Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Weapons Grade Snake Oil

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 February 2017

Stowaway to Mars

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

That's you.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Curse-Breaker: When the Devil Comes Home

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 February 2017

Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well duh.

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

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

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

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