The Exquisite Corpse Adventure – Various Authors

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure is a book written by twenty authors. The story is about two circus orphans searching for the remains of a Top-Secret Robot, who can retrieve their parents from another dimension. From that synopsis alone you can see why I read this book.

The title refers to a game invented by the surrealist Andre Breton. A person writes a line on a piece of paper, folds the paper so that only their line can be seen, and passes the paper onto the person next to them. They write their piece, fold it so the next person can only see the line they wrote, and so the game goes on. It’s a bit like Chinese Whispers, really. I remember doing it once in Secondary School, I was the charming kid who wrote the bit where everyone died. (In another life I could have been a troll…)

The Exquisite Corpse in the book’s title also refers to the Top-Secret Robot, obviously.

According to the book’s website, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure was was written on a slight variation on Breton’s method. The authors were allowed to read all the previous chapters. The illustrators could only read the chapters their reading. There are pictures, and they’re pretty good.

As you’d expect the adventure is spotty, inconsistent and surreal. Baby rollerskating in a boxing rink surreal. In TvTrope terminology the book is on some sort of Genre Roulette. There’s science-fiction, fantasy, family drama, comedy and even cosmic horror in here. It’s never too early for a bit of cosmic horror, I reckon.

Susan Cooper was a standout author for me. I was familiar with her writing creepy stuff like The Dark Is Rising, but here she was really funny. She introduces a talking elephant called Hathi.

Daniel Handler, who writes under the name of Lemony Snicket, was another big surprise. I never got into his Series of  Unfortunate Events franchise. I started reading the first book, but the events were too silly and the narration too contrived for me. The Jim Carrey film was good, though. Handler writes the best chapter in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, about a depressed railway safety worker.

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure would make a suitable present for a child who already likes reading, and the blurb says it’s suitable for ages nine to five. This might also be a good book to read to a class of children.

The purpose of the book is to encourage children to read, but it isn’t a good representation of the world of literature. Books are great when you’re a kid. It’s all Captain Underpants, scatology, wonder, adventure and novelty. Interesting fiction tends to peter out in the Young Adult years, when the focus switches to tedious romance and other social minutiae. The adult section of your local library can be fairly dire place, a wasteland of red-heart and green-castle stickers. Still, I’ve never seen a Robert Silverberg marketed towards children or teenagers. It’s a pity that the books that get kids passionate about reading are rarely replicated for teenagers or adults.


The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy – Various Authors

The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was published by Souvenir Press in 1966, and as the name suggests it is a short story anthology containing stories of both the Science Fiction and Fantasy varieties.

No, there aren’t any pictures of naked women in this book. My guess is that Playboy sought the best stories they could, to make up for the whole pornography thing. The introduction is sexist, there’s a lot of male gaze, and there are a few stories about explicitly heterosexual relationships. Sex is a more prominent theme here than in any comparable sci-fi anthologies I’ve read. (Although I guess there was some weird sex going on in the Dangerous Visions.) Give a literate teenager access to the Internet, and in rattle of a keyboard they’ll find something less safe for work.

It seems that in 1966 the word fantasy didn’t mean ‘a genre which empowers authors to write any surreal nonsense they please, yet contains a disproportionately large number of tales which focus on Medieval cultures and other cliche set pieces.’ (This, admittedly, is an extremely uncharitable view of modern fantasy.) For 1966 Playboy editors it meant ‘a weird genre where inexplicable things happen.’ Playboy’s 1966 idea of fantasy resembles our modern notions of Magical Realism. Think of things like Round the Twist, Twilight Zone or even the wackier Borges stories.

A key way to promote an anthology is to list all the contributors, in the hope that audience members will recognise an author they like. They are: George Langelaan, Charles Beaumont, Robert Sheckley, Bruce Jay Friedman, Ray Bradbury, Bernard Wolf, William Tenn, Leland Webb, Ken Purdy, Arthur Clarke, Robert Bloch, Walt Grove, Frederik Pohl, Alan Nourse, Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Slesar, H. C. Neal, Hugh Nissenson, John Atherton, Bernard Wolfe, Avram Davidson, J. G. Ballard and Ray Russell. Yes, part of the reason I wrote that last sentence was to copy it into the tag box.

There aren’t any female names among the authors. I’m chalking this up to sexism on Playboy’s part.

One of my favourite stories was Bernie the Faust, by William Tenn. It involves the protagonist inadvertently selling the Earth.

Remember when Bart Simpson switched heads with a fly? (I do, the Treehouse of Horror episodes tend to leave a mark.) That was likely inspired by George Langelaan’s The Fly.

Sci-fi humourist Robert Sheckley combines surveillance with romance in Spy Games.

The most interesting story is Charles Beaumont’s The Crooked Man. Set in a dystopia where homosexuality is normative and heterosexuals are persecuted, a man and a woman meet up in a bar. The Playboy editors take a hedgy stance in their introduction, saying that Beaumont neither condemns nor condones homosexuality. Someone ought to make this story into a film.

The best story was J. G. Ballard’s Souvenir. I’d describe it as Gulliver’s Travels from the Liliputian’s perspective, if Gulliver was dead.

I paid two dollars for this book at a Benalla Op-shop in 2012, and I think that it was worth it. If you find yourself in a comparable situation facing a similar decision, and you like Fifties and Sixties science fiction, I say get it.

Ultima – Stephen Baxter

Ultima is the sequel to Proxima and is the last book in the series. There was a climax midway in Ultima that would have been perfect to kick off a third book, but nup, the book just went on. I really respect that, many authors like to stretch a concept into an entire trilogy.

If you’ve read much of Stephen Baxter’s other works you’ll recognise many of the concepts at play in Ultima. A hubristic artificial intelligence is running around being sinister, there are alternate histories, a massive apocalyptic war with China and enigmatic god-like aliens. At times the book has the feel of a greatest hits album.

Proxima was about an abortive attempt to colonise a distant planet. The mission was made possible by mysterious wormholes, called Hatches. Ultima sees the colony’s survivors and their associates knock around a few universes in an attempt to discover the motives of the mysterious aliens. Along the way they must deal with anachronistic civilizations and a disturbingly single-minded AI.

The key phrase to describe much of the book’s setting is ‘Romans in Space.’ Baxter writes a fairly detailed, though not entirely convincing, account of how invading Germany allowed the Roman empire to survive and eventually develop a space program. Bombastic alternate histories like this are always a great deal of fun, so a lack of credibility isn’t much of a problem for me.

My favourite character in the book was ColU, a robot built to aid the colonising effort. In Proxima I interpreted him to be little more than a K9 knockoff, complete with the tinny voice. As the colonising effort breaks down he is forced to cannibalise his fellow robots and raise a child. He goes so far as to create a doll called Mister Sticks, who becomes a sweet running gag through the series. By the start of Ultima he’s reduced to his most basic circuits, and is carried on the back of a Chinese slave. ColU eventually becomes the moral center of the book and attains a dignity that few other characters can match. At one point he even stands up to an increasingly unreasonable AI. ColU’s convincing character growth is the reason he’s now one of my favourite robotic characters in fiction.

While I enjoyed the Proxima-Ultima series, I think that Stephen Baxter has written better books. I’d recommend his The Time Ships and the Manifold Sequence over this. And remember, if you do decide to read Ultima, read the prequel first.

Robin Jarvis – Fighting Pax

The best book I read in 2014 was Robin Jarvis’ Fighting Pax, the conclusion to his surprisingly awesome Dancing Jax trilogy. I’m fuzzy on the finer details since I finished it in August.

Robin Jarvis writes horror novels for kids and young adults. I’ve been following his work for some time, reading his Wyrd Museum trilogy and all about the Deptford Mice. His writing is similar to Alan Garner and Susan Cooper in that most of his books are set in Britain, and involve a young protagonist confronting a supernatural threat. Jarvis illustrates his own work, with each chapter getting its own picture. In his other novels Jarvis has written about a giant cockroach with Hitler’s face, a ginger tabby trying to conquer the world, and a wooden pig.

In-text, Dancing Jax is a children’s book written by a 1920s magician which brainwashes any readers into thinking that they live in his fantasy. Present-day burglars stumble upon a hundred or so copies of the book, sell them at a fete, and things snowball from there until the book forms the basis of a world-dominating cult. Basically, imagine if Aleister Crowley wrote about Uqbar. The fun thing about this premise is that is vaguely satirical while being completely horrifying. I’m not sure if Jarvis meant to parody religion and pop-culture publishing fads like Harry Potter, but it’s hard not to see parallels.

The other satirical element of the book are the sections set within the world of the magician’s children’s book. Jarvis writes the text of the brainwashing book like a parody of Enid Blyton, with sickeningly twee characters and patronizing narration. This makes it particularly satisfying when a character from the real world enters the book and starts beating people up.

The first book, also called Dancing Jax, is about the spread of the Dancing Jax craze and one maths teacher’s vain attempt to stop it. The sequel, Freax and Rejex, involves the few children immune to Dancing Jax being incarcerated within prison camps. In Fighting Pax the protagonists from the previous books team up to take down the cult leader, who at this point is running the world.

What I like about the Dancing Jax series is that Jarvis goes where few other authors would take their fantasy books. Freax and Rejex uncomfortably echoed books I’ve read about the Holocaust, as the children are placed in awful conditions where they are constantly demeaned by monstrous guards. This sort of thing is what really gives the trilogy its chills, and the reader a sense of cathartic satisfaction when the relevant nightmarish antagonist is defeated.

Fighting Pax begins in North Korea, where the Jax-immune protagonists are being sheltered by the regime. The characters escape from North Korea as soon as it’s clear that they’ll soon be handed over to the cult, and the soldier girl who is guarding them joins the protagonists. Fighting Pax contains the most sympathetic depiction of the North Korean government I’ve ever seen in fiction, though anything would be preferable to the monsters of Jarvis’ imagination.

One disturbing event from Fighting Pax occurs when the characters travels to England. This involves going onto the plane, and the planes are packed because everyone wants to get there. People are in the aisles and safety precautions have completely gone out the window. The Jax-affected know about the danger, they just don’t care.

The more you read Fighting Pax the more extreme and explosive the action becomes. Towards the end there is even a shout-out to ‘Die Hard.’ I get the feeling that Jarvis typed out the conclusion of the novel in one giddy night. You get an infectious feeling of excitement and tension from the climax, and that’s a good feeling.

I’m not sure if Jarvis had a moral message in mind when writing this trilogy. There’s undertones of satirising pop-culture and religon, but that could just be the inevitable result of writing about a brainwashing book. The religious satire is undercut by a cameo from Jesus Christ. He pops outta nowhere and attacks a dude with an axe. Also, the magician seems to be sponsored by Satan.

The Dancing Jax trilogy stands head and shoulders above the rest of Jarvis’ bizarre body of work. If i were a big-shot Hollywood exec I’d call up Jarvis and beg him for the screen-rights. Get Peter Jackson to direct, maybe. You should read the Dancing Jax trilogy right now. Fans of Stephen King would especially be comfortable with these books, You owe it yourself, as a literate human being, to at least try the Dancing Jax Trilogy.

The Epic of Kings: Hero Tales of Ancient Persia – Firdausi

The last book I read was Firdausi’s The Epic of Kings: Hero Tales of Ancient Persia, translated into English prose by Helen Zimern. Another way of saying that would be that I’ve just finished an English translation of the Shahnamah.

Wikipedia tells me that the Shahnamah is Iran’s national epic. It certainly is a nationalist, with the welfare and glory of Persia being the chief aim of the sympathetic characters. The epic part likely refers to the text’s length and the fact that it is a poem. I read the Zimern translation because I can’t handle narrative poetry more complex than Bubble Trouble. If you want a more authentic experience, Wikisource has a translation by James Atkinson that weaves in and out of verse.

Shahnameh is a book about great battles and the men who win them, in some cases single-handedly. Although the title of the book refers to kings, the most memorable protagonist of the Shahnameh is not royalty, but the military champion Rustem. For a good eighty-percent of the book, whenever Iran is in trouble it was Rustem who has to fix it. Adept at killing strange supernatural foes as well as turning the tides of battle, it is clear that Rustem is the most competent character in mythical Persia.

The least competent character in the book was the Shah Kai Kous. I don’t want to go too hard on him because I don’t know how fondly the character is seen in modern Iran, but there is a chapter called Kai Kaous Committeth More Follies. The antagonists twice con him into ill-advised invasions of the neighboring geopolitical superpower, but his silliest moment is his flight attempt. This involves a wooden contraption on which is nailed meat. Eagles try to take the meet, and their frustrated flapping carries the contraption to a distant desert. To be honest, I would have been sympathetic if Rustem tried to remove Kai Kaous from power and take his throne.

My favourite character was Rakush, Rustem’s surprisingly proactive horse. There’s this one bit where Rustem is on a journey to rescue Kai Kaous  and he falls asleep. A lion leaps out of nowhere and attacks the sleeping hero, but not to worry, his horse goes and kills it! Presumably with his teeth! Rakush somehow disposes of the corpse because when his owner wakes up Rakush gets yelled at. The next night the incident repeats itself, with a dragon! Rakush is my favourite character because his awesomeness goes above and beyond what I expected from a horse. Beating up monsters and performing feats of grotesque physical impossibility is all a day at the office for your average hero, but for a horse to take down a dragon, now that makes you think! This is why I believe that Rakush is the best horse in fiction.

This book was written against a Zoroastrian background. Zoroastrianism invented much of the eschatology of many popular religions, such as hell, and a conflict between angels and demons. I didn’t get much Zoroastrian cosmology from this book, besides the baddies (called deevs), a brief mention of Zoroaster and a surveilling angel who flies around the world seven times each day. Interestingly, Rustem’s father was raised by a giant bird called the Simurgh. Giant mythical birds seems to be a reoccuring theme in Middle Eastern stories, as seen in Sinbad’s titanic Roc and the Ziz mentioned in Legends of the Jews.

Anyone who liked Lord of the Rings or could handle the prose style of Gods and Fighting Men would find enjoyment in Zimern’s translation. The prose is heavily stylised, arguably stilted, and could prove alienating to less dedicated readers. Those fond of mythology, fairy tales or the strange stories medieval people told themselves might want to check it out.