Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Flight from Yesterday

Robert Moore Williams Flight from Yesterday (1963)
This is the third I've read by Robert Moore Williams, and the one which seems to confirm certain ideas I've developed about the man's style and what he was trying to achieve. King of the Fourth Planet and Beachhead Planet both felt somewhat like philosophical allegory filtered through a narrative sensibility not dissimilar to that of A.E. van Vogt, and that this one should play with roughly the same deck of cards suggests that I wasn't simply reading too hard.

That said, Williams feels more conventionally pulpy than Alfred Elton, more pitched at a particular audience. Here we have persons projected forward in time from the last days of an advanced antediluvian city - identified as Atlantis on the cover but not in the actual text - their personalities possessing the present day bodies of a guy who runs a curio shop and who occasionally sells porn on the side, a nightclub bruiser, and a couple of prostitutes - salacious details hinted at in couched terms presumably designed to elude censorious editing, but some way from the usual cast of characters one might expect to encounter in a novel of this general type. These persons find themselves pitched against Keth Ard, our main protagonist - an out of work test pilot apparently for no other reason than as an invocation of something adventurous and futuristic; and Keth Ard is assisted by his psychiatrist.

With personalities switching between bodies and time zones, and with objectives seeming a little nebulous beyond the basic existence of conflicting interests, Flight from Yesterday is confusing and occasionally difficult to follow compared to the other two, neither of which could have been described as straightforward in the first place; and this one is maybe not quite so engagingly bizarre, but it's still pretty fucking weird in places. The narrative seems to be something to do with karma, reincarnation, redemption and so on, at least more so than it's about time travellers from Atlantis; and it's this invocation of philosophical depth which renders it so readable, even if it resembles the gonzo philosophy of a crazy person - like someone sat Richard Shaver down and made him really think about what he'd been saying. I dislike the term outsider art for all sorts of reasons I can't be bothered to go into right now, but Williams' novels probably qualify; which isn't to say that he's a bad writer in any sense, because there's too much conviction in this for it to have been the work of a person without any real clue as to what they're doing; but he seems to have been playing by his own rules, and yes, that is a recommendation.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Scalped: Indian Country

Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra Scalped: Indian Country (2007)
I wasn't too sure about this one at first, despite a marginally more than passing interest in Native America. Stood in various branches of Half Price flicking through copies on three or four occasions, I couldn't help but notice death, violence, extortion, and at least one meth lab. It seemed like a poor advert for the culture it had chosen to inhabit, the whiskey-soaked offering of another one of those writers who has a keyboard with a specific key set to render the word motherfucker with a single tap so as to save time, and the same whiskey-soaked offering as usual transposed to someone else's misery for the sake of a sales pitch. It made me think of Preacher or any number of Tarantino wanabees.

I succumbed in the end, and I'm glad I did because I was wrong. Scalped may not be sympathetic to Native culture in terms conventionally patronised by new-age Whitey, but neither is it unsympathetic, and it strives to at least convey some of the grinding and distinctly unphotogenic poverty and misery which passes for life on the reservation. I don't know many Natives, but I know a couple, and I gather that Scalped is fairly true to life even with the narrative pinned to a conveniently episodic crime drama falling roughly half way between The Sopranos and The Shield - here referencing television shows for the sake of convenience and because I haven't read any comics which do quite the same thing, and certainly none written by Garth Ennis. Scalped is pretty dark and gritty, but is conducted with a lightness of touch, an elegance you wouldn't experience on a screen with a hole ostentatiously blown in someone's noggin every fifteen minutes - so good that it doesn't need to be made into telly.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Philip Best Captagon (2017)
I had certain expectations with this one, but thankfully it's very different. Captagon, named after the preferred brand of speed for those waging war on behalf of ISIS, is a novella in the vague tradition of William Burroughs in so much as that it works more like a piece of music than a narrative in the accepted sense - a series of impressions. There may be a narrative in there but it's difficult to tell and I'm not sure that it matters. Captagon divides into seventy impressionist passages of varying length and ambiguous connectivity. It initially reads like cut-up text, but the more you read, the more obvious it becomes that there's nothing arbitrary or random here. If anything, there's a terrifying precision, a sharp focus directed towards very specific ends; and those idiosyncrasies of grammar suggestive of Burroughs seem more consciously directed, perhaps serving to level out the general texture of the writing to the even, undifferentiated tone of noise, something without obvious narrative peaks or troughs by conventional terms.

As for what we're actually looking at, it's mostly pretty fucking bleak, as you would probably expect from the man who squeezes the accordion for Consumer Electronics - fleeting glimpses of casual brutality, orphanage atrocities, and general inhumanity; and yet the focus falls some way short of shoving it in your face for the sake of  grisly thrills. It's not quite documentary, but most surprising of all - at least to me - is that the tone of Captagon seems almost sympathetic, tender, and nothing like anything I've ever noticed on a Whitehouse record. It's dark and occasionally repellent, but not to the point of being unreadable, suggesting that this is something at which Best has really worked because he's struck a very fine balance.

What we seek today is the absolute obliteration of the false distinction between the Real and the fantastic.

Or as it states in the paragraph which follows the above:

'We strive to understand and perhaps marshal the libidinous correspondence between private fantasy and actual public events, however cruel or outlandish this obscene coupling may prove to be.'

I'm possibly out of my depth here, but I suspect Captagon is therefore Best attempting to summarise what he may view as an absolute reality, namely the raw horror of existence underlying the version of reality we create for ourselves by buying into the bullshit we're sold in the name of civilisation; and so this revelation of certain truths which we'd rather not acknowledge is possibly intended as liberating or cathartic. At least that's how it read to me in so much as that for something so determinedly horrible, it makes for an engaging rather than an actively unpleasant read, almost cleansing, you might say. I'm particularly impressed by this, by how well this idea is communicated - if that is what is being said - because it's not even a perspective with which I necessarily sympathise in so much as that I don't personally believe existence is quite this awful, and I feel the horror may be subjective, which is possibly worse. That said, it seems like an entirely adequate response to the times we're living through.

Anyway, I read this twice, the second time referring to the section plan in the appendix so as to determine the location of each scene in the hope of discerning something resembling a narrative; and there does indeed seem to be a structure mapped out among different observers, but nothing so vivid as to leave me feeling as though I'd missed anything first time around. As previously stated, I'm almost certainly out of my philosophical depth here - although I was pleased to spot D.H. Lawrence's Plumed Serpent in the bibliography - but crucially it didn't feel as though I was out of my depth as I was reading. I thought this would be either revolting or incomprehensible, but there's an unexpected elegance to it.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Jailbird (1979)
Never trust a true return to form. This was his best novel since Slaughterhouse Five according to a couple of the reviews quoted in the opening pages, presumably in the same way of Bowie's Black Tie White Noise having been a true return to form by virtue of having been marginally less shit than its predecessor.

When Vonnegut fails, it's usually been because he buries whatever the fuck the book was trying to do under a spaghetti mound of absurdist interconnected asides which begin to irritate once you realise that you've forgotten what was supposed to be happening beneath all of those tangents. When he succeeds, that's when the tangents work, and when it feels like there's some point to our having vanished down yet another rabbit hole. Whilst Jailbird doesn't quite belong to the first group, it's unusually sober for Vonnegut, lacking much of his characteristic humour, and thus similarly becomes a bit of a slog, albeit for different reasons.

It's a shame because I'm more than on board for what Jailbird wants to do, but actually reading and digesting the thing makes it difficult. It's the fictitious but plausible account of a well-intentioned stooge caught up in Watergate and subsequently incarcerated, and all loosely spun around a fictional historical massacre of unionised workers in exploring just why America regards compassion as a sign of either weakness or communism.

If this were done as a modern Passion Play, the actors playing the authorities, the Pontius Pilates, would still have to express scorn for the opinions of the mob. But they would be in favour rather than against the death penalty this time.

And they would never wash their hands.

The point is well made, and of course it's a point which particularly needs making at the moment, but there's a lot of other stuff to wade through. Jailbird is better than the barely readable ones, but feels a little too joyless for its own good.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Super Crooks

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

And All Around Was Darkness

Gregory Bull & Mike Dines (editors) And All Around Was Darkness (2017)
This is another collection in the general spirit of 2014's Tales from the Punkside, a smaller, numbered edition with badges but a larger format more closely resembling an issue of Re/Search. With a full on raging psychopath in the White House, Brexit, and a general public which seems to have decided that the Nazis were actually the good guys all along, we probably need this sort of thing more than ever; this sort of thing being a timely reminder of options beyond sitting on your arse and passively consuming until you eventually die of cancer from all those cheeseburgers. As with Tales from the Punkside, this book collects anecdotal material and accounts from around the anarcho-punk years of individuals, fanzines, and bands inspired by Crass, amongst others, some academic in spirit, others more freewheeling. It's everything from personal revelations brought on by noisy music, to gluing the locks at one's school, to taking to the streets and demonstrating against the fur trade. I was on the periphery of some of this, had a fair few of the fanzines mentioned, and was even in a subsequent incarnation of one of the bands, so it's impossible for me to be entirely objective about the collection even without glancing down the list of contributors and realising that I know at least four in something resembling a social context.

I used to write to Alan Rider of Adventures in Reality many years ago and ended up living in the same city, albeit after he'd moved away, so there was enough in his contribution to fill at least three or four evenings of conversation down the pub; and I ended up playing guitar in a band for which Chris Low had been drummer, which was how I met Ted Curtis, and Nick Sims whom both Ted and Anth Palmer write about; and then I encountered Phil Hedgehog more recently when I contributed to an issue of Poot! comic, plus he seems to know the Cravats etc. etc. Happily most of the stuff written by persons to whom I'm not socially connected seems to be of similar high and generally fascinating quality. It seems fair to say that something has really been captured and encapsulated in this collection.

In fact it's been encapsulated so well as to encompass material representing aspects of the anarcho-punk scene which I actively disliked, and so found myself skipping a couple of contributions in the general vicinity of the Green Anarchist material; but it would be a boring old world if we all liked the same thing, as they say. Nevertheless, that which I like about this book outweighs that with which I had any sort of problem, and the problem I had in itself speaks well of Bull and Dines commitment to presenting a broad cross section of varying perspectives, so I'm not complaining; and I also realise I should probably get around to buying that album by the Mob.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Earth's Last Fortress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 December 2017


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

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

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

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