Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Ask the Dust


John Fante Ask the Dust (1939)
I first heard this guy's name on crackly old tapes of Bukowski readings in which Chuck occasionally took a break from burping, swearing, or describing a memorable hangover to tell his audience that they should be reading John Fante. Not knowing the name I assumed he was some younger, up and coming dude whose works had struck a chord with the Mighty One; but it turns out that it was the other way round, Fante being an earlier writer, one whose fame should perhaps have extended further than it did and who had served as an inspiration to Bukowski.

I had this book in my possession over ten years and somehow never got around to reading it, otherwise I would have realised the above. Rob Colson, one of the Seaton Point authors, lent it to me and then we lost touch; and shit happened, and we eventually found touch and I'll hopefully be seeing him for a pint in a week or so; and so of course it occurred to me that I should maybe get around to reading the thing before I return it.

It's not hard to see how Fante influenced Bukowski's writing. It's the same tight prose, clipped, functional and yet conveying nuances of mood and psychological subtext with a poetry that might be lost in any more floridly composed narrative. Similarly Fante's world is one of hacks, bums, and losers somehow maintaining their dignity regardless of shitty circumstances. There's a kind of romance, but nothing so cheap as sentiment.

I'm assuming Ask the Dust is at least partially autobiographical given that the main character is a struggling author lugging his typewriter around a succession of cheap rooms and dive bars, and although the territory is familiar from the novels of his more famous successor, the narrative follows quite a different course to the sort of thing Bukowski tended to write. Our boy is living off the precarious fame and earnings of having a short story published in some magazine when he falls into a love-hate relationship with a Latina working in a bar. Surprisingly though - at least to me - the guy's first short story leads to a second, then a novel and a big fat cheque with which he buys a house; but the riches seem sketchy and insubstantial, just background detail to his strained relationships with women and the not entirely appreciated admiration of Sammy, who also wants to be an author, but who writes the worst shit you've ever read. Ultimately our boy's success doesn't seem to add up to much.

Cliché though it may seem, Ask the Dust is a tale of beautiful losers, or at least losers who somehow retain their dignity in the face of adversity, and declaring it a lost twentieth century classic wouldn't be an understatement. That said, it's not without problems - our author's success doesn't feel entirely convincing, particularly not the part in which he suddenly buys a house, and Camilla's decent into reefer madness reads a bit like one of those public information films of the fifties warning about the debauched existence of the dope fiend - although that may be something to do with Fante just wanting to get published; but then neither of these details really get in the way of this being an exceptionally well written book; so Bukowski was right, just like always.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Star Winds


Barrington J. Bayley Star Winds (1978)
This is the point at which I stumble and fly arse over tit in my mad scramble to embrace Bayley as my new favourite author that you've never heard of, the fervour of which is informed by my not really having heard of him until fairly recently. The big ideas are all here within a thoroughly well-cemented setting, either a remote mediaeval future or variant history reading as swashbuckling fantasy - which I write without the faintest idea of what a swash might be or why it should require buckling. We sail to the stars in old time galleons with sails made from a material which catches the ether like wind, the hulls of our vessels caulked so as to keep in the air; except we don't sail to the stars any more because we're running out of the stuff from which the sails are woven and it can't be made on Earth on account of how we're too close to the sun. Our hero therefore sails to Mars. No-one has been there for a couple of generations, and rumour has it that Mars is of sufficient distance from the sun as to allow for manufacture of those magic sails; and this in turn leads to a voyage further out into the depths of space in search of the philosopher's stone. All that bollocks about atoms has been proven false and we're now in a new age of alchemy, in case it wasn't already obvious.

So the ideas are great. The problem is that the book just isn't very interesting. I'm not even sure why this should be given the fantastic setting and scenarios, but it just seemed to go on for a couple of hundred pages and then stop without having really said anything. In truth, whilst technically perfectly adequate, Star Winds feels a little phoned-in, like Bayley wasn't quite sure what to do with the story once he'd got past the initial excitement of such a peculiar premise. Given the dramatically increased quota of science fiction titled with Star prefixing a second noun in the immediate wake of Star Wars, and that Star Winds reads like it really just wants to romp, I'm inclined to wonder if Bayley wasn't just trying to get a few bills paid here; which is a shame because this novel should have been amazing.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Seaton Point


Robert Dellar, Ted Curtis, Rob Colson etc.
Seaton Point (1998)

This is a collaborative novel cooked up between seven different authors, each presumably contributing a passage here, a passage there, editing each other's work and so on. The process of its creation hasn't exactly made for a smooth narrative, but then that's the whole point, relating more to oral traditions of storytelling because it is forgotten that the modern novel of single authorship came into being only in the modern era, as we are told in the introduction.

I thought it might be stranger than it was to read this now. Robert Dellar, who instigated this enterprise, was a good friend who recently passed on at the age of fifty-two, someone I've known for decades. It was odd to realise that I'd never read this book while he was alive, and when we last spoke and the subject came up he was surprised that he'd never got around to slipping me a copy. I think it was simply that my attention had been elsewhere when the thing saw print. I knew of it mainly through the involvement of Rob Colson, with whom I travelled to Mexico in 2005, and I've known all but two of the other writers in a social context at various points of our respective lives. So I suppose there has always been the worry that I might hate the thing for whatever reason.

Roughly speaking, Seaton Point captures the psychological landscape in which a few of us were living for much of the eighties, nineties, and beyond. I was never quite part of a gang, but a lot of my friends seemed to be people who had fallen into the orbit of the Brougham Road squatting community in Hackney, London - loosely coalesced around bands such as the Apostles and the Assassins of Hope and numerous fanzines. They were, I suppose, my Andy Warhol's Factory crowd, my beat poets, my Bromley contingent - but hopefully without too many of the wankier associations summoned by any of those references - so, even in 2017 with me living on a different side of the planet, these are probably my people in so much as I ever had people. Andy of the Apostles would have called us the dispossessed, which seems as good a term as any; and so Seaton Point is inhabited by those left behind, the horrible fuckers who couldn't fit in if they tried, those rejected as lacking redeeming or interesting artistic qualities even by those making arts council funded punk documentaries, the working class as we were known in less aspirational times, the nutters, the weirdos, the alkies, the transexual vampires...

The narrative lurches in and out of reality, much in the same way as reality itself tends to do if you're paying attention, and so we have drugs, sex, violence, toilet humour, and psychogeography drafted in to tell of an ancient demon imprisoned in the basement of a tower block, a man trapped in an elevator in the same surviving on mystic yoghurt dispensed from a spigot, and their bid for freedom. With seven authors at the wheel, there are a lot of characters flying around, not all of them entirely likeable and it's easy to get lost, but I'm not sure it matters whether or not one is able to keep track of every last name, because the point still works despite the confusion.

Blokey sat in flat 67, his earplugs partly protecting him from the onslaught of industrial electronic bollocks about fascist barbarian armies rolling across the icy wastes of Northern Europe. As one million decibels of tripe by Coil vomited mercilessly from the speakers, the dice man stroked the sawn-off shotgun lying across his lap as if it were a furry animal.

That's my favourite paragraph, and I suspect it came from Dellar given his generally poor regard of industrial electronic bollocks. I've  read a few things by Ted Curtis, notably the exceptional Darkening Light, as well as Rob Colson's brilliant - at least from what I can remember - Descent of a Man, which he really needs to get into print one of these days; so I recognise occasional elements which remind me of specific contributors, but the focus remains, as ever, on the story which may be taken as an explanation as to why everything is shit, if you like, or if you don't like, then there are plenty of chuckles, albeit often unusually dark chuckles. My first thought was that this is Rachel Redhead rewriting Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go as a sequel to Trainspotting, which as a recommendation should probably be taken all three ways, assuming you can appreciate that as a recommendation. Martin Amis is invoked in the introduction, although not in particularly glowing terms. I haven't actually read any Martin Amis, but I've read plenty of Will Self and I'm told it's the same thing; so if you like, this is Will Self with less public school and more diarrhoea blah blah Rabelais blah blah Hogarth blah blah Reader's Wives - I'm sure it can't be too hard to work out what I'm saying here; and it has the greatest closing sentence of any novel I've ever read, which I won't give away for obvious reasons.

Seaton Point is both horrible and brilliant, and arguably a record of an era of human experience presently getting airbrushed from history as the nostalgia industry grows and grows, replacing more and more of what actually happened with Stewart Maconie chortling away over how they changed the name of Opal Fruits to Starburst. In this sense it's probably also an important book, but you wouldn't want to say it to its face.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Journey to the Goat Star


Brian Aldiss Journey to the Goat Star (1991)
This was quite a nice find, just fifty pages and evidently one of a series of short stories published by Pulphouse as self-contained paperbacks, others in the range having been by Poul Anderson, Michael Bishop, Joe Haldeman and so on. That said, I've generally loved the novels of Brian Aldiss whilst hating most of his short stories for one reason or another, but every so often he comes out with one which reads like a novel, or which is at least bereft of Space Vikings or special kinds of atom. Journey to the Goat Star probably isn't quite top ten, but it's weird enough to be worth a look. Our story opens with a theoretical physicist brained at his writing desk by a burglar, a burglar who, noticing that which the theoretical physicist was writing, waits for his victim to come round and then engages him in debate on the subjects of matter as consciousness and the nature of reality as supposedly examined in the art of Georges Braque.

He turned earnestly back into the room, gesturing with his hands. 'Braque's shadows have substance, while the whole substance suddenly turns out to be a shadow of it. Forms are flattened, flatness has form. Planes merge, what is opaque becomes transparent and vice versa. Lines define nothing, yet everything is defined. If that isn't a vivid picture of contemporary science—execute before the first World War—then I don't know what is...'

This is also a description of how Aldiss tells the story, roughly speaking, which blends seemingly unrelated scenarios into one another - the forty-six year voyage to a distant star, psychoanalysis of a child rejected by parents - using coincidence and repeating thematic patterns to imagine our first meeting with an extraterrestrial intelligence. At least I think that's what it does. Journey to the Goat Star is bewildering and yet somehow left me with the feeling of having understood something, even if the above is as good a description as I can manage. It also makes me wonder if I've been expecting too much traditional sense from those of his other short stories which I found such a chore. Maybe I need to take another look.

Monday, 1 May 2017

She


H. Rider Haggard She (1887)
It's probably all those references in Alan Moore's Extraordinary Gentlemen which imprinted me with the thought that I might read this, which seems otherwise a little out of my way. I encountered a copy in a Rockport used book store which looked as though it might once have been a cow shed, and might even still be a cow shed on certain days, and I asked myself what's the worst that could happen? I vaguely recall seeing the film of She with Peter Cushing at some point, but never really cared enough to consider whether it might be based on anything, and yet here I am. Despite its status as the best selling novel ever - or whatever it says on the internet - I had a feeling I might not like it much. It sounds a bit Indiana Jones, and I never saw the appeal of him either.

She is a vaguely immortal white woman who somehow landed the job of Queen in a lost underground African civilisation, as encountered by a couple of adventuresome Cambridge chaps. In many ways it's of its time, as they say, although to be fair, it has much more going on than might be expected of a colonial Victorian novel. She was written at the height of both the British empire and faith in its civilising influence - give or take some small change - an era of social and scientific upheaval. Western society was only just beginning to get to grips with the idea of world history beyond the usual Biblical or classical realms. Jean-François Champollion and Karl Richard Lepsius had expanded Egyptology to an unprecedented understanding of ancient civilisation in general, and W.H. Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico had awakened public interest in cultures across the other side of the globe; colonial forces were exporting a steady stream of looted arts and crafts back to the European capitals where they would soon cast their influence upon Picasso, Braque and others; Darwin was shaking things up in his own way, and western society was beginning to at least understand why social reform might not be such a terrible thing.

What surprised me most about She is Haggard's acknowledgement of Africa's past as home to innumerable developed and sophisticated civilisations at least equal to their European contemporaries. Of course most of Africa's history has been ravaged, looted, and subsequently bulldozed flat so as to make way for the myth of superstitious cannibals in mud huts requiring our civilising influence and thus allowing us to feel a bit better about both the slave trade and the wholesale destruction of more or less an entire continent. Unfortunately Haggard's take on this was a present day reality of degenerate races who, having fallen from grace, were probably better off with us lot in charge; but in his favour he tends to propose such views as opinion rather than actively rewriting history; so the racism is low level, arguably understandable given the author's heritage, and with nothing shoved in your face too hard. Indeed, most of his attitudes to race are expressed as a fairly simple fear of the unknown, which at least works in context of an adventure without leaving too foul a taste. He praises as much as he condemns, and it seems clear that his overriding motive is to instil both his tale and his readers with a genuine sense of wonder regarding the ancient world and how it relates to the modern. This still leaves us with a race of spear-chucking cannibals who have somehow chosen a white woman for their Queen, but I've nevertheless read worse.

I've seen Haggard's prose criticised as clumsy, but for the most part I found it highly enjoyable, even engrossing in places, although it probably helps if you enjoy overwrought Victorians who have to describe every last fucking thing in pornographic detail and who never quite worked out where to finish a sentence; and it's Haggard's prose which keeps this thing moving along, at least up to the point at which we meet Ayesha, and they all take to standing around having rhetorical conversations in an Arabic language, here rendered as Marvel Shakespearean with all the yonder and thou hast and methinks. It's the yacking which unfortunately spoils the book for me, downgrading it to a chore. There's so much of it, page after page and mostly dull as fuck, and somehow none of it saying anything particularly interesting - which is a shame considering the potential for discourse on the subjects of race, mythology, and so on; because I suspect if She is actually about anything, it's Haggard's lament for the passing of mythology and mysticism, represented by Ayesha herself withering in the harsh dawn of science and the world to come, or something along those lines.

In terms of literary equivalents to Jim Davidson jokes, She barely registers at all when sat next to Lovecraft's party political broadcasts on behalf of the UK Independence Party, and there's a lot to like about the first half of the book, at least until her indoors shows up and it all turns to crap; which was possibly the other point H. Rider Haggard was trying to make, but never mind.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Breakfast of Champions


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Back in my days of being what has come to be described as a Marvel zombie, fiftieth issues of any given comic were usually celebrated with an expanded page count and a load of unexpected monkeying around with established characters - someone back from the dead, someone quits the team to concentrate on his ice hockey, Irony Girl marries the Sarcasmatron, and so on. Here, approaching his fiftieth birthday, Kurt Vonnegut sort of did the same thing, reviving Kilgore Trout, the pulp science-fiction author from Slaughterhouse Five, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and others, expressly in the name of clearing his head of all the junk, as he puts it.

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly—to insult the Star Spangled Banner, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen. To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole:



Accordingly the novel is illustrated with felt-tipped pen scribbles, and Vonnegut introduces himself into the narrative, interacting with Trout and the others and explaining why he created them. So it's kind of a mess, but then that's probably what you expect with Vonnegut, and it is at least an educational and entertaining mess offered in summary of how the world actually works:

The man who told me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.

And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them—with an abbreviation which means sameness without end.

The proper ending for any story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation, which I now write large because I feel like it, which is this one:



In other words, everything is connected by one means or another, which is why Vonnegut writes how he writes with all of the digressions and synchronicity, making connections and points which might not otherwise be obvious.

I had no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist. I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid. I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

But is it any good, one might reasonably ask. It's very funny and very readable, but it somehow lacks the craft of Slaughterhouse Five - which is made apparent by how similar the two novels are in certain respects. This one differs with Vonnegut breaking the fourth wall, entering his own novel to spell out why he wrote it. It feels too easy. Back when I was at school, we had an English assignment which meant writing a book over the space of a term, or something which could reasonably be called a book. I waited until the night before we were due to hand something in then cobbled together some twenty or so pages with paper, felt-tipped pens and selotape on the subject of how my book was kind of shit and probably looked as though it had been scrabbled together at last minute; which is kind of what Breakfast of Champions reminds me of. It's good, but it just isn't as satisfying as it should have been.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dusty Sideboard #1


John Bagnall Dusty Sideboard #1 (2017)
I wouldn't ordinarily review a single issue of a comic book, there usually being a limit to what can be said about anything under thirty pages, but sometimes you have to make an exception and this is just such an occasion.

Dusty Sideboard is more of John Bagnall's highly-stylised exploration of something which isn't quite nostalgia, although it comes close. The art is, as always, very much its own language - as arrestingly timeless as any ancient Egyptian or Mexican mural, yet with the kind of warm silence which makes it possibly the closest visual analogy to the poetry of Ivor Cutler that I've seen. Bagnall explores the world of his youth - and my youth for that matter - but this is something quite different to Peter Kay tittering over spangles and Fireball XL5. Dusty Sideboard evokes a world which has almost entirely slipped away by this point, a world of social interaction, physical objects, and very little else because that was enough. It's affectionate - although pleasantly musty is probably the better term given the lack of sentiment, or at least excessive sentiment - and yet eschews the usual rose-tinted focus on collectibles to instead perfectly capture the atmosphere of a lost England, something I'd describe as the language of society as was if I weren't so worried about how pretentious that may sound. Bagnall's observations regarding jokes cracked by milkmen, apprenticeships, and tea dances are spot on and strangely moving, and a style of art one might imagine would be quite limited turns out to be extraordinarily expressive when required - sort of like Dan Clowes but without the cynicism; so no - it isn't quite nostalgia so much as the preservation of something seemingly inconsequential which should be remembered before it's gone entirely. I hope this is the first of many because it's one of the most powerful independent comics I think I've ever seen.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Batman: I Am Gotham


Tom King, David Finch & others Batman: I Am Gotham (2017)
I have to confess I've never really given much of a shit about Batman. I loved The Dark Knight Returns obviously, not only because both art and writing were great, but because a character who routinely smashes kneecaps as means to a judicial end only really works as an antihero; but Tom King's Vision was the possibly the greatest comic book I've ever read, and celebrated children's entertainer Barnaby Salton reckoned I should give this a go, and I was feeling fat, unwell, and incapacitated due to a combination of interrupted sleep, chicken in walnut sauce, and one of those shakes you can use to grout bathroom tiles. I needed the reading equivalent of comfort food, the sort of thing my mummy would have brought back from the shops for me if I was poorly - hence Batman, even though it's probably the very last thing my mother would have brought back from the shops for me. I would have more likely ended up with Thomas Hardy or one of the Brontës.

I Am Gotham is beautifully written with concise prose applied sparingly - no thought bubbles or inset panels of exposition, their modern equivalent - and the art is beautiful, so it's distinctly filmic in terms of pacing, atmosphere, and how little it gives away or pauses to explain itself. Aside from anything else, this additionally tends to suggest that the comic book has become merchandising to the CGI-heavy superheroic television serial, of which there are now a great many, although I very much doubt this being intentional or conscious. Here Batman saves lives, gets caught up in fights, is made subject to governmental skulduggery, endures the occasional crisis of conscience and so on; and whilst it's beautifully done and atmospherically powerful, it didn't feel that satisfying. In fact it felt a bit like one of those television shows, just with a bit more artistic integrity, and I've yet to see one of those television shows I liked. I saw twenty minutes of The Flash the other night. It was fucking shit.

Anyway, while I felt as though I spotted what I presume to be one of King's enduring themes - namely great power as something terrible in the hands of persons who don't know what to do with it, as we saw in Little Worse Than a Man, ultimately this one didn't really quite seem to be about anything, which I found a little unsatisfying. Then of course I now realise that I Am Gotham is just the first of a three part story, so it's really just getting warmed up. Interviewed online, Tom King was asked of all of Batman's qualities and attributes, what's the one that really speaks to you?

To me, it's his mortality. It's the idea that he could die—that he's human. There's something about Superman and Wonder Woman that says to me that they go on forever. If you came to Earth one hundred years from now, Superman and Wonder Woman would still be here. But Batman's like one of us, right? He can die. He has that risk factor to him, and every time he goes out at night, he faces that and still triumphs over it. That just makes him the most human character in the DCU to me, the idea that he's not a god. He lives among the gods and tries to do his best.

So okay, fair enough. I can see this one may well be going somewhere and I guess I'll be picking up the rest. It may not get off to quite such an arresting start as The Vision, but it still pisses over most other versions of Batman I've seen.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Time Tunnel


Murray Leinster Time Tunnel (1964)
Leinster's Time Tunnel is surprisingly nothing to do with the better-known television series - which it predates by a couple of years - but to further confuse matters, Leinster later wrote a couple of tie-in books based on the television series to which this earlier novel is unrelated; so I'm inclined to wonder if Irwin Allen didn't at least consciously pinch the title, resulting in some kind of deal being struck. Anyway, for what it may be worth, Leinster's Time Tunnel of 1964 doesn't have anything much in common with later versions aside from the premise, and time travel was in any case a fairly common theme in science-fiction literature by this point.

Leinster's story here forges a link between present day and Napoleonic France through some doubtful-sounding process wherein molten metal is left undisturbed once it has cooled, in this case a cannon in an old foundry. Time travel is suspected when antiques and antique materials of suspiciously fine quality begin to turn up in modern France, and the hunt is on for the elusive De Bassompierre.

It was not reasonable for so remarkable an achievement as a time-tunnel to be used only to deliver exotic perfumery to Paris in which very few people bathed. It was not reasonable for the return traffic to be ornamental snuff boxes, out of date newspapers and flintlock pistols to be used as paperweights. The fate of Europe hung in the balance at one end of the time-tunnel, where Napoleon reigned. At the other end the survival of the human race was in question. The tunnel could have been used to adjust both situations, but it was actually used to keep a shop going.

Even by the standard of time travel fiction, this one is a fucking mess. It feels as though it might have benefited in being allowed to sprawl beyond its relatively slender page count, maybe granting Leinster more space in which to introduce his characters. As it stands, I spent most of the time trying to work out what was going on and whether this was the same guy from the previous chapter.

On the other hand, Time Tunnel remains immensely enjoyable in spite of itself. The historical Parisian setting is well-realised and gives this novel a quite unique feel in respect to both its vintage and its genre; and there are frequent incongruously philosophical digressions, at least incongruous for a novel with a fifty cent cover price. As I may have mentioned before, Leinster was the science-fiction incarnation of William F. Jenkins, a man who churned out one novel after another, hopping from mystery to romance to western before apparently settling into writing just stuff involving robots and spacecraft during the fifties. Once again, Time Tunnel reveals him to have been a writer who learned a lot from excursions into other genres, and reads like something which might have quite easily been published by Penguin, being more of a narrative than an adventure. The confusion is aggravating, but not so much so as to detract from the pleasure of the text, and of Leinster's peculiar and fascinating digressions on subjects such as free will, cause and effect, the anthropic principle, and the nuclear arms race. Also, considering how long ago this was written, and how much of this time paradox stuff I've read, it's probably worth noting that the ending still came as a complete surprise to me.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century


Chris Bentley (editor), Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton & others
Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century (2009)

We were in one of those massive clearance sales, table after table of books in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger. Everything was a dollar, and anything left unsold would be pulped, and so I picked this up because it seemed a shame to let it get smushed.

I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works back before my voice broke, and I was massively into it because I loved those weird futuristic vehicles; so when I say I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works, I actually mean I was into the Dinky Toys and maybe the occasional annual because they contained photographs of those weird futuristic vehicles. I liked the television shows too up to a point, but often felt that the characters got in the way of the story. It's therefore possibly ironic that the traditional pubescent surge of testosterone more or less cured me of these Jeremy Clarkson-esque preferences, and it's why I'm inclined to suspicion when I encounter adults waxing lyrically about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. The models were beautiful, but I'm not convinced there's anything much to get excited over beyond the models, certainly nothing which works without the benefit of arguably unhealthy levels of nostalgia.

TV21 had been cancelled by the time I was old enough to read it, so this is really the first I've seen of this body of work - strips based on Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and others. The art is lavish and unusually beautiful as you might anticipate given the credentials of those involved, and is exactly what is required to communicate the magic of those weird futuristic vehicles. However, even the most gorgeous art is undermined by what I guess must have been editorial insistence on readers being able to recognise the individual faces of their favourite string puppets, not to mention stilted narratives which may as well be variations on Timmy having fallen down the well. The stories are about the same standard as what you saw on the telly, being mostly excuses to get Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, or Scott Tracy back into the cockpit. The more satisfying efforts are those which stretch the envelope a little - the one in which Captain Scarlet joins a football team, for example; or where artists like Mike Noble or Brian Lewis capture some required resemblance to whoever we saw on the box without invoking Charlie McCarthy or Lord Charles; and then there's Planet of Bones in which the crew of the Zero X - a weird futuristic space vehicle featured in one of the Thunderbirds film - experience peril on a world where all the dinosaur skeletons have come to life due to evolution having taken a bit of a funny turn. Chris Bentley's introduction hails it as being ludicrously brilliant, but erm...

Yes, I know it was for kids, but then so was Dan Dare and I can still read those without wincing because Eagle at least aspired to elevate its young audience without talking down to them. For all its aesthetic appeal, TV21 mostly just wanted you to tune in next week, aspiring mainly to remind you of something you saw on the television - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but makes it tough work qualifying this stuff as genuinely classic, unless it's as kitsch.

I really wanted to like Adventures in the 21st Century, and whilst it's harmless, I just can't quite bring myself to love it as some might. The funny thing is that I recall plenty of those TV21 Dalek strips from their reprints, and unless I'm remembering wrongly, there was a plenty imagination at work in that material, as the esteemed Sarah Hadley noted on facebook:

What I think is amazing is that it essentially makes the Daleks protagonists. They're "villainous," yes, and there are occasional characters out to stop them - but this isn't Terry Nation's Dalek series (which would've had Space Security agents Sara Kingdom and Marc Seven in the leads). Almost every single strip, you're implicitly being called to side with the Daleks and hope they win.

Of course The Daleks featured monodimensional supporting characters from Doctor Who placed centre stage by the TV21 strip and obliged to do something a bit more interesting than we'd seen on the box. Accordingly, the better material in this collection is that which either screws with the formula by having Captain Scarlet pull on the old football boots, or which expands some subsidiary element of a show into a thing in its own right, as with the Lady Penelope strip - nothing earth shattering but still preferable to the Stingray crew wobbling around a spooky haunted castle just like on Scooby Doo.

As a point of lesser interest, considering how lyrically Stephen Baxter waxes about Fireball XL5 in the opening chapters of Coalescent, the resemblance of the somewhat blobby Astrans from The Astran Assassination to Baxter's Silver Ghosts - as described in his Xeelee novels - is difficult to miss.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6


Michael Moorcock (editor)
The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6 (1970)

In his introduction, Moorcock states that he prefers to simply call this fiction, while the back cover qualifies the SF as referring to either science or speculative fiction. I've never liked speculative fiction because as a term it makes me think of Margaret Attwood and Jeanette Winterson sneering about how space travel is such a boy thing, but I like science fiction as something incorporating all the weird shit which doesn't quite fit anywhere else - which is what we have here.

New Worlds was never scared of printing weird shit, and I'd say some of the best stuff from the magazine was also the weirdest, at least if we're to take a sciencey man smoking his pipe as he heads for Mars in a rocket with his robot best friend to be baseline normal. Surprisingly, whilst there's some reasonably strange stuff here, the collection feels sober by the standards of the well from which it is drawn, and is subsequently not so great as it might have been - as though someone might even be reigning it in a little, although I suspect this impression to be only a pattern emergent from possibly unfair comparisons with the magazine.

In Reason's Ear by Hilary Bailey - who sadly passed just months ago - stood out for me, as did Moorcock's The Delhi Division, a story which demonstrates how his own weirdly non-linear narratives were always so much more readable than those of the many who seem so obviously inspired by him, I guess some of whom also feature in this collection. Langdon Jones' The Eye of the Lens has an immensely promising start with page after page of dry, dreamlike descriptions of imagined machines, evolving into something even stranger, then goes on for a bit and eventually overstays its welcome, which is a shame. There's also J.G. Ballard's The Killing Ground which reinforces my hypothesis that Ballard simply isn't for me; and then there are the rest, and they're mostly pretty darn great - certainly nothing you would want to skip - but I somehow felt my brains should have been dripping from my ears by the end of this lot, which wasn't the case; so I guess that's a recommendation, but just not one entailing any significant quota of fists pumping the air.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin


Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: The Roses of Berlin (2014)
This time it's the daughter of Verne's character invading a Nazi Germany combining elements of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The villainess is herself from H. Rider Haggard's She with cameos by Dr. Mabuse from the Norbert Jacques novel and nods to Verne's The Master of the World, Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and doubtless a ton of other stuff I didn't notice. Once you're done with the trainspotting aspect, The Roses of Berlin is generally fun, and the art is obviously wonderful, but somehow it feels a bit phoned-in compared to previous Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and when Nemo observes:

This strange place is putting me on edge. I'm nearing fifty. Perhaps I'm too old for all this...

Well, I mean it is Alan Moore, the guy who can barely scratch his arse without it allegorising five different things, and the same Alan Moore who recently announced he was packing in the comics; and the later duel between the youthful Nemo and the ancient Ayesha seems potentially symbolic when the timeless immortal accuses the newcomer of stealing from her. As to what it might actually be saying, if anything, I have no idea. I suppose it could be something along the lines of old masters not getting the recognition they deserve, that being what Moore seemed to be suggesting when he recast Harry Potter as the Antichrist elsewhere in the saga.

True enough, I was born in the sixties and I read a lot, but I barely get some of the references made here, which isn't something I'm particularly proud of; so I guess Nemo might be an exercise in pinning certain fading cultural artefacts to the present simply because they should be remembered, and remembering them enriches contemporary culture for the better. So that's good.

Monday, 6 March 2017

In the Days of the Comet


H.G. Wells In the Days of the Comet (1906)
I've tended to avoid what I regard as later Wells, generally meaning anything written since The First Men in the Moon. Whilst the quality of his prose may well have remained high, I have the impression he simply ran out of decent ideas, or was at least floundering to some extent; but admittedly this is only a very vague impression based on The Food of the Gods being largely crap and finding myself massively underwhelmed by most of the later short stories that I read, or at least forced myself to finish for the sake of disliking them with authority. I only picked this up because it's so unusual to come across a copy of a novel other than one of the big five, and against all expectations it's not the pile of crap I expected it to be.

That said, it falls off a little in the second half, never quite attaining the escape velocity necessary to achieve the potential promised by the first hundred or so pages, but by that point I didn't even mind, my initial expectations having been set so low. The story is a fairly simple one entailing a passing comet saturating the Earth's atmosphere with a gas which stops everyone acting like wankers. John Brunner pretty much recycled the idea in The Stone That Never Came Down without either the comet or anything you might reasonably describe as an improvement. For Wells' take we experience everything that was wrong with English society at the turn of the century through the eyes of a working-class lad in a coal mining community. His girlfriend has just run off with the son of the landowning lord of the manor, and he's not fucking happy.

In that time of muddle and obscurity people were overtaken by needs and toil and hot passions before they had the chance of even a year or so of clear thinking; they settled down to an intense and strenuous application of some partial but immediate duty, and the growth of thought ceased in them. They set and hardened into narrow ways.

Wells talks about class, privilege, capitalism, industrialisation of labour, and the use of media by which a population is taught to embrace its own servitude and demonise anything which threatens the status quo. But for period details, at times it reads as though it could have been written just months ago, invoking unfortunate parallels which bring serious weight to Wells' argument. It's been a long time since I read any Thomas Hardy, but the first half of the book strongly suggests what little I recall of his passion for social reform.

The comet passes, assuaging the fears of any person suspecting they may have been conned into reading something other than science-fiction, and a green gas envelops the globe, and everyone wakes up with a new awareness of the error of their ways. Unfortunately, as often tends to be the case with utopian novels, it's not very interesting after that - mostly characters having recriminations about how they could ever have been so foolish as to vote for the Annoying Orange, arguments which were better put in the first half of the book for having been expressed in a spirit of anger rather than one of amiable bewilderment. So it ends on a positive note - but for the suggestion that it will take the passing of a narcotic comet to stop us voting Adolf Hitler back into power, over and over, never learning a single fucking thing - but a positive note that just kind of trails off into nothing. This might be a problem but for the sheer power of the first half of the book - not Wells' greatest novel, but his greatest first half of a novel, I'd say.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Weapons Grade Snake Oil


Blair Bidmead Weapons Grade Snake Oil (2016)
Here's another one for which I painted the cover, and I should probably also mention that I'm friends with Blair and he sought my opinion on an earlier draft of this novel, and also - no word of a lie - I used to deliver his mail back when I was a postman, although we didn't know each other at the time. Therefore it might be argued that my impartiality is somewhat compromised here. On the other hand it's not like anyone is paying me to write this, so screw you.

Anyway, you may notice at this juncture how I've turned a little red in the face, and I'm looking at my shoes whilst rocking from side to side as though suddenly having found myself in an embarrassing predicament. This is because I feel somehow obliged - possibly in the subconscious hope of countering any potential accusations of bias on my part - that I had my doubts when I heard Blair was writing a Faction Paradox novel; and mainly because I'd disliked his Señor 105 novella By the Time I Get to Venus to the point of it making me feel quite uncomfortable because it's always awkward when someone towards whom you feel well disposed produces something against which all your senses rebel. I'd rather not get into why I disliked it, but I vaguely recall having had a similar reaction to some short story or other, something in one of the Obverse collections; and an acquaintance who should probably remain anonymous - which shouldn't be too difficult given that I don't actually know his offline name - expressed a concern that Blair's book might attempt to make the Faction cool, like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere with more skulls; and yes - that would be a bad thing.

On the other hand, Blair Bidmead's Now or Thereabouts, was the high point of the short story collection A Romance in Twelve Parts; although when he asked me to take a look at an early draft of what seemed to be called The 2nd Second, I nevertheless made that fearful gumph swallowing noise made by characters in Viz comic prior to the inevitable encounter with dad's slipper. Once I actually got to reading the thing my sighs of relief were of such force as to sweep several cats out into the yard. Whatever it was that had given me cause for doubt, he'd stopped doing it, and there was a more confident tone to the prose, and the ideas were good and the jokes were funny. Thank Christ for that, I thought.

Weapons Grade Snake Oil is better still, or at least I got more from it, which might also be something to do with my reading it as a proper book rather than as a first draft on a screen - I don't like reading from screens of any description. It's basically a heist novel, the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels of the Faction Paradox canon, I suppose, which I'll qualify by adding that I liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, just in case that detail seemed ambiguous. That said, given how
frequently Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels swerves into self-parody, I would imagine that writing this one must have been something of a balancing act, despite which, it skips along at a fair old pace without missing a step. Half of the novel revisits the Eleven Day Empire, the city built inside eleven days taken from the British calendar back in 1752, which is nice seeing as we haven't seen much of the city since Lolita devoured it whole in Lawrence Miles' The Shadow Play. Bidmead delves significantly into the Faction toybox with serious relish, not so much in trying to serve up a crowd pleaser as just for fun; and not saying previous novels in this series have been necessarily lacking in chuckles, but there's something quite joyous about Blair's approach, massive ideas flung hither and thither with reckless abandon, ideas which might seem patently fucking ridiculous under other circumstances cheerfully crayoned into the story and forced to behave themselves, sort of - the princess of Pluto who lives inside an elephant persuaded to take part in just one last perfect crime...

It's the kind of thing which could have gone horribly wrong, particularly given all the obscure references which are there if you want them, which personally I didn't given that you'd have to pay me to watch an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures; but the lad done good, as they used to say at the football matches. It's the sort of writing Steven Moffat never quite manages, albeit in a different medium, because Blair makes the effort to actually do something with those massive ideas rather than just letting them sit there looking pleased with themselves. Oddly, in terms of tone, Weapons Grade Snake Oil is arguably the most Miles-ian contribution to the Faction Paradox series since the man himself was writing, but if that doesn't work as a recommendation, try Iain M. Banks with better jokes and less fannying around. Let's hope he has a few more like this up his sleeve.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Stowaway to Mars


John Wyndham Stowaway to Mars (1935)
Here's an oddity - written by John Wyndham prior to his adopting John Wyndham as pen name and having a massive hit with Day of the Triffids: the forgotten, pulpy stuff from before he learned how to write, you might think; and you'd be so wrong that it hurts. See that Wrongy McWrongface from the wrong side of Wrongtown?

That's you.

Unfortunate first impressions can probably be forgiven considering the vintage and a back cover blurb promising that not only are the chaps utterly miffed to discover that they have a bally stowaway on their flight to the red planet, but dash it all, Ginger - the stowaway is a woman!

Born from the golden age of rocketry, Stowaway to Mars kicks off as a seemingly typical tale of scientifically inclined gentlemen hoping to bag the prize money in a race to be the first to make it to Mars, and our main dude has a mousey wife who doesn't want him to go, and is more interested in babies, and believes he needs to grow up and so on. Nevertheless, they all set sail only to discover that there's a woman on board - the plucky daughter of a disgraced scientist who will almost certainly boss them around, complain about the ironing, and wipe their faces with a piece of kitchen roll covered in saliva.

The science is a bit loose and floppy if you look too close, but as for the mechanics of space flight, life beyond gravity, and extraterrestrial ecosystems - you can at least tell that Wyndham gave it more thought than many had done by that point; and the occasional reminders of Flash Gordon are diffused by how seriously he takes his story. Our stowaway is on board following an encounter with some sort of machine creature - and keeping in mind here that robots were a relatively new idea in 1935 - compelling her to trace its ancestry back to Mars, as she later does. What elevates all of this above the bare bones of its plot is the dialogue which bears less comparison to Asimov having his characters tell us about protons, and more to Plato and his pals stood around discussing morality, reality, and all that other good stuff. Here the gang even go so far as to approach an acknowledgement of the genre they inhabit with references to Frankenstein and - of more direct relevance - H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J. J. Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds, with this as preamble to discourse on machine intelligence, what is meant by the term machine, transhumanism, evolution, and the folly of faith placed in the emergence of a race of supermen. So there are thrills and spills and plenty food for thought.

Not only is it a great pleasure to read science-fiction of this vintage and general stripe with a philosophical dimension, but it's a great pleasure to read science-fiction of this vintage with a philosophical dimension which isn't pitched in the direction of subjects demanding we bite our twenty-first century lips and mumble well, he was of his time. Stowaway to Mars is a far more satisfying read than the title suggests, and it might even be Wyndham's greatest novel.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Curse-Breaker: When the Devil Comes Home


Rachel Redhead Curse-Breaker: When the Devil Comes Home (2016)
In the name of full disclosure regarding any potential lack of objectivity 'n' shit, I get a high five on the first page of this one - which is nice and caused me to go momentarily wobbly at the knees; so thankfully it was a decent read, meaning I'm not going to have to either lie or write a review so horrible I end up keeping it to myself.

To briefly take a massive detour, our local museum has a section full of Mexican tree of life sculptures. These are ceremonial trees made from clay, covered with tiny figures and scenes from every day life, and painted in the brightest colours available. They're made in traditional Mexican villages and I suspect may in some cases benefit from the creative input of persons under the influence of a fairly well-publicised type of cactus native to northern Mexico. The figures and scenes shown on these trees will typically range from doctors, dentists, cops, and grandmothers making tortillas to supernatural figures, vampires, demons, native Gods, saints, spirits, Jesus and his dear old mum, to popular wrestlers, Mickey Mouse, Father Christmas, Captain Kirk, the president - there doesn't seem to be anything which might disqualify a person, real or imagined, from inclusion in a traditional Mexican tree of life, and particularly not copyright laws. This is the thing I like about native Mexico - it just doesn't care: it takes whatever it needs to tell a story, whatever might be laying around, and it makes that thing its own.

To get to the point, this is similarly what I like about Rachel Redhead's fiction. The passing influence of Buffy or Who or whatever might show through, but she makes it her own, yielding something which seems not unlike a sort of written version of one of those painted trees - sprawling in a generally epic fashion, weird, confusing, colourful, and somehow difficult to dislike regardless of whatever your established tastes may allow; and When the Devil Comes Home is the fifth and final book of a series which is itself part of a larger series inhabiting what Rachel herself describes as the Rachelverse - and if that sounds in any way vain, then after something like forty interconnected titles, she has most definitely earned the right to call it whatever she likes.

As with the other Redheads I've read, the thrust of the story is sometimes confusing and is experienced as it occurs around the edges of the characters rather than being a map to which they are pinned, if you see what I mean. So the story works in a sort of impressionist sense, as with Burroughs or even Moorcock's stranger novels, the ones with dinosaurs made of blancmange. However, this narrative impressionism isn't a problem, for the great strength of her writing is to be found in the characters and how they interact; some of which can also be confusing at times because there are about a million of them - regular people, ghosts, monsters, vampires, robots, secret agents, and everyone else, ever - just like those Mexican trees.

Previous novels - or at least collections, given that this one comprises short stories which work as a novel - have occasionally suffered on the editing front, and I seem to recall one of the Raithaduine books comprising more or less a single chapter of something like eight-hundred pages; but this all holds together very well, not once becoming a chore. Redhead writes primarily about friendship, relationships, LGBT issues, and sexuality but with none of the dry didacticism one might associate - wrongly or rightly - with such a progressive perspective. There's a rare honesty and an openness here - and of a kind which is quite difficult to fake - which communicates clearly and simply without delivering lectures, all helped along by a ripe sense of humour. The narrative occasionally takes the piss out of itself without it sounding like an apology, and the gags are top quality. This jovial, even tone allows for surprising thematic range without anything seeming too broad a digression. There are a couple of surprisingly visceral revenge fantasies, and numerous issues of trans identity illustrated either directly or allegorically as vampirism, and yet nothing clashes with an inclusive narrative voice which is part Moorcock, a touch YA, joyously peculiar, and with a faint aftertaste of either Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett - I haven't yet quite decided which. A professional editor would doubtless iron out all of the rough edges so as to pitch this at whoever bought The Hunger Games and the rest, which would be missing the point that Rachel Redhead writes punk rock in all senses that matter - a big, garish explosion of stuff all held together with safety pins by a woman engaged with making the world a better place, and in some small way, succeeding.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology


John W. Campbell (editor)
Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1956)

Isaac Asimov said of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, that the man was the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely. By agency of his magazine, Campbell was first to publish many of the greats - Asimov himself, Heinlein, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, and of course the mighty A.E. van Vogt. It's therefore probably inevitable that the stock of his name has lost some of its currency in recent years, just as has that of Hugo Gernsback, arguably Campbell's spiritual forebear in the field. Campbell popularised a very specific strain of science-fiction - two-fisted, deeply conservative men having space adventures whilst reeling off lists of scientific statistics, the sort of thing which led to Star Wars, Alien, and the rest. I can't be arsed to dig out my copy of Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, but I expect he will have said something along those lines; and assuming he did, he will have had a point.

Campbell was unfortunately of his time in the sense of Oswald Mosley and senator Joseph McCarthy being of their time, with all kinds of unsavoury views regarding race, socialism, and the institution of slavery, as Michael Moorcock reported in an editorial piece entitled Starship Stormtroopers, essentially a brief history of authoritarian currents in science-fiction literature:

He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were 'natural' slaves who were unhappy if freed. I sat on a panel with him in 1965, as he pointed out that the worker bee when unable to work dies of misery, that the moujiks when freed went to their masters and begged to be enslaved again, that the ideals of the anti-slavers who fought in the Civil War were merely expressions of self-interest and that the blacks were 'against' emancipation, which was fundamentally why they were indulging in 'leaderless' riots in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The more I know about Campbell, the less I like, and yet I'd nevertheless rather not see him chucked down the same oubliette as Gernsback. Whilst I agree that his talent and reputation may be historically overplayed, and that as a person he sounds absolutely ghastly - as I'm sure Sir Kenneth Clark would agree - for better or worse, his influence upon the genre is undeniable, and his legacy is not entirely lacking in redeeming qualities. Just like Gernsback, Campbell's vision was arse, but it was populist, bestselling arse, and providing you keep in mind that it was arse, there's nevertheless some pleasure to be gained.

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology came out in 1952 as a mammoth hardback assemblage of twenty-two short stories by what were then the biggest names. I gather it was one of the first anthologies of its kind, and as such left an indelible stamp on the genre as a whole. This collection is one of several paperbacks reprinting just eight of those stories, because paperback technology of the time was supposedly not quite up to reprinting the whole thing; and I picked it up, still buzzing from reading a Murray Leinster collection and hoping to keep the magic going.

Leinster's fiction very much ticked all of the Campbell boxes, but as with A.E. van Vogt, I nevertheless find the atmosphere and peculiar narrative twists compelling and often so odd as to actively undermine the square-jawed subtext; which isn't to say that they're anything deep, just immensely enjoyable. That said, I've noticed a peculiar quality of Leinster's view of the alien entirely in keeping with what Moorcock regards as the authoritarian tendencies of Campbell's lads. First Contact is a variation on The Aliens from the collection of the same name, in which humans encounter extraterrestrials in deep space. Whilst the encounters are not overtly fraught with hostility, they seem informed by the paranoid cold war politics of the time, and bizarrely so. Both tales spin upon the supposed inevitability of alien species who really want to be able to trust each other but somehow know this to be impossible, and so they must destroy each other.

Well duh.

It makes for odd reading in 2016, but it helps that Leinster reaches an amicable conclusion, in part revealing the folly of xenophobia; which makes a pleasant change from the alien as foul bug-eyed Communist and, I suppose, might even get its message to those needing it with greater efficacy than would a more overtly liberal tale. Although that said, The Aliens seems particularly weird for having an out and out declared xenophobe on the crew of its ship, and one stated as having been chosen specifically so as to provide a variant perspective to that of the ship's more reasonable captain - all seeming very pertinent right now, of course...

Ugh... yeah - getting back to this book, the first story is Asimov's Nightfall which I read in 2008 and thought was amazing. Almost everyone I know who has read Asimov, read and enjoyed his work as teenagers then later came to regard his writing as big on ideas but otherwise piss poor and very much overrated. I didn't actually read anything by him until 2008, by which point I would have been in my forties, and I thought he was fucking terrible, particularly those Susan Calvin stories; until someone pointed me in the general direction of the good stuff, or what seemed to be the good stuff, and thus was my opinion revised, or at least modified. Yet reading Nightfall now, it too seems horribly clunky - an admittedly nice big idea somewhat lost beneath thirty pages of dreary conversation amounting to a couple of one-dimensional characters describing the story to us.

Protons, you say? So what kind of properties might one of those have?

Anyway, I picked this from the shelf thinking I could hardly go wrong given the names on the cover, but ultimately, aside from a half decent Leinster, an averagely pleasant - and conspicuously well written Simak - and A.E. van Vogt's eye-wateringly peculiar Vault of the Beast, it's all a little underwhelming. Possibly excepting the slog of Nightfall, there's nothing terrible here, but it fails to live up to the promise of Paul Lehr's wonderful cover painting, and dammit - this collection really should have been better.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Martha Washington Saves the World


Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
Martha Washington Saves the World (1999)

Last time I thought about it, Give Me Liberty seemed like the best thing Frank Miller had done - the jewel in the proverbial crown of a generally great writer; but the last time I thought about it was probably somewhere around the end of the previous century, back when I made a weekly trek to the local comics shop to buy this kind of thing. I haven't read any Frank Miller since then, and have accumulated a vague impression of him as the guy who wrote that comic about big-titted prostitutes getting murdered, and who courageously spoke up for the rights of corporate America as it stood defenceless against bearded Vegetarians with banners upon which hurtful remarks had been scrawled in angry letters. I believe the crux of Miller's argument ran thus:

Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you've been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you've heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.

I'd take a guess and say his racist seventy-year old nan from Cheltenham probably wrote those words, filling in for her famous grandson while he was otherwise engaged in composing dialogue for fictional big-titted prostitutes, but I could be wrong. Furthermore, it turns out that Martha Washington Goes to War - which I seem to remember enjoying at least as much as I enjoyed Give me Liberty - is somehow based on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which can't be good.

Give Me Liberty is set in a dystopian future America - or the present, I suppose it might be argued - and follows the life of one of its most underprivileged and generally shat upon daughters. She somehow survives the ghetto, joins the peace corps, and makes her own way to er - greatness, I suppose. The broad appeal of the saga, at least for me, was the contrast of harsh political realism with the absurdity of events on the world stage spiralling out of control in  Martha Washington Goes to War, and then by the time we get to the final part, she's out in space meeting aliens. The narrative of this one is more or less a mash up of Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, so at least he's borrowing from the best.

Beyond these details, Martha's latest war is waged against Venus, a global artificial intelligence which now seems to control almost everything. As a story it's okay, but it doesn't quite do enough to keep my mind off the unsavoury possibility of this being some Libertarian rant about either the evils of socialism or the right to bear arms; and I can't tell if this is something Miller has embedded in the narrative, or just my reading it from a perspective other than that with which I read the earlier instalments. On the other hand, no big-titted prostitutes were eviscerated in the telling of this story and Dave Gibbons artwork is as gorgeous as it has ever been, so I guess it gets a thumbs up. All the same, I can't help wonder whether I've either missed something, or - on the other hand - might be overthinking it. As a strong, black female lead written without sexual overtones, Martha is great, but her story seems to have thinned out somewhat after the initial Give Me Liberty segment, and a little voice inside me keeps hinting that she might only ever have been Frank Miller's beard, in a manner of speaking; but like I say, maybe I'm overthinking it.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Aliens


Murray Leinster The Aliens (1960)
This time I'm going to see if I can remember the salient details rather than looking them up on the internet, namely that Murray Leinster was but one alias of many, specifically the science-fiction writing incarnation of some guy who churned them out, one after the other, a million novels a year - westerns, romance, spy thrillers, this stuff. I think I have that right, in so much as that Leinster was a one-man science-fiction sausage machine just squeezing them out, over and over, and therefore arguably the opposite of yer proverbial tortured artiste crying into his typewriter, three months behind on the rent, but - you know - like he wrote this rilly amaaazing stuff, yeah?

Unfortunately the quality of that which Leinster squoze forth from his allegorical creative sausage machine somewhat undermines the romance of the above generalisation; so I assume that a more helpful way of looking at this author might be to consider how hard he clearly worked at his craft, and how much he must have picked up whilst hopping from one genre to another like some sort of pulp mountain goat, and I suggest this because The Aliens is the best collection of short stories I've read in some time.

Leinster reads as you would expect him to read given these originally having appeared in the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding and the like - spacecraft, aliens, sciencey stuff, and men named Burt and Steve frowning ruggedly whilst pondering the mysteries of the universe; and yet Leinster's fiction never quite feels as generic as it probably should. It has a loose, jazzy logic, standing in relation to Heinlein and the rest kind of how Dr. Seuss stood in relation to Disney. Stories are occasionally hung on the weirder points of chemistry or biology without ever feeling like a lecture, and in any case I've a hunch the details are probably as accurate as they need to be for the sake of the story; and on which subject, there's something deeply unpredictable about a Leinster narrative. He's nothing like so extreme as van Vogt in this respect - but his people tend to end up in places they clearly never expected to go, which makes for a tremendously satisfying read.

This guy, I would suggest, is long overdue some lurve; and I don't care if he was technically a hack, because the quality of the writing speaks for itself. If anyone still needs convincing, The Skit-tree Planet ends with a spacecraft called the Galloping Cow making its way back to Earth having been rebuilt so as to resemble a cow galloping across a field, legs in motion and everything. The man was patently a fucking genius.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Age of Reason



Jean-Paul Sartre The Age of Reason (1947)
In the course of one of his jazzier speeches, George W. Bush referred to a game known as show your cards, and so to show my cards I have to admit that I'm in way over my water here, as our penultimate president might have put it. I've consulted Marjorie Grene's Introduction to Existentialism, but I've a feeling I should have looked around to see if anyone had written Introduction to Marjorie Grene's Introduction to Existentialism. Anyway, Gavin Burrows' review pointed me in the right direction, following which I stumbled across this in Grene's book:
According to Sartre, however, God is impossible. To be God is to exist from the necessity of his own nature alone; to be a causa sui. But to be the cause of one's self is to stand in relation to one's self: that is, to be at a distance from one's self, to be what one is not, to be in the manner of consciousness, which is aware of not being its own foundation that is, to be not necessary but contingent. Necessary existence, then, implies its own contradictory, contingent, or nonnecessary existence and is therefore impossible. In other words, if God existed, he would be contingent and hence not God; or if he is God, he is not contingent and hence, since noncontingent existence is self-contradictory, is not. But if we have no maker, neither is there a model by which we can trace the proper pattern of humanity, since the model was conceived of only as an instrument of the maker. Heaven is empty, and we are left alone to create ourselves by our own acts.

The Age of Reason is the first of a trilogy about freedom - whether it's a thing, whether we genuinely experience it, how to get there and so on. Significantly it was written after the end of the second world war whilst being set just before, serving to emphasise the perceptual divide between our cast of four or five characters and the world they inhabit. To bring this together with what Grene says, what I take from this novel is that Mathieu and his pals inhabit their respective existences without quite fully being part of them. As they drift along, the cause and effect of worldly interactions and even each other, appear more like projections upon an enveloping screen, not unlike how Guy Debord describes the relationship of society to its own image in The Society of the Spectacle. The future is bearing down on them, but they remain unaffected, like children only dimly aware of events beyond the horizon of adulthood. Marcelle is herself with child and much of the novel details Mathieu's failure to deal with even the notion that everything will soon change as a result. Similarly, he could go to fight in Spain, but he doesn't. He barely seems to engage with or even respond to the consequences of his own actions, as though to do so might lead to a curtailment of his freedom. He dooms himself to inaction in pursuit of freedom and therefore never quite achieves either freedom, or the age of reason - adulthood to the likes of myself and George W. Bush.

At least this is what I took from it. I suppose it's interesting from the point of view that the kidult was not, after all, invented by my generation; and there's a great deal more to it than my admittedly hastily-written analysis. Indeed, The Age of Reason is supposedly Sartre's philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness rewritten as an episode of Friends - sort of - which is nice because it's surprisingly breezy considering, or is at least breezy compared to Nausea, and I have an unfortunate feeling there probably wouldn't be much point in my trying to read Being and Nothingness. I would be in way over my water; plus, I'm not sure I really need to read the thing seeing as I got much more than I expected from this, the junior version.

I'm not sure what else I can say, and so not wishing to appear stupid, I'll say nothing.