Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Tom Strong

Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon & others
Tom Strong book one (2000)

Interviewed in the Guraniad last November, Alan Moore made some people a bit cross by suggesting that the sequentially delineated escapades of costumed super champions were mostly a big mound of wank:

I haven't read any superhero comics since I finished with Watchmen. I hate superheroes. I think they're abominations. They don't mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine to thirteen year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to thirteen, it's nothing to do with them. It's an audience largely of thirty-forty-fifty-sixty-year old men—usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spiderman without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. This is a significant rump of the superhero-addicted, mainstream-addicted audience. I don't think the superhero stands for anything good. I think it's a rather alarming sign if we've got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the twelve-year-old boys of the 1950s.

This more or less reiterates what Moore said in another interview - which I can't seem to track down - asking something along the lines of how many times the general public really need to see Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider over and over again. All fair comment, although, as Daniel O'Mahony has pointed out, it might have carried a bit more weight had Moore not spent the previous couple of decades harking back to the more wholesome superhero comics from when he were a lad and it was still the old days and everything was better than it is now. I'm not fully convinced there's a contradiction here; well, not exactly, and yet something doesn't quite sit right.

Tom Strong appears to be Supreme done properly, a character revised right back to the source and in the process losing the Rob Liefeld associations, both legal and the bad mojo of scowling superdudes with too many lines on their faces. It's a conflation of Superman and things like Doc Savage, I suppose, overtly aimed at a nine to thirteen year-old readership and thus roughly carrying the tone of something from 2000AD before the Mighty Tharg started printing it on fancy paper. The art is breathtakingly gorgeous, and it's both imaginative and wonderfully crafted just as you would expect, but the bottom line for my forty-eight year old ass is that Tom Strong is also very, very familiar, recycled tropes done respectfully and those pastiche interludes in the style of comics from the forties and fifties, as seen in Supreme; so it doesn't really do anything surprising. It's an old song played well, although I kind of wonder how a nine to thirteen year-old would find it, assuming one could be prised away from his or her iPad for long enough to sit through an issue of Grandad describing how he used to love going to see the Daredevils of the Red Circle serial at the picture house.

Tom Strong is wonderful of its kind, I guess, but as a fat old man I found it somehow underwhelming, and not quite sufficiently charming for the author to get away with doing the Supreme thing a second time around; and the Aztecs of a parallel Earth tale is bollocks, as such things usually are, depicting Quetzalcoatl literally as a winged serpent, confusing Mexica iconography with that of Xochicalco, El Tajín and Teotihuacan - because it's all the bleedin' same, innit - and filling Aztec speech bubbles with glyphs which are actually just strings of day names. Given the medium and the genre, I didn't expect a Henry Nicholson level of authenticity, but given the author, I had hoped it could have at least demonstrated a bit more effort than an episode of fucking Sliders. Also I'm afraid I found the talking gorilla somewhat irritating.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Mission to the Stars

A.E. van Vogt Mission to the Stars (1952)

Whilst one of the most fascinating aspects of van Vogt's writing is the process by which it was written - the numerous peculiar techniques by which he arrived at his distinctively surreal narratives - his reliance upon said techniques casts a certain samey quality over most of his oeuvre; although one might equally well term it consistency for the sake of balance. Of course, some novels work much better than others, although it's not always easy to identify just why this should be, and an additional problem - from my point of view - is that given the significance of process, after a while it is difficult to write about the books without becoming increasingly repetitive. Mission to the Stars being - so far as I am able to tell - the twenty-first van Vogt title I've read and chosen to review, I've probably beaten the random plot swerve every eight-hundred words angle into the ground, so by way of a change, let's focus briefly on his sentence construction.

Looking back, Alfie's narratives now appear to be of a predominantly pulpy, hard-boiled thrust, although this is as much to do with his choice of language as how he welded it all together, and changing aesthetics have left his phraseology beached high and dry upon a Gernsbackian reef alongside other proponents of silver rocket ships, so care should be taken to distinguish technique from simple incongruence with contemporary style. His sentences were carefully constructed in an almost architectural sense in service of particular effects achieved by how different words or concepts worked in contrast with each other. Additionally, van Vogt strove to include what he termed a hang up in each sentence, this being an action or object left partially undefined so as to seed a question within the mind of the reader; and I would suggest that this is why his prose can sometimes feel so dense, almost claustrophobic.

The naval yard spread before him. Maltby paused on the side-walk a hundred feet from the main officers' entrance, and casually lighted a cigarette. Smoking was primarily a non-Dellian habit; and he had never contracted it. But a man who wanted to get from planet IV of the Atmion sun, to Cassidor VII without going by regular ship needed a flexible pattern of small actions to cover such moments as this.

He lit the cigarette while his gaze took in the gate and the officer in charge of the guard. He walked forward finally with the easy stride of a person with clear conscience. He stood, puffing, while the man, a Dellian, examined his perfectly honest credentials. The casualness was a mask. He was thinking, in a mental sweat: It would be a Dellian. With such a man, hypnotism, except under certain conditions of surprise, would be impossible.

Taking these two paragraphs as an example, the level of focus here is peculiar, a couple of actions which could be conveyed in a single sentence, with even the most casually organic elements of the scene firmly pinned down with the precision of a strategy, namely the flexible pattern of small actions to cover such moments as this. The more one reads such prose, the effect becomes cumulative and transparently the work of a very precise design rather than bad writing, as at least a few critics have suggested, specifically a very precise and often highly disorientating design.

Mission to the Stars is another one of those novels van Vogt wrote by bolting a load of earlier short stories together, although for once the joins are not obvious, and it maintains a consistent thematic whole. Oddly, this actually makes for one of his less memorable books. Here we have the strange revelations, the dream-like atmosphere, and the sense of constant motion, none of which really goes anywhere by the end of the story, unlike, for example, Quest for the Future, which flies off in five different directions at the same time and somehow works better. Nevertheless, the detail of individual passages holds the attention for the duration, even if they're not always conducive to keeping one attuned to the broader narrative.

The story expands upon one of van Vogt's favourite themes, namely the underground society of telepathic mutant supermen, hunted and feared by the wider populace whilst holding the key to society's salvation. It's probably not so surprising that van Vogt knocked around with L. Ron Hubbard for a while, although as a creator of supermen, it's nice to see that he at least shunned the more unsavoury aspects of such pseudo-philosophies, and was happy to state as much:

'I heard your order just now, noble lady,' the woman psychologist said. 'I'm afraid, however, that we're dealing with the deepest instincts of the human animal—hatred or fear of the stranger, the alien. Excellency, we come from a long line of ancestors who, in their time, have felt superior to others because of some slight variation in the pigmentation of the skin. It is even recorded that the colour of the eyes has influenced the egoistic in historical decisions. We have sailed into very deep waters, and it will be the crowning achievement of our life if we sail out in a satisfactory fashion.'

On the subject of van Vogt's favourite themes, I also note this to be another novel to feature scenes in which spacecraft fly within subterranean tunnels which, added to the telepathy, mutation, and spy rays, suggests certain common factors with Amazing Stories contributing author Richard S. Shaver who was, to not beat about the bush, stark raving mad. Although if van Vogt's fiction was ultimately drawn from any equivalent mental idiosyncracy, the numerous techniques by which he nailed it down onto the page at least yielded more consistent results than Shaver. In fact, one is inclined to wonder if this might have been the purpose of the numerous writing disciplines van Vogt developed, specifically a means by which he could function as a writer without anything else getting in the way.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here, at least in suggesting the guy may not have been the full ticket. Somebody really needs to put together a proper analytical biography of this man and his weird and wonderful work, and probably somebody other than me; and just in case I appear to have lost sight of the point, Mission to the Stars is engrossing in places, but far from his best.

Monday, 16 June 2014


Burton Raffel (translator)
Beowulf (1963, material dating to 8th century or later)

At the age of eight or nine or however old I was, when playing at superheroes with my little pals, I generally opted to be the Marvel Comics version of Thor for reasons I no longer quite recall. This usually pissed off my friend Sean who would take on the role of Spiderman whilst complaining that Thor wasn't as good because he didn’t jump about as much. Generally, this is the full extent of my engagement with either Celtic or north-European mythology, a lore to which I was never particularly drawn being as it appeared for the most part to involve bearded men listening to heavy metal and hitting each other with hammers in the pouring rain. It seemed uncivilised and uncouth, and a far cry from early equatorial cultures, or at least cultures of lands in which it wasn't freezing cold and pissing with rain for eleven months of the Julian or equivalent year. I suppose there's also the additional stigma of the appeal which such lore clearly holds for those who do write books about goblins with swords who do go a-questing for treasure, and fat, bald men from Surrey who compose songs wherein the death of Baldur the Brave serves as a clever metaphor for the alternately-chromatic coming over here and taking our jobs, not being racialist of nuffink.

I'm greatly out of my depth, is what I'm trying to say here; and no, I didn't bother watching that shitty film, despite Ray Winstone.

Happily, Beowulf - at least as translated by Burton Raffel - is entirely readable, highly accessible without a suggestion of pandering, and enough so to ping the sort of bells which are generally pinged by hypothetically equivalent Mesoamerican epics of the kind with which I am greatly more familiar. This may of course simply be a case of my seeing Quetzalcoatl wherever I look, irrespective of what I'm actually looking at, although it could probably be argued that both Mexico and Scandinavia were theologically shamanic in pre-Christian times, so there are bound to be certain parallels stemming from human beings tending to have similar responses to similar conditions or stimuli regardless of geography.

Beowulf is without doubt the work of early Christian authors, although their version of Christianity was probably quite different to that which we would recognise today, and it seems likely that the core of the saga is pre-Christian, possibly evolving through retelling into this form - as distinct from anything so crude as a Christian revision which might in any case be pointless given that the thrust of the story was probably never significantly at odds with ecclesiastical purpose.

Indivisible from its historical details of the politics and kingships of sixth century Scandinavia, the tale centres upon Beowulf, a culture hero of familiar type who comes from a distant land to defeat first a monster, then the monster's mother, and much later, a dragon. The monstrous Grendel is identified as a descendent of the Biblical Cain, the first murderer, and although he seems in many respects explicitly demonic, his home is the cold, watery depths of the swamp, thematically much closer to the Norse Niflheim and any number of similarly shamanic underworlds than the Christian inferno. Similarly he appears to represent an opposing force to that of Beowulf with all his gold and precious metals, rather than an adversary in the absolutely strictest sense. Grendel is a creature of night, water, and cold, born from the decay of the swamp, dead land which can be neither farmed nor settled and which in mythological terms had once been the rotting flesh of the slain giant Ymir, the medium from which grubs and burrowing creatures became dwarves and other subterranean beings.

They have seen my strength for themselves,
Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,
Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove
Five great giants into chains, chased
All of that race from the Earth. I swam
In the blackness of night, hunting monsters
Out of the ocean, and killing them one
By one; death was my errand and the fate
They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called
Together, and I've come.

The duality seems further emphasised when Beowulf elects to fight unarmed, and with the repetition of his three great battles, each one increased in magnitude from its predecessor in keeping with the ritual song form from which it was most likely derived. So Beowulf battles a terrible equal, then its parent, and ultimately a dragon which may possibly represent some more romanticised incarnation of Jörmungandr, the serpent which encircles the entire world, and which now guards a horde of treasure explicitly identified as being of pagan origin.

Coming to the dragon's treasure, we find a number of apparent contradictions. The treasure is desirable and yet to be shunned as the fruit of an older, less moral world. Metal artefacts are praised throughout the text in transparently ostentatious terms, being the hallmark of technology and civilisation of the time, and yet:

And so the Devil's dark urgings wound him, for he can't
Remember how he clung to the rotting wealth
Of this world, how he clawed to keep it, how he earned
No honour, no glory, in giving golden
Rings, how he forgot the future glory
God gave him at his birth, and forgetting did not care.
And finally his body fails him, these bones
And flesh quickened by God fall
And die—and some other soul inherits
His place in Heaven, some open-handed
Giver of old treasures, who takes no delight
In mere gold. Guard against such wickedness,
Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors,
And choose, instead, eternal happiness;
Push away pride!

The contradiction suggests trace elements of pre-Christian thought wherein poetic form struggles with message, or at least it does to me; although this serves to provide texture rather than necessarily being to the detriment of the whole. Whilst Beowulf is in some respects a morality tale of triumph over evil, the nature of each is probably open to interpretation. It's tempting to read certain details as the victory of civilisation over the more violent pagan world, but I'm not absolutely convinced of the text representing anything quite so simple or obvious. In other words, I'm still not entirely sure what any of this means, but I've had fun thinking about it; and reading it, which was unexpected.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Fire Upon the Deep

Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon the Deep (1992)

I recall enjoying Vinge's The Peace War, and had since kept one eye open for this on the grounds of it apparently being his magnum opus. However, referring back to my review of The Peace War, written many, many centuries ago as a series of standing stones in a field to the right of the A46 as you pass Stoneleigh heading in the direction of Finham sewerage treatment plant, and reprinted in this collection, I find that my memory has lied, and that while I regarded The Peace War as chock full of great ideas, I found it otherwise quite a dull book. Sadly A Fire Upon the Deep isn't much of an improvement.

To give credit where it's due, Vinge is clearly a dab hand at massive brain-strangling concepts, and is able to write about them without jumping up and down shouting look at me with all my ideas so big as to make Einstein look like a wanker! For starters, I understand - possibly incorrectly but I can't be arsed to look it up - that Vinge's name is synonymous with the concept of technological singularity, the point at which technology is able to produce something superior to itself, and the future becomes a much stranger place than we could ever hope to predict. A Fire Upon the Deep appears to explore this general idea with the Blight, a near omniscient power born from a technological singularity many centuries before the story begins. To this cake he adds a peculiar yet believable race of pseudo-canine gestalt creatures, the Tines, of which an individual comprises four or five animals operating as a pack, liberally icing the result with a galaxy layered into zones by differing laws of physics, some more conducive to faster than light travel and artificial intelligence than others.

It's astonishing stuff, sure enough, and if you're going to have space opera, then it really needs to strive for the sort of scale invoked here, but...

One hundred pages in and, excepting some of the chapters depicting the pseudo-mediaeval Tine society, I was mostly too bored to take much of it in. I had a look at Wikipedia in the hope of working out what I'd just read. It sounded fairly interesting, so I started again. Ultimately it was okay, I guess, at least in so much as I made it to the end, but I'm still not sure quite why it needed to be six-hundred pages long. I think the problem is that most of it is written more or less in what I have come to think of as Doctor Who casual, the grammar and syntax of a twenty-something media studies graduate who writes television tie-in fiction influenced more by telly than by anything of the medium in which he - and it usually is he - is working. It's the narrative equivalent of Comic Sans. There's not much in the way of poetry. And sentences beginning with and abound, seemingly signifying a fear of commas, and there are parentheses all over (always an indication of someone who can't be bothered) and there's something called a godshatter, and some bloke achieves mastery over all of reality at the end just like in an X-Men comic, dramatised of course by short non-sentences which don't actually do anything, but which presumably represent some sort of ham-fisted attempt at crossing stream of consciousness imagery with a Nicolas Roeg film. Like this. Irritating. Very bad. Utter shite, in fact.

It's not terrible so much as that it lacks flair, and is in this case additionally handicapped by the conceit of having an entire galaxy chatting away, explaining the plot to itself on an enormous star-spanning internet message board, which doubtless seemed very futuristic back in 1992. The book does it's job, but that's about all, and there's a certain lazy tone wherein people decide to check it out or to take a serious look at themselves, yeah? In this regard, Vinge is a low level offender, and he at least keeps enough of the narrative together to prevent it turning into Larry Niven, but at six-hundred pages it's still far too much of not enough.

A Fire Upon the Deep is not without value, but on the other hand even Peter F. Hamilton does this sort of thing better. Actually fuck it - even Lionel Fanthorpe did this better in Galaxy 666 which similarly intrudes upon regions of the universe with variant physical laws, and did so with more charm.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Galaxy 666

Pel Torro Galaxy 666 (1968)

Pel Torro is one of many pseudonyms by which the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, more recently the host of Fortean TV, churned out science-fiction for the Badger Books imprint at a reputed rate of one novel every twelve days. Fanthorpe was given title and cover painting, from which he would extrapolate an entire story, apparently hiding himself beneath a rug - presumably for the sake of focus - improvising his narratives onto a tape recorder for eventual transcription by someone with a typewriter. The resulting novels - and there are at least one-hundred and fifty of the things - are distinctive to say the least, plots heavy with laborious padding, random narrative swerves and inconsistencies, and a surreal quality not unlike that invoked by A.E. van Vogt doubtless arisen from similarly automatic methods of composition. Orbit One, written as Mel Jay, for example, is probably one of the strangest things I've ever read, an experience oddly akin to an angry Vietnamese person shouting an Asimov novel at you for a couple of hours; and by the way, I have experience of angry Vietnamese people so the image isn't just thrown out there for chuckles.

The internet generally chortles over Fanthorpe's pseudonymous pulps, treating them as a sort of written equivalent to Plan 9 from Outer Space, a guilty pleasure. Even given the conceit of Plan 9 from Outer Space as the worst film ever made - a consensus with which I disagree on the grounds that it's really just very, very dull - this seems unfair. Lionel Fanthorpe isn't a bad writer, just a very weird one which, given his working methodology, surely isn't that surprising. More surprising is that Galaxy 666 could easily have been the work of someone other than the author of Orbit One - hence perhaps the variant pseudonym - so I suppose it's simply that he enjoyed some commissions more than others. At least, he seems to have written more of himself into this one.

Peculiarly, more than anything else - and including the Star Trek television series transparently invoked by the cover - Galaxy 666 reads like a very weird revision of Plato's Republic in so much as most of it comprises four blokes stood around - or running around - one of them making observations whilst the others agree what good points have been made. Of course it's padding, but given Captain Bronet's tendency to draw comparison with all manner of sources - everything from the bible to The Pilgrim's Progress - as he ruminates on life, the universe, evolution, nature, and almost everything else, it doesn't read so much like padding as simply the work of a someone who is a bit odd. In fact, such is the conversational thrust of the text that comparisons with Harold Pinter and Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty monologues arise before there's any real suggestion of an author reaching out towards a specific page count. Unlike Plato's Republic - which is by the way the one Socratic dialogue with which I am familiar and therefore the one I mention here - the metaphysical musings of Galaxy 666, dispensed as our lads encounter and are taken prisoner by amorphous aliens, are fired off at random and as such don't necessarily follow any subtextual direction given that there obviously isn't one; so whilst the sum of these contemplative parts isn't necessarily anything profound, it does at least serve to keep things interesting.

Galaxy 666 is probably unlikely to get a Victor Gollancz reprint in the SF Masterworks series because it's simply too weird, but it's actually a half decent novel considering the circumstances of its generation, and is at least more engaging than a few supposed classics which spring to mind.