Saturday, 28 July 2012


Bram Stoker Dracula (1897)
Without actually bothering to reach over, pluck Trillion Year Spree from the shelf and check, I seem to recall Brian Aldiss attributing the success and enduring appeal of both Dracula and Frankenstein to the post-Darwinian demise of the notion of a human soul surviving the death of the body to live on in some form of afterlife, both Count and monster representing post-mortem existence in the absence of spiritual stuff. I may have remembered that wrong because having now read Dracula I've realised that it doesn't quite work, although it is true to say that both novels definitively belong to the industrial revolution. Nineteenth century advances in science play an obvious and integral role in the story of Frankenstein, although in Dracula this relationship is less clear, serving to influence the means by which the story is told rather than its detail. Specifically Dracula tells a traditional horror story using a rational perspective for the sake of contrast, scepticism and incredulity informed by contemporary mores expressed at almost every turn mainly for the sake of firing up the dry ice machine, pulling a spooky face, and whispering that the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere "modernity" cannot kill, as Harker puts it, or asking is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, as does Van Helsing, later to emphasise the same point thus:
"Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? But there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men's eyes, because they know—or think they know—some things which other men have told them. Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explains not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young—like fine ladies at the opera."

In other words, just like Lovecraft a decade later, Stoker was hinting at spooky stuff beyond our ken whilst pioneering the language we would today associate with flying saucer types who describe sightings in the driest possible terms in the hope of someone else pointing out that it definitely sounds like it was an alien spaceship. The problem is that unlike Frankenstein - which I seem to recall as revelatory - once Dracula has done this, it doesn't seem to do much else, four hundred pages stood around in the mist looking mysterious and occasionally claiming to know stuff that would probably freak you out a bit if it told you, so it isn't going to tell you because it's all mysterious and stuff. Take this passage for example:
As I approached the house, I explained to him, I was startled to hear the word 'vampire' called out by a passer and looked up to see a huge bat making an ingress of the Count's window. Dracula chuckled in Romanian, his red eyes aglow from that medical condition which he had earlier described to me, telling me that he had just recently returned from a cricket match at which he had served as umpire and therefore that cry in the night would almost have certainly been a colleague attempting to draw his attention to the bat at his window. Of course he had himself been quite aware of the flapping beast, and it had startled him so as to cause him to drop his hot dog and indeed I saw there upon his lapels and around his mouth the tomato ketchup which had been so unceremoniously distributed by his startlement. My mind duly set at ease, I wished him well and took my leave.

It's okay. I made it up. That isn't really in the book.

Maybe it's just that a million cinematic Draculas have somewhat spoiled the story for me, but beyond the admittedly wonderful opening Transylvanian chapters, I found it difficult to sustain enthusiasm, and after our man shows up in Whitby, it just sort of dithers around for several hundred pages before returning the Count to his castle, thus rendering the bulk of the tale more or less pointless; and it's told in diary form thus striving for a realism which shoots itself in the foot in presenting characters who must presumably have spent four or five hours each day writing up their circular conversations about how they're really scared and would rather not get bitten, the most ludicrous being Mina Harker's:
Of course he wanted to be with me; but then the boat service would, most likely, be the one which would destroy the... the... the... Vampire. (Why did I hesitate to write the word?)

I don't know, Mina, but it really didn't help.

Dracula undoubtedly has its moments, and it's interesting to note that the main character is unambiguously identified as the undead Vlad Tepeş of Wallachia; yet like those goth types who go all weak at the knees for the whole vampire routine, it may look interesting, but there's not a lot else going on once you're past the window dressing. Whilst plodding through this, I paused to dip into Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People by Paul Woods and Gavin Baddeley for research purposes, and it's a bit embarrassing to admit that the non-fiction was about four-thousand times more interesting than Stoker's misty mumblings. Actually,  even Twilight was a better read, blasphemy though that may well be.

Friday, 27 July 2012

A Choice of Gods

Clifford D. Simak A Choice of Gods (1972)
After Revelation Space, I felt the pressing need to self-medicate with Simak, probably not so much for his being the literary equivalent of comfort food as for his reliability. Even leaving aside novellas and short stories, of nineteen Simak novels I've read, only Why Call Them Back From Heaven? has been not entirely to my taste. His writing rarely fails to engage, never seems to sacrifice quality to quantity despite a prolific output, always throws up a few surprises, moments one would never have anticipated: in short, he can usually be trusted to come up with the goods.

I should probably qualify the comfort food metaphor (or simile, or whatever the hell it is) as a lazy comparison deriving from Simak's customary pastoral themes reminding me of The Waltons - in a good way I should stress - for said pastoral themes, on close inspection, tend towards an underlying pessimism that is anything but soothing. A Choice of Gods is no exception in this respect.

The novel is set many thousands of years after the depopulation of Earth by an unknown cosmic power with a handful of humans and robots left behind in the rural idyll as nature reclaims the planet. It's a familiar Simakian setting explored in other novels - notably City - yet  here remains very much its own story. Whilst falling short of full allegorical status by the terms of, for example, David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, A Choice of Gods certainly wanders some way in that direction, its rhetorical gait more pronounced than I've noticed in other works by the same author. However, his message remains open to interpretation. Simak tended to ask pointed questions and let the readers argue it out amongst themselves. Like his contemporary, A.E. van Vogt, he would leave things open or unexplained, an oddly refreshing habit given that it so closely reproduces a subjective experience resembling real life.

A Choice of Gods is about humanity and nature and the place of the former within the latter as understood by different means. Simak's robots tend to be innocents, and here they form a religious order which recognises that its own understanding of God will never transcend the limitations of their collective ignorance, and from this ignorance is born their fanaticism - although mild by the terms one might ordinarily associate with fanaticism. Anyway, in order to achieve a better understanding, the robots embark upon the Project, the creation of a machine more intelligent than themselves which they hope will communicate with the Principle, the cosmic power responsible for depopulating the planet - interestingly enough representing a prediction of technological singularity a full decade before Vernor Vinge popularised the idea.

The Principle, a force seemingly residing at the centre of the galaxy, is probably not God; the humans have moved some way beyond religious belief in conventional terms, and the Native Americans comprising a sizeable proportion of their numbers never really held with such ideas in the first place - a pleasantly authentic variation on the usual stuff you might expect about the Great Spirit and chanting around a campfire. The Principle seems to be nature itself, a force which, whilst not necessarily evil, is certainly amoral or indifferent. For reasons we probably wouldn't understand despite both humans and robots having their own ideas, the Principle depopulated the Earth by moving most of the people to three very distant planets, and after five centuries, they've decided they're coming back.

Simak draws no conclusions, preferring to ask questions and leave you to it. A Choice of Gods might therefore be deemed an unsatisfactory novel in terms of ripping yarns with neat solutions, but that was never its purpose. As 175 pages of a very literate writer  thinking aloud and seeing what happens, it probably has no right to be quite so enjoyable, but that's Simak for you.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Revelation Space

Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space (2000)
Dan Silveste is a copy of his own father's consciousness inhabiting a cloned body of the same, and having had some sort of religious experience during a visit to the alien Shroud whilst psychologically augmented by the similarly alien Pattern Jugglers, he's digging up stuff left behind by an extinct race of bird-like creatures. Meanwhile some woman is hired to assassinate him by some other woman in a massive spaceship, just as Dan is kidnapped by someone else following his marriage to some woman who was something to do with security on the colony world where he's digging up all this stuff; and whilst this is all fine and liberally seasoned with vivid descriptions of mind-bending technological developments, half-way through these six-hundred pages, I noticed that I still had no fucking clue as to why any of these people were doing what they were doing or why I was expected to care. I even read the first couple of chapters twice but it still made no difference.

The science is mind-bendingly wonderful; the prose is deliciously literate - if that isn't just a bit too Jilly Goolden; the story is imaginative and happily lacking in cliché; and yet Revelation Space taken as a whole is without doubt one of the dullest things I've  read, and on the grounds of resenting an entire week of my life wasted on trudging through page after page of discussions about  nothing, I'd actually go so far as to say I hated it more than anything else I've ever managed to finish out of protest, possibly excepting Heinlein's irredeemably dreadful Stranger in a Strange Land. Not one character seems to possess anything approaching a personality, and the dialogue is Blake's 7 strength levels of bad, and after a while one begins to tire of reading something for hours at a time without experiencing any discernible advancement of plot, ideas, or general comprehension.

Alastair Reynolds, like Stephen Baxter and Peter F. Hamilton, writes epic scale space opera but, unlike Stephen Baxter and Peter F. Hamilton, misses the point that space opera works best at a certain pace. Revelation Space would have been an amazing novella, but six-hundred pages is taking the piss. I know he has his fans and he's not without talent, but I'd say avoid at all costs.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Judgement Day

Alan Moore, Rob Liefeld, Gil Kane and others Judgement Day (1998)
It took the combined might of Garth Ennis and Neil Gaiman to cure my comic habit, at least as regular reader rather than someone who might pick up the odd half price collected edition every once in a while. One might argue that both Ennis and Gaiman are in fact, considerable talents who have brought much that is both refreshing and original to the field, but one would, in this case, be wrong.

Yes; it is that simple.

Rob Liefeld did much the same job a few years earlier, driving me away from superhero titles. It probably wasn't just him, and it can't have helped that my once beloved X-Men had split into about forty different comics, a development which was, I felt, taking the piss in terms of presumed brand loyalty; but it definitely didn't help that Rob Liefeld's X-Force was so astonishingly shite even by the standards of the time, all grimacing women with titanium knockers and no feet; he couldn't even draw a guy in a suit without it looking like the poor fucker had shit himself from guzzling too many steroids. The best thing that ever came out of Rob Liefeld's career was Grant Morrison's colossal pisstake Doom Force, possibly the most sarcastic comic book of all time.

And yet...

Whilst there's not one word of a lie in Progressive Boink's 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings, there's nevertheless something weirdly fascinating about his anatomically wonky showroom dummies. His art is so bizarrely stylised that it sometimes seems like criticising its numerous failings might be tantamount to throwing out all your AC/DC records because they don't sound like Laurie Anderson. So I picked this up on the off chance of Alan Moore somehow making it work, sort of like Eno drafted in to remix The Macc Lads. Youngblood was Liefeld's own creation for Image Comics, a typically nineties team of scowling superpowered ninja types - superheroes with guns and knives always seemed to be missing a trick to me, but there you are - probably less annoying than Garth Ennis or Neil Gaiman, but that's hardly a recommendation. Alan Moore did his best to make it interesting, adding several millennia of back story,  bringing in a few artists who weren't Liefeld to show you how things would have looked done properly, and most notably telling a tale which seems to accuse Liefeld's generation of producing shite comics, which of course they did. I can't help but wonder whether Liefeld noticed that he was drawing a story which seems to question his own competence, but being as his introduction praises Judgement Day as a sequel to Watchmen, I guess not. It's far from being Alan Moore's greatest, but is entertaining enough in its own way.

Monday, 16 July 2012


Stephenie Meyer Twilight (2005)

A poorly plotted and so-badly-written-it-could-be-Dan-Brown abstinence porn version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer minus the jokes for self-harming teenage girls wherein a personality-free human doormat gushes over the discovery that vampires are not only real, but are also cute boys, so cute in fact as to resemble pouting tousle-haired members of boy bands...

Well, the half of the movie adaptation I managed to squirm through before I'd had enough seemed to confirm most of the above, so I approached the book with certain expectations; kind of difficult not to when the thing is fucking everywhere. Whilst Twilight the novel may not necessarily be the greatest story ever told, much to the general enghastment of my flabber, most of that which has been said of it appears to be bollocks, and I would say it is of sufficient quality as to cast its harshest critic in the role of miserable old fucker crucifying a romance primarily written for teenage girls on the grounds of it being a romance primarily written for teenage girls.

So, to address that which should probably be addressed. Twilight is first and foremost a romance. The entire point is gushing teenage obsession - something it conveys very well with a language which whilst economical compared to, for example, Voltaire, nevertheless tells its story with due flair. Harsh words have been written regarding the main character - Bella if you've been living on Mars these last few years - and her supposedly repetitive drooling over the statuesque Edward the vampire, and again most of it seems to miss a whole lot of points. Bella serves as an everywoman into which the reader may project herself without any overly specific quirk that would obstruct identification - a love of pork pies and gangsta rap for example: she's neither blank slate nor doormat. Her taste for Jane Austen and Debussy remains understated, complementing the story whilst remaining otherwise neutral; and her supposed passivity seems something of a misreading, perhaps mistaking simple realism for the unfortunately fashionable conceit that if your female character hasn't shot someone by page ten then she may as well be Strawberry Shortcake; and for the record, Twilight does have a sense of humour, and to suggest otherwise seems to say more about the expectations of individual readers.

The vampires themselves, specifically Edward, are frequently described in overwrought terms providing constant reminders of their unearthly beauty. Whilst some critics seemingly found this repetitive, Meyer's creatures quite intentionally border on the alien, something absolutely inhuman and belonging to a world other than our own. To this end, it's also a nice touch that the creatures are written as some bizarre evolutionary quirk from which popular vampire legends are derived and to some extent misconstrued. Furthermore, even if you didn't get this, Bella's take on Edward's alleged perfection does a pretty good job of reminding us what it's like to be a seventeen year old girl and in love to the point of nausea; and as I've never actually been a seventeen year old girl, not even when I was seventeen, that's impressive.

Then there's the accusation of it being abstinence porn, which I'm not sure is really even worth addressing, and the poor plotting perceived by Stephen King, the man who brought us the terrible clown-spider-thing of It so ingeniously defeated when some kids pulled off its legs. These criticisms overlook Twilight being first and foremost a romance, something concerned primarily with emotion and love-that-cannot-be and which wouldn't greatly benefit from descriptions of a big stiff vampire hampton going in and out of a human fanny; and which doesn't require a labyrinthine Alan Moore Rubik's Cube of a plot in order to work.

Twilight is engaging, well written, and does what it sets out to do extremely well. The fact that it worked for me, a fat old geezer who also reads Will Self and Rabelais, must surely count for something. Having read plenty of truly horrendous Doctor Who novels in my time, I know bad writing when I see it, and Stephenie Meyer, at least with this one, succeeds.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Children of Tomorrow

A.E. van Vogt Children of Tomorrow (1970)

I promised my brain I'd lay off the van Vogt for a while, at least give it time to heal before tackling The World of Null-A which has been sat upon my shelf exuding quiet psychological menace for the last few months, that being the one in which he really pulled out the stops, so it is said; but faced with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, I realised I should probably line my stomach beforehand, figuratively speaking, scoff an industrial strength metaphorical haggis before subjecting myself to all that moaning goth flavoured fizzy pop.

For those yet unfamiliar with the mind of van Vogt, he was the author who specialised in dream imagery, peculiarly Expressionist sentence structure, random elements shoehorned into the plot roughly every eight-hundred words, unrelated short stories welded together and forced into coherence with much frowning and pipe smoking and so on: Flash Gordon directed by Max Ernst, irredeemably weird and astonishingly good when struck with the right balance.

Unfortunately Children of Tomorrow turns out to fall some way short of his better novels. If ever the reader experiences problems with van Vogt, it's usually because the narrative is too fucking weird for its own good and makes no sense. This one is initially promising but just doesn't go anywhere. The story tells of pilots returning to Earth from many years spent in deep space to find their children have grown into teenagers and are all confirmed gang members. The gangs in question are run along curiously puritanical lines, civic-minded youths who frown upon kissing and the neglect of one's homework. This clearly represents some sort of commentary upon the generation gap - Blackboard Jungle turned upside down and filtered through van Vogt's peculiar theories of psychology and social interaction - but it's not well communicated. Alfred Elton's oddly mannered people work better when running through the convoluted maze of his random approach to plotting, and are less engaging as subjects in their own right. The one brief glimpse of characteristic genius occurs when teenager Bud Jaeger briefly resumes his many tentacled alien form for reasons which are never quite made clear, which sadly only serves as a reminder of how good this novel should have been.