Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Voices from the Sky

Arthur C. Clarke Voices from the Sky (1965)
This is a collection of Clarke's opinion pieces, essays from magazines, and even an award acceptance speech. I picked it up assuming it would be fiction, but it isn't a problem because he writes this sort of thing well, even seeming a little more confident talking about communications satellites and space travel without having to wrap the ideas around a cast of fictional characters. Clarke is of course celebrated as having predicted the communications satellite, and what is written here further illustrates the significance of this, and how much it has changed our society - although the man himself demonstrates healthy reticence when it comes to blowing his own trumpet, which is probably for the best given certain other predictions. Whilst Clarke was unusually insightful regarding his thoughts on where technology would take us, Voices from the Sky serves as a reminder that science-fiction reveals more about the time during which it was written than anything genuinely predictive, despite its best intentions. Clarke's hit rate probably doesn't significantly improve on that of poor old Hugo Gernsback, and for every premonition of the internet, there's some screwy dead end counterpart - how global communication will oblige the entire world to learn English, and we'll be looking into accelerated sleep machines which allow us to get by on just two hours, making it easier to communicate with people in countries where it's the middle of the night.

Nevertheless, his essays are fascinating, even where he's been proven wrong; and if certain inevitably colonial attitudes seem a little musty in places, as with Kenneth Clark - of Civilisation fame but no relation - his understated, slightly astringent sense of humour never fails to lighten the tone.

Heavy Water

Martin Amis Heavy Water (1998)
Never having paid much attention to literature, or at least what is generally held to be literature, I tend to discover authors more or less by accident, excepting those whose books have robots and spaceships on the cover. This is probably why Martin Amis has pretty much passed me by until now. I'm aware of his being the spawn of Kingsley, but then I only read New Maps of Hell relatively recently, and then because it discusses books which have robots and spaceships on the cover. I've heard of London Fields, although I'm not sure why, and have mostly encountered the name of Martin Amis in relation to Will Self, usually in dismissive terms suggesting that Self and Amis think they're all lush because they use long, fancy words but really they aren't lush because they're just stuck up and think they're clever and better than the rest of us. I think this means we're not supposed to read their works because only people who've spent at least five years working on the bins are allowed to write novels; which is bollocks because Will Self at least has patently produced some crackers.

Anyway, it seemed time I gave Martin Amis a shot and I found this one - short stories, which I always think is a good place to start.

Assuming there has, at some point, been fuss, then I can certainly see what it was - or possibly is - about. I assume Amis being so often paired off with Will Self is, aside from their both having gone to good schools, down to their respective fictions being, if not Swiftian, then something in that direction, and in this case so much so as to allow for The Janitor of Mars, which is science-fiction as much as anything and reads as though he's taking the piss out of Stephen Baxter. Despite frequent playdates within the same reviews, it would be difficult to mistake Amis for Self or vice versa. On the strength of the stories here, Amis is a lot more direct and it would probably be difficult to accuse him of self-indulgence with any conviction. Thematically, the two of them inhabit similar territory, but probably not to the point of it being worth discussing.

The last two in this collection of nine were a little underwhelming: What Happened to Me on My Holiday is written in a phonetic approximation of some regional dialect, and the story doesn't quite reward the effort of translation; and Straight Fiction inverts established gender preferences to comic effect - Hollywood stars exposed as secret heterosexuals etc. etc. - but doesn't quite live up to the promise of the gag. The rest, however, are fucking astonishing. Amis' writing grips the reader like hands physically emerging from the open pages to grasp you by the shoulders. He intrigues from the first sentence, presenting such peculiar combinations of people and the lives they've ended up living that you can't not want to find out where the fuck it's going to go, because there's nothing predictable, nothing promising specific conclusions, not even in the inversion narratives of the aforementioned Straight Fiction, or Career Move which swaps mumbling poetry circles for Hollywood glitz and bullshit without so much as a knowing smirk. Although the last two don't quite pay out in full, everything here does something fucking weird whilst communicating the same in terms so immediately accessible, even populist, as to be dizzying.

I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get here, but never mind.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The Rita: Anatomical Charisma

Sam McKinlay The Rita: Anatomical Charisma (2019)
For the sake of contrast, I'll begin by admitting to scepticism regarding principally visual novels. I've met too many people who, having bought a digital camera, have suddenly redefined themselves as photographers - as distinct from just being some bloke with a digital camera - and are now busily clogging up CreateSpace with eBooks of snaps of discarded kebabs and cracked toilet bowls garnished with ethereal wisps of underwhelming poetry, such as this, which I quote from something too stupid to name.

Bare room with wooden floor.
A man is prone on the floor, as if listening to sounds below.

Thank you, E.L. Wisty.

Anatomical Charisma is thankfully quite different, achieving the effect for which all of those other useless wankers were presumably striving, even justifying its chosen medium in attempting to communicate something which possibly might not work as text. As with a few of these Amphetamine Sulphate titles, there's no real shorthand for what it's about, so you simply have to experience the thing because, as Gabi Losoncy points out in her introduction, the subject here is immersive, or at least that's how we engage with it. In other words, you had to be there.

McKinlay - who is also a noise artist, by the way - has developed an interest in aspects of classical ballet, its relation to the idealised female form, and - guessing here - the degrees to which his subject is abstracted from nature so as to constitute its own self-referential reality, if that doesn't make me sound like too much of an arsehole. Words are limited to labels added for the sake of clarifying what we're looking at, and why such and such an image has been chosen; and the images are all sepia, some presumably quoted rather than generated by the author, and serving to distance the book from black and white art photography, obliging us to focus on whatever themes might seem to connect these close ups of calves, diagrams, images of bound feet, and just occasionally a flash of something awful. The effect is surprisingly powerful for something which seems only puzzling and inscrutable during the preliminarily flick through in search of anything which might catch the attention. It works like music, and as with music, the benefits of trying to describe what happens will inevitably fall short.

As for the rest of you stupid twats self-publishing your pointless eBooks of gravestone snaps, buck your fucking ideas up. This is how it's done. This is how you write without words.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Master of the World

Jules Verne Master of the World (1904)
There's this place high up in the mountains, so high up that no-one can get to it. There's something going on up there, flames - lightning maybe, and everyone is worried that it might be a volcano. John Strock tries to climb up to have a look but it's too high, and then he gets a mysteriously anonymous letter suggesting that he should mind his own business. Next come strange reports of a very, very fast car, and later there are reports of a very, very fast boat. John investigates and encounters the boat, but it flies away with him inside. It's piloted by the Master of the World, a man who doesn't say very much and who doesn't seem very friendly, but he crashes the amazing car-plane-boat thing he's invented, and so that's the end of that.

All of this is padded out with speculation, page upon page of it. One might surmise that this thing which has been described is actually one and the same as the other thing described earlier. Could it then be that this thing which has been described is actually one and the same as the other thing described earlier? Let us examine the reasons why this thing which has been described might actually be one and the same as the other thing described earlier; then eventually it dawns on us, the truth is revealed - this thing which has been described is actually one and the same as the other thing described earlier!

I vaguely recall a movie adaptation of this novel which I saw as a kid, and one which sort of worked because the cinematic Master of the World had invented a superweapon, a huge dirigible with propellers from which he presumably menaced the rest of us. Unfortunately in the book he just has this car-plane-boat thing which now sounds a bit ludicrous, and his alleged mastery of the world is seemingly because he's the fastest. Verne's Master doesn't seem particularly interested even in maintaining a small circle of pals, never mind ruling over anyone, and so the plot mostly resembles the mumbled invention of a four-year old kid whose attention is divided between playing with his Lego and making up a story which, on close inspection, actually turns out to be Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but with wheels.

I've had this problem with Verne before, and doubtless someone will tell me that I've read a lousy translation. Unfortunately, I actually enjoyed Master of the World in so much as that I found it highly readable, even engrossing, in spite of its fucking stupid story; and whilst I recognise Verne as having been very much an ideas man, the gulf between those ideas and his seemingly elegant prose is a complete pillock flouncing about in a cape, pulling scary faces and expecting you to be surprised at revelations of the bleeding obvious. So I'm not saying he was a bad writer, only that they weren't all stone cold classics, and that he had some sauce saying whatever it was he said about the work of H.G. Wells.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Vernon God Little

DBC Pierre Vernon God Little (2003)
I've never been particularly swayed by things winning awards, much less by keeping up with the latest, but I bought Vernon God Little back when it had just bagged various prizes and was still officially the best thing ever because I saw the author reading excerpts on telly and it sounded great. So I read it, and it was indeed great; following which DBC Pierre seemingly disappeared, vaguely resurfacing only to deliver a disappointing second novel before finding himself consigned to restaurant review limbo in the broadsheets, or something of the sort; and everyone forgot about Vernon, and it probably wasn't that good anyway.

Fifteen years later, I'm surprised to find it's actually better than I remember and more than justifies the level of acclaim it received. It's a fairly simple story, told by the friend of a school shooter who finds himself sucked in by that media circus we keep hearing about, and it's set in small town Texas - which is one hell of a lot more familiar to me this time around, so Pierre's version of the setting is thankfully both faithful and sympathetic.

This is a neighbourhood where underwear sags low. For instance, ole Mr. Deutschman lives up here, who used to be upstanding and decent. This is where you live if you used to be less worse. Folks who beat up on each other, and clean their own carburetors, live up here. It's different from where I live, closer to town, where everything gets all bottled the fuck up. Just bottled the fuck up till it fucken explodes, so you spend the whole time waiting to see who's going to pop next. I guess a kind of smelly honesty is what you find at Crockett's. A smelly honesty, and clean carburetors.

Vernon God Little is additionally a satire, specifically in so much as that it takes the piss out of certain aspects of American culture, justifying the subheading, a 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death. However, it should be noted that we're talking comedy in the sense of Dante, not Only Fools and fucking Horses. Pierre exaggerates for effect, possibly also acknowledging that truth is usually stranger than fiction - and particularly so here in Texas. Our endlessly sardonic teenage narrator has a whiff of the Beavis & Butthead about him, but without the stupidity which would have facilitated a much easier life.

I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge. Look at the way things are. I'm no fucken genius or anything, but these spazzos are in charge of my every twitch. What I'm starting to think is maybe only the dumb are safe in this world, the ones who roam with the herd, without thinking about every little thing. But see me? I have to think about every little fucken thing.

Vernon is insightful, delivering a gripping testimony with genuine wit, and the great tragedy of his existence seems mirrored by the fate of this book, at least if the accolades reproduced on the inside cover are any indication, most of which seem to miss the point by at least several light years. 'Funnier than The Simpsons, closer to the knuckle than The Office,' writes some complete bell-end from Publishing News, whatever that was; and then we have the hopeless cunt from the Irish Examiner who writes, this is Jerry Springer land, a laugh-a-minute orgy of dysfunction; a topsy-turvy US of A… You have been warned. Let's take another quick look at this laugh-a-minute orgy of dysfunction.

Look at her: flushed and shiny with sweat, hunched under her brown ole hair, in her brown ole kitchen. Deep inside, her organs pump double-time, trying to turn bile into strawberry milk. Outside, her brown ole life festers uselessly around the jokey red bow on her dress.

RAOTLFLMAO! Chortle! Chortle! Oh my aching sides! I suppose the problem here is that some people, specifically people without much worldly experience still regard Americans as slow-learning hamburger-chugging God-bothering porkers, so when you make a statement like all Americans eat at McDonald's, love Jesus and are very stupid, certain twats will mistake it for a general truism, and a few of those will even take it for comedy gold. I expect the Irish Examiner bloke must have pissed his pants every time Pierre had Vernon eat a candy bar with an unfamiliar name. Even the more sympathetic reviews refer to Pierre's take on life in Hicksville

I can't help wondering if this bewilderingly off target reception was partially to blame for Pierre's failure to follow up. This is a genuinely wonderful novel, witty, sardonic without any of the sneering invoked by the reviews, and masterfully walking the tightrope between realism and absurdity; and whilst it won prizes, it seems to have been judged in part by people who read new books - rather than people who just read books - and who have somehow mistaken it for Tom Sharpe does Texas. Ironically, this also serves to illustrate everything DBC Pierre has said about humanity in Vernon God Little.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Land of the Giants

Murray Leinster Land of the Giants (1968)
I have no particular attachment to the sixties television show, but will buy a Murray Leinster on sight if I don't already have it. Land of the Giants was an Irwin Allen production wherein a sub orbital passenger flight - specifically a ship called the Spindrift - somehow ends up on a planet very much like Earth, except that the ship and its occupants are now mere inches high. I made the Aurora model kit of the Spindrift without having seen the show when I was a kid, and the one I watched on Netflix just last year may well be the first and only episode I've seen. The show - which seemed okay of its kind, but didn't really inspire me to watch further - is a mystery at least as much as it's science-fiction, prompting the viewer towards the idea that the Spindrift has simply been miniaturised and that they're all still on Earth; but I gather that as the series progresses, it is revealed that they're not on Earth, but a planet which just happens to have developed a society very much like that of America in the sixties, on a planet where evolution has somehow produced the same species as are found on Earth, but improbably larger.

Leinster expands on what we saw on the screen, even changing a few significant details, and emphasises the basic weirdness of the premise by waving science at it. Of course, Land of the Giants piled improbability upon improbability, so Leinster's science - which is necessarily speculative - merely accentuates the general loopiness of biologically impossible human beings over seventy-foot tall, amongst other things, presenting the intriguing prospect of Land of the Giants having been a precursor to Lost, or at least a distant cousin to The Prisoner.

Leinster had already written tie-in fiction for Allen's Time Tunnel, which after all drew heavily on his earlier, unrelated novel of the same name, so he understood the form. Nevertheless, Land of the Giants reads very much as though it may as well be entirely his own material. The Gollancz SF Masterworks reprints probably won't be happening any time soon, but Leinster shouldn't be dismissed as some hack. He wrote tight, entertaining prose, liberally speckled with startling images and big ideas, or at least absorbingly weird ideas, and it's a pleasure to see him craft something truly peculiar out of a fairly generic sixties telly product without subverting anything by application of the sort of ironic revisionism upon which Alan Moore and others have based entire careers. Even when serving up what may as well be a TV dinner, Murray Leinster's work nevertheless feels like a labour of love.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Fantasy and Science Fiction 586

Gordon Van Gelder (editor) Fantasy and Science Fiction 586 (2000)
Skipping two whole decades on from my previous issue, by the turn of the century Fantasy & Science Fiction has a new editor and is generally more readable - closer to the modern incarnation with which I am loosely familiar. I assume there must have been a point at which it no longer seemed practical to serialise entire soon to be published novels in the digests, and so this issue presented a much lighter, more enjoyable read, having been spared Robert Silverberg droning on about castles and fealty for a million pages. Gregory Benford comes across as a bit of a bore, and is a poor substitute for Asimov, but the rest is otherwise a major improvement. Not everything here is amazing, but neither is any of it lousy; and Brian Stableford's tale of mandrake farming in ancient Rome gets a thumbs up from me, as does Nancy Etchemendy's telling prediction of the current political climate in America; and Amy Sterling Casil's satisfyingly screwy account of George III supplying beings from outer space with mints sort of illustrates why Fantasy & Science Fiction has historically pissed over much of the competition.

Granite City Blues

Josh Peterson Granite City Blues (2019)
It took me a while to get settled with this one, if settled is really an appropriate term here. Josh Peterson writes the dense autobiographical narrative of an existence which endures despite poverty, degradation, meth, and kiddy fiddlers. It's transgressive literature if anything is transgressive literature, although I doubt Peterson - or indeed anyone with a brain - would be entirely happy with the categorisation. I have the impression that, having set up shop, Amphetamine Sulphate have become subject to all manner of unsolicited submissions from persons actively setting out to write transgressive literature, and I recall Mr. Best himself darkly muttering something about bad copies of Sotos. Anyway, Granite City Blues gets off to what initially seemed a poor start blending Peterson's somewhat forensic analysis with references to or quotations from Whitehouse, Burroughs, Sotos - your basic transgressive box ticking, then a run through of certain books or records - which Simon Morris did to better effect in his books; and it isn't that any of this is without value, or a point, or that snippets of insight don't come as part of the collage, but it feels somehow obvious - at least initially. The references are the sort of thing which, as I say, have worked for Simon Morris, possibly because Morris' narrative voice is a little more conversational with his motives better communicated. Here they are distracting, particularly embedded within such a dense monologue delivered with a cadence approaching that of a medical textbook. I was struggling, and if it's any indication of why, I found a 204 word sentence on page eighty-four.

That said, this opening section yields a fairly satisfying summary of two inspirational authors whom I assume to be respectively Peter Sotos and New Juche - neither directly identified presumably through Peterson wishing to avoid ticking boxes on the transgressive reading list which, if so, suggests that he's at least aware of the pitfalls. I've never read Sotos, so I'm not getting into that fucking argument, but for what it may be worth...

The former exudes a consistent acknowledgement of the pain of a life lived where the latter seemed to have found a natural talent at soothing it. The former has my respect more for being true to who they are (or were), rather than any boastful suppression of instinct; without which we'd lack the society from which these men allegedly transgress.

Anyway, as I say, such instances of anonymity seem to suggest a need to maintain a certain thematic purity, or at least that Peterson wasn't sat in some darkened room with just a candle and a Maurizio Bianchi album, frantically scribbling his descriptions of sexual acts previously seen only in Johnny Ryan comics, occasionally pausing to throw back his head and cackle, 'Just wait until those fools read this!' Indeed, when it comes to self-image, self-mythologisation, or any of that shite, Josh Peterson seems refreshingly lacking in ego.

There are some reading who may still be in possession of some of those trash samizdat that I self-published. I'm inviting you to piss on them. To photograph yourself or your girlfriends or your female friends or really whomever, pissing on them, so that I can clearly see both the person urinating and the target and the stream of urine.

Given this last point, I'm inclined to wonder whether the opening pages might not represent some kind of test, something to separate the wheat from the chaff; although it probably isn't anything quite so deliberate.

People act as if you actually want or choose to be whomever you are, when rather only a very small percentage of us ever accept and decide to enjoy the lack of options.

References to obscure authors, noise gigs and so on, tend to present an impression of an author speaking directly to a limited audience of personal acquaintances, maybe a circle limited to those who liked the last one on Goodreads; which is fine but makes it a frustrating, even pointless read for those of us outside the circle. However, once we're past the references to Whitehouse, the tone seems to shift towards something broader and which communicates one hell of a lot more, even if it isn't necessarily anything we're going to enjoy hearing. The sentences reduce to double figures, and Granite City Blues draws closer to the thing promised by its title as Peterson picks apart his own existence and attempts to make sense of it in moderately less clinical terms than I recall from Missing, or even from the first twenty or thirty pages of this one. He's thus far had an interesting life - in the Japanese sense of interesting - and one I'm fairly happy to read about as having occurred to someone other than me; and, as is probably obvious, adversity is nothing if not educational and so you could probably learn one hell of a lot from this book.

Peterson is almost the New Juche of shitty urban America in terms of understanding his environment and in being equipped to analyse it without arbitrary moralising; and there's even a brittle sort of poetry to his analysis. Regardless of the opening bars, this is a great book, possibly with greater to come, going by his present trajectory.