Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ultimate X-Men volume three

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

I suppose I could save myself the effort of writing this review by referring you to its predecessor, as found here. Pretty much everything I said in June applies here, but possibly moreso. I guess the last three X-Men movies were based on the Millar version, and they were decent as movies but this is a comic book; and while it's fine to reinvent characters and situations every so often - if you really must - there really needs to be a reason for the revision beyond just revision. Whilst many elements of those early Chris Claremont issues of X-Men may now seem clunky, dated, and packed so full of corn one might almost think they were aimed at - titter! snurf! - eight-year old boys, they did their job and they did it well. I liked Storm as a po-faced weather-Goddess and Wolverine as Ernest Borgnine with claws. They didn't need to be sulky smart-arsed eye-rolling text-messaging teenagers, particularly not as part of a team comprised exclusively of the same. It's not like they were particularly rich or well-rounded as characters to begin with, but at least you could tell them apart from one another.

Here we get a mash-up of the Proteus storyline from 1979 and the first appearance of Legion in New Mutants, but with more whining and Buffyisms; and it's okay and it does its job very well, but I still can't see why anyone bothered. Betsy Braddock gets recycled as yet another generically deadly telepathic female - a development which can fuck right off; and then there are two issues of revisionist Gambit back story, still with the total arseache of everything written in that annoying phonetic rendering of Cajun which really should have been made illégal by maintenant, mon cheri. I always found Gambit a tedious non-character anyway, so his revival negates the one thing this version had going for it.

I usually like Mark Millar's writing except for when I don't, but this is the first time I've found it workmanlike and bland. For all its flaws, the Claremont run from John Byrne through to Marc Silvestri makes this thing look like Monster High. Grant Morrison's run was pretty radical in some respects, but it worked because he kept his eye on what made the thing great in the first place.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Last Words of Dutch Schultz

William S. Burroughs The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1975)
Thanks mainly to Porridge going on about him in the pages of Sounds, I discovered Burroughs back when I was a teenager. At the time my mum was taking a degree in English and American Literature at Warwick University and she would occasionally smuggle me into the extensive campus library presumably so as to encourage my increasingly esoteric interests on the grounds that I probably wasn't going to shine as either a farmhand or the bloke on the till at a garage. The library had an impressive shelf of hardback editions of Burroughs, most of which I'd never heard of because they tended not to be listed under by the same author opposite the title pages of Naked Lunch or any of Billy's other top forty chart smashes.

Even without my somewhat uneven relationship with the written word, I never got around to looking at this one. There were just too many of them to get through in the three years of my mother taking her degree, and eventually I forgot about it. Decades later I encounter the general idea of Dutch Schultz having had last words in Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus!, which was additionally interesting because up to that point I'm not sure I realised that Dutch had been an actual person, one whose deathbed ramblings had contained the secret of the universe, existence, reality and all that - according to Wilson and Shea.

Newsday said that the rigid conventions of screen writing give Burroughs' savage vision a Haiku-like purity and intensity; whilst Kirkus opined this to be Burroughs' most accessible, tightly knit work of fiction... Laid out as a stripped-down movie script, it's almost as if this is the form that Burroughs has always needed.

As you may therefore gather, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz is a script for a film which no-one ever got around to making, unfortunately including Dennis Hopper who had the rights for a while. As a slim book it's vaguely atmospheric, plenty of moody photos of Dutch and his pals interspersed with a terse script describing scenes from the guy's life, and at least some of that deathbed speech. It takes about an hour to read the thing, and the last words don't really seem to contain any clues to anything unless you're looking far too hard; and it doesn't really do enough to coax me into forming any strong opinions. If you really think this is the form that Burroughs has always needed, you probably shouldn't have bothered reading him in the first place. It's all right for what it is, but nothing which hasn't worked better on screen as The Godfather; and ultimately I suspect I'd rather watch the film than read the script, or at least this script, so it's probably not fair to say anything further.

Monday, 19 December 2016

So Bright the Vision

Clifford D. Simak So Bright the Vision (1968)
Just four long-ish short stories here, none of which I've read before, and all dating from between 1956 to 1960. Simak is of course best known for what has been termed pastoral science-fiction - The Waltons with the occasional alien visitor if you want the shorthand, although there's a lot more to it than that - so this is an interesting collection in so much as that all four stories feature an urban if not actually metropolitan setting. Nevertheless, Simak's concerns remain firmly with the little guy, the blue collar worker just trying to get by as best he can at the periphery of a huge, confusing universe; so Simak's traditional themes are all here should anyone doubt that there's more going on than just folksy imagery. Indeed, as I expect I've said before, whilst it is quite easy to characterise Simak as formulaic, the evidence always seems to give a different testimony.

The Golden Bugs, for example, might be read as generic magazine fiction of its era - fifties nuclear family encounters tiny insectoid aliens as they emerge from a boulder-sized agate spaceship which has inconveniently crushed their dahlias, but it works due to the contrast of urbanity with the intrusively weird details. The next story is Leg. Forst. in which a stamp collector collects postage stamps from all across the galaxy - because the intergalactic postal system still entails folks queuing up at the post office for stamps. Our man encounters a stamp made from a rare alien fungus which organises things. Grow it in a waste basket, leave the waste basket in an untidy room, and within days everything will have been sorted, even neatly filed in alphabetical sequence where appropriate; and this is just the set-up for the rest of what happens.

The summation of Simak as pastoral neglects much of what makes him great, namely just how damn weird some of his fiction is, and how unpredictable. For all that we may well be dealing with the written equivalent of country and western, once Simak has established where we are and who we're looking at, it's anyone's guess where we're headed next thanks to an intuitive creative process as described in the February 1980 edition of Amazing Stories:

I don't consciously plot too much of the second half of the story because I know very well by the time I'm at the midpoint, the characters and the situations will have taken over, and I'll be writing an entirely different story than I started out to write.

Nothing in this collection does what you might expect it to, which is significant for me given that it relates directly to why I read science-fiction, and is why Simak will probably forever remain in my top three. The plain-talking and the homespun are no gimmick. The story is that way for the sake of contrast, because Simak fills his tales with persons very much like ourselves specifically that we may fully appreciate - by virtue of the aforementioned contrast - the magic and wonder of that which is so far outside our experience as to border on the incomprehensible. He shows us that the unfamiliar isn't so scary when we look close, rather than adopting the more common science-fiction approach of dazzling us with weirdness for the sake of it. He broadens our horizons, which is what all the best literature should do.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Once and Future King

T.H. White The Once and Future King (1958)
I was about to read Philip Purser-Hallard's Trojans, the final part of his thus far exceptional Devices trilogy, when I saw this in the second-hand book store and bought it with the idea that a little homework couldn't hurt. Devices refers to large chunks of Arthurian legend, and I seem to recall White's book having been described as the definitive work bringing it all together into roughly the shape we recognise today; except it turns out that I was actually thinking of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur of 1485 to which The Once and Future King itself refers and which I am similarly yet to read; but I've started so I may as well finish.

The Once and Future King, rather than being the definitive version, brings Arthurian legend into the twentieth century in so much as that it's a modern novel written in a contemporary style whilst relating a tale set in the twelfth century or thereabouts. All those Arthurian occurrences are traditionally dated to times prior to even Egbert of Wessex, the first Saxon king and arguably the first English king by some definition; so the six-hundred year relocation initially unsettled me. At first it seemed like White just needed a way of bringing Robin Hood into the Arthurverse - curiously something which likewise occurs in Philip Purser-Hallard's The Locksley Exploit albeit with more satisfying purpose, to my mind - which demands the reader avoid thinking too hard about what Richard the Lionheart may or may not have been up to around the same time.

Even more disconcerting, at least for me, was that the first of the four books of The Once and Future King turns out to be The Sword in the Stone, as famously adapted by Walt Disney. I've never seen the animated film but would guess it's probably fairly true to the book, given that the tone of the book, occasionally harking back to the absurdity of Cervantes as it does, somewhat foreshadows Harry Potter and even the Monty Python version of this tale. Try to read this without thinking of John Cleese and the rest:

Sir Ector blushed deeply and called out: 'Ah, Grummore, come over here a minute, will you? I want to introduce a friend of mine, old chap, a chap called Wood, old chap—Wood with a W, you know, not an H. Yes, and this is King Pellinore, Master Wood—King Pellinore.'

'Hail,' said King Pellinore, who had not quite got out of the habit when nervous.

'How do?' said Sir Grummore. 'No relation to Robin Hood, I suppose?'

'Oh, not in the least,' interrupted Sir Ector hastily. 'Double you, double owe, dee, you know, like the stuff they make furniture out of—furniture, you know, and spears, and—well—spears, you know, and furniture.'

I was expecting more frowning, more grunting, more faces set sternly against the northern wind, which isn't to say I was necessarily disappointed so much as that it took more getting used to than I had anticipated. White talks quite directly to his audience as though we're sat before him upon the hearth rug, and so we have references such as to Merlyn putting his fingers together like Sherlock Holmes, and we are left with a strong impression of The Once and Future King having been written for English school boys at the upper end of the 1950s educational ladder.

Children believe such things to this day, and think that they will only be able to bowl well in the cricket match tomorrow, provided that they are good today.

As an aside, even without the references to Merlyn and his unsettling knowledge of centuries to come, anyone who enjoyed Marc Platt's Lungbarrow as I did might appreciate why I should raise an eyebrow at this passage:

'Would you show me your home?'

'Certainly,' said the badger, 'though, of course, I don't use it all. It is a rambling old place, much too big for a single man. I suppose some parts of it may be a thousand years old. There are about four families of us in it, here and there, take it by and large from cellar to attics, and sometimes we don't meet for months. A crazy old place, I suppose it must seem to you modern people—but there, it's cosy.'

At the risk of committing what is probably literary treason, there's a problem with The Once and Future King, or at least I experienced one. It's nothing to do with kids turning into Disney owls, the twelfth century remodelling, the disconcerting contemporary asides, or any of White's screwing around with the source material, all of which is done with a purpose which becomes gradually apparent. The problem is that said purpose takes so long to emerge from the narrative. I can understand the writer not wanting to play all of his cards at once, but as soon as we're past The Sword in the Stone it really gets to rambling and bumbling to itself with no clear indication of where we might be heading, and while the book remains readable throughout, personally I was a little bored in places. I'm putting this down to my never having read Le Morte D'Arthur.

That said, the point of it all is beautifully expressed once it becomes apparent why White felt compelled to write in the first place. The Once and Future King evokes the age of chivalry in contrast to White's era, and unfortunately also to our own - it might be argued. His invocation of Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the pseudo-Darwinian cult of power as its own justification, as given by Agravaine during the first chapter of the fourth book, is hard to miss.

'We could say that we were in favour of a national movement. For that matter, we could join them together and call it national communism. But it has to be something broad and popular, which everybody can feel. It must be against large numbers of people, like the Jews or the Normans or the Saxons, so that everybody can be angry.'

White also seemingly predicted Death in June and other neofolk types who have built careers on simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery, such as the controversial idea and image of Adolf Hitler as a great bloke who was only saying what everybody was thinking.

Mordred had begun dressing with this dramatic simplicity since the time when he had become a leader of the popular party. Their aims were some kind of nationalism, with Gaelic autonomy, and a massacre of the Jews as well, in revenge for a mythical saint called Hugh of Lincoln. There were already thousands, spread over the country, who carried the badge of a scarlet fist clenching a whip, and who called themselves Thrashers.

Once this novel stops messing about and gets down to the business of what is on its mind, it becomes a formidable work, and so much so as to oblige me to forget having been bored; and given the chilling accuracy of White's analysis of the rise of the Nazis, his argument seems unfortunately well-suited to our own era, and to how we respond to what is happening in our world.

At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws. He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state. He had been prepared to sacrifice his wife and his best friend, to the impersonality of Justice. And then, even as the might of the individual seemed to have been curbed, the Principle of Might had sprung up behind him in another shape—in the shape of collective might, of banded ferocity, of numerous armies insusceptible to individual laws. He had bound the might of units, only to find that it was assumed by pluralities. He had conquered murder, to be faced with war. There were no Laws for that.

I suppose now I need to read Le Morte D'Arthur.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Promethea book two

Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray
Promethea book two (2001)

I found this bewildering and had to go back and re-read the first volume in order to make some sense of it. I suppose that would suggest something of a higgledy-piggledy narrative, although to be fair my comic book reading habits have changed somewhat over the years. Once I would have read the first volume four or five times before getting to this one, but these days I tend to give things the once over and then move on to something else; and this was like starting afresh, meaning I suppose that I hadn't retained much from the first six issues.

Promethea really is something of a higgledy-piggledy narrative, and becomes increasingly so as we work our way through the six issues gathered here, beginning with ornate double page spreads more resembling the frontage of Gaudí's Casa Battló than the page of a comic book, with panels like windows which we're not quite sure how to read - one page then the next, or line by line across the full spread; but it seems to work either way, suggesting the possibility of a conscious departure from linearity on the part of those responsible. That this might be deliberate seems supported as subsequent pages exhibit increasingly eccentric patterns, drawing the reader around the sequence of images along a boustrophedon before going all free-form simultaneity in issue twelve, different themes repeating across pages without borders with a rhythm suggesting music as much as traditional narrative; but does it work?

Actually it does, although the medium outshines its message.

Reservations that might encumber,
Pleasure - why, I have a number,
Not least being this rhymed narrating,
In forms I find quite irritating,
For such resemblance that it doth bear,
To poetic arts for which I care,
So very little whilst they strive so hard,
To impersonate a certain bard,
Yet flounder like ships lacking anchor,
As though forged by some fucking wanker,
With pewter mug abrim with ale,
Sentiments which can only fail,
As with one finger in his ear,
He doth sing a song for which I need a lot more beer.

Neil Gaiman used to do it all the fucking time and probably still does. Alan Moore is better at it, but it's still kind of annoying and I'm not sure he really does it well enough to get away with it. Additionally there's the problem of this being yet another treatise on magic, fiction as reality and so on; and it's a problem because magic is an entirely subjective thing, so the successful communication of this stuff tends to depend on who is reading.

My take on magic is that, as Snoop Dogg suggests, the game is to be sold, not to be told; and people who bang on about how to do magick right or how an actual Sumerian God was once manifest in their kitchen following such and such a working tend to be full of shit because really, they're only doing what the singer from Fields of the Nephilim does when he pulls a scary face and sings about the stark goblins of regret - or whatever it was that band did. The clue to this is usually to be found - I would suggest - in an eclectic pick and mix approach to different magical systems, taking a little bit of this from here, a little bit of that from there - Thoth, Baphomet, John Dee, Wotan, Paul bleeding Daniels, the more the merrier; for 'tis all but a veil of illusion and these are but masks for that which resides beyond the realm of language. It works providing you specifically ignore that what you aspire to deal with is itself only language, and whilst it may indeed influence reality, it remains only language - as certain magical systems themselves explicitly acknowledge; and language differs wildly according to culture, particularly with the cultures from which so many of the popular symbols are commonly borrowed. Nahuatl, for example, has a verb amounting to to cause something to fall on the ground producing a slapping sound, and that's one of the more readily translatable ones. Languages work by very different means and apply in different ways according to culture, so whilst the one-size-fits-all appropriation of often contradictory concepts looks very nice when trying to convey the sheer volume of just how deep, meaningful, and mysterious you may wish to appear to the uninitiated, it suggests a lack of genuine focus whilst begging the question just why do you need to tell everyone? Why does it matter to you that others should view you in a certain light?

So do what thou wilt, but please try not to be a bore about it.

Therefore, returning to Promethea, my point is that it's a nice tune played well and it has some interesting things to say about myth, reality, and whether there's a difference, but as with many works of this type, it's really not so deep as it thinks it is. The book knows it's a book - t'riffic, but what happens next? Promethea's strengths are in the jokes, the supposedly throwaway details provided as contrast, the interplay of characters; and the enterprise sags when it gets around to doing what it came to do in the first place, the very thing which defines it, the four-hour drum solo by a bloke dressed in Shakespearean clobber. I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended to do that.

Promethea is great, but not as great as it thinks.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Secret Galactics

A.E. van Vogt The Secret Galactics (1974)
This starts off well in characteristically peculiar form with the main protagonist revealed to be a disembodied brain trundling around in a wheeled life support machine, even occasionally driving places with a showroom dummy propped up behind the wheel of his car so as to avoid attracting attention. Also, all sorts of alien races are invading Earth, infiltrating human society in human bodies, and it never seems quite clear what they want or why they're here. In fact I got the impression they're mainly looking to settle down and get on with it without too much fuss. The problems - at least for the reader - only really arise when a theme begins to emerge from this typically dreamlike scenario and we begin to notice what the book is about.

The aliens don't appear to be the traditional reds under the bed, or a metaphor for anything in particular so far as I can tell, because this is another van Vogt novel examining the supposedly irreconcilable differences between men and women, and it's anyone's guess what the aliens have to do with anything. I seem to recall a van Vogt novel in which human women turn out to be an alien species of some description, although I can't work out which one it was, or whether I just imagined that, but The Secret Galactics belongs to the same era as The Darkness on Diamondia which betrays a similarly odd view of women; so I guess Alfred was going through a thang when he hit sixty, or at least had decided he may as well write about it. The thang is expressed as a peculiar seam of oblique sexism running through the book.

'And then of course, somewhere about a month after our marriage, it developed she wasn't pregnant at all, but just a typical female of the good woman type, which I didn't know about at the time, going into her frigid state, and thereafter limiting sex to once a week, or even less.'

The good woman is a type described in a sociological tract catchily entitled Women Are Doomed, as written by our hero, the disembodied brain. He's quite the philosopher.

Carl was not actually surprised. It was an old theory of his that all human problems were female in origin.

Well-l-ll - modification: money and possessions were right in there. Money, and what it could buy. Property, the security it bought - and the women it attracted. Still, just about every male who wanted a woman could get some version of one. But not all men took the trouble, as he had done, to learn how to get money. So that was a vaguer impulse, except for some minimum eating and shelter requirements.

Not that the male of the species is entirely without flaws:

'He was unfortunate. Whatever was in the human embryo his Sleele genes were melded into, looks good physically. But the grown male body has a compulsion for young girls. Fourteen to sixteen drives him up a wall. He's been arrested three times for molesting teenagers. But Paul has promised him an unending supply of young girls for his help. So you see what a dilemma I've put our Metnov in.'

To be fair, it doesn't seem that van Vogt harboured any particularly sexist attitudes so much as that his views regarding women were somehow arrested, even juvenile, predicated on a notion of the sexes being so radically divided as to render even basic communication problematic. He seems to idolise women, placing them on a pedestal whilst simultaneously resenting that they're not all queueing up to powder his nuts, and additionally resenting that they seem unable to intuitively appreciate just how unfair this is. It reminds me of myself as an emotionally stunted teenager.

Then again, the problem isn't the subject so much as that it's anyone's guess what van Vogt is actually saying here, if he's even saying anything. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the point of the humanoid aliens was simply to show how strange those forever-frigid titty-women can be from a slightly different angle. So we have a great start with five or six chapters of Alfred Elton firing on all cylinders, then it all sort of slips into an undifferentiated slurry of dubious sexual politics and general muttering; which is a real shame.