Wednesday, 29 August 2012


Michael Coney Brontomek! (1976)
During the late 1970s I was in an English class which had some sort of book club deal going on, and thus was I exposed to a Pan Books promotional poster reproducing twenty or thirty covers from their science-fiction range - Brian Aldiss' Frankenstein Unbound, Philip K. Dick's Galactic Pot Healer, Clifford D. Simak's The Werewolf Principle, Robert Heinlein's The Green Hills of Earth, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End being the five which really stuck with me. I was fascinated by this poster, and tried hard to imagine what it would be like to read books of such futuristic promise, yet never quite got there, which was probably thanks to television.

Still, I eventually caught up, seeking out and reading at least those named above, having been primed to do so back in 1978.

More recently, my friend Steve mentioned that he was reading something by Michael Coney. This being an unfamiliar name, I googled and found Brontomek! the cover of which flooded my  nostalgia gland with memory sherbert of a strength I hadn't experienced in a while - an obvious inspiration for the Terra-Meks from the 1979 Ro-Busters strip in 2000AD comic, something that  had also caught my imagination, inspiring many Saturday afternoons spent with biro and drawing pad devising my own highly derivative canon of city-crushing demolition robots.

Anyway, Coney's Brontomek! - much like The Godwhale by T.J. Bass - appears to be one of those novels which enjoyed brief 1970s fame before vanishing without leaving much of a trace. Like The Godwhale, for all that it has in its favour, there is some indeterminate quality pinning it firmly to that decade - beach scenes oddly reminiscent of Jaws, the inference that prolonged bachelorhood will ultimately lead one to steal women's underwear from washing lines, a lead character seemingly played by Harry Enfield's impersonation of Roger Moore, and all the whisky he drinks, and the fact that he names his boat Easy Lady; even in the unlikely event that nocturnal theft of women's knickers will one day number amongst the crimes that continue to plague interplanetary colonists, such details somehow date Brontomek! as profoundly as any of E.E. 'Doc' Smith's spacefaring pipe smokers.

The story, essentially the struggle of the little guy against the corporation, is serviceable but tends to occur as background detail to what might as well be Howard's Way in space - all boat drinks and bachelorhood and a slightly cranky obsession with nautical detail - so that by the time the story actually shows up, it seems too little too late and is in any case eclipsed by the unfolding and slightly bewildering focus on some attempt at breaking a yachting record.

There were some great ideas here, and Coney was clearly a decent writer, but somehow this should have been so much better.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Children of the Night

Dan Simmons Children of the Night (1992)
Thus endeth the reading project which began with my decision to read some vampire stuff in order to see what the fuck was up with that shit, from which I drew the unexpected and possibly blasphemous conclusion that Twilight is, pound for pound, superior to the somewhat overrated Dracula. I picked up Children of the Night because I wanted to see what contemporary authors writing for a readership other than teenage girls were doing with the undead fanged rascals, and because I heard somewhere that Dan Simmons was a decent enough spinner of yarns.

Children of the Night is set in roughly contemporary Romania following the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, presenting a sober, scientific take on vampire biology that seems in places reminiscent of Michael Crichton and the like. Furthermore, this Dracula is the man himself, Vlad Tepeş of Wallachia, still hanging on after five centuries. The historical detail is thoroughly researched, evocatively rendered, and I could have stood to read a great deal more of it. Unfortunately, after this extremely promising start, it turns into a generic thriller of the kind traditionally read on beaches: brilliant doctor woman refuses to play by the rules but gets results, high speed chase across Romania, some moderate shagging, exploding helicopters, ancient ceremony at scary castle interspersed with admittedly convincing conversation about vampire DNA...

Of course, it's nevertheless fast-paced, readable, even unputdownable as I expect the Daily Mail probably enthused at the time, but interspersed as it is with tantalisingly superior passages from the immeasurably more interesting perspective of Vlad himself, it adds up to a McDonalds happy meal washed down with a decent Cabernet Sauvignon; which is nice, but I'm afraid I expected more. Weird though I'm sure it will sound, Children of the Night turns out to be just another vampire novel that isn't as good as Twilight.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Outer Reaches

August Derleth (editor) The Outer Reaches (1951)
It feels like an age since I picked up one of these satisfaction-pretty-much-guaranteed vintage collections, possibly because whilst it seems like every other English charity shop has a box of these things stashed away somewhere, their like has proven more elusive here in the States. Therefore I'm re-reading The Outer Reaches, presented to me along with Derleth's Beachheads in Space some years ago by Glenn Wallis who told me here, you might be able to get some ideas from these; these collections represented the inaugural dip of my symbolic toe into the golden age bath tub, the first stories I read out of sheer curiosity without prior knowledge of their authors, my first voyage out beyond the orbit of Philip K. Dick to the older worlds of Astounding Science-Fiction, Amazing Stories, and so on. August Derleth had been chums with H.P. Lovecraft, I reasoned, so that seemed like a recommendation.

The stories collected in The Outer Reaches represent the personal favourite of each author from amongst his own body of work, at least as of 1951. Whilst, in this respect, there's a couple of slightly puzzling submissions - notably Leon Sprague de Camp's Git Along!, an oddly disappointing effort from a generally solid author; and David H. Keller's Service First which had me wondering whether his might be another of John Wyndham's myriad pseudonames, it being so close in tone to the dreaded Pawley's Peepholes; but, these aside, it's a predictably satisfying collection with cracking stuff from Poul Anderson, Nelson Bond, Ray Bradbury and others. With the past being something of a foreign country, the appeal of short stories of this form must surely increase as years go by, and so I'm inclined to dispute the general accusation of it being less than great literature. This was shamelessly populist science-fiction written without anything like the number of unspoken literary rules of today: stupid, wacky, and mostly wonderful.

Considering how much of this stuff I've read since Glenn first sent this book my way, it's probably fair to say that The Outer Reaches did indeed give me some ideas.

Monday, 13 August 2012


Mary Shelley Frankenstein (1818)
The first true science-fiction novel according to Brian Aldiss, although to be fair, he acknowledges the distinction as subject to interpretation. Frankenstein is a tale in the gothic tradition, itself the brooding spawn of Romantic fiction with increased emphasis on horror and, to some extent, realism. Shelley's classic earns Aldiss' accolade by virtue of a monster born of scientific rather than supernatural means, an idea doubtless inspired by the experiments of Luigi Galvani who, having animated dead muscle tissue with electricity in the 1790s, had impressed upon the public the notion of the spark of life being essentially the same as the force Benjamin Franklin drew down from a thunderous sky in 1752.

For what it may be worth, I'm inclined to dispute that there's any such animal as the first true science-fiction novel, and even if I'm wrong, then I don't see it being Frankenstein. Once past the somewhat mammoth effort of unremembering all that Hollywood has done with the story, it's worth noting that the monster as science project is referenced in such ambiguous terms as to only distinguish Victor Frankenstein's dabbling as distinct from anything involving a higher power; even more curious is that there doesn't seem to be any overt reference to the reanimation of dead flesh or the recycling of body parts - unless I blinked and missed this element which has ultimately become central to the mythology; further, the cliché of materials harvested from graves is seemingly disputed in one passage where Victor describes making organs proportionally larger than normal for the sake of convenience.

In other words, the point is not the science itself so much as science as distinct from acts of God. As science-fiction, even Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History sits closer to Asimov than Shelley's tale in terms of narrative detail; and unlike Dracula - its roughly spiritual partner and successor - Frankenstein is a whole different ball game to the films it inspired.

Betraying those Romantic roots, the rural wilderness of Frankenstein is so greatly emphasised as to count for a character in its own right, as is also the case with Shelley's somewhat more laborious The Last Man. The wilderness is nature and the natural order, the precarious harmony secured by nineteenth century man in his rural idyll, a new Arcadia in the making as society began to enjoy the benefits of post-Renaissance advances in science and philosophy. Frankenstein is therefore a reminder that for all that we move forward, the wilderness remains neither friend nor enemy and may undo our advances at a stroke. Victor Frankenstein achieves a miracle, and yet the miracle bites him on the ass ultimately as a result of his own vanity and good old fashioned tough shit. The monster, for anyone who may not be aware, is some way from Karloff's growling colossus, a self-educated innocent happily describing the Emperor's lack of clothes at such bitterly eloquent length as to obscure identification of the tale's real monster.

I remain unconvinced of Frankenstein as the first true science-fiction novel, but then, I'm not sure it matters. It's still a true giant of western literature, having lost none of its power nearly two centuries later, and is easily one of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to read and to read again.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Señor 105: The Gulf

Cody Quijano-Schell The Gulf (2012)
Just to get it out of the way, I dislike eBooks for a number of reasons. Even aside from the issue of unknowingly turning oneself into a market research tool; and never mind the technical annoyance of there being eBooks I can't read on my Kindle due to some difference between EPUB, MOBI, and AZW file types - whatever the hell any of that means,
and when was the last time you found yourself unable to read a paperback due to incompatible hands?; and aside from real books being nice things in and of themselves, it's the fact that anyone can now upload their rambling shite to Amazon and fool virtual suckers into buying it. It's really an issue of cultural bandwidth for me (see also generic steampunk), more choice so very rarely amounting to greater choice.

Anyway, whining aside, The Gulf is the first of a series of virtual novellas starring Cody Quijano-Schell's Señor 105 as interpreted by a variety of authors,
one being your less than humble narrator so please remain aware of my possibly compromised objectivity during the remainder of this review. Señor 105 is a masked wrestler, Mexican superhero and solver of mystic crimes rooted firmly in the pulp tradition of the 1950s and 1960s, a character trading upon innumerable familiar b-movie or comic book tropes and yet sparkling with such wit and originality as to seem entirely new. The key to the character's success, at least as written by his creator, is Quijano-Schell's genuine affection for his material and inspiration, the refreshing honesty of its delivery: none of those knowing winks to the reader, wearily ironic asides, smarmy deconstructive gags about running down corridors; and talking of which, there's even some Doctor Who continuity with serial numbers filed off for those who care about such things, the story of the planet Mondas retold as Mexican folklore which, embarrassingly enough, is at least four times as exciting as anything that's happened within that particular media franchise since back in the old days when everything was better.

There's a couple of typos, and I'm not sure what happened to the paragraphs, and possibly a few surplus adjectives, but really I'm nit-picking given that The Gulf is otherwise such a thoroughly pleasant read. It's pretty rare to find something borrowing so heavily from Mexican culture which doesn't manage to piss me off in some way, but Cody Quijano-Schell writes Mexico with the enthusiasm and affection of a native, and the most outrageous surrealism with a lightness of touch that carries genuine charm
as distinct from the wearying self-conscious eccentricity of the spent force from which Señor 105 is distantly extruded. Buy this so that Cody writes more and more stuff and is forced to get it printed as real books.

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Mark Hodder The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man (2011)

As I may have mentioned in preamble to an earlier review, I find it difficult to stir up much enthusiasm for steampunk due to its being a trend populated, so far as I am able to tell, principally by arseholes besides which 1970s Bay City Rollers fandom seems contemplative and dignified. I'm all for getting out the dressing up box from under the bed every once in a while, but it's all becoming a bit generic: brass goggles do not necessarily render one either interesting or a paragon of original thought, and the tone of a children's TV presenter imploring viewers to be lions adopted by websites helpfully explaining that steampunk is Victorian science-fiction so that even morons can join in the fun causes all right-thinking people to frown.

Sure, I could turn the other way; but I dislike stuff that is shite clogging up the cultural bandwidth and making it that much more difficult to get through to the stuff which isn't shite.

The novels of Mark Hodder, Michael Moorcock and perhaps one or two others number amongst the stuff which definitively isn't shite (and there's a book jacket blurb if ever there was), science-fiction with a nineteenth century emphasis which actually bothers to do something besides ticking boxes on the standard issue steampunk inventory.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, like its predecessor, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is an alternate historical novel reading like a ripping yarn which achieves a degree of intimacy with its subject far beyond what seems to be found in more generic efforts, dissecting class, imperialism and the ethics of society to depths one might not immediately expect from something which appears to pay homage to both Spike Milligan and The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town - unless that was just me. Rather than simply turning its historical characters into action figures, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man gets into a serious degree of biographical detail, yielding a genuinely meaty and provocative read without sacrificing either lightness of touch or the occasional pleasure of a tooth-grinding pun.

Regarding authors of this century who've done so well as to have book covers blessed with the quoted testimonials, I'm finding myself increasingly disappointed by those beautifully written inflated word counts wherein Neal Stephenson, Eric Brown, Charles Stross, or Alastair Reynolds deliver none of the wonders described by the bloke from the New York Times. Novels seem to promise so much more in 2012, a literary experience, something which won't use the wrong soup spoon or moon you from the back window of the coach with tackily airbrushed pictures of spaceships and the like. Mark Hodder establishes himself as not only leaving a paper cut some degrees above the subgenre with which he is dubiously associated, but as a damn sight more readable than most of his contemporaries in the wider field of science-fiction. The Philip K. Dick award is entirely deserved.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

Michael Moorcock The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980)
I spent several 1970s summers biking around to my friend Sean's house in the neighbouring village. We would have been about eleven or twelve and I can't recall what we got up to, although I'm fairly certain it involved the duck pond, nicking sweets from the local shop, swapping things, and taking the piss out of Sean's little sister because she was a girl. For an entire summer our soundtrack was Sean's Wombles album, Remember You're A Womble played over and over until we'd ground it down into a flexidisc; the next summer it was 'Something Else' by Sid Vicious, which appealed to me because I had a hunch I probably wasn't supposed to like it, and just like Orinoco and Wellington, the artist was an animated character, or so it seemed from the cover - actually a still from The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.

The story doesn't really add up due to the five years dividing  The Wombles' heyday and Sid's posthumous career, but I guess that's childhood memories for you. The important point, if there is one, would be something in the vague direction of the assertion made by Stewart Home in Cranked Up Really High that punk at its best was novelty rock. This is why, three decades later, even squares remember the Sex Pistols whilst the more worthy snarlers of songs about Thatcher and bombs tend to have been forgotten, at least in so much as anything is ever forgotten in the twenty-first century.

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was a somewhat misjudged and enormously cynical film spun off from the brief career of the Sex Pistols, a supposedly post-modern commentary upon their success which missed the point that, beyond the somewhat clueless and entirely extraneous bullshit of one particularly talentless manager, the band and their music were just about the least cynical ripple to pass across the music industry pond for some time. The confusion may arise from a misconception of cynicism and pointing out when something is a bit shit as necessarily being the same thing; and I doubt it helped that this one band was so heavily mythologised in its day, all that banging on about Situationism and the sodding boat trip: sure the Sex Pistols were significant, and Never Mind The Bollocks is still my year zero, the point at which pop music became self aware and thus conscious of sometimes having turned up to school in the nude - a theory that admittedly probably doesn't stand up to close inspection; but significant or not, they hardly deserved all the smart-arsed conceptual baggage.

In the presumed spirit of Sue Catwoman action figures, Fatty Jones chocolates, and the Sid Vicious Family Album, someone noticed an unscraped patch at the bottom of the barrel and asked Michael Moorcock to write the book of the film, bizarrely resulting in just about the only good thing to come out of the whole mess, at least until Julien Temple decided it was time he said sorry.

Moorcock being Moorcock recycles some of the script, pasting in Jerry Cornelius and a few of his own regulars to come up with something new, a trick akin to a pretty decent beef bourguignon somehow cobbled together from leftover turkey twizzlers and tomato ketchup. The original structure appears more or less intact, or at least there's something resembling the original structure with Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Helen of Troy, Tenpole Tudor, Irene Handl and Lemmy from Motorhead scurrying around inside the workings; plus there's post-mortem cameos from Sid Vicious, Nestor Makhno, Oscar Wilde, and Jesus Christ himself all shooting the heavenly breeze. The story is impressionistic, suggesting narrative rather than actively following it, but nevertheless making all the points the film aspired to make but didn't due to the taint of Gingerbollocks, the failed art student hanging around like a creepy uncle at a wedding proclaiming  something to be Dickensian every five fucking seconds and explaining how it had all been part of his wearyingly chaotic plan, little realising that he's been telling all this to the one guest who doesn't actually speak English or give a shit.

Moorcock's Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, unlike McLaren's, is short, sweet, funny, and doesn't treat anyone like an idiot.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Virtual Light

William Gibson Virtual Light (1993)
I'm beginning to get an impression of William Gibson as a writer who grew into his reputation over a number of years. Whilst his prose has remained consistently erudite and dazzling, I've tended to find his earlier writing somewhat irritating - all style and little substance - in contrast to more recently meatier efforts. I've yet to familiarise myself with the allegedly amazing Neuromancer so clearly this may be something of a generalisation, but what pleasure I've thus far derived from each Gibson novel has corresponded directly to its age. The short stories collected in 1986 as Burning Chrome were mostly piffle, 2003's Pattern Recognition was a thing of great beauty, and that seems to be how it works. By this equation Virtual Light should therefore represent an improvement on Mona Lisa Overdrive without being quite so good as Idoru, and weirdly this turns out to be roughly true.

The detail is as usual delicious and sort of crunchy, all manner of technical gizmos and doodads smeared in jam and described with the sort of photorealist immediacy you get with a Chuck Close painting; and although it holds the attention better than predecessors, he still wasn't quite there. Detail crowds out the sense of what is actually happening, so characters turn up somewhere unexpected because you missed the half sentence describing their getting off the bus and walking into the store, suffocated as it was between big observational titties about a Cornflakes logo and substances expelled onto the seating of public transportation. I'm paraphrasing, but the point is that it's disorientating and becomes annoying after a while, particularly as more and more characters are introduced like an attempt to see how many people will fit into a telephone booth, and you still haven't quite got a handle on some bloke who showed up fifty pages earlier. I suppose one advantage of this narrative snowstorm is that it tends to conceal the fact of there not actually being much of a story, or at least not much of a new story.

Some woman nicks a pair of magic spectacles at a party, special magic computer spectacles containing important plans, and some people chase after her for a bit because they want them back: I have a sinking feeling that this may be the same plot as every other William Gibson novel I've read, even the good ones. Whilst I suppose there's nothing wrong with recycling, Virtual Light doesn't really do enough interesting stuff to justify the repetition. It's not a bad book by any means, but there was definitely better to come.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Marshall Law: Fear and Loathing

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill Marshall Law: Fear and Loathing (1989)
Pat Mills is of course the man who invented British comics but isn't Alan Moore - or something along those lines: the creator of 2000AD, Judge Dredd, and other names from a list as long as your arm or longer. Cutting his teeth on populist weeklies requiring stories which moved quickly in short, sharp bursts of six or seven pages, he soon developed a style entirely his own characterised by bold subversive statements, black humour, and dialogue so brash as to read like an exercise in seeing what he could get away with.

If that suggests the comics equivalent of The Sex Pistols, or at least Crass with jokes, neither should Pat Mills' work be regarded as lacking sophistication. Marshall Law is a superhero comic about hatred of superheroes, their inherent elitism and the double standards. It's a massive, hilarious contradiction which throws all manner of Freudian shit into the mix, belches Jonathan Swift flavoured cheeseburgers in your face, and, like most of Pat Mills' comics, actually bothers to say something.

Of course, dealing in big statements about the evils of society, it may fire off target from time to time - notably where stereotypically chaste female characterisation is countered with women as sexually voracious clichés; it's not so much that it's annoying as that it hints at a slightly weird overcompensation born largely of male insecurity, and it's ambiguous as to what the writer is trying to say; but this is a minor observation. I recall this sort of heavy-handed feminism coming over as sometimes misjudged in Third World War, but then Third World War is hardly likely to be remembered for its wit, chuckles being some way removed from its purpose. Marshall Law on the other hand is positively dripping with sarcasm, and yes that is a form of wit, and so it holds together quite nicely.

Kevin O'Neill's Disney-Vorticist artwork is as always bizarre, anatomically brutal, and weirdly fascinating, a perfect companion to the narrative to the point that Marshall Law could not possibly have been drawn by anyone else. Aside perhaps from Grant Morrison taking over Doom Patrol, 1989 was an otherwise unremarkable year in terms of the comics mainstream, so Marshall Law stood out as  seriously weird shit when it first appeared, and two decades later, it has lost none of its power. If Watchmen was a clenched fist in a velvet glove, Marshall Law is a prune-juice enema.

I'm saying that's a good thing.