Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Multiversity


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

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

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

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

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

Maigret Sets a Trap


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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, yes - very, very readable.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Erewhon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silkie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Voyage of the Sable Keech


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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 July 2017

Promethea


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

Where will it all end?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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