Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Best of Jack Williamson

Jack Williamson The Best of Jack Williamson (1978)
Earlier in the year I read a collaboration between this guy and Frederik Pohl which impressed upon me the notion that I should probably make an effort to read something by Jack Williamson, his having been somewhat off my radar up until that point; except it appears that I have imagined the whole thing and can find no trace of whatever the collaboration may have been or my having read anything of that description. It would be nice if this were like something from a story written by Jack Williamson, but sadly it isn't.

Jack Williamson was going at it way back when we were still calling it scientifiction. His early tales tell of Gernsbackian science-heroes having the sort of adventures which kept Edgar Rice Burroughs in business, with one foot firmly planted in the nineteenth century, a world in which men were men, women were glad of it - even the liberated sciencey ones, and the canals of Mars seemed plausible. Occasionally he'd throw in a fistful of nosebleed physics just to keep it interesting, but mostly it was about as good as you'd expect.

Nonstop to Mars sees Earth imperiled by a sort of space tornado which sucks Earth's atmosphere off to the red planet, and the protagonist of the story saves the day by flying his light aircraft along the tunnel formed by the distended eye of its storm.

We return to Mars in The Crucible of Power, wherein our rosy-cheeked, two-fisted hero bests the alien weirdies by much the same terms as white people bested Africans back when we weren't quite sure whether or not they were human.
My father gathered his five or six allies at the crest of a low yellow dune, and waited for the charge. As the yelling lancers came down the opposite slope, he walked boldly out alone to meet them, with the grave statement that he was their new ruler, sent from the Sun.

Breakdown examines the rise and fall of civilisations as the process by which revolutionary tendencies ossify and become the status quo, which would be nice had Williamson chosen to build his future society on something besides labour unions with too much power, because even the term makes me uncomfortable, it being one of those phrases which has taken on the same sort of resonance as I'm not racist but...

This being said, it seems Williamson was nothing if not adaptable, and there's a massive improvement in his writing after the second world war, and so With Folded Hands reads like the work of a different author and is as such not only readable, but even enjoyable. This generally elevated standard is more or less maintained for the rest of the collection; although after another couple of hundred pages it becomes apparent that simply being better than Nonstop to Mars probably isn't enough in and of itself. The Equalizer seems to go on forever, and I had no idea what it was actually about, and thus gave up about twenty pages before the end. The remainder are of more reasonable length and more engaging content, but still tend towards the sort of creaking twist ending in which it all turns out to have been a dream, or they're actually androids, or any other variation on the kind of thing which got well and truly hammered into the ground by Tharg's Future Shocks and others.

Jack Williamson wasn't without talent or ideas, and he wrote well for the most part, but otherwise I dread to think what the turkeys must have been like if this was genuinely his best.

The Black Archive: Image of the Fendahl

Simon Bucher-Jones The Black Archive: Image of the Fendahl (2016)
I blagged a copy of this because Image of the Fendahl was great, and because Simon Bucher-Jones could publish a collection of notes left out for the milkman, and at absolute worst, it would still be worth a look.

Also, I wanted to have a look at these Black Archive books and see what it was all about. Image isn't quite so academic as reviews of the range had led me to believe, in so much as that it isn't a thesis which sets out to demonstrate the viability or otherwise of some point; but it is a very thorough dissection of not only an old TV show, but the genre which it could be said to inhabit, even though Simon doesn't actually mention what was at the top of the hit parade for the duration of those weeks. In fact, better still is that Image, as a critique, is itself an example of what made Doctor Who so great during the era under discussion, specifically that its subject serves as springboard to more expansive discussion, taking the viewer - or reader in this case - off to realms beyond self-referential reinforcement of its own mythology; so what we have is a fascinating discourse somehow incorporating evolution, the formation of the solar system, the history of our understanding of the formation of the solar system, and comparisons of gothic and post-gothic horror - subjects which would otherwise have no business hanging around with one another, yet which become beautifully entwined within this genuinely fascinating and even amusing train of thought. In other words, it makes you think innit, which is after all what Doctor Who was always supposed to do.

My view of Who might be described as somewhat cynical - although I prefer the term perceptive, personally - so it takes a lot to get past my defences, and certainly more than some idiot jumping up and down yelling Daleks!; so, possibly ironically, this one has me eyeing up my old copy of the Target Image of the Fendahl thinking maybe I'll give it a look for the first time in three decades.

Also, extra points for mentioning Robert Moore Williams.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis

Will Self The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996)
Here's an odd one. I'm not sure I was even aware of its existence prior to coming across a copy in some second hand place. It's a novella, under a hundred pages and arguably more like a lengthy short story with its own binding and illustrations from Martin Rowson, and so I suppose less likely to have turned up in any of the familiar lists of Self's novels. It predates 1997's Great Apes and reads a little like an early effort, something from before he found his stride - which admittedly only works providing you ignore My Idea of Fun, Cock & Bull, and The Quantity Theory of Insanity. It may read like this to me due to a certain overfamiliarity with Self's general style, although it also read somewhat like a parody, like someone taking the piss out of Will Self without quite getting it all nailed down properly. I suspect this is probably an interference pattern arisen from common elements shared by the author and his characters, given that it's a novella about grotesque coke-snorting media types in the employ of a magazine which may as well be Time Out.

They wrote articles about articles, made television programmes about television programmes, and commented on what others had said. They trafficked in the glibbest, slightest, most ephemeral cultural reflexivity, enacting a dialogue between society and its conscience that had all the resonance of a foil individual pie dish smitten with a paperclip.

This additionally articulates some of why I stopped buying The Guradian following the inclusion of several choreographers in a list of the fifty most important persons to have shaped twentieth century culture.

They earnestly debated the opening of themed restaurants, and the demise of experimental opera productions, as if they were matters of millennial import that would define an era. Even on a good day it made Richard feel nauseous.

Anyway, whilst I don't mean to suggest that Self is himself grotesque, I don't get the impression that this one required much fresh research. It's readable, pleasantly lurid and with a wonderful turn of phrase, but the absence of Self's usual preoccupation with the psychiatric profession strikes an odd note, particularly given the obvious psychoses of those described herein; which is why, to me, it feels like an early work, or possibly just something which should have been longer.

Monday, 23 July 2018

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Khaled Hosseini A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007)
I recently swung back into the orbit of my long lost Aunt Lynda who moved to Australia in 1973, never to be heard from again until some time last year when my wife found her on a genealogical website. We've since exchanged numerous emails, caught up in so much as that it's possible to catch up with someone you don't remember in any detail, and then she sent me this book. I'd sent her a couple of mine, partially due to their having covered some common familial ground, and I think she felt she should send something in return, which wasn't necessary but has been nevertheless appreciated. I'm sending you a book, she wrote in an email, and naturally I was a little worried that it might turn out to be something weird or puzzling, but it seems she read me very well from my emails and essays because this was right up my street; and even better, it's not the sort of book I might ordinarily have picked up, through having the look of an airport blockie in conjunction with the recommendation of Richard and Judy.

Khaled Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner. I saw the film without really realising it had been based on a novel, but that was a while ago and I can't recall anything about it beyond an impression of it having been good. A Thousand Splendid Suns explores the same cultural territory, using its characters as both lens and barometer to the political landscape of Afghanistan from the fall of its monarchy through to the rise of the Taliban.

Beyond having watched The Looming Tower about a month ago, I wouldn't claim to be particularly informed on what's been going on with Islam over the last couple of decades, at least not beyond understanding that whatever gammon-faced little Englanders may have to say on the subject will be inherently worthless by definition. This novel has therefore been quite an eye-opener. It is in many ways one of the bleakest, most crushing things I've ever read, not least because it's clear that these stories have happened to somebody even if we're reading a fictionalised narrative. The tale follows the largely miserable existence of one Mariam, born illegitimate and into extreme poverty, then sent to Kabul to be married off to Rasheed - twenty years her senior and mostly unpleasant - so as to save her biological father from disgrace. She fails to deliver unto Rasheed a son, so he takes a second wife, Laila who is fifteen and whose family have just been blown up, and all against the backdrop of fundamentalist medieval shitheads taking charge…

The horror is relentless, one beating after another, and each moment of respite serving mainly as a breather before another turn of the screw and it all gets worse; and yet it's bearable because the story is told from the very personal perspectives of the two women as they try to keep going against insurmountable odds, and Hosseini instils everything with that peculiar human optimism - or at least the ability to endure the suffering - which keeps us hoping for something better even when we can actually read the small print on the side of the bomb. Most impressive is how the novel communicates that its world - the one in which anonymous brown people are routinely bulldozed into the rubble as part of some larger powerplay - is not just something on the telly, but an atrocity which ultimately affects us all, and which we need to understand. In other words, it renders Afghanistan as something familiar, and very close to home, because we're all human - despite what the gammons may believe - and we have a lot more in common than we may have realised.

To trot out a cliché, I couldn't stop reading. The writing is simple and direct, communicating beautifully without dumbing down for the sake of twats on beaches or beside swimming pools. A Thousand Splendid Suns spends four-hundred pages punching two women in the face, and yet somehow leaves us feeling that there is hope to be found even in the most terrible situation. It's a peculiar combination of things, a bestseller which nevertheless reads as though it could have been published by Philip Best's Amphetamine Sulphate imprint. What a strange fucking world we live in.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

A for Andromeda

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot A for Andromeda (1962)
A for Andromeda was, as you probably know, a television drama written by Fred Hoyle - astronomer of note and the man who coined the term big bang - and John Elliot, BBC scriptwriter. It's therefore hard science-fiction in, I suppose, the vein of Arthur C. Clarke, and could probably be said to foreshadow at least Carl Sagan's Contact in having been spun upon a message from deep space containing instructions by which our heroes build something futuristic. In Contact they build a device which opens one end of a wormhole leading back to the distant planet from which the message originated. In A for Andromeda they build a really massive futuristic computer, which in turn grows an artificial life form as an interface between itself and the scientists who first detected the message. The TV show was 1961, the book a year later, and Harold Wilson's speech about the white heat of technology came along in 1963, presumably in response to a general mood or feeling of which this was similarly an expression, even a warning.

It starts off fairly well, and the general sobriety of the subjects invoked are such as to allow for even wonder-fuelled discussions of computers the size of buildings seeming more breathtaking than hokey. It's not Arthur C. Clarke, but it manages a decent impersonation thereof for at least the first hundred pages; after which it becomes difficult to tell quite what the story was trying to do as it gets bogged down in cold war politics. Flashes of inspired narrative come and go, but the political intrigue begins to drone a little.

Decent, but it falls some way short of amazing.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Gateway to Elsewhere

Murray Leinster Gateway to Elsewhere (1951)
Sporting a cover which caused my eyeballs to pop from their sockets and roll halfway across the store before I could stop them, I would have bought this one even without the inducement of it being written by Murray Leinster; and I needed something comforting after three hundred pages of How I Did It by Lord Percy. Gateway to Elsewhere is, roughly speaking, a fantasy novel in so much as that its hero is pitted against shape changing djinn across a landscape owing much to the Arabian Nights, but it's a fantasy novel seasoned with sciencey touches - a country inhabiting a parallel dimension, the physics of the djinn, and their King who knows all about our atomic weapons and wants a piece of the action. It's the kind of twisted narrative those with short memories tend to regard as having been invented by Alan Moore, but above all else, Gateway to Elsewhere is a comic novel.

Being very much of its time, its mostly Arabic cast are subject to certain stereotypes - although nothing too mean spirited - and the general attitude to women is all a bit creaky, even psychologically suspect, belonging to the my wife doesn't understand me school.

'May Allah forbid!' said Tony grimly. 'I've never yet talked to a woman who didn't try to make me apologise for being a man, or any who'd have bothered to talk to me if I hadn't been! You are a queen, Majesty, and you're giving me what I take to be rather complicated instructions. I'm only a man, so whatever I do - because I'm a man - you will explain should have been done differently.'

Tony, our generic fast talking New Yorker abroad, likes the ladies of this mysterious realm with their dusky beauty, long legs, and the rest, and that at least two of them are slave girls is as much part of the pantomime as camels and men gruffly swearing on the beard of Allah himself; at the risk of invoking political correctness gone mad amongst other red herrings, this book is honestly only doing what the rest of the culture was doing at the time. There's certainly stereotyping, but nothing which anyone sane would be justified in calling racism, and the narrative is laced with sufficient good intent to offset whatever cheese footprint might be left in the reader's thoughts.

I say comic novel to mean that whilst there may not be actual jokes cracked, the tone is reminiscent of the Andy Griffith Show, with that same gentle, goofball humour taking delight in absurdity and familiar archetypes, not least the ditzy blonde female djinnee who takes a shine to our guy.

He swaggered in exactly the manner of the solitary general he had come in contact with in the greatest war of the human race.

'Admirable!' he repeated in that general's very tones. 'The one who carried me is a very pearl among camels!'

The camel he had ridden turned its head. It looked at him sentimentally. It sighed gustily. It giggled.


I doubt Gateway to Elsewhere is likely to get a reprint any time soon, so it's worth hunting down. It's probably one of the more stupid things I've read this year, but as usual you can tell Leinster had a blast writing it, and surely only the most curmudgeonly dim-bulb could possibly resist its charm.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Thomas de Quincey Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821)
I bought my mother a copy of this for Christmas one year, a fancy looking illustrated hardback edition which I assumed she would appreciate because of its vintage and a vague impression I had of it being considered a classic; although I'm no longer sure where that idea came from, now that I've actually read the thing, albeit with some skimming near the end and skipping the extensive tangential footnotes which frequently compress the main narrative to a couple of lines at the head of the page.

In its favour, I suppose you could argue that Confessions examines the subject of substance abuse without any of the usual hysteria, as such foreshadowing Burroughs and the like; and de Quincey seems to have held a more sympathetic view of the lower classes than many of his contemporaries, at least where prostitutes were concerned.

These unhappy women, to me, were simply sisters in calamity; and sisters amongst whom, in as large measure as amongst any other equal number of persons, commanding more of the world's respect, were to be found humanity, disinterested generosity, courage that would not falter in defence of the helpless, and fidelity that would have scorned to take bribes for betraying.

Otherwise, I get the unfortunate feeling that my impression of de Quincey's reputation may have come from Grant Morrison or some other Crowley fanboy banging on about him, and Confessions of an English Opium Eater certainly seems like the sort of thing Morrison would strategically place on his coffee table so as to give you the impression that he'd been reading it, should you happen to pop by for tea and a chat about Austin Osman Spare; and the problem with this is that it's largely unreadable, not in the way people think Burroughs is unreadable, but because de Quincey was essentially Lord Percy from the second series of Blackadder - a precocious upper class twit, and worse - a precocious and overeducated upper class twit who has written a book despite that he can't actually fucking write and has assumed rakish charm alone will compensate for any shortfall. The problem with the book is most succinctly identified by some bloke on Goodreads called Tyler, who writes:

De Quincey's main goal seems to be to twist language into a pretzel. It's a matter of indifference to him whether he actually communicates anything to his readers.

Our boy even admits as much, more or less:

You will think, perhaps, that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history. It may be so. But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to inquire who is listening to me; for if once I stop to consider what is proper to be said, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part is at all proper.

Out of nearly three-hundred pages, somewhere in the region of twenty are dedicated to the actual subject of opium intake, because de Quincey views more or less everything that has ever happened to him as relevant on the grounds of it having happened to him.

I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place, and the time, and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the paradise of opium-eaters.

Yes, and you seem also to have felt a mystic importance attached to every other aspect of your drearily privileged existence, my Lord, which is presumably why you've written about it all, every last tedious fucking rumination which has ever occupied your thoughts whilst reminding us of your close personal friendship with Wordsworth roughly every third page.

But I have already given it as my opinion, that there is no proportion held between a man's general knowledge of Greek, and the special art of writing Greek; that is, using it as a vehicle for ordinary and familiar intercourse. This advantage, not necessarily or usually belonging to the most exquisite Greek scholarship, I myself wielded with a preternatural address for varying the forms of expression, and for bringing the most refractory ideas within the harness of Grecian phraseology. Had the bishop yielded to the temptation of replying, then I figured to myself the inevitable result - the episcopal hulk lying motionless on the water like a huge three-decker, not able to return a gun, whilst I, as a light agile frigate, should have sailed round and round him, and raked him at pleasure, as opportunity offered.

Oh what sport, your Royal Highness!

Here's why de Quincey's insight is so much more special than that of anyone else on the Clapham omnibus.

Some great advantages I had for colloquial purposes, and for engaging the attention of people wiser than myself. Ignorant I was in a degree past all imagination of daily life - even as it exists in England. But, on the other hand, having the advantage of a prodigious memory, and the far greater advantage of a logical instinct for feeling in a moment the secret analogies or parallelisms that connected things else apparently remote, I enjoyed these two particular gifts for conversation: first, an inexhaustible fertility of topics, and therefore of resources for illustrating or for varying any subject that chance or purpose suggested; secondly, a prematurely awakened sense of art applied to conversation.

I was planning to write a review of Confessions of an English Opium Eater in the form of a single twenty-thousand word sentence mostly squashed up towards the top of the page by a million sarcastic footnotes*, but I can't be arsed, although it would still have been better than this pointless tweedy wank. At least Confessions of a Driving Instructor pretended to tell a story. I'm not in the least bit surprised that Robin Askwith turned this one down.

*: The joke makes more sense on the printed page than read from a screen, so you'll have to wait for the Lulu edition.

Monday, 2 July 2018

New Universal

Warren Ellis & Salvador Larroca New Universal (2007)
New Universe was a line of eight related comic book titles published by Marvel back in 1986, in part to mark the company's twenty-fifth anniversary. New Universe introduced superheroes to a world without Gods or aliens, in other words, a world pretty much like our own. The sales pitch was that back in the sixties, Superman was able to lift up the corner of a building as though it were simply a massive box resting on the ground, but Marvel had introduced buildings with electrical wiring and plumbing as well as heroes who worried about acne and mortgage repayments; and now they were taking the realism one step further, possibly having become aware of industry buzz preceding the publication of Watchmen; or it was Marvel arrogantly thinking they too could do independent comics, as Neil Gaiman suggested because he's a fucking genius and is able to understand the sort of stuff which thickies such as you or I might need explaining. At least I think it was Neil Gaiman. It could have been Rick Veitch.

Anyway, with the best will in the world, the New Universe titles were still very much eighties Marvel comics - low on moody homages to noir cinema, but plenty of captions and thought bubbles expressing the fear that Lulabelle might not be quite so keen if she finds out about the terrible power which I now wield. These were still comics for kids, and being of developmentally equivalent age at the time, I personally thought they were a lot of fun; which is probably why it had all gone tits up by the early nineties. Imagine then, my excitement when I discovered that Marvel had given it another shot back in 2007, when I'd been looking the other way.

Warren Ellis too; and I've heard such good things about Warren Ellis, even if what I've actually read of his has been distinctly underwhelming. Perhaps inevitably, this isn't the New Universe I remember, but a re-imagining of the same characters and situations, something taken much more seriously, because there's nothing which isn't betterised by being taken much more seriously; so it's reet classy sans thought bubbles or any of those silly captions which spoil the illusion of our watching summink sophisticated like one of those French films where nobody says nuffink and you usually get to see tits at some point. Also there's the superflow which is a bit like something from The Authority, and there are secretive government meetings discussing what is to be done about the superhero problem, just like you'd get on an episode of Torchwood.


It looks very nice, but I preferred the New Universe when it was stupid.

So what was the thing Warren Ellis wrote which was good?