Friday, November 15, 2019

Ranking Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who


If Doctors are the nerdy child's equivalent of football teams, Christopher Eccleston is geographically 'my' Doctor, born a few miles closer to where I was than fellow underdog Paul McGann (though still about an hour's drive on the M6).

I've never felt any special attachment to his incarnation, but his relative scarcity in the canon – just the one run of episodes, not even hanging around for Christmas – makes him an interesting curio and means I'm not sick of seeing his mugging face like some of his more popular successors. There's also the extra novelty of his series being the debut year – definitive firsts, growing pains and all.

Here's what I reckon are The Top 11 Ninth Doctor Stories, for no more pressing reason than it was going to happen sooner or later and I felt like some light reading.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Ranking the Philip K. Dick novels


Read over four years, I don't know whether the benefit of hindsight and fallible memory make this more or less reliable than the lists I recklessly improvise in real time while reading along. I can't trust that my memories are real anyway.

Here are my The Top 46 Philip K. Dick Novels.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Alrightreads: Real Dicks

PKD's unpublishable non-SF novels. Written 1950–60.


Philip K. Dick, Gather Yourselves Together

1950 (published 1994) / Audiobook / 292 pages / USA

**

Even a bad Philip K. Dick book is usually worth reading for the throwaway ideas he packs in and Easter eggs reminding of better works. That's just one of many ways his debut novel fails to establish tradition. You can say that its vast emptiness mirrors the barren industrial setting, if you're feeling generous. There's some thoughtful amateur philosophising amid the tedious romance, but it's not worth the trouble of seeking out.


Philip K. Dick, Voices from the Street

1952 (published 2007) / Audiobook / 301 pages / USA

**

Like many young writers, at least back then, part of Dick's learning curve was learning to cut down and not be so comprehensively dull. The semi-autobiographical character study is realistic but a chore to sit through for completion's sake. This failed novel didn't see generous publication for more than half a century, and he probably would've preferred it to stay that way.


Philip K. Dick, Mary and the Giant

1953-55 (published 1987) / Audiobook / 230 pages / USA

**

A worthwhile exercise in writing a three-dimensional female character – not that he'd put those lessons to use in most of his books – this unpleasant soap opera is less a waste of time than his other early 'mainstream' books, but only because it's shorter.


Philip K. Dick, The Broken Bubble (a.k.a. The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt)

1956 (published 1988) / Audiobook / 246 pages / USA

*

Dick had written at least one sci-fi classic by this point and was on a roll, so to keep returning to this less fertile ground of contemporary California is just a waste of time, not to mention financially unwise. This tale of age-gap swingers is pervier than most, but with repetitive character types and situations, the non-sci-fi has ended up being even more formulaic than the dystopias, so not the change of pace you might expect. It might be more polished than the earlier ones, I was too bored to pay attention, but the goodwill's run out.


Philip K. Dick, Puttering About in a Small Land

1957 (published 1985) / Audiobook / 291 pages / USA

*

If nothing else (I can't find much to appreciate), Dick's failed populist novels are a chronicle of the changing times, with the ubiquitous radio repair shop now offering TV repairs, more liberated sex talk and characters fussing over horror comics. The straying couples have children this time around, which might reflect Dick's own changing circumstances, I don't care enough to look it up.


Philip K. Dick, In Milton Lumky Territory

1958 (published 1985) / Audiobook / 213 pages / USA

***

Now that we've all got flying cars and android butlers, this tale of typewriters, small-town enterprise and pursuing the low-key American dream seems as exotic as the sci-fi worlds. More light-hearted and wholesome than his previous realist novels, this is one of the few that could serve as a welcome break in your chronological reading rather than a completist chore.


Philip K. Dick, Confessions of a Crap Artist

1959 (published 1975) / Audiobook / 171 pages / USA

***

The best of Dick's non-SF novels, this was the only one that made it to print during his lifetime, and we wouldn't have been much worse off if the others had been left in a drawer. Loveable kook Jack Isidore is probably one of his best characters and a rare positive treatment of someone with mental illness, at least in the early PKD canon, especially in contrast to the self-destructive neurotypicals he cohabits with.


Philip K. Dick, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike

1960 (published 1984) / Audiobook / 223 pages / USA

**

A dark Californian Gothic tale of bitter rivalry, spousal abuse, race relations and remarkable skulls, this is one of his better realist novels, but we're back to being overlong and boring again.


Philip K. Dick, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

1960 (published 1986) / Audiobook / 199 pages / USA

*

I was hoping for more from the non-SF PKD apocrypha, but most have little going for them beyond providing a time capsule of American society and attitudes. By this point, the themes and characters feel recycled even more than in his most phoned-in dystopias. He wisely decided to concentrate on his more profitable genre strengths from now on.


Monday, October 28, 2019

Alrightreads: Dawn of the Dick

PKD's early sci-fi novels. Written 1953–55.


Philip K. Dick, Vulcan's Hammer

1960 / Audiobook / 139 pages / USA

**

Whether or not it was really the first sci-fi novel he wrote, as Wikipedia's dubious bibliography claims, this is clearly a less assured writer expanding his prescient short story about AIs stealing AIs' jobs by throwing in generic sci-fi action rather than idisyncratic oddities. The uncharacteristically straightforward and methodical plot is refreshing, but lightweight.


Philip K. Dick, Dr. Futurity

1960 / Audiobook / 138 pages / USA

***

Heady themes like ethnic cleansing and euthenasia are the subjects of this early PKDystopia, dealt with in very trivial ways. Then our blacked-up hero goes on a pulpy time travel adventure featuring a literal time's arrow and it gets more fun.


Philip K. Dick, The Cosmic Puppets

1957 / Audiobook / 127 pages / USA

***

Like a precognitive audition for The Twilight Zone, this short early novel of suburban cosmic horror has very few of what would become established as PKD tropes, helping it to stand out in the canon if not the genre.


Philip K. Dick, Solar Lottery (a.k.a. World of Chance)

1955 / Audiobook / 188 pages / USA

***

The first distinctively PKD novel, its pot-luck dystopia is more satirical than credible, but could have been a classic with more recognition in the lottery of fame. The disparate plot strands don't pull together all that well, but that's the case for a lot of his books, even with experience. It's a lottery.


Philip K. Dick, The World Jones Made

1956 / Audiobook / 192 pages / USA

***

A particularly dark and philosophical work exploring moral relativism and determinism, lightened somewhat by compulsory aliens because it's the fifties.


Philip K. Dick, The Man Who Japed

1956 / Audiobook / 160 pages / USA

***

The satirical fascist dystopia is slowly maturing, but not as tangible as they'll be later, feeling much like the contemporary '50s but with interstellar travel and borrowing from Bradbury. You can probably read more into this tale of futile rebellion than the author concerned himself with when bashing out words for food.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Alrightreads: Finales II

Second last words.


Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October

1993 / Audiobook / 280 pages / USA

***

Zelazny's last completed work was this more coy precursor to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, told from the unfamiliar perspective of the familiars of familiar characters. Nice for Victorian lit and horror fans, but one of those pet projets that was probably more fun to write than to read.


Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

1985 (pub.2006) / Ebook / 304 pages / USA

****

We can't watch these lectures, but since Carl talks like he writes, there's not much difference between these transcripts and his other books, until you get to the Q&A at the end where he patiently responds to people who think they know better. This veers towards the Demon-Haunted World side of things, but still takes time out to contemplate the cosmos which is what I'm here for.


Gillian G. Gaar, Nirvana's In Utero

2006 / Ebook / 105 pages / USA

***

It took me about a decade after my first nonplussed listen to appreciate the connoisseur's Nirvana album, but it still wasn't quite my favourite. I was hoping that an insightful commentary might tip that, but instead got a methodical chronicle of studio dates, repetitive statements of intent and overblown near-controversy. Nevermind.


Harlan Ellison, The Voice from the Edge, Vol. 5: Shatterday & Other Stories

1966-2003 (collected 2011) / Audiobook / USA

***

The last of the curated audio archives, this feels more bent towards the horrific, but it turns out I've said that about most of them. A semi-autobiography, comedy and romance with a unicorn keep things varied.

Faves: 'Shatterday,' 'Basilisk,' 'Goodbye to All That.'

Worsties: 'In the Oligocenskie Gardens,' 'Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,' 'Susan.'


Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 4: The Tempest

2018-19 (collected 2019) / Ecomics / 256 pages / UK

***

The conclusion to this drawn-out, self-satisfied series was Alan Moore's retirement from comics (so he says), and it's a fitting finale as the pop-culture omnipastiche catches up to the comics of the writer's own upbringing and early career. Bitter and twisted to the end, he also takes the opportunity for some parting pot shots at the state of the industry and culture generally. He was the best.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Alrightreads: Fourquels

Further unambitious sequels. Stick with what you know for diminishing returns.


Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

1985 / Audiobook / 382 pages / USA

**

By the end of his illustrious career, Heinlein was mainly writing for himself and established fans who still cared. I've read some of the shared universe books that this one references, but that didn't lend any goodwill to this pervy retro farce. It doesn't take itself seriously, but it's never actually funny either.


Evan Dorkin based on the story by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

1991 / Ecomic / 75 pages / USA

***

It's not exactly a cinematic classic, but the Bill & Ted sequel was one of the defining films of my childhood and the one I'd most like to see in a restored director's cut, incorporating the various randomly deleted scenes that are still present in this premature comic version. It also fascinatingly suggests that Bill Sadler's Death was going to be an unwieldy skeleton of some kind, seemingly something of a last-minute decision after they'd got more important stuff like the costumes sorted. The adaptation was efficient, I get more of the references now than when I was six.


Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham, Miracleman Book Four: The Golden Age

1990-91 (collected 1992) / Ecomics / 160 pages / UK

****

Alan Moore left this comic in a right state, but Gaiman embraces the disconcerting utopia, telling disparate tales of people, gods and resurrected android replicants trying to find their place in the new world order. By focusing on the little people it's more relatable than Moore's Miracleman became, but without those three volumes of context I imagine it would be pretty impenetrable. It's hard enough when you're following along.


Harlan Ellison, The Voice from the Edge Vol. 4: The Deathbird & Other Stories

1957-2010 (collected 2011) / Audiobook / USA

****

These audio anthologies are a long way from scraping the barrel yet, with most of these stories and novellas being winners or nominees of some prestigious award or other. The tone's generally pretty grim, but nothing you should take too seriously.

Faves: 'The Deathbird,' 'The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,' 'Count the Clock That Tells the Time.'

Worsties: 'Ellison Wonderland,' 'The Creation of Water,' 'The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.'


Peter Watts, Echopraxia

2014 / Audiobook / 383 pages / Canada

**

Blindsight is one of the best modern sci-fi books I've read, so I had reasonable hopes for the sequel that didn't take long to get dashed. The author continues his philosophical discourse through transhumans and unconvincing technology and pushes the space gothic vibes further, but he neglects to make the story entertaining this time around.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Alrightreads: Threequels

As in third books, etc. Not sequels with an elaborate lisp.


Hergé, Tintin in America (Tintin en Amérique)

1931-32 (collected 1932) / Ecomics / 62 pages / Belgium

**

Fresh from his racist hunting holiday in the Congo, the intrepid reporter sets his sights on cleaning up Chicago's gangland with a detour via Red Indian country. It's an interesting period piece of the time, but it's mainly a tedious catalogue of death-defying escapes from suffocation, drowning, lynching, freefall, burial, explosion, high-speed collision, industrial mincing and various bullets, nearly all thanks to sheer luck more than wits. Sometimes the dog helped.


Alan Moore and John Totleben, Miracleman Book Three: Olympus

1987-89 (collected 1991) / Ecomics / 128 pages / UK/USA

***

As happened with late Swamp Thing around the same time, Moore's Miracleman swan song goes off the rails as he turns it into the sci-fi pet project he wants to write instead, narrated in that same highfalutin voice all his pompous supermen have. It was a struggle to get through, except when it briefly becomes action-packed in his most unflinchingly violent comic issue outside of From Hell. John Totleben admirably keeps up.


John Darnielle, Black Sabbath's Master of Reality

2008 / Ebook / 101 pages / USA

**

Likely the most lightweight and pointless entry in the 33⅓ series, the Mountain Goats guy eschews the customary technical analysis and oral history approaches to tell what's presumably a fictional story of an institutionalised teenager finding comfort in Black Sabbath. From this perspective, feelings, dubious folk tales and false assumptions rule over facts. You won't learn anything, but there probably wasn't that much to learn anyway.


Danny Wallace, Friends Like These: My Worldwide Quest to Find My Best Childhood Friends, Knock on Their Doors, and Ask Them to Come Out and Play

2008 / Ebook / 406 pages / UK

***

The contrived scrapes were going to get stale sooner or later. This crisis of maturity is more relatable and less wacky, thus less entertaining.


William Gibson and Johnnie Christmas, William Gibson's Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay

2018-19 (collected 2019) / Ecomics / 136 pages / USA/Canada

**

Alien³ has a bad reputation, centred around it not being very good. Its overriding grimness means that not even the nostalgia of it being the first 18-certificate film I was excitingly allowed to watch more than a decade early doesn't give me any fondness for it. I didn't expect William Gibson's rejected pitch to be any better, and with its dull and formulaic plot and bizarre lack of Ripley not excused by the other returning characters, it's probably worse. Still, it's always satisfying to see these curious artefacts unearthed and presented authentically in spite of taste.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Alrightreads: Sequels II

Sort of.


Alan Moore and artists, Miracleman, Book Two: The Red King Syndrome

1983-86 (collected 2014) / Ecomics / 224 pages / UK

****

The postmodern reimagining that started it all, this second chapter in the increasingly dark Übermensch saga continues to blend gritty and sometimes shocking realism with high-octane escapism like a proto-Watchmen, but it's mainly interesting to see The Original Writer pushing things to see how much he can get away with. Rather a lot, it turns out, especially after it moved to an independent American publisher.


Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton

1987 / Ebook / 234 pages / UK

***

While it's not actually a sequel to Hawksmoor, it's a similar pan-century investigation into the life, death and legacy of another enigmatic artist – here the tragic poet and literary prankster who arguably overreacted to his lack of instant acclaim by killing himself at 17... or did he? I'm not literary enough to find the mystery as compelling as its cast of over-educated eccentrics, who each have the most insufferable quirks.


Viz, Viz Comic: The Big Hard Number Two – A Compilation of Issues 13 to 18

1989 / Ecomics / 128 pages / UK

***

This is proper Viz now, but I still wasn't feeling it. Some of the pisstake features and letters are funny, but those same couple of jokes start to grate after a while. There was a point early on when a triple whammy of scatalogical, silly and downright weird strips made me lose it, but other times I felt I'd be more entertained by an actual kid's comic.




Robert Anton Wilson, Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You & Your World

1990 / Ebook / 208 pages / USA

***

More learned behaviour 'is' challenged as RAW tells us to stop being so assertive all the time. A less compelling follow-up to Prometheus Rising that goes over some of the same points, this was the one that broke my brain, when unwise bedtime reading led to a restless night trapped in an endless labyrinth of Robert Anton Wilson books. Or maybe I just had a fever or something, let's not go making assumptions.


Danny Wallace, Yes Man

2005 / Ebook / 400 pages / UK

****

Picking up where Join Me left off, Danny's next monetisable stupid boy project is more calculated, cynical and self-absorbed than the kindness cult, but it gets funnier as it goes along and he gets ever deeper into completely unnecessary trouble. There's a smidgen of self-help in this comedy memoir, and I suppose I might have benefited if I'd read it at the time and took its gist to heart. Nah.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Alrightreads: Debuts II

More first words.


Roger Zelazny, This Immortal (a.k.a. ...And Call Me Conrad)

1965 (collected 1966) / Audiobook / 174 pages / USA

**

The young writer starts as he means to go on with a dark future fable steeped in mythology. Competent, but pompous heroic fantasy has never really appealed to me.


Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective

1973 / Ebook / 274 pages / USA

****

Sagan's pop science debut lacks some of the poetic oration of his later cosmic sermons, but it's still an inspiring and humbling collection of bite-sized astronomy, informed speculations, over-optimistic predictions and justified grievances.


Viz, Viz Comic: The Big Hard One – Best of Issues 1 to 12

1979-84 (collected 1987) / Ecomics / 128 pages / UK

***

I've been hearing that Viz used to be better and how I was missing out ever since school, so let's put that to the fucking test, shall we? These early issues are as hit and miss as I'm used to, and are mainly interesting as historical artefacts of Chris Donald's DIY record label tie-in outgrowing its niche local audience and breaking into the mainstream. Early adventures with Ted Dempster, Pathetic Sharks and the satirical social saga of Skinheed are a bit of a slog, but Biffa, Billy, Johnny, Roger and Sid are all there by the end, doing their joke.




David Mitchell, Ghostwritten

1999 / Audiobook / 436 pages / UK

****

If I was reading the David Mitchell (Not That One) bibliography in the correct order, and not backtracking from the bestseller like some sort of mainstream pleb, you'd be spared the belittling comparison to a less majestic Cloud Atlas. But that was my main takeaway from this similarly themed anthology cunningly disguised as a novel, connecting disparate people, places and times with the ricketiest of bridges. Maybe he'll eventually have the attention span to write a novel that follows a single coherent narrative. That'd be a shame.


J. Niimi, R.E.M.'s Murmur

2005 / Audiobook / 136 pages / USA

***

Atypically in-depth for a flimsy 33⅓ book, this goes beyond the usual biographical context, studio anecdotes and equipment technicalities into the realm of scholarly speculation invited by Michael Stipe's cryptic mumbles. I don't know whether it was actually J. Niimi's master's thesis, but that's the vibe. I probably learned a lot, but nothing I'll take away.


Friday, October 4, 2019

Alrightreads: Eyes

Aye.


Philip K. Dick, Eye in the Sky

1957 / Audiobook / 255 pages / USA

****

More conventionally trippy than his later works after PKD met LSD, this odyssey through the bespoke nightmare universes of diverse caricatures would've made a great miniseries and is the stand-out of his '50s novels. By literally getting into their headspace, the author lets rip on religious fundamentalism, McCarthyism, Marxism and other -isms in a warped contemporary setting without the usual veil of allegory.


Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld (a.k.a. Cugel the Clever)

1965-66 (collected 1966) / Audiobook / 189 pages / USA

***

After setting the scene of his Dying Earth, Vance focuses on one of its denizens this time, who's pottering about having quests foisted upon him, having erotic exercise and taking pointless time trips to keep him from dwelling on the inevitable eternal night. Quite funny in places.


Frank Herbert, Eye

1955-85 (collected 1985) / Audiobook / 328 pages / USA

**

A mixed bag that tended towards boring and unlikeable. I at least respected that he refrained from naming the collection after the Dune 'story,' which amounts to a short encyclopaedia article.

Faves: 'Try to Remember,' 'By the Book,' 'Seed Stock.'

Worsties: 'The Dragon in the Sea,' 'The Road to Dune,' 'Frogs and Scientists.'


Aboud Dandachi, The Doctor, The Eye Doctor and Me: Analogies and Parallels Between the World of Doctor Who and the Syrian Conflict

2014 / Ebook / 151 pages / Syria

****

Being a literature graduate who contrived excuses to write essays on his favourite childhood sci-fi shows rather than hard books, I respected the very existence of this seemingly arbitrary mash-up, offering some critical appraisal of my favourite Doctor Who era while also giving me the excuse I still apparently need to learn about the more significant real-world events I wasn't paying so much attention to at the time. Reappraising escapist space adventures from the unfathomable perspective of a rebel turned refugee, this has the potential to kick off a whole movement of pop culture criticism under crisis.


Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

1989-2013 (collected 2015) / Ebook / 276 pages / UK

***

The author knows his late-19th-to-mid-20th-century French painters, and these new and repurposed articles on individual works, careers, wider movements and the value of art in general make compelling cases that you don't have to agree with. More pics would have been nice, but you've got Google, haven't you?

Faves: Géricault, Redon, Magritte

Worsties: Braque, Oldenburg, Richer