Thursday, 1 August 2013

Reading report - second quarter 2013

Summer is typically a busy time of year for me and this year is no different. The unexpected arrival of hot weather and sunshine has further kept me away from the keyboard, and I admit that the blog has had to take second place recently to some fiction I’m working on (gasp!) and a Secret Project: the latter two will hopefully come to fruition in the autumn when I suppose I’ll make another of my misguided attempts to make something of my dreary creative ambitions.

So, there’s not been a lot of time or motivation to consider my quarterly reading report. I’d hoped to have the three volumes of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine wrapped up by now, but that hasn’t happened. The fact is that the necessity to blog about each story holds up the reading: as I get behind, I’m disinclined to read more. This means I’m on track to have read even fewer books this year than last year. But, as I approach volume three, it seems a good time to think about what these volumes have shown us about what SF and where it came from, and that’s mostly what this review is going to look at.

But first, let’s have a look at what’s turning into my primary source of reading love: super-hero comics.

It makes for a long post, but there you are: these reading reports always get out of hand.

It’s been a particularly brilliant quarter for comics reading for me that’s included some old friends and a wonderful new acquaintance that’s had me all giddy with the thrill of it.

Quire and gang are typically well-turned-out Morrison villains.
It started with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, a creditable take on the group with one great highlight of a storyline (the school rebellion led by Quentin Quire, which is one of the best X Men story-lines ever, in my opinion) and a whole lot of crazy Morrisonian doodling around the edges. My son (aged nine) read these at the same time as me and I was curious as to how he’d react to the craziness, especially in the last arc (not keen) and a little concerned about some of the more mature content (it went right over his head as far as I can tell). However, the good news is that he really loved it and I’m well on my way to destroying his life by making him a colossal nerd, just like his old man.

Craving more Morrison, I went straight on to a re-read of The 7 Soldiers of Victory and Final Crisis, which just get better and better every time I read them. I’m a habitual re-reader, especially of comics, and these are currently in the absolute sweet-spot for me: familiar enough that I don’t have to concentrate on the plot (always a bit of a challenge for me) but still with a lot of deep and delicious nuance to find. 7 Soldiers is enormously clever and satisfying, well-constructed and nicely paced in the collections I read. Each series could easily have launched a fascinating ongoing title, and I particularly liked his takes on The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, Klarion the Witchboy and the Bulleteer.

Super Young Team are clearly descendants of ...
When I read Final Crisis this time I was really struck by Morrison’s take on Kirby’s Fourth World titles. I’ve got a couple of black and white reprints of Mister Miracle and New Gods that came out in the 90s, and so I added the companion volume featuring the Forever People thanks to amazon sellers and gave these a read through.

When I’ve tried to read these stories in the past, I’ve always struggled a bit. I found them a bit easier this time but at the same time I think I discovered why I found them hard work: Kirby is a terrible writer.

... the Forever People.
In terms of art, these are incredible comics. They maybe better in the original colour, but the stark monotone reveals Kirby’s powerful character design, composition and action sequences in a kind of rarefied form. And the conception of it has a mad internal logic designed around a powerfully expressed defence of moral and philosophical concerns – life, love and freedom versus hate, greed and slavery.

It’s a work of outsider art facilitated by Kirby’s dogged devotion to the form for decades. After years of telling corporate fiction under editorial direction, here was he given the chance to pursue a personal vision and he totally went for it!

But his terrible scripting shows weaknesses we didn’t realise were there in his other work. Without a scripter to fill the empty spaces there’s something a bit off about his pacing: there are pages where the characters just seem to stand around uttering banalities or explaining the plot that a better scripter would fill with character moments. His characterisation is very poor and relies on what were crusty and creaky cliches even in the seventies. A lot of the character’s pronouncements regarding the deep structure of the setting are completely impenetrable. I still entirely understand that relationship between the New Gods and Earth, although maybe that would have become clearer as the series went on.
Great art, terrible script.

And he seems to have picked up the worst of the Stan Lee-syle bombast without the wit or hint of self-deprecation that made it endearing (or at least bearable) in the old days. That obviously makes one wonder about the Kirby/Lee partnership – maybe Kirby was the instinctive genius naturally yearning towards profundity that he struggled to express outside his art. Lee is more of a craftsman, perhaps, without that spark of inspirational genius that sends him off down the rabbit hole. Instead he’s armed with a developed understanding of rhythm and structure that keeps the story moving and maintains a focus on the human level of the characters.

It’s hard not to be disappointed by the way DC has used these characters since Kirby’s day – the recent New 52 JLA storyline with Darkseid is a good example of the way that all the philosophical touches have been entirely drained from the characters and replaced by entirely clichéd super-hero bobbins. Morrison, however, gets it. Morrison has a similar instinct towards profound statements as Kirby and really seems to get what Kirby was onto.

Alongside these I’ve been picking over the library collections or graphic novels where (Alan Partridge-style segue coming up) I’ve had the opportunity to give two series based on cities a go – Frank Miller’s Sin City and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City.

To quickly dispose of the former: they’re nicely crafted tributes to the blackest type of noir fiction, but there’s not much to them, really. They’ve got an enjoyable sleazy tone and at times it’s strikingly drafted, but plot and character are too thickly coated with genre to make the grisly moral choices compelling.
Amazing covers by Alex Ross.

Astro City on the other hand, however is pure joy! It’s a masterfully bit of genre play that gets so very close to actual comics continuity that it makes you almost rethink the events . Many of the characters are clearly analogues to some of our faves over the years – The First Family are the Fantastic Four, the Samaritan is Superman, the Apollo Eleven look like the X Men ot the Outsiders, Jack-in-the-Box could be Spidey or Daredevil, the Honour Guard are clearly a mix of the JLA and the Avengers. As well being well-rounded inconic super-hero character types, the series benefits from amazing character design and covers by Alex Ross and consistently excellent interior artwork by Brent Anderson.

At it’s best this Alan Moore-ish technique does two things. On the one hand it rationalises all the crazy super-hero clichés. There’s a brilliant story - “Shining Armour” that takes the old cliché about Lois Lane trying to crack Superman’s secret identity and frames it in such a way that you can see how two rational normal people could – the right circumstances – not just have a secret identity but become fixated on exposing it. But more than rationalisation, Busiek also uses the superhero clichés to shine a light on human emotion and motivation. “Shining Armour” is, in the end, a moving tragedy in the classical sense showing how our own needs and ambitions can destroy us even when we want to do something as simple as be in love.

The series is a mix of anthologies of one and two-shot stories and a couple of longer storylines. In a few doxen issues, Busiek establishes a continuity and background that’s as complex and convoluted as anything Marvel or DC could come up with. The series travels freely in time and Busiek uses it to create foreshadowing and subtle interplays between apparently diverse and unrelated incidents.

It all comes together in the two-volume Dark Ages, the single longest storyline in the series so far. It follows two brothers over forty years or so as they seek vengeance on the villain that killed their parents during a super heroes bust up in the 50s and against the heroes that were unable to save their parents. Busiek uses the cliches of different eras of comics to embody the quality of the brothers’ quest. It starts with 70s blaxploitation, moves to dark 80s style vigilantism then 90s techno-thrillers with gadgets, catsuits and clinical efficiency.

As the fashions in super-hero stories change, so does their relationship which unfolds in a believable and naturalistic in the foreground of a world rocked by alien invasions, vengeful apparitions, mystic cosmic predators and cataclysms. Their pursuit leads them, inevitably, into the precisely kind of contrived apocalyptic climax that super-hero fans expect and coincides with the emotional climax of their plot.

So, a good quarter for comics but less good for prose reading. This is entirely my fault. The volumes of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine are jolly interesting. The introductions are pure gold for information on the development of the genre and the stories themselves are … well, not always good but reliably interesting at least. However, because I’ve committed myself to blogging about each story, and life keeps getting in the way, I’ve had to put the volumes aside so I don’t get too far ahead of myself. It’s been particularly bad since the weather picked up and sitting in my dank office has been less attractive.

I finished volume two at the end of June and there are a few really good stories. Hermit of Satun’s Rings was a real highlight, and Almost Human and The Power are slickly written and enjoyable genre pieces. I’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for the pulpy free-association of The Dead Spot. On the other hand The Abyss and Up There seemed to be more about genre codes than being real stories, while The Circle of Zero was just bad.

On the whole it was probably a slightly better read than the first volume and there’s been significant shift in themes. The stories in volume 1 seemed to be obsessed with the scale of the universe revealed by science – the depths of space and the oceans, the incredible sub-microscopic world of the atom, the gulfs of geological and universal time. Volume 2 doesn’t have a clear trend in the same way. There are three stories with a time travel theme – The Circle of Zero, Wanderer ofTime and Seeker of Tomorrow. The Dead Spot almost has a time travel theme, as Tech Tsar accelerates time with the titular barren region so he can carry out his evolutionary experiments.

There are a few fables and morality plays dressed up as SF – The Circle of Zero, Almost Human, Up There, The Wanderer of Time and almost none of the thick science dump that was a feature of stories in the previous volume.

This shows a clear change what was going on in the genre as writers came to grips with what could be done with it. The hothouse environment of fandom – that had been encouraged – perhaps even created – by the publishers in the previous decade allowed the genre to grow quickly. It wasn’t just individual authors ploughing a unique furrow – like Verne and Wells – but a community, a dialogue between writers and readers that encouraged rapid – and perhaps overly guided – growth.

In his introduction to volume 3, Mike Ashley calls the era between 1945 and 1955 as SF’s ‘coming of age’ and its clear that there was something going on this decade. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Horishima in 1945 seemed to confirm everything that the sci fi writers had been saying for decades. This wasn’t a wild fantasy any more: this was real, this could happen.

And if that could happen, what about the rest? The few short years since the world went to war had seen the arrival of radar, the jet engine and the first computers. Suddenly all the other options didn’t look quite so crazy: super-computers, intelligent robots, interplanetary and interstellar travel, alien life, even time travel and strange parallel dimensions.

Science fiction was there to provide all the symbolic devices required to explore the newly aware public’s concerns about the world that confronted them. For large numbers of people the changes in the world brought about by rapid technological change presented the possibility of a break from what had seemed like the eternal circle of being born, ploughing the land, enduring the occasional war, reproducing and then dying. The vernacular of science fiction that had evolved in the previous decades provided a medium to imagine what that might be like.

At the same time, science fiction began taking the place of fantasy – in particular supernatural gothic – as a way of presenting fables. Ashley observes that fantasy was declining, and Weird Tales finally gave up the ghost, if you’ll pardon the expression, in 1954. In the place of fantasy archetypes from the rural past that was becoming increasingly remote, we gained a new cast of science fictionalised archetypes. The alien could be a fairy, an angel or a monster; a robot could be a naif, a doppelganger or a monster; a mad scientist could be an evil wizard, a dotty saviour or a … well I think you get the picture. Science itself could act like magic to create contrived dilemmas and SF settings could be manipulated to cut stories off from the kinds of real-world solutions that might exclude their moral, political or philosophical purpose in the same way that ‘once upon a time’ had worked in the past. Ashley quotes Jacob Bronowski who apparently called SF ‘the folklore of the atomic age’.

This replacement of archetypes extended beyond fiction, though. The first UFO sighting came in 1948 and found a ready demographic among SF fans. SF also appears to have been associated with, or somehow related to, the writings of Charles Fort which wittily challenged ideas of common sense and the scientific consensus. Several stories in the first two volumes either explicitly mention Fort or pursue ideas that spring from his writings. It’s not entirely surprising that SF fans should have an interest in pseudo sciences like cryptozoology and ufology. As well as conforming to the materialist view of the universe they appeal to the fantasy fan – or less charitably, the ape that cowers from the lightning – that lies just beneath our proudly rational veneer.

The new ideas reawakened old feelings. For many people people it meant that humanity was no longer alone for the first time since Nietzsche had killed god – imagine their relief! The space brothers began to fill the void that the death of god had left and became a repository for our guilt and existential angst. That’s possibly why the Shaver controversy in the pages of Amazing caused such a sensation. It was just plausible enough that some fans could believe there really was an ancient race of evil dwarves living underground that was responsible for everything that was wrong in the world. It was a notion that comfortingly relieved us of either blame for the shitty state of our lives or the dreary task of taking realistic steps to put things right.

Large numbers of fans saw it for the nonsense that it was, of course, but Dianetics made a much stronger impression. Before it became a religion, L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics offered enthusiasts a quantifiable, DIY cure to all the little hang ups and anxieties that make life such a drag. Rather than the glum uncertainties of contemporary psychoanalysis. Hubbard offered his followers the potential of a perfected mind – perfect recall, higher analytical functions, ESP – that seemed entirely in keeping with the scientific understanding of the world. The strange Shaver-like fantasies about Thetan’s and all the rest came later, but in its first flush Dianetics was a kind of highly rationalist post-humanism that, like it’s modern post-singularity cousin, offered its adherents access to super-powers through a scientific-sounding ladder of mystical initiation.

All of this activity saw a clear and palpable increase in the market for SF and not coincidentally a step up in general quality of stories from the better magazines. (Worth pointing out here that I am suspicious of ideas like ‘quality’, which are not objective or even subjective constructs, but entirely cultural... one for another time!) In this decade some of the more enduring names begin to crop up, for example: Walter Miller, Frank Herbert, Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley, Gordon R Dickinson, Brian Aldiss, Kurt Vonnegut, Bob Shaw, Anne McCaffery and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addtion, many of the established names were reaching their zenith: Ray Bradbury published the stories that became The Martian Chronicles; Isaac Asimov came along with the stories that became his Foundation series, Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein were (in my estimation, at least) at the height of their powers.

It’s true that the SF crowd had a head start with the ideas, but the ‘mundanes’ (the term originates from somewhere in this decade) were learning fast. TV and movies in particular spread SF ideas through the popular consciousness rapidly – The Twilight Zone was a hit show in this era, and the roster of classic SF movies from the period between 1950 and 1960 defined SF in the popular culture – if I have to name them for you, then I must question what you’re doing reading this blog!

But is this really ‘growing up’?

Much depends on what we mean by ‘growing up’. By Ashley’s own admission a lot of SF was still not very grown-up at all. He complains again about the amount of material aimed at juvenile readers and has particular disdain for the many opportunistic band-wagon jumpers that flooded the market with inferior goods just as SF was at its most popular peak. He describes the output of John Spencer & Co, for example, as ‘damaging the sf scene, giving totally the wrong impression and creating a dustbin atmosphere.’

This attitude seems to miss a large part of what was going on in this era. The fact that there was such a demand for SF was clearly not entirely based on the quality of writers or their stories. In the decade between 1945 and 1955 there was a growing appetite for sci fi of any sort, but Ashley excludes quite a lot from his survey. He’s disparaging about writers in the ‘slicks’ who used SF without really understanding it (sound familiar?) and of the stories published in the slicks by pulp stalwarts like Heinlein which he dismisses as having ‘nothing exceptional to the SF reader’ and as ‘rather mundane’.

Ashely explains away the watery content by saying that the mainstream editors weren’t looking for new SF ideas but for Heinlein’s ‘skilled approach’, but I think that’s pretty much the opposite of what was going on. These editors absolutely wanted Heinlein for his SF stories. They could see that SF was an important movement that was interesting for their readers, and they wanted stories that addressed SF ideas. That’s why they bought stories from Heinlein: what Ashley sees as a ‘skilled approach’, the editors of the slicks saw as a minimum standard of expression that the majority of SF writers didn’t meet.

Even if the new ideas were unexceptional to the jaded SF fan, the same was not true for the typical reader of the slicks. This readership was also interested in new ideas. They too wanted to understand the ways the world might change. Compared to the huge circulation of the slicks, SF pulps were small beer, and many of what we think of as classic stories were read initially – in fact, perhaps still – by a relatively small readership.

There seems to be an assumption that the SF writers were in the lead of something. It’s perhaps not entirely unjustified to say that the deeper thinking was going on among writers who thought deeply about the issues, but the themes and aesthetics of SF were just waiting to emerge into the mainstream. They’d done so sporadically throughout the 19th century – starting with Frankenstein, going through Wells and Verne and elements of Poe – before coalescing in the USA. The extraordinary rush of technology in the Second World War threw it into sharp relief.

This era, then, is when I think that the rest of the world caught up with what the early SF writers had seen early on: the world was changing forever. New technological gave us new metaphors to understand the world, morality, ethics and epistemology. I wouldn’t say that SF grew up, I’d say that the events of World War 2 showed that the changes in the world couldn’t be ignored. It was the first time that the popular consciousness – rather than only those who had been paying attention – registered that technology was changing our lives forever.

In 2013, that transformation is pretty much complete. No serious writer today can ignore the effect of technology on our lives. Many contemporary literary writers both acknowledge the importance of SF’s heritage – even the darker recesses like super-hero comics – on the culture and their own writing.

What hasn’t happened – what will never happen – is an uncritical acceptance of writers who slavishly identify themselves what we might call, in the modern way ‘brand’ science fiction. Brand science fiction is obsessed with Comicon. Brand science fiction checks io9 everyday. Brand science fiction argues about the Hugo awards. Brand science fiction shops at Forbidden Planet. Brand science fiction thinks it’s a scandal that a book by a grumpy homophobe is being made into a big budget movie when there are some many other writers out there who reflect much better on the brand values.

Before you get the wrong idea about me, I’m clearly a moderately rabid consumer of brand science fiction – I fucking love it! But I don’t mistake it for the cutting edge of the arts. The days when brand SF had anything new or interesting to show the world are long gone. The good bits were quickly assimilated and many of them became the clichés that the followers of brand SF rage about when used by non-brand writers – nuclear apocalypse, robots, various flavour of dystopia.

But those are really all that SF ever had to offer the world at large. The rest is a load of nods and winks that we all enjoy, a certain strain of disbelief that we can all agree to suspend a bit because we know the rules. You and your cosplay, your Hugos, your Worldcon, your certificate from the Clarion workshop and your books blog are living in the past. Get with the future guys and leave brand science fiction in the past where it belongs.

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