Monday, 11 December 2017

Super Crooks


Mark Millar & Leinil Yu Super Crooks (2012)
X-Men meets Ocean's Eleven it says here. I haven't seen Ocean's Eleven, but an assortment of whining internet wankers all seem to think Super Crooks is essentially Ocean's Eleven with capes and powers. As with many of Mark Millar's better works, it's snappy and faintly outrageous in the same way as Tarantino's films were once snappy and faintly outrageous. Had a copy of Super Crooks fallen through a time crevice and ended up back in the year 1975, Millar's oeuvre would now be hailed as works of genius in the same breath as those of Liberatore, Jodorowsky, Bilal, and all of those Métal Hurlant guys - I mean at least providing no-one paid too much attention to his Marvel stuff. Both the art and narrative are beautiful and lack any evidence of either over-exertion or struggle. It's the usual tale of good and evil told in relative terms with a bit of the Robin Hood stuff going on, and Millar makes it feel like it's an entirely new thing, as always. I know he has his detractors, and that some of the criticism is justified, but it's hard to give too much of a shit when he's capable of this sort of quality.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Earth's Last Fortress


A.E. van Vogt Earth's Last Fortress (1960)
I assumed this was the original printing of Children of Tomorrow under a different name, but picked it up anyway. It turns out to be the novel I've already read as Masters of Time. In fact I vaguely recall having read Masters of Time with the feeling I'd already read it under another name, yet I can find nothing to support this on the internet beyond that it was originally a short story called Recruiting Station which doesn't ring any bells at all. So I've a feeling I've read this one three times now, but I don't know, although the confusion seems par for the course with van Vogt. It could just be the stark impact of the opening paragraph leaving me with an impression of more familiarity than is actually the case.

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Of course, it would be thrown out of a writing class for crimes against literature, which really says more about writing classes and literary conventions than it does about Alfred Elton.

Earth's Last Fortress is about a war fought across all of time and space wherein the all-powerful forces of the Glorious recruit combatants from each era of human history, and if you want to pretend this was a prequel to Faction Paradox, it actually sort of works. Beyond that, I couldn't really tell what it was about the last time I read it, or possibly the last two times, not with much conviction; but on this occasion I believe I've found the key.

The words scarcely penetrated, though all the sense strained through, somehow. His mind was like an enormous weight, dragging at one thought, one hope. He said, fighting for calmness now, 'Commander, by your manner to this tentacle and its master, I can see that you have long ago ceased to follow its conclusions literally. Why? Because it's inhuman. The Observer is a great reservoir of facts that can be coordinated on any subject, but it is limited by the facts it knows. It's a machine, and, while it may be logical to destroy me before you leave the ship, you know and I know that it is neither necessary nor just, and what is overwhelmingly more important, it can do no harm to hold me prisoner, and make arrangements for a Planetarian to examine the origin of the message that came to me.'

He finished in a quiet, confident tone. 'Captain, from what one of the men told me, you're from the 2000s AD. I'll wager they still had horse races in your day. I'll wager, furthermore, that no machine could ever understand a man getting a hunch and betting his bottom dollar on a dark horse. You've already been illogical in not shooting me at sight, as you threatened on the communicator; in not leaving the ship as the Observer advised; in letting me talk here even as the attack on your enemies is beginning—for there is an attack of some kind, and it's got the best brain on this ship behind it. But that's unimportant because you're going to abandon ship. What is important is this: You must carry your illogic to its logical conclusion. Retrieve your prestige, depend for once in this barren life here on luck and luck alone.'

Last time I tried to read this I didn't come away with much more than a basic anti-authoritarian message, but now I recognise a variation on one of van Vogt's most common themes, namely the opposition of conventional linear logic to the non-Aristotelian ideas he seems to have picked up from Korzybski's general semantics. Actually, I'm half inclined to wonder if this story, or at least this version of the story might not have been informed by van Vogt's falling out with L. Ron Hubbard's increasingly authoritarian promotion of Dianetics through the newly inaugurated Church of Scientology. I'm not entirely sure the dates add up, unless van Vogt undertook any rewriting when this one came to be published under this new title, and similarly I don't know much about van Vogt's involvement with Dianetics or his reasons for severing ties with Hubbard in the early sixties; but nevertheless I found myself wondering whether the Glorious might not serve as allegory to where Hubbard took what van Vogt saw as a useful psychological methodology. They seem to represent inhuman systems imposed upon human thought, eugenics, and the negation of individual will, although these things are of course similarly associated with aspirant utopian political systems arisen in the wake of the second world war, to which van Vogt also had a stated objection.

I probably got more from this reading than on previous occasions, but still found it became somewhat knotted up in its own convoluted narrative by about a third of the way through; and yet it remains enjoyable because baffling van Vogt is often more rewarding, or at least more thought provoking, than the more lucid tales of a lesser author.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Stardreamer


Cordwainer Smith Stardreamer (1971)
I'm a bit mystified as to why it should have taken me so long to stumble across this guy's work. I've known his name for some time, although I'm not sure why given his absence from the many science-fiction anthologies I've read over the years, right up until last month when his Alpha Ralpha Boulevard stamped itself firmly on my consciousness. He clearly had a reputation, fans, and an established body of highly distinctive work, so who knows? Maybe he was just a bit too weird to have ended up sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and Murray Leinster in the sort of collections I routinely read.

Cordwainer Smith turns out to have been the pen name of one Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger, a prolific author who employed various pseudonyms whilst working in adjacent genres. Significantly he was additionally a keen scholar of Chinese culture and tradition through it having played a role in his upbringing, which doubtless accounts for the form taken by his science-fiction, which has the feeling of traditional Buddhist parables in certain respects.

Stardreamer posthumously collects eight short stories, most taking place within the same peculiar mythology, a future universe governed by something called the Instrumentality of Mankind, which is described and developed with a rare literary flourish suggestive of Ursula LeGuin or more recent authors such as Iain M. Banks or China Miéville. The narrative has a beautiful, poetic flow suggestive of something which feels substantially philosophical on some level, yet without being a bore about it.

This was a delight to read from start to finish. I wish someone had told me about this guy sooner.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Maigret Meets a Milord


Georges Simenon Maigret Meets a Milord (1931)
Originally published in French as Le Charretier de la Providence, the retitling of this one seems bizarre even by the standards of this series of translations; but milord is apparently a colloquial French term for an upper-class English tourist encountered in the French countryside, derived - as I suppose seems obvious - from my lord or m'lud, which is what English people say to their betters. I didn't really have plans to read any more Maigret books seeing as there's about a million of them and I'm way out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, but I found this alongside Maigret Stonewalled in Half Price for an improbable couple of dollars each, original Penguin editions from the sixties, and it would have seemed weird to not buy them.

I suppose having been written back in simpler times, there was less pressure for Simenon to thread his amiable creation through a cat's cradle of plot twists, sleight of hand, and ingenious deduction, and essentially what we have here is a man looking at a bunch of suspects for a little while and then announcing which one of them did it. This suits me fine as I've never been any good at crossword puzzles, and the atmosphere alone is enough to ensure my interest. For something so reliant on atmosphere, or at least reliant upon my picking up on the same, it's surprising how much is achieved by either Simenon's tight, undemonstrative prose, or possibly the tight, undemonstrative prose of Robert Baldick, his translator. There's very little fat here, no padding whatsoever, just wistful utilitarian descriptions bordering on the mathematical, pinning out the details of each scene with every so often a sudden, unexpected flash of the poetic.

And Maigret imagined himself where the carter was, seeing the partition coated with resin on his right, with the whip hanging on a twisted nail, the tin cup hooked on to another, a patch of sky between the boards above, and on the right the horses' muscular croppers.

The whole scene gave off animal warmth, a sensation of full-blooded life which took one by the throat like the harsh wine of certain hillsides.

Reaching the end of the novel we come to a description of a motor-driven propeller moving a boat through water, which is oddly the first description of anything particularly technological, excepting a couple of telephone calls and Maigret getting around on a borrowed bicycle. The appeal of this novel may therefore be, at least for me, its invocation of a world very much like the one of my childhood, muddy waterways below cold, grey European skies containing not one single cellphone signal. This is a quiet, grey world with not even the unveiling of the murderer disturbing the sombre calm, instead bringing only sadness, regret, and other seemingly Gallic moods recalling the less colourful impressionist landscapes. The novel might be tough going were it much longer than one-hundred pages, but as it stands Maigret Meets a Milord seems to represent a kind of perfection in its own quiet way.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Old Records Never Die


Eric Spitznagel Old Records Never Die (2016)
I vaguely remember a point at which I made a vow to avoid the traditional mid-life crisis, mainly due to how terminally wanky it always looked on other people. That said, having recently passed the age of fifty, I'm aware of having spent a lot of time rummaging around in my youth. I've never been very good at throwing anything away, and I've always been fairly organised with a tendency to assemble the detritus of being alive according to something resembling a system, and so I've used up much of the last couple of years working on a forensic reconstruction of my own existence, something I will eventually self-publish purely for the sake of a point of focus towards which I can work. I've been transcribing material from old diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and even copies of spoken tape letters I've sent to people. I don't think of this exercise as nostalgia because frankly, most of my life has been disappointing up until recent times - not anything I'd wish to relive - and at the risk of sounding boastful, my life has been generally fucking amazing since about 2011; so it's more like a mapping project, something which answers the question, how did I get here? My past occurred so long ago in subjective terms that it may as well have happened to someone else, which is why I find it so fascinating now.

For reasons which clearly relate to the above, albeit by means I find difficult to define with any degree of clarity, I've tended to steer clear of books by Nick Hornby, notably High Fidelity, or things in that spirit: Stuart Maconie and Peter Kay chortling over Wacky Races and Curly Wurly. I may be wrong about Hornby, but it seems sappy and sentimental to me, even slightly unhealthy. The closest I came was reading Andrew Collins' excruciatingly twee Where Did It All Go Right?, one of the worst books I've ever read and yet another drearily self-deprecating account of growing up in the seventies and having an hilarious punk hairstyle for a bit and failing to shag some girl and listening to the Smiths, because it's always the fucking Smiths.

Writing about music, or specifically about one's love of music, is an inevitably subjective undertaking because it would be pointless were it otherwise; which can additionally leave the writing in question somewhat reliant on whether or not the reader shares the same musical taste as the author, at least in cases where the author isn't up to much and you probably wouldn't be reading but for the fact that he also digs St. Winifred's School Choir. I still have Smiths records, and I can appreciate them, and How Soon is Now? was wonderful; but the first music I really began to take seriously as a kid seemed a bit more wide-ranging in certain respects, beginning with Devo - working through Crass and Killing Joke, probably ending up in the general vicinity of Throbbing Gristle. For the most part it was music beginning from the point of view that all western society is fucked, that we're all living a lie, and that maybe you need to face up to it, shithead.  Doubtless it all took itself too seriously, but that was part of its job. Then the Smiths turned up, and I recall the interviews about how they only wanted handsome people at their little pop concerts, and This Charming Man sounded like the theme tune to a kid's show, and although the second single actually had a tune, everything since has been a heavy sigh of my life is shit and I feel a bit sad. I don't understand how that could really have changed anyone's world, or how anyone could be satisfied with just that, and no-one who ever wrote about it has been able to explain it to me.

Old Records Never Die is the account of one man's mission to track down all the records of his youth, not just the songs, but the actual same copies rescued from dusty boxes in basements and thrift stores. Needless to say, I approached the book with some trepidation, reading mainly on the grounds of it having been a birthday present from my brother-in-law, a man of generally sound judgement. I still don't quite understand why Eric Spitznagel really needed to reunite with the copy of Kiss' Alive II on which his brother Mark had scrawled HANDS OFF!!! across the cover in ballpoint; and I had a tough time getting through the first couple of chapters worth of references to the Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, and other artists I'd rather not have to think about; but as the book finds its stride, it becomes clear that this is not about the music or fat old fuckers going misty-eyed over the malts and shakes of a sunnier age, not exactly. Spitznagel's quest is a genuinely bizarre one, almost a ritual working, not really trying to bring something back so much as to understand its power; and I can identify because it seems reminiscent of what I've been doing with all my own old crap. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Smiths changed anyone's life, and in any case Spitznagel writes about the change and how we understand it rather than the source of musical revelation. If anything, the sources of musical revelation seem the least important detail of whatever the guy is going through in this book, so it's communicated as what may as well be a universal experience. More than anything it reminds me of Harvey Pekar's wistful tales of stealing jazz records from a radio station or finding a cheap pair of Stetson shoes in Goodwill. It has a certain passion, a certain affection, but there's nothing sappy or sentimental here.

I still haven't read High Fidelity, although if it's anything like the film, then Old Records Never Die really isn't a particularly close relative. It's about much more, the entire experience of memory, and while it's often very, very funny, the gags come naturally as part of the discourse - none of that gormless chuckling over old photos in which people look a little bit different to how they do now.

This one has really surprised me.

Monday, 20 November 2017

All the Traps of Earth


Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.

It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.

Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.

I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Miracleman: The Golden Age


Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham Miracleman: The Golden Age (1999)
Is anyone else getting bored of the increasingly labyrinthine publishing history of Marvelman, or whatever he's called this year? I know I am. This reprints a reprint of an Eclipse comic which apparently no longer ever happened, may not actually have needed to happen in the first place, and may even have been redrawn according to some online article I can no longer find which was admittedly probably referring to Miracleman: The Silver Age, but never mind.

To briefly digress, some decades ago I went through a phase of wishing I could write superhero comics. I longed to be taken seriously as an author of frowning material involving capes, powers and important messages. The main obstacle to this career swivel was that I could barely string a sentence together. I wasn't particularly literate and what strips I had scrawled up to that point were improvised and heavily reliant on knob gags, so I sat down with a stack of my fave comics - mostly X-Men titles and things written by Alan Moore - and I tried really hard to work out what was going on so as to arrive at a method by which I too might tell a story. Eventually I accumulated a loose group of guidelines and techniques strip-mined mostly from the aforementioned Moore, methods I might employ so as to conceal my not actually having any story worth telling; roughly speaking, this sort of thing:

  • Mess up the lives of your characters and the story will form around what happens as you try to get them back into shape.
  • Don't be afraid of novelty. It looks like imagination and most people can't tell the difference.
  • Quote freely, make frequent references to music, films, or literature generally regarded as cool. References to persons generally regarded as interesting are also to be encouraged - Crowley, Jung, Shakespeare and so on.
  • Quote yourself freely, treating your story thus far as something of inherent weight and mystery. Maybe that person in the background back on page four could turn out to be some kind of mutant mastermind orchestrating everything from behind the scenes.
  • Repeat yourself. People will mistake it for a motif and assume you know what you're doing.

Unfortunately, I learned just enough to immediately recognise my own efforts as complete bullshit once I got to work; and perhaps equally unfortunately, every time I pick up something written by Neil Gaiman - although admittedly it's been a while - it really looks to me as though he's using the very same checklist.

I discovered Neil Gaiman with an early issue of Sandman, went briefly nuts for the guy and bought up everything I could get my hands on; although within about a year I'd begun to detect the faint essence of something which I found difficult to like. I kept on buying Sandman, but Lordy those faux-Shakespearean issues bored me shitless; and I wasn't that wild about Harry fucking Potter even when he was Timothy Hunter; and eventually it all became too annoying so I flogged the lot on eBay. I recall the first twenty or so issues of Sandman as essentially decent, and I'd buy the collected editions but for the bloody awful art which somehow bothered me less at the time; and then there was Miracleman.

We didn't really need any more issues of Miracleman after Alan Moore was done with it, and I'm not convinced Neil Gaiman's run really adds anything. To be fair, The Golden Age seems to be the first of a longer three-part story, and is obviously mostly just scene setting, albeit for a story with a scene already set during Moore's run; and you can tell it's scene setting because it doesn't actually have a story. In fact it barely even has forward motion. I appreciate the device of describing something indescribable through the lives of those observing it from afar, but it reads like a series of novel images of the kind I would have tried to pass of as narrative back in my youth.

Lonely bloke looks after windmills, shags Miraclewoman.

Precocious Miraclebaby has superpowers, insults doting mother.

Geezer climbs mountain but doesn't find answer.

See, they're not really stories, just single images described at length by use of selected phrases deployed so as to suggest a particular mood, and at the end we're supposed to go wow whilst remaining nevertheless touched by the subtle poetry of human interaction; but nothing actually happens, and it really feels as though the author hopes we won't notice. It's the exact same thing which Steven Moffat does on Doctor Who, or did last time I could be arsed to sit through yet another time-wasting episode. A skeleton in a space suit does not in and of itself constitute narrative.

Where was I?

To be fair, the issue spent in the company of Andy Warhol, one of the many resurrected in Miracleman's brave new world of wonders, is terrific, and possibly the best thing I've read by Neil Gaiman; so I guess I can see what he's trying to do for most of this stuff, but none of the rest really comes close, at least not for me, because I can't read past what feels like writing by formula. We have the Kid Miracleman teen cultists drawn in apparent homage to the Hernandez brothers, because Love & Rockets is like rilly amaaazing, yeah? Then there's an incomprehensible Prisoner homage with edgily xeroxed images, and God help us yet another fucking story told as a twee children's book - novelty after novelty after novelty, and of course the poetry of the writing should be sufficient to save the thing from its own neatly modular eccentricity, except it can't because as usual it's so bleeding middle-class that it may as well be set in the same universe as Love Actually; and oh lookee - everyone meets up at the Notting Hill carnival in the final episode. Fancy that.

I realise I'm in the minority, but surely I can't be the only person to have had this reaction to Neil Gaiman's writing? Maybe American Gods is amazing. I don't know. I can only base my opinion on what I've managed to read by him, and it's all been twee; and instances of spontaneity and imagination feel calculated to invoke specific reactions; and it lacks danger or the flavour of any experience beyond the somewhat limited world of a conspicuously middle-class author who wishes only to entertain; and it feels like something for which there could never be greater praise than a glowing write up in Time Out; and when I read anything by Neil Gaiman it feels as though he's sat at my side, digging me in the ribs to see whether I'm suitably full of wonder, and it feels as though he's ever so pleased with himself.

That said, I'm sure he's a lovely bloke in person.

I expect Tim Burton's fucking smashing too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The City of Gold and Lead


John Christopher The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
As you will almost certainly be aware, The City of Gold and Lead is the second of John Christopher's trilogy of children's books set upon an Earth dominated by the alien Tripods. Where The White Mountains seemed more obviously like something extrapolated from The War of the Worlds, this one represents the point at which the tale heads off into new territory. The White Mountains kept its Tripods as a mysterious but remote menace whilst focussing on more familiar human concerns with authority, and how we act when it spins out of control.

This time we go right into the Tripod city to live amongst them as they exist beyond the safety and anonymity of their walking machines. It could have gone horribly wrong in reducing something distant and fairly scary to a known, even potentially comic entity as the creatures from within the machines are revealed to be three legged, tentacled cones of alien flesh with hopes and desires of their own, and apparently based on George Melly - if the one who enslaves Will, our main protagonist, is any indication. Christopher nevertheless pulls it off with ease, crafting a horror story which comes close to hinting at the excesses of the Nazis despite that these Nazis appear to resemble the sort of rubber monsters we bought for five pence a throw and stuck on our pencil tops when I were a lad. It may even be the peculiarity of the Masters - essentially more personable variations on Lovecraft's Great Race - which maintains the fine balance of the narrative by keeping the Tripods at a slight remove from their operators, therefore preserving the menace established in the first book.

Beyond the obvious matters of facing up to tyranny, helping your pals, and generally selfless acts, The City of Gold and Lead doesn't seem quite so philosophically weighty as The White Mountains, although there's also the possibility that I may simply have been overthinking that one; but then it doesn't need to be, because it does what it does to the point of perfection, and is as such one of the best things I've read in a while. As with its predecessor, I really, really wish I'd read this back when I was of the age group for whom it was written.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Missing Man


Katherine MacLean Missing Man (1975)
Just as Asimov had his robots and Philip K. Dick had his ontology, Katherine MacLean's writing is distinguished by her interest in systems theory, organising principles, mass psychology and so on; which may sound a little dry, but she writes beautifully, and with such poetry that we tend to forget when the book has a painting of a robot on the cover. Unfortunately though, her name remains relatively obscure, possibly because she wrote short stories to the exclusion of anything else and has thus remained more or less confined to the ghetto of science-fiction magazine publishing. Even the novel length Missing Man is expanded from a couple of related short stories.

Missing Man examines a society with many familiar problems through the understanding of a psychic detective of sorts, George Sanford whose telepathy allows him insight into the thoughts of those who hold very different views to his own. His world, somewhat conveniently, is divided into highly polarised communities, and many of them set very much against the common good of society as a whole, most notably a displaced Arab community and another which seems to be populated by teenagers. It was the Arab community with which I had the most trouble, given the resemblance of this detail to the sort of thing I presume one might expect to find in the white nationalist science-fiction of persons such as H.A. Covington. MacLean's displaced Islamic group are angry, religious, and seemingly inclined to blow stuff up, but thankfully it becomes clear that their role in the novel is simply to illustrate a view opposing that of the wider society which can be neither assimilated nor placated. She gives reasons for their militancy, and I suspect it's simply a poorly chosen device, although it may seem more so in 2017 than it did in 1975. Ultimately, despite a few disconcerting swerves of this kind, the novel demonstrates itself to be an extended essay on cultural relativism, one which concludes that we really need to stop acting like wankers if we're to get through this.

Unfortunately though, Missing Man seems to provide a clue as to why Katherine MacLean stuck to short stories. The detail is gorgeous, but taken as a full length novel, it felt like walking though fog, unable to see much further than a few feet ahead or behind with very little in the way of underlying structure to support the developing narrative as a unified whole. It felt episodic and the brief glimpses of where we were heading seemed few and far between. That said, as a flawed undertaking by one of the true greats, it still has more going for it than the work of many better publicised names in the field.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction


Robert P. Mills (editor)
The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction eleventh series (1962)
Rightly or wrongly, I've always had the impression of Fantasy & Science Fiction as the American analogy to New Worlds, roughly speaking, at least in relation to Analog, Amazing, Galaxy, and the other magazines. Whilst you could usually expect a short story involving rockets and another involving alien civilisations from most of them, Fantasy & Science Fiction seemed to be the one to publish the weird stuff which didn't really fit anywhere else. That being said, I expected to enjoy this collection more than I did.

In its favour there are characteristically wonderful contributions from Clifford D. Simak and Poul Anderson, while Cordwainer Smith and Avram Davidson have both written impressively peculiar tales of quality sufficient as to suggest that I really need to hunt down a few more by those two. Then there's an underwhelming early work by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., something by Isaac Asimov which is probably about as whelming as I expected it to be, and my first encounter with Gordon R. Dickson which at least suggests that I've been wise to steer clear of anything with his name on the cover. George by John Anthony West is okay, and then there are another five tales listed in the index which I know I read but about which I can't remember a single thing; plus there's a couple of poems which weren't really my sort of thing.

Still, I suppose this kind of deal will always be very much like a box of chocolates in so much as that you never know which one you're gon' git, excepting cases of it being one of those boxes of chocolates wherein the various flavours featured amongst the selection are quite clearly denoted on the inside of the lid. They can't all be amazing, I guess, but it's nice that some of them are. Maybe they were just having an off year.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Doom Patrol


John Byrne, Doug Hazlewood & Terry Austin Doom Patrol (2006)
This is a stack of eighteen comic books picked up in continuation of my efforts to catch up with all those versions of the Doom Patrol which happened while I was looking the other way, and comprising a story John Byrne began during his run of Justice League comics. The strangest thing here was Byrne's decision to ignore all previous versions of the book, starting again at the beginning as though we'd never before met any of these characters. There's an editorial in the first issue explaining how this return to year zero has been effected so as to tell new stories without any crippling continuity getting in the way, although I have to say that John Arcudi seemed to do fine with the previous run of Doom Patrol, taking it somewhere entirely different without any need of a reset button; and for all its finer points, I still can't help feel that Byrne simply didn't want to deal with all that weird homoerotic Dadaism.

That said, I suppose there's an argument that Hans Bellmer and the Marquis de Sade probably don't belong in a children's comic; and so far as taking Doom Patrol back to its roots with stories thematically faithful to the Arnold Drake version, Byrne does a decent job without descending into pastiche. This is as mainstream as the book has ever been, although it's still reasonably weird when compared to - off the top of my head - silver age Superman. The premise suffers a little from somewhat modular Thunderbirdsisms with the tidily secret base from which the team go forth to fight crime and effect rescue operations, but this is at least a little offset by the characters, old and new, with their brain transplants, four-armed gorillas, friendly Confederate ghosts, and so on - and not forgetting a pleasing sidestep into alternate Doom Patrol realities somewhere around issue fourteen. John Byrne is quite good at this sort of thing, essentially pulling the characters apart, working out what makes them tick, and then spinning stories from whatever he's found - which he did to great effect with Alpha Flight back in the eighties; but apparently he's not very good at dialogue, which really shows in the wake of Chris Claremont having co-written those issue of Justice League which foreshadowed this book. It's not that the dialogue is bad so much as that it lacks Claremont's flair and thus exposes the fact that we're actually reading what may as well be a peculiar take on Scooby Doo. Characters think about what they're doing within their thought bubbles as they're doing it, or they describe that which we can see with our own eyes, or they point out that they would have got away with it were it not for that meddling Doom Patrol.

Despite this, Byrne's Doom Patrol has enough going on to keep it engagingly odd and even gripping, and the only problem is simply that it could have been better.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Umbrella


Will Self Umbrella (2012)
Ordinarily I would ignore the usual bleatings about how that Will Self thinks he's right fancy with that blummin' dictionary shoved up his arse like that and sticking his little finger out when he drinks tea even though he ain't no better than the rest of us and it don't matter how many of those blummin' long words he uses what no-one understands so that he reckons we'll all think he's right clever but we really know that he ain't no such thing; but I have to admit, this was a fucking tough one.

Umbrella is written as a stream of consciousness with disparate narratives blending together seemingly so as to mimic how memory works, with the past becoming a function of the present. The effect is a little like listening to a radio whilst someone fiddles with the dial. People and places drift in and out of focus, and it's not always possible to tell quite where one ends and the other begins; and this also accounts for why it's nearly four-hundred pages of continuous text without breaks, no individual chapters or anything.

That said, it's wonderfully written, as I suppose you would expect, so reading never quite becomes a chore even if it's not always clear what's happening or how it relates to whatever you were reading a few pages back. The premise of Umbrella is described as follows on Goodreads:

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades. A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.

So Audrey flashes back to Edwardian times while her psychiatrist flashes forward to his own twilight years, and if we conclude anything, it's possibly that many psychiatric conditions are simply coping mechanisms responding to the circumstances of our shitty society, albeit coping mechanisms which have spun out of control.

See, see! they got rid of him because he represented the truth: that the patients are poor, and they're mad - and indeed that many of 'em are mad precisely because they're poor.

At least that's what I took from the novel, although to be fair, I found the above synopsis on Goodreads after I'd finished the thing, and half of it was news to me, notably the detail of Audrey having been in a coma for most of her life. So I'm probably wrong, but Umbrella seems to be about memory as a property of reality, like I said, and specifically how memory is indistinguishable from reality in terms of cause and effect.

He smiles, thinking of the sartorial fripperies of the period - the long, white silk scarves, and original tailcoats picked up at flea markets, and the bandsmen's scarlet coats that could be spotted weaving their way through the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival, gold frogging leaping about in time to Hendrix's axe-work. Miriam insisted on William Morris floral-patterned wallpaper - while Busner had his own brief flirtation with a handlebar moustache and a velvet smoking jacket ...It must've been strange for them, the reawakened, to have swum back to consciousness in a world done up in a travesty of their own childhood, complete with a soundtrack of oompah psychedelia…

It refers directly to the reawakened right there, and yet that was an element I missed entirely. Simply I found the barrage of undifferentiated information a little too relentless, and a little too resistant to digestion. It might have worked better at a reduced word count, at least for me; but what it does well, or what I can identify as having been done well, makes it all worthwhile, generally speaking.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Destroyer


Andrew Hickey Destroyer (2017)
I may be getting my wires crossed, but I somehow developed the impression of Destroyer having been written as something akin to a warm-up exercise, and from what I recall of since deleted blog posts, Andrew Hickey appeared to regard his forthcoming Basilisk Murders as a more significant undertaking. Destroyer is a whole brace of toes dipped into the thriller genre, a form with which I'm almost completely unfamiliar - and ordinarily not actually that interested - but which I'd probably prefer to term mystery because it reminds me of the Georges Simenon novel I read a month or so ago.

Essentially it's breezy wartime scrapes as Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Alan Turing, and Aleister Crowley attempt to defeat an occult plot to deliver victory into the paws of those ghastly Germans; so it's highly stylised and possibly ludicrous given the cast, and yet Hickey achieves a perfect balance in all respects with characters obedient to the strictures of the genre whilst remaining unburdened by anything much in the way of clichés. This isn't tweedpunk, or whatever clueless arseholes might be calling it this week. Crowley has turned up in fiction, particularly of the sort I tend to read, with some frequency, often as a fairly generic force of indecency, and rarely ever as anything which I've found particularly satisfying. I have my doubts about the man but tend to think he deserves at least a little better than he's generally been given, so it's a pleasure to read of him in Destroyer as a character at least as rounded and intriguing as he seems to have been in life.

As a thriller, Destroyer is brief and well paced, and arguably lacking any great philosophical purpose, which nevertheless doesn't mean it lacks depth or that it isn't capable of throwing out a vivid idea or two every couple of pages.

'Indeed,' said Wheatley, 'and so we can never discover the answer to the question is Baldur real?, and nor should we want to, for it would spoil the mystery of life. But we can have an answer to the simpler question does Baldur represent something real?, and the answer to that question is of course an emphatic yes! for all true religion contains within it a kernel of truth.

As for flaws, it's genuinely quite difficult to find any. The entirely masculine cast is a bit odd, but as Andrew explained on his blog back in May:

One thing I should note about this, because many of my readers will care - every character in this book is male. I thought long and hard about doing that, and the nature of the genre it's pastiching would make it even more problematic to actually include anyone of another gender. I understand if this puts readers off, but want you to understand that it was a choice I thought about and didn't take lightly.

I spotted some typos and a couple of incongruous instances of repetition, most likely inevitable given that the author was probably writing four other books and recording an album simultaneous to the composition of this one; but given that Destroyer seems to be something Andrew Hickey wrote as an exercise in the spirit of experimentation, and that it's not even a particularly ambitious effort, one can't help but notice how even workmanlike Hickey is considerably better than the great majority of authors firing on all four cylinders. Destroyer is a modest but nonetheless impressive effort which promises much for whatever the next one turns out to be.

Avail thineself of a copy yonder, or Amazon if you want the eBook or the (significantly cheaper) paperback. I'm not going to provide a link because I'm sure you can find Amazon under your own steam, and because they support Breitbart, and because they happily stock a wide range of shite by white nationalists, much to the delight of those leaving antisemitic comments in praise of said books, which I only mention because I want to marry my boyfriend Barack Obama and I hate freedom of speech etc. etc.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Eye of Terror


Barrington J. Bayley Eye of Terror (2000)
Shortly after plucking this one from the shelves at Half Price, I noticed it was a tie-in novel, and one of a series to which Dan Abnett has also contributed. This didn't strike me as a particularly good omen, although to be fair I had no idea what Warhammer 40,000 was supposed to be, and it's Barrington Bayley, so it must have something going for it, surely…

However, my first impressions seemed to bear out my fears, as briefly spunked out all over facebook.

It's pretty bloody awful - a novel which aspires to be a table full of little metal figures surrounded by grown men rolling funny-shaped dice in the basement of the mother of the one with the biggest beard. I bought it because it's Barrington Bayley, and Barrington Bayley is fab and weird, but this reads like something written to pay a hefty phone bill - such a waste of a genuine talent. Maybe it gets better. I'll give it another fifty pages.

It was embarrassing once I realised that a couple of my facebook friends were into that whole gaming business. It's not a pursuit which had ever inspired me towards any strong opinion, but what opinions I had were formed back in 1987 when some beardy dude at art college tried to recruit me into his Dungeons & Dragons enclave. He described the rules, most of which seemed to be about him controlling everything and everyone, and it didn't sound much like fun as I would recognise it. The guy was clearly a tosser and so that very much coloured my judgement of anything involving funny shaped dice; also, there's not many things I dislike so much as a novel which really, really wishes it were telly, so the prospect of a novel that wants to be a fucking game seemed depressing beyond reason.

I vividly recall the impression garnered from the first fifty pages which inspired the above facebook comment - far too many adjectives, an overly choreographed fight every five minutes, and all set in one of those Larry Niven universes full of alien bars wherein things with two heads get drunk, stab you, or attempt to interest you in the services of a prostitute with six tits and two fannies; but I persisted, and it got better, and after a while it began to feel like Barrington Bayley again.

The Warhammer 40,000 universe may as well be the same one inhabited by Nemesis the Warlock in 2000AD, roughly speaking, grimy pseudo-medieaval military science-fiction with Tolkien, Lovecraft, and a load of other squelchy influences thrown in; and therefore clearly entirely compatible with the sort of weirdness in which Bayley specialised. Eye of Terror is mostly space marines possessed by demons, Chaos Gods, stomach-churning transformations, and all manner of things which would probably lose a ton of advertising revenue were they to turn up in Star Wars. I don't know what it's about, if it's really about anything, but it becomes vivid and even gripping as the story finds its pace. Strangest of all, disbelieving that something so good should have begun on such poor footing, I skipped back to the beginning and could find nothing of the material which had inspired my initial groaning. Either I acclimated to the novel or the book itself changed as I was reading it.

Very weird.

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.