Thursday, 23 May 2013


Philip Purser-Hallard Horizon (2013)

Horizon transposes the mysterious luchador Señor 105 and two of his characteristically peculiar companions to the American south-west, the town of Horizon, Nevada for a veritable tequila trifle of a story which retains a wonderful consistency despite the conflicting ingredients of Roswell mythology, mysterious agents whom I'd say seem reminiscent of Sapphire & Steel had I ever actually seen Sapphire & Steel, and an alternate timeline in which dynastic Egypt not only never fell but teamed up with the Vikings. It's an absolute narrative dog's dinner nevertheless served with the confidence of one of those peculiar Heston Blumenthal recipes involving potassium and cashew nuts. This is the sort of thing which I would suggest is difficult to get right - one careless sentence and it ends up reading like weird for weird's sake, or worse - that brand of kitsch which doesn't seem to allow for the possibility of an Aztec Mummy movie appreciated without some degree of sneering.

Philip Purser-Hallard not only gets the balance right, but does it with wit and a confident, uncluttered flow by which even the most ludicrous twists unfold at their own pace without so much as a jarred concept in sight. It actually reminds me a little of what Douglas Adams did but for the fact that it doesn't feel quite so laboured, and nor does it continually dig you in the ribs to see if you spotted the amusing remark. In brief, it's an absolute delight, and particularly with passages of this kind:

'These men were once part of my ancestor's personal guard,' the boy-king continued. 'Men whose genes had been changed gradually into something far more than merely human.' The first mummy, both of its arms now severed, was butting its head crazily into Señor 105's stomach. 'Soldiers whose battle-rage is so overpowering, so all-encompassing, that once evoked it can never be ended. Not death, nor even removal of the major organs, swaddling and embalming in oils can slow them down.'

That, Señor 105 thought to himself as he ducked between the outstretched arms of two more mummies, was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. He qualified this almost immediately, swiping the head of another bandaged berserker from its shoulders, as he remembered some of the other things he had heard. Still, he considered, stamping down on a hand whose bony fingers were scrabbling at his leg, if he had to compile a mental list of the most ridiculous things he had heard, this would surely have to come in the top twenty. Or, no - he parried two axe-swipes in quick succession, breaking the haft of one axe with the impact - let us say the top fifty, at the outside. Discounting the things he had been told in extraterrestrial languages, or by whales.

Above all, Horizon reads very much like something the author enjoyed writing, and the obvious pleasure taken in passages such as the above is infectious. This one gets my vote for the best Señor 105 tale to date, and you can download it here.

Sunday, 19 May 2013


George MacDonald Lilith (1895)

Along with Ballantine's Clark Ashton Smith collection Zothique, this was one of a handful of titles I picked up from a charity shop several decades ago. Being in those days considerably less intelligent and without much of an attention span to speak of, I got around to just one of the aforementioned handful, then ended up giving the rest away unread. More recently, in an effort to set right some nebulously defined act of cosmic injustice that I felt certain I had committed, I bought them all again on eBay for annoyingly inflated prices probably representing karma as much as collector's value.

MacDonald's Lilith was one of those titles, a book which I have now owned twice and read once. It was famously an inspiration to David Lindsay's similarly impenetrable A Voyage to Arcturus, to C.S. Lewis with that whole mysterious allegorical land accessible via a broom cupboard motif, and to J.R.R. Tolkein according to everyone except Tolkein himself. The novel's protagonist finds himself in a mythic realm of children - distinguished by their virtuous purity and referred to as Little Ones - and giants, who turn out to be the children grown up and turned bad through worldly experience. The realm is subject to a possibly philosophical power struggle between characters representing Adam, Eve, and Lilith - Adam's wilful and hence morally ambiguous bordering on evil first wife - although as an aside it might be worth pointing out that this specific matrimonial detail does not seem to have appeared in any record prior to the eighth century and is of doubtful canonicity in Biblical terms.

As Christian allegory, Lilith seems to be about the redemption of sin, and reads very much as the musings of an author approaching his final years and subsequent reckoning with higher authorities; but with my not being much of a scholar where Biblical matters are concerned - a fact of which I am not necessarily proud, I should perhaps point out - I found it all somewhat bewildering. Much as I disliked what C.S. Lewis said in at least the last two books of his Cosmic Trilogy, I could at least follow his argument despite relative ignorance regarding certain aspects of the underlying theology, but with Lilith I was lost. Characters seem to appear and events to transpire without obvious reason or explanation so far as I could tell.

Although I'm no more an expert on literary trends of the late 1900s than I am on the nuts and bolts of that whole Christian thing, I'm reasonably informed about the Symbolist movement of the time, at least in terms of its painters. The actual prose style of Lilith is fairly rich and rewarding, providing you take it at an even pace, so I appreciated the novel almost as a series of images which could easily have drawn inspiration from Watts, Redon, Segantini and others - A.E. van Vogt let loose on the Book of Genesis, sort of. The problem here is that this sort of suspension of expectation becomes more and more difficult to maintain as the novel continually fails to deliver anything that helps one make at least some sense of what has gone before; and after two hundred fairly repetitive pages laced with just a little more sentimentality than I like, it becomes increasingly difficult to give two shits about whatever the hell MacDonald was trying to say.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading this, but it does feel like a bit of a kick in the nadgers that it turned out to be quite so lumpy after all that.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century (2012)

As everyone in the universe is fully aware, this came out as three separate volumes respectively identified as 1910, 1969, and 2009, each being set in the year for which it is named and featuring the same effectively immortal cast. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen recycles characters from existing fiction - classic or otherwise - mashing them all together into the same universe because it's funny, and because it's a neat way to say something about the art of storytelling, and because the state of the art of storytelling speaks volumes about the society telling the stories. Amongst the characters I managed to spot are Aleister Crowley's Simon Iff, Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who, most of the regulars from the Carry On films, at least three versions of James Bond, Wellington and Boot from The Perishers, Parker from Thunderbirds, Sid the Sexist from Viz comic, Michael Moorcocks' Jerry Cornelius, Turner from Nic Roeg's Performance, The Rutles, Andrew Norton from Iain Sinclair's Slow Chocolate Autopsy, and of course Harry Potter.

The point, as with the previous volume, is that culture is built upon mythology, and can thus be judged by the quality of its art and by extension its storytelling. If our magical landscape, our art and fairytales and fictions,
if that goes bad, Virginia Woolf's Orlando suggests, maybe the material world follows suit. Moore seems to believe that the quality of our storytelling, and by extension our culture, has been in decline for some years, as perhaps signified by the popularity of Harry Potter who turns out to be the Antichrist of Century, the terrible moonchild and herald of a cultural apocalypse brought into being by Oliver Haddo - W. Somerset Maugham's Aleister Crowley parody.

I've never really warmed to Harry Potter. I haven't read any of the books on the grounds that they don't really appeal to me, and it all seems to resemble similarly bespectacled schoolboy Tim Hunter from Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic from back in 1990, which itself seemed rather like a quaint mash-up of earlier material tapping into the growing market for cutesy English shite. Visiting a ruined school that was once obviously Hogwarts, Bram Stoker's Mina Harker observes this whole environment seems artificial, as if it's been constructed out of reassuring imagery from the 1940s... a storybook place gone horribly wrong, so I guess Alan Moore and I are on roughly the same page with regards to Harry Potter.

As a criticism, with the plucky wand-waving schoolboy ultimately manifested as a nightmarish many-eyed giant, Century hits its target with the same sort of impact as those records Tupac made about Biggie; and it's very, very funny, but at the same time, much as I dislike Rowling's chirpy juvenile tosspot of magic, I can't help feeling this is all a bit like shooting a fish in a barrel. Furthermore, I really have to wonder whether Harry is significantly worse than any of the 1900s pulp heroes in whom Moore seems to perceive at least some worth.

As a recovering former fan of that mysterious investment portfolio in time and space known only as the Doctor at least until Moffat daringly reveals that he's also known as Edgy McSex-Cock because that's like really gamechanging and brilliantly brilliant and shit I can certainly appreciate the idea that culture and by extension society were generally of a higher standard back in the old days when everything was better; but equally there's a danger of generalisations made by virtue of an extremely selective memory. Moore's brief rendering of the punk years in the final pages of 1969 seems in this respect particularly ambiguous, and I couldn't tell if it was a purposefully cock-eyed Two Ronnies safety-pin-through-the-head interpretation offered as a comment on historical revisionism, or if it really was just some beardy old fucker whining about it being too loud and not being able to understand the words but - hey - weren't the 1960s amaaaaaaazing...

Century is great, and I agree with what it does on principle, not least because it does it in a massively entertaining way, but I do wonder if there isn't an element of the new equated with the bad simply because it's new. Whatever you think of Harry Potter, or if like me you try not to, I'd say there are many more deserving targets out there.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


George Orwell 1984 (1949)

I read this a while ago, and although I recall it being pretty special, I don't think I realised quite how great - perhaps even essential - is Orwell's masterpiece. Since the first sitting, I've read at least two of the novels from which Orwell drew inspiration - Huxley's Brave New World and Zamyatin's We. They're both wonderful, but I don't recall either being anything like so rich, convincing, or even plausible as this. Well, not plausible exactly - the Oceania of Big Brother with its telescreens and floating fortresses isn't necessarily any more believable than the scenario of any other science-fiction dystopia, because the notion of a government which watches its people and stamps down on the disgruntled hardly requires stratospheric flights of imagination. Where 1984 succeeds with such terrifying versimilitude is in so thoroughly mapping out the psychology of its world, and it is in this respect that its truth seems more enduring than were those futures described by its forerunners. Orwell's visions may have outlived the regimes from which it was extrapolated, but not their flawed psychology.

For some reason I had the impression of Orwell having been slightly right-wing, although happily I seem to be wrong. Politically he was, it seems, a democratic socialist, and so 1984 focusses on the mechanism of a totalitarian state, rather than the specific ideologies which may have given it initial form - drawing source material from both Stalin's Soviet Union and Germany under the Nazis. Big Brother's regime, like precedents in the novels of Huxley and Zamyatin, maintains power for the sake of power, but underscores its control with the philosophy of doublethink whereby reality is only perceived in line with that which is permitted by the Party. The logic dictates that with the individual having no evidence for the empirical existence of anything outside itself, that which the Party decrees to be true is therefore true because the individual can only exist in the context of the party, therefore four fingers held aloft and described as being five are five fingers - as distinct from being five fingers just for the sake of argument and not having one's toenails pulled out. Orwell puts it better, but I believe that's the general idea.

This amounts to the political supremacy of ideology over people - even a batshit insane ideology over people; and 1984 has endured so well as a novel because its ideology is an abstract rather than an obvious historical parody, and in any case it focusses on the methodology rather than drive of social conditioning and control:

Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by versificator.

The idea is expanded upon in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, 1984's book within a book:

Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly.

None of which should strike anyone as unfamiliar, and all of which is quite naturally designed to keep the population stupid.

It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.

Dole scrounging illegal paedo asylum seekers coming over here and taking our jobs, anyone?

Unfortunately, whilst the last thirty years has doubtless prompted a few reactionary arseholes congratulating themselves that Orwell's 1984 never happened thanks to the free market or really massive pennies or some such cobblers, actually it kinda sorta did when you think about it; and that's why this novel is as important now as it ever has been.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Solar Lottery

Philip K. Dick Solar Lottery (1955)

Yet again my reading habits seem to have coincidentally set me up with a title thematically following on from the previous one by some obscure means. Solar Lottery was Philip K. Dick's first published science-fiction novel, although not the first written. 1953's Cosmic Puppets reads oddly like a Simak homage, using the rural setting and tropes that had become signature characteristics of the senior writer's fiction. My guess would be that Dick, having already bashed out a couple of reasonably accomplished mainstream novels - albeit mainstream novels which would only be published after his death - was hoping to get to grips with book length science-fiction, having already mastered the genre in short form and with it being an easier route to his getting both published and paid. Clearly he was still finding his feet, and if The Cosmic Puppets suggests Simak, then Solar Lottery owes a lot to A.E. van Vogt, particularly The World of Null-A which Dick tellingly describes as influential in at least one interview. The pace, the sense of characters in constant motion through an environment which doesn't quite make sense is definitely drawn from van Vogt, and the moment at which protagonist Ted Bentley opens his eyes to discover himself inhabiting the body of Keith Pellig provides a neat line of continuity from the one author to the other. Unfortunately though, the humour that tends to make a Philip K. Dick novel is thin on the ground, and the plot based around games theory feels like an exercise that didn't quite work - whilst these characters live in a world of chance, we don't really get much of a feel for the consequences of such a system in operation.

Solar Lottery is characteristically competent but oddly flat; interesting as an historical document, but otherwise limited.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Destination: Universe!

A.E. van Vogt Destination: Universe! (1952)

Possibly not a great choice - following Burroughs with the scrambled logic of an author who was notably hailed in France as a great surrealist. Time and again I tell myself I have all the van Vogt I'll ever need, but I keep finding titles I've never read whenever I go in Half-Price Books, titles which might just turn out to be up there with The Weapon Makers or The Winged Man; and each time I find one of these, I can't exactly not buy it; so here we are again - all very strange considering how my first encounter with the bizarre ramblings of this guy left with the impression of it being the most stupid thing I'd ever read.

Destination: Universe! turns out to be a collection of short stories, and as such seemed a safe bet given that Alfred Elton's strengths were best deployed in short sharp bursts of weird, angular sentences, notable examples being found in the likes of Black Destroyer, The Great Engine and The Weapon Shop each of which I'd happily number amongst my favourite science-fiction short stories of all time without too much deliberation. None of them feature in this collection, although The Enchanted Village which does is probably equally deserving of recognition as a masterpiece of the genre; and there's also Dear Pen Pal which takes the form of polite correspondence from a chromium based alien requiring a five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit environment - a literary precursor to Douglas Adams if ever there was. Then there's The Sound and The Search which I'm fairly certain van Vogt later transplanted into Children of Tomorrow and Quest for the Future respectively - two of those fix-up novels he forged from short stories precariously bolted together with occasionally debatable results. The Search doesn't actually make any more sense in unalloyed form than it did as part of the mystifying story into which it was blended, but the rampant surrealism is nonetheless engaging.

I'd rather avoid repeating myself with the umpteenth variation on that paragraph about the peculiar process by which van Vogt composed his fiction, but The Sound is in particular a good example of why he should be considered unique. It opens with parents awake in the middle of the night idly wondering where their nine-year old has got to. He's out there looking for the sound, we are told as though this explains everything, and it's perfectly normal for small boys to be off having adventures at three in the morning, coming and going like house cats. Diddy, the boy in question, has meanwhile encountered alien infiltrators, the telepathic Yevd, but luckily he remembers what the government has told him, that citizens are advised to co-operate with the enemy in acts of sabotage at all times.

What the fuck? might be deemed a legitimate reaction to much of van Vogt's writing, which is probably why I'm finding it so difficult to give up. Destination: Universe! isn't his greatest collection by some way, but there's enough surreal goodness here to justify purchase, and everyone should read The Enchanted Village and Dear Pen Pal at some point; and Godzilla fans should really take a look at 1949's Dormant which predates the first Ishiro Honda film by five years.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Western Lands

William S. Burroughs The Western Lands (1987)

Burroughs' habit of writing novels without any linear narrative, occasionally dipping into autobiography, technical discussion, or the impressionist word salad of Gysin's cut-up technique, amounting to random sentences pulled out of a hat - all tend to foster a certain texture unique to the work of this author; and a texture of such qualities as to fool the unwary into believing that if you've read one, then you've read them all because, like representatives of unfamiliar nineteenth century races, they all look the same if you're from out of town. Once you get a few of these under your figurative belt however, the differences become apparent in so much as each has a flavour of its own; but that said, Burroughs writing is still such an unorthodox form as to often resist analysis. The Western Lands is something quite different to its predecessors, Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads, and although I can see how these three roughly form a trilogy, I'm not entirely sure why. Where the first two might be loosely regarded as Burroughs appropriating first eighteenth century Caribbean piracy and then the old west as source material, this dips toes into ancient Egypt; although I'm not aware of Burroughs earlier novels being particularly lacking in historical flourishes, but anyway...

The Western Lands is a novel of such scope as to discourage statements like it's about death, or it's about achieving a form of immortality, but for the sake of argument let's assume those two descriptions cover the points that matter; and let's assume this on the grounds that as early as page three we meet author surrogate William Seward Hall trying to write himself out of dying just as earlier authors would once write their way out of debts - more or less in those words. Burroughs would have been in his seventies when he completed The Western Lands, and although much of his oeuvre reveals a pronounced fascination with death, this one goes further than before - or at least further than I remember - into the mechanics of the process and ideas, with less emphasis on the horror. Given Burroughs' view of language, I would guess all the lengthy accounts of poisonous centipedes and the like constitute a magical inoculation of sorts, an attempt to defeat the reaper by becoming the reaper. Perhaps tellingly, the sexual element is significantly less pronounced than in previous works - although Burroughs' sex was always more about liberty and statement than reproduction, but its relative absence nevertheless informs the general focus of the novel, in so much as it has a general focus.

As with his best, The Western Lands is peppered with all manner of wonderfully cutting observations, restatements of the author's views on society, authority, power, and our place therein:

Consider the One God Universe: OGU. The spirit recoils in horror from such a deadly impasse. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. Because He can do everything, He can do nothing, since the act of doing demands opposition. He knows everything, so there is nothing for him to learn. He can't go anywhere, since He is already fucking everywhere, like cowshit in Calcutta.

The OGU is a pre-recorded universe of which He is the recorder. It's a flat, thermodynamic universe, since it has no friction by definition. So He invents friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.

Like his best, The Western Land instils the reader with an overwhelming impression rather than any one coherent, easily quantified point - although it is in turn made up of many smaller easily quantified points. Inevitably it's also quite a sad book, distinctly the work of someone who had spent his life cheating death, and knew the game to be drawing to a close; and the sadness is thrown some way into relief by unexpected affectionate touches here and there, particularly as he writes about the cats he cared for during his last decade. It's not so thematically solid - if that's quite the right term - as The Place of Dead Roads, its predecessor, but it reveals Burroughs as a very old man who could still surprise his readers with some fresh insight, not least being that behind all the drugs, nude boys, and talking anuses, he was as human as any of us, and certainly more so than all those authority figures he despised with such venom.

So here I am in Kansas with my cats, like the honorary agent for a planet that went out light-years ago. Maybe I am. Who will ever know?