Monday, 24 December 2018

Marty Page

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

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

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

I keep having days like that too.

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

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

Specialist Fabricator

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

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

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

All this and only just into the second year.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Slavers of Space

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 December 2018

The Revised Boy Scout Manual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

The Star Wasps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 December 2018

Small Talk at the Clinic

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Our Children's Children

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Third Hotel

Laura Van Den Berg The Third Hotel (2018)
Here's a strange one, the story of Clare, a grieving woman who, having lost her husband, attends a film festival in Havana with the vicarious intent of immersing herself in the obsessions of her late partner, specifically his interest in the moving image and in particular a Cuban horror movie called RevoluciĆ³n Zombi. As may be apparent from the title, it's a zombie flick which seems to be echoed in Clare's own life as she spots her husband, alive, well, and hanging out around the film festival.

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

At her laptop, she would think back to RevoluciĆ³n Zombi, the hero's plan to record the zombie apocalypse and put it up for sale, about all the curious worlds that would have been exposed in the background, all the unseen corners pulled into the light. When a person did not know they were being watched, what they would do when they believed themselves to be in a state of true privacy—that was the lure of found footage, that clarification of human mystery, and that was why surveillance was so lethal; a true erosion of privacy inevitably led to an erosion of self.

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