Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct

Paul Di Filippo & Jerry Ordway
Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct (2005)
Alan Moore has proven himself a tough act to follow, generally speaking, which is probably why publishers haven't usually bothered. Jamie Delano turned out some decent D.R. & Quinch strips, and both the Rick Veitch and Mark Millar versions of Swamp Thing had their moments; and of course Neil Gaiman turned in some decent issues of Miracleman - which I say as someone who isn't ordinarily a massive fan of the guy; but otherwise it seems to be either characters left well alone for one reason or another, or Before Watchmen which I haven't read but suspect I can probably live without.

Beyond the Farthest Precinct probably serves to illustrate why that which has been bequeathed to us by the bearded one is probably best left well alone, Top 10 being the kitchen sink superhero title he began with Wildstorm. Paul Di Filippo is actually a pretty decent writer, albeit one not traditionally associated with comic books, and whilst he does what would under other circumstances be a great job were this an issue of, for example, X-Factor, it can't help but look hamfisted in comparison to that which has gone before. It pulls a few distinctly Mooresque rabbits from hats with more skill than might be expected, but somehow it feels like an exercise, Stairway to Heaven meticulously plucked by someone who would rather be cranking out More Than a Feeling. Jerry Ordway's artwork is similarly competent and busy but just not quite right, resulting in something that loosely resembles Top 10 as we knew it but feels like a late eighties issue of New Teen Titans. Even the Mooresque cameos from Tintin, Captain Haddock and Buddy Bradley seem clumsy and laboured. It's a shame because there's actually a decent story in here, albeit one sorely in need of a Vicks Sinex the size of Big Ben, and it comes so close to almost getting away with it.

Nice try but no cigar.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Whilst I accept it may be poor form taking potshots at Noel Gallagher just as there's little point to protesting that water is wet or that Adolf Hitler wasn't a very nice man, it's fun nevertheless, not least with regard to comments of this sort:

People who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.

Just to be clear, I put myself considerably more than a little bit above Noel Gallagher on the grounds that I have two distinct eyebrows and have never in my life written a line as comically meaningless as how does it feel like to let forever be? I mean, what the fuck is that? How does it feel like doesn't actually work in the language to which its constituent words belong, and then we have let forever be presumably meaning let forever alone - don't be one of those people who keeps mucking about with forever, trying to force it to wear a hat and tying ribbons around its bollocks.

What a complete cock.

Anyway, predictable though it may be given Gallagher's raging inferiority complex kicking off every time someone uses one of those fancy, posh long words like what posh people use when they're looking down their posh, snobby noses at you, this week's hot topic has been his distrust of fiction in literature:

I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time. I can't suspend belief in reality ... I just end up thinking, this isn't fucking true.

I know - it's not really worth getting upset about - although by curious coincidence it sits close to some points that have occurred to me whilst re-reading Slaughterhouse Five.

Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical account of the second world war and particularly the bombing of Dresden, arguably science-fiction due to passages spent in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore and the fact of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, experiencing his life in random order having become unstuck in time. Despite how that may sound, Slaughterhouse Five has a fairly tight and coherent narrative despite the superficial resemblance to something Burroughs might have cooked up, albeit a narrative warped and distorted by its own non-linear sequence.

'There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.'

The reason for this scrambled text is more or less spelled out in the opening chapter - thus hopefully circumnavigating accusations of experimental technique employed solely for the purpose of alienating people like Noel Gallagher; this being that some occurrences, particularly those experienced during wartime, are so horrible and so outside the realm of ordinary human comprehension that it is impossible to make sense of them by conventional means, if at all. The firebombing of Dresden was, Vonnegut suggests, one such occurrence. It can be mapped and described in terms of prose, but it isn't anything one can reasonably expect to understand as such, so seemingly random or even absurd images are as good as it gets; and that may sound like meaningless artspeak, but actually he's right.

Slaughterhouse Five is a funny book about something horrible, and by extension about the very worst aspects of human nature, and it works not by pointing fingers or frowning but by compelling the reader to think in a certain way about that which it describes, which seems consistent with D.H. Lawrence's assertion from Why the Novel Matters:

The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't really like anything I've read before or since and is almost certainly one of the greatest novels ever written.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Equations of Life

Simon Morden Equations of Life (2011)

Equations of Life is the first of a trilogy, a novel presented to me for my birthday by my brother-in-law, and probably not something I would have picked up on my own impetus largely owing to an extraordinarily poor sales pitch on the back which incorporates the equation of Russian mobsters + Yakuza + Something called the New Machine Jihad = One Dead Petrovitch. Samuil Petrovitch is the hero of the piece, and whilst this sort of mathematical strapline worked a certain charm on posters for the Ritz Brothers' The Gorilla, a 1939 film promising thrills + laughs = entertainment, it seems cheesy here, suggestive of airport bookstall action thriller landfill.

Happily the novel itself turns out to have a low cheese index, although it reads in places as though there may be something of a balancing act going on. I tend to dislike fiction which suggests it really wouldn't mind too much if someone turned it into a gritty television drama in which Ross Kemp impersonates Bruce Willis bending the rules but getting the job done. I don't really want to read books that wish they were on telly because it feels like a waste of everyone's time. Peter Hamilton sometimes skates perilously close to this sort of thing, and Equations of Life seems occasionally torn between media.

'I reckon on another hour, Princess, and the Paradise militia will be having a fish dinner in your old man's Zen garden.'

'Your band of criminals will be slaughtered by my father's men. Then they will come for you.'

'I don't think so. First sign of them or your jihadist friends, and that trolley you're attached to goes out the window. Seems a shame to waste a good pair of cuffs, but you've got to make sacrifices.' Sorensen snorted at his own attempt of humour.

To be fair, that's the only paragraph in the entire novel which struck me as sufficiently reminiscent of some exhausting Lynda La Plante miniseries to warrant being set aside for later sneering; and this probably constitutes an achievement given the general thrust of the narrative. It should perhaps be noted at this point that I'm somewhat ignorant of action-thriller-crime-drama or whatever this is as a genre, and so my prejudices may result from simple lack of familiarity with a certain style of writing.

Whilst we're here, I tend to find myself on amber alert when reading something in which it becomes obvious that the author believes his years at an English university amount to sufficiently rich a cultural experience to instil every word with the cosmopolitan veracity of ten eight-hundred pound male Hemingways. This is a significant problem particularly in Doctor Who tie-in fiction wherein we can travel halfway across the universe to discover that the people there are also into Vic & Bob and Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and they too worry about making their grants stretch to the end of the year. It  comes across as arrogant, insular and wanky, and unfortunately I now find my hackles making an ascent whenever I read a novel about a university graduate conspicuously written by a university graduate.

Samuil Petrovitch is a student at a London university studying very hard sums, which raised an eyebrow given that his author seems to have had a similar educational background; but nevertheless Morden gets away with it, deftly avoiding potential pitfalls with the grace of a master, even keeping it going as our hero meets sexy gun-toting nuns and prevents London being taken over by machines. It's a story falling roughly between Johnny Nemo and Judge Dredd somehow rooted in something that works very much like unshaven contemporary reality of the kind which keeps Ross Kemp in work. Told as a fast paced page-turner*, the whole thing really should fall apart like a soufflé in a late 1970s situation comedy, and yet somehow Morden gets us through, keeping it all in place even as our hero devises a working theory of everything and a virtual reality representation of Japan achieves sentience and tries to remake London in its own image. I suspect the key is that Morden sticks to the script, resists the sort of knowing winks which could have turned the entire narrative over to parody, and simply, he's just a decent writer who really knows what he's doing; or at least that would be my best guess.

Equations of Life reads like something that will probably soon be turned into a shit film with a ton of CGI and people grunting and swearing at each other in the pouring rain, so it might be wise to read it now before Jason Statham puts you off the idea; and it really is worth reading. Even aside from whether it actually does anything beyond engaging one's attention - which it does very well, by the way - the setting of an alternate London as the terrible consequence of unchecked capitalism is both horrifying and fascinating.

*: I would argue that all novels are page-turners, with the possible exception of those novels written entirely upon one side of a single massive sheet of paper.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Dark Shadows: The Flip Side

Cody Quijano-Schell Dark Shadows: The Flip Side (2013)

I was something of a Big Finish junkie until around 2005, bagging more or less everything up until LIVE 34 which featured Andrew Collins whom I've long regarded as Philip Schofield with a Ned's Atomic Dustbin album, and whose turning up on one of their Doctor Who audio plays significantly contributed to my general impression of the company as having somewhat lost it. The main CD range hadn't really yielded anything I'd regarded as exceptional since possibly The Natural History of Fear, and all these new subsidiary series - Dalek Empire, Gallifrey, The Further Adventures of Man Sweeping Floor from Episode Two of Claws of Axos - all felt somehow akin to a cynical exercise in squeezing all of the milk from the cow before Russell T. McDavies turned her into cheeseburgers. Of course, there was doubtless some good stuff there, but then how much sodding Doctor Who does one person really need? Additionally, I'd begun to associate Big Finish with a certain genus of fan mentality, specifically the type which would slaver over the revival of yet another crap and rightly forgotten 1970s kid's show because there was a fucking space rocket in it, and yet would not be induced to read a book that wasn't a tie-in to something or other. Who is this Michael Moorcock? they whined and bleated upon hearing of The Coming of the Terraphiles, for one example. Is he good enough to write an eleventh Doctor novel?

None of which necessarily reflects on Big Finish itself, or on their audio plays, or has much bearing on anything beyond my ability to overcome certain prejudices regarding the culturally impoverished.

I'd not heard of Dark Shadows until roughly two years ago when I moved to Texas and married a woman who had narrowly escaped being named after one of the characters, such had been my new mother-in-law's love of the supernatural television soap of the late sixties and early seventies. I've now seen a few episodes, and although I like it, I'm still not entirely sure why or what to make of it. Nevertheless, here I am listening to a Big Finish audio play continuing the story of some culty old telly show when I could be reading a book...

My Dark Shadows background knowledge doesn't extend much further than vague impressions of a spooky house and a man named Willie Loomis throwing anguished poses; so I have no real idea who the people in this play are supposed to be, but thankfully The Flip Side seems to stand on its own merits. Most of the story occurs in The Blue Whale, the bar from the television series, or at least it occurs within the thoughts of those found drowning sorrows in that bar. The narrative is sometimes disorientating, a parapsychological drama spun on choices made and alternate realities - all deftly employed in moving the story forward rather than as showy continuity points. In places it's confusing, but it works as a sort of darkly psychedelic Harold Pinter, and the listener is absolutely drawn in. Well, I was.

Whining reservations aside, I've always found Big Finish to be exceptional in terms of production values, and The Flip Side is true to their established high standards - expanding on the series from which it is drawn whilst remaining absolutely faithful to its spirit. Cody Quijano-Schell is a writer whose ambition has sometimes outstripped his ability on the printed page, and his uniquely vivid imagination blooms during this excursion into a different medium. The Flip Side is an hour well spent of anyone's time - good enough to be a book.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Mind Spider

Fritz Leiber The Mind Spider (1961)

As I may have mentioned a while back, Fritz Leiber's Change War is a conflict the width of the universe, spanning the entire course of history with two equally matched forces continually mucking about with each other's past, changing the present and all that good stuff. It features in the 1958 novella The Big Time and a handful of short stories, so to describe it as a series is possibly extravagant. Some, although by no means all of those short stories appear in this collection as the flip side of an Ace Double - enough at least to suggest a common theme even allowing for the couple that don't quite fit, and that The Mind Spider itself is apparently a Cthulhu mythos tale - this information gleaned from Wikipedia rather than anything conspicuously tentacular that stood out whilst reading it.

Anyway, none of this really matters so much as the quality of the stories which, whilst lacking anything genuinely mind-blowing, is nevertheless high. Leiber seems adept at narratives which swerve wildly in unexpected and occasionally van Vogtian directions, although his syntax is less angular and therefore easier on the brain. The Haunted Future - one of the longest here - serves to illustrate this, retaining the unsettled flavour of the surreal incidents of its first few pages even after the red eyes glaring from the dark are explained. It's not his best stuff, but it's good enough to keep the reader picking away until there's nothing left in the box, if a confectionary analogy isn't stretching the point too far.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Stray Toasters

Bill Sienkiewicz Stray Toasters (1988)

As I recall, Stray Toasters emerged during the post-Watchmen media frenzy over graphic novels and how the comic had grown up, was no longer just for kids and so on. Nevertheless I rushed out and bought this, doubtless frothy of mouth and sweaty of palm, and principally because it was Bill Sienkiewicz and his artwork on both Elektra: Assassin and New Mutants had blown my nuts off, figuratively speaking. For those to whom the name may seem unfamiliar, Sienkiewicz arguably elevated mainstream comics - or at least some comics produced by mainstream publishers - to the level of art and design, specifically art and design by Russell Mills or Vaughan Oliver. A typical Sienkiewicz page - were there ever such an animal - might feature his scratchy and beautifully observed line drawing, painting, photography, collage and found objects attached by means of glue or staples, needle and thread or even screwed onto the medium. Stray Toasters for example makes use of transistors, circuit boards and the like. The effect is visually mesmerising, and it's an approach for which Dave McKean is probably more widely known, but for my money Bill Sienkiewicz did it better and first.

In addition, Stray Toasters is written by Sienkiewicz which presumably thus allowed both narrative and visuals to develop together in organic fashion, one inspiring the progress of the other. His writing seems to work by similar terms to his art - suggesting rather than stating, as is most obvious in his use of narrative clouds wherein swarms of disjointed words or phrases summarise a state of mind much in the way of Burroughs' cut-up technique.

The story, so far as I am able to tell, follows criminal psychologist Egon Rustemagik's efforts to unravel a murder case possibly involving a vengeful robot constructed from - amongst other things - a toaster by a small and quite possibly autistic boy - with no distinction made between the metaphorical and the presumably literal. It's difficult to tell quite what is happening, not for lack of narrative direction so much as too many narrative directions all pointing down different paths, although this heavy layering of text and subtext is really what makes Stray Toasters work as a graphic novel in the true sense of the word - as opposed to being just a stack of back issues of Secret Wars all wrapped up in a fancy cover.

I have to wonder if Stray Toasters is in certain respects autobiographical, at least in a symbolic sense, what with the emphasis on themes relating to parenting. Stray Toasters hints at children reduced to consumer commodity, something to be left on a shelf in the garage once they have ceased proper function; and the emphasis on toast - the one hot meal which even the most dysfunctional parent is usually able to prepare for its little darling - seems to underscore the idea of parental love which, if sorely deficient, is at least genuine. This might be extended to a wider critique of society as represented by masochistic attorney Harvard Chalky and nightmarish surgeon Dr. Montana Violet, and further suggested by the observation and commentary of Phil, a demon on vacation from hell in the style of The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis; but as with anything, this thematically loose and often surreal interpretation may depend on the individual reader. As a narrative, Stray Toasters roughly works with the obscure logic of a Max Ernst painting - all suggestion and hints towards some darker occurrence off the edge of the canvas, and with little communicated by straightforward means.

For just a few months, the comic book actually did grow up, and this was what it looked like, and Lordy how I wish we could have had a few more like Stray Toasters since.

Monday, 7 October 2013

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Despite potential arguments against, I can't help but think of A Clockwork Orange as part of a thematic trilogy also including Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. All three deal with authoritarian societies, and each has made its own contribution to the collective imagination - everything from Big Brother to the cover of the first Angelic Upstarts album; also, both 1984 and A Clockwork Orange have rightly come to be regarded as literature, and having escaped the science-fiction ghetto can be discussed as such in polite company without too much giggling and pointing.

The most popularly known facts of A Clockwork Orange are probably that Stanley Kubrick's filmed version was banned - except that actually it wasn't - and that it isn't quite written in English. Some editions have included glossaries of Nadsat as an appendix - Nadsat being the pseudo-Russian argot with which Alex, our humble narrator, peppers his speech; but I must admit I never saw the necessity. The novel is written in such a way as to make the meaning of most of its unfamiliar terms as clear as you're likely to need through context and repetition. Written shortly after the invention of the teenager as something distinct from the adult with its own habits, customs, and language, A Clockwork Orange takes a wild, speculative, and possibly alarmist leap in predicting the future of the generation gap that opened up across the western nations immediately following the second world war, although of course the point of the book is not so much about teenage rebellion as how a society deals with its own disruptive element. The authorities of this world, much like those of our own, subscribe to the idea that individuals can be compelled towards that which they deem good, educating through drugs, propaganda and conditioning in the absence of any more legitimate inducement to obey the laws of a hypocritical system.

Half a century later this novel is as relevant as it ever was, and has lost none of its power thanks, in part, to the strength of Burgess's vision - a future society which is both immediately recognisable and nevertheless timeless though being referentially divorced from any single obvious era or source of inspiration. I'm inclined to wonder if Nadsat was chosen simply as something randomly plucked from the direction opposite to American culture of the fifties and sixties, but then it doesn't really matter where it came from.

I frequently encounter discussion of the death penalty as it presently stands in thirty-two American states, and it seems to me that the best argument for abolition makes no reference to either the sentenced offender, any general consensus of justice, or those offended against, but instead concentrates on what the existence of a death penalty says about the rest of us and our society as a whole. It is a similar argument, I would say, to that which Burgess sets forth in this novel, and with so many of the marginally privileged presently clambering over each other to demonise one minority or another - ethnic, economic or otherwise - purely because that's what it takes to get some people into the voting booth, A Clockwork Orange remains at least as relevant as it has ever been; almost certainly one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time.

Sunday, 6 October 2013


William S. Burroughs Exterminator! (1973)

This might count as the first book I ever read by criteria I can't quite define - neither a children's book nor a chuffin' Doctor Who book nor something read for school - not that there's anything wrong with any of those, excepting possibly the second category; but I was fifteen or thereabouts, and Burroughs was getting namechecked left, right and centre by all my favourite industrial grimsters in Sounds music paper, so I headed directly to my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon and found this on the shelf. It was the first time, so far as I recall, that I had picked up a book specifically because I had no fucking clue as to what I would find within, which was somehow immeasurably more exciting than knowing it would be some guy having scrapes and adventures. Despite the fact that my first copy was borrowed from a local library, Exterminator! felt like something inherently dangerous which I probably wasn't supposed to read.

Contrary to claims made of this edition, it was never a novel, but rather a selection of short pieces - one would hesitate to term them stories as that was never really quite what Burroughs did. As such, Exterminator! was, with hindsight, a good place to start. Swearin' Willy's novels were not noticeably any less disjointed, but tended to be held together by recurrent themes, thus potentially leaving the novice never quite sure whether it was all random, or whether it was entirely coherent - as suggested by the aforementioned recurrent themes - just way above his or her head.

Exterminator! dates from a period of Burroughs being particularly interested in writing by means of Brion Gysin's cut-up technique, so much so that even the seemingly regular prose tends to be peppered with extragrammatical interjections of alien text unfettered by much in the way of punctuation. In case it requires explanation, the cut-up technique entails variant texts blended at random in the manner of phrases or even sentences selected from a hat, the creative process being the choice of which resulting narrative collage seems the most appropriate or interesting in terms of whatever the author is trying to achieve. Burroughs regarded this as literature catching up with painting, specifically the collages and juxtaposed images of the Dadaists - a written equivalent of divination by which the mechanism of the universe might be revealed in random patterns. One might argue that anyone could produce a meaningful cut-up, but as with abstract painting and dance music, this is of course bollocks, as Burroughs' visionary texts herein demonstrate, falling somewhere between free poetry and a series of photographs mashed together and forced to make sense. As a whole, the collection feels more like a stroll around an exhibition than a book of short stories, such is the diversity of ideas; of which, by the way, one of my favourites is:

Somewhat reluctantly I put down the magazine and followed her down the hall. Quite an idea. Story of someone reading a story. I had the odd sensation that I myself would wind up in the story and that someone would read about me reading the story in a waiting room somewhere.

Of course, it isn't all self-referential jokes. This being Burroughs, it's also firearms, nude teenage boys on rollerskates, exploding pimples, alcoholism, drugs, corruption, violence, disaster, bottoms, and the inevitable mandrill elected to a prominent governmental position - a veritable circus designed to short circuit common sense, assumptions, and power structures in general. This is where the nature of Burroughs' art becomes clear, that this barrage of apparent nonsense can still make such a bold and obvious statement about society both then and now without having to spell it out; even though he actually does spell it out on one occasion:

The youth rebellion is a worldwide phenomenon that has not been seen before in history. I don't believe they will calm down and be ad execs at thirty as the establishment would like to believe. Millions of young people all over the world are fed up with shallow unworthy authority running on a platform of bullshit.

Sadly this was all before Richard Branson and his ilk, and it is with hindsight slightly depressing to realise that Burroughs was, if anything, an optimist; but even if he overestimated humanity with our general willingness to pull the wool over our own eyes, his targets were at least chosen with sadly timeless accuracy:

What is happening in America today is something that has never happened before in recorded history: Total confrontation. The lies are obvious. The machinery is laid bare. All Americans are being shoved by the deadweight of a broken control machine right in front of each other's faces.

I think this may be why I recall Exterminator! as my first proper book, it being the first thing I read which presented possibilities beyond any I had been led to expect, the first to seriously inspire thought on subjects other than those directly described within its pages. Not only has it stood the test of time, but it has improved with age.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Shockwave Rider

John Brunner The Shockwave Rider (1975)

Having enjoyed The Stone That Never Came Down many years ago and a couple of his earlier, pulpier novellas more recently, I've been generally well-disposed towards John Brunner; and having almost certainly seen The Shockwave Rider described as important somewhere or other there was just no way I could leave this copy sat upon the shelf in the store. The Shockwave Rider has the reputation of being a sort of proto-cyberpunk novel, which turns out to be something of an understatement as its protagonist, Nick Haflinger, flees the sort of oppressive, corporate society foreseen by Marshall McLuhan, changing identity over and over by means of the computer virus with which he's infected the net. Of course there were numerous, even earlier predictions of the worldwide web and our increased reliance on computers, Murray Leinster's A Logic Named Joe of 1946 being just one astonishingly prescient example, and electronic data networks were already happening when this was written; but nevertheless, for 1975, The Shockwave Rider is still pretty astounding in terms of how much it predicted and what it got right.

Even so, the second time I read Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down I found it a little didactic, and the same is true of this one: big and admittedly wonderful ideas and some great, rounded storytelling that becomes a lecture by the time our lad arrives in Precipice, a perfect society where everyone behaves themselves and everything is wonderful contrasted with the corporate hell from which Haflinger has fled. Precipice is a utopia in the Sir Thomas More vein and is unfortunately about as engaging, and to be honest the last hundred or so pages felt like being stuck in an SWP meeting - a simile I should probably clarify by explaining that I have experienced the SWP essentially as a cult which borrows socialist trappings without demonstrating any real connection to or understanding of the causes it purports to champion. In short, The Shockwave Rider started well but soon became so worthy that I found it difficult to either care or concentrate on what was happening upon the page, and by the end I was pretty much lain back, thinking of Texas, and waiting for it to be over; which is a shame for a book that kicks off in such fine form.