop, making sure it wasn't just an incoherent sequence of references to Aleister Crowley. It wasn't, and there seemed to be much to suggest that I'd be able to follow the story despite not having bothered with an X-Men comic since about 1992.

I loved the X-Men at least since junior school when the classic Lee and Kirby material had been reprinted in black and white in the back pages of something or other; and then again in about 1985 when shopping at the Maidstone branch of Safeway with Charlie Adlard, I noticed a comic bearing the same title with an individual I didn't recognise on the cover.

'Who the hell is that?' I wondered out loud.

'That's Wolverine,' Charlie told me, revealing a previously unsuspected interest in comic books.

'What does he do?'

'He has these metal claws,' Charlie explained, and so I bought the thing and became immediately addicted. This was the Chris Claremont run on X-Men. As a writer, Claremont had certain weaknesses - not least a propensity for way too many thought bubbles crammed with proto-emo corn - but he was always a fucking great storyteller. Over the next couple of years I became obsessed, faithfully following the ever-expanding catalogue of mutant titles until the whole edifice eventually began to collapse under the weight of its own overextended marketing. Suddenly Claremont was no longer involved, and Rob Liefeld was, and the formerly wonderful New Mutants had been cancelled, and it all seemed like a massive waste of everyone's time. It really felt as though Marvel were taking the piss, and so I took my wallet elsewhere.

Amazingly, Morrison's X-Men turned out to be every bit as good as I had hoped. He'd reigned in his own more self-indulgent tendencies and really tapped into the essence of what made the book so great back in its heyday, back when Chris Claremont had been pulling the sort of wacky twists which just shouldn't have worked and making it seem effortless - turning the bad guy into a hero, resurrecting the dead and so on: all the stuff which has become commonplace and prosaic in the tiresomely mannered storytelling of modern film and television and other media aspiring to be film and television. Morrison seemed like a natural for this book, pulling off all sorts of convoluted continuity derived intrigues without the off-putting fan-wankery so often associated with the form. It's soap opera with explosions, and is at least as much science-fiction as it was ever about leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Superheroes tend to entail a certain degree of wish fulfilment of the kind which appeals to outsider types, and the success of X-Men was always rooted in this idea, perhaps more so than has generally been true of the genre as a whole. You might wish for Superman or one of those others to sweep down, fix your broken glasses and retrieve your dinner money from Gripper Stebson, but you knew full well that you could never be like him, you weirdo. The X-Men, on the other hand, were similarly outcast and - once over the initial hump of expectations associated with a 1960s mainstream comic book - it wasn't even about fighting crime. X-Men was always about survival, about getting from A to B without having your head kicked in. Even if the readers weren't actually strange mutants with peculiar powers, they may as well have been so far as our Gripper Stebsons were concerned. Accordingly Morrison's X-Men is an appeal for tolerance and an indictment of the censorious and religious right as representative of everything which is wrong with society; and the message is somehow written in block capitals without so much as a whiff of preachy, which is some feat.

Even with the massive chins of Frank Quitely, this is a raw and unalloyed joy to read. It's at least as solid as anything Chris Claremont ever wrote and is amongst Morrison's very best - right up there with Zenith and Doom Patrol if you ask me.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

King of the Fourth Planet


Robert Moore Williams King of the Fourth Planet (1962)
Here's another one of those forgotten science-fiction authors who dominated book stands for the first half of the last century - a million novels to his name and yet remembered at best as typically adequate by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The description seems to square with a boggle-eyed cover promising the god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine, a cover I encountered only when I flipped over an Ace Double partially inhabited by the wonderful Katherine MacLean. Had it not been for her, this probably wouldn't have found its way into my collection, which would have been a shame.

The promised man-wolf is actually just some bloke with a bit of a shitty attitude rather than actual lupine characteristics, and the pop-eyed cover star turns out to be the hero, contrary to expectation; and contrary to everything else suggested by both the cover painting and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, whilst this one may fall short of masterpiece status, it's a long way from being the work of a hack churning out one space opera after another for the sake of paying a bill.

King of the Fourth Planet has some of the functional hard-boiled cadence of its supposed type whilst reading like a more coherent van Vogt - all of the surrealism forced to stand in a straight line and act like a proper narrative. The story occurs on Mars amongst native Martians and deals with John Rolf, the main character, having created a machine which allows the user to read the minds of others. So far so Flash Gordon you might think, but as the narrative progresses it begins to feel increasingly allegorical, and allegorical in the sense of A Voyage to Arcturus and related novels of the Symbolist era rather than William Shatner noticing how the really ugly aliens are actually polite and fairly helpful. The setting is Suzusilmar, described as a Martian holy mountain comprising seven distinct levels. I don't know enough of Dante's Divine Comedy to say whether there are any intentional parallels with Mount Purgatorio, but I imagine Williams had something of the sort in mind given that each level is associated with the advance of technology, culture, and spiritual thought, with the peak of the mountain representing the pinnacle of each. Moving from one level to another is the King of the Fourth Planet, a Messianic figure whom we initially fail to recognise because he appears only as a blind beggar on the lower slopes of the mountain. The key to John Rolf's machine is that it allows one to see into the minds of others and to understand their true motives; so for the sake of the story it is regarded as an innovation which will put an end to all the shitty stuff - wars and what have you - and is thus much sought after. Those doing the seeking represent companies from Earth fearful that Rolf's I-machine will bring about the end of marketing, greed, consumerism, capitalism, and even materialism.

Of course, one might read all of this as no more than an episode of Star Trek wearing a kaftan, but the emphasis on spiritual journeys and the like, couched as they are in terms which pay very few concessions to either space opera conventions or alien biology, suggests that Williams' intention was more ambitious. Whether he succeeded or not is debatable, but this is a weird little book, very engaging, and anything but average.