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 clich├ęs. 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.