Monday, 24 December 2018

Marty Page


Martin Bladh Marty Page (2018)
I suppose, given the territory, it's surprising it should have taken this long for Amphetamine Sulphate to come up with something I didn't like, although I'm not sure like is ever quite the appropriate response. Maybe I mean that I didn't appreciate this by quite the same terms as some of the others.

The book takes the form of a journal, specifically a record of the torture and resulting execution of one Marty Page, described in clinical terms suggestive of art or a performance. Bladh avoids hysteria and the temptation to pull the sort of scary faces one associates with heavy metal bands, but it nevertheless makes for profoundly disturbing reading as you'd probably expect. Additionally - and keeping in mind I'm way out of my depth here - there is an ambiguous quality to the narrative, an element of extreme masochism in the suggestion that the author of the journal is by some means performing these atrocities upon himself, or at least his own image; and that this actually represents a division between the cognitive self and its own emotional reactions to stimulus, specifically pain. The ambiguity is to account for why the book works in so much as that the subject is ultimately eclipsed by the questions it poses. I was thinking about this one for many days after, and now feel the key to understanding this is in one of the final lines:

Confronted with ugliness the beauty of death must be our obvious choice.

I keep having days like that too.

I suspect Marty Page exists as written word because the form allows for the kind of ambiguity which might be lost elsewhere, in performance or film which, based in physical reality rather than language, seem more conducive to polarised interpretations of whatever the hell is going on. In other words, as art, Marty Page has common ground with the more visceral paintings of Francis Bacon - a comparison lazily drawn from Bladh's interviews rather than any great insight on my part. There's a blurring around the edges, and a sort of impressionism in play.

So I found this a tough read even by Amphetamine Sulphate standards, and maybe a little more focused on extremes than I like; but having achieved some kind of understanding of what I think it probably does, I can appreciate the craft and it's a text to which I shall almost certainly return.

Specialist Fabricator


Gary Mundy Specialist Fabricator (2018)
With the publication of Specialist Fabricator, I noticed a tiny nagging voice in the back of my head pointing out how it sure looked a whole lot like Philip Best had taken to squeezing books out of all his old power electronics pals, logically implying that we probably wouldn't have too much of a wait for Merzbow's debut novella; it's an amusing idea, but one which is somewhat undermined by the quality of material which has issued forth from Amphetamine Sulphate over the last twelve months or so. Thus far we've had writings from members of Sleaford Mods, Ceramic Hobs, Pure, Skullflower, and of course Best has himself been known to tickle the ivories from time to time. Gary Mundy is the man behind Kleistwahr, Ramleh, and others, and Specialist Fabricator is fucking exceptional. I still find this correlation of literary ability with having been in noisy bands slightly puzzling, so I assume it's significant that we're talking about parallel creative avenues pursued by members of Ramleh, Pure and so on, as opposed to members of Ned's Atomic Dustbin or Coldplay. The sort of music we're talking about has always been way outside the mainstream, more about mood than notes, and extreme moods bound up in the kind of reactions rarely provoked by more traditional forms of art; so what I'm trying to say is that maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that power electronics - for want of a better term - translates so well into the written word, because it was always about more than summer fun and getting laid.

To start at the beginning, Ramleh always seemed to have some dimension beyond pure shock, a scrabbling at something which couldn't really be expressed by any other means, with horror and revulsion as an element of the whole - just one of the colours - more than an end in itself. Specialist Fabricator somehow maps the same territory by describing everything around the edge of the hole, and with particular veracity due to being sort of autobiographical, at least from one angle. Except it reads a little like the work of someone who hadn't really considered writing a book, and isn't quite sure how to go about it, which seems to be acknowledged in the apparent unreliability of the narrator. It's the kind of experiment which could have fallen to pieces, being a ponderous narrative weaving a path around a number of traumatic incidents which may or may not have occurred as described, but which at the end are revealed as integral to a profoundly solid text which only appears otherwise due to the exploratory theme of the whole. He's trying to make some sense of it all too. As with certain bits of Ramleh, it's never quite clear as to whether the noise is a scream, tinnitus, or simply deafening silence.

Amphetamine Sulphate have been at it for about a year, and their output has been astonishing - prolific whilst nevertheless maintaining the highest standards, no fuck ups or typos, no also-rans so far as I see; and Specialist Fabricator may even be the best yet, at least up there with Stupid Baby in going places you may not necessarily want to go, and breaking your heart in the process.

All this and only just into the second year.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Slavers of Space


John Brunner Slavers of Space (1960)
This was first published as the b-side to Dick's Dr. Futurity as part of an Ace Double. It's set in a universe wherein humanity is served by both robots and androids - the latter being biological servitors grown in a vat, approximately human but distinguished by their blue skin. You can probably tell where this is going, can't you?

This is my third Brunner of the sixties, and as with both Enigma From Tantalus and The Repairmen of Cyclops, something about either the tone, the pace, the situations, or the author's turn of phrase primes my mind's eye to visualise the narrative as Tom Baker era telly Who, albeit without Tom Baker; which is odd because Wikipedia mutters something about his fellow writers having considered him a little too heavily influenced by American science-fiction. Anyway, Slavers is paced oddly as though it wanted to be a big house novel in the vein of Jane Austen, with its main character belonging to a sort of futuristic plantation family, engaging in duels and Mardi Gras, then wandering off into space in hope of returning the wallet of a murdered man to his surviving relatives.

Those later Brunner novels I've read have been prone to a greater degree of soapboxery than I generally enjoy, because while it's nice when a book demonstrates a bit of a theme, even a social conscience, it's also nice when an author hasn't taken the readership to be the kind of morons who require everything spelled out in ten-foot high rainbow letters with Ben Elton stood to one side still cracking jokes about Thatcher. This one is about racism and inequality, you may be surprised to learn, but is problematic if we assume the blue-skinned androids to be a direct stand-in for Africans sold into slavery, which they clearly are. Our hero's curiosity is aroused when a human is murdered apparently while defending an android from a brutal assault. He accordingly develops a vague awareness of an android's lot being a perhaps less than happy one, then goes off into space in search of the murdered man's nearest and dearest, seemingly because he hasn't got anything better to do. Subsequent investigations reveal the uncomfortable possibility of certain androids being humans who've been dyed blue, brainwashed, and sold into slavery; and the big revelation at the end is that there's no such thing as an android, and the creatures we've been calling androids - and presumably have had wiping our arses for us all this time - are actually enslaved humans. So it's bad that we treated the androids like shit, but worse still that they're as human as we are.

Slavers of Space suffers for its fight against racism being waged with more than a faint whiff of Alan Partridge in the air, being mostly about our guy, lacking anything which engages directly with the minority with which Brunner seemingly expects us to sympathise, a minority which only eventually gets the benefit of empathy on our terms, namely just as soon as we've figured out that they're legitimately human. There are some nice images, and it's a long way from being anything you could describe as run of the mill, but still, there's something unsatisfying about this one, and I didn't much like the aftertaste.

Monday, 17 December 2018

The Revised Boy Scout Manual


William S. Burroughs The Revised Boy Scout Manual (2018)
I always assumed this to have been one of those many lovably cranky pamphlets Burroughs churned out between novels, remembered mainly as also by this author in the opening pages of books benefiting from a much larger print run; but weirdly, it turns out to have been a sort of ghost book of shifting composition, occasionally quoted but never printed in full until now. I first read the opening chapters in Re/Search magazine back in the eighties, in turn forming the impression of it simply having been some out of print obscurity.

This version Frankensteins an arguably definitive text from that which appeared in the aforementioned Re/Search, various typewritten manuscripts, and even three audio cassettes of Burroughs reading the whole thing out to his tape recorder just for a chuckle.

It might be pointed out that Burroughs can be kind of repetitive, begging the question of whether or not this really needs to exist given its focus on the usual themes. I'd say yes because where Burroughs is repetitive, it's usually something worth saying, and The Revised Boy Scout Manual says it very well in particularly concentrated form.

You need a scrambling device, TV, radio, two video cameras, a ham radio station and a simple photo studio with a few props and actors. For a start you scramble the news all together and spit it out every which way on ham radio and street recorders. You construct fake news broadcasts on video camera. For the pictures you can use mostly old footage. Mexico City will do for a riot in Saigon and vice versa… and you scramble your fabricated news in with actual news broadcasts.

You have an advantage which your opposing player does not have. He must conceal his manipulations. You are under no such necessity. In fact you can advertise the fact that you are writing news in advance and trying to make it happen by techniques which anybody can use.

The Revised Boy Scout Manual is a practical text analysing everything that's gone wrong with human civilisation and offering a series of proposals as to what we can do about it, despite that we're not the ones with the tanks or heavy artillery. As with much of Burroughs writing, instructional or analytical text makes frequent digressions into narrative form by way of illustration with a rhythm closer to thought than to a traditional monologue or address; and the question of where the satire ends and the reality begins is probably missing the point. Passages such as the one quoted above should illustrate just how prophetic Burroughs has been, and I would suggest that the world he describes here more strongly resembles our own than the one in which this book was written, 1970 or thereabouts.

If you only read one Burroughs book etc. etc...

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

The Star Wasps


Robert Moore Williams The Star Wasps (1963)
I've already spotted a pattern of certain themes running through what I've read by Robert Moore Williams, and Star Wasps ticks most of the boxes. Williams wrote what I've come to think of as theosophic science-fiction - for the sake of argument - and this one feels accordingly allegorical whilst making use of tropes commonly associated with certain types of schizophrenia - notably subterranean realms and ethereal beings visible only to a select few exerting a malign influence on humanity whilst moving among us undetected. The Star Wasps kicks off inside one of those pseudo-Babylonian towers reaching to heaven, in this case the headquarters of an omnipotent corporation which dominates human society in ways which reminded me a lot of the mechanised society in Vonnegut's Player Piano. A player piano significantly features in one scene and I'm inclined to wonder whether it might be an acknowledgement of just such an influence. Anyway, as with other Williams novels, we have the many-tiered tower of Babel, and also its subterranean inversion - although the caverns and tunnels which count for the purposes of this story are on the moon. The intermediary point is a bar incongruously styled as something from the old west and populated by characters who speak like people from movies of the thirties and forties - specifically outlaws, because naturally this is a novel about the resistance.

'I'm not so sure about that,' Mom answered. 'People learn to like their chains. Sometimes they fight you when you try to take their chains away from them.'

Robert Moore Williams was a man with certain psychiatric idiosyncrasies, many of which are revealed in the kind of stories he told, and the ways he tried to tell them. The Star Wasps is undeniably cranky with a distinctly dreamlike quality, actions which don't quite make sense, random narrative swerves, and things which never quite add up; the star wasps, for example - not once referred to by this name which appears nowhere in the text - are never fully explained, and never convincingly tied into whatever is going on.

On the other hand, Williams writes well enough to fool us into feeling as though we're getting a coherent story, and he makes up for continuity glitches with an atmosphere which remains arrestingly weird for the duration.

There were thousands of tunnels here, she had to be careful to pick the right turn. Vague memories of pictures illustrating Dante's Inferno in an old book flashed through her mind. Some of the people in the depths of hell the poet had visioned had been doomed to flee forever through dark and twisting tunnels like these caves under the moon's surface. There was something nightmarish about this situation. She felt like she was having a bad dream in which she was doomed to flee forever from something. There was also in this situation something of that terror that sometimes comes into the minds of young girls when they dream of snakes.

Never having been a young girl, I'm not sure I can really say anything useful about that last one.

This is the fifth I've read by this guy, and the fifth which, despite being about as nutty as they come, hasn't let me down. Whatever the hell Robert Moore Williams may have been about, I'd say he was potentially anything but just another forgotten pulp author hacking out tales of rocket ships and space monsters. His ambition clearly outstripped his ability in certain respects, but he was at least able to communicate something.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Small Talk at the Clinic


Thomas Moore & Steven Purtill Small Talk at the Clinic (2018)
I've never heard of either of them, but it seemed worth a punt given Amphetamine Sulphate's thus far exceptional track record combined with the ominous suggestion of this being a somewhat limited run, possibly due to it being a slightly more lavish production than usual, perfect bound with colour images.

The title seems to describe the form taken by the narrative rather than the promise of anything too literal - snatches of muttered conversation stripped of most context and perhaps a little more intimate than should be entirely comfortable. The text serves as written counterpart to the images, low resolution snatches of what may as well be webcam footage affording ominous glimpses of the someone's world, leaving ample gaps for horror within all of the information which has been left out. This is private mania described by that which the text excludes; and because this sort of focus places no onus on the authors - or perhaps even editors given that most of this reads like found material - to nail anything to a specific set of descriptions, it would seem to communicate a truly universal experience; which may actually be the most hopelessly pretentious sentence I've ever written, but never mind.

Small Talk at the Clinic works a little like poetry, a little like film, and somehow achieves a terrifying intensity without really seeming to do much - and to the point that I was kind of relieved to come to the end of the thing, but in a good way, I think.

I spend quite a lot of time proofing and editing my own shite, whipping it into shape for publication in forms which hardly anyone will buy but which nevertheless give me a sense of purpose and make me happy. I therefore appreciate that book publishing takes a lot of time and hard work when you're doing it yourself, so each time a new Amphetamine Sulphate title appears, my flabber has grown increasingly and exponentially ghasted. The quality and quantity they have maintained in terms of both production and material has been exceptional, and it's still their first year.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Our Children's Children


Clifford D. Simak Our Children's Children (1974)
The entire human race from five-hundred years in the future take refuge in the present, fleeing voracious alien monsters which will one day visit themselves upon our world. This presents a number of problems: the impossibility of clothing, feeding and housing several billion refugees, and the fact of the aforementioned voracious alien monsters having followed them back through their time tunnels. On top of this, there's also the matter that we weren't doing that great even before all these people turned up, what with the environment and everything. The solution seems to be using the time tunnels of our visitors to relocate humanity back to the pre-technological idyll of the Miocene era.

Our Children's Children is a fairly typical Simak, thematically speaking - strong ecological message, everything used to be better than it is now, and so on and so forth.



The problem is that the story is relayed by much the same method as that which kept Roy of the Rovers ticking along all those years, with those two anonymous blokes in the crowd helpfully describing what's happening on the pitch. Here we have presidential types and generals filling entire chapters with so much exposition that it reads like a play; also, an intrepid reporter - who may as well have been called something like Scoops Jackson - talking about stuff with his photographer. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of the kind of descriptive pastoral narrative at which Simak usually excels, and what little we have features angry kids protesting outside the White House while waving handily explanatory placards, just like you might see on the cover of a sixties Superman comic.

I don't know what went wrong here. The idea itself isn't bad - although the explanation of the nature of the voracious alien monsters is so pitifully shabby* that it could have come from a Russell T. Davies episode of Who. Simak did this about a thousand times better in The Visitors, and in almost all of his other novels, come to think of it. Our Children's Children isn't irredeemable, but it's not great by any description.

*: They're dinosaurs, and the time travelling events of the novel may serve to explain how they ended up back in the Cretaceous in the first place, or summink.

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Third Hotel


Laura Van Den Berg The Third Hotel (2018)
Here's a strange one, the story of Clare, a grieving woman who, having lost her husband, attends a film festival in Havana with the vicarious intent of immersing herself in the obsessions of her late partner, specifically his interest in the moving image and in particular a Cuban horror movie called Revolución Zombi. As may be apparent from the title, it's a zombie flick which seems to be echoed in Clare's own life as she spots her husband, alive, well, and hanging out around the film festival.

At this point it could all have gone horribly wrong, except it's not actually that sort of novel. Van Den Berg eschews the use of inverted commas to distinguish dialogue, blending spoken word in with the body of the text so that all which Clare experiences is presented as part of her psychological reaction to whatever the hell is going on; so we don't really learn whether the hubby returned from beyond the grave is actually happening, because it doesn't matter. Clare's progress is reported as though it might be a film she's watching, registering a degree of separation from her own existence underscored by all the metaphors and allusions to cinematic horror conventions, which is almost certainly intentional. It therefore reads a little like a written equivalent of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, in which we have ideas and possibilities rather than concrete events in conventional sequence.

At her laptop, she would think back to Revolución Zombi, the hero's plan to record the zombie apocalypse and put it up for sale, about all the curious worlds that would have been exposed in the background, all the unseen corners pulled into the light. When a person did not know they were being watched, what they would do when they believed themselves to be in a state of true privacy—that was the lure of found footage, that clarification of human mystery, and that was why surveillance was so lethal; a true erosion of privacy inevitably led to an erosion of self.

This is a story told out of the corner of one eye, in a manner of speaking, something which couldn't be communicated with a clearer focus or a more linear narrative - as desired by those online critics who apparently expected something tidier and probably more in the line of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Third Hotel might almost be considered an existential novel, and as such succeeds in spite of occasional pop culture references which otherwise usually reduce everything to smug post-modernism. The reader is required to undertake some of the heavy-lifting, but that's why it works so beautifully.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Zen Gun


Barrington J. Bayley The Zen Gun (1983)
My friend Carl reports having read at least one stinker by the otherwise mostly wonderful Bayley. I keep on spinning that barrel but this game of used book roulette has thus far been kind to me where Bayley is concerned, and continues to be approximately kind with The Zen Gun. It's not a terribly ambitious novel in so much as that it's essentially yer basic space opera of a type which you can see would have looked good on the CV when Bayley pitched his Warhammer 40,000 tale. We have a galactic empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, and something wrong with reality, but the joy is in the peculiarly nutty wallpaper with which he decorates this basic structure. Starting at the bottom, Bayley has rewritten the laws of physics in terms of such complexity as to warrant a separate essay on the subject; and he's repopulated the resulting cosmos with both talking animals and a human race in which anyone over the age of seven is considered adult; and in case you were wondering, the ultimate weapon is made of wood. Pout, a creature combining the genetic material of the entire primate family, first uses said weapon to tweak the nipples of a woman he secretly watches through her bedroom window.

It's nothing life changing, but it's enthusiastically weird and fun, and you can see why Moorcock held him in such high regard.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Empire of the Atom


A.E. van Vogt Empire of the Atom (1947)
Empire of the Atom, published in 1956, is a fix-up of five short stories originally published within eighteen months of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's a sequel, The Wizard of Linn, which was actually one of the first van Vogts I read, but I can't remember much about it and I don't think it made any strong impression on me; so I came to this more or less blind. In fact, based on the title, I had always imagined it would be some sort of subatomic precursor to Stephen Baxter's Flux.

Anyway the existence of the atom bomb clearly brought about a significant rethink in popular culture, representing a moment in which the world and the course of the future lost its established cohesion, and science-fiction authors realised it might not turn out quite so shiny as Hugo Gernsback would have had us believe. Without actually bothering to check, beyond noting that John Wyndham's Chrysalids was published in 1955, I suspect that Empire must surely have been amongst the earliest projections of life after the atomic bomb. A.E. van Vogt tended to examine his subject in terms of the biggest picture possible, so it makes sense that he should depict our post-nuclear future as something dynastic, something grand on the scale of the rise and fall of the Roman empire. To this end, Empire of the Atom is, more or less, van Vogt's Slan mashed up with Robert Graves' I, Claudius, even to the point of including a dynastic family tree as preface.

I'm afraid I don't actually remember Claudius in any great detail, although this may have helped more than it hindered, but van Vogt's take is fairly compelling with a deformed mutant offspring standing in for the stammering historian, trying to get by within a court of scheming relatives. The star of the book, however, seems to be its environment, an ingenious hybrid where those left with only bows and arrows in the wake of atomic collapse are nevertheless able to fly what spacecraft have survived the disaster miraculously intact, waging war between Venus, Mars and even colonies on the moons of Jupiter.

The tale is told with a certain gravity through van Vogt eschewing his usual disorientating literary techniques in favour of a more classical style. I've a feeling it makes some fairly profound statement about humanity repeatedly kicking itself up the arse, but I seem to be the only person who noticed so I probably imagined it; because for all its promise, while Empire of the Atom is certainly respectable, it's some way short of van Vogt's best. On the other hand, that he managed to pull off such a ludicrous premise at all speaks volumes about the man and his enduringly underrated talent.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Deadpool Classic volume one


Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid & others
Deadpool Classic volume one (1997)
Having decided Deadpool wasn't for me, I quickly expunged this first volume from my Amazon wish list, but apparently not quick enough given the temporal proximity of my birthday. Oh well, I thought, I'll give it to the kid - no doubt he'll think it's amazing, although I dutifully had a quick look, seeing as how it was a birthday present and all.

This one reprints Deadpool's first appearance in an impressively fucking awful issue of New Mutants, then a couple of four-issue limited series, and then the debut issue of the animé balloon animal version with which I am already unfortunately familiar.

I quite enjoyed Fabian Nicieza's Psi-Force at the time, and would say he scored above average as a writer of caped stuff providing you don't object to a certain reliance upon generically embittered mercenaries as narrative pivot; and most of this collection is rooted firmly in the nineties, so it's mostly wisecracking assassination and grimacing men with too many scratchy lines on their faces. Yet somehow I found I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and certainly more than the more recent, arguably more imaginative version. I suspect this is because Deadpool simply works better as an unreconstructed Judas Priest album with jokes. Tarting up as violent, ironic Archie only serves to accentuate the flaws of both the character and the genre Deadpool inhabits. It feels thoroughly self-conscious, and at least as grave a mistake as going the other way and doing a Watchmen.

You were better when you were crap, to borrow the chorus of an old song by the Dovers.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾


Sue Townsend The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1982)
I had the first two Adrian Mole books back when I was about the same age as the protagonist. I've now bought them again - my childhood copies having gone the way of my back issues of the Topper, amongst other things - initially so as to take the piss out of Alan Moore*, but also due to the inevitable burst of nostalgia which is apparently common amongst persons of my age. I was just going to read the thing. I couldn't see the point of writing the usual review, and yet here we are…

As I got older, I lost the desire to ever re-read Adrian Mole just as I lost the desire to revisit novels by Douglas Adams or Ben Elton. They seemed like books I'd read before I really read anything. It wasn't that I didn't read as a kid but, excepting stuff I was forced to read at school, it was rare that I read anything either lacking pictures or not directly tied into a TV show. It's therefore probably odd that I never really warmed to either the Mole television adaptation or all of those sequels, The Prostrate Years and so on, all of which seemed like a massive overegging of the pudding.

Coming back to this one now, I realise that not only was Adrian Mole the Harry Potter of my generation - and tellingly rooted in social realism rather than recycled nostalgia - but that he's aged extremely well, possibly because the book is so firmly rooted in its era, and specifically in the problems of its era; also because it's darkly amusing. Adrian's popularity after the fact has somehow given me cause to remember Mole as part of the same twee aspirationally middle-class chortleplex as the works of Jilly Cooper and Carla Lane, but it seems I was mistaken. Townsend, it turns out, had a hard, ordinary life, and most of Mole's troubles are drawn from direct, uncomfortable experience. What I somehow recalled as a series of zingers and not much more, is actually surprisingly gripping, poignant, and still, after all these years, very funny.

My own parents separated at some point not too long after I first read Mole, and with hindsight, the parallels border so much on the uncanny that I can't help wonder whether whoever gave me this for Christmas or my birthday - or whatever - felt it might somehow prepare me for things to come; and maybe it did.

*: The observations of Jake Butcher, as quoted here, are from the novel Adrian tries to write in Growing Pains - just in case anyone thought that was actually from Jerusalem.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Children of the Void


William Dexter Children of the Void (1955)
With Children of the Void, I think I've finally identified a previously unrecognised science-fiction subgenre. I'm tentatively naming it Theosophic science-fiction, in reference to its scrambling towards some image of a cosmos subject to the secretive or otherwise hidden influence of a Godlike figure or figures. Characteristic of the genre - and which arguably excludes Philip K. Dick, although he's clearly related - are novels of occasionally allegorical persuasion utilising science-fiction tropes as support for what otherwise reads like mythology, and making frequent use of telepathy, subterranean realms, idealised or angelic alien visitors, mind control exerted by unknown forces, and other conditions commonly associated with certain forms of schizophrenia. So far I have William Dexter, Richard S. Shaver, and Robert Moore Williams on the list, and George Adamski's accounts of trips aboard flying saucers tick most of the same boxes - keeping in mind here that Shaver similarly claims the events described in his fiction to have actually happened to him. It's been a while since I read Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race but I've a feeling it may also count.

Without getting bogged down in what some other fucker is welcome to write up for Wikipedia if they care that much, I'm not proposing that Theosophic science-fiction should be considered an actual school so much as that it's a distinct type just as Menippean satire is a distinct type, the essence of which can be distilled to A.E. van Vogt rewriting Madam Blavatsky, or thereabouts; so it's arguably cranky, and may count as outsider art in so far as that it's never going to achieve the relative respectability of Asimov or Clarke - although 2001 might have made the list had Arthur thought to include an underground race of mole-people.

I resent the term outsider art, but we're generally talking about novels which may eschew certain literary or grammatic conventions to tell stories with a peculiar dream-like quality not unlike those of the aforementioned van Vogt. It is this quality, often dismissed as a basic inability to tell a coherent tale, which has marginalised the authors under consideration, possibly meaning that I'm the first to attempt to define this thing as an actual literary tradition, and I suggest that it's worth defining as a literary tradition - albeit a vague one - for the sake of discussion. These books have elements in common, not least that they make for very weird reading. I like it very much when a novel surprises me, and Shaver, Dexter, and Williams score very high in this respect.

Anyway, this one came to my attention when someone took the piss out of its admittedly ludicrous cover art on Tumblr, or one of those things - as you will see if you scroll to the foot of the page. It made me laugh but I felt sorry for the book, and a little research revealed it to have formerly been Children of the Void by one William Dexter, rather than Zorgo the Red's Come Be My Friend. Sadly, it seems Dexter's publishers weren't significantly more respectful of his art than whoever mocked up Come Be My Friend. The bat-winged creatures of the planet Varang-Varang are eight rather than hundreds of feet tall, and both front and back cover blurb refer to Earth torn from its orbit and sent hurtling through space. Not only does this not happen in the novel, but it's not even referenced as anything likely, so they were probably thinking of the aforementioned Varang-Varang, upon which our heroes spend some time, and which has enjoyed an unpredictable orbit.

As with World in Eclipse, to which this is the sequel, here we have a fairly straightforward morality tale about how it's good to not blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, in this case expanding the idea to suggest that despite our differences, we're all brothers, that we're all - quite literally - children of the void. This understanding is achieved through a series of scrapes and encounters experienced by Denis Grafton, our narrator, as he travels between worlds in a flying saucer piloted by creatures called the Nagani. They become lost in the tunnels beneath the surface of the near dead world Varang-Varang, then escape to an Earth depopulated by the events of the previous novel - specifically to Crystal Palace and south-east London, which was nice for me seeing as that's my old manor. The Anerley Road even gets a mention.

I would guess that Dexter was inspired by either Wells or Wyndham, as his prose has some of the same qualities, sober or even stately whilst retaining a conversational tone. The story is narrated very much in the style of a travelogue, even incorporating peculiar references to the typewriter our man has on board the Nagani saucer; and as with van Vogt, there's a sense of constant motion combined with a disorientating absence of focus. We're never quite sure where the story is going, or what anyone is trying to achieve, but the pace is such that this never becomes a problem. Children of the Void is one of the weirder things I've read this year, and it came as an immense pleasure after the turgid and surprisingly predictable plod through Alan Moore's Jerusalem.



Monday, 12 November 2018

Deadpool Classic volume two


Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness & others Deadpool Classic volume two (1997)
Deadpool was part of what drove me away from the caped stuff back in the very early nineties, one of a number of generic vigilante types surfing in on a wave of witless wisecracks and terrible art courtesy of Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and others. Years later I found myself bewildered from afar to note the popularity of a character I remembered only as one of many reasons why it didn't matter that Marvel had cancelled New Mutants. Still, my stepson seemed to be very much a fan, and against expectation I thought the film was fucking great, and my friend Steve suggested that the early issues were worth a look.

I had this collection on hand for the sake of light relief whilst wading through Alan Moore's turgid Jerusalem - not a great choice as it happens. The jokes aren't anything like so funny as I hoped, and the art is horrible. Everyone looks as though they're made of brightly coloured beach balls. It's drawn in that cutesy manga style which infects fucking everything these days. Half of the characters resemble a WeeMee or something from Deadline. It all feels like the comic book equivalent of autotune.

Maybe I'm just too old.

Maybe Deadpool just isn't very good after all.

You live and learn.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Jerusalem


Alan Moore Jerusalem (2016)
I get the impression that Jerusalem is Alan Moore finishing off Big Numbers in so much as that it attempts to show how the big picture of human experience is recursive, and is therefore made up of a lot of similar smaller pictures. Except it seems he's changed his mind about free will since Big Numbers and is no longer convinced of there being such a thing. He did it better in Voice of the Fire, and he did it better because Voice of the Fire was snappier and made no assumptions about our willingness to hang onto its every last utterance.

Jerusalem is apparently over six-hundred thousand words, which places it in the category of being a book which many people will never finish; additionally, their reasons for bailing out will, in certain cases, be reduced to because it was too long and you're too thick by those who made it to the very end and have taken to advertising this victory with evangelical fervour. Some of the quality of this novel, as defined by both its admirers and its critics, will therefore be determined by volume alone, which I can't help feel may have been a deliberate attempt to place it beyond criticism; because, as we have established, the best records ever made were prog rock triple albums, and they were the best because they were the biggest and most complicated.

Oh well.

For the most part, Jerusalem isn't a difficult read, just a laboriously lengthy one, and slightly overwritten in places as though fearful of simplicity, perhaps equating straightforward descriptive prose with an inability to carry complex or otherwise florid information. The first of the three books into which the novel divides is mostly soap opera and the roughly psychogeographical mapping of a territory - specifically Northampton and its working class without presenting too much of a rose-tinted spectacle.

The public had an appetite for sadness and for sentiment, and what they saw as all the colour of the worse-off classes, but nobody liked the taste of squalor. The Inebriate went down a treat for just so long as he was hanging around a lamppost, talking to it like a pal. The skit was cut off long before he shit his trousers or went home and put his wife in the infirmary by belting her until she couldn't walk.

This first book introduces the idea which runs throughout the novel, namely that Northampton is the centre of the universe, or at least human civilisation, whilst shoehorning London and Lambeth into the picture presumably by virtue of association with Alan Moore's family history - because a lot of this is patently autobiographical. It's an engaging, even convincing idea, providing we're allowed to read it as allegory.

It should probably be noted for the benefit of transatlantic readers, or anyone else who remains uncertain of the facts, that Northampton actually isn't at the geographical centre of the country, despite that it would make for a pretty pattern if it were. The geographical centre is Fenny Drayton, some forty miles distant and much nearer to Coventry. I could rewrite the same novel about the importance of Coventry in terms of world history because that's where I'm from, broadly speaking. I grew up on the farm where they filmed Teletubbies, my mum's best friend married the brother of a Beatle, Hitler bombed Coventry, and my wife is related to Johnny Cash by marriage, so you can see how it all revolves around me.

Wooooooo…

Anyway, it's magical thinking which makes for an interesting foundation upon which to build an argument, but otherwise reads a little like an expression of virtues found in a failure to engage with the wider world. It's parochial, but I suppose that's the point. Snowy Vernall - the ancestral Atlas holding up this particular narrative globe and presumably Alan's great grandfather - is basically Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, and Jerusalem is the story of the Moore dynasty and how it reached its peak in the wonderful person of our humble narrator.

Perhaps the only meaning that events had was the meaning that we brought to them, but even knowing this was probably the case, it frankly wasn't that much help. It didn't stop us chasing after meaning, scrabbling like ferrets for it through a maze of burrows in our thoughts and sometimes getting lost down in the dark.

I was bored by chapter ten, Hark! The Glad Sound!, and took to skimming. The characters simply aren't very interesting, and the weight of like as nots and persons who prefix every address with our becomes more and more aggravating, our Jack, our Percy, our Alma. It began to remind me of Alan Bennett, or conversations with certain professional northerners, specifically individuals whose smile always told me what they were thinking before even a word had been said: that it would be a rare pleasure for myself, evidently someone southern and of lesser substance, to bask in the radiance of such earthy wisdom, forged under t't circumstances more real than tha could ever comprehend, our Lawrence. Jerusalem began to remind me of conversations with my dad which weren't really conversations - a polite enquiry as to whether he'd been out on his motorbike met with a droning forty minute lecture on motorcycling, the state of the roads, and a blow by blow account of buying a new gasket from some bloke down in that London.

It picks up a little in book two before settling into the almost adventures of a ghostly version of the Famous Five, who time travel to various pivotal moments in the history of Northampton in order to have conversations about the global import of what they're looking at.

The third book opens in self-aware fashion by proposing that the reader has begun to lose interest, or has at least found some of the first book something of a plod, suggesting either that Moore is a good judge of his own work, or - more depressingly - that he purposefully wrote the first book as a plod and that the novel has been written as an endurance test. This is also the point at which he just comes right out and says it in the chapter A Cold and Frosty Morning with a day in the life of Alma, our thinly veiled author substitute. Alma has enjoyed more or less the same life as Moore but founded on art rather than comic books, inexplicably shares the same famous friends, and is subject to three media interviews a week. She shares Moore's preoccupations, and complete strangers routinely congratulate her on a painting they really liked - Lookpersons, The Murdering Limerick, or R for Revenge - or examples which feel at least as ludicrous as those I've invented here for the sake of a chuckle. It's all a bit Richard Stilgoe, all a bit pleased with itself, and the novel goes from being Adrian Mole…

Jake Butcher closed his eyes against the cruel wind that whistled over the paving slabs of the deserted shopping precinct. His cigarette dropped with a curse from his lips.

'Damn' he expectorated.

It was his last cigarette. He ground the forlorn fag under the sole of his trusty Doctor Marten's boot. He dug both fists into the womb-like pockets of his anorak, and with his remaining hand he adjusted the fastening on his Adidas sports bag.

Just then a sudden shaft of bright sunlight illuminated the windows of Tesco's. 'Christ,' said Jake to himself, 'those windows are the same yellow as in Van Gogh's sunflower painting!' Thus ruminating on art and culture, did Jake pass the time.

Quite soon a sudden clap of thunder announced itself. 'Christ,' said Jake, 'that thunder sounds like the cannons in the 1812 Symphony.'

He bitterly drew his anorak hood over his head, as raindrops like giant's tears fell on to the concrete wasteland. 'What am I doing here?' questioned Jake to himself. 'Why did I come?' he anguished. 'Where am I going?' he agonised. Just then a sudden rainbow appeared.

'Christ,' said Jake, 'that rainbow looks like...'

…to being - Huitzilopochtli help us - an arguably more poetic take on Grant Morrison's near-unreadable Supergods, all famous friends randomly encountered whilst contemplating the genesis of this or that particular idea what I had, and which was brilliant even though I say so myself, which I do.

Alma smiles now at the memory as she enters the bank. The critics and sometimes admirers who describe her as eccentric really haven't got the first idea.

Which isn't to say that there isn't some point to all of this.

Alma, who makes little distinction between internal and external reality, doesn't much care if the Destructor in her brother's vision is the awful supernatural force that he described it as, or if it's some hallucinatory and visionary metaphor. As Alma sees things, it's the metaphors that do all the most serious damage: Jews as rats, or car-thieves as hyenas. Asian countries as a line of dominoes that communist ideas could topple. Workers thinking of themselves as cogs in a machine, creationists imagining existence as a Swiss watch mechanism and then presupposing a white-haired and twinkle-eyed old clockmaker behind it all.

See, beyond all the self-mythologising, that's the core of what the book seems to be saying. Certainly it's something worth saying, but - as you will have noticed - here he's said it in a single paragraph, which begs the question of why this needed to be six-hundred thousand words, aside from some hypothetical need to make Supergods look like a pamphlet.

Ultimately, Jerusalem is a defence of the working class and those customarily on the receiving end of unfortunate metaphors. I approve on principle, although as an actual working class myself, I feel compelled to point out that many of us often experience a feeling of unease when free expression drama groups take to speaking up on our behalf, because they usually get it wrong through having missed certain details implicit in the term working. At the risk of engaging with an admittedly tiresome more downtrodden than thou dialogue, while it's nice that there are arts labs to put on plays about our sorry lot, maybe get back to me when you've done a couple of decades behind the till at Tesco or turning a fucking spigot on and off for eight hours a day.

She recalls the last time that she'd had Melinda Gebbie over for a memorable meal during which the expatriate American provided an unanswerable critique of Tracy Emin's work which Alma wishes that she'd said herself: 'My God, can you imagine being able to fit all the names of everybody you ever slept with in a tent?' Alma had gaped for a few moments and then soberly put forward her suggestion for capacious venues that might just about accommodate Melinda's list. The Parthenon, Westminster Abbey, China, Jupiter.

Oh my sides!

You should have been there!

It was hilarious!

Leaving aside that the Parthenon, Westminster Abbey, China, Jupiter, isn't a sentence, it's important to let people know you've had a lot of sexual intercourse, because that means that you're doing it, and that you're awesome, and that you're not saaaaaaad. The best people will always tell you that they've had a lot of sexual intercourse.

One of my closest friends died a virgin at the age of forty. You could have sewn his list in an Action Man tent, and he's dead!

What a loser! Ha ha!

I also like that this discussion about the pitiful state of contemporary art bravely flies in the face of popular opinion by daringly taking a pop at Traci Emin, the very opposite of an easy target.

I'm being sarcastic.

This one niggles on a more personal level, regardless of my agreeing with what Moore has to say about contemporary art, because I knew Traci back in the day, and actually she was a pretty fucking great painter prior to reinvention as someone who doesn't make beds, and if we're going to argue by naming famous friends with all the reckless abandon of a Grant Morrison autobiography, then I don't see why I should be expected to hold back. I didn't know Traci in the sense of ending up named and shamed in the dreaded tent, and truthfully the woman could be a bit cunty at times - although usually in a very entertaining way - but at least you can have a laugh with Traci, and I prefer even her wankiest art to Melinda Gebbie's twee, whispy renditions of illustrations from community information posters of the seventies, even though she's clearly had a lot more sexual intercourse.

Therefore nyer.

Anyway, I couldn't be arsed to trudge through the James Joyce tribute. The first nine-hundred or so pages had failed to reward the effort taken to unscramble any of their more obtuse passages, so I skipped the not for thickies chapter and it could have been fucking amazing for all I know. I finally stalled completely at Eating Flowers, another serving of impenetrable overwritten gibberish immediately following on from The Steps of All Saints, a chapter written as a play which seems to suggest that whilst rape and incest may be terrible, they should be considered inconsequential evils in the great scheme of things, and that we need to get over it because existence is amazing, regardless.

That there's anything alive at all to interfere with its own children; that there's children; that there's sexual interference; that we can feel misery. The way I see it, on the whole there's not much to complain about. It's heaven. Even in a concentration camp or when you're getting beaten up and raped, even if it's an off day, it's still heaven.

I doubt whether this directly addresses those of Moore's critics who have noticed his repeated use of rape as a narrative pivot, but between this and the increasingly wearisome character of Alma, I found it difficult to shake off the idea that this might be Alan engaging in a little mansplaining. I realise he's not technically female, but maybe he slipped on a pair of the wife's knickers during some ghastly threesome or summink, so - you know - he's probably developed some very real and profound understanding of what it's like to have a fanny and that.

The most surprising revelation - at least for me - is that Moore simply isn't a particularly good writer; not to say that he's terrible, but I can't tell if he realises that he isn't writing a comic strip, and so he commits all manner of basic errors of both composition and judgement, not least being those aspirationally filmic non-sentences deployed in submission of dramatic lists. Portentous lists. Lists constituting the written equivalent of Brian Blessed enunciating Shakespeare through a digital delay. He additionally does a lot of that Adrian Mole thing to which I referred earlier, with characters engaged in some heart-warmingly working class activity whilst thinking about what Plato said in The Republic, effortfully segueing into a twenty page essay dissecting Plato's assertion.

Gay or not, the Knight's Templar clearly aren't the first people to think of folding money - Roman reckons that he can remember something about paper notes in seventh century China…

Yes, what do you think, Roman?

Given how Jerusalem is such a big one - sort of on the scale of a really massive penis* in the trousers of a mighty man who knows how to use it, and uses it a lot, if you know what I'm saying - I doubt it can have been subject to the same level of tidying up as either Voices of the Fire, or indeed almost every other novel ever published; but never mind. Just feel the girth.

Otherwise there you have it, and even without getting bogged down in Jerusalem as a hymn to how everything was nicer in the old days, back when everything was better than it is now; which is a viewpoint I can at least understand, even if I don't entirely agree.

Capitalism is certainly worse than it used to be, and I'd say the rest is most likely an illusion born of swifter, more efficient transmission of signals, meaning it's now much easier to drown in crap than has ever before been the case. On the other hand, it's now possible to be openly homosexual at school without having one's head stoved in on a daily basis, and the global horrors which once escaped our attention are now, if nothing else, at least widely known and understood. One of my stepson's classmates came out as transgender a couple of years ago. I think she was eleven at the time, and we're talking about a school of distinctly religious emphasis in Texas. A number of parents inevitably complained, and the school principal, one of the most overtly religious men I have ever met, told them to fuck off, albeit not with those actual words.

The notion that the past was better is essentially that what we didn't know didn't hurt us. It's just as insular as Jerusalem, a novel which places a single town at the heart of the map of the universe then throws away its own passport. If Quetzalcoatl taught us anything, it is that only change is permanent, and that very little is ever better or worse in the great scheme of things, only different - apart from the work of Alan Moore, which definitely used to be better.

*: Hampton is Cockney rhyming slang for penis, from Hampton Wick. On reflection, I'm actually surprised that Moore didn't write a whole fucking chapter exploring this particular parallel - the mighty penis of the north fertilising the globe with the spunk of destiny, our James Joyce, and so on and so forth. Maybe that's covered later on in the two-hundred pages I didn't read.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Scum


Alex Binnie Scum (1984)
I know of Alex Binnie only from Pure, an arguably seminal group who never quite emerged from the formative power electronics scene, but who contributed a couple of reasonably devastating tracks to Broken Flag's Statement album, of which No's Knife was lyrically and thematically similar to this book. Scum was first published in 1984 and, according to the cover, was originally written to be read aloud at punk poetry events Binnie performed at with the likes of Kathy Acker. It's essentially a thirty page nihilist monologue viciously illustrating the futility of everything, ultimately including itself. It could probably be considered a tough read if you're not already accustomed to writing quite so happy to stick it in and wiggle it around a bit, but there's a certain poetry to the kicking it delivers with such ruthless enthusiasm, almost a suggestion of contemplative tendencies and a sense of progress, if you've been paying attention. Scum has thought about what it's doing, and it really isn't just some heavy metal fan trying to gross you out with a list of horrible things. This additionally means that it's actually surprisingly readable for something so defiantly astringent, although we should probably be glad that it isn't any longer.

For anyone with a genuine interest in the history of that which certain clowns have apparently decided constitutes industrial music, this is an arguably important tract*, or at least important in so much as that anything can ever be considered important.

Someone needs to reissue that Pure material in some form.

*: If you're able to answer questions such as which was the best Skinny Puppy album? then it's probably not for you, me old sausage.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Last Interview


Philip K. Dick & David Streitfeld (editor) The Last Interview (2015)
I'd told myself I wasn't going to buy any more books until I'd got through the thirteen or so left on my to be read pile, seeing as said pile has been up in the forties and fifties for the best part of the last three years; and there I was so close to beating the thing, and soon I would know the joy of being able to buy a book and just start reading the fucker right there; but we were in Austin and this was too much to resist, particularly as I was previously unaware of its existence.

I have copies of a couple of the tapes from which some of this material is taken, but here we have the benefit of an editor to cut through the awkward pauses, mumbling, and background noise of Mrs. Dick putting on the chip pan to make Phil's tea; so mostly this is concentrated Dick, in a manner of speaking, and is as such gripping. Most of the really crazy stuff is thankfully limited to the final interview, and the majority of what is reproduced here spans his somewhat more lucid phases of the seventies. What has surprised me the most is that my impression of the man has shifted once again after reading this collection, and slightly for the better. His wearying attitude to women as being either embittered controlling harridans or else dark-haired versions of magic pixie girl but with bigger tits seems a thankfully lesser aspect of his psychology, as it is revealed here, and he was, if anything, a man who understood his own failings. Additionally, the extent and development of his blossoming psychosis seems well mapped, dispensing with the customarily overstated ambiguity of how much of that stuff he really believed and by what criteria. So for most of the page count, he comes across as interesting and likable, and of such genuine insight as to warrant all that is claimed by his posthumous reputation. Only at the end, in the final interview, do we meet a version of Phil pretty much consumed by his own mania, and we can almost sense the interviewer desperately wanting to get away; which makes it all the more terrible when we come to the last page and discover that Dick suffered a stroke the very next day, never spoke again, and would be dead within a couple of weeks. It's as though we've been allowed a final snapshot of the point at which his own consciousness began to eat him alive.

Dick's posthumous reputation has been so inflated in recent years - partially thanks to the tsunami of dubious blue and orange adaptations for film and television - that the backlash was inevitable, particularly as he was a flawed individual in certain respects, as are many of us. So it's good to be reminded that, regardless of anything else, he remains amongst the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

The Space Merchants


Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth The Space Merchants (1952)
It has been impressed upon me for the last couple of years, or at least since I read New Maps of Hell, that this was the Kornbluth collaboration I really needed to read. I therefore kept looking, despite A Mile Beyond the Moon and others; and at last, here we are.

I thought it would be funnier, and I'm not sure it entirely lives up to expectations - although my expectations were fairly nebulous - but otherwise, yes - I can see that the hype is at least partially justified. Written in the fifties, The Space Merchants predicts a future which has turned out unfortunately like the present and, oddly, foreshadows Philip K. Dick's projections of where capitalism was headed - could be either the influence of this book or great minds thinking alike. Where Dick would incorporate the occasional scene of advertising drones attaching themselves to the hood of one's flying car and attempting to sell you toothpaste while you're trying to concentrate on driving, here the emphasis is much heavier, darker, arguably more sarcastic - maybe like a more overtly dystopian take on Mad Men.

The writing is lively and literate without ever quite crossing over into the jabbering of which Kornbluth was occasionally guilty, and it has the feel of one of those science-fiction novels you can usually smuggle in under the radar of those who might ordinarily wrinkle noses unless it's Wells or Wyndham. Our tale relates the story of an advertising executive who falls from grace and ends up fighting for survival at the bottom end of the economic totem pole, a victim of those forces he once helped perpetuate. Inevitably, his fall from grace brings an awakening, although I have to admit I found the last quarter - from chapter fourteen onwards - a little bewildering and hence unsatisfying in comparison with that which went before, although not enough so as to diminish the whole.

As an aside, the suffering underclass here depicted as justifiably disgruntled bordering on heroic suggests that Kornbluth's supposed sympathy for eugenics - as implied by The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag - is far from being so cut and dried an argument as his critics have alleged. For my taste The Space Merchants could have used a bit more atmosphere, but it's otherwise decent.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Violent Man


A.E. van Vogt The Violent Man (1962)
Although he never quite retired from bolting old short stories together as occasionally bewildering fix-up novels, The Violent Man was apparently van Vogt's first original book in twelve years. Curiously, it isn't science-fiction, and in writing it he clearly held back a few of his weirder, more disorientating compositional techniques, so I'm inclined to wonder whether this might not have been a bid for  mainstream success, or at least an attempt to elevate himself from the ghetto of science-fiction publishing.

That said, van Vogt's focus remains very much on themes which inform his science-fiction. In fact, the success of the novel is that he's covering old thematic ground, but for once it's fairly clear what he's trying to say.

Curiously, The Violent Man reminds me a little of Philip K. Dick's Gather Yourselves Together. Both novels are set in Communist China within self-contained communities isolated from the outside world, and you might argue that both approximately foreshadow certain aspects of Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner. Gather Yourselves Together was written a couple of years earlier, but was unpublished until fairly recently, so the similarities serve mainly as indicative of how much the two writers had in common, although it's doubtless significant that Dick had been reading van Vogt since he was twelve.

Two major preoccupations of van Vogt's later books are the totalitarian state and sexual inequality, and these combine in this novel with an examination of his primary obsession, the thought process itself - as has so often been examined through his interest in mind control, Korzybski's general semantics, and even L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics to some extent. Our story maroons a man named Ruxton in a prison compound as part of something called Project Future Victory, which aspires to turn unwilling test subjects into loyal Communists, specifically to educate them in such a way as to result in their embracing Communism of their own free will. Impressively, van Vogt gives a good impression of having done his homework with regard to Communist China, and if his narrative voice has often seemed to lean a little to the right with vaguely libertarian tendencies, here he remains relatively impartial in detailing the benefits of both Communist and capitalist systems whilst condemning shortcomings and inequalities on both sides of the fence. I don't personally agree with everything he seems to conclude, but the apparent absence of dogma is refreshing.

Similarly, van Vogt's later attempts to discuss what he regards as sexual inequality have generally been poorly argued at best, and profoundly troubling at worst, and yet here he manages to communicate his point very well. It still boils down to a general sense of exasperation at women not wanting to shag him as much as he wants to shag them, but in The Violent Man he strikes out and makes some effort to deal with female emancipation and to embrace a feminist perspective, so it comes across less like the creepy muttering of some dude in his mother's basement.

Somehow all of this is knitted together within the story of our man attempting to survive in what is more or less a concentration camp, told with van Vogt's characteristic focus on the psychological undercurrents of the tale; and while it may not be the greatest book I've read and probably isn't entirely successful in every respect, its ambition is tremendous, and van Vogt comes so very close to pulling it off. If ever proof were needed that the man really could write when he wanted to - meaning those weirder books came out that way by deliberation rather than because that was all he knew how to do - then it's right here in The Violent Man; and to be honest, as a discussion of ethics, morality and all of that good stuff, it not only pisses all over Crime and Punishment, but identifies a lot of what's wrong with our present system in identifying the psychology of what van Vogt terms the right man, meaning persons mentally incapable of accepting the validity of any argument other than their own. It might be argued that Dick inherited this theme in his railing against persons without the capacity for empathy, as we saw in Androids and others. In any case, whether referring to later writers or to global politics, it seems that van Vogt has ultimately been proven more prophetic than anyone could have anticipated.

Monday, 22 October 2018

A Mile Beyond the Moon


C.M. Kornbluth A Mile Beyond the Moon (1958)
I still intend to pick up The Space Merchants if I see a copy, but otherwise I'm done with this guy. Wolfbane and Search the Sky had their moments, as did a couple of the short stories I read in His Share of Glory; but on the other hand, His Share of Glory was about a million pages thick because it collected every short story he ever wrote, and my general verdict was that I might have enjoyed the shorts a bit more if there hadn't been so fucking many of them. Everything since has been picked up on the strength of the elusive Space Merchants sounding promising, and there hasn't actually been a whole lot that I've enjoyed; and at least two of those - this title included - have turned out to be collections of short stories, which I hadn't realised until I got home, and collections of short stories I've already read. Unfortunately, it also turns out that it doesn't really matter whether a Kornbluth collection contains seventy-thousand short stories, or just the eleven we have here, because the effect is the same, at least where I'm concerned.

In his favour, Kornbluth had a reasonably wild imagination, and he either writes well or has the potential to write well - eloquent, funky, jazzy, and even hilarious at times. It has been suggested that both The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag - two of his most celebrated shorts - communicate a pro-eugenics message, both presenting a criticism of just how many stupid pig-ignorant fuckers there are presently clogging up the planet, and a prediction that it will only get worse. The Little Black Bag is arguably the one story worth reading in A Mile Beyond the Moon, and it's mostly just a wheeze, with some background detail suggesting that dummies will inherit the earth; and much as I've grown to dislike Kornbluth's writing, I still can't quite bring myself to read any of it as necessarily pro-eugenics, at least not so much as that it's just plain pissy about how many profoundly stupid people we have clogging up our cultural and political bandwidth, a proposition which I would suggest is very much supported by recent events here in America.

The problem with Kornbluth is that he jabbers, he digresses, and he gets carried away and lost in his love of both language and his own jokes, and in doing so he forgets to tell a story.

As an unimaginably glowing drift of crystalline, chiming creatures loped across the whispering grass of the bank, Kazam waved one hand in a gesture of farewell.

Very poetic, but how the fuck does anything glow unimaginably, and do we really need that many adjectives all at once? It wouldn't be so bad if this were just an occasional flurry of imagery, but it's all the fucking time, with Kornbluth winking at the reader every few sentences like Douglas Adams on an intravenous high fructose corn syrup drip. I've read all sorts of awkward post-grammatical and unreadable fuckers over the years, van Vogt, Burroughs, Robert Moore Williams and so on, and I've enjoyed most of them, but Kornbluth has defeated me. I skipped a whole five of the eleven, and just couldn't bring myself to care about the rest, excepting Little Black Bag. To paraphrase Henry Rollins, A Mile Beyond the Moon felt like watching molasses come out of a spigot.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Chrysalids


John Wyndham The Chrysalids (1955)
Without it really having resulted from anything resembling a plan, it seems I've been reading my way through the oeuvre of John Wyndham during the course of the last decade, and so - barring a few oddities and outliers such as Plan for Chaos, of which I've never seen a copy - it seems I've saved the best for last. This one's a cracker.

The Chrysalids occurs in a puritanical post-apocalyptic society reduced to a mediaeval way of life. We've survived nuclear holocaust but mutation is rife, and mutants are to be driven out with evangelical zeal; so the novel tells the story of a couple of those mutants with an emphasis which one might regard as owing a debt to van Vogt's Slan, and which certainly foreshadows Chris Claremont's X-Men comics. In fact, The Chrysalids seems to foreshadow one fuck of a lot, more or less everything Terry Nation ever wrote, quite a few subsequent takes on life after the bomb, The Handmaid's Tale and so on. The years 1949 through to the publication of this novel saw a significant upsurge in nuclear weapons research and testing across the globe, and it seems very clear that the potentially terrible consequences occupied Wyndham's thoughts.

As ever, his great strength as a writer is in the global picture as seen through the eyes of a minor player, at a more personal, almost provincial level, and so The Chrysalids doubles up as a classic children's novel about a boy saving his younger sister from a bullying father. Even better is that Wyndham held back from any of the stuff which spoiled at least a few of his books, the creaking humour and the tone which unfortunately inspired Brian Aldiss to coin the term, cosy catastrophe. This one is more than just a yarn.

'Purity,' I said. 'The will of the Lord. Honor thy father. Am I supposed to forgive him? Or to try to kill him?'

The answer startled me. I was not aware that I had sent out the thought at large.

'Let him be,' came the severe, clear pattern from the Zealand woman. 'Your work is to survive. Neither his kind, nor his kind of thinking will survive long. They are the crown of creation, they are ambition fulfilled, they have nowhere more to go. But life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks, change is its very nature.'

See? That one still works today. In fact I'd say it's quite pertinent right now given the upsurge of those who want to ship the rest of us off to labour camps or worse.

I've read a ton of science-fiction over the last decade or so, and I think I'm approaching the point at which I will have read just about everything I'm ever going to feel inclined to read of the genre; so my future may hold significantly fewer crappy seventies paperbacks with airbrushed spacecraft on the covers, and if this turns out to be the case, I'm fucking glad this one made it onto my shelves before the shutters went down, because it's one of the very best.