Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas and friends

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2 (v. 2)The character Conan and the stories about him are sometimes seen as primitive versions of the fantasy stories that came later. Part of that is a matter of chronology; part of it is his similarity to characters like Tarzan; part of it is that he’s a pretty primitive fellow himself. But I think it’s also because Conan is a character without any checks or balances. In roleplaying games, for example, you generally have to specialise, to choose one area in which to excel, and that often has implications for other aspects of your character. Conan has no such limitations. He’s the strongest, and also the fastest. He’s the biggest, but also the sneakiest. He’s the best hand-to-hand fighter, but also the best general. He’s the best at absolutely everything, even as a youngster, no matter how much different abilities might seem likely to clash with each other. He’s a superhero, basically.

This must have been said before, but he is also, metaphorically, a phallus, pushing his way through the cloth of these adventures in search of women. His primary characteristic isn’t his strength or his agility, it’s that he can’t be cockblocked: anyone who tries will feel the length of his sword (oo-er). When he meets a woman he wants, he knows he will have her, and so does everyone else. The message of his loincloth, like Tarzan’s, is that sex is never more than a second away; it’s both a threat and a promise. In fact, the entire book is a call to the reader’s groin: a chance to let your imagination wander where your sense would never let you; a chance to luxuriate in fantasies of sex and violence.

That doesn’t stop if from being hugely entertaining. In fact, reading this book was one of the most sheerly enjoyable, uncomplicated reading experiences of my life. Somewhere in the middle of it I stopped reading it for the sake of my ten-year-old self (for whom every Conan book and comic he could find was a priceless treasure), and started to read it for myself.

There was a lot to enjoy, even as a (relatively) mature adult: this volume is even better than the previous one. For one thing, the magazine settles down to a series of full-length stories, forty and even fifty-page epics. It also benefits hugely from the presence of John Buscema, contributing to almost every issue, bringing both continuity and, of course, brilliant artwork. There’s a craftmanship and artistry to these comics unusual for comics of the time, evident both in the art and in the writing of Roy Thomas. (Sometime I’d like to compare the comics with the stories to see how much of that writing is Roy Thomas and how much is Robert Howard – but even if turns out that all the writing I admire in these comics is from Howard’s pen, credit would still go to Thomas for knowing not to interfere with it, and translating prose to comic so expertly.)

If there is one problem with the art, it’s that the reverse C-shape panel layout is used too often – i.e. where panel one is above panel three, with panel two stretching vertically across them at the right. It’s very confusing. But when a book contains some of the most befuddlingly attractive women ever created by a pencil, it seems ungrateful to complain about the layouts!

The original magazines had black and white interiors, so almost nothing has been lost from the artwork by printing these in the Essential/Showcase format (though I often think comics look better in black and white anyway, given how primitive comics colouring was until relatively recently). The exception would be the magazine covers, which deserve a colour book of their own to show them at their best (as has happened with the Commando reprints). Those paintings are simply stunning, even in greyscale.

The centrepiece of the book is “The People of the Black Circle”, a one hundred and twenty page adaptation of the Howard story, which was serialised across four issues of the original magazine. It’s absolutely marvellous, but then so are nearly all the stories in the book (though I could have done without the one about the cannibals, which must have seemed dated even in the seventies).

I had mixed feelings about a later story, “The Pool of the Black One”. Conan always shows a reckless disregard for the lives of others – he’s happy to kill guards and the like, if they’re in his way, even if they aren’t individually his enemies. In “The Pool of the Black One”, however, he commits a murder, plain and simple, just for his own convenience. Having not read the original Howard stories (I thought I had, till I came to catalogue them on Goodreads), I was a bit surprised by the story. It wasn’t a nice guy he murdered, but it was someone who had saved his life. It seemed to me that Conan crosses a line in that one.

But then that’s what he’s for – he’s for crossing the line, doing what we wouldn’t. He’s the unrestrained killer, the irresistable lover, the epitome of the male stereotype. He’s what women would like men to be, but would despise them for being; he’s the image men can’t live up to, and the image they can’t live down.

We were a bit short of money the month I read this book, to the point where I had to cancel our Sky subscription – maybe that’s why I found a bit of Conan so compelling; he wouldn’t have to worry about anything like that. I feel bad that I had to cancel Sky, but also bad that something as trivial as affording Sky feels like the measure of my manhood… Jeepers, listen to me… I’ll be going hunting to make up for my inadequacies next…

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 544pp.

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, by Jack Kirby and friends

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1The Challengers of the Unknown live in a world where anything can happen, and, best of all, there aren’t any superheroes flying around to grab all the fun. If something weird is going on in their world, they’re the people you call. It doesn’t matter that they’re just four better-than-average humans – or five, once June becomes a very welcome distaff member – they’re the best this world has to offer, and they always give it their best shot. You have to love the spirit of four guys whose go-to move, when confronted with giants of all varieties, is to run at them in a big gang shouting things like: "Let’s all hit him — together!"

The big problem with this book is that it can be very difficult to tell the Challengers apart in black-and-white. Usually their hair would help (red, blonde, brown and that strange hair colour only found in comics, the Superman blue-black), but in black-and-white, you’ve just got two blonde guys (one beefy, one slim), and two black-haired guys (one beefy, one slim), all in identical costumes. It got very frustrating, to the point that I began to think about getting my daughter to colour them in for me.

I never expected to say this about a comic, but it became much more readable once Jack Kirby stopped drawing it. What appalling heresy!

At the time, I thought it was down to the change of artist (to Bob Brown), but looking back through the book, I’m hard pressed to spot a really significant change in the way the Challengers are drawn. It’s more down to the (usually uncredited) writing.

In the early issues the Challengers are pretty interchangeable, apart from their specialised skills (pilot, diver/boffin, climber, wrestler). Then for a few issues after Kirby leaves the art, they suddenly develop personalities, ones that oddly enough aren’t a million miles away from those of the Fantastic Four (Kirby’s next book). The climber develops a bit of a Johnny Storm look and attitude, and starts poking and teasing the wrestler, who’s turned into a bit of a Ben Grimm. Towards the end of the book, unfortunately, they revert to being totally characterless, but by that point June’s role has become more prominent, which balances it out.

I’m a huge fan of the Essentials and Showcases. They’ve let me read and enjoy hundreds of comics that I would never have shelled out for in more prestigious and pocket-gouging formats like the Masterworks or the Archives. And as someone who grew up reading the black-and-white British comics of the seventies, I’ve never felt the lack of colour to be a huge problem. But in this case, it comes very close to spoiling the book.

What saves it is the Kirby streak that runs through all his comics: the feeling of freedom, of imagination left to follow its nose. If you want to find out what lies beyond the realms of possibility, he’s your man…

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, Jack Kirby et al, DC Comics, tpb, 544pp.

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders, Vol. 1, by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders v. 1Whereas the Challengers of the Unknown showcase volume really suffered from the black and white printing, this book glories in it. When these issues were originally published (1983–1985) comics printing was at its most cheap and rubbishy (ironically the title went to pieces after graduating to fancy Baxter printing). Here the artwork is perfectly clear and very attractive. Jim Aparo does some wonderful work on the title, while Bill Willingham and Trevor von Eeden take enjoyably different approaches on fill-ins.

(I can’t wait for the JLI showcase volumes that we’re bound to see one day. If ever wonderful artwork was buried under unsympathetic printing it was then.)

As for the stories, written by Mike Barr, I think the Slings & Arrows Guide says it best (as usual): “pedestrian, but generally entertaining”. There’s nothing amazing here; it’s run-of-the-mill team stuff, and the characters and their relationships aren’t all that great. But despite that I’ve always had a soft spot for the Outsiders (to see them at their best check out The Nail, the JLA graphic novel by Alan Davis). If you’re in the mood for a simple, self-contained team book, this’ll do the trick.

For me the best thing about the book is Batman himself, or The Batman, as he is usually called here. He’s not the affable duffer of the 1950s and 1960s comics, nor yet is he the middle-aged tough-love foster parent of the modern comics. He’s as young as I’ve ever seen him portrayed – you’d think him in his mid-20s in some panels – and he’s flawed, passionate, and still finding his way. He’s a hero working with his peers; he’s the best trained and best equipped of them, but they don’t worship him. This was a Batman I really enjoyed reading about.

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders, Vol. 1, by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo, DC Comics, tpb, 552pp.

Rick Random: Space Detective

This book contains ten adventures of Rick Random, Space Detective (a character I hadn’t previously heard of) from the pages of the Super Detective Library of comic books, digests similar in style to Commando and Starblazer. It contains issues 44, 49, 123, 127, 129, 133, 137, 143, 153 and 163. Some stories have been reprinted from their later appearances in Buster Picture Library (the reprint titles have been used instead of the originals).

The book puts the stories in very little context. There are no creator credits, and we’re not even told when they were published, apart from a comment on the back that Rick Random first appeared in 1954. The introduction says that Harry Harrison worked on the title, and that that was when the title came into its own, but it’s not clear if he wrote any of these stories. Similarly, the back cover seems to say that all these stories were drawn by Ron Turner, but the introduction mentions several other artists as well.

The artwork, whether it’s all by Ron Turner or not, is generally very good. Backgrounds, spaceships and technology all look marvellous. The figure work is a bit looser than mainstream comics readers would be used to nowadays, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (though you’ll have to search hard in this book for a pretty girl). In certain panels you could think you were looking at work by Bryan Talbot or David Lloyd.

Since the stories date from the fifties, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a bit old-fashioned in some ways. The earlier stories have some oddly fascistic overtones. For example, everyone has an identification number tattooed on their arms, which even in 1954 would surely have raised eyebrows, and in “Kidnappers from Mars” Rick is point man on an invasion of a world which refuses to join their World Federation of Powers.

It’s old-fashioned in other ways, too. In “Emperor of the Moon”, said emperor has “dumb African slaves”. Post-colonial critics would also have a ball with “Planet of Terror”, where people say things like, “These primitive people have many gods, Rick” and “Don’t most primitives have a human sacrifice on occasions like this?” In “Threat from Space” Rick Random works his way through twenty cigarettes, possibly more. He loves his cigarettes! In “Perilous Mission” blue whales are farmed to feed Earth’s population – though I’m not entirely sure if that’s old-fashioned or visionary! And in “The Kidnapped Planet” Rick leads a “terrorist campaign” against giant-sized invaders. I suppose the only old-fashioned thing about that is that the story doesn’t put a more positive spin on his bombings!

But being old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. While I could have done without the smoking and the colonialism, there’s a cosiness here that made for a very comfortable read. Reading these little-known stories made me feel as if my grandad had found them in the attic and brought them down for me. Some things may be a bit dated, but that generally adds to their interest rather than detracting from it.

As to the other stories, “Robot World” is an unashamed imitation of Asimov’s The Naked Sun, while “Frozen World” deals with the theft of gold from banks. (The frozen world of the title is Neptune.) Scientists recently suggested that the dilemma at the end of The Italian Job could have been resolved by superheating the gold to turn it into a gas – at one point in this story (a mention of ventilation) I thought I’d found the scientists’ inspiration! Unfortunately not, but it was nice to be surprised by the plot at least once: though these stories are often reminiscent of James H. Schmitz’s hard-boiled science fiction, not least in their interest in ecology, expectations here are very rarely reversed. Everything is usually pretty much as it seems.

“Killer in Space” seems to be a bit inconsistent with the other stories. In that one it’s the early days of space travel, and Venus has to be close to Earth to permit interplanetary travel, while usually Rick hops around between solar systems without any trouble. But then again, we have buses and planes in our world, but that doesn’t mean buses can fly. Interstellar travel may be practical for Rick, but not for passenger ships. And anyway, consistency with old stories shouldn’t get in the way of telling new ones (something Doctor Who has recently remembered, but Star Trek needs to learn).

Overall, reading the book was thoroughly enjoyable. The stories were exciting and entertaining, and full of variety: Rick’s job gives him a great deal of latitude both in the cases he takes on and the approach he takes to them. This book is never boring. The dialogue is clipped and to the point. The art and storytelling is dynamic and efficient. Let your attention drift for a page or two and you’ll be lost – every panel counts. If I’ve focused on what might be seen as flaws, it’s because I found them fascinating. I’d very much recommend this book to anyone who fancies a bit of straightforward, traditional science fiction adventure.

I hope we’ll see many more science fiction collections to join this one – of Starblazer, in particular. It’s marvellous to see British comics other than 2000AD being collected.

Rick Random: Space Detective, ed. Steve Holland, Prion Books, pb, 656pp.

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction, Mike Mignola and John Byrne

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction (v. 1)When looking at a collaboration between two creators whose work you know individually, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about who contributed what. With AI, for example, lots of people said they hated the Spielberg bits and loved the Kubrick bits, without really knowing which was which.

I don’t want to make that mistake reviewing this Hellboy book. Certainly, it seems much more like a traditional super-hero comic than later volumes, especially in the first half of the story, and it’s tempting to put that down to John Byrne’s scripting. But I’ll resist that temptation: I think it’s more that these four issues see Mignola himself finding his own voice after leaving Marvel and DC, his own style of storytelling.

I loved the artwork. Though Mignola’s work is very stylised, and can from time to time be a little confusing, it’s very beautiful, and suits the subject matter perfectly. I always enjoy the fact that Hellboy is asymmetrical; however nice this demon is, you should always feel a little bit uneasy about him.

The story here is a straightforward pastiche of Lovecraft, but that’s not a bad thing when it’s done so well. It’s very different from the first movie, sharing only the bare bones of the plot, so don’t be tempted to pass it over for that reason. It’s not one of those books where, once you’ve seen the film, reading the book feels like going through the motions.

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction, Mike Mignola and John Byrne, Dark Horse, tpb, 128pp.

McSweeney’s 22, ed. Dave Eggers

This issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern contains three entirely separate books, bound into one magnetic cover by the metal strips in their spines. Police officers may take a dim view of literary types who go out into the night looking for trouble with one of these books concealed in their sleeves; prison librarians should ensure that this McSweeney’s is absent from their collections.

The idea behind From the Notebook: the Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant one: to complete the stories suggested by that author’s notes. (I have a similar notebook of unused ideas, if the same writers fancy helping me out!) Not having read any Fitzgerald, apart from The Great Gatsby a long, long time ago, it’s hard for me to know how far the writers have tried to emulate his style, but I know that they haven’t necessarily tried to recreate the exact stories FSF would have written, since some are set in the present day. It was a very stimulating read, and many of the stories were very good indeed.

The State of Constraint: New Work from Oulipo was my favourite of these three books. Playful, silly and intellectual in a way that typifies some of my favourite French writers, the Oulipo group labour to create works of literature under self-imposed restrictions. Some of it is daft, some of it is serious, but all of it is thought-provoking. Most enjoyable is the binary story by Paul Fournel (who also provides the introduction), if only because of the pleasure of finding a choose-your-own-adventure story in the pages of McSweeney’s.

The Poetry Chains of Dominic Luxford was an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t been aware previously of the wide range of modern poetry. I’ve said before (in a sort-of-review of GUD #0) that I don’t really get poetry, and I won’t pretend that I’ve quite got it yet, but this book helped me make a little bit of progress. Much of this poetry resembles a short story that’s been auto-summarised in Word – everything inessential boiled away, to leave a kernel of… well, on the whole, a kernel of pain. It’s a pretty depressing volume, so don’t read it if you’re having a bad day. Of the poets here, I’m most likely to look for more work by Patrick Lawler and Sarah Lindsay, mainly because the subject matter of their poems interested me more than the relationship stuff of the rest. But there were another ten or twenty poets whose poems interested me enough to make me look them up in the contributors section. I read most of the volume while waiting to collect my daughter from school, which must have made me look terribly intellectual (or exceptionally pretentious).

Reading McSweeney’s is always good for my vanity: it makes me feel that I’m much cleverer and more literary than I really am. Like buying books from the Folio Society (but at a much more reasonable price) it makes me feel to some extent that I’m becoming the person I wanted to be. This was one of their most educational and improving issues to date. And did I mention it’s magnetic?

McSweeney’s 22, Dave Eggers (ed.), McSweeney’s, hb/3xpb, 480pp.

Batman: the Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul, by Grant Morrison et al

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al GhulThis suffers from the usual problems of a crossover between different titles: important events falling into the gaps between issues; oddly in-depth accounts of minor plot points (Robin and Nightwing spend a full issue arguing about whether Robin should take a sample from the Lazarus pit); a contrived plot; and inconsistency of writing, artwork and tone.

And though Grant Morrison’s name appears prominently on the cover, he contributes only two issues to this collection – four other writers contribute. He’s in good company on the periphery, though, since Batman himself is a fairly minor player in the book. This is really a Ra’s Al Ghul story, with the Bat-gang being occasional obstacles rather than protagonists.

One other slightly unwelcome aspect of the book is that in it we see the gravity effect at work, by which over time major characters absorb the powers, attributes and motivations of lesser ones – here Ra’s adopts the desire to control his descendants of Vandal Savage and the body-swapping of the Ultra-Humanite. Once this story’s over let’s hope he sticks to his normal territory.

But despite those issues, it’s fairly entertaining. It reads more like a Wolverine or an Iron Fist story than your usual Batman, and that makes a nice change. It also does a good job of getting the casual reader up-to-date on the Bat-universe, and seeing all these Robins together is good fun.

It does give the impression that Tim Drake (Robin III) isn’t long for this world – the stress put on all his friends (the Spoiler), family (his Dad) and contemporaries (Superboy) being dead makes him feel like a loose end. That’s a shame, but Damian, Batman’s new son, is an interesting character and would make a good replacement (if they really must replace Tim, who is my favourite Robin by far), though long-time readers might remember thinking similar things about characters like Azrael and Anarky.

Readers who bought this for twenty quid will probably rate it more harshly than someone who borrowed it from the library, but if you’ve ever fancied seeing Batman in a martial arts action movie, this will entertain. Just don’t expect the fireworks you normally get when Grant Morrison’s name is on the cover of a comic book.

Batman: the Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul, Grant Morrison, Fabian Nicieza, Paul Dini et al, DC Comics, hb, 240pp.

Vow of Silence, Robert Laughlin

Karel Evandar is a young man inducted into the ranks of the datists, a privileged caste of officials who are charged with remembering the entirety of human knowledge. Vow of Silence follows him as he trains to enter their ranks, discovers that the privilege comes at a cost, and takes a stand against it.

I should mention first of all a possible conflict of interest in this review – I published a short story by this author here in TQF last year. Another disclaimer: I read this on my resurrected Rocket eBook, after saving from the review pdf into a Word file. Somehow I lost all instances of “fi” and “fl” along the way, so I may have misinterpreted any plot elements revolving around those letters. In particular, a mention of a “ re y” left me stumped for quite a while…

Don’t be put off by the title: an entire novel about a vow of silence would, I expect, be pretty dull. There is such a vow in this novel, but it’s not down to some monkish obligation, and it doesn’t happen until a good way into the book. When it comes, it’s a very dramatic event, with serious consequences for society as a whole. What’s more, this is a book of about 45,000 words, divided into 53 chapters (and they all have titles), so dullness is not an issue – the book was a wonderfully smooth read. Like many small press books, it does suffer here and there from overly enthusiastic fonts and occasionally erratic typesetting, but the text flows clearly and easily on the page, as does the story.

Like a Jack Vance novel, this depicts a society deformed by one peculiar element; in this case, something’s missing. I won’t say what it is, since the realisation of its absence is something that should creep up on you. You could see this as a cynical attitude towards human behaviour: humans are so silly, allowing their lives to be shaped so casually by tiny things. I prefer to see it as hopeful: humans get by, whatever the circumstances; we do our best to keep going and find ways to adapt.

Having said that, I rather wished that the book had made the deformation more of an imperative, rather than a quirk; that there had been some good reason why the missing element was unavailable, say an absence of some essential ingredient, rather than just because no one had ever had the idea before.

It reminded me of a Vance novel in other ways, too. Laughlin shares Vance’s interest in inventing musical instruments, for example. And like a Vance hero, we first meet our hero, Karel Evandar, as a young man. We watch as he grows to maturity, learns the rules of this world, masters them, and then takes a hammer to them. There’s a feeling that only those who can beat the system are qualified to change it: don’t complain just because it doesn’t suit you personally.

On first reading, the concluding section felt slightly unsatisfying: though Karel strikes the expected blow against the existing order, he’s not involved, other than as an observer, in its eventual destruction. But upon reflection I realised that he is indirectly responsible for the changes. At a crucial juncture he makes a secret decision not to help: that decision leads others to make the changes; and it’s a decision informed by all his experiences in the book to that point. That’s the moment that pulls the events of the novel together.

One interesting part of the book is its approach to relationships. We’re led to believe that the datists will find it hard to build lasting relationships, partly because they’ll never forget a harsh word or expression, and also because they’ll never forget the perfection of a relationship’s early days. A couple who have been married for fifteen years might have a pretty good memory of how things were in their early days, but that wouldn’t necessarily make new developments any less enjoyable. Also, would the ability to recall sexual experiences perfectly, for example, make a man disinclined to add to that stock of memories, or would it encourage him to accumulate more?

What’s most impressive about this novel – aside from the carefully-crafted writing, controlled pacing, and the wealth of incidental detail – is the way Laughlin develops his premise, the way he successfully extends it into multiple areas, and reflects profoundly on the implications for the people involved. It’s the same thing I like about Superman comics in the fifties: he does everything in a super way, whether it’s shaving his beard or playing baseball. This isn’t just a book about someone with a superb memory; it’s a book about how a class of such people would affect everyday life, and how their training would affect every aspect of their own lives.
Overall, a very interesting and promising debut novel.

Vow of Silence, Robert Laughlin, Trytium, pb, 212pp.

Ship of Strangers, Bob Shaw

This fix-up contains five stories about the crew of the survey ship Sarafand. The Sarafand is only sent to map lifeless planets, which has fascinating psychological effects on the crew, something Bob Shaw handles with remarkable skill, and it also leads to some intriguing and unusual plots. At times they are closer to thought experiments like the prisoner’s dilemma than to other science fiction short stories, though Shaw doesn’t shortchange the reader on spaceships and aliens.

In the first story, the ship encounters an ancient and dangerous lifeform; the conclusion is a Tyke Tyler style reversal of expectations. The second considers the effect that dream tapes (a kind of virtual reality), and the resulting virtual girlfriends, have on the all-male crew. In the third story the crew discovers some mysterious alien technology; the story really strikes home with its depiction of the fear felt by a man left alone in a spacesuit in a hostile environment. The fourth story regards contact with an alien, time-travelling Shangri-La – plotwise it’s probably the weakest and most contrived of the stories, but psychologically it’s still very interesting. The final story is a mind-blowing humdinger that the blurb-writer should be shot for spoiling. (Thank goodness I didn’t read the back cover till I’d finished the book!)

They aren’t identified as separate stories, with chapter headings appearing within the stories as well as between them, but they are clearly discrete, with time passing between them and characters changing – though the protagonist, Surgenor, is constant throughout. In fact, a key feature of the book is that ever-changing cast, and Surgenor’s reflections on why he keeps doing the job, year after year, while others come and go. The title, Ship of Strangers, derives from the way the crew relate to each other; never making strong personal connections, trying to avoid any intimacy and arguments. They don’t want to care when their friends leave, as they inevitably will, so they try not to care at all. Surgenor knows he is emotionally damaged, understands the need for it, and questions whether he could stand a return to the full range of human emotions, but still wants to try, one day, when the time is right.

Ship of Strangers, Bob Shaw, Orion, pb, 224pp.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod

Don’t read this book if you’re not in the mood for re-evaluating your life. As Roushana Maitland looks back upon her hundred years on planet Earth, the reader can’t help but do something very similar. It’s a reflective, thoughtful and poetic book, but that doesn’t stop it being upsetting and rather depressing!

This didn’t really need to be a science fiction novel, though the same could of course said for many works in the genre. The core of it – the very literary biography of a violinist – could just have easily have been a 19th century novel by Stendhal, or a 20th century one by Moorcock. Where the Between the Wars quartet is set against the turmoil of the 20th century, Song of Time takes us through the equally epochal events of the century to come.

But though it didn’t need to be a science fiction novel, it is a very good one. There are many very interesting science fictional ideas in here, in particular with regard to post-death existence; just don’t expect raygun fights. Many traditional science fiction novels are about people taking on a rotten society and changing it; this one is more about the way people get on with life despite the way things change. It’s a very different kind of science fiction novel, but it’s a welcome departure.

The early sections are reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock in their portrayal of a adolescent girl’s rather inappropriate love. They set the scene for Roushana’s interest in music, and lay out the themes that will dominate the book: love, death, music, empathy. After the great love of her life dies, empathy will be Roushana’s weak spot, while it will become her mother’s great strength.

The description of these formative years is careful, detailed and highly emotional, but the author judges his book (or his readers) well. Just as the reader begins to wonder if it will be this maudlin and introspective all the way through (not that that would necessarily have been a bad thing), he unleashes an apocalypse to shake things up, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly things get even more depressing for a while after that. The ramifications extend all the way to my own front door, as fighting breaks out in Handsworth and troops are sent in. Then there is a heartbreaking visit to a devastated India, in particular to the bombed city of Ahmedabad, now home to the untouchables, who have found a strange freedom amidst the radiation.

But things become rather more upbeat when the scene moves to Paris, in the grip of a new renaissance. There we meet Claude, a brilliant pianist and conductor who brings both the novel and its frosty lead character to life. Roushana moves out of herself and engages with wider worlds of art and politics, bringing dynamism and vigour to the novel just when it threatened to slow down to a miserable crawl. Roushana and the reader are whirled through Paris, to America and then back to England for a conclusion of high melodrama.

Song of Time is a very different kind of science fiction novel, and one that won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a superb book. It is very ambitious, but it fulfills those ambitions. For example, writing about music is notoriously difficult, but MacLeod does a marvellous job of it here – crucial since his lead is a violinist. He covers the sweep of history impressively, but not intrusively; Roushana isn’t shoe-horned into events. Most interesting is the novel’s clear-eyed but sensitive attitude to death. What would it mean for us if it was avoidable? Would that be a good thing? Are stories with endings inherently better than those that go on for ever? MacLeod doesn’t force the reader into agreeing with his answers, but he makes his character’s final decision entirely believable.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod, PS Publishing, hb, 302pp.

Living with the Dead, Darrell Schweitzer

Every so often, the people living in the dingy coastal town of Old Corpsenberg get the impulse to go down to the docks, where they find piles of dead bodies left by trawlers. They pick out the bodies they like best and take them home, making them as comfortable as possible, despite the inconvenience to themselves as the bodies pile up. They are… Living with the Dead!

Since this book comes with a built-in review, and one that’s so persuasive and well-written (by Tim Lebbon), it feels a bit presumptuous to write another. I’ll give it a shot, but if you want to read a really good review of it, take a look at the introduction. It’s good when a book tells you what to think about it – saves having to think for yourself! Anyway, if you decide to read this review, you should know that you’re settling for second best!

Let’s get the quibbling out of the way first… Living with the Dead makes use of the most irritating narrative structure ever invented (in my opinion, at least): overlapping stories from different points of view. A curse on Rashomon and anyone who ever saw it! I don’t mind reading or watching a story out of order, or cut-up, or upside-down, but have a deep hatred of having to watch the same events over and over, just for the narrative to take a few short steps forward each time. I know I shouldn’t blame Rashomon; in that film the events at least appear differently to each person. More often, though, when writers use this approach (as in Living with the Dead), we see the same events, but notice different things through the new pair of eyes. This book isn’t as bad as some in that regard – the overlaps are fairly small – but there were enough of them to elicit a few here-we-go-again sighs.

I spent the early sections of the book wondering how anyone could live among so many bodies and not fall victim to disease. The answer is that the bodies don’t rot, which of course raises even more questions, but they are answered, so have a bit of faith in the book when you start reading it! (Though the ending throws things up in the air again, leaving me a bit baffled, especially since the most obvious explanation is explicitly ruled out by the back cover. Then again, should the reader take the back cover into account when trying to work out what has happened in a book? Probably not.)

The other big question I had was: who benefits from the people living like this? Usually, when people live in odd ways (or at least ways that seem odd to other people), it’s because it benefits (or at least is thought to benefit) somebody; either themselves, somebody else or society as a whole. For example, women from some cultures cover their faces in public; it’s not exactly on the scale of inviting dead bodies into your home, but it is inconvenient and seems odd to people from other cultures. We can readily conclude that someone gets something out of it, or at least that there are historical or sociological reasons why the practice developed. But who gets anything out of what these people do with the dead bodies? It’s such a horrible way to live that custom alone is not enough to explain it. The question is answered, but not to the extent that it explains the townsfolk going along with it (though there are hints that mind control is involved).

Upon reflection, I think the people of Corpsenberg have an empathy for dead bodies that we just don’t have; they respect them, and really want to care for them, when we’d want to dispose of them. They wouldn’t think of them as dead bodies; they’d think of them as dead people, as people who just happen to be dead. It’s not a huge leap away from the reverence shown in some cultures to ancestor spirits. It’s not all that hard to imagine people hanging on to dead bodies if they didn’t rot; look at how some people get their pets stuffed.

Having rattled through the book in a couple of hours, thinking mainly about the practicalities of what was going on, as noted above, I took a day or two to really appreciate it. It really came to life for me when I began to look around our living room and imagine bodies arranged along the walls… At that point I started to think of the book in terms of feelings and images, rather than plot, and my estimation of it went up considerably. Reading it for plot, you miss a lot; it’s a story of images and tableaux, as much as developments and revelations.

So, enough literalism… One way of reading the book is as a metaphor for life in a seaside town; somewhere like Blackpool. The dead are the holidaymakers and daytrippers, pouring into the town in their vast numbers, overwhelming the few actual inhabitants, who have to spend their whole lives catering to the needs of out-of-towners.

The book could possibly be given a more hostile reading, as an anti-immigration metaphor, the dead representing the immigrants and refugees brought by ships to our shores. Ultimately, though, such a reading is prevented by the affection the people have for the bodies. They don’t fight them off, or try to get them out of town – they fall in love with them, turn to them for comfort, dance with them! If the book is a metaphor for immigration, in a curious way it’s a positive one. The dead are inconvenient, but only because of their numbers. The people of Old Corpsenberg are generally enriched by their presence, just as I was enriched by reading this fine, atmospheric and unforgettable book…

Living with the Dead, Darrell Schweitzer, PS Publishing, hb, 72pp.

The City in These Pages, John Grant

Reviewing this is a lot like reviewing From the Notebooks from McSweeney’s 22, in that it’s a homage to something I don’t know a great deal about. Whereas From the Notebooks was a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, The City in These Pages is a homage to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

I think I do have one of them in the house, but so far it’s unread. I’ve seen a couple of Columbo episodes adapted from his books (“Undercover” adapted Jigsaw, while “No Time To Die” adapted So Long As You Both Shall Live, I think as backdoor pilots), but that’s not a lot to go on.

So I can’t judge how closely Grant has stuck to McBain’s template, but the banter is snappy, the crimes imaginative, the characters neatly drawn, and from the introduction (written by David Langford) it sounds very much like that’s the kind of thing people like about Ed McBain’s books.

Of the books I have read, this reminded me most of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Admittedly that’s the book around which the rest of the literary universe revolves for me at the moment – I did go a bit mad for it! – but there are similarities. Both have a world-weary tough guy teamed with a bulkier partner (here they are black and Japanese, rather than Jewish and Tlingit), and both are set in a present-day world that isn’t quite ours.

This book doesn’t quite match Chabon’s masterpiece, but it’s very enjoyable. Its only real flaw is its short length; I’d quite happily have read much more of the same. It’s more like an episode of Homicide than an episode of Columbo: you’ll be left wanting more. The conclusion left me rather conflicted… I felt rather cheated out of a proper resolution to the criminal investigation, but I was very happy with it in science fiction terms.

To get more of the same I guess I’ll have to look up McBain’s books. That must be the mark of a good homage: while you can enjoy it on its own account, it makes the uninitiated want to search out the originals. If Grant persuades a few die-hard fantasy and science fiction readers to switch lanes long enough to give the 87th Precinct novels a try, I’m sure he’ll count this a job well done.

The City in These Pages, John Grant, PS Publishing, hb, 80pp.

A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, ed. Lavie Tidhar – reviewed

I was hoping this anthology would take a more formal approach, so I was a tiny bit disappointed with it as a whole. Nevertheless, many of the individual stories are interesting. The stories fall into two main camps, with some having a foot in both: adult stories written in the style of children’s books, and grown-up stories about Dick and Jane themselves.

I’d never heard of Dick and Jane before, but they’re the American equivalent of Peter and Jane (making them a slightly odd choice of subject for a publication only available to members of the British Fantasy Society); a foreword to put the stories in context would have been useful.

Writing a vocabulary-controlled book for children is a particular kind of exercise – the early books in the Peter and Jane series, for example, only introduce one or two new words per page. In this book none of the writers try to write with a controlled, cumulative vocabulary. The linguistic references to the original texts tend to be just to the easily parodied surface elements – e.g. see Jane run – rather than trying to emulate their structures, and working within them, which might have been more subversive. It’s a bit like producing a book of adult nursery rhymes that don’t rhyme or scan. It’s not wrong, just not quite as interesting as it might have been. Admittedly, a more formal approach might have led to much duller stories!

A lot too has been lost by printing it like a normal, adult book, in a small font with ordinary typesetting, with ordinary (if slightly inconsistent) punctuation. It works for the adult stories of Dick and Jane, but it would have added much to the power of the pseudo-children’s stories if they had appeared in a format reproducing that of a children’s book – i.e. a large font, just a few lines per page, no quote marks around dialogue (in the very simple stories), etc. Obviously all those extra pages would have added a lot to the cost of printing, but it’s nice to imagine this as a thicker book, with the artwork (by John Keates, which is very good indeed) used for fake covers in between the stories, taking us through an imaginary reading scheme.

One of my favourite stories from the collection was “Somewhere in the Street” by Ed Clayton. The strange, controlled dialogue of characters like Peter and Jane makes them sound half-crazy even in real children’s books, so it’s not a leap to imagine them as fully psychotic, something Clayton does very well. For an example of such dialogue from the real Peter and Jane, see the chilling scene on pages 24 to 27 of Key Words 2a: “Here are Peter and Jane. Peter has some water. Here you are, Jane, he says. Here you are, Jane, says Peter. Here you are. This is for you. Here is some water for you.” The picture shows Peter pouring water over Jane’s head while she screams…

I enjoyed all the stories individually, but two others I liked in particular were “The Hushes” by Conrad Williams, which was very well written if a bit tangential to the anthology, and “We Go Down to the Woods Today” by Marion Arnott, which reads much like a Ladybird book written by Stephen King.

A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, ed. Lavie Tidhar, BFS, pb, 52pp.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth

Vacation (Mcsweeneys)This book is typeset, designed and manufactured with wonderful skill and attention to detail. The paper's so soft you could use it to upgrade your baby's bottom. Holding the book in your hands feels luxurious; reading from it is a privilege.

In comparison, the novel itself was just okay. It's nicely written, if a bit bland. The narration is arch and distanced, which suits the subject matter but becomes a bit dull after a while. It jumps around in time quite a bit, often from one paragraph to the next - as a result it gives away the ending long before you get there, making the rest of the book a bit of a chore. Maybe that's too strong a word, because the rest is still fairly enjoyable to read, but from about halfway in you stop learning anything new about anything that's going on, other than the minor details; you're just watching things play out in more or less the way you expected, and my enthusiasm for the book waned the longer it took to get there.

The other main problem is that the plot relies upon the characters being stupid, and not just normal everyday people stupid, but Neighbours stupid. By that I mean the type of plot where a character is angry or suspicious about something their partner is up to, but they don't just try to clear things up - purely because that would short-circuit the plot. Instead, they decide their partner would have told them already if they really loved them, and stew about it until their partner leaves them for being such a grump. The entire plot of this novel derives from such dopiness. Maybe it makes sense for these characters to not talk to each other - the author gives them reasons for not doing so - but over the course of years it's hard to believe no one ever got drunk and said something like, "So, you've been following this guy around?" or "Tell me about the time you jumped out of a window."

The story makes a bit more sense to me when considered as a metaphor, or a fable, and the characters as symbols, of what we do in life, for questions of leaving and staying, and so on. There's something being said about relationships, and following each other, and routes not taken, and that kind of thing. But I'm not sure I agree with what is being said. The worst that can happen to a married couple in this book is to sit and watch television together, and then talk about it. That really didn't seem so bad to me: in fact, the characters could really have done with watching a few daft sitcoms to remind themselves what laughter felt like. Almost every character in the book was utterly humourless; to the point of inhumanity, even.

If Vacation had been a film by Wes Anderson, perhaps I would have loved it; if it had an appropriate soundtrack to put me in the right frame of mind; if the characters had been played by actors I like and trust enough to follow on a strange journey; if the foreign locations had been shot in living beauty by a master cinematographer. It had a lot in common with The Darjeeling Limited: both feature characters questing in exotic foreign lands, and both are meticulously crafted, deliberate, and confident of their own worth. But where The Darjeeling Limited instantly became one of my all-time favourite films, Vacation was just that little bit underwhelming.

But take everything I say with a handful of salt: any book lacking aliens or spaceships will struggle to make me totally happy. (I only got through David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia by pretending it was set on Arrakis.) That I even finished this book, despite its shortcomings in the extraterrestrial department, shows it must have been pretty good. All credit to McSweeney's Book Club for getting me to try something new. If I've focused on the negative, it's only because those things preoccupied me while I was reading it: others may find much to love in this book.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth, McSweeney's, hb, 240pp.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, by Scott McCloud – reviewed

The modern Superman comes in for quite a bit of criticism for being a bit of a wimpy new man, but the Superman of the 1950s was as much a product of his time, with his gratingly patriarchal attitude.

Zot, on the other hand, is like a Superman out of time, free of the need to appear in twenty comic books a month or to maintain a status quo. He’s happy, comfortable with his powers, accepting of the things he can’t change, determined to change the things he can. He has no hang-ups, but is understanding of the hang-ups of others. He’s everything Superman has the potential to be.

This superb and substantial book contains nearly all of his adventures in black and white (leaving out backup strips and a couple of issues drawn by Chuck Austen – though Scott McCloud’s layouts for those issues are included). The stories are light-hearted, funny and exciting, with a bit of soap opera to keep you going from issue to issue. McCloud’s approach to super-heroics and super-villainy is imaginative and innovative.

If the book has one flaw it’s that the author’s notes, which appear at the end of each story, might have been better collected at the end of the book. They are fascinating, but it feels sometimes as if the author is trying to overdetermine the reader’s response, in particular in his attitude to the later issues, which take place almost entirely on Earth.

He obviously loved those issues (as did a lot of readers), but after reading so many notes about how much better the comic is without the superhero stuff, I found those issues rather underwhelming. I much preferred the bulk of the book, in which the relationship stuff is just one element among many.

The art is astounding from start to finish. McCloud uses a variety of approaches to create various effects, but his main mode is a clear line style similar to that seen in Tintin, with a dash of manga expressionism.

All in all, a joy to read, and a feast for the eyes!

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, Scott McCloud, Harper, pb, 384pp.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman – reviewed

I hadn’t read any fiction by Kim Newman before, though I’ve always enjoyed his film reviews for Empire. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read Dracula either, though I’ve seen plenty of film versions of it, so I came to this novel in a state of literary ignorance. Luckily, Newman held my head and told me that everything was going to be… absolutely horrible!

The twin premise here is that Dracula was not defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel, and that he existed in the same world as many other fictional characters.

It’s hard to mention that second bit without thinking of Alan Moore’s later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are other similarities, too, in that both authors have penned sequels taking their stories into the twentieth century. Earlier books in a similar vein include Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold-Newton books (credited here by Kim Newman), and of course just about every comic published since the 1940s.

Part of me wishes that Newman had limited himself to the characters from Dracula – occasionally the book drives you off to Wikipedia to look characters up, rather than drawing you in to its plot – but you can’t begrudge an author his enthusiasms, and in general he carries it off very well. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting ideas is that each family of vampires has its own abilities, mentalities and power relationships, as seen in all the different vampire novels that preceded this one. Because he died before turning, Dracula’s line is said to be tainted by the rot of the grave: damaged, and more demented than most.

For most of the novel Dracula himself is an offstage, pernicious presence. When he does take centre stage, the wait was worthwhile – Newman’s Dracula is utterly terrifying, and utterly malevolent.

Overall, this is a much more plot-driven book than you might expect, and, though the mood of fear, oppression and decay is kept at a high pitch, every word compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The literary games are always subservient to the storytelling. Similarly, Dracula’s far-from-bloodless coup has serious consequences for Britain’s society, from its class system to its political organisations and its foreign policy, but we only learn about those things as they become relevant to the story.

A brilliant book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman, Avon Books, pb, 416pp.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

I took one edition of this book out from the library a while ago, then half-way through got entranced by the bulging biceps and voluptuous maidens of Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 1. Soon my time with the book was up, and another had already placed a reservation, so I had to return it unfinished – always heartbreaking. Second time around, I had to settle for a large print edition from W.F. Howes Ltd, which rather embarrassingly for that company announces itself as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the cover. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’m glad I didn’t make it.

So, having finished with Conan and his savage sword, and resisting the temptation to move onto volume two, I returned with excitement to Jewish Alaska. Large print turned out to be a boon – I felt like a reading wunderkind as I flashed through the pages, and it was ideal for reading late at night by lamplight. Having taken a month to read the first twenty-four chapters (more or less one each night), it took me an evening and a morning to read the rest.

So that’s how I got to the end. Briefly, to remind myself in future years of the plot, this is where it begins: a rumpled policeman gets beaten up a lot (often by inanimate objects) as he investigates a murder in the weeks leading up to the abolition of a Jewish settlement in Alaska.

This is an alternative history novel in the tradition of Kingley Amis’s The Alteration, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I won’t go into the details of the differences from our world, because they are seeded through the book like little alarm clocks, but they don’t seem to stem from one single change. The main difference is that the nation of Israel did not survive, and a temporary settlement in Alaska was established instead.

The story works well as a detective story. There’s a lot going on, but Chabon has a knack of having his characters gather their thoughts just as you think you’re about to lose the thread. It also works well as alternative history – everything is plausible, but more to the point it shows how even in a world quite different to our own similar pressures would still exist. They would just be applied in different locations.

It was very reminiscent of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, another fine literary detective novel, what with the snow, and the crimes, and the slight fantastical twist. It added to those things a narration in the present tense, which made me groan as I read the first page, but won me over pretty quickly. It served a purpose – throwing you into the events and feeling them in the here and now, rather than relegating them to a distant irrelevant past.

Having finally finished it, I’m in a rather giddy mood today, so here’s the movie tagline I came up with last night: Even when everything’s different, some things stay the same. The Coen Brothers can have that for free…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, hb, 432pp

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Dark Horizons #53

Dark Horizons 53, produced by us for the British Fantasy Society, contains nine short stories of fantasy, horror and a smidgen of science fiction, arranged very roughly in chronological order; from days of yore to near-future apocalypses:

  • In a Shining Hall, by Ian Hunter
  • Sir Cai, the Shining Knight, by Andrew Knighton
  • The Eagle and Child, by Alison J. Littlewood
  • The Tyranny of Thangrind the Cruel, by David Tallerman
  • The Boy in the Andersens’ House, by Peter Van Belle
  • Timeless, by Paul Campbell
  • Fleet, by Rafe McGregor
  • Beholders, by Allen Ashley
  • A Jar of Pickled Nightmares, by Richard Hudson

Interspersed among the stories are eight poems:

  • November Dusk, Star Streams, Savage Spires and The Sunken City by Michael Fantina
  • Shapechanger, by J.S.Watts
  • Kali’s Kiss, by Karl Bell
  • The Inhabited Man, by Douglas Thompson
  • A Little Piece of Your Life, by Ian Hunter

Then there's an article taken from a forthcoming book on Terry Pratchett, plus an interview with the book’s author, Lawrence Watt-Evans. Later in the issue, the BFSQ&A section makes its first appearance, covering various burning questions of the day, such as: Is the BFS biased towards horror? Who reads Margit Sandemo? Why join the BFS? And why make a fan film? The issue comes to a triumphant close with our updated submission guidelines, the advertising prices, and a list of BFS email addresses!

Jim Fuess provides the cover art for this issue, while six other wonderful and generous artists allowed the use of their work to illustrate the issue’s fiction: Lara Bandilla, Dominic Harman, Steve Cartwright, Michelle Blessemaille, Paul Campion and Alfred R. Klosterman.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron, Vol. 1The first two stories here, “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition”, are a bit average. It was a bit of a struggle to get through them. The third, though, “The Phantom Affair”, is a huge improvement in every regard – plot, script, art, lettering, the works! All those things combine to leave it looking more like a French album than a mid-nineties Dark Horse comic.

One of the things for which I was most grateful in the third story was that it finally became possible to distinguish between the human members of the team, by both their dialogue and their looks.

If I was reviewing “The Phantom Affair” alone I would have given it four stars out of five, while “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition” would have got two.

Finally, a curse on whoever decided to include the Rogue Squadron Handbook at the back of this volume. If it had contained spoilers for this book, that would have been bad enough, but it’s full of spoilers for future volumes too (e.g. an ally from this book is included in the villains section). So watch out for that – or rather don’t watch out for it, keep your eyes averted!

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 296pp.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun (Modesty Blaise (Graphic Novels))This book collects three stories: “Mister Sun”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” and “Uncle Happy”. All three are highly enjoyable action thrillers, though for me “The Mind of Mrs Drake” was compromised somewhat by the title character being an actual psychic. (Moments like that always make me think of Magnum meeting a ghost, or of the JAG lawyer who had premonitions.) But there was a lot of it about in the 1960s, and the character is treated seriously. I suppose it’s not much of a departure from Willie Garvin’s tingling ears of trouble. Mister Sun is a drug lord with whom Modesty tangles; the trail takes her to wartime Vietnam. Uncle Happy is a philanthropist who raises Modesty’s suspicions by staring at her current lover in a Vegas bar.

What’s most striking about these stories is how easily they flow from one strip to the next. Looking at each strip in isolation, you can see how a first-time reader could follow them, but there’s none of the stop-start repetition that makes, say, the old Dan Dare comics so painful to read in bulk.

Now if only I could read one of these books without “Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays, Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays!” going round and round in my head… Thank you Sparks!

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al, Titan Books, tpb, 112pp.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreAny book that contains “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” has to get five stars, straight off the bat. It’s one of the greatest comics ever written, and the finest send-off a character could have (it relates the final story of the original Superman, prior to the John Byrne reboot). Since this also includes “For the Man Who Has Everything” and The Killing Joke, this is one of those times when five stars aren’t nearly enough.

The rest of the contents may not reach those high standards, but still, any fan of Alan Moore’s work will count themselves lucky to find them so conveniently gathered together. The Green Lantern and Omega Men short stories are DC-branded Futureshocks. The Green Arrow and Vigilante stories won’t change your life, but better to find that out here rather than after paying over the odds for the back issues.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, Alan Moore, DC Comics, tpb, 304pp.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al

Battle of the Planets: Trial by FireIt says a lot about this book that while the artists of each poster page and alternative cover are carefully noted, nowhere is anyone credited as the writer. Five names are listed on the cover, including Alex Ross (only credited for covers inside), Munier Sharrieff and Dreamer Design (neither credited at all inside). Inside each issue is credited to Wilson Tortosa, Rhyse Yorke and Shane Law, with Edwin David also credited for issue one, though there’s no sign what precise role any of them played.

Basically, it’s a bit of a pudding.

To be honest, I only started to read this because it was hanging around the house and I was trying to whip through a few books quickly to get my number of unread books down a bit. But within a few short pages I was forcefully reminded just how much I loved this cartoon when it was first on. I don’t think we ever got Speed Racer in the UK, or Robotech, or Astro Boy, but we got Battle of the Planets, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. Even now I find the concept of the fiery Phoenix illogically thrilling.

This was an reasonably enjoyable start to a series. Three-issue trade paperbacks are so short as to be rather pointless, but it got things off to a decent start. The figure work isn’t always perfect, but the unnamed writers seem to have a good handle on the characters. No sign of 7-Zark-7 yet, but I hope he’ll turn up eventually.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al, Titan, tpb, 80pp.

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1, Mark Verheiden et al

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1These stories follow on from the second film, Aliens. The first two stories, Outbreak and Nightmare Asylum, tell the ongoing adventures of Newt and Hicks, while Ripley turns up for the third main story, Female War.

Unfortunately, once Alien 3 was released further adventures for Newt and Hicks were obviously out of the question. So Dark Horse decided to “fix” the problem by rereleasing the books and changing the names of the protagonists to Billie and Wilks, who just happened to have had all the same adventures as Newt and Hicks – unfortunately this volume collects those edited versions.

It’s a very clumsy solution, and it creates a feeling of unreality throughout the book, because it’s always at the back of your mind that the characters are not really who they say they are – not least when they meet up with Ripley and she talks about their special bond! I realise that Dark Horse have to go with the wishes of the licensors, but as a reader I can’t help thinking it wasn’t really worth all that trouble just to keep Alien 3 in continuity.

The stories themselves are good, giving us what we always expected from the Aliens sequels and only just about got at the end of the fourth – the aliens arriving on Earth. The results are as devastating as might be expected.

One strange thing about the aliens in the comics is that they are demonstrated to commmunicate telepathically, even across interstellar distances. I don’t think that’s something you can see in the movies, but it does give the writers the opportunity to develop plotlines more complex than “man finds bug, bug stomps man”.

Lastly, one caption in the book may be of interest to some critics of AVP2: “We didn’t see the underlying pattern behind their evolutionary process – the way every facet of their existence was geared toward propagation. The queens matured at whatever rate their survival dictated.” That’s why the aliens in AVP2 don’t hang about inside their hosts – there isn’t time.

Aliens Omnibus Volume 1, Mark Verheiden et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 384pp.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg

ThornsNew bands, stuck on a promotional treadmill after the release of their first album, often look back to the way the Beatles would release a couple of albums a year in the 1960s. (I admire the Arctic Monkeys for getting their second album out so quickly, where other bands have been prevented from doing so.) How much more stunning is it to look at the examples of these science fiction writers of the same period, who would often release four or five books a year, a remarkable achievement, even allowing for some of them being reprints of earlier magazine work? In 1967 (according to Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia), as well as Thorns (my copy is a later reprint), Silverberg put out The Gate of Worlds, Those Who Watch, To Open the Sky, The Time-Hoppers and Planet of Death. I don’t know if current-day authors, working away at huge trilogies (and receiving much better payment than their predecessors did, to be fair to their masters), chafe at the bit as much as bands do, but it’s interesting to think of what might have resulted from some of them writing twelve different short novels, instead of just the one trilogy. One thing’s for sure, lazy readers like me would have read more of their work.

So, another review of an old book from me – this might be the way of the immediate future, since I’ve vowed to buy no new books as long as I own more than 1,000 unread books! (I have about 160 to go.)

As with Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, I found Robert Silverberg’s books a bit of a struggle as a teenager. I’m not disappointed about that, because if I’d read virtually all their books by the time I was 25, as happened with Asimov, Heinlein, Moorcook, Jack Vance and so on, I would have nothing left to read now: I might even have to read new books! What made the books difficult back then was mainly their seriousness: Moorcock is as experimental as Silverberg, Aldiss or Ballard, often more so, but there are always gags in there. The closest Silverberg’s 1960s and 1970s novels (or at least the ones I’ve read so far) come to being funny is when they evoke a wry half-smile at the awfulness of having to be a human and live among other humans – as symbolised in this book by a surgically-altered human living among us. This book is grim, serious, and reminds you of the worst things about yourself – and, yet, in spite of that, it has a sweet, romantic centre. It hardly needs to be said that, as a book by Robert Silverberg from 1967, at a time when, as far as I can see, you could make a serious argument that he was one of the best novelists working in the English language, this is a brilliant book, but I will say it anyway.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg, NEL, pb, 160pp (1977).

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr

Possibly the most gleefully stupid book I’ve ever read in my life. Full of the utmost idiocy, the book’s entire content simply adds up to this: good things will happen if you hope for them. It’s really just a book on praying adapted for tastes of new age readers. Instead of praying to some god when you’re sad, you should just pray to the universe. Because, you know, the universe cares about you. Forget that on a universal scale you are indistinguishable from the bacteria that live inside your gut: the universe cares about what you want and will help you get it.

The chapter on how this works is very imprecise. Apparently it’s like going down the stairs instead of taking the lift and meeting a delivery man you would otherwise have missed. How that relates to the universe getting you the boyfriend you want is not clear. Who sent you the cosmic boyfriend parcel? Who received your boyfriend order? It’s clear that it’s just a god in disguise.

At least this god has the benefit of not wanting anything in return: no need for following any of those silly rules other religions have, like not working on Saturdays, or not eating pork, or not eating cows, or not coveting your neighbour’s wife. All this great mail order god requires is that you order more, more, more! Who can’t dig a religion like that? Why should religion be a chore? After all, there’s a lot of competition out there – if you’re going to go to all the trouble of believing in one of these fellows, the least they can do is give you everything you want!

Hilariously, towards the end the author can’t even be bothered to finish writing the book, and just prints her notes in bullet form!

The sources are laughable – for example entire pages of those notes are reproduced from three books by someone who wrote a letter to his god asking lots of questions and then found that – oooh! – his pen didn’t stop writing at the end of the letter and wrote all the answers…

Her mention of Uri Geller is also delectably stupid. She begins by saying that she thought his spoon-bending was an optical illusion, then says that her friends corrected her. Aha, I thought, finally a bit of sense in this most daft of books, but no: her friends informed her that he simply persuades the atoms of the spoon to disperse with the power of his mind. Good grief! There’s nothing mystical about spoon-bending. It’s a magic trick: instructions on how to do it were published in an Israeli journal of magic in the 1960s!

You would think that having written a book about one crazy idea, the author would stick to that one thing, rather than chucking in more foolishness, but of course not: cosmic ordering can also help you to contact the dead. She tells us sagely that there is “increasing evidence” for the existence of a spirit world – oddly she neglects to provide any footnotes pointing us in the direction of this evidence.

Here’s the real evidence: James Randi has offered a million dollars for anyone demonstrating any supernatural abilities, such as contacting the dead. No one has claimed that money. So we must conclude that anyone who openly claims to be a psychic, medium etc is a fraud. Even if they don’t need the money themselves, there are many deserving charities to which they could donate it. (If there are actual psychics in the world, they must be keeping themselves a secret. That would be quite understandable!)

If you’ve read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, you’ll be pleased to see gathered together in one book almost every problem identified in his chapter How Thinking Goes Wrong. In particular, scientific language does not make a science; bold statements do not make claims true; rumours do not equal reality; and, especially, after-the-fact reasoning and coincidence.

This book will appeal to the slow-witted, the extremely gullible, and anyone who wants to be told, you will get everything you want, all you have to do is hope – and buy this ridiculous book.

With the Office of Fair Trading taking long-overdue action against so-called psychics, hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time until books like this are prevented from having “self-help” printed on the back, and are removed to a supernatural shelf, where their pernicious influence will only affect those who actively search them out, rather than preying on vulnerable people looking for help.

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr, Hodder & Stoughton, pb, 112pp.