Wednesday, 31 October 2018

All Tomorrow's Parties - William Gibson

All Tomorrow's Parties - a title always guaranteed to snag the attention of a Velvets' fan like me - is the third part of Gibson's late-90s Bridge Trilogy. The others are Virtual Light and Idoru. I haven't read either of those but I'm certainly going to now.

I love Gibson and I loved this book. The bridge in question is the Golden Gate, which has been taken over by interstitial settlers since the long overdue earthquake made it unsafe for vehicles in the early 21st century. People there live in small re-purposed containers and sell stuff to tourists. Meanwhile in Tokyo, Colin Laney lives in very similar conditions in a subway station. There he immerses himself in the net in search of nodal points and his idoru Rei Toei, a seductive holograph. Laney sends ex-cop Rydell to collect the projector carrying Rei Toei. Rydell's next port of call is the bridge where he encounters his former girlfriend Chevette, also returning to the bridge where she lived with a previous lover.

From there on in, it's the beginning of the end of the world as bridge-dwellers have come to know it. I won't reveal any more because the plotting is so wonderfully tight. The dialogue is sharp, the prose sizzles with cyperpunk connectivity. Nobody but nobody does it better than Gibson, the Elmore Leonard or Stephen King of near-contemporary dystopia.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Aleister Crowley, the Beast Demystified - Roger Hutchinson

This is a refreshing take on the Crowley sub-genre. These are usually sensational or lurid, taking the tone of a couple of red-top scandal sheets that proclaimed the middleaged Crowley to be the wickedest man alive, the Beast of the Revelation personified. We should have looked more into these so-called newspapers. One was John Bull, the personal propaganda of the demagogue and fraudster Horatio Bottomley. Another was the Sunday Express, then as now a sad comedown for the chips wrapped in it.

Hutchinson's take is that Crowley was one of many ego-centric eccentrics who came to prominence during the Edwardian era. The sons of fairly wealthy men, they were public school educated (usually unhappily), unable to find a place for themselves in the newly globalised world and not rich enough to ignore the problem. Crowley, in these terms, was remarkable only in that he chose and stayed with occultism (or 'magick' as he typically called it). The fact that he stayed with magick is what set Crowley apart and what brought upon him the wrath of the right wing British press. Occultism had been fashionable in the 1880s and 90s, but in the Twentieth Century most dabblers moved on to full-blown fascism.

Hutchinson keeps it short, which is a wise move; too often, Crowley biographers feel obliged to fill space with endless quotes from the magickal lore which their subject churned out to maintain some sort of income. Regarding that sort of material as pure hack-work, and the press campaigns as entirely made up, Hutchinson ends up being surprisingly generous to his subject. He regards the Beast as a bad poet, though no worse than many others of his era, a mediocre novelist, and a really rather gifted writer of non-fiction. He certainly inspired me to try some of Crowley's fiction, which is apparently almost entirely autobiographical.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Mother London - Michael Moorcock

Mother London is not what we expect of Michael Moorcock. That's our shortcoming, not his. He wrote Mother London in 1988 when he was absolutely at the top of his game, capable of writing absolutely anything. And here's the proof.

There's very little sci fi, but a load of fantasy. That's because Moorcock's three protagonists are on and off mental patients and we spend as much time as they do in the world of dreams. The London 'mother', insofar as there is one, is Mary Gasalee, a teenage mum who emerges from the ruin of her house in the Blitz, cradling her infant daughter. The moment she hands the baby to the ambulance crew she collapses - and remains in a coma for the next fifteen years. We enjoy her dreams which she spends largely with Hollywood stars - Merle Oberon is a particular dream friend and Ronald Colman keeps turning up unexpectedly. When Mary wakes she is in her middle thirties but still looks eighteen; everyone mistakes Mary and her daughter for sisters.

Recuperating in the hospital garden she meets Josef Kiss and does what women always do with Josef. We have already met Josef. He is an old style variety act - a mind-reader, albeit like Mary he can do it for real. In the war he made himself an ARP warden and a disarmer of unexploded bombs. This is how he met the eccentric Scaramanga sisters (in one of the best sections of the entire book). Since the war he does small character parts in film and on TV. He is best known as the face of frozen fish fingers. Josef is only sporadically mad and he occasionally books himself into various mental hospitals for rest and recuperation.

The third protagonist is David Mummery, a freelance journalist much younger than Mary and Josef. Josef, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city, its legends and byways, is David's mentor, Mary his first love. David is not as strong a character as the other two and therefore carries very little of the narrative. I was thinking he was a mistake until I came to the very last section and realised why he was there.

Chronology in Mother London is prismatic. If it matters, we are told when we are in the chapter headings. We always know where we are - London - and are mainly specifically located by ancient pubs. There is no apparent rationale behind the ordering of the sections except at the beginning and the end. The beginning is the weekly get-together of the patients at a clinic. The end is at the Scaramanga's cottage which will replace it after Thatcher's cuts. In this fictional version of the 1980s Thatcher is very much PM but Secretary of State for Health is Josef's antithetical sister, Dame Beryl Male, whose husband is in charge of the mental hospital where the protagonists first meet.

There is a splendid backdrop of fleeting characters, of whom I especially enjoyed the Fox family of villains. Many of these background characters are gypsies, who seem to fascinate Moorcock. And why not? They have been in London, he reckons, since it was pontoons in the primeval marshland. The Matter of Britain is also here, the buried demigods Lud, Gog and Magog, and Bran. And the three protagonists, all to varying extents able to hear the thoughts of others, are assailed by wedges of stream-of-consciousness which we soon recognise as flags of manic episodes.

I was absolutely stunned by Mother London. It truly is a masterpiece of London fiction. You have to be mad to live there, of course, so all Moorcock's core characters are.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Unholy City - Charles G Finney

Sometimes you stumble on something that's completely out of the blue. This 1976 paperback with the hideous and far too literal cover proclaims The Unholy City (1937) "a masterpiece of weird adventure." Well it's certainly not an adventure, it's definitely weird, and it might well be a masterpiece.

Charles G Finney (1905-1984) was the great-grandson of an identically-named evangelist and prolific writer (so be careful if you put the name into a search engine). His first novel, The Circus of  Dr Lao (1935) was deemed the most original book of the year in the National Book Awards. It was later turned into a partly-animated movie (The 7 Faces of Dr Lao) by George Pal. Tony Randall - later famous as  Felix in The Odd Couple - apparently supplies all seven faces. I really must get a copy of book and film.

The Unholy City is partly a continuation in that our narrator, whom we eventually learn is called Captain Butch Malahide, comes from Abalone, the Arizona town visited by Dr Lao's circus. He is taking a world tour by airship but the airship crashes, leaving Malahide the only survivor. He scoops up all the money he can find from his late fellow passengers (a large amount of drachmas, though pointedly not the Greek variety) and sets out for the nearest city. On the way he encounters Vicq Ruiz, who convinces Malahide to accompany him to the city of Heilar-way where they will enjoy a bacchanal to celebrate the fact that Ruiz will die very soon. He woke this very morning with a presentiment to that effect.

Before they get to the city they encounter the Chiam Mings, who own the monster on the cover. Malahide and Ruiz are exposed to the beast, but Malahide has a pistol and shoots it. End of adventure.

The remainder of this very short (120 page) book is the bacchanal. The twosome drink prodigious amounts of szelack, travel hundreds of miles up and down the Calle Grande in supercharged taxis, watch a black citizen get railroaded in court, get interviewed by the Scavenging Scribe of the Tandstikkerzeutung newspaper, pay off Ruiz's debts with Malahide's drachmas, pick up a couple of women (Mrs Schmale and Mrs Schwackhammer), eat several meals of chops and green onions, get into fights, watch an experimental play, and are taken for members of three groups of insurgents (the elderly, the taxpayers and the unemployed) who have separately decided to rise up together against the repressive government of Heilar-way such as it is.

Throughout the day they hear and read news reports of a giant tiger terrorising the suburbs.

This is not fantasy literature, it is fantastical. In a sense it is a cock-eyed Pilgrim's Progress. The relationship between Malahide and Ruiz is the inverse of that between Don Quixote and Sancha Panza; Ruiz spouts high-flown chivalric nonsense about honour which the monosyllabic Malahide apathetically accepts. The nearest parallel I could think of was Nathanael West who was writing his slim satires at the same time as Finney. The language is deliberately archaic ("By gad, sir!"), the shenanigans bordering on slapstick. Before fighting a couple of roughs who are seeking to steal their lady-friends, Ruiz has to hand Malahide his dentures and spectacles and enlist his help to adjust his surgical support.  The roughs, meanwhile, are given a thorough beating by the slim redheaded girl cashier with the huge grin. There is also surrealism: Malahide becomes obsessed with the spectral figure of Frances Shepherd, disgraced daughter of the notorious bank president, whom he bumps into all across town, finally getting close and personal in the zoo recently vacated by the rampaging tiger.

At its heart - the Germanic names give it away - The Unholy City is a scathing satire of the rise of fascism, also lampooned by Sinclair Lewis in It Can't Happen Here (1935). You see the reports about the marauding tiger and you instantly conclude Fake News! Nobody reliable has actually seen it, although there are pawprints and savaged corpses. It is a perfect gem of its period. I would add 'and its genre' but what is its genre? Is it, perhaps, unique? Whichever, I loved it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Journey into Fear - Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was the master of spy fiction. Before him there was John Buchan and whoever it was created Bulldog Drummond; after came James Bond. Without Ambler there would have been no Bond. Fleming absolutely stuck with Ambler's formula for success, though in my view his writing was never as good. Where Fleming outshone Ambler, however, was in having the continuing hero. Each of Ambler's major thrillers has a different hero and they tend to be middling men of no particular significance who by chance become embroiled in the machinations of nations. They are more like real spies in that sense and, given that we know they will not recur in the next book, we cannot be sure they will survive, which adds suspense utterly lacking in Bond.

Here, for example, Mr Graham, who lacks even a forename, works in a senior capacity for an international arms manufacturer. This being 1940, the firm's products are in great demand and Mr Graham - having survived an assassination attempt in Istanbul - is trying to get home to England on a cut-price ocean steamer. His fellow passengers are few in number. Any or none of them might be in league with the assassin, who also manages to slip aboard. That, in essence, is the story.

It is down to Ambler's skill as a storyteller that we remain enthralled. His characterisation is excellent, his writing strong. He uses narrative devices well beyond his successor Fleming. For example the first couple of chapters unfold in flashback. We are aware of Mr Graham's amended plan to sail aboard the scruffy steamer, then find out why he has agreed to give up his original plan to travel first class by rail. This gets excitement in good and early (the attempt on his life), introduces the femme fatale (the glamorous nightclub dancer Josette) and reveals the involvement of professional spies in Colonel Haki of the Turkish secret service.

Journey into Fear made an excellent film with Orson Welles as Haki. After the war Ambler moved to Hollywood to write and produce movies. He was extremely successful - I had no idea until I looked him up. He wrote the screenplays for The Cruel Sea and the best of all Titanic movies, A Night to Remember. That is how good he was. Better than Buchan, better than Fleming. The best.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Trouble With Lichen - John Wyndham

The Trouble With Lichen (1960) is a marked departure from Wyndham's usual output. It remains science fiction and as usual is set more or less contemporaneously. But it is a comic novel, hence what would otherwise be a horribly inappropriate cover. Is it funny? Not laugh out loud, certainly. It takes a comically quizzical look at what happens when an age-preventing agent is discovered by scientists. One tries to bury the discovery, though he cannot resist dosing himself and his children; the other sets up an exclusive beauty clinic. Both choices have repercussions. The truth is bound to get out eventually, and it very quickly does.

The writing is good, the idea close to brilliant. The problem is, Wyndham can't handle the God's Eye View. He sees too much, thus there is lots of so-called comic banter between working class types, stereotypical politicians and the popular press insist on getting involved. Wyndham would have done better by sticking to his two scientists, Francis Saxover (scion of a sort of Wedgwood/Darwen dynasty) and his beautiful and brilliant assistant Diana Brackley. I believe that would have forced him to work out his plot better in his celebrated 'logical' technique. As it is, the sending up of real newspapers like the Guardian and the Mail works well; that of obviously fictional papers like the Trumpeter falls flatter than any pancake.

Oddly, though - and very unusually for a science fiction novel - Lichen provides a convincing snapshot of the society for which it was written. It's a slightly qualified thumbs-up from me then.