Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Envoy to New Worlds

Keith Laumer Envoy to New Worlds (1963)
I've passed Laumer's adventures of Retief as they've sat on the shelves of Half-Price many a time, never having been drawn to the character. Retief is, very roughly speaking, James Bond in space, and, with a couple of exceptions, I'm generally wary of science-fiction authors who specialise in the adventures of recurring characters. Initially, I knew of Retief only as a black and white comic from the eighties, an independent, but one of those independents which aspired to be DC or Marvel, or at least Eclipse or First. I never read the comic but saw the ads in the back pages of The Trouble with Girls - or something of the sort - and it looked fucking awful, one of those strips where everyone wears the exaggerated angry grimace of a biro rendering of Iron Maiden's Eddie drawn on the back of a denim jacket worn by a fourteen-year old boy in a rural English town between the years of 1984 and 1986. I didn't even realise Retief had been based on a series of novels until recently, and I own this mainly because it's an Ace Double sharing a spine with Flight from Yesterday by the magnificently peculiar Robert Moore Williams.

To get my facts straight, Retief is actually a diplomat, and is as such extrapolated from Laumer's time spent in similar employment here on earth, mostly Burma according to Wikipedia. The stories are short and to the point - this is actually a collection of six - and might be seen as thematically ancestral to Larry Niven, Star Wars, 2000AD, Red Dwarf, and all those other narratives in which aliens are basically funny foreigners. There are certain colonialisms here, as you might reasonably expect, so the recipe isn't promising; but nevertheless, it turns out that these tales of Retief are very enjoyable - too short to outstay a welcome, plenty of pleasantly weird ideas, breezily written, and with a refreshingly high quota of wit; and even with aliens as funny foreigners, there's nothing objectionable. Strangest of all, I found myself reading one particular page as an exchange between Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in their Dad's Army roles, and somehow it worked. I'm not sure whether I'll be reading more, but that's definitely a recommendation.

Monday, 24 September 2018

The Outsider

Albert Camus The Outsider (1942)
Here's another one I probably should have made the effort to read thirty years ago, but better late than never, I suppose. The Outsider is the deceptively straightforward tale of an average man committing murder for no good reason, placed on trial, then sentenced to death. The prose - admittedly the translated prose - is tight and efficient, sticking to the basics without quite succumbing to the shorthand of a thriller. It passes along with so little drama that one begins to wonder what all the fuss has been about, where is the ponderous depth most of us will have anticipated? The revelation comes in the last few chapters as we recognise themes which, so it turns out, have been there all along.

I heard something that I hadn't heard for months. It was the sound of a voice; my own voice, there was no mistaking it. And I recognised it as the voice that for many a day of late had been buzzing in my ears. So I knew that all this time I'd been talking to myself.

The Outsider has been described as an existentialist novel, and its central figure is distanced from his own existence in much the same way as Nausea's Roquentin, but its thoughts are otherwise elsewhere. At the risk of sounding like Fred Flintstone attempting to get his head around A Brief History of Time, my reading is that the novel is about morality in the absence of God, or specifically how we relate to it, if at all, having decided that we're done with all the melodrama and gnashing of teeth undertaken for the sake of appearance. Meursault observes his own life and subsequent detention as though it's all happening to someone else, which Camus seems to propose is what is left once you subtract the hysterics, and what is left is faintly absurd because life is faintly absurd.

It's a quiet realisation, but its impact is significant once you realise what the book is doing; hence, I suppose, it's reputation as a classic.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Milk Wars

Gerard Way, Steve Orlando & others Milk Wars (2018)
I bought the first one then waited patiently for further issues, and before I knew what had happened, the fucker had already been collected as a trade paperback. I'd assumed it was to be just some Doom Patrol crossover affair, so I suppose that's where I went wrong. It turns out to be a Young Animal crossover affair, specifically all the characters from Gerard Way's Young Animal imprint getting to play ball with Batman and the like.

It starts well with the Doom Patrol arriving in a humongously square version of the DC universe in which the ordinarily feral Lobo wears a cardigan, smokes a pipe, and takes pride in his lawn; and then the rest of the story is told though combinations of less interesting characters as written by persons other than Gerard Way. It doesn't quite go completely tits up, but there's a distinct sag. I don't really see the appeal in Mother Panic, and Batman as mild-mannered vicar is probably funnier if you care about Batman; and the subsequent chapter told through Wonder Woman and Shade just isn't very interesting, and has the added disadvantage of resembling a million other contemporary comic books.

I go into my comic shop, and everything is on fancy paper with lavish printing with all manner of CGI effects applied to the coloration, and the art is technically gorgeous but for that it all resembles a confluence of manga, bandes dessinées, and nineties independents, because - pow -the comic has now grown up to such an extent that it's slightly ashamed of being a superhero book, and Blue Beetle must therefore aspire to European cinema, or at least to something drawn by the Hernandez brothers. I think I liked the superheroes a little better when they were crap, and cheap, and when they knew who their audience were.

Anyway, that's what the Wonder Woman sequence looks like, with a bit of cutesy Hallmark card physiology thrown in.

The arrival of Cave Carson at least serves to bring us up to speed on what we've been reading, summarising the narrative glossolalia of previous pages, until we're back with Gerard Way and the Doom Patrol for the conclusion.

The story seems to be about the homogenisation of assorted DC characters, specifically the tension between wildly creative modes of storytelling as spun by wacky individuals, and the corporate and formulaic, specifically the corporate and formulaic which demands that continuity take precedence over creativity, and which reboots the DC universe every couple of years so that we don't have to think about Superman drawing his pension. It's a nice idea, and a story worth telling, but rings about as true as U2's political activism given that DC are owned by Warner, which rather leaves Milk Wars looking a little like the very thing it attempts to criticise. It's nice that they take the piss out of the fucking Funko Pop! thing - a worthless phenomenon if ever there was - but doing so doesn't make DC a samizdat guerilla outfit; and I'm only focusing on this aspect of the book because - well, they brought it up.

On the positive side, Gerard Way is as entertaining as ever and there's a lot to like about this book, but it sags in the middle and some of it is simply incomprehensible hipster noise.

Monday, 17 September 2018

The Pawns of Null-A

A.E. van Vogt The Pawns of Null-A (1956)
It turns out to be six years since I read The World of Null-A, to which Pawns is sequel, and I've read a ton of van Vogt in that time so you would really think that I might have got to grips with it by now, wouldn't you? By it, I mean general semantics, as developed by Alfred Korzybski - not so much a philosophy as a mental technique with which van Vogt was very much preoccupied for most of his writing career, and which seems to inform a great many of his novels, arguably none more so than the Null-A trilogy.

I'd prefer to avoid repeating myself, but for anyone yet to receive the memo, van Vogt is not an easy writer by any description, and his novels may initially read as weird, disjointed, and amateurish if you don't realise that he's doing what he's doing on purpose, so initial impressions may sometimes be tantamount to looking at a Jackson Pollock and announcing that a child could have done it. A typical van Vogt narrative will be speckled with seemingly random, disorientating swerves described in harsh, angular sentences which deliberately leave out some of the information you might hope to find because the author is expecting his readers to do at least some of the work. These characteristics are partially informed by van Vogt's fascination with general semantics, so he's usually trying to do more than just tell a story about rockets and space monsters, although it's not always clear what that may be.

I've read up on general semantics, and it seems to amount to simple critical thinking based on an awareness that language should not be mistaken for reality. Although there appear to be certain elements in common with Ayn Rand's Objectivism, I'm not convinced it doesn't directly contradict Rand's assertion that reality exists independently of consciousness, and in any case, Korzybski never tried to pass it off as a philosophy. Unless I've misunderstood, most of Debord's Society of the Spectacle could be considered consistent with general semantics, and it seems significant that van Vogt reminds us that the map is not the territory on more than one occasion in this novel. My problem is that the Null-A of the title stands for non-Aristotelian logic, and that we are told this is a non-Aristotelian tale about a non-Aristotelian detective, and van Vogt clearly believes this to represent a great intellectual leap forward with a fervour which remind me unfortunately of all the claims Hubbard once made for Dianetics. It's a whole new way of seeing, we are told, and it could make the world a better place; and yet I'm fucked if I can work out what it is that I'm supposed to have noticed here. It might be argued that critical thinking itself was revolutionary in the time this novel was written, an era during which America was still very much segregated and not so long after Adolf Hitler had built a war on a massive pile of invented shit; although it could also be pointed out that we haven't really come that far, and that we currently have a president who, much like Hitler, just makes shit up because he likes the sound of it - and it should therefore probably still seem revolutionary in 2018, whatever it is. So I'm all for critical thinking - assuming that to be the core of general semantics - but I still don't understand how it figures in this novel, or at least how it figures in this novel in particular.

Our tale follows Gilbert Gosseyn, our Null-A detective, across the galaxy as he attempts to defuse the somewhat ambiguous plans of a potential universal dictator named Enro. The text is typically dense, requiring that the reader keep any number of subsidiary elements in mind as events unfold on the understanding that they'll probably come in handy later; and whether or not they do probably depends on the reader's concentration and how much work they feel like putting in. Personally, I found myself sagging around the half-way mark, so I suppose I could have enjoyed this one more than I did. There are some pleasantly peculiar ideas here, and the narrative grips in most of the right places, and we don't have to sit through any of Alfred Elton's weird ideas about sexual inequality; and it was mostly respectable, but maybe just not so good as I felt it should have been.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Batman: I Am Suicide

Tom King, Mitch Gerads & others Batman: I Am Suicide (2017)
I've worked out what I dislike about superhero comics - not all superhero comics, because obviously I'm partial to a few of them, but the central flaw inherent to the genre. At the risk of stating the obvious, superhero comics - as first envisioned in the thirties or whenever - appealed to the powerless, or those who saw themselves as powerless by presenting a fantasy of something big enough to get the better of the school bully or whatever other terror, real or imagined, might give one cause to fear leaving the house. The superhero is essentially a cop, but a perfect cop, one who will transcend the laws and red tape of small men to give that bully a bloody nose. He's there for the snitch, for the angry loners who feel helpless in their own homes because thieves, rapists, even communists are everywhere, just waiting to pounce. He's there to beat up the dirty crook, and return the stolen wallet to that rich guy, that wealth provider, that creator of jobs. He's there to defend capitalism, the status quo, and authority whilst allowing us a safe fantasy about wild cards and visionaries who don't play by the rules. He's there to normalise the system which keeps us in place.

I think this occurred to me as I was watching the Suicide Squad movie on a plane - a truly awful film and possibly one of the worst I've ever seen. Suicide Squad is about a bunch of superpowered criminals who work for the government, getting sentences reduced in payment for espionage and the usual shit which secretive government agencies supposedly undertake. Suicide Squad comprises mostly psychotic killers and their obedience is secured by each being implanted with a bomb which can be blown at any moment. There's a scene where one of them gets lippy, but is silenced as Amanda Waller, their boss, holds up an iPad. We see six or seven icons on the screen of the iPad, each an image of a member of the squad. All she has to do is to touch the icon on the screen and one of them dies. The point is illustrated when this happens to a character called Slipknot. Lacking humour, and additionally featuring appalling overacted pantomime character Harley Quinn - Tank Girl as the magic pixie kinderwhore who'll either suck your dick or kill you, Suicide Squad feels like the normalisation of torture, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and human lives reduced to expendable military commodity.

Suicide Squad helped me to identify what I dislike about DC comics, and have always disliked about DC comics, at least in a general sense. The quality of superhero fare, at least for me, is dependent on how far it has come from being authoritarian tales of good cops for the paranoid and insecure. The success of Marvel has mostly been in their treating the genre as soap opera, as with most of those mutant titles, and so the best superhero comics do something other than ferrying an endless string of unfortunates to their penitential just desserts, if they do that at all - Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Keith Giffen's Justice League, Swamp Thing and so on; and this is why DC, even before I developed critical faculties, always seemed dated and stuffy. Marvel was Adam Warlock, weird mutants, and all manner of strange shit, whilst glancing in the other direction it mostly seemed to be Batman doing what he'd always done, and if enduring popularity has left him looking undeniably iconic, he's still a wealthy cop beating up criminals in preservation of the status quo, and the best anyone can do is at least try to make the story more interesting by use of lighting; but too much lighting and it ceases to be Batman, and there, in the shadows, I always get the feeling I can see the gun nut who lives a couple of blocks from me, who posts on our neighbourhood forum warning against local ISIS cells and Obama still coming for our firearms. By comparison, Judge Dredd at least has the decency to take the piss out of itself.

Nevertheless, the ever classy Tom King does what he can with what he's been given, at least moving this story on from what we saw in the first volume, doing his best to keep things interesting. The tough cop aspect is further downplayed as he tries to examine Batman as something human and vulnerable, and in doing so making a little more sense, or at least poetic sense, out of that fucking ridiculous origin story - dealing with bereavement by dressing up as a flying mammal and fighting crime. Similarly most of what happens is played out as a freakish fight between monsters, thus mostly avoiding the parallels and clichés I mentioned earlier. I'm not too sure the sequence of him nobbing Catwoman really said anything which needed saying, but this is probably about as good as a Batman comic is ever likely to be in so much as that
it at least makes an effort.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Dead-Eye Dick

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dead-Eye Dick (1982)
I'm beginning to get the feeling that Vonnegut more or less wrote the same book over and over, and by terms more pronounced than with any other author I can think of off the top of my head. It may be only a pattern arisen from the repetition of his very distinctive style, but I don't think so, and in any case, it's not necessarily an objection. If true, I suppose that would mean that the difference between his better and his lesser novels depends on whether or not they count as a good telling of the same story, whether he hit the right notes, and so on.

Dead-Eye Dick probably isn't anything amazing, but it helps that the organised chaos of Vonnegut's narrative never sprawls too far from the main point, at least not without a good reason; so it doesn't irritate like a few of those I've wanted to slap and demand what the fuck are you going on about now? This should probably be considered an achievement given that this narrative occasionally takes the form of scripts for a stage play imagined by Rudy Waltz, our main character, and even recipes; and of course, Rudy's dad was best friends with Adolf Hitler at one point, so it's not like Vonnegut was particularly reigning it in for this one.

As with other versions of the same story, Dead-Eye Dick is about life kicking you in the ass, over and over, things which happen for no good reason, and which break your heart.

She said that there would be a wonderful new world when the war was won. Everybody who needed food or medicine would get it, and people could say anything they wanted, and could choose any religion that appealed to them. Leaders wouldn't dare to be unjust anymore, since all the other countries would gang up on them. For this reason, there could never be another Hitler. He would be squashed like a bug before he got very far.

See what I mean? I should probably just leave it there, because that's what this book is about. It's not his best, but it does it's job very well.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Story of O

Pauline Réage Story of O (1958)
I'd heard of this one mainly as something contentious customarily mentioned
as a novel which should have been banned in the same sentence as Naked Lunch and Lady Chatterley's Lover, so naturally I was curious as to what it was and why. Story of O, so it turns out, is a mucky book, specifically a mucky book of obvious appeal to patrons of sex dungeons. I'd say it's in the tradition of de Sade except I haven't read enough de Sade to make such a statement with any sort of authority, particularly as I get the impression de Sade's writing had some philosophical dimension and I'm not convinced that the same can be said of O. The novel was originally written as a series of letters from Anne Desclos to her lover, Jean Paulhan, publisher and something of a big cheese in French literary circles. Paulhan, an admirer of de Sade, had apparently suggested that de Sade's work could only have been written by a man, so the Story of O seems to have been an attempt to refute his claim.

The story, such as it is, relates the progress of a woman identified only as O as she is sexually enslaved and dominated by her partner, then by others to whom her partner gives her as a gift. O is repeatedly humiliated, whipped, bound, tortured, pierced, and branded, reacting to each new imposition with a combination of fear and gratitude, until the tale ends with the suggestion of a final, seemingly unpublished chapter in which she asks to be killed. It's extremely well written, and initially erotic, but I suspect you probably have to be really into this stuff to get something out of it; which I'm not, so after a while I began to find it dull and repetitive; then again, I've tended to find fetishists of most persuasions dull and repetitive, just as I find anyone who assumes that you're as fascinated by their thing as they are, a massive bore.

The introduction hints at the possibility of Story of O being read as a spiritual discourse, likening all the whippings and negation of O's self to religiously inspired mortification of the flesh or asceticism, but I don't really buy it any more than I buy there being much common ground which The Castle of Otranto shares with the music of Alien Sex Fiend. This leaves us with mostly just the flogging, the coercion, and the reduction of the main character to a series of three holes into which men thrust their mighty choppers. This, according to Jean Paulhan's introduction, perfectly captures the true nature of woman, the thing she most desires, which is clearly bollocks as Andrea Dworkin is my witness.

Whilst we can police sexual deeds in the hope of limiting incidences of, for one example, those who shag kids, it's probably a waste of time policing - or even frowning upon - whatever happens to turn other people on. Nevertheless, I find the Story of O a little too lacking in flavour for my own tastes, not specifically in terms of what it does, but what it does in combination with apparent literary aspirations, when it's really just Fifty Shades of Grey intercut with scenes of Dakota Johnson considering herself spoilt by the Ferrero Rocher passed around at the ambassador's reception. Story of O is a two-hundred page letter to Fiesta, but without the honesty, enthusiastic squelching, caravan holiday in the Lake district, or anyone asking us to imagine their surprise; but worse than that, it's just very boring.

Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich Nickel and Dimed (2001)
I've had this one sat around for at least a decade, purchased on impulse based on Ehrenreich's Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War being, as I recall, phenomenal. I picked up Nickel and Dimed, started it, and actively enjoyed it on a couple of occasions, but somehow the time was never quite right. Also, I think I was slightly confused by how remote the subject seemed in relation to Blood Rites; although to be fair, I suppose it all falls under social anthropology to one extent or another.

Nickel and Dimed is one woman going undercover in low-wage USA, as the subtitle has it, taking those jobs no-one really wants in diners, chain stores, or cleaning houses, living in crappy short-term digs, motels, and the like. There's a substantial quota of online whining over this book, much of it generated by those living the lives here described and objecting that they never had the option of going back to the well-fed career of a successful writer at the end of the experiment. Most of the critics seem to have taken issue with the book they believe Barbara Ehrenreich should have written, or they seem to feel maybe Ehrenreich should have consulted them before writing, or maybe they just object because they dream of being paid $4.45 an hour to get up at four in the morning and lick the septic tank clean before the boss cuts off their heads. It's hard to tell. I spent twenty years living on fucking peanuts whilst engaged in back-breaking work, and yet somehow I've managed to not take this book personally.

Excepting the more downtrodden than thou and clowns who use terms like socialist propaganda, Nickel and Dimed is worth a couple of hours of anyone's time as a hand grasping the shittier end of the capitalist stick by someone lucky enough to have the perspective afforded by the availability of other options. It isn't a definitive account, and nor does it claim to be anything other than one woman's experience of getting economically shafted on a daily basis; but this is stuff which will be news to at least some of those who read it, and it touches on a lot of that which is rotten in our society without sneering or setting homework. Also, it's a thumping good read and keeps its sense of humour despite the circumstances.

Perhaps ironically, a few of the negative reviews serve to illustrate one of Ehrenreich's observations, namely that the working class is often its own worst fucking enemy - although she phrases it more diplomatically - in failing to rise above tribal bullshit even when the poor cunt on trial is actually on our side.