Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The Twilight Man

Michael Moorcock The Twilight Man (1966)
A couple of years ago I spent about a month wracking my brains trying to remember some novel wherein the moon had fallen from the sky and was to be found in the middle of the ocean, which turned out to be Moorcock's The Shores of Death, which I read about a decade ago. By the time I noticed that this was Shores of Death retitled for America, I was already home; but then the book was probably overdue a re-read, so why not?

The Twilight Man harks back to those wonderful pre-Gernsbackian science-fiction tales taking their cues from poetry rather than the strict letter of any scientific law, and as such seems part of whatever tendency inspired all those ponderous, allegorical science-fiction movies of the early seventies before George Lucas decided there were still a few more drops to be squozen from the Flash Gordon cow.

It's the far future, the Earth no longer turns, the moon has fallen from the sky and is sat in the middle of the Pacific - like I said - and what little is left of humanity is pretty much sterile; so the future doesn't look too bright. On the positive side, humanity has settled into a vaguely Utopian existence - probably the most perfect in history, so it is written, anarchist and peaceful. Unfortunately, the gloom of extinction hangs heavy on our final descendants, giving birth to fear, and the Brotherhood of Guilt who take it upon themselves to destroy things in response to the fear; which in turn brings about an authoritarian movement, and thus does it all go tits up.

Our hero, the Twilight Man of the title, seeks a solution to all of this - without it feeling like anything so prosaic as a quest - leading him to the fallen moon wherein dwells Orlando Sharvis whose scientific knowledge is such that no problem is really beyond his ability to solve it. Sharvis might represent Satan in the Faustian sense, or at least some pre-moral version of the serpent bringing light or illumination at a cost without necessarily implying evil.

I'd prefer not to simply summarise the plot, so I'll leave it at that, but this one delivers a whole ton of mind-candy in the form of what may be one of the strangest tales you will ever read, something very much inhabiting the same space as all of those paintings by Ernst, De Chirico, Remedios Varo and others. Moorcock, as ever, is amazing.

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Devils

New Juche The Devils (2019)
This will be the best book you read this year, said Philip Best in some facebook post I can no longer locate. I've read some pretty great stuff this year, and while I'm not convinced that The Devils sits at the absolute top of the pile, it's clearly among the best. In the context of New Juche's body of work, or what I've read of it, he hasn't yet topped Mountainhead from 2016, but then Mountainhead may conceivably be the greatest thing I've ever read so comparisons probably aren't fair.

The Devils takes our author back to his roots, the soil from which he was born and which formed him. It's a non-linear account of growing up in Dalkeith, semi-rural Scotland, blending childhood impressions with historical detail of Thomas Dalyell - a seventeenth century Royalist general - and the murder of Jodi Jones in 2003. Jones' supposed killer, one of the author's contemporaries, seems to have been convicted more or less entirely on the strength of owning a Marilyn Manson record, and The Devils is accordingly thick with the background noise of witch hunts, lynch mobs, and random beatings. I myself grew up in a similar environment of awful deeds perpetrated in rustic isolation with specific urban estates to be avoided, and The Devils captures it perfectly, just in case anyone could have mistaken childhood for anything so endearing as The Railway Children. In fact the mood of this thing is so familiar that it's chilling.

As with Mountainhead, The Devils approximately inhabits the spaces between an individual and his environment. Psychogeography seems to have become an overused term of late - not least with twats like [name withheld because I can no longer be arsed to directly identify the shitehawk] now happily dropping it into casual conversation - but this is something else, an account which maps territory as part of the individual's psychology, and which in doing so, is likely to resonate fairly strongly with most sentient readers.

Simply writing the above has made me want to read this again. Maybe it is the best book I've read this year.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019


J.M. DeMatteis & Alan Kupperberg Iceman (1985)
This was a four-issue limited series from before the comic grew up - an era for which I've been feeling increasingly nostalgic. Iceman, as you may know, was from the first line-up of the X-Men, the sixties incarnation which quietly blew my mind before I was old enough to be certain that these weren't real people. He's a fairly obvious attempt to duplicate some of that Human Torch magic but it worked for me; and I guess it still works for me considering I've just read this thing.

Iceman is one Bobby Drake, essentially a variant on Peter Parker, Richard Rider and others. He's a teenager, old enough to be a role model, but not so old as to seem inscrutably adult to anyone under twelve. He's slightly neurotic, and his adventures tend to be seasoned with thought bubbles full of stuff about not wanting a career in accountancy, contrary to the wishes of parents, and the potentially terrible consequences of what will happen if some girl discovers he's really a super-powered mutant; and so on and so forth. If the Marshall McLuhan references seem a bit thin on the ground, it's because Iceman is approximately aimed at twelve-year old boys.

As such, whilst it's hardly life-changing, the series nevertheless does its job very well - telling a story which is surprisingly unpredictable given the rigorously traditional mechanism of its telling. Visiting his parents, Iceman realises that he fancies the girl next door. Naturally she turns out to be a time-traveller fleeing from a terrible authoritarian father figure, unwittingly instigating a series of events which result in Bobby Drake accidentally murdering his own father before he's born, subsequently ceasing to exist and ending up in a realm of non-existence. It's actually a bit like Faction Paradox if Faction Paradox had been created by Jack Kirby in the late sixties; and it could be argued that the series is really just a series of hoops through which Iceman is made to jump, but who cares?

Kupperberg's art is a little uneven, but comes into its own with those peculiar Kirby-inspired outer realms, and DeMatteis keeps you reading, all the while presenting just enough of a glimpse of a truly peculiar background cosmos to demonstrate why Marvel were consistently shitting all over the rivals back in the mid-eighties.

Monday, 18 November 2019


Charles Bukowski Women (1978)
I was told this one wasn't so great, but I can't remember the specific thrust of the objection. As with Factotum, Post Office and the rest, it's fictionalised autobiography with the author recast as Henry Chinaski presumably so as to allow for a little wiggle room where an artistic truth makes more sense than a literal one. Being rooted in autobiography, references to Bukowski's career as a writer - by this point fairly successful in so much as that strangers are now paying him to fly across the country to give readings - seemed initially awkward, at odds with the tone of the novel and its focus on smelly realism; but I stopped noticing once the narrative settled into a steady rhythm of arbitrary fornication. There might also, I suppose, be some objection on the grounds of it being difficult to mistake Charles Bukowski for Margaret Attwood, but I'm not convinced accusations of misogyny really hold, excepting readers who just really need to find something over which to get pissy.

If I had been born a woman I would certainly have been a prostitute. Since I had been born a man, I craved women constantly, the lower the better. And yet women—good women—frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul, and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep. Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and made no personal demands. Nothing was lost when they left. Yet at the same time I yearned for a gentle, good woman, despite the overwhelming price. Either way I was lost. A strong man would give up both. I wasn't strong. So I continued to struggle with women, the idea of women.

Women might therefore be regarded as Bukowski struggling with the idea of women but failing to achieve any solid or consistent understanding. He drinks, he writes, he visits the race track, and he falls slowly apart as a seemingly endless succession of women beat a path to his bedroom door, one after another, each grubby union doomed before his pants have even hit the floor. His success, if we're going to call it success for the sake of argument, is bewildering, but its occurrence is massively enlightening, not through explaining anything but because of the range of questions it raises; and through all of this, despite Chinaski's raging libido and one track mind, he never quite reduces any of his girlfriends to just another series of holes. He remains transparent and committed to the truth, not least to the truth of his own bullshit.

I poured another wine. I couldn't understand what had happened to my life. I had lost my sophistication. I had lost my worldliness. I had lost my hard protective shell. I had lost my sense of humour in the face of other people's problems. I wanted them all back. I wanted things to go easily for me. But somehow I knew they wouldn't come back, at least not right away. I was destined to continue feeling guilty and unprotected.

I tried telling myself that feeling guilty was just a sickness of some sort. That it was men without guilt who made progress in life. Men who were able to lie, to cheat, men who knew all the shortcuts.

Women as a feminist text is probably a bit of a stretch, but it scores higher than you might think, at least as an unflinching inspection of one dude's attitude to women; and of course, he writes like a dream so it doesn't really matter whether we approve of his serial knobbing. No-one but an absolute fucking twat is going be cheering him on, or reading Women as an instruction manual.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Fantasy & Science Fiction 471

Edward L. Ferman (editor) Fantasy & Science Fiction 471 (1990)
Occasionally I've had cause to search for a particular issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction on Google, and for some weird reason this always seems to be the first issue which comes up as an image, regardless of whether or not it relates to my search; so when I happened upon a second-hand copy, I could hardly not buy it. The universe had obviously been trying to tell me something.

What it was apparently trying to tell me is that I probably should have been buying this thing regularly. I've always been reluctant to commit to the digests given that I always have more than enough to read as it is, but on the other hand, based on the five or six issues of this magazine which I've now read, I might have to make it a regular purchase, or at least splash out on a few more back issues. I always seem to pick it out when whatever I've just finished reading has turned out to be a bit of a slog, and due to some apparently subconscious belief that Fantasy & Science Fiction probably won't let me down; and, Robert Silverberg notwithstanding, it never has. It's short, snappy, suggestive of serious care and attention in the editorial department, always with one or two surprises, and with enough going on to reduce the impact of an occasional bum note.

This 1990 issue may not be life-changing, but it scores pretty high. Firstly we have Ian Watson's In the Upper Cretaceous with the Summerfire Brigade, which is mostly great - weird and yet breezy with just the right kind of bizarre delivered in casual fashion; and Daryl Gregory's In the Wheels, a vivid tale of voodoo road racing in rural post-apocalypse America, is sufficient to get his name on the list of authors of whom I need to read more. Then we have The Three Wishes by John Morressy in which elves and fairies find themselves stalled by bureaucracy, which is very funny and so ingenious as to make it seem crazy that no-one thought of it before. We Were Butterflies by Ray Aldridge is a bit of a mess but with a nevertheless powerful story in there somewhere. His Spirit Wife by Karen Haber is decent and moody, and Asimov's science column is, as ever, excellent. Finally there's Gregg Keizer's Days of Miracle and Wonder which is actually a pretty tough read, given the subject matter, but worth the effort.

For the sake of balance, Herself by Katherine Newlin Burt, first published in 1930, lays it on a bit thick and the prose is like wading through treacle; and something about Ian Watson's Asian characters doesn't sit right and ends up seeming faintly insulting. It's nice that Watson was shaking a fist at those who want to send them all back, but unfortunate that his Asian characters all turn out to be terrorists, somewhat conforming to stereotypes favoured by those who want to send them all back. Further along the line we have a couple of pages of nutters objecting to something Asimov wrote in a previous issue, a couple of which use the term liberal as a pejorative, so fuck those guys; and Poul Anderson for praising Margaret Thatcher. So that's a couple of bum notes, but the rest of the song is of such quality that there doesn't seem to be much room for complaint.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Traumatic Tales #1

Noah Brown Traumatic Tales #1 (2019)
Well, it's not quite so violent or weird as Energy Realms, and I must admit I already miss Power Squad and Stabber Duck, but Noah Brown's latest offering otherwise delivers. This time the horror is a little more traditional in so much as that fewer special effects will be required when Spielberg gets around to adapting this stuff.

Brown's art continues to fascinate. On a technical level it may be a few life-drawing classes short of a picnic - whatever the hell that means - but makes up for its shortcomings in other ways. I myself spent a decade or so as a vaguely underground cartoonist, and one of the first things I realised - once I noticed that I wasn't actually Leonardo da Vinci - is that consistency compensates for a multitude of sins, working by the logic that if a mistake is repeated often enough, it will eventually seem like you meant it. Knowing what you're doing is at least as important as doing it.

With this in mind, Noah Brown's art is beginning to remind me of that of Charles Burns or Mark Beyer - not really so much the look as the sheer jaw-dropping intensity, like there's voodoo scratched into the page with a flicknife dipped in ink, and even if lines seem to have been drawn in the wrong places, those are the places they're supposed to be because pretty was never an option here. You are expected to shit yourself. That's the effect he seems to be after.

The same applies to the writing, and close inspection reveals that beyond the chaos, the timing is pretty fucking sharp with not an extraneous line of narrative to deaden the pace.

Darius the Decider seems to be the star of this particular show. It's also the longest strip, and hence the one which sustains the gratuitous and absolutely inexfuckingcusable violence the longest, and the opening full page splash panel of the aforementioned Darius contemplating his own giant hand is one of the weirdest things I've looked at this year.

Noah Brown still isn't any closer to taking over the Garfield strip once Jim Davis is gone, but he makes Johnny Ryan look like a Neil Gaiman strip about Shakespeare's most delightfully whimsical creations, and his art will violate you in ways you can't even imagine.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Battle of Forever

A.E. van Vogt The Battle of Forever (1971)
It makes a nice change to read a van Vogt novel which appears to have been written as a novel rather than being a number of short stories jammed together like something from the weirder end of the Taco Bell menu, and an internet search for discussion of this title pulls up a number of other reviews opening with the very same observation, therefore representing, I suppose, some huge collective sigh of relief; and to continue this positive note, this one's absolutely fucking mental.

Humanity has evolved itself into a sort of futuristic foetal state and Earth is populated by humanised animals for no obvious reason, hippo-men, fox-men, hyaena-men and others who seem to talk like rubes and schills from the lower east side during prohibition. Our main character, van Vogt's customary man at war with his own environment, emerges from his miniaturised state and passes himself off as an ape-man so as to avoid suspicion. Humanity has achieved something resembling immortality and therefore no longer practices sexual intercourse, although van Vogt manages to keep from dwelling on this for once, aside from a couple of awkward - for them and for us - episodes wherein a futuristic woman named Soodleel comments on our man's genital rigidity. Then it transpires that Earth is under the dominion of the hyaena-men; and then it transpires that the hyaena-men are under the dominion of the alien Nunuli; and then it transpires that the Nunuli are under the dominion of the alien Gunyan, or at least I think they are. I was lost by this point. The Gunyan themselves may even be under the dominion of someone else.

It twists, swerves, and stubbornly fails to make sense just like many of van Vogt's best; but lacks the startling, angular prose of his better novels, and also seems to lack that weird eight-hundred word rhythm which rendered his more peculiar, dreamlike efforts so compelling. So it almost reads like something written by a regular science-fiction author in terms of pace; and yet van Vogt retains a few of his more aggravating habits, turning adjectives into nouns and vaguely scrabbling around at what he means, leaving descriptions of what is happening riddled with ambiguity. Characters experience a thought-feeling, or deliver an awareness, or perform an indication. In fact, Modyun, our main guy, seems to perform a lot of indications in terms which suggest we're talking about a telepathic act of some description, but after nearly two-hundred pages, I still have no fucking idea what is meant.

The Battle of Forever would appear to be about evolution, maybe even free will in a deterministic universe, although it's difficult to tell what A.E. was actually trying to say. I'm fairly certain it must be some point of Korzybski's General Semantics about the wisdom of not reading a book by its cover, the actual thrust of which is lost amongst the indeterminate wash of thought-feelings and awarenesses. Otherwise, it's approximately fun - as you would expect of a novel featuring a hippo-man who talks like James Cagney - but not quite so much fun as it probably should have been.

Monday, 4 November 2019

The Little Grey Men

Denys Watkins-Pitchford The Little Grey Men (1942)
Although the cover seems distantly familiar, none of the usual nostalgia informs my choice, and I'm not aware of actually having heard of The Little Grey Men prior to Chris Browning mentioning it on facebook a couple of months ago; but the aforementioned Chris Browning's recommendations have served me well in the past, and as I'm presently sitting on a couple of unfinished gnome novels, it seemed like I should at least have a look at this one; and there it was by pure chance on the shelves of the Coventry branch of Oxfam.

Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote as B.B., was primarily a naturalist, and The Little Grey Men explores his interest in the same from a variant angle, namely in the form of a children's book perhaps partially inspired by the success of Tolkien's Hobbit which had been published in 1937. The Little Grey Men accordingly distances itself from anything else which may have featured small persons of mythic composition, and does so on the very first page, declaring what follows to be none of your baby, fairy-book tinsel stuff. Most impressive about The Little Grey Men is the author's communication of scale, expertly guiding the reader around a diminutive riverbank world which at least a few of us will recall from childhood. This story is told amongst the voles and squirrels with its quiet drama as wide as the stream or hedgerow, as distinct from the usual warmed over mythology scaled down to fit a doll's house; and it's told exceptionally well, at the pace of ordinary rural life, and with surprises as weird and unexpected as anything found in nature, provided one is prepared to sit and watch for a while.

Very little actually happens, at least in comparison to other, more demonstrative quests inhabiting the same vague genre, but it doesn't need to as Watkins-Pitchford demonstrates that the very small is just as important, and as vital, and as worthy of our attention; and he does it with such convincing veracity that when we get to chapter ten and its introduction of the genuinely weird, it seems like the most natural thing on Earth.

The Little Grey Men isn't quite like anything else I've read, and may be justifiably deemed a masterpiece.