Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April Reads Part Two

Blood of the Mantis by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Damned Utd by David Peace
and a bunch of comics

I'm so ridiculous: I complain about my collecting habits, so I go to the library and take out a bunch of comic books... then I think about buying them and start planning all my purchases. Lol. In my defense, I'm re-reading Jonathan Hickman's run on The Avengers, which comes after his spectacular run on Fantastic Four. I own both the omnibuses for that run, and it's something I go back to every so often. It stands to reason that I'll enjoy Hickman's Avengers for years to come....

With Blood of the Mantis, Tchaikovsky fixes some minor issues I've had with the two previous books (the lack of physical description, the breathless pace) but makes no major strides forward. I thought often of television while reading this, how this particular entry feels exactly like an episode in the middle of a season: all the plots have started, the characters have been scattered, obstacles subordinate to the major conflict are presented. Characterization has slowed down, considerably, as I don't think the narrative is ready to start major changes or kill anybody off until the emotional stakes have been properly established. It's not necessarily a negative attribute to me that this third book feels like an episode of a television series; I did, after all, elect to read a serialized narrative over 10 books; but one wonders if what the series would look like if there were only five books or even four. With other series, I've read, such as Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Cameron's Traitor Son Cycle, each entry changed the stakes as there were little room for breath. Even Erikson's mammoth Mazalan Book of the Fallen, the two volumes I've completed have felt... indispensable. Which isn't to say that Blood of the Mantis wasn't thoroughly enjoyable. In the micro, Tchaikovsky's handle on plot is fun. It's the macro that worries me. What does the fifth book look like? Or the sixth? Will they operate like comic books, resetting the status quo with the illusion of change?

I haven't read a David Peace novel since December 25, 2010. After reading a lovely piece in the Guardian, with David Mitchell interviewing Peace and vice versa, and another piece, a retrospective of the Red Riding Quartet, I thought it's high time I went back to Peace. Though I have little interest in sports, Peace's aesthetics and style were enough to engage me with his well-received The Damned Utd. It's not quite a novel and it's not quite a biography and it's not quite... like anything else. The book tracks each of the 44 days Brian Clough was the manager of Leeds United, with flashbacks detailing the circumstances all the way up to the first day on the job. Not all 44 days are full of incident. and you can tell the structure was more of a hindrance than an inspiration, but Peace still managed to write a sports novel engaging enough for me to finish. I didn't love it, not because of Peace, but because I really couldn't give a shit about football. I'm alienated from the subject of this novel in countless ways: most readers would already be familiar with Clough and Leeds (I had to ask a friend on Twitter how to pronounce his name; it's Cluff) and the tumultuous history. I had to consult Wikipedia a couple of times. Many readers would also be familiar with the culture depicted herein. I don't know much about footie culture in the UK other than what I've gleaned from pop culture and media. Which made the book a bit of a slog in certain areas, and again, through no fault of the text. Rather, my ignorance and lack of interest in the subject made the going rough. I still enjoyed it on the whole; I adore Peace's choppy terse style, his genius use of repetition and motif. I wish Peace would write more crime, but you can tell that "crime" is not his interest. Instead he seems energized by the past and how to build it up, brick by brick, piece by piece.

I bought his mammoth Red or Dead which clocks in at 800 densely packed pages (lots of stats, little paragraph breaks) so if I thought The Damned Utd. was difficult, his novel about Bill Shankly and Liverpool FC is going to challenge me even more.

Friday, April 13, 2018

April Reads Part One

Alien: Earth Hive by Steve Perry
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

I bought the UK edition of Darkmans about a million years ago—never read it, of course, and sold it long ago. I shouldn't have but I'm also glad I didn't read it when it was originally released; I don't think I would have appreciated it at that point in my life, not so much because of my relative lack of life experience, but because of my tastes at the time. My interest in literature was only forming then. I was a baby, blinking into the stark bright light of the possibility of prose. The publication of Darkmans predates my blog by only 8 months. If you read my first few months of posts, you'll understand what I mean by this. I mean, after all, I did name my blog after a Richard Ford novel for god's sake. Darkmans is somewhat the antithesis of Ford's stuffy myopic self-centered fiction.

Darkmans is 800+ pages of almost nothing. Little happens in the novel beyond innumerable conversations and a dog that pisses on things. And yet I read this as fast as the cheapest paperback thriller. Part of the novel's appeal lies in Barker's seemingly effortless prose, her ability to describe things in wonderful, novel ways. Her lexical explorations and endless charm reminded me a lot of Ali Smith, the great Ali Smith, and it comes as no surprise that Smith herself has a blurb on the cover of the edition I read (the American Harper Collins edition, which didn't have the usual stiff British paper stock and wasn't UK-B sized). Similarly to Smith's work, Darkmans concerns itself with the myriad ways in which we're connected—not in the treacly "we're all the same, dude" sense that Hollywood only ever depicts—but rather, in a more complicated, inclusive manner, with history's long reach pulling us backwards into the grooves formed by our predecessors, but also forwards, allowing us to unshackle ourselves from repeating things. History isn't depicted as this rigid framework that gives us a blueprint for the future, but instead, as this fluid network, changing and shifting, mirroring the English language's evolution. Darkmans, playing with language and etyomologies, is funny as hell, a great comic work that never punches down.

I don't think I would have liked it, as I said, when I was younger. Its lack of interest in traditional plotting or the usual psychological drama of literary fiction (the kind peddled by Franzen, formerly a darling of this blog) would have confounded me. I don't want to say that I have better taste now (I still think Franzen's The Corrections will hold up but I'll never risk having my memories ruined by a reread) but I do think I'm a better reader, in that I pay more attention. My interests have shifted, for better or for worse. Thankfully, I can always discover old things new to me, like this. I loved Darkmans. Can't wait to read more of her work.

Two years. It took me two years to finish Deadhouse Gates. I finished Gardens of the Moon in March of 2016. I started the second book shortly thereafter, did about half of it, then took a break. Months (or possibly the next year) I read another few hundred pages. More time went by, until this week, when I powered through the final 200 pages, with the help of the Mazalan fan wiki. Thank god for fan wikis.

In the past two years, any time I picked up a fantasy novel, I found myself comparing it to Erikson's work, and usually, not favorably. While I quite liked the first two Shadows of the Apt novels from Tchaikovsky, they're aesthetically and narratively much less ambitious. Miles Cameron's Red Knight quintet (the fifth of which I haven't read yet) cites Erikson as a major influence, which feels obvious in Cameron's use of scope, obfuscation, and its cast of hundreds, though at their most difficult, the Red Knight novels are still nowhere near the impenetrability of Deadhouse Gates. Which is, perhaps, why it took me so long. Gardens of the Moon was relatively straightforward in comparison. I observed that Erikson was allergic to exposition in the linked review for the first book and boy was I in for a rude awakening with Deadhouse Gates.

Erikson's obscurantist style doesn't always work in his favour. Instead of hinting at something larger, more complex than the surface, a thematic interest woven throughout the text, the foreshadowing and secrecy often feels repetitive or even redundant. Character A will say something and Character B will reply, heavily implying that A has implied something they aren't saying. Or B will be interrupted by A just before revealing something crucial or helpful. Repeat ad nauseum. I distinctly remember giving up around the halfway point because I was tired of internal narration informing me that Character C wasn't telling the whole truth. We're told time and again people are withholding information, more so than any other bit of characterization. I understand that the second novel has the major task of opening up the world and introducing more to the overarching plot but a smidge of exposition can go a long way.

Though, when I was jiving with Deadhouse Gates, I jived with it well. Erikson's bleak worldview never feels oppressively or absolutely nihilistic. His world is a hard one, with little room for forgiveness, and grudges seem to last hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, his eye for detail, his desire to humanize even the refugees making a hundreds-league long journey across the land with little hope of succor and shelter, makes the horror all the more horrifying.

In the final hundred pages, once I got back in the swing of things, I kept asking myself what is the book about. Does Erikson have something to say other than a complicated plot and a ludicrous labyrinthine backstory? Is it just violence for the sake of it? Because for sure there is violence aplenty; the finale has ten thousand soldiers crucified, including the focal character we've been following for 900 pages. Is the theme of the novel "life's a bitch"? If that's the case, then why am I bothering? No technical bravura with plotting can cover up for a lack of something to say. I'm not sure, days after finishing it, and a hundred pages into the third book, that I can really answer this question. Maybe that's the crucial weakness of fantasy: it has little to say.

(A hundred pages into Memories of Ice and I can already detect an improvement in writing, not just the sentence-by-sentence prose, which was quite gorgeous already, but in Erikson's deft balancing of withholding and revealing. We'll see how long I last in this even-longer book)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Aliens: Earth Hive

In my last post, I spoke of collecting and my problem with it. Pictured above are the three different versions of Steve Perry's Earth Hive that I've owned over the years. I have the two omnibus editions still but the original Spectra paperback is long gone, I'm afraid. Sold or lost. The omnibus on the left, the one collecting only the first two of the trilogy, was one of my first purchases on eBay, if not my very first. This was over a decade ago when buying used books online wasn't the smooth operating machine it is now. The book arrived from the UK and I still haven't read it! However, I got the jones to read some Aliens stuff after spending an hour on the fan Wiki, looking up random things. I love the franchise. Love it dearly. I've memorized the movies, devoured the comics, played a handful of the video games (which are, unsurprisingly, uniformly awful), and have read some of the books.

Titan Books has the publishing rights to the tie-in novels and have been reissuing them in omnibus editions, with the inaugural volume being composed of the initial trilogy and subsequent books having only two novels per. I don't plan on collecting them all, especially since many of the novels are actually novelizations of the Dark Horse comics, including the aforementioned initial omnibus. I am intrigued by some of the later novels, including one written mercenary-style by a certain B. K. Evenson(!). Something's got to pay the bills, I guess.

I picked up the first omnibus for cheap as it was beaten up, but I don't really care. This isn't a book I'm going to keep forever. I read the first novel, Earth Hive, in a matter of hours. What draws me to the Aliens franchise outside of the films isn't the same as what draws me to the films. The movies are visceral, thematically deep, coursing with stunning and beautiful imagery. The comics and the books on the other hand make the mistake of explaining too much, but therein lies the appeal. Dark Horse started publishing the comics in the late 80s, and the novels stand as an intriguing historical document, what some might now call retrofuturism: the past's conception of the future and all its ideological consequences. What interested the past about the future, what issues they thought would continue, what problems and topics bothered these writers to the point where they used allegory and metaphor set in the future in the hope of grappling with them.

Thanks to a mixture of historical factors, not all of which I'm familiar with, the Dark Horse comics have a certain aesthetic and thematic and allegorical point of view. Mostly, the 80s "British Invasion" cast a looming shadow over Dark Horse. After Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and a host of other British talents were imported from 2000 AD and other British magazines, many independent comic publishers stateside wanted a piece of the pie enjoyed by DC and to a lesser extent, Marvel. Dark Horse, founded in 1986, started with Dark Horse Presents, an anthology series similar to 2000 AD in that it was designed to give creators a chance to test out and refine original creations. Bolstered by licensed properties such as Aliens and Predator (which famously were pitted against each other a bit later), Dark Horse Presents provided opportunities for creators like Frank Miller (Sin City) and John Byrne (Next Men), among others. Aliens, as it was simply titled, was released bi-monthly as a limited series with a short story published concurrently in Dark Horse Presents.

Conceived as a metaseries of self-contained miniseries, the Aliens comic series were inspired, aesthetically and thematically, by the films and the British Invasion in equal measures: dark, misanthropic, morally ambiguous, decompressed and relaxed in pacing, and often with extreme violence. Rather than a near-constant Sisyphean war between obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, the comics focused on morally compromised protagonists attempting to survive the ill-advised and dubiously concocted scheme of greedy villains, all of whom suffer the consequences at the hands of the titular aliens. The comics were both a literal sequel to James Cameron's film and a self-conscious and purposeful repetition of the film, using the same structure and same characters and same characterization. The comics were plagued with analogues of Paul Reiser's amoral company man Burke, to the point of exhaustion. Corporate drones, darkly ambitious, manipulated hapless protagonists into confrontations with the aliens, only to meet their demise in gruesome, violent, and sometimes weakly ironic fashion.

The initial miniseries, variously titled Outbreak and Volume One and Book One, follows Hicks and Newt from the film as they're forced into a new confrontation with the aliens, this time on the aliens' homeworld. Or at least, what military intelligence believes to be the homeworld (watch for this detail to be retconned numerous times!) Meanwhile on Earth, the company (Weyland-Yutani) has a handful of alien eggs to be profited from (in some way that's often barely described: military? weapons? human genome interference?) but this goes awry when a cult leader and his acolytes abscond with the infant form growing in their bodies, causing planetary-wide mayhem, inevitably, inexorably. Hicks and Newt return from the homeworld, which they nuked into oblivion (just as in the film), only to find Earth a wasteland, from which they must escape—again! And so ends the first comic series and subsequent novelization by Steve Perry.

Where the films wisely stay away from depicting Earth, the comics plunge headfirst into this reality, giving us all the retrofuturist science fiction claptrap a fan of 90s SF would hunger for: compact discs, headsets, CRT computers, irritating slang, drug addicts using a patois that could only exist in American science fiction of the 90s, the most post-post-postcyberpunk ideas possible. It's all imaginatively bankrupt, of course, a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, a ghost of the universe created by the first two films and shored up by everything these competent-but-not-visionary writers could crib from better thinkers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

One of my least slash most favourite parts of the original comic, for some bizarre reason replicated in prose form in the novelization, is the reveal that the two squash players breaking a sweat are really just avatars in a video game, controlled by two men in business suits. The subtext of the scene, of course, is that the businessmen won't sully themselves with doing the actual work and will go to great lengths to employ proxies. Its inclusion in the comic works as a visual gag, because in the 80s, the fidelity of digital avatars wasn't to the point of perfectly replicating a human form (they still aren't, frankly). Thus, the 80s reader would not expect for these two "people" to be video game avatars, creating a lovely switcheroo, a subversion of the expectations of the reader. However, the whole gag rests on the visual depiction of the avatars as being perfectly human! The gag doesn't work at all in prose! The novelization's use of the gag is so headscratchingly weird. Why not simply adapt the gag to suit the media?

The lack of imagination in this adaptation speaks to the overall dearth of worldbuilding. The characters use "credits" as currency, which is canon from the films, but is also the laziest form of science fictional currency possible. Characters use slang such as "soypro" to refer to soy based food, "brain strainers" for psychiatrists, "olfactories" for scent-based transmission of data (another bonkers bargain-basement-Gibson thing), and probably my personal favourite (as in the one that annoys me the most), "'jector" for television, a groan-worthy bit of future-patois, if not the most.

Even similes are cribbed from other sources, or at least, inspired by. Compare the following: the famous opening line of Neuromancer—"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"—and this line from Chapter Three—"the building was... a dull gray material that blended in against a sky the color of melted lead."

It's the paucity of imagination that truly damns the entire Aliens franchise: the aesthetic repetitions, the bland SF concepts lifted from second- or third-generation cyberpunk, and perhaps most damning of all, the reductive moral simplicity of the premise.

Alien is the great working-class science fiction movie of the 20th century: a sympathetic portrait of the ways by which the kleptocracy exploits the labour of and consumes the bodies of the proletariat. The biomechanical alien is meant to blend into the ship. The alien and the ship are the same thing: methods by which the Company can exhaust the workers of their sweat, blood, and lives.

The cleverness of the alien's design, in that it melds with the ship, is discarded in James Cameron's sequel, when the aliens colonize the colonizers' space, replacing the industrial aesthetics with the loathsome Lovecraftian biospace reminiscent of ribs and organic interiors. A nice synecdoche for the franchise's direction, I'm afraid, as the insidiously anti-corporate message of the first film is replaced with the on-the-nose cartoon of Burke in the second film. From there, the franchise dispenses with any and all subversive anti-corporate messaging. Instead, we have pablum such as the two businessmen playing a video game to represent their manipulation of labourers. Which the novel and the comic barely explore anyway. The organization which sends Hicks to the alien homeworld is the government! Way to miss the point, fellas.

The question then remains, why did I read this in the first place? Did I even like it? Are these books worth reading at all? The answer is complicated. As I said above, the books function more as historical document of a certain era, what interested these writers, what social topics they deemed important enough to represent symbolically, etc. The estrangement intrinsic to science fiction is almost wholly absent thanks to a) the corporate saturation of the alien antagonists themselves and b) the retrofuturism of the setting. Which isn't to say there isn't idle pleasure to be had in the appearance of the aliens themselves or in the comfort of knowing a premise so deeply in one's bones. They're comfort reads, without a doubt.

The books divert from the films' continuity quite quickly. By the time the third volume of the Dark Horse comics were being published, Alien³ was released, revealing Hicks and Newt were killed. The comics were reprinted with the names changed, Hicks to Wilkes, Newt to Billie, and references to the Hadley's Hope (the colony on LV-426)(things I didn't even need to google) were shifted so that Wilkes and Billie's adventure occurred on another, different colony. Of course, the inclusion of Ripley herself in the third volume is insurmountable. I've never been picky about continuity being perfectly clean so this doesn't bother me in the slightest. Surely, there are some nerds out there who have worked tirelessly to reconcile Ripley's appearance in Female War with her death in Alien³. But that's not our concern.

I am indebted to the work of nerds at the Alien wiki called Xenopedia for some of the history contained herein. I would be remiss in not acknowledging them.