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.