Monday, 7 August 2017

Nameless


Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham Nameless (2016)
Just to get it out of the way before anyone writes a tittering ten-volume slipcased comparison of the parallels, yes, I suppose this might be Grant Morrison revisiting H.P. Lovecraft because he saw Alan Moore do it; and I suppose the confessional we both liked the idea of creating a 'Lovecraftian' horror story without recycling H.P. Lovecraft, might indeed be suffixed with unlike certain other writers, not mentioning no names or nuffink; but otherwise, let's all just get over it. No conspicuously bearded Machiavellian allegories to see here, and aside from anything else, this might be one of the best things Morrison has done, possibly.

Oddly, more than anything, Nameless reminds me of Johan Harsted's 172 Hours on the Moon at least in terms of locale and atmosphere, although it's otherwise much better, obviously; and while it's a different story, arguably closer to all those films in which Bruce Willis saves the earth from collision with an asteroid, Nameless ticks quite a few of the same boxes as The Taking of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham. In fact, if you don't mind that we have Titans and Outsiders rather than Great Houses and the enemy, this is the closest we've had to a Faction Paradox comic book since Image's Lawrence Miles title went tits up back in 2003.

So what's it all about, Alfie?

We have an asteroid, possibly a chip off the old destroyed fifth planet, about to hit Earth, and which can only be understood in mystical terms, hence the astronauts covered in protective sigils; and it's fucking scary, and you'll just have to read it because that's all I'm going to give away. The art comes from another one of those guys who isn't quite all of the way there with his faces, but the whole is otherwise of such elaborate beauty that you don't mind in the least, and which almost gives the book the weight of something by Jean Giraud. The narrative is more like a piece of music than any conventionally linear scrape in space with rockets and monsters, and Morrison's afterword states this as having been intentional, which is nice because it works so well, doing that Nic Roeg thing of making sense despite that it feels like it shouldn't. There's also a heaping helping of mystic horseshit, but nothing which is allowed to get in the way of the story, and it all holds together beautifully without requiring that we skip to the reference section at the end of the book.

That said, I could have lived without the details borrowed from Mayan culture, presumably by way of Carlos Castaneda given the loose way in which terms such as tonal and nagual are tossed around regardless of original meaning in the actual language from which they derive; but the book works so well that I even got over that hump. Damn that Grant Morrison. Why can't they all be this good?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Player Piano


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Player Piano (1952)
Having been blown away by Slaughterhouse Five all those years ago, I somehow picked up the idea of Player Piano having been Vonnegut's other masterpiece, presumably somehow reading this into the arguably lesser distinction of it simply having been his debut novel.

Player Piano seems to aspire to inclusion in the canon of dystopian classics beginning with Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and continuing through Brave New World and 1984. Themes of men and women trying to get by within a carnivorous and capitalist society, and to which Vonnegut would return over and over, are here expressed as a future America in which mechanisation has divided society into a near useless consumer underclass and the Engineers who tend to the machines. Existence has become a routine, predictable and ultimately soulless process much like the notes plucked out on a player piano. Our main protagonist, the guy who notices how everything is actually a bit shit, is one Paul Proteus, essentially an inversion of the Gernsbackian science hero, for this is very much a novel with one foot in Hugo's tradition whether it likes it or not.

The main problem seems to be that history has outstripped Vonnegut's predictions by coming up with something arguably worse than his vaguely Gernsbackian technological society. At one point our lads pit themselves against a somewhat basic sounding games computer called Charley Checkers, and I found it quite hard to keep from thinking of Mitchell and Webb's Cheesoid; which is ironically fitting because Vonnegut's point is that the mechanisation of society has so often been seen as an end in itself, regardless of either consequences or whether the technology is actually doing anything which is worth doing, which unfortunately leaves the novel resting upon a point which isn't particularly well made.

Stranger still, at least to me, is that Player Piano is very much a linear tale with a beginning, middle, and end, in stark contrast to the rest of what Vonnegut went on to write; and whilst the humour is there, it seems hesitant. You can really tell this is a first novel. It's not without flashes of brilliance here and there, and Vonnegut's political testimony is devastating where it fully comes into focus, but I'm afraid I was just kind of bored for most of the book.



Monday, 31 July 2017

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas


Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá The Umbrella Academy: Dallas (2009)
I was interviewed for a podcast called Raconteur Roundtable. They were mostly interested in my Faction Paradox novel, Against Nature. The interview was conducted over Skype, and it was fun but exhausting. My original intention had been to present the brooding, unflappable façade of a sort of English Henry Rollins but without the weightlifting, but I suspect I came across more like Suzanne from Orange is the New Black. I kept catching myself in the webcam feed, going cross-eyed and whirling my hand in the air whilst feebly scrabbling to make the word stuff come out good.

That night, I was woken at three in the morning by the cellphone I never use - except to receive sales calls which aren't even for me - beeping to let me know that it needed recharging so that I may receive more calls from people trying to sell car insurance to my mother-in-law. I then found myself unable to get back to sleep until about 6.50AM, having lain awake for several hours giving full consideration to just how mad I sounded during the interview, and whether it would be practical to trace the invention of the beep which a phone makes when it's low on juice at three in the fucking morning back to a single individual and to smash their kneecaps with a hammer. I got up at seven to feed the cats, then went straight back to bed for yer actual sleep and a couple of hours of weird, unpleasant dreams in which Adrian Meredith, my junior school bully, coerced me into buying his girlfriend's gold necklace back from the pawn shop to which he had flogged it.

I woke at ten to discover that Jello the cat had shredded an entire bog roll for the third day running, and so I was not in the sunniest of moods, in contrast to the rest of Texas which was already 98° in the shade. I needed coffee, toast, and the routine of my daily hour or so of reading, but I couldn't face Vonnegut's dreary debut novel. I needed comfort food, so to speak, something colourful and fun requiring no expenditure of brain cells, and so I picked this.

The more I read by Gerard Way, the more I appreciate that he's very much doing his own thing. Obviously there are traces of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but Umbrella Academy somehow manages to be even more esoteric without ever quite descending into non-sequiteurs. The story ducks and weaves like Nic Roeg, Bill Burroughs, or any reference to weird European cinema you care to make, whilst also doing something suspiciously reminiscent of a garish Saturday morning cartoon serial; and where with Morrison, you can occasionally spot the gaps and sense how pleased with himself he gets over certain layered references, Way has none of that awkward self-consciousness, just confidence and expertise. The story is fucking peculiar, and the art is gorgeous. I've no idea what any of it's about, but it made my day much, much better than it had been.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Trojans


Philip Purser-Hallard Trojans (2016)
I promised myself I'd re-read the first two before tackling Trojans, the conclusion of the trilogy and the thickest of the three. The book is heavily populated with a fair few interwoven narrative strands to follow, and I really wanted to go in prepared so as to get the most out of my reading; but in the end, with the to be read pile presently towering above me at a little over fifty titles, I thought fuck it and just went right ahead.

Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy inhabits a very familiar contemporary England in which certain individuals find themselves possessed - or allied as is the more accurate term used by Alan a'Dale, the narrator - by numerous mythological or pseudo-historical heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and the gang, and even the likes of Paul Bunyan across the water. The present day incarnations - or at least expressions - of these archetypes naturally behave in ways consistent with their respective legends; and so the Round Table has become the Circle, and its Knights get around on motorbikes, communicate by cellphone, and yet nevertheless employ sword and shield in their application of justice, honour, and chivalry. It's the kind of story which really could have ended up with a particularly culty egg on its face if mistimed or not handled absolutely right, so it's a testament to Purser-Hallard's not inconsiderable talent that it not only works, but is absolutely convincing.

As we rejoin our tale, Arthur has returned to reclaim the English throne, much to the displeasure of certain royals for obvious reasons - and delightfully plausibly written they are too. Intrigue, espionage, terrorism, and kidnapping ensue, foreign interests decide to involve themselves, and an old mythic pattern strives to repeat itself with those chosen to act out its component parts all caught up in the workings. Described as such it may sound like someone going for the Game of Thrones dollar, or at worst a template for forty-five minute helpings of episodic CGI with mediaeval types composing ironic self-referential facebook posts in between scraps with baddies; but it's really nothing like that, because it's a proper novel.

This also means that it expects the reader to pay attention, which is why I experienced some confusion. It's been a while since I read The Pendragon Protocol and The Locksley Exploit, and I've never been particularly well versed in Arthurian lore, so I experienced occasional difficulties keeping track of certain details through failing to fully appreciate their significance. Nevertheless, this presented no significant obstacle, either to my being able to follow the narrative or to enjoy it, and if anything, the undercurrent of intrigue served as an inducement to read on; so in other words, if I found myself sporadically lost, it remained a pleasure; and it remained a pleasure because Trojans is very conspicuously about something more than just keeping you busy for a couple of hours a day.

Were it a simple matter to summarise what Devices has been about in a few sentences, there probably wouldn't have been any need for it to clock up such a page count, but at the root of it all seems to be a debate about morality, specifically about doing the right thing and whether such choices can be codified as ideology. Here we have the Circle and the Green Chapel as England's two principal upholders of what is generally believed to be right, but they are essentially at odds with one another whilst driven by more or less identical goals. The difference is that one represents ingrained authority, tradition and even perhaps dogma, and as such I'm tempted to regard the Circle as an allegory for certain aspects of organised religion.

'I inherited the code of honour, I didn't make it. But it's the code I have to live by now, or any claim I have to rule this country goes out of the window. And then... there'd be another war, at least. And I honestly think that would destroy us.'

Robin Hood's Green Chapel on the other is wild, anarchic, and pretty much making it up as it goes along.

'People tell stories, not the other way round. The devices forget that we made them, not they us.'

Given the mythological origin of many of the characters manifest here, the Devices trilogy also serves as a commentary upon the quality and value of the tales we tell - a theme which generally seems to have become quite popular of late, but is more than justified here by what seems like fairly profound philosophical depth, or at least more so than Alan Moore recasting Harry Potter as the Antichrist.

In certain respects it might be considered quite a tough book, given all that it has to say about English culture at this end of the twenty-first century, the responsibility of a government to its people and to the individual, and even to those ways of thinking which have fuelled the popularity of Brexit; and yet it's a breeze, and there are even jokes. As someone or other is quoted as having observed on the back cover, Philip Purser-Hallard really is a best kept secret, and I have a feeling it can't be for too much longer.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Shape of Things


Damon Knight (editor) The Shape of Things (1965)
I still find it hard to leave one of these on the shelf, which is partially nostalgia for anthologies such as this more or less having been my introduction to science-fiction which wasn't based on a TV show or else written by Philip K. Dick. Also, there's the exciting promise of getting something you didn't expect, of not really knowing quite what the fuck will happen once you get between the covers. I really don't know how anyone can resist.

Of course, these days there's also the appeal of revisiting what have become old favourites, but it's the surprises which keep me coming back, and not least because there are still surprises to be had. In this case one big one turns out to be The New Reality by Charles L. Harness. I don't recall having heard of the guy and I know nothing about him, but The New Reality is absolutely top shelf material, notable as a version of reality as construct within the eye of the beholder of some vintage, predating all those recent revisitations of the theme, and even predating the likes of Dick's Eye in the Sky. I'm sure Harness himself was only riffing on some previous telling of the story, one I've probably read and forgotten, but nevertheless he makes the convention his own.

As with any anthology, there are a couple which don't quite make the grade, but with this one the good stuff is of such quality as to render the duds forgiveable; and the good stuff from Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury are all very good indeed. Also, it's nice to read Knight's introduction to van Vogt's Dormant and to find that he did, on occasion, have a good word for the guy after all; so, very satisfying, all round.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Multiversity


Grant Morrison etc. The Multiversity (2015)
I know I said I was getting a bit tired of self-aware comic books pretending that a drawing of a man in a cape is just a different level of reality because of something a theoretical physicist said whilst off his tits on special brew, but sod it - Grant Morrison, for all his faults is occasionally great, and Captain Carrot was on the cover of the first issue. It seemed worth a punt.

I never read Crisis on Infinite Earths so most stuff about the layered realities of the DC universe has been lost upon me, and Final Crisis was incomprehensible. I'm not really sure what this one is supposed to do either, but on the assumption that Crisis happened so as to keep us from having to read about Krypto the Superdog, then Multiversity seems to reverse that particular act of po-faced revisionism and is therefore a good thing. Roughly speaking it seems to be a mash up of Morrison's Zenith and Alan Moore's 1963, or at least has elements inevitably in common with both. We have a load of alternate realities, some of them fairly absurd, under attack by something vaguely Lovecraftian from outside; in addition to which it's all massively self-referential with characters attempting to work out what's going on by reading earlier or later issues of the comic in which they appear. It's not actually big or significantly clever, but even this is acknowledged in online potshots which become caught up in the narrative.
Yet another comic-about-comics treatise retreading the same tired themes.

Ordinarily I'd agree, but what's different this time is that it just about has a story - albeit one in which individual chapters could probably be read in any order - and that it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Multiversity first appeared as a series of loosely related issues of comic books set in different parts of its reality, allowing for a great deal of horseplay. My favourite iteration is probably The Just, set on a world in which Superman's robot legion has rendered caped crime fighters redundant, leaving their offspring to lives of super-powered boredom and killing time; but equally enjoyable is the obligatory trawl through the history of superhero comics rendered in stylistic tribute to Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Kirby and all of the usual suspects. Morrison's Alan Moore fixation is expressed as an issue focused on the Charlton comics characters which inspired Watchmen, and which is clearly a comment on Watchmen, although I have no idea what it's actually saying. We also get Marvel's Avengers with the plates switched and a thinly disguised version of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, which is amusing if you like that sort of thing, and happily I do in this instance; and whilst I'm over-thinking such things, I'm sure I recall the evil one-eyed egg with bat wings as one of Dorothy's imaginary enemies from Morrison's version of Doom Patrol.

Multiversity is probably deep, meaningful, and stuffed to the gills with references I didn't get, but it doesn't actually have much in the way of story if you look closely; which isn't a problem because Grant Morrison seems to be at his best when he's all surface and can keep himself from mentioning Aleister bloody Crowley every two pages. I'm not sure this is all surface, but that was how it read to me and I therefore invoke the same difference clause; and yet it is of sufficient complexity as to yield unexpected rewards upon second and third readings. This might be one of the best things he's written in a while.

Maigret Sets a Trap


Georges Simenon Maigret Sets a Trap (1955)
Ordinarily I bristle and mutter at those who read the book because they saw it on telly, and yet here I am, because I'm nothing if not inconsistent. One set of laws for myself and a different set for the rest of you fuckers, that's how it works.

I happened upon a recent televised adaptation of this starring Rowan Atkinson, and while detective shows aren't ordinarily my thing, I was nevertheless well and truly sucked in. I vaguely knew of Maigret as a BBC series from before I was born, but hadn't realised it was based on a series of novels; and so I kept an eye open and chanced upon this, itself published so as to cash-in on a previous adaptation of the same thing starring the Singing Detective. Obviously I have no way of knowing whether or not this is a good translation from the French by one Daphne Woodward, although I'm going to assume it is based on how much I enjoyed it; so assuming that whatever I say can be applied as much to Simenon's original as to this one...

I'm a little out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, mysteries, crime, and all that stuff, and yet Maigret very much worked for me on this occasion. The narrative is tight and efficient, taking one straight to the heart of the matter, unencumbered by fatty tissue or any unnecessary fucking about in hope of getting a reaction; and the style comes across as clean and elegant rather than either rudimentary or pulpy, perhaps thanks to occasional concessions made to place and atmosphere in fleeting, yet arresting images:

All this time they had been standing up. At Doctor Pardon's suggestion they now went and sat down in a corner near the window, from where they could hear the sounds of a radio. The rain was still falling, so softly that the tiny drops seemed to be alighting gently one on top of the other, to form a kind of dark varnish on the surface of the road.

Similarly pleasing is that as mysteries go, this one seems fairly straightforward, indulging in none of the smartarsed labyrinthine plotting of modern detective fiction, at least as it is on telly. A crime occurs, Maigret tracks down the suspect, and then proves him to be the guilty party - none of this shit about some shop in Southend being the only place where you can buy shoelaces in that colour, and if Lord Ponsonby-Smythe, who famously loathes hard-boiled eggs, was indeed wearing his tartan jockstrap at the event in question, then blah blah blah...

Equally refreshing - at least from the point of view of someone who, like myself, usually only encounters this kind of thing on the box - is that Maigret is a quiet bloke who smokes a pipe and doesn't seem to go in for shouting or knackering suspects with a ball-peen hammer before chuckling oh dear - I see you've tripped, my little son. Indeed, that which is left to be read between these translated lines, suggests a thoughtful, sensitive character. For what it's worth, I am informed that views have been expressed opining that Rowan Atkinson's recent performance was somewhat flat in comparison with earlier, more emotional renderings by Rupert Davies or Michael Gambon, but I don't know - based on this one book, I'd say Atkinson pretty much nailed it.

Anyway, yes - very, very readable.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Erewhon


Samuel Butler Erewhon (1872)
Erewhon is the second great satire of the nineteenth century, it says here, the other being Gulliver's Travels, but personally I'm not convinced. It seems too much like a sentence referring to those two giants of twentieth century rock music, David Bowie and Nick Lowe - I mean Cracking Up was a fucking great single for sure, but let's keep some sense of perspective here, because Erewhon really isn't a patch on Swift. Aside from anything else, Swift was funny.

Erewhon transports a curious traveller to a distant and vaguely allegorical civilisation of that designation serving as a parody of Victorian society. It's written in an engaging style and delivers plenty of novelty, but I'm not entirely convinced it works as satire. It reads as though Butler kept changing his mind about what he wanted the book to do even as he was writing it. It starts well, with our man detailing the eccentricities of the Erewhonian justice system in which illness and infirmity are penalised whilst acts we might regard as criminal indiscretions go unpunished. Given the present state of healthcare in the United States and the NHS in England, the thrust of Butler's argument translates into contemporary terms very well, not least because he composes a weirdly plausible argument as to why the crime of being poorly might warrant a jail sentence.

Unfortunately, once we're done with Erewhonian justice, there are too many mixed messages and it becomes difficult to tell just what he's satirising. Sometimes he satirises by exaggeration,  sometimes by inversion, and sometimes we're left with the impression that he's entirely serious; so Erewhon lacks the consistency or the sense of progression found in Gulliver's Travels. The presumably Victorian monetary system is parodied through Erewhon honouring two unrelated forms of currency, one of which is exchanged at the Musical Banks - whatever they are - and I can't actually tell how any of it relates to anything.

Then follows philosophical mumbling, some of which reads a lot like a vicar's son asking Mr. Darwin if there is not room for the Baby Jesus in his fanciful theory. I'm not sure which part of any of it constitutes satire.
There are no follies and no unreasonableness so great as those which can apparently be irrefragably defended by reason itself, and there is hardly an error into which men may not easily be led if they base their conduct on reason only.

Butler was apparently quite the fan of Darwin but disagreed on certain fundamental points - points suggesting, at least to me, that he hadn't actually understood The Origin of Species in the first place. He seems to regard evolutionary theory and the process of natural selection as overly mechanistic, and Darwin's work is therefore parodied as The Book of the Machines - Erewhon's book within a book. The problem with this section, at least a problem for the notion of Erewhon as satire, is that Butler writes The Book of the Machines a little too well, makes some decent philosophical points, unwittingly predicts the technological singularity, and in doing so fails to deliver whatever the fuck the warning was supposed to be about in the first place.
'May we not fancy that if, in the remotest geological period, some early form of vegetable life had been endowed with the power of reflecting upon the dawning life of animals which was coming into existence alongside of its own, it would have thought itself exceedingly acute if it had surmised that animals would one day become real vegetables? Yet would this be more mistaken than it would be on our part to imagine that because the life of machines is a very different one to our own, there is therefore no higher possible development of life than ours; or that because mechanical life is a very different thing from our ours, therefore that it is not life at all?'

Erewhon is an interesting and occasionally thought-provoking novel, but is hamstrung by its own inconsistency. It may well be that, living as I do in 2017 rather than 1872, I have simply missed the subtleties which would seem obvious to the reader in Butler's time, but this still leaves the question of why Swift's novel works so much better than this one whilst requiring fewer allowances for the idiosyncracies of its vintage. Personally, I think there may be a clue in Butler's occasionally revealing narrative tone.
They have another plan about which they are making a great noise and fuss, much as some are doing with women's rights in England.

I appreciate he's not actually saying that women's rights are necessarily a bad thing, but there seems to be a somewhat insular subtext which creeps in at certain points of the narrative. He doesn't like change. He doesn't like anything too fancy. He's suspicious of big ideas. Erewhon isn't a bad novel, but I get the feeling that if its author were alive today he'd be the treasurer of his local model aeroplane flying club, his favourite band would be ELO, and he would have ceased posting on facebook following an argument in which he described Mike Read's UKIP Calypso as just a bit of fun.

The Silkie


A.E. van Vogt The Silkie (1969)
Including a couple of short story collections, this is my twenty-seventh van Vogt, and the one in which I finally understood what he was trying to do, or possibly what I think he was trying to do; by which I mean that I believe he was trying to do more than simply tell a natty tale or predict futuristic things.

As you may or may not be aware, Alfred Elton wrote some pretty strange stuff, so strange in fact that first impressions can often be massively unfavourable, as was mine. Initially he reads like a man drunk in charge of a typewriter with his weird, ugly sentences full of jarring images. The stories never quite add up, and are spattered with preposterous occurrences which don't always make sense or even go anywhere. In chapter two of The Silkie we learn that Cemp, an example of the species for which the novel is named, enjoys more than the usual five human senses, meaning that he has not merely a sixth sense, but an additional 184 senses; and if it were anyone other than van Vogt I probably would have thrown the book across the room. He pulls a similar stunt in chapter twenty-two during an episode in which the solar system is spontaneously gifted with a number of new planets, specifically 1,823 new planets.

I've witnessed a few van Vogt first-timers protesting that the guy can't write, or that he writes like a twelve-year old, or that he's making it up as he goes along. The last one is arguably true, and whilst the first two are understandable, I'd suggest that such criticisms are unsupportable given how much he wrote over how many years. If he really couldn't write, he would surely have improved at least a little during those four decades, therefore the reason that his books read as they do must surely be deliberate. That's how they're supposed to be. I've read plenty by authors who can't write, and it all tends to blend into one undifferentiated body of inept crap with the same mistakes repeated over and over, none of which resembles the writing of A.E. van Vogt.

So the previously mentioned Cemp is a Silkie, a shape-shifting creature which can take one of three forms - something close to human, an aquatic body with gills, and a presumably insectoid living spaceship with the ability to negate gravity. Cemp seems to be something like a secret agent in so much as that he has superiors and he works to counter the actions of those against whom he is in opposition, so on one level this is James Bond as one of the stranger Residents albums. As is often the case with van Vogt, the peculiar suggestion of constant motion combined with bizarre images and dramatic random narrative swerves made it very difficult for me to keep track of what was actually happening; but as is additionally at least sometimes the case with van Vogt, it didn't seem to matter because I was getting something from it, even if I can't quite describe what that was.

Except this time I think I've cracked it, and the understanding somehow presented itself during Cemp's speech in chapter eight:

'Entirely apart from my feelings of loyalty to Earth, I do not believe the future of life forms will be helped or advanced by any rigid adherence to the idea that I am a lion, or I am a bear. Intelligent life is, or should be, moving toward a common civilisation.'

A.E. van Vogt liked to keep his readers on their toes. He wrote using a narrative technique by which he purposefully introduced some new element or seemingly random change of direction to the story every eight-hundred words, and he wrote using images from his own dreams, communicating with sentences specifically tailored so as to leave a question in the mind of the reader. For the sake of argument, this might be termed a form of divination and as good a means of predicting the future as any. Where Asimov thought really hard about science and came up with rocket ships and space stations, van Vogt was essentially drawing random images from a top hat, composing the narrative equivalent of the automatic poetry of the Surrealists, or even William Burroughs if you like; and I believe he did this because the future is essentially impossible to predict, and all we can say for sure is that it will contain elements of something we don't immediately recognise.

However, there's more than mere prediction going on here. Given his interest in Korzybski's General Semantics, I suspect van Vogt saw the path to the future as necessarily psychologically distinct from human history up to the twentieth century; in other words that we would require new ways of thinking, just as Cemp believes we need to leave behind rigid adherence to certain ideas. So just as that which lays ahead is by definition unknowable beyond our capacity for prediction or preparation, and hence chaotic, we need to adjust the methodology by which we go forward, because black-white, on-off, up-down, beginning-middle-end thinking will be useless. Therefore van Vogt writes as he did because he's toughening us up, hoping we might learn to think in terms more ambitious than just building a few robots which make the same mistakes we've made; and I suspect he was hoping that in achieving a more flexible understanding of language and reality, we might begin to understand how the two could be related:

As Cemp remembered his universe, it began to interact with him, to become in essence what he knew it to be. And there it suddenly was, a dot of golden brightness.

Of course, this could simply be my imagination, my perception of a pattern which may not be present in the novel, or in the other novels; but it works for me, and it helped me get something out of The Silkie which might otherwise have seemed a complete dog's dinner. So that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Voyage of the Sable Keech


Neal Asher The Voyage of the Sable Keech (2006)
For me it began with Bioship, an entertainingly disgusting short story in a Solaris anthology which prompted me to bag a copy of Asher's The Skinner, an entertainingly disgusting novel, a big fat housebrick of smelly maritime science-fiction based on that poster of a small fish about to be devoured by a larger fish which is itself about to be swallowed by an even bigger one, and so on and so on. The Skinner is set on Spatterjay, a planet with a unique ecology based around a virus which keeps its host alive by almost any means necessary. The oceans of Spatterjay are home to galleons manned by salty and significantly mutated sea dogs who spend their days wrestling giant leeches or else regrowing body parts nipped off by the same; and that's before we even get to cored human slaves and all the other stuff you probably wouldn't want to read about whilst eating dinner.

The Skinner was such a treat that plucking others by the same guy as I found them from the book store shelf seemed a no brainer, as they say; but unfortunately Shadow of the Scorpion and The Engineer Reconditioned both turned out to be pretty dull, your average militaristic technowank; so when I chanced upon this sequel to The Skinner, the resumption of a nautical theme suggested it to be at least worth a look.

I read about a hundred pages engrossed and yet without much of an idea what was actually happening. Online friends and acquaintances commented that they found Asher's prose impenetrable partially due to his lousy characterisation. I could see their point, but I nevertheless persisted, actually going back to re-read those first hundred pages in the hope of forming a stronger impression as to what was going on with the narrative; and as it happens I seem to recall also having had to do this with The Skinner. One might suggest that finding myself obliged to re-read those first four or five chapters indicates a severe failing on the part of the author, and whilst that may be true, it's probably also worth considering that I actually enjoyed the re-reading as much as I'd enjoyed the initial bewildering foray. The problem is that Asher gets so lost in his baroque and squelchy biological world building, that it's difficult to pick out individual characters or events amongst all the slimy protuberances and circular orifices lined with plug-cutting teeth.

I seemed to be back on track, but with each hundred pages or so, progress became ever more difficult. I knew what was happening, but I never quite worked out why, or why I should care, and after a while the novelty wore off because I've already read The Skinner; and if convoluted, I'm sure it had a bit more of a story than this. It's not that The Voyage of the Sable Keech doesn't have a story, but it doesn't have one requiring six-hundred pages; which is a real shame because some of the concepts are fucking bananas.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Promethea


Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray etc. Promethea (2005)
There's a book called The Last War in Albion which I vaguely recall having seen pushed as an account of the magical war waged between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison for the soul of England - or something of that general thrust. I haven't bought the book, because I've read a few of the blog posts reproduced therein and have found myself irritated at the presumption of a writer - much younger than myself, fannish, and very obviously American - telling us what it was like growing up in Britishland and getting most of it wrong; nevertheless, although it causes me great pain to admit as much, it does sort of look like there may be something in the idea of Moore and Morrison having spent the last couple of decades taking potshots at each other. There were a couple of points in this one where it occurred to me that Promethea could be Moore's idea of The Unreadables done right, without all the rock star wank and recycled Moorcock; and as Andrew Hickey has pointed out, Morrison's Zatanna was his idea of Promethea done right - or something along those lines. Actually, I've just picked up the collected Multiversity and couldn't help but notice how one chapter - or issue, more accurately - looks a lot like Morrison stood in an upper floor window waving his tool at a passing Alan Moore through the medium of the Charlton comics superheroes which Moore recycled as Watchmen.

Where will it all end?

Did we learn nothing from that thing with 'Pac and Biggie?

On the other hand - momentarily leaving aside that none of it actually matters anyway - some of this may simply be my reading certain things into certain patterns, or things resembling patterns from a certain angle; which neatly and coincidentally brings us to Promethea, because that's mostly what Promethea is about. I never read it at the time so I've been catching up with the collected editions. I read the first two, with volumes three to five still to go, and so I've read the whole lot this time, start to finish, hoping that this concentration of my attention might allow me to make more sense of what is at times a fairly unorthodox narrative in comic book terms; and so as to avoid repeating myself here, churning out another three variations on a review I already wrote back in December.


As someone pointed out to me, Promethea goes on a bit, particularly the visionary journey along the various nodules of the tree of life, an interlude which goes on for something in the region of four million issues. Admittedly each of these issues has a page or two set back in the material world, someone telling a joke or punching a copper or something just to keep us grounded - or possibly interested - but the whole distended guitar solo at the half way point really is a slog, feeling a bit like Alan Moore has you by the shoulders and is shaking you, asking if you get it yet, and for a long, long, long, long time*. It reminded me of the story you always used to find in the Rupert Bear annual where Rupert travels to some improbable realm - fairyland, underground kingdom, floating metal city or whatever - and so we get several pages of the obligatory kindly wizard showing Rupert around, pointing at things and describing what they're for; except here, there's more of a page count and we keep bumping into Aleister bloody Crowley. Qué sorpresa.

Of course, in the context of the entire story, the magical interlude is arguably essential, carrying the main point of the enterprise; and in some respects it's nice how for once we get a version which takes its time to explain in full, and to explain what is meant clearly, at least allowing us to rule out the possibility of it simply being an author picking out which is the coolest t-shirt to be seen in down the sportsfield that evening; and it's a good explanation, well argued and readable with beautiful artwork.

On the other hand, just as I reached my limit for problem children with mutant powers back in about 1993, I'm now rapidly approaching saturation point for:

  •  Comic book characters who know they're comic book characters.
  • Authors turning up in their own comics.
  • Aleister Crowley.
  • Coincidences reliant upon numbers.
  • How quantum theory is a bit like what a traditional Shaman does.
  • Fiction is real.

Seriously, people - I love the Illuminatus! trilogy as much as the next man, providing the next man regards the Illuminatus! trilogy as quite good but a bit long; and I'm very happy for Huitzilopochtli to be real by all terms that make any sense; but a lot of this stuff was yellowing around the edges even by the time Porridge took to ripping it off and claiming it for his own work back in 1982. It's fun and it's diverting and I suppose it's probably of arguably greater moment than Spiderman in yet another sense-shattering punch up with the Juggerynut; but simply pointing out that pomegranates are mentioned in the Book of Kings, and that Pom is Australian slang for an English person, and that Australian aborigines believe in the Dreamtime, and that the Dreamtime is a bit like what Alice experienced in Wonderland, and that Lewis Carroll was a Pom - deep fuckin' breath - doesn't actually mean anything out here in the material realm, regardless of how many kiloblakes of poetry may be generated by the suggestion; and after a while it all starts to remind me of the wisdom of the Sphinx in Mystery Men.

When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts...
 

I get how fiction is as much entangled with the cause and effect of our reality as anything, but the relative value of that fiction is a different, possibly subjective matter; and whilst Promethea may blush, shuffle her feet and mumble well, I was just saying, in concession to the subjective nature of her experiences, it feels as though we're being told how it really is. This bothers me, it being the how it really is of a very specific perspective, and probably not one that ever had to hold down a job at fucking Burger King for fifteen long years. Similarly, the post-apocalyptic liberty at which the narrative eventually arrives is a very specific kind of utopia, namely the same old thing in which we all throw off our hang ups and shag the neighbours, and Albert Einstein and Timothy Leary were essentially the same kind of dude, y'know? It's more or less the same place to which all those pre-pubescent Gernsbackian supermen once aspired to lead us, just cooler and better read, with more pairs of those little round Lennon specs, and lesbians who don't get all freaked out and uptight when you ask if it's okay to watch. It all seems very familiar.

Promethea is a decent story, well told and well drawn, and with poetically philosophical truths coming out of its arsehole. I'm just not convinced it's inherently any more profound than the antics of Retarded Hitler in Johnny Ryan's Dry Gulch Follies 2005.


*: I think it may have been Blair Bidmead who made this observation.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Origin of the Inhumans


Stan Lee & Jack Kirby The Origin of the Inhumans (1968)
I assumed this would be material from what I vaguely remember as being an Inhumans comic, reprinted in the UK in black and white in a peculiar landscape format some time around the mid-seventies; but actually it predates that stuff. The Inhumans rose up through the caped ranks in supporting roles in issues of the Fantastic Four before proving so popular as to warrant their own title, and this book collects all of that earlier material. To be specific, it doesn't actually collect a stack of old Fantastic Four comics so much as mainly the Inhumans material, sometimes just a couple of pages an issue, interludes whizzing off to the Great Retreat to explain how our heroes are still trapped and that we haven't forgotten about them. This makes for slightly disjointed reading as we conclude one issue with Galactus promising impending doom, only for it never to arrive because said doom apparently failed to endanger any of the Inhumans and therefore didn't make it into the collection.

Still, fuck it - I'm not complaining.

The Inhumans were a race of super types who somehow evolved separate but parallel to the rest of us, creations of Jack Kirby just as he was entering the weirder stages of his career in comics, and you can really see how the Inhumans ultimately led to the New Gods and all that peculiar cosmic stuff. In fact you can actually watch Kirby getting weirder and weirder just in the course of this collection as it runs from 1965 through to 1968. By the half way point, my eyes were hurting and I experienced dizziness when standing.

Fantastic Four in 1965 was mostly talking whilst fighting, usually with a page or so explaining how the fight kicked off and what the bad guys hope to achieve. This was where we met Medusa, our first Inhuman, as one of the Frightful Four, one of those bad guy teams which actually knows itself to be evil and revels in the fact. Medusa has a lot of hair which she is somehow able to use in tentacular fashion, and she's teamed up with the Sandman, amongst others, who is essentially Bluto from the Popeye cartoons with the ability to turn himself into sand. The Sandman is both fucking stupid and yet somehow brilliant. So, hokey though they may well be, these strips appeal to me for the same reasons as do many of A.E. van Vogt's novels - the concepts are big, dumb, funny, and just weird enough to keep it interesting, ideas jammed together like lumps of plasticine in the hands of a toddler. Admittedly, the narrative becomes a lot more interesting once we're past the talking whilst fighting and learn who these Inhumans are, but Kirby's artwork is fucking astonishing throughout - just so gorgeous it would make a grown man cry - which more than compensates for uneven storytelling or disconcertingly abrupt leaps from one issue to another.

Whilst we're here, Stan Lee clearly deserves credit. I'm not sure what quota of the concepts involved came from him, because it sure feels like there's a lot of Jack Kirby in the mix, but Lee obviously had something to do with the success of the book and these characters. I get the impression he's better remembered as an entrepreneur than a master storyteller, which I think is possibly because of how simple he made it look, or rather read. It's easy to miss just how well he keeps it moving along, pages heavy with the verbose Marvel Shakespearean of yonder and behold which somehow feel quite light; and the extraordinarily repetitive motif of talking whilst fighting, over and over, page after page without getting dull or losing its wit; and let's not forget that this was very much a kids' book and is as such crammed with characters over-explaining their own motives and actions, and with the bleeding obvious pointed out in more or less every other panel; which is done with such charm and obvious love for not only the material but also its readership that I'm still able to enjoy this thing at the age of fifty-one without reservation.

Mastodonia


Clifford D. Simak Mastodonia (1978)
Mastodonia seems slightly unusual within Simak's body of work in so much as that while it makes use of many of the man's characteristic tropes, the tone is perhaps more serious and sober than one might anticipate. So we have time travel and an extraterrestrial presence, but neither gnomes, robots, nor mischievous woodland sprites, and it's written with the same sense of practicality and realism I seem to recall having informed 1980's The Visitors*; and it's quite dark even by Simak's occasionally pessimistic standards.

Interviewed by Darrell Schweitzer in Amazing Stories, Simak spoke of the difficulty of writing a genuine alien being, one betraying no obviously anthropomorphic features informed by what a human author is able to imagine. It was clearly something to which he gave some consideration, and he did quite a good job with Catface in Mastodonia, an alien quite unlike those which more often tend to spring from the human imagination and accordingly described in mostly abstract or visionary terms. Catface is marooned in a typically Simakian wilderness, the same Willow Bend as we've visited in  previous novels, and he busies himself by creating time roads, passages through to earlier stages of Earth's history. Simak is riffing on themes and ideas he already explored in Small Deer, The Marathon Photograph, Project Mastodon and others, here achieving some philosophical depth with the greater page count and exploration of well trodden, familiar territory.

So Asa Steele, our guy, finds himself able to visit prehistoric Wisconsin by agency of Catface, striking what seemed an ominous note, at least to me, when he facilitates excursions for big game hunters keen to bag a triceratops. I say that it's an ominous note because for most of the novel, it's quite difficult to discern where Simak stood on the subject of overfinanced arseholes destroying critters for fun; so it's a relief when karma catches up with the big game hunters towards the end, which unfortunately still leaves Steele's slightly unsavoury efforts to treat the time roads as untapped commercial enterprises; but then we don't always have to like our main character for him to do his job.

Still, aside from foreshadowing Jurassic Park, I suppose, I'm not sure any of the above quite constitutes the point of this one, at least not directly. I suspect some of this may be the older metropolitan Simak wrestling with his own nostalgia for the rural simplicity of Millville to which he never returned.

'I'm that nutty Steele kid, who came back to the old hometown, and they're suspicious of me and resentful of me and most of them don't like me. They're friendly, certainly, but they talk about me behind my back. They don't like anyone who isn't bogged down in their particular brand of mediocrity. It's defensive, I suppose. In front of anyone who left the town and came back short of utter defeat, they feel naked and inferior.'

For Steele, Pleistocene Wisconsin seems to become the pastoral ideal central to so much of Simak's science-fiction, the tranquil Eden to which he returns, and which he will inevitably spoil because he's human and he needs to make a living. Thomas Wolfe's assertion that one can never go home may not seem complex or even particularly profound in 2017, and although it's not the first time Simak batted it around, it's rendered a surprisingly powerful statement in the pages of Mastodonia. There's a lot to chew on in this one, even before we get a glimpse of Catface's point of origin - where he began rather than where he was born - much of it relating to Simak's ideas regarding a universal fellowship of living things. It all ties in, and as with the work of any of the greats, you'd do better to just read the novel than have it explained to you.

*: Whilst we're here, I know Denis Villeneuve's film Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang but it sure reminds me of Simak's Visitors.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Art Sex Music


Cosey Fanni Tutti Art Sex Music (2017)
If the suggestion that any one thing ever changed my life holds any meaning, then Throbbing Gristle are probably right up there with Doctor Who and Asterix the Gaul, at least in terms of broadening my horizons. I bought the records, live tapes, and any fanzines I could find. At one point I was even writing long and, I suspect, extraordinarily juvenile letters to Cosey; and she wrote back - and replies in the plural running onto the second side of the sheet of paper before arriving at her distinctive signature with the first two letters of Cosey written so as to resemble a pair of knockers. So although I've sort of fallen out of love with that whole weirdy music thing to some extent, I couldn't really not read this, her autobiography.

I went fully off the boil with Chris & Cosey's music around the time of 1990's Pagan Tango. It sounded bland and uninspired to me, and still sounds bland and uninspired. I said much the same about their Union Chapel performance nearly a decade later in an issue of the Sound Projector, which supposedly got back to them and prompted raised eyebrows and frowning. Having once corresponded with Cosey, I felt slightly shitty about that, like I'd betrayed some trust; but the fact of it was that I genuinely believe they had lost the plot half way through recording Techno Primitiv, musically speaking, and after sitting through a couple of hours of it I just didn't feel like kissing arse. So tremendous guilt is to account for how much I really wanted this to be a great book, which unfortunately it isn't.

On the other hand, Art Sex Music isn't terrible either. Cosey has had an interesting life, more than her fair share of genuinely weird career twists, and I have the impression that she's a genuinely decent person - an impression garnered from the aforementioned correspondence and through our having a whole shitload of mutual friends, plus she likes cats; so the story itself is interesting, even fascinating in places, but something is perhaps lost in the telling.

Firstly, it's far too long for anything written in what occasionally resembles the prose of a footballer's autobiography in which I opened the door and there stood none other than my famous friend Ray Reardon, the snooker champion. Cosey doesn't actually seem to have known Ray Reardon, but she has even more famous friends than Grant Morrison, including at least two distantly mutual acquaintances I'd cross the fucking M6 during rush hour to avoid. One of the tosspots in question I recall turning up to our lectures at Maidstone Art College, neither student nor teacher but some forty-year old bloke from the town apparently interested in literature, poetry, performance, and screwing a string of vulnerable eighteen-year old girls who had fallen for his leather trousered sales pitch. The fucker still crops up everywhere, usually in association with Marc Almond for some reason, and here he is again; and there's another even bigger shitehawk who I'm not going to identify, and who has evidently somehow managed to Zelig his way into the Cosey Fanni Tutti narrative, thus briefly transforming me into Father Jack bellowing how did that gobshite get on the television? And I'm not even talking about Porridge here.

So there's that element, and also the stumbling block of my profound loathing for the art establishment with particular emphasis on performance art; and the fact of my having become a sort of amalgam of Hank Hill and Kenneth Clark when it comes to other people's sexuality, much of which I generally regard as ghastly, particularly free love and polygamy - this based mainly on everyone I've ever known to have swung on that particular vine being a complete fuck-up, emotionally speaking. Accordingly, I additionally found myself skipping the accounts of Cosey's career as a stripper. I just couldn't bring myself to read it, and instead found myself turning up the volume on the television and telling the boy to go to his room.

I suppose one might justifiably wonder why I read the book at all; but, in spite of the above reservations - or my musty hillbilly prejudices, depending on how you look at it - I've always liked Cosey. I think she's interesting and has been involved in some great music; and I've always enjoyed Throbbing Gristle, and it's good to read a version of their story which doesn't revolve around it all having been Porridge's idea. Genesis doesn't come out of this very well, as you may have heard, and while I've seen it suggested that Tutti is herself not without a certain bias, I have my doubts. Her testimony seems balanced and consistent with what I know of her through both mutual friends and our ancient correspondence. Whatever flaws she may exhibit, the preservation of any of her own delusions doesn't appear to be a factor. I haven't read Simon Ford's Wreckers of Civilisation*, but it seems to have come to represent a version of the Gristle story which this account sets straight, and that at least has to be a good thing. Art Sex Music isn't an amazing autobiography as I've seen claimed by a few industrial music arse-kissers, but it describes an arguably amazing life and is nevertheless worth a look, and I might even be persuaded to pick up some of those more recent Carter Tutti discs as a result.

*: I met Simon Ford around a friend's house, and he was introduced to me as someone writing a book about Throbbing Gristle. He asked me if I had a copy of the Adrenalin 7" single which he needed for reference. Given that said single really wasn't that difficult to get hold of, then costing about fifteen quid from Record & Tape Exchange, and that we're referring to a single by a band about whom he was supposedly writing an entire book, it didn't fill me with confidence in his efforts.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Dead Souls


Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (1842)
Here's another one picked up as part of a vague ongoing effort to edumacate myself with regard to literature 'n' shit, the hook in this instance being that I'd heard of it because Joy Division had a song presumably named after it, albeit a song which Nine Inch Nails did better. Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between Gogol and Ian Curtis pleading for these dreams to be taken away, specifically the dreams which point him to another day. Indeed, the work of Joy Division seems at quite a remove to Gogol's dark yet amiable chortlefest. So as not to appear completely superficial, I would additionally like it to be taken into consideration that the chap on the cover of this edition vaguely resembles my friend Andrew, and that seemed like another good reason to read the thing.

In case it isn't obvious, my understanding of literary history is sketchy at best, and particularly sketchy when it comes to nineteenth century Russians. I read Crime and Punishment but I didn't like it much. Thankfully Dead Souls is written with a lighter touch, despite what might be anticipated from the title. Key to understanding what is going on here is the setting of rural serfdom in Tsarist Russia, a system in which commoners were regarded as part and parcel of the land upon which they lived, and therefore property of the landowner. Said landowners were required to pay tax upon their incumbent serfs, with the numbers being based on the most recent census figures, regardless of how many listed on the most recent census remain amongst the living. Our man Chichikov discovers there are economic advantages to ownership of a large quota of serfs, and so travels the countryside buying the deeds to those who have snuffed it, but whose deaths have not yet been taken into account by the most recent census. In other words, it begins as a satire on economics and the capitalist systems which allow for this kind of absurdist number crunching, expanding gradually into a farcical critique of class, privilege, and society built on the flimsiest of mutually observed concepts. In fact, it's almost Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle with better jokes and founded on the basic suggestion that we, as readers, might like to consider waking the fuck up every once in a while.

Thus these two citizens lived off by themselves until, now, toward the end of our story, they've popped up like faces in a window, and they've popped up like that to help me answer, in all modesty, the accusations of ardent patriots who, up until now, have been occupied in philosophical speculation or in the accumulation of money at the expense of the mother country they love so dearly. They don't give a damn whether or not their actions are harmful to the country; the only thing that worries them is that someone might say they're harming it.

No, it's neither patriotism nor even honest emotion that lies at the root of their accusations. Something else is concealed here. Why beat about the bush? Who's going to tell the truth if not the writer? So here goes: You're all afraid of a probing eye, afraid of looking thoughtfully into anything; all of you prefer to let your blank stare skim the surface of things.

The great success of Dead Souls is in its bumbling and overly fussy thrust, with Gogol - if we assume this to be a generally faithful translation - utilising the rambling tone of a folk tale strewn with absurdist tangents, obsessive conversational detail, and authorial interjections mulling over the actual telling of the story; so even when we're not quite sure what's happening - because Chichikov's motivation often seems obscure - we don't mind too much because there's plenty of other stuff to consider.

In some respects I suppose you might say it's like Dickens but without the cloying sentiment, although Dead Souls has sentiment of its own, presumably informed by Gogol having written the novel in Italy, flavouring his narrative with an exile's regard for his homeland which is both affectionate and faintly acerbic.

Legend has it that Gogol wrote a follow up to this, his best selling hit single, but this time incorporating characters with redeeming features; then destroyed the thing in a fit of self-recrimination. Personally I'd say the allegorically dead souls of the book do their respective jobs very well and have no more need of redeeming features than the novel ever required a sequel. Would that the Joy Division version had been so witty.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Sebastian O


Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Sebastian O (1993)
I had these, then flogged them on eBay whilst raising the funds which would allow me to ship all of my crap to America. Apparently I had a quick shufty through the three issues of this limited series and decided Sebastian O was less than essential, and so off to market it went along with a whole load of other crap I knew I would never read again. Inevitably I eventually came to wonder if I'd not been a little hasty in this financially motivated purge. Of course, I knew there was no good reason I'd ever wish to reacquaint myself with the Invisibles or Preacher or any of that other spooky self-harming landfill which Vertigo did so adequately; but I really had to think about Sebastian O and whether or not it belonged in amongst my collection, and then the bargain bucket at Half Price Books helped in the re-evaluation of my decision - all three issues, three dollars: very nice.

When one is tired of Oscar Wilde rip offs, it's perhaps not that one is tired of life so much as that one is simply tired of Oscar Wilde ripped off without due recourse to wit, like I just fucking said.

See!

I just wrote that.

It's a piece of piss; and that's the problem with Sebastian O.

So here we have some sort of steampunk romp grounded in material which had become clichéd even by 1993 - Victorian computers and so on and so forth; and a steampunk romp starring Sebastian O, a character combining Morrison's continued attempts to channel Jerry Cornelius with his fascination for wisecracking dandy bad lads, which is quite possibly an aspirational thing if our boy's bloody awful autobiography is any indication. So we get a few recycled bits and pieces from Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans and the rest because, let's face it, not too many Sandman fans will have bothered with any of that stuff and it's easy enough to fake. Except actually it really isn't. Oscar's zingers might seem like a piece of piss to the untrained ear because even a horse can work out the mechanism of the gag, but that level of wit is actually quite difficult to do well and to get right for the exact same reason that no-one will ever mistake an Oasis record for the Beatles. Bluntly, whilst Grant Morrison is not lacking in nous and has proven himself more than capable of cracking off an amusingly outré sentence when required, he's no Oscar Wilde. Nor is he even Michael Moorcock, for that matter, so the wit upon which this story hinges simply isn't quite so razor sharp as it believes itself to be, just as those Johnny Rotten impersonations set forth on Steve Wright in the Afternoon always left something to be desired.

On the other hand, I doubt any of this matters because it's drawn by Steve Yeowell and is thus beautiful beyond comparison, regardless of what unjustified smirking may occur within the text. Taking a positive view, the story is competent at least in the same sense of most modern Doctor Who being competent, sort of, and much like Sebastian O himself, its failings are mostly eclipsed by its ravishing good looks.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Pirates of Zan


Murray Leinster The Pirates of Zan (1959)
Further works of Murray Leinster continue to surprise even as I excavate them from the shelves of second hand book stores - something of a rescue and preservation mission because, let's be honest here, if the great Murray Leinster revival was ever a likelihood, it would have happened by now. Lacking big ideas or fancy concepts at quite the same scale as those of better remembered authors, it's no great mystery why Leinster seems to have sunk into obscurity; but considering the fun he obviously had writing this stuff, it really seems a shame - not least because he actually could write, unlike some I might mention.

The Pirates of Zan stars a man who may as well be your archetypal Gernsbackian science-hero, a talented electronics engineer suffering an ignominious life against the backdrop of a variety of backwards cultures; but the logic of the narrative and the peculiar twists and turns it follows as though trying to throw the reader off the scent, remind me a lot of A.E. van Vogt - which is naturally a recommendation.

On Walden, to be sure, the level of civilisation was so high that most people took to psychiatric treatments so they could stand it, and the neurotics vastly outnumbered the more normal folk. But on Walden, electronics was only a way to make a living, like piracy, and there was no more fun to be had out of being civilised.

Our man takes flight to a feudal world, engaging in swashbuckling of a kind which involves princesses and his own pirate ancestry, and the whole enterprise flips around and over with such frequency as to feel a little like farce, or at least satire; and yet whilst the prose might occasionally smirk at its own wry turn of phrase, there's never quite any giggling, neither a nod nor a wink to give the game away. Assuming The Pirates of Zan to be at least partially satirical, I'm still not entirely sure what it's about, if it's about any one thing. Leinster is clearly taking the piss out of economics, capitalism, and the society in which he was living, but the focus remains vague and playful, which renders the novel a thankfully decent, if occasionally puzzling read.

The Last Days of Animal Man


Gerry Conway, Chris Batista & Dave Meikis
The Last Days of Animal Man (2010)

It looked good in the shop: Brian Bolland covers making knowing reference to Grant Morrison's thoroughly mental run on the book, pleasantly clean lines from Batista and Meikis, and the intriguing possibility of a popular character shoved through the narrative mangle as happens in most of the best caped stuff - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Grunewald's Captain America handed his P45 and so on...

What we have here is Buddy Baker losing his powers, which translates as a comic book having a mid-life crisis, but one written quite definitively for an audience with a reading age of about twelve. So we also have super-types fighting whilst talking, angry villains swearing vengeance and doing that face you do when you're trying to push out the first turd to take its leave of your bottom in five or six days, and we have a sense of humour which makes your average episode of Friends look like Jerry Sadowitz, and all adding up to a load of horseshit about the importance of family and being yourself. I suppose it might seem unfair, my taking such issue with something so obviously aimed at younger readers, but on the other hand I've read plenty of stuff aimed at kids which managed to do its job just fine without expecting me to make allowances; so balls. The Last Days of Animal Man isn't the worst comic book I've ever read, but it almost makes those bloody awful Jerry Prosser issues seem mysterious and alluring.

Most positive reviews I've seen of this thing seem to focus on the guest appearance of a Green Lantern who is actually a whale, which is a nice idea, but no substitute for being able to tell a story, or at least a story other than the same fucking one wheeled out for every film in which Michael J. Fox ever appeared.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Burroughs File


William S. Burroughs The Burroughs File (1984)
I realise Burroughs isn't everyone's cup of tea, although he's generally mine which is why I'm surprised to have found so little satisfaction in this collection of his one-off bits and pieces culled from obscure magazines or other similarly esoteric sources. I suspect the problem is that I'm accustomed to reading cut-up text in the context of either novels or collections put together by the man himself, the man who understands best how they work, and whether or not it's just a load of words. Exterminator!, for example, might be described as thirty unrelated pieces including cut-ups, certainly nothing the author seems to have intended to work as a novel, and yet the balance is just right. The cut-ups alternate with more traditional forms of prose with a rhythm which seems to take account of the likelihood of readers' losing patience or growing bored, and so somehow it holds together as a single coherent piece, even if not as a novel as such.

Here we mostly have material which was written to be read either in isolation, or in isolation by virtue of nothing else of the same author appearing amongst the original adjacent pages; but I'm nevertheless reading them as a collection of thematically similar pieces all crammed together in one place; which for the most part just serves to highlight how repetitive Bill could be at times, and how cut-ups really shouldn't read as though they are just random assemblages of words and phrases, which I deduce from the fact that I usually get a bit more from them.

That said, there are a few pieces which more or less justify having this thing on one's shelf, mostly provocative prose essays serving to remind us why we might choose to read Burroughs in the first place. Also there's a section reproducing pages from Bill's cut-up scrapbooks which are visually fascinating; but otherwise, The Burroughs File is one of those books you tend to feel you should have rather than something you're going to be dipping into for years to come, unless you're just too weird for your own good.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Birmingham Nouveau


Alan Mahar (editor) Birmingham Nouveau (2002)
It probably says something unfortunate about the city of Birmingham - West Midlands rather than Alabama - that it's taken me fifteen years to get around to reading this themed collection of short stories. Birmingham was the nearer of two big cities when I was a kid. I found the place oppressive and terrifying, vast and dark and smoky with weird accents and a street layout which made no sense, seemingly having more in common with H.P. Lovecraft and the Bermuda Triangle than yer regular town planning. So I wasn't drawn to this volume, despite having been slipped a freebie by John Mulcreevy. He'd already sent me Birmingham Noir, the previous collection from Tindal Street Press, and I think I'd read a couple of stories and just never quite warmed to it; or it could have been me, given my reading age of the time combined with a general reluctance to read things lacking a Doctor Who logo on the cover.

Anyway, I hadn't even managed to flog Birmingham Nouveau on eBay during the great purges of 2010, so there it was, still in the spare room at my mother's house making me feel guilty; and as though to prove what a pillock I am, and how poor is my sense of judgement, I found the collection about a thousand times more entertaining than Going Postal. John Wagstaff's An Air Kiss represents an astonishing opening story, a tale where the main character really is the city itself - the sort of claim which is often made but rarely fulfilled. You can almost taste the amalgam of chill morning air and diesel as roadworks kick off in neighbouring streets. It should be a tough act to follow, but the rest make a good job of it for the most part. I found Richard Lutz's The Girl with Blue-Black Hair a bit unconvincing, but otherwise there's nothing which gives you any reason to stop reading. A pleasing sense of humour informs most of the book without necessarily feeling it has to dig you in the ribs to make sure you get it, and this tendency is given its fullest expression in M. Idrees Kayani's riotous King of the Baltis:

A chorus of laughter erupted from all those present to which Mazar Khan raised his hands and bowed in courtesy. Mazar, often known as Mad Mazar, because he worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week, just so he could build an elaborate mansion in his hometown of Mirpur, a place that he hoped never to see again. The reason for constructing such a building was so his relatives could marvel at its size and comment on how well he was doing in England.

There are twenty short stories here - notably stories of exactly the right length so nothing gets to outstay its welcome or start on the extended guitar solos - encompassing all times, places and people in the history of a city which the collection obliges you to re-evaluate, or at least obliged me to re-evaluate; and Ava Ming's Lena actually made me cry, which isn't something that happens often. I'm very impressed.