Friday 14 June 2024

The Ladybird


D.H. Lawrence The Ladybird (1923)
Three novellas, one written in 1915 then revised, each more or less exploring the changing dynamic of the relationship between men and women in the aftermath of the Great War. My previous readings of Lawrence's short stories left me with the feeling that the form didn't really allow him space in which to do his thing. These, being longer, seem to support my hunch, although only The Fox seems to work with the same strength of conviction as the novels, or at least the better novels.

Of the three, The Fox seems the least overtly autobiographical and is, presumably as a result, the most direct in delivering ultimately pessimistic observations about the impossibility of true intimacy between men and women, specifically that even with the best of intentions, each sex works against the interests of the other. I personally find this more plausible as a perspective than a statement - keeping in mind here that Lawrence's own relationships tended to be somewhat volatile - but it's impressive that such a perspective can be described without requiring illustration from scheming pantomime characters of obvious ill intention.

The Ladybird and The Captain's Doll may have more going on, and the latter seems to represent a dry run for The Plumed Serpent, albeit with less emphasis on that old time religion; but both seem to stumble here and there - which The Fox avoids - in emptying new people into the narrative at unexpected intervals and unsettling whatever we thought we'd understood up to that point.

Nevertheless, The Ladybird is a reasonably satisfying collection, notable for its characteristic blending of people with their respective environments; for its cautiously progressive, if pessimistic, spirit; for its unflinching analysis of human relationships, and specifically of Lawrence's relationship with Frieda - who was almost certainly doing the milkman during the writing of The Captain's Doll.

Friday 7 June 2024

Transit


Ted McKeever Transit (1987)
This was where he started. I was aware of its existence but had my head buried in mutant books, so it's taken me a while. The biggest surprise, at least to me, is that you can actually see McKeever learning on the job, developing his style over the course of the original five-issue run; and as learning curves go, this one was dramatic. The first five pages are ropey as fuck, resembling something that a not especially promising graffiti artist might have had printed in Deadline; but the shadows deepen and the bodies take on a more expressionist angularity as McKeever dispensed with the hip-hop munchkins, and everything is in place by the time the art needs to take on any heavy lifting.

The narrative wobbles here and there, finding its feet. It's nothing mind-blowing - corrupt officials, sociopathic evangelists and so on, but with pleasantly odd flourishes of imagination to keep it from sinking into the generic. In places it feels a little like moody artwork in search of a story, but that's okay. These were early days and the atmosphere carries the story with ease, and it's easy to see that Ted McKeever was clearly destined for greater things.


Friday 31 May 2024

Stricture


Isabelle Nicou Stricture (2022)
Here's another which qualifies as a proper book, with bits I didn't understand and everything; although to be fair, Nicou's prose - or possibly Kaycie Hall's translation from the original French - is precise and clear in its description of people, events, and the ambiguous or even fantastical means by which they are associated. I'd say it's this last aspect which fosters the atmosphere of a waking dream, which leaves us unsure as to what we've just read.

Nicou's seemingly pseudo-autobiographical character is a young woman attempting to make sense of having been in thrall to her mentor, a professor of philosophy; and the existential hinterland of her musing as she strives to break free draws associations with King Lear, the science-fiction of Jules Verne, and alien abduction, amongst other examples of magical thinking. It's a cloud of shifting meaning somehow rendered in sharp focus which remains nevertheless quite difficult to describe beyond listing a few of the sign posts. Probably inevitably, reading Stricture felt a little like reading Sartre's Nausea - albeit without the undercurrent of revulsion - which possibly may say more about how little French literature I've read than it does about what Nicou was trying to do; but, for what it may be worth, I kept reading Stricture because it felt as though I was getting a lot from it, even if what that was eludes easy quantification.


Friday 24 May 2024

The Moon Maid


Edgar Rice Burroughs The Moon Maid (1923)
After the previous three, I had no real intention of dipping any additional toes into Edgar, but this was in a second hand book store in Kenilworth, England, exactly opposite the charity shop from which I'd bought my first Edgar back in 2011; and my brain had somehow already flagged The Moon Maid as worth a look, for some reason.

It starts well, at least reminding us that Burroughs knew how to pull a sentence together, but before we've even come to the foot of the first page, we're told that the war which has been waging since 1914 is at last over, and that the Anglo-Saxon races have won - which has obviously come as a massive relief to everyone, even the losers who apparently always knew themselves to be a bad lot. To be fair to Edgar, I'm fairly certain he's referring to the Anglo-Saxon as something distinct from the forces of Communism - then making quite a commotion in the east at the time of writing - rather than specifically distinct from other racial groups. Nevertheless, it strikes an unfortunately ambiguous note.

Next we realise we're reading a variation on that narrative device, so popular at the time, where our man strikes up a cigar-based friendship with a mysterious explorer at the gentleman's club, and the mysterious explorer is naturally busting to spill the beans on his recent most diverting escapade in the celestial planet of Neptune, or similar. For reasons best known to himself, Edgar goes one better in The Moon Maid, and our guy strikes up a cigar-based friendship with a mysterious adventurer who just so happens to be channeling his own future self, or possibly his son from a few decades down the line, and the son has been to the moon. My friend Neil once had an idea for a movie comprising just a continuous car chase, but which incorporated flashbacks to previous car chases throughout, and the flashbacks would also feature flashbacks to earlier car chases. I'm not sure if Neil ever read The Moon Maid.

Anyway, whichever narrator we eventually end up with, he goes to the moon in the company of his most hated enemy, who also happens to be a technical genius - so that makes perfect sense. They crash inside the moon, because it's hollow with numerous rudimentary civilisations dwelling therein, the first encountered being the Kalkars, a race of cannibalistic centaurs resembling the bastard offspring of Jason King and Germaine Greer if the cover of this edition is any indication. As usual, these creatures are more or less American Indians so there are spears aplenty, various incidents of failing to recognise the inherent superiority of whitey, and so on and so forth. Our guy's most hated enemy runs off to teach the Kalkars how to make guns because he's a wrong 'un through and through, and bringing him to the moon was a huge mistake. The Kalkars were commies in an earlier version of the book, for what that may be worth. Our guy teams up with the noble underdogs, as usual, having fallen in love with a right tasty moon lady of normal human physiognomy, which is handy. You can probably guess the rest.

The great shame is that Burroughs had a genuinely wonderful way with words, an elegant prose at least equal to that of Wells, which keeps you reading no matter how fucking stupid the story gets; and he wasted these not inconsiderable talents on this barely coherent garbage resembling the much older lunar satire of Cyrano de Bergerac and others, but rendered in wax crayon without the satire.

This was definitely the last one for me.

Friday 17 May 2024

The Time Tunnel


Murray Leinster The Time Tunnel (1967)
This, as you may recall, was an Irwin Allen television series thus described somewhat harshly by John Clute:


In one of the worst 1960s series, time travellers - trapped in a vortex created by experimenting scientists - carom through cardboard sets, overturn whole societies, and escape again and again.



I remember watching a few episodes as a kid but not much else. The basic premise and title, albeit lacking the definite article, came from Leinster's Time Tunnel of 1964, published a couple of years prior to the series. My guess for how any of this relates would be that Leinster conceded the rights and title to Allen in return for a couple of novelisations more directly tied in to the television series.

I began reading under the assumption of the book most likely expanding on the first couple of episodes, given that it kicks off with more or less the same cast of characters and vaguely scientific furniture - significantly featuring our main guys, Doug and Tony, sent into the time stream so as to demonstrate the validity of the government funded project to a disgruntled Senator Clark who wants to know where all the money has gone. Having myself novelised an episodic television show, I've been surprised at the slender page count which tends to be generated by even a full hour of television drama - as anyone who ever read a Terrance Dicks Who novelisation will probably appreciate - and so a certain quota of padding or treading of extemporary water is usually necessary to avoid the finished thing resembling a pamphlet. There's a lot of that in evidence here, but it turns out that the first episode of the television show sends Doug and Tony to the RMS Titanic just as it's about to make the acquaintance of that iceberg. Leinster instead first sends the boys to Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889 - site of a catastrophic flood - then to a critical battle at Adobe Walls, Texas in 1874, neither of which correspond to anything we saw on the screen. Given that Leinster was nothing if not quick off the mark, I suspect that either Allen's people gave him license to go his own way, or possibly this book may represent a novelisation of something he proposed for the television show which was deemed to have less potential impact than the Titanic story filmed as Rendezvous with Yesterday, which is probably fair.

With this in mind, what I've read as padding is therefore most likely Leinster doing what seemed right for the story, and so we get a ton of historical detail delivered in large chunks, which is interesting but makes for somewhat chewy reading. We additionally get certain imaginative flourishes and elements which attempt to make sense of what was seen on the screen to some degree - our time travellers each wearing a kind of technological harness which connects them to those operating the Tunnel; and then an additional harness is sent to join them equipped with a poorly defined means of locomotion and a camera - amounting to a remote drone - by which I suppose the reader might rationalise the screening of historical events unfolding on the other side of the next hill, beyond the ken of our travellers; and this remote drone is then developed into a sort of time car by the end of the book, allowing our temporal castaways to whizz around the futuristic city which provides the slightly puzzling setting for the final chapters.

It's a novel which does a lot of telling and not quite enough showing to strike the right balance, which is also true of the 1964 Time Tunnel which, for all its wacky ideas, is really a bit of a mess. This is a shame because Leinster's best is usually wonderful, notably The Greks Bring Gifts and The Wailing Asteroid both of which are just screwy enough to overcome any objections one might harbour regarding the pulpier end of the genre. His greatest strength seems to have been the short story form - or at least sequential short stories welded together into novels - and his short stories mostly appeared in the digest magazines and would thus have been subject to the attention of some fairly astringent editors. His three Time Tunnel novels were, on the other hand, published by Pyramid Books whom I gather were in the business of wacking them out fast and cheap and may therefore have left established writers to their own devices - and the sheer weirdness of those novels they published by Robert Moore Williams seems to support this as a possibility.

All the same, The Time Tunnel is a book which could have been better rather than a bad one. It somehow maintains a heady pace in spite of the infodumping, its ideas are engaging, and my initial concerns about Doug and Tony helping out in the extermination of hostile Indians at Adobe Walls proved mercifully unfounded for the most part, for Leinster achieves a surprising objectivity in his sensitive portrayal of what might not unfairly be described as genocide.

Friday 10 May 2024

Conversations with William S. Burroughs


Allen Hibbard (editor)
Conversations with William S. Burroughs (1999)

Given that Burroughs oeuvre can often prove somewhat repetitive, it's probably testament to the man's ability that new details remain to be discovered even when you've read pretty much everything. I haven't read everything but I've read the major novels and a significant quota of those lesser known, with this being my spooky twenty-third Burroughs title. As may be obvious, it's a collection of interviews spanning his career of which only the one first seen in Re/Search is familiar to me; and taking in subjects adjacent to the writing, whatever Bill felt like talking about at the time, it feels like a more thorough overview of his work than, for example, John Calder's William Burroughs Reader, not least in its reiteration of themes which we may or may not have noticed in individual novels - notably that Burroughs' life work can be distilled to a desire to communicate that which we already know, but don't realise we already know.

Also, this collection roughly maps out the shape of Burroughs' intellectual progress over the years, particularly as he dismisses and moves beyond earlier fixations. This is in particular a relief as the first third of the page count is dull as fuck, adding nothing new whilst endlessly retreading everything we've already read in Naked Lunch and others in response to the enquiries of overly earnest young men with long hair and beards, the nadir of which has Burroughs concluding that the revolution will not only be won, but will probably be won by the Rolling Stones.

It gets a lot more interesting once we're past the sixties and Bill's habit of predicting massive cultural shifts which never came to pass, which also means we have to talk about telepathy, mind control and the like, but at least he has his gun pointed in the right direction. By the time we come to the last page, the journey has proven mostly fascinating as our boy pontificates on his life, influences, favourite painters and writers, and other subjects which fed into the novels without any more overt manifestation therein. I'm still not sure he was the most important writer of the twentieth century - let alone that such an accolade means anything - but he was certainly one of the most interesting.

Friday 3 May 2024

The Witling


Vernor Vinge The Witling (1976)
I'm not quite sure how this one came to leap from the shelf and into my shopping trolley. I vaguely recall finding Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and The Peace War underwhelming beyond their admittedly sparky ideas, and nothing on the cover of this one promises anything likely to change my mind; and yet I picked it up, for some reason, and it's fucking great, and so much so as to leave me wondering why the other two failed to get me going.

Anyway, this being my third Vinge, I think I've spotted the theme, specifically that he very much enjoys fucking around with the laws of physics as they apply to space and how one moves around therein. Here it's a pseudo-mediaeval alien civilisation which has evolved an ability to instantaneously teleport from place to place. The rhythm of the story and the cadence of its characters borders on Tolkien, albeit less cloying, or at least something by Ursula LeGuin, and this contrasts very well with how their society is seen through the eyes of technologically advanced human visitors - with the story riding along on the fact of said visitors having found themselves stranded on this strange world.

The Witling isn't anything mind-expanding, but it does that which it does exceptionally well and makes for a thoroughly breezy read which does much to remind the reader what first drew him* to the science-fiction novel.

*: I've made this hypothetical person masculine because I'm referring directly to myself, and also because girls are more likely to read romance novels or the latest issue of Woman's Hat Monthly than anything by Vernor Vinge.