Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Science Fiction through the Ages


I.O. Evans (editor) Science Fiction through the Ages volume one (1966)
Idrisyn Oliver Evans, to give him his full name, wrote a ton of those Observer's Book of Nuggets style publications for bespectacled boys and undertook the translation of a number of Jules Verne novels - which is interesting because I understand there to be some piss-poor Verne translations out there. I actually fucking hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, although it turns out that the version I read had been anglicised by Mercier Lewis, which at least lets Idrisyn - if that was really his name - off the hook on one count.

It's hard to fault the choices made in this prehistory of science-fiction, excerpts from the writings of Plato, Johannes Kepler, Voltaire, Lucian of Samosata, Verne, Mary Shelley, and others. Unfortunately, few of the works quoted really yield satisfying extracts, and I'd suggest that at least Frankenstein and Gulliver's Travels should be read in their entirety. Isolated snippets reveal a nifty turn of phrase but not a whole lot else. Unfortunately the excerpts from things I haven't read aren't generally much better and left me mostly unmoved, and certainly unlikely to wonder any further about Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris or Robert Paltock's Peter Wilkins. Edgar Allen Poe's The Balloon Hoax is reprinted in full, and I couldn't actually read beyond the first two pages, such was my dislike for how it was written.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the excerpt from what I take to be I.O.'s own translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues a great deal more than the one that I read; and Patrick Moore's account of Johannes Kepler's then untranslated Somnium is reasonably terrific; and the bigger picture afforded of the history of science-fiction as a genre is greatly more thought provoking than at least a few of these individual parts. Brian Aldiss identifies Frankenstein as the first true science-fiction novel, although much of his criteria seems contradictory. Frankenstein, he declares, may be termed science-fiction by virtue of references to technological developments of the day, galvanism and the like, whilst earlier efforts such as those of Swift or Lucian are deemed purely allegorical. This would be fine but for the remainder of Trillion Year Spree greatly favouring the allegorical over the technological - Philip K. Dick rather than Hugo Gernsback - as the truest form of the genre. Evans' book at least proves the futility of drawing such sharply defined lines by showing how the science Aldiss recognises in Frankenstein is only science as seen from a twentieth century perspective, and that it probably isn't fair to dismiss earlier more alchemical forms just for the sake of an argument.

This collection really should have been better given the sources, but then it wasn't so much bad as simply a little on the dry side; and on the other hand, I now really want to read Kepler's Somnium, so that probably counts for something.

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn & Dave Gibbons
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2012)
Here's another one which began life as a comic book and a film adaptation, both at the same time, born from a conversation between Mark Millar and some bloke who was something to do with a couple of X-Men films. I'm not really interested in the film and hadn't even heard of it, but I've got a lot of time for Mark Millar. I know he's perpetrated some utter shite, but when he's good he makes the rest look like wankers.

Of course, if you're not already a fan of Mark Millar, this probably isn't going to be the one to effect your conversion. The violence is gratuitously elabourate, and Miller's delight in broad, pointedly crass brushstrokes executed in the name of uncomfortable chuckles is as much in evidence as it ever was. Beyond that, there's actually a point to this one, if you're interested. It's a spy thriller bordering on farce which transposes a ruffneck Peckam yoot to the champagne and casinos environment of James Bond and the rest; which could have turned out like something from Viz but actually makes some fairly profound observations about class and our expectations. Broadly speaking, The Secret Service is a critique of misanthropy, both the kind demonstrated by the bad guy striving to depopulate the planet for the greater good, and that of a society in which it has somehow become acceptable to demonise working class kids from Peckham as hopeless chavs, amongst other pejoratives. Here we see the working classes as essentially decent - give or take some small change - quick witted and resourceful, which makes a nice change from the usual sneering over Burberry caps and twocked car stereos. I find this particularly refreshing, having actually lived in Peckham - which is where our story begins - and worked with people who may as well be walk on parts herein, aside from the obvious distinction of their having had jobs; so I feel a little protective about the residents of certain bits of south-east London and, against all odds, Mark Millar has somehow managed to avoid getting me all wound up. I'm not convinced that Dave Gibbons was a great choice of artist as his style seems a little clean given the general rhythm of the story, but on the other hand he appears to have done his research to the point that even if certain scenes aren't actually Peckham in the strictest sense, I can immediately recognise where the photographs he obviously used as reference material were taken; which gave me a bit of a warm feeling, and even a craving for a can of Dunn's River Nurishment.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Rogue Ship


A.E. van Vogt Rogue Ship (1965)
Here's one of those fix-up novels van Vogt made by sewing a couple of short stories together. It's a practice you might suspect likely to yield mostly tripe depending on the consistency of themes shared by the component stories, but strangely I've found the most memorable hybrids to be the likes of Quest for the Future or The Beast wherein source material facing in completely different directions has been jammed together and obliged to make friends. Rogue Ship, on the other hand is only just a fix-up, comprising two closely related stories, one a sequel to the other, mixed in with a third, and all rewritten for the sake of elevation to novel status. So you might anticipate something which at least runs along in a straight line, which is what I anticipated, having given up on initial attempts to read The Pawns of Null-A and then Future Glitter because I just wasn't in the mood for that level of non-sequiteurial action.

Glancing at the shelf where they're all lined up from Slan through to Null-A Three, I can't help but form the impression of Alfred Elton having produced Rogue Ship during a brief phase of writing outside his comfort zone. There's The Violent Man, which I haven't read but which I'm told isn't science-fiction; and The Winged Man, seemingly co-written with his wife, Edna Mayne Hull; and Rogue Ship is dedicated to Ford McCormack, described by A.E. as a logician and technical expert and whom he credits as source of nearly all of what is scientifically exact in this fantastic story. Weird though it may seem, I think this was our boy having a go at hard science-fiction vaguely in the spirit of Asimov and the like. It's set on a generation ship travelling to a distant star system, just like in serious science-fiction, and there's an awful lot of talk of different kinds of proton and the laws of physics during the first third of the book.

A.E. van Vogt can usually be identified by random narrative swerves, dreamlike atmosphere, and impossible occurrences introduced for no immediately obvious reason, but he keeps it more or less under control for most of this one, which is in itself at least as odd as the bursts of explosive surrealism for which he is usually known. The first third of the book, peculiarly sober though it is, is actually quite absorbing as our ship arrives at its destination, many decades after leaving Earth, and fails to find anything habitable. Unfortunately this development inspires a series of mutinies, presumably as we encounter material from the second component story, and the narrative becomes convoluted and difficult to follow. By the time my attention span began to reconnect, it's clear that A.E. just couldn't keep a straight face after all and the ship is back on Earth, its crew frozen like statues, which is because they aren't back on Earth but are now travelling many times faster than the speed of light, and this is one of the weirder side effects; so as a novel, although it's not going to knock any of his biggies off the top spot, it finds its second wind and resumes something resembling pace towards the end.

The power struggles of the central passage may say something or other about government or society as a whole, although I found it difficult to tell what; and van Vogt's weird attitude to women comes to the fore in a couple of places. Here the ship's captain gets as many as four wives, women who seem content to be bartered as trophies as different factions seize power on board the Hope of Man. I have a feeling this may be one of those things which may have made evolutionary sense in the pre-Christian middle east, and thus is proposed as workable in outer space for the same reasons. The author himself doesn't seem to approve of his polygamous characters, but he's nevertheless the one moving those conveniently compliant gals from one bed to another like chess pieces.

On the other hand...

The universe was not a lie. It was what it was. There had been an apparency perceived by the highly evolved nervous systems of man and animals. Evidently—it was postulated—life had required a unique stability and had therefore created brain mechanisms that limited perception to the apparent stable condition. Within this solid frame, life lived its lulled existence, evolving painfully, constantly adjusting at some unconscious level to the real universe.

Rogue Ship goes deep in places, but tends to muddy its own arguments - whatever they may be - with the relentless constant motion which van Vogt tended to write, and which otherwise often works so well. It's not an amazing book, but it's mostly decent, and there's probably a lot more to be had from it than I managed if you have the patience.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Inside the Flying Saucers


George Adamski Inside the Flying Saucers (1955)
This seems to be one of those print on demand reprints undertaken because somebody or other noticed that the copyright had expired, leaving the book in the public domain. The somebody or other would presumably be the IlluminNet Press - as they are identified in the first few pages of this edition - which sounds promising, obviously.

While I can appreciate the fact of people undertaking this sort of reprint, particularly because it keeps a work in circulation and means I don't have to pay a fucking fortune for an old battered copy which, in any case, may turn out to be a pile of unreadable crap; it would be really nice if they bothered to proofread what came out of the other end of their shitty optical character recognition software; because it's tiresome reading a body of text which routinely converts a word such as he to lie, and such errors suggest that the publisher is either stupid or couldn't give a shit. Proofing a body of text is not that difficult.

Anyway, as to whether it was worth reprinting…

George Adamski was arguably the first person to claim abduction by aliens in modern times, although his own close encounters didn't seem to involve any element of coercion, rather taking the form of a series of highly informative rides in flying saucers piloted by talkative beings from Venus very much resembling humans. I personally tend towards scepticism with this sort of thing for reasons which should be frankly fucking obvious, and yet I often find this kind of narrative intriguing. It may well be nothing more than horseshit, but there's always the possibility that some of it may be true, or that it may have been experienced by the author as truth; and that's what keeps me reading. Unfortunately in this instance, the case for the defence somewhat shoots itself in the foot in the first paragraph of Charlotte Blodget's introduction referring to those who have been trained to reject everything not yet proven in the familiar three dimensions.

That's right, Charlotte, the only reason I reject all that comical hogwash clogging up the Metaphysics section of the book store is because that's how I've been trained, you fucking clown. You might have helped your cause some if the very first line wasn't the usual overly defensive protestation about supposedly closed minds delivered with all the conviction of Jimmy Savile reassuring us that Uncle Jim only says he hates children as preventative to certain  accusations.

I gather Charlotte Blodget was the ghostwriter who convinced simple, plain-speaking, unassuming farm hand George Adamski that the world needed to hear his story, to which we now turn our attention.

Adamski had already described his first meeting with Orthon of Venus in Flying Saucers have Landed, co-written with Desmond Leslie, and this book describes what happened next. What happened next was more of the same, usually beginning with a peculiar premonition inspiring Adamski to drive to Los Angeles and book into a certain hotel, generally to find his alien friends waiting for him in the lobby - these being alien friends of the kind who can pass as human. Having met, he often accompanied them to a parked saucer in some isolated spot outside the city, then off into space for lengthy conversations in which the aliens point at different parts of the saucer and explain how they work, much like the wizard who rules the magical sky kingdom in a Rupert Bear annual. That said, it isn't all gravity controls and natural faster than light power systems, and a lot of time is spent yacking about the utopian societies of other planets, and how there is air on the moon with people living there - a claim I am unfortunately unable to take seriously due to my training. Inevitably much of the point of this seems to be that the people of Earth really need to stop acting like wankers, and maybe, you know, mellow out a bit; which is fair enough.

Regardless of what he's actually describing, Adamski's testimony is surprisingly compelling, even convincing, so Inside the Flying Saucers can, for the most part, be read with the idea that he seems to have experienced something, even at the most ludicrous instances of distended credibility such as the casino on the Saturnian mother ship. In fact, the peculiarly religious tone creeping in half way through the book - acknowledging a supreme creator and Jesus Christ as having been an earlier messenger from above - is sort of intriguing with its parallels to the Book of Enoch and allegedly historical religious encounters.

So it's a decent read, roughly speaking, at least up until the last couple of pages. Charlotte Blodget somewhat re-blows it all in her final summation with a short biography of simple, plain-speaking, unassuming farm hand George Adamski, revealing how he actually spent most of his adult life as a sort of low-level cult leader, a home-schooled mystic, self-proclaimed new age guru, and exactly the sort of person who would stand to gain from the fabrication of this kind of tale; which is disappointing, and somewhat sucks the fun out of the preceding hundred or so pages.

Of course, that's only what I've been trained to say.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Captain Britain


Alan Moore & Alan Davis Captain Britain (1984)
I didn't even realise this had been collected until I saw it tucked away on a shelf, and I hadn't considered that it even would have been collected due to Alan Moore's habit of wishing cancer and AIDS unto ten generations upon those who doth reprint the stuff he wrote before he became an actual wizard and acquired all sorts of dark and mysterious powers by which he might smite his enemies; in fact he even wrote an introduction to this 2001 collection, words amounting to gosh, I'd forgotten about this old thing. What larks!

I'd actually read most of this, I think, at one point or another, but I can't remember where so it's nevertheless nice to have it back. Captain Britain, as we all know, was Marvel's attempt to infiltrate the land of fog, mist and Bash Street Kids on something approximating its own terms, because Chris Claremont had been on holiday to Englishland when he was a kid or summink. Then Alan Moore took it over and tried to make it more interesting. I can't be arsed to check the chronology, but if this predates the stuff he wrote for Warrior, then it can't have been by much, because you can really tell that he's learning on the job for the first couple of instalments with half a ton of florid and quite unnecessary wordage crammed into each panel. It reads as though it lacks confidence, but even stranger is that the art of Alan Davis seems to be similarly in the process of finding its feet. In fact, such are the first couple of episodes that they feel strangely like a continuation of The Stars My Degradation from Sounds but without the knob gags.

Needless to say, Captain Britain isn't the greatest work by any of those involved, but it's decent, imaginative, a lot of fun, and curiously prescient of what was to come in certain respects.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Slapstick


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slapstick (1976)
I reached saturation point with Vonnegut a few books ago, and with three or four still to be read due to my having stumbled across cheap copies back before he'd begun to get on my tits. Happily, my disillusionment turns out to have been a mirage formed by the chance reading of a couple of his more disappointing works in a row; which I realise now because, against expectation, Slapstick is fucking great and has reminded me of everything I liked about the guy in the first place. Naturally it does all the things you would expect of a Vonnegut novel, but does them at least as well as did Slaughterhouse Five, making it easier to forgive Galápagos and others which seemed to get lost in their own labyrinthine jokes to no immediately obvious end.

Slapstick keeps it simple, at least telling its story in a straight line, despite the narrative voice being that of the president of the United States inhabiting some sort of post-catastrophe world with a substantially reduced population, and specifically inhabiting the Empire State building. He's also two metres tall with Neanderthal features, six fingers to a hand, four nipples, and is brother to an identical female twin with whom he once shared a telepathic partnership. They were assumed to be retarded at birth and thus left to their own devices in an abandoned family mansion. Tended only by servants who dressed and fed them, the twins effectively raised themselves. Our man learned to read and was fluent in five or six languages by the age of four, whilst his illiterate sister was gifted with imagination and the ability to wring rich philosophical sense from their shared thoughts, and in doing so to solve all of the problems of the world; and sensing they would be regarded as freakish, the siblings kept their intelligence to themselves, putting on a drooling and gibbering act for the benefit of staff, and during rare, vaguely dutiful visits from parents.

I couldn't actually tell what any of it was about, at least not beyond it being a satire upon the usual institutions and conventions found in Vonnegut's line of fire; but the author introduces the book like so:

This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it Slapstick because it is grotesque, situational poetry—like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.

It is about what life feels like to me.

Which is probably as much as you need to know for any of it to work; and work it does, regardless of how lurid the caricature becomes, maintaining the well-intentioned but ultimately doomed dignity of Stan and Ollie right up to the last page.

Monday, 25 September 2017

JLA: The Tenth Circle


Chris Claremont & John Byrne JLA: The Tenth Circle (2004)
As I said back in August, I've been catching up with neglected incarnations of the Doom Patrol, and this is where the John Byrne version was born, immediately prior to a couple of years appearing in their own title. I had a feeling I wasn't going to like this much, and a few online reviews suggested it all seemed a bit childish, as though written for kids. Happily I was wrong on the first count, and as for the second one, well - seeing as how this is a Justice League of America comic book in which Superman has a scrap with a vampire, what the fuck did you expect?

Okay. I had other reservations too, notably how John Byrne has always had a thing for what I seem to remember him calling big stick heroes, so in other words, big, colourful, and sunny just like when I were a lad. Like Teddy Roosevelt, they carry a big allegorical stick with which they duff up the bad guys, and they probably won't have much in the way of dark secrets. There's nothing inherently wrong with such ideas, but in context of Doom Patrol, the essence of Byrne's revival seems oddly Republican in its apparent revision of established continuity, starting again from the beginning so that we no longer have to think about all that weird Morrison stuff with men wearing dresses and drugs and all manner of related beastliness. That said, I haven't actually read Byrne's run on Doom Patrol as yet, so I'll have to suspend judgement a little longer.

On the other hand, I've always enjoyed John Byrne's work. It's easy on the eye, and there's something pleasantly chunky and tidy about his art. It's traditional and clean, almost classical in comic book terms; and yet in apparent contrast to such unashamedly mainstream appeal, he's always been quite good at weird, notably in West Coast Avengers and those early issues of Alpha Flight.

Anyway, here we have a vampire called Crucifer who bites Superman, thus placing him under some kind of hypnotic thrall. He's a vampire very much in the traditional sense, as seen in Murnau's Nosferatu, and he wants to bring all the other vampires back from the  tenth circle of Hell, to which they've been banished by Wonder Woman's people. Luckily the Justice League of America are on the case, as is some mysterious new group of slightly odd supertypes led by a dude in a wheelchair. So, yes, it almost certainly was written for kids, which I nevertheless found a pleasure, and I'm in my fifties.

It's been a while since I read anything by Chris Claremont, and the dialogue is very obviously his, with sentences broken up and splattered all around the frame in strings of speech balloons, pensive dialogue boxes, and unapologetic use of thought bubbles; because in case any of us should have forgotten, this is a comic book, not Crime & Punishment. I'd grown weary of Claremont's dialogue by the end of his run on the X-Men back in the nineties, always trying too hard and coming across like the idea of teenagers seen in a late eighties Rod Stewart video, but it could just be that he was overworked. In any case, whilst this may not strive for the sophistication of one of those grown-up comic books by Garth Guinness, Claremont writes a beautifully smooth read, pulling you right into the story from the first page and keeping your attention firmly pinned in place. There's nothing particularly profound in this collection, except that it's beautifully rendered, rounded, and very, very satisfying. It never needed to do anything more than it already does.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Big Front Yard


Clifford D. Simak The Big Front Yard and other stories (2016)
Here's the second of fourteen proposed volumes collecting all of Simak's shorts, one of three to make it to a print edition, so far as I'm able to tell. The others exist only as eBooks at the moment, but I'm hopeful given that Open Road also seem to be reprinting physical editions of Simak's novels.

Of course, in reprinting the complete anything of anyone, there will inevitably be a few duds regardless of the name on the cover. Simak maintained a generally high standard in this respect, but not every last one can be the greatest tale ever told. Part of the appeal of this series is that we'll get to read certain seldom reprinted efforts Simak referred to when interviewed by Darrel Schweitzer for Amazing back in 1980:

SIMAK: At one time I was awfully broke and wasn't able to write as much science-fiction as I wanted to, so I wrote a lot of westerns and some air war stories.
AMAZING: Whatever happened to them? Have they disappeared?
SIMAK: I hope they have.

Contrary to Simak's disparaging view of such tales, Gunsmoke Interlude, a short western reproduced in the previous volume, struck me as pretty respectable, and certainly worthy of its authors name. Unfortunately Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders as appears here is pretty fucking awful, so okay - maybe the above comment wasn't simply false modesty. The man had bills to pay and it did its job. On a similarly critical theme, not everything here is wonderful beyond compare. A couple of the stories are okay, nothing special, while others are decent, or at least interesting - Mr. Meek - Musketeer for example, a genial comedy with a bit of a Hal Roach feel to it.

Yet, regardless of objections, raised eyebrows or whatever, the collection includes So Bright the Vision, which is pretty darn great, and of course The Big Front Yard, which we may as well call a novella for the sake of argument and which must surely rank amongst the very best of Simak's writing; in fact, if you've never read Simak and need to get a handle on his work, The Big Front Yard might be just about the best place to start. If you keep in mind that Trail City's Hot-Lead Crusaders at least dispenses with our having to wonder whether we might be missing out, this is otherwise a characteristically readable collection made great by the presence of its two best known stories.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Utopia


Thomas More Utopia (1516)
I tried this many years ago, prompted by curiosity arisen from reading Lorraine Stobbart's Utopia – Fact or Fiction?, an academic text found in the Mesoamerican section of Foyles. Stobbart's book - which I believe was originally composed as a dissertation for some degree course, either literary or anthropological - examines the possibility of Utopia having been inspired by obscure accounts of Mayan society in the Yucatan.

It is hard to believe that in more than four-hundred-and-seventy years which have passed since the book first appeared, no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction.

So that's what drew me to More's book, and specifically to a Dover edition edited, and presumably translated, by Ronald Herder. Unfortunately it bordered on unreadable, so I abandoned it after about fifteen pages, gave it to Andy Martin, and was thusly left with an unfavourable impression of More's great work:

...events transpiring to bring characters together in order that lengthy speeches may be delivered. I read something similar in Thomas More's Utopia in which some geezer bores his friends shitless with an exhaustive account of what he saw in a mythic foreign land where no-one goes hungry and Sting is president or something - I don't remember it too well, the details weren't overly riveting. Anyway, I never finished Utopia.*

I think I bought this edition mainly because it was there, or perhaps some misplaced sense of either guilt or unfinished business. Anyway, this one is translated by one Paul Turner and is frankly gripping, which just goes to show what damage can be wrought by a dull translation; and just to get it out of the way, whilst Cortés and his band of enterprising ruffians were the first Europeans to arrive in and report upon Mexico and its people, it's true that they weren't absolutely the first. There were at least two individuals shipwrecked and integrated to a greater or lesser degree into Mayan society years before Cortés, as mentioned in early accounts by Bernal Díaz and others. I suppose there may have been others we've forgotten who somehow managed to get some subsequently buried relación back to Europe, but it really doesn't seem very likely. Furthermore, I'm reasonably familiar with the ins and outs of Mayan society as were around the start of the sixteenth century, and not only is Utopia distinctly lacking in parallels, but for the most part it quite obviously describes something both allegorical and completely different, and that would be my guess as to why no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction, Lorraine Stobbart. Just because you've stuck a question mark on the end and made a spooky face, doesn't mean there's an actual mystery.

Thomas More, as much older readers may recall, was Henry VIII's consigliere, the man with the unenviable job of pointing out when his Royal Highness was taking the piss, which, it could be argued, occurred on at least five occasions. Paul Turner's introduction paints More as having been highly intelligent, good humoured, principled, and with a keen understanding of when it was probably best to keep his thoughts to himself. Henry eventually had him wacked for failing to display sufficiently explosive enthusiasm in regard to all those divorces and beheadings, rather than for anything More actually said. Utopia therefore tactfully sets forth a model of civilisation which certain countries might like to adopt, or at least take notes, not mentioning no names or nuffink; because had More made such proposals directly, it probably wouldn't have gone very well for him. The narrative pretends to take a vaguely autobiographical course with More meeting his real life friend, Peter Gilles, a magistrate of Antwerp whilst overseas on official business.

'There's this bloke you should meet,' says Gilles. 'He's really interesting. He's just got back from this place called Utopia.'

'Sure,' says More agreeably. 'Whatevers.'

'I just come back from this place called Utopia,' says the really interesting man once an introduction is effected. 'Blinding, it was.'

'Tell me more,' says More, and thus does the really interesting man embark upon a sentence of one-hundred pages duration telling of all the things seen in Utopia, most of which seem one fuck of a lot more civilised than what you have in certain countries, not mentioning no names or nuffink. More occasionally interjects with something like, 'well, I don't know if I agree with that and I'd say the government of our own amazing king back in England probably has the right idea,' but you can tell he's just being diplomatic.

Some have interpreted More's proposed perfect society as a nascent form of Communism, although probably for the same reason one might regard Christianity as a nascent form of Communism in terms of not acting an arsehole, refraining from stealing things, and avoiding undue emphasis placed on material property. Also it should be kept in mind that this was a perfect society as envisioned by a sixteenth century man with certain prejudices of his own, and is thus better read as a stimulus to thought than as a manifesto; but most significantly, it's a genuinely wonderful book - at least in this translation - and one which should be read more widely today, given that the popularity of certain orange presidents has rudely proven how much we, as a society, have still to learn.

*: Taken from my review of something or other on a long extinct forum and reprinted in this amazing collection, which you should definitely buy, what with Christmas coming up and everything.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Tales from the Punkside


Gregory Bull & Mike Dines (editors) Tales from the Punkside (2014)
There's been some utter shite written about punk over the years, mostly by people who weren't there, and the worst of it usually being a variation on how it was the most amazing of Malcolm McLaren's many amazing ideas, a phenomenon which was like really cool for a year or so but, you know, by 1979 most of us were listening to Spandau Ballet blah blah blah...

If you're reading anything purporting to be a history of punk, if it mentions McLaren more than once during the first chapter, just stop reading. You're wasting your time.

Rather than attempt to shoehorn anything into a single narrative, Bull and Dines simply present a variety of voices and accounts from across the spectrum of experience, from free-range memories of first discovering the joys of the glue bag, to dryer, more academic discussion of, for one example, punk in Northern Ireland. Whether by accident or design, the broad span of writing seems well chosen. I found some contributions significantly more entertaining than others, but it's all part of the same thing and born from the same basic drives, and should be understood as such.

To digress, having passed the age of fifty, I find myself seemingly in a position comparable to that of all those whom I regarded as old farts back when the first Nocturnal Emissions album came out. I wasn't even particularly punky, but I understood, and it felt very much like our thing because it was always about more than just a certain style of music or dress, and anyone who needed that explaining to them was never going to get it anyway. It was about doing your own thing, making your own way, seeking out something new or different simply because it was new or different, and above all it was about escape from the future which had been mapped out for you. It was about questioning everything, taking nothing for granted, not believing whatever we were told by the media, and not being some mere product sponge. It was about all sorts of other stuff, but those were the elements which drew in all of those who have contributed here, and which also drew me in.

These days, whilst I may well be out of the loop and therefore subject to a distorted view, I see those of the generation who should be telling me that I'm past it all queueing up and paying for the privilege of becoming the very thing we once sought to avoid. Increased means of communication have seemingly served mainly to boost the signal of the brainwashing. Expression has become the fun of dressing up as your favourite corporate mascot at a comic convention, helping to pull the wool over your own eyes, and having a facebook punch up over how an adult dressed as a fucking Care Bear is supposedly challenging something or other. There are people out there who actually seem to believe that corporate entertainment is on our side, rather than just a generic identity in which we are subsumed so as to keep us docile and buying stuff. Doctor Who carries an important message about tolerance and understanding, which is why I've spunked away a thousand quid on merch, and that's just this month. They even refer to it as the brand or the franchise or the property. They're proud to wear the gang colours of their plantation. If you have a story to tell, there's always fanfic.

Anyway, I'm not particularly sociable and my facebook feed is full of science-fiction types, so as I say, I'm probably getting a distorted view; or at least I hope I am, because it very much looks as though I'm living in a world of good little consumers who believe everything they're told and for whom selling out is simply the first rung of the ladder. I realise it's not all that way, that there are still tiny pockets of free-thought and resistance to the status quo forming even now, or there should be, probably; but these currents are no longer so visible as they were when I was a spotty teenager, or at least not to me; and that's why a collection such as this is important, because it reminds us of who we were, who we could be again, or who we should aspire to be by some measure. Of course, some of this stuff is kind of grim, as will be the existence of anyone with a conscience trying to get by under the eye of a carnivorous system, to some degree; so, in case it isn't obvious, my point is not that we need to usher in a new era of glue sniffing or that the Apostles should be forced to reform*, but that we were simply doing whatever it took to keep ourselves from turning into the same boring lumps of shit as our parents had mostly been, and somehow that's one we've stopped worrying about; and that's why we have all the horrible stuff that's going on in the world and getting worse year by year.

So these are tales which should be preserved, remembered, and even taught, because they're important, regardless of where each one may sit on the academic spectrum. This is not the version of cultural history you're going to get from the likes of Robert Elms, so educate yourself because no-one else is going to do it for you.

 Get it here.

*: Although it couldn't hurt.

Skizz


Alan Moore & Jim Baikie Skizz (1994)
I drifted away from 2000AD at some point after Alien Cultures, the second Skizz story, and before The Gunlords of Omega Ceti, the final part of the saga, if we're calling it a saga. I'd actually forgotten Alien Cultures had happened, but never mind.

Skizz was born from the English comics tradition of vaguely copying whatever was popular with the kids at the time, the tradition which filed the serial numbers from Jaws, Rollerball, and the Six Million Dollar Man to bring us Hook Jaw, Death Game 1999, and M.A.C.H. 1. Skizz was therefore Spielberg's ET in Birmingham with a hint of Boys from the Blackstuff; except it ended up as so much more, and certainly a thing in its own right, at least for the duration of that first black and white story written by Alan Moore.

Skizz is very much a children's story from a children's comic, but has stood the test of time and my transformation into a fat old man sat at the computer in just his underpants, because Moore kept in mind who he was writing for without talking down to them; and it remains a joy to read even three decades later in a different country. The story is simple enough - genial alien stranded on Earth becomes pals with some kids and is menaced by authority figures. I'd say it's your traditional Children's Film Foundation narrative except I'm not sure I actually ever saw any of their efforts outside of the occasional clip on Screen Test, but that's how it reads, and is as such a familiar form in the history of British comics. It's the working classes pitted against elitist or otherwise authoritarian figures, as were more or less everyone from Alf Tupper to the Bash Street Kids.

Moore's Skizz was perfect, and probably should have been left alone, but it wasn't. The further adventures were written by Jim Baikie, artist on all three, and a genuinely wonderful artist. As a writer, he was better than might be expected. The dialogue, the pace, and the big ideas of the later tales are wonderful, taking Skizz to weird new places and commendably avoiding a simple repeat of what Moore had written; and I seem to recall it working as weekly episodes of five or so pages, but read in one sitting, the problem becomes apparent. The problem is that once you get past Skizz in quarantine for having eaten a yoghurt, time-travelling alien Teddy boys and the rest, there isn't actually much of a story holding any of the big ideas together, and what there is suggests composition by committee in a pub about thirty minutes before closing time with notes scribbled on the back of a fag packet, everyone pissing themselves with laughter as each new ludicrous suggestion is belched forth, ending with everyone stumbling home, giggling, and vowing that no fucking fucker's gunna mess about with this afuckinmazing thing which has been born upon this drunken evening. This, for me, was the problem with a lot of the stuff which got published in 2000AD around the time of Armoured Gideon and Hewligan's bloody awful Haircut. The mag had forgotten who was reading, or maybe it just couldn't tell any more. Even Judge Dredd shows up in an episode of The Gunlords of Omega Ceti, reading very much like Jim had either run out of big ideas or was past caring; which is a massive shame because, as I say, the art is gorgeous throughout.

So the collection looks fantastic, but two thirds are a bit of a dog's dinner up close, trying too hard and forgetting what they was looking for in the first place on a Steven Moffat scale of corpulent indulgence. Most frustrating of all is that it almost worked, and maybe would have done had they just roped in Jamie Delano or someone to talk Jim down from those high ledges.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Jupiter's Circle


Mark Millar & others Jupiter's Circle (2015)
Here's another revisionist superhero book, a prequel to Jupiter's Legacy, about which I couldn't actually remember much aside from having liked it; and it's another revisionist superhero book building on the back story of contemporary characters by impersonating the forties and fifties. Just like Watchmen, one might well observe, and so it's probably no coincidence that the tale should open with our heroes battling a telepathic octopus from outer space. However, this one feels quite different to most variations on this theme which I've read, and I like it more. It's essentially hokey pipe-smoking caped escapades in a world of Leave It to Beaver and J. Edgar Hoover, more or less Justice Society of America with consequences. The twist is that the dark psychological underbelly of Jupiter's Circle is relatively mild in comic book terms, more Harvey Pekar than Rick Veitch's Bratpack wherein the masks conceal fetishism and personality disorders. The lightness of touch makes for a massively refreshing change and allows Millar to set an authentic tone with big, colourful stories powered by mad science and special kinds of ray, the contrast of which gives all the more weight to how these people relate to the real world and each other. We even get walk-on parts by Bill Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Ayn Rand without so much as the faintest trace of showing off; and Rand doesn't come out of it very well, which is gratifying. We've now clocked up nearly eighty years worth of superhero comics, a genre with certain very obvious limitations, and yet I don't think I've ever read one quite like this. I know Mark Millar's shot himself in the foot a couple of times, but Jesus - hats off to the man when he can still come up with stuff such as we have here.



Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Helliconia Winter


Brian Aldiss Helliconia Winter (1985)
Helliconia is a world caught in the complicated orbit of two stars by which one full year lasts the equivalent of many centuries on Earth, a time span ranging from winter to summer and back again for the duration of a period equivalent to the entirety of our written history. Each year, according to Helliconian legend and what we can deduce from reading between the lines, this world's version of humanity emerges from its own frozen dark age, develops, invents things, and just about makes it to something which isn't quite the industrial revolution by the time the snow and ice come back around heralding the ascendancy of the horned phagors, the sentient creatures with which they reluctantly share their planet.

I've read Spring and Summer, so now it's Winter, the final part of the story, and the one in which the point of the exercise is at last made clear. Our people seem to have achieved a vaguely Georgian level of civilisation, which is possibly why this one felt a little like certain novels set in Tzarist Russia - although the excess of snow probably accounts for some of that - and it's mostly politics, battles, and problems of church and state.

Some of what Helliconia is actually about relates to the Gaia hypothesis, our role therein, our sense of perspective and so on, hence the tale unfolding in what is essentially geological time. In this respect, it makes some interesting points, but the problem is that the people of Helliconia are more or less just texture by which Aldiss maps the broader sweep of approximately human history and our war with the environment. It's not that the characters are uninteresting so much as that the narrative is uneven, varying between engrossing intrigue and some fairly dry and lengthy ruminations which read like preliminary notes, the world building which should occur prior to actually getting the novel written rather than during. Also, for the sake of comparison, we have occasional interludes set upon a seemingly pointless space station, an outpost of Earth which observes life on Helliconia; except by the time we get to Helliconia Winter their society has broken down following a decadent interlude distinguished by the production of genetically engineered genitalia creatures - presumably giant dicks and fannies with legs. Somehow even the introduction of cock monsters doesn't make life on the failing observation station any more engaging.

The problem with Helliconia is that there's just too much of it. It could have been a magnificent, much shorter book. It has its moments, but there's too much other stuff getting in the way, and page count and scale do not necessarily amount to the same thing.


I would have posted this last week, but the timing seemed inappropriate. Rest in peace, Brian, and thanks for all the ones I liked more than this one, of which there were many.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Who?


Algis Budrys Who? (1958)
This was written a year before The Falling Torch, the only other one I've read by Algis Budrys, and is informed by many of the same cold war preoccupations. I'm not sure if this is due to the era or just Budrys working out some of the baggage of his eastern European origin, hailing from a country occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union. I seem to remember enjoying The Falling Torch, even if it was a bit single-minded in its focus, and Who? is mostly the same deal. I'm not really convinced that he was ever the best science-fiction author since H.G. Wells, as Kingsley Amis put it.

The story is faithful to Asimov's edict of good science-fiction only ever containing one element of the fantastic or implausible - an edict which I'd say is proven demonstrably and unnecessarily Cromwellian by A.E. van Vogt - and here the element is Lucas Martino, our main man. He's the scientist behind some important but poorly defined breakthrough, and so he's been taken prisoner by those weasely Soviets. We don't know if he revealed his secrets, but now they've given him back, except he was a bit poorly so they fixed him by giving him a metal head; and this means we can't actually be sure it's Martino. It may even be some guy the reds have sent to steal the secret of whatever Martino was working on, and so on and so forth.

It works fine if we assume Martino's fingerprints were never taken and that they were yet to develop DNA testing, but I found it difficult to really appreciate the weight of a story so grounded in cold war politics, given that we now know it was all bluff and bullshit. There are other problems too, notably the contrast between whatever advanced technology might furnish a guy with a metal head, and the rest of the world inhabited by these people. For example, released back into society, Martino goes to a pharmacy and asks to use their telephone, all the while trailed by government agents waiting to see what he'll do, whether he'll give himself away as an imposter. Once Martino has made his call and left, our agents take the phone books from the pharmacy so as to inspect them and hopefully deduce just who it was that Martino could have called by looking for the tell tale signs of pressure left by a finger running up and down a single page in search of a particular number. They obtain the directories by ingeniously sending a guy into the pharmacy under the pretence of using the phone, a guy with a suitcase containing identical phone books which he substitutes for those to which Martino referred. The whole operation is laboured, bewildering, and doesn't do much for one's suspension of disbelief. Why? might have been a better title.

So the espionage is all unfortunately fairly dull.

On the other hand, Budrys alternates espionage with glimpses of Martino's youth, back before he had a metal head. The detail is lovely, haunting, and beautifully written, and I would assume it was such passages which inspired Kingsley Amis to draw the comparison with Wells. Who? is a decent novel, but for reasons other than those which seemed most crucial to whoever wrote the blurb on the back cover, and it probably would have made for a better short story.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Sheriff of Babylon


Tom King & Mitch Gerads The Sheriff of Babylon volume one (2016)
Tom King once worked for the CIA, and as such his CV seems fairly atypical for a comic book writer, although it could also be argued that the sheer quality of his writing also makes him fairly atypical. This one, set in Iraq in the immediate wake of the fall of Saddam, may not be directly autobiographical but is clearly drawn from experience. You can really tell that he was there and that he knows what he's talking about.

The story follows the hunt for the killer of a young Iraqi undergoing training as a provisional cop, one death in the middle of a city which remains a warzone. However, that The Sheriff of Babylon is more or less a whodunnit is easily overlooked, such is the raw force of the environment and the circumstances of its creation. I suppose you might even argue that Baghdad itself is the main character.

The art is astonishing, as are the dialogue and characterisation, and so much so as to leave you wondering if you'll ever be able to go back to reading a regular comic book. This is how people actually talk, and King and Gerads make us feel as though we're there in the room. It's a story told about a situation so shitty that you simply can't tell stories about it, and yet it's happening here with a breathtaking lightness of touch, and even jokes - just like real life.

Considering all the horrible bullshit spouted over Iraq, the Middle East, and Islam with no actual experience or qualification to inform those most visibly engaged with the spouting, I'd suggest that everybody needs to read this book.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Sombrero Fallout


Richard Brautigan Sombrero Fallout (1976)
I read and enjoyed The Hawkline Monster about thirty years ago, and yet somehow never quite got around to that second Brautigan novel, not even out of curiosity when Pump recorded their Sombrero Fallout album and named it after this - Pump being the vessel in which Andrew Cox had set forth across the musical landscape, and Andrew Cox being my buddy who departed for that great off licence in the sky back in 2009. This copy of Sombrero Fallout turned up in a second hand book store, and in doing so drew to my attention how rarely it is that his books seem to turn up in second hand book stores; which, I suppose, is at least part of the reason. I couldn't just walk away from it, although truthfully, there was something which put me off. I've known a few Caucasian males with a thing for Japanese or otherwise Asiatic women, and whilst I can think of one dude who isn't a weirdo - at least not for that reason - I've often found myself deeply suspicious of this attraction which, in some cases, seems based almost entirely on the exotic credentials of the gals in question. That they're small, supposedly inscrutable, childlike, and passive seem to be the considerations at the core of their appeal amongst a certain type of male; and for what it's worth, I always thought Shonen Knife were shit as well.

Anyway, I felt like Sombrero Fallout might pander to this tendency, at least based on the cover, and happily I was very wrong. Yukiko, the ethnically Japanese woman who walks out on her slightly neurotic Caucasian lover constitutes subject rather than object within the narrative, and is exotic only in the thoughts of her spurned partner.

As the novel opens, our man tears something he's written from the typewriter and tosses it into the waste paper basket. The reject is a tale of what happens when a sombrero falls from a clear sky to land in the street of a small town, and the story expands under its own steam within the confines of the waste paper basket. The sombrero is seen by the mayor and two others, an argument ensues, which quickly expands by chain reaction into a full scale riot complete with a body count. Meanwhile the guy who decided not to write the story spends an hour failing to come to terms with his rejection by Yukiko, and so reveals why she probably made the right choice.

Brautigan has an extraordinary focus on the details of the story almost to the point of it being nothing but detail, as though his business is with the atomic structure of the narrative. This focus presents something which appears deceptively simple and feels somehow nourishing, like it's good for you in the same way as an avocado. In some respects it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's writing, but more sleek and efficient, with everything right where it needs to be and not a tangent in sight. Brautigan also seems to share Vonnegut's concerns about the future of the planet and the stupid shit humanity gets caught up in from time to time.

Sombrero Fallout is vaguely an allegory of the convoluted relationship between Japan and America, or at least about aspects of the same; but it's an allegory in the sense of certain Surrealist paintings being allegorical, just as Magritte wasn't necessarily painting men in bowler hats. Here we have the sombrero as  mushroom cloud, and the dissolution which comes in its wake, which turns out to be more or less all that is needed to tell the story. Sombrero Fallout therefore feels very much like a complete thing in itself, self-contained and close enough to being a perfect novel as makes no difference.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Doom Patrol


John Arcudi, Tan Eng Huat & others Doom Patrol (2003)
Not a collected edition or an - ugh - graphic novel, but a big old stack of comic books just as nature intended. I don't think this one did very well judging by the fact of it never having been reprinted. In fact I wasn't even aware of its existence until someone pointed out that DC had attempted to revive Doom Patrol a couple of times prior to the current version written by Gerard Way; and thusly intrigued I've been hunting them down, issue by issue.

John Arcudi's version of the Doom Patrol began back in 2001 and lasted twenty-two issues. I've no doubt it was a tough act to follow the Grant Morrison and Rachel Pollack versions of the comic, but Arcudi managed it fairly well by acknowledging the weirdness without necessarily duplicating it. It's probably closer to the caped mainstream than the book had been since Kupperberg, but it's still pretty odd. John Arcudi wrote The Mask for Dark Horse and you can sort of see his stamp, not least in the ongoing saga of the Doom Patrol menaced by the spirits of ancient Chinese demons trapped in a suit of armour, although admittedly my experience of The Mask is based exclusively on having seen the film with Jim Carrey a couple of times. Arcudi replaces whoever was left standing at the end of Rachel Pollack's run with neurotic superpowered teenagers, much like those we saw in New Mutants I suppose, but with the twist being that they really are a bunch of useless, whining emo fuckers, and as such are actually quite likeable - as distinct from teens who successfully fight crime whilst agonising over whether they'll pass their exams. It's initially difficult to see why this was even called Doom Patrol, but the book really comes into its own after a few issues, feeling very much a legitimate continuation of the mythology.

This is greatly aided by Tan Eng Huat, artist on all but three issues of the run. His figures are sometimes a little awkward, as are his faces, but the overall effect wrought with all those sleek little lines tidily splayed across the page is wonderful, and much, much greater than the sum of its parts. His art resembles that of some of those people taken on board 2000AD during the early nineties, sort of raw and untutored but otherwise working in spite of shortcomings - like the late John Hicklenton with a vague manga influence sent to a couple of life drawing classes; and I wouldn't ordinarily even notice the work of letterers or colouring people, but Bob Lappan and Dave Stewart really made this thing what it was. The lettering in particular somehow reminds me of both Glenn Baxter and Windsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, very much enhancing the peculiar, haunting atmosphere of the enterprise.

In all honesty, I picked this up expecting it to be awful, Doom Patrol restored to wholesome mainstream tedium with all of the strangeness sanded down so as to facilitate sales boosting guest appearances by Superman, but it's as good a sequel to the Pollack run as anyone had a right to expect, and it's a real pity it didn't last.

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.