Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Currents of Space

Isaac Asimov The Currents of Space (1952)

Having been told I'd read all of Asimov's top shelfers, so to speak, I promised I would never again subject myself to another puzzle box narrative wherein some lady scientist with a face like a camel's arse exclaims Sizzling Saturn! and strives to keep her womanly but Einsteinian mind free of those despairing thoughts of how no man will ever ask her to be his wife by figuring out why the robots have downed their tools and taken up ping-pong instead; but this was just sat there looking at me from the shelf in Half-Price Books and I couldn't resist.

The Currents of Space turns out to be part of Asimov's Galactic Empire series, conspicuously occupying the same universe as Foundation, which I didn't enjoy at all. That said, aside from the presence of an archetypal Asimov female - obliged by cruel society to develop her intellect by virtue of being a bit of a double bagger - and the closing chapters clogged up with the usual conversation about all that has happened thus far, it's pretty reasonable for the most part.

I'm probably being a bit harsh in regard to Asimov's slightly odd depiction of females given that he was Germaine Greer by 1950s standards; and this chugs along nicely for most of the story, presenting a well constructed mystery and some interesting medium-sized ideas. It's also a reminder of how Asimov was at his best an impressive communicator with a style that, if lacking poetry, never fails to draw the reader in. The Currents of Space may not quite be up there with The End of Eternity or The Gods Themselves, but is not lacking in a charm of its own.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Skinner

Neal Asher The Skinner (2002)

Neal Asher's short story Bioship made quite an impression when I read it in one of those Solaris anthologies, and this mostly delivers on that promise of sea sick space opera to churn the stomach and leave the reader smelling faintly of fish. Despite a relatively uncluttered turn of phrase, the narrative is surprisingly dense, for everything on the somewhat nautical world of Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting and requires much qualification. This is a thoroughly alien ecology of ships with living sails, huge seafaring leeches, and the salty old dogs which hunt them for a living.

The Skinner is initially disorientating, coming perilously close to doing too much - a great many characters introduced, each with their own story, and all before you've found your sea legs. This was why I ended up reading the first hundred pages twice, but it paid off and the detail is so engrossing that there's little possibility of getting bored, even in returning to recently covered ground.

In essence it's a fairly simple tale - the hunt for a war criminal - painted in very weird colours and seeming a far more likely influence on the mollusc aesthetic of the Pirates of the Caribbean films than any more obviously Lovecraftian source. The weirdest detail is probably the environment itself, a living illustration of that no such thing as a free meal poster with a succession of increasingly large fish about to vanish in a single act of recursive gastronomy. Everything on Spatterjay eats everything else, frequently by means of circular orifices lined with teeth; and everything in the food chain is infected with a viral mechanism promoting rapid mutation and healing so that even the most voracious predators need never fear depletion of their food source; so death doesn't come easy for anyone, as vividly illustrated by the Skinner of the title who, having been decapitated hundreds of years before, lives on with head and body as two independent creatures. As I said, everything on Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting.

The Skinner isn't really quite like anything I've read before in terms of story, although it hints at what Larry Niven probably should have written. As roughly contemporary space opera, it's as good as anything by Iain Banks, and superior to the work of at least a few other big names. Given how this novel is sort of like eating chocolate cake in terms of information density, I probably could have done with it being maybe a hundred or so pages shorter, but that's not a serious complaint.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Wicket in the Rec

This isn't the cover, but I needed something visual in order to silence the inner voices and sometimes I find it very difficult to leave my GIMP alone. Whilst I don't wish to imply The Wicket in the Rec is actually a Penguin Modern Classic, it's nevertheless not something to be sniffed at.
Paul Hayes The Wicket in the Rec (2011)
I'm not sure anyone in the history of publishing has ever really isolated quite what it takes to get a novel past the slush pile firewall and into fancy-pants print, although Paul Hayes has clearly given the matter some thought. Quality might be a factor, at least in so much as published novels generally tend towards a certain minimum standard below which we find the stapled fruit of Brer Photocopier, uninviting eBooks, and other denizens of the realm of the self-published. Then again, there are plenty of self-published authors I'd rate very highly - Jason Mills, Jim Mortimore and Andrew Hickey to name but three - and whilst there will always be shite like J. Lee Mace's Naked Deceit to bring down the average, the legitimately published Dan Brown did all right for himself despite this sort of adjectival landfill :
Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

So getting into print is probably just a combination of talent, luck and blow-jobbing your way to the top of the metaphorical pile, not necessarily all of those or in that order.

Nevertheless, conscious of the unfortunate associations of self-publishing, for better or worse, Paul Hayes resists temptation, seemingly refusing even to accept the term author until given sanction by virtue of publication. Sadly, I can see exactly why he should adopt this stance, and ironically that's what drew me to The Wicket in the Rec where normally I would only click on those buy my great new free downloadable eNovel links out of the same masochistic fascination that draws me to interviews with Bobby Gillespie or those shaved chimps from Oasis.

Whilst Hayes' humility regarding his own abilities seems quite driven, perhaps even excessive, I would guess it's only the expression of a profound desire for progress, and an absolute fear of the vanity which so often blinds aspirant authors to their own failings. I suspect Hayes is harder on himself than even the most demanding editor; and if this is so, then it has at least paid off. The prose he himself describes as merely workmanlike is elegant and hits the mark every single time, never settling for a sketchy version of the point nor on the other hand labouring so hard as to build up a sweat.

The Wicket in the Rec spends roughly a month in the lives of the inhabitants of two small Sussex villages, an understated drama centred around, of all things, the late 1980s repercussions of a cricket match postponed fifty years earlier by the outbreak of the second world war. Initially reading as an exercise in nostalgia, it's more an examination of the same, drawn in part from aspects of the author's childhood. In essence, The Wicket in the Rec - which spins up the most engrossing tempest from details that initially seem inconsequential - is itself about detail, about tiny events that build to storms, and meaning gleaned where least expected:
You will find some moments in your life – some quite random, bizarre, moments that are not particularly notable for anything, but which for some reason stick in your mind. Any reminder of them, no matter how small, can take you right back to that point and place in time. For Nathan Wright, such a moment would always be that particular car journey on that hot July afternoon; in spite of everything else that was to follow that day, this was the part of it he would always remember the most clearly.

Even when he was an old man, the details would always be there. The seats in Elise's car were boiling from having been under the sunlight blazing in through the windows for so long. There was that aroma of warm vinyl, mixed with the rich smell of nicotine and tobacco from her cigarette. There was a battered copy of Melody Maker in the footwell behind the driver's seat, and an empty Cherry Coke bottle next to Nathan in the back.

Then Gemma stuck a tape into the car stereo – it was a Madonna album, True Blue. The track order was burned into Nathan's brain from many journeys in Elise's car where it was playing. Elise put her hand to the stereo and turned it up loud as they raced along the Arundel Road, towards Worthing. Forever more, whenever Nathan would hear the opening bars of 'Papa Don't Preach' at any point in his life, he would feel the rush of memories like a punch to the stomach, and would be back there instantly. He could see the interior of that car, smell the sunlight and nicotine, and be ten years old again.

Nostalgia in itself is probably not a great reason to write a novel, but that doesn't seem to be Hayes' purpose as he gets into the mechanism, casting warm familiarity over an era some may remember quite differently, and without stooping to the sentimentality of Stewart Maconie bleating on about spangles or Nick Berry giving Myra Hindley a friendly clip around the ear to a soundtrack of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. He proves that maxim I'm sure I've heard somewhere about a good story being as much in the telling as the tale; in short, he's a skilled communicator, not least for having just conned me into reading a novel about cricket.

In fact never mind just cricket, all those elements which could have gone so horribly wrong are handled with a rare lightness of touch - real emotion and pathos achieved without pulling the obvious teary-eyed rabbits from overwrought hats. It's a long time since I've been genuinely moved by an emotional reunion scene. More often I'm left only with a slightly wearying insight into the author's viewing habits begging the question of whether there's anyone left who still regards novels as novels rather than potential Hollywood source material.

The Wicket in the Rec, in case all this gushing gives the wrong impression, is by no means the greatest novel I've ever read, but it really is astonishingly good, and probably not even the greatest novel Paul Hayes will write. If there's any justice - which admittedly there may not be - this guy shouldn't have to spend too much longer worrying about getting published.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Republic

Plato The Republic (approx. 375BC)

In which Plato, philosopher and mathematician of Classical Greece, student of Socrates and tutor to Aristotle, author of Socratic dialogues, founder of the Athens Academy and by association - so it might be argued - western philosophy and the entire methodology of modern science, tells us:

When they are young, children should only tackle the amount of philosophic training their age can stand; while they are growing to maturity they should devote a good deal of attention to their bodies, if they are to find them a useful equipment for philosophy. When they are older and their minds begin to mature, their mental training can be intensified.

I suppose this is why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Plato, or at least to reading things which have pointed me in the general direction of reading Plato, these being in no particular order Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Andrew Hickey's Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and Richard Flowers' aNARCHY rULES.

Additionally, having spent a great deal of time immersed in Precolombian Mexican culture, I've come across numerous aspects of Nahua theology bearing apparent comparison with Plato's theory of forms. Said theory very generally holds that each object has an immaterial essence describing its properties in relation to which the physical form is merely an imperfect manifestation. I have long been keen to further the model of Precolombian Mexican cultures as essentially civilised and progressive by some definition, or at least very different to the popular and sanguinary image that Mel Gibson chose to reiterate in his shitty film. My basic theory has it that, for the most part, Mexica and related cultures differed from those of Ancient Greece and Rome only in terms of regional detail and methods by which intellectual achievement was preserved for the benefit of generations to come. Alphabetic script was well adapted to this latter task and so we are able to look back on Greece and Rome with due reverence. On the other hand, Mixteca-Puebla pictographic script was unfortunately less suited to the preservation of philosophical rhetoric, and oral tradition could only carry so much over to the Postconquest era given the general demonisation of the Prehispanic past, a demonisation which unfortunately continues to this day.

So with this in mind and to get to the point, it seemed like time I made the effort to read Plato rather than relying on what I imagined he might have said.

Plato was the student of Socrates, and many of his dialogues reputedly capture the philosophical discussion of his esteemed tutor and associates, which is handy seeing as Socrates himself never bothered writing any of that stuff down. What we have is therefore, in essence, some blokes talking about stuff for a few hundred pages, although the significance of this should be not underestimated given the topics discussed and the methods by which they are debated. Socratic dialogue approaches a subject - in this case society - and bombards it with questions, rhetorical and otherwise, so as to test its limits and assess relative values until a conclusion can be asserted. It's the basis for the modern scientific approach which favours evidence over supposition, and I guess Greece was either where it began, or at least where it was first described in surviving media.

The Republic builds a perfect society consistent with the values of Socrates, Plato, Glaucon and assorted buddies dropping in for a beer and a chin wag about life and that during the course of the narrative, so aside from what philosophical ideas arise during the course of debate, it's also precedent to Thomas More's Utopia and its kin. Thanks I suspect to Desmond Lee's sympathetic translation and insightful notes, The Republic is nothing like so dry as I feared it might be, and is even illuminating in places. That said, I found it a little difficult to get beyond the formula for this perfect society  delivered as part and parcel with all sorts of crazy shite that suggest not so much the cultural differences of people living in a very different world as a basic failure to understand human nature. Most obviously absurd is the notion of a society which takes infants from their mothers at birth, and which communally raises its children without the supposed weakening influence of familial affection. It's this sort of uninformed idealism which somewhat undermines Plato and his pals as being the enlightened champions of reason to which they clearly aspired, but never mind.

Equally curious - and equally redolent of more recent aspirationally totalitarian states - is the dim view Plato takes of poetry, and seemingly of artistic expression itself:
'...we shall have to follow the example of the lover who renounces a passion that is doing him no good, however hard it may be to do so. Brought up as we have been in our own admirably constituted societies, we are bound to love poetry, and we shall be glad if it proves to have high value and truth; but in the absence of such proof we shall, whenever we listen to it, recite this argument of ours to ourselves as a charm to prevent us falling under the spell of a childish and vulgar passion. Our theme shall be that such poetry has no serious value or claim to truth, and we shall warn its hearers to fear its effects on the constitution of their inner selves, and tell them to adopt the view of poetry we have described.'

I didn't quite get this at first, but then I thought of all those Doctor Who fans insisting on the mighty power of their belovedly brilliant marketing franchise by virtue of everyone else thinking it's brilliantly brilliant so your (sic) just jealous; and thinking of them in respect of all the wonders they'll never experience because, lacking screamingly brilliant jokes about brilliantly wearing a fez and shit, anything not directly related holds no interest. It's that sort of militant resistance to curiosity in respect of anything beyond the immediate object of fixation that I find terrifying, and I guess it put the wind up Plato too.

The Republic is an interesting historical document, and almost certainly fascinating if the Greeks are your thing. Oddly, and rather gratifyingly, it presents a snap shot of a society at an equivalent level of intellectual development to that of Mexico, superior in some respects, markedly inferior in others - which is what I had hoped for, but didn't really anticipate finding. I'm glad I read it, but I'm equally glad that it wasn't longer.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Philip K. Dick Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1970)

Award yourself two points if you now have the first Tubeway Army album on your internal stereo rather than the Blade Runner soundtrack. Recently on a plane I had the option of watching the remake of Total Recall, a cover version of a film loosely based on something Philip K. Dick scribbled in the margin of an overdue library book. I couldn't be arsed and instead ended up watching Ted, Mean Girls, and Men in Black 3, all of which were pretty great. The more Dick I read - or rather that I re-read by this point - the less well-disposed I become towards misjudged cinematic interpretations full of flashing lights and male models demanding to know what is real. Excepting Linklater's excellent A Scanner Darkly, not one of them has either the wit or charm of the novels with which they've taken such huge liberties. Gary Numan is therefore greater than Ridley Scott, but I expect most of you already knew that.

Flow My Tears is I suppose what you might call a transitional novel. The two halves of Dick's brain were still on speaking terms, but both had sights set on higher and different paths. It's a precursor to the full bipolar genius of A Scanner Darkly and those later, even stranger books. Here we have the archetypal Dick character as jet-setting, internationally known lounge singer and talk show host waking up to a world which contains no record of his ever having existed, a world which has adopted the habit of sending anyone lacking the requisite identification off to a labour camp.

Flow My Tears reads something like a dialogue between Dick and himself - Jason Taverner as the established but increasingly alienated author in his forties, very much aware that the world is moving on and that creatively speaking, the game is probably up: Police General Felix Buckman as the more objective voice, stood some way back, disdainful of Taverner's self-involvement, of his ever having bought into the illusion of his own fame. Throw in an incestuous relationship with a twin sister whose death restores reality, albeit a more sober reality for having been faced with its own absolute lack of meaning, and you have something which works on many levels. It would be pure autobiography but for the layered symbols.

It's been a long time since I read Flow My Tears, and I recall regarding it as one of my absolute favourite Dicks - if you'll pardon the expression - and now I remember why. One of his very best, in my view.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Wil Huygen & Rien Poortvliet Gnomes (1976)
And so we dip a toe into that peculiar netherworld of fiction presented as fact, often an overlooked genre and probably because  whether or not it constitutes any form of storytelling tends to depend on the book in question. The Book of the War or, I suppose, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men are probably good examples, titles easily identified as literature by the presence of a narrative; Stewart Cowley's Spacecraft 2000 to 2100AD seems more ambiguous, possibly because the writing made for a poor match to the wonderful illustrations of Chris Foss and others, amounting to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe with much better pictures.

Huygen and Poortvliet's seventies smash is essentially Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady with gnomes, adopting a conversational sketchbook format which works well, maintaining an amiable tone whilst cancelling out the potential for anything too excessively twee with a wealth of anthropological detail - the life expectancy of gnomes, geographical distribution, common illnesses, and so on. It's convincingly thorough, beautifully painted, and very difficult to dislike. Furthermore, whilst there's nothing too smart-arsed here - gnomes taking crystal meth or rocking out to the MC5 - the absolutely familiar folklore is captured with such a fresh approach as to make one forget that these are related to those little plaster guys who sit around in gardens holding fishing rods.

Since reading The Goblin Reservation wherein widely respected author Clifford D. Simak introduces gnomes to the science-fiction landscape for the very good reason that he felt like it, I've come to appreciate the pointy-hatted ones like no other folkloric creature. There's something pleasantly autonomous about our friend, the gnome, something that resists coercion by authors. There were no gnomes in The Lord of the Rings because their presence would have made Tolkien's great work seem ridiculous, spoiling the frowning thrust of its self-important bluster; conversely, any writer peddling ironic gnomes, post-modern gnomes, gnomes with fucking piercings who listen to Skrillex - can be automatically dismissed as an arsehole thus saving us the bother of reading their work.

Unsurprisingly, Gnomes closes with an ecological message; but it's valid, worth repeating, and is entirely in keeping with the theme. This book shouldn't work at all, but it's both a delight and an education. At the risk of sounding like an absolute twat, I can't help but wonder if Gnomes hasn't tapped into something more deeply philosophical than is immediately apparent.

That's me in Pseuds' Corner then.