The Hill of Dreams

Essay: The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

In 1896, the year The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations was published, Machen said, in the introduction to a 1923 edition of this novel, he decided to stop being, in the words of critics, a “second-rate imitator” of Robert Louis Stevenson.

This was not quite all the truth, but there was a good deal of truth in it, and I am glad to say I took my correction in a proper spirit. I resolved to try to amend my ways.

There would be

No more white powders, no more of the calix principis inferorum, no more hanky-panky with the Great God Pan, or the Little People or any people of that dubious sort.

He planned this novel in in 1895, and it was not done until the spring of 1897. His plan was frequently revised, concluding chapters abandoned and restarted. He despaired, at times, of ever finding a way to completion.

Continue reading

The Cornelius Chronicles

I suppose the time has come in the Michael Moorcock series to look at some of the Jerry Cornelius books.

I didn’t really enjoy these books that much. However, if you realize going into them (and I didn’t), that Moorcock is doing his version of Commedia dell’Arte, they will be a lot more understandable.

However, I really can’t recommend them.

Raw Feed (1999): The Cornelius Chronicles, Michael Moorcock, 1977.Cornelius Chronicles

The Repossession of Jerry Cornelius”, John Clute — While I find Clute’s entries very useful in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (the shorter format curbs his excesses), I find his book reviews less than useful with his self-confessed fondness for obscure words and extended metaphors. I don’t know if Moorcock commissioned this introduction to the omnibus or if Clute’s opinions on these four novels bear any resemblance to the books. From what I gather, Clute (a resident of London where this piece was written and where Moorcock was born and lived a number of years and has written about) views these novels as a metaphor for city life in London from 1965 to 1977, the span of years in which these novels were written.  (And, to a lesser extent, a comment on the contemporary scene in Europe and worldwide.) I don’t agree with Clute’s sociological observation that life in the city is theatrical and involves putting on personas to perform on the metro stage (at least no more than personas are adapted in any social setting). It also seems that Clute is hinting that The Condition of Muzak, the fourth novel in the series, may imply that the previous three books are the daydreams of loser Jerry Cornelius.

The Final Programme — I enjoyed this novel (and certainly found it more enjoyable than Moorcock’s The Black Corridor and The Distant Suns) but found it oddly structured.  It’s light and airy, the dialogue archly ironic and droll, and easy to read, but I never got the feeling of building up to a climax. In fact, since I had seen a film adaptation of this novel, I expected the final ending of Jerry Cornelius (a sometimes callous and ruthless figure given to incest with his sister and, like Moorcock’s Elric, vampirically feeding off others – albeit with no instrumentality like Stormbringer) and merging with Miss Brunner to become a hermaphrodite. However, despite all the talk of a new world emerging, the cycle of time perhaps being broken, and millions following “Cornelius Brunner” into the sea to their deaths (and plague breaking out all over Europe), I never got the sense of a new order (or, at the very least, a significant new order) emerging.  The idea of a dream being used to create a new social order is something in many of the Eternal Champion stories, but I couldn’t tell if Cornelius was an agent of Law or Chaos, or just the new. I’ve seen it claimed that Cornelius was a proto-cyberpunk hero. I doubt that he had much influence and, if he did, it probably was the importance of contemporary popular culture, an international setting, trade and brand names (Moorcock probably was inspired by Ian Fleming in this since the James Bond series, partially parodied here, was big on brand names), and fashion (meticulously described here). Cornelius probably has his place amongst sf characters (this omnibus if frequently cited in lists of classic sf.) because it so stridently (and was probably the first to do so) tries to capture its time and the portents that seemed to be in the air of the very influential sixties’ London. Continue reading


While I work through my backlog of pending reviews, we continue with old stuff and the Michael Moorcock series.

The Eternal Champion was volume 1 in White Wolf Publishing’s Moorock series. This is volume 3. I made no notes on volume 2, Von Bek, but I’d recommend it just on the basis of The War Hound and the World’s Pain being in it.

Raw Feed (1998): Hawkmoon, Michael Moorcock, 1967, 1992.Hawkmoon

Introduction” — Short piece where Moorcock says this series of four novels was written as popular entertainment with no profundity despite some allusions to “The Beatles or well-known politicians”.

The Jewel in the Skull — I liked the character of Hawkmoon with his emotional detachment, near catatonia, awakening to become an enemy of Granbretan. I liked the Black Jewel threatening to eat his mind. I liked the villains Granbretan (Great Britain of a far future Europe). The emotional reserve and fascination for eccentric behavior, animals, and heraldry of the British is here satirized by the Orders who constantly go about in animal masks. I liked the knight in Jet and Gold.

The Mad Gods’ Amulet — Hawkmoon’s fight against the Dark Empire continues with a classic fantasy ploy – the diversion to quest after a magical item necessary for the main fight/quest. Though here Hawkmoon is unaware, for a long time, that the Runestaff has manipulated him into seeking the Mad God’s Amulet. He thinks he’s pursuing his betrothed Yisselda. I liked the Mad God and his minions (particularly the army of naked woman). I also liked the ambitious villain D’Averc with his affected illness. Hawkmoon warily accepts him as an ally. I also liked the ethereal city of Soryandum. I also liked the far future setting of this series with is antique cites and forgotten cities. Continue reading

The War Amongst the Angels

The Michael Moorcock series continues with a look at the concluding book in the Second Ether Trilogy.

Raw Feed (1998): The War Amongst the Angels: An Autobiographical Story, Michael Moorcock, 1996.War Amongst the Angels 

Moorcock, when venturing outside the straightforward fantasy novel format of his Elric and von Bek series with their straightforward plots, grows on you with his psychedelic, initially incomprehensible plots in this, the culmination of the trilogy beginning with Blood then Fabulous Harbors and in his Multiverse comic book series which retells and expands on the trilogy.

A cynic would view Moorcock’s multiverse with its theoretically endless variations on certain characters, archetypes, plots, symbols as a lazy excuse to constantly recycle the same stories or an inability to collapse the story potentials of an idea via the act of observation, i.e. writing, into an artistic statement.

However, after awhile, the variations (complicated by the non-linearity of time in Moorcock’s Multiverse) become hypnotic. Continue reading

Oath of Fealty

The Jerry Pournelle series concludes with one of my favorite Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and, I think a book of some political prescience.

The desire to retreat from crime and social chaos is still with us: gated communities and billionaires buying bolt holes in New Zealand, and survivalist compounds in South Dakota.

And Alphabet’s plans for its workers sounds like a return to feudalism which, of course, is what this book is about.

This is the only work of Niven’s or Pournelle’s to appear in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985).

Pringle exhibits a bit of snark in his capsule review of the novel when he says

 . . . memories of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise intrude; but that is a novel which Niven and Pournelle are unlikely to have read.

I suspect that’s true of Pournelle, but Niven’s essay, “The Words in Science Fiction“, hints at fairly broad tastes in the genre.

This was the next novel Niven and Pournelle started after The Mote in God’s Eye, but it was put aside for other novels.

For the 2008 edition, they wrote an introduction, but I have not read it.

If you go to Pournelle’s website and patiently read the search results for “Oath of Fealty”, you’ll find many references to people still thinking about an urban arcology as a shelter in turbulent times.

Raw Feed (1998): Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1981.Oath of Fealty

This book was certainly shorter and better than the last Niven and Pournelle collaboration I read, Footfall.

It also stands as the most explicit endorsement of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of Pournelle’s solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and a type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from medieval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield, Higher Education.

The title derives from the medieval feudal oath between vassal and lord, and the novel’s plot of Todos Santos fighting for legal and economic independence from LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords. [Yes, I’m aware that some medievalists argue that feudalism never existed. I just don’t accept the argument.]

That independence is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles’ reliance on Todos Santos (an emerging economic and social unit like the medieval towns) economically is used as leverage against the city. Continue reading

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading

Breaking the Skin

Essay: “Breaking the Skin: Two Visions of Destructive Transcendence”


Antibodies, David J. Skal, 1988.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

At least two horror writers of the late 1980s and early 1990s weren’t entirely keen on the whole human transcendence project via tattoos or technology

In Skal’s case, his near future science fiction novel deals with what we would call transhumanism.

In many ways, it’s an oh-so 1980’s novel.

There’s a cult. There’s a cultist. There’s a deprogrammer.

There’s CIA nefariousness in Central America, here in the fictitious country Boca Verde, “a whore, dispensing favors equally to tourists and terrorists”. There’s even a repeat of the 1980s conspiracy theory that the CIA created the HIV.

The cult is the Cybernetic Temple based in Boca Verde because U.S. law won’t allow its medical procedures and devices. (And one is reminded of another San Francisco cult based in Latin American jungles, the People’s Temple.)

The gospel of the Cybernetic Temple is spread, in this pre-internet age, by videocassette, and it promises science will actually deliver the promises of immortality made by conventional religion. The technologies to do this do not sound, apart from no mention of mind uploads and nanotechnology, all that different from what the Extropians talk about:

Artificial replacements for vital organs … myoelectric prosthesis … biocompatible silicon rubber … fluorocarbon substitutes for blood itself.

And, like Extropians, there’s a strong libertarian element to the propaganda of the Cybernetic Temple. They rail against government regulations:

More deregulation is required, not just in medicine but in all matters of trade and free choice. America’s laissez-faire dream has yet to be realized. If we cannot make decisions as basic as the control and disposal of our own bodies, then we cannot truly be considered free.

At a party, there’s an amusing bit where one Temple follower has said he’s tried Scientology and read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fifteen times and has last found something that works.

Ed Bryant’s cover blurb does a good job at summing up the flavor of the novel:

Antibodies is a film by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Harlan Ellison based on stories by J. G. Ballard and Joyce Carol Oates.

I’m not that familiar with the work of Oates, but there is definitely the flavor of sexual fetishism directed toward the unhuman you see in Ballard’s Crash. There’s a scene where a boy humps a garbage disposal while taking his hand off in it.

The desire of the main character Diandra is to become like the steel eyed mannequins in the famous window displays she does for a San Francisco department store, is not initially sexual. In fact, she has resisted the sexual advances of both men and women. Her rejection of the body stems from early sexual abuse by an uncle. (This easy go-to of childhood sexual abuse to explain mentally damaged characters seems to have gotten its start in the 1980s, the same decade that gave us a lot a modern witch hunts in numerous prosecutions in the U.S. of supposed abusers at childcare facilities.)

But this connection between fetishism and the transcendence of the flesh is strengthened when Diandra finally finds sexual pleasure in the mechanical grasp of Venus Tramhall, the famous sculptor who is the symbol and leader of the Cybernetic Temple, a woman with two very sophisticated prosthetic arms.

Skal doesn’t entirely rig, in emotional or factual terms, his argument of revulsion against the Cybernetic Temple. His deprogrammer character, Julian, head of an organization called Resurrection House, is a detestable character. He sexually abuses some of his subjects. He masturbates while doing a tv interview. He brings women over to his house for bondage sessions while his wife is there. He incites some of his more unstable patients to kill his wife’s lover. He’s a bad example for the flesh-should-stay-flesh side of things.

His wife, Gillian, is something of a covert saint for the Cybernetic Temple. She has pseudonymously penned the science fiction novel Helen Keller in Space. It’s something of a manifesto for the Cybernetic Temple followers. (Her agent quips to her: “You understand the science fiction reader perfectly. Terrified of sex but desperate for romance … craving military structure in relationships … and yet, so vulnerable and afraid!”). Its plot is somewhat reminiscent, in a cyborg spaceship, of Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang.

Still, Skal doesn’t show any genuine cripples who want the Cybernetic Temple’s technologies (though Tramhall lost her arms, allegedly, in an accident). They just want to escape the universal prison of normal human biology.

And its ending, where it is revealed that all the Temple’s adherents who make their way to Boca Verde, as Diandra tries to do, end up being chopped up for parts or lab rats in experiments to benefit Tramhall and governmental elites, doesn’t address the serious philosophical questions or efficacies of the Temple’s goals. The whole movement seems to come to an end at the novel’s conclusion when a CIA acquaintance of Julian unleashes a plague that kills Tramhall. (An interesting and cautionary philosophical discussion of transhumanism goals is Fred Baumann’s “Humanism and Transhumanism”.)

Skal places the Temple’s goals on a continuum of attempts to “revolt against biology”. A psychotherapist in the novel says:

In all places, at all times, the human body has been considered an object for decoration and alternation. In more primitive societies, lacking our scientific sophistication, the procedures have been limited to such things as ritual scarification, circumcision, tattooing, foot-binding, and, in more ‘civilized’ times, corseting and costume. We really shouldn’t be surprised that our new technologies will generate new fetishes.

The more primitive manifestations of that drive are at the theme of Koja’s Skin. (A book titled Modern Primitives and Industrial Culture Handbook is acknowledged by Koja.)

At the heart of the book are two obsessive artists and their turbulent relationship. (I’ll be examining Koja’s early novels in another posting.) Tess is a welder and works in metal sculpture. Bibi is an artist of the body. At first, that’s just a dance troupe. Tess is recruited by Bibi to create moving props for the troupe’s show, a project brought to an end when Bibi’s increasingly extreme shows end in the death of a troupe member.

Bibi’s is obsessed with body modifications and bloodletting. She offers no real coherent explanation for this obsession other than “Chaos must be met with greater chaos.”

The novel is told through Tess’ point of view, so we never see inside Bibi’s head.

“And to Tess Bibi’s obsession with piercings and cuttings was a kind of unfortunate sidepath, a sideshow, a descent almost into – say it; you think it don’t you?: the freakish: it was for nothing, wasn’t it, but the hectoring of limits? Which was interesting, certainly, and liberating in its own way but ultimately a deader end: my friend got her clit pierced; yeah; so? Do you modify to improve or empower, or simply to feed the greedy black scorn of the human boundaries that succor flesh to blood to pulse and contraction of the emperor mind within? To her questions – rare, but she asked, she made herself ask – Bibi was purely elliptical: soft breath on her shoulder, quiet beside her in the dark: Tess, listen, it’s not something I can explain in words, you have to do it, it’s something you have to feel.

“And for Tess the feel of Bibi’s own desire, the need to share with her, to steep her in the bright blooded ecstasy of pain; in the service of the most capricious god of all, Change.

After the two become lovers, it is Tess’ refusal to get body piercings or see Bibi’s done that precipitates their final separation.

Koja opens her novel with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Every idea is an incitement.” At novel’s end, at Bibi’s final show with even more deaths and her complete descent into madness, we see that incitement manifested in Bibi’s body:

her sculpture, raped of its frame, razor wire and bent sparrowbones: the blond hair gone, false gray eyes excised and in the sockets of the hedgehog itself a pair of human eyes, goggle-eyes wet and brown and smelly in the smooth metal clasp, small mouth jingly bright with safety pins circled tight as a cinching gag, the whole of it wrapped in hardware-store chain, the kind you use for a dog, and overdressed again in sloppy pink cellophane; like a candy grotesque; a sweet treat; a jest.

At that moment, Bibi does explain herself to her audience:

There exist so-called primitive tribes who practice and have practiced a variety of rites that our modern society calls aberrant, and wrong; the piercings, the negation, the wearing of the Ituburi – the waist-binding – the sharpened sticks and the heavy stones. In Australia, in certain puberty rites, they used the tip of a flint to rip the penis open, from head to testicles. This was done to prove through the power of pain that we are not our bodies. That our bodies are subject to our wills. That with enough pain, and enough practice, you can use the body to transcend the body. …

This is the lesson that we forgot. This is the lesson of the knife. …

We can learn the lesson again, but it isn’t for fun, it isn’t for pleasure, it’s because we need to, because there’s a place we need to get to and nothing else can take us there, not fucking or drugs or learning, not even the people we love can take us there. We have to go alone.

On a carpet of blood.

Koja’s certainly, in her novels, sympathetic to the obsessive artistic impulse and the transcendence it can offer. But this novel is not sympathetic to Bibi’s concluding statement,

There are all kinds of ways to get there, as many ways as there are people. I found the way that works for me, and for my friends.

Bibi’s way ultimately doesn’t work for her; it destroys her mind and leaves her friend and lover Tess bereft

I expected William Blake to show up sometime in Koja’s novel, specifically his famous line “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. (Fittingly, it’s from his “Proverbs of Hell”.)

Blake does show up, though, in the novel’s concluding line to remind us the wisdom to take from Bibi’s story. “We never know what is enough.”


Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

“The Autobiography of J.G.B.”

I came across one more J. G. Ballard item in my archives.

Raw Feed (2009): “The Autobiography of J.G.B.”, J. G. Ballard, 2009.autobiography-of-jgb

A sort of combination of a Ballard story and autobiography. In something out of one of his stories, the protagonist, B, wakes up to find everyone gone. Leaving his Shepperton home (where Ballard lived), B roams as far south as Brighton and Dover and eventually goes to France. He finds nothing, stockpiles food, guns, and gasoline and proceeds to get down to his work uninterrupted.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Concrete Island


The J. G. Ballard series ends with a look at my favorite of his novels — at least so far.

Review: Concrete Island, J. G. Ballard, 1974.

I read this ten years ago and made no notes on it. But it’s a good and memorable novel.

The plot is simple.

A British architect sends his car over the embankment of a highway and onto what is, in the middle of civilization, a manmade island. Unable to escape originally because of his injuries and the highway’s geometry, he discovers a secret culture in the middle of the city.

Eventually, in this twist on Robinson Crusoe, he comes to not only accept his isolation but relish it.