Review: H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Posted: April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

H.P. Lovecraft’s work and mind dissected by another novelist with a dark worldview, introduced by Stephen King, no less.

If you want further proof of H.P. Lovecraft’s fear of life, look no further than French novelist Houellebecq’s magnificent essay. No great lover of the world himself (here he describes life as “painful and disappointing”), Houellebecq is closer to the common experience of humanity than Lovecraft. He acts a bridge between the recluse of Providence and ourselves, and what insights he offers us.

Lovecraft was nervy, stifled and afraid. He disdained everyone and everything, regarded himself as a gentleman, and cleaved as hard as he could to an outmoded code of behaviour but, as Houellebecq reveals, it was Lovecraft’s time in New York that challenged his belief that he could remain genteelly detached, and transformed his incipient racism (all too common by the day’s standards) into a burning phobia. It was only this that allowed him to create his “great texts”. His mighty creative engine ran on fear and hatred.

This is not an apology for Lovecraft, but an argument in favour of negative human emotions being essential to great art. Lovecraft’s own certainty that civilisation would be overwhelmed by its animal urges is presented in an entirely racist manner, but it reveals to us our own wider fears about materialistic culture: should we stop and think, we are terrified that it means absolutely nothing at all.

There is more to it, of course, Houellebecq makes an interesting point about the role of architecture in Lovecraft’s work, and speaks of the author’s abhorrence for expressions of vitality in general. What he does not make much of is Lovecraft’s retreat from all things carnal, as King says in his introduction, we also have a Freudian “three ring circus” in Lovecraft’s work if we care to look. The book also contains Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’.

Against the World, Against life (published in 1991 as Contre le monde, contre la vie, brilliantly translated by Dorna Khazeni), is an important work. I can’t recommend it more. King makes a mistake in his introduction, however. He says that Lovecraft influenced the weird British writer William Hope Hodgson, but despite the similarities, Hodgson wrote his bizarre stories while Lovecraft was young and trapped in a peculiar post-adolescent lethargy; he was dead well before Lovecraft had written his “Great Texts”.

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Review: The Adamantine Palace

Posted: April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Adamantine Palace
The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From Death Ray #18.

Writer: Stephen Deas

Publisher: Gollancz

THREE STARS

Dragons get big and mean, politics small and unclean in this fantasy debut from Stephen Deas.

Who doesn’t like a nice dragon? The scaly behemoths are one of the cornerstones of the fantasy genre, so it’s a bit puzzling we don’t get more books about them. We suppose it’s because they are so vastly powerful that they’d quickly overwhelm any opposition, which is kind of the point to The Adamantine Palace.

The Adamantine Palace is set in a fantasy kingdom divided into nine separate realms whose rulers depend upon the power of their dragon-mounted knights. Naturally, these dragon kings and queens are all at each other’s throats, vying for the position of Speaker of the Realms, kind of high king, and hopping in and out of each other’s beds. Only the awesome power of their pet lizards and a web of alliances stop their spats bubbling over into outright war.

Anti-hero Prince Jehal is keen on the grabbing the big chair at the top table, and is thus happily murdering, shagging and double-crossing his way to the throne, which, as exciting as that is, is only half the story. The extensive b-plot follows a dragon mount after it gets free during an attempt to steal it. Released from the drugs the realms’ alchemists dope the beast with, this pedigree white dragon, dubbed “Snow” soon regains its native intelligence. Brains and free will go hand in hand with a violent racial memory, telepathy, need to aggressively smash everything up, a regard for humans as snacks and a shocking propensity for arson in dragonland, so you can kind of see why they are kept under the chemical cosh in Dea’s world.

With the dragons’ destructive abilities never far from the author’s mind, he puts on a good show. The story runs like a whippet, while its politics keep up the amusement with Jehal’s relentless treachery. That’s good. The world it all takes place in is another matter, it never rings true, and while there’s a gloss of surface detail there’s not enough to convince that the author truly knows his setting. True, some novels bore with their obsessive attention to how peasants make shoes out of Orcskin, but world building is part and parcel of the genre, and when we have as potentially a fascinating one as this, we’d like to know how it works. Instead, the backdrop is as convincing as a bare stage, and the twin stories not strong enough to distract us from it.

The characters too could do with a certain additional three-dimensionality. A lot of them experience love, but don’t understand it, they often think in plot points that trail away like little arrows to the next shoehorned info nugget, while their motivations are predicated on what the story needs a little too often. There are moments where you feel that Deas is using their internal monologues to convince himself that what they are about to do is true to form, and not to provide character, the result being that you don’t quite believe in any of it. In its politics and people, the Adamantine Palace hints at complexity, but turns out to be almost disarmingly simple. Still, we don’t want to be too hard on Deas, this is a better first book than some and good fun.

For other fantasies with a big dragon content try The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick, The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin, Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, or alternate Napoleonic history series Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Surprisingly, both James Maxey’s Bitterwood trilogy and the never-ending Pern saga by Anne McCaffrey are actually science fiction, with genetically engineered winged lizards (and, one could argue, plots).

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I’m not a great muso; talking about music makes me uncomfortable. A hangover from my younger days when what you listened to defined who you were. I was having none of that faux-tribal identity crap, and learned very quickly to hate schoolyard, testosterone-fuelled bullshit about how one couldn’t possibly like both The Pet Shop Boys and Anthrax. So much so, in fact, I just gave up.

So I never really “got into” music. I don’t know much about it. The NME musical taxonomy pub debate makes me fantasise about gross acts of violence involving a cello. Of course I listen to the stuff, it’s impossible not to, but not as often as most folks. I can’t write and listen to music with lyrics, for example, so I prefer silence. Or tweeting birds. The wind in the trees. Whalesong. Whatever it is, as long as it doesn’t lead to another tedious discourse on who influenced who when with what Moog chords.

Once, asking me about music would earn you a response only slightly less aggressive than my rebuffs to football conversational gambits. For years I pretended not to care what people think, now I (almost) genuinely don’t. I even have an Atomic Kitten song in my iTunes library. I’ll admit that. That’s how little I care. So what? They were nice to look at. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Without Warning

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

Without Warning
Without Warning by John Birmingham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the eve of the Second Gulf War, North America is engulfed by a mysterious energy wave that kills/ disappears everyone underneath it. 400 million are dead, and the world is suddenly without the USA…

What ensues is a mix of Battlestar Galactica, Jericho, and Bourne as Earth is first ravaged by the environmental fallout of the burning of US cities, and then nuclear war. Birmingham follows a number of Anglophones as the disaster unfolds, and that gives you a clue to the spirit of the book; it’s unashamedly pro-American. Birmingham treats his foreigners as either honourable minorities, or the treacherous other. Likewise his women are all lookers with daddy fixations, his Brits toffs or cockneys, anyone who speaks English as a second language says “No?” at the end of every sentence, and his heroes are all over six foot. The scenario is pessimistic and misunderstands the power America holds, as Birmingham has the rest of humanity immediately go into Hobbesian overdrive without the moral US keeping us in check. What the French do is particularly difficult to swallow.

If this makes it sound shite, well it is, but paradoxically, if you ignore the questionable geopolitics, it’s also rather good fun. Beyond the aforementioned foibles, Birmingham’s characters are engaging, his action exciting, his research solid, and he writes really well. Whether you go for the two sequels depends on how much the latter points outweigh the former for you. High mark for entertainment value.

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Review: Seal Team 666

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

Seal Team 666
Seal Team 666 by Weston Ochse
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Seal Team 666 pits America’s real-life action heroes against the occult. A blockbuster premise, but it derails itself at the beginning with an opening crammed full of laboriously explicated military acronyms, and no immediately distinguishable characters.

It’s a slip up that does the story a disservice. Seal Team 666 is by no means a great book, but it passes the time pleasantly. US veteran Ochse knows whereof he writes, and the military aspects of the story are insanely detailed (which may be a turn on or a turn off, depending on your tolerance for gun porn), and the horror aspects of the tale are very effective. Demonic entities, horrible supernatural flashbacks, gloriously described deaths and a generous portion of gore. Great stuff.

In character and pacing it’s less successful. The plot is a string of similar missions, and although the pages zip by in these sequences (although you can just see any one of them disastrously made into a SciFi Channel TV movie), the connecting tissue is less impressive. It’s very… American. The heroes are cumbersome creations with little depth, characterisation is liberally draped emotional tinsel. There is a dog on the team who owes much to Rintintin and Disney. All the chicks are hot. The US is best, every other nation is questionable. Osama Bin Laden was an actual demon. That kind of thing.

Still, it’s fun in fits and starts, and the series (it’s a series) could develop into something cool.

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I watched The Hobbit 2 again last night, along with Mrs Haley. I enjoyed it a lot more this time. The first half of the film is better than the second, but when we get to the shenanigans in Lake Town there is more padding than in a super plush Bombur soft toy and things go downhill.

I noticed a few things this time round. Here they are.

i) The archaic phrase “but for” as in “nobody gets out but for the leave of the king” crops up three times.

ii) In a possible leftover from an earlier draft of the screenplay, Smaug talks of the men of Lake Town and “their long bows and black arrows” – in the book, the black arrow is simply that. There’s no such thing as a “Dwarvish Wind Lance”.

iii) Orcs are getting bigger. In Tolkien’s books, Orcs are generally small, some as small as Hobbits, with “Man-sized” being an adjective for a particularly large specimen. Only the great Uruks and certain earlier breeds of Orc employed by Morgoth in the War of the Jewels are as big as or bigger than men. In the Hobbit films, the smallest are only slightly shorter than men. Bolg and Azog are much bigger, which is fair enough seeing as they are chiefs, but the Orcs of Dol Guldur are enormous.

As Emma says “That all got very silly. I give it a six out of ten.”