Tuesday, 29 August 2017


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

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

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

So the espionage is all unfortunately fairly dull.

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

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Sheriff of Babylon

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Sombrero Fallout

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Doom Patrol

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 August 2017


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

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

So what's it all about, Alfie?

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

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

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Player Piano

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

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

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

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