Monday, 20 November 2017

All the Traps of Earth


Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.

It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.

Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.

I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Miracleman: The Golden Age


Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham Miracleman: The Golden Age (1999)
Is anyone else getting bored of the increasingly labyrinthine publishing history of Marvelman, or whatever he's called this year? I know I am. This reprints a reprint of an Eclipse comic which apparently no longer ever happened, may not actually have needed to happen in the first place, and may even have been redrawn according to some online article I can no longer find which was admittedly probably referring to Miracleman: The Silver Age, but never mind.

To briefly digress, some decades ago I went through a phase of wishing I could write superhero comics. I longed to be taken seriously as an author of frowning material involving capes, powers and important messages. The main obstacle to this career swivel was that I could barely string a sentence together. I wasn't particularly literate and what strips I had scrawled up to that point were improvised and heavily reliant on knob gags, so I sat down with a stack of my fave comics - mostly X-Men titles and things written by Alan Moore - and I tried really hard to work out what was going on so as to arrive at a method by which I too might tell a story. Eventually I accumulated a loose group of guidelines and techniques strip-mined mostly from the aforementioned Moore, methods I might employ so as to conceal my not actually having any story worth telling; roughly speaking, this sort of thing:

  • Mess up the lives of your characters and the story will form around what happens as you try to get them back into shape.
  • Don't be afraid of novelty. It looks like imagination and most people can't tell the difference.
  • Quote freely, make frequent references to music, films, or literature generally regarded as cool. References to persons generally regarded as interesting are also to be encouraged - Crowley, Jung, Shakespeare and so on.
  • Quote yourself freely, treating your story thus far as something of inherent weight and mystery. Maybe that person in the background back on page four could turn out to be some kind of mutant mastermind orchestrating everything from behind the scenes.
  • Repeat yourself. People will mistake it for a motif and assume you know what you're doing.

Unfortunately, I learned just enough to immediately recognise my own efforts as complete bullshit once I got to work; and perhaps equally unfortunately, every time I pick up something written by Neil Gaiman - although admittedly it's been a while - it really looks to me as though he's using the very same checklist.

I discovered Neil Gaiman with an early issue of Sandman, went briefly nuts for the guy and bought up everything I could get my hands on; although within about a year I'd begun to detect the faint essence of something which I found difficult to like. I kept on buying Sandman, but Lordy those faux-Shakespearean issues bored me shitless; and I wasn't that wild about Harry fucking Potter even when he was Timothy Hunter; and eventually it all became too annoying so I flogged the lot on eBay. I recall the first twenty or so issues of Sandman as essentially decent, and I'd buy the collected editions but for the bloody awful art which somehow bothered me less at the time; and then there was Miracleman.

We didn't really need any more issues of Miracleman after Alan Moore was done with it, and I'm not convinced Neil Gaiman's run really adds anything. To be fair, The Golden Age seems to be the first of a longer three-part story, and is obviously mostly just scene setting, albeit for a story with a scene already set during Moore's run; and you can tell it's scene setting because it doesn't actually have a story. In fact it barely even has forward motion. I appreciate the device of describing something indescribable through the lives of those observing it from afar, but it reads like a series of novel images of the kind I would have tried to pass of as narrative back in my youth.

Lonely bloke looks after windmills, shags Miraclewoman.

Precocious Miraclebaby has superpowers, insults doting mother.

Geezer climbs mountain but doesn't find answer.

See, they're not really stories, just single images described at length by use of selected phrases deployed so as to suggest a particular mood, and at the end we're supposed to go wow whilst remaining nevertheless touched by the subtle poetry of human interaction; but nothing actually happens, and it really feels as though the author hopes we won't notice. It's the exact same thing which Steven Moffat does on Doctor Who, or did last time I could be arsed to sit through yet another time-wasting episode. A skeleton in a space suit does not in and of itself constitute narrative.

Where was I?

To be fair, the issue spent in the company of Andy Warhol, one of the many resurrected in Miracleman's brave new world of wonders, is terrific, and possibly the best thing I've read by Neil Gaiman; so I guess I can see what he's trying to do for most of this stuff, but none of the rest really comes close, at least not for me, because I can't read past what feels like writing by formula. We have the Kid Miracleman teen cultists drawn in apparent homage to the Hernandez brothers, because Love & Rockets is like rilly amaaazing, yeah? Then there's an incomprehensible Prisoner homage with edgily xeroxed images, and God help us yet another fucking story told as a twee children's book - novelty after novelty after novelty, and of course the poetry of the writing should be sufficient to save the thing from its own neatly modular eccentricity, except it can't because as usual it's so bleeding middle-class that it may as well be set in the same universe as Love Actually; and oh lookee - everyone meets up at the Notting Hill carnival in the final episode. Fancy that.

I realise I'm in the minority, but surely I can't be the only person to have had this reaction to Neil Gaiman's writing? Maybe American Gods is amazing. I don't know. I can only base my opinion on what I've managed to read by him, and it's all been twee; and instances of spontaneity and imagination feel calculated to invoke specific reactions; and it lacks danger or the flavour of any experience beyond the somewhat limited world of a conspicuously middle-class author who wishes only to entertain; and it feels like something for which there could never be greater praise than a glowing write up in Time Out; and when I read anything by Neil Gaiman it feels as though he's sat at my side, digging me in the ribs to see whether I'm suitably full of wonder, and it feels as though he's ever so pleased with himself.

That said, I'm sure he's a lovely bloke in person.

I expect Tim Burton's fucking smashing too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The City of Gold and Lead


John Christopher The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
As you will almost certainly be aware, The City of Gold and Lead is the second of John Christopher's trilogy of children's books set upon an Earth dominated by the alien Tripods. Where The White Mountains seemed more obviously like something extrapolated from The War of the Worlds, this one represents the point at which the tale heads off into new territory. The White Mountains kept its Tripods as a mysterious but remote menace whilst focussing on more familiar human concerns with authority, and how we act when it spins out of control.

This time we go right into the Tripod city to live amongst them as they exist beyond the safety and anonymity of their walking machines. It could have gone horribly wrong in reducing something distant and fairly scary to a known, even potentially comic entity as the creatures from within the machines are revealed to be three legged, tentacled cones of alien flesh with hopes and desires of their own, and apparently based on George Melly - if the one who enslaves Will, our main protagonist, is any indication. Christopher nevertheless pulls it off with ease, crafting a horror story which comes close to hinting at the excesses of the Nazis despite that these Nazis appear to resemble the sort of rubber monsters we bought for five pence a throw and stuck on our pencil tops when I were a lad. It may even be the peculiarity of the Masters - essentially more personable variations on Lovecraft's Great Race - which maintains the fine balance of the narrative by keeping the Tripods at a slight remove from their operators, therefore preserving the menace established in the first book.

Beyond the obvious matters of facing up to tyranny, helping your pals, and generally selfless acts, The City of Gold and Lead doesn't seem quite so philosophically weighty as The White Mountains, although there's also the possibility that I may simply have been overthinking that one; but then it doesn't need to be, because it does what it does to the point of perfection, and is as such one of the best things I've read in a while. As with its predecessor, I really, really wish I'd read this back when I was of the age group for whom it was written.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Missing Man


Katherine MacLean Missing Man (1975)
Just as Asimov had his robots and Philip K. Dick had his ontology, Katherine MacLean's writing is distinguished by her interest in systems theory, organising principles, mass psychology and so on; which may sound a little dry, but she writes beautifully, and with such poetry that we tend to forget when the book has a painting of a robot on the cover. Unfortunately though, her name remains relatively obscure, possibly because she wrote short stories to the exclusion of anything else and has thus remained more or less confined to the ghetto of science-fiction magazine publishing. Even the novel length Missing Man is expanded from a couple of related short stories.

Missing Man examines a society with many familiar problems through the understanding of a psychic detective of sorts, George Sanford whose telepathy allows him insight into the thoughts of those who hold very different views to his own. His world, somewhat conveniently, is divided into highly polarised communities, and many of them set very much against the common good of society as a whole, most notably a displaced Arab community and another which seems to be populated by teenagers. It was the Arab community with which I had the most trouble, given the resemblance of this detail to the sort of thing I presume one might expect to find in the white nationalist science-fiction of persons such as H.A. Covington. MacLean's displaced Islamic group are angry, religious, and seemingly inclined to blow stuff up, but thankfully it becomes clear that their role in the novel is simply to illustrate a view opposing that of the wider society which can be neither assimilated nor placated. She gives reasons for their militancy, and I suspect it's simply a poorly chosen device, although it may seem more so in 2017 than it did in 1975. Ultimately, despite a few disconcerting swerves of this kind, the novel demonstrates itself to be an extended essay on cultural relativism, one which concludes that we really need to stop acting like wankers if we're to get through this.

Unfortunately though, Missing Man seems to provide a clue as to why Katherine MacLean stuck to short stories. The detail is gorgeous, but taken as a full length novel, it felt like walking though fog, unable to see much further than a few feet ahead or behind with very little in the way of underlying structure to support the developing narrative as a unified whole. It felt episodic and the brief glimpses of where we were heading seemed few and far between. That said, as a flawed undertaking by one of the true greats, it still has more going for it than the work of many better publicised names in the field.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction


Robert P. Mills (editor)
The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction eleventh series (1962)
Rightly or wrongly, I've always had the impression of Fantasy & Science Fiction as the American analogy to New Worlds, roughly speaking, at least in relation to Analog, Amazing, Galaxy, and the other magazines. Whilst you could usually expect a short story involving rockets and another involving alien civilisations from most of them, Fantasy & Science Fiction seemed to be the one to publish the weird stuff which didn't really fit anywhere else. That being said, I expected to enjoy this collection more than I did.

In its favour there are characteristically wonderful contributions from Clifford D. Simak and Poul Anderson, while Cordwainer Smith and Avram Davidson have both written impressively peculiar tales of quality sufficient as to suggest that I really need to hunt down a few more by those two. Then there's an underwhelming early work by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., something by Isaac Asimov which is probably about as whelming as I expected it to be, and my first encounter with Gordon R. Dickson which at least suggests that I've been wise to steer clear of anything with his name on the cover. George by John Anthony West is okay, and then there are another five tales listed in the index which I know I read but about which I can't remember a single thing; plus there's a couple of poems which weren't really my sort of thing.

Still, I suppose this kind of deal will always be very much like a box of chocolates in so much as that you never know which one you're gon' git, excepting cases of it being one of those boxes of chocolates wherein the various flavours featured amongst the selection are quite clearly denoted on the inside of the lid. They can't all be amazing, I guess, but it's nice that some of them are. Maybe they were just having an off year.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Doom Patrol


John Byrne, Doug Hazlewood & Terry Austin Doom Patrol (2006)
This is a stack of eighteen comic books picked up in continuation of my efforts to catch up with all those versions of the Doom Patrol which happened while I was looking the other way, and comprising a story John Byrne began during his run of Justice League comics. The strangest thing here was Byrne's decision to ignore all previous versions of the book, starting again at the beginning as though we'd never before met any of these characters. There's an editorial in the first issue explaining how this return to year zero has been effected so as to tell new stories without any crippling continuity getting in the way, although I have to say that John Arcudi seemed to do fine with the previous run of Doom Patrol, taking it somewhere entirely different without any need of a reset button; and for all its finer points, I still can't help feel that Byrne simply didn't want to deal with all that weird homoerotic Dadaism.

That said, I suppose there's an argument that Hans Bellmer and the Marquis de Sade probably don't belong in a children's comic; and so far as taking Doom Patrol back to its roots with stories thematically faithful to the Arnold Drake version, Byrne does a decent job without descending into pastiche. This is as mainstream as the book has ever been, although it's still reasonably weird when compared to - off the top of my head - silver age Superman. The premise suffers a little from somewhat modular Thunderbirdsisms with the tidily secret base from which the team go forth to fight crime and effect rescue operations, but this is at least a little offset by the characters, old and new, with their brain transplants, four-armed gorillas, friendly Confederate ghosts, and so on - and not forgetting a pleasing sidestep into alternate Doom Patrol realities somewhere around issue fourteen. John Byrne is quite good at this sort of thing, essentially pulling the characters apart, working out what makes them tick, and then spinning stories from whatever he's found - which he did to great effect with Alpha Flight back in the eighties; but apparently he's not very good at dialogue, which really shows in the wake of Chris Claremont having co-written those issue of Justice League which foreshadowed this book. It's not that the dialogue is bad so much as that it lacks Claremont's flair and thus exposes the fact that we're actually reading what may as well be a peculiar take on Scooby Doo. Characters think about what they're doing within their thought bubbles as they're doing it, or they describe that which we can see with our own eyes, or they point out that they would have got away with it were it not for that meddling Doom Patrol.

Despite this, Byrne's Doom Patrol has enough going on to keep it engagingly odd and even gripping, and the only problem is simply that it could have been better.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Umbrella


Will Self Umbrella (2012)
Ordinarily I would ignore the usual bleatings about how that Will Self thinks he's right fancy with that blummin' dictionary shoved up his arse like that and sticking his little finger out when he drinks tea even though he ain't no better than the rest of us and it don't matter how many of those blummin' long words he uses what no-one understands so that he reckons we'll all think he's right clever but we really know that he ain't no such thing; but I have to admit, this was a fucking tough one.

Umbrella is written as a stream of consciousness with disparate narratives blending together seemingly so as to mimic how memory works, with the past becoming a function of the present. The effect is a little like listening to a radio whilst someone fiddles with the dial. People and places drift in and out of focus, and it's not always possible to tell quite where one ends and the other begins; and this also accounts for why it's nearly four-hundred pages of continuous text without breaks, no individual chapters or anything.

That said, it's wonderfully written, as I suppose you would expect, so reading never quite becomes a chore even if it's not always clear what's happening or how it relates to whatever you were reading a few pages back. The premise of Umbrella is described as follows on Goodreads:

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades. A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.

So Audrey flashes back to Edwardian times while her psychiatrist flashes forward to his own twilight years, and if we conclude anything, it's possibly that many psychiatric conditions are simply coping mechanisms responding to the circumstances of our shitty society, albeit coping mechanisms which have spun out of control.

See, see! they got rid of him because he represented the truth: that the patients are poor, and they're mad - and indeed that many of 'em are mad precisely because they're poor.

At least that's what I took from the novel, although to be fair, I found the above synopsis on Goodreads after I'd finished the thing, and half of it was news to me, notably the detail of Audrey having been in a coma for most of her life. So I'm probably wrong, but Umbrella seems to be about memory as a property of reality, like I said, and specifically how memory is indistinguishable from reality in terms of cause and effect.

He smiles, thinking of the sartorial fripperies of the period - the long, white silk scarves, and original tailcoats picked up at flea markets, and the bandsmen's scarlet coats that could be spotted weaving their way through the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival, gold frogging leaping about in time to Hendrix's axe-work. Miriam insisted on William Morris floral-patterned wallpaper - while Busner had his own brief flirtation with a handlebar moustache and a velvet smoking jacket ...It must've been strange for them, the reawakened, to have swum back to consciousness in a world done up in a travesty of their own childhood, complete with a soundtrack of oompah psychedelia…

It refers directly to the reawakened right there, and yet that was an element I missed entirely. Simply I found the barrage of undifferentiated information a little too relentless, and a little too resistant to digestion. It might have worked better at a reduced word count, at least for me; but what it does well, or what I can identify as having been done well, makes it all worthwhile, generally speaking.