Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Stay Crazy

Erica L. Satifka Stay Crazy (2016)
This one came to me in mysterious ways, a Christmas present picked from an Amazon wish list to which I have no recollection of having added it - and yet patently I must have done unless the book just came looking for me, which would at least be appropriate given the story. The strap-line on the cover invokes Philip K. Dick, and for the right reasons for fucking once. Stay Crazy is thankfully lacking rain-soaked male models cinematically experiencing existential crisis in blue and orange, and although there's an obvious parallel in Emmeline's relationship with the possibly unreal Escodex, this is, above all, solid blue collar science-fiction ingrained with the grit and crap and kipple of daily existence, madness, and all points between. Additionally, as with Dick, there's a whole heapin' helpin' of wit without anyone feeling the need to crack jokes or wink at the reader.

Stay Crazy is about a possibly average young woman working at what may as well be Walmart whilst wrestling imperatives dished out by incorporeal alien forces and taking forms pertaining loosely to paranoid schizophrenia. Having known what occasionally seems like more than my fair share of those patrolling the perimeter fence of their own sanity, and having served at least two decades in blue collar limbo, I'm very much familiar with the territory of Stay Crazy, and its attention to prosaic detail is powerful. Somebody or other, possibly Robert Dellar, observed that mental illness might usefully be regarded as an inevitable consequence of late capitalism - an unfortunately legitimate response to unreasonable pressure - which this novel seems to illustrate, if not actually explain. Everyone here is coping, or barely coping, with the obligation and expectation of friends, family, church, society, and consumerism itself, with the dynamic externalised as an invasion or intrusion from elsewhere. So Stay Crazy may not actually explain why people sometimes flip out and perform inexplicable atrocities, but it contains most of the clues you'll need if you genuinely give a shit about the problem; and all disguised as a right rivetting read. I'd say it was VALIS filtered through Buffy the Lucrative Entertainment Franchise, except it's more it's own thing - more lucid than most of Dick's writing, more heart, and with less pouting than any of that vampire crap.

This is one hell of a debut novel.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Le Morte d'Arthur

Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte d'Arthur volume one (1485)
I spent two whole weeks on this one and still only made it to Book VIII, and that's of the nine books assembled in this collection, which is only the first volume. I really don't like giving up on a book, and it's not something I do very often, but considering all of the things I could read from which I might get something, there simply didn't seem to be much point forcing myself. It's not that I found Le Morte d'Arthur impenetrable, because I've read and enjoyed plenty of material of similar vintage. It's not even that it was necessarily either boring or completely lacking anything I found interesting.

That said, I've never been particularly gripped by Arthurian legend in a general sense, at least not until Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy. Prior to that, it made for a decent Monty Python film but was otherwise - so far as I'm concerned - just one of those things upon which hippies and new age types tended to fixate, and usually the very worst kind of hippie or new age type. I'm thinking here of a specific individual, author of all sorts of dubious Shamanic material with a particular interest in Camelot last seen ranting about how them muzzies are killing our kids but we ain't even allowed to say nuffink because of political correctness innit. What a lovely day that wasn't.

Philip Purser-Hallard convinced me there was something interesting there, so I began working my way backwards. I didn't really get on too well with The Once and Future King, and so assumed I probably needed to go right back to the source. Anyway, it turns out that even Le Morte d'Arthur isn't it, but is rather a number of earlier vaguely related works retold and welded together by someone who lived very near where my father grew up five hundred years or so later.

As I got started, I began to wonder how much of this material might be historical, because it has the feel of something historical. Page after page of knights engaging with other knights reminded me of similarly repetitive passages in Mexican texts of roughly the same era, culturally speaking, and equivalent scraps in their texts tend to serve as metaphor for broader dynastic or regional conflict. Along similar lines, the passage describing competition between opponents identified only as a green, red, or black knight suggested a symbolic record of something which may actually have happened; but whatever the case may be, a quick pog at J.R. Green's A Short History of the English People convinced me of Arthur's entirely mythical composition, there being very few corners of the historical record into which one might shoehorn all that stuff about Camelot. So page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping was presumably written for an audience who enjoy page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping.

Certain passages hold the attention, whereas others tend towards repetitive examples of chivalry, swearing of oaths, loyalty, true love, breasts heaving with admiration for something of a generally chivalrous nature; and I am reliably informed that there are jokes in this text, but I'm fucked if I was able to spot any. What with all the noble brows held aloft and swearing fealty to someone a bit kingy, reading this was like listening to an early Laibach album with a playing time of two weeks; and so I suspect this sort of thing may be what Cervantes was taking the piss out of when he wrote Don Quixote. I suppose it might be said that I'm simply too thick to appreciate Malory, but fuck you - I breezed through the two volume Oklahoma edition of Codex Chimalpahin without breaking a sweat, and I really think this one is just a bit of a dud unless you have some hardcore investment in the subject.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Going on the Turn

Danny Baker Going on the Turn (2017)
Back when I began the journey described here - if you'll forgive my trotting out such a wanky analogy as journey a second time - I did so informed by certain unspoken criteria for what I would review, and what I would not review. I began with my focus set upon science-fiction, a focus which has expanded over the years to incorporate other expressions of fiction and even non-fiction, at least where I felt I had something worth saying about whatever it was I'd just read. Here and there would be the occasional book which I'd enjoyed, but which didn't inspire thoughts much beyond that I'd enjoyed it, in which case I wouldn't bother writing, simply because I had nothing useful to add.

I don't tend to read much in the way of celebrity autobiographies, and in any case they are mostly pitched some distance beyond the sort of thing I would usually write about; but I have to make an exception for Danny Baker. I found myself reading the first two volumes of his memoirs as light relief whilst bored shitless by two of Dostoyevsky's more popular insomnia remedies. This time it's Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which has driven me to seek comfort in something immeasurably more stupid. Where previously I snuck reviews of Baker's books into those of the Dostoyevsky titles which had provided their parentheses, this time - fuck it - Going on the Turn deserves its own spot.

One aspect I've found mildly off-putting about Danny Baker's memoirs is the occasional sentence reminding me of a footballer's autobiography, although I suppose that's inevitable given all the famous people he's knocked around with; but on the other hand, his writing, unnecessarily baroque though it often is, is intensely readable and enormously entertaining, and I'm beginning to wonder if the dissonance is something to do with how accustomed I've been to hearing sentences of similar construction coming out of a speaker, because it's nearly impossible to read his writing without hearing it read aloud by one's own inner Danny Baker. So in other words, this objection, vague though it is, may in fact be bollocks.

On a series of more positive notes, Baker has led a fascinating life and relates it in as much detail as you could ever require whilst eschewing cliché and only ever digging you in the ribs if it's warranted; although admittedly it's warranted quite a bit. This one for example reduced me to tears:

This doesn't spring from some bullish empiricism or the desperate desire to show that I am a no-nonsense sort of chap. Indeed, may the record show I am, if anything, an all-nonsense sort of chap. That this book begins with me behind locked toilet doors seeking to commune with other dimensions should indicate what a restless mind I have when dealing with the unknown. Consider also, that when I first arrived on television I was asked by a popular magazine to be the subject of one of those all about me Q&A features, and under the enquiry, what is your preferred choice of hat? I replied, a puffed-up turban with a large question mark on it. There, if that doesn't identify me as an eternal seeker of truth then I don't know what does.

As with the persona projected through his radio shows, Baker comes across as someone you root for, someone you'd like to hang out with. He hams it up to a preposterous degree and yet never loses the common touch, which is fairly extraordinary when you think about it.

This is possibly his best yet, and perhaps the funniest despite being the one which deals with both cancer and the death of his father in appalling detail. More importantly - providing we're agreed that once the chuckles have subsided, some things are important - like its predecessors, Going on the Turn records the last of a once thriving working class London. I didn't grow up in London, but I lived there long enough to feel part of it. I know most of the places Baker talks about, and I recognise a fair few of the characters. In some sense it makes for upsetting reading, this being a record of something which is fading, and which will soon be mostly just branches of Starbucks filled with braying pricks, but then I suppose nothing lasts forever.

For something which invokes Laurel & Hardy, Vivian Stanshall, and the general spirit of Bugs Bunny to the extent which this book does, Going on the Turn is rich, satisfying, and surprisingly profound. Given the opportunity, Sir Thomas Malory could have learned a lot from this; and I'm absolutely serious when I say that in some respects, a book such as this may one day be at least as important as Pepys' diaries.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Nemo: River of Ghosts

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: River of Ghosts (2015)
This isn't quite Alan Moore's absolute final work in the comic book medium, but it's probably close enough as to make little difference now that he's retiring in hope of dedicating more time to anything which isn't Batman; and like The Roses of Berlin, it seems to constitute a farewell of sorts, or at least is about its own status as the end of a road. As for Moore moving on...

I am sure there is probably a very good reason for the hundreds of thousands of adults who are flocking to see the latest adventures of Batman, but I for one am a little in the dark for what that reason is. The superhero movies - characters that were invented by Jack Kirby in the 1960s or earlier - I have great love for those characters as they were to me when I was a thirteen-year-old boy. They were brilliantly designed and created characters, but they were for fifty years ago. I think this century needs, deserves, its own culture. It deserves artists that are actually going to attempt to say things that are relevant to the times we are actually living in. That's a long-winded way of me saying I am really, really sick of Batman.

Here we have an aging Nemo facing death, a woman whose past constitutes a river of ghosts, so to speak; and she's still fighting the immortal Ayesha from H. Rider Haggard's She, whose immortality prevails thanks to Nazis, Rotwang, and various nasties borrowed from elsewhere, fictional and otherwise.

Let us continue with our tour. Doctor Mengele will next present his biological facility… where we create all you younger versions of previous legends.

See, that's probably a metaphor for the fact that even in 2018, we still haven't tired of reinventing Spiderman. There's a bit of a contradiction here in that this refutation of the endless recycling of culture is itself formed of recycled culture, albeit from discontinued lines; and if the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was ever a genuine reinvestment in storytelling as art rather than commodity, then it might be argued that it's all relative and Nemo is only a more artisanal* Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice served on square plates and washed down with real ale decanted into one of those Mason jars with a handle stuck to it. Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this one. Maybe that's why Moore is moving on.

Anyway, River of Ghosts is fun, as you would probably expect, not least for the inclusion of Hugo Hercules - the first cartoon superhero, it has been suggested, therefore folding the history of this particular genre into a neat ouroboros but for the fact of it being hard to avoid reading him as Desperate Dan. References to obscured or partially lost realms of fiction are as thorough as ever, or exhausting as ever depending upon how you look at it. As Nemo reports, I'm told that this is their last breeding colony, I turned the page, and there they all were - the Creatures from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 Universal movie with curious predictability, which suggests we may have run this idea into the ground by this point. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

*: I apologise to each and every reader for my use of this word.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from Underground (1864)
I didn't really get on with Crime and Punishment, and I bought this on the grounds of having heard of it and that Dostoyevsky must have written something to deserve all that reputation. It turns out that Notes from Underground is actually pretty slim, so it's fairly common to find it collected with other material as is the case here, and which presented the additonal appeal of containing shorter and hopefully snappier examples of whatever the fuck he was trying to say.

I got a little more out of it than Crime and Punishment, but otherwise I think I've learned my lesson. Here we have four tales from different periods of Dostoyevsky's life serving to illustrate an almost autobiographical narrative. Specifically, Dostoyevsky was subjected to a mock execution by tsarist authorities who regarded him as a subversive in 1849, then sent off to the stripey hole for the next eight years, all of which somewhat soured his view of humanity and his own initial idealism. We are afforded insight into the views of the young Dostoyevsky in White Nights, then his time in prison in selections from the autobiographical The House of the Dead, then Notes itself, concluding with The Dream of a Ridiculous Man which charts his descent into something resembling misanthropy.

The excerpts from The House of the Dead seem the most illuminating, and I found the most interesting, mostly consisting of straightforward reportage of the lives and crimes of those with whom Dostoyevsky shared a prison lavatory. The accounts are conversational, sober, and the crimes detailed are allowed to speak for themselves without any wringing of hands or pulling of faces, which is what spoils the rest of this material for me. It's nothing like so cloying or sentimental as Dickens, and the narrative often seems to actively resist the possibility with its focus on ugliness, contradiction, and self-loathing, its continuous refutation of idealism; but in the absence of light relief, it all becomes a little exhausting after a while. I suppose our man may have been attempting to communicate some purity of vision, albeit through grey-tinted spectacles, in encouraging us to dislike him as much as he seemingly disliked himself, but I found the effect unconvincing. White Nights was written prior to the author's time in prison, before the disillusionment had properly settled in, and strives to build drama from simpering acquaintances who wouldst be lovers but for something dull to do with somebody's grandmama, or maybe a fancy cake or some purloined napkins, that kind of thing. Anyway, the point is that White Nights is excruciatingly precious and juvenile, and after reading it I couldn't keep myself from seeing Dostoyevsky as an overly earnest upper class art student who follows you around quoting William Blake or snatches of Jim Morrison lyrics whilst trying his hardest to smoulder in a generally meaningful way; which is a shame because The House of the Dead at least seems to be worth a look, judging by what we have here. As a collection, this is not without merit, but it's a little chewy in places, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea takes us to more or less the same destination in a much better book.

Funnily enough, perhaps in obediance to some obscure cosmic principle, last time I read Dostoyevsky I found myself toggling between Crime and Punishment and the first volume of Danny Baker's memoirs for the sake of light relief; and having picked up this one, the universe has somehow conspired to furnish me with a copy of Going Off Alarming (2014) just as I really needed to read something which wasn't a nineteenth century Russian bloke punching himself in the face for two-hundred pages. I only noticed the coincidence once I'd finished Notes. Maybe there is such a thing as the anti-Dostoyevsky and it's Danny Baker, a man who doesn't do dark and whom it may be useful to regard as the human analogy of Bugs Bunny, for the sake of argument. As with Going to Sea in a Sieve, Baker's narrative style is very much rooted in the spoken form, seeming occasionally uncomfortable on the printed page with infrequent swerves into footballer's autobiography territory when I opened the door and who should be stood there but my famous friend, Ray Reardon, the snooker champion…


Complaining about this would define me as an idiot, so I won't. The great strengths of Going Off Alarming - aside from it not being written by Dostoyevsky - are that it's erudite, funny as fuck, and stuffed with all manner of unexpected and peculiarly tender insights, notably those pertaining to Paul Gascoine - which probably say more about the human condition than anything in Notes. It also makes me quite nostalgic for Deptford and the company of dockyard types.

Doctor to the Stars

Murray Leinster Doctor to the Stars (1964)
Here's another three tales of Calhoun of the Interstellar Medical Service as he travels from planet to planet with just his wits and the companionship of Murgatroyd - an extraterrestrial critter resembling a lemur - to guide him. You would think that a few of those human colonies might have thought to include a couple of medical types on the passenger list before striking out, although of course had they done so, Leinster wouldn't have had so much fun transposing frontier medicine of the old west to outer space; that said, the settlers of Tallien Three actually do have a medical man of their own, but he's a bad 'un so he probably doesn't count.

If Leinster wasn't actually pitching something which might end up serialised on the telly, then he at least had one eye on inspiring brand loyalty through one of those recurring characters which soulless fan wankers tend to refer to as a franchise. Calhoun is probably a relative of one of those Asimov characters who figures out the puzzles, mostly Aesculapian in this case, and it's so rigourously formulaic as to end each tale with a Scooby Doo style zinger. As a collection, it falls short of Murray Leinster's best, but is nevertheless enjoyable for being blessed with his usual smattering of big, wacky ideas and observations; foreshadowing more recent concerns about game addiction, for one example:

But the children so kept happy would not be kept exercised, nor stimulated to act, or think, or react for themselves. The effect of psych-circuit child-care would be that of drugs for keeping children from needing attention. The merely receiving children would lose all initiative, all purpose, all energy.

Sadly, it's not difficult to see why his name has slipped into obscurity; and it's sad because even though I doubt anyone's life was ever changed by reading a Murray Leinster, his writing is difficult to dislike, and always seems savoured with a little more than you might expect.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Mysterious Planet

Lester Del Rey The Mysterious Planet (1953)
This is another juvie so I probably shouldn't have sighed quite so hard when the main character turned out to be a plucky teenage lad, all full of spunk 'n' shit, whose dad is some big cheese spaceship captain on Mars. The Mysterious Planet doth tell of how the aforementioned big cheese spaceship captain takes his boy along with him on a mission to investigate the mysterious arrival of a wandering planet in the solar system, because why wouldn't you take your kid along? Our boy forms an uneasy friendship with another lad, one whose big cheese spaceship captain father is considerably richer than everyone else and has thus pulled a few strings to get his slightly thick offspring on board; and some moon or other has been colonised by mostly Hispanic astronauts, so our boy and his wealthy but stupid chum befriend another teenage astronaut.

Bob spent most of the time with Juan Román. The boy seemed to have buried his grief somewhere deep inside himself, and to be resigned to whatever happened. He was strangely serious and naive, with little of the gaiety for which his people were famed.

Should have played him a few bars of La Cucaracha. That would have cheered him up a bit.

Anyway, despite superficial resemblances of plotting to certain details of the Cybermen back story from proper Doctor Who - not least those sleek black ships - the people of the rogue planet, are a lot like us.

Yet Bob was sure now that Thule was more like Earth than its mere outward appearance. There was less difference between the race of Thule and the original inhabitants of Earth than there had been between various Earth cultures in the past.

I think this just means that they aren't Communists or something. Anyway, Thule needs a sun of its own, and Earth's orbit looks mighty fine, and any questions raised by so ludicrous a premise are answered with surprising conviction. They all sort it out in the end, although I don't remember how. Del Rey writes well, clearly and at a reasonable pace, with enough style to allow one to suspend disbelief regarding both wacky science and the cornier elements of the tale; but ultimately there just wasn't 180 pages worth of story here, so it sags in places. Never mind.