Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Civil War


Simon Morris Civil War (2018)
Where Creepshots seemed to ramble, following its own train of thought while expecting the rest of us to keep up, Simon Morris' Civil War is a more obviously structured affair. Peculiarly, the structure is a sequential assessment of the work of Guns N' Roses, track by track, album by album considered in more depth than I thought possible. Sweet Child o' Mine was okay, although otherwise I never really warmed to Guns N' Roses. His vocals always made me think of some over the top caricature you might see on the Muppet Show, epitomised by that bloody awful version of knock knock knocking on heaven's dowowowowowowaaarrrrrrrgh; but it doesn't matter because their back catalogue provides the perfect structural backbone across which Morris has pinned a forensic dissection of his own destructive and doomed relationship with a recent partner. It probably wouldn't have worked so well nailed to the discography of someone a bit more bleeding obvious, a bit more likely to appeal to persons such as myself.

The Civil War of the title seems to occur on all fronts, author against girl, audience, himself, readership, human civilisation - sad, violent, inevitable, but educational on some level, or at least it makes for a weird and fascinating read because even if the rest of us haven't been there, we've probably been somewhere similar whether or not we have the honesty to admit as much. There are a lot of raw nerves here, and at one point the book even describes itself as revenge pornography, which seems a little masochistic given that no-one comes out of it too bad and there are no names mentioned - although it probably wouldn't take too much detective work to deduce who Morris is writing about. As for pornography, Civil War occasionally invokes the subject without actually being pornography as I would recognise it, and while this aspect may make for uneasy reading in certain respects, it's really only the dark stuff we all have tucked away somewhere but choose not to express; and there's a refreshing honesty about the reportage of squelchier, weirder, occasionally more stomach-churning acts mentioned in passing and serving as markers defining the boundaries of the ordinary rather than as anything over which you might be expected to squeeze one out - and I offer that sentence on the assumption of it actually meaning something. I don't think he's necessarily expecting the rest of us to get turned on by the more aggressive material.

Civil War is a fucking powerful book, not least because this time it's very clear that Morris is in charge of the flow of images, that he knows what he's doing rather than simply channelling; and it's therefore probably his best yet. If you want to see what the world really looks like, walk right to the edge and turn around - and that's exactly what he's done here. Don't miss out on this opportunity to learn something.

While we're here, initial orders of the above came with a copy of Personal Ads, an Amphetamine Sulphate title available only to mail order subscribers and not actually for sale. No author is credited but it's clearly a collaboration between Simon Morris and Gabi Losoncy and is as such mentioned in passing in Civil War. It's a game of consequences or exquisite corpses, roughly speaking, played with personal ads written in the style of those found in swinging mags - so I'm told - reading in parts like a peculiar mash up of Chris Morris and William Burroughs. My favourite sentence begins, Nasty uncle forgot to buy toilet paper again…
 
Personal Ads probably isn't essential, but if you happen to see a copy anywhere, grab it.

Equator


Brian Aldiss Equator (1958)
Where unfamiliar Brian Aldiss paperbacks sat crumbling on the shelves of second hand stores are concerned, my rule of thumb has generally been to buy the novels but ignore the short story collections, because while the man wrote some amazing novels, the short fiction occasionally borders on unreadable. Equator comprises a couple of novellas, therefore resisting easy classification by length and so presenting something of a dilemma, but I bought it anyway because I liked the cover and didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering whether I'd missed out on something incredible.

Unfortunately, Equator - which occupies the first two thirds of the book - is mostly crap and should probably be regarded as an unusually long short story. It's a Bond-style spy thriller in which some dude endures a wearying series of inconsequential scrapes and close shaves in pursuit of - yawn - some microfilm which will potentially reveal the truth about some recently arrived alien race, specifically that we probably shouldn't trust them. It reads as though Brian had failed to sell the story to whoever was publishing Ian Fleming at the time, and made a few changes so as to adapt it to the needs of his existing audience. There's some exotic detail because whatever the hell happens is partially set in Indonesia, but it's not very interesting.

Thankfully, Segregation - which makes up the full count of pages - is a little more engaging. I've always said Aldiss is at his best when writing wacky environments, and although Segregation is really just one of those boy's jungle adventure tales transposed to an alien world, the biology invoked is of weirdness sufficient to ensure that Aldiss at least had fun writing it, as seems to have been the case.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Walking Dead


Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard & Tony Moore
The Walking Dead compendium one (2015)
I've been reluctant to approach the Walking Dead for a long time, mainly because I've known Charlie Adlard since we met at Maidstone College of Art back in 1842, and I would have felt awkward had it turned out to be rubbish. Additionally, I've seen three episodes of the television adaptation, and while I can appreciate it as a quality product, I otherwise didn't like it at all. One episode featured humans kept as food animals for a cannibal enclave in its post-apocalyptic world, and what with all the hyper-realistic rotting corpses, it was all just a bit too stomach-churningly repellent for me. Then someone gave me this housebrick
for Christmas, collecting the first forty-eight issues, thus forcing my hand.

I'm not sure I really understand horror, or at least I don't understand the kind which engages itself mainly with making you throw up for the sake of making you throw up. It seems pointless, even childish; and besides which, whatever atrocity or violation one might attach to the end of a stick and waggle in the viewer's face will usually have some historical or literary precedent in which it makes a lot more sense through having a context other than ewww gross with knobs on. Even Whitehouse were more than just cackling and scary faces.

To both my surprise and relief, not only is the Walking Dead about more than just zombies and beheadings, but the zombies are arguably the least important element of the equation, really just a function of the environment. The comic is about people trying to survive in a world in which they have once again become subject to the laws of nature, and how this changes them, and what that says about the rest of us - Lord of the Flies without a safety net. It's relentless, gruesome and brutal in ways you may not even have anticipated, and yet because the horror is stylised in Charlie's powerfully expressive black and white art, its impact is retained without the gore eclipsing or diminishing the power of the narrative or what the story is trying to do. The television show probably does the same thing, but I personally found it difficult to see past hyper-realistic CGI organs pulsing and splattering all over the screen. Additionally, the starkly monochrome comic strip form allows for silence and contrast, which is what this sort of story really needs in order to work.

When I first met Charlie we were both on a film course, albeit a film course with aspirations to fine art, and among the work he'd shown at his interview was - if I'm remembering this correctly - Sweet Dreams, a zombie horror filmed on Super 8mm and featuring various school friends shambling around local woodland beneath layers of Halloween make-up purchased from Boots; so he's been tied up with the undead for a long time. It was mostly his fault that I got hooked on American comics - not that I'm complaining - and by the end of the eighties we were collaborating on various strips - some more convincing than others, myself writing and Charlie drawing - with the intention of breaking into the comics industry; so you can probably appreciate why I would have felt awkward picking up the Walking Dead and deciding I didn't like it. Thankfully, it turns out to be a masterpiece, a genuinely intelligent story occasionally sailing a bit too close to the truth for comfort, but in just the right way, and with art perfectly matched - powerful and moody with a brooding European sensibility despite the influence of - making an educated guess - Walt Simonson and Mike Mignola. Earlier issues struggled with the occasional dialogue bubble crammed with just a little more exposition than seemed necessary, but otherwise it's impossible to find fault with this book.

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Outward Urge


John Wyndham & Lucas Parkes The Outward Urge (1961)
If the name of Lucas Parkes sounds familiar, it's because it's one of the pseudonyms under which Wyndham occasionally wrote, and The Outward Urge was published as a collaboration with himself so as to distinguish it from Triffids and the others, it being quite different in tone. Without bothering to check the dates, I'd say it's more or less Wyndham doing an Arthur C. Clarke, or if that doesn't work, then very much foreshadowing Stephen Baxter's vaguely dynastic tales of realistic space exploration. The Outward Urge begins with the slightly annoyingly named Ticker Troon helping to build a space station in Earth orbit, then sequentially visits the moon, Mars and Venus through successive generations, finally concluding in the general vicinity of the asteroid belt with one of Troon's descendants.

Technically, it's hard science-fiction, as we used to call it back when I were a lad. Wyndham's environmental and technological predictions are based on what was understood to be possible at the time of writing, so rockets travel at rocket speed, and if the Venusian landscape upon which George Troon sets up his first dome seems implausibly habitable, it's nevertheless come a long way, conceptually speaking, since C.S. Lewis wrote Perelandra. As a novel leaning heavily on the issue of how to survive on other planets, The Outward Urge is a little dry by Wyndham's usual standards, although is thankfully free of the creaking slapstick seen in a couple of his lesser novels; but is approximately as readable and compelling as you would expect of the author of Triffids. Although it's possibly worth noting Wyndham having predicted Reagan's star wars initiative, novels of this kind often tend to reveal more about when they were written, and this is particularly true of The Outward Urge, dominated as it is, by cold war politics. So it's a mostly decent read, and particularly so in the case of the Martian episode, but probably not essential.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Words


Jean-Paul Sartre Words (1964)
Words is Sartre's dissection of his own formative years, revealing the composition of the soil in which his person, and by extension his later writing, was rooted. The surprising thing, at least to me, is how much of the later Sartre seems to have already been fully-formed and living his juvenile years like some kind of experiment designed to test the relationship between reality and our understanding of the same. Of course, there's not much point pretending he was literally thinking of anything in terms which would have directly made sense in Nausea or Age of Reason, but neither does it seem useful to read this as old man Sartre retroactively superimposing a narrative on his own childhood. He reads, he writes juvenile adventure novels in exercise books, he exists within a family, and all of this is told as a continuous landscape of experiences - as distinct from the more traditionally autobiographical lists of names, dates, and yappy commentary.

Through my flights of imagination, I was trying to attain reality.

Without actively cracking jokes, there's a pleasant lightness of touch here - something in the line of a more ponderous Tony Hancock, which is as such very readable, even entertaining, whilst strongly foreshadowing what was to come; so it's Nausea Babies, roughly speaking.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Return to Mars


Captain W.E. Johns Return to Mars (1955)
A thoroughly good egg of military credentials, and his son - also spiffing - are engaged in a manly hike across Scotland when they find themselves inconvenienced by a spot of rain. They take shelter in an outhouse, and are then discovered by the owner of the outhouse - an eccentric boffin who has been working on his own spaceship, a craft resembling one of those so-called flying saucers. Naturally, the egghead recruits this lucky pair of complete strangers as companions to accompany him on the maiden flight of the Spacemaster, as it is called.

Thus began Johns' Kings of Space to which this is the sequel. Johns, as you may recall, wrote a million novels about the adventures of Biggles, another thoroughly good egg of military credentials. I'm only familiar with Biggles through the many parodies he has inspired, and so I had certain expectations of this one - some of which have been born out, although most have lain fallow.

The novel's initial tendency to reel off statistics of astronomy and physics suggests didactic motives and the influence of either Asimov or Clarke; oddly though, I get the impression that while Johns may have recalled a few science lessons at a very good school, and may even have attended a jolly interesting lecture at the village hall some years before, he seemingly felt that he otherwise knew as much as anyone really needed to know, and so forged ahead without too much time wasted on research. So the novel freewheels a lot whilst nevertheless bristling its moustache as one might expect.

A man of tremendous energy, as small men often are, he had had a great deal of experience in the tropics of disorders caused by instincts, malaria, sandfly fever, and the like. A feature of his nature was a sense of humour that could make a joke out of trouble. He also possessed, often to the Professor's bewilderment, a wonderful vocabulary of RAF slang. When Tiger had put the project before him, asking him if he would attend some patients on Mars, he had, not surprisingly accused him of being "round the bend."

Watch out, everyone! That Toby is a loose fucking cannon!

Despite the sort of level-headed temperament from which such words were born, it seems Johns was a sucker for pseudoscience, using the novel as a means of speculating upon the origin of flying saucers, invoking the alleged destruction of Atlantis, and telepathy as something we are only just beginning to understand.

Tiger frowned. 'I'm not so sure of that. People think more about these things than they used to. Governments, fearing a panic, may have made light of Flying Saucers and tried to account for them in all sorts of ridiculous ways. But nowadays the public are not so easily fooled, and a lot of people believe in them.'

Whilst the saucer phenomena was still in its first decade at the time of writing, scepticism regarding the same was similarly in its infancy, from what I can tell. Even so, John's position - either open-minded or gullible depending on how you look at it - has surprised me, as has most of the novel. The story and situations are fucking ludicrous - it being a children's book written for a generation of good little soldiers - and yet it holds together through being surprisingly well written and espousing none of the usual colonial attitudes one might associate with its vintage. If anything, Return to Mars seems relatively progressive in carrying a vaguely ecological message and even referring directly to the benefits of a welfare state. There's only one girl in the whole thing and she doesn't have a lot to say, but I suppose at least she isn't making tea, sewing or being conspicuously demure. Most unexpected is that Johns occasionally achieves poetic insight beyond the requirements of the genre, as when Rex encounters his first alien.

 
This was altogether different; an event so tremendous, so deeply moving that it awoke in him sensations not to be described in words. For there were no words to fit the case. He felt it was not true. He wanted to tell himself that this simply wasn't true. But he knew it was true. And he knew he wasn't dreaming. Here before him was the answer to the age-old question: were the people of Earth alone in the universe? They were not. What would be the effect of those three simple words on Earth when people knew what he knew? The limitless fields of speculation opened up made his brain reel.

Return to Mars is far from the greatest thing I've ever read, and is frankly ridiculous in all ways but for those I had anticipated - based on things other than actually reading the work of this author; but for what it is, this is a decent book beyond expectation, and I'll be sure to pick up Kings of Space should I happen to see it, although possibly not anything of Biggles.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Power and the Glory


Graham Greene The Power and the Glory (1940)
First recommended to me about a decade ago on the grounds of it being set in Mexico, I initially had some trouble with this one. I made several attempts to read it, but found it, at the time, too relentlessly depressing; and this surprised me because I'd always thought I liked Graham Greene. So I've come back to it a couple of years later and, for no reason I can identify, I find myself very much enjoying the thing, and appreciating it as having been written with a certain lightness of touch which maintains a general idea of optimism even as the narrative becomes relentlessly grim. I have no idea why I never noticed this before and must therefore unfortunately assume that I was once fairly stupid, or at least less perceptive than I have apparently become; unless it was just a case of right time, right place 'n' shit.

The Power & the Glory occurs during one of the darker passages of Mexican history, the forties during which the priesthood had been outlawed and were accordingly persecuted by populist rightist forces of the kind which manifested in Mexico as the Red Shirts, counterparts to Black, Brown and Blue Shirts found across the Atlantic. Our man, never formally identified, is a Catholic priest on the run from the authorities, whose flight and subsequent capture mirrors certain aspects of the life of Christ, albeit vaguely, and whose story serves to map Greene's impression of Mexico in the thirties at the lower end of the economic totem pole - the land where life is cheap and no line is clearly drawn.

The Chief said, 'You heard what he did in Houston. Got away with ten thousand dollars. Two G Men were shot.'

'G Men?'

'It's an honour - in a way - to deal with such people.' He slapped furiously out at a mosquito.

'A man like that,' the lieutenant said, 'does no real harm. A few men dead. We all have to die. The money - somebody has to spend it. We do more good when we catch one of these.'

It's a novel about faith, obviously, but one which, rather than boring us all shitless by trying to sell a product, picks up its subject in wolfen teeth and gives it a good fucking shake.

It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic too, and what he had experienced was vacancy - a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.

Opposing forces are given an equal footing in this novel, and we can appreciate the position of those hunting our unnamed priest as well as we can appreciate the inevitability and poignancy of his martyrdom; and the equal footing is expressed as the rhetoric of differing moral standpoints, so it goes substantially deeper than merely appreciating that even bad guys love their mothers. Most impressive about this, is that Greene has essentially told a story with an affirmative - if not actually what you would call happy - ending, despite that it is the story of a man whose life is turned to shit and which gets progressively worse leading up to his eventual execution. It's a story in which the composition of our environment is not only subsidiary, but borders on irrelevant to our understanding of our environment.

I'm just glad that I got there in the end.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Dreaming Void


Peter F. Hamilton The Dreaming Void (2007)
I'm still unable to work out what it is that Peter F. Hamilton does which makes his books so readable. They're the size of housebricks, this one is eight-hundred pages, and I just slip through the thing, reading fifty pages in the time it would otherwise take to read twenty. It doesn't seem to be that the print is particularly large or the language discernibly simplified, and oddly, nor is the narrative even necessarily so gripping as to account for such page-turnitude - in terms the Daily Mail would probably recognise. Yet, there it is. Whatever it is, he does it very well, and this doesn't even seem to be one of his good ones.

I wasn't going to read any more, but having loved Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy pretty much without reservation, I had a hankering; combined with coming across a copy of this one in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road and finding myself relishing the typeface used on these English versions, it being so much more alluring than on US editions of Hamilton. It turns out that the story has certain elements in common with Night's Dawn, namely technologically advanced star-spanning future humanity pitted against something powerful and devouring with religious overtones,
physiologically malleable animals, concerns with immortality, transcendence and the afterlife and suchlike. I have a vague impression of various details serving as allegories to Bush's war on terror, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, but this may just be a case of current events repurposed as archetypes; and xenophobia and fear of progress also figure. In any case, if anything specific is said, it's either been saved for a later volume or is simply difficult to unpick from disparate strands following a slightly confusing cast of fairly generic characters. It might have been easier had I read the novels preceding this trilogy, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, but I haven't and it shouldn't have been necessary.

Yes... characters...

Hamilton writes great characters, it has been said elsewhere and more than once, but actually he kind of doesn't. The narrative is told through his characters, but most of them seem fairly clich├ęd; and given that this is 3580AD, it seems odd that everyone should be talking and acting like persons starring alongside Ross Kemp in one of those grunting ITV dramas - some wearying cop show, tough guy bends rules to get the job done, tarts with hearts, hard nut with a soft center still dealing with the pain of losing his son, tip-offs from persons oozing Cockney charm - something called Thief Takers comes to mind, as it often does for me because although I never saw it, it has the worst title ever committed to telly and I feel fairly sure it must have ticked at least a couple of the above boxes*.

To be fair, this is only what Hamilton did in Night's Dawn, but Night's Dawn had the advantage of a profoundly weird setting and attendant props - the affinity bond, living starships, sentient habitats grown from engineered coral, and everyone who ever died coming back to life, not least of these being Madonna and Al Capone. Whilst Void has plenty of nice ideas of possibly equivalent potential, they're not well drawn - presumably because I never read Pandora's Star - and it all seems a bit Larry Niven, lacking anything with the surreal flair of the voidhawks. Plus, there's the occasional sprained literary ankle - something I failed to notice in Night's Dawn, if it was even there - and this sort of thing:

'Yes. He'll get his appointment the day after the Eggshaper guild announces its sculpted a ge-pig that can fly.'

Even without noting that its should probably be either it has or it's, a ge-pig is, in the story, a utilitarian creature with physical characteristics molded by agency of human telepathy, so, as we've already seen, whether or not the resulting creature has wings and the power of flight is down to the choice of the Eggshaper doing the work; and secondly, why the fuck would that particular expression still be in use in the thirty-sixth century in a different fucking universe? Additionally, why would anyone still remember either Johnny Cash or Pink Floyd - not denigrating the qualities of either, but references to the same are a little distracting.

I'm told that the conclusion to this trilogy is disappointing and not dissimilar to the conclusion of Night's Dawn, so I doubt if I'm going to bother with the other two. There are some nice ideas, but that's about as far as it goes.

*: I find titles which are simply collective nouns for whoever populates the story somewhat lacking poetry. Being as someone will eventually make a show about members of the criminal fraternity called Crime Doers, I hereby state my having thought of it first in anticipation of any royalties which may be my due.