coldglass

Books I Read In September 2012

The March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman
A study of what the author calls ‘folly’ – here defined basically as governments and politicians pursuing policies that are contrary to their own interests, and that can be identified as such even at the time. The book is split into four parts; a brief opening section about the story of Troy as the “symbolic prototype of freely chosen disaster”, a rundown of the absurdly corrupt Renaissance Popes who seemingly did everything they could to provoke anticlericalism and the Protestant secession, the clearly counterproductive attitudes of the British government to it’s American colonies, and closing with the longest section, following US involvement in Vietnam. I have to say I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced by the conception of ‘folly’ used here, my main issue is that it doesn’t distinguish clearly between the personal interests of the individual politicians, the partisan interests of governments, and the national interests of the states they govern. The grasping amorality of the Renaissance Papacy was obviously tremendously harmful to the Catholic Church, but the Popes themselves benefited enormously from it – I think there’s a fair argument that this wasn’t folly, as such, but the rational choice to degrade an institution for personal profit. Similarly, whilst the men who planned the Vietnam war to such disastrous results weren’t corrupt, they did stand to gain from their actions in the sense that the war allowed them to justify and gratify themselves ideologically. They were able to believe that they were far-sighted leaders on the front line against the global communist threat, rational technocrats acting for the long-term good in the most efficient way, anonymous men in the shadows making the tough choices to do what was necessary, and so on. Still, even if the common thread of the book didn’t totally convince me the specific case studies are interesting in their own right and are written as well as you’d expect from a historian of her calibre.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – Jonathon L Howard
The third novel featuring the piercingly intelligent and not-quite-as-amoral-as-he-likes-to-believe necromancer. Each of these books seems to be set in a slightly different genre, this time round it’s Lovecraftian horror. Cabal is recruited by a group named the Fear Institute to lead them into the Dreamlands, the world that forms and is formed by the collective unconsciousness of humanity. They wish to locate and destroy the Phobic Animus, the source of all fear; he wishes to use the resources of the Dreamlands in his quest to defeat death. Naturally, their quest doesn’t go exactly to plan . . . I’m not a huge fan of the Dreamlands as I’ve seen it used previously, it often doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Cthulhu Mythos1 but on the other hand it is refreshing to see a take on Lovecraft’s less famous works. The Dreamlands here are basically a parody (or maybe a pastiche) of the Americanised swords & sandals pulp fantasy, with plenty of exotic cities, needlessly epic architecture, hail-fellow-well-met heroes, weird beasts, zebras, etc. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I though I enjoyed this I didn’t like it quite so much as it’s predecessors. The pacing seems a bit off, the final section of the book seems rushed and features a plot strand that would maybe have been better off being either dealt with in more detail or removed completely. Still, that said it is a decent read and if you enjoyed the first two books then it’s worth reading this one too.

We’re Going To Die Here, Aren’t We? – Eirik Gumeny
Brief collection of absurdist short stories from the lunatic responsible for the wildly entertaining Exponential Apocalypse novels. They’re short, so short in fact that it seems kind of redundant saying much about them. They’re also mad, funny, there’s not a great many of them, and you can get the lot on Kindle for 77 pence. I suggest you do so.

Wonder Boys – Michael Chabon
Grady Tripp is an author, desperately trying to finish the follow-up to an award-winning novel whilst teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college. His manuscript is currently at two thousand pages with no end in sight, which makes it awkward when his agent shows up for the weekend wanting a look at the ‘nearly finished’ work . . . Other things which lead to awkwardness over the weekend include: his wife leaving him, his mistress being pregnant, a brilliant but troubled student, a dead dog, an accidentally stolen piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, a deliberately stolen car, and an annual conference. It would probably help too if he wasn’t constantly trying to get as high as a kite. The best parts of the book are those when things are just spiralling wildly out of control, with the protagonist thrown from one absurd situation to the next, either helpless or actively making things worse. The more melancholic side of the story didn’t work quite so well for me, Grady’s growing realisation that he has no idea what to do with his life doesn’t so much undercut the more farcical elements as sit separate from them. I was a little disappointed by this, mainly I suppose because of my high expectations, having been very impressed indeed with some of his other books for this one to be ‘merely good’ was maybe a bit of a let-down2.

Armageddon – Max Hastings
Military history covering the final years of World War 2 in Europe, starting just after the successful invasion of France and ending with the final conquest of Germany. The title is apt, with the book making the terrible scale of the war very clear, particularly on the Eastern Front where the conflict was close to an apocalyptic racial war. I definitely appreciated the fact that Hasting’s doesn’t lionise the Allies as so many recent popular historians do, but rather points out that regardless of the rightness of their cause they were not the selfless heroes portrayed by Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg. On the Eastern side this is in the shape of the great tide of looting, rape, and wanton destruction that followed the victorious Red Army, a phenomenon that in fact gets more space than their military activities. He is however scrupulous to point out the fact that the only reason the Western allies were able to defeat Germany at such little cost was because the USSR was shedding oceans of blood, something which often gets overlooked in the West. The generally low quality of US infantry, which was consistently given the least capable recruits, and the lack of aggressive leadership is something which Hasting’s emphasised in his book Overlord, and here again it is brought up to explain why the German forces were able to consistently hold off far larger and better armed opponents for so long. Apart from this, there’s not much in this book that you won’t already know, assuming you have a basic knowledge of the war, but it’s quite well written and if you’re looking for a basic overview this is a decent bet.

Delta Green: Strange Authorities – John Tynes
Delta Green is possibly my favourite RPG setting, a masterful updating of Call of Cthulhu from the classic ’20s era to the conspiracy-soaked 1990s, and this is an excellent introduction. An unauthorised conspiracy within the United States intelligence services, formed to battle the inexplicable, inhuman forces that threaten humanity before being forced underground, Delta Green is illegal, treasonous, poorly resourced, thinly manned, and pitted against the sanity-blasting horrors of the Mythos and the subverted masters of their own government. This collection3 does an excellent job of showing the personal, moral, and psychological costs of constantly being under incredible pressure and of doing appalling things to try and prevent the inevitable. When I started to read this I was wondering if the technological side of things would appear dated now, Delta Green’s reliance on then new tech like email and mobile phones was something that set it apart when it first came out but is also the kind of thing that can look silly down the line; in fact it holds up very well, in fact if anything the passage of time has shown that it got it absolutely right. One thing that did stand out to me, technologically speaking, was that it’s still in the era of physical photography – digital cameras must have been an absolute godsend to spies. According to the introduction, the original idea for Delta Green predates The X-Files, which if true further increases my admiration for the creators. My only real complaint about this book is that some of the various factions who appear don’t really need to be there, it occasionally felt like people were being included so that all of the settings big players would show up in the book. Otherwise, excellent.

The Innsmouth Syndrome
Sarcophagus – Phillip Hemplow

More Cthulhu Mythos fiction, this time in the form of two short novellas by new writer Phillip Hemplow. In the first, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control is sent to the Godforsaken Massachusetts fishing town of Innsmouth to investigate the very odd symptoms displayed by several dead teenagers; anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre will be able to guess what happens next. . . This isn’t really a problem though, the horror comes from the oppressive knowledge that things are inevitably going to go very, very wrong, and there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop it. It does a good job of recreating the sinister feeling of Lovecraft’s original story, with the decrepit, pestilential town and it’s atmosphere of decay and corruption very well portrayed. The second story, Sarcophagus, revolves around the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. A multinational corporation has been contracted to build the new containment structure around the ruined reactors, but the operation is plagued with strange accidents, odd sightings, and a strange spike in mental illnesses amongst the workers. Things are getting stranger and stranger, and now there’s a terrible storm on the way. . . The setting definitely lends itself to Mythos horror, and the fear of radiation fits in very well – it’s invisible, mindless, it corrupts, deforms, and kills, it could be despoiling your DNA right now and you wouldn’t know it. Both stories are well written, and I felt them closer in tone to the original Lovecraft stories4 than many modern Cthulhu tales. I definitely look forward to seeing what Hemplow comes up with next.

Germline – TC McCarthy
Gruelling horror-of-war sci-fi. In the future rare earth minerals are vitally important to the economy, essentially holding the position that oil does now, so much so that Russia and the United States are engaged in open warfare with each other over mineral deposits in Asia. It’s not going well for the Americans and the only thing that keeps them from being totally overrun is the genetics – genetically engineered soldiers. A seriously burned-out journalist5 heads to the front line in a last ditch attempt to either save his career or end his life, before long he ends up fighting the war as much as the Marines he’s embedded with. Then everything goes from bad to worse, the US forces start to collapse and as the war mutilates his soul he becomes obsessed with the genetics. This really is a cynical, brutal world, and it’s brought across convincingly by little details like the way the US are drafting fifteen year olds, or how there are no ‘normal’ women in the armed forces any more because it’s more efficient for them to be at home breeding more soldiers. The war itself feels like a prolonged nightmare, made up of the worst parts of every war since about 1936, all combined and fought mostly underground with advanced weaponry. All the participants are ground down by the inexorable terror and destruction, until all they’re capable of is trying to fight and survive, wanting desperately to get out whilst being unable to understand the outside world. The genetics themselves are interesting and frankly disturbing – they’re all identical, all female, they’re indoctrinated with a bizarre death-worshipping religion to keep them in line, they suffer increasing physical and mental degradation as they get older until at eighteen years old they’re ‘euthanised’. What’s even worse is the way everyone else treats them – not only are they not considered human, they’re not even treated like animals but as objects to be used, in the same way as rifles or missiles or tanks. Even the protagonist, who falls in love with one of them, sees her as some kind of feminine ideal or as a symbol of his having a future rather than as an actual person. This is an excellent book, it’s bleak, bloody and cynical, but not in a shallow way; for all the exciting future-war tech and the visceral combat scenes, it always comes back to the bitter, unavoidable cost. The ending took me by surprise, without giving anything away I did find myself wondering if it was going to be revealed as a dream or delusion or something. All told it’s hard-going, but in a good way.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. – Robert Coover
J Henry Waugh is an unhappy accountant whose life is increasingly dominated by a game he has created, a pen and paper simulation of a baseball league. This fantasy world takes up more and more of his thoughts, and he treats the real world as at best a source of inspiration for the game and at worst an annoying distraction. At the beginning of the novel, he is tremendously excited by the prospect of one of his players getting a perfect score record, when a roll of the dice leads to the athlete being killed in a freak accident. Henry’s life, imaginary and real, is thrown into complete chaos and his mental health begins to deteriorate. As a lifelong afficionado of tabletop role-playing games I found it pretty interesting that the book portrays things I’ve done myself6, albeit in a blackly-comic, exaggerated way. I’ve definitely found myself idling away time wondering what my character would do in a certain situation, or spotting something in reality and thinking that would work well in a game, or invested an absurd degree of thought into some pieces of paper and a couple of dice. Also, thanks to an legendary game of Unknown Armies, I too have had an unexpected dice roll lead to the sudden death of a baseball player7. The way in which Henry is a prisoner of his own imagination is fascinating; the game is after all totally in his control, there aren’t even any other players, and all he would need to do to fix the situation driving him mad is simply to decide that it didn’t happen. But this is impossible because he’s bound by the rules he’s decided to impose upon himself, because if he just decided that the player survived after all then it would all be made meaningless. Ultimately, it’s the balance between unbounded imagination and arbitrary rules that makes the game entertaining. I have to say that if you’re not as deeply interested in gaming as I am, you probably won’t get so much out of it, it’s not an outstanding work but it speaks to my peculiar interests in a very direct way.

——

1 Which is less a criticism of Lovecraft and more an inevitable consequence of trying to force all of his disparate works together into a single coherent whole.
2 Considering the theme of the book, this is actually kind of meta.
3 Some short stories and a novel, all linked together.
4 Though of course Lovecraft would never have featured women as protagonists.
5 There never seem to be any healthy, well-adjusted journalists in fiction.
6 The book was published in 1969, pre-dating D&D by five years.
7 I should really dig out the write-up of that game.

Music I Bought In The 3rd Quarter Of 2012

Liar – Jasper the Colossal
The Matrix – Various
Soundtrack For The Voices In My Head Vol 1 – Celldweller
Eating Us – Black Moth Super Rainbow
Reign of Terror – Sleigh Bells
Sonic Prayer – Earthless
Hazy City – X3SR
Parallels – Black City Nights
Suit of Swords
Mr Plastic – Glowbug
Goodbye Lullaby – Avril Lavigne
Music From 1990 – 2000 A.D. – Pilotpriest
Everything – Antics
Invincible
Archangel – Two Steps From Hell
Outer Space Adventurer
Tuned in to the Future – Tommy
The Art of Youth
Beauty Queen – Arcade High
Vessel – Vessel

I say this every time, but that didn’t take long at all. Where’s the year gone? Quite a few Kickstarter related albums this time around, I seem to have gotten slightly addicted to crowdfunding. I’m almost certain Jasper the Colossal‘s debut Liar should actually have gone on the list for last quarter, anyway it’s well good in a stripped-down, rough-round-the-edges rock-and-roll way. On the other end of the list is Vessel, a guitar based post-rock band in the Explosions in the Sky mould1. Everything and Eating Us are both by bands currently working on new albums after funding them on Kickstarter. The former is pretty decent New York indie, the latter is awesome neo-psychadelic experimentalist folktronica2. Sleigh Bells’ Reign of Terror is good but maybe a bit too similar to their first album, though Comeback Kid is a fantasic song. Goodbye Lullaby3 isn’t bad, but I definitely prefer the bubblegum-punk style from her earlier albums to the newer ballads. Two Steps From Hell are staggeringly epic, listening to them makes me feel like I should be standing on top of a hill at the head of a great army. The Matrix soundtrack is as good as it ever was, although listening to it now does make me feel old4. I’m liking Glowbug a lot, sun-drenched, reverb-heavy electronic pop from LA, well worth checking out especially as you can get both albums for free5. Pilotpriest and Tommy make up this quarters selection of music recommended by Electronic Rumours, along with my current favourite, Arcade High; Art of Youth and Beauty Queen are both full of absolutely perfect retrosynth, full of nostalgia for ’80s high school movies. Earthless provide twenty minute long tracks of grinding stoned-out psychadelic rock, perfect for when you need to sit in a darkened room rocking back and forth with a glazed expression on your face.

——

1 If I have any criticisms of them, it’s that sometimes they sound a little too similar to Explosions in the Sky.
2 Or something.
3 Ahem.
4 1999! Were we ever so young?
5 He suggests you make a donation to charity instead, which is pretty cool.

Some Brief Thoughts On The Film Blade

* The first time I saw this film was when I watched it on Sky round my mates house when I was 17. This is pretty much the optimal introduction to Blade.

* The opening scene is brilliantly done and encapsulates everything important about the main character. There are vampires, and dance music, and blood everywhere. Then Blade arrives. His arrival on screen is shown from the perspective of a battered, blood-soaked human lying at his feet – Blade appears suddenly, towering over him in his pristine leather coat and custom armour. The following fight scene shows off each of his weapons – guns, sword, stakes, glaive, fists and feet. He doesn’t say much, other than to make the occasional one-liner. The most telling thing is the way the vampires react when he appears – they’re afraid of him.

* It’s never actually referred to during the film itself, but the throwing blade weapon Blade uses is often called a glaive. This is presumably because it’s very similar to the glaive used in the film Krull. In reality a glaive is a kind of halberd, with a six foot shaft and an eighteen inch blade, and would probably be too unwieldy to use against a mob of vampires in an underground rave. Likewise his sword is often called a katana, despite being straight-bladed and double-edged.

* Originally the climax of the film involved Deacon Frost physically transforming into the vampire god La Magra, in the form of a giant blood monster. It was changed to show him instead becoming supernaturally powerful because it just didn’t work; it looks ridiculous. That might be partly because the special effects were only partly-complete when it was scrapped, but I doubt it – Wesley Snipes versus a big red blob is just plain silly.

* Where is this film supposed to be set, exactly? It looks like Los Angeles, but I don’t think it ever actually says so outright. Except when the elder Dragonetti is killed, the sun is rising over the sea, which seems like it would be difficult to arrange on the West Coast. And The Temple of Eternal Night seems to be fairly close to the city, but is supposedly hundreds of years old and looks a bit big to have been built by the nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in California back then.

* The vampire council is initially angry with Deacon Frost because they think his activities risk drawing too much attention from the humans, but seeing as how Blade is able to go around openly armed to the teeth without anyone giving him a second glance they probably don’t need to worry so much. At one point he spends several minutes beating up a uniformed policeman on a crowded street in broad daylight; later on he ends up in a stand-off with Frost which ends with gunfire and a child being thrown across the street, again in a crowded public place. At no point do any of the people around them appear to notice anything awry.

* Apparently, when the film was first being developed they considered LL Cool J for the part of Blade. I think this was when they were thinking of something closer to the original comics though, supposedly Wesley Snipes was partly responsible for the emphasis on Hong Kong martial arts style. Something else we have him to thank for is the immortal line “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill”. The director heard him saying it on set on day and decided to put it in the film.

* Aside from that, the best part of the script is the exchange “There are worse things out tonight than vampires” “Like what?” “Like me” *sheathes sword dramatically*

Books I Read In August 2012


Myths and Legends of the Second World War – James Hayward
An account of, as the title suggests, various myths and rumours that circulated during the Second World War. Some are fairly obvious, the big stories that are still known about and sometimes even believed, such as the fabled ‘Blitz spirit’, the idea that Dunkirk was some kind of triumph, and a variety of odd things about Hitler and the Nazi elite. There’s also quite a few lesser myths, such as the oddly widespread one about German infiltrators disguised as nuns, and an abortive invasion of Suffolk that was destroyed by weapons that burned the sea around them1. I was a bit surprised to realise that stories of Nazi occultism were circulating at the time, albeit relating to astrology and horoscopes rather than Theosophy and the Thule Society; I thought that was a more recent invention. It’s all quite entertaining, though it isn’t very deep and there were a few times when I found myself wishing it would go into more detail. It’s basically just a collection of interesting stories with no real analysis behind it, which isn’t really a failing since it’s obviously not intended to be a serious work of scholarship. I would be interested in knowing why these kinds of stories spread during wartime, obviously the combination of fear, censorship and propaganda must be responsible but why some stories and not others? My only other quibble is that almost all the myths are British, along with some from America – I’d be interested to know what kinds of rumours were spreading in the Axis camp.

No Hero
Yesterday’s Hero – Jonathon Wood
Arthur Wallace is a police officer in Oxford investigating a serial killer, an investigation that leads to him witnessing some seemingly impossible things and then drafted into MI37, the part of the intelligence services dedicated to protecting the UK from supernatural threats. Sound a little familiar? I certainly thought so, especially having a few months back read Rivers of London which has an oddly similar beginning, right down to the hero having a crush on his partner. That’s obviously just one of those odd coincidences, but even without that these books aren’t terribly original. The most obvious comparison is with Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, which also deal with a secret branch of the British military intelligence trying to contain barely comprehensible dangers. Unlike the Laundry series, these aren’t explicitly Cthulhu Mythos but the setting is recognisably Lovecraftian – the monsters are extradimensional aliens and ‘magic’ works by briefly overwriting the rules of this existence with those of another. Still, for all they aren’t very original, they are pretty entertaining and not without a couple of good ideas of their own; Wallace’s mantra of ‘What would Kurt Russell do? for one, and the fact that his contribution to the group isn’t combat skill or magical knowledge but the ability to help the others work as a team. I did a few times notice the odd Americanism cropping up, for instance references to third grade teachers or something looking like a catchers mitt, nothing major but enough to stand out as something a British person would be very unlikely to say. Anyway, there’s nothing desperately original about these books but they’re entertaining enough and I’m not sorry I read them. I actually got them free as part of a promotional give-away, but I think if I’d paid for them I would have gotten my money’s worth.

Wilson – David Mamet
Sort of a weird, post-modernist satire on academia; the premise, so far as I can tell, is that at some point in the future almost all historical knowledge is lost and everyone moves to Mars. The book consists of various fragments of scholarly essays, all heavily annotated and footnoted. Things which we recognise as being bits and pieces of disposable pop culture are subjected to painstaking analysis and long-winded theorising, given absurdly exaggerated importance, and used as opportunities to score points off other academics. The fairly obvious point is that our knowledge of the past is woefully incomplete and that what we know about ancient civilizations and societies is often derived from very few primary sources. The academics in Wilson wildly misunderstand things from our world, the implication being that we do the same to those who came before. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit obvious and the fragmented nature of the book works against it; with no plot or characters and a core concept that’s clear from the beginning, there’s almost no need to actually read much of the book. The style is what’s important, a merciless send-up of overly clever-clever academia, but again it’s the same all the way through. The whole experience is kind of monotone, to be honest it kind of suffers from the same flaw it attributes to the academy – clever as it is, it’s not so clever as it thinks.

An Occupation of Angels – Lavie Tidhar
Brief novella, set in an alternate world where the Second World War ended with the sudden arrival of numerous Archangels and their hosts. As the Cold War rages on, a British spy finds herself involved in something very dangerous – Archangels are being killed off, and there’s something very strange going on in Siberia. A blend of occult fantasy and grim spycraft, it handles both sides well – the angels are suitably weird and otherworldly, whilst the protagonists chilly competence in a world of constant betrayal is reminiscent of the more depressing spy thrillers. It’s good, but I think there is a problem with the length – I got the feeling that it would’ve been better if it had either been cut down into a short story or expanded into a full length novel. As it is it’s simultaneously short and sort of baggy, it’s over quickly but still parts of it don’t really add to the narrative or the character.

A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
Classic sci-fi on an epic scale. The basic conceit is an interesting one, that the galaxy is divided into several concentric regions, with the level of technology possible increasing as you move outwards from the centre. So in the galactic core, you have the Unthinking Depths, where sentience is more or less impossible; then the Slow Zone, where we are now2 and where the laws of physics are in line with our current understanding of them; the Beyond, where standard space opera feats such as faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, antigravity, etc. are possible; and outside that, the Transcend, where almost godlike intelligences are capable of almost anything. A human civilisation is investigating an abandoned archive just within the Transcend, they accidentally release the Perversion, a hostile and tremendously powerful intelligence which immediately begins to spread rapidly, subverting and dominating everything in it’s path. The survivors flee into the slow zone, crashing on a planet with medieval technology and leaving two small children on the opposite sides of a war. Meanwhile a rescue mission is hoping to get to them before the Perversion does, in the belief that they have something on their ship that can stop it. The sheer scale of things is a big part of the draw, with people talking about casualty rates that count entire civilisations, plans drawn over millennia, and generally a ‘big picture’ that’s so big as to almost defy rational conception. The inhabitants of the planet the survivors land on are an unusual variant of the old hive-mind idea; wolf-like creatures who share minds with those close to them, forming into small packs with distinct personalities. The way their world works is fascinating, both in the way their unique aspect affects everyday life and also in the way it rapidly changes with the arrival of technologically advanced aliens. There are a few minor flaws I think, mainly in the way the characters talk – something about it struck me as not quite right, like it was too stiff? I find I can’t quite articulate why it seemed off, so perhaps it’s just me. The two young siblings who find themselves on an alien world do occasionally start to sound like the ‘plucky young heroes’ of golden age sci-fi cliché, but not all the time and in fairness they do manage to be intelligent without being the all-to-common insufferable prodigies. All in all it really is very good, and fully deserves it’s classic status.

Tales of Heresy – Various
Another instalment in the Horus Heresy sequence, this time a collection of short stories by some of the Black Libraries leading authors. As usual, everything is suitably grim and blood-soaked, with tremendous battles raging as the Imperium falls into civil war. And as several of the stories point out, even with the Emperor himself still leading mankind into a golden age of reason and unity, it’s a violent process and a brutal society. The short story format is well used here, with a few of the stories shining a light on elements of the setting that aren’t usually seen, such as the Adeptus Custodes or the Silent Sisterhood. It did strike me whilst reading them that off the top of my head I don’t think any of the Horus Heresy novels are centred around protagonists in the Imperial Army, though of course I’m only about halfway through it and may be misremembering the books I have read. The other thing that stood out for me is that one story features the Emperor directly for the first time, outside of very brief cameo appearances in other novels. As with any anthology, the quality isn’t exactly uniform, but there are a couple of excellent stories here and none of them could be called bad, or even below average.

DisneyWar – James Stewart
Detailed account of Michael Eisner’s long and controversial reign as chief executive and chairman of Disney, a reign which both encompassed Disney’s revival in the late ’80s and it’s subsequent decline during the late ’90s. I’m not a big Disney fan, though I was vaguely aware of most of the big moments here, like the renewed success of Disney cartoons with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King etc., the relationship with Pixar, and with the initial embarrassing failure of EuroDisney. I did get slightly confused at first by mentions of 101 Dalmatians, which seemed far too recent, until I realised it was the live action remake not the original. The level of access accorded to the author seems to have been unusually high, especially for Disney, and there’s an awful lot of things here that I suspect some people would have preferred to keep quiet. It’s almost ridiculous the way some of these people act, grown men who earn millions of dollars squabbling like little kids, refusing to speak to each other, spreading rumours, forbidding their subordinates from talking to rivals. . . Eisner’s feuds in particular dominate the narrative, interfering with the running of the company, damaging shareholder confidence and ruining morale. Although it stops just short of saying so directly, it’s fairly clear that the book basically blames Eisner for the companies decline, as he seems to have set himself up as the incarnation of the company and constantly interfered with both the creative and financial sides of the business, whilst consistently refusing to take any blame when things went wrong. It’s a fairly dry subject, but it’s well written and if you’re interested in seeing wealthy people sabotaging themselves and their businesses you could do a lot worse.

——

1 This one is vaguely familiar actually, I think something similar is mentioned in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle?
2 Assuming of course you’re reading this on Earth.

Real Guns & Fake Bullets

Whilst idling skimming this article on the Los Angeles Review of Books1 I unexpectedly discovered something awesome – the Edwardian-era practice of ‘bloodless duelling’. Basically it seems to have been a primitive, formal version of paintball; the participents would hold a duel in the traditional ‘X paces then turn and fire’ manner, except instead of the traditional matched pistols they’d use (hopefully) less lethal weapons loaded with wax bullets2, each man wearing heavy leather coats and a full-faced helmet. I did a little looking around, and found a little more information at io9 and Bartitsu, along with some rather excellent pictures.

Originally it was intended as a way to practise for the real thing, before being taken up as a sport by people who presumably felt it unsporting to only shoot at things which couldn’t return fire. Apparently there was a tournament held at the 1908 Olympics, although I can’t seem to find much about that anywhere else; perhaps it was an exhibition rather than a proper event?3

The other obvious application is as a substitute for an actual duel – if you and another gentleman found yourselves in serious disagreement and unable to resolve your problems like a grown-up compelled to seek redress upon the field of honour, you could do it this way and avoid the obvious drawbacks of using live ammunition4. I don’t know if that actually happened, I suppose if you were the kind of person who’d want to fight a duel in the first place then you might regard the lack of blood and risk as a shortcoming rather than an advantage.


What with the long leather coats, the helmets, and the custom firearms, these gentlemen are clearly begging to be part of some Edwardian-era dystopian action series. Perhaps by the same people who brought us The Airship Destroyer.

Obviously that would be the final shot of the intro sequence; on the left you have one of the heroes, a dedicated professional who worked his way up from the ranks and has no time for your damn-fool tricks; on the right is his partner, comes from a good family but a bit too flash for his own good. The chap in the middle is obviously the boss, stuck behind a desk now what with that dashed wound he took in the colonies.

——

1 Pauses to swirl snifter of brandy, chuckles quietly over some droll witicism, sighs, dips pen into inkwell.
2 And I would assume with rather less powerful charges.
3 And, more importantly, can we get Laserquest as an offical Olympic sport for Rio 2016?
4 “Somebody’s going to emergency/Somebody’s going to jail”.

Books I Read In July 2012

Obsidian & Blood – Aliette de Bodard
Omnibus edition of three fantasy novels set in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica Empire, or the Aztecs as they’re often called1. The narrator is Acatl, the somewhat reluctant high priest of Mictlan, God of the Dead, who is charged with maintaining the boundaries between the physical world of mortals and the worlds of the Gods. He’s somewhat of a reluctant hero, someone who’s been unwillingly raised to an important position and forced to face up to his very serious responsibilities. The main draw for these novels is the setting; the Aztecs don’t often get much of a look in and when they do they’re often portrayed as blood-crazed nutters who were mysteriously doomed at some point in the past. This doesn’t really seem fair to me, obviously the whole human sacrifice thing is appalling but I don’t see why it should condemn the entire civilisation. After all, the Romans killed people purely for entertainment but they’ve managed to avoid being stereotyped as sadists and monsters. Tenochitlan is vividly portrayed, in particular I liked all the little details on the kind of food people eat, what their houses looked like, etc.; it makes the Mexica Empire look like the advanced civilisation it was. The other main focus is on magic and religion, the way the Gods interact with human beings, and the plots of all three books revolve around sorcery and divine intervention. In this world the Gods rely on humans as much as the other way around, and dealing with them is almost like a business transaction; priests more or less bargain with their Gods, maybe not as equals but it’s clear that both parties have rights, obligations and desires. I don’t really know much about the subject so I don’t know how much this mirrors what the Aztecs really believed, but obviously a lot of thought has gone into it and it shows. The actual plots themselves are serviceable, but nothing especially noteworthy; Acatl is maybe to reactive for my tastes, he spends a lot of time running around after various disasters trying to work out what’s going on without much luck until the end of the story. Some of the other characters are kind of thin, it seems like everyone in authority aside from Acatl is really very blasé about the survival of the world. They basically keep going ‘It’ll probably work out fine, you worry too much’ regardless of the fact that they’ve personally seen Gods trying to force their way into the world of mortals, star-demons falling from the sky, magical plagues, and so on. I did like the way that there are no obvious solutions or easy answers, the characters have to make serious decisions under pressure and have to face the consequences of their actions down the road. Anyway, some pretty good stories that stand out from the crowd thanks to their unusual, well-developed setting.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – David Foster Wallace
Following on from having read The Pale King last month, a collection of essays from various publications. There’s not actually very many pieces, about half a dozen without checking, but several of them are pretty long. Probably the most well-known is ‘E Unibus Plurum’, which is basically about the effect of television on popular culture and the resulting tendency towards everything being ‘ironic’. It’s good, although at this remove it’s a little difficult to judge just how accurate his critique was – it seems basically right except maybe exaggerated? I don’t think things were quite so bad as he makes out, but then I wasn’t exactly hip deep in US pop culture in 1993. In any case, the core of his argument is sound and I can’t say I disagree with the idea that constantly pretending not to care about anything doesn’t do anyone any good. The essay that gives the book it’s title is probably my favourite, detailing a week-long cruise aboard a luxury liner. The enforced jollity, unavoidable excess and the general sense of being hectored into enjoying yourself make the whole affair sound absolutely horrible, especially since being pressured to act happy amidst crowds of strangers is something I can’t stand2. The only real let-down here is a long piece on David Lynch, from when he was filming Lost Highway. It comes across as being something of a puff-piece, basically saying that Lynch is the greatest director in Hollywood, an unequalled genius, the inspiration for seemingly every important trend in cinema, etc. And I mean, I’m a huge fan of David Lynch, and he is a genius, but still. It all seems a bit excessive. Also he’s wrong about Dune3. That aside, this is definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wallace, although in parts it does feel almost too personal when you know what happened afterwards. Obviously it’s impossible for us to really know what was going through his mind, but when you know that he went on to commit suicide it’s difficult not to look at his disaffection with society and his loneliness without feeling awful. On a lighter note, it’s kind of interesting to read the more personal essays and see things that later popped up in Infinite Jest, names, places, concepts and so on.

Luthor Huss – Chris Wraight
Taking a brief detour from my journey through the Horus Heresy series to check out some of Black Library’s Warhammer fiction. The titular Luthor Huss is an extraordinarily charismatic warrior-priest, who wanders the blighted outlands of the Empire, battling the unending hordes of beasts, mutants and undead with his incredible strength and inspiring the downtrodden with his preaching. At the same time Huss is mounting his personal crusade, a Witchhunter is tracking down mysterious cult activity in the region, until eventually both plot strands entwine for the climax. This is an excellent example of what makes the Warhammer world stand out – it’s bleak, bloody and cynical, but still has real heroes, men and women who grit their teeth and face the monstrous forces ranged against them. The characters are all well-drawn and their motivations are dwelt on rather more than you would expect in this sort of story, in particular the title character who’s past is revealed in periodic flashbacks. Something else that makes the story unmistakeably ‘Warhammer’ is the emphasis on the natural world as being an intensely hostile, inhuman place – nature isn’t just inhospitable or dangerous, it actively hates humanity and constantly tries to destroy it. There’s no soaring ancient forests and lush groves here, but rather twisted, benighted forests thick with twisted, hateful beasts. As befits a Warhammer novel, the action scenes are suitably frequent, fast-paced, and brutal, with hordes of undead and beastmen pitted against desperate soldiers, deranged flagellants and of course a living-saint with a huge hammer. Definitely one of the best recent Warhammer stories.

White Noise – Don DeLillo
Post-modern satirical classic, I thought it was one of DeLillo’s earlier works except I just looked it up and apparently it’s his eighth novel. Don’t think I’ve heard of the earlier books though so I guess this was probably his earliest ‘successful’ novel. The plot follows Jack Gladney, professor of ‘Hitler Studies’ at a university in the Midwest US, who spends a great deal of time brooding vaguely over death with his wife. After possibly being affected by mysterious poisons during a huge chemical spill he becomes increasingly obsessed with his mortality; meanwhile he starts to suspect that his wife is taking some kind of medication, the side-effects of which cause her to forget that she’s taking it. Everyone is constantly talking about theories and concepts at several removes from the actual reality they’re supposedly living in, and as the title suggests television crops up rather a lot. It reminded me of the David Foster Wallace essay I mentioned earlier, in the way it presents image versus reality and the way modern culture leads to people becoming disconnected and isolated. The chemical spill that threatens the town is subject to constantly changing reports from the authorities and people’s symptoms seem to change depending on what they’ve heard. An organisation founded to carry out simulated disasters for research purposes uses the real disaster as an opportunity to practice pretending . . . It sounds like it could be pretty prententious, but it’s actually rather funny, mostly in a dry, understated way – everything is clearly ridiculous but is told completely deadpan. There were also a couple of moments when I unexpectedly found myself laughing out loud. I suppose it may be kind of dated these days, especially with the emphasis on television, but that’s par for the course I suppose. Anyway, recommended even if it isn’t his best work. Probably a good one to start with if you haven’t read any of his work yet.

Old Goriot – Honore de Balzac
Classic novel of early 19th century France, part of Balzac’s tremedously ambitious La Comedie humain sequence which attempted to capture more or less the entirety of French society in a series of novels and short stories. This one follows Rastignac, a young law student, newly arrived in Paris, who wishes to somehow rise from his relatively humble station into the upper classes. He befriends Goriot, an old man who lives in the same boarding house, who used to be wealthy but bankrupted himself out of insane dedication to his ungrateful daughters. With the aid of Goriot, and some distant relatives, Rastignac begins to enter into high society and is exposed to it’s luxury and the cynicism. He also becomes entangled with another fellow resident, the mysterious and amoral Vautrin who tries to involve him in a highly dubious scheme. The book is mainly a detailed historical novel, depicting a highly cynical if not actually corrupt world, where most people dwell in squalor whilst the upper classes live in luxury, and everyone is mainly interested in gaining money and status. The down at heel boarding house is perfectly described and the fact that it’s basically cheap and shabby rather than a horrific slum makes it seem if anything worse. Likewise, the portrait of society as cynical, hypocritical, and money-grubbing; it’s somehow worse to see things portrayed as ‘merely’ bad, because if they were shown as utterly awful you could discredit them as exaggerations. Having said that, there is a slightly weird exception in the character of Vautrin, who seems to have wandered into the novel from the pages of a penny dreadful, scheming constantly and giving exultant monologues on the foolish morality of the masses and so on. That aside it’s an excellent story, the writing is a little stiff in places which could be the translation. Also, it seems that student humour hasn’t changed much in two centuries.

The Name Is Archer – Ross Macdonald
Collection of short stories featuring private eye Lew Archer, some of whose later novels I read a few while back. I’m not sure exactly where these stories fit chronologically, some of them are obviously the first written featuring the character but they seem to have been originally published over a fairly wide timeframe so I’m not sure exactly. The reason I mention this is that these stories feel slightly different to the novels, the central character doesn’t feel quite so well developed which makes me suspect these are earlier works from before Macdonald got him properly worked out. They aren’t enormously different and the focus on the motivations that lead more-or-less ordinary, downtrodden people to do wildly foolish things is still definitely here, but Archer seems closer to a regular noir PI than he does in the later works. Of course that might be because there’s less room for character development in a short story. One thing that did stand out was that in over half the stories here Archer gets involved through a chance meeting or coincidence rather than through being hired by a client, which seemed a bit odd.

Exponential Apocalypse: Dead Presidents – Eirik Gumeny
The sequel to the entertainingly bonkers Exponential Apocalypse, which I read last month4. This is basically more of the same, which is no bad thing; former Norse thunder-god Thor is back working in a New Jersey Holiday Inn, hoping for Ragnarok and messing around with his friends. There’s been another two apocalypses since then, although of course the remaining population stopped paying attention to those ages ago. This time round the plot is even less substantial, more or less consisting of two strands – in the first, Queen Victoria pursues Andrew Jackson in order to exact vengeance upon him for having killed her boyfriend, Chester A Arthur, whilst in the second, Thor, Catrina and the guy who works at Dunkin’ Donuts transport Chester’s corpse to a supervillain’s lair in the hope of getting him cybernetically resurrected. Obviously, it’s all just an excuse for a series of wildly ridiculous things to keep happening, including; a psychic superhero squirrel who’s lost his telekinesis, an army of dinosaurs, Nikola Tesla, transportation via cocaine-fuelled flamingos, an Amish butter monster . . . I got this book after backing the Jersey Devil Press Kickstarter5, the success of which means this deranged confection will shortly have a physical print release. It should be printed in gold leaf on vellum, bound with finest leather and seeded in all major libraries in order to bewilder later generations.

Mr Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood
Brief novel set in the depressed, brutalised Berlin of the early 1930s. The narrator is a young man living in the city as an English tutor, who meets and becomes friends with the titular Mr Norris, a sort of dissipated, vaguely aristocratic Englishman who has many odd habits and very mysterious business dealings. He’s an interesting character, hugely self-centred and constantly feeling sorry for himself whilst never being entirely unsympathetic, simultaneously manipulative and naïve. Presumably the point is to contrast Norris’ selfish, petty scheming with the monolithic evil gathering strength in the background, and it does more or less work; Norris is something of a cad but he never seems malicious, more like a naughty child who doesn’t appreciate the consequences of his actions. It’s a pretty good book, but really it’s kind of slight; there’s not much to it, it’s more of a character study than anything else.

——

1 I think the difference is that Aztec is an ethnic group, rather than a nationality.
2 Which is why I very rarely enjoy New Years Eve.
3 I can’t tell anymore whether I defend the Dune film because I actually like it or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Probably both.
4 Which is currently free on Kindle, if you’re interested.
5 They also sent me a postcard.

Steam Pressure Rising

I love the biannual Steam sales, waiting to see what comes up each day gives me a weird sense of satisfaction similar to the kind you get from watching a download progress bar or an xp gauge slowly filling1. This years Summer sale concluded yesterday, having started a little later enough than usual to inspire a couple of odd theories; There won’t be one at all this year! It’ll be timed to coincide with the Olympics! There’s some kind of ARG already going on but we haven’t discovered it yet! Actually I’d be interested to see Steam’s figures, do they sell noticeably fewer games in the run-up to the Summer/Winter sales? There’s obviously an incentive to hold off purchasing something if there’s a good chance it might be significantly cheaper in a few weeks. On the other hand I don’t know what proportion of Steam’s user base are heavily enough into gaming culture to put that much thought into it.

Anyway, despite already having more than enough unplayed games in my Steam account I naturally caved in and bought more. So, this time round I got:
Assassin’s Creed – Brotherhood £4.99
Super Meat Boy £2.99
Alan Wake £5.74
Dead Island £6.79
All games which I was interested in playing, but not enough to pay full price for. There were also a few decent deals on games I already owned, but nothing spectacular. Outside of Steam I also picked up The Witcher 1 & 2 from GoG for £11.132, I already own the first one but it was one of those odd deals where it worked out cheaper to buy both games than only the second. So in total I spent £31.64, basically the price of a single game at full price. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I bought a non-indie3 game at full price.

Now I just need to actually play them . . .

——

1 Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.
2 The Witcher 2 popped up on Steam a day or two later for a little more.
3 I’m not sure what the proper term is – Commercial? Mainstream? Triple-A? None of those look right to me. I mean games from big publishers that cost £30-£40 on release.

Some Projects I Am Currently Backing On Kickstarter

Since January, I have backed 31 projects on Kickstarter. I can’t help myself, it’s worth the money just for the warm glow of patronage it generates. It’s like being a Renaissance princeling on a much smaller scale – “Why, your art intrigues me good man, you shall embellish my palazzo at once!” Admittedly pre-ordering an Ohio punk bands album,1 or a sequel to a classic cyberpunk videogame2 and giving some guy $20 so he can get members of the public to take polaroid pictures3 isn’t exactly commissioning the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

I was hoping to post the little widget things for the projects I’m backing, only it turns out wordpress doesn’t let you use [iframe] so I just bodged something together in GIMP. Greg Stolze is partly responsible for Unknown Armies and for that reason alone deserves your money more than you do4, as well as for first making me aware of Kickstarter back in 2009 before it was cool. The Synnibar relaunch is almost certainly going to fail5 barring a miracle seeing as it’s currently 7% funded with two weeks to go – $55,000 is a lot of money to raise. The conceptual art one is genius and worth the $1 for comedy value.

——

1 Liar by Jasper the Colossal. It’s really rather good.
2 Shadowrun, chummer.
3 I’ve got two of them on my desk.
4 Unless you’re John Tynes, obviously.
5 Will I ever get my Midnight Sunstone Bazooka?

Music I Bought In the 2nd Quarter of 2012

This Is 1983 – Risk Risk
Manhunter – Various
Soundtrack For The Voices In My Head Vol 2 Chapter 1 – Celldweller
Garbage – Garbage
Love Never Dies – Miss FD
Two Guys In Japan – Flashworx
Burn The Sky Down – Emma Hewitt
Remembering Next Summer – Tapeaters
Music From Saharan Cellphones – Various
La Paix – Akibar Gignor
f#a#infinity – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Nobody’s Daughter – Hole
Northern Council – College
Scott Pilgrim vs The World – Various
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Pilotpriest
Autumn Fields – Dirk Geiger
Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
Synthetica – Metric

Well, here we are again. Half-way already, that didn’t take long at all I don’t know where this year’s gotten to. This time there’s two physical albums in the list; Garbage, which I found in a charity shop, and Ladyhawke which I picked up along with some DVDs in a ‘3 for £5’ offer. I’ve started following Electronic Rumors which has led to quite a few great discoveries, though I can’t for the life of me keep track of what the genres called anymore. SynthWave, Futurepop, Nu-Italo, DreamWave, Electro-Indie … it’s all Electronica to me. I must be getting old. Not so much retro stuff this time, although This Is 1983 is so fantastically ’80s1 anything else would pale in comparison. Continuing the ’80s theme, the Manhunter2 soundtrack is good but the levels seem out so I have to keep fiddling with the volume whilst listening to it. Listening to Miss FD makes me want to play Vampire: The Masquerade again3; also fair play to Fixt for emailing me a few weeks after I bought Love Never Dies because it’d been on offer and I should have gotten 50% off. I was pretty dubious about Nobody’s Daughter; seemed like it was bound to be an awkward mess but actually there’s a couple of pretty good songs on there. My brother reckons Emma Hewitt sounds like ‘an Australian Enya’, I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a compliment or a criticism but in any case I liked Burn The Sky Down a great deal4. I got Remembering Last Summer as one of those ‘Pay What You Want’ things, it’s so good I feel guilty about only paying $5 for it. Found a couple of interesting things via Sahelsounds, which in turn I found via an African sci-fi blog, and I’m glad I did as the only music from that part of the world I’d really heard before was Tiniariwen. Coming in just under the wire was the long-awaited new Metric album, it took a few listens to really warm up to Synthetica but it was definitely worth the wait.

——

1 In a way that would have been impossible had it actually be made in the real 1980’s.
2 Manhunter is an excellent film and it’s a damn shame so few people have seen it.
3 And definitely not, for example, pine over goth girls on the internet.
4 But then I do like Enya so maybe there is something to it.

Books I Read In June 2012

The Dreyfuss Trials – Guy Chapman
As the title suggests this is an overview of one the notorious miscarriage of justice that occurred when in 1894 a French soldier was falsely accused of treason, framed by a military court and held in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island for nearly five years. The events are covered clearly and comprehensively, however I did find it a little lacking in context. The poisonous atmosphere of anti-semitism, nationalism and deranged militarism that seemingly hung over fin-de-siecle France is not really shown in as much depth as I’d have liked. As it is, the book does kind of give the impression that everyone in Paris suddenly went mad for several years. On the other hand, Chapman does depict vividly the confusion that surrounded the case, with some of the protagonists cynically lying and forging, some defering to the authorities and failing to properly examine evidence, others using the affair to settle existing scores etc. The overall impression is of a horribly complicated disaster, with everything wildly spinning out of control as the affair was turned into some kind of public referendum on the soul of France. There were a few bits that seemed kind of odd to me – the German governments repeated denials that Dreyfuss was working for them are cited as important evidence that was ignored by the prosecution, which seems a bit naïve to me. After all, they’d have had to deny it even if it had been true. Anyway, the book in general is perfectly serviceable but nothing particularly special.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace
I was late getting into David Foster Wallace for some reason, I only got around to reading the wonderful Infinite Jest last year and now I’m trying to catch up as fast as I can. Or as fast as his books get released in eBook format anyway. This is the book he was working on when he killed himself; I was a bit wary beforehand that it might be an attempt to cash in on his death or just unreadable, but neither of those things is the case. It’s difficult to tell just how finished the book is since although the plot is disjointed and in places hardly there at all, it’s entirely possible that this is deliberate. The overarching theme seems to be boredom, presumably in the way that Infinite Jest was about excessive stimulation, with painstaking clerical work, endless bus journeys, traffic jams etc. The main spine of the plot involves a group of people working for the IRS in the 1980’s, of whom one is apparently psychic, one is named David Foster Wallace, claims to be the author1 and gets mistaken for another person named David F Wallace, and another who seems to have a very similar background to the actual David Foster Wallace. Nothing really happens, which might be the point or it might be because he simply hadn’t written it yet. Whatever else it is, it’s brilliantly written especially considering it’s essentially an early draft – aside from a few phrases being repeated too often there’s little to separate this from any of his other published work. The feeling of total, crushing boredom and depression is conveyed perfectly, though admittedly it doesn’t sound all that enticing when you put it like that. As with Infinite Jest, I found that Wallace could explain things I’ve always felt but not been able to put into words. All in all, the main problem with talking about this book is that there’s no way of knowing exactly what it was trying to do – it could have been nearly finished, or it could have been barely started. It’s a terrible shame that he couldn’t live to finish it, because what’s here suggests that the finished article could have beem something very special indeed.

King Rat – China Mieville
The debut novel by weird-fiction master China Mieville. Saul’s father has been murdered and the police think he did it. But then something very strange breaks him out of prison and takes him down into London’s underworld – King Rat has come for his kin. Someone very, very dangerous is in the city, and King Rat needs Saul’s help to stop him. If you’ve read his other work it’s pretty easy to tell that this is Mieville’s first novel, it doesn’t have the richness or depth of ideas that characterise his work, and it isn’t quite as polished either. Of course, I’m a huge fan of his, so ‘not quite as good as his best work’ still translates to ‘rather good’. On the other hand, if you’ve again read his other work you could definitely identify this as one of his; familiar motifs such as back-street urbanism2, supernatural forces in a non-traditional setting, left-wing politics etc. are all present even if he’s not fully worked them out yet. The writing is good, though it lacks the florid prose of his later work; I suppose some people might consider that a plus point though personally I don’t. It’s a good book, but it’s probably more for Mieville completists – if you’ve not read any of his books before you’d be much better starting with Perdido Street Station or Kraken.

Revenge of the Lawn/The Abortion/So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away – Richard Brautigan
A collected edition of two novels and one set of short stories by someone whose name seems vaguely familiar to me for some reason. They’re all very slight, so much so that it’s hard to think of anything to say about them. The third book, about a man remembering the childhood events that led up to a terrible accident, is probably the best. Thinking about these books is like trying to hold on to mist, I can’t seem to get any kind of a hold on them. Perhaps it’s me. I enjoyed reading them well enough I guess, and I can see why the author was so popular with the hippies.

Infidel – Kameron Hurley
The follow-up to the excellent bug-punk God’s War, which I read a few months back. In the six years since the end of the first book, not much has changed for former Bel Dame turned bounty hunter Nyx other than her becoming even more embittered and damaged3. Her usual run of petty violence-for-hire gets interrupted when she once again becomes involved in politics; a faction within the Bel Dames is plotting against the queen and Nasheen is on the brink of outright civil war. Since Nyx is extremely capable and totally desperate she gets the job of stopping them; nothing goes right for anyone and everyone gets hurt, physically, mentally and spiritually. A tale of espionage, deceit and violence against a background of unending total war on a planet where skin cancer is as common as a cold, Infidel is definitely not for the faint-hearted. As with it’s predecessor, the violence is brutal to the point of savagery and all the characters seem broken in some way; none of them really want to live like they do, but they feel like they have to. Constant conflict has poisoned everything, from the brutalised individuals to the militaristic governments to the lethally contaminated landscape. Most of this story is set in Tirhan, the safest and most prosperous place on the planet. Except that this prosperity is gained through selling weapons to Nasheen and Chenja, the two main powers who’ve been at war for centuries; nothing is clean. Infidel is definitely as good as it’s excellent predecessor, the writing is I think a little improved, it feels tighter and more stripped-down as befits a story like this. The fascinating background is expanded without clumsy infodumps, although this time around it doesn’t have quite the same impact, probably because by now the shock of the new has worn off a little. Still, the sheer hostility of the world is well portrayed, always staying just shy of the point where you wonder why everyone hasn’t just given up on living by now. Highly recommended, with the proviso that if you don’t like graphic violence or insects you might be better off reading something else.

Band of Brigands – Christy Campbell
The story of the somewhat ramshackle, chaotic beginnings of armoured warfare during the First World War. It makes interesting reading, I knew the rough outline of events but I hadn’t realised that things were quite as complicated as they were. The constant infighting between for- and against-tank factions within the British government takes up at least as much of the book as the actual fighting does. To say nothing of the disagreements over what sort of tanks should be built, and how they should be used, and of course over who should get the blame/credit. . . Some of the early ideas for armoured vehicles sound brilliantly mad – giant tricycles, back-to-back tractor units with flexible links, enormous mobile fortresses, basically a lot of things that would probably fit right into Warhammer 40,000 if you added a few more spiky bits. It was interesting to read this after having read Heinz Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer! a few months back. This is rather more grounded, making it clear that although they were effective under the right conditions, the early tanks were not the paradigm-shattering change claimed by Guderian. In fact I was surprised by how vulnerable the first tanks apparently were; I knew they were highly prone to mechanical failure and getting bogged down in mud4 but the descriptions of them being crippled and destroyed by machine-guns and trench mortars make it clear they weren’t quite the armoured leviathans envisaged by their creators. Although the author never outright says this, the book strongly gives the impression that the war would probably have turned out more or less the same had tanks never been built. The apostles of the tank were right about the potential they had to redefine warfare, but at the time the technology to realise this potential just didn’t exist. A well-written book that’s surprisingly light on obscure jargon and arcane mechanical details5.

The Kingdoms of Dust – Amanda Downum
Third in the Necromancer Chronicles6, one of my favourite fantasy series in quite a while. Necromancer and spy Isyllt has been forced to flee her home following events in the previous book and has ended up in the desert kingdom of Assar, pursued as ever by intrigue and danger. As with each of the previous books, the story is set in a well-realised non-traditional setting, in this case, a pseudo-Arabian society dominated by a powerful church dedicated to suppressing the spirit world. I don’t think it’s quite as effective this time around, probably because this kind of setting has been done before in fantasy, albeit rarely, but nonetheless it’s unobtrusively and effectively portrayed. There’s a lot of the little details that bring the world to life and make it feel like a concrete place rather than a generic stage-set. There’s a definite undertone of H P Lovecraft here as well, although not in the common ‘Cthulhu, East Coast fishing villages, inbreeding’ way but rather in the vein of ‘ancient desert kingdoms, hidden secrets, destruction from the stars’. Once again the setting informs the feel of the story, with the vast, sun-beaten, inhospitable desert mirrored by the characters – they’ve had the humanity more or less burned out of them by the weight of responsibility and power, and they make their decisions slowly and inexorably. Although the plot this time has far higher stakes than the earlier stories, the action is slower and more measured. It’s more about how the characters come to their decisions and how they feel about those decisions than it is about fights and chases, though there are more than a few of those too. I’m assuming this is the final volume in the Necromancer Chronicles partly because these things usually come in threes and partly because it ends in a way that seems to provide closure for it’s central character, though another sequel wouldn’t seem impossible. All told, this is a more than worthy addition to a series that I definitely recommend.

My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump
Slim volume of deranged, mostly gruesome stories involving Elvis. Or involving ‘Elvis’, as depending upon the story he varies from being a drug-addled washed-up singer, a serial killer, a cannibal, a quiet man in Yorkshire, subject of obscure medical experiments, and so and and so forth. Most of the stories are very short, just a page or so, and a few of them are interlinked. By and large they work well, although they suffer from being quite repetitive; the pattern of ‘Elvis does something crazy, someone gets killed/mutilated’ crops up often enough that it ceases to have any shock value or impact. I suspect they’d work better in isolation, if you came across one in the midst of a collection of other stories they might well be quite disturbing but once you’ve read a couple of stories about Elvis being hassled by the corpse of Chris de Burgh or being a teenage murderer with a wig fetish it’s hard to find any of it shocking. The sudden descents into gory violence aren’t exactly surprising when you’ve been expecting them from the first line. Still, a fair few of them are entertaining in a mondo way and at points the sheer weirdness is it’s own reward.

Exponential Apocalypse – Eirik Gumeny
Amiably crazy slacker comedy. There have now been twenty-two separate apocalypses, including various robot uprisings, zombie plagues, nuclear holocausts, corporate wars etc. The remaining people have more or less stopped paying attention to whatever the current end-of-the-world is. One of the ways the world hasn’t ended yet is Ragnarok, much to the irritation of Thor – the former Norse god has been condemned to mortality following the victory of Science over Religion and now works at a failing Holiday Inn in a New Jersey swamp. In the grand tradition of slacker comedy, the protagonist does very little beside hang around with his friends and colleagues until he gets dragged into some kind of mad scenario that leads to all kinds of lunacy. Obviously in a novel like this it has to be a particularly mad scenario; what actually happens is that an Aztec god with a drinking problem takes control of the Hobo Empire and begins to conquer what’s left of the United States. The plot meanders about, taking detours every time a potential joke appears, before culminating with a knock-down battle in Las Vegas involving robotic Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a trio of cloned historical figures7, a psychic superhero squirrel and a replica Eiffel Tower. It’s actually kind of like an American take on one of Robert Rankin’s pun-filled shaggy dog stories. Basically, it’s all very silly, profane and highly entertaining. What more can you ask for 79 pence?

——

1 He isn’t really.
2 Specifically, London as usual.
3 To be fair this is no small achievement.
4 A bit of a drawback on a WW1 battlefield.
5 Not that I have anything against these things you understand.
6 The first two instalments being The Drowned City and The Bone Palace.
7 Two presidents and one queen.