Wednesday, 29 May 2019


Stanislaw Lem Solaris (1961)
I've always avoided Tarkovsky, and by association, his adaptation of Solaris. I'm sure he's a cinematic genius, but I was introduced to his work as just the sort of thing you like. This is usually the kiss of death for me, almost always amounting to it being just the sort of thing I hate because the recommendation has come from an idiot who doesn't know me anything like so well as they think they do. The second occasion of my being told that Tarkovsky was just the sort of thing I like was facilitated by [name withheld in case he happens to be reading] who expressed this idea by lecturing me at length for a full twenty minutes before I was able to interrupt, pointing out that actually I had a hunch Tarkovsky's work probably wasn't my bag at all. He droned on regardless for another twenty minutes before I was again able to get a word in edgeways, this time attempting to diffuse the increasingly uncomfortable situation with levity.

'Go on,' I quipped, 'push your glasses up your nose and say, as my producer said to me…'

He spared me a stony glance then continued his monologue. I suppose it's possible that he'd never seen The Two Ronnies, just as I'd never seen Solaris.

Anyway, no-one ever described Lem's original novel as just the sort of thing I like, never mind acknowledging its existence as an early version of Tarkovsky's film taking the form of printed words describing what would eventually appear on the screen; and I gather he was pals with Philip K. Dick by some definition, so it therefore seemed to be worth a punt. Unfortunately, according to Mark Hodder, what I have here is a fairly poor translation.

Solaris presents some wonderful ideas, particularly regarding extraterrestrial life, here imagined in such a way as to reduce most other authors to hacks busily sticking lumps of plasticine to the foreheads of underpaid extras. The afterword describes it as something in the tradition of Swift, although it reminds me more of Kafka's more understated sense of parody. Accordingly, it's a philosophical novel about our place in the universe, our ideas regarding God and so on, all of which is regrettably rendered far too mysterious for its own good by the translation, or so I assume. I mean it's readable and doesn't come across as necessarily garbled, and the imagery works fine, but this telling of Solaris is in all other respects on the wrong side of ponderous by a good couple of miles, which is most likely why my eyes kept skidding down to the foot of the page. I just couldn't keep them pinned to whatever the fuck was failing to happen in narrative terms.

This was sort of a relief in so much as that after [title withheld in case its editor happens to be reading] I thought maybe my reading glands were broken. Time to look for a better translation, I guess.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Islands in the Sky

Arthur C. Clarke Islands in the Sky (1952)
Here's another early Arthur featuring a cast of nerds, squares, Poindexters and Brainiacs who point at things and then furnish each other with detailed scientific explanations as to what those things are, and in the case of Islands in the Sky, they're mostly rockets and space stations. This one's a juvie, but is nonetheless enjoyable for all of its edumacational aspirations thanks to Clarke's clear, engrossing prose - and I would have added timeless to the description but for Islands being so firmly nailed to the early fifties that I'm sure some hipster will already have it filed under some ludicrous invented classification, ovaltinepunk or something of the sort. If you're sat there clapping your hands and squealing at the idea of ovaltinepunk as an exciting new retro-genre, please kill yourself now.

Anyway, a wholesome and duly studious young lad wins a competition on the telly, and the prize is a visit to a space station, and thus do we have a novel. Whilst Clarke is rightly praised for having forseen all sorts - not least being the communication satellite - most striking from a twenty-first century perspective is that this was written in a world without computers, and of complex calculations performed on a slide rule, and of apprenticeships undertaken once you've left school; so it's more interesting in terms of the history of futurism, which I didn't expect.

It's striking just how much Clarke failed to predict; which is thrown into sharp relief when the novel occasionally puffs itself up like Kenneth Clarke to point out that actually, this isn't one of your ghastly magazine stories, even though the lineage is earlier acknowledged in a passing reference to E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Skylark of Space.

It wouldn't do in a Shakespeare play for all the characters to be floating around in mid-air. So the actors had to use magnetic shoes—a favourite dodge of the old science fiction writers, though this was the only time I ever found them used in reality.

Still, the whole thing is written with such enthusiasm and affection as to negate any pleasure taken in the irony of something so resolutely of the fifties seeming so pleased with its endearingly wonky predictions.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Sons and Lovers

D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers (1913)
Sons and Lovers was Lawrence's third novel and first proper chart topper, with the general consensus seeming to hold that this was Dave finally getting right everything which had been wrong with The Trespasser - or if not the general consensus, then I've definitely read such a claim made somewhere or other. I'd probably say yes and no in so far as that he went on to write better - at least from what I can remember - and The Trespasser isn't anything like so poor as its reputation seems to imply.

Sons and Lovers is loosely autobiographical, being a thinly veiled account of Lawrence growing up in Eastwood, his family life, then relationships with women analogous to Jessie Chambers and Frieda Weekley - all of which is complicated by his strong emotional attachment to his mother. This aspect has meant that Sons and Lovers tends to be discussed as an Oedipal novel, but as with much of what Lawrence wrote, that which he describes is often too complex in its detail to be well suited to such labels, which is presumably part of the reason for him writing; and the suggestion of him eventually hating and resenting his overpowering matriarch really does this book a disservice, reducing everything to primary colours. Along similar lines, Lawrence's sexuality has often been subject to debate, and those who take an interest in such matters will possibly notice that, as young men go, Paul Morel of Sons and Lovers could hardly be described as priapic, but nor does he seem particularly effeminate. Sometimes glib description doesn't always work.

I'm not sure whether this was necessarily something of which Lawrence was conscious, or is simply part of a pattern I've tended to notice of late, but there's a serious gulf between language and the reality it attempts to describe, and Sons and Lovers is interesting for the reason that attempts to reduce it to descriptions of relationship dynamics inevitably end up describing something which isn't this novel. Instead, the reader is immersed in emotional and sensual currents which form the narrative without ticking boxes, naming names, or fossilising the possibilities of where the tale could go with the introduction of absolutes. This also means that the book is probably much longer than it would need to be were it a simple delivery system for the ideas it proposes, because the only way to faithfully record the relationships it describes are as currents within a much larger whole; which is why The Trespasser seems a little snappier in some respects. In other words, there are points at which it's difficult to tell whether all of the gushing will amount to anything, although this aspect is a necessary part of the experience; and for what it may be worth, that experience is ultimately intensely moving and very rewarding in ways which few writers achieve without either sentiment or villains.


Daniel Bristow-Bailey Dog (2019)
I feel vaguely privileged to know the author of this through social media, which is why I have a copy - it being a short story produced in a numbered run of one-hundred as an A5 booklet. A man orders dog from the menu of what is described as a traditional restaurant, partially because he's drunk and partially out of curiosity, and it all goes downhill from there. I'd say it reminds me a little of Will Self, but the comparison is probably just me being lazy on the grounds that were Dog to feature a robot I might invoke Isaac Asimov. I'd say it's allegorical, although what I probably mean is that, being a short story, Dog is under no obligation to obey reality - which also relates to what it's about, roughly speaking: the realities we make for ourselves when the truth is too awful to contemplate, which seems quite timely given all the shite going on in the world right now. The realities here are pretty horrible, but as always we tell ourselves it's okay, that it isn't how it looks; and yet it is. Awful truths are allowed enough of a description to work within the story without putting anyone off their lunch, so Dog is almost like the Amphetamine Sulphate title that's okay to take home and introduce to your parents, which is a compliment. Somebody out there needs to be chucking money at Daniel Bristow-Bailey and begging him to write more.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Four Circles

Meg McCarville Four Circles (2019)
I assume these would be four circles of hell, or thereabouts. This is the first Amphetamine Sulphate title to be issued with the warning that some of the content may upset readers of a nervous disposition. It didn't particularly upset me but then maybe it wouldn't being as I've only ever had consensual sex, and that's a bit of an unfortunately grey area within these pages. I was bothered by something which happened to a cat, not least because this is the third book in a row to go there - excepting the recent Niven and Pournelle yawnfest - but Meg was clearly unhappy about the occurrence, so at least we're on the same team. Otherwise, it's a ninety page dirty bomb of terrible sex, grinding poverty, disease, meth, crack, sweat, and arseholes detonating over and over right into your face like a sort of explosive diarrhoea singularity, and I don't get the impression she made any of it up, because had she done it probably wouldn't have been quite so relentless. Some of it may upset you, or it will hopefully upset you and thus serve as an indication that regardless of whatever else you may have going on, you're approximately sane; but as for trigger warnings, what little I've read of de Sade was worse, and somewhere there will be someone who was once traumatised in such a way that digestive biscuits now send them into a psychological tailspin.

Meg McCarville gets through this nightmare whilst somehow managing to retain a sense of humour and providing the rest of us with one hell of an education. Weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as a real life Johnny Ryan cartoon. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but given that she's written it all down, I'm glad that it's been published.

I knew there was a reason why I've never been drawn to crystal meth, and Meg McCarville articulates it quite well.

Monday, 13 May 2019

The Mote in God's Eye

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle The Mote in God's Eye (1974)
This may have been the most boring novel I've ever attempted to read. It's less hateful than Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but that's hardly a recommendation. I'd promised myself no more Niven because whilst he has some great ideas, they are often the only thing going for an otherwise irritating novel; but Pournelle seemed kind of interesting when I read about him in Charles Platt's second Dream Makers book the other month, and I suppose I must have wondered about the title at some point.

I started, then eventually decided I couldn't read another word at around page three-hundred. The next two things I tried reading both featured cats being killed - albeit accidentally in the case of Sid Vicious - which depressed me, inspiring a return to Mote on the grounds of feline destruction being one sin it seemed unlikely to commit; but after another couple of days with less than a hundred pages to go, I realised that it really was as dull as it had appeared during the previous sitting.

The story is set against a backdrop of humanity as a well-established galaxy spanning empire which encounters alien life for the first time and is thus obliged to have a bit of a rethink; and somehow they found a way to make it about as interesting as a sales report.

Niven's weird alien civilisation is kind of engaging up to the point at which it started to remind me of the cantina in Star Wars or something written by Douglas Adams, as always seems to happen; and no - I don't actually care whether or not he got there first and should thus be hailed as the father of smirking aliens who crack knob gags. The rest is your basic military science-fiction bearing a suspicious resemblance to sixties Star Trek:

'Commander Sinclair, have we enough energy for a report to Fleet?'

'Aye, Skipper, the engines hold verra well indeed. Yon object is nae so massive as we thought, and we've hydrogen to spare.'

Unless I imagined it, the great majority of the text seems to be taken up with important space navy types holding ponderous conversations about how such and such an alien discovery is likely to influence the political economy of such and such a colony world. This is savoured with military protocol and ensigns screaming sir, yes, sir. It gives the impression of an author enamoured with his own martial testimony, imagining that a military background has furnished him with an experience so much richer than the rest of us could begin to imagine, and now he's going to afford us a glimpse of the magic by describing nervous young recruits summoned to the offices of grizzled old warhorses covered in medals. What heady days those were!

Additionally, it's not particularly well written and every other page seems to throw in some element that doesn't make sense.

'We'll have to go through it,' Whitbread's Motie said. She twittered to Charlie for a moment. 'There are alarms and there'll be warriors on guard.'

'Can we go over it?'

'You'd pass through an x-ray laser, Horst.'

'God's teeth. What are they so afraid of?'

I've read that passage seven or eight times, and I still don't understand why Horst would pass through an x-ray laser. I can't tell whether it's a prediction or a facetious comment which says something or other about Horst, most likely suggesting that he lacks a due sense of caution, but even with this potentially being the case, the phrasing doesn't quite work; and there are similar weird semantic hiccups throughout.

While we're here, there's one human woman in the entire book, who is naturally married off to some military dude at the end. The sexism wouldn't ordinarily bother me, except it's clearly symptomatic of a wider problem. Stephen Baxter and even Peter F. Hamilton did this sort of thing so much better.

So yes, well done, lads - you've knocked Heinlein right off his throne with this one.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The Crossing Line

Fabian Nicieza etc. The Crossing Line (1990)
'Back on the Shakespeare, I see,' observed my wife as I lay in bed reading my sad little mylar bagged stack of Avengers comics. I didn't blush because there didn't seem to be much point. I freely admit that I bought the six issues of The Crossing Line because I was rifling through the used comic book racks at Half-Price when I noticed one of these with guest starring Alpha Flight proclaimed on the cover.

'Ooh Alpha Flight!' squealed the little voice within, and they had four of the six issues there in the racks which seemed nice and tidy, and for just a dollar a pop, and it was easy enough to find the other two online, and why the fuck not? In any case, half of my facebook friends list - admittedly the half I've unfollowed so that I don't have to read their characteristically inane reportage on cosplay, Funko Pops, or watching four thousand episodes of Charmed in a single sitting - are either Harry Potter fans, grown men presently engaged with a Puffin Books reading marathon, or people who are actually able to discuss what Steven Moffat was trying to say in such and such a terminally shite Who episode, so fuck you!

Anyway, I've been trying to read The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Jesus Christ it's boring. It hasn't quite reached Heinlein standards of loathsome which is why I'm still dutifully ploughing through page after page of space opera tedium, but I needed a break, and this seemed sufficiently unlike The Mote in God's Eye as to serve as a palate cleanser. Being a kid's superhero comic from the nineties, it quite naturally takes itself far too seriously, but no more so than Mote's wearying starship commanders responding to security breaches and other important sounding military shit.

The Crossing Line is a story of terrorists hijacking a British nuclear submarine, and how the mighty Avengers rush to the scene to save the day only to find themselves embroiled in a massive clusterfuck with Canadian and Russian superhero teams who had the same idea, just as the forces of Atlantis once again decide to wage war on the surface dwellers. There are probably about five persons with speaking roles in the entire story who don't have super-powers, or who haven't acquired super-powers by the last issue, so it's like that Simpsons comic in which the power plant blows up, irradiating the entire town of Springfield, transforming everyone into superheroes. It's deeply fucking ludicrous, but is a lot more fun than A Mote in God's Eye, and the fact of almost every single character being able to fly or to shoot beams from their hands roughly shuffles the story closer to science-fiction than most caped material; and besides, describing this as deeply fucking ludicrous implies that there's such a thing as the ponderous superhero equivalent of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, which there really isn't.

By my understanding, the appeal of eighties Marvel lay in its being a huge shared universe viewed only one small piece at a time through reading the comics and trying to work out who was who, what they could do, and what the hell was going on; so storytelling aside, it appealed to anyone who liked to collect sets of things as a kid, anyone who ever decided that their Shogun Warrior model kits could inhabit the same continuity as Micronauts action figures. That's how this stuff first drew me in, and how it still works up to a point. I'm older and wiser, but it's still kind of interesting trying to work out who the fuck these other Avengers were supposed to be, given that I don't even remember them from back in the day and otherwise recognise only Captain America and the Vision.

Whilst Fabian Nicieza has written some ropey stuff in his time, he always had something interesting going on, and was distinguished amongst the Marvel script droids of his era as someone with a distinctive style, even with themes common to his writing - specifically a pronounced tendency to draw from the real world politics of the time in ways which seem quite perceptive once you get past the people in costumes cracking jokes whilst fighting. This also means that we get to see not only George W. Bush in a nineties Marvel comic, but even the Thatch!

The Crossing Line is, as I guess we have probably established, ridiculous, although it differs only from more recent Grant Morrison efforts in method rather than substance, but it doesn't matter. It does everything it sets out to do and held my attention for a couple of hours without inducing either depression or embarrassment. I doubt anyone will ever collect this material as a graphic novel, but maybe it's fine as a stack of six comic books.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Weapon X

Barry Windsor-Smith Weapon X (1991)
I missed this one first time around, having given up on Marvel a few months earlier from what I can recall - probably a good thing as Weapon X, had I seen it, might have sucked me right back in, it being the absolute opposite of all that Liefeld inspired crap which was dragging the medium down into a grimacing slurry of katana swords and improbably massive tits. Weapon X is exactly the sort of thing which first got me hooked on all those caped books.

For those who've been living in a monastery since 1974, Wolverine is a character rather than a superhero, a violent feral mutant with the ability to recover from almost any injury no matter how disgusting. It's surprisingly difficult to trace his lineage back to Superman or any of his sunny pals, and Wikipedia points out that Wolverine is one of a certain superhero archetype which seems to have emerged in the wake of the Vietnam war. Since he first appeared in an issue of the Incredible Hulk, Marvel had kept the origin of the character vague and mysterious, occasionally hinting at his being the reluctant fruit of some dubious military experiment, and for a while there was a lot of mileage in all of this muttering and whispering. Of course, what with Marvel being Marvel and the whole deal with how you won't believe your fucking eyes as we finally reveal the pulse pounding secret origin of whoever inherited amazing powers from an ancient sorcerer this week, the mystery wasn't to last; and by now, had I been paying attention, I probably would have known what brand of underpants Wolverine was wearing when they squirrelled him off to that secret laboratory. Anyway, back to 1991 when we still didn't really know…

Barry Windsor-Smith, writes, draws, and doesn't give a whole lot away, telling this story in generally impressionistic style with hints requiring the reader to join the dots - snatches of dialogue combined with images from other parts of the story as a sort of narrative collage, no thinky bubbles, no one explaining what they're doing for the sake of an easy ride. Weapon X is disorientating, brutal, and beautiful, one of the most elegant looking comic books I've seen and at least of a standard equivalent to the work of Jean Giraud. The disorientation serves the atmosphere of the tale rather than obscuring the sequence of its events, which are in any case loosely familiar from Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and even Jurassic Park, I suppose. The end result makes even the more commonly praised examples of the medium seem clunky and childish, and yes, even Watchmen and its like.

Weapon X was originally serialised in Marvel Comics Presents, a biweekly anthology which I vaguely recall as having been otherwise somewhat ropey; which is indicative of what I loved about Marvel at the end of the eighties, specifically the sheer variety of ideas and quality without anyone feeling the need to slap a warning on the cover reading grown-ups only, no kids allowed! As the comic book became a teenager, wearing long trousers, listening to Gentle Giant albums and trying really hard to enjoy them, Marvel - at least for a while - was just getting on with doing what it had always done to the best of its abilities. Too bad it all went tits up.