Monday, 30 April 2018

The Ghost of a Model T and other stories

Clifford D. Simak The Ghost of a Model T and other stories (2016)
This is the third of Open Road's proposed fourteen volumes collecting the complete short stories of Clifford D. Simak, and possibly the last physical volume if Grotto of the Dancing Deer stubbornly remaining available only as an eBook is any indication. This seems a shame because I've never liked eBooks, and in a world with so many physical books I am still to read, I just don't know if I can be bothered fiddling around with a Kindle; and it's also a shame because if this is to be the last physical volume, then it's unfortunately a little underwhelming.

It may just be me, or that my timing was out, or this being the potential end of the physical line, or the introduction which makes the following promise:

If there is a single work for which Clifford D. Simak is most known, it is the book City. Most people call City a novel, but it is actually a compilation of eight short stories laced together by interstitial materials to form a work that functions as a novel. And since those eight short stories were all once published individually, they are included as such in this volume.

Except they aren't, not beyond City, the actual short story of the same name, so I assume this claim refers to the eBook version; so it's kind of like those late nineties vinyl albums where the track list made no division of side one from side two, sometimes even naming songs which weren't on the record because the artwork had been blown up from that designed for the compact disc, and screw you, granddad. At the very least it suggests a certain carelessness.

So I was already a bit humpy, and while this volume contains nothing which is actively bad, it's all a bit middling. Leg. Forst. and The Street That Wasn't There are decent, as are a few of the others, but surprisingly the stand out is No More Hides and Tallow, another of Simak's rare Westerns, and one in which he writes very much to his strengths - traditional but with grey areas and a depth one might not expect to find in anything so often characterised as pulp.

I don't like this man. Never liked him for his dirty mouth and the squinted, squeezed look about him. But it's good to see him. Good to see someone from home. Good to hear him talk familiarly about the folks one knows.

The problem is that, for me, the best Simak tales strike a fine balance between the ponderous and the active; and the least interesting tend to fall back on musing over and over without ever quite going anywhere, and not even musings of any particular depth. The narrative - often third person but with a focus firmly on one solitary individual - mumbles away to itself almost as though the introduction of anything dramatic might be deemed crass and thus devalue whatever philosophical kudos Cliff had been aiming for, resulting in the sort of cosily repetitive babble which stupid people mistake for something profound. I expect he simply got carried away, as that's how a few of these read, but he simply ends up overstating something we thought he'd finished saying twenty pages ago.

There's nothing actively bad here, just plenty which could have been shorter. In a collection with a little more range, I may not even have noticed.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018


Matthias Schultheiss Propellerman (1993)
I now realise that I've had this for a full quarter century and only now have I read the thing in its entirety, which feels thoroughly peculiar and a bit like time travel. It was one of those titles which the guy at my local comic shop habitually added to the bag of stuff set aside for me - mostly whatever X-Shite or Vertigo titles I had on my list, plus anything else they thought would probably be up my street. Propellerman seemed to qualify for this latter category, although they forgot to pop the second issue in my bag and by the time I noticed, it had vanished from the shelves leaving me with seven of an eight issue series which I never got around to reading because I was waiting for the missing piece of the jigsaw; and I somehow never quite got around to looking for a copy until a couple of months ago. So here we are at last.

Schultheiss, both writer and artist, instils his work with a pronounced European sensibility evoking Jean Giraud, RanXerox, Heavy Metal magazine, and particularly evoking films such as Delicatessen and Acción Mutante in the case of Propellerman, which was his take on the superhero genre, roughly speaking. I say roughly speaking because there's a fair bit of Blade Runner and even Total Recall in here, although unfortunately the latter is expressed mainly as peculiar dialogue of the kind we used to hear when Arnie acted beyond his comfort zone, attempting to convey emotions born of desires other than revenge - here thinking mainly of der chillingly stilted you know I luff you, baby Douglas Quaid reports whilst romping mit his fake vife for to have sexy fun time, ja?

In Propellerman's favour, it's beautifully drawn for the most part, wildly imaginative, and the story is fucking bonkers. On the other hand, everyone has the same weirdly lumpy face - roughly Pete Burns after the collagen injections as drawn by Richard Corben - and the dialogue mostly reads as either a lousy translation or conversation with an excessively literal African gentleman.
For days I've searched for this house. Finally I've found it. The house belonged to the man from my memory. He lived here. Everything else I've forgotten. The house is dilapidated and vacant.

I've had the pleasure of knowing several African gentlemen who spoke in such a way, so I'm not criticising their English grammar so much as pointing out that it's a poor fit for this comic. Anyway, the above is all crammed into a single speech balloon, and most of the characters have this habit of treating us to a full summary of the situation each time they speak, even going so far as to helpfully describe their own actions as they're doing them. After a while it becomes a little exhausting, and those Corbenesque faces start to get on your nerves, and you begin to wonder how the hell a Samurai warrior ended up in the cast, and what the fuck with the ancient Egyptian steam-powered robot some guy just dug up?

It has a lot going for it, but it could have been so much better with just a few tweaks, although tellingly I notice Jerry Prosser's name mentioned in some sort of editorial capacity, Jerry Prosser having been the author of the final issues of the Vertigo's Animal Man, which were frankly fucking shite, so maybe he's to blame.

Nice, but hardly worth waiting a quarter of a century to read the thing.

Oh well.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Stupid Baby

New Juche Stupid Baby (2018)
I was initially terrified of this, believing it to be written by a person who had infantilised themselves to such an extent as to have chosen Stupid Baby as a name; and the back cover blurb seemed vaguely suggestive of grown men happily shitting their adult nappies in anticipation of a sexy spanking; and it's published by Amphetamine Sulphate who don't look as though they're going to be reigning it in any time soon. Research revealed that I was thankfully mistaken on a few counts, and that New Juche is a photographer of Scottish heritage and also author of this, a novel called Mountainhead, and a CD called Bangkok Fanny-Rat, amongst other things. He lives in one of the more poverty stricken ghettos of Thailand and very much enjoys having sex with prostitutes.

There will inevitably be certain associations which have attached themselves to that last sentence even before we're done with the paragraph. To tackle the likely questions one at a time, Juche is a Korean word amounting to self-reliance or independence. It also refers to a political ideology described by Wikipedia as follows:

The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction.

The name - which the author admits is slightly facetious - seems fitting given that his writing is essentially anthropological but for the inclusion of the observer as very much part of the texture, in other words his testimony is divorced of the clinicality and detachment of anthropology, and facilitates a more thorough understanding of the subject because he's living it. It's a little like a more sympathetic Céline.

As to what he's actually living, the term sex tourist probably comes to mind; but surprisingly that's exactly what New Juche isn't, at least not by any usual understanding of the word. His position is succinctly summarised in the question by which his PDF book The Mollusc is promoted on his website:

What do you feel and do and why, when you experience the expression of distress by the poor, especially when you're paying them for sex?

New Juche expands on this in an interview on Hoover Hog:

I'm heavily put off by writers who contrive to smear themselves into broader conversations, whether it's intended to demonstrate piety or cynicism. But – and this is what I'm talking about with this heavy vendetta I have against conversation – I perceive some piety in precisely what I've just said. There's a BBC documentary in which a collection of lazy English middle-class twenty-somethings are chaperoned around Patpong, and have delivered to them a stage-managed encounter with a young 'prostitute' in a pole-dancing outfit who relates the usual sob story through an interpreter and then weeps as she takes questions from the group. This all occurs in the heart of it, with tourists and bar girls all around and loud music. Worked up into a pious rage, one of the English females gets into a wild verbal fight with a passing American tourist, who tells her she is a 'phony' who doesn't understand that 'prostitution' empowers these girls, and that they all want to be there, etc. Not unlike a Houllebecq character. They both present as obnoxiously ignorant to me, but their platitudes are clearly born out of the respectively limited vantage and degree of their insight. This is demonstrative of how the flimsy insipid social politics of dim-bulbs can rarely come down to rest on the actual ground, especially in places like this. And again why conversation is undesirable. I've heard endless nights of rationalisations, justifications, and disgusted condemnations. In the end, prostitution is a country in which I've lived for most of my life, and it is as irreducible as any other country.

So there you have it. If you're after an insight into life at the foot of the trash heap in the far east - and you should be simply because it's interesting and enlightening - then Stupid Baby paints a particularly vivid picture, not only finding the humanity in such places, but revealing that it's mostly humanity, even if lacking romance in the traditional sense, or even the sense of an Escort letters pages.

I was expecting something harrowing and absolutely alien, but I had it all wrong, and if Stupid Baby isn't exactly pretty, there's a kind of beauty here and certainly a tenderness regarding its subject. I haven't bothered to address any potential moral issues concerning prostitution in this review, because the book does it far better than I could and from a position of greater authority, which is possibly part of the reason for it having been written.

I'll definitely be reading more by this guy.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Energy Realms #1

Noah Brown Energy Realms #1 (2018)
Some will doubtless pick this up and declare it the worst comic they've ever read, but they will be wrong. It may even be the greatest. The cover promises powerful action and that's what happens once you look inside. Raised on 2000AD and pulp, fueled by (I'm guessing here) cane alcohol and firearms, Noah Brown's art falls somewhere between the less-publishable excesses of Johnny Ryan and that kid from school who used to spend the technical drawing lesson giving himself tattoos using a compass and a pot of ink, and mostly the logos of metal bands - but in a good way. It may not be pretty but somehow you just can't fucking keep yourself from looking, and from wanting more. This first issue features three strips of unusual violence - Pat Lord, Whiskey Weasel and Stabber Duck, and, my particular favourite, Power Squad. It's difficult to work out what the point of Power Squad could be, but their purpose is at least clear. They travel the galaxy in search of power - capitalised with numerous exclamation marks - and they obtain power mainly by crushing the weak and defenceless. In this episode they encounter a sort of weird vaginal mountain monster thing, but luckily they have the Shitbox on their side. The Shitbox is a creature which devours powerful things and shits them out as the weak and defenceless, in this case tiny babies. As a rule I dislike the word awesome, but occasionally it's warranted, and Energy Realms is fucking awesome. Buy this magazine and see how long you can keep reading before it sucks your eyes right out of your head.

Buy as many copies as you can reasonably afford here.

Monday, 16 April 2018


Rachel Redhead Trans* (2017)
For what little it may be worth, I remain conflicted on the subject of trans identity, referring here to trans persons being specifically identified as trans persons. On some level - or at least in a perfect world - I feel it shouldn't be necessary, and that if - for example - a woman wishes to dress as one of the Mario brothers and identify as Jimmy, then she's a dude in all senses that matter, should be regarded as such, and the contents of those bright red plumber's dungarees are no more my business than anything to be found within either the underwear or sexual proclivities of any other random stranger. I also wonder if meticulously labeling all points on the sexual spectrum is useful, or whether it's actually divisive, perhaps even helping to isolate and define particular communities and so making them easier targets for those disposed towards witch hunts. I've known persons of many variant sexual persuasions and gender identities and have always found it difficult to truly square anyone with the existing labels, or to think of such persons as significantly different to myself in any meaningful way; unless they're into ELO, obviously.

On the other hand, I'm not going to pretend my views, as stated above, amount to anything, given that I'm referring to issues which affect me only in so much as that they affect the kind of society I inhabit. Also, sometimes you just have to stand up and be counted because, it might be argued, the above position can easily be mistaken for trans erasure from a certain angle, this being the notion that trans people don't exist - an idea which doubtless serves witch hunting types just as well. Trans* responds to an unnamed article suggesting that there are no trans characters within genre fiction. Having written innumerable such characters, Rachel Redhead assembled this collection as a refutation - excerpts and scenes from her four million previous novels, mostly just character sketches, and some new material too. Much of what we have are segments of much larger, more complicated stories, but I've always felt Rachel Redhead's strengths to be in the details and the people more than the bigger picture, so the reduced context doesn't actually seem to matter.

As a writer, she almost seems to be evolving towards her own genre, something touching on fantasy, although that's never entirely what it's about - Twilight rewritten by van Vogt on one of his weirder days, punk rock soundtrack, that sort of thing. It has the manic quality of a particularly gossipy telenovela, some pulp elements, and the intensity of a story having a conversation with itself. Sometimes it's a little hard to follow quite what's happening, but there's a kind and generous spirit here, one which manages to shine through even the occasional - and not unjustifiable - revenge fantasy, and that's what makes this stuff so readable. I gather there's a fair bit of autobiographical detail informing these accounts of transition, and clearly there's a lot which serves as metaphor to the horror of feeling trapped within the wrong body or gender. So even with the most wonderfully surreal twists - the robot who always knew she wanted to be a washing machine being a personal favourite, although that one didn't make this collection - everything is nailed down to a solid emotional core grounded in Redhead's experience.

I can't tell whether what I've just written is actually a massive pile of bollocks, but it feels about right, and hopefully I've communicated that there's something worthwhile going on here. I sometimes think she needs an agent or possibly an editor, but Rachel Redhead really has something which is actually worth editing or er… agenting, or whatever it is they do so, you know - one to watch.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

America's Best Comics Primer

Alan Moore etc. America's Best Comics Primer (2008)
I pretty much already reviewed this back here when it was published as just America's Best Comics, but this version was only a couple of bucks when I happened upon a copy and noticed a few bits and pieces which hadn't been in the other collection. This one reprints first issues of Tom Strong, Tom Strong's Terrific Tales, Tomorrow Stories, Promethea and Top 10, and it all started to make more sense once I noticed an imprint of DC Comics in the small print of the title pages. America's Best Comics ceased to be a thing when Moore pulled the plug in 2006, or thereabouts, and each reprinted issue is here followed by a page shunting us towards the gift shop from which we might purchase collected editions of Promethea and the rest; so beyond the words and pictures, this Primer is also a message from the sponsor, a few words about some fine entertainment products in which we might like to invest and which will be sure to give value for money and bring pleasure to all of the family for many years to come. In other words, it's DC Comics milking the Alan Moore cow as bleeding usual.

Of course, it's mostly good stuff, and the new stuff - meaning new to me, obviously - is decent, even the Cobweb story, and Top 10 is possibly the greatest thing Moore ever wrote; but you probably already knew that.

He should have changed his name to Alan Moo - you know, sort of like when Prince went around with slave written on his face.

Monday, 9 April 2018


Brian Aldiss Cryptozoic! (1967)
The subject of Brian Aldiss came up recently on facebook, some friend of a friend's conversation about an unrelated topic in which one Ashley Davies observed, I did a building job at a house next door to Aldiss in the eighties and I can't unsee him whinging and grumpily watering his garden in a very un-sci-fi way! The observation seems concordant with my having noticed how life, the universe, and everything in it seems to have succumbed to a process of simplification of late. Maybe a world in which some random friend of a friend once stood watching Brian Aldiss over a fence doesn't have so many people in it as once seemed to be the case. This is also the point of Cryptozoic!, or one of them, and having dutifully shoehorned the above anecdote into the review, I'll get to that in a minute.

Aldiss left us recently, which was sad if probably not a huge surprise given his being ninety-two, and was undeniably one of the all-time greats. Personally, I've mostly found his greatness to be concentrated in the novels, having had occasion to loathe many of his short stories with such passion as to give me cause to wonder how they could have been written by the same guy. Cryptozoic! is an odd one in being a novel which does a lot of the things I never liked in his short stories. It starts well, then suddenly takes to swerving off at seemingly arbitrary tangents as though the writer is trying to keep himself interested, then invoking an explanatory dollop of exposition which resembles science but isn't - the kind of ludicrous stretching of credibility which works if you're Michael Moorcock, but apparently not if you're anyone else.

To start at the beginning, the people of Cryptozoic! have developed a sort of telepathic time travel and are able to project themselves back - although not forward - and so visit various prehistoric ages in incorporeal form, which is something to do with entropy. This projection is effected by means of a drug called CSD, an acronym of seemingly sufficient proximity to that of LSD as to qualify this as one of those novels about the great leap forward in terms of human consciousness, evolution, and all that good stuff. After all, it was the sixties.

She snuggled against him. 'I need someone to mind-travel with. I'd be frightened to let go on my own. My mother wouldn't mind-travel to save her life! People of that generation will never take to it, I suppose. Wow, I wish we could mind back just a little way—you know, one generation—because I'd so like to see my old man courting my mother and making love to her. I bet they made a proper muck-up of it, just as they did of anything else!'

Aside from the slightly peculiar allusion to incest, to which the book returns from time to time without ever quite saying anything, this is essentially the same challenge to the establishment to which sixties youth culture aspired.

They're getting hold of bootleg CSD; it comes in from abroad. They're disaffected elements, and they represent a threat to the regime—to you and me, Bush.

Mind-travel and CSD usage is tied into the arts and freedom of expression in a general sense, and Bush - our main character - is a painter who travels back to the Mesozoic so as to paint it. This is the point at which both message and narrative get a bit lost - something about the sixties obsession with Victoriana, modernism, maybe even the dead end of post-modernism.

The greatest novelist of our age, Marston Orston, created in Fullbright a deliberately unfinished novel of over four million words that solely concerns the actions of a young girl rising to open her bedroom window.

No idea, mate, although the title refers to the Cryptozoic or Precambrian era constituting the first seven eighths of the Earth's history, the period about which little is known through being largely unrepresented in the fossil record. The mind-travellers of the novel have trouble getting so far back as the Cryptozoic, and the era comes to stand for everything we don't know, possibly including ourselves.

Unfortunately, one of the things we didn't know but which we find out is that time travels backwards towards a simpler, more ordered cosmos, and we're only able to go forward to the age of dinosaurs because memories of the same have been recorded in the collective unconsciousness of earlier - or possibly later - mind-travellers; which is a bit of a dog's dinner in terms of narrative cohesion, and Philip K. Dick did it better in Counter Clock World a couple of years before; and did it better with a sense of humour, and without time's reverse trajectory explained in two or three chapter's worth of unrelenting exposition which read like some rambling acid freakout.

However, once past the seemingly endless explanatory monologue, we get our story back with a revelation which almost saves the day, or at least enough so as to keep the book from feeling as though it's all been a massive waste of the reader's time. It's a close thing, admittedly, but it just about gets there with a final chapter seeming to suggest the possibility of this being Brian Aldiss writing something you could loosely call a Philip K. Dick novel, and it's really only the lack of humour which stifles its full potential as such.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018


William S. Burroughs Queer (1953)
This was originally the second half of Junky owing to a hunch that the first half probably wasn't long enough to count as a novel; so I gather someone changed their mind on that score and this material fell down the back of the sofa, there to remain until the eighties, at which point it was published long after the fact. It's been a while since I read Junky, but there seems to be less arm candy in this one and a bit more man-on-man action, so I suppose Queer is as good a title as any, although homosexuality is part of the furniture rather than an object of specific focus. The narrative is a presumably mostly autobiographical account of Burrough's time in Mexico City, then off to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, a drug to which he attributes telepathic properties.

Interestingly, Queer reads quite strongly as though occupying an intermediary stage between Junky and Naked Lunch, which of course it does. The cut-up text is still a little way down the road, but here we have rambling conversational asides, anecdotes and routines intruding upon the narrative in a way which prefigures the jarring edits and swerves of later books. Burroughs accounts for some of what the novel is about, or at least what it was intended to do, in his introduction.

While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous adventures along these lines by writing my experience down.

The irony here is that he writes everything but his experience down, meaning that, as he himself acknowledges, Queer jabbers away, touching every subject except for the one at the heart of the book, and which surfaces only briefly in the final chapter.

He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness, and now he was crying, his body shaking with sobs.

He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.

When Lee woke up, he still felt the deep sadness of his dream. He stretched out a hand towards Allerton, then pulled it back. He turned around to face the wall.

Willy would of course have been his son, William Burroughs Jr., recently deprived of a mother when Bill shot her in the head. Queer was written as Burroughs awaited trial for the shooting - accidental by Burroughs' account, and conceivably so if Queer is any indication. Excepting the example given above, no names are mentioned and nor does it offer any coherent statement, but the sense of longing, regret, disassociation, and flight from something fearful are quite tangible. The worst of it is that, given the short, unhappy life of Burroughs Jr., it seems fair to say that nothing was learned, despite which Queer is a great book.