Reviews From the Past: How To Build a Nuclear Bomb

Another of my almost-lost reviews from years ago – tis review of Frank Barnaby’s science/history book was first written for The Alien Online back in November 2003 and was quite pertinent at the time as rows over the claims for WMDs in Iraq pre-invasion then the failure to find any post-invasion and the idea that we had largely been lied to by governments to justify the war was growing.
How to Build a Nuclear Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

By Frank Barnaby
Published Granta, September 2003

How I learned to fear the bomb and start worrying more

Okay, first off, despite the cheeky title this is not a manual on the construction of thermonuclear devices. So those of you who were technically minded and looking for a project to occupy you over the long winter nights can stop reading now. What this little book actually does do is act as a handy-sized, easy to understand primer on Weapons of Mass Destruction – those WMDs all the cool kids are talking so much about these days.

Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at Aldermaston, amongst other places, lays out concise explanations in a language easily accessible to the layman, describing each of the three main WMDs: atomic, biological and chemical (now you know where 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors got their name from).

The section on each type of weapon system is then broken down into brief overviews explaining the history of the weapon’s development, how they work, how they can be deployed by governments or small groups, what effects they have and, even more depressing, the history of their actual use, from chemical weapons on the fields of WWI Flanders to nuclear annihilation over WWII Japan.

This is not to say that Barnaby is an alarmist. Far from it; in fact he seems to have written this sensible book in order to counteract the souped-up hyperbole of the mass media in our post 9-11 world and the dreadful spin (if not actual misleading or even lying claims) about WMDS from governments. He has aimed to cut through this and produce an effective introduction to let the thinking person understand some of the real history, possible effects and uses of WMDs. In this respect I’d say he was extremely successful. For example, I now know that WMDs are not in fact invisible. Which does make me wonder why the US/UK can’t find all those ones in Iraq.

Although very informative, this book is, almost by its nature, disturbing reading. Describing how simple it is for someone to create chemical or biological weapons is frankly terrifying, and the example of the Tokyo subway attack using Sarin (the group responsible also had produced Anthrax) highlights the danger. The fact that immensely wealthy and powerful international pharmaceutical companies have used their might to stymie effective checks on production facilities in case someone is using them to secretly create bio or chemical weapons is even more alarming. There is no international system of checks – as exists for nuclear facilities – because the companies are too worried about possible industrial espionage and are prepared to put the lives of others at risk to protect their profits.

This is unlikely to be of surprise to anyone who has followed these same companies’ years of trying to block cheap, generic drugs to third world nations, but it is still more than a little astonishing that even in the current political climate there is no body to check up on chemical and biological facilities world wide. Given their history – look how many such weapons were created by IG Farben in Nazi Germany alone – you’d think the industry would be a little more safety compliant.

There was one aspect of this book that was even more horrifying and disturbing than this however. This dealt with the history of the deployment and use of WMDs. Often by the same ‘responsible’ governments who now act out military adventures to supposedly save civilization from madmen armed with WMDs. Chemical agents dropped in Vietnam, gas weapons used by Germany, Britain and France in World War I and, of course, the nuclear fires over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that burned the horror of WMDs indelibly into the public mind for all time in much the same way as they burned people’s shadows into the walls.

And before anyone argues that these events are being taken out of historical context, Barnaby discusses the vast destructive arsenals Russia, Britain, America, China and France hold to this very day and are reluctant to get rid of, while trying to ensure other nations do not possess similar weapons; although to his credit he does not take a political stance on this, merely reports the facts.

So, yes, this is disturbing material, but if you follow current events then you should know this stuff so you can try and cut through the spin and scare-tactic headlines. Information is a weapon every bit as effective as WMDs and its one weapon we should all have access to.

Reviews from the past: Prospero’s Children

Prospero’s Children

By Jan Siegel

Published Voyager

Another old review of mine unearthed from quite a few years ago (I think this even predates my Alien Online reviews and was penned for my first ever website, The Library of Dreams, it was, the debut fantasy novel by Jan Siegel, one of those books I just knew as soon as I picked it up, knowing nothing about it, but somehow knew it would be good. My book radar rarely fails me and in this case it was spot on, a superb work:

An ancient house on the Yorkshire moors is left to sixteen-year-old Fern’s father upon the death of its occupant, her distant uncle, and old sailor. Fern is suspicious of Alimond, a woman she suspects is more than she seems, and is interested in her father. With their father away on business often, Fern and her younger brother Will are left for much of the summer in the mysterious old home, exploring the many strange objects gathered from around the world by their late uncle.

After nightfall the old country house becomes stranger. Fern is sure she has seen something lurking in the shadows of the hall, and each night comes the sounds of some unknown creature snuffling around outside the house, as if seeking a way in. This nocturnal noise is so frightening that Fern finds herself unable to leave her bed and look out the window, instead lying in dread, waiting for the dawn, trying to convince herself it was only a badger. In the daylight she and her brother seek out the footprints of the nocturnal visitor, but none are to be found in the soft earth. At the end of the garden, on the edge of the moors is a rock, shaped like a sitting man, which seems to come and go of its own volition.

Alimond comes to stay and the mysterious creature gains entrance to the house. As most know, magical creatures may only enter homes when invited, so is it in league with Alimond, who seems to be searching their uncle’s belongings for a mysterious object? As the tale progresses we find the rock is indeed a man, Ragginbone, an ancient wizard who has spent his power. With him appears Lougarry, a large dog, who may or may not be a werewolf now trapped in canine form. When the nocturnal creature attacks, Lougarry defends Fern and Will stoutly. As they explore carefully, treading their path through an invisible maze almost as impenetrable as the mists on the Yorkshire moors, they discover that Alimond seeks a key, a key that opens the Door to the otherworld, to Death itself. Her ambition is so blinding she is allied her magical powers with an ancient and malevolent spirit entity, both seeking the key to open the door, and also to reach back through time to find the Lodestone, lost when Atlantis was taken by the waves. A wave of magical events is unleashed and Fern must cross the portal back into per-history to Atlantis to try and make things right, with only her own growing Gift to protect and guide her.

On the surface you may be tempted to mistake this first-time author’s novel for a typical piece of genre fantasy writing. It has strange creatures, magic, witches, Unicorns, lost lands … But this is a wonderfully written tale, literally enchanting, with an excellent atmosphere – try reading the part with the unseen night creature trying to gain access to the house, or the statue talking, in bed at night and feel the hairs on your neck rise … Having a sixteen-year-old girl as the heroine works very well, and Siegel deftly mixes her magical mystery with a tale of a young girl growing into womanhood in a family without a mother, coming to terms with her adulthood while also realising she too has the magical Gift … This is a gorgeous novel, entrancing, it will draw you in like a magical web. It should appeal especially to readers of Marion Zimmer Bradley (alas, recently deceased) and Anne McCaffrey. Intelligent, thoughtful and imaginative – the best fantasy work I have read this year.

Reviews from the past: Batman – the Long Halloween

Batman: the Long Halloween (new edition due this autumn)

Written by Jeph Loeb, art by Tim Sale

Published DC Comics

This old review was originally penned for The Alien Online many moons ago:

This is predominantly an ‘origin’ story, dealing with the fall of District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and his re-emergence as the hideously scarred (physically and psychologically) psychopath Two-Face. It is also the story of three men – Chief Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and the Batman – and the common cause, justice, which brings them together, and how that trust is ultimately shattered forever.

The Long Halloween combines several strands of plot into this main arc. There is the serial killer, ‘Holiday’, who strikes, as the name suggests, on vacations – Xmas, Valentine’s Day. There is the ongoing battle for supremacy between Gotham’s crime families. Carmine Falcone is the head of the largest crime family. His money can buy most police and courts, but not our triumvirate of heroes. The Catwoman becomes involved in his activities, although, as ever, it is hard to discern if she is a force for good or ill. Her alter ego, Selina Kyle is seeing the Batman’s daytime self, Bruce Wayne. Wayne, in his ‘normal’ capacity as a leading businessman, is involved in trying to block Falcone from using the bank, upon who’s board he sits, from opening a vast account to launder his mob money. Successions of Arkham Asylum’s finest criminal inmates are released upon Gotham and the Dark Knight. Poison Ivy uses her skills to infect Bruce Wayne, controlling him for Falcone, so he will stop blocking the bank’s move to allow in his money. This leads Gordon and Dent to suspect Wayne of being in league with the Mafia (they are unaware of his identity as Batman). Falcone has to deal with the death of several of his crew, including his son, supposedly by Holiday – or is it a disguised turf hit by other mobsters, or even his own sister, Carla? Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are loose on a spree, and the Joker simply can’t stand the thought of another outlandish psychopath in Gotham, stealing his thunder. He attempts to track Holiday, and, failing that, decides he can stop Holiday doing his job of terrorising Gotham by killing the whole population … With me so far? This is a big book!

At the heart of this sprawling narrative, is the story of Dent, Batman and Gordon. All increasingly frustrated at the tide of crime, all seeking to stop it, all fighting for justice with their best intentions. All three trust each other. That trust will be broken when Dent crosses the line, being prepared to kill those who escape justice. He contrasts his approach with the Batman’s, who rejects this. He may be a vigilante, but he does not kill – that would be to lower himself to the level of those he has sworn to fight. Harvey Dent has succumbs to the Neitzchen nightmare – those who fight monsters must take care not to become monsters themselves. All three men have stared into Neitzche’s abyss, but Dent has allowed the abyss to stare into him. Events reach a climax when Dent is prosecuting a court case, trying to bring down the mob with an insider willing to talk. But this is a mere plot, and the witness attacks Dent in court, throwing a jar of acid in his face. Half of Dent’s head is burnt horribly, but the psychological scars are far deeper. Already pushed to breaking by his frustrated attempts to bring down big crime, his mind snaps. Escaping from hospital Dent now becomes the hideous villain, Two-Face. His journey from hero to demon is complete. Gordon and Batman are left to face the ongoing war on crime themselves. But Batman believes in the integrity of Jim Gordon.

This large Batman work may not be quite up there with The Dark Knight Returns (what is?), but it is still and extremely interesting read. The 20s style gangsters and molls give Gotham a suitable period style, and the artwork is rendered in a manner that is reminiscent of Frank Miller’s hard-boiled, neo-noir Sin City series. Loeb freely acknowledges the debt to Miller in his introduction. If readers are reminded of Miller’s excellent Batman – Year One, this is because he gave permission for Sale and Loeb to use some of this Batman ‘history’ for The Long Halloween. Dark, brooding – a Gothic whodunnit, and an excellent addition to any Batman reader’s shelves.

Reviews from the past: Living Dolls

This review was first posted on The Alien Online back in May of 2002. By coincidence it was the second pop-science book on the subject of historical automata I posted on there within a short space of time, the other being Tom Standage’s fascintaing book on the famous Mechanical Turk (reposted here). Wood’s book is more wide ranging though, going through a number of famous historical automatons across the centuries, right through to modern day scientists working in advanced robotics, along the way taking in the birth of modern cinema, stage magic and some of the figures who moved through both fields like George Melies, magician, showman, pioneer of early cinema and a displayer of automata, even taking in remarkable humans who some believed were really automata.

Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

Machines which mimic human life, humans who appear as perfect doll-like automatons – not science fiction, but history

Typical – you wait ages for a book that deals with historical automatons and then two come along at once.

Anyone who has read the recently published the Mechanical Turk (see earlier review) by Tom Standage will be at least partially familiar with some of the subjects in this new book from Observer writer Gaby Wood. Understandably The Turk itself commands a fair chunk of the book – it is, after all, one of the most famous attempts to counterfeit life artificially. The question here is, does Living Dolls contain enough new material to make it worth reading if you have already perused The Turk? Personally I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Living Dolls eschews the in-depth concentration on a single strand of automata for a more general and wide-based historical overview. Wood certainly covers many of the same areas as Standage – Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, his magical flute player and of course The Turk – but she is preparing her grounds for a somewhat more anthropological approach. Her broader overview allows her to examine what it means to be human or machine and how the lines have been blurred by successive generations of mechanicians, scientists and illusionists (not all as different and occupation as you may suppose). Wood carries the reader through the wonderful devices of the 18th and 19th century with a journalist’s understanding for the human angle, affording us a more empathic approach to this fascinating subject than Standage, with a fine eye for wry amusement along the way (for instance the mechanical child who writes essays at his desk and occasionally scribbles “I think therefore I am, I do not think, do I therefore exist?”).

Wood includes in her definition of artificial life the creation of cinema in the 1890s and also the first phonographs, with excellent chapters on Edison and George Melies. It is hard to imagine for us now, but when Edison first created the phonograph he had inadvertently given away one of the defining characteristics of humans – speech and language – to a machine. Moreover, this machine could store a voice, playing it back long after the speaker has ceased to exist – this was indeed a marvel of the age and also deeply disturbing, especially when fitted inside Edison’s talking doll. Melies, a great stage illusionist who ran the Robert Houdin theatre (the magician and automaton maker who gave Harry Houdini his stage name), uses the early cinema to create new takes on human forms. One of the first to realise he could use the new medium for magical effects and tricks, Wood argues that Melies, by making what appear to be humans perform actions impossible in real life, had actually created a new type of simulacrum. In an age of virtual reality, this is certainly a subject to be considered and it is fascinating to see the precursors to our modern conundrum with technology and The Real back in the age of steam.

(a schematic of Vaucanson’s famous mechanical duck)

The final chapter deals less with the mechanical and more with difference. Wood brings us into the early twentieth century and the heyday of the travelling carnival and all-American freak show. We are introduced to many fascinating and richly colourful characters, notably the Schneiders, who appeared under the stage name of the Doll Family. This was a travelling act of a family of midgets, who unlike some small people have limbs that are in proportion, making them appear like either children or miniature versions of adults. Is this straying from the subject, fascinating as it is?

Wood, successfully in my opinion, argues that in a fine historical reversal the Doll Family were often perceived by curious audiences as simulacra. No real person could be this size and in proportion, so they must be clockwork dolls or automata of some sort. We have moved from the public gasping in admiration at mechanical devices counterfeiting life so well they believe a human agent must either be inside or controlling them to an era where they believe small humans to be unreal, mechanical concoctions. In an era of psychoanalysis this fits in perfectly with notions of the Uncanny and the all-too-human fear of the Other. The Dolls, especially Harry, appeared in many Hollywood films and were well loved. Tod Browning, who began working in these same carnivals went on to direct Lugosi in Dracula before casting Harry and other real life carnival performers in his astonishing film, Freaks. A fascinating mixture of mechanical (the moving image and recorded voice) and people very different from the ‘normal’ range of humanity – what is human? What is normal? How can we consider if a machine has life or thought if we are so prejudiced against other humans who look different? In a wonderful personal coda to this chapter Wood is examining archives in Florida, where the Dolls retired. After reading Harry’s obituary – he passed away in the 80s – she decides to drive past the address listed as his last home, a kind of pilgrimage. She is shocked to find the Doll name still on the mailbox and further surprised to find Elly – Tiny Doll – still in residence. It is a wonderfully personal and warm moment, a piece of the history she has researched, still here, no longer a chapter in a book but a breathing, feeling person.

The very last short chapter takes Wood to Japan to observe the latest in robotic technology. In another amusing twist she finds that Professor Takanishi has constructed an artificial flautist, completing a circle from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. She asks him if this in tribute to Vaucanson’s famed eighteenth century mechanical flute player. Takanishi answers in the negative. In fact he is of the opinion that a mechanical flute player is so difficult to create that Vaucanson could not possibly have constructed one nearly two hundred years ago. I share Wood’s ironic amusement at this modern scientist’s lack of history in his own subject of research.

As with Standage’s Turk, Living Dolls is a book of wonders, from past to present. Little reminders that the mechanical miracles that are now commonplace in our modern world are not new, and debates over the status of humanity and intelligence and machines have been with us for a long time. I found The Turk to be a fascinating and absorbing book, but Living Dolls has perhaps a more human, warm and personal touch to the subject. Oh, why not spoil yourself and read the pair of them!? Then the next time you watch Data in Star Trek TNG debating if he is really “alive” you will be able to appreciate the rich history behind his Pinocchio-like dilemma.

Publisher: Faber and Faber, May 2002

Reviews from the past: Comix – the Underground Revolution

This review was originally written for The Alien Online back in May of 2004 for a non fiction book by Dez Skinn, a very well known and respected name in the British comics industry (the man behind Comics International and Warrior – where V For Vendetta began life – among many others), on the underground comics – or comix as that field is normally spelt – scene which produced some incredible work and, as underground scenes often do, reflected the grassroots changes going on in segements of society at the time that would be reflected a bit later in mainstream society (as Dick Hebdige once put it with subcultures, they start off as unusual and transgressive, against the mainstream norm, eventually accepted more then elements of them will be subsumed into the mainstream culture).

Comix – the Underground Revolution by Dez Skinn
Drugs, free love, womens’ lib, free speech and great, great art

At first glance this may appear to be a simple history of underground and Indy comics. In lesser hands it may well have been, but Dez Skinn has decades of experience working in comics and has clocked up even more hours as a fan. He brings both to bear here, describing not only the evolution of underground Comix – the ‘x’ spelling singled them out from the mainstream comic books with their ‘approved’ labels to reassure parents nervous of their children’s reading – but skilfully relating this to the myriad of social and cultural changes which society has undergone in the last few decades.

In my opinion this approach is what elevates Comix from being an interesting genre history to a truly fascinating book. Any artist worth their salt knows that no medium exists in isolation to other media or to cultural changes in society. Skinn doesn’t just give us a chronological overview of unusual and challenging new comic strips which were written by disaffected – or often stoned, or even disaffected and stoned – writers and artists. Instead he takes us through the periods which spawned them and the people who were shaped by – and indeed went on to influence – the events of the period.

The psychedelic sixties with rock’n'roll, mind-altering drugs and sexual experimentation obviously had a profound effect on the first wave of comix and their creators. However, the actual infrastructure of the sub-culture not only inspired the likes of Crumb, it supported them. Hippie ‘head’ shops offered an alternative to hawking your comic on the street when regular comic stores and news-stand vendors wouldn’t touch them. Many of the cartoonists were also creating poster and album art for the music groups of the time; the music, the stores, the comix, all feeding from and into each other. Crumb was asked to do the cover for a Janis Joplin album and agrees on the proviso that he got to squeeze her breasts. Rick Griffin’s psychedelic poster and comic book art was embraced by the emerging surfer scene (and vice versa).

By the 1970s Comix were opening up in a way that the mainstream comic books – principally superhero strips or ‘funnies’ like Sad Sack – could never hope to (although Stan Lee had a bash, with some stories clearly refencing real world concerns), reacting to the changing face of society, driven by the fact they were being written and drawn by the generation who were doing the changing. The 1970s saw some Comix embracing the rapidly expanding Women’s Lib movement and also Gay Liberation. Female writers and artists, tired of the male domination even of the supposedly progressive underground scene set up their own Comix.

Tits’n'Clits and Wet Satin explored women’s issues, including the oft-covered Comix subject of sexual liberation, but from and for a woman’s perspective. Some, such as Abortion Eve covered sensitive moral subjects, offering differing viewpoints, opening up discussion and dispensing advice which was not, let’s be honest, widely available to young women in general society. While celebrating this, Skinn also makes no effort to hide the fact that the new ‘Wimmins Comix’ faced even more trouble with censorship and a lack of understanding than the male-dominated strips. Actually, sometimes from them – one female title had trouble being printed because the printer, who happily produced the like of Crumb’s giant orgy strip, deemed these ‘obscene’. I guess what they say about some men being scared of a woman in control of her own life can often be true. Fortunately the sisters did it for themselves, long before the Riot Grrrrrl generation thought they were something new and unique.

Space doesn’t permit me to cover everything contained in Comix, alas. Suffice to say that this is an engrossing read for anyone interested in the history of comics and of socio-cultural changes in the last forty years. Sexual freedom, women’s liberation, Gay emancipation, freedom of speech (the amount of court cases, often purely driven by conservative reactionary authorities and not real legal cause, is astonishing), anti-war protests – these comix were very much a part of the changing face of post-’60s society. Indeed they both reflected the changes and were also themselves a part of this history.

However, this volume is not simply a nostalgic look back a few decades to a ‘golden era’ of underground Comix. Nor is it all dominated by the US talent. The British scene is well catered for (only knowHunt Emerson for his Firkin the Cat strip for naughty adult mags? Think again) from little-known, short-lived strips to Punk-era icons who became – and remain – huge, like Judge Dredd (2000 AD may have come from a mainstream publisher, but Dez argues for the punk roots of the comic & many of the strips and I tend to agree). The book brings us right up to the modern day ‘children of the revolution’ in the shape of the work of Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, Alan Moore and titles like Milligan and McCarthy’s powerful, hammer-in-the-face Skin (one of my personal favourites and long overdue a reprint), Deadline and the birth of Tank Girl. Would they exist, at least in their current form without those Comix of the ’60s and ’70s?

Despite years of legal harassment by ‘square’ authorities in the UK and US (the notorious Oz trial is a standout example) independent, groundbreaking Comix are still going strong today. As long as there are issues to be dealt with that mainstream society can’t, or won’t face there will always be a market for these and writers and artists who will cover them. And like most subcultures, if they stay around long enough they start to leak into the mainstream society which originally was hostile to them – witness the Pulitzer prize for Spiegelman’s magnificent Maus, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan winning the Guardian First Novel prize, or Joe Sacco being feted for his international political coverage in Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde in mainstream, broadsheet newspapers. Hell, even the original material is still popular – I still sell Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers from my bookstore on a regular basis thanks to champion publishers like Knockabout keeping the flame alive.

With all that’s going on in the world today there is still a huge need for these types of publications. Jesus Meets the Armed Services may have spoken to the Vietnam generation but it could be just as pertinent to the War on Terror generation. Bush’s right wing Christian friends, trying to restric family planning and a woman’s right to choose, are exactly the sort the ‘Wimmins Comix’ fought against in the ’70s. In a nice example of the ongoing cultural war Skinn tells of Gilbert Shelton moving out of modern America and away from Bush and his cronies to live in France. Where, in a fine example of how these societal attitudes differ in Europe, the French government approach him to use his Fat Freddy’s Cat characters for a national Aids awareness programme. Who says you can’t change the world, at least a little bit?

This is a totally absorbing history. Illustrated throughout with fabulous artwork, from Crumb’s scratchy, heavy inked drawing to Rick Griffin’s glowing colours, it is also a visual feast. It’s often terribly funny, sometimes sad (so many drug overdoses or motorbike crashes) and will on occasion raise your ire at the injustice of the treatment meted out by frightened authority figures who are terrified that freedom of speech does indeed give power to the people. Keep on truckin’, brothers and sisters.

Publisher: Collins & Brown (UK)
Date: April 2004

Reviews from the past: The Backroom Boys

Britain: one of the great intellectual powerhouses of science and engineering advances, from the days of Newcommen, Brunel, Stevenson and Newton on and yet since the end of the Second World War haven’t those glory days where we lead the world slipped away? No, says Francis Spufford, who takes several fascinating post war British inventions by the great British Boffin that have lead the world, including the brilliant triumph where, for a change, the Blighty Boffins took on the wealth of American privatised research and made vital genetic research work in a way that could then be shared with the world to further medical advances (take that, Craig Venter!). This review first appeared on The Alien Online back in January of 2004, where in addition to science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel reviews I also contributed a number of popular science lit reviews:


The Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford


Ladies and gentlemen, let us celebrate the Great British Boffin!

Boffins. It’s a peculiarly British word for a very British kind of eccentric scientist. We’ve all got a mental image conjured by that word; cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking types working on Heath-Robinson contraptions which look ludicrous yet become the prototype of inventions such as radar, supersonic aircraft or genetic sequencers. Spufford, author of the lovely The Child that Books Built, has taken several post-war episodes of invention to highlight the fact that the British Boffin is still around.

Backroom Boys begins with the ill-starred British space programme. Yes, we did have one once upon a time, although you can be forgiven for not knowing. In a typically British fashion it was run piecemeal on a shoestring. Not quite a garden shed moon rocket but pretty close, as a converted flying boat manufacturer designed and started to build rockets.

Where NASA had billions of dollars and tens of thousands of specialists in many fields the British had a small team doing it all – and pretty well too. The aims were limited and the technology too, constrained by the lack of investment. By the time the rocket finally took off successfully and put a tiny satellite into orbit the project had already been cancelled. Again the typical British way of doing things: spend time and on something then cancel it just as it begins to show some hint of success.

The chapter on the magnificent technological folly of Concorde is similar in tone; backbreaking research into an unexplored field of science and engineering which ultimately was thrown away. Spufford takes us through the design and the political problems which dogged the Anglo-French project right through to the world economic and fuel crisis which effectively stymied it as it began to fly and the limited legacy bequeathed to British Airways.

It’s not all doom and gloom and heroic failures though. Rarefied theorists come out of their ivory towers to map Britain in unprecedented scale in order to design transmitters for the new-fangled mobile phones, innovating in many realms: computer modelling, multiple frequency transmissions, cellular structure for broadcasts. We all use – or are annoyed by – these (now) tiny, bleeping devices of mass communication today, but most of us probably only have a vague idea of how they came into existence and just how it is that millions of them can be used each day so easily. British know-how strikes again.

The Universe in a Bottle is a chapter which I suspect will warm the heart of many a geek of a certain age. A new generation of backroom boys (don’t titter, it doesn’t mean anything dirty you naughty lot) arises, working in their bedrooms on a device which is new to the home: the personal computer. Tinkering with Acorn Atoms and ZX81s… who else recalls those early days? And then the mighty BBC model B gave a couple of boys at university the ability to design something no-one else had thought of: a truly three dimensional space on the two dimensional screen.

Those of you old enough to remember the days of keying in long programmes by hand or buying a cassette (yes, cassettes you young whippersnappers!) of a “100% pure machine code” home-made Space Invaders game from some bloke advertising in the back of Computer Shopper will guess what this revolutionary software was: Elite. One of the first enormously successful games and technologically innovative, too: the routine the boys re-wrote to make the BBC perform the graphic they wanted amazed even the people at Acorn who built it. It may look tame to day but it was the first of its type back in the dim days of the early 1980s, and it was a bloody good game too.

The book wraps up with very modern technological innovations: extra-planetary exploration and the unravelling of the human genome. The multi-national attempt to decode the human genome, to read the book of life itself is one of the biggest scientific projects in human history. It is a project which holds promises of great changes for all of humanity and is as breath-taking in its scope as the Apollo programme was in the 1960s. And it nearly foundered on the rocks of American capitalism.

Craig Venter announces that his private genetics company intends to do most of the work over the top of the public research bodies. In the US government agencies are forbidden from competing against private industry, so that appeared to be the death of the public programme. Needless to say Venter wasn’t doing this for high-minded philanthropy; he wanted to make money from the information he decoded. Step forward the British Boffins. Funded by the biggest charity in the world, the Wellcome Trust, they decide that the book of life will not be privatised on their watch. They want every scientist in the world to be able to access this information freely so that even doctors in poorer countries can use the data to help treat diseases. They announce at a conference that they will if necessary, do the entire project themselves. The dispirited US scientists go back re-invigorated to their public projects. The rest is history. This is science for the finest reasons – completed purely for the betterment of humanity.

The final chapter deals with the not so well-funded boffins who are the brains behind the Beagle II Mars explorer. Struggling with the ever-decreasing British commitment to space endemic since the project in the first chapter. Trying to pack in as much technological sophistication as possible into a tiny probe to ride a larger ESA vessel is difficult. Trying to get the funding to make even this modest device is even harder. But, as we all know by now, they succeeded against the odds (the favourite type of British success). The British boffin strikes again.

This is a book which is as unusual and quirky as the kind of people it is describing. It is part a history of science and partially a celebration of British eccentricity and genius – and we do like our geniuses to be eccentric in this country. It is an extremely affectionate look at the Great British Boffins who have quietly helped to shape the world we live in which never becomes to maudlin or overly nostalgic, despite re-creating the Dan Dare atmosphere of the ’50s rocket ships so well. It celebrates triumph and disaster equally buy still comes out with an uplifting message of optimism. This will delight and fascinate anyone interested in the history of science and, with the chapters on Concorde and Beagle II and new racketeers re-appraising the old British rocket it is as contemporary as it is historical.

Publisher: Faber & Faber (UK)
Date: November 2003

Reviews from the past: Two Sides of the Moon

This review was first posted on The Alien Online back in July of 2004 and tells the story of the Space Race from the point of view of both an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. By a stroke of enormous luck one of the two space explorers, Commander David Scott, was in Edinburgh to meet the media in a hotel near my then bookstore and his PA brought him over to sign some copies of the book afterwards, so I got to meet him. Suddenly an ordinary working day was transformed as I got to shake the hand of a man who walked on the Moon. A man who even drove on the Moon! A man who got to live a childhood dream of mine…


Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott & Alexei Leonov

Two Sides of the Moon 1


Two of the pioneers of space flight show how to have the Right Stuff

David Scott and Alexei Leonov. Respectively an all-American fighter jock turned astronaut, and a Soviet test pilot then cosmonaut. Both men trained by their respective air forces during the chilliest periods of the Cold War, both part of the vast war machine both superpowers employed in their most dangerous games. Had history unfolded a little differently these men may well have ended up facing each other in aerial battle. As it was, they and their nations would compete in a new arena: space flight.

Two Sides of the Moon flips regularly from Leonov to Scott and back again as both tell us a little about their early lives and the decisions which would eventually lead them into space. Both men are fascinating characters. Leonov, struggling in the inadequacies of the Soviet system where even obtaining a pair of shoes could be a struggle, still manages to become well-enough educated to become a pilot. Scott works hard to put himself through education and training to also become a pilot. Having achieved this goal though, neither man loses any edge to their ambition or determination. Studying even harder, working and flying, they both excel at both theory and practise of aviation, becoming test pilots. This was the pool from which both superpowers would select the original astronaut crews, although at this point neither man really suspected that this was where their futures lay.

Both men were right in there in the earliest days of manned space flight, undergoing trials and training that make their previous travails seem comparatively straightforward. Both men work with and are friends to explorers who have become legend since those heady days: Leonov with Yuri Gagarin and Scott with Neil Armstrong (who provides the introduction). The physical, emotional and psychological pressure the prospective space crews come under is astonishing – way beyond what is demanded today of those undergoing space flight. It had to be demanding however, these men had to have what Tom Wolfe called ‘the Right Stuff’ because they were not only the pioneers of a new frontier; they were entering a wild frontier. New technology and engineering designed to do something never achieved before in the entire history of human civilisation. Men about to be subjected to who-knows-what kind of dangers? Could a man even live in space? Would his ship survive the environment of chilled vacuum and hot radiation? Could the man? Would a ship make it back to Earth safely? Even if it did, would the man be alright? What totally unknown effects could space flight have on a human body?

When you realise just how little was known about space – and this is only 40 years ago – it becomes apparent that the determination and quiet bravery of these early cosmonauts and astronauts must have been exceptional. If you were a test pilot – as both men had been – trying out a revolutionary new aircraft and it goes wrong, you have a chance to eject and escape. This was not really much of an option in an early rocket vessel and indeed lives were lost on both sides, while more were imperilled but saved, by a mixture of ad-hoc engineering genius, skilful flying and steady nerves. This really was a dangerous time – Leonov elicits great sympathy for lost comrades who gave their lives in pursuit of this bold, new human exploration. Scott, in an incredibly touching display, places a small statue and plaque on the lunar surface honouring the names of both Soviet and American astronauts who had given their lives to the new frontier.

This sense of brotherhood between the rival space explorers is a constant theme throughout the book. Neither man is naïve enough to dismiss the Cold War rivalry and the politics of that period which lead to the huge investment in space exploration for reasons of scientific and military dominance as well as for national prestige. But brotherhood there most certainly is, between these explorers isolated by geography and politics by united by a common pursuit into the unknown. Both groups feel sympathy and pain for the others’ losses and both, while also aspiring to lead, applaud the other’s achievements. This would contribute directly to the mid-’70s brief period of détente when Soyuz and Apollo craft would meet in orbit around our world and dock together. Two Cold War rivals united many miles above the glowing surface of the Earth.

For most readers who are familiar with the history of space flight, this may not be a major revelation. What this book does do however, is give that epic period a human face, to personalise it. Leonov’s love of art leading him to take crayons and paper into orbit to sketch what he sees (Scott, incidentally, echoing Carl Sagan’s heroine in Contact by saying that what we need in space is an artist or poet to really describe it to the rest of us). Scott spending several days on the Moon, realising that if he raised just this thumb he could obscure the entire Earth from the horizon. More Earthly camaraderie as the joint Soyuz-Apollo teams play host to each other during their training, the US astronauts struggling to keep up with the hospitable Soviets who insist – of course – on drinking a vodka toast to their health on each visit. Leonov and his crew taking a quick pee against the wheel of the bus which takes them to the launch area. These small, personal events give a very human shape to men who achieved astonishing feats – Scott driving on the Moon in a Lunar Rover, bouncing along the lunar surface, Leonov the first man to float freely in space, ‘walking’ outside his tiny craft, hanging by a thread above the world. Leonov’s delight at Arthur C. Clarke naming the spaceship in 2010 after him.

Space exploration today has often become a pale shadow it’s former self. Safety and simple economics have both reduced the manned exploration to a rump and the general public pays scant attention for the most part, unlike the ’60s and ’70s when the deeds of astronauts were front page news around the world. Occasionally people pay attention when spectacular images from the recent Cassini probe come in or when lives are lost in a disaster like Challenger. This book speaks to those of us who remember the sheer wonder and excitement of the early space missions, when millions of little boys and girls dreamed of becoming astronauts when they grew up. It’s about the magnificent feats humans can accomplish, the achievements we can make through hard work, ingenuity and bravery.

In a way it is a little sad that this great, heroic period is already just a part of history. These men actually lived what many of us dreamed of; now it looks like the dream is fading away. And yet one of the lessons that can be learned from this book is that the dream never leaves us entirely; the human urge for exploration is simply too strongly ingrained. Those pioneering days of triumph and tragedy may be gone, but they left a route for us to follow. The Apollo and Soyuz project was more than a brief flowering of Cold War détente – it proved that different space craft could rendezvous in space and successfully dock with one another. Without this mid-70s flight the dream of today’s multi-national space station Freedom would have been stillborn. The early days are gone and the men who took giant steps are growing older, but the deeds they accomplished remain as both testament to human endurance in the past and as a beacon for future explorers.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (UK)
Date: May 2004

Reviews from the past: a History of Judgement

This double review of the first two of Rebellion’s Complete Judge Dredd Case Files volumes (along with a bit of a look back at the very early 2000 AD back in the late 70s) first appeared on Emerald City back in 2006:

It is 1977, and a new international movie sensation called Star Wars is bringing SF to mainstream attention worldwide. In Britain punk rock jars with celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Something else is stirring in Britain though, a new science fiction weekly comic with the (then) futuristic title of 2000AD. With only Doctor Who and repeats of Space 1999 to watch, no VCR, no internet (no home computer!) and Terry Pratchett’s chart-conquering novels years away the kids (and some adults) were desperate for accessible SF. And here it was, in a weekly format in a comic you could actually find in any normal high street newsagent for “8 pence Earth money”. It was a comic book that would be an important career step for some of the best names in modern comics, including Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Brian Bolland.

Judge Dredd was not the most popular character in the comic to begin with. In fact, he was not even in the first issue, making his debut with Prog 2 (2000AD has programmes, not issues). These days Dredd is known as the UK’s greatest comics character, and Rebellion are now collecting all of Dredd’s tales together in chronological order, from Prog 2 onwards, in large black and white volumes which are a little similar to Marvel’s Essentials series of graphic novel collections. Well, almost all of the tales — there are a few parts of the “Burger Wars” saga which certain fast food franchises have ensured will never again see the light of day. Some people have no sense of humour, while Dredd, for all its tough credentials, has always had a nice line in satire.

Even for readers like myself, who remember reading these tales the first time round, it is still surprising how different early Dredd is from the now-iconic character he has become. It is like watching early episodes of classic Star Trek, where the characters haven’t settled down and Spock seems a little too emotional — you recognise the characters but they don’t seem quite right compared to what you are now used to. (This is even more noticeable with DC‘s new Superman Chronicles which goes right back to 1938‘s first strips). The early Dredd is a little different, certainly much more human than he would appear in later years. He has a nagging Italian (stereotype) landlady, a comedy sidekick in Walter, his servant robot with an annoying speech defect, and he even smiles occasionally. The world of Mega City One too is somewhat different, with a mayor, a normal police force beneath the Judges, and citizens who are not quite as eccentric as they would become.

However, everything Dredd would become is here in rough form, including his incredible speed, reflexes and skill: the result of being trained since childhood in the Academy of Law. We are introduced to this establishment in the first volume, giving us a glimpse of children being inducted as cadets at the age of five, and of rookie Judges graduating years later to their ultimate test, action on the streets under the supervision of a full Judge. (In volume 1 we meet a character who would become a later regular. The future Judge Giant, then being trained by Dredd, is the son of the Aeroball player, Giant, from Harlem Heros, an early 2000AD future sport strip.) Dredd’s complete dedication to the law is made apparent straight off — littering will be dealt with as swiftly and harshly as robbing a bank. This has been a central aspect of his character ever since.

The fascinating and endlessly adaptable canvas of Mega City One itself is as much a part of the Dredd strips as the iron man of the law himself is. Even in some of the simpler, more basic early stories the reader is exposed to a fabulous futurescape of towering structures called Starscrapers (later called Cityblocks). These tower over the old Empire State Building (now a derelict building used by criminals to hide in). There are twisting roads which spiral up and around them miles into the air with no visible means of support, and fantastic future vehicles roaring along them (thanks to the imagination of Carlos Ezquerra). In fact so fast and numerous are these vehicles that MC-1 has it’s own version of Devil’s Island: a prison for violent offenders marooned inside dozens of lanes of constantly moving computer-controlled traffic zipping past at 200 mph. Underneath is the Undercity — a region so polluted it was concreted over — home to mutants and criminals (long before Futurama did the same). Few SF cities of the future had shown such an incredible vision since Metropolis. Bear in mind this is years before Blade Runner would stun our minds with its future vision of Los Angles.

The 22nd Century world of Dredd expands incredibly quickly in these first two collections. After some standalone stories to establish Dredd’s character, we quickly get the first big multi-part story, The Robot Wars. This provides the readers with their first sight of masses of Judges acting together to protect the city. It has a wonderfully camp villain in Call-Me-Kenneth, the droid who leads the robot revolution against the “fleshy ones.” Later in the first volume we see Dredd on the moon, because he has been chosen to be Judge Marshall of the Luna-1 colony for six months. As well as showing us more of the 22nd Century, this gave the writers an excuse to introduce some amusing Western-style tales, including a showdown with a robot gunslinger. (Shades of Westworld, but even Yul Brynner’s robo-gungslinger wouldn’t want to face Judge Dredd!). In the First Lunar Olympics stories we get to see something of the other cities beyond what used to be America in this post-nuclear war future. These include the Sov Cities, complete with their own Judges. (This may seem odd to us now, but remember the stories were written during the Cold War when no-one imagined the Soviet Union would disintegrate).

Volume 2, although still very early (covering Progs 61 – 115) is, for me, where Dredd really starts to come into his own. The multi-part Robot Wars had been very well received and, although the standalone tales would always be popular, it is with the epic tales that Dredd really began to draw in a big readership. This second volume contains not one but two of these early epics: The Cursed Earth and The Day the Law Died. In the former we get our first real look at the radiation desert between the mega cities. The Cursed Earth, blasted and irradiated during the great atom wars, is home to criminals, mutants and even feral dinosaurs (resurrected in a Jurassic Park style for dino national parks, but free to roam after the wars).

Dredd has to cross thousands of miles of hostile terrain. He encounters mutant gangs by Mount Rushmore (which has a carving of then-president Jimmy Carter added to it affording a good visual gag when an attacking mutant in a hover vehicle is shot down by Dredd and crashes into those famous teeth). He also meets rabid Tyrannosaurs, corrupt mafia Judges running Las Vegas, southern slavers who brutalise aliens as slave labour, and even the last president of the United States. The latter was sentenced to 100 years in suspended animation in a vault in Fort Knox by the Judges for the crime of starting the great atom wars (at which point the Judges took over the government of the Mega Cities, the only remaining civilisation in America).

This is all undertaken on the pretext of delivering a vaccine for a terrible plague to Mega City 2 on the West Coast (air transport not being possible for rather flimsy reasons), but that is simply a device to set up a terrific series of adventures as Dredd travels the ruined America in his Land Raider (famously based on a then-contemporary Matchbox die-cast toy — yes, of course I had one!). His companions include his bike-man, Spikes Harvey Rotten, ‘the greatest punk of all time’, with his grenade earring, right out of the punk rock scene. It also affords a classic cover (reproduced in the collection) which epitomises Dredd’s iron constitution and utter determination as a Judge. Clad in the ragged remains of his uniform, Dredd struggles on his knees through the radiation desert towards the end of his mission. The speech bubble with the words:

This Cursed Earth will not break me. I am the Law. I am Dredd… Judge Dredd.”

The Day the Law Died shamelessly mines the history of Classical Rome and the more eccentric (well, stark raving mad to be honest) emperors such as Caligula and Nero. Deputy Chief Judge Cal uses his own version of the Praetorian Guard, the Special Judicial Squad (SJS), to secretly assassinate the Chief Judge and seize power (Chief Judges rarely die in their sleep in Dredd stories). Cal assumes dictatorial powers. Most of the Judges are conditioned to obey him through subliminal messages hidden in their daily crime briefing tapes (yes, tapes – this was the 70’s after all). Dredd is recovering in hospital from an attempted assassination and so avoids the brainwashing.

Along with some old and injured Judges who teach at the Academy of Law, Dredd leads a desperate resistance to Cal’s reign while Cal himself becomes increasingly unhinged. He punishes one Judge by making him carry out his duties in only his underpants, boots and helmet. He appoints his pet goldfish as Deputy Chief Judge (“Hail Deputy Chief Judge Fish!”). Yes it does sound crazy, but real life emperors have done far worse. When Dredd’s group gets too close Cal brings in huge crocodilian alien mercenaries, the Kleggs, to terrify the population and finish Dredd off. Fleeing to the Undercity, the resistance end up with the eccentric, hulking figure of Fergee, the self-styled King of the Big Smelly (as the polluted Ohio River is now called). He is still one of the most memorable characters in Dredd history. When Cal sentences the entire population to die (he starts alphabetically with Aaron A Aardvark who changed his name to be first in the phone book) Dredd needs every ally he can get hold of if he is to save the city.

While reprints of classic comics material are nothing new, there has been a recent — and welcome in my opinion — trend by various publishers to reproduce classic series with good packaging, in their original chronological order and with respect for the source material and the fact that they represent important parts of comics history. Examples include Titan’s Classic Dan Dare library and Fantagraphics excellent Complete Peanuts series. This does not mean that you should consider these volumes to be merely for those interested in comics history or looking for a little nostalgia (although I plead guilty on both counts) — while they do fulfil both those qualities they are also what they always were, inventive and hugely enjoyable comics. Older 2000AD readers like myself will enjoy these but they are also a perfect introduction to the back history of Britain’s top comics character for newer readers and look set to build into an excellent full Dredd library over time.

Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files 01 – John Wagner – Rebellion – graphic novel

Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files 02 – John Wagner and Pat Mills – Rebellion – graphic novel

Reviews from the past: Regards From Serbia

Another old review of mine I thought I would repost on here, this one from the FP blog back in 2007:

Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.

regards from serbia zograf small.jpg

As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).

Zograf smart bomb.jpg

Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.

Regards From Serbia panel.jpg

A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.

Reviews from the past: Mutants

This is one of my non-fiction reviews of a pop science book from 2004 (originally published on the now sadly defunct The Alien Online), a fascinating, touching and very human study of genetic variation in the human form by Armand Marie Leroi. You may have seen the TV series which followed on Channel 4 in the UK and Discovery in the US as Human Mutants; the book was shortlisted for the Aventis Science book award and won the Guardian First Book Award:

Mutants
Armand Marie Leroi,
Published HarperCollins

What is human?

Humanity – the pinnacle of evolution. A creature which can walk upright, engage in sophisticated language, entertain abstract thought, manipulate its own environment. Humans are also the sum of the DNA. Being such a sophisticated form of life does have a drawback, however – the more sophisticated something is the more there is to possibly go wrong. The thousands of genes and electro-chemical signals which create a human child and regulate its growth can and do go wrong. Fortunately for most of us the genetic flaws which we all have (on average around 300 per individual) are normally not malignant. For some people throughout history and even today the story is quite different.

Leroi begins by explaining how it is the aberrations from the norm which can so often illuminate what the normal function of certain genes are. After his thoughtful introduction Leroi divides the book into different – although often related- areas, such as gender, skeletal structure and ageing. The first chapter begins suitably enough with embryonic development, both ‘normal’ and abnormal. Here we come face to face – or rather face to faces – with what is probably the best-known form of embryonic abnormality, the conjoined twin. As with the accompanying TV series Human Mutants we are introduced to the wood engravings of Ritta and Christina Parodi and also to the sad spectacle of their little skeleton; conjoined and on display in death as they were in their short life in 1829.

This is a common device in this book – Leroi frequently refers to historical cases of human mutation, from conjoined twins and court dwarves to African pygmies and hairy ‘wild-men’. This serves to purposes – it, of course, gives some historical range and depth to the cases being studied. Leroi examines not only the mutation but also the life of the afflicted person and the studies and theories made of them by academics of the time, contrasting it with modern science and theories of genetics, taking us from Classical theories through the Enlightenment, Nazi eugenics up to the Human Genome project. This offers not an overview of scientific evolution but also offers a view of the way in which those who are different have been seen by society over the centuries.

The second function this method of discourse provides is to humanise the cases being discussed. It would be too easy to view these mutations as merely interesting cases of study and curiosity, especially when Leroi is discussing modern scientific methodology. It is to his credit that these interesting cases remain interesting but also remain human. In a way this is a major part of Leroi’s argument – that no matter how unusual or distorted the body is, each of these people he discusses are individuals; they are human beings.

Naturally there is a form of voyeuristic pleasure to be had from this book; the author admits as much himself. It is hard for us not to look, or even gape sometimes, at some of the Cycloptic babies in jars in Dutch medical museums or 8-foot tall giants. Even when regarding an ‘Elephant Man’ with a scientific viewpoint there is arguably still a voyeuristic element present. Again it is to Leroi’s credit that he is able to admit to this without giving in to it totally – this is not a simple freak show like some old carnival. It’s a sensitive subject area to deal with, especially when discussing contemporary mutations such as Fibropdysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a (thankfully) rare skeletal disorder where bones simply do not get the signal to stop growing. The skeleton continues new growth until the person’s body literally seizes up, leading to a premature death after much pain and increasing suffering.

Not all of the mutations here are of the spectacular variety however. There is also discussion of the common mutations that we see every day. The mutations which give some of us blue eyes and red hair and others brown eyes; make some people tall, some shorter; some with dark skin, some with pale skin, makes some average and others beautiful. Leroi ventures a little into controversial territory by discussing theories of race – an area of science which has all-too often been abused to justify political motivations (Nazi eugenics, US government enforced sterilisation of black men in the 30s).

Leroi explains that modern genetic research has shown some 80% of all genetic diversity is present in just about every corner of the globe. To be sure there are regional variations with some genetic traits obviously (sometimes visually) stronger in some places than others (such as red hair in Scotland or Ireland), but 4/5 of our genes are common in every land and amongst every people. In a way he is saying that there really is no such thing as ‘race’ in science; it only exists in political viewpoints. Again this is consistent with his message that despite every mutation every person here is a human being of equal worth to every other person. A white person, who became black, conjoined twins, dwarves, hermaphrodites, Europeans, Aborigines – all of them human. The human body can take many unusual twists and turns in its formation, yet it still remains the body of a human being. And, Leroi points out, we are all of us mutants. A successful species flourishes through biological diversity and that means mutations (something for you to think about next time you read an X-Men book).

This is a fascinating science book which treats a potentially controversial or even macabre or ghoulish subject with great sensitivity and respect. It’s a treatise on human development and on scientific progress and understanding. It’s about being human.

Reviews from the past: American Gods

Time to dig out another old review from my archive, this time by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman and his novel American Gods. I remember doing the event in Edinburgh (packed, standing room only) with Neil when this book came out and I’ve still got a nice signed edition he scribbled in for me afterwards. I can’t remember if this appeared on the Alien Online or not, I think it might actually date to my own first review site The Library of Dreams, back around 2001 or thereabouts. I seem to remember Neil had been wanting to write it for a while but had still been busy with a lot of his comics work and so this large prose novel had to wait, but it was worth the wait.

American Gods,
by Neil Gaiman,
published by Headline

American Gods begins simply enough with a man called Shadow, counting the days until his release on parole from prison. A few short days before he is due to be released he is taken to the warden’s office to be told he is being released early on compassionate grounds. His wife has been killed in a car crash, just days before he was due home. Worse is to come when Shadow attends the funeral and finds his wife had been sleeping with his best friend and had actually caused the crash by giving him fellatio while driving. As Shadow’s new start in the world crumbles around him he is followed by a one-eyed stranger called Mr Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, which he refuses at first, but wearily agrees to after the funeral is over. He is not told what the specifics of the job are, but he does find himself in a bar, drinking Wednesday’s mead to seal the deal and fighting a drunken leprechaun called Mad Sweeney by way of an audition.

Thereafter Shadow travels across much of the land of America. Some of it and its inhabitants are recognisable, other parts and people are more like the dream imagery of America described in film, painting and literature. Shadow senses a great storm coming and Wednesday confirms that this coming storm is what their business concerns. After performing a successful con job at a bank to raise funds for their venture they begin seeking out some very odd people, who Wednesday arranges to meet at the House on the Rock, a bizarre attraction of run-down fairground oddities and architectural curiosities.

While riding the world’s largest carousel there, Shadow experiences an alternate reality – a dream perhaps, or a glimpse of shadow worlds – where he sees many of theses people they have collected in their real light. They are gods. Old gods. Gods who were brought across the great oceans by the many waves of immigrants from the Old World. Wednesday was brought to the Americas centuries before, in the beliefs of the Vikings who ventured to this strange, new land. His wolves and two ravens appear. He is Odin, the one-eyed gallows god. And he is seeking to gather together all the old gods in America because a storm is coming.

Although many of the Old World gods made the journey to the New World with the people of their old lands, they are fading away. America is not the most fertile ground for such beliefs, it appears. As the successive immigrants have settled down and assimilated themselves into American culture, belief in the old ways and old gods has diminished, until most are simply tales to be told to children. Without belief a god dwindles, weakens and fades. Some seek to exploit this weakness of the older gods.

A new generation of gods has sprung up. American gods. Gods of the media, the television, the Internet, pop music, Wall Street. These are the gods of the New World, and they do not wish to share it with the gods of the old. Driven partly by jealousy and partly by fear – the old gods, after all, are a reminder to them that even a god’s life is finite – the new gods will wage war with the old. They try to co-opt Shadow to join their ranks, as the gods of the media bring his television to life. Lucy speaks to him from an old re-run, trying to persuade him to come over to their camp. She finishes with a wink and an offer to show him Lucy’s tits, surely one of the more unusual lines in contemporary fantasy. Shadow refuses and is attacked by strange men-in-black – the realisation of America’s security services, they even have unmarked cars and helicopters – but is rescued by his dead wife, Laura, who he may have accidentally resurrected.

Wednesday sends Shadow for safety to stay with old friends, Mr Bis and Mr Jacquel, who run a small mortuary and funeral service, with their cat who takes a fancy to Shadow. Times are hard when no one believes in you, and so Anubis makes a living now as an undertaker. After leaving them, Shadow is sent to the relative safety of a small, idyllic heartland town of Lakeside. A seemingly perfect little town, immune from all the ravages of the real world affecting the towns around it, Lakeside is like Bedford Falls, the small-town American ideal. Of course, there is a dark reason as to why Lakeside is the way it is, as Shadow finds out, a sinister reason linked to the almost annual disappearance of an adolescent from the town. Even in the idyll of rural America, nothing is just as it appears. And still the war is coming. Wednesday is manoeuvring friends and foe alike, and not necessarily all for their own benefits. Shadow will face death, the underworld, dreams of the great native Indian Thunderbirds and battles with duplicitous gods, occasionally helped by his dead wife, leading to a conclusion which is unexpected and startling.

American Gods has been a cherished project of Neil’s, that he has been working on for some time. It has been postponed more than once, but the final 500 page plus novel is more than worth the wait. Alright, you all know I am biased towards Neil’s work. Guilty as charged. But I think anyone who reads this wonderful work of fantasy will being to see just why I rave about his writing so much. American Gods is an extremely clever piece of fantasy, mixing some wonderfully original storytelling with world mythology and folklore. This is not an uncommon theme in Neil’s writing, and of course, we have seen him use Odin and Loki before in the Sandman. But the juxtaposition of these brilliantly realised mythic archetypes from the Old World with the belief systems of modern America is the charm, which breathes life into this clay. Neil’s observance of America, its beliefs and how it sees itself are both affectionate and cutting. The idea that we create new gods without realising it, such as gods of the media or Wall Street, is intriguing – we all worship something after all, a deity, liberty, money, love, possessions. It echoes Grant Morisson’s early Invisibles episode where it is revealed that John Lennon now has all the attributes of a god.

The new gods represent this idea, that our beliefs may change, but gods will always be with us, because we create them ourselves, whether we are worshipping the dollar or a pop star. They’re not called idols for nothing after all. And when a god is no longer worshipped or remembered they fade slowly away, reduced to performing con jobs like Wednesday to get by as best they can, like a once-famous actor now scratching a living from commercials. Even gods can die, and this frightens the new gods even more than sharing America with the old gods. The old gods represent their own mortality. Worse, in our hi-tech, fast-moving, short-attention span world, belief in the new gods is far more fleeting. While Odin may have commanded worship for centuries, many new gods are discarded quickly, such as the sickly Rail Baron god. Not enough belief to go around for everyone, every god for themselves.

American Gods is one of Neil’s finest works to date. If you have not read any of his work before, this is an excellent starting point, as it needs no knowledge of his other material to understand. If you are familiar with Neil’s canon then you will be rewarded by little literary nuggets. The room in the House on the Rock, full of old coin-operated shows which is reminiscent of the arcade in Mr Punch. The girl with the multi-coloured hair and the dog, who may or may not be Delirium. As ever his work is littered with multiple references to other writers. Of course his beloved James Branch Cabell, but I’m sure I spotted references to, or influences of many others, such as Sheri S Tepper and Lord Dunsanay, to say nothing of the Frank Capra homage to Bedford Falls in the shape of Lakeside, which in turn becomes a homage to David Lynch’s skewed take on the hidden side of American small town life in Blue Velvet. If you are looking for dense, multiple layering of narrative and metaphor, then Neil’s your man. This is a work of first class literature, bursting with gorgeous ideas and characters, both original and those from our collective mythologies. Like any truly good piece of writing, it will change the way you view the ‘real’ world.

Reviews from the past: Jekyll & Hyde

This review originally dates from 2003 and is another of the many I wrote for The Alien Online. Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow dweller of Edinburgh, has long been one of my very favourite writers and it delights me no end that I can walk around some of his old haunts here. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a landmark tale, dating from the late 19th century it is a horror tale which is a splendid example of early internalised horror (the body itself becomes the source of the horror) and of the use of the then fairly new science/art of psychology. Its a tale which, like its near contemporary Dracula, has infected the cultural bloodstream of humanity ever since, to the extent that even people who have never read the tale will use the phrase Jekyll and Hyde personality to describe someone who switches from one extreme to the other.

And if you haven’t read the original I highly recommend it as one of the finest tales every spun and a story which has far more layers and meaning than the simplistic versions seen in movies and TV which usually opt for simple good versus evil motif, while the book is far more nuanced and subtle, a tale of warring desires within a man’s soul. Most adaptations in other media I have found miss the point of Stevenson’s tale, but Kramsky and Mattotti clearly understood the way vice and virtue, shame and desire were intertwined in Jekyll and Hyde, not separated. And this was also my first real exposure to Lorenzo Mattotti, a remarkable European comics artist who has since become one of my favourites:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
By Jerry Kramsky and Lorenzo Mattotti,
Published by NBM

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A gorgeously painted incarnation of Stevenson’s tale

Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky have collaborated to create a beautifully painted take on Stevenson’s tale of fractured humanity. Obviously somewhat shorter than the original novel, this is really more of an adaptation than an abridgement. As with Stevenson’s original classic, Doctor Henry Jekyll is not a complete saint, depraved and corrupted by Edward Hyde’s malevolent spirit. Rather Jekyll is the embodiment of his own theories on the duality of human nature. By all public appearances he is the distinguished and respected scientist, well known in society. However, Jekyll feels the tug of his darker desires. He sees the depravity around him in drinking dens, dark dancing halls and shady alleyways where ladies of the night ply their trade. And he wants it so much… Ah, but the shame of it all! Despairing of having his darker nature revealed and yet increasingly desirous of releasing his animal wants and needs to be satisfied Jekyll uses his scientific genius to free himself.

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At first the transformation is reasonably controlled. Hyde is a distillation of all of Jekyll’s dark impulses, unfettered by conscience – but it is Jekyll’s fantasies that he is living out. Like a masque in long-ago Venice he has found a way to move through the shadows of night and desire without ruining his public persona. The trouble comes as Hyde’s violent nature asserts itself and Jekyll is left with the remorse, shaking and shuddering like a junkie on withdrawal and guilt. The transformation back to Jekyll is increasingly difficult as Hyde beings to assert his own existence, preying on the darkest fringes of human iniquity and sexual deviance… Playing on Jekyll’s darkest dreams, his most sordid fantasies made flesh with no restraint.

Mattotti and Kramsky have created a most unusual graphic version of this tale. The painted artwork is alive with unusual angles, distorted images of people and buildings, echoing the out-of-control spiral of Jekyll and his alter ego Hyde. The colours and shapes eschew realism and embrace a style that draws heavily on the Surrealist painters of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The colours remind me of a Kandinsky painting while the grotesque images of people owe much to Picasso and even Edvard Munch. The warped angles of the city’s architecture echo the Expressionist films of the same period, such as the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Appropriately, the tale has been moved from the Victorian era to sometime in the 20s or 30s. All flappers and Weimar-era decadence – hidden by day, seeping out at night to parade its sinful flesh, just as Hyde does. The old social order crumbling at the seams while the new one emerges from it’s straight-laced and barely restrained desires, an illegitimate offspring born in darkness.

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The tale is wonderfully told, ignoring the simplicity of most film adaptations, where Jekyll is a saintly character and Hyde a devil. Instead, as Stevenson intended, it dwells more on humanity’s inherent duplicity of desires, between our goodness and our darkness, something we all have deep within. What happens when a man tries to act out those desires by freeing himself of the consequences by becoming someone else? This is no accident – Jekyll wants, at least in the beginning, to free himself to enjoy these depravities this decadent new age offer. This is an unusual and often disturbing take on Stevenson – who wanted it do disturb after all – but wonderfully crafted and painted in the most gorgeous manner. It is almost worth buying simply for the fantastic artwork alone and NBM (who brought us Far, Far West and Boneyard amongst others – see earlier reviews) have employed their normal larger scale book, allowing the artwork more room to breathe. Deep, dark, disturbing – nightmare images to haunt you in the night, lying alone with your desires.