Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Adventures on Other Planets

Donald A. Wollheim (editor) Adventures on Other Planets (1955)
The cover alone was difficult to resist, even without the promise of short stories by three of my all-time favourite science-fiction authors, and Robert Moore Williams whose King of the Fourth Planet I recently enjoyed above and beyond expectation; although that said, it's a slim volume so there's probably not much to add beyond that I enjoyed it.

I read Simak's Ogre in a collection back in March, and although I still find it faintly bewildering, it's nevertheless enjoyable and full of typically nutty ideas, and in this context serves to illustrate the sheer poetry of Simak's prose; which isn't to say that it's necessarily sandwiched between clunkers so much as that the collection allows one to appreciate how Simak's writing might almost be deemed a genre in its own right.

Murray Leinster's Assignment on Pasik is a little underwhelming I suppose, but Robert Moore Williams' contribution - presumably the short which was expanded as the aforementioned King of the Fourth Planet - more than compensates as a vaguely philosophical take on van Vogt; and van Vogt's own heavily sculpted The Rull gives sufficient cause to confirm that Damon Knight was talking out of his arse; and Roger Dee's The Obligation is also decent.

Science-fiction as a genre has an unfortunate reputation of tending to peddle the same old crap over and over, particularly work of this vintage, and this collection is as good a refutation of the argument as any. Sure, there are spaceships and aliens and intrepid Earth people setting foot on other planets, but once we're past those basics, there's some truly screwy, unpredictable shit going on in this one.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

This Book is Fucking Stupid

Christopher Nosnibor This Book is Fucking Stupid (2013)
One problem with post-modernism is, in my view, that it's just too easy. Any fucking idiot can implement some ham-fisted attempt to disguise the fact of his masterpiece being a pile of shit by cleverly drawing attention to it being a pile of shit, and I'm not fooled. I've done it myself. When, after two years of a fine art degree specialising in the moving image, I experienced terminal exhaustion with my admittedly juvenile films and videos failing to garner the tutorial praise I thought they deserved, I switched to churning out a series of videos about the medium of video because I thought that was what my tutors wanted, or at least expected, and that seemed to be what they responded to. It was a piece of piss. I was spewing out that self-aware shit like a spigot. One of them was called Made in One Day and its subject was the fact of it having taken me only one day to make the piece from start to finish; and my 2.2 average grade accordingly went up to a 2.1 for about six months, at least until it became obvious that I was just working the system.

Post-modernism, Nosnibor suggests somewhere or other in this novel, or anti-novel as he calls it, seems mostly concerned with the death of certain media; and so this one is concerned with the death of the modern novel. This places me in an unfortunate position because I'm not really sure what that is, although hopefully it's not Fifty Shades of Shite. I have a hunch the modern novel may have been the stuff Marian used to read, usually either because she'd found it cheap in a charity shop or had read an article about it in Time Out - worthily yawnsome shite such as Life of Pi or Alexander McCall-Smith, the sort of thing which has generally made me feel slightly proud of my criteria being is there a fucking big spaceship on the front cover, or at least maybe an alien? I'm not entirely sure, but if Marian was into it, then it probably needs to die, so fair enough. I never quite worked out why she read what she read, or why she liked anything she liked, but I always had the impression that personal taste wasn't a factor, because she wasn't really interested in anything, not exactly.

Curiously enough, our relationship had certain parallels with that of Ben and Ruth in this anti-novel, and while this may not in itself be significant, it's significant to me as the reader, which is probably the point, or one of them. Nosnibor is clearly a massive fan of William Burroughs, and specifically the cut-up technique he employed to such dynamic effect, although Nosnibor is possibly unique in being a massive fan of William Burroughs doing something other than just going through the same motions. The principal of the cut-up technique is on one level the invocation of a degree of realism not found in the more traditionally structured narrative. The cut-up does to text - and by text we mean information - what, for example, Boccioni did for representational art when he painted The Street Enters the House, an image of his mother - so it is presumed - intersected by the details of her environment, street, balcony, buildings, noise, and even a passing horse; because if this sort of montage does not necessarily represent its subject, it is  nevertheless closer to our non-linear experience of the same. Yes it is.

Along the same lines regarding dialogue:

People don't speak in neatly formed and perfectly punctuated sentences, and don't wait for their interlocutor to finish speaking before they begin: words tumble from the mouth of everyone, they double back and repeat themselves, they contradict themselves, they stumble and stutter, they utter inanities, non-sentence, non-sequiturs, cutting one another up, speaking over one another and finishing one another's sentences, and not always correctly.

This applies to human experience as much as it does to what we say in that our descriptions of the same tend to follow particular types of linear narrative which don't always genuinely reproduce that which is described. This Book is Fucking Stupid therefore strives for something closer to experience by shattering its own narrative and blending it with other material, often written directly from the author's point of view. So we have the two friends described on the back cover as they wrestle with mid-life crises cut in with Nosnibor explaining what he's trying to do, reviews of the novel, or possibly reviews of other novels. It appears disjointed if you're expecting progress from one place to another in the traditional order, but nevertheless adds up to a surprisingly coherent whole.

There are problems, or at least I had a few problems, but they may be deliberate. Certainly the endless typos, fuck-ups and misspellings seem too incongruous to have been left in by accident, and almost seem to work as a way of involving the reader in the editing process, drawing us in to the narrative, making us accomplices - which is, by the way, almost certainly the wankiest sentence I've ever written. Additionally, the characters aren't particularly sympathetic and possibly because why should they be? Nosnibor slips in lines from Killing Joke, Whitehouse, Foetus and others, just like I've been prone to do back when I imagined a mention of my fave band would get the reader on my side, lending the scene I'd just written with my bright green crayon all the majesty of the closing bars of Killing Joke's Rubicon. I already wrote about how much I hate that sort of thing back in May, so I'll avoid repeating myself beyond stating that references to Editors, Interpol, Foo Fighters and others get on my tits at least as much as anyone else half my age going on about how I should check these guys out because they sound like Joy Division or Bauhaus, when the former were never as good as their legend would have it and the latter were shite even at the best of times - more or less just some cartoon vampire saying behold the spider in a spooky voice through an echo box over and over; but, I've a feeling that's exactly the point.

Fucking Stupid invokes the boredom of a meaningless existence founded on half-assed hopes and cultural detritus circling round and round and round, connecting with its subject like nothing before - or not very much before - leaving the modern novel with nothing else left to do; or something like that. I suppose I still prefer Bukowski and his like for this sort of thing, but Nosnibor kind of goes one further by making his characters such unglamorous wankers that he kills all potential for romance stone dead. I'm assuming that was his intention.

The funny thing is that I read this immediately after a couple of nights spent watching James Corden and Matthew Baynton's The Wrong Mans on Hulu - a generally amusing but faintly irritating comedy more or less epitomising the BBC's rebranding of artistic spontaneity and freewheeling chuckles as a generic corporate resource - and so I found myself reading Ben and Stuart as characters played by James Corden and Matthew Baynton in the show, because they kind of are, except rather than being funny, it's just depressing, and there's thankfully no-one to pull a comic long-suffering face every ninety seconds.

This Book really should be Fucking Stupid, or at least just plain awful, and yet somehow it succeeds, because it is; and therefore isn't, if you see what I mean. I'm impressed.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


Iain M. Banks Excession (1996)
I've had occasion to give up on Iain Banks in the past, notably with The Algebraist which just seemed too shit to carry on with at the two-hundred page mark - something which should, by rights, be impossible with the work of someone who writes so well. I didn't give up on this one, instead making it right through to the last page, but - Jesus - there were times when it was a struggle to remember why I was bothering.

I suppose for all its faults, Excession does plenty of the sort of thing which Iain Banks did well with the powerful prose, reasonable depth of character, mind-blowing weirdness, and casual wit - the kind of stuff Douglas Adams might have achieved had he written a book which didn't spend the entirety of its page count winking and digging you in the ribs whilst asking whether you get it; on which count I particularly enjoyed the presence of a warship named the Frank Exchange of Views. Even reading with no fucking clue as to what's supposed to be happening, generally this one can be read with the assurance that the less interesting passages will usually give way to something a bit more engaging - if not necessarily comprehensible - within the next ten minutes or so.

I get the impression there may have been some mythological allusion in characters who change sex, become heavy with child, and then change sex again, all in the presence of a talking bird; but I may just be imagining that. Elsewhere in the story there's some kind of ethical debate possibly amounting to whether or not we're truly liberal if we tolerate the presence of Fascism in our society, or the other way around; in any case I'm not sure any conclusion was reached. So we have an agent of some description doing something or other in relation to a reality-warping intrusion from another universe, none of which seems to bear any strong resemblance to the blurb on the back cover, unless I sleep-read a couple of chapters without realising. There are a million characters, or so it seems, and it's difficult to be absolutely clear on what any of them are up to at any given time or what their motives could be. One particularly bewildering sequence in the life of Genar-Hoefen, for example, is muddled by flashback sequences alternating with contemporary narrative, and nothing much to indicate that these are separate episodes in the life of a single individual. I read about a hundred pages assuming I'd missed some crucial distinction back at the start, wondering if the two of them were supposed to be related.

So yeah - beautifully written and all that, but it was kind of a big pile of bollocks really, despite a few nice images. So that's another five days during which I could have been reading something else.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Disney Alice Through the Looking Glass

Kari Sutherland & Linda Woolverton
Disney Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

I'm going to work with the assumption that this is a novel about a woman named Disney Alice, that being how her name appears on the cover and title page. I refuse to acknowledge Disney as referring to an author or authors because it would be undignified, given how the name of Lewis Carroll appears only once as small print, a creator credit, as though he were just one of the team, because Disney Alice Through the Looking Glass definitely wasn't written by Carroll. Its authorial heritage in full is given as adapted by Kari Sutherland, based on the screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on characters created by Lewis Carroll, produced by Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Tim Burton, and directed by James Bobin. The corporate efficiency of the list presents a stark contrast to the appearance of the book, a lavishly bound hardback with a colour plate on the cover and wonky pages of hand-knitted paper cut to uneven sizes. It's a real quality product, and I'm willing to bet that each copy was individually hand-crafted by authentic crofters living on the Arran Islands - which is over there in Englishland, which you probably didn't know; and it's been brought to us by the Disney Press - not Disney Books or Disney Publishing, but the Disney Press. I expect their head office is the stone hut next to the one with the artisan crofting craftsmen who didst forge the tome by the very sweat of their honest brows.

To get to the point, this isn't Through the Looking Glass, Carroll's sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as is probably obvious. Through the Looking Glass opens with Alice, who I would guess to be about eight, possibly younger, playing with her kittens in front of the fireplace in view of a large mirror through which she will soon travel. By contrast, here we meet Disney Alice as an adult, the feisty captain of a sailing ship returning to port from a series of adventures, and despite having been the presumably successful captain of her own ship for three years, returning home she is preoccupied with thoughts of her father and whether he will at last give her the blessing of his approval, because he's one of those bad dads who never said anything nice about us when we were young, which is why we now require analysts.

Where Through the Looking Glass is a beautifully-crafted nonsense tale based on the game of chess, this thing simply employs some of the same characters, additionally drafting in half the cast of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to tell an entirely different story; and familiar persons such as the Mad Hatter and Cheshire cat are given full names, families, motivation, resumes, and history. In this story, the Mad Hatter becomes a boring old square, thus significantly reducing his appeal. Something has turned him into a man with opinions about income tax and who no longer dreams crazy, magical dreams full of magic and wonderment. Alice therefore travels back in time to change the past so as to restore the Mad Hatter to his former magical state of magic, wonderment and crazy imagination. When I first read that Alice travels back in time to change the past, I assumed the reviewer was taking the piss, but no - that really is what happens, because they've invented a completely new kind of story.

I'm being sarcastic.

Anyway, we learn how the Mad Hatter's father once made some dismissive remark criticising the quality of a hat the boy had made at school and brought home hoping to impress his dear old dad. 'That's fucking shit,' the busy, working man observed whilst nevertheless holding down a job so as to put food in the mouths of his family and maintain the roof over their heads, which traumatised the junior Mad Hatter. To be fair, the hat he made at school sounds rubbish to me as well, but there's a lot to be blamed on shitty parenting in this book. The Red Queen for example is a bit of a cunt, but this is due to a bollocking from her parents, a bollocking resulting from her once having been charged with the spillage of some crumbs and a pie crust, which was actually her sister's doing. Apparently that's quite similar to how Hitler got started.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm guessing this book more or less faithfully recreates both the story and the sense of constant motion, people falling out of the sky and catching a stray yardarm just in time, just like in a game, all in relentlessly screaming 3D for a couple of hours. The proto-Dadaist nonsense of Carroll's creation is implied with the usual blend of dollar store steampunk bollocks and low-calorie corporate surrealism with shitloads of cogs all over the shop, the sort of thing you will immediately recognise from whenever you last saw a commercial for anything remotely related to Christmas, this sort of deal:

He picked up a floral teapot—one of many on the table—and poured some tea into Time's cup.

'If you're really Time itself, or himself, or whatever you are, perhaps you can answer me this,' Hatter blathered on as he served their guest. 'I've always wondered when soon is.' He set down the teapot only to snatch up a plate of scones and shove it into Time's face. 'Is it before in a few minutes or after a little while?'

See, that's not actually the brain-wrecking psychedelic conundrum it seems to believe itself to be so much as just a fucking stupid question. Millions of years ago when I was at school, someone brought in their copy of Blondie's Parallel Lines album. A kid we knew as Trev - although that wasn't actually his name - got hold of it and was reading the back cover.

'Look at this,' he chortled, eyes wide, mind about ready to blow. He held up the record sleeve for us to see and pointed to the title of a song - I Know But I Don't Know, because for poor Trev that was the full Syd Barrett meeting André Breton at the Château de Lacoste; and most of Disney Alice Through the Looking Glass stays at more or less the same safe level of crossword puzzle surrealism. There will be no minds blown today, is the promise, just good value entertainment.

Elsewhere in the chamber, the Tweedles were also hugging.

'Let's never fight again,' Tweedledum said.

'Were we fighting before?' Tweedledee asked. He stared at his brother in puzzlement.

'No, so why start now?' Tweedledum said.

Gazing across the room, Alice watched her friends reunite with their families. Everyone seemed so happy, all their former fights—big and small—swept away. With a pang, she thought of her mother, wishing she were there to hold her close. The world had nearly ended, and Alice and her mother had not parted on good terms.

The formerly evil Red Queen is revealed as simply being in a lot of pain over the crumbs and a pie crust incident. She's really quite nice once you get to know her. Everyone makes friends, and we all learn a lesson about the importance of family. Alice's family have attempted to have her committed at one point, but it was just a misunderstanding or summink, because fambly. Alice has spent much of the book bemoaning the stifling influence of family, sexism, the glass ceiling, forces which would keep her from having adventures or spontaneous displays of imagination because she's just a girl or because she should maybe grow the fuck up, but nothing is as important as fambly. So the book or the film or whatever the fuck it is spends a couple of hours blasting us with messages about the madcap importance of breaking free, of wondrous imagination and magic and daring to dream and being a little bit crazy even if it means people think you're a bit weird; then it does an about face and tells us family is more important than anything, even if they've had you committed to a loony bin, even if they've dedicated their lives to shitting on your dreams. It's good to dream and to experience wonderment and to be like totally zany and shit, but only if you have your feet on the ground, if you show some responsibility, only if you honour your family; but in your own time - no pressure or anything.

Personally I don't believe in conspiracy theories, including the one about a corporate cabal of neofeudalist robber barons for whom capitalist society is one big chess game arranged so as to keep us docile and economically productive from behind the scenes, and that's because I don't believe those on the upper balconies have the intelligence or resources to organise such a thing or to keep it running. On the other hand, I do tend to believe that something which very much has the appearance of the same is in charge, roughly speaking, even if its organising principle is an unconscious process rather than a group of individuals. Corporations seem as much subject to Darwinian laws as any of us, so it may be helpful to regard them as organisms inhabiting a financial and political realm, their success determined by what they can get away with, how freely they are able to act and to establish themselves as intrinsic to the society they inhabit. So in other words, this probably wasn't even a conscious act, but there is a limit to the ways in which the machine expresses itself. There is a limit to what it is able to say.

The aspect of Disney Alice Through the Looking Glass which I dislike the most is the arrogance of the idea that an entertainment committee can improve on Lewis Carroll's original. It represents not an empowering fountain of imagination, but an attempt to colonise the same. It's a hostile commodification of superior art to which the company itself can only aspire, something it could never create because there is a limit to what it is able to say. It is designed to keep you dumb, insecure, and reliant upon its own product. It triggers all the familiar entertainment synapses - so thanks a fucking bunch for that, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Moffat, Spielberg, Tim Burton, and all you other peddlers of twee content-free wonderment. It's a proven seller, and a light sprinkling of generic unwanted-child angst gives us that warm feeling of value for money, just like the book packaged so as to pretend it wasn't made by robots, or if it was, at least they're zany steampunk robots.

So no, I didn't enjoy it very much.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Star Virus

Barrington J. Bayley The Star Virus (1970)
In a 1999 interview, Michael Moorcock - Bayley's friend and collaborator - asks Juha Lindroos:

Did you know William Burroughs loved The Star Virus and wrote to tell me he'd used it as inspiration? The idea of people as a virus very much appealed to Burroughs, who enjoyed at least some of Barry's work, though I don't know how much he read. Burroughs definitely recognised the originality of mind.

Whatever you may make of such a recommendation, it seems to say something about the quality of Bayley's writing, which in turn raises questions as to why he isn't better remembered.

I don't know. I suppose it's all to do with marketing.

Anyway, the quality of the writing really stands out as incongruous with something which has become so difficult to find and apparently resistant to reprinting. The guy really paints pictures, beautifully drawn sentences and a love of unusually baroque imagery suggesting genuine confidence - a man very much at one with his typewriter, and who probably didn't really have to write science-fiction, but thank God he did. It's so much better when sprung from conscious choice rather than necessity.

This being my second Bayley - or fourth if you count a couple of fairly long and thoroughly peculiar short stories - I'm beginning to notice themes and preoccupations - the nutty scientist who seems more John Dee than anything of Asimov's heritage; plant life exerting control over humanity; and unexpected, inexplicable structures underlying our existence, even our history. The Star Virus is a significantly philosophical novel seemingly concerning free will and whether it plays a role in the course of the future, or destiny if you must; and it manages to do this with space pirates, rockets, an inscrutable alien civilisation, and a star drive based on the perception of an observer; and all of this without reading like the work of anyone else, or at the risk of alienating anyone who just happens to be in it for the planets and the monsters. It achieves something quite complex whilst appearing fairly straightforward.

Seeing as I've already given the game away, the virus in question is the projected spread of humanity across the galaxy - this being contrary to the established history of the universe in relation to something older and more abstract. In case it isn't obvious, and in the event of anyone reading who might care about such things, you could quite easily read The Star Virus as inhabiting the same basic cosmos as Faction Paradox, if that helps, and certainly it is writing of this kind which I would say has been ancestral to the aforementioned mythos, whether directly or otherwise.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ultimate X-Men volume one

Mark Millar, various Kuberts, some other guys...
Ultimate X-Men volume one (2001)

Marvel's Ultimate line began in 2000 as a series of comics reinventing existing characters and titles within a vaguely more realistic setting and generally involving an increased grit ratio. In other words, hitting the reset button on Spiderman and pals but having them kidnapped by secretive government agencies rather than planet-sized dudes in purple armour issuing edicts in fake Shakespeare talk, or thereabouts. It's not a bad idea in itself, at least as a way around people who were at high school in the early sixties still being teenagers forty years later, the main problem of which is that such things remind us that we're reading a comic rather than an account of something which actually happened, because apparently that's bad; although I'm not convinced.

Personally I'm quite happy with the X-Men being those five goofy kids who signed up at Xavier's way back when the X still stood for xtra powers; and I'm quite happy with none of them having met Wolverine or Storm until Chris Claremont took over the book in the seventies; and I'm quite happy with Jean Grey turning out to be Phoenix, and the trial of Magneto, and the complete change of line-up which introduced Psylocke and Gambit, and everything up until about 1992 - the point at which it all turned to shit and landfill. As a writer, Claremont wasn't without problems, and I could have lived without all those horrible thinky bubbles he used to cram with streams of emo consciousness written in what I guess he regarded as street talk; but his worth became painfully obvious once he jumped ship. Claremont's characters had some sort of depth, and whilst his story lines might have seemed ridiculous in the cold light of day, they did their job regardless and you kept on reading. The villain would turn out to have been someone we'd already forgotten from fifty issues back, and his labyrinthine schemes would be revealed as the framework upon which the last few years had been built. Then the next guy would be even worse, and it would turn out that the previous villain had been merely a pawn in this guy's cosmic chess game, and eventually it would turn out that even this guy was but part of some larger, darker puzzle. It was horseshit, but no-one noticed because it worked, and Claremont's X-Men will remain the definitive version for me, not least because that's where we encountered New Mutants which remains the greatest title Marvel ever published, in my view. Then Rob Liefeld gave everyone a Japanese sword and drew them like they were trying hard not to quack their pants, and a series of writers I don't even like to think about tried hard to duplicate that Claremont magic, and failed miserably, and I stopped reading.

Grant Morrison did a reasonable job of bringing the X-Men back in New X-Men, because whilst it was something different stuffed with all sorts of weird Morrisonalia, it felt like a continuation of what Claremont had done; it retained the soap aspect, the characterisation, and the novelty of new, ever weirder mutants popping up each month like collector's cards, appealing to people such as myself who like to think about sets of things.

Anyway, Ultimate X-Men doesn't really seem to improve on anything, or do anything better than it had already been done, or even different to how it had already been done, so I'm not really sure what the point was aside from selling more comics with what may as well be recycled material. In terms of X-Men mythology, it does more or less what the films did because they were in another medium, but for no real purpose other than jamming together a group of vaguely familiar characters in a particular combination without having to worry over how many decades any of them have spent as a teenager. In fact, it's almost the Saturday morning cartoon with much more frowning and just a touch of Guantanamo Bay. To be fair, Ultimate X-Men isn't bad, or at least it isn't bad in the same way as was Millar's take on the Avengers with a rapey version of the Hulk, but there's something unpleasant about the contrast of a story told in terms suggesting it has been written for a much younger audience than the material would imply. I suppose there are some nice twists in there, but nothing as weird or interesting as what you get in the Morrison or even Claremont versions; and the art is of that generic post-millennial what if Rob Liefeld took an anatomy lesson? kind with the manga eyes and most facial expressions being either angry determination or glee.

Just last week I saw the new X-Men film at the cinema, regarding which, my thoughts as shared on facebook were as follows:

Not bad, bit po-faced and not as good as those Avengers films but generally watchable. Kind of wish James McAvoy wasn't in it because he's James McAvoy in everything he's in, plus he sort of resembles Mark Swannel from work, which isn't a bad thing but you don't go to the cinema to watch your mate from work as Professor X - it's just too weird. Quicksilver was funny. Apocalypse was a bit Stargate, but never mind. Still can't get over it not being a late eighties comic drawn by Walt Simonson, but yeah - it was definitely all right.

Sadly, even that was better than this thing. Ultimate X-Men just makes me want to go back and read the good stuff.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016


Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
I guess I shouldn't feel so bad about failing to connect with yet another supposed classic of twentieth century literature given that a significant quota of the reviews I've found posted online seem to express a general sense of bewilderment, and actually I liked it more than most of the people who actively hated it, so I suppose there's that.

It's beautifully written, but extraordinarily repetitive. There's a point to the repetition but acknowledgement of the fact doesn't really help. Unless you've been living in the proverbial cave since 1961, you will almost certainly be aware that Catch-22 is about absurdity and contradiction, or rather it dissects the second world war in terms of these qualities. The catch of the title is the idea that Yossarian - around whom the novel revolves - aspires to get out of flying yet another bombing mission on grounds of insanity, an aspiration which unfortunately proves him to be entirely sane; and almost every page is crammed with actions rendered meaningless by this sort of circular logic, and there are nearly five-hundred pages. Harold Pinter employed similar devices, but usually required only an hour or so of our time to make his point. Kafka also managed it with greater brevity. My guess would be that Heller was simply hammering the point home, striving for a sort of scale vaguely analogous to a Rothko painting wherein no part of the canvas draws greater focus than any other; or if you prefer, the book is kind of boring, but maybe it's supposed to be boring, like Tony Conrad drawing a single note from his violin over the course of an hour because, as Eno puts it, repetition is a form of change. Maybe I'm getting carried away with the analogies, but I'm guessing the point is boredom plus absurdity times scale in contrast to the horror of the details, the bombing, the severed limbs flying all around, even the rape, all reduced to the absurdist wallpaper of conversations about shoes; for, as Kurt Vonnegut also discovered, war eludes description because the actual experience cannot be replicated, so it's easier to describe its psychological habitat.

Unfortunately though, the uniformity of absurdist surface texture serving to level everything out to actions of equivalent consequence makes it difficult for the reader, or this reader, to really care about any of it, or about who is even who. Such is the quality of writing, not least the jokes, that it's easy enough to keep on going, and is even a pleasure for the most part, so while I didn't feel inclined to pack it in at any point, I frequently found myself thinking that Spike Milligan's war diaries did pretty much the same thing but were funnier and more engaging, and so made the same points better.

I don't know if Catch-22 is quite a classic, although I guess it must be simply because we've all already agreed that it is - which is possibly ironic given that this is more or less what the book is about, namely a world which behaves in such a way entirely because we've agreed that it is so. I'd dispute its being anything like the roller-coaster described by the cover blurb of this edition. My best guess is that its popularity is in part mainly just numbers, and that it first saw print just as a great many Americans really began to ask themselves what the fuck just happened?; and in that context it's probably a better response than the gung-ho or else purely statistical alternatives.

On the other hand, Slaughterhouse Five is half the length, considerably more confusing, and yet clearly a fucking masterpiece, so maybe the previous three paragraphs really aren't much more than word salad and excuses.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon

Spider Robinson Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (1977)
I'm a little torn by this one - a bunch of short stories all sharing the same basic setting and cast of characters, namely a bar which counts the occasional time traveller or representative of an alien invasion force amongst its customers - at least just enough to render the book recognisable as science-fiction, but with otherwise sufficient restraint as to prevent it turning into an episode of Red Dwarf, sort of.

In relation to a great many of his contemporaries rising up through magazines such as Analog, Spider Robinson's prose comes as a breath of fresh air, a shot in the arm, or whichever simile you prefer. His style is worldly and conversational, well-suited to the sort of jovial horseshit you'll hear in a bar - imagine a cheerier Bukowski who knows when he's reached his limit. Given the setting, most of the actual content of this collection occurs as what I suppose you might almost term Socratic dialogues, in this case a bunch of guys sat around in a bar talking about stuff, right and wrong, guilt, absolution, and occasionally rambling accounts of life on other planets or a tour of duty in Vietnam.

I went off to Nam soon after that—tried to get word to Steve in the stockade, but it couldn't be done. He got left behind with the rest of America, and I found myself in a jungle full of unfriendly strangers. It was bad—real bad—and I began to think a lot about Steve and the choice he had made. I couldn't tell the people I was fighting from the people I was fighting for, and the official policy of kill what moves didn't satisfy me.

At first. Then one day a twelve-year old boy as cute as Dondi took off my left earlobe with a machete while I got some K-rations out of my pack for him. The kid would have taken off my head instead of my ear, but a pretty tight buddy of mine, Sean Reilly, shot him in the belly while he was winding up.

'Christ, Tony,' Sean said when he'd made sure the kid was dead, 'you know the word: never turn your back on a Gook.'

I was too busy with my bleeding ear to reply, but I was coming to agree with him. Just as Nam had been easier than jail, catching the rifle easier than refusing to, killing Gooks was easier than discussing political philosophy with them.

In case it isn't apparent from the above, there's a well-reasoned liberalism underlying Robinson's fiction, nothing too shouty or cornily illustrative, but we're left with a clear impression of where he stands on issues of racism and even homophobia - subjects which seem infrequently tackled so openly in many strains of science-fiction literature, presumably for fear of alienating cuntier sections of the readership.

The only problem with this is that, for all it's wonderful turns of phrase and vivid sense of invention, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon may as well be Cheers with an occasional extraterrestrial dropping in to shoot the breeze, and is as such a little dull when it really shouldn't be. The gags work fine, but most are told as things said by some guy in a bar followed by how funny everyone else found it, and the more anecdotal narratives are related with interjections about beer nuts and the like, so the book tells it's story with just the faintest suggestion of perhaps you had to be there. This is a shame because there's obviously some good stuff here, not least when one customer turns out to have been Adolf Hitler in a previous existence and the encounter is plausibly played as a morality tale rather than for laughs; but it really should have been better, and I really wanted to like it, but I'm afraid I was kind of bored for the most part.