Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: Luminous Airplanes

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge is a book that tries to answer the question of how to adapt the traditional paper and pasteboard book to the digital age. How do you take what is essentially a static collection of words and turn it into something open ended and interactive? How do you give it a new digital dimension? Mr. La Farge's answer is to turn his novel about a content manager returning to his boyhood home in the Catskills into an experiment in hypertexting or, as he prefers to call it, "immersive" text. Read More

Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (1943)

Behind every great man there is a woman–except that it often turns out that the woman is a witch.  At least, that's the premise of Fritz Leiber's 1943 supernatural thriller, Conjure Wife.  

Professor Norman Saylor has a happy life.  He has a secure position at the university where he teaches sociology, he's the favoured candidate as the new department head, he's popular with the students and he has a loving wife Tansy.  One day, in a fit of idle revelry,  he rummages through a drawer where Tansy keeps things and discovers that his rational, educated spouse has been collecting graveyard dirt and making magical charms, which she's been hiding all over the house.  Confronting Tansy, she tells him that she's been practising witchcraft for some time in order to protect him against those who meant him harm.  Wanting to prove to Tansy that this is all superstition, Norman makes her destroy all of her charms in the fireplace.  As the last charm burns, Tansy feels as if a great burden has been lifted from her, but Norman inexplicably experiences a chill.  Then the phone rings and Norman is confronted by an ex-student accusing him leading a conspiracy against him.  Within hours, Norman is facing charges of sexual misconduct, he has a gun pulled on him, and his life in general seems to be going to pot.   Worse, Norman senses that something is stalking him.  Is this coincidence and imagination or are there witches on the campus really working against him and sensing his vulnerability now that Tansy's protections have been withdrawn.

Today, Conjure Wife would be classified as "urban fantasy", but that is distinctly unfair and restrictive because it was Leiber who invented the genre before it even existed.  More to the point, he did it far better than his imitators with their katana-wielding babes in leather trousers have even come close to pulling off.  Though flawed by a few clumsy exposition scenes, Leiber's novel is a truly hair raising story.  Norman's mixture of paranoia and scepticism that grows more pronounced as the menace grows closer has rarely been equalled and  the way in which Leiber poises science (of, at least symbolic logic) against witchcraft remains fresh even to this day. But what makes it truly work is the characters.  There is a real logic to the plot that derives from them.  Norman has his entire world view at stake and Tansy is willing to literally risk her soul to protect him.  Even the villains of the piece are driven by their individual motives and suffer because of them.

As much a psychological thriller as a horror story, conjure wife shows what the genre can do if given half the chance.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Punctuation jokes

A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves. 
It's a specialised branch of humour, but it has it's moments.  More here.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1959)

It's the day after tomorrow and a nuclear war has broken out.  A planeload of English schoolboys being sent to safety is shot down and crashes on a deserted tropical island. No adults survive and the wreck of the plane is washed out to sea, leaving the surviving boys, none older than twelve, with nothing to survive with except two small knives and the clothes they're standing in.  However, the weather is warm and there's fruit to eat and, having elected the boy Ralph as their leader, the boys settle down to a life of tending the signal fire and hours of play like characters out of Coral Island.

Unfortunately, things don't work out that way.  Under the dire influence of the power-hungry Jack, a boy obsessed with hunting and bloodshed, the group's minimal cohesion begins to unravel.  As the weeks drag on, the boys sink further and further into chaos as Ralph and his myopic friend Piggy try desperately to keep the hope of rescue alive and the final plunge in savagery at bay.

It's not easy reviewing a book that most people have already read in school and has praise heaped on it for over half a century.  It also doesn't help that I didn't like it the first time I read it when I was not much older than the main characters or that re-reading it has only altered my opinion slightly.  I suppose it's because the boys in the novel always struck me as being incompetent and that, by extension, this was Golding's opinion of civilised man.  Selling the premise of a book is always vital and it was hard for me to accept that these boys, who were my age, knew less about woodcraft than I'd ever forgotten–and I was no Daniel Boone.  They also seemed painfully ill-disciplined and I often wondered how different the tale would have been if the plane had been carrying boy scouts.

Mind you, I'm sure that Golding was also aware of this, but his decisions clearly show that he was stacking the deck by rigging his islanders for failure.  Ralph, for all his good intentions and nascent leadership, is utterly ineffectual with no concept of human nature, Piggy is as repelling as he is level headed and intelligent, and Jack and his henchman Roger are both obviously insane from chapter one.  So is the introspective and insightful Simon, come to that, who is best described as a high-functioning schizophrenic.

Golding is also extremely proud of his symbolism, but he is never clear about what the blazes the symbols are supposed to mean; leaving the point as a rebus puzzle for the reader.  Symbolism has its place as does allegory, but you still have to get to the point.  I can hardly believe that it's that when thing go bad civilisation can go to smash.. That's far too facile.  G K Chesterton made the much stronger point that what's really interesting is the balancing act of order and how it's able to reassert itself against all odds as if... But that's getting into theology.

I have read that one parallel that Golding was trying to draw was between the final, murderous hunt and the mission of the rescuing Royal Navy warship.  If this is the case, then I find his point insulting.  Jack is an instrument of chaos and tyranny bent on destruction.  The warship is an instrument of order intended to enforce the peace and protect civilisation.  They are not parallels, but diametric opposites.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review: Toyman

Toyman by E C Tubb (1969)

Earl Dumarest has landed on another bad planet.  He's come to Toy to consult the supercomputer known as the Library about the location of Earth only to end up on the losing side in a gladiatorial game where the member of the losing team are all put to death and then, illegally, he escapes the arena.  Now a fugitive from the authorities, Dumarest must find a way to complete his mission and stay alive.  Meanwhile, Stockholder Leon and his fellow conspirators try to work out their next step in their plan to overthrow the brutal dictator of Toy, the Toymaster. And, of course, a member of the Cyclan is waiting patiently.

Toyman is the third in the Dumarest series and it takes a bit of a rest from developing the formula.  Dumarest is more brutal than we've seen him in the previous two outings, but the Cyclan here are more generic villains rather than the archenemies that they will soon become.  The novel is a straightforward adventure with two parallel storlines:  Dumarest's flight to avoid capture for daring to survive the arena and of Leon and his intrigues against the Toymaster.  Eventually, these two lines intersect in a rather neat blending that allows Dumarest to save the day without things seeming too contrived.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: Sinister Barrier

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939)

Hunting for books is an adventure.  Even in a digital age, running down a volume that you know by name or reputations, but have never laid hands on can be as exhilarating as stalking a buck and the kill as satisfying.  And you don't have to lug the carcass back to the lodge through two miles of undergrowth.  Unfortunately, sometimes finding that book proves more fun than actually turning the pages.

Such is the case with Sinister Barrier.  Like a lot of science fiction, it is famous for its premise to the point where its appalling execution is entirely overlooked.

First published in the short-lived strange fiction magazine Unknown, Sinister Barrier is the first sample of "Fortean" science fiction.  Charles Fort, a newspaper reporter and frustrated naturalist, was an obsessive collector of press clippings involving all manner of weird happenings all over the world.  Starting in 1919, he gathered these stories into four books that were part reporting, part speculation and mainly rambling stream of conciousness where Fort dabbled with and then rejected and then re-dabbled with all manner of bizarre ideas about what is "really" going on.   His books had a great influence on later science fiction writers, but it was Eric Frank Russell who first picked up on using Fort as a springboard.

Sinister Barrier starts out as it intends (or doesn't intend, but does so anyway) to continue by on the first page claiming to be fiction, but true.  Then there's a long disquisition on Fort that ends with a ludicrous "true story" opening that is left hanging in the air.  After this, the story proper starts with the mysterious deaths of scientists and police detective Bill Graham hot on the trail.  In a string of harrowing chases, Graham discovers that man is not alone on the Earth.  In fact, he is someone else's property and that anyone who discovers this truth is immediately killed.  Except for Graham, who has ESP or the aliens can't identify him or he's just lucky or whatever suits the plot at the moment.

That is the major failing of Sinister Barrier.  It's a haphazard novel that doesn't know what it wants to be.  It's supposedly wrapped up as a detective thriller, but it keeps shifting gears from scene to scene for no readily apparent reason.   Take our hero, for example.  One minute he's a standard issue flatfoot on the homicide beat, the next he's a topflight government agent loyal to the code, then he's an insightful scientific investigator, a an angry rebel, a charismatic crusader or a wise-cracking lady's man.  He's also a raving schizophrenic.

At least he's better off than his love interest who is inserted for no reason and is merely a snitty attitude.  Worse, there are far too many minor characters who are utterly indistinguishable from one another and when they die (as most do) we feel absolutely nothing.  It's hard to care about a character who is nothing but a moustache.

It isn't only characters that suffer.  Events occur without any dramatic necessity to them and the climax of the story involves a race against time where the clock is ticking for reasons that are never revealed.  So far so dreadful, but having established that the world is only hours from doomsday, Russell has our hero, who is the world's only hope of salvation, drop everything and mount a rescue of a minor character.  Why?  I have no idea.  Is this important?  Evidently not because she dies and this has no consequences for anyone or anything.

In other words, this is a book about Fortean mysteries which poses it's own conundrum:  Why on Earth did it ever get reprinted after it's first magazine appearance?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Thou vain dread-bolted minnow!

For those of you struggling with Shakespeare pastiches.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

There are a handful of fictional characters who have become so fixed in the public mind that they transcend into folklore and then there are the select who fall into a quasi reality where people believe that they actually exist.  One is Sherlock Holmes, who to this day receives letters addressed to 221B Baker Street.  Another is Tarzan of the Apes, though if anyone is posting him letters, they must be going to "General Deliver, The Jungle, Darkest Africa.

Tarzan of the Apes is Burroughs's first novel in the series and with its sequel Return of Tarzan form some of his strongest if not best work.  It tells the origin of Tarzan that is as well known as that of Superman.  Tarzan is in reality Lord Greystoke, an English nobleman whose parents were marooned by pirates on the jungle coast of west Africa in 1888.  There Tarzan was born and after his parents died, the infant lord was adopted by a great ape who raised the strange little white baby (Tarzan means "white skin" in the ape language) as her own.  At first dismissed and mocked by the apes for his weakness, slow growth and hideousness lack of hair,  However, his greater intelligence and human nobility begins to tell as he approaches manhood and by the time he is 18-years old he has become lord of the apes.

Unfortunately, Tarzan is also lonely.  As he discovers how limited his "fellow" apes are, he discovers that his only relief is from the books he find in his dead parent's cabin from which he learns to read and write, but not speak English.  As to human companionship, the only human beings he encounters are a tribe of fierce cannibals who move into the jungle after fleeing the cruelties of the Belgian Congo and murder his foster mother. Tarzan therefore only visits to take his revenge on by tormenting them with tricks and killing any warriors who try to invade his territory. It isn't until another group of castaways appears that includes American girl Jane Porter that Tarzan's world begins to open up in new and puzzling ways.

You know where this is going.  This is basically a grown-up version of Mowglis brothers with apes instead of wolves, a love interest thrown in, and an opportunity for Burroughs to explore what it means to be human, how nobility asserts itself, and the enervating effects of civilisation that takes man too far from nature.  Burroughs's writing style is easy going and engaging and he is definitely able to capture the growing maturity of the burgeoning apeman.  He's also able to demonstrate how Tarzan is an exceptional individual among apes, but among men as well.

This is also the sort of book that in the 1970s and beyond gets regularly condemned as "racist" because of the author's use of a black stock character in the form of Jane's maid, who looks and sound as if she'd stepped straight off the stage of a music hall.  It's crude characterisation, I'll grant, but in Burroughs's defence, I would state that if he offended blacks, then he offended college professors, English peers, pirates and mutineers just as badly, if not worse.

On a personal note, this was a book that I greatly enjoyed as a boy and I had sitting on my shelf for years after buying a copy because it was a beautifully bound reprint.  I've only reread it now because I just got a Kindle and I resolved that this would be the book and swap over from print to digital to commemorate the occasion.  Verdict:  digital will never replace paper, but at least I don't have to carry my nice books in the car when I'm out and about.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
This is the story of 'The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus’, better selling than ‘Fifty-Three More Things To Do In Zero Gravity’, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More Of God's Greatest Mistakes’, and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’. And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the outer eastern rim of the galaxy, the ‘Hitch Hiker's Guide’ has already supplanted the great ‘Encyclopaedia Galactica’ as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom. Because although it has many omissions, contains much that is apocryphal - or at least wildly inaccurate - it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important ways: first, it is slightly cheaper, and second, it has the words ‘Don’t Panic’ inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. To tell the story of the book, it's best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it. A human, from the planet Earth, was one of them, though as our story opens, he no more knows his destiny than a tea-leaf knows the history of the East India Company. His name is Arthur Dent, he is a six-foot tall ape descendant, and someone is trying to drive a bypass through his home.
Poor Arthur Dent.  He wakes up to discover that the local council destroying his house and by lunchtime a fleet of flying saucers destroys his planet. Luckily, by an amazing coincidence, one of his closest friends turns out not to be from Guildford after all, but is an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.   Unluckily, when they hitch a lift aboard one of the spaceships that blasted the planet to rubble, Arthur and his Betelgeusian friend Ford Prefect are captured and forced to listen to the captain's poetry before being thrown out an airlock.

The latter was much preferable.

And so, at the end of the world and the point of certain death for our heroes, our story begins.

It isn't often that one finds a book that starts with the end of the world and it's even rarer that the end should be treated so casually, but such is the case with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's also odd to be reviewing a book about an electronic book that already seems hopelessly dated in the age of the Kindle when ebooks are already out-selling the old paper variety. Still, after over thirty years, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy holds up well if for no other reason than that Douglas Adams discovered the truth about the future: Technology will not be frightening, it will be aggravating.  Based on the wildly successful Radio Four series by the same name, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that rara avis; a science fiction comedy that is actually funny.   Adams created a fascinating universe where order is merely an illusion and any sort of insanity is not only possible, but occurs regularly.  It's a place where fish translate languages, restaurants do a booming business at the end of the universe and the last thing that anyone should ever have is a sense of perspective.

The only real failing of Hitchhikers is that Adams hit the mark so beautifully in the original radio scripts that he never had anywhere to go with it.  True, the book adaptations and sequels made sense because most people never had a chance to hear the radio version and so did the jump to television in the '80s because it allowed Adams to reach a wider audience while the original radio cast were still young enough to reprise their roles, but after?  Comic books, coffee table books, a very bad feature film; none of what came after had a chance of going anywhere because everyone loved the originals so much that they wanted to hear the same jokes over and over again, yet complained that it all came across a bit stale.

There's an old saying about not being able to catch lightning in a bottle twice.  There should also be one about how only one brilliant version of a gag is like jumping off a cliff; for most people, once is enough.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review: Hell House

Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)

There are haunted houses and then there is Hell House.   Where your run of the mill Gothic two-story with a spectre moaning and clanking chains is a bit of a hair raiser, the Belasco mansion is a place of pure evil.  It doesn't just frighten visitors, it maims and kills those it doesn't drive insane.  Having already destroyed two teams of investigators, a third is hired by a dying billionaire who believes that at the bottom of the mystery is the answer to life after death.  Each of the team members will be paid $100,00 for a week's work, but the price they pay may be their very souls.

Those who have seen the screen version of the novel, The Legend of Hell House, will already be familiar with the book's plot, which the film follows closely.  This isn't surprising since Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay as well.  The story of how the three psychic investigators and one investigator's wife cope with trying to unravel the secret of a house with a hideous past of degradation and murder only to be followed by decades of lethal haunting translated well to the screen and Matheson took the opportunity to tighten the story a bit and to improve the climax, which is far more dramatic and satisfying on film.  Also, the low budget and technical limitations of the time was an unintentional boon because the work arounds used by the director (in one scene employing nothing more than a wind machine and piano wire) are far more effective than anything CGI could have created.

However, a film can only give the highlights of a novel–or should.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Harry Potter!  In the end, the film could only present simplified versions of the characters and even today the sex and violence of Matheson's story would have a hard time getting away with less than an X-certificate.  In the book, the characters are American, ten years older than their cinematic counterparts, and their motives and rivalries are much deeper and stronger.  Where in the film the physicist Dr Barrett is bent on proving his theories, the book's Barrett is a man who has spent thirty years struggling in near poverty trying to get his ideas taken seriously and looks fearfully at an old age spent in penury.  His wife, meanwhile, is so devoted to him that she becomes suicidal if they're separated for more than a couple of days and struggles with a strong case of sexual confusion.  The medium, Miss Tanner, is an ex-actress who is aware of her strong physical attractiveness and how it conflicts with her new-found spirituality.  She is also in stark denial about her abusive father and the tragedy of her brother's death.  Finally, our hero Benjamin Franklin Fisher isn't just terrified of the house after being the only survivor of a previous encounter, as he is in the film, he's also a man who has run away from himself and comes to the growing realisation that he must either confront the evil before him because that will mean confronting the failure of his life.

The final character in the story is the house itself–or rather, the evil within it.  What begins as a breeze on a staircase grows with each chapter in eeriness and violence until the reader is genuinely frightened when the characters decide re-enter the house after fleeing it.  It goes beyond scary to being A Really Bad Idea.

I would not recommend reading this book in any house larger than a bungalow and more than 20-years old.