Autumn reading 2021

Aaaall the leeeaves aaare broooowwn – All-The-Leaves-Are-Brown!

And the sky is indeed grey, or at least up in Scotland it is. And also constantly pishing it down. No better time to stay in and read if you can.

Quick personal update: My short story Great Nothing – a Cold War sci-fi tale involving a trip to an isolated Antarctic research base where absolutely nothing is going to go wrong, right? – is out in Shoreline of Infinity 27 now. You can buy the digital magazine for £2.70 on the website here. It has an incredible illustration to go with it by artist Stephen Daly who very kindly sent me the original drawing for my wall (right). It’s eerie and gorgeous and I can’t thank him enough! Seriously, look at it, don’t you want to find out what happens in that story? Click the link, it’s cheaper than a pint! (Unless you’re in a Wetherspoons. Shame on you.)

Now, to business. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed lately which I heartily recommend.

A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames (2021, Pushkin Vertigo)

What if you took a Philip Marlowe or a Sam Spade or maybe even a Jack Reacher but made him kind of a fuck-up who likes pot? You’d get someone like Happy Doll, the PI at the heart of Jonathan Ames’s A Man Named Doll. Despite talking like he knows what he’s doing, things tend to keep going wrong for Happy, a big sad sack who loves his dog and finds himself in the shit when an old friend turns up at his door with a bullet in his gut and a massive diamond in his pocket.

Ames is probably most famous for his bleak noir thriller You Were Never Really Here which was turned into an even bleaker film starring Joaquin Phoenix, and while there’s heartbreak and grit and violence aplenty, Happy Doll has a special earnestness and kindness in him, expressed through a worldview at odds with the situations he ends up in – a softboiled man in a hardboiled world.  A wonderful character whose humanity and vulnerability give a freshness to the classic LA noir vibe, a new spin on the tough guy hero.

There’s a sequel on the way so get in at the ground floor now!

The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters by Katie Goh (2021, 404 Ink)

Part of 404 Ink’s inaugural run of pocket-sized nonfiction books – pleasingly named ‘Inklings’ – The End by Katie Goh studies apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction across books, films, and video games and discusses what it is we get out of them. Why do we want to read about death, destruction, disaster, and diseases – especially when we’re still in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic ourselves?

As a fan of apocalypses – I’m partial to a traditional zombie one but other kinds can be fun too – it’s something I’m interested to find out myself. One of the most enjoyable essays I wrote at uni was on resource literature, comparing and contrasting The Road (Cormac McCarthy), The Death of Grass (John Christopher), and The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham) with regards to ‘cosy’ apocalypses. So I jumped into this book with real excitement.

Goh categorises the fictional apocalypse into different types of disaster – extra-terrestrial, climate, etc. – to dissect what it is about each that appeals to fans, what real life anxieties and events inspire an appetite for such stories, and what they can teach us about ourselves and society and the future, illustrated with examples from big, silly blockbusters like Armageddon (look up Ben Affleck’s few-beers-deep commentary on Armageddon on YouTube, it’s hilarious) to cult classics like JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. There’s also a really great look at Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation as climate disaster, and how the end of the world is also the end of the self, and maybe vice-versa.

The all-too-real COVID-19 pandemic is used as a spring-board while also providing context and real life insight, giving the whole book a unique perspective that wouldn’t have been possible not so long ago. For instance, Goh points out a parallel between the very white, western, capitalistic disaster scenario in fiction (saving the US saves the world, etc.) and the massively uneven distribution of vaccines throughout the world during a real disaster.  

Bottom line: Really interesting and enjoyable read, gotta get myself some more of these little books.

Interrogating the Abyss by Chris Kelso (2021, Apocalypse Party)

This is my current read, another non-fiction outing from purveyor of strange, transgressive, outrageous, violent, sick tales, Chris Kelso. His previous book, Burroughs & Scotland, looked at the beat gen grandad’s stay in Edinburgh for the 1962 International Writers Conference through the personal lens of an admirer and fellow outcast. Here, Kelso collects a series of essays, interviews, short stories, and poetry on the subject of the abyss, or the void, or whatever name you’d like to give to the darkness people feel themselves pulled towards when they are vulnerable or lonely or on the hunt for something outside of common experience.

Kelso has stitched together a patchwork of cult filmmakers, alternative artists, underground writers, and auteurs who have all served as inspiration and fascination for his own work. One essay sees him interview Buddy Giovinazzo, director of Combat Shock, a formative influence seen way too young. Another weaves together several interviews with the likes of Evan Isoline, Paul Kwiatkowski, and Derek McCormack in a dreamy fictive structure, recurring themes of optimism/pessimism and artistic struggle coming through. There’s also a much straighter approach here and there, including an informative interview with award-winning, critically-acclaimed, living-legend-status editor Ellen Datlow but it’s the weirder, gonzo – for lack of a better word – stuff that really grips me.

Kelso’s own stories pepper the book (including the particularly excellent ‘Contiguity to Annihilation’ – a musician searching for new alien sounds comes across an eerie town where people don’t seem quite right) which taken altogether forms a kind of collage, a dark mood board. Depressing by his own admission but also very interesting.

(Aside: Chris recently co-wrote a brilliant short story with one of my other favourites, Laura Mauro, called The Recidivist which you can read here.)

Akira book 6 by Katsuhiro Otomo (2011 [1990], Kodansha Comics)

Sprawling is probably the most accurate way to describe Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk manga epic of the 1980s. Story, character, setting, worldbuilding – all of it sprawling, tangling, a tapestry of insane detail on every page, in every panel.

I started this six book saga many, many years ago, with so long between each volume I probably should have started again from the very top with each one I collected, particularly because there are so many characters and subplots intricately weaving their way around shifting alliances, temporary truces, and then scattered to the far winds and back again with each cataclysmic event that befalls Neo Tokyo. But I didn’t, and I spent the first quarter of each volume going ‘Who’s that again? …Oh yeah.’ So to be honest, now I’ve finally read it all, I think I’ll do it again.

Loosely, the plot follows a group of children with psychic and telekinetic abilities, including Akira, whose power is so great and volatile it once destroyed Tokyo and now threatens to do so again. The fate of these children is fought over by governments, military powers, scientists, druggy biker gangs, nationalist cult worshippers, you name it, with the story being told from many perspectives by a large rag tag crew of characters caught up in the mess. Book 6 brings everything to a head in the kind of frenzied carnage seen throughout the series, all intricately, even painstakingly, penned by Otomo.

Thematically, Otomo sweeps from scientific ethics to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII, musing on fatalism and self-determination. Stylistically, Akira is seminal in the cyberpunk canon and almost everything you see you will have seen repeated in later works, especially in video games where homages to the source are rife, from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid. I think this is one reason why the always-promised-but-never-made live action Akira film is kind of redundant. Regardless of how good it might look, it’ll never feel fresh or innovative because it has been copied so many times since. Also, the 1988 anime adaptation by Otomo himself is still incredible over 30 years on – thousands of pages ruthlessly cut down to a tight hour and half while steel feeling like a full, complete story, it’s amazing work – just watch that.

Alien: The Illustrated Story by Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson (2012 [1979], Titan Books)

Ah, tfw you get out the med bay after being in quarantine and you can finally sit down to a nice meal with your pals again before heading off home. Heaven! Oh no, wait, what’s that, indigestion? – AARRRGGHHBLEURGHGHGHGHHHH!

Or as Archie Goodwin writes it in Alien: The Illustrated story: “Eruption! A scarlet shower! Of flesh. Of blood.” And despite the slightly Marenghi-esque descriptions Goodwin leans towards throughout, the picture of the alien bursting out of Kane’s chest (drawn by Walter Simonson) is astounding, visceral, and captures the shock of the scene from the film perfectly.

Originally published in black-and-white in 1979, this graphic novel tie-in to the SF-horror space-slasher classic Alien was rereleased in 2012 in full colour, using original artwork from Simonson’s archive. For those unfamiliar with the Ridley Scott film, Alien follows the crew of a deep-space trawler on its way home to Earth. One of their number becomes impregnated with an alien egg after responding to a distress beacon then, as you might guess, bad things happen.

The comic stays true to the film, even the dialogue follows the script closely with only minor interjections from Goodwin’s slightly overcooked narration. (“A lifeform slowly pulses. Pulses on the face of the Nostromo’s executive officer, Kane…” – then a couple of pages later – “And the lifeform on the face of the refinery tanker’s executive officer …continues to slowly pulse.” One eyebrow has to be cocked to read this out properly.)

Simonson’s art shines though. The film’s famous moments are rendered gloriously, the alien itself looking huge and menacing, the double page spread of the alien ship on LV426 wonderful to behold. Where the comic really varies from the film here is in colour palette. Where the film is gloomy and dark throughout, Simonson doesn’t limit himself at all, with the alien skies and noxious gases of LV426 painted in oranges and pinks, and generally throughout going for vivid, surprising tones.

If you’re a big Alien nerd already, you’ll love this (I got it as a gift a good few years ago and return to it often) and if you can’t decide whether your favourite is Alien or Aliens, this just might sway you to the former.

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