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.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Warlord of Kor

Terry Carr Warlord of Kor (1963)
I don't know much about the late Terry Carr beyond that he edited a whole string of science-fiction collections, and that Simak rated his short story, The Dance of the Changer and the Three fairly highly, or at least praised Carr's attempt to write genuinely alien characters betraying as little obvious cultural contamination from their author as possible:

We can only think in human terms. What we try to do is twist human concepts into strange, distorted shapes. They seem alien, but all they are are distorted human concepts. You don't know how many years I have tried to develop a true alien. I have never been able to. Terry Carr came awful close in The Dance of Changer and the Three, but he wasn't quite successful. I think probably it's very close to impossible to do it.

I haven't read much Terry Carr, and I gather there may not actually be that much available to be read, relatively speaking, but between this and the aforementioned short story, it would be difficult to miss the recurrence of certain themes. The unknowable and alien here are silent leathery giants called the Hirlaji bearing no discernible resemblance to anything appearing on the cover, at least not beyond scale. Warlord of Kor is mostly about attempts made to communicate with the Hirlaji and what little we have in common, referring to an ancient archaeological history of which very little remains. There's a level of drama, as is somewhat over-egged by the cover painting, but it's mostly a contemplative novel written in a mature tone which wouldn't really have suited an excess of thrills and scrapes.

Unfortunately it's also kind of dry, and the typos really don't help. Some I guess I didn't notice, but then you get instances like the one where Manning raises his weapon towards Rynason, but Horng's huge fish smashed it from his hand. Here's what that would look like:

He probably meant fist. I might not have noticed had the thing achieved a better hold on my attention. It's short with a commendable message about how we treat the alien and how we should treat the alien; and it's nicely written with plenty of character, but somehow it just never quite takes off.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Complete D.R. & Quinch

Alan Moore, Alan Davis & Jamie Delano
The Complete D.R. & Quinch (1987)

Moore apparently disowns this one as having lacked any redeeming social values, which is a shame, and I know at least one person who regards it as the only decent thing the man ever wrote. D.R. & Quinch of course appeared in the pages of 2000AD about a million years ago. It's basically an underground comic very much revealing Moore's roots and would have been equally at home in the pages of Commies from Mars, and as such I'd suggest it actually is a big deal that Moore managed to sell it to the Mighty Tharg in the first place, so he does himself something of a disservice and his subsequent judgement regarding redeeming social values seems to have come from the same place which inspired that bewilderingly nihilistic take on seventies punk culture in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which appeared to owe more to Kenny Everett's Sid Snot routines than anything which actually happened.

The lack of redeeming social values is surely the point, because there's a certain age at which it's both healthy and educational to piss off one's parents; and thus we have a science-fiction rewrite of characters from National Lampoon's Animal House in a spirit distantly descended from that of Whizz for Atomms by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle; because mindless destruction can be funny, and sometimes it should be celebrated; or if you don't understand it, bust it, as my friend Carl once explained to me.

Of course, it might be argued that such rampant nihilism worked better against the backdrop of the wipe-clean pastel-toned eighties than it does now, with reactionary trends having reclassified popular support for the worst sort of authoritarian eugenicist as a somehow daring and even revolutionary position - because God forbid that anyone should have their lives quite literally destroyed by political correctness; but if we're going to let certain fuckwits claim that Hitler was simply of his time, then I don't see any good reason to dismiss D.R. & Quinch, who were for a short while the epitomy of rock 'n' fuckin' roll, man.

Technically, the writing is kind of loose and sloppy, closer in spirit to Roscoe Moscow than Watchmen - not so much stories as a series of gags with raspberries blown in the general direction of everything else, which I personally see as joyous rather than cynical or necessarily nihilistic; but it doesn't matter because the gags are funny, and are still funny thirty years later, and the art of Alan Davis is gorgeous, and D.R. & Quinch is easily as much his work as Moore's; and you know, I still can't watch The Godfather or Apocalypse Now without a little voice in the back of my head whispering mind the oranges, Marlon.

For fuck's sake, Alan - get a grip: be proud!

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass (2000)
I probably shouldn't have left it so long. I read the first two of the trilogy back in 2015 and somehow just couldn't quite get around to this one. I generally dislike trilogies, or at least those comprising a single extended story split into three - as distinct from three vaguely related stories sharing either characters, settings or concepts. I generally dislike works of such length because it takes an exceptional author to sustain my interest over so distended a word count, and not many really seem able to pull it off without a degree of droop entering the equation. Michael Moorcock, David Louis Edelman and Peter F. Hamilton have all managed it, as did Stephen Baxter - although the Xeelee books were mostly self contained. C.S. Lewis didn't, and it's probably not fair to comment on Tolkien given that I was about fifteen when I stalled at the beginning of the third volume; of course there are also trilogies by Brian Aldiss and Phil Purser-Hallard, and I still have one book to go in each case.

I had no trouble getting back into His Dark Materials, even if I couldn't quite remember all of what had been before. It opens well, and I had retained enough to keep me interested and not overly bewildered, although I've still no fucking clue who those little people with the dragonflies were supposed to be. Also there seems to have been some kind of switcheroo as to who was the villain, so I read on in the assumption that both of Lyra's parents were probably arseholes, and in the assumption that Pullman had discarded the fantasy tradition of moustache-twirling evil, instead writing something which works more like real life, at least in moral terms.

Lyra travels into the realm of the dead and rescues all of the ghosts for reasons I never quite understood, and the dæmons with which everyone on her world is born seem to be a metaphor for awakening sexuality, or at least the intellectual maturity which hopefully coincides with the advent of the same; and Dust is somehow related, although it's also dark matter - so Donald Trump probably wouldn't have much Dust whilst Carl Sagan would have lived his life enveloped in a cloud of the stuff, or something like that. I don't know. I was a bit lost as to why everyone was doing whatever they were doing and what they hoped to achieve. Like I say, I probably shouldn't have left it so long.

I enjoyed the wheeled beings, but the whole enterprise got bogged down in dreary Tolkienesque battles as the end drew near, so I switched my evening reading session to Lewis Black's Nothing's Sacred for the sake of something to look forward to before I go to sleep. Despite all those sparkling images and delightful sentences, it was ultimately a relief to have finished the thing.

I'd been warned about His Dark Materials being an atheist diatribe, which would have been a problem because I dislike authors assuming their readers to be idiots, but thankfully the warning seems to have originated with someone more sensitive to such things than I apparently am. Pullman clearly doesn't think much of organised religion, and that's fine, but there's no obvious metaphors waggled in our face with the usual qualifier of don't you think this is terrible? If the book has a message, it's more or less delivered by John Parry:

'And this is the reason for all those things: your dæmon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.'

So try not to blow it whilst you're alive, because you almost certainly won't get a second chance. The narrative presents us with examples of those who blow it because they've spent too long worrying over things which don't matter - people who are, as a direct result, generally disagreeable fuckers. The tale works well enough, and it's a good point, and it's told with verve and imagination, but I'm sure it didn't really need to be as overextended as it is. So it's either good but could have been better, or I really shouldn't have left it so long.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Ten Great Mysteries

Edgar Allan Poe Ten Great Mysteries (1845)
I suppose Ten Stories of Which a Certain Portion Might Be Deemed Adequately Mysterious would have seemed cumbersome, and I think it was The Black Cat which tipped it for me, representing the point at which I noticed I was once again straining to find the value in something old, undeniably worthy, hugely influential and generally hailed as a copper-bottomed classic when truthfully I'm bored absolutely shitless.

I'm prepared to acknowledge that Poe was a major talent and an important figure in the history of literature providing anyone supporting that position with any degree of fervour is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that his alleged strengths are very poorly represented in this collection. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and The Pit and the Pendulum are all readable, as I suppose is The Black Cat on a purely technical level. At his best, Poe works up a thoroughly convincing atmosphere and there's an undeniable poetry to his words - as you might reasonably expect. The two stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin are of particular interest in providing obvious inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, but also in being more than simple detective tales, but tales about the mechanics of perception and understanding as explored by means of a pipe-smoking detective seeking clues. Elsewhere Poe cooks up powerfully claustrophobic first person narratives which I would imagine almost certainly inspired H.P. Lovecraft, and also - quite unexpectedly - A.E. van Vogt.

Beyond this, we have short stories which doubtless worked better for the less-jaded readers of the time than they do for me in 2016. The main problem is that nothing much happens in any of these, and most seem to amount to single extended scenarios intended to induce a sense of unease; and also that a few of them felt like I was reading a long, long letter from a fucking solicitor. My attention could just not be kept upon the page, no matter what. You might suppose it serves me right for all those hours spent playing Super Mario Kart, but I've read shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts, and shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts which hasn't bored me to tears quite like this bunch. Even Fitz-James O'Brien wrote a better yarn if you can ignore the routine anti-Semitism.

Some of the stories were okay, if hardly serving to justify Poe's stellar reputation; others were simply dull, just as all those other stories by Robert Louis Stevenson were dull; and then there's The Black Cat which effects a reaction with descriptions of its protagonist torturing and then killing his pet cat. I'm sure no real cats were harmed but I really dislike this sort of lazy revulsion-response button pushing associated with certain strands of horror fiction and certain realms of the internet. Whilst shock is as valid a tool as any in the creation of art, it requires skilled application rather than just shoving it in our faces whilst making a lurid, gurgling noise. The Black Cat is simply vile and ham-fisted, the just deserts conclusion justifying the means with all the conviction of your average busted kiddy fiddler protesting that those photographs were purely for research purposes. I guess Poe was hoping to get a reaction, and he succeeded in so much as my reaction is that he can fuck off, and that I've cancelled any plans I had to read any more of his yawnsome shite ever again. I'm glad his name has been posthumously associated with pisspots.

The Centauri Device

M. John Harrison The Centauri Device (1974)
I sought this entirely because I loved the cover of the SF Masterworks edition. It took me a while to find a copy because I greatly prefer the traditional paperback size and the aforementioned SF Masterworks edition was of those slightly larger vital statistics by which more or less everything is now published, a size I dislike because it seems to be saying ooh ooh look at me reading a proper book like something by that Vikram Seth or one of those guys. Unfortunately the price for my dimensional loyalty is that the copy I eventually find has this cover. Never mind.

I gather Harrison emerged from that whole new wave thing surrounding Moorcock's New Worlds, and it certainly reads that way. The Centauri Device is gonzo space opera - I suppose you might call it - dense prose rich with bizarre images like a slightly more grizzled and hard boiled version of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, and I suppose it must be admitted that it wears its vintage on its sleeve, at times reminding me of Alan Moore's The Stars My Degredation or something drawn by Bryan Talbot; and there were quite a few Hawkwind numbers spontaneously popping into my head as I was reading, particularly Spirit of the Age. Unfortunately though, the prose is so dense that it becomes a little tough in places - not that the story is so horribly complicated as to demand one's full attention, but reading gets to feel a bit thankless towards the end what with all the baroque descriptions of vaguely disgusting things piling up one after the other to a degree which you can almost smell. It's a little like some of Iain M. Banks' less successful novels in terms of texture, and I strongly suspect Harrison was an influence. The appearance of spacecraft with names such as the Melancholia that Transcends All Wit and the Let Us Go Hence seem a bit of a smoking gun on that score.

That said, The Centauri Device isn't a bad book in any sense so much as simply one which should have been better. It's short and snappy, never quite boring, brimming with wild and wacky ideas - most notably the Opener religious sect who believe God to be in the detail and who have transparent windows inset into their flesh so as to reveal the workings of their innards - and the raw, squelchy poetry of the text is frequently astonishing.

'Here we begin to guess at the nature of space,' said Pater softly to Truck. 'Our palette is prepared. The galaxy has given us our canvas, a dead dragonfly had bequeathed us the brushes we have to hand. We make space. We define it. Look out there. IWG and UASR see at best a conduit for Earth's rubbish of politics. We infer reality. None of this belongs to Earth or to ideology. It is inviolate.'

What any of it's actually about is another thing entirely, although the above passage seems pertinent. The Centauri Device appears to be about liberty, ideas, and two fingers up to authority in the same way that certain Surrealist paintings tend to be about these things - so the message is inherent in the form rather than in anything which is spelled out. It's a book which asks its reader to put in a certain degree of effort, but mostly rewards what work you might undertake, possibly providing you're in the right mood - which maybe I wasn't.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Vision: Little Better Than a Beast

Tom King & Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The Vision: Little Better Than a Beast (2016)

Here's the second half of the story for which the first half was collected as Little Worse Than a Man, and which I suggested might be the best thing Marvel have ever published. Little Worse Than a Man seems to be the story of a family of robots settling down and attempting to blend in with regular folks, except with a very different tone to how that may sound and somehow managing to turn those chuckles and overly logical misunderstandings into something both poignant and chilling. Little Better Than a Beast completes the title quotation from The Merchant of Venice, presenting a conclusion which seems initially shaky in how it relates to what has gone before, until you realise that it's simply because all humour has been stripped from the increasingly harrowing psychological drama. It's not that the jokes aren't there, but you'd have to be lacking something fairly basic to keep on finding them funny - which, by the way, is probably deliberate. The dynamic of the story derives from the relentless and guileless optimism of inherently flawed people, or at least beings. That which makes them human in turn destroys and debases their humanity.

As you might gather from the above, it's quite easy to forget that this is still essentially a superhero book, and we're reminded when various Avengers appear - notably an Iron Man these days looking one hell of a lot like Robert Downey Jr. I'm not entirely sure whether it's down to the beautifully understated art, the narrative depth, or a combination of the two, but when the capes start flapping it's actually kind of shocking, almost frightening in the same way that The Dark Knight Returns was frightening back when it first hit the stands; and we are reminded that, realistically speaking, superheroes would be fucking terrifying if they were real.

Thankfully though, superheroes are hardly the point of the story. The point might be simplified as the gulf between that which we would like to be and that which we cannot help being, although by the same token Hamlet is probably just a play about a bloke who sees a ghost. You really need to read this one to appreciate it. For a book full of flying guys with capes, this story feels at least as dark as anything written by Michael Gira for a Swans album, and there are a few moments which I found just plain horrible and yet unfortunately necessary; so fuck it: like I said before, this is probably the best thing Marvel have ever published.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Mysterious Island

Jules Verne The Mysterious Island (1874)
It seems that appreciation of Jules Verne is somewhat reliant upon which translation you happen to be reading, for there are apparently many. I hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and everyone in it, so hopefully that was one of the ropey versions. Conversely, I enjoyed From the Earth to the Moon well enough, and have generally found this one to be likewise a decent, if slightly insubstantial read. Both turn out to have been translated by Lowell Bair and for the sake of argument, I'm going to pretend this is entirely the work of Jules Verne - as opposed to Verne given particular emphasis by the aforementioned Bair - because it'll get too complicated otherwise.

The Mysterious Island reads more or less like somebody novelised a few issues of Understanding Science, the sixties kids' magazine building up week by week into etc. etc. First we meet our balloonists, all chaps of good progressive stock, plus a plucky hound and an African-American man included presumably as representative of racial equality and the abolitionist cause against slavery - which is nice although Verne doesn't actually seem to give him much to say, so mostly he's just hanging around following orders and sawing up logs or whatever. Oddly, although this novel continues what I presume must have been Verne's fascination with America as a newborn civilisation doing its best to get things right, we still find some influence of the typically nineteenth century notion of class as an inherent quality; so with the African-American Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged as a roughly equal partner, we're apparently left with a gap which is quickly filled by Jupiter the orang-utan, tamed and rendered a loyal servant at least until Verne gets bored of the idea and he vanishes from sight barring a single reference near the end. I mention this only because it struck me as odd.

Our boys find themselves marooned on the island in what might be read as a re-run of Robinson Crusoe, or perhaps even an inversion. Being enlightened men they immediately throw themselves into the task of civilising the wilderness by means of all their scientific knowledge, smelting iron, making tools, even fashioning glass for their fancy cave, and with no time for Crusoe's philosophising or even much thought beyond their present circumstances. Just like the America from which they came, they're building a new world rather than looking to the horizon in hope of getting back to the old one, so there's a lot of talk about how to make rope, drain lakes, the manufacture of wire for telecommunications and so on; and against all odds, it's actually very readable, even engrossing. This I find of particular interest given the poor reputation of what has come to be regarded as Gernsbackian science-fiction, so named after the editor of Amazing Stories who favoured this kind of technologically-fixated narrative, much to the more recent annoyance of Brian Aldiss; and yet it is only a variation on what Verne wrote.

The Mysterious Island is additionally a sequel of sorts to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in so much as that it ends with Captain Nemo revealed as the hidden author of certain mysterious occurrences on the island. This conclusion feels a little tagged on given the mysterious occurrences having been mostly underwhelming, but I suppose it keeps the novel from being a couple of hundred pages about the best way to build a boat. There's a possibility that Bair's translation may lose some of the poetry of the original because I otherwise have to wonder why this should be regarded as a classic. This isn't so much a criticism of any failings it may have so much as to acknowledge that it doesn't really do very much as a narrative; but then for something which doesn't do very much, it's nevertheless a highly satisfying read.