Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Mind Parasites

Colin Wilson The Mind Parasites (1967)

Once was that I held Colin Wilson in relatively high regard, at least as the one author of cranky pseudoscience literature who stood a chance at being right about some of it. Somebody had given me a copy of Mysteries, of which I read about half. I tried it a couple of times, on each occasion losing interest around the halfway mark, at which point Colin started bringing in theories too wacky even for me. Later I realised that most of the good stuff had actually come from T.C. Lethbridge who wrote some broadly fascinating books about dowsing and the like. Mysteries tied Lethbridge in with some of Wilson's own ideas, most notably the one about a ladder of selves, which seems to work quite well as psychological analysis without requiring that one should take it as a literal description of the mechanism of the human mind.

Later I picked up The Outsider from a charity shop, but ended up giving it away because I couldn't be arsed to read it. The Outsider was amazing according to apparently everyone, an important book in the truest sense; and then my friend Paul Woods, who I seem to recall having had some dealings with Wilson in his capacity as a criminologist, always spoke very highly of the man, albeit not quite so highly as Wilson spoke of The Mind Parasites, his own novel:

Is it not time that we create a new type of novel? I think of a hatchet biting into a tree and making the chips fly, not an evasion of reality or a description of it, but an attack on it... What is needed is an existential realism. Like the social realism of the Soviets, yet biting much deeper; its attitude is not passive or pessimistic. In a qualified sense, it might be called practical; it wishes to change things. What it wishes to change I prefer to leave unsaid, it can be inferred from this book.

Really? This was a new type of novel? I was expecting some sort of - dunno - a mash-up of William Burroughs, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Guy Debord, massive ideas flying about left, right and centre, a book reading like nothing I have ever read before.

The Mind Parasites gets off to a tremendous start as a more contemporary take on Lovecraft's squelchy mythology with mysterious blocky cities discovered several miles underground, events unfolding with the chilling realism of a Quatermass serial; after which it all goes very much tits up. The underground city is revealed to have been a red herring for reasons which either remain unclear or are so poorly described that I've forgotten them. The true culprits are the mind parasites, malign incorporeal entities dwelling in the depths of the collective unconscious, or some other place which probably makes more sense if you've read either Jung or Huxley. These entities are the cause of war, racism, cruelty, inequality, suicide, boredom, accidents at work, and Doctor Who having been shite since it came back on the telly. Were it not for them we would all be telepathic supermen, at our full potential and qualified to lead the common herd of humanity to its destiny and all that good stuff. The thing that bothers me is that I suspect Wilson may actually have believed at least some of this crap.

A few years ago I made fumbling attempts to identify a literary genre which I provisionally named dinnerpunk based on it comprising poorly written yarns which come to their authors as they mow the lawns of their Surbiton homes as Marjorie is preparing dinner. They've read Biggles, several Ian Flemings, and it can't be that hard considering some of the fairies who make a living of it, so they're jolly well going to have a go. Dinnerpunk fiction tends to be written from an entirely male perspective, suggests a conservative view of the world, usually one fixating on some peculiar detail such as aviation history - because nutters are always into planes for some reason - and amongst the cast of chaps and renowned scientists, there's nearly always somebody identified simply as the Colonel. Dinnerpunk is the written equivalent to Bob Mortimer's Graham Lister character. It knows doctors and dentists, professional people...

Regrettably, after the tremendous start described above, The Mind Parasites reveals itself to be not merely a disappointment, but to be fully-leaded weapons grade dinnerpunk.

Neither is there any evidence to indicate that the crew of the Pallas intended to build a new civilisation on another planet. There were only three women on board. The number would surely have been higher if any such plan had been contemplated?

I should jolly well, say so. Our heroes are a team of top scientists who travel around in a gang of about fifteen for most of the book, routinely pooling their psychic powers to make the world a better place. Human history is a litany of woe thanks to the mind parasites, because it was them what made us do all that bad stuff like Hitler and that, which ironically is itself a typically right-wing narrative, the enemy and source of all woe being those people or things over there; it's because of them that we can't have nice stuff. Freed of the mind parasites, we are able to travel around in gangs of fifteen making stuff more good, even psychokinetically sending the moon crashing into the sun because that was where the mind parasites was all coming from innit. Except the mind parasites are actually ourselves, or at least ourselves what have failed to evolve into thinking, reasoning supermen, people who know doctors and dentists. Meanwhile the black nations of Africa unite and rise up against the white man because the mind parasites make them do it innit, just in case you mistakenly thought they might have had any other better reason to be pissed off.

Frankly, it's a complete fucking dog's dinner besides which even Lindsay Gutteridge's dinnerpunk tour de force Cold War in a Country Garden may as well be The Mayor of Casterbridge. The psychological discussion amounts to pseudoscientific bollocks of the kind which invariably namechecks Velikovsky, Gurdjieff, Madam Blavatsky and the usual wankers; there's barely a story to speak of; and there's a faintly unsavoury aftertaste of Hubbardry - telepathy, Nietzsche, supermen blah blah blah - except Hubbard could at least string a decent story together. This is like bad van Vogt stripped of all charm and art.

He had a shuddering distaste for most human beings; he once complained to me that most of them seemed so unfinished and shabby. Myers made me feel that the true historian is a poet rather than a scientist. He once said that the contemplation of individual men made him dream of suicide, and that he could reconcile himself to being human only by considering the rise and fall of civilisations.

I suspect Colin Wilson, whilst he may have been prone to a degree of ukippery, probably wasn't entirely a man without merits, but none of them are to be found in The Mind Parasites which was most certainly never a new kind of novel by any description. It's not often that I'm driven to such harsh words with regard to a book, but this really was a complete load of shit.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Earth Abides

George R. Stewart Earth Abides (1949)

The immediate wake of the second world war most likely seemed an appropriate time for consideration of worlds wiped clean of all but a scattering of humanity, I suppose that being the era during which it was made particularly apparent that some disasters could occur on a global scale if the political wind was blowing in a certain direction. George R. Stewart avoids the politics, cleaning his slate with an unexplained pandemic which at least allows him to concentrate on the issue of survival and how one might go forth after the fall of human civilisation; so despite the circumstances, Earth Abides at least kicks off on a positive note as something seeking solutions rather than simply identifying problems. The initial resemblance of Isherwood Williams' situation to that of Robinson Crusoe stranded upon his island is deliberate and is acknowledged:

One day, wanting to shake himself out of his apathy, he went to the Public Library, smashed a lock with his hammer, and after some browsing found himself (a little to his own amusement) walking out with Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson.

These books, however, did not interest him greatly. Crusoe's religious preoccupations seemed boring and rather silly. As for the Robinsons, he felt (as he had felt when he was a boy) that the ship remained for the family a kind of infinite grab-bag from which at any time they might take exactly what they wanted.

Ish is alone for most of the first part of the book, feeling his way and learning how to get by, mapping out the full extent of that which has been lost or which no longer applies:

As the world now was, a Pharisee or Sadducee might perhaps still follow the set rites of formalised religion, but the very humanity of the teachings of Jesus rendered them obsolete.

Accordingly the first part of the novel is arguably pastoral and maintains a tone not unlike that of Clifford D. Simak:

Looking out from the car, he saw only the handsome Dalmatian, sitting at the side of the road. Now being safe, Ish felt his attitude quickly changing. Actually the dogs had done him no harm, and indeed had not really even threatened him. During a few minutes he had thought of them as wild creatures thirsting for his blood. Now, they seemed a little pitiful, as if they might merely have been seeking the companionship of a man because of what they remembered long ago—of food laid out in dishes, of crackling logs in the fireplace, of a patting hand and a soothing voice. As he drove away, he wished them no bad luck, but rather hoped that they would manage occasionally to snap up a rabbit or pull down a calf.

Unfortunately for both the story and its protagonists, Ish and his small group of survivors come to rely upon their vanished civilisation much as the Robinsons did their ship, scavenging tinned or otherwise preserved food from the stores of deserted cities, living in vacated houses whilst the water and electricity last. Unable to let go of the past, they become a sort of cargo cult epitomised by one family who stock their post-apocalyptic home with top of the range consumer goods with nothing to power them. The group fails to adapt, just as we ourselves continue to fail to adapt to circumstances changing at ever-increasing rates, and so they are doomed even whilst the Earth itself abides.

The story is well told and makes a point worth making in easy, folksy terms, but the problem is that Earth Abides makes its point with the implausible metaphor of nothing much having changed two decades down the line. The survivors are still living in the ruined city, ranging ever further afield in search of goods canned more than twenty years earlier, and the fact that no-one has yet thought to do so much as plant a potato just to see what happens suggests that they're idiots, and it becomes increasingly difficult to feel sympathy. It's a shame for something which gets off to such a good start, and whilst it tries hard and kicks up all sorts of thought provoking ideas along the route, the whole ultimately feels unfortunately like a bit of a wasted effort. They get there in the end, abandoning the useless relics of what was and returning to social forms much closer to those of the Native Americans. I suppose Earth Abides needed to make the point of just why such relics should be discarded, but if felt like a long time spent learning a fairly simple lesson.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Coming Race

Edward Bulwer-Lytton The Coming Race (1871)
The Coming Race was hardly the first science-fiction novel to  rummage around within a hollow Earth. Journey to the Center of the Earth - to name but one of many - was published seven years earlier, and the general conceit probably goes back at least so far as Don Quixote's descent into the Caves of Montesinos in Cervantes' 1615 novel. The Coming Race would nevertheless appear to represent a seminal work of its type, and its popularity was once such as to seed public imagination with vril, the novel's mysterious energy source falling somewhere between nuclear power, electricity, telepathy, and the force from Star Wars. Mastery of vril is the reason for the technological superiority of that lot down there, as Bulwer-Lytton explained, inadvertently inspiring numerous occult types - Madam Blavatsky for one - seemingly ranging from those regarding vril as a metaphor for some existing esoteric force, to those apparently taking The Coming Race for fact disguised as fiction. Of the latter group one might arguably include Richard S. Shaver whose peculiar subterranean ramblings might be deemed heir to Bulwer-Lytton were they not so obviously sourced from a more personal, psychological mania, and vril seems to have become a totem for some of the weirder expressions of Nazism. Weirder still, at least to me, is that the name of Bovril, the popular pseudo-Marmitic English meat based drink derives from the idea of vril as life enhancing.

Anyway, before we go too far down that particular rabbit hole, it should be noted that Bulwer-Lytton's novel belongs more significantly to the utopian tradition, but taps into subterranean folk myth to a greater extent than others of its kind. The underworld as hell, if not uniquely Christian, seems to have been the exception to a general global rule. Most underworlds were traditionally a source of life, development, culture and so on, with the world as a metaphorical womb giving birth to the people and all which sustains them. This basic idea is found in Norse mythology, Sumer, Mexico, and pretty much everywhere else to greater or lesser degrees. Bulwer-Lytton's utopia is therefore home to a more developed race than our own, although the precise details of the warning delivered appear fairly loosely defined, or at least they did to me. Unfortunately I have a feeling this may be down to my own prejudices, specifically that which I expect to have been the sort of thing that would have mattered to a Victorian author of Bulwer-Lytton's credentials.

The Coming Race references ancient deluges in terms which suggest scientific foundations in the sort of catastrophism which squared fairly well with the emerging ideas of Darwinian evolution. Yet, whilst the novel appears to embrace Darwin up to a point, the Vril-ya - this being the name of the coming race in question - claim descent from frogs, which reads somewhat like a Christian parody of Darwin, not a million miles from the sort of critique asking where amongst its relatives was the orang-outang to be found. On the other hand, there's also the strong possibility that the supposed war between Church and Darwin has become somewhat exaggerated in recent times by the usual tub-thumping bores on both sides, and may not have been quite such a partisan affair as we have been led to believe. I suspect Bulwer-Lytton may not have given a great deal of thought to those aspects of his narrative which, with hindsight, seem as though they should be making some more strident observation, for he seems to find no contradiction in evolution discussed with such frequent references made to faith, and is more likely presenting a warning of the notion of progress as a virtue in itself. Progress was hardly a new idea in 1871, but the developed, or at least developing world was clearly still coming to terms with the idea of progress as something which could achieve such momentum as it did in the 1800s, and which had begun to reach into every aspect of modern life. Even humanity, so it seemed, was subject to progress, hence the disturbing possibility of more advanced expressions of humanity who might come to regard us as we did the less technologically orientated colonial subjects of the empire. Supermen and their mighty works would become popular during the century to come, notably with a great many folks who also enjoyed shouting and wearing uniforms, so it is interesting and possibly ironic on some level that Bulwer-Lytton describes the racial characteristics of the Vril-ya as close to Native American type, presumably by virtue of their having been the least understood ethnic group to have achieved levels of civilisation comparable to those of classical antiquity at the time of writing. Happily, the utopia of The Coming Race therefore constitutes relatively slim pickings for nutcases seeking Aryan material, excepting I suppose a few of the more obsessive Death In June types who could probably find some sort of ariosophic subtext in an episode of Dora the Explorer.

Established expressions of bullshit aside, The Coming Race is a fairly straightforward prompt towards the conclusion implied by Victorian notions of progress, that we might not necessarily be the pinnacle of God's creation, and that this is worth keeping in mind. Oddly I find this echoes Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in that it too makes a lesson of the perils of ideology becoming too far divorced from the reality it endeavours to inform, which is of course the big problem with most versions of utopia. I personally found this one a little more readable than Crime and Punishment, although I can see why it has failed to remain quite so popular as at least a few of its contemporaries, lacking as it does the wit and verve of Verne, Wells, Shelley and others - not a bad novel by any stretch, but one that was quite definitively of its time; and although I'm sceptical that Bulwer-Lytton can really have been said to have predicted nuclear energy, the appearance of robots in a novel published in 1871 is not unimpressive.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Captain America: The Captain

Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer & Tom Morgan
Captain America: The Captain (1988)

Having watched A Brony Tale, the documentary examining the phenomenon of Bronies - adult and generally male devotees of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - I availed myself of my nearest internet to opine that the notion of adult males dedicated to a cartoon show very specifically aimed at little girls struck me as lamentable. Naturally my observation was called into question by those who had somehow misread my comment as a call for something to be done about this situation, perhaps a rounding up of those accused so that they might be forced into camps and trained to take culture seriously because I was one of those snobbish cultural Nazis pompously declaring Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen superior to The Care Bears Movie when actually it wasn't because it's all about how you feel and stuff. I found this aggravating because it entirely missed my point, my point being that while I'm all for folks taking their pleasure where they find it, it's nevertheless depressing to see what I would respectfully identify as either more vital, sophisticated, or at least less corporate expressions of culture relegated to a dusty old trunk in a disused museum merely because it's too hard to think about stuff that isn't like totally awesome and like no-one cares about that boring old shit. It's elitist of me, I realise, but I'm running out of decent conversation, and I don't wish to find myself on my deathbed surrounded by shit-brained Pokémon champions quoting lines from the fucking Big Bang Theory because expecting anyone to grow up or even attempt to better themselves in any sense has somehow come to constitute a human rights violation.

Part of the reason I feel this way is, as I approach my fiftieth year, I sometimes wish someone had taken me aside back in 1987 just as I was about to blow another fifty quid on X-Men comics and pointed me in the direction of some of that which I am only now beginning to appreciate. Actually, someone probably did just that, but without the levels of righteousness necessary to get their point across; although I suppose we each of us have to get to wherever we are going in our own way, and at least I got there in the end, more or less.

So here's me, a full grown man reading Captain America rather than giving Crime and Punishment another go like the square-headed uptight opera loving culture Nazi I apparently am. The thing is here - I would hope - that I try to vary my input, keeping it broad up to a point, in contrast to an exclusive diet of inconsequential logo driven crap; and so I am able to appreciate this collection as something suggested for ages of nine and up, but hopefully not all the way up, without the same figure necessarily referring to my emotional and intellectual development; and so to business...

I'm not exactly sure what it was about Mark Gruenwald's Captain America that appealed to me given its being very much a traditional superhero title, and arguably at the other end of the spectrum from all the X-Men stuff upon which I was blowing my dole money. Possibly it is the very simplicity of the character and the idea, just some bloke dressed like a flag - it would be pop art were it a little more self-aware, which thankfully it wasn't. There's something honest about Captain America as an idea, an optimistic quality perhaps sprung from the how far our reality falls short of such ideals as are sketched here in three basic colours. In the wake of Watchmen, as comic book writers were busily infecting their characters with AIDS or having them arrested for shoplifting in pursuit of that grown-up dollar, Captain America was going up against the Serpent Society - a band of crooks in snake costumes; 'You look hungry,' his partner Nomad quips to Famine the mutant supervillain as they fight, 'have a knuckle sandwich!' and on every other page we find plot and motivation tirelessly reiterated and reinforced as thought bubbles.

'It's not my fault I've had rotten breaks all my life,' Diamondback silently reflects as Captain America races off in pursuit of the Viper. 'All it would take is the love of a good honest man like you and I could be a good person! A hero even! How can I make you see that?'

So you get the picture - this was closer to Roy Lichtenstein source material than Grant Morrison having post-ironic chuckles with pointedly hokey characters; and yet Gruenwald managed to turn the whole thing upside down and inside out without so much as a sly wink to camera, having the American government fire Captain America in order to replace him with someone more likely to toe the line, and less likely to ask awkward questions when assigned to protect America's corporate interests. It could have gone horribly wrong, or at least horribly condescending, but Gruenwald never lost sight of his audience or what they expected for their seventy-five cents. The run of comics collected here follows our hero as he's replaced by a well-intentioned bigot, in the process smuggling all sorts of uncomfortable questions under the radar - free speech, the constitution, abuse of the constitution, government corruption, and even a sneaky poke at US involvement in Nicaragua; and it does all of this without turning into Brought To Light, or doing anything too likely to alienate even budding Republicans, let alone third graders. Of course, one might argue that it cops out in the end with the source of corruption revealed as Red Skull's efforts to subvert a presumably otherwise honorable American government from within, and whilst this is no more implausible than anything else in this sort of spandex narrative, it comes late in the day and the point has already been made. We've already seen the light glinting from President Reagan's curiously serpentine fangs as he stands to address the nation, assuring us that both he and Nancy are fully recovered from having been turned into hybrid reptile creatures by the Viper a few pages before.

I was drawn to this collection by pure nostalgia, almost certain that it would have dated terribly on the grounds of my having been somewhat less literate when first I read it; and happily I am mistaken, not because this run of Captain America was Noam Chomsky in a star-spangled leotard, but because Gruenwald was a great comic book writer who exactly understood his very young audience and was able to communicate some pretty important ideas without talking down to anyone or skimping on the generic superhero thrills and spills. It's a shame that the kind of spirit in which this was produced seems less evident in the brand driven kid's entertainment of today.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Voice of the Fire

Alan Moore Voice of the Fire (1996)
I wasn't going to bother with this one on the grounds that although I generally adore the bollocks off of Moore's comics, I've never really got on well with his prose in isolation, finding it excessively florid, and rich, and difficult to digest without the pictures which at least serve to break things up a little. I wasn't going to bother with this one but I'd just read Lance Parkin's biography of the man, and there it was in Half Price Books for a couple of dollars...

Oddly, the prose is at least as baroque as I anticipated, possibly even more so, and yet it works wonderfully. Of course, you have to take it at a certain specific pace in order to get the full benefit, but the narrative proves to be of such fascinating detail and quality that you don't mind - a novel you hope not to finish rather than one which keeps you skipping ahead to see how many more pages must be endured; which is all jolly nice.

There aren't any pictures to keep you going, and the bearded one throws us in at the deep end with the first chapter, Hob's Hog which is written in the restricted vocabulary of a Neanderthal, and serves to demonstrate the sheer scale of Moore's skill - nearly sixty pages of a story told through its own unique grammar, and yet once over the shock, it's gripping to the point that you wish it were longer. Moore strikes a balance between the reader's innate love of decoding without sinking so far into character as to lose sight of the readership.
Make she a cat-noise, as for say that I make more loud as I may. Say she that chewing-thing is make in fire with dusts from sun-grass take, as grow here by, with little waters put to they. Eat I, and it is good, and good is fire-meat now in mouth of I. Is ox, by lick of he.

Actually, there are pictures, but they appear as the appendix and don't really add a great deal.

Voice of the Fire divides not so much into chapters as twelve short stories or scenarios, pertinent moments in the lives of twelve characters snatched at intervals from between the present and the past extending back so far as 4000BC. All are either set in Northampton, or on the land which is to become Northampton, or in lives which relate to the same by one means or another; and the final character is Moore himself as he writes the novel and discusses it with his brother and others. If they're not all true stories in the academic sense, they at least reference that which is understood as truth in terms of historical Northampton, and by extension the world beyond.

Moore's Northampton is at the centre of England, the universe, and culture itself. Having grown up in what is very roughly the same region of the country, this is the aspect of the novel I don't quite buy in so much as any town or village with a permanent population going back at least a generation tends to form the centre of its own cosmos, and usually with reasons at least as valid as those given here; but for the sake of argument, we follow this one just to see where it will go.

I have to admit I find Moore's clannish dedication to his home town a little odd, even insular at worst, reminding me unfortunately of my father's partner, a Coventry born woman who has never been to London, not even by accident, and tells me I think you'll find that Coventry has a lot to offer you if you just give it a chance, Lawrence. I grew up in black hole towns of the kind which tend not to let people go without a fight. I couldn't wait to get out, and I'm not sure I really understand such dedication to accidents of birth and geography; so I'm surprised to find that a black hole town is exactly that which Moore describes here, despite the fact of his quite obviously loving the place. He loves it for the right reasons, I guess.
Here, unmasked, a process that distinguishes this place as incarnated in industrial times. The only constant features in the local-interest photograph collections are the mounds of bricks; the cranes against the sky. A peckish Saturn fresh run out of young, the town devours itself. Everything grand we had, we tore to bits. Our castles, our emporiums, our witches and our glorious poets. Smash it up, set fire to it and stick it in the fucking madhouse. Jesus Christ.

The humour is very, very black, and the book is notably chock full of severed limbs, feet, heads, madness, folks burned at the stake, and the smelliest descriptions of sexual acts you could ever wish to read. It's almost a three-hundred page Hogarth cartoon, and its purpose is similarly destructive in pursuit of something better. Specifically Voice of the Fire is, at its most basic level, the mapping out of territory - and is as such not a million miles from what I suspect Moore's Big Numbers might have done had it ever been completed; and the territory is mapped out as it is in the short, brutal lives of its victims because:
The Dreamtime of each town is an essence that precedes the form. The web of joke, remembrance and story is a vital infrastructure on which the solid and material plane is standing. A town of pure idea, erected only in the mind's eye of the population, yet this is our only true foundation.

...and the reason for this mapping is to restore the songline so that the fabric of the world shall mend about it. In other words, the novel and its writing have a perhaps ritual function falling somewhere between confession in the religious sense and just plain old making the world a better place, which - before anyone feels inclined to get pissy - is more or less by its own admission.
'So what's this book about, then?'

It's about the vital message that the stiff lips of decapitated men still shape; the testament of black and spectral dogs written in piss across our bad dreams. It's about raising the dead to tell us what they know. It is a bridge, a crossing-point, a worn spot in the curtain between our world and the underworld, between the mortar and the myth, fact and fiction, a threadbare gauze no thicker than a page. It's about the powerful glossolalia of witches and their magical revision of the texts we live in.

Which brings us back to the Voice of the Fire itself:
We had our fun, and at the end of it they fetched us out and burned us both to dust. They had a stronger Magic. Though their books and words were lifeless, drear and not so pretty as our own, they had a great heaviness, and so at last they dragged us down. Our art concerns all that may change or move in life, but with their endless writ they seek to make life still, that soon it shall be suffocated, crushed beneath their manuscripts. For my part, I would sooner have the Fire. At least it dances. Passion is not strange to it.

So, for the sake of the rest of us, Northampton may as well stand in for where you're at, and Alan Moore has once again produced something which feels like the most important thing you've ever read while you're reading it, something which seems to extend far beyond its own pages and therefore influences your environment.

If this all sounds somewhat like the promise of a twelve album Gentle Giant boxed set and no more sweets until you've listened to the whole fucking thing, the details to remember are that this is a great book, and is not in any way difficult to follow despite how it may appear from a distance or from the impression I may have given with my fumbling description, and it's probably quite an important book too.

I wasn't planning on reading Jerusalem given its supposed mammoth word count combined with reservations regarding Moore's prose as stated somewhere above, but after this one, I don't want to miss it.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Turbulent Times

John Eden (editor) Turbulent Times 10 (2014)
This one falls some way outside of the usual parameters in context of the sort of thing I tend to review but fuck it - John Eden is one of those people who has always managed to make the world in his immediate vicinity a much more interesting place to be, and one of the few people I've known for any length of time who is yet to inspire me to any clandestine two-faced mutterings on the topic of perceived twattery during paranoid or otherwise less charitable interludes. His work deserves support is what I am trying to say, and so here we are.

To briefly fly off in another direction entirely, Philip Purser-Hallard's Of the City of the Saved... describes a technological afterlife amounting to the Christian heaven wherein everyone who has ever lived mingles with everyone else who has ever lived. Oddly, I feel I'm beginning to get some idea of how this might feel, because nothing ever goes away forever, at least not any more. I read earlier editions of Turbulent Times back in the nineties. I am now facebook friends with others I knew at the same time, some of whom will also recall both this magazine and some of the artists featured. Weirdest of all - at least to me - was finding myself recommending this to Simon who used to work in Discovery Records in Stratford-on-Avon when I was at school over thirty years ago, and who sold me my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. It's not like we were best mates or anything, but he turned up as a friend of a friend on facebook, and we began talking, and it turned out that he's still a big fan of both vinyl records and printed fanzines thirty plus years down the line. He'd just bought the new album by Philip Best's Consumer Electronics, just as I come across references to the same Philip Best in my 1983 diary which I'm presently transcribing to electronic form; and then a different Simon, specifically one of the Ceramic Hobs, informs me of the astonishing fact that Philip Best is moving to Austin, which is quite near where I now live, and that he has been following my blog, An Englishman in Texas. Anyway, Simon - the one who once sold me Never Mind the Bollocks - dutifully sent away for Turbulent Times and enjoyed it just as I hoped he would; and of course he did because he's a man of taste and it's a blummin' good read.

Anyway, the point of this is that sometimes I'm no longer quite sure there's still such a thing as the past. Recent eras have developed into a permanent present, and there's something really satisfying about finding a fanzine made of ink, paper, and staples in my mailbox in 2014. Since the advent of the internet and any old wanker being able to share their inconsequential thoughts with an indifferent universe by means costing no pennies, the sort of commitment required to achieve printed form has come to mean a great deal more than was once the case; and Turbulent Times is accordingly one hell of a lot more fun than reading something off a screen.

This issue covers a ton of people - musicians, noise artists, and general oddballs - about whom I previously knew nothing, and whose work I may not even like should I ever hear it, but who nevertheless provide the foundations of fascinating and witty reading. There's also the endlessly entertaining Ceramic Hobs interviewed, and a pleasantly unequivocal discussion of fascist tendencies in weirdy music, and Elizabeth Veldon countering the sausagery of the noise scene. Figurative breaths of fresh air occur with some frequency.

It's very strange being nearly fifty years old and reading this magazine in Texas, but it has reminded me how exciting it can be to discover this sort of stuff and specifically in this way. It's great to know that this exists and that it definitively exists right now, as opposed to representing another virtual recycling endlessly reproduced on a thousand screens for a few moments before the passive and not really too bothered consumer clicks onto something else. Turbulent Times is nothing less than inspirational.

Buy it here while you can.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Universe Maker

A.E. van Vogt The Universe Maker (1953)

I suspect there may be a sort of physics of second hand books if A.E. van Vogt is anything to go by. Of the twenty or so van Vogt titles I now have on my shelves - all picked up from second hand places - the most memorable titles all seem to have appeared amongst the first ten or so that I came across. It could be that I've simply grown tired of his weird, inscrutable exercises in rambling surrealism, I suppose, although I prefer the theory that his better works are the ones which tended to sell well, and so eventually found their way to branches of Oxfam, Half Price or wherever in the greatest numbers; so when I now encounter a van Vogt title I've not read, the likelihood is that it will be one of the lesser works. That's my theory anyway.

The Universe Maker begins with the sort of dynamic thrust that promises something at least as good as The Mind Cage or The Weapon Makers, and our man is clearly on top form with his characteristically dense and hypnotically angular prose:

Peering out through the glass, Cargill had the initial impression that he was looking onto a well-kept park. The impression changed. For through the lattice work of the shrubbery he could see a street. It was the kind of street men dream about in moments of magical imagination. It wound through tall trees, among palms and fruit trees. It had shop windows fronting oddly shaped buildings that nestled among the greenery. Hidden lights spread a mellow brightness into the curves and corners. The afternoon had become quite dark and every window glowed as from some inner warmth. He had a tantalising vision of interiors that were different from anything he had ever seen.

All this came from only a glimpse as viewed through the lattice work of a rose arbour. Cargill drew back, trembling. He had had his first look at a city of hundreds of years in the future. It was an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately it develops into a fairly bewildering experience as once again van Vogt spins a peculiar yarn which veers off in random directions, concentrating all the while on the direct subjective experience of the main character and so leaving certain crucial developments open to the reader's interpretation. It's a story told as though through just one half of a conversation, which unfortunately suffers from van Vogt's typically oblique narrative. Although given the subject, there probably wasn't any other way of telling it.

The story takes Morton Cargill, a war veteran, into his own remote future to be executed so as to heal a sort of inherited psychic wound inhabiting the descendent of a girl he accidentally killed in a car accident back during his lifetime, except he didn't actually kill her after all, and he himself becomes the future Shadow leader demanding his own execution; or something like that. The narrative also takes in a civil war between the ground and those who have chosen to live in the sky, and the Shadows from an even more distant future. Fuck knows what's going on.

Curiously, the theme of the novel would appear to relate to what I suspect may be van Vogt's own peculiar cosmology, a universe in which matter is a minor property of energy, and we can inherit  psychological damage suffered by our ancestors. I say van Vogt's own, but I suppose some of it may come from Korzybski's general semantics, or from Dianetics with which he was very much involved at the time, and certainly the descendants of Marie Chanette suffering from the trauma of the accident which killed her seems reminiscent of Hubbard's engrams. There appears to be a lot more to it than can be summarised in a single paragraph, and unfortunately with van Vogt being van Vogt, it's quite difficult to pick out a succinct quotation to illustrate what I think he's talking about. There's also the further difficulty of atmospheric effect being pretty much indivisible from meaning in the van Vogtian narrative.

What this amounts to is a novel which feels quite profound, potentially A.E. van Vogt's own VALIS or similar, but which is quite difficult to follow; although on the positive side, it's also very short so the confusion doesn't have time to become annoying.

I think this means that The Universe Maker is good, and it certainly suggests it may be worth my taking another shot at it once my brain has recovered.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Lost World

Michael Crichton The Lost World (1995)

I remember enjoying the film. In fact I remember enjoying this book last time I read it, but I guess that was a while ago, back when I was less fancy than I am these days. Once both myself and the book reviews algorithm of the Sunday Express found Crichton's Jurassic Park sequel gripping, but we have since gone our separate ways. These days I am distracted by the science which whilst fascinating and possibly legitimate is phrased as though cribbed from Reader's Digest, or at least something with the sterile tang of dentist's waiting room; and the story wanders as though plotted by a small child, new developments unfolding as they occur to him and each new character introduced with a big copypasta wodge of notes from the original plot outline. In this respect The Lost World seemed painfully formulaic, Lawrence Burton decided.

He was about five foot seven. He had brown hair. He sat frowning at the computer, thinking back to those morning's spent reading Crichton's Lost World, struggling to recall if the film had been quite so bad. He wore beige trousers and a cheese hat. He enjoyed country ham and biscuits but hated paying taxes. His wife's name was Phyliss, and she was very, very pretty.

The Lost World is four-hundred pages of undifferentiated suspense upon which Crichton has stuck a succession of sciencey post-it notes, far too many of them opening with scientists believe, presumably so as to avoid either naming any name which might get in the way of the plot by making it look a bit stupid, or committing the tale to anything which could turn out to be bollocks should anyone get around to inventing Google.

Scientists believe - for example - that the pyramids of Egypt could not have been built without recourse to extraterrestrial technology, which is the sort of thing that crackpots, the Daily Mail, and crackpots who write for the Daily Mail tend to peddle, scientists in this case usually meaning a bloke who has studied at Oxford in the sense of having once been there on the National Express and read a few pages of some book about flying saucers in the shop before buying it.

I gather Crichton didn't really want to write this one and it sort of shows, as though he grudgingly accepted the job on the grounds of it being paying work upon which to hang a couple of pet theories for the sake of making it less of a chore, and because paying work is always better than a kick up the arse. The pet theories in question derive from chaos mathematics, which here supposedly support the idea that dinosaur extinction came down to shifting behavioural algorithms 'n' shit, as opposed to a bloody great asteroid screwing up the entire planet for a few hundred years. Chaos theory demonstrates that dinosaurs possibly forgot how to take care of their young and became chavs. I suppose it works if you really want it to, but I can't help feel it's one of those fancy designer ideas explaining something which already has a much better explanation, namely the one about the aforementioned asteroid.

Dinosaurs accordingly enter the narrative in convenient sequence like the prizes on Brucie's conveyor belt or the cast of one of those books in which the cow says moo, immediately followed by the duck saying quack. The fossil record for maiasaurus, for example, preserves her skeleton along with those of a clutch of her hatchling young, and so she has a name which translates as Caring Mother Lizard which must surely be more of an accident of geology than an indictment of the parenting skills of other dinosaurs; but nevertheless Crichton's cast of yelping scientistics encounter maiasaurs busily preparing oven chips and mini-pizzas for their young, helpfully illustrating their characteristic qualities. This scene is followed by the dome-headed pachycephalosaurs headbutting things in illustrative spirit. Had there ever been a dinosaur known for its expert knowledge of fine wines, the next chapter would have doubtless unfolded just as a pachycephalosaur nuts their battered transport, busting open the trunk and spilling bottles of Chateau Latour-Martillac across the savannah.

I think that's most of the jokes I can be bothered to wring out of this one, and they should be sufficient to give a reasonable impression of how gripping this novel really isn't. If not, then it's probably worth considering that even Spielberg's big screen exercise in hot-dog retail dispensed with most of Crichton's story. It's possibly less offensive than what Conan Doyle did with the same title, but that isn't saying much.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Seven Days in New Crete

Robert Graves Seven Days in New Crete (1949)

Robert Graves was the renowned author of I, Claudius and a noted scholar of Greek myth, and by association mythology in general. I had no idea that he'd ever tried his hand at science-fiction, and I stumbled across this whilst seeking the aforementioned I, Claudius, and it makes absolute sense that his science-fiction should take such a distinctively mythological orientation. I say science-fiction mainly on the grounds of it belonging to the genre of Utopian writings which we may as well call science-fiction because why the fuck not, but it's a long way from even Olaf Stapledon's version of future humanity. The narrator of Seven Days in Crete wakes to find himself magically summoned by witches from the future, and so ensues three-hundred pages of typically Utopian form in which our man explores his futuristic surroundings and asks questions.

The future here follows on from some point at which the human race decided to retrace its footsteps, returning to the pre-technological idyll of Crete, or thereabouts. Magic is real. Society is divided into five basic classes or estates. What writing remains is preserved on communally held plates of silver and gold with even the complete works of Shakespeare having been reduced to a few pithy paragraphs; and the written word is the preserve of a small elite. War is conducted by means of a game resembling football, and the price paid for this Utopia is ultimately revealed to be ritual human sacrifice. I realise Graves' model for New Crete was old Crete, but I was surprised at the parallels with Ancient Mexican society - everything but the pyramids, more or less.

The problem with Utopian fiction is, by my reckoning, that it tends to be quite dull, as Thomas More is my witness. Commentary upon Utopian fiction therefore tends to work towards exposing the bodies upon which purportedly perfect societies are invariably built, which in itself can be a little predictable. Graves evades the pitfalls of the form simply through being such a good writer, one to whom the dull or merely functional sentence is apparently a stranger. He finds the wonder in the weird world of New Crete, spicing his observations with a faint tang of cynicism, but never so much as to spoil the tone; and this is significant because all of the magic and witchery and general rustic folksiness are of such a kind which commonly lends itself to somewhat more turgid narratives in my experience, the sort of thing which usually suggests the author has spent the last six or seven hours skipping amongst the toadstools in a chiffon robe saying oh wow, that's like really amaaaaazing... cough cough George MacDonald...

Being better than that, Graves steers us towards a conclusion which feels absolutely right and necessary for the purpose of the tale, even if it doesn't come as a huge surprise - excepting possibly some of the grislier details. I'm still not absolutely sure what the main theme could be as there seem to be a number of possibilities. Seven Days in New Crete may simply be a criticism of the Utopian ideal as expressed in literature, or a warning against the sort of naivety by which one may be swept up in the enthusiasm for progressive but unworkable solutions, particularly in hasty response to - for obvious example - the horror of the second world war in the case of this novel. Certain aspects suggest the story may offer some sort of commentary on the Soviet Union, albeit by oblique means, namely the parallel folksy reductionism which replaced the more progressive elements of Soviet society; or even that the novel may itself serve as an argument for a certain degree of reductionism, a return to a model of civilisation with far less moving parts to go wrong.

Maybe it's all of the above.

In any case, Seven Days in New Crete is nothing if not thought provoking, and makes for one hell of a better read than the great majority of its Utopian kind.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Cat's Cradle (1963)
I have no idea why, but much as I loved the absolute shit out of Slaughterhouse Five without a morsel of reservation, for all its credentials as one of the finest novels ever written, it failed to inspire me with a desire to hunt down further works by its author. I have no idea why this should be, and it almost certainly says more about me than it does about Vonnegut's writing; although I suppose I may have harboured some subconscious fear of Slaughterhouse Five being the anomalous peach of a career otherwise reading like the Planet Sapphica novels of J. Lee Mace, about which, the less said the better.

So Cat's Cradle pretty much leapt into my hands from the shelf upon which it had been placed in a branch of Half Price Books, and not least because it was this specific title which had been recommended to me by a friend whilst he introduced me to the idea of Kurt Vonnegut having written more than just the one book.

Here we have a writer on the trail of a scientist who may quite easily have provided some percentage of inspiration for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove of 1964, specifically a trail drawn in the paths taken by those around him. Somehow this brings us to the creation of ice-nine, a substance which could pretty much destroy all life on earth if used carelessly, and also to a bizarre cast of cartoon characters, and to Bokononism, a fully realised religious system seemingly based on wisecracks; and it all happens on a small Caribbean island, a shoddy banana republic serving as metaphor for western society.

Cat's Cradle is clearly a precursor to Slaughterhouse Five in many respects, already focussing on the terrible consequences of industrialised warfare by means of a narrative which leaps back and forth within its own chronology. Here the leaps are made not through time travel but simple interjection and anecdote following authorial digressions around the narrative oxbows of each new character as they arrive; which is why it's called Cat's Cradle, I would guess; because that's how it reads, and so much of its story is hung upon the flimsiest threads of association. Unusually, this isn't anything like so bewildering as one might imagine, possibly thanks to the humour - gently wry rather than belly laughs - which keeps it all rolling along very nicely, yielding a tale which seems closer in tone to Gulliver's Travels than almost anything I've read since Gulliver's Travels - albeit without the misanthropic subtext of the later chapters. This is Swiftian satire in the truest sense, quantified as such not simply because of what it does, but because it does it so well.

It seems the reputation is deserved, so I shall be seeking out further Vonnegut in future.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises (1926)

William Burroughs said of the cut-up technique he introduced to literature - as formalised by himself and Brion Gysin - something along the lines of the novel being some twenty or so years behind painting, the art world having dispensed with the purely representational in the wake of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907, roughly speaking. Artists had begun to screw around with form, to create bold new images beyond that which existed in nature. Burroughs therefore likened his own reorganisation of existing texts to Dadaist collage. All well and good, but the premise of one form necessarily needing to catch up with the other was a bit of a straw man argument, given that both the Dadaists and Futurists had already applied collage technique to the written word and, as I'm beginning to appreciate, for most of the twentieth century literature has remained very much in step with the times as represented by whatever cultural swerves were taken in painting and sculpture. Hemingway is a case in point. The narrative unfolds in a straight line for sure, but the means by which that narrative is communicated is as much stripped down to pure form and rhythm as anything painted in the decades leading up to the big post-war freak out of abstract expressionism.

The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett's hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue de Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down.

The rhythm may be erratic, picked out in the division of sentences into component statements and the repetition of certain words, but it is nevertheless as much a rhythm as anything painted by, for one example, Max Weber - whom I name specifically because Hemingway's above quoted opening to chapter four brought Weber's Rush Hour, New York of 1915 immediately to mind.

Anyway, The Sun Also Rises concerns itself with what Gertrude Stein identified as the Lost Generation, those left wandering and lacking purpose in the wake of the first world war, a war which - it might be argued - left existing ideas of morality looking somewhat ineffectual. The roughly autobiographical protagonists of The Sun Also Rises are rich kids who spend a lot of time talking about things of no real consequence, dining, travelling, having unsatisfactory affairs, eventually ending up in a small town in Spain having a bit of a wheeze during all the gore of the bull running. The gang have their emotional ups and downs but appear to remain unaffected by their environment. In chapter thirteen, Mike reduces military medals to a decorative feature of his dress, which may possibly have had more resonance between the wars than it does at present; and then there's the blood and innards all over the streets of Pamplona reduced to spectator sport, and in a way which I'm tempted to suggest may have been intended to echo the class divide painfully emphasised by the war. Carlos Baker as quoted on Wikipedia reckons that in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway presents his notion that the Lost Generation, considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong, but personally I don't really see it. I found them feckless and slightly irritating, and I was reminded of the counterpart bullfight in D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent also published in 1926 which could almost have been a direct response but for the timing. Naturally Lawrence's version entails more heaving and thrusting with brows furrowing darkly left right and centre, which seems to me a more natural response to such gruesome spectacle; and in the same novel we find:

She thought again of going back to Europe. But what was the good? She knew it! It was all politics or jazzing or slushy mysticism or sordid spiritualism. And the magic had gone. The younger generation, so smart and interesting, but so without any mystery, any background. The younger the generation, the flatter and more jazzy, more and more devoid of wonder.

Which quite adequately describes Hemingway's bunch, for my money, regardless of at least one of the two authors under discussion being something of a nutter who may not actually know what he's talking about all of the time.

So in lieu of a coherent summary, the short version of the review is that it was okay, but failed to deliver the life-changing experience I had been promised. I can see why The Sun Also Rises is regarded so highly, and much of it is beautifully put together, but it wasn't quite  my bag.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

Ramsey Campbell (editor) New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980
I can't quite tell whether I'm burned out on Lovecraft and his adjective-heavy tales of gambrel roofed houses inherited from shunned uncles containing unholy books so rare and forbidden that only four thousand copies of each were ever bound, these accursed copies now residing in the countless dark libraries of the legions of shunned and shadowy uncles of New England whom no mumbling villager will discuss with impunity; or whether it is simply that this collection just isn't very good. I suppose the cover might be a clue. There she was just getting ready for bed in her fishnet stockings and suspenders when —eek!

If Crouch End isn't the first Stephen King tale I've read - as it may well be - it will probably be the last. I know The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining were great, but those were films which may have been adapted from slim pamphlets of disappointing limericks for all I know, and that one with the big clown spider thing defeated with the devilishly clever plot twist of having some kids pull its legs off was frankly rubbish. Crouch End derives from when King spent some time in London and is accordingly crammed with as much local flavour as possible;

Vetter was dotty, all right. He was also a bloody fag-mooch. Fags didn't come cheap in this brave new world of socialism and the welfare state.

Oh Stephen, you bloody plonker! Pull yourself together, bloke. Crouch End, were it not for gratuitous references to council flats and fish and chips every other sentence would be Terrance Dicks, which falls somewhat short of that which I'm fairly sure was promised by King's reputation.

Unfortunately, the rest isn't significantly better, mostly variations on the usual H.P. sauce about dark texts and nameless shit transposed to a modern setting and generally lacking the lyrical flourishes which made Lovecraft's own repetitive reworkings of his one story a little more readable. Basil Copper's Shaft 247, for example, reads like Lovecraft adapted as Pertwee era Doctor Who, and I swear I had to flip back a couple of times to remind myself of which one I was reading. In fact I've forgotten which story I was referring to since writing that sentence.

I say, the rest isn't significantly better, although there are thankfully two exceptions - T.E.D. Klein's Black Man with a Horn and Ramsey Campbell's own contribution. The former is a rambling and yet thoroughly absorbing tale told through a train of thought pursued by someone claiming to have known Lovecraft, so it retains a sense of humour and exhibits a degree of self-awareness which elevates it above the karaoke turns of the preceding pages, if anything making them look all the more crappy and juvenile. Campell's The Faces at Pine Dunes fares similarly well through doing its own thing, invoking that characteristically English frisson of horror for which Stephen King was probably fumbling, and not worrying too much with ticking every last one of the usual Lovecraftian boxes. New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos has been amongst the blandest things I've read this year, but Klein and Campbell shine so unusually bright as to blot all the other crap from memory, whatever it was.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Deborah Harvey Dart (2013)
I've recently been raking over old diaries dating to my teenage years, few of which I've read since the time they were written. These being from three decades past, naturally there are names I had entirely forgotten, and so I've been googling a few of those named out of sheer curiosity - just to see what comes up. One such person was Stella Gill about whom I recall very little beyond that she sent me a Christmas card, that we were in the same college drama class, and that she was nice. I can't find her on the internet, although one link that came up was to the blog of Deborah Harvey, which presumably mentions either a person named Stella, or named Gill, or the town of Stratford-on-Avon. The blog carried no relation to the object of my quest so far as I could tell, but I clicked on the link anyway because Deborah Harvey bore a passing resemblance to the mysterious Stella Gill as was, and so for a moment I had wondered if it was her in the photograph. It wasn't, but my attention was caught by the fact that this person had published a novel, and a novel which sounded quite interesting. I had a look inside on Amazon and decided that Deborah Harvey could at least hold a sentence together, which always helps; and so I bought a copy because it sounded worth a shot, and the pleasingly esoteric route by which chance had chosen to bring Dart to my attention seemed too good to ignore. Furthermore, taking a second look at Deborah Harvey's blog, I noticed her being scheduled to attend a poetry reading with Charles Thompson whom I briefly knew from when I lived in Maidstone - another amusing, perhaps even absurd coincidence and indication of it being a small world.

This probably relates to Dart in some way, given that its people also inhabit a small world, albeit a small world set against the terrifying contrast of a vast universe they clearly don't understand quite so well as I suppose we do today. Specifically Dart is set amongst the subsistence farmers of rural Dartmoor in 1348, the year the plague first came to English shores. In such isolation, that which is imagined can seem as powerful as that which is really out there. As I myself grew up on a farm without either central heating or any really good reason to dismiss the tales of witchcraft that old folks in neighbouring villages used to mutter to each other, I recognise the atmosphere cannily woven here by Harvey with something running a bit too dark and deep to be described as pleasure.

Dart can be broken down to fourteenth century folk struggling to deal with the horror of the plague, and to attempt further description might be overstating the point when really you would do better just to read it for yourself. Happily it isn't a folksy tale of men in tights who sing songs and do go a-questing across the moor in search of a cure, and nor is it the predictable triumph of simple, plucky souls over black-hearted landowners with fancy ways. There is nothing twee here, just a fucking great novel written by someone who really knows how to tell a story, handles words with the finesse of a real poet, and who really knows what she's writing about. The overall effect is, I suppose, what you might call immersive. The reader is left in no doubt as to just how different this world was to our own, and yet we find common ground through the experience of its people, as beautifully told by the author.

Considering how I effectively came to this novel by means of a process which may as well have been a housebrick launched from the upper deck of a bus, I really could not have wished for a more satisfying result. Dart is a tremendous and accomplished read, and I really, really, really hope Deborah Harvey has other novels up her sleeve.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Synthetic Man

Theodore  Sturgeon The Synthetic Man (1950)

This being the second novel I've read by Sturgeon, I must conclude that biology, mutation, and outsiders were common preoccupations of his writing as this one also features a group of freaks trying to make their way in the world. It's been a while since I read More Than Human, and I can't actually recall much of it beyond this distinguishing feature and the fact of it being extremely well written, but the freaks of The Synthetic Man - the earlier novel for what it may be worth - have banded together for safety as part of a travelling side show. The pseudo-gothic freak show has become something of a cliché, and without really caring enough to look anything up, I suspect it's probably been trotted out by Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and others with some frequency - although I personally thought Lawrence Miles used it very well in Interference - but Sturgeon writes with such lively confidence that it feels like a new idea, which is pretty good going for something published over half a century ago.

Kiddo, as he is known, turns out to be something much stranger than the robot implied by the title - at least to me - as Sturgeon asks us to consider the possibility of there being another form of life here on Earth unlike anything with which we are familiar, thus far undetected because it has no effect on us, nor we on it. Further to this we get Kiddo growing up as female in order to elude the wrath of its misanthropic sideshow owner - not simply the bold use of a transgendered main character at a time when this would have appeared quite shocking to at least a few of the readers, but a main character who is transgendered for reasons of narrative and theme rather than as a simple example of the freakish.

Sturgeon writes well with the warmth and authority of someone who weaves tales, as opposed to simply filling pages and making a living from the pulps. For want of a better description it's van Vogtian surrealism communicated with the simple clarity of Ray Bradbury, and The Synthetic Man has been a real find. I really need to keep an eye open for more by this guy.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment (1866)
Well, I suppose it serves me right for trying to broaden my horizons, to branch out and generally embiggen myself through the magic of proper literature sans airbrushed spacecraft on the covers. Crime and Punishment may well be deserving of its reputation, but I was bored shitless for the most part. I suppose it must be me, because no-one on the internet seems to have a bad word to say about this particular translation, the work of one Sidney Monas - indeed, this version is praised as definitive in a few places I've looked. I'm no stranger to the long-haired books section of the library, so I'm fairly certain of my not being entirely stupid, at least in so much as I can tell that there are readers considerably less perceptive than myself out there, but nevertheless I found Crime and Punishment a tremendous bore.

I spoke to my mother who told me that she had found it similarly turgid.

'I'm just not enjoying it,' I said.

'I don't think you're supposed to enjoy it,' she suggested.

Similarly, my friend Andy Martin opined that Dostoyevsky, like Gogol and Pushkin, is one huge yawn from start to finish, and Andy is both well and widely read.

I'm not saying either that Crime and Punishment is without merit or that I hated every minute, but some chapters were distinctly more engaging than others, and the more yawnsome sections became such a slog as to mean that it became pointless my reading them during the bedtime shift. I generally read for an hour after I get up each morning, and then for another hour before I go to bed. For some reason I am better able to appreciate detail in the morning, although the difference is rarely so pronounced as to make for books which I can't read at all in the evening, but this was one of them; and so it really began to drag out as I took to reading Danny Baker's autobiography and then an L.Ron Hubbard novella before bed - you know, reading for pleasure.

I've enjoyed Danny Baker's radio shows for many years, and have appeared on one of them at least twice. Going to Sea in a Sieve (2012) relates the best part of his younger years growing up in and around Bermondsey and Deptford in south-east London up until his first television appearances. It retains his typically ripe turn of phrase as heard on the wireless, and makes for a genuinely fascinating read even beyond the wisecracks, not least because it turns out that I know a few of the places in which he grew up; and I'd even go so far as to say that Going to Sea in a Sieve represents a valuable time capsule of both an era and a specific kind of childhood which probably doesn't happen any longer, what with your downloads and your pornotubes and what have you. Belly laughs alternate with moments of surprising profundity.

It was George Currie, the fantastic wiry guitarist from Dundee that now stepped forward as spokesman for the band.

'Why don't you fuck off?' he reasoned.

Obviously I'm quoting that as an example of the former.

If I have any criticism, it is that the tone occasionally veers into the as told to territory of the ghostwritten celebrity footballer biography, as I said to my famous friend, Adge Cutler of the chart topping Wurzels pop band; but I suspect this may be just a natural interference pattern resulting from what is essentially a conversation set down as prose. In any case, it's not a massive problem, and Going to Sea in a Sieve makes for one hell of a livelier read than Crime and Punishment.

Returning to which, I got through Crime and Punishment in the end, which at least suggests it has some discernible value above those few novels on which I've given up with just a hundred or so pages left, Robert Heinlein's fucking abominable Stranger in a Strange Land for example. Cheating, I consulted Wikipedia every few days in order to work out what I had just read:

Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless vermin. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Most of this I already knew. Some of it seemed unclear, and I remained unable to see quite how the novel was doing that which it supposedly does for about three quarters of the book. The translator's afterword suggest this to be a novel concerned with the gulf between ideology and human nature, which makes it sound a lot more interesting than I found it. I can see it in passages such as:

'I'll show you their books. It's always the influence of the environment with them, that's all they know! They love that phrase! If society were constructed normally, therefore, all crimes would disappear at once because there would be nothing to protest against and we'd all become righteous in a flash. Nature doesn't count; nature gets chased away; nature's not supposed to exist! They won't have mankind developing along some living historical path to the end, turning finally of itself into normal society; but on the contrary, a social system emerging from some kind of mathematical brain that's going to reconstruct mankind and make it in one moment righteous and sinless, quicker than any life process, no living or historical path needed! Instinctively they don't like history, and that's why.'

Unfortunately I found instances of such clarity few and far between, islands amongst page after page of rambling dialogue of ambiguous consequence, sometimes with one person holding forth before another for the duration of an entire chapter, complete with aggravating self-conscious digressions of are you still listening? or you must think I'm going on a bit, old fruit and the like - no fucking kidding.

Oddly, just as some modern novels read like television drama - the work of authors who would rather be writing for their favourite medium, but can't either because they're too shit even for television or all this time they've been sucking the wrong dicks; Crime and Punishment reads in part like a stage production set down as print due to prohibitive length, and in a couple of places it reads as though the narrative is aware of this to some extent. There is a scene in part one, chapter four wherein Raskolnikov encounters a vulnerable and obviously drunken girl in a park, and notices a seemingly villainous dandy lurking nearby with apparent ignoble intent. Raskolnikov discusses both the girl and the dandy with a policeman even as said dandy continues to lurk as though stood to one side of a stage, ready to resume his advances on the destitute girl. In part three, chapter five Razumikhin is described standing with his back to the audience, which feels like a theatrical allusion. Of course, unless I'm just imagining this layer of artificiality, it may itself be a deliberate evocation of the theme of ideology or hypothetical structure imposed over that which exists.

The above may of course all be complete bollocks, given that I'm reading a translation, and that I failed to really engage with it after the first few chapters. There are some interesting and arguably quite important ideas, poorly expressed - in my possibly limited view - which is a shame because they might also serve to explain why the Soviet Union went tits up once they made Joseph Stalin head boy, so it's a pity some of those guys apparently couldn't get to grips with this one either.

You're better off with Danny Baker.

At least I was.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

If I Were You

L. Ron Hubbard If I Were You (1941)

L. Ron Hubbard was the most important science-fiction author who ever lived, and so it is fitting that Galaxy Press should have endeavoured to rescue his many mighty works from pulp obscurity and return them at long last to print - and with this opening sentence I have at least saved you the trouble of reading Kevin J. Anderson's introduction. Galaxy Press seem to be financially although not necessarily ideologically associated with Scientology by some means, existing principally as a vehicle for Hubbard's work; so fair enough I guess. I still think they may have been trying too hard in certain respects given that I would have thought the majority of people picking up copies of these novellas will most likely already be well disposed towards the man. The glowing biographical summary of Hubbard's life in the rear of the book reads somewhat as though puddings may have been over-egged - I'm fairly certain the guy didn't actually invent either science-fiction or fantasy as genres; whilst Anderson smiles beatifically and points out that Shakespeare and Dickens were popular in their days, and that Hubbard's tales in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties were popular in his day, so L. Ron Hubbard was therefore just like Shakespeare and Dickens for as history has shown, good stories are much more than fancy prose.

If nothing else, this does at least support my hunch that I don't really need to read anything written by Kevin J. Anderson. Oddly - and I realise I am here asking us all to pause and take another look at Hitler's paintings because some of them were quite nice really - I would say that all of this editorial reverence actually does Hubbard's fiction something of a disservice because - quite aside from what one may think of the man and his deeds - If I Were You is good enough to stand on its own merits. I'm not saying it's the greatest thing I've ever read, or that it necessarily represents a little known masterpiece, but Hubbard, if nothing else, was an accomplished writer within his field. Whilst it may be argued that his field was somewhat limited to romps and adventures of the kind which made names for Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, if his tales lack poetry, they were better told than those of many of his contemporaries. That is to say that If I Were You at least reads like the work of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it, and someone who couldn't really be described as a hack with any justification. True, it's the story of a circus midget swapping bodies with that of an unpleasant scheming ringmaster, with a splash of romance and just deserts duly served at the end, but it's an engaging read nevertheless; and I suppose you might also argue that certain themes prefigure the mythology Hubbard later expounded with the Church of Scientology, if you feel inclined to do so.

The Last Drop, the much shorter back up story follows the theme of size by shrinking its protagonists to gnomic proportions, and is less satisfying, but serves as an interesting snapshot of its era nonetheless.

While I'm sceptical of Hubbard's credentials as the neglected genius described in Kevin J. Anderson's introduction, it seems equally dubious to pretend that he never existed or to relegate his writing to a mere footnote in science-fiction history, because for the most part it seems to have been better than you might imagine.