Aldous Huxley: Ape and Essence – Review

An interesting little book. A lot of familiar Huxley tropes (conflicts between eastern and western philosophy and religion, warnings about the progression of technology, commentary on the dualistic elements of human nature, etc.) but written in a rather more experimental way. Certainly ahead of it’s time considering when it was released. I think if I had read this during my late teenage years it could have been one of my favorites along with Brave New world and Island.

And remember this,” he adds: “even without synthetic glanders, even without the atomic bomb, Belial could have achieved all His purposes. A little more slowly, perhaps, but just as surely, men would have destroyed themselves by destroying the world they lived in. They couldn’t escape. He had them skewered on both His horns. If they managed to wriggle off the horn of total war, they would find themselves impaled on starvation. And if they were starving, they would be tempted to resort to war. And just in case they should try to find a peaceful and rational way out of their dilemma, He had another subtler horn of self-destruction all ready for them. From the very beginning of the industrial revolution He foresaw that men would be made so over-weeningly bumptious by the miracles of their own technology that they would soon lose all sense of reality. And that’s precisely what happened. These wretched slaves of wheels and ledgers began to congratulate themselves on being the Conquerors of Nature. Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger – Review

My first experience reading King. After an interesting beginning culminating in the slaughter of a dreamlike desert town (where I could see elements of King’s horror writing that make him such a well known author) there really wasn’t too much to capture my attention. The majority of the middle was a fairly dull adventure story dotted with small glimpses of the protagonist’s backstory. There were definitely some good elements that help to build the slightly surreal, post-apocalyptic world King is trying to create, but they didn’t really do much to hold my interest. However the climax of the story and the inevitable encounter between the gunslinger and the man in black was fantastic. Suddenly we’re thrown into a metaphysical monologue with an extended dream sequence that reads like a mescaline trip and starts to show us the route King might be taking the rest of the series. Overall I think 3* is a fair rating. I’m not in a rush to read any more King books after this one but I’d quite like to come back to the Dark Tower series at some point in the future.

Alejandro Jodorowsky & Mœbius: The Incal – Review

The Incal is possibly one of the most difficult books I’ve had to rate in recent times. The problem with rating comics is that I don’t know how to distinguish between the overall reading experience, the script, and the art itself. Jodorowsky and Moebius’ work really sums up this dilemma. On the one hand we have a comic script that is funny and clever in parts but often overly sporadic to the point of sometimes being incomprehensible (this shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with Jodorowsky) and on the other we have a collection of technicolour sci-fi imagery that’s as inventive as it is beautiful, but is often coloured very confusingly (characters will literally change shape and colour depending on the tone of the page). I’ve found this problem again and again with rating supposedly influential comics (Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comes to mind) but I think I’ve settled on 4* because the book undoubtedly has some elements of visionary genius tucked away in there amongst the madness. Overall The Incal took me on a journey. It creates a bizarre futuristic sci-fi world that comes across like the monograph of someone at the end of a two day acid trip – but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Regardless of my thoughts it’s still a must read for Sci-fi fans in any medium.

William Gibson: Neuromancer – Review

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

How can I describe Neuromancer? Probably by writing something with far too much unnecessary alliteration. A rip-roaring roller-coaster ride resembling a prophetic vision of our recent reality maybe? That’s something that I could imagine being on a blurb of a sci-fi book in the 80s…

Anyway, I got about halfway through this book almost 2 years ago before drunkenly leaving it at a friends house in somewhere in the sprawl of suburban London. Fast forward to the present and I’m living in a different kind of sprawl amongst the neon lights of East Asia. It seems quite appropriate that I finished the book here.

Neuromancer is really somewhere between a work of utter genius and the speculative ramblings of an inexperienced sci-fi writer. It’s extremely difficult to follow (even the second time round) and many of the characters and settings are unexplained or underdeveloped. However, in a sort of backwards way this is arguably one of the book’s biggest strengths. You are thrown head first into a world of technological acronyms and digital codes that are not explained to you by any omniscient narrator – you the reader have to try and work out what’s going on while it’s all happening, and this is no easy task. There is no break in the action for any kind of sustained explanation and this leaves you with a real sense of what life in a dark digital dystopia must feel like. In other words, Gibson’s scatty, action packed, fast paced writing is the perfect aesthetic style for the world he’s trying to envision, and it’s a world that has, as many readers are well aware, become eerily close to our own.

The fact that this book was released in 1984 is absolutely staggering in my opinion and it’s honestly a pretty big surprise that it hasn’t dated badly at all. Gibson actually joked that one of the only things that kids these days would found completely off about Neuromancer’s predictions is that no one is carrying around smartphones.

All in all as I’ve recently been digging down the rabbit hole of accelerationism and retracing my routes in the philosophy of technology Neuromancer was the perfect thing to read. Not quite worth 5 stars but easily deserving of 4. I’m going to give another book of Gibson’s a read to hopefully see if his ideas are as prescient as they were in this book when he has had more time to develop as an author.

A couple of my favourite quotes:

‘His vision crawled with ghost hieroglyphs, translucent lines of symbols arranging themselves against the neutral backdrop of the bunker wall. He looked at the backs of his hands, saw faint neon molecules crawling beneath the skin, ordered by the unknowable code. He raised his right hand and moved it experimentally. It left a faint, fading trail of strobed afterimages. The hair stood up along his arms and at the back of his neck. He crouched there with his teeth bared and felt for the music. The pulse faded, returned, faded…’

‘It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way could ever read…’

‘But weren’t the zaibatsus more like that, or the Yakuza, hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA encoded in silicon?’

J.G. Ballard: High Rise – Review

Very interesting book but damn it took me a long time to get through for something so (relatively) short. It was partly due to the bleak nature of the book, but partly because Ballard has a very particular kind of writing style. It just doesn’t draw me in instantaneously. Even though his speculative concepts are intriguing and the stories are often compelling enough on their own, I just don’t particularly enjoy reading his books as I’m reading them. However, as soon as I finish I become seemingly more interested to delve deeper into his oeuvre.

On a side note: The modern politico-philosophical trend of accelerationism has a lot of interesting things to say about Ballard’s writing which I find to be of interest. As Ballard had predicted, sf had become the only medium capable of addressing the disorienting reality of the present:

‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the twentieth century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow—or, more exactly, in about ten years’ time, though the gap is narrowing. Science fiction is the most important fiction that has been written for the last 100 years…’

I’ll certainly be coming back to explore more of his work at some point before the year is through.

Dan Abnett: Horus Rising – Review

A pretty good piece of pulp SF, although it was definitely a bit too long with too little focusing on the history of the 40k-verse. The only reason I really read this was really for some childhood nostalgia. I was expecting a quick read with a bunch of fun 40k facts that would have been fascinating to my 11 year old self, but instead it seems that this book was more of an introduction to the whole ‘Horus Heresy’ saga and although I’m definitely intrigued to see how it all plays out I really can’t be bothered to read a few thousand more pages of similar stories just for that reason (the whole book built up to an ending that was really just starting to dip it’s toes into the dark and gruesome feud between the Imperium and Chaos). There’s no doubt it was a fun, action packed read, and definitely better written that I’d expected, but if I ever do go back to a 40k book any time soon it probably won’t be the next in the Heresy series. Overall though a decent 3*.

EDIT: A couple hours after finishing the book I’ve just come to realise who some of the characters mentioned are. I knew Abaddon sounded familiar… Definitely makes the book tick a few more boxes. Not quite enough for a 4* though!

Will Self: The Quantity Theory of Insanity – Review

Will self is an interesting personality in the literary world. Across the internet there seems to be an abundance of people who either find him annoying, obnoxious or overly self-indulgent. On the other hand there are some people dotted around on Goodreads and other literary forums who seem to think the man is a quick-witted genius of serious imaginative ability: ‘The second coming of J.G. Ballard!’ they shout from across their keyboards.

Self is also a regular on British political TV programmes Question Time and Newsnight, and has some fairly outspoken but often very sensible views about the state of British politics and the role of literature within society. So bearing all this in mind I was quite intrigued when I picked up The Quantity Theory of Insanity for the first time.

The book is essentially a collection of 6 (very loosely) interconnected short stories set in London, which tackles the issues surrounding death, boredom, sanity, insanity, drugs, academia, and the mundanity of modern living.

The North London Book of the Dead

The first story asks a truly fun and witty, yet awfully banal question (which will go on the make up the main storyline for one of his later books): What if when people die they don’t go to Heaven or Hell but instead just move to a different part of London? These first 20 pages to The Quantity Theory really had me questioning why so many people hate Self’s writing. I personally found it concise and engaging with subtle hint of wit that actually made me laugh out loud at points.

Ward 9

Following this comes a bizarre Kafkaesque tale of an art therapists journey into the world of mental hospital where it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between doctor and patient. Although this was one of the longer stories in the collection I really enjoyed this one too. Self’s surreal characterisation of a descent into madness keeps you guessing at every step, and depicts elements of the extraordinary with the fantastic mundanity of some of Kafka’s best short stories (A Country Doctor comes to mind).

Understanding the Ur-Bororo

The third story outlines a genius anthropologists exposition of the worlds most boring tribe. Self’s writing which, at times, was clear and fresh was becoming obtuse and dull. Understanding the Ur-Bororo was decent but was nowhere near as good as either of its predecessors. This theme seems to continue through the rest of the book: however good the first two stories were, the 4th and 5th were bad.

The Quantity Theory of Insanity

The title piece of this collection had some potential but in my opinion this was where Self’s book really fell apart. It sprawled on for 70 pages, 50 of which seemingly had nothing to do with the actual story. There was literally a 20 page excursion in which the main character spends days looking around London toilets for clues that would help him to locate his estranged university professor, who he thun bumps into completely by chance… No explanation provided. Essentially the last pages had been completely irrelevant to the development of the storyline, which most authors will tell you is a fatal sin when writing short fiction. It seemed to be Self was trying to be too clever in a ‘post-modern’ sort of way, but it failed miserably…

Mono-Cellular

Mono-Cellular is a bizarre hallucinatory tale told from the perspective of what seemed to be like one of Oliver Sacks’ patients. I really felt it was a slog reading through the disconnected time hops and the overly purple prose that Self feels necessary to include in a lot of his writing (though this didn’t bother me as much as it has some reviewers). The idea itself could have had some potential, but yet again I really just don’t think Self pulled it off.

Waiting

The final story Waiting was a brief return to form. It tells the story of a man who becomes so sick of waiting that he joins what is essentially a cult of bike riding, speed sniffing, courier drivers who believe that the millennium will bring the end of the era of waiting. It was a sharp and witty poke at our modern society that is so obsessed with speed and efficiency that everything, paradoxically, seems to come to a standstill. Not the most engaging story I’ve ever read but pretty solid.

Overall I think that Self’s writing is a pretty accurate description of his media personality. Sometimes clever, witty and brilliant, sometimes dull, self-indulgent and banal. The Quantity Theory gets a Solid 3 out of 5 from me because the first few stories were thoroughly enjoyable, however I’m not in a rush to read any of Self’s novels any time soon if they risk being as inconsistent as this book was. Saying that, if anyone has any recommendations regarding Self’s other works I’d love to hear about them!