Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Indestructible Man

Simon Messingham The Indestructible Man (2004)
I was having a shitty day and I wanted comfort food, and then I remembered that there were still a couple of these old BBC Who novels I'd never got around to reading, and this one seemed a safe bet due to a vague memory of someone or other saying it was amongst the better efforts.

It isn't. At least I hope it isn't. It's been a while since I was obsessively buying a couple of these things every month, and while there have been a few stone cold classics which I've revisited and found to actually be humungously shit, I know there were some decent ones - Ghost Devices, The Taking of Planet 5, Christmas on a Rational Planet and so on, all of which I've revisited and found worth the effort; but - to get to the point - rose-tinted spectacles or not, I can't quite bring myself to believe that this represents anything but the lower end.

It's essentially Doctor Who vs. Captain Scarlet with Patrick Troughton dematerialising in the world once painted for us by Gerry Anderson through the magic of string puppets. To be specific, it's the world several years after the events of Gerry Anderson's UFO as retrofitted to Captain Scarlet continuity so that the saucer people from UFO were actually the Mysterons. In case it isn't obvious from the cover with Wendy Padbury's face photoshopped onto a tinsel-wigged Anderson dolly bird, there are problems with this whole concept.

Firstly, there's no real reason for Captain Scarlet fanfic to exist. It was fine as a kid's puppet show. Excepting maybe action figures, Dinky toys and annuals at Christmas, it never needed to be anything else.

Secondly, the serial numbers have been filed off for the obvious legal reasons so that, for example, SPECTRUM becomes PRISM, and Ed Straker's SHADO becomes Hal Bishop's SILOET - shadow, silhouette, and Straker was played by Ed Bishop - do you see? The problem with this is that it becomes irritating quickly, bordering on unbearable by the time we arrive at bootleg Thunderbirds continuity with Brains recast as Boffin - because apparently that name was the next best alternative - and Tracy Island as Sharon Island.

Seriously? Sharon Island? That's what you came up with?

Thirdly, with just the details described thus far, we might have been all right but for how fucking grim this world has become. Society has broken down, much like in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta - so we have death penalties, paramilitary law enforcement, slave labour, rape, murder, death, broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care. I vaguely recall an episode of Captain Scarlet where our boy is sacked from SPECTRUM and ends up pissed with a five o'clock shadow in some dive bar asking what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this just before he falls of his stool like the hopeless radgie cunt he has apparently become, all of which turns out to be a ruse designed to lull the Mysterons into a false sense of security; and while it was grim, this is considerably grittier and nastier; and children's television characters being raped whilst taking heroin was amusing up until about 1979 at the most recent; so just no.

Fourthly, none of the above would have been an insurmountable obstacle were it simply written a little better, like with a hint of something other than a book clicking its heels together and wishing it were on the box, and in doing so mistaking tension and pacing with that vague impersonation of a Lynda La Plante voiceover which people who'd much rather be writing screenplays tend to equate with hard-hitting drama; because books are just telly with no pictures innit.

At last he turned, taking in Alex Storm's pockmarked, brutal face. A face that hid a searing intelligence. Oh, and a psychotic homicidal personality.

Why does that need to be three sentences, particularly when only the first actually does what a sentence is traditionally supposed to do?

Oh, and a psychotic homicidal personality.

See, that's just an isolated description of something, and not even a very good one given that the pertinent psychosis hardly requires statement because there isn't really such a thing as a light-hearted homicidal personality; and the tale shifts point of view from page to page, so oh, and used as though we're party to actual thoughts is simply annoying and reads like an author trying too hard; or who just doesn't read much.

The air was sweet with decay.

Dude, learn to fucking write.

The thing with TV tie-in fiction, or indeed anything using material established in another medium, is that at least some of the labour is already done for the author, allowing them to invoke a familiar character rather than endure all the usual donkey work of writing a book - usually amounting to having Patrick Troughton exclaim oh my giddy aunt every few pages in this case, although admittedly The Indestructible Man seems more or less untroubled by that particular cliché. Unfortunately this also leads to authors not bothering to do the rest of the work they might normally be required to do when writing a novel, instead just pinning a series of name tags to some half-assed plot and trusting that it'll be screened as an episode of a television show in our respective mind's eyes, but probably with better effects. This is why I would say it's actually harder to write this kind of thing well than it is to generate original material, because hands up who remembers Stingray? does not in itself constitute world-building any more than Peter Kay asking the same question constitutes comedy.

Fuck it, why not...

Fifthly, it turns out that the surviving Tracy brother - or rather the surviving Sharon brother tee-hee - very much enjoys the music of Scott Walker, which is probably harmless, but nevertheless seems to relate to one of those aspects I always loathed about written Who fiction, namely the bit where the author gives us a nod to his fave bands, which is almost always either the Cure or the Smiths, and just reads like okay, I know I can't write but I'm doing my best, and I'm aware that I haven't quite got these plot details to add up to an even number, but hey! Who likes Love Cats? What a classic!

I get the feeling I'm expected to submit an imaginary high-five. This guy digs the Cure! Wow! How cool is that!? It never works for me. If anything, it has the opposite of the presumably desired effect because apparently I hate the music beloved of most Who authors - particularly the Cure and the Smiths - so from my perspective it's like having someone you don't know digging you in the ribs as prelude to an uncomfortable conversation falsely predicated on a shared love of Jonathan King and Skrewdriver.

Of course, none of the above will have mattered to a section of the readership, because the narrative, what it does, or how well it does it are subsidiary to the cast of characters, the boxes ticked, the continuity slot it occupies between The Space Pirates and The Menagerie, or the fact of it carrying a particular logo on the cover. For some, the quality of the story will be its least crucial aspect, which is I suppose how so much of this stuff has managed to get itself published over the years.

Yet, in spite of all of the above, The Indestructible Man isn't terrible, although I realise that you'll have to squint one fuck of a lot to read that as praise. It's an annoying book and I didst groan and wail and gnash my teeth with some frequency, but mostly it manages to keep from becoming boring, despite everything. I think the tragedy - if that isn't an overstatement considering that none of this really matters - is that there was probably a half-decent novel in here. It's hard to care about the characters, so oddly, their shoddy construction doesn't really get in the way so much as it might, and the narrative just about holds together as an averagely intriguing mystery while we try to work out just what the hell the Myloki formerly known as Mysterons actually are, knowing full well the answer will probably be a massive disappointment.

So there you go. The Indestructible Man was better than I suppose I expected in so much as that it hints at the potential to have been readable; but could have been worse is hardly a recommendation.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1985)
I've just noticed how my favourite Vonnegut is the first one I read and I've enjoyed each successive title a little less than its predecessor, which seems unfortunate and is probably more to do with my noticing a pattern than whatever qualities the books may have. The pattern I've noticed is how we're introduced to a character - let's call him Gary for the sake of argument - and then we have a few pages of Gary pottering about in the tool shed; he picks up a spanner which was given to him by his father, so we have a few pages about Gary's father, famed inventor of something we'll call the Splunge, then we see Gary's father getting into a Splunge-related argument with Doris at the patent office, then how Doris always wanted to write poetry but was dissuaded from doing so by her dentist, then cut to the guy who would be well and truly screwed if there was a Splunge in every home...

Vonnegut always seems to meander in this way - at least based on those I've read - and whilst it can be entertaining in isolation, it's begun to irritate me after six or seven novels. It may allow for some pleasantly amusing digressions but can distract one from getting to grips with the point of the book. I actually read the first sixty pages of this and then started again, having realised I was lost and with no idea of who these people were supposed to be. As formulas go, it's nothing like so irritating as Douglas Adams, but it gets in the way a bit. Vonnegut being Vonnegut, the material strung along this meandering train of thought is generally wonderful, but keeping track of it can be a pain in the arse. His stories rely on cause and effect more than those foggy narratives from which an impression is all you really need - as with William Burroughs - so when the story is obscured by its own telling, there's a problem.

This is a shame because God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is otherwise a great book, so far as I can see. The Mr. Rosewater of the title is one of America's richest men but is painfully aware of his privilege, and takes greater pleasure from work as a volunteer fire fighter. This distinguishes him as clinically insane in the eyes of those for whom wealth is an end in itself, specifically those with a vested interest in Mr. Rosewater behaving according to his fortune. This has quite some resonance for me as relative by marriage to a Texas oil tycoon who himself prefers the company of hillbillies and was once a volunteer fireman.

What gets me most about these people, Daddy, isn't how ignorant they are, or how much they drink. It's the way they have of thinking that everything nice in the world is a gift to the poor people from them or their ancestors. The first afternoon I was here, Mrs. Buntline made me come out on the back porch and look at the sunset. So I did, and I said I liked it very much, but she kept waiting for me to say something else. I couldn't think of what else I was supposed to say, so I said what seemed like a dumb thing. 'Thank you very much,' I said. That was exactly what she was waiting for. 'You're entirely welcome,' she said. I have since thanked her for the ocean, the moon, the stars in the sky, and the United States Constitution.

I read that passage out loud to my wife and she immediately knew who I'd been reminded of. Anyway, the novel is a fairly straightforward argument against the dehumanising influence of excessive wonga.

'No more apologies! So we're poor! All right, we're poor! This is America! And America is one place in this sorry world where people shouldn't have to apologise for being poor. The question in America should be, 'Is this guy a good citizen? Is he honest? Does he pull his own weight?' '

It's a good argument and it's well stated in entertaining terms, with some pleasantly ludicrous asides to the work of the Vonnegut's fictitious science-fiction author, Kilgore Trout; but at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I just think the whole thing could have been tighter.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Wailing Asteroid

Murray Leinster The Wailing Asteroid (1960)
The Wailing Asteroid belongs to the science-fiction subgenre populated by persons who discover weird abandoned space stations full of mysterious control panels, although there's a chance I may actually be confusing an entire subgenre with the Space Patrol strip in the 1966 TV Comic annual. Anyway, this is Rendevous With Rama on a budget, loosely speaking, the story of a thoroughly Gernsbackian hero-inventor who builds his own spaceship - far in advance of anything either the Russians or his fellow Americans have been able to come up with - in order to investigate an ominous asteroid which is approaching Earth whilst emitting worrying noises - the asteroid I mean, not the bloke.

The novel is firmly of its time as they say, roughly representative of the great bulk of magazine science-fiction we tend not to remember or reprint these days because it wasn't written by Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, which is a shame. The female characters are seemingly brought along so that the men have something nice for their tea at the end of a hard space-day's exploring, but there's probably not much joy to be had getting pissy about it, and the sexism is fairly low-key, if not actually highly entertaining. Leinster's style is brisk and chatty, working just fine regardless of the reader's age - neither too dense for the kids nor too simplistic for adults, and it's probably not great literature, but neither is it in any sense bad, and it thankfully never reads like a book which wishes it were on the telly. Perhaps ironically and certainly bewilderingly, The Wailing Asteroid was adapted for the big screen as The Terrornauts starring, amongst others, Charles Hawtrey. I'd never heard of it until I read this thing, and all I can find online is the cinematic trailer, which suggests that the production was faithful to Leinster's original, if otherwise as creaky as fuck with effects which make seventies comedy sketches taking the piss out of bad special effects - visible strings with sparklers to suggest rocketry - seem almost slick. The novel is lacking a character who pulls faces and comments oooh - that's a nice big one, so I've no idea what they did with Charles Hawtrey.

Anyway, despite what one might expect from that which I've described thus far, The Wailing Asteroid takes all sorts of genuinely unexpected twists and turns, avoids most of the potential clichés, or at least only commits amusing ones, and squares well with the main reason why I would ever pick up a science-fiction novel in the first place - namely the promise of the unexpected, that one should have no idea as to what will happen. This is why I've avoided giving away too much of what our guys and gals find when they reach the asteroid. I'm not saying it's wonders beyond imagination, but the book follows its own path rather than just ticking off the usual boxes in the style of anything involving evil empires, plucky rebels, and rag-tag fleets.

There's no such word as rag-tag, by the way. It only ever appears in sentences describing large numbers of crap spacecraft and is never used in real life, so if we could all stop perpetuating it, that would be great.

Pardon me.

Anyway, yes - The Wailing Asteroid is great; probably not quite a lost classic, but certainly a lost thumping good yarn.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Helliconia Summer

Brian Aldiss Helliconia Summer (1983)
By way of a recap, this is the second of three doorstops describing a year in the history of Helliconia, a world very similar to Earth in many respects, aside from these humans sharing their world with the Phagors - a semi-civilised race of carnivorous goats, sort of - and the fact of their year lasting several thousand of our own. They've survived the long, long winter to emerge in Helliconia Spring as a reasonably intelligent stone-age culture, and by the time we rejoin the story in this novel they're going through something vaguely equivalent to our own renaissance. Somebody has invented a primitive firearm, whilst others discuss the motion of celestial bodies, evolution, or are busy having Galapagos-themed adventures.

As with the previous volume, the emphasis is on human political interaction as a sort of geological process, although I had more difficulties with this one and its focus on the Borgia-esque intrigues of various ruling families full of characters with impenetrable names visiting places identified by what often looks like a bad hand at Scrabble. Having myself committed the supposed sin of populating a novel with funny foreigners, I generally don't find this sort of thing a problem. Just repeat the name to yourself a few times out loud, and you soon build up some sort of impression of, for example, JandolAnganol as an individual. However, I feel the problem may run a little deeper here. This I deduce from my copy missing half of chapter nine. I popped along to the local library and was luckily able to borrow an intact edition, thus allowing me to read the bits I'd been missing. Then when I returned to the pages of my own copy, I realised I'd already read the next few chapters as they had appeared prior to chapter nine, so my version was missing about thirty pages, with another hundred or so collated in the wrong order which was as I'd read them, and I'd barely noticed.

That said, Helliconia Summer does enough to keep you reading, or it did for me, which is slightly peculiar. At times I found it quite boring, but at no point was I tempted to pack it in and read something else instead. I suppose the crucial point is that it works as intended, as a broad sweep of allegorically human history, so whilst it may be the details which hold the immediate interest, or at least some of them, it isn't actually necessary to care about, for example, the king or the convolutions of his divorce; and most importantly, it ends with just enough revelation and drama to have left me looking forward to the final part.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years

Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Dave Gibbons & others
Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume one (2015)

In his introduction, Garth Ennis writes that while 2000AD's 1977 reinvention of Dan Dare as a generic action hero may have annoyed purists, we all loved him because we were too young to have read the original in Eagle and he was our Dan Dare - the we here equating to my generation. The thing is, I'm not sure this is strictly true. I was myself very much familiar with the earlier Dan Dare through a stack of Eagle annuals inherited from my dad who had read the comic when he was a kid; and even after it had been cancelled, Dan remained sufficiently popular as to warrant his own Fleetway annuals. I still have the one which came out in 1973 reprinting The Red Moon Mystery and Safari in Space; so most of us knew who he was, I would say.

That said, I'm probably just splitting hairs, because the return of Dan Dare was why I started buying 2000AD, and the main reason why I continued to buy it during those first couple of years. I've seen it argued that Dan Dare as Sid Vicious and then Joe Strummer has been somewhat relegated to the basement of comic book history simply because it wasn't very good. After all, this is the Dare who kicks your ass, hangs out with ne-er-do-wells, and says rude words such as stomm and possibly even drokk. In defence of our boy, I've also seen it argued that if you look closely you will notice that the Eagle version of the strip was also badly written juvenile piffle despite those lovely pictures.

Well, I have had a look and it simply isn't true. Rather this seems to be a case of someone being unable to tell the difference between something which is badly written and something which is simply aimed at a fairly young audience. The Hampson and Bellamy Dare may be a little stilted due to having been delivered in a million instalments of just one and three-quarter pages each; and old Dan was stylistically very much of its time, but it never pandered and should at least be credited with concessions made to yer actual proper science and a surprisingly progressive attitude towards persons other than the white, English, Christian, and male. Most notably it didn't seem to require that there be either an explosion or someone firing a gun every three panels.

Tharg's Dare is bewildering and inept by comparison. The stories are vehicular to massive implausible ideas such as the Biogs with their living spaceships, and in terms of plot the stories verge on Scooby Doo levels of thin. No less than two tales in this collection conclude with food gags punning whichever generic menace has been defeated in the preceding panels - one of Dan's crew remarks that he's built up quite a hunger following the team's escape from a desert planet of living sand, and so Bear jokes that he will happily eat anything except a sandwich; and I can even remember a third one of these - a no cauliflower cheese for me zinger which concluded a story presumably scheduled for reprint in the second volume.

Bear is the huge Russian ex-cosmonaut Dan hires as a general puncher of faces. He refers to himself in third person and, like many of the characters, often describes what he's doing for the benefit of the reader - 'Stava! Bear's astro-axe spikes the alien guns,' as we watch him swing the aforementioned nuclear-assisted axe into the mechanism of some alien weapon; in this case a weapon belonging to the Starslayers who live on a planet called Starslay and who are ruled over by their Dark Lord, who actually knows he's a bad guy. I have no idea how or why the axe is nuclear-assisted. It just is, okay?

It's not simply that new things are always rubbish. Tharg's Dan Dare really was a poor effort compared with the original, at least in terms of narrative relationship with its readers. Aside from the name and the fact of his being recognised by the Mekon, he may as well have been Dredger or Hellman or John Probe or any other generically grizzled action hero from a seventies comic; and yet knowing all of the above, I can't help but love this stuff in spite of itself.

The key is, I suppose, the art combined with those previously mentioned massive implausible ideas - the Biog's living technology, the Shepherds, the Two of Verath in his hollow planet, the Roman-style vampires and their heart-shaped spaceships. This stuff once blew my mind on a weekly basis in a way that not even Doctor Who could manage, and so much so that I never noticed how there was hardly a story underneath. Now that I'm fifty, the same tales have lost some of their initial impact, but the shortfall is made up with massive blasts of memory sherbert going off every few panels. Nostalgia alone shouldn't really be enough to save a strip, which is where the art comes in. Belardinelli's figures were often ropey, but you don't really notice here, and he was at his absolute weirdest drawing the Sid Vicious version of Dare in those early progs - bordering on the Hieronymous Bosch of the comic strip; and it looks so fucking amazing that it doesn't seem to matter that the dialogue - mostly bloody awful as it is - should be reduced to something like background music, a sort of word condiment sprinkled across the artwork for the sake of flavour. The same roughly applies to the Dave Gibbons version which, if not quite so visually arresting, has enough of a pleasantly chunky quality to compensate for crappy or even non-existent narrative.

A few years later, a version of Eagle returned and reclaimed Dan Dare for its own. I had a look at the thing, but despite the admittedly bed-wettingly gorgeous art of Ian Kennedy, it seemed like a boy band version of the character, a pointless exercise in recreating the original magic by following the same recipe which failed because the rest of the universe had long since moved on; and this was why Dan Dare worked so well in 2000AD, because I was twelve and it absolutely nailed the spirit of its time, for better or worse.

Having only just found out that Belardinelli is no longer with us, this also comes as a wonderful reminder of just how magnificently weird his art was at its best. I can't help feel that had somebody pushed him in the general direction of a life drawing class or two, he might have been remembered with the sort of reverent tone generally reserved for the likes of Kirby, Ditko and Moebius.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

New Worlds 157

Michael Moorcock (editor) New Worlds 157 (1965)
Here's another oddity, specifically a magazine, albeit a magazine published as a standard paperback - as I guess were other issues of Moorcock's New Worlds. Someone sent me this through the post, I made a mental note to read it at some point and it went onto the shelves, there to remain unread because I rarely bother with periodicals - which is an explanation of how my brain works rather than some sort of manifesto. I know Fantasy & Science Fiction to be wonderful, and Asimov's and Analog have their moments, but if I read the magazines I'd never find time to read books, and there's so much I still want to read and I don't even know if I'll be alive long enough to get through all of it.

Anyway, New Worlds ran for a long, long time, and was pretty much the English magazine of new science fiction. It had a reputation for innovation, for taking risks on weirdos, and as such is probably directly responsible for at least some degrees of the fame enjoyed by Brian Aldiss, Moorcock himself, Harry Harrison, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, and others. There's nothing historically remarkable about this particular issue beyond that it seems typically solid. Colin Fry's Ernie and Langdon Jones' Transient sort of make you wish that at least one of them had gone on to bigger, better publicised things, whoever they were; and Moorcock contributes something which ended up in one of the Jerry Cornelius books, but mostly this serves as a fascinating snapshot of its milieu, an era when science-fiction was something you read, nine times out of ten, which seems a more civilised state of affairs than is presently the case. Being a periodical, there's an editorial concerned mostly with a convention at which fancy dress was still termed fancy dress, and there's a review of Ray Bradbury's newie - Dandelion Wine apparently, and very good it sounds too - and, best of all, a terse advice column written by one Dr. Peristyle, apparently Brian Aldiss in stealth mode.

All I ask of a story is that it tells a story. Why do writers insist on trying to give me more? asks Betty Pierce of Diss, Norfolk.

I suppose the answer is that there are writers who write for the likes of you, madam, Aldiss responds, but the good ones hope to avoid you.


I might have to hunt down a few more of these.