Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas and friends

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2 (v. 2)The character Conan and the stories about him are sometimes seen as primitive versions of the fantasy stories that came later. Part of that is a matter of chronology; part of it is his similarity to characters like Tarzan; part of it is that he’s a pretty primitive fellow himself. But I think it’s also because Conan is a character without any checks or balances. In roleplaying games, for example, you generally have to specialise, to choose one area in which to excel, and that often has implications for other aspects of your character. Conan has no such limitations. He’s the strongest, and also the fastest. He’s the biggest, but also the sneakiest. He’s the best hand-to-hand fighter, but also the best general. He’s the best at absolutely everything, even as a youngster, no matter how much different abilities might seem likely to clash with each other. He’s a superhero, basically.

This must have been said before, but he is also, metaphorically, a phallus, pushing his way through the cloth of these adventures in search of women. His primary characteristic isn’t his strength or his agility, it’s that he can’t be cockblocked: anyone who tries will feel the length of his sword (oo-er). When he meets a woman he wants, he knows he will have her, and so does everyone else. The message of his loincloth, like Tarzan’s, is that sex is never more than a second away; it’s both a threat and a promise. In fact, the entire book is a call to the reader’s groin: a chance to let your imagination wander where your sense would never let you; a chance to luxuriate in fantasies of sex and violence.

That doesn’t stop if from being hugely entertaining. In fact, reading this book was one of the most sheerly enjoyable, uncomplicated reading experiences of my life. Somewhere in the middle of it I stopped reading it for the sake of my ten-year-old self (for whom every Conan book and comic he could find was a priceless treasure), and started to read it for myself.

There was a lot to enjoy, even as a (relatively) mature adult: this volume is even better than the previous one. For one thing, the magazine settles down to a series of full-length stories, forty and even fifty-page epics. It also benefits hugely from the presence of John Buscema, contributing to almost every issue, bringing both continuity and, of course, brilliant artwork. There’s a craftmanship and artistry to these comics unusual for comics of the time, evident both in the art and in the writing of Roy Thomas. (Sometime I’d like to compare the comics with the stories to see how much of that writing is Roy Thomas and how much is Robert Howard – but even if turns out that all the writing I admire in these comics is from Howard’s pen, credit would still go to Thomas for knowing not to interfere with it, and translating prose to comic so expertly.)

If there is one problem with the art, it’s that the reverse C-shape panel layout is used too often – i.e. where panel one is above panel three, with panel two stretching vertically across them at the right. It’s very confusing. But when a book contains some of the most befuddlingly attractive women ever created by a pencil, it seems ungrateful to complain about the layouts!

The original magazines had black and white interiors, so almost nothing has been lost from the artwork by printing these in the Essential/Showcase format (though I often think comics look better in black and white anyway, given how primitive comics colouring was until relatively recently). The exception would be the magazine covers, which deserve a colour book of their own to show them at their best (as has happened with the Commando reprints). Those paintings are simply stunning, even in greyscale.

The centrepiece of the book is “The People of the Black Circle”, a one hundred and twenty page adaptation of the Howard story, which was serialised across four issues of the original magazine. It’s absolutely marvellous, but then so are nearly all the stories in the book (though I could have done without the one about the cannibals, which must have seemed dated even in the seventies).

I had mixed feelings about a later story, “The Pool of the Black One”. Conan always shows a reckless disregard for the lives of others – he’s happy to kill guards and the like, if they’re in his way, even if they aren’t individually his enemies. In “The Pool of the Black One”, however, he commits a murder, plain and simple, just for his own convenience. Having not read the original Howard stories (I thought I had, till I came to catalogue them on Goodreads), I was a bit surprised by the story. It wasn’t a nice guy he murdered, but it was someone who had saved his life. It seemed to me that Conan crosses a line in that one.

But then that’s what he’s for – he’s for crossing the line, doing what we wouldn’t. He’s the unrestrained killer, the irresistable lover, the epitome of the male stereotype. He’s what women would like men to be, but would despise them for being; he’s the image men can’t live up to, and the image they can’t live down.

We were a bit short of money the month I read this book, to the point where I had to cancel our Sky subscription – maybe that’s why I found a bit of Conan so compelling; he wouldn’t have to worry about anything like that. I feel bad that I had to cancel Sky, but also bad that something as trivial as affording Sky feels like the measure of my manhood… Jeepers, listen to me… I’ll be going hunting to make up for my inadequacies next…

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 544pp.

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, by Jack Kirby and friends

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1The Challengers of the Unknown live in a world where anything can happen, and, best of all, there aren’t any superheroes flying around to grab all the fun. If something weird is going on in their world, they’re the people you call. It doesn’t matter that they’re just four better-than-average humans – or five, once June becomes a very welcome distaff member – they’re the best this world has to offer, and they always give it their best shot. You have to love the spirit of four guys whose go-to move, when confronted with giants of all varieties, is to run at them in a big gang shouting things like: "Let’s all hit him — together!"

The big problem with this book is that it can be very difficult to tell the Challengers apart in black-and-white. Usually their hair would help (red, blonde, brown and that strange hair colour only found in comics, the Superman blue-black), but in black-and-white, you’ve just got two blonde guys (one beefy, one slim), and two black-haired guys (one beefy, one slim), all in identical costumes. It got very frustrating, to the point that I began to think about getting my daughter to colour them in for me.

I never expected to say this about a comic, but it became much more readable once Jack Kirby stopped drawing it. What appalling heresy!

At the time, I thought it was down to the change of artist (to Bob Brown), but looking back through the book, I’m hard pressed to spot a really significant change in the way the Challengers are drawn. It’s more down to the (usually uncredited) writing.

In the early issues the Challengers are pretty interchangeable, apart from their specialised skills (pilot, diver/boffin, climber, wrestler). Then for a few issues after Kirby leaves the art, they suddenly develop personalities, ones that oddly enough aren’t a million miles away from those of the Fantastic Four (Kirby’s next book). The climber develops a bit of a Johnny Storm look and attitude, and starts poking and teasing the wrestler, who’s turned into a bit of a Ben Grimm. Towards the end of the book, unfortunately, they revert to being totally characterless, but by that point June’s role has become more prominent, which balances it out.

I’m a huge fan of the Essentials and Showcases. They’ve let me read and enjoy hundreds of comics that I would never have shelled out for in more prestigious and pocket-gouging formats like the Masterworks or the Archives. And as someone who grew up reading the black-and-white British comics of the seventies, I’ve never felt the lack of colour to be a huge problem. But in this case, it comes very close to spoiling the book.

What saves it is the Kirby streak that runs through all his comics: the feeling of freedom, of imagination left to follow its nose. If you want to find out what lies beyond the realms of possibility, he’s your man…

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, Jack Kirby et al, DC Comics, tpb, 544pp.

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders, Vol. 1, by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders v. 1Whereas the Challengers of the Unknown showcase volume really suffered from the black and white printing, this book glories in it. When these issues were originally published (1983–1985) comics printing was at its most cheap and rubbishy (ironically the title went to pieces after graduating to fancy Baxter printing). Here the artwork is perfectly clear and very attractive. Jim Aparo does some wonderful work on the title, while Bill Willingham and Trevor von Eeden take enjoyably different approaches on fill-ins.

(I can’t wait for the JLI showcase volumes that we’re bound to see one day. If ever wonderful artwork was buried under unsympathetic printing it was then.)

As for the stories, written by Mike Barr, I think the Slings & Arrows Guide says it best (as usual): “pedestrian, but generally entertaining”. There’s nothing amazing here; it’s run-of-the-mill team stuff, and the characters and their relationships aren’t all that great. But despite that I’ve always had a soft spot for the Outsiders (to see them at their best check out The Nail, the JLA graphic novel by Alan Davis). If you’re in the mood for a simple, self-contained team book, this’ll do the trick.

For me the best thing about the book is Batman himself, or The Batman, as he is usually called here. He’s not the affable duffer of the 1950s and 1960s comics, nor yet is he the middle-aged tough-love foster parent of the modern comics. He’s as young as I’ve ever seen him portrayed – you’d think him in his mid-20s in some panels – and he’s flawed, passionate, and still finding his way. He’s a hero working with his peers; he’s the best trained and best equipped of them, but they don’t worship him. This was a Batman I really enjoyed reading about.

Showcase Presents: Batman and the Outsiders, Vol. 1, by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo, DC Comics, tpb, 552pp.

Rick Random: Space Detective

This book contains ten adventures of Rick Random, Space Detective (a character I hadn’t previously heard of) from the pages of the Super Detective Library of comic books, digests similar in style to Commando and Starblazer. It contains issues 44, 49, 123, 127, 129, 133, 137, 143, 153 and 163. Some stories have been reprinted from their later appearances in Buster Picture Library (the reprint titles have been used instead of the originals).

The book puts the stories in very little context. There are no creator credits, and we’re not even told when they were published, apart from a comment on the back that Rick Random first appeared in 1954. The introduction says that Harry Harrison worked on the title, and that that was when the title came into its own, but it’s not clear if he wrote any of these stories. Similarly, the back cover seems to say that all these stories were drawn by Ron Turner, but the introduction mentions several other artists as well.

The artwork, whether it’s all by Ron Turner or not, is generally very good. Backgrounds, spaceships and technology all look marvellous. The figure work is a bit looser than mainstream comics readers would be used to nowadays, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (though you’ll have to search hard in this book for a pretty girl). In certain panels you could think you were looking at work by Bryan Talbot or David Lloyd.

Since the stories date from the fifties, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a bit old-fashioned in some ways. The earlier stories have some oddly fascistic overtones. For example, everyone has an identification number tattooed on their arms, which even in 1954 would surely have raised eyebrows, and in “Kidnappers from Mars” Rick is point man on an invasion of a world which refuses to join their World Federation of Powers.

It’s old-fashioned in other ways, too. In “Emperor of the Moon”, said emperor has “dumb African slaves”. Post-colonial critics would also have a ball with “Planet of Terror”, where people say things like, “These primitive people have many gods, Rick” and “Don’t most primitives have a human sacrifice on occasions like this?” In “Threat from Space” Rick Random works his way through twenty cigarettes, possibly more. He loves his cigarettes! In “Perilous Mission” blue whales are farmed to feed Earth’s population – though I’m not entirely sure if that’s old-fashioned or visionary! And in “The Kidnapped Planet” Rick leads a “terrorist campaign” against giant-sized invaders. I suppose the only old-fashioned thing about that is that the story doesn’t put a more positive spin on his bombings!

But being old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. While I could have done without the smoking and the colonialism, there’s a cosiness here that made for a very comfortable read. Reading these little-known stories made me feel as if my grandad had found them in the attic and brought them down for me. Some things may be a bit dated, but that generally adds to their interest rather than detracting from it.

As to the other stories, “Robot World” is an unashamed imitation of Asimov’s The Naked Sun, while “Frozen World” deals with the theft of gold from banks. (The frozen world of the title is Neptune.) Scientists recently suggested that the dilemma at the end of The Italian Job could have been resolved by superheating the gold to turn it into a gas – at one point in this story (a mention of ventilation) I thought I’d found the scientists’ inspiration! Unfortunately not, but it was nice to be surprised by the plot at least once: though these stories are often reminiscent of James H. Schmitz’s hard-boiled science fiction, not least in their interest in ecology, expectations here are very rarely reversed. Everything is usually pretty much as it seems.

“Killer in Space” seems to be a bit inconsistent with the other stories. In that one it’s the early days of space travel, and Venus has to be close to Earth to permit interplanetary travel, while usually Rick hops around between solar systems without any trouble. But then again, we have buses and planes in our world, but that doesn’t mean buses can fly. Interstellar travel may be practical for Rick, but not for passenger ships. And anyway, consistency with old stories shouldn’t get in the way of telling new ones (something Doctor Who has recently remembered, but Star Trek needs to learn).

Overall, reading the book was thoroughly enjoyable. The stories were exciting and entertaining, and full of variety: Rick’s job gives him a great deal of latitude both in the cases he takes on and the approach he takes to them. This book is never boring. The dialogue is clipped and to the point. The art and storytelling is dynamic and efficient. Let your attention drift for a page or two and you’ll be lost – every panel counts. If I’ve focused on what might be seen as flaws, it’s because I found them fascinating. I’d very much recommend this book to anyone who fancies a bit of straightforward, traditional science fiction adventure.

I hope we’ll see many more science fiction collections to join this one – of Starblazer, in particular. It’s marvellous to see British comics other than 2000AD being collected.

Rick Random: Space Detective, ed. Steve Holland, Prion Books, pb, 656pp.

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction, Mike Mignola and John Byrne

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction (v. 1)When looking at a collaboration between two creators whose work you know individually, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about who contributed what. With AI, for example, lots of people said they hated the Spielberg bits and loved the Kubrick bits, without really knowing which was which.

I don’t want to make that mistake reviewing this Hellboy book. Certainly, it seems much more like a traditional super-hero comic than later volumes, especially in the first half of the story, and it’s tempting to put that down to John Byrne’s scripting. But I’ll resist that temptation: I think it’s more that these four issues see Mignola himself finding his own voice after leaving Marvel and DC, his own style of storytelling.

I loved the artwork. Though Mignola’s work is very stylised, and can from time to time be a little confusing, it’s very beautiful, and suits the subject matter perfectly. I always enjoy the fact that Hellboy is asymmetrical; however nice this demon is, you should always feel a little bit uneasy about him.

The story here is a straightforward pastiche of Lovecraft, but that’s not a bad thing when it’s done so well. It’s very different from the first movie, sharing only the bare bones of the plot, so don’t be tempted to pass it over for that reason. It’s not one of those books where, once you’ve seen the film, reading the book feels like going through the motions.

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction, Mike Mignola and John Byrne, Dark Horse, tpb, 128pp.

McSweeney’s 22, ed. Dave Eggers

This issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern contains three entirely separate books, bound into one magnetic cover by the metal strips in their spines. Police officers may take a dim view of literary types who go out into the night looking for trouble with one of these books concealed in their sleeves; prison librarians should ensure that this McSweeney’s is absent from their collections.

The idea behind From the Notebook: the Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant one: to complete the stories suggested by that author’s notes. (I have a similar notebook of unused ideas, if the same writers fancy helping me out!) Not having read any Fitzgerald, apart from The Great Gatsby a long, long time ago, it’s hard for me to know how far the writers have tried to emulate his style, but I know that they haven’t necessarily tried to recreate the exact stories FSF would have written, since some are set in the present day. It was a very stimulating read, and many of the stories were very good indeed.

The State of Constraint: New Work from Oulipo was my favourite of these three books. Playful, silly and intellectual in a way that typifies some of my favourite French writers, the Oulipo group labour to create works of literature under self-imposed restrictions. Some of it is daft, some of it is serious, but all of it is thought-provoking. Most enjoyable is the binary story by Paul Fournel (who also provides the introduction), if only because of the pleasure of finding a choose-your-own-adventure story in the pages of McSweeney’s.

The Poetry Chains of Dominic Luxford was an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t been aware previously of the wide range of modern poetry. I’ve said before (in a sort-of-review of GUD #0) that I don’t really get poetry, and I won’t pretend that I’ve quite got it yet, but this book helped me make a little bit of progress. Much of this poetry resembles a short story that’s been auto-summarised in Word – everything inessential boiled away, to leave a kernel of… well, on the whole, a kernel of pain. It’s a pretty depressing volume, so don’t read it if you’re having a bad day. Of the poets here, I’m most likely to look for more work by Patrick Lawler and Sarah Lindsay, mainly because the subject matter of their poems interested me more than the relationship stuff of the rest. But there were another ten or twenty poets whose poems interested me enough to make me look them up in the contributors section. I read most of the volume while waiting to collect my daughter from school, which must have made me look terribly intellectual (or exceptionally pretentious).

Reading McSweeney’s is always good for my vanity: it makes me feel that I’m much cleverer and more literary than I really am. Like buying books from the Folio Society (but at a much more reasonable price) it makes me feel to some extent that I’m becoming the person I wanted to be. This was one of their most educational and improving issues to date. And did I mention it’s magnetic?

McSweeney’s 22, Dave Eggers (ed.), McSweeney’s, hb/3xpb, 480pp.

Batman: the Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul, by Grant Morrison et al

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al GhulThis suffers from the usual problems of a crossover between different titles: important events falling into the gaps between issues; oddly in-depth accounts of minor plot points (Robin and Nightwing spend a full issue arguing about whether Robin should take a sample from the Lazarus pit); a contrived plot; and inconsistency of writing, artwork and tone.

And though Grant Morrison’s name appears prominently on the cover, he contributes only two issues to this collection – four other writers contribute. He’s in good company on the periphery, though, since Batman himself is a fairly minor player in the book. This is really a Ra’s Al Ghul story, with the Bat-gang being occasional obstacles rather than protagonists.

One other slightly unwelcome aspect of the book is that in it we see the gravity effect at work, by which over time major characters absorb the powers, attributes and motivations of lesser ones – here Ra’s adopts the desire to control his descendants of Vandal Savage and the body-swapping of the Ultra-Humanite. Once this story’s over let’s hope he sticks to his normal territory.

But despite those issues, it’s fairly entertaining. It reads more like a Wolverine or an Iron Fist story than your usual Batman, and that makes a nice change. It also does a good job of getting the casual reader up-to-date on the Bat-universe, and seeing all these Robins together is good fun.

It does give the impression that Tim Drake (Robin III) isn’t long for this world – the stress put on all his friends (the Spoiler), family (his Dad) and contemporaries (Superboy) being dead makes him feel like a loose end. That’s a shame, but Damian, Batman’s new son, is an interesting character and would make a good replacement (if they really must replace Tim, who is my favourite Robin by far), though long-time readers might remember thinking similar things about characters like Azrael and Anarky.

Readers who bought this for twenty quid will probably rate it more harshly than someone who borrowed it from the library, but if you’ve ever fancied seeing Batman in a martial arts action movie, this will entertain. Just don’t expect the fireworks you normally get when Grant Morrison’s name is on the cover of a comic book.

Batman: the Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul, Grant Morrison, Fabian Nicieza, Paul Dini et al, DC Comics, hb, 240pp.

Vow of Silence, Robert Laughlin

Karel Evandar is a young man inducted into the ranks of the datists, a privileged caste of officials who are charged with remembering the entirety of human knowledge. Vow of Silence follows him as he trains to enter their ranks, discovers that the privilege comes at a cost, and takes a stand against it.

I should mention first of all a possible conflict of interest in this review – I published a short story by this author here in TQF last year. Another disclaimer: I read this on my resurrected Rocket eBook, after saving from the review pdf into a Word file. Somehow I lost all instances of “fi” and “fl” along the way, so I may have misinterpreted any plot elements revolving around those letters. In particular, a mention of a “ re y” left me stumped for quite a while…

Don’t be put off by the title: an entire novel about a vow of silence would, I expect, be pretty dull. There is such a vow in this novel, but it’s not down to some monkish obligation, and it doesn’t happen until a good way into the book. When it comes, it’s a very dramatic event, with serious consequences for society as a whole. What’s more, this is a book of about 45,000 words, divided into 53 chapters (and they all have titles), so dullness is not an issue – the book was a wonderfully smooth read. Like many small press books, it does suffer here and there from overly enthusiastic fonts and occasionally erratic typesetting, but the text flows clearly and easily on the page, as does the story.

Like a Jack Vance novel, this depicts a society deformed by one peculiar element; in this case, something’s missing. I won’t say what it is, since the realisation of its absence is something that should creep up on you. You could see this as a cynical attitude towards human behaviour: humans are so silly, allowing their lives to be shaped so casually by tiny things. I prefer to see it as hopeful: humans get by, whatever the circumstances; we do our best to keep going and find ways to adapt.

Having said that, I rather wished that the book had made the deformation more of an imperative, rather than a quirk; that there had been some good reason why the missing element was unavailable, say an absence of some essential ingredient, rather than just because no one had ever had the idea before.

It reminded me of a Vance novel in other ways, too. Laughlin shares Vance’s interest in inventing musical instruments, for example. And like a Vance hero, we first meet our hero, Karel Evandar, as a young man. We watch as he grows to maturity, learns the rules of this world, masters them, and then takes a hammer to them. There’s a feeling that only those who can beat the system are qualified to change it: don’t complain just because it doesn’t suit you personally.

On first reading, the concluding section felt slightly unsatisfying: though Karel strikes the expected blow against the existing order, he’s not involved, other than as an observer, in its eventual destruction. But upon reflection I realised that he is indirectly responsible for the changes. At a crucial juncture he makes a secret decision not to help: that decision leads others to make the changes; and it’s a decision informed by all his experiences in the book to that point. That’s the moment that pulls the events of the novel together.

One interesting part of the book is its approach to relationships. We’re led to believe that the datists will find it hard to build lasting relationships, partly because they’ll never forget a harsh word or expression, and also because they’ll never forget the perfection of a relationship’s early days. A couple who have been married for fifteen years might have a pretty good memory of how things were in their early days, but that wouldn’t necessarily make new developments any less enjoyable. Also, would the ability to recall sexual experiences perfectly, for example, make a man disinclined to add to that stock of memories, or would it encourage him to accumulate more?

What’s most impressive about this novel – aside from the carefully-crafted writing, controlled pacing, and the wealth of incidental detail – is the way Laughlin develops his premise, the way he successfully extends it into multiple areas, and reflects profoundly on the implications for the people involved. It’s the same thing I like about Superman comics in the fifties: he does everything in a super way, whether it’s shaving his beard or playing baseball. This isn’t just a book about someone with a superb memory; it’s a book about how a class of such people would affect everyday life, and how their training would affect every aspect of their own lives.
Overall, a very interesting and promising debut novel.

Vow of Silence, Robert Laughlin, Trytium, pb, 212pp.

Ship of Strangers, Bob Shaw

This fix-up contains five stories about the crew of the survey ship Sarafand. The Sarafand is only sent to map lifeless planets, which has fascinating psychological effects on the crew, something Bob Shaw handles with remarkable skill, and it also leads to some intriguing and unusual plots. At times they are closer to thought experiments like the prisoner’s dilemma than to other science fiction short stories, though Shaw doesn’t shortchange the reader on spaceships and aliens.

In the first story, the ship encounters an ancient and dangerous lifeform; the conclusion is a Tyke Tyler style reversal of expectations. The second considers the effect that dream tapes (a kind of virtual reality), and the resulting virtual girlfriends, have on the all-male crew. In the third story the crew discovers some mysterious alien technology; the story really strikes home with its depiction of the fear felt by a man left alone in a spacesuit in a hostile environment. The fourth story regards contact with an alien, time-travelling Shangri-La – plotwise it’s probably the weakest and most contrived of the stories, but psychologically it’s still very interesting. The final story is a mind-blowing humdinger that the blurb-writer should be shot for spoiling. (Thank goodness I didn’t read the back cover till I’d finished the book!)

They aren’t identified as separate stories, with chapter headings appearing within the stories as well as between them, but they are clearly discrete, with time passing between them and characters changing – though the protagonist, Surgenor, is constant throughout. In fact, a key feature of the book is that ever-changing cast, and Surgenor’s reflections on why he keeps doing the job, year after year, while others come and go. The title, Ship of Strangers, derives from the way the crew relate to each other; never making strong personal connections, trying to avoid any intimacy and arguments. They don’t want to care when their friends leave, as they inevitably will, so they try not to care at all. Surgenor knows he is emotionally damaged, understands the need for it, and questions whether he could stand a return to the full range of human emotions, but still wants to try, one day, when the time is right.

Ship of Strangers, Bob Shaw, Orion, pb, 224pp.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod

Don’t read this book if you’re not in the mood for re-evaluating your life. As Roushana Maitland looks back upon her hundred years on planet Earth, the reader can’t help but do something very similar. It’s a reflective, thoughtful and poetic book, but that doesn’t stop it being upsetting and rather depressing!

This didn’t really need to be a science fiction novel, though the same could of course said for many works in the genre. The core of it – the very literary biography of a violinist – could just have easily have been a 19th century novel by Stendhal, or a 20th century one by Moorcock. Where the Between the Wars quartet is set against the turmoil of the 20th century, Song of Time takes us through the equally epochal events of the century to come.

But though it didn’t need to be a science fiction novel, it is a very good one. There are many very interesting science fictional ideas in here, in particular with regard to post-death existence; just don’t expect raygun fights. Many traditional science fiction novels are about people taking on a rotten society and changing it; this one is more about the way people get on with life despite the way things change. It’s a very different kind of science fiction novel, but it’s a welcome departure.

The early sections are reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock in their portrayal of a adolescent girl’s rather inappropriate love. They set the scene for Roushana’s interest in music, and lay out the themes that will dominate the book: love, death, music, empathy. After the great love of her life dies, empathy will be Roushana’s weak spot, while it will become her mother’s great strength.

The description of these formative years is careful, detailed and highly emotional, but the author judges his book (or his readers) well. Just as the reader begins to wonder if it will be this maudlin and introspective all the way through (not that that would necessarily have been a bad thing), he unleashes an apocalypse to shake things up, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly things get even more depressing for a while after that. The ramifications extend all the way to my own front door, as fighting breaks out in Handsworth and troops are sent in. Then there is a heartbreaking visit to a devastated India, in particular to the bombed city of Ahmedabad, now home to the untouchables, who have found a strange freedom amidst the radiation.

But things become rather more upbeat when the scene moves to Paris, in the grip of a new renaissance. There we meet Claude, a brilliant pianist and conductor who brings both the novel and its frosty lead character to life. Roushana moves out of herself and engages with wider worlds of art and politics, bringing dynamism and vigour to the novel just when it threatened to slow down to a miserable crawl. Roushana and the reader are whirled through Paris, to America and then back to England for a conclusion of high melodrama.

Song of Time is a very different kind of science fiction novel, and one that won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a superb book. It is very ambitious, but it fulfills those ambitions. For example, writing about music is notoriously difficult, but MacLeod does a marvellous job of it here – crucial since his lead is a violinist. He covers the sweep of history impressively, but not intrusively; Roushana isn’t shoe-horned into events. Most interesting is the novel’s clear-eyed but sensitive attitude to death. What would it mean for us if it was avoidable? Would that be a good thing? Are stories with endings inherently better than those that go on for ever? MacLeod doesn’t force the reader into agreeing with his answers, but he makes his character’s final decision entirely believable.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod, PS Publishing, hb, 302pp.

Living with the Dead, Darrell Schweitzer

Every so often, the people living in the dingy coastal town of Old Corpsenberg get the impulse to go down to the docks, where they find piles of dead bodies left by trawlers. They pick out the bodies they like best and take them home, making them as comfortable as possible, despite the inconvenience to themselves as the bodies pile up. They are… Living with the Dead!

Since this book comes with a built-in review, and one that’s so persuasive and well-written (by Tim Lebbon), it feels a bit presumptuous to write another. I’ll give it a shot, but if you want to read a really good review of it, take a look at the introduction. It’s good when a book tells you what to think about it – saves having to think for yourself! Anyway, if you decide to read this review, you should know that you’re settling for second best!

Let’s get the quibbling out of the way first… Living with the Dead makes use of the most irritating narrative structure ever invented (in my opinion, at least): overlapping stories from different points of view. A curse on Rashomon and anyone who ever saw it! I don’t mind reading or watching a story out of order, or cut-up, or upside-down, but have a deep hatred of having to watch the same events over and over, just for the narrative to take a few short steps forward each time. I know I shouldn’t blame Rashomon; in that film the events at least appear differently to each person. More often, though, when writers use this approach (as in Living with the Dead), we see the same events, but notice different things through the new pair of eyes. This book isn’t as bad as some in that regard – the overlaps are fairly small – but there were enough of them to elicit a few here-we-go-again sighs.

I spent the early sections of the book wondering how anyone could live among so many bodies and not fall victim to disease. The answer is that the bodies don’t rot, which of course raises even more questions, but they are answered, so have a bit of faith in the book when you start reading it! (Though the ending throws things up in the air again, leaving me a bit baffled, especially since the most obvious explanation is explicitly ruled out by the back cover. Then again, should the reader take the back cover into account when trying to work out what has happened in a book? Probably not.)

The other big question I had was: who benefits from the people living like this? Usually, when people live in odd ways (or at least ways that seem odd to other people), it’s because it benefits (or at least is thought to benefit) somebody; either themselves, somebody else or society as a whole. For example, women from some cultures cover their faces in public; it’s not exactly on the scale of inviting dead bodies into your home, but it is inconvenient and seems odd to people from other cultures. We can readily conclude that someone gets something out of it, or at least that there are historical or sociological reasons why the practice developed. But who gets anything out of what these people do with the dead bodies? It’s such a horrible way to live that custom alone is not enough to explain it. The question is answered, but not to the extent that it explains the townsfolk going along with it (though there are hints that mind control is involved).

Upon reflection, I think the people of Corpsenberg have an empathy for dead bodies that we just don’t have; they respect them, and really want to care for them, when we’d want to dispose of them. They wouldn’t think of them as dead bodies; they’d think of them as dead people, as people who just happen to be dead. It’s not a huge leap away from the reverence shown in some cultures to ancestor spirits. It’s not all that hard to imagine people hanging on to dead bodies if they didn’t rot; look at how some people get their pets stuffed.

Having rattled through the book in a couple of hours, thinking mainly about the practicalities of what was going on, as noted above, I took a day or two to really appreciate it. It really came to life for me when I began to look around our living room and imagine bodies arranged along the walls… At that point I started to think of the book in terms of feelings and images, rather than plot, and my estimation of it went up considerably. Reading it for plot, you miss a lot; it’s a story of images and tableaux, as much as developments and revelations.

So, enough literalism… One way of reading the book is as a metaphor for life in a seaside town; somewhere like Blackpool. The dead are the holidaymakers and daytrippers, pouring into the town in their vast numbers, overwhelming the few actual inhabitants, who have to spend their whole lives catering to the needs of out-of-towners.

The book could possibly be given a more hostile reading, as an anti-immigration metaphor, the dead representing the immigrants and refugees brought by ships to our shores. Ultimately, though, such a reading is prevented by the affection the people have for the bodies. They don’t fight them off, or try to get them out of town – they fall in love with them, turn to them for comfort, dance with them! If the book is a metaphor for immigration, in a curious way it’s a positive one. The dead are inconvenient, but only because of their numbers. The people of Old Corpsenberg are generally enriched by their presence, just as I was enriched by reading this fine, atmospheric and unforgettable book…

Living with the Dead, Darrell Schweitzer, PS Publishing, hb, 72pp.

The City in These Pages, John Grant

Reviewing this is a lot like reviewing From the Notebooks from McSweeney’s 22, in that it’s a homage to something I don’t know a great deal about. Whereas From the Notebooks was a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, The City in These Pages is a homage to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

I think I do have one of them in the house, but so far it’s unread. I’ve seen a couple of Columbo episodes adapted from his books (“Undercover” adapted Jigsaw, while “No Time To Die” adapted So Long As You Both Shall Live, I think as backdoor pilots), but that’s not a lot to go on.

So I can’t judge how closely Grant has stuck to McBain’s template, but the banter is snappy, the crimes imaginative, the characters neatly drawn, and from the introduction (written by David Langford) it sounds very much like that’s the kind of thing people like about Ed McBain’s books.

Of the books I have read, this reminded me most of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Admittedly that’s the book around which the rest of the literary universe revolves for me at the moment – I did go a bit mad for it! – but there are similarities. Both have a world-weary tough guy teamed with a bulkier partner (here they are black and Japanese, rather than Jewish and Tlingit), and both are set in a present-day world that isn’t quite ours.

This book doesn’t quite match Chabon’s masterpiece, but it’s very enjoyable. Its only real flaw is its short length; I’d quite happily have read much more of the same. It’s more like an episode of Homicide than an episode of Columbo: you’ll be left wanting more. The conclusion left me rather conflicted… I felt rather cheated out of a proper resolution to the criminal investigation, but I was very happy with it in science fiction terms.

To get more of the same I guess I’ll have to look up McBain’s books. That must be the mark of a good homage: while you can enjoy it on its own account, it makes the uninitiated want to search out the originals. If Grant persuades a few die-hard fantasy and science fiction readers to switch lanes long enough to give the 87th Precinct novels a try, I’m sure he’ll count this a job well done.

The City in These Pages, John Grant, PS Publishing, hb, 80pp.

A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, ed. Lavie Tidhar – reviewed

I was hoping this anthology would take a more formal approach, so I was a tiny bit disappointed with it as a whole. Nevertheless, many of the individual stories are interesting. The stories fall into two main camps, with some having a foot in both: adult stories written in the style of children’s books, and grown-up stories about Dick and Jane themselves.

I’d never heard of Dick and Jane before, but they’re the American equivalent of Peter and Jane (making them a slightly odd choice of subject for a publication only available to members of the British Fantasy Society); a foreword to put the stories in context would have been useful.

Writing a vocabulary-controlled book for children is a particular kind of exercise – the early books in the Peter and Jane series, for example, only introduce one or two new words per page. In this book none of the writers try to write with a controlled, cumulative vocabulary. The linguistic references to the original texts tend to be just to the easily parodied surface elements – e.g. see Jane run – rather than trying to emulate their structures, and working within them, which might have been more subversive. It’s a bit like producing a book of adult nursery rhymes that don’t rhyme or scan. It’s not wrong, just not quite as interesting as it might have been. Admittedly, a more formal approach might have led to much duller stories!

A lot too has been lost by printing it like a normal, adult book, in a small font with ordinary typesetting, with ordinary (if slightly inconsistent) punctuation. It works for the adult stories of Dick and Jane, but it would have added much to the power of the pseudo-children’s stories if they had appeared in a format reproducing that of a children’s book – i.e. a large font, just a few lines per page, no quote marks around dialogue (in the very simple stories), etc. Obviously all those extra pages would have added a lot to the cost of printing, but it’s nice to imagine this as a thicker book, with the artwork (by John Keates, which is very good indeed) used for fake covers in between the stories, taking us through an imaginary reading scheme.

One of my favourite stories from the collection was “Somewhere in the Street” by Ed Clayton. The strange, controlled dialogue of characters like Peter and Jane makes them sound half-crazy even in real children’s books, so it’s not a leap to imagine them as fully psychotic, something Clayton does very well. For an example of such dialogue from the real Peter and Jane, see the chilling scene on pages 24 to 27 of Key Words 2a: “Here are Peter and Jane. Peter has some water. Here you are, Jane, he says. Here you are, Jane, says Peter. Here you are. This is for you. Here is some water for you.” The picture shows Peter pouring water over Jane’s head while she screams…

I enjoyed all the stories individually, but two others I liked in particular were “The Hushes” by Conrad Williams, which was very well written if a bit tangential to the anthology, and “We Go Down to the Woods Today” by Marion Arnott, which reads much like a Ladybird book written by Stephen King.

A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, ed. Lavie Tidhar, BFS, pb, 52pp.