Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Riotous Assembly

Tom Sharpe Riotous Assembly (1971)
More steps retraced, and this time to a book originally borrowed from the same kid who lent me John Keel's Strange Creatures from Time and Space. I can't have been much older than thirteen, and he insisted I read the thing because it was funny; so Riotous Assembly being neither a Doctor Who tie-in, nor anything I'd been obliged to read by my English teachers at school - not that they made much effort in that direction - it might be argued that this was the first proper book I ever read, at least in terms of fiction and things with literary aspirations.

Amazingly, it's as funny as I remember it being, although I'm reading it with very different eyes this time around. The era of its origin is now a foreign land, as is particularly clear from the other titles you might enjoy described in the last couple of pages:

His Lordship was what the girls in a posh boarding school called William their handsome tennis coach. They laid traps for him. They teased him. They were very fond of him. Very fond. That is why William is in a prison cell when the story opens...

His Lordship by Leslie Thomas is about a girls' school that makes St. Trinians sound like a nunnery, according to some guy from The Listener, which means they probably suck his dick and rub their tits in his face and all that. Cor!!!

Then there's Paul Sample's wonderful cover art featuring, I could hardly fail to notice, black African tribesmen depicted as cartoonists tended to depict black African tribesmen in the seventies, and for a moment I had a horrible feeling I might be about to re-engage with something which would turn out to be a bit more Jim Davidson than I like these days, what with it being set during South Africa's Apartheid regime and all.

Thankfully my fears were unfounded.

The incredible thing about this novel - and a debut novel no less - is that it amounts to juggling a series of near impossible contradictions equivalent to a situation comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp. It's a satire of Apartheid at the expense of those who benefitted from the regime, and yet it's told from their point of view. There's very little to like about Kommandant van Heerden and his officers, and in many ways they are monstrous without quite being written as such, meaning neither their unpleasant views nor terrible deeds get in the way of the story; and yet the story is a vast, absurdist Heironymous Bosch spectacular with no punches pulled when it comes to murder, disembowelment, hangings, and white cops indescriminately treating black people as animals. In fact, being told from the viewpoint of Kommandant van Heerden and his officers we too experience his victims as faintly comic innocents routinely mown down whilst fleeing from a government sanctioned psychopath with an elephant gun.

It's not that the novel is without sympathetic characters so much as that they appear only as furniture, something for Konstabel Els to shoot. Yet this is nothing like a defence of Apartheid, the racism of the South African state, nor even anything so repulsive as more innocent times when you were allowed to tell jokes about shooting black people because it was all in fun. There are no Ben Elton style slogans or statements of the obvious because once you've read the thing, it really doesn't need spelling out.

The book closes with an historical re-enactment of the history of South Africa performed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum.

'You would think they'd get tired of lying down and getting up and lying down again,' the Mayor said when the Zulus had gone through their death agonies for the umpteenth time. 'Must keep them physically fit, I suppose.'

'So long as the bastards don't win, I'm happy,' said the Kommandant.

'I think they do have a moment of triumph in the finale,' said Dr. Herzog. 'It's the battle of Isandhlwana. The British ran out of ammunition and were massacred.'

'Do you mean to tell me,' said the Kommandant, 'that you have allowed white men to be defeated by blacks? It's insane. What's more it's illegal. You are encouraging racial hatred.'

It's a funny book, but the humour is about as dark as it gets, even though it may take the reader a while to notice this, filtered as it is through the blandly utilitarian perspective of its monsters. This is an incredible novel, all things considered.

Beachhead Planet

Robert Moore Williams Beachhead Planet (1970)
To set the scene, tourists arrive at Golden Fleece, Colorado by helicopter. Golden Fleece is an old mining town which has been restored as a heritage experience by the inventor of something called simulated brain substance, but as the latest arrivals show up, a half-naked fugitive emerges from the mine entrance on the nearby hillside. He is pursued by a ten-foot tall being with two heads, one of which faces backwards and which spends most of the time arguing with the other head. A small orifice opens in one of the creature's foreheads dispensing something like a hornet which chases the fugitive before causing him to spontaneously burst into flames. An individual named Valthor undertakes to investigate Golden Fleece following consultation with members of his mysterious staff, a man who tells the future by referring to a deck of cards and a Gypsy woman who consults her crystal ball. Valthor uncovers a conspiracy. The inhabitants of Golden Fleece are green-skinned zombies, their ghastly complexion deriving from a green oil which is able to revive the dead at the expense of a loss of autonomy. Worse still, beneath Golden Fleece the mines have become a labyrinthine underworld of robot miners, two-headed guards, and captive humans, all at the behest of a race of invisible aliens called the Narks.

Beachhead Planet reads not unlike one of A.E. van Vogt's more coherent works, not just in terms of peculiar concepts but also in the means of their delivery - succinctly descriptive sentences laying out one fact after another like cards dealt by a croupier - or even like Valthor's precognitive buddy - with wild flourishes of surrealism and borderline dream imagery forced to obey some kind of narrative logic by the tightly delivered prose; and given the subterranean aspect of the story, it's hard not to be reminded of Richard Shaver's schizophrenic fantasies of a hellish underworld.

As with the last one I read by the same guy, whilst you might not want to call it great literature, Beachhead Planet is far too idiosyncratic and weird to be written off as mere pulp. The aforementioned King of the Fourth Planet explored Suzusilmar, a Martian holy mountain which lent the narrative a suspiciously allegorical subtext, as though Williams might be trying to say something deeper than is obvious at first glance. Similarly, his Shaver-style underworld is explored with a portentous tread which seems almost to present a counterpart to the other book. The message is either ambiguous or best left to the individual reader - whichever you prefer - but I'm sure there's something tied in to resurrection by the green oil, the fate of the stinking corpses for whom resurrection fails, the two-headed monsters, and the seemingly biological robots. It's something to do with freedom or possibly the false promises of utopian ideologies - which I deduce mainly from certain sentiments expressed and the novel having been written at the tail end of the sixties. It's hard to say for sure quite what is going on here, but it's weird and thought provoking.

Also, extra points for cover artwork depicting nothing relating to the actual story.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Strange Creatures from Time and Space

John Keel Strange Creatures from Time and Space (1975)
I read this when I was a kid, as borrowed from a friend at school whose dad was obsessed with such things and had a UFO detector in his back garden - procured through the classifieds in Abduction Monthly or something of the sort. I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye when in my twenties I'd taken to reading more or less just comic books and UFO literature. This changed when I discovered Richard Dawkins around 1995 and went a bit fundamentalist for a while. I got rid of all my crackpot paperbacks but always regretted ditching this one, plus a few by Brad Steiger. Keel and Steiger always seemed to deliver the goods, regardless of whether or not you actually believed any of it.

Here John Keel takes the position that UFOlogy and related paranormal investigations have been historically held back by a desire for logic, or at least for accounts which we can just about believe because they hint at some sort of science-fiction narrative with which we are already familiar - visitors from the stars and so on. Clearly he has a point, and it seems that many well-known accounts of unexplained phenomenon have often left out the weirder details for fear of ridicule; leaving us with the amusing possibility that the more hypothetically probable accounts are going to be the least plausible because anyone feeling inclined to just make something up for chuckles isn't going to bother trying to fence some of the wacky shit related herein as anything which could really happen - therefore maybe it did. John Keel is very much in the tradition of Charles Fort as one who chronicles the improbable or impossible for the sheer joy of contradicting consensus reality.

That said, whilst he writes well and generally stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, Keel is himself not without his blind spots. Much literature of this kind has an unfortunate habit of fixating on established science as the enemy so as to forge a bond with the more paranoid readers who never trusted those book-learnin' guys in the first place. It needs science to be its enemy to the point of refusing even to negotiate, because negotiations will inevitably work in the favour of the other side. Most crucially, science as a scapegoat shifts focus from the fact that there's really not much to say about the bloke who insists he saw a strange light in the sky and it didn't seem like a plane and then he felt a bit funny.

Keel tends not to dwell on the sceptics so much as others often do, but still descends to pointless sniping at what he describes as Type B scientists. Type A are the ones who invent shit, the guys you're not going to pick a fight with because you'll end up looking like a fucking idiot - Edison, Einstein and so on. Type B scientists are the university types which television stations call in when something needs denouncing as light from the planet Venus refracted through swamp gas; or in one specific case to suggest that something weird found washed up on a beach might be the supposedly more prosaic remains of a recently defrosted mammoth, prompting Keel to fume accordingly:

The iceberg hypothesis is not merely unscientific, it is moronic. So far as is known, no animal - modern or prehistoric - has ever been found encased in a floating iceberg.

Which is great except that he invokes the same frozen in an iceberg explanation for some other peculiar beastie discussed a couple of pages later, so it's fine when he makes certain suggestions...

Happily, there's not too much of this kind of defensive argument, and even if he doesn't state it directly, I would guess that Keel appreciates there's not much joy to be had in pouring scorn upon the laws of physics. Indeed, his strength is that he thinks about his subject and even engages in a degree of scepticism over and above that which is customarily adopted by UFOlogists aspiring to present a ludicrous veneer of scientific rigour, a veneer of scientific rigour which tends to exclude all the wackier tales.

The buffs tend to lump everything hopelessly together and try only to categorise the descriptions of the objects which are, as we pointed out earlier, so varied that the data negates itself. We must, to be successful, turn our attention to studying the witnesses and the psychological and physiological effects they experience. The answer to the whole mystery probably lies in that direction, not in the stars.

Leaving aside the major problem that what we have here are essentially anecdotal accounts of anecdotal evidence, this book works because much of this stuff is bananas - hence hugely entertaining, even thought-provoking, and genuinely scary in a few cases - and because while Keel speculates aplenty, he avoids didactic conclusions and never assumes the reader to be either an idiot, or even necessarily on his side.

As to whether I've just re-read a couple of hundred pages of nothing at all, I just don't know. A great many of these accounts describe events which seem to have the logic of a dream or a hallucination - winged creatures rising into the air without said wings actually flapping, for one example - but hallucinations shared by a number of people; and then there are the parallels - similar stories of similar occurrences told by people who have never met. In certain respects we don't actually know much about the human brain and almost certainly hold an excess of faith in what is generally regarded as objective experience, as distinct from the imagined. I'm inclined to wonder if visions of - for example - mothmen with glowing red eyes, might simply turn out to be a glitch of consciousness, just as certain phantom odours can sometimes signify more serious neurological problems; but there doesn't seem to be a single simple explanation for any of this stuff which covers everything, not even the possibility of it all having been made up. The best that can be said is that one hell of a lot of people appear to have experienced something weird, regardless of whether that experience was real in objective terms; and of all people, John Keel does a great job of trying to beat some sense out of the subject.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Doom Patrol #1

Gerard Way & Nick Derington Doom Patrol #1 (2016)
I very rarely review either single issues of a comic or anything freshly squoze from the presses - partially because I tend to wait until I have some sort of confirmation for a comic book not being a massive pile of shit before I'll grudgingly shell out for a collected edition, and partially because I just don't read comics like I used to; but this is the first of a new run of Doom Patrol, which feels like a special occasion.

Back in the nineties, Doom Patrol was the first thing Grant Morrison did which could be described as fucking brilliant in a way that not even Zenith had managed. It had been a superhero book in the sixties, albeit a fairly weird superhero book, and Morrison rewrote the thing as unrestrained Dadaism, possibly as a reaction to the increasing emphasis on superheroes making sense in the wake of Watchmen. The title was revived again about a decade later, but I can't even remember who was supposed to be involved and I'd more or less given up on comics by that point. I know I haven't heard much that is good about that more recent Doom Patrol; but anyway, now we have this...

I first heard that Gerard Way was writing comics when Charlie Adlard told me. Charlie draws The Walking Dead and was surprised to have found himself sharing a convention table with the former singer of My Chemical Romance. 'He's quite a nice bloke though,' he reported with the expression of a man surprised to find himself saying such a thing. Neither of us liked My Chemical Romance, but Way's earlier Umbrella Academy was decent, according to Charlie.

Clearly the lad gets Doom Patrol and what made it work, so this is no reversion to superheroes with neatly modular problems, and with not the faintest whiff of X-Men about it either. Way clearly gets why Morrison's Doom Patrol worked and has somehow invoked the same disjointed brilliance without it feeling like a cover version. Derington's art is happily understated, suggesting freewheeling European comics rather than anything with too many spandex clad ninjas swearing vengance. It's maybe a bit Tintin, a bit Rian Hughes, and otherwise perfectly suited to the tone of this thing.

As we rejoin the gang, Robotman has been in yet another automobile accident and is reduced once again to just a head; Casey Brinke's singing, tap-dancing telegram has accidentally blown-up her room-mate; Danny the Street is about to be launched as a meat-style consumer product, and there's a possibility that our universe might be just a microcosm within some vast existential doner kebab. I've no fucking clue what is going on or what is likely to happen next, but for the first time in over two decades, I'll be heading back to the comic shop in another couple of weeks to find out.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)
I reviewed the first one about a month ago. In fact the main reason I hunted the first one down was because I found The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in a branch of Half-Price, and a copy with the proper cover no less, and it would have been weird reading book two once again without first reminding myself of its predecessor; and - as already stated - it was in part a journey of discovery, namely discovering whether I'd been wrong about Adams all these years; and if I'm to subject myself to something I know I'll probably dislike, I reasoned, then it's going to be with books sporting the proper covers or not at all - the proper covers being those dating from when I read this stuff first time round, as opposed to some of the self-consciously wacky crimes against design in which Adams has since been wrapped - cartoon comedy planets blowing raspberries just in case anyone mistakes this stuff for Stephen Baxter.

To recap, my problem with Adams is that he was never as funny as claimed, and whilst his writing was fine for radio or television, it's just not that great applied to a novel, or at least to these novels. I mean it's not actually terrible, but these books really don't belong in any of those balls-achingly predictable lists of fifty science-fiction classics you must read.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe suffers from the same problems as the first part of the story, namely that it's a series of static scenes in which a bunch of guys stand around passing wry commentary upon some absurd aspect of their situation before a magic wand plot device whisks them off to the next set piece for more of the same. There are three women in the whole thing. Trillian doesn't get to say much, whilst the other two are introduced as love interest on the second to last page and are typically a bit dumb, which probably isn't too surprising given that the central part of the book all seems a bit Jeremy Clarkson with hindsight - chaps lusting after sporty spaceships in the restaurant parking lot followed by excessively loud rock band jokes, Led Zeppelin blowing up planets and so on and so forth; and all held together by a glue of purportedly witty observation which, as a number of people have since pointed out to me, is pretty much dollar store P.G. Wodehouse. I say, old chap, I hope you won't think me impolite but I can't help noticing that you appear to have parked your spacecraft atop my greenhouse, and I wouldn't mind but I was rather hoping to make the rounds with the jolly old flit gun at some point this afternoon blah blah blah...

Yet, for all it's flaws and annoyances, I kind of enjoyed this one. It may simply be nostalgia for the first time I read it, but it seems less laboured than the previous instalment. Also, it has a fairly satisfyingly rounded conclusion, and so much so that it feels like these first two volumes really should be considered a single novel so as to allow the positives to cancel or at least balance out the worst of the clunk. Unless it really is my imagination, my guess is that Adams was simply a better writer by the time he sat down to pull this one together, so while it remains a radio script shoehorned between two covers, the shoehorning isn't so laboured, and there are passages without the author digging you in the ribs and asking if you get it every three seconds.

It's still some way short of being the classic everyone seems to think it is, and Terry Pratchett did this sort of thing so much better, and six times nine isn't forty-two last time I looked - unless that's Adams admitting that the cartoon philosophies bolted onto his narrative are genuinely meaningless - but The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is certainly readable. He really should have left it at just the two books.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Outpost of Jupiter

Lester Del Rey Outpost of Jupiter (1963)
Lester Del Rey isn't an author whose work I'd actively seek out, but I don't like to see his books sat on the clearance shelf waiting to be pulped, so that's how I came by this one. It's the third I've read by him, and another juvie aimed squarely at teenagers - as distinct from the raging maturity of all those books Isaac Asimov wrote for fully grown men who'd done it with a lady and everything. Anyway, my last two Del Rey juvies were fairly decent so here I am again.

Del Rey doesn't talk down, but peppers his narrative with all the edumacational stuff about mathematics, thrust ratios, and the challenges of terraforming - just like Isaac - with concessions made to the age of his target audience through it being the story of a fifteen-year old kid who goes into space with his dad and has realistic adventures. Del Rey grew up on a farm in Minnesota in the twenties and you can sort of tell.

Mrs. McCarthy was a short, plump woman with a red face and a beaming smile. She dried her hands on her apron and greeted Bob warmly. Her voice was soft and seemed filled with the sheer joy of living and cooking and watching her family eat. 'Sit down,' she told them. 'You must be starved after all those space rations. Bob, you sit right there. And Penny, you let him alone, you hear?'

In many ways it reads as though someone has novelised the art of Chesley Bonestell, which would be great but for the fact that Outpost of Jupiter reads at least a little like it was Hank Hill doing the novelising, I tell you what. It's not that it's dull, but given the narrative occurring on one of Jupiter's moons and encompassing contact with an alien race, a little bit of wonder wouldn't have been out of place amongst all the discussions of Bob's immune system and space horticulture.

Likeable but surprisingly dry.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Cosmic Checkmate

Katherine MacLean & Charles V. De Vet Cosmic Checkmate (1962)
Having written mostly short stories, Katherine MacLean is one of those authors who came up through Astounding, Galaxy and the like and who appears to have subsequently slipped through the net. On the strength of The Diploids collection, this seems a terrible shame. Even without considering whatever factors you may wish to consider regarding her being a woman writing in what was a predominantly male field, I'd suggest it's really only the greater page count clocked up by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the like which could possibly justify her not having been ranked alongside them as one of the giants. She wrote well, and she wrote her own highly distinctive kind of story - science fiction concerned mostly with systems theory, games logic, social interaction and biology. It's difficult to confuse a good MacLean with the work of anyone else.

Cosmic Checkmate is written in collaboration with Charles V. De Vet, whom I hadn't heard of and apparently doesn't even rate a Wikipedia page. Being unfamiliar with the guy, it's difficult to say for sure what his contribution to Cosmic Checkmate might have been; but given that MacLean's involvement is obvious, and that this is fairly disappointing for a book with her name on the cover, I guess De Vet's ideas encompass all those elements which just aren't that interesting.

Our story takes a lone human to the one planet which refuses to have anything to do with Earth's galactic empire. There he finds a bizarrely formal pseudo-human society with all sorts of elaborate honour codes evolved from its unorthodox biological cycle - most likely all designed by Katherine MacLean and very interesting too. Honour demands that the fate of our man and the galaxy depend upon him playing an elaborate chess-like game upon which the alien society is founded. Beyond this, the narrative is unfortunately just not that engaging, and briefly inspired bursts of MacLean - or what I would imagine must have come from her - don't really elevate the tale above something which you read until the point at which you've finished reading it, which is a pity. Even in the context of stories in which the protagonists decide the fate of something much bigger than themselves over a game of chess - never the most mind-boggling subgenre - Cosmic Checkmate just isn't that good. There's a fairly pleasing conclusion about the benefits of a varied and multicultural society - both social and biological - but it really should have been tagged onto a better story.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hocus Pocus

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Hocus Pocus (1990)
Back in May I read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by the same author and was inspired to opine:

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 in question is a rambling quality, a tendency to digress at the expense of a coherent, or at least linear, narrative, even when the digressions inevitably feed back into said narrative. Hocus Pocus does the same thing, and although the promise of a return to Slaughterhouse Five greatness made on the cover might be stretching a point, it certainly makes a better go of it than the last few I've read. It's not quite like Vonnegut ever reads as though he's sat at the typewriter tittering to himself, but it helps when the book feels as though it's going somewhere, as this does for most of its page count.

Hocus Pocus purports to be an autobiography written in a prison library on disparate scraps of paper - bus timetables, cigarette cartons, ticket stubs and whatever else was at hand. It's the autobiography of a Vietnam veteran who teaches at a university, or a prison, or at a university occupied following a prison break out - I couldn't quite work out which, so maybe the point is that it's all the same thing. The title refers to the verbal agreements to which we all adhere in order that human society may continue as it does, but which are more or less so much horseshit when you look closely.

He hadn't killed nearly as many people as I had. But then again, he hadn't had my advantage, which was the full cooperation of our government.

It doesn't say anything Vonnegut hasn't already said by this point, but the digressions work better and with more purpose than in the previous few I've read, so it's both funny and satisfying; and it says something which really needs to be said, and says it clearly and without ambiguity.

It says that we, as a race, need to stop being dicks to each other, and we need to stop fucking up the planet. Of course, many others have expressed the same sentiment, and continue to do so. Often their arguments are countered by the forces of dickery by means of linguistic hocus pocus. You've probably seen the sort of thing on social media - the notion that we might want to stop bombing kids or pouring nuclear waste into the lakes of a national park countered by the suggestion that there are two sides to every story and we have to consider the grass roots employees of the munitions or nuclear industry and what they will do if we take away their jobs - in other words, evil fuckers talking shit so as to get their own way without having to grow up and face consequences. Hocus Pocus is about that. It presents its argument in terms which simply can't be disputed by the Adolf Hitler loved his kids crowd.

The orgy of butchery followed a virtually unopposed attack by the Japanese Army on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, long before this country became part of the Final Rack. Hiroshi Matsumoto had just been born. Prisoners were tied to stakes and used for bayonet practice. Several people in a pit were buried alive. You could see their expressions as the dirt hit their faces.

Their faces disappeared, but the dirt on top kept moving as though there were some sort of burrowing animal, a woodchuck maybe, making a home below.

See, this is the sort of horrifying shit which has actually happened in the world beyond the book, and which is still happening, and which needs to stop right now; and we need to stop kidding ourselves that it makes the slightest bit of difference which flag or ideology is flapping in the breeze behind the man holding the spade.

I don't even know why it should still need stating in the year 2016, but for what it may be worth, Hocus Pocus nevertheless states it very well.