You are viewing uvula_fr_b4

reality optional
Really not feelin' the love for Jerry Cornelius.

I've an ambivalent relationship with Michael Moorcock's work: yes, I recognize how fraggin' seminal it is to science fiction and fantasy, I realize that he's a prime exponent of the British New Wave in science fiction, and any self-respecting, self-described geek, especially one with even a casual interest in these two genres, is almost contractually obligated to read at least some of Moorcock's stuff; however, I can't help but feel that Moorcock rarely writes to the limit of his ability. (Maybe that's just wishful thinking?) Too often it feels like he's phoning it in.

As much as I loved the original Hawkmoon series (The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff), I've yet to make it all the way through the sequel trilogy (Count Brass, The Champion of Garathorm and The Quest for Tanelorn; finally read The Champion of Garathorm after two tries, but still haven't finished The Quest for Tanelorn); while I liked the first Corum trilogy (The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords, The King of the Swords), I was less impressed with the second trilogy (The Bull and the Spear, The Oak and the Ram, The Sword and the Stallion) and, at this remove, I can remember demmed little of either series. Kane of Old Mars was a mindlessly fun swords and planets pastiche, originally published under a pseudonym (Edward P. Bradbury). And Elric -- ah, Elric, Elric, how many different versions of the Elric books have been published; how confusing it is to try to suss out which book to read, and in which order. I love the concept of Elric, but ofttimes the execution leaves much to be desired.

My hands-down favorite book by Moorcock thus far is The War Hound and the World's Pain; I liked that one so much that I dread reading the rest of the Von Bek series, for fear of finding that the quality drops off a cliff.

But Jerry Cornelius: how often others have riffed on the character, if not out-and-out ripped him off, not always with Moorcock's blessing. Whither Grant Morrison without a Jerry Cornelius to steal refer to? JC, JC (the initials are surely not coincidental, given his occasional messianic "Jesus Christ pose"), the "adult film" version of the Mad Mod, a being of no determinate gender, sexual orientation, or "race," he shifts back and forth from life and death as quickly and, to this reader, as nonsensically, as he changes other aspects of his being. Indeed, Jerry Cornelius's particulars are so much in flux, moreso than with even Moorcock's other Eternal Champions, that one has to question whether there even is a Jerry Cornelius: surely the notion that one may usefully describe a single being as possessing the characteristics (one dare not call them "personality traits," given that Jerry Cornelius effectively has no personality, only a constantly shifting series of wants and hungers, forever in the present tense) of Jerry Cornelius is a laughable one; Moorcock here attempts to out-Brecht Bertolt Brecht.

Jerry Cornelius: a pan-sexual (if not omni-sexual), pan-gendered, pan-racial scientist, rock star, surgeon, secret agent, connoisseur, revolutionary, religious icon, trickster god, and lover par excellence; Buckaroo Banzai is a more rational imagining of Jerry Cornelius, filtered through Doc Savage.

In theory, Jerry Cornelius sounds like the type of character I should take to like a duck to water; in practice....

I've read a baker's dozen of William S. Burroughs's books, and, honestly, thus far, the Jerry Cornelius books (I've finished The Final Programme and I'm between a third and a half of the way through A Cure For Cancer) read to me like Burroughs-lite, with maybe a soupçon of John Dos Passos for flavoring.

As little as I think of The Final Programme, I think that A Cure For Cancer is even more of a failed experiment. A Cure For Cancer is, thus far, almost wholly empty calories: a series of trite expressions and by now meaningless clichés intermingled with advertising copy, tabloid headlines, the occasional high-brow quotation, and a minimalist outline of an utterly meaningless, irrational espionage thriller parody. Israel has annexed Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey? How? Why? Who knows? Who cares?

I really disagree with Brecht's premise that the dramatist (and, by extension, the novelist) has to constantly remind the audience that it's watching a performance; to my mind, the real trick for any self-respecting dramatist or writer of fiction is to make the audience forget that it's watching a performance, it's reading a work of fiction. Damned few creators are good enough to do that for more than brief sections, and a depressingly large amount of them aren't able to accomplish even that much.

Moorcock might as well have scribed A Cure For Cancer with a dog turd on a Franklin Mint commemorative plate, then smashed said plate over the head of a random passerby; it's that pointless and that puerile.

Yes, I can read it with greater ease than, say, Burroughs' The Soft Machine or The Ticket That Exploded; but that's a pretty goddamned low bar.

If Moorcock was really trying to advocate the position that "Nothin' matters, and what if it did?," why did he even bother writing these bloody books? (A more compelling question, perhaps, is, how in the hell did he ever get them published in the first place?)

I suppose I should grit my teeth and finish at least A Cure For Cancer and, ideally, the other two books in the first quartet (The Chronicles of Cornelius); I just can't guarantee that I'm going to read them right away.

Things that man was not meant to know: a review of Somerset Maugham's The Magician.

"Let me explain my findings...", Dr. Rat says
From Saturday, 10 May through Thursday, 14 May, I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician (originally published in 1908 by Heinemann (London) and in 1909 by Duffield and Company; but I read it in a Project Gutenberg edition in OverDrive Media Console on my Kindle Fire [the Project Gutenberg edition included Maugham's introductory "A Fragment of Autobiography," which, as far as I can tell, first appeared in the Penguin edition published in 1967, in association w/ Heinemann]; 199 pps.).

cover to The Magician by W Somerset Maugham

The Magician is apparently an exception that proves the rule to Somerset Maugham's usual oeuvre: a sensational, proto-pulp (or a neo-gothic) thriller that, after a deliberate build-up, actually delivers in its hellzapoppin payoff.

Stuffy and unimaginative English surgeon Arthur Burdon travels to Paris to visit his one-time ward, current fiancée, Margaret Dauncey, as well as renew his friendship with the retired Breton physician and autodidactic occultist Dr. Porhoët; while there he makes two new acquaintances: Margaret's roommate, Susie Boyd (who is a vacationing teacher at least a decade older than Margaret), and the repulsively corpulent, alarmingly charismatic Oliver Haddo, a wealthy squire and a casual acquaintance of Porhoët, who met while they were each studying the occult in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. Haddo is deliberately provocative, even rude, but has a wealth of worldly anecdotes (he is a keen lion-hunter, for example) and a recondite erudition to entertain and silence any would-be critics, over and above his slightly mesmeric stare.

Due to a contretemps with Burdon -- Haddo kicks Margaret's dog while visiting her and Susie in the company of Porhoët and Burdon, in consequence of which Burdon physically attacks Haddo, who fails to defend himself -- Haddo conceives a terrible hatred for Burdon, and plots a convoluted, wholly improbable, but nonetheless awful, vengeance against him. Haddo woos and wins Margaret away from him, acting less the passionate and sentimental lover than a Svengali (who debuted in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby; his fame far outshone that of the novel's titular character, notwithstanding the fact that she had a type of hat named after her) who clouds her mind and breaks her will. Burdon, though spiritually wounded nigh unto the breaking point himself, nonetheless doesn't contest the marriage, believing Margaret to be in full possession of her faculties, and honestly in love with Haddo. Eventually Susie, who has fallen in love with Burdon, convinces him otherwise, and he calls upon Porhoët's expertise to assist him in bearding Haddo in his ancestral home of Skene, in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, England.

Interest is added to The Magician by the knowledge, which Maugham confirmed in his "Fragment of Autobiography" some fifty years after The Magician's initial publication, that Haddo is a caricature of Aleister Crowley, the self-described "Great Beast," whom Maugham knew in passing. Crowley was so incensed by this mocking and unflattering portrait of him that he undertook to review The Magician in the pages of Vanity Fair, signing himself "Oliver Haddo;" Maugham claimed to have never read the review.

While Maugham claimed, in his "Fragment," to have spent "days and days reading in the library of the British Museum" to research The Magician, he still produced such idiocies as Porhoët declaring that Haddo "'had studied the Kabbalah in the original'" (Chapter 1) -- as though there was an "original," ur-text of the Kabbalah. Nonetheless, Maugham manages to reward the reader's suspension of disbelief with a slow-burn building up of tension and suspense that is magnificently rewarded with a climax that is at least the equal of most of the sensational works that were of a time with The Magician; the conclusion of The Magician is more thrilling and eerie, for example, than that of the first two Fu Manchu novels or, come to that, than Dracula's (or Alraune's). Maugham very wisely limits Haddo's time on-stage, and, more importantly, limits his tirades about his esoteric activities, so that the reader is nearly as ignorant and impressionable as Burdon and Susie (and, for all his time spent at the Arsenal, Porhoët), and so can react with the appropriate levels of horror and revulsion when they slink through Haddo's attic workshops at Skene.

The Magician was much more enjoyable, on the whole, than the only other work I've read by Maugham thus far, the short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Seas Islands (1921); I'm somewhat apprehensive of reading more Maugham due to the glum feeling that I'll probably not enjoy his other work as much.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

You ain't NEVER had a friend like ME...
I've written previously about my ambivalence for the writing of Garth Ennis: while I mostly enjoy his superhero satire / takedown, The Boys, he managed to make his "Boys-verse" nearly as convoluted and contradictory as any decades-long superhero continuity from Marvel and DC, which pretty much defeats the purpose of his satire; and, while I think he's the definitive writer for that randy scouse git John Constantine, and I've warmed up to the hellbilly stylings of his DC Vertigo horror series Preacher a bit more from the first hardbound volume, I've no real desire to read more of his occasional sort-of zombie series Crossed.

But I think that Ennis's true métier is writing war comics (I've enjoyed the first four non-related arcs of his World War II meta-series Battlefields, from Dynamite Entertainment, as well as the 12-issue Marvel MAX series Fury MAX: My War Gone By, which is a retcon of the career of Marvel's longest-running military character turned elite secret agent, Nick Fury; I remain ambivalent about Ennis's first Fury MAX mini-series, with spectacularly gory artwork by Transmetropolitan and The Boys co-creator Darick Robertson), or at least writing paramilitary-type action comics such as Punisher MAX.

Ennis is quite outspoken in his disdain for superheroes (perhaps most especially WWII-based heroes such as Captain America, which he feels detract from the true heroism exhibited by the ordinary grunts who actually fought the war), but he will deign to write the occasional non-superpowered (or low superpowered, such as his character Tommy Monaghan, Hitman, who was a low-level telepath and had x-ray vision that he used to aid him in his relatively modest -- and wholly illegal -- occupation) character, as long as he can peel him off from said character's usual superhero continuity.

His take on the former Spider-Man frienemy, The Punisher, for Marvel's The Punisher series (part of Marvel's adult line of MAX titles), was a joy to behold: it started out like Mack Bolan on crank and just amped up from there. It's a testament to Ennis's skill that the series wasn't merely mindless mayhem; Ennis managed to introduce a few poignant, downbeat moments, as well as several moments of pitch-black humor, if you're of a certain, doubtlessly sick, mindset.

Following is a prime example of the latter: a splash page (pg. 4) fr The Punisher MAX, Vol. 1, #53 (Feb. 2008), written by Garth Ennis, art by Goran Parlov (who also did stellar work on Fury MAX: My War Gone By), colours by Lee Loughridge; this is part 4 of 5 of "Long Cold Dark," which is collected in Punisher MAX Vol. 9: Long Cold Dark.

Punisher MAX v 1 no 53 p 4 -- Goran Parlov art(1)

The poor bound bastard getting tortured is Barracuda, but really, he kinda deserved it. He kidnapped the Punisher's (just introduced) toddler daughter and strapped a claymore mine to the side of her car seat.

The biggest jarring note for me in "Long Cold Dark"? Barracuda singing along in his car to Nick Cave's version of "Stagger Lee." Yes, yes, a great song with hilariously over-the-top lyrics ("I'd crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole" -- REALLY?!), but that sequence pulled me out of the story, even more than Barracuda's absurd, Paul Morrissey-esque / Monty Python-esque near indestructibility.

Nick Fury has a run-in with Barracuda in #10-12 of Fury MAX: My War Gone By; Barracuda also starred in his own 5-issue mini-series, Punisher Presents: Barracuda, which I've yet to read. Hello, inter-library lending service..?

"A race of degenerates": a review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

SMILE when you say that!
From Saturday, 5 April through Sunday, 4 May, I read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (NY: Vintage Books [a division of Random House, Inc.], 1985; 2010; ed.: Kindle edition; 349 pps.).

cover to Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy -- 25th anniversary ed

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West is a dour revisionist western, written in semi-biblical prose, based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang of scalphunters who terrorized Texas, Mexico, and Arizona in 1849 and 1850. Owing to McCarthy's complete and utter indifference to character development, characterization, plot, grammatical conventions (there's nary a quotation mark to be seen here, and far fewer apostrophes than standard English would otherwise require), and English's rules concerning the capitalization of proper nouns ("Mexican" is capitalized, but "Spanish" and "Indian" are not; etc.); his ostentatiously obscure vocabulary, heavy with geological terms; his reluctance to identify who is speaking; his belaboring of motifs of darkness and his continual likening of men to apes; all of these characteristics combine to make Blood Meridian a dreary, wearying slog, notwithstanding McCarthy's flair for describing violence and occasional, vaguely-stirring flights of prose. (This would be true even if you, Dear Reader, did not have the problems with your Kindle while reading it that Your Correspondent did.)

The main character, such as he is, is never identified by any other name than "The Kid"; he is 14 years old when the story opens, and perhaps 15 when he joins the Glanton Gang on their expedition into Mexico to collect Apache scalps for the bounties offered by the local governments, after the group he was previously in, led by a Captain White (who had a half-assed plot to further undermine the Mexican government and incorporate as much of the country into the U.S. as possible; Chapter III: "Sought out to join an army -- Interview with Captain White -- His views -- The camp -- Trades his mule -- A cantina in the Laredtio -- A Mennonite -- Companion killed"), is largely wiped out by a group of bizarrely-attired Comanche. However, Glanton and his not-so-merry band of rogues are not exactly scrupulous about murdering and/or scalping only actively hostile Apaches; in order to maximize their fiduciary gain, they also murder and scalp friendly Indians, Mexicans, and even the occasional American they encounter. Eventually their bloodthirsty double-dealing, as well as their drunken destruction of the little towns they repair to for R&R in between their bouts of officially sanctioned rapine, catches up with them, and the Mexican authorities attempt to capture or kill them.

Egging on the mayhem is the odd, ultimately more-than-human figure of Judge Holden, who is described as being unusually large, both in height and in girth, exceptionally strong (at one point he fires a howitzer while holding it, much as the character Rambo fired an M60 in the movie version of First Blood while holding it; Rambo's action is the more believable one), extensively, even incredibly learned, and bald as an egg, down to lacking even eyelashes (he is also frequently nude). While there is a tenuous case to be made for Holden's historicity, it's reasonably clear -- as clear as McCarthy makes anything here, at any rate -- by the book's end that he is a supernatural entity (and, therefore, Blood Meridian may be considered to be an exceptionally grimy example of magic realism); it's telling that Holden, who is far and away the most intelligent figure in Blood Meridian, uses his intellect in the service of nihilism, urging the Glanton gang on to ever baser acts of depravity and violence. (I would argue that the character of Holden here represents man's basest proclivities -- his nihilistic tendencies -- far more than he serves as an apologist for war, as some critics have held.) While McCarthy gives Holden a bravura -- and mordantly funny -- introduction in the first chapter, Holden soon wore out his welcome with this reader when it became evident just what his game is.

This points to my main frustration with Blood Meridian: it starts out promisingly enough (indeed, I bought it based on reading the first chapter on Amazon's site); but McCarthy soon eschews anything like a more conventional narrative, character development, showing glimpses of even one character's interior life, or even exploring just how common White's imperialist attitudes towards Mexico were (or, more interestingly to my mind, exploring just how much tacit approval the U.S. government gave to White and groups like his) in favor of a jeremiad against the entire furshlugginer human race. I consider myself a misanthrope who is deeply skeptical of humanity's pretensions of goodness in general; but McCarthy's screed here is so bilious and blinkered that I found myself disengaged from the skeletal story even more than he probably intended his readers to be. Anyone hoping for a more literary treatment of, say, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, had best move along; I doubt that "Bloody Sam" himself would've touched Blood Meridian with a barge pole. If any character here, even "The Kid," can be said to have an actual personality or interior life, it has as much to do with the reader's wishful thinking as it does with McCarthy's writing. Ultimately, Blood Meridian comes off as a highfalutin version of The Turner Diaries, with the dubious distinction of McCarthy's apparently not thinking that anybody is worth the powder to blow him to hell, as opposed to Turner's author's fervent belief in white supremacy. (McCarthy makes some effort to show that it's not only the white characters who are murderously misanthropic, as when he has White, in his recruitment spiel to The Kid, tell him that the Apaches are so contemptuous of Mexicans, they "won't even shoot them...They kill them with rocks" [Chapter III; location 529 of 5067 in the Kindle edition].)

To paraphrase Lennon-McCartney, "If you want to write for people with minds that hate / Don't be surprised if you're shown the gate."

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

The all-devouring darkness.

Hercules thinkin' oodles o' swears
I've been picking my way through Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a much-ballyhooed (though after the fact) western or revisionist western based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang of scalphunters in Mexico (and in what would later become Arizona). Unfortunately, I've been picking through it on my Kindle Fire.

I say "unfortunately" because a distressing flaw with my Kindle, first evinced during my reading of the second book of David Wingrove's revised Chung Kuo series, Daylight on Iron Mountain, has been making itself manifest, to wit: my notes and highlights of Blood Meridian disappear. While I'm apparently able to switch from Blood Meridian to the Kindle's browser and then back to the book once, if I do it a second time, the notes and highlights that I made in my last reading session vanish. I've had to redo my notes and highlights roughly half a dozen times.

This phenomenon is not exactly improving my opinion of Blood Meridian. As it is....

I'm not immune to the charms (such as they are) of postmodernism or textual experimentation. (If I were, I'd have to forswear my intention to someday read Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.) However, McCarthy's arbitrary adherence to the rules of English punctuation, specifically of the capitalization of proper nouns, is driving me absolutely doolalley. Within a sentence, or even within the same sentence, one finds "indian," with a lower-case "i," and "Mexican," with an upper-case "m." Other times, one sees "mexican," with a lower-case "m," or "apache," with a lower-case "a" (and this does not refer to Caucasian street urchins in London or Paris, as one might find in stories written or set in the 19th century). If McCarthy had a rationale for his use of capitalization, I'm afraid I'm too dim to discern it.

McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian has some bravura flourishes, as one might expect from his reputation; however, said flourishes are beginning to pall, as they become ever more self-conscious, to say nothing of pretentious and ostentatious. (If I never read another passage alluding to the primordial darkness through which an ape-like man must make his way, I'll not be sorry; unfortunately, I'm only in the midst of Chapter XII, so I fear I've at least another couple hundred pages of such codswallop to bear.)

McCarthy does have a facility for describing horrific violence; however, constant repetition diminishes the effect, and, with almost no characterization, it's demmed difficult to give a toss about the victims (or the perpetrators). And with characterization all but wholly absent, and with McCarthy's "more Leonard than Elmore Leonard" penchant for minimal identification of speakers (to say nothing of McCarthy's eschewing of quotation marks; at least Leonard didn't go that far), it's also demmed difficult to figure out who's talking at any given point, or, more importantly, to care.

Also not looking forward to encountering, in print (as opposed to, say, in the film adaptation of No Country For Old Men or in McCarthy's first produced screenplay, The Counselor), McCarthy's penchant for ending things in media res. But I suppose I'll soldier on, as long as my Kindle lets me.

Zeitgeist: the Bullshit.

PLEASE., Bitch
Finally watched Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) via Netflix; it had been recommended to me a few years ago by a co-worker from Eastern Europe who, while not normally beholden to conspiracy theories, has enough ethnic, national and religious hatreds (to wit: Roma -- whom he refuses to dignify by that name; he insists on calling them "gypsies" -- Hungarians, Russians, French, subcontinental Indians [who he says remind him of "gypsies"], Chinese, Japanese, Jews, blacks, Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and at least half of his own former countrymen) that he found Zeitgeist's arguments compelling.

Meh. I'll grant that the man behind this movie (and the subsequent installments in what has become a series), Peter Joseph, assembled a good-looking video on a minimal budget; however, anyone who's done any kind of reading in its central arguments -- "Christ-as-myth," 9/11 "truth," and / or the insidious illegality of the Federal Reserve and U.S. income tax -- isn't likely to be as impressed by what Zeitgeist lays out.

As regards "Christ-as-myth" and the parallels between Christianity and Horus worship among the ancient Egyptians, Zeitgeist doesn't hold a candle to, say, Barbara G. Walker's A Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, and appears to be an extremely dumbed-down summation of Kersey Graves's The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors, or Christianity Before Christ. (Zeitgeist was also way off-base in its comparisons of Horus to Jesus: it wasn't Horus who was resurrected, but his daddy, Osiris; also, it's disingenuous to say that Horus was a virgin birth, unless one stretches a point and says that his mother, Isis, conceiving Horus with either the severed penis of her husband, Osiris, or a gold model of same attached to his reassembled body, still allows her to retain her virginity. One wonders that Joseph didn't mention that the early Christians adopted Egyptian iconography of Isis suckling the infant Horus for their cult of Mariolatry.)

Some of the 9/11 stuff -- which Joseph seems to have largely culled from other 9/11 "truther" screeds, such as Loose Change (the second edition) -- was disconcerting and seemingly reality-based enough to give me pause (such as the number of people at the World Trade Center who heard a loud bang before the first plane hit; then again, there have been several cautionary notes sounded over the years regarding the unreliability of eyewitness testimony...); however, the main arguments, seemingly advanced by engineers, were that the World Trade Center towers shouldn't have been able to have been collapsed, particularly in "pancake fashion," by the crashing of two jumbo jet liners into them, echoed the arguments against a single truck bomb doing all that damage to Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on 19 April 1995. (One shouldn't be too overawed by someone's assertion of engineering expertise; keep in mind that a prominent Holocaust denier, associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University Arthur Butz, insists that the Holocaust couldn't have happened because he finds no evidence that Auschwitz was equipped with poison gas chambers, based on his engineering background.)

But the reedits that Joseph did to Zeitgeist didn't entirely efface the anti-Semitism inherent in much of his gold bug, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-income tax arguments. (Ask Wesley Snipes how much traction that not paying your income tax due to its perceived unconstitutionality will get you in federal court.) While I'm as much a fan of Major General Smedley Butler as anybody, I note that Joseph only cited him for his pearls of wisdom regarding financiers (chiefly from his 1935 book War is a Racket, reprinted in 2003 by Feral House), and was conspicuously silent on Butler's outing of the so-called Business Plot, the abortive planning in 1933 by several high-rollers to oust FDR in a coup and appoint Butler as an American Il Duce, wholly subservient to them, of course. This might've been done for the sake of retaining a relatively cohesive video; but it is a little peculiar, given how Joseph explicitly, through juxtaposition of audio, video and still photographs, likens the administration of George W. Bush ("Bush 43") to that of Adolf Hitler, and how he pointed out two examples of American financial entities' support of the Nazi regime.

Still, I think that dubbing Zeitgeist as agitprop is more than fair; it pretty much held my interest throughout, with a few dull spots, but I've no real interest to watch the rest of the series.

It's a Han's world: a review of the 1st two books in Wingrove's revised Chung Kuo series.

a jaded mandarin
From Saturday, 8 March through Friday, 14 March, I read David Wingrove's Son of Heaven (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011 [ebook / Kindle edition published 1 Sept. 2012]; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-169-3; 376 pps.); from Friday, 14 March through Monday, 31 March, I read David Wingrove's Daylight on Iron Mountain (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-432-8; 360 pps.).

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Son of Heaven by David Wingrove

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Daylight on Iron Mountain by David Wingrove

I was a huge fan of David Wingrove's original Chung Kuo series, an eight-book (an "octology"? an "octet"?) sequence whose individual novels were all, save for the last, well over 500 pages long, about China's rule over the entire world, after their conquest of same: their annihilation of all blacks (whether African, Afro-European, Afro-American, or Australian Aborigine), all Japanese, all Indians, all Pakistanis, all Bangladeshis, and all Semitic peoples (at last! peace in the Middle East!), and their subsequent, massive rewriting of history to show that China ruled the Earth from the time when, in reality, outposts of the Han Empire and the Roman Empire made tentative contact around 200 A.D. (All of this has already happened when the series opens, in the 22nd century C.E.) Six continents are covered by seven gigantic, miles-high Cities, made of a super-strong, super-light polymer compound called "ice"; Asia is covered by two Cities, while North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia each have one City encompassing them. The combined population of these Cities is roughly 40 billion people. The Cities aren't built flush to the ground; the areas beneath the Cities, forever occluded, containing the wrack and ruin of the officially non-existent civilizations that the Han didn't want to salvage and rebrand, are called Clay, and those people unfortunate enough to be left to eke out a brutish and scant existence in the Clay have reverted to troglodytic conditions and apish mien, with their average life expectancies being thirty-five years. The Han are dominant, but a faction of wealthy Caucasians (or Hung Mao in Mandarin -- "redheads," although the sense is usually more accurately translated as “redheaded barbarians”) gradually rises that attempts to wrest control from them; a genius rescued from the Clay in what used to be Cornwall named Kim Ward, discovers an ultra-secret compilation of documents showing Earth's true history, called the Aristotle File, and thinks long and hard about disseminating this to a wider audience, for fear of pushing the world into chaos even faster than it's already hurtling.

The thing that made Chung Kuo so compelling, so much more than a wheels-within-wheels, big budget dystopian epic, was how Wingrove peopled it with characters who actually, honestly developed, as in believably changed, over the course of the series; how he was unafraid to kill off likable characters who were major players; how he turned readers' expectations on their heads, so that the characters you would normally expect to root for -- the people fighting to promulgate the true history of the Earth and to overthrow Han control -- turn out to be the major shits of Chung Kuo, and that the T'ang, the emperors or Seven (each T'ang controls a City) who rule Chung Kuo, or the "Middle Kingdom" (Chinese rulers traditionally considered China itself to be the Middle Kingdom, as it lay, in their minds at least, between Heaven and Earth; in Wingrove's series, all of Earth is the Middle Kingdom since all of Earth is ruled by the Han, or Chinese), are actually not (or at least, not all of them) the rotters, bounders and maniacal dictators that you would suppose.

Unfortunately, Wingrove's publisher lost faith in the series due to declining sales figures, and told him that, instead of the previously agreed-upon nine books (I'd read that he was supposed to be allowed ten books), he had to finish the series in eight, or forever hold his peace; in any case, he wasn't paid so much as a shilling for the eighth book, The Marriage of the Living Dark, which was apparently never published in the U.S. (The edition that I finally purchased, through in the late 1990s, was published in Canada.) As a consequence, the eighth book satisfied nobody, perhaps least of all Wingrove himself, given that he had to cram the main events of two books into one volume of under 400 pages in trade paperback, IIRC. Though I was disappointed with The Marriage of the Living Dark, I still thought that it contained passages of superb writing that any self-respecting author would've been proud to claim as his or her own. Certainly parts of it towered head and shoulders above most of what gets labeled science fiction.

Imagine my delight then when I learned, around 2010, that Wingrove was going to reissue the series and rewrite parts of it, expanding it, and bringing it to proper conclusion, instead of a hasty, half-assed leave-taking à la the Americans leaving Saigon in April 1975. And when I learned, a year or two later, that he would be expanding Chung Kuo to a whopping twenty books, I was gobsmacked, and a little apprehensive: as difficult as it would be for him to rewrite even the last two books in the series as published, and resist the temptation to endlessly revise "just this bit here and that bit there," how in the hell could the series possibly retain its interest, its narrative drive, its cohesion, if Wingrove opened it up that bloody much?

The answer, provisionally at least, after reading the first two, prequel novels in the revised series -- Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain (both published in the UK in 2011; while Wingrove's Wikipedia entry states that the eighth book, The White Mountain, was published in March of this year, it is not available through Amazon's U.S. site) -- is, "Not entirely."

Some spoilers, but I keep them to a minimum.Collapse )

Have you heard about this lonesome loser? -- a review of Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates.

a pervert fr beyond space & time!
From Monday, 31 March through Saturday, 5 April, I read Joyce Carol Oates's novel Zombie (NY: HarperCollins; 2009 [originally published in 1995 by Dutton]; e-book edition [Kindle edition]; 196 pps.; ISBN: 978-0-061-960116) on my Kindle.
cover to Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is the first person journal narrative, complete with crude Magic Marker drawings, of a registered sex offender turned serial killer named Quentin P____ (one of whose aliases is Todd Cuttler), who prowls the lower peninsula of Michigan (primarily the fictional university town of Mount Vernon, near Lake Michigan, although sometimes he ventures as far afield as Lansing, Detroit, and Ann Arbor) in search of "love" -- really, sex slaves -- in the persons of various, largely non-white, teenaged boys and young men; Quentin P___'s journal documents, in more or less linear fashion, his progression from an inept "kiddie fiddler" to an impulsive, obsessive serial killer in his late thirties as he attempts to create a "ZOMBIE": a lobotomized sex slave (to this end, he visits the dentist at his mother's urging, and steals one of the dental picks there since he sees it as an ideal tool to perform a transorbital lobotomy on his victims) who will obey his every command:

"A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying 'Yes, Master' & 'No, Master.' He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, 'I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master.

"& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.


"A ZOMBIE would pass no judgment. A ZOMBIE would say, 'God bless you, Master.' He would say, 'You are good, Master. You are kind & merciful.' He would say, 'Fuck me in the ass, Master, until I bleed blue guts.' He would beg for his food & he would beg for oxygen to breathe. He would beg to use the toilet not to soil his clothes. He would be respectful at all times. He would never laugh or smirk or wrinkle his nose in disgust. He would lick with his tongue as bidden. He would suck with his mouth as bidden. He would spread the cheeks of his ass as bidden. He would cuddle like a teddy bear as bidden. He would rest his head on my shoulder like a baby. Or I would rest my head on his shoulder like a baby. We would eat pizza slices from each other's fingers. We would lie beneath the covers in my bed in the CARETAKER's room listening to the March wind & the bells of the Music College tower chiming & WE WOULD COUNT THE CHIMES UNTIL WE FELL ASLEEP AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT."

-- Chapter 15

The model for Quentin P___ is Jeffrey Dahmer; while Zombie is a short novel and a quick read, it's not without intellectual interest, particularly in Quentin's references to current theories in physics (such as dark matter), and in passages that recall the work of the so-called godfather of the Beats, William S. Burroughs:

"BIG GUY lived maybe fifteen hours I think dying as I was fucking him in the ass (not in the tub, in my bed) to discipline him as a ZOMBIE & I only comprehended he was dead when during the night waking needing to take a piss I felt how cold he was, arms & legs where I'd slung them over me & his head on my shoulder to cuddle but BIG GUY was stiffening in rigor mortis so I panicked thinking I would be locked in his embrace!"

-- Chapter 19

Come to that, the whole of Zombie is more than a little reminiscent of a distillation of much of Burroughs's work, given its obsessive, drug-and-alcohol-addled, deeply misogynistic protagonist with a narrow band of autodidactic learning, a tenuous grasp of reality, a bottomless well of rage alternating with inanition, and a perverted sex drive wholly wedded to a taste for violence and domination; add some psychic, giant, transdimensional centipedes, gunslinging boy-whores from the Old West or New York City's Lower East Side c. 1920, orgone projectors, dubious and absurd covert organizations, and an incompetent, junkie surgeon (paging Doc Benway...), and you'd have a full-blown Burroughs pastiche.

Zombie does have a fair share of acidulous, mordant humor, but it is by definition not to everyone's taste. Gore crows seeking another Michael Slade or Dexter or Hannibal Lecter are likely to be disappointed in Zombie, finding it too highfalutin and not nearly bloody enough (and, possibly, too "gay"); readers looking for more obvious literary merit are also likely feel let down by Zombie, finding it too lowbrow and too pulpy for serious consideration.

While I respect Ms. Oates's career and mostly admire her as a critic (although I think she is misguided in her evaluation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce), from what little I've read of her fiction thus far, I find that I admire her more than like her; her fiction seems almost wholly intellectually-driven, like Graham Greene's (he of the machine-tooled prose): it lacks that ineffable spark of life that characterizes my favorite works. In the end, Ms. Oates's fictional creations don't quite convince; they are cleverly crafted constructs, puzzled out at an emotional distance that prevents them from inspiring in their readers that frisson of truly great works.

Keeping these caveats in mind, Zombie is by no means a waste of time; I suspect that it is not truly representative of Ms. Oates's fiction, but it is an interesting oddity for all of that.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Rising of the gamer geek?!

Checked out the first three hardbound collections of Marvel NOW!'s Avengers (technically, Avengers Vol. 5) from the library; the first eleven issues were written by Jonathan Hickman, but #12-17 were co-written by Nick Spencer.

While I was pleasantly surprised by Hickman's run on Fantastic Four and its spin-off FF (which technically stands for "Future Foundation" instead of merely "Fantastic Four"), his run on the latest reboot of Avengers actually makes me miss Brian Michael Bendis's run -- and I'm pretty ambivalent about Bendis's work as a whole. (However, I did enjoy his work on Alias and The Pulse, which featured his character Jessica Jones, currently the wife of Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man; but it's best not to inquire after Jessica Jones's first two, less than daunting superhero names...) At least Bendis can write snark and sarcasm better than Hickman, and Bendis has a much better handle on Spider-Man's personality than Hickman does, as evinced by Spidey's appearances here.

While I loved Shang-Chi in Master of Kung Fu (he was originally created as the son of Fu Manchu, but his origins have been obscured since Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer character), I've been less than happy over his resurrection (first as a member of the X-Men's seemingly endless circle of acquaintances and allies); he's a full-time Avenger, not a Secret Avenger, here, which obviates the conclusion of MoKF, where he finally renounced covert (and overt...) action for the "games of deceit and death" that he saw them to be.

Fine, whatever; maybe Iron Fist, Marvel's other premiere martial artist hero, was busy.

What left me gobsmacked, however, was how Adam Kubert, in Avengers Vol. 5, #6 (April 2013), drew Shang-Chi to look like Gabe of Penny Arcade. An absurdly ripped and butch Gabe, but Gabe nonetheless.

First, page 3 of Vol. 5, No. 6; pay particularly close attention to the last two panels, which feature an atypically grinning Shang-Chi offering a baked treat to the latest incarnation of Captain Universe (originally a supporting character for another licensed comic book that Marvel published in the 1970s and 1980s, The Micronauts):
Marvel Now Avengers no 6 pg 3 by Adam Kubert

Next, check out page 7 of Avengers Vol. 5, No. 6, especially the first and third panels:
Marvel Now Avengers no 6 pg 7 by Adam Kubert

For comparison, check out this drawing of Gabe from Penny Arcade's Wikia entry for him:
headshot of Gabe fr Penny Arcade on PA's wikia -- retrieved Sun 30 Mar 2014

Here's a strip that Mike Krahulik ("Gabe") and Jerry Holkins ("Tycho") posted on on 10-24-05:
Gabe & Tycho re Gabe's blog in Penny Arcade -- retrieved Sun 30 Mar 2014

In case you've forgotten what Shang-Chi originally looked like, here is the cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol. 1, #19 (August 1974), whose cover is drawn by Gil Kane (pencils) and Tom Palmer (inks); the opponent he's fighting is none other than the mindless muck monster Man-Thing, whose heyday was in the early 1970s (the interior features an uncredited guest appearance by a descendant of Caine, the character that David Carradine played in the 1970s TV show Kung Fu):
cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol 1 no 19

Below is a close-up of Shang by Mike Zeck, who would go on to celebrated stints on Captain America and The Punisher; the cover is for Master of Kung Fu Vol. 1, #86 (March 1980):
cover to Master of Kung Fu Vol 1 no 86 by Mike Zeck

I dunno; comic book artists are notorious for putting swipes and Easter eggs in their pages, and usually that adds to the charm of reading comic books; but depicting Shang-Chi, the "Master of Kung Fu," as the overly excitable, borderline psychopathic Gabe from Penny Arcade is a bridge too far for me.

Ructions on the range: a review of Bar-20 by Clarence E. Mulford.

From Wednesday, 5 February 2014 to Friday, 21 March 2014, I read Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 (NY: Forge [a Tom Doherty Associates book], 1992; 2006; ISBN: 978-0-765-35737-3; 284 pps.; includes an introduction by Jackson Cain and a 3-chapter [33 pps.] excerpt from the 4th novel in the series, Hopalong Cassidy [Bar-20 is only 246 pps. long]), which is the very first Hopalong Cassidy novel.

cover to Bar-20 by Clarence E Mulford

Hopalong Cassidy is one of the most famous -- if not the most famous -- Western heroes in the world. Created by Clarence E. Mulford, the first Hopalong Cassidy novel, Bar-20 (whose full title is Bar-20: Being a Record of Certain Happenings that Occurred in the Otherwise Peaceful Lives of one Hopalong Cassidy and His Companions on the Range), appeared in either 1906 or 1907 (although the Library of Congress lists two 1907 editions, one of them, from The Outing Publishing Company, is currently missing), appears to collect a group of stories first published in 1904, but the character would go on to greater fame in a series of 66 movies, as well as his own radio and television programmes.

There is precious little in the way of character development in Bar-20: the characters associated with Hopalong are scarcely distinguishable from one another (indeed, Hopalong's -- he's never called "Hoppy" here, unlike in his other media appearances -- closest friend, Red Connors, is distinguishable from Hopalong primarily by his preferred weapon: a rifle, as opposed to Hopalong's partiality for the six-shooter; both men are redheads), although one might be better at roping steers and another might be better at "broncho" busting, while the foreman of the Bar-20 ranch, Buck Peters, is slightly less impulsive than the brawling, yowling, over-grown schoolboys he rides herd on much as they ride herd on the ranch's cattle due to his age; in terms of personality, there's not a hair's difference between most of them (although the lugubrious Billy stands out as the Eeyore of the group), and thus it's difficult to form a preference for one over the others. Here Hopalong is a 23-year-old who acts more or less how one would expect an actual twenty-something male in the late 1800s to act in his milieu, to wit: he curses (these are largely elided, save for the occasional "damn" or "hell;" more common are semi-humorous, sometimes esoteric, euphemisms, such as, in Chapter XI ["Holding the Claim"], Hopalong calls a calf a "'trellis-built rack of bones'" [p. 112] and his friend Red a "'pie-eating doodlebug'" [p. 113]), smokes, drinks, uses his ferocious skill with firearms to kill when necessary (and sometimes, perhaps, when it's not strictly necessary), and willingly makes the acquaintance of ladies of easy virtue; this is in marked contrast to his other media appearances. Thanks to William Boyd, a white-haired actor whose previous claim to fame was having proposed marriage to his co-star Elinor Fair while filming the 1926 movie The Volga Boatman (she accepted, although they divorced three years later), Hopalong became "'a veritable Galahad of the range, a soft spoken paragon who did not smoke, drink or kiss girls, who tried to capture the rustlers instead of shooting them, and who always let the villain draw first if gunplay was inevitable,'" according to Time magazine. Boyd became so identified with Hopalong Cassidy that he frequently wore his all-black cowboy outfit (Mulford makes no mention of Hopalong being clad entirely in black) in public; he was shrewd enough to buy the rights to the films and novels, and he licensed the character and his image to numerous child-oriented products, while NBC edited the films down to episodic length, making Hopalong Cassidy the first television western series. Indeed, Mulford himself revised his earlier work so that Hopalong and his friends were more consistent with their onscreen portrayals; Hopalong here has no very great regard for the finer points of the law, as when he dismisses Buck and Frenchy's cautionary tale of the sheriff of Topeka requiring all firearms to be turned in to the bartenders before their owners can be served with a rousing, "'To blazes with th' law!'" (Chapter IX: "The Advent of McAllister"; pps. 98-99).

There appear to be four or five stories comprising Bar-20; beyond dividing the stories equally into named chapters, with no other demarcations (such as "Part I," "Book I," or the name of the original stories) to indicate where one story ends and the next one begins, there is no other attempt to convert them into a seamless novel. The first five chapters are the most awkwardly written, with the stiff, formal, Victorian-style prose of the omniscient narrator sitting uneasily side-by-side with the more modern, though stylized, colloquialisms of the dialogue (the characters cannot usually be distinguished by their speech patterns); Mulford doesn't seem to find his voice until the sixth chapter ("Trials of the Convalescent"). (Another oddity: the hats worn by the cowboys are called sombreros, which was apparently what cowboys called any broad-brimmed hat instead of the specific headgear associated with the vaqueros and banditos of Mexico.) After roughly the halfway mark, the writing markedly improves, to the point of implying far darker deeds than Boyd or the Hays Office would ever allow: the conclusion of Bar-20's strongest episode, an all-out range war against a gang of exceptionally crafty rustlers who have successfully preyed upon half a dozen different ranches, strongly implies that one of the supporting characters, Frenchy, tortured and/or mutilated one of the chief rustlers before administering the customary "frontier justice" meted out to rustlers (i.e., hanging; see Chapter XXII: "The Showdown"; p. 213). This tantalizing hint of what Bar-20 could've been -- something more interesting than the gory and obvious Peckinpahesque revisionist western that most obviously suggests itself -- was enough to make this reader grind his teeth in frustration.

The violence in Bar-20 in the early chapters is cartoonish, reminiscent of a parody of the 1980s TV show The A-Team: characters who are fatally shot die immediately and bloodlessly, while characters who are wounded, even to the point of having been shot in a limb, are able to continue fighting without impediment until the fight is over. One only has to have read a couple of H. Rider Haggard's books published twenty years prior to Bar-20 to realize that Mulford didn't have to write his action scenes this way. While the violence never quite rises to the zest and pungency of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard at their best, it does improve over its earliest appearances.

The provenance of Hopalong's byname is explained Chapter VII ("The Open Door"), where it is revealed that Hopalong "had received the wound that crippled him [really, left him with a slight limp] in saving the sheriff [of Albuquerque, Harris] from assassination" (p. 61); "..from this episode on the burning desert grew a friendship that was as strong as their own natures" (ibid). Mulford ascribes some of the characteristics to Harris that Boyd would claim for Hopalong -- "No profane word had ever been known to leave his lips, and he was the possessor of a widespread reputation for generosity" (p. 62) -- but, two pages after he's introduced, he's killed off, obviating the potential for the portrayal of an odd-couple friendship between Hopalong and Harris.

The appetite for new Hopalong adventures was such that a young pulp author named Louis L'Amour was commissioned to write four of them, under the house name "Tex Burns," by Doubleday in 1950; these were originally published in bowdlerized form in keeping with the portrayal of Hopalong in film, comic books, radio and television, but were posthumously republished with L'Amour's original "adult" writing restored.

If one has a keen interest in the development of the western serial hero, or if one is interested in a slightly more nuanced version of the goody-two-shoes character portrayed by William Boyd, then Bar-20 is worth a read; for the mildly curious reader, such as myself, it's less certain that further perusal of Mulford's work will offer greater rewards than a deeper dive into, say, the work of Rider Haggard, Howard, Talbot Mundy, or Harold Lamb.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


The supreme space lord who will now DEST
The Feckless Wonder

Latest Month

June 2014



RSS Atom
Powered by
Designed by Tiffany Chow