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.