Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Nemo: Heart of Ice

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013)
On the positive side, this is a lovely thing to find within one's symbolic Christmas stocking - as I did - it being roughly the shape and size of the sort of book Santa would bring me in the days of my youth as a younger man back when everything was better than it is now - hardback, colourful cartoons, and the sort of endpapers I would stare at for what I recall as having been hours, but which were probably minutes at most; and much like the Hector's House annual and that Woody Woodpecker book bought for me by my grandmother, it seems kind of thin at just fifty-six pages, according to Amazon.

Of course, having sprung forth from the loins of Alan Moore it's all very readable and entertaining, and O'Neill's artwork is, as always, wonderful; but, having no clue as to the identity of the supporting characters revived this time - excepting himself from Citizen Kane, obviously - and it being pretty much a rewrite of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, it's difficult to find much to say about Heart of Ice except that it was enjoyable enough. I suppose to be picky I probably could have lived without yet another Lovecraft homage, because frankly it's getting so that one can hardly make it half way through any given book without it all turning out to be the work of the great old ones, yet again. Lord knows I loves me some of that H.P. sauce, but enough is surely enough. Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham did this much better in The Taking of Planet 5; as also did Grant Morrison in Zenith, and Lovecraft himself in At the Mountains of Madness, amongst others.

As I say, it was enjoyable enough but somehow a bit thin, both literally and figuratively.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Engineer Reconditioned

Neal Asher The Engineer Reconditioned (2006)
I'm not exactly sure why, but this one - collecting an early short story and two novellas - dragged a bit, particularly towards the end. This is annoying as I tend to read for an hour before going to sleep and then again for another hour before I get up in the morning, and plodding through a less than enjoyable book can sometimes cast a bit of an unsavoury tang over the rest of the intermediary day, particularly if that day is already spent enduring minor pain in the shoulder, the mystery of where all the sodding flies in the kitchen keep coming from, the fact that it's still fucking nippy outside despite living in south Texas, the water being cut off for a few hours by the utilities people, realising the milk has gone off, and opening a random page in a self-published book that I've been over a million fucking times to find yet another typo I've somehow missed.

Anyway, setting aside my own first world problems, of all the roughly current crop of British science-fiction writers, Neal Asher has distinguished himself as having both the big ideas and the storytelling ability to get them across without writing like someone aiming at the airport book stands, at least if The Skinner was anything to go by. The promise of that more recent work is found in a few of these slightly more formative efforts from the small press years. He seems particularly adept at writing weird biology of such stomach-churning convolutions as to border on a sort of sciency Lovecraft, which is particularly vivid in the two novellas, The Engineer and Spatterjay, summarised in my notes as having touches of Alice in Wonderland gone horribly wrong and H.R. Giger without the necrosis. Even in the depths of space, Asher's prime fillets always seem to pull you back to the high seas with salt in the spray and faintly disgusting gelatinous things sprouting all over the hull.

Unfortunately for the sake of this collection, whilst he clearly had the recipe even in the early days, it took a while before the pies started coming out right. Some of the narratives here appear strangely lacking in direction, or even story in a few cases. Others I struggled to remember even as I was reading them. Then again, everyone is entitled to turn out a few turkeys, and it's Neal Asher, so it's still worth a read on the strength of the good stuff.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Rover and other plays

Aphra Behn The Rover and other plays (1688)

I should probably admit to never having heard of Aphra Behn prior to her featuring in Daniel O'Mahony's superb Newtons Sleep, and even then I didn't initially realise she was an actual historical character, and significant for being amongst the first women in English history to make a living from writing; and duly informed, given my interest in early science-fiction, this collection proved too enticing to pass upon once I saw that it contained a play entitled The Emperor of the Moon.

However, I'm possibly at something of a disadvantage here. My American wife's knowledge of English history generally dwarfs my own, and whilst I saw plenty of Shakespeare performed around the time that I took drama O level, that was a while ago, and what pleasure I derived from the experience was not sufficient to instil me with a lifelong passion for theatre; so this is all a bit out of context for me, but let's give it a go anyway.

Aphra Behn is noted for Restoration comedies, comic and occasionally provocative plays written in the wake of and in response to Puritanism and its eighteen year ban on stage performance. Whilst those collected here - The Rover, The Feigned Courtesans, The Lucky Chance and The Emperor of the Moon - aren't exactly so wild or broad humoured as to be termed Rabelaisian, they certainly represent more measured steps in that direction. Behn's farce seems mainly concerned with seventeenth century sexual politics, and governmental politics to a lesser degree, or at least to a degree that escapes my detection through general ignorance of the territory beyond appreciating that her sympathies lay with the Catholic Stuarts. The plays here therefore tend to focus on the subversion of traditional female roles - high born ladies becoming wanton or masquerading as courtesans, low born prostitutes revealed as being of greater moral constitution than the moneyed rakes enlisting their services, and young women deftly eluding the unpromising marriages that have been arranged for them. Almost everyone in these four plays seems to be afflicted with the raging horn - in comparison with the more reserved romantic themes I'm fairly sure I recall as present in Shakespeare - and so the sexual thrust of the narrative - if you'll pardon the expression - is surprisingly strong. The relatively light, comic tone further provides horrific contrast in The Rover with its numerous scenes of attempted rape, and specifically rape as punishment prefaced by lurid and yet jovial promises of what is to be done to the unfortunate Florinda. These scenes seem deliberately repulsive, and Behn was quite probably making her point by means of shock given the societal conventions against which she was pitted, as described here by Anita Pacheco in Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn's The Rover:

The history of Early Modern rape law reveals a similarly uncertain transition from patriarchal to liberal attitudes towards women. While medieval rape law perceived rape as a crime against male-owned property, the legal focus shifted in the late sixteenth century from property to person. It was the female victim rather than her male relations who was the injured party in a case of rape, and the crime itself came to be seen not as a property violation but as the ravishment of a woman against her will.

However, when it came to the law's practical application, it appears that patriarchal definitions of rape continued to hold sway. The evidence, admittedly, is immensely difficult to interpret; but Nazife Bashar, in her study of the records of the home counties Assizes from 1558 to 1700, detects a pattern of few prosecutions and a tendency to convict only when the victim was a young girl.

The farce is heavy in these plays as characters disguise themselves as others, cross dress, identities are mistaken, and absurdity is piled upon absurdity, reaching what seemed to me its most pronounced expression in The Emperor of the Moon which comes closest to the Rabelaisian, not least with its anecdotal account of the blacksmith who, through drinking the urine of the God Vulcan, is able to produce his own iron which he extracts by holding a powerful magnet to his bumhole. Contrary to what I expected - a stage equivalent to the early lunar fantasies of Cyrano de Bergerac and others - The Emperor of the Moon further dismantles the gender conventions of Behn's day whilst taking the piss out of the fantastic voyage genre. On this occasion the unfortunate marriage is derailed by the promise of a visit from Lunar royalty, which is then faked for the benefit of the astrology-addled patriarch. I suppose it's almost A Midsummer Night's Dream for the age of Kepler and Galileo, if you squint a bit.

I must admit I found some of this collection tough going in terms of keeping track of the farce as it built up, layer on layer, but I suspect this may be partially due to my being out of the habit of reading seventeenth century plays, and that these almost certainly work better on a stage than a page, as was intended. That said, the strength of writing nevertheless survives my efforts to read it, and even aside from her growing status as feminist icon, it is abundantly clear why Aphra Behn deserves to be remembered and performed.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Beyond Lies the Wub

Philip K. Dick Beyond Lies the Wub (1987)

I bought all five volumes of Dick's short stories ages ago, well before I'd made my way through all of the novels, and I've since somehow lost track of which of these I've read; so for the sake of completism - not to mention the sake of reading yet more stuff by an author I like - I'm beginning again with volume one. Adhering to a fairly strict chronological order, this collection opens with the previously unpublished Stability dating from 1947, with the rest being stories dated to a nine month period spanning 1951 to 1952; so although Dick had already written and failed to find publishers for the mainstream novels Gather Yourselves Together and Voices From The Street, these tales were written prior to his first full length science-fiction efforts and thus represent his earliest surviving formal excursions into the genre.

Perhaps inevitably, this is an oddly uneven collection, its stories informed by the process of Dick feeling his way forward through a genre which wasn't quite his first choice. He tries different approaches. Some of them work, and some don't, although amongst the more successful are those revealing a powerful A.E. van Vogt influence such as the aforementioned Stability, a typically surreal van Vogtian account of a winged man arriving at an office only to find himself berated by an authority figure for the invention of a device of which he knows nothing. Even more interesting is perhaps that Stability is run through with the typically Dickian theme of change in opposition to the dreaded forces of stasis or decay, so as with Gather Yourselves Together, we see how much of what made the guy tick was already present and fully realised even in his oldest narratives.

Similarly Paycheck and the novella, The Variable Man - presumably Dick getting in training for his first novel length science-fiction story - both feature distinctly van Vogtian running men attempting to make sense of the irrational worlds in which they find themselves. Elsewhere there's whimsy of a form which seems almost reminiscent of John Wyndham or Fritz Leiber in The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford and the wonderful The Preserving Machine wherein classical music scores are transmogrified into living creatures capable of, it is hoped, surviving a cataclysm; and it is from the humour of such tales that Dick's distinctive and familiar voice begins to emerge. Roog and The Little Movement exemplify this voice - small ideas beautifully and succinctly explored by means which resolutely remain a narrative, never once reducing to only a vehicle for novelty. The same is true of The Skull, an ingenious tale which might be seen as precursor to both Moorcock's Behold the Man and every crap Steven Moffat script wherein the Doctor materialises the TARDIS inside his own grandad's bumhole, but which nevertheless remains a neat little paradox, a story written over half a century ago which ties time into a fancy little bow and still delivers the unforeseen forehead slapping revelation despite all those crap time travel shows we've sat through since.

Contrary to what one might expect, the more overtly Dickian stories of the collection also seem to be the earliest, which at least seems to support the idea that he knew what he was going to say from the beginning, but took some years learning how best to say it. Other stories contained herein reveal possible instances of experimentation with Asimov's penchant for problem solving and the like, and it never seems to work so well as when Dick is writing true to himself; not every last one is a classic, but a good number of them are clearly top shelf.