Monday, 19 June 2017

Art Sex Music


Cosey Fanni Tutti Art Sex Music (2017)
If the suggestion that any one thing ever changed my life holds any meaning, then Throbbing Gristle are probably right up there with Doctor Who and Asterix the Gaul, at least in terms of broadening my horizons. I bought the records, live tapes, and any fanzines I could find. At one point I was even writing long and, I suspect, extraordinarily juvenile letters to Cosey; and she wrote back - and replies in the plural running onto the second side of the sheet of paper before arriving at her distinctive signature with the first two letters of Cosey written so as to resemble a pair of knockers. So although I've sort of fallen out of love with that whole weirdy music thing to some extent, I couldn't really not read this, her autobiography.

I went fully off the boil with Chris & Cosey's music around the time of 1990's Pagan Tango. It sounded bland and uninspired to me, and still sounds bland and uninspired. I said much the same about their Union Chapel performance nearly a decade later in an issue of the Sound Projector, which supposedly got back to them and prompted raised eyebrows and frowning. Having once corresponded with Cosey, I felt slightly shitty about that, like I'd betrayed some trust; but the fact of it was that I genuinely believe they had lost the plot half way through recording Techno Primitiv, musically speaking, and after sitting through a couple of hours of it I just didn't feel like kissing arse. So tremendous guilt is to account for how much I really wanted this to be a great book, which unfortunately it isn't.

On the other hand, Art Sex Music isn't terrible either. Cosey has had an interesting life, more than her fair share of genuinely weird career twists, and I have the impression that she's a genuinely decent person - an impression garnered from the aforementioned correspondence and through our having a whole shitload of mutual friends, plus she likes cats; so the story itself is interesting, even fascinating in places, but something is perhaps lost in the telling.

Firstly, it's far too long for anything written in what occasionally resembles the prose of a footballer's autobiography in which I opened the door and there stood none other than my famous friend Ray Reardon, the snooker champion. Cosey doesn't actually seem to have known Ray Reardon, but she has even more famous friends than Grant Morrison, including at least two distantly mutual acquaintances I'd cross the fucking M6 during rush hour to avoid. One of the tosspots in question I recall turning up to our lectures at Maidstone Art College, neither student nor teacher but some forty-year old bloke from the town apparently interested in literature, poetry, performance, and screwing a string of vulnerable eighteen-year old girls who had fallen for his leather trousered sales pitch. The fucker still crops up everywhere, usually in association with Marc Almond for some reason, and here he is again; and there's another even bigger shitehawk who I'm not going to identify, and who has evidently somehow managed to Zelig his way into the Cosey Fanni Tutti narrative, thus briefly transforming me into Father Jack bellowing how did that gobshite get on the television? And I'm not even talking about Porridge here.

So there's that element, and also the stumbling block of my profound loathing for the art establishment with particular emphasis on performance art; and the fact of my having become a sort of amalgam of Hank Hill and Kenneth Clark when it comes to other people's sexuality, much of which I generally regard as ghastly, particularly free love and polygamy - this based mainly on everyone I've ever known to have swung on that particular vine being a complete fuck-up, emotionally speaking. Accordingly, I additionally found myself skipping the accounts of Cosey's career as a stripper. I just couldn't bring myself to read it, and instead found myself turning up the volume on the television and telling the boy to go to his room.

I suppose one might justifiably wonder why I read the book at all; but, in spite of the above reservations - or my musty hillbilly prejudices, depending on how you look at it - I've always liked Cosey. I think she's interesting and has been involved in some great music; and I've always enjoyed Throbbing Gristle, and it's good to read a version of their story which doesn't revolve around it all having been Porridge's idea. Genesis doesn't come out of this very well, as you may have heard, and while I've seen it suggested that Tutti is herself not without a certain bias, I have my doubts. Her testimony seems balanced and consistent with what I know of her through both mutual friends and our ancient correspondence. Whatever flaws she may exhibit, the preservation of any of her own delusions doesn't appear to be a factor. I haven't read Simon Ford's Wreckers of Civilisation*, but it seems to have come to represent a version of the Gristle story which this account sets straight, and that at least has to be a good thing. Art Sex Music isn't an amazing autobiography as I've seen claimed by a few industrial music arse-kissers, but it describes an arguably amazing life and is nevertheless worth a look, and I might even be persuaded to pick up some of those more recent Carter Tutti discs as a result.

*: I met Simon Ford around a friend's house, and he was introduced to me as someone writing a book about Throbbing Gristle. He asked me if I had a copy of the Adrenalin 7" single which he needed for reference. Given that said single really wasn't that difficult to get hold of, then costing about fifteen quid from Record & Tape Exchange, and that we're referring to a single by a band about whom he was supposedly writing an entire book, it didn't fill me with confidence in his efforts.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Dead Souls


Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (1842)
Here's another one picked up as part of a vague ongoing effort to edumacate myself with regard to literature 'n' shit, the hook in this instance being that I'd heard of it because Joy Division had a song presumably named after it, albeit a song which Nine Inch Nails did better. Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between Gogol and Ian Curtis pleading for these dreams to be taken away, specifically the dreams which point him to another day. Indeed, the work of Joy Division seems at quite a remove to Gogol's dark yet amiable chortlefest. So as not to appear completely superficial, I would additionally like it to be taken into consideration that the chap on the cover of this edition vaguely resembles my friend Andrew, and that seemed like another good reason to read the thing.

In case it isn't obvious, my understanding of literary history is sketchy at best, and particularly sketchy when it comes to nineteenth century Russians. I read Crime and Punishment but I didn't like it much. Thankfully Dead Souls is written with a lighter touch, despite what might be anticipated from the title. Key to understanding what is going on here is the setting of rural serfdom in Tsarist Russia, a system in which commoners were regarded as part and parcel of the land upon which they lived, and therefore property of the landowner. Said landowners were required to pay tax upon their incumbent serfs, with the numbers being based on the most recent census figures, regardless of how many listed on the most recent census remain amongst the living. Our man Chichikov discovers there are economic advantages to ownership of a large quota of serfs, and so travels the countryside buying the deeds to those who have snuffed it, but whose deaths have not yet been taken into account by the most recent census. In other words, it begins as a satire on economics and the capitalist systems which allow for this kind of absurdist number crunching, expanding gradually into a farcical critique of class, privilege, and society built on the flimsiest of mutually observed concepts. In fact, it's almost Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle with better jokes and founded on the basic suggestion that we, as readers, might like to consider waking the fuck up every once in a while.

Thus these two citizens lived off by themselves until, now, toward the end of our story, they've popped up like faces in a window, and they've popped up like that to help me answer, in all modesty, the accusations of ardent patriots who, up until now, have been occupied in philosophical speculation or in the accumulation of money at the expense of the mother country they love so dearly. They don't give a damn whether or not their actions are harmful to the country; the only thing that worries them is that someone might say they're harming it.

No, it's neither patriotism nor even honest emotion that lies at the root of their accusations. Something else is concealed here. Why beat about the bush? Who's going to tell the truth if not the writer? So here goes: You're all afraid of a probing eye, afraid of looking thoughtfully into anything; all of you prefer to let your blank stare skim the surface of things.

The great success of Dead Souls is in its bumbling and overly fussy thrust, with Gogol - if we assume this to be a generally faithful translation - utilising the rambling tone of a folk tale strewn with absurdist tangents, obsessive conversational detail, and authorial interjections mulling over the actual telling of the story; so even when we're not quite sure what's happening - because Chichikov's motivation often seems obscure - we don't mind too much because there's plenty of other stuff to consider.

In some respects I suppose you might say it's like Dickens but without the cloying sentiment, although Dead Souls has sentiment of its own, presumably informed by Gogol having written the novel in Italy, flavouring his narrative with an exile's regard for his homeland which is both affectionate and faintly acerbic.

Legend has it that Gogol wrote a follow up to this, his best selling hit single, but this time incorporating characters with redeeming features; then destroyed the thing in a fit of self-recrimination. Personally I'd say the allegorically dead souls of the book do their respective jobs very well and have no more need of redeeming features than the novel ever required a sequel. Would that the Joy Division version had been so witty.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Sebastian O


Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Sebastian O (1993)
I had these, then flogged them on eBay whilst raising the funds which would allow me to ship all of my crap to America. Apparently I had a quick shufty through the three issues of this limited series and decided Sebastian O was less than essential, and so off to market it went along with a whole load of other crap I knew I would never read again. Inevitably I eventually came to wonder if I'd not been a little hasty in this financially motivated purge. Of course, I knew there was no good reason I'd ever wish to reacquaint myself with the Invisibles or Preacher or any of that other spooky self-harming landfill which Vertigo did so adequately; but I really had to think about Sebastian O and whether or not it belonged in amongst my collection, and then the bargain bucket at Half Price Books helped in the re-evaluation of my decision - all three issues, three dollars: very nice.

When one is tired of Oscar Wilde rip offs, it's perhaps not that one is tired of life so much as that one is simply tired of Oscar Wilde ripped off without due recourse to wit, like I just fucking said.

See!

I just wrote that.

It's a piece of piss; and that's the problem with Sebastian O.

So here we have some sort of steampunk romp grounded in material which had become clichéd even by 1993 - Victorian computers and so on and so forth; and a steampunk romp starring Sebastian O, a character combining Morrison's continued attempts to channel Jerry Cornelius with his fascination for wisecracking dandy bad lads, which is quite possibly an aspirational thing if our boy's bloody awful autobiography is any indication. So we get a few recycled bits and pieces from Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans and the rest because, let's face it, not too many Sandman fans will have bothered with any of that stuff and it's easy enough to fake. Except actually it really isn't. Oscar's zingers might seem like a piece of piss to the untrained ear because even a horse can work out the mechanism of the gag, but that level of wit is actually quite difficult to do well and to get right for the exact same reason that no-one will ever mistake an Oasis record for the Beatles. Bluntly, whilst Grant Morrison is not lacking in nous and has proven himself more than capable of cracking off an amusingly outré sentence when required, he's no Oscar Wilde. Nor is he even Michael Moorcock, for that matter, so the wit upon which this story hinges simply isn't quite so razor sharp as it believes itself to be, just as those Johnny Rotten impersonations set forth on Steve Wright in the Afternoon always left something to be desired.

On the other hand, I doubt any of this matters because it's drawn by Steve Yeowell and is thus beautiful beyond comparison, regardless of what unjustified smirking may occur within the text. Taking a positive view, the story is competent at least in the same sense of most modern Doctor Who being competent, sort of, and much like Sebastian O himself, its failings are mostly eclipsed by its ravishing good looks.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Pirates of Zan


Murray Leinster The Pirates of Zan (1959)
Further works of Murray Leinster continue to surprise even as I excavate them from the shelves of second hand book stores - something of a rescue and preservation mission because, let's be honest here, if the great Murray Leinster revival was ever a likelihood, it would have happened by now. Lacking big ideas or fancy concepts at quite the same scale as those of better remembered authors, it's no great mystery why Leinster seems to have sunk into obscurity; but considering the fun he obviously had writing this stuff, it really seems a shame - not least because he actually could write, unlike some I might mention.

The Pirates of Zan stars a man who may as well be your archetypal Gernsbackian science-hero, a talented electronics engineer suffering an ignominious life against the backdrop of a variety of backwards cultures; but the logic of the narrative and the peculiar twists and turns it follows as though trying to throw the reader off the scent, remind me a lot of A.E. van Vogt - which is naturally a recommendation.

On Walden, to be sure, the level of civilisation was so high that most people took to psychiatric treatments so they could stand it, and the neurotics vastly outnumbered the more normal folk. But on Walden, electronics was only a way to make a living, like piracy, and there was no more fun to be had out of being civilised.

Our man takes flight to a feudal world, engaging in swashbuckling of a kind which involves princesses and his own pirate ancestry, and the whole enterprise flips around and over with such frequency as to feel a little like farce, or at least satire; and yet whilst the prose might occasionally smirk at its own wry turn of phrase, there's never quite any giggling, neither a nod nor a wink to give the game away. Assuming The Pirates of Zan to be at least partially satirical, I'm still not entirely sure what it's about, if it's about any one thing. Leinster is clearly taking the piss out of economics, capitalism, and the society in which he was living, but the focus remains vague and playful, which renders the novel a thankfully decent, if occasionally puzzling read.

The Last Days of Animal Man


Gerry Conway, Chris Batista & Dave Meikis
The Last Days of Animal Man (2010)

It looked good in the shop: Brian Bolland covers making knowing reference to Grant Morrison's thoroughly mental run on the book, pleasantly clean lines from Batista and Meikis, and the intriguing possibility of a popular character shoved through the narrative mangle as happens in most of the best caped stuff - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Grunewald's Captain America handed his P45 and so on...

What we have here is Buddy Baker losing his powers, which translates as a comic book having a mid-life crisis, but one written quite definitively for an audience with a reading age of about twelve. So we also have super-types fighting whilst talking, angry villains swearing vengeance and doing that face you do when you're trying to push out the first turd to take its leave of your bottom in five or six days, and we have a sense of humour which makes your average episode of Friends look like Jerry Sadowitz, and all adding up to a load of horseshit about the importance of family and being yourself. I suppose it might seem unfair, my taking such issue with something so obviously aimed at younger readers, but on the other hand I've read plenty of stuff aimed at kids which managed to do its job just fine without expecting me to make allowances; so balls. The Last Days of Animal Man isn't the worst comic book I've ever read, but it almost makes those bloody awful Jerry Prosser issues seem mysterious and alluring.

Most positive reviews I've seen of this thing seem to focus on the guest appearance of a Green Lantern who is actually a whale, which is a nice idea, but no substitute for being able to tell a story, or at least a story other than the same fucking one wheeled out for every film in which Michael J. Fox ever appeared.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Burroughs File


William S. Burroughs The Burroughs File (1984)
I realise Burroughs isn't everyone's cup of tea, although he's generally mine which is why I'm surprised to have found so little satisfaction in this collection of his one-off bits and pieces culled from obscure magazines or other similarly esoteric sources. I suspect the problem is that I'm accustomed to reading cut-up text in the context of either novels or collections put together by the man himself, the man who understands best how they work, and whether or not it's just a load of words. Exterminator!, for example, might be described as thirty unrelated pieces including cut-ups, certainly nothing the author seems to have intended to work as a novel, and yet the balance is just right. The cut-ups alternate with more traditional forms of prose with a rhythm which seems to take account of the likelihood of readers' losing patience or growing bored, and so somehow it holds together as a single coherent piece, even if not as a novel as such.

Here we mostly have material which was written to be read either in isolation, or in isolation by virtue of nothing else of the same author appearing amongst the original adjacent pages; but I'm nevertheless reading them as a collection of thematically similar pieces all crammed together in one place; which for the most part just serves to highlight how repetitive Bill could be at times, and how cut-ups really shouldn't read as though they are just random assemblages of words and phrases, which I deduce from the fact that I usually get a bit more from them.

That said, there are a few pieces which more or less justify having this thing on one's shelf, mostly provocative prose essays serving to remind us why we might choose to read Burroughs in the first place. Also there's a section reproducing pages from Bill's cut-up scrapbooks which are visually fascinating; but otherwise, The Burroughs File is one of those books you tend to feel you should have rather than something you're going to be dipping into for years to come, unless you're just too weird for your own good.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Birmingham Nouveau


Alan Mahar (editor) Birmingham Nouveau (2002)
It probably says something unfortunate about the city of Birmingham - West Midlands rather than Alabama - that it's taken me fifteen years to get around to reading this themed collection of short stories. Birmingham was the nearer of two big cities when I was a kid. I found the place oppressive and terrifying, vast and dark and smoky with weird accents and a street layout which made no sense, seemingly having more in common with H.P. Lovecraft and the Bermuda Triangle than yer regular town planning. So I wasn't drawn to this volume, despite having been slipped a freebie by John Mulcreevy. He'd already sent me Birmingham Noir, the previous collection from Tindal Street Press, and I think I'd read a couple of stories and just never quite warmed to it; or it could have been me, given my reading age of the time combined with a general reluctance to read things lacking a Doctor Who logo on the cover.

Anyway, I hadn't even managed to flog Birmingham Nouveau on eBay during the great purges of 2010, so there it was, still in the spare room at my mother's house making me feel guilty; and as though to prove what a pillock I am, and how poor is my sense of judgement, I found the collection about a thousand times more entertaining than Going Postal. John Wagstaff's An Air Kiss represents an astonishing opening story, a tale where the main character really is the city itself - the sort of claim which is often made but rarely fulfilled. You can almost taste the amalgam of chill morning air and diesel as roadworks kick off in neighbouring streets. It should be a tough act to follow, but the rest make a good job of it for the most part. I found Richard Lutz's The Girl with Blue-Black Hair a bit unconvincing, but otherwise there's nothing which gives you any reason to stop reading. A pleasing sense of humour informs most of the book without necessarily feeling it has to dig you in the ribs to make sure you get it, and this tendency is given its fullest expression in M. Idrees Kayani's riotous King of the Baltis:

A chorus of laughter erupted from all those present to which Mazar Khan raised his hands and bowed in courtesy. Mazar, often known as Mad Mazar, because he worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week, just so he could build an elaborate mansion in his hometown of Mirpur, a place that he hoped never to see again. The reason for constructing such a building was so his relatives could marvel at its size and comment on how well he was doing in England.

There are twenty short stories here - notably stories of exactly the right length so nothing gets to outstay its welcome or start on the extended guitar solos - encompassing all times, places and people in the history of a city which the collection obliges you to re-evaluate, or at least obliged me to re-evaluate; and Ava Ming's Lena actually made me cry, which isn't something that happens often. I'm very impressed.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Going Postal


Terry Pratchett Going Postal (2004)
Once again I find myself in a foreign country, specifically the one in which I was born and staying at my mother's house. I'm travelling light so I haven't brought anything to read, which is okay because my mother has a ton of books. Unfortunately I'm jetlagged to buggery and I'm not going to be up to anything overly demanding, so Terry Pratchett it is - light, genuinely witty, well written and well told being my expectations. Of course, he wrote a million Discworld novels so they can't all be classics, but the consensus is that Going Postal was definitely one of the good ones.

It delivers more or less everything promised by the reputation which has cohered within my expectation gland, and I can sort of identify with at least some of it, having myself been a postman for two decades. The characters are rounded, pleasurably comical without becoming annoying; the concepts and situations demonstrate ludicrous ingenuity - rewiring the internet for a pseudo-medieaval society as something involving semaphore signals, that sort of thing...

Going Postal reads like a work of elegant genius, and yet whilst I'm able to appreciate this, somehow it became a trudge. Maybe it was the jetlag. Maybe it was the page count - higher than I'm accustomed to in what Discworld novels I've read. I enjoyed it, and it made me laugh, and I can find no fault with any of it; but somehow I thought I was going to enjoy this one a whole lot more.

Monday, 22 May 2017

New Writings in SF 2


John Carnell (editor) New Writings in SF 2 (1964)
It seems oddly fitting that I should come to this directly after reading Ask the Dust wherein Fante's Arturo Bandini acquires sufficient literary stock as to attract the attention of a hopeful:

It was a manuscript of some sort. I took it from her hands. It was a short story by Samuel Wiggins, general delivery, San Juan, California. It was called Coldwater Gatling, and it began like this: 'Coldwater Gatling wasn't looking for trouble but you never can tell about those Arizona rustlers. Pack your cannon high on the hip and lay low when you see one of them babies. The trouble with trouble was that trouble was looking for Coldwater Gatling. They don't like Texas rangers down in Arizona, consequently Coldwater Gatling figured shoot first and find out who you killed afterwards. That's how they did it in the Lone Star State where men were men and women didn't mind cooking for hard-riding straight-shooting people like Coldwater Gatling, the toughest man in leather they had down there.'

That was the first paragraph.

'Hogwash,' I said.

I somehow had one of these myself a couple of years ago, a guy who worked with my wife and sent me the first chapter of his fantasy novel.

Mental concentration and discipline are important attributes for a wizard. They are requirements if one wishes to be a successful and long-living wizard. Such was the case for Hailaden, whose eyes and mind were focused on the soft white glow before him. The crystal orb, roughly a foot in length but looking like a large odd-shaped egg, sat in its small wooden pedestal in front of him. In its light, the lines on his face and the gray in his beard diminished, and his countenance took on an almost youthful appearance.

It wasn't so much that it lacked ideas of any value, but that the grammar was often just so fucking weird and crap as to render the thing almost incomprehensible. The author didn't seem like a bad guy, and I felt he might be able to tell a decent - if admittedly not wildly original - story if he could just get hold of his sentences; so I spent a couple of days going through the thing, pointing out what didn't work, which passages were too long, unnecessary, or lacking clear purpose, which sentences read as though translated into Japanese, then Swahili, then back into English. He thanked me for the time I spent then explained to my wife that I simply hadn't understood because I'm a science-fiction writer and therefore unfamiliar with the conventions of his chosen genre.

All this crap belongs - in my mind - to a genre I have labelled dinnerpunk. The label now seems ridiculous and crappy, which in turn probably makes it entirely fitting. It refers to fiction written by a person who shouldn't be writing fiction, usually an Alan Partridge level bore who has noticed how all those arty farty types and fairies seem to get published and has therefore decided that it can't be all that hard. He comes up with a story whilst smoking his pipe in the garden as a long-suffering wife prepares dinner, and it will usually be a load of half-assed and oddly parochial espionage bollocks, and there will almost always be a character identified only as the Colonel. People will look at other people and ask 'you can't mean,' their question curtailed by an ominous 'yes! I'm rather afraid that is exactly the situation, old top.'

New Writings in SF, of which I gather there were a couple of volumes, boldly published original short science-fiction tales which hadn't already seen in print in the usual magazines. Of the eight stories here, the first five are the worst kind of creaking dinnerpunk, G.L. Lack's Rogue Leonardo for one example.

Trafford smiled at the young curator. With her severe straight smock and short tightly curled hair she was typical of the rising generation of women, many in positions of responsibility by the age of twenty-five, giving their husbands time for research.

...or John Rankine's Maiden Voyage for another:

He liked the way her bottom moved in the tight blue-grey cheongsam and he was wondering if he ought to pinch it, when the debate was cut short by their arrival at the bronze doors which filled the end of the white passage.

Jesus.

Where Dag was tall and lanky, he was short and inclined to be spherical. In fact in a spacesuit he looked rather like an old time advert for Michelin Tyres.

Do you see what I mean?

To be fair the last three stories are decent, notably Steve Hall's faintly peculiar and experimental A Round Billiard Table, but otherwise this is the stuff which people who don't read science-fiction think science-fiction is like, which is why they don't read it and which is quite understandable.

This felt like a fucking route march for the first hundred or so pages. John Carnell used to edit New Worlds, so I expected better.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Ask the Dust


John Fante Ask the Dust (1939)
I first heard this guy's name on crackly old tapes of Bukowski readings in which Chuck occasionally took a break from burping, swearing, or describing a memorable hangover to tell his audience that they should be reading John Fante. Not knowing the name I assumed he was some younger, up and coming dude whose works had struck a chord with the Mighty One; but it turns out that it was the other way round, Fante being an earlier writer, one whose fame should perhaps have extended further than it did and who had served as an inspiration to Bukowski.

I had this book in my possession over ten years and somehow never got around to reading it, otherwise I would have realised the above. Rob Colson, one of the Seaton Point authors, lent it to me and then we lost touch; and shit happened, and we eventually found touch and I'll hopefully be seeing him for a pint in a week or so; and so of course it occurred to me that I should maybe get around to reading the thing before I return it.

It's not hard to see how Fante influenced Bukowski's writing. It's the same tight prose, clipped, functional and yet conveying nuances of mood and psychological subtext with a poetry that might be lost in any more floridly composed narrative. Similarly Fante's world is one of hacks, bums, and losers somehow maintaining their dignity regardless of shitty circumstances. There's a kind of romance, but nothing so cheap as sentiment.

I'm assuming Ask the Dust is at least partially autobiographical given that the main character is a struggling author lugging his typewriter around a succession of cheap rooms and dive bars, and although the territory is familiar from the novels of his more famous successor, the narrative follows quite a different course to the sort of thing Bukowski tended to write. Our boy is living off the precarious fame and earnings of having a short story published in some magazine when he falls into a love-hate relationship with a Latina working in a bar. Surprisingly though - at least to me - the guy's first short story leads to a second, then a novel and a big fat cheque with which he buys a house; but the riches seem sketchy and insubstantial, just background detail to his strained relationships with women and the not entirely appreciated admiration of Sammy, who also wants to be an author, but who writes the worst shit you've ever read. Ultimately our boy's success doesn't seem to add up to much.

Cliché though it may seem, Ask the Dust is a tale of beautiful losers, or at least losers who somehow retain their dignity in the face of adversity, and declaring it a lost twentieth century classic wouldn't be an understatement. That said, it's not without problems - our author's success doesn't feel entirely convincing, particularly not the part in which he suddenly buys a house, and Camilla's decent into reefer madness reads a bit like one of those public information films of the fifties warning about the debauched existence of the dope fiend - although that may be something to do with Fante just wanting to get published; but then neither of these details really get in the way of this being an exceptionally well written book; so Bukowski was right, just like always.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Star Winds


Barrington J. Bayley Star Winds (1978)
This is the point at which I stumble and fly arse over tit in my mad scramble to embrace Bayley as my new favourite author that you've never heard of, the fervour of which is informed by my not really having heard of him until fairly recently. The big ideas are all here within a thoroughly well-cemented setting, either a remote mediaeval future or variant history reading as swashbuckling fantasy - which I write without the faintest idea of what a swash might be or why it should require buckling. We sail to the stars in old time galleons with sails made from a material which catches the ether like wind, the hulls of our vessels caulked so as to keep in the air; except we don't sail to the stars any more because we're running out of the stuff from which the sails are woven and it can't be made on Earth on account of how we're too close to the sun. Our hero therefore sails to Mars. No-one has been there for a couple of generations, and rumour has it that Mars is of sufficient distance from the sun as to allow for manufacture of those magic sails; and this in turn leads to a voyage further out into the depths of space in search of the philosopher's stone. All that bollocks about atoms has been proven false and we're now in a new age of alchemy, in case it wasn't already obvious.

So the ideas are great. The problem is that the book just isn't very interesting. I'm not even sure why this should be given the fantastic setting and scenarios, but it just seemed to go on for a couple of hundred pages and then stop without having really said anything. In truth, whilst technically perfectly adequate, Star Winds feels a little phoned-in, like Bayley wasn't quite sure what to do with the story once he'd got past the initial excitement of such a peculiar premise. Given the dramatically increased quota of science fiction titled with Star prefixing a second noun in the immediate wake of Star Wars, and that Star Winds reads like it really just wants to romp, I'm inclined to wonder if Bayley wasn't just trying to get a few bills paid here; which is a shame because this novel should have been amazing.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Seaton Point


Robert Dellar, Ted Curtis, Rob Colson etc.
Seaton Point (1998)

This is a collaborative novel cooked up between seven different authors, each presumably contributing a passage here, a passage there, editing each other's work and so on. The process of its creation hasn't exactly made for a smooth narrative, but then that's the whole point, relating more to oral traditions of storytelling because it is forgotten that the modern novel of single authorship came into being only in the modern era, as we are told in the introduction.

I thought it might be stranger than it was to read this now. Robert Dellar, who instigated this enterprise, was a good friend who recently passed on at the age of fifty-two, someone I've known for decades. It was odd to realise that I'd never read this book while he was alive, and when we last spoke and the subject came up he was surprised that he'd never got around to slipping me a copy. I think it was simply that my attention had been elsewhere when the thing saw print. I knew of it mainly through the involvement of Rob Colson, with whom I travelled to Mexico in 2005, and I've known all but two of the other writers in a social context at various points of our respective lives. So I suppose there has always been the worry that I might hate the thing for whatever reason.

Roughly speaking, Seaton Point captures the psychological landscape in which a few of us were living for much of the eighties, nineties, and beyond. I was never quite part of a gang, but a lot of my friends seemed to be people who had fallen into the orbit of the Brougham Road squatting community in Hackney, London - loosely coalesced around bands such as the Apostles and the Assassins of Hope and numerous fanzines. They were, I suppose, my Andy Warhol's Factory crowd, my beat poets, my Bromley contingent - but hopefully without too many of the wankier associations summoned by any of those references - so, even in 2017 with me living on a different side of the planet, these are probably my people in so much as I ever had people. Andy of the Apostles would have called us the dispossessed, which seems as good a term as any; and so Seaton Point is inhabited by those left behind, the horrible fuckers who couldn't fit in if they tried, those rejected as lacking redeeming or interesting artistic qualities even by those making arts council funded punk documentaries, the working class as we were known in less aspirational times, the nutters, the weirdos, the alkies, the transexual vampires...

The narrative lurches in and out of reality, much in the same way as reality itself tends to do if you're paying attention, and so we have drugs, sex, violence, toilet humour, and psychogeography drafted in to tell of an ancient demon imprisoned in the basement of a tower block, a man trapped in an elevator in the same surviving on mystic yoghurt dispensed from a spigot, and their bid for freedom. With seven authors at the wheel, there are a lot of characters flying around, not all of them entirely likeable and it's easy to get lost, but I'm not sure it matters whether or not one is able to keep track of every last name, because the point still works despite the confusion.

Blokey sat in flat 67, his earplugs partly protecting him from the onslaught of industrial electronic bollocks about fascist barbarian armies rolling across the icy wastes of Northern Europe. As one million decibels of tripe by Coil vomited mercilessly from the speakers, the dice man stroked the sawn-off shotgun lying across his lap as if it were a furry animal.

That's my favourite paragraph, and I suspect it came from Dellar given his generally poor regard of industrial electronic bollocks. I've  read a few things by Ted Curtis, notably the exceptional Darkening Light, as well as Rob Colson's brilliant - at least from what I can remember - Descent of a Man, which he really needs to get into print one of these days; so I recognise occasional elements which remind me of specific contributors, but the focus remains, as ever, on the story which may be taken as an explanation as to why everything is shit, if you like, or if you don't like, then there are plenty of chuckles, albeit often unusually dark chuckles. My first thought was that this is Rachel Redhead rewriting Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go as a sequel to Trainspotting, which as a recommendation should probably be taken all three ways, assuming you can appreciate that as a recommendation. Martin Amis is invoked in the introduction, although not in particularly glowing terms. I haven't actually read any Martin Amis, but I've read plenty of Will Self and I'm told it's the same thing; so if you like, this is Will Self with less public school and more diarrhoea blah blah Rabelais blah blah Hogarth blah blah Reader's Wives - I'm sure it can't be too hard to work out what I'm saying here; and it has the greatest closing sentence of any novel I've ever read, which I won't give away for obvious reasons.

Seaton Point is both horrible and brilliant, and arguably a record of an era of human experience presently getting airbrushed from history as the nostalgia industry grows and grows, replacing more and more of what actually happened with Stewart Maconie chortling away over how they changed the name of Opal Fruits to Starburst. In this sense it's probably also an important book, but you wouldn't want to say it to its face.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Journey to the Goat Star


Brian Aldiss Journey to the Goat Star (1991)
This was quite a nice find, just fifty pages and evidently one of a series of short stories published by Pulphouse as self-contained paperbacks, others in the range having been by Poul Anderson, Michael Bishop, Joe Haldeman and so on. That said, I've generally loved the novels of Brian Aldiss whilst hating most of his short stories for one reason or another, but every so often he comes out with one which reads like a novel, or which is at least bereft of Space Vikings or special kinds of atom. Journey to the Goat Star probably isn't quite top ten, but it's weird enough to be worth a look. Our story opens with a theoretical physicist brained at his writing desk by a burglar, a burglar who, noticing that which the theoretical physicist was writing, waits for his victim to come round and then engages him in debate on the subjects of matter as consciousness and the nature of reality as supposedly examined in the art of Georges Braque.

He turned earnestly back into the room, gesturing with his hands. 'Braque's shadows have substance, while the whole substance suddenly turns out to be a shadow of it. Forms are flattened, flatness has form. Planes merge, what is opaque becomes transparent and vice versa. Lines define nothing, yet everything is defined. If that isn't a vivid picture of contemporary science—execute before the first World War—then I don't know what is...'

This is also a description of how Aldiss tells the story, roughly speaking, which blends seemingly unrelated scenarios into one another - the forty-six year voyage to a distant star, psychoanalysis of a child rejected by parents - using coincidence and repeating thematic patterns to imagine our first meeting with an extraterrestrial intelligence. At least I think that's what it does. Journey to the Goat Star is bewildering and yet somehow left me with the feeling of having understood something, even if the above is as good a description as I can manage. It also makes me wonder if I've been expecting too much traditional sense from those of his other short stories which I found such a chore. Maybe I need to take another look.

Monday, 1 May 2017

She


H. Rider Haggard She (1887)
It's probably all those references in Alan Moore's Extraordinary Gentlemen which imprinted me with the thought that I might read this, which seems otherwise a little out of my way. I encountered a copy in a Rockport used book store which looked as though it might once have been a cow shed, and might even still be a cow shed on certain days, and I asked myself what's the worst that could happen? I vaguely recall seeing the film of She with Peter Cushing at some point, but never really cared enough to consider whether it might be based on anything, and yet here I am. Despite its status as the best selling novel ever - or whatever it says on the internet - I had a feeling I might not like it much. It sounds a bit Indiana Jones, and I never saw the appeal of him either.

She is a vaguely immortal white woman who somehow landed the job of Queen in a lost underground African civilisation, as encountered by a couple of adventuresome Cambridge chaps. In many ways it's of its time, as they say, although to be fair, it has much more going on than might be expected of a colonial Victorian novel. She was written at the height of both the British empire and faith in its civilising influence - give or take some small change - an era of social and scientific upheaval. Western society was only just beginning to get to grips with the idea of world history beyond the usual Biblical or classical realms. Jean-François Champollion and Karl Richard Lepsius had expanded Egyptology to an unprecedented understanding of ancient civilisation in general, and W.H. Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico had awakened public interest in cultures across the other side of the globe; colonial forces were exporting a steady stream of looted arts and crafts back to the European capitals where they would soon cast their influence upon Picasso, Braque and others; Darwin was shaking things up in his own way, and western society was beginning to at least understand why social reform might not be such a terrible thing.

What surprised me most about She is Haggard's acknowledgement of Africa's past as home to innumerable developed and sophisticated civilisations at least equal to their European contemporaries. Of course most of Africa's history has been ravaged, looted, and subsequently bulldozed flat so as to make way for the myth of superstitious cannibals in mud huts requiring our civilising influence and thus allowing us to feel a bit better about both the slave trade and the wholesale destruction of more or less an entire continent. Unfortunately Haggard's take on this was a present day reality of degenerate races who, having fallen from grace, were probably better off with us lot in charge; but in his favour he tends to propose such views as opinion rather than actively rewriting history; so the racism is low level, arguably understandable given the author's heritage, and with nothing shoved in your face too hard. Indeed, most of his attitudes to race are expressed as a fairly simple fear of the unknown, which at least works in context of an adventure without leaving too foul a taste. He praises as much as he condemns, and it seems clear that his overriding motive is to instil both his tale and his readers with a genuine sense of wonder regarding the ancient world and how it relates to the modern. This still leaves us with a race of spear-chucking cannibals who have somehow chosen a white woman for their Queen, but I've nevertheless read worse.

I've seen Haggard's prose criticised as clumsy, but for the most part I found it highly enjoyable, even engrossing in places, although it probably helps if you enjoy overwrought Victorians who have to describe every last fucking thing in pornographic detail and who never quite worked out where to finish a sentence; and it's Haggard's prose which keeps this thing moving along, at least up to the point at which we meet Ayesha, and they all take to standing around having rhetorical conversations in an Arabic language, here rendered as Marvel Shakespearean with all the yonder and thou hast and methinks. It's the yacking which unfortunately spoils the book for me, downgrading it to a chore. There's so much of it, page after page and mostly dull as fuck, and somehow none of it saying anything particularly interesting - which is a shame considering the potential for discourse on the subjects of race, mythology, and so on; because I suspect if She is actually about anything, it's Haggard's lament for the passing of mythology and mysticism, represented by Ayesha herself withering in the harsh dawn of science and the world to come, or something along those lines.

In terms of literary equivalents to Jim Davidson jokes, She barely registers at all when sat next to Lovecraft's party political broadcasts on behalf of the UK Independence Party, and there's a lot to like about the first half of the book, at least until her indoors shows up and it all turns to crap; which was possibly the other point H. Rider Haggard was trying to make, but never mind.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Breakfast of Champions


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Back in my days of being what has come to be described as a Marvel zombie, fiftieth issues of any given comic were usually celebrated with an expanded page count and a load of unexpected monkeying around with established characters - someone back from the dead, someone quits the team to concentrate on his ice hockey, Irony Girl marries the Sarcasmatron, and so on. Here, approaching his fiftieth birthday, Kurt Vonnegut sort of did the same thing, reviving Kilgore Trout, the pulp science-fiction author from Slaughterhouse Five, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and others, expressly in the name of clearing his head of all the junk, as he puts it.

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly—to insult the Star Spangled Banner, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen. To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole:



Accordingly the novel is illustrated with felt-tipped pen scribbles, and Vonnegut introduces himself into the narrative, interacting with Trout and the others and explaining why he created them. So it's kind of a mess, but then that's probably what you expect with Vonnegut, and it is at least an educational and entertaining mess offered in summary of how the world actually works:

The man who told me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.

And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them—with an abbreviation which means sameness without end.

The proper ending for any story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation, which I now write large because I feel like it, which is this one:



In other words, everything is connected by one means or another, which is why Vonnegut writes how he writes with all of the digressions and synchronicity, making connections and points which might not otherwise be obvious.

I had no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist. I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid. I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

But is it any good, one might reasonably ask. It's very funny and very readable, but it somehow lacks the craft of Slaughterhouse Five - which is made apparent by how similar the two novels are in certain respects. This one differs with Vonnegut breaking the fourth wall, entering his own novel to spell out why he wrote it. It feels too easy. Back when I was at school, we had an English assignment which meant writing a book over the space of a term, or something which could reasonably be called a book. I waited until the night before we were due to hand something in then cobbled together some twenty or so pages with paper, felt-tipped pens and selotape on the subject of how my book was kind of shit and probably looked as though it had been scrabbled together at last minute; which is kind of what Breakfast of Champions reminds me of. It's good, but it just isn't as satisfying as it should have been.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dusty Sideboard #1


John Bagnall Dusty Sideboard #1 (2017)
I wouldn't ordinarily review a single issue of a comic book, there usually being a limit to what can be said about anything under thirty pages, but sometimes you have to make an exception and this is just such an occasion.

Dusty Sideboard is more of John Bagnall's highly-stylised exploration of something which isn't quite nostalgia, although it comes close. The art is, as always, very much its own language - as arrestingly timeless as any ancient Egyptian or Mexican mural, yet with the kind of warm silence which makes it possibly the closest visual analogy to the poetry of Ivor Cutler that I've seen. Bagnall explores the world of his youth - and my youth for that matter - but this is something quite different to Peter Kay tittering over spangles and Fireball XL5. Dusty Sideboard evokes a world which has almost entirely slipped away by this point, a world of social interaction, physical objects, and very little else because that was enough. It's affectionate - although pleasantly musty is probably the better term given the lack of sentiment, or at least excessive sentiment - and yet eschews the usual rose-tinted focus on collectibles to instead perfectly capture the atmosphere of a lost England, something I'd describe as the language of society as was if I weren't so worried about how pretentious that may sound. Bagnall's observations regarding jokes cracked by milkmen, apprenticeships, and tea dances are spot on and strangely moving, and a style of art one might imagine would be quite limited turns out to be extraordinarily expressive when required - sort of like Dan Clowes but without the cynicism; so no - it isn't quite nostalgia so much as the preservation of something seemingly inconsequential which should be remembered before it's gone entirely. I hope this is the first of many because it's one of the most powerful independent comics I think I've ever seen.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Batman: I Am Gotham


Tom King, David Finch & others Batman: I Am Gotham (2017)
I have to confess I've never really given much of a shit about Batman. I loved The Dark Knight Returns obviously, not only because both art and writing were great, but because a character who routinely smashes kneecaps as means to a judicial end only really works as an antihero; but Tom King's Vision was the possibly the greatest comic book I've ever read, and celebrated children's entertainer Barnaby Salton reckoned I should give this a go, and I was feeling fat, unwell, and incapacitated due to a combination of interrupted sleep, chicken in walnut sauce, and one of those shakes you can use to grout bathroom tiles. I needed the reading equivalent of comfort food, the sort of thing my mummy would have brought back from the shops for me if I was poorly - hence Batman, even though it's probably the very last thing my mother would have brought back from the shops for me. I would have more likely ended up with Thomas Hardy or one of the Brontës.

I Am Gotham is beautifully written with concise prose applied sparingly - no thought bubbles or inset panels of exposition, their modern equivalent - and the art is beautiful, so it's distinctly filmic in terms of pacing, atmosphere, and how little it gives away or pauses to explain itself. Aside from anything else, this additionally tends to suggest that the comic book has become merchandising to the CGI-heavy superheroic television serial, of which there are now a great many, although I very much doubt this being intentional or conscious. Here Batman saves lives, gets caught up in fights, is made subject to governmental skulduggery, endures the occasional crisis of conscience and so on; and whilst it's beautifully done and atmospherically powerful, it didn't feel that satisfying. In fact it felt a bit like one of those television shows, just with a bit more artistic integrity, and I've yet to see one of those television shows I liked. I saw twenty minutes of The Flash the other night. It was fucking shit.

Anyway, while I felt as though I spotted what I presume to be one of King's enduring themes - namely great power as something terrible in the hands of persons who don't know what to do with it, as we saw in Little Worse Than a Man, ultimately this one didn't really quite seem to be about anything, which I found a little unsatisfying. Then of course I now realise that I Am Gotham is just the first of a three part story, so it's really just getting warmed up. Interviewed online, Tom King was asked of all of Batman's qualities and attributes, what's the one that really speaks to you?

To me, it's his mortality. It's the idea that he could die—that he's human. There's something about Superman and Wonder Woman that says to me that they go on forever. If you came to Earth one hundred years from now, Superman and Wonder Woman would still be here. But Batman's like one of us, right? He can die. He has that risk factor to him, and every time he goes out at night, he faces that and still triumphs over it. That just makes him the most human character in the DCU to me, the idea that he's not a god. He lives among the gods and tries to do his best.

So okay, fair enough. I can see this one may well be going somewhere and I guess I'll be picking up the rest. It may not get off to quite such an arresting start as The Vision, but it still pisses over most other versions of Batman I've seen.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Time Tunnel


Murray Leinster Time Tunnel (1964)
Leinster's Time Tunnel is surprisingly nothing to do with the better-known television series - which it predates by a couple of years - but to further confuse matters, Leinster later wrote a couple of tie-in books based on the television series to which this earlier novel is unrelated; so I'm inclined to wonder if Irwin Allen didn't at least consciously pinch the title, resulting in some kind of deal being struck. Anyway, for what it may be worth, Leinster's Time Tunnel of 1964 doesn't have anything much in common with later versions aside from the premise, and time travel was in any case a fairly common theme in science-fiction literature by this point.

Leinster's story here forges a link between present day and Napoleonic France through some doubtful-sounding process wherein molten metal is left undisturbed once it has cooled, in this case a cannon in an old foundry. Time travel is suspected when antiques and antique materials of suspiciously fine quality begin to turn up in modern France, and the hunt is on for the elusive De Bassompierre.

It was not reasonable for so remarkable an achievement as a time-tunnel to be used only to deliver exotic perfumery to Paris in which very few people bathed. It was not reasonable for the return traffic to be ornamental snuff boxes, out of date newspapers and flintlock pistols to be used as paperweights. The fate of Europe hung in the balance at one end of the time-tunnel, where Napoleon reigned. At the other end the survival of the human race was in question. The tunnel could have been used to adjust both situations, but it was actually used to keep a shop going.

Even by the standard of time travel fiction, this one is a fucking mess. It feels as though it might have benefited in being allowed to sprawl beyond its relatively slender page count, maybe granting Leinster more space in which to introduce his characters. As it stands, I spent most of the time trying to work out what was going on and whether this was the same guy from the previous chapter.

On the other hand, Time Tunnel remains immensely enjoyable in spite of itself. The historical Parisian setting is well-realised and gives this novel a quite unique feel in respect to both its vintage and its genre; and there are frequent incongruously philosophical digressions, at least incongruous for a novel with a fifty cent cover price. As I may have mentioned before, Leinster was the science-fiction incarnation of William F. Jenkins, a man who churned out one novel after another, hopping from mystery to romance to western before apparently settling into writing just stuff involving robots and spacecraft during the fifties. Once again, Time Tunnel reveals him to have been a writer who learned a lot from excursions into other genres, and reads like something which might have quite easily been published by Penguin, being more of a narrative than an adventure. The confusion is aggravating, but not so much so as to detract from the pleasure of the text, and of Leinster's peculiar and fascinating digressions on subjects such as free will, cause and effect, the anthropic principle, and the nuclear arms race. Also, considering how long ago this was written, and how much of this time paradox stuff I've read, it's probably worth noting that the ending still came as a complete surprise to me.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century


Chris Bentley (editor), Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton & others
Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century (2009)

We were in one of those massive clearance sales, table after table of books in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger. Everything was a dollar, and anything left unsold would be pulped, and so I picked this up because it seemed a shame to let it get smushed.

I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works back before my voice broke, and I was massively into it because I loved those weird futuristic vehicles; so when I say I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works, I actually mean I was into the Dinky Toys and maybe the occasional annual because they contained photographs of those weird futuristic vehicles. I liked the television shows too up to a point, but often felt that the characters got in the way of the story. It's therefore possibly ironic that the traditional pubescent surge of testosterone more or less cured me of these Jeremy Clarkson-esque preferences, and it's why I'm inclined to suspicion when I encounter adults waxing lyrically about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. The models were beautiful, but I'm not convinced there's anything much to get excited over beyond the models, certainly nothing which works without the benefit of arguably unhealthy levels of nostalgia.

TV21 had been cancelled by the time I was old enough to read it, so this is really the first I've seen of this body of work - strips based on Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and others. The art is lavish and unusually beautiful as you might anticipate given the credentials of those involved, and is exactly what is required to communicate the magic of those weird futuristic vehicles. However, even the most gorgeous art is undermined by what I guess must have been editorial insistence on readers being able to recognise the individual faces of their favourite string puppets, not to mention stilted narratives which may as well be variations on Timmy having fallen down the well. The stories are about the same standard as what you saw on the telly, being mostly excuses to get Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, or Scott Tracy back into the cockpit. The more satisfying efforts are those which stretch the envelope a little - the one in which Captain Scarlet joins a football team, for example; or where artists like Mike Noble or Brian Lewis capture some required resemblance to whoever we saw on the box without invoking Charlie McCarthy or Lord Charles; and then there's Planet of Bones in which the crew of the Zero X - a weird futuristic space vehicle featured in one of the Thunderbirds film - experience peril on a world where all the dinosaur skeletons have come to life due to evolution having taken a bit of a funny turn. Chris Bentley's introduction hails it as being ludicrously brilliant, but erm...

Yes, I know it was for kids, but then so was Dan Dare and I can still read those without wincing because Eagle at least aspired to elevate its young audience without talking down to them. For all its aesthetic appeal, TV21 mostly just wanted you to tune in next week, aspiring mainly to remind you of something you saw on the television - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but makes it tough work qualifying this stuff as genuinely classic, unless it's as kitsch.

I really wanted to like Adventures in the 21st Century, and whilst it's harmless, I just can't quite bring myself to love it as some might. The funny thing is that I recall plenty of those TV21 Dalek strips from their reprints, and unless I'm remembering wrongly, there was a plenty imagination at work in that material, as the esteemed Sarah Hadley noted on facebook:

What I think is amazing is that it essentially makes the Daleks protagonists. They're "villainous," yes, and there are occasional characters out to stop them - but this isn't Terry Nation's Dalek series (which would've had Space Security agents Sara Kingdom and Marc Seven in the leads). Almost every single strip, you're implicitly being called to side with the Daleks and hope they win.

Of course The Daleks featured monodimensional supporting characters from Doctor Who placed centre stage by the TV21 strip and obliged to do something a bit more interesting than we'd seen on the box. Accordingly, the better material in this collection is that which either screws with the formula by having Captain Scarlet pull on the old football boots, or which expands some subsidiary element of a show into a thing in its own right, as with the Lady Penelope strip - nothing earth shattering but still preferable to the Stingray crew wobbling around a spooky haunted castle just like on Scooby Doo.

As a point of lesser interest, considering how lyrically Stephen Baxter waxes about Fireball XL5 in the opening chapters of Coalescent, the resemblance of the somewhat blobby Astrans from The Astran Assassination to Baxter's Silver Ghosts - as described in his Xeelee novels - is difficult to miss.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6


Michael Moorcock (editor)
The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6 (1970)

In his introduction, Moorcock states that he prefers to simply call this fiction, while the back cover qualifies the SF as referring to either science or speculative fiction. I've never liked speculative fiction because as a term it makes me think of Margaret Attwood and Jeanette Winterson sneering about how space travel is such a boy thing, but I like science fiction as something incorporating all the weird shit which doesn't quite fit anywhere else - which is what we have here.

New Worlds was never scared of printing weird shit, and I'd say some of the best stuff from the magazine was also the weirdest, at least if we're to take a sciencey man smoking his pipe as he heads for Mars in a rocket with his robot best friend to be baseline normal. Surprisingly, whilst there's some reasonably strange stuff here, the collection feels sober by the standards of the well from which it is drawn, and is subsequently not so great as it might have been - as though someone might even be reigning it in a little, although I suspect this impression to be only a pattern emergent from possibly unfair comparisons with the magazine.

In Reason's Ear by Hilary Bailey - who sadly passed just months ago - stood out for me, as did Moorcock's The Delhi Division, a story which demonstrates how his own weirdly non-linear narratives were always so much more readable than those of the many who seem so obviously inspired by him, I guess some of whom also feature in this collection. Langdon Jones' The Eye of the Lens has an immensely promising start with page after page of dry, dreamlike descriptions of imagined machines, evolving into something even stranger, then goes on for a bit and eventually overstays its welcome, which is a shame. There's also J.G. Ballard's The Killing Ground which reinforces my hypothesis that Ballard simply isn't for me; and then there are the rest, and they're mostly pretty darn great - certainly nothing you would want to skip - but I somehow felt my brains should have been dripping from my ears by the end of this lot, which wasn't the case; so I guess that's a recommendation, but just not one entailing any significant quota of fists pumping the air.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin


Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: The Roses of Berlin (2014)
This time it's the daughter of Verne's character invading a Nazi Germany combining elements of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The villainess is herself from H. Rider Haggard's She with cameos by Dr. Mabuse from the Norbert Jacques novel and nods to Verne's The Master of the World, Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and doubtless a ton of other stuff I didn't notice. Once you're done with the trainspotting aspect, The Roses of Berlin is generally fun, and the art is obviously wonderful, but somehow it feels a bit phoned-in compared to previous Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and when Nemo observes:

This strange place is putting me on edge. I'm nearing fifty. Perhaps I'm too old for all this...

Well, I mean it is Alan Moore, the guy who can barely scratch his arse without it allegorising five different things, and the same Alan Moore who recently announced he was packing in the comics; and the later duel between the youthful Nemo and the ancient Ayesha seems potentially symbolic when the timeless immortal accuses the newcomer of stealing from her. As to what it might actually be saying, if anything, I have no idea. I suppose it could be something along the lines of old masters not getting the recognition they deserve, that being what Moore seemed to be suggesting when he recast Harry Potter as the Antichrist elsewhere in the saga.

True enough, I was born in the sixties and I read a lot, but I barely get some of the references made here, which isn't something I'm particularly proud of; so I guess Nemo might be an exercise in pinning certain fading cultural artefacts to the present simply because they should be remembered, and remembering them enriches contemporary culture for the better. So that's good.