Monday, 15 January 2018

The Death of Grass


John Christopher The Death of Grass (1956)
A classic, I was reliably informed, and so - having already been impressed by two of Christopher's Tripods novels - I kept an eye open, eventually finding a US edition retitled No Blade of Grass with a cover promising the heaving of bosoms and stuff; and it is a classic, and a classic very much in the mold of a John Wyndham novel wherein stiff upper lipped types try to get by in a world ruined by agency of a massive global disaster. The difference, as Brian Aldiss clearly took great pleasure in pointing out, is that the upper lips of Christopher's protagonists soon lose their stiffness. In Trillion Year Spree, his history of science-fiction literature, Aldiss berates Wyndham for writing cosy catastrophes wherein the central characters have a jolly old romp despite the alien invasion, end of civilisation, or whatever, additionally praising Christopher for putting his own cast of survivors through a genuinely harrowing meat grinder of a tale.

Anyway, what we have is the destruction of the ecosystem through a virus which kills grass in all of its forms, notably including wheat, corn, and rice. So humanity is fucked, no more bread, and not much upon which livestock can graze, and civilisation collapses, and it looks as though the government have dropped atomic bombs on the larger cities in hope of reducing the population to numbers which might stand a better chance of long term survival. We follow Christopher's protagonists across country as they make for the sanctuary of an isolated valley one of them recalls from childhood. They have guns, they pick up strays, they encounter other roving bands of scavengers, and then it all turns unexpectedly bleak as they meet Jane's family, kill them in self defence, then debate whether it would be kinder to kill the aforementioned Jane than leave her to be raped by the next bunch to stumble upon the house. So it's a long way from being anything you could describe as cosy.

That being said, I think the cosy catastrophe label is a little unfair, and while it might apply to some of Wyndham's writing, I really don't see it with Triffids or Kraken; and on the other hand, whilst the people of The Death of Grass find themselves thrust into a world in which conventional morality will get you killed, we're nevertheless dealing with persons who would romp under other circumstances, and whose post-apocalyptic survival strategies serve as contrast to a lost golden age of traditional middle class values. Chaps are in charge and hoping things don't get too beastly, whilst women are to be protected because they can cook and bear children. The novel takes a dim view of humanity bordering on misanthropic whilst being slightly hamstrung by its harking back to moral values which arguably weren't that amazing in the first place.

Of course, it's still a great novel, and significantly one which was rewritten by Cormac McCarthy as The Road - a genuinely harrowing trawl through a similar apocalypse with a better grounding in basic humanity, less of the retired colonel, and which otherwise makes The Death of Grass look like some bloody awful Terry Nation effort.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Lord of Light


Roger Zelazny Lord of Light (1967)
I started this several times and never really got very far. On this occasion I made it to about page fifty and then started again. The text was engrossing and very readable, but I found myself somehow unable to retain the basic details of what I was reading, what had happened and to whom. I made it about a hundred pages in and found myself in the same position, so I went back to the beginning and started all over again for a third time, and I took notes...

Siddhartha the Buddha is reincarnated as Mahasamatman, his essence reclaimed from the Golden Bridge through technological means by Yama-Dharma, the Death God, with the help of Tak, a monkey, and Ratri, the Goddess of Night. Many agents of the existing theocracy fear the return of the Buddha, so this is done in a secretive manner. Unfortunately the operation is detected by Mara, the God of Illusion, who approaches the monastery disguised as a beggar, a monk from a wandering order. Yama exposes Mara's true identity and slays him in a fight, from which the group realise that they cannot stay where they are, for those of the world outside have become aware of them. The Buddha meanwhile gambles with indigenous energy spirits, winning his wager and securing their service. As the group set off, the Buddha recalls the details of his past life.

As a youth, he visited Mahartha, the Capital of the Dawn seeking reincarnation, as was his due. It transpires that his once technological people, brought to this world from distant Earth, have succumbed to the new dark age of a society kept in its place by the ruling theocracy, a group of whom Sam - as he is known to his companions - was formerly a member. Where once this elite took upon the roles of Gods within the Hindu pantheon to rule as the Deicrat party, now they are those Gods, headed by the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and as such they have outlawed the Accelerationist party - which proposed that new human colonies settling on distant planets should be progressive. They have suppressed technological development and hold their people in servitude subject to the laws of karma and reincarnation.

Sam and his warriors stay at the hostel of Hawkana, keeping a low profile. He learns the lay of the land from Jan Olvegg, an old sea captain of his former acquaintance, then visits Brahma at his place to enquire why reincarnation is now governed by such restrictive laws. He recognises Brahma as a reincarnation of Madeleine, a former acquaintance, which angers the God. Brahma agrees to facilitate Sam's reincarnation, but it is clear that the offer is not all it seems. Sam drugs Shan, a travelling warlord and fellow guest at Hawkana, hypnotising him into believing that he is himself Mahasamatman. Shan goes to claim the reincarnation which he believes is his due. Sam encounters the warlord in his new body, and recognises it as that of one who suffers from epilepsy, confirming his fears about the prevailing theocracy. He raids the Palace of Karma with his men, and they steal away with the reincarnation technology.

 
Later, or possibly earlier, Sam is set up as a teacher in the city of Alundil where he is known as Tathagatha, or the Enlightened One. Rild, a follower of Kali comes to the town with the intention of assassinating Tathagatha, but instead becomes a disciple known as Sugata, following a battle fought with Yama. Yama slays Sugata and then himself seeks to kill the Buddha, being in the service of the ruling theocracy. He fails, and Sam tells him that he has already slain the true Buddha, because when Rild changed from an assassin to a disciple, he achieved true enlightenment.

Sam journeys to the underworld to enlist the aid of the energy beings which were banished when humanity first came to the planet. They engage the Gods in a huge battle, during which Sam attempts to steal Shiva's terrible chariot. He is defeated by the Gods Agni and Yama blah blah blah…

There's more, but by this point I'd grasped enough to keep hold of what was happening and I was bored of the homework assignment I'd given myself. For what it may be worth, the above covers roughly the first two thirds of the novel.

Lord of Light takes place on a distant planet settled by humans whose society has taken on the form of ancient Indian society, complete with reincarnation and a ruling elite of polytheist Hindu Gods. It reads mostly like Buddhist parables, or how I imagine Buddhist parables must read based on my having watched Monkey on the telly when I was a teenager; so there's a tendency for characters to deliver statements utilising words such as behold and yonder to one another, and there are many conversations of the kind which ask us to consider the birds in the trees, and so on and so forth. The novel is heavily allegorical, and so the style in which it is written works very well, being both appropriate to the argument and serving the atmosphere; but it probably helps if you're better acquainted with the literary territory, which is why I had problems. That said, it's a testament to the quality of the writing that whilst I lost track of a few things, I was nevertheless able to re-read some of this novel three times in quick succession without being bored. Lord of Light's great success is in its philosophical depth and how well it communicates certain ideas about the nature of reality and our understanding of the same. The novel expects the reader's undivided attention, which is only fair given the elegance of the arguments set forth, but the bottom line - at least for me - was that unfortunately it took me about two weeks to get through the thing, what with all the re-reading. I tend to finish most novels in three or four days, and so a certain degree of fatigue was probably inevitable here, regardless of the quality of the writing; so to summarise, it's a great book, but a sense of humour might have alleviated some of the heavy lifting, and it probably helps if you care about Buddhism, which I don't.

Puckoon


Spike Milligan Puckoon (1963)
I was struggling with Lord of Light, and Zelazny's novel was proving more demanding than I can cope with during the ten o'clock slot prior to turning off the light and going to sleep. It was fine for the seven o'clock slot when I've just woken up and I'm eating toast, and my powers of concentration are up to the task, but the evening session was a waste of time; so I decided to switch to something lighter, less demanding just for the hour at bedtime, and there was this which I recall as having been side-splitting when I was fourteen.

Time hasn't been kind to Milligan, not in the sense of the decades passing having revealed him as not particularly funny, but some of this no longer packs quite the same punch as it once did, or seemed to do. The obvious objection would, I suppose, be the seemingly endless sublimation of chuckles from the laziest of racial stereotypes, but I'm not sure it's even that. Milligan's Irish are routinely stupid, comic alcoholics with barely a brain cell between them, even before we get to Ah Pong, the implausible Chinese policeman whose grasp of English is about as good as that of any Chinese character in a seventies sitcom. The racism is boring, mainly because it's so bleeding obvious, although it's probably significant that Milligan's fools tend to be underdogs who come out on top through agency of their own screwy wits. They are grotesques, the inhabitants of satire pushed to the limits of cliché for the sake of Dadaist absurdity, and so whilst the racism may seem a bit predictable, it isn't applied to the denigration of the characters or even to any particularly racist theme; which I suppose is why we don't view Milligan with quite the same disdain as Bernard Manning, aside from Milligan having been funnier, obviously.

Apparently it took him a couple of years to write Puckoon, and it shows. The premise is an idea which may well have reduced everyone to tears in the pub about fifteen minutes before chucking out time, but it needs more than it has here to make it work as a novel - something about the Irish border redrawn around the village of Puckoon, with the IRA smuggling bombs into the north by burying them in a coffin prior to the aforementioned reconfiguration. This is padded out to novel length by means of every other sentence being some kind of joke or pun playing on its predecessor, including passages in which our main character breaks the fourth wall and complains to the author about the quality of the legs which have been written for him. After a while it becomes exhausting, and you begin to wish he'd just tell the fucking story, whatever it was.

Milligan wrote better for radio, television, and as autobiography, or at least that's how I remember it, and although there's some wonderful turns of absurdist comic phrase here, it's not anything like as much fun as it wants to be.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Deadface


Eddie Campbell Deadface (1988)
I've not read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, but it always sounds suspiciously similar to this earlier work in an admittedly different medium, with which I'm certain he must have been familiar. Then again, I don't suppose Eddie Campbell can have been the first to tell tales of peculiarly urbane mythological persons in a contemporary setting but, you know…

Deadface is Bacchus, the ancient Roman God of wine, revelry, and the like, now of sufficient toothly length as to resemble William Burroughs in his later years, hence Deadface, although Campbell doesn't actually make use of the title anywhere in the story so I suppose it was simply deemed snappier than Bacchus. I encountered this one when the hippy guy who ran my local comic shop - above what is now the Cafe Milano in Chatham - decided I might benefit from a few titles without an X- prefix and turned me onto this and the likewise excellent Trouble with Girls. I return to it now whilst wrestling with Roger Zelazny's similarly theological Lord of Light, a great book, but a tough read when you have other shit getting in the way, as I have had.

Anyway, Bacchus is essentially a wrinkly old sea captain who spends his days drinking wine and spinning yarns, although the yarns are mostly things we'd recognise as mythology, and whenever he removes his cap it's difficult to miss the horns. Drama intrudes upon the Mediterranean serenity of our tale when it emerges that there are still a couple of others knocking around from the old days, Joe Theseus and the Eyeball Kid, the monstrous and yet oddly charming grandson of Argus. I get the impression this comic may have been played by ear from one issue to the next, depending on what story Campbell felt like telling; at least judging by how Bacchus himself is quickly sidelined in this title which at least alludes to him even if it doesn't actually carry his name; which I suppose may also have been in response to the pressures of publishing an independent black and white comic in the late eighties. Deadface was wrapped up and cancelled with issue eight, and while the run taken as a single whole tends to wander a bit in terms of focus, it's nevertheless satisfying.

Deadface succeeded mostly on the strength of tone and atmosphere. It's leisurely paced and mature, not given to ostentatious attempts to blow our minds, and thus is it able to carry the premise of those Greek and Roman Gods having been real people without seeming silly. In fact, it seems to expand and update the mythology with a veracity which makes all of Grant Morrison's hooting and hollering about his spandex Supergods appear hysterical and childish, if you can imagine that. Eddie Campbell's art is harsh, angular, and never quite what you'd call easy on the eye, but there's something fascinating about it, particularly this eighties vintage with the scratchy lines and stark blocks of letratone. Deadface looks and feels like a comic descended directly from book illustration, like neither Action Comics, Superman nor any of that other branch ever happened. Some momentum is lost in the later issues inked by Ed Hillyer who, whilst not without talent, seems less distinctive and somehow more mainstream than Campbell as an artist; which isn't to say that they're bad, because - at the risk of committing hyperbole - Eddie Campbell's touch is such as to elevate everything else in the vicinity, and even when you get the impression he's winging it, the results remain staggering.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Plastic Forks


Ted McKeever Plastic Forks (1990)
I was sufficiently invested in the minutiae of the comics industry back in 1990 to recall Ted McKeever being pushed as the new Bill Sienkiewicz, or at least that's how it felt at the time. Bill Sienkiewicz introduced something not unlike Dadaist collage to the comic books and remains one of the greatest artists to ever dabble with the medium, maybe even the greatest on a good day. Ted McKeever's art doesn't actually share much in common with that of Sienkiewicz beyond the occasionally scratchy line, but existed at a related tangent to what more or less everyone else was drawing in caped terms - think expressionist splatters and the influence of European cinema rather than mild-mannered reporters vanishing into phone booths.

Plastic Forks was issued in five luxuriously printed installments of sixty pages each, flogged on eBay when I needed the money, then repurchased more recently once I'd built up sufficient regret over the sale; but now that I have them back, I realise why I couldn't remember much about Plastic Forks, namely that I probably only read it once. I also realise why I only read it once. It's a tale of lives reduced to commodity, made disposable like plastic forks - the scientists of the tale as much as the animals upon which they perform terrible experiments towards dubious ends. The dynamic of the story spins from one of the scientists becoming the victim of his own experiments, followed by four issues of running around in pursuit of redress.

The artwork is mostly breathtaking, hallucinatory and expressionist, all contrast and jagged edges; which works beautifully as a vehicle for the industrialised cruelty of the tale, but which falls short when broaching the more tender concerns of the humans at the mercy of the machine. Another problem is that McKeever's illustration occasionally borders on abstract, leaving room for ambiguity when it's working on behalf of the story, but simply bewildering when it fails.



Doctor Henry Apt's coffee spray on page seven of the second issue is one example, a reaction to a detail of overheard conversation which becomes apparent later and meanwhile sends the reader thumbing back in hope of working out what he or she missed. So the story suffers from an impressionistic quality which seems at odds with what it's trying to do, combined - regrettably - with blandly utilitarian dialogue which feels like a self-conscious afterthought: I only hope I can cut through in time, or it's a long shot, but the only way to find out if it works is to try it, and the like. McKeever could have used a collaborator, or at least a more interactive editor.

Plastic Forks does what it does, looks fucking astonishing, but simply could have been a lot better. It's probably unfair to compare it to Sienkiewicz' Stray Toasters, but Stray Toasters was great because Sienkiewicz worked as hard on telling a story as he did on illustrating it. By comparison Plastic Forks feels like wonderful art in search of an author.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Flight from Yesterday


Robert Moore Williams Flight from Yesterday (1963)
This is the third I've read by Robert Moore Williams, and the one which seems to confirm certain ideas I've developed about the man's style and what he was trying to achieve. King of the Fourth Planet and Beachhead Planet both felt somewhat like philosophical allegory filtered through a narrative sensibility not dissimilar to that of A.E. van Vogt, and that this one should play with roughly the same deck of cards suggests that I wasn't simply reading too hard.

That said, Williams feels more conventionally pulpy than Alfred Elton, more pitched at a particular audience. Here we have persons projected forward in time from the last days of an advanced antediluvian city - identified as Atlantis on the cover but not in the actual text - their personalities possessing the present day bodies of a guy who runs a curio shop and who occasionally sells porn on the side, a nightclub bruiser, and a couple of prostitutes - salacious details hinted at in couched terms presumably designed to elude censorious editing, but some way from the usual cast of characters one might expect to encounter in a novel of this general type. These persons find themselves pitched against Keth Ard, our main protagonist - an out of work test pilot apparently for no other reason than as an invocation of something adventurous and futuristic; and Keth Ard is assisted by his psychiatrist.

With personalities switching between bodies and time zones, and with objectives seeming a little nebulous beyond the basic existence of conflicting interests, Flight from Yesterday is confusing and occasionally difficult to follow compared to the other two, neither of which could have been described as straightforward in the first place; and this one is maybe not quite so engagingly bizarre, but it's still pretty fucking weird in places. The narrative seems to be something to do with karma, reincarnation, redemption and so on, at least more so than it's about time travellers from Atlantis; and it's this invocation of philosophical depth which renders it so readable, even if it resembles the gonzo philosophy of a crazy person - like someone sat Richard Shaver down and made him really think about what he'd been saying. I dislike the term outsider art for all sorts of reasons I can't be bothered to go into right now, but Williams' novels probably qualify; which isn't to say that he's a bad writer in any sense, because there's too much conviction in this for it to have been the work of a person without any real clue as to what they're doing; but he seems to have been playing by his own rules, and yes, that is a recommendation.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Scalped: Indian Country


Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra Scalped: Indian Country (2007)
I wasn't too sure about this one at first, despite a marginally more than passing interest in Native America. Stood in various branches of Half Price flicking through copies on three or four occasions, I couldn't help but notice death, violence, extortion, and at least one meth lab. It seemed like a poor advert for the culture it had chosen to inhabit, the whiskey-soaked offering of another one of those writers who has a keyboard with a specific key set to render the word motherfucker with a single tap so as to save time, and the same whiskey-soaked offering as usual transposed to someone else's misery for the sake of a sales pitch. It made me think of Preacher or any number of Tarantino wanabees.

I succumbed in the end, and I'm glad I did because I was wrong. Scalped may not be sympathetic to Native culture in terms conventionally patronised by new-age Whitey, but neither is it unsympathetic, and it strives to at least convey some of the grinding and distinctly unphotogenic poverty and misery which passes for life on the reservation. I don't know many Natives, but I know a couple, and I gather that Scalped is fairly true to life even with the narrative pinned to a conveniently episodic crime drama falling roughly half way between The Sopranos and The Shield - here referencing television shows for the sake of convenience and because I haven't read any comics which do quite the same thing, and certainly none written by Garth Ennis. Scalped is pretty dark and gritty, but is conducted with a lightness of touch, an elegance you wouldn't experience on a screen with a hole ostentatiously blown in someone's noggin every fifteen minutes - so good that it doesn't need to be made into telly.