Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Syndic

C.M. Kornbluth The Syndic (1953)
Unfortunately my once high regard of Kornbluth has been somewhat jeopardised since reading whichever of his efforts I last enjoyed. It turns out that he supposedly battered his wife with a metal bar during a domestic dispute - although I can't seem to find any reference to this online - in addition to The Marching Morons constituting an argument in favour of eugenics. Somehow I failed to notice this when I read and very much enjoyed said short story, taking Kornbluth's tone for the more innocuous combination of a head shaken at finding oneself surrounded by idiots and gags about dummies walking into walls or falling over, such as you might find in a Laurel & Hardy short. Revisiting the tale I realised that the revulsion expressed for simpletons was something unfortunately stronger than an indulgent sigh. Kornbluth was clearly a little odd in certain respects, but I'm unsure as to whether whatever misanthropic views he may have held can really be parcelled up with harmless eccentricity. I've continued to ignore the work of Orson Scott Card for what might be deemed less, although on the other hand I still have all those Death in June albums.

I suppose the argument is over whether one is able to divorce a piece of art from the beliefs of its creator, although I guess I've been doing just that for most of my life, at least since I went nuts for the Italian Futurists back when I was a teenager. If that which I appreciate in a piece of art is a combination of technique and some nebulous quality I'll term emotional truth, then I can look past the artist having been quite so fulsome in his support for Mussolini where neither technique nor emotional truth are specifically reliant upon less palatable aspects of the artist's personality or views, meaning I'm better able to appreciate Enrico Prampolini's portraits of Marinetti than I am his depiction of Mussolini's Blackshirts trampling a red flag - although I suppose I can appreciate the technique of the latter, and even the strident tone up to a point; but some juggling is involved, or making excuses if you prefer. On the other hand, no such juggling is required when considering the art of Arno Breker, for I find his aesthetic of supposed Aryan supremacy so unpleasant and ludicrous as to render his sculpture worthless, regardless of considerations such as the dull, sterile efficiency of his blandly muscular forms depicting humanity reduced to a distinctly lumpen functionality.

I'm still undecided over Kornbluth, given that he could clearly write, but it probably doesn't matter in this instance given that The Syndic is ropey and already difficult to love without worrying over the psychological life of its author. I should have been put off by the bloody awful cover, the work of Howard Chaykin whom older readers may remember from that comic he drew about women with big tits who wear lingerie, carry guns, and like to have it off; but I bought it anyway. The Syndic - and I don't know why it should be that rather than the less annoying syndicate - are some sort of organised crime deal which has taken over America, and yet which isn't the Mafia because the Mafia are running all the states where the Syndic aren't in charge. I've seen online claims for the Syndic as either an anarcho-capitalist or anarcho-syndicalist society, and whilst the latter would at least account for the name, nothing in the book seemed to leap out at me in support of either. Meanwhile the American government has been declared an outlaw organisation and as such now resides in exile in Ireland*.

Our story follows some Syndic guy going undercover so as to infiltrate those naughty government forces. In this novel of a world turned upside down all your prejudices will get stood on their heads, promises the back cover before adding you're going to find yourself rooting for the Syndic! Not me, though. I didn't like any of them and I was bored for the most part. I'm not even sure why. It's well-written in so much as Kornbluth, as ever, has a wonderful way with words, but otherwise there was nothing to care about. His depiction of an Ireland returned to the wilderness and populated by witches seemed momentarily promising but never went anywhere, and the novel as a whole seems to constitute a pean to Libertarian principles, but never really sung so clear as to give me an idea of why it should matter, or even what any of those principles might be beyond an unquantified distrust of the Government.

Oh well.

*: Iceland according to Wikipedia, so either Wikipedia is wrong or I am in having read a third of the book as being set in Ireland. Unfortunately, even though I have the novel right here in front of me, I can't be arsed to check.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Brick Moon

Edward Everett Hale The Brick Moon (1869)
This is one of those books, or at least novellas, which lodged in my consciousness quite early on thanks to the fairly lurid cover of some pulp magazine in which it was reproduced having appeared in a big glossy book of science-fiction history I read as a kid, or at least which I took out from the library so I could look at the pictures as a kid. The narrative, which is fairly brief, describes an artificial moon built from wood and brick catapulted into orbit so as to provide Victorian mariners with some means of gauging longitude. Inevitably something goes wrong and the Brick Moon is launched ahead of time still with a load of people inside. Months pass before it is sighted in the heavens, following which communication is established through morse code signalled by the new satellite's inhabitants jumping up and down as observed with a telescope.

I'm going to avoid committing the customary rant about steampunk on the grounds that Hale's world may as well have been Georgian rather than fully Victorian if this novella is any indication, which is probably why I seem to recall The Brick Moon having been tagged as brickpunk somewhere or other, an assertion which can frankly piss off so far as I'm concerned.

The tale begins with lengthy discussion on the practicalities of launching an artificial satellite in nineteenth century America, possibly taking cues from Verne's From the Earth to the Moon of 1865, although this one is shorter and more fun, or more fun than whichever Verne translation I read. The technological level of Hale's enterprise is early industrial revolution but without much reference to even steam let alone anything else, hence the Georgian affectations which are similarly reflected in his literary style. Hale was a Unitarian minister, a big fan of progressive thought and not so keen on the practice of slavery, which I mention for the sake of clarity rather than because it is of any particular relevance to this book. Darwin's On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859, just a decade before, and is acknowledged in those animals marooned on the Brick Moon - goats, chickens and the like - quickly evolving into ostriches or beasts of burden so that those aboard might sustain themselves. Of course, Hale may have been taking the piss, but the generous spirit of his prose suggests it's more likely that he'd simply skipped a few chapters of Darwin's book.

America had not yet enjoyed a full century of independence from England when this was written, and so The Brick Moon is ultimately a hymn to political autonomy expressed as its people are seen to get on very well up there despite their isolation, not least thanks to lichen quickly evolving into trees and plants bearing fruit. Of course, none of it is particularly logical by contemporary standards even without pointing out that there probably wouldn't be any air up there in the ether, five-thousand miles above the Earth's surface; but Hale's testimony, stilted though it may well seem today, nevertheless wins us over. Political autonomy has taken on unpleasant associations in recent times what with Brexit and the Annoying Orange presidency and everything, but here it was a positive ideal and is communicated as such; and Hale really seems to be all about the positive and progressive.

The Brick Moon is a great book, one which really makes me wish he'd written more of its type, and one which leaves us with an impression of an author who was probably a nice guy, someone we would like to know. In terms of science-fiction history, The Brick Moon really should loom larger than presently seems to be the case.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (2008)

To cut to the chase I really enjoyed this, which I mention so as to save readers the effort of skipping down in search of the point at which I'm not slagging something off. However, a huge rant came to me just as I finished reading, inspired by but only indirectly relating to The Umbrella Academy - actually no more than an expansion upon themes found in my usual rant - and I really need to get it out of my system so here we go. We will return to The Umbrella Academy following the next couple of paragraphs.

There's a dominant aesthetic which has emerged from western culture at the end of the twentieth century which I'll refer to as Titterism for the sake of convenience, and Titterism because its lowest forms suggest a person tittering as they photoshop, for example, a robot riding a penny-farthing whilst somehow imagining themselves to be a font of creative wit. I could be wrong but I suspect it all started when the Cure, having recorded the excellent Seventeen Seconds and Faith, turned to shit, although this may simply be when I first began to notice. I suppose it might be dated to the time Robert Smith spent playing guitar for Siouxsie & the Banshees then presumably came back with the wrong end of their aesthetic stick to record shite like The Love Cats and The Caterpillar. Titterism seems to have been born through a recontextualisation of Lewis Carroll, and in the wake of Robert Smith's pioneering work found expression in the art of Vaughan Oliver who famously set Victorian typefaces across blurred photographs of someone's grandma using a mangle. This led thematically to Dave McKean using rusty screws purchased from an antique shop to fix dead leaves to the cover of Sandman comics, and arguably to the stories contained in those comics and written by Neil Gaiman; and then to everything else whipped up from some tastefully blurred aspect of Victoriana or its associated images of childhood - Harry Potter, Doctor Who, steampunk, Peaky fucking Blinders, Tim Burton, you name it...

Gadzooks, chaps - why methinks 'tis one of those computing engines so fashioned as to resemble a gentleman and - oh my - he's riding a jolly old boneshaker! By the Lord Harry, what a to-do! What will they think of next?*

The appeal of Titterism - as I will continue to call it until it feels right - is not difficult to appreciate. We respond for the same reason we still respond to Dada and Surrealism, art movements to which much Titterist work appears to aspire. It looks interesting because it seems incongruous in the age of computer-driven mass communication. It looks incongruous because it looks conspicuously hand crafted and hints at values with which we are no longer fully connected; so contrast is the key element - hence what you get when you google steampunk Dalek. It's a space age robotic alien from the future, and yet it's powered by - tee hee - cogs and flywheels, so let the titters commence. No creative ability is required, just the capacity for standing an object next to its thematic opposite. This is probably why this whole thing has come about now, scored to the rise of information technology which allows those without clearly quantified artistic vision to endlessly quote, cut, paste, and rearrange what has gone before. Dada and Surrealism did the same but in sharp contrast to still strongly defined aesthetics of craft and beauty which modernism had only just begun to address, so the act of collage was itself a statement even before we consider any philosophical dimensions invoked by Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, André Breton and others. The collage served subversion rather than tittering novelty the appeal of which is that it looks funny innit! Like everything, the subversion has been stripped of content and commodified as Titterism. It's old and weird and it reminds us of that which had content beyond the basic aesthetic, which saves us the trouble of thinking about it for longer than it takes to read this sentence.

So that is why I dislike Titterism. For every individual who understands exactly what they're doing and is able to offer art of some intrinsic value beyond mere collectibility, there are a million other cunts busily dangling Bulldog Drummond from a dirigible and expecting to get paid for it. This is partially why I browsed The Umbrella Academy in the book store two or three times before actually buying it. It looked potentially intriguing, but it looked like Titterism, a bit Tim Burton in places. I've tried with My Chemical Romance but I never really understood that emotional children music - as it's called - and The Black Parade still sounds like a noisier, more whiny Bay City Rollers to my ears; so the appeal of a Titterist comic book written by their singer did not seem obvious; but, I'd still have bought the first issue of the new Doom Patrol comic a couple of weeks back had it been written by Ben fucking Elton, never mind Gerard Way; and it was good, so of course I just had to read this.

The Umbrella Academy is a group of seven, slightly bizarre super-powered children, and whilst it skates close to the edge, occasionally threatening to slide over into a full blown Titterfest of monocles, penny-farthing bicycles, and Christmas puddings with sixpences in the middle - it has enough momentum and weird invention to get away with it, and ultimately to succeed with flying colours. On the surface of it, it's almost a homage to Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol - and if you enjoyed that you'll almost certainly enjoy this - but maintains its own distinctive voice through, oddly enough, a seemingly more pronounced European aesthetic, or enough so as to imply that Way has sat through more than his fair share of bewildering black and white films with English subtitles. So it manages to feel significantly less mainstream than Morrison's Doom Patrol, thanks in part to Gabriel Bá's wonderful artwork falling somewhere between Tintin and Ted McKeever.

Aside from some muted wibbling noises about shitty parenting, it admittedly doesn't actually do a whole lot beyond looking amazing, but that doesn't have to be a problem, and it does more than just titter. If you really need it, The Umbrella Academy's surrealist short-circuiting of expectation might quite easily be taken as an end in itself. It throws interesting shapes, and is at heart deeply fucking stupid, but then all the best comic books usually are.

*: I could churn out this shit all day if anyone's interested: five cents a word but all reasonable offers will be considered.

The Colour of Magic

Terry Pratchett The Colour of Magic (1983)
Still wondering whether Peter F. Hamilton may have destroyed my love of reading, I picked this up. I wasn't really planning to read any more Pratchett but with The Colour of Magic being the first of the Discworld novels, it seemed a safe bet that it would at least be worth a chuckle. I would have preferred the edition which had the title spelled correctly and the more rustic cover - as opposed to this awful crap clearly designed to appeal to hipster Douglas Adams fans who might be put off by artwork reflecting the actual thrust of the story - but never mind.

Sure enough, it is worth a chuckle - a sort of Monty Python take on Lord of the Rings, or at least something in that genre; doing what Douglas Adams did but with wizards, dragons, spells, and a flat world balanced upon the backs of four elephants, and doing it better. On close examination, there's not a whole lot of story - slightly incompetent wizard is saddled with an amusingly hapless out-of-towner on a quest without any clear objective, so they're really just going from place to place and getting into trouble until it ends - but the key to the tale is its telling: wonderfully peculiar scenarios, big stupid ideas, and wit that never lets up. It takes the piss out of the genre and its conventions like nothing else, and yet does so without the slightest hint of sneering - possibly by virtue of the obvious affection Pratchett felt for his characters and their ridiculous lives, but also by means of pinning the reality of the Discworld to the logic of physics and specifically certain aspects of quantum theory, lending everything a sense of veracity which seems absent from most things involving dwarves, quests, and talking swords; and most important of all, it's very, very funny without feeling like it has to crack jokes all the bleeding time.

The only problem, at least for me, was that Terry Pratchett's detail is so rich, so beautifully written, and so convoluted in the service of its farce, that I found it hard to keep track of the story at certain points, of who was who and what they were up to this time. I think this may be more to do with my reading habits - an hour at breakfast and another before I go to sleep - than with the book. I kept coming back to it and finding myself lost, necessitating a skim of previous pages, so I think it may simply be that this sort of thing is better appreciated when read over fewer sittings, with longer periods of time spent on each occasion. I seem to recall the same thought having occurred to me when I read the others.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man

Tom King & Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The Vision: Little Worse Than a Man (2016)
I'd never heard of Tom King, nor Gabriel Hernandez Walta - whom I assumed to be related to the Love & Rockets brothers, but seemingly isn't - and, aside from enjoying a couple of John Byrne issues of West Coast Avengers about a million years ago, I never really gave too much of a shit about the Vision as a character. Nevertheless, Little Worse Than a Man caught my eye when Jonathan Dennis posted that he'd been reading it on facebook, and there it was in Barnes & Noble looking all intriguing and shit, and I'd made it to page-three-hundred of The Snoring Void and felt as though I deserved a treat, and the girl working the counter said I've been meaning to read this one, which seemed like a good sign.

The bad news, by some definition, is that this is just half of the story, and I gather the other six issues will be collected once they've been published; but otherwise - holy shit!

The Vision, in case anyone requires a recap, is a synthetic man created by Ultron so as to screw with the Avengers - technically a synthezoid, and that's apparently totally different to an android. Oh yes it is. He sports an eye-watering red and green colour scheme; he can fly, walk through walls, shoot lasers and all of the rest; his sentence structure is overly analytical and hence unintentionally amusing, much like Data from Star Trek or Mr. Logic from Viz comic, and now he wants more than anything to be human, or like a human - just a regular guy who mows his lawn and pays taxes.

Naturally I was expecting laffs aplenty in roughly the same vein as an episode of The Munsters, but this is something much better. The excessive logic jokes are all there as Mr. and Mrs. Vision settle in and the two Vision kids attend the local high school, but the story is handled with such loving attention to detail that the laughter feels wrong, almost cruel, and the story slowly escalates into quiet psychological horror. It's that thing about how we are more repulsed by a close approximation of humanity than a patently unrealistic one, because the fear is so much more profound when risen from that split second it takes us to tell the difference between that which is human, and that which isn't. The more the Visions try to fit in, the more David Lynch it gets and the less we notice we're reading a superhero book. In fact, it feels more like science-fiction in the Philip K. Dick tradition - a genuinely rare thing given that most supposedly Dickian fiction seem to have been identified as such by people who may not have read his books but nevertheless consider Blade Runner to be one of the greatest movies ever made, which it really isn't.

Like nothing else I can think of, this book is both hilarious and yet absolutely chilling, often within the space of the same speech bubble, and the artwork is gorgeous. This might even be the best thing Marvel have ever done.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Infinity Doctors

Lance Parkin The Infinity Doctors (1998)
The magic of Doctor Who is that as a franchise it can be used to tell absolutely any kind of story, squeak the Whovian pod-kidults on a fairly regular basis - and please note depressingly telling use of the term franchise. It's one of those things people say because they've heard someone else say it, which actually translates to adventures in the wild west contrasted with adventures on one of Jupiter's moons as somehow equating to thematic variation rather than just a change of scenery. Try telling D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow as Doctor Who - or any other grown-up book for that matter - and the claim is revealed as absurd because The Rainbow is fine as it is and doesn't need to be Doctor Who. Annoyingly it also misses the point that there is a particular type of science-fiction story which Doctor Who seems almost uniquely suited to telling simply thanks to it being a serial of several decades duration, allowing writers to focus on some particularly weird narrative twists without first having to spend five-hundred pages on background and continuity; and this, I would say, is - or at least was - the great strength of the - ahem - franchise, if we really must call it that like the loyal little product-sponge cunts we have apparently become.

To further lay a few of my doubtless contentious cards on the table, Doctor Who ended when it came back on the telly in 2005. Certain gibbons of my unfortunate acquaintance have made the usual sneering noises about continuity, and about being more open-minded when it comes to the possibility of the Doctor enjoying a quick knee-trembler from time to time, or that maybe he had a Time Lord mummy and daddy whom he wuvved vewy, vewy much, but it isn't that which bothers me.

Doctor Who began as a kid's show, and as a kid's show it moved accordingly with the times, occasionally playing with the Prisoner dressing-up box in the sixties, going all Mission: Impossible in the seventies and so on, eventually settling into the habit of weirdly pseudo-allegorical narratives such as Logopolis, Castrovalva, Warrior's Gate and so on - or if not allegorical then certainly ponderous and a long way down the road from William Hartnell battering Daleks with his cane whilst screaming take that, you soppy metal cunt! Towards the end of the eighties Who began to suffer mild schizophrenia, unable to decide whether it was Jorge Luis Borges or Timmy Mallet, and was thus cancelled making way for the novels, most of which did a reasonable job of keeping things going in the right direction. Being written by fans, there was of course a certain reliance on fanwank - entire stories spun from minor points of earlier continuity just like what that Alan Moore might have done - but Who stayed true to itself, regardless of contradictions, because if a narrative so fixated on time travel and the fluidity of established history can't occasionally change its mind, then it may as well just be Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.

It wasn't the introduction of a natural born Doctor who might nip off for a sneaky fuck every once in a while which rendered the show pointless in 2005 - although such details certainly served to diminish its uniqueness, reducing everything to just more generic cult TV landfill to be gathered on the shelves with all the other DVD boxed sets. It was the spirit in which it had been revived and how this tarnished the entire enterprise. Doctor Who began life as the work of cranky eccentrics who had difficultly playing nicely with other children and ended up writing for the BBC because they wouldn't have lasted two weeks as a milkman, and this was when the BBC believed it knew better and had a duty to educate the thickies whether we liked it or not. It believed it knew better because it was a cultural institution rather than a purely financial enterprise, dedicated to promoting elevated thoughts, arts, and in part to the literature of awkward anti-establishment buggers like Orwell and Huxley. Even as the BBC evolved, it retained some of this element, which continued in the Who novels during the nineties due to their similarly being the work of individuals pleasing themselves rather than a corporate agenda, and individuals raised on the work of cranky eccentrics who had difficulty playing nicely with other children.

The show returned in 2005 as a product designed by committee to provide optimum entertainment value to specific consumer demographics, retaining a percentage of its former typically English idiosyncracies for the sake of brand identification, then filling in the rest with proven formula material which had been seen to work for Babylon 5, Buffy the Ratings Slayer and others - notably a shitload of catchphrases, generic emotional crises, and more boo-hooing than your average Mexican telenovela, sweetie. Its anti-authoritarian content had been commodified as a marketing strategy. I'm probably repeating myself here, but it's relevant to what follows, and it brings me an almost sexual sense of satisfaction to upset those who might be upset by the above.

Anyway, to get to the point, there I was wading through yet another Peter F. Hamilton housebrick when I got to page three-hundred and just couldn't go on. I needed a break so I read Daniel Bristow-Bailey's The Ruins because it was short and had just turned up in the mail; and yet I still couldn't quite face getting back into The Dreaming Void so I picked this because I once read Who books to the point of obsession, thus quantifying The Infinity Doctors as comfort food; plus I vaguely recalled not quite getting it first time around, and Lance Parkin is clearly not lacking in talent so there was an appealing mystery there.

Despite that Doctor Who can be used to tell absolutely any kind of story, Whovian pod-kidults tend to argue over this book due to its featuring an ambiguous incarnation of the Doctor occupying an alternate non-canonical history; or it could be the first Doctor before he left Gallifrey, or the Eighth, or the last one, but the truth is that it doesn't matter. Oddly, I've only just noticed that the title makes most sense as a conflation of The Three Doctors and Arc of Infinity, television stories featuring Omega, the Time Lord who invented time travel and in doing so got himself trapped inside a black hole; and this tale riffs on both of them. Odder still is that much of it reads quite strongly as a television production in written form. By this I'm not referring to the tendency of certain Who authors who would quite clearly love to be writing something for telly, but find themselves obliged instead to plump for second best, a mere book which is pants because books are boooring innit, thus resulting in what is usually just a script with the phrase he said grinningly inserted hither and thither. Lance Parkin knows better than that, as is demonstrated by those portions of The Infinity Doctors which I suspect may serve as homage to Stephen Baxter, particularly the nosebleed physics, the wonderful descriptions of the process of universal expansion and so on, plus a mention of The Time Ships and the presence of a fictional element named baxterium.

Rather, the narrative unfolds as though we're watching a sequence of scenes upon a stage, rarely with a cast of more than five - some of them probably English character actors with lines provided by a BBC script writer, not least the Baldrickesque guard who refers to one of the Time Lords as that bloke. I suspect this is deliberate given the element of homage in combination with a few peculiarly self-aware passages, most notably:

'The best thing about books,' the Doctor confided to his fellow diners, is that you can always tell when you're getting to the end. No matter how tricky the situation the hero's in, you hold the book in your hand and think, hang on, I'm two-hundred and twenty-nine pages in, with only another fifty-one to go. It started slow, but it's building to a climax. This menu, though, with every single detail spelled out for you on an infinite number of pages is just dull. Where's the fun if everything's possible?'

...and yes, this monologue does appear on that very same page with another fifty-one to go.

There's a lot to recommend The Infinity Doctors, but its ambition somewhat outstrips its achievement, at least for me. It successfully invokes more ponderous television episodes such as The Keeper of Traken - with everything played as stagey pseudo-Shakespearian - but not quite by terms which work consistently on the page. The result is that some of the tale is unfortunately a little dull, leaving an overall impression of dramatic progression without much descriptive evidence of the same or any strong suggestion of there being anything much at stake; and of the fifty-one pages still to go, I managed about twenty before I lost interest and reluctantly shuffled back to The Dreaming Void.

The Infinity Doctors reads like a story stretched out to a much greater page count than was really necessary - much like Savar's TARDIS - or perhaps simply like something which could have used a further rewrite just to tighten up the saggy bits. It certainly has its moments and is in no sense a bad book, but Lance Parkin has written better.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016


John Smith, Scot Eaton & Mike Barreiro Scarab (1994)
This one apparently wasn't sufficiently popular for a collected edition, obliging me to rebuy the original eight-issue series of which I think I read two or maybe three at the time. It seemed interesting, but I was going seriously off the boil with comics in general, and then I missed an issue and I couldn't be bothered to hunt down the rest. My more recent purchase came in the mail padded out with other comics the seller had given up trying to flog, thus defining them as pulp in the true sense of the term. One of these comics was the not conspicuously collectible first issue of DC's Blackhawk by Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett, which I mention as it seems vaguely relevent to Scarab.

This Blackhawk was the 1989 revival of something which had been popular in the forties, a practice which DC had really been hammering into the ground for much of the eighties - lame golden age also-rans which had worked fine in their day but looked otherwise ridiculous in the era of Watchmen. Of course, Watchman had been the same basic reinvention of vintage superheroes, the key to which was the reinvention - doing something which hadn't been done before rather than just digging the reader in the ribs and asking who remembers Tootsie Rolls with a cheeky wink. Some titles took the latter route with cornball stories, big grins, and stars and stripes aplenty; but All-Star Squadron seemed retarded even to me - a developmentally stunted teenager who would happily read almost anything featuring a flying guy with a cape, so God knows how it must have read to the eight-year olds for whom it had presumably been written. There's probably a limit to how much nostalgia a child born in the seventies is likely to feel for Lawrence Welk, women in cloche hats, and prohibition. The eighties Blackhawk looked dull beyond my imagining even at the time, and sure enough...

It's the big patriotic grin like a single tooth filling the full width of the hero's mouth, jazz on the radio, and a version of that eternal war against the Nazis which can never quite decide whether it's ironic or not. The original Blackhawks were a freelance team of fighter pilots accompanied by Chop-Chop, an absurd conglomeration of racist stereotypes - a buck-toothed yellow monkey who speakee rike this. I find it really difficult to see how anyone could have been left with much of a post-coital glow by the thing unless they somehow popped their cherry whilst reading an issue, which seems unlikely on the face of it; and yet here it was again like a Two Ronnies sketch that had taken itself too seriously, corny tips of the hat to an imaginary audience of OAPs alternating with scenes of the revisionist Blackhawks reading their own comic exploits and finding themselves appalled at both the racism and the political naiveté. The whole endeavour screams look, maybe someone will buy it...

My point is that I don't know what the point was.

Scarab began life as a revised Dr. Fate, Dr. Fate being a mystical superhero of the forties of the kind characterised by amusingly portentous dialogue and adventures involving pyramids. More recently he turned up in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing in which capacity he was reasonably entertaining. John Smith's proposed narrative was full of shagging and even some bumming, which I guess DC comics saw as being at odds with whatever nostalgia might be tapped by the revival of yet another caped dude of yesteryear, so Smith switched the plates and came up with this.

Scarab is as intriguing as I remember, and better read in a single sitting than monthly instalments during which all momentum becomes bogged down with imagery. Smith was going, I presume, for a sort of atmospheric overload with vivid Burroughsian text scattered across the pages in something approaching stream of consciousness, using artwork to dilute the onslaught as much as illustrate it. The word count is high, and not all of it is to be taken as a literal reference to anything. At least some simply establishes mood, even the dialogue:

The screech of fingernails on a blackboard... skinny boys salivating over broken glass... love amongst the set squares and protractors...

For the sake of argument, you might call it John Smith doing a Doom Patrol, although he was always very much his own writer. The problem with Scarab, and I suspect why it never went further than these eight issues, is that with John Smith being very much his own writer, they really should
have just let him loose on Dr. Fate; because it reads as Dr. Fate with the serial numbers filed off, but we're stuck with a new and unfamiliar dude resembling H.R. Giger's idea of a superhero which is a lot more distracting than a warped version of something familiar would have been. The narrative seems almost at odds with its star, particularly when out of costume he's just another body builder with a mullet and not much in the way of personality beyond a love of justice 'n' shit. We're left with the impression that Smith felt the same way by the end, particularly when he throws in a couple of characters from his Indigo Prime strip in 2000AD, possibly as a means of keeping himself interested.

Scarab is potentially as rich as any novel I've read, but remains forever hamstrung by the creative identity crisis surrounding its main character, which is a great shame because I'm sure it could have been as big as Moore's Swamp Thing. Maybe with a bit more time, it would have found its stride.

The Ruins

Daniel Bristow-Bailey The Ruins (2016)
This comes to me as a result of another one of those chance encounters occurring from time to time on social media - self-published but it sounded sufficiently interesting to warrant a look, so here we are.

The Ruins is apparently a work very much in progress, a hundred or so pages from what will ultimately be a much longer book. It's set way back in seventh century England as Christianity begins to make inroads by way of monks and the nobility, such as they were at the time. Our story is told from the viewpoint of the fifteen-year old son of a regional ruler sent off to Lord Norbert for baptism, possibly for the sake of politics. The setting is now so remote as to constitute a foreign country, regardless of what crappy and misleading BBC productions we may have seen scrabbling for ratings in recent years. This version of England is still partially undecided and very much divided in choosing between the most recent new-fangled theological import and men wearing antlers in the woods. The author refrains from showing off with anything too startlingly weird, instead maintaining a readable everyday tone. Chaucer-minded critics might argue that these people would not have spoken any language quite so reader friendly as we have here, but it should be noted that Bristow-Bailey eschews anything obviously crap and modern - no talk to the hand, check it out, my liege, or I'll be there for you - and I would argue that greater linguistic fidelity would have been unnecessarily distracting and ultimately detrimental to the narrative. So by focussing on atmosphere and a certain degree of historical detail so ubiquitous as to be hardly worth mentioning, The Ruins feels absolutely true to its subject.

As to what it's about, this may be too short an excerpt from the proposed whole for me to say for sure, but it feels in part like a comment on culture and human progress as a gradual process - evolution and revision rather than revolution, the new endlessly recycling the old - that which we might think we know turns out to have been something quite different.

He finds a cellar, sparsely lit by stinking tallow-dipped torches. This place is old. Older than the Romans. Perhaps they too found ruins here when they first came, and built their own temples and bath houses on top.

I could be wrong, but The Ruins is nevertheless thought provoking without seeming like it's trying too hard, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Flying Saucers and the Three Men

Albert K. Bender Flying Saucers and the Three Men (1962)
This account looms large in terms of UFOlogical history, and John Keel described Bender's work as the single biggest influence on saucer lore, ever. Bender founded the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1952, an independent organisation dedicated to the investigation of the phenomenon run entirely by amateurs and enthusiasts, and the very first such organisation of its kind. Momentarily setting aside any urge towards smirking we may feel, Bender's work - collating reports of the unexplained from across the globe in the form of a quarterly magazine called Space Review - brought him, with a certain peculiar inevitability, into direct contact with entities claiming to be from outer space.

Whether this really happened or not is another thing entirely, but from his testimony I'm very strongly inclined to believe that it seemed absolutely real to Albert K. Bender, because if he were consciously making it up, he probably would have come up with something more plausible, more consistent, and less obviously surreal. There are a few significant clues as to the objective reality of what Bender claims to have experienced, notably:

When I regained my senses I was standing alone in the center of my den. The headache remained, and my eyes burned and felt swollen. I sat down on the bed, rubbed my eyes and head. Again I wondered if I were going out of my mind. Had I suffered some kind of fit? Had I dreamed this and the other realistic experiences? I began to think it might be logical and wise to see a doctor.

The mysterious headaches sound a lot like pollen allergies to me, but as with claims made in much UFO literature, it can often be difficult to pass judgement with absolute certainty. It could all be made up, but if so wouldn't you make a better job of it? It could all be an illusory interference pattern resulting from schizophrenic disassociation of different areas of the brain, but why do people we have never met seem to be having identical experiences? It could all be real by some definition, but if it were, wouldn't we know for sure by now?

For what it may be worth, Bender's experience involved contact with apparently alien beings who took him to some sort of flying saucer base and then explained in detail what they were doing on Earth, followed by the warning that he should tell no-one anything of what he has learned; and implausible though the account certainly is, it can't be avoided that a great many aspects of what Bender was supposedly told seem to square unusually well with other parts of the broader mythology. The same is true of his subsequent, often clearly terrifying encounters - notably involving the coming and going of mysterious and less than amicable visitors heralded by the overpowering smell of sulphur - just like those mediaeval demons - and the manifestation of something which had been named the Flatwoods Monster based on earlier sightings around the West Virginia town of that name.

Curiously enough, just as I was conducting a google search for the Flatwoods Monster - never having heard of the thing - and just as a series of bizarre artist's impressions came up, I heard the heavy footsteps of something much larger than a man walking across the roof of my house. Knowing the deep and repetitive thumps were almost certainly originated with somebody firing a ceremonial cannon at the nearby military base wasn't quite enough to quell the shiver of genuine terror I felt for just a moment - recalling how those who look for saucers have, like Bender, tended to find them. Assuming for the sake of argument that the kind of encounters Bender describes are a Jungian phenomenon, their perceived reality in the eye of the beholder renders them no less worthy of serious investigation.

In his introduction, Gray Barker describes his editing of Bender's original manuscript, apologising that the author made no claim to be a professional writer; so I was expecting outsider art. However, I doubt the manuscript can have been edited to any significant extent given that the prose shares the same easy rhythm as Bender's writing in issues of Space Review; and the apology is unnecessary. The account occasionally suggests one of Hank Hill's extended essays on the joys of propane and as such lacks the pacing of a thriller, but it really doesn't need it. Bender writes honestly, retaining a healthy scepticism regarding even his own testimony which, regardless of how much it may help his case or otherwise, makes for a fascinating piece of autobiography with none of the embittered or overly-defensive qualities which spoil most UFO literature. True or not, this is one hell of a weird story.