Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Shaver Mystery

Richard S. Shaver The Shaver Mystery books one & two (2011)

Back in the 1940s Amazing Stories ran a series of shorts and novellas submitted by Richard S. Shaver. Most of these occupied a shared mythology wherein a technologically advanced prehistoric civilisation ended with the destruction of Atlantis leaving only subhuman creatures known as Dero to terrorise the survivors; and we are those survivors, going on oblivious to our planet as host to a subterranean realm comprising a global network of caves and tunnels, this being the realm of, amongst others, the Dero. It seems that much of the cast of human history, not least the world's major religions, can be traced back to the caves by one means or another. The mythic Satan was, for example, a feared subterranean ruler known as Sathanas who, like the Dero, made great and terrible use of advanced ray technology left behind following the destruction of Atlantis, rays by which those living below are still very much able to spy on surface dwellers and cause terrible things to happen.

What set Shaver's stories apart from others of the time was their being based on discoveries made in the tunnels when the author was himself abducted by the Dero, and so these tales are presented as fictionalised accounts of actual events. Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, saw some potential in this and encouraged Shaver to keep it coming, as did numerous letters sent in from persons who said they too had experience of the Dero and their hypogean world.

It probably doesn't take a psychology degree to recognise that the Shaver mythos has about it more than a touch of paranoid schizophrenia - the conspiracy, persecution by mysterious forces, hidden worlds and messages beamed by ray operators directly into one's head. Additionally, Shaver's writing has a certain quality suggestive of a thought process which, if not exactly disordered, almost certainly made one hell of a lot more sense to the author than it does to me. Reading the stories collected here, it's difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Richard Shaver was not a well man.

That said, I can't help feel he may have been done something of an injustice by Armchair Fiction, the otherwise commendable publishers of these collections, who seem to have presented the man's work as the Plan 9 from Outer Space of science-fiction literature - although I'm not sure this is necessarily either better or worse than Ray Palmer's motives, whatever they may have been.

Taken on face value, Shaver reads a little like A.E. van Vogt taken up a few notches and channelling maybe Clark Ashton Smith, sometimes confusing, undoubtedly intense, but with a command of language that is at times quite arresting and elegant. He may have been bonkers, but it seems quite wrong to suggest that he lacked talent - and for my money I've read much, much worse written in less coherent form, but enough about Brian Aldiss...

The Shaver mythology might almost be the Cthulhu mythos if you factor in a basic assumption that advanced technology tends to involve Tesla coils and the sort of stuff you would have seen in Flash Gordon - even if the poor guy did believe it was real, it's at least as richly absorbing as anything Lovecraft wrote providing you don't mind the occasionally confusing drift from narrative purpose.

Shaver's tales might be regarded as the literary equivalent of outsider art - I've always hated that term myself, and only use it in lieu of any more convenient and potentially less divisive alternative - but if that ranks him alongside Richard Dadd, Louis Wain or any of those other painters loved by the surrealists on the grounds of their having painted some damn good stuff - then fair enough. As with A.E. van Vogt, I wouldn't recommend too much Shaver in one sitting, but that poor troubled guy definitely had something.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Essential Warlock

Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and others Essential Warlock (2012)
Know you this, that Marvel's Adam Warlock comic got off to an impressive start as an ambitious parable of a Christlike superhuman saving an alternate Earth from both its wrathful creator and his errant fallen angel, the wolfish Man-Beast, the proverbial serpent in Eden and source of all this world's ills. It began in obvious homage to Jack Kirby's cosmic scale, written with an assumption of intelligent readership, and pulling no Marvel Shakespearian punches with plenty of lo, yonder, and yet where words may fail of hearing may not soundless rage prevail?

Where such affectations sometimes come off as just plain ridiculous, Roy Thomas makes them work with lines favouring genuine gravitas over mere pomposity - including at least two words I actually had to look up - and with such aplomb that even when the inevitable group of denim clad 1970s teenage sidekicks show up, whilst the integrity of the strip bends a little under the strain of the more prosaic dialogue of I dig and don't crowd me, Dave, the whole remains strong, perhaps even a little richer for the contrast. With Gil Kane's fantastic Kirby-inspired artwork, the earliest issues seem very substantial, even referencing black power and Chicano issues without going all Ben Elton, and generally carrying themselves with the dignity of good quality children's fiction - the stuff an adult can read without wincing or looking like a complete cock. Dammit - the opener is so good you don't even mind that the snake-headed guy is named Kohbra.

Unfortunately, after the first few issues, Roy Thomas and Gil Kane handed over the title to lesser talents and the book lost its distinguishing qualities, recycling the same story over and over - always Warlock's battle against the Man-Beast or his minions, teenage sidekicks serving mainly as hostage opportunities, and with the Marvel Shakespearian now seeming faintly absurd: the orchestra had begun to regret the kebabs consumed the previous evening, but luckily the Cockney Rejects were available to fill in on the second act of Die Walküre - if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Then along came Jim Starlin, alternately influenced by Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Michael Moorcock, transforming Warlock into a weird and wonderful superhero space opera which I suspect may borrow somewhat from Kirby's Fourth World,
except I'm unfamiliar with Kirby's Fourth World aside from a few slightly underwhelming issues of Mister Miracle by which I recognise the villainous Thanos as an obvious stand-in for Kirby's Darkseid. This Starlin version of Warlock was reprinted in the UK in Star Wars Weekly which is where I first encountered it, as one of a number of back-up strips that were slightly more engaging than the title feature. Even with my being no stranger to the nutty stuff thanks to Tom Baker on the telly and 2000AD comic, Starlin's Warlock struck me as particularly weird - vampiric soul gems, a wisecracking troll, an ally who falls in love with death and hopes to win her over by destroying the universe, anatomically bizarre aliens, and the main villain being Adam Warlock's future self just like in The Trial of a Time Lord more than a decade later; all drawn in the spirit of an age of concept albums recorded by bands dressed as wizards.

Returning to these stories forty years after they first appeared, whilst not quite so amazing as they seemed to my twelve year old self - art and script trying just a bit too hard on occasion - they remain nevertheless impressive, and certainly superior to all but possibly the initial Roy Thomas and Gil Kane run. Additionally, I'd wager at least one testicle on this version of Warlock being a significant influence on the young Grant Morrison. All those elements of his early Gideon Stargrave strips not directly inspired by Moorcock seem to have come from Starlin; and whilst we're here, with hindsight even Alan Moore's Roscoe Moscow carries more than a faint whiff of the same.

Unfortunately, once Adam Warlock rejoined the wider Marvel universe in the last few issues reprinted here, it all went back to extended fight scenes with assorted superheroes explaining the plot to one another in Marvel Shakespearian as the Beast exclaimed oh my stars and garters whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. It's a sad end to a story which, for at least a few issues, managed to raise itself up above the standard Marvel landfill of the time.

Reprinting no less than twenty-seven 1970s comics in a single volume as thick as a housebrick and retailing for mere pennies, Essential Warlock is well worth a look - mostly classic material, and the filler at least provides an insight into why X-Men was such a hit when Chris Claremont took over in 1975.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Out of Their Minds

Clifford D. Simak Out of Their Minds (1970)
...and whilst we're on the subject of reality as a function of consciousness, here we have one of Simak's Marmite books, so I have been led to understand, the novel besides which The Goblin Reservation reads like Of Mice and Men, the one where Cliff really went for it, throwing his main guy into a world populated by dinosaurs, demons, and cartoon characters - notably Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and good old Charlie Brown.

Or not as the case may be, for Out of Their Minds actually turns out to be a sober and surprisingly philosophical narrative on the nature of folklore and imagination, amongst other things. Fictional characters - and I mean fictional even within the context of the story - are introduced without so much as a whiff of post-modern novelty, and it seems particularly apposite that one of these characters should be a faithful and uncommonly sympathetic rendering of Don Quixote, himself a response to the literary traditions of Cervantes' time.

Out of Their Minds treats folklore as a by-product of human evolution crossed roughly with reality found in the eye of the beholder, or at least the eye of the one who gets to tell the story. It's spelled out in analogue rather than digital terms as with much of Simaks's writing, ideas offered for consideration rather than carved in stone. This is, I suspect, the secret of Simak's success, namely that he leaves the reader something to do; actually with a lot to do in the case of Out of Their Minds which is nothing if not multi-layered. This feels like one of those novels which delivers some new perspective each time you pick it up, and whilst I can see how it might not be to everyone's taste, I can also most certainly see why it has its fans.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Blood Music

Greg Bear Blood Music (1985)

I've been labouring under a misapprehension of Blood Music - the 1985 novel expanding upon a 1983 short story - as a cyberpunk landmark of some description, the first science-fiction novel to deal with nanotechnology; and because I can't be arsed to paraphrase, Wikipedia puts it thus:

The book has also been credited as the first account of nanotechnology in science fiction. More certainly, the short story is the first in science fiction to describe microscopic medical machines and to treat DNA as a computational system capable of being reprogrammed; that is, expanded and modified.

Except the tiny machines are laboratory tailored lymphocytes, and it reads more like one of those Michael Crichton medical dramas than anything beloved of people who regard Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time. This is, roughly speaking, a good thing.

Blood Music starts off as your basic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but with more jargon as our hero injects himself with lymphocytes he's created, this being done in hope of saving them from destruction by his entirely more sensible biological research laboratory boss guy. Rather inconveniently, it turns out that the lymphocytes have developed intelligence and the ability to restructure their host on a cellular level. The situation goes increasingly tits up as every last living cell in the United States is absorbed into a single massive continent sized dollop of sentient microbes who, because reality is a function of consciousness, begin to warp the established laws of the universe simply through the act of comprehension.

Bear writes well, keeping it quick and clean without unnecessary fuss, doing that airport blockbuster page turning thing without resorting to shorthand. Aside from slightly bland characterisation, there's big ideas and not much to fault, but still I can't help feeling that a story this weird could have used a bit more poetry, and should have lived up to at least some of the hype.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Fireclown

Michael Moorcock The Fireclown (1965)

An early work from himself, and an impulse purchase made on the grounds of it having the greatest cover of all time and featuring the Fireclown, a character whose subsequent japes in The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming made for such fine and impressively weird reading.

I gather Moorcock was still finding his feet when he wrote this. It certainly has its moments, but somehow lacks character and doesn't compare well even to The Shores of Death written only a year later. The Fireclown is conspicuously a parable, a parody of political systems, specifically English political systems of the 1960s wherein Harold Macmillan shaped politicians conspire against free-wheeling counter-cultural types. There's space travel, strange powers exerted over time, and futuristic fashions; but telephone switchboards are still worked by gossip prone operators, and somehow it feels very much a product of its time. Worse still, the first half is one of the least memorable things I've read in ages, very much a fumbled ball considering that it revolves around a revolutionary super-powered clown inspiring dissent in an underground city.

The Fireclown picks up towards the end, and it's nevertheless worth reading, but the promise of the cover isn't really delivered. Still, Moorcock's written about a million books, and off the top of my head I can think of at least six or seven that were brilliant in more or less every way, so the guy's entitled the odd dud.

Friday, 12 October 2012


Jean-Paul Sartre Nausea (1938)

Driving back from CD Exchange I slipped on my newly purchased Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized, skipping straight to the sublime 'Shine a Light' which I hadn't heard in many years. Completely unexpected, as the track played I was in tears, and I realised I hadn't listened to this album since my friend Andrew died in February 2009. Andrew had taped it for me, along with the music of many other artists who became firm favourites and whom I never would have listened to but for his recommendation. He was a good friend, a huge and positive influence during a slightly crappy period living in south-east London, and I would do absolutely anything were it possible to bring him back and give him the life he should have had rather than the one he ended up with.

I first read Nausea because Andrew insisted I read it, explaining that it was quite unlike any other novel. I've now read it five or six times and I'm still not sure what to make of it, or at least whether there's anything to make of it beyond that which has already presented itself. My first impression was that Nausea might to some degree describe what it was like being Andrew at least part of the time, and I found the novel dense and difficult. Then, during one of those days so bad that you can no longer even be bothered to feel pissed off, it suddenly made absolute sense, and telling this to Andrew, he agreed that a very specific frame of mind is necessary for full appreciation of Sartre's debut novel. I've re-read a few times since, and it's always been the same, always dependent on one being just the right hue of something or other that isn't exactly melancholic.

Sartre's Antoine Roquentin lives a solitary existence, sat alone in a cafe or bar, occasional conversations with a self-taught acquaintance whom he doesn't really like that much, and an increasing sense of repulsion, a sense that no object or event is a thing in itself, and that all is tainted by his own understanding - yer basic existential nausea, not to be confused with anything so obvious as self-hatred. I could have a go at getting into the details but it would probably be easier if you just read the book, keeping in mind that it works best when approached from a quite specific perspective, and will probably never be adapted for the big screen with Bruce Willis playing the pensive historian Roquentin.

This time, for some reason, Nausea works despite my being generally happy. Possibly it feels like I'm reading Andrew's biography. The themes are soft but profound, and far too subtle for anything that could be distilled into a neat sentence upon a Wikipedia page, which is I suppose why Nausea is a novel rather than a manifesto.

Monday, 8 October 2012

New UFO Breakthrough

Brad Steiger & Joan Whritenour New UFO Breakthrough (1968)

I know, but whilst New UFO Breakthrough may not be fiction in the sense of Great Expectations, these increasingly autobiographical essays are as much response as review, so...

Possibly due to the influence of Paul, the kid who lived on the next farm along in the rural Warwickshire of my youth - if you'll pardon the phrase of my youth - crappy books about flying saucers were my Biggles, my Just William, my Harry Potter. Paul's dad was a bit nuts, or at least seemed that way, maintaining a back garden UFO detector of the kind once advertised in certain magazines, so there must have been some sort of trickle down effect. Up until the age of about ten, and then again during a revival lasting from roughly 1988 to 1993, I read a ton of this shit in lieu of anything of literary value - unless you count X-Men comics. I'm still not sure quite how much of it I believed in the sense of believing in the existence of, for example, Morrissey, but I was certainly keen on the idea of our skies being full of mysterious visitors 'n' shit. With hindsight I suspect I bought these books for the same reasons I now scour the shelves in search of cheap science-fiction. Admittedly there may not be much of a story, but if you squint a bit there's always a vague possibility that it could be real, sort of...

The problem with much UFO literature is that sadly, and particularly sadly for something purporting to describe visitations from outer space, a great deal of it is actually quite dull with its doomed efforts to maintain scientific sobriety: three-hundred pages of blokes who thought they saw a light, but might have been mistaken, and then felt a bit funny afterwards.

Brad Steiger was notable for bucking this trend and reporting nuttier and hence greatly more entertaining accounts from the periphery of the strange unexplainable mysterious twilight world of mystery that cannot be explained; and so the New UFO Breakthrough in question is that the Earth is probably hollow and that's where all the flying saucers come from. Laugh if you must, but it's oddly readable, not least because many cases stated herein are at least as weird as anything from the science-fiction novels of the time; and it probably helps that Steiger remains reasonably objective instead of raising an eyebrow to suggest that scepticism is fine but knoweth ye well that this be just what the men in black want you to think.

Actually, at least one major folk myth detailed here is derived from a science-fiction novel of the time, namely Richard Shaver's abduction by the subterranean Dero, later written up as fiction and submitted to Amazing Stories because the author knew his apparently autobiographical stories of the inner world were probably just a bit too amazing to be accepted as fact.

Too much of this stuff is probably bad for you, but it's fascinating just to dip a toe in the waters every once in a while. Even assuming it's all bollocks, as I tend to, it nevertheless raises some peculiar questions: why so many accounts should be so consistent with each other and where the ones that make no fucking sense come from; why everyone started seeing saucers in the 1940s rather than, as you might expect, things inspired by Flash Gordon style rocketry.

As science it's a bit suspect, but as modern mythology, this stuff can be an engrossing if guilty pleasure; and it has to be said, Brad Steiger really had the good stuff.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Andromeda Breakthrough

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot Andromeda Breakthrough (1964)

A boldly exciting work of imagination... filled with physical excitement and intellectual stimulation... much of it reads like a James Bond adventure, it proclaims upon the back cover, presumably referencing Completed in Triplicate, that obscure Ian Fleming novel wherein Bond spends the entire story in a laboratory frowning at things seen under a microscope. The rest of the back cover is taken up with glowing praise for all the mighty deeds of Hoyle and Elliot which aren't this novel.

A for Andromeda was a 1961 BBC television serial written by Fred Hoyle - renowned astronomer and cosmologist famous for kicking Stephen Hawking's head in on numerous occasions - and John Elliot, widely respected and eminently talented author of television plays. The story begins with a radio signal picked up from the vicinity of the Andromeda galaxy, a signal delivering instructions for the building of an advanced computer which, once running, itself delivers instructions for the creation of artificial life, specifically a seemingly human woman who grows to adulthood in a matter of days. This being the BBC in the early 1960s, I gather most of the drama took the form of men with moustaches holding forth in either laboratories or governmental offices which, in the absence of competition, proved so exciting as to justify a sequel, 1962's The Andromeda Breakthrough.

This is of course the novelisation. Unlike A for Andromeda, the television serial still exists in its entirety and is available on DVD, but as I keep trying to explain to people regardless of their utter incredulity, I like reading books and for the most part I couldn't really give a shit about TV, so here we are.

Fred's later novel, Seven Steps to the Sun co-written with  Geoffrey Hoyle, is a weird and extraordinarily clunky effort, a long, long way from being one of the best things I've ever read, and distinguished by this sentence:

A duck looked at him from the water and laughed in cynical fashion.

Andromeda Breakthrough benefits from the involvement of a writing partner qualified by his ability to string sentences together rather than by his being fruit of the author's loins, so it's reasonably well-written, avoids the clichés one might expect of this sort of novel, with no obvious pantomime villains and the rulers of the somewhat implausible middle eastern country of Azaran turning out to be entirely reasonable people despite the kidnappings; and the story is decent enough, a suitably Quatermassy apocalypse, although it may be stretching the point a bit when we learn that the beings of Andromeda merely pretended to desire the destruction of life on Earth so as to shock humanity into getting its ecological act together.

The problem is that for all its virtues Andromeda Breakthrough is very, very dull, a presumably faithful adaptation of a conspicuously studio-based television serial, all men in white coats frowning at clipboards and suggesting calls to the ministry. It may have worked well enough on the screen in 1962, but fifty years later and in an entirely different medium, some of the magic has gone.