Thursday, 29 May 2008

Psychogeography - Merlin Coverley

I bought this on the strength of reviews and wish now I hadn't wasted my money. The book is badly produced (the author needs a better editor, proof reader, and setter), is extremely narrow in its scope, and concentrates only on those aspects of the subject that are already well known or easy to find.

As a subject, psychogeography predates civilization (pagan peoples knew how geography was integral to psychology). The concentration on recent urban p-g, and the insistence that only London and Paris really count (despite a nod to New York) ignores the long rural tradition as well as p-g in other urban settings around the world.

The author's knowledge and understanding of Alfred Watkins' work and its impact is poor. Which leads one to wonder just how well he really knows the rest of the subject. His attempt to assert that Ackroyd is outside the tradition as he is somehow conservative rather misses the point that urban p-g as a whole is both conservative and somewhat obsessed with the notion of a golden age.

Where the book does have a strength is in pointing out that for some people p-g is a method to some other end rather than an end in itself. Attempts to turn it into a science have so far met with failure simply because the amount of data required to make any form of realistic assessment are simply overwhelming. As an artistic method (particularly in literature and film) it is highly sucessful as it seems that an artistic sensibility and sensitivity are required to process and interpret a landscape and the figures that move within it.

There are better books on the subject. But anyone wanting to know what p-g is would be far better off seeking out p-g artists and writers.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Heart of Empire - Bryan Talbot

This is a sequel to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Such a bald statement, however, conceals a great deal. In the previous book we are presented with a highly complex story, rendered in detailed black and white drawings. The visual impression is one of darkness and drabness, entirely fitting to the portrayal of a puritan fascist dictatorship. Heart of Empire takes place twenty three years after the overthrow of the Cromwell dynasty and in tone it could not be more different. To begin with, the book is rendered in full colour. And the drawing style, whilst beautifully detailed, is lusher and more in keeping with the decadent royalist empire it portrays. For whilst it is colourful, the contrast between the bright colours of court life and the sickly, drab colours experienced by everyone is highly marked.

The story itself loses nothing for being less complex. Much of the complexity has been told in the previous story and lies in the background. Here we are presented with a counterbalancing tale that shows us there are many kinds of dictatorship. The puritan commonwealth and the royalist empire are two sides of the same coin. Subject peoples are still trodden into the dirt by an elite whose only concern is their personal well being.

It would be interesting to see a third volume. At the end of Heart of Empire a democracy is established. We know from watching the news every day that establishing and maintaining a democracy is no easy matter, and that democracies are just as easily corrupted to evil as any other political system. Perhaps it is time Luther Arkwright returned.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright - Bryan Talbot

Comic? Graphic novel? Call it what you will (although this bears as much relation to the Beano as Ulysses does to Noddy goes to Toytown); this is rightly consider amongst the best works of its type.

Talbot is a highly accomplished graphic artist, an equally accomplished story-teller, and someone who is clearly concerned with something wider than both. This is a world in which the English Interregnum has lasted until the (or, rather, a) present day. Cromwell’s heirs run the country as a fascist puritanical state and Royalists fight a terrorist war. Into this world comes Arkwright, searching for answers. The full story is too complex to give in such a short space as this, save to say the complexity is not for effect. The adventures reflect real life and the use of science fiction as a carrier for the story (we are talking alternative universes here) enhances the deeper social messages.

What adds to an already outstanding story is the way in which Talbot weaves graphics, text, and the story into a seamless and rich tapestry. This is no straightforward comic strip. The detail in the graphic work is astonishing and there are many references to ‘classical’ works of art. Both text and graphics make reference to popular culture and some of the characters in the story bear more than a passing resemblance to real people. The arrangement of the graphics is also innovative with panels that seem out of place and which are difficult to decipher. These heighten the feelings of fragmentation and chaos that are central themes of the work. And then hit home with extra impact when they reappear in their correct context.

It is certainly a work that is worth revisiting and for anyone who has never tried a graphic novel, it is certainly ample evidence that this is an art form in its own right (although you may need a magnifying glass if you start with this as some of the text is very small).

Monday, 19 May 2008

Roderick - John Sladek

Superlatives are insufficient to convey the original impact of this book and the sheer fun I had in re-reading it. Sladek is a fierce satirist and this tale of the creation and development of the first robotic artificial intelligence has education and government as its main targets. But it is no haphazard attack. It is choreographed as tightly and as effectively as a Joss Whedon fight sequence (think Summer Glau in Firefly/Serenity - as a chap is sometimes inclined so to do), and it is just as deadly.

And as if this was not enough, John Sladek is a writer of enormous skill and intelligence (look out for his superb Masterson and the Clerks – a piece of true absurdist literature). He manages to weave deep philosophical discussions about the nature of identity into the tale without once interrupting the flow; he manages to knock a few iconic figures from their pedestals; he entertains with his wonderful sense of humour; and he treats his reader with respect.

A lot of the action takes place ‘off screen’. What seems a throwaway line or action in one chapter emerges a few chapters down the line as significant. Things going on in the background suddenly flower elsewhere. Whole scenes are conjured in a well placed phrase. His command of dialogue is superb. And the whole thing is told in a fresh and engaging style. Brilliant. Inspirational.

As ever, there will be people who don’t pick this book up because it is labelled science fiction. Their loss. It is far superior in style, content, and relevance to much of what passes for literature these days. I was going to carry straight on with Roderick at Random, but having just taken delivery of the new Del Rey Elric and a replacement copy of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright I have a feeling it may be a week or two before I return.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is a wonderful book and my latest visit was long overdue. This is a novel of ideas that Huxley later realised was, perhaps, simplistic. It’s overall thesis certainly seems to present a stark choice between two states of social existence. Yet it is more subtle than that and it makes effective and sophisticated arguments, most often when it stops being about ideas and concentrates on the individuals in the story. The moment, for example, when John finds a momentary peace is both touching and instructive. Wisely, Huxley chose to leave it alone.

Like Orwell’s later Nineteen-Eighty Four this is a dystopian novel. Unlike Orwell’s grim vision, Huxley saw a bright, well-managed and relentlessly jolly future maintained by carefully managed eugenics. The visions are equally frightening. However, where Orwell was warning us, Huxley was exploring an idea which, to him, seemed to have merit. Yet it is a strength of the novel that he is able to find as much fault with his own view as he did with the one he saw standing in opposition.

As a classic, of course, it is ‘one of those books that everybody should read’. So please don’t be put off by that. The story is simple, necessarily so, but powerfully told. The language is simple, yet manages to convey complex ideas. And when Huxley forgets about expounding ideas, it offers some startling and unforgettable imagery.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Saturnalia - Lindsey Davis

The author of the Falco series (of which this is the eighteenth) is the first to admit they are ‘light reading’. This does rather depend on your definition of ‘light’, but on the whole I would agree. They are entertainments, well researched and with an amusing take on life in the Roman world of the first century AD.

The series started well; hit what I felt was a rocky patch where the tone of the books seemed spiteful; and regained a sunnier outlook. Sadly, they have lost a great deal as the series progresses. Falco seems to have become infallible. The books lack tension or dramatic urgency. You know the main characters will come through with minor abrasions whilst new faces in the immediate background are the ones for the chop (one of the hazards of a first person narrative). The books have become a bit self-congratulatory.

Take this most recent story. There is a great deal in there that could have provided real tension, real drama, and dealt with social issues that are inevitable in any crime book. The search for an escaped high ranking prisoner felt contrived – stretched out for no apparent reason with a swift ‘why didn’t I think of that before’ as an excuse. The murder apparently connected with the escape is treated in lacklustre fashion and again feels contrived. You can see the plot devices sticking out like badly set broken bones. And the background story of the murder of down-and-outs and runaway slaves is so cursory as to be an insult. It would have made an excellent story in itself.

As for the conclusion… When you write a story with several threads you must either tie them together in an ingenious fashion that the reader just didn’t see coming (despite all the clues being there); or you must risk what this book achieves – an almighty anti-climax. The absconded prisoner is found and then some chapters later we have the murder solved. Then a bit later… you get the picture. What with that and the abrupt finish, I feel that Ms Davis needs to take stock and take a few risks.

I still enjoy the books. It is a remarkable feat to keep a series running for so long. The research is equally prodigious and rarely intrusive. And the author can write. It would, however, be good to feel that the main characters are in real danger; it would be good to have a more rigorous plot that flows naturally from the circumstances, rather than three stitched together to pad out the book.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

I am not sure when I last read this. It must be thirty years ago. It is interesting to see that it has stood the test of time. Almost. Or perhaps it is me that has failed. I do remember thinking it a great book when I first read it. Now? Almost.

The trouble is, it seems to me like it is trying too hard. There is one layer too many of artifice in there and it shows. The structure is fine. That was nothing new at the time and it works well. Besides, the form of the novel is explained within the novel in one of those internal consistencies of which the author is so fond. We are told what the book will be like. The use of science fiction tropes and the thinly disguised portraits of those within the sf world is also fine, although in the end unnecessary (unless as a rather hackneyed means of conveying mental instability) as I find it detracts from what I take to be the central anti-war theme.

Where it has not stood the test of time is in its voice. I suspect when the book was new I was forgiving of this and certainly less well equipped to consider such points. I found it annoyed me this time round. It is too self-consciously naïve, which in the end works to contradict itself. I was heartily sick of the repeated ‘And so it goes’ by thirty pages in, and felt I was being talked down to most of the time. This eroded any enjoyment I might have had in revisiting the novel.

I would still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it. It is still one of the better works of later twentieth century western literature, dealing with universal themes in an accessible manner. For me, however, its charm has faded. I would give it a B.