Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Curse-Breaker: When the Devil Comes Home

Rachel Redhead Curse-Breaker: When the Devil Comes Home (2016)
In the name of full disclosure regarding any potential lack of objectivity 'n' shit, I get a high five on the first page of this one - which is nice and caused me to go momentarily wobbly at the knees; so thankfully it was a decent read, meaning I'm not going to have to either lie or write a review so horrible I end up keeping it to myself.

To briefly take a massive detour, our local museum has a section full of Mexican tree of life sculptures. These are ceremonial trees made from clay, covered with tiny figures and scenes from every day life, and painted in the brightest colours available. They're made in traditional Mexican villages and I suspect may in some cases benefit from the creative input of persons under the influence of a fairly well-publicised type of cactus native to northern Mexico. The figures and scenes shown on these trees will typically range from doctors, dentists, cops, and grandmothers making tortillas to supernatural figures, vampires, demons, native Gods, saints, spirits, Jesus and his dear old mum, to popular wrestlers, Mickey Mouse, Father Christmas, Captain Kirk, the president - there doesn't seem to be anything which might disqualify a person, real or imagined, from inclusion in a traditional Mexican tree of life, and particularly not copyright laws. This is the thing I like about native Mexico - it just doesn't care: it takes whatever it needs to tell a story, whatever might be laying around, and it makes that thing its own.

To get to the point, this is similarly what I like about Rachel Redhead's fiction. The passing influence of Buffy or Who or whatever might show through, but she makes it her own, yielding something which seems not unlike a sort of written version of one of those painted trees - sprawling in a generally epic fashion, weird, confusing, colourful, and somehow difficult to dislike regardless of whatever your established tastes may allow; and When the Devil Comes Home is the fifth and final book of a series which is itself part of a larger series inhabiting what Rachel herself describes as the Rachelverse - and if that sounds in any way vain, then after something like forty interconnected titles, she has most definitely earned the right to call it whatever she likes.

As with the other Redheads I've read, the thrust of the story is sometimes confusing and is experienced as it occurs around the edges of the characters rather than being a map to which they are pinned, if you see what I mean. So the story works in a sort of impressionist sense, as with Burroughs or even Moorcock's stranger novels, the ones with dinosaurs made of blancmange. However, this narrative impressionism isn't a problem, for the great strength of her writing is to be found in the characters and how they interact; some of which can also be confusing at times because there are about a million of them - regular people, ghosts, monsters, vampires, robots, secret agents, and everyone else, ever - just like those Mexican trees.

Previous novels - or at least collections, given that this one comprises short stories which work as a novel - have occasionally suffered on the editing front, and I seem to recall one of the Raithaduine books comprising more or less a single chapter of something like eight-hundred pages; but this all holds together very well, not once becoming a chore. Redhead writes primarily about friendship, relationships, LGBT issues, and sexuality but with none of the dry didacticism one might associate - wrongly or rightly - with such a progressive perspective. There's a rare honesty and an openness here - and of a kind which is quite difficult to fake - which communicates clearly and simply without delivering lectures, all helped along by a ripe sense of humour. The narrative occasionally takes the piss out of itself without it sounding like an apology, and the gags are top quality. This jovial, even tone allows for surprising thematic range without anything seeming too broad a digression. There are a couple of surprisingly visceral revenge fantasies, and numerous issues of trans identity illustrated either directly or allegorically as vampirism, and yet nothing clashes with an inclusive narrative voice which is part Moorcock, a touch YA, joyously peculiar, and with a faint aftertaste of either Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett - I haven't yet quite decided which. A professional editor would doubtless iron out all of the rough edges so as to pitch this at whoever bought The Hunger Games and the rest, which would be missing the point that Rachel Redhead writes punk rock in all senses that matter - a big, garish explosion of stuff all held together with safety pins by a woman engaged with making the world a better place, and in some small way, succeeding.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

John W. Campbell (editor)
Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1956)

Isaac Asimov said of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, that the man was the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely. By agency of his magazine, Campbell was first to publish many of the greats - Asimov himself, Heinlein, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, and of course the mighty A.E. van Vogt. It's therefore probably inevitable that the stock of his name has lost some of its currency in recent years, just as has that of Hugo Gernsback, arguably Campbell's spiritual forebear in the field. Campbell popularised a very specific strain of science-fiction - two-fisted, deeply conservative men having space adventures whilst reeling off lists of scientific statistics, the sort of thing which led to Star Wars, Alien, and the rest. I can't be arsed to dig out my copy of Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, but I expect he will have said something along those lines; and assuming he did, he will have had a point.

Campbell was unfortunately of his time in the sense of Oswald Mosley and senator Joseph McCarthy being of their time, with all kinds of unsavoury views regarding race, socialism, and the institution of slavery, as Michael Moorcock reported in an editorial piece entitled Starship Stormtroopers, essentially a brief history of authoritarian currents in science-fiction literature:

He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were 'natural' slaves who were unhappy if freed. I sat on a panel with him in 1965, as he pointed out that the worker bee when unable to work dies of misery, that the moujiks when freed went to their masters and begged to be enslaved again, that the ideals of the anti-slavers who fought in the Civil War were merely expressions of self-interest and that the blacks were 'against' emancipation, which was fundamentally why they were indulging in 'leaderless' riots in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The more I know about Campbell, the less I like, and yet I'd nevertheless rather not see him chucked down the same oubliette as Gernsback. Whilst I agree that his talent and reputation may be historically overplayed, and that as a person he sounds absolutely ghastly - as I'm sure Sir Kenneth Clark would agree - for better or worse, his influence upon the genre is undeniable, and his legacy is not entirely lacking in redeeming qualities. Just like Gernsback, Campbell's vision was arse, but it was populist, bestselling arse, and providing you keep in mind that it was arse, there's nevertheless some pleasure to be gained.

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology came out in 1952 as a mammoth hardback assemblage of twenty-two short stories by what were then the biggest names. I gather it was one of the first anthologies of its kind, and as such left an indelible stamp on the genre as a whole. This collection is one of several paperbacks reprinting just eight of those stories, because paperback technology of the time was supposedly not quite up to reprinting the whole thing; and I picked it up, still buzzing from reading a Murray Leinster collection and hoping to keep the magic going.

Leinster's fiction very much ticked all of the Campbell boxes, but as with A.E. van Vogt, I nevertheless find the atmosphere and peculiar narrative twists compelling and often so odd as to actively undermine the square-jawed subtext; which isn't to say that they're anything deep, just immensely enjoyable. That said, I've noticed a peculiar quality of Leinster's view of the alien entirely in keeping with what Moorcock regards as the authoritarian tendencies of Campbell's lads. First Contact is a variation on The Aliens from the collection of the same name, in which humans encounter extraterrestrials in deep space. Whilst the encounters are not overtly fraught with hostility, they seem informed by the paranoid cold war politics of the time, and bizarrely so. Both tales spin upon the supposed inevitability of alien species who really want to be able to trust each other but somehow know this to be impossible, and so they must destroy each other.

Well duh.

It makes for odd reading in 2016, but it helps that Leinster reaches an amicable conclusion, in part revealing the folly of xenophobia; which makes a pleasant change from the alien as foul bug-eyed Communist and, I suppose, might even get its message to those needing it with greater efficacy than would a more overtly liberal tale. Although that said, The Aliens seems particularly weird for having an out and out declared xenophobe on the crew of its ship, and one stated as having been chosen specifically so as to provide a variant perspective to that of the ship's more reasonable captain - all seeming very pertinent right now, of course...

Ugh... yeah - getting back to this book, the first story is Asimov's Nightfall which I read in 2008 and thought was amazing. Almost everyone I know who has read Asimov, read and enjoyed his work as teenagers then later came to regard his writing as big on ideas but otherwise piss poor and very much overrated. I didn't actually read anything by him until 2008, by which point I would have been in my forties, and I thought he was fucking terrible, particularly those Susan Calvin stories; until someone pointed me in the general direction of the good stuff, or what seemed to be the good stuff, and thus was my opinion revised, or at least modified. Yet reading Nightfall now, it too seems horribly clunky - an admittedly nice big idea somewhat lost beneath thirty pages of dreary conversation amounting to a couple of one-dimensional characters describing the story to us.

Protons, you say? So what kind of properties might one of those have?

Anyway, I picked this from the shelf thinking I could hardly go wrong given the names on the cover, but ultimately, aside from a half decent Leinster, an averagely pleasant - and conspicuously well written Simak - and A.E. van Vogt's eye-wateringly peculiar Vault of the Beast, it's all a little underwhelming. Possibly excepting the slog of Nightfall, there's nothing terrible here, but it fails to live up to the promise of Paul Lehr's wonderful cover painting, and dammit - this collection really should have been better.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Martha Washington Saves the World

Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
Martha Washington Saves the World (1999)

Last time I thought about it, Give Me Liberty seemed like the best thing Frank Miller had done - the jewel in the proverbial crown of a generally great writer; but the last time I thought about it was probably somewhere around the end of the previous century, back when I made a weekly trek to the local comics shop to buy this kind of thing. I haven't read any Frank Miller since then, and have accumulated a vague impression of him as the guy who wrote that comic about big-titted prostitutes getting murdered, and who courageously spoke up for the rights of corporate America as it stood defenceless against bearded Vegetarians with banners upon which hurtful remarks had been scrawled in angry letters. I believe the crux of Miller's argument ran thus:

Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you've been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you've heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.

I'd take a guess and say his racist seventy-year old nan from Cheltenham probably wrote those words, filling in for her famous grandson while he was otherwise engaged in composing dialogue for fictional big-titted prostitutes, but I could be wrong. Furthermore, it turns out that Martha Washington Goes to War - which I seem to remember enjoying at least as much as I enjoyed Give me Liberty - is somehow based on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which can't be good.

Give Me Liberty is set in a dystopian future America - or the present, I suppose it might be argued - and follows the life of one of its most underprivileged and generally shat upon daughters. She somehow survives the ghetto, joins the peace corps, and makes her own way to er - greatness, I suppose. The broad appeal of the saga, at least for me, was the contrast of harsh political realism with the absurdity of events on the world stage spiralling out of control in  Martha Washington Goes to War, and then by the time we get to the final part, she's out in space meeting aliens. The narrative of this one is more or less a mash up of Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, so at least he's borrowing from the best.

Beyond these details, Martha's latest war is waged against Venus, a global artificial intelligence which now seems to control almost everything. As a story it's okay, but it doesn't quite do enough to keep my mind off the unsavoury possibility of this being some Libertarian rant about either the evils of socialism or the right to bear arms; and I can't tell if this is something Miller has embedded in the narrative, or just my reading it from a perspective other than that with which I read the earlier instalments. On the other hand, no big-titted prostitutes were eviscerated in the telling of this story and Dave Gibbons artwork is as gorgeous as it has ever been, so I guess it gets a thumbs up. All the same, I can't help wonder whether I've either missed something, or - on the other hand - might be overthinking it. As a strong, black female lead written without sexual overtones, Martha is great, but her story seems to have thinned out somewhat after the initial Give Me Liberty segment, and a little voice inside me keeps hinting that she might only ever have been Frank Miller's beard, in a manner of speaking; but like I say, maybe I'm overthinking it.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Aliens

Murray Leinster The Aliens (1960)
This time I'm going to see if I can remember the salient details rather than looking them up on the internet, namely that Murray Leinster was but one alias of many, specifically the science-fiction writing incarnation of some guy who churned them out, one after the other, a million novels a year - westerns, romance, spy thrillers, this stuff. I think I have that right, in so much as that Leinster was a one-man science-fiction sausage machine just squeezing them out, over and over, and therefore arguably the opposite of yer proverbial tortured artiste crying into his typewriter, three months behind on the rent, but - you know - like he wrote this rilly amaaazing stuff, yeah?

Unfortunately the quality of that which Leinster squoze forth from his allegorical creative sausage machine somewhat undermines the romance of the above generalisation; so I assume that a more helpful way of looking at this author might be to consider how hard he clearly worked at his craft, and how much he must have picked up whilst hopping from one genre to another like some sort of pulp mountain goat, and I suggest this because The Aliens is the best collection of short stories I've read in some time.

Leinster reads as you would expect him to read given these originally having appeared in the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding and the like - spacecraft, aliens, sciencey stuff, and men named Burt and Steve frowning ruggedly whilst pondering the mysteries of the universe; and yet Leinster's fiction never quite feels as generic as it probably should. It has a loose, jazzy logic, standing in relation to Heinlein and the rest kind of how Dr. Seuss stood in relation to Disney. Stories are occasionally hung on the weirder points of chemistry or biology without ever feeling like a lecture, and in any case I've a hunch the details are probably as accurate as they need to be for the sake of the story; and on which subject, there's something deeply unpredictable about a Leinster narrative. He's nothing like so extreme as van Vogt in this respect - but his people tend to end up in places they clearly never expected to go, which makes for a tremendously satisfying read.

This guy, I would suggest, is long overdue some lurve; and I don't care if he was technically a hack, because the quality of the writing speaks for itself. If anyone still needs convincing, The Skit-tree Planet ends with a spacecraft called the Galloping Cow making its way back to Earth having been rebuilt so as to resemble a cow galloping across a field, legs in motion and everything. The man was patently a fucking genius.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Age of Reason

Jean-Paul Sartre The Age of Reason (1947)
In the course of one of his jazzier speeches, George W. Bush referred to a game known as show your cards, and so to show my cards I have to admit that I'm in way over my water here, as our penultimate president might have put it. I've consulted Marjorie Grene's Introduction to Existentialism, but I've a feeling I should have looked around to see if anyone had written Introduction to Marjorie Grene's Introduction to Existentialism. Anyway, Gavin Burrows' review pointed me in the right direction, following which I stumbled across this in Grene's book:
According to Sartre, however, God is impossible. To be God is to exist from the necessity of his own nature alone; to be a causa sui. But to be the cause of one's self is to stand in relation to one's self: that is, to be at a distance from one's self, to be what one is not, to be in the manner of consciousness, which is aware of not being its own foundation that is, to be not necessary but contingent. Necessary existence, then, implies its own contradictory, contingent, or nonnecessary existence and is therefore impossible. In other words, if God existed, he would be contingent and hence not God; or if he is God, he is not contingent and hence, since noncontingent existence is self-contradictory, is not. But if we have no maker, neither is there a model by which we can trace the proper pattern of humanity, since the model was conceived of only as an instrument of the maker. Heaven is empty, and we are left alone to create ourselves by our own acts.

The Age of Reason is the first of a trilogy about freedom - whether it's a thing, whether we genuinely experience it, how to get there and so on. Significantly it was written after the end of the second world war whilst being set just before, serving to emphasise the perceptual divide between our cast of four or five characters and the world they inhabit. To bring this together with what Grene says, what I take from this novel is that Mathieu and his pals inhabit their respective existences without quite fully being part of them. As they drift along, the cause and effect of worldly interactions and even each other, appear more like projections upon an enveloping screen, not unlike how Guy Debord describes the relationship of society to its own image in The Society of the Spectacle. The future is bearing down on them, but they remain unaffected, like children only dimly aware of events beyond the horizon of adulthood. Marcelle is herself with child and much of the novel details Mathieu's failure to deal with even the notion that everything will soon change as a result. Similarly, he could go to fight in Spain, but he doesn't. He barely seems to engage with or even respond to the consequences of his own actions, as though to do so might lead to a curtailment of his freedom. He dooms himself to inaction in pursuit of freedom and therefore never quite achieves either freedom, or the age of reason - adulthood to the likes of myself and George W. Bush.

At least this is what I took from it. I suppose it's interesting from the point of view that the kidult was not, after all, invented by my generation; and there's a great deal more to it than my admittedly hastily-written analysis. Indeed, The Age of Reason is supposedly Sartre's philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness rewritten as an episode of Friends - sort of - which is nice because it's surprisingly breezy considering, or is at least breezy compared to Nausea, and I have an unfortunate feeling there probably wouldn't be much point in my trying to read Being and Nothingness. I would be in way over my water; plus, I'm not sure I really need to read the thing seeing as I got much more than I expected from this, the junior version.

I'm not sure what else I can say, and so not wishing to appear stupid, I'll say nothing.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Warlord of Kor

Terry Carr Warlord of Kor (1963)
I don't know much about the late Terry Carr beyond that he edited a whole string of science-fiction collections, and that Simak rated his short story, The Dance of the Changer and the Three fairly highly, or at least praised Carr's attempt to write genuinely alien characters betraying as little obvious cultural contamination from their author as possible:

We can only think in human terms. What we try to do is twist human concepts into strange, distorted shapes. They seem alien, but all they are are distorted human concepts. You don't know how many years I have tried to develop a true alien. I have never been able to. Terry Carr came awful close in The Dance of Changer and the Three, but he wasn't quite successful. I think probably it's very close to impossible to do it.

I haven't read much Terry Carr, and I gather there may not actually be that much available to be read, relatively speaking, but between this and the aforementioned short story, it would be difficult to miss the recurrence of certain themes. The unknowable and alien here are silent leathery giants called the Hirlaji bearing no discernible resemblance to anything appearing on the cover, at least not beyond scale. Warlord of Kor is mostly about attempts made to communicate with the Hirlaji and what little we have in common, referring to an ancient archaeological history of which very little remains. There's a level of drama, as is somewhat over-egged by the cover painting, but it's mostly a contemplative novel written in a mature tone which wouldn't really have suited an excess of thrills and scrapes.

Unfortunately it's also kind of dry, and the typos really don't help. Some I guess I didn't notice, but then you get instances like the one where Manning raises his weapon towards Rynason, but Horng's huge fish smashed it from his hand. Here's what that would look like:

He probably meant fist. I might not have noticed had the thing achieved a better hold on my attention. It's short with a commendable message about how we treat the alien and how we should treat the alien; and it's nicely written with plenty of character, but somehow it just never quite takes off.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Complete D.R. & Quinch

Alan Moore, Alan Davis & Jamie Delano
The Complete D.R. & Quinch (1987)

Moore apparently disowns this one as having lacked any redeeming social values, which is a shame, and I know at least one person who regards it as the only decent thing the man ever wrote. D.R. & Quinch of course appeared in the pages of 2000AD about a million years ago. It's basically an underground comic very much revealing Moore's roots and would have been equally at home in the pages of Commies from Mars, and as such I'd suggest it actually is a big deal that Moore managed to sell it to the Mighty Tharg in the first place, so he does himself something of a disservice and his subsequent judgement regarding redeeming social values seems to have come from the same place which inspired that bewilderingly nihilistic take on seventies punk culture in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which appeared to owe more to Kenny Everett's Sid Snot routines than anything which actually happened.

The lack of redeeming social values is surely the point, because there's a certain age at which it's both healthy and educational to piss off one's parents; and thus we have a science-fiction rewrite of characters from National Lampoon's Animal House in a spirit distantly descended from that of Whizz for Atomms by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle; because mindless destruction can be funny, and sometimes it should be celebrated; or if you don't understand it, bust it, as my friend Carl once explained to me.

Of course, it might be argued that such rampant nihilism worked better against the backdrop of the wipe-clean pastel-toned eighties than it does now, with reactionary trends having reclassified popular support for the worst sort of authoritarian eugenicist as a somehow daring and even revolutionary position - because God forbid that anyone should have their lives quite literally destroyed by political correctness; but if we're going to let certain fuckwits claim that Hitler was simply of his time, then I don't see any good reason to dismiss D.R. & Quinch, who were for a short while the epitomy of rock 'n' fuckin' roll, man.

Technically, the writing is kind of loose and sloppy, closer in spirit to Roscoe Moscow than Watchmen - not so much stories as a series of gags with raspberries blown in the general direction of everything else, which I personally see as joyous rather than cynical or necessarily nihilistic; but it doesn't matter because the gags are funny, and are still funny thirty years later, and the art of Alan Davis is gorgeous, and D.R. & Quinch is easily as much his work as Moore's; and you know, I still can't watch The Godfather or Apocalypse Now without a little voice in the back of my head whispering mind the oranges, Marlon.

For fuck's sake, Alan - get a grip: be proud!