Thursday, 19 October 2006

Darwin online and offline

Interesting news yesterday: Charles Darwin's works go online, the BBC report of the launch of Cambridge University's The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Great stuff: the content ranges from the most academic publications to personal trivia such as Things for a Week, a to-take and to-do list for his visit to a hydropathic spa (the cause of his ill-health is still disputed). Other Darwin collections online include the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution.
      Charles Darwin's life has been heavily documented in print: notable biographies that spring to mind are Janet Browne's two-volume work, Voyaging and The Power of Place, and any of the co-written Darwin books by Adrian Desmond and James R Moore. For a different angle, it's worth checking out Edna Healey's Emma Darwin - The Inspirational Wife of a Genius. - Ray

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Halo Jones

I seldom see graphic novels passing through Joel Segal Books in Topsham, but a pleasant exception arrived in stock today: the three-volume Titan Books set of The Ballad of Halo Jones. Drawn by Ian Gibson, this is another Alan Moore title (see the previous entry) and Moore's earliest major work, when he wrote for the British science fiction comic 2000 AD in the mid-1980s.
      Moore writes in the preface that he wanted something out of the "guns, guys and gore" style of the comic, a female character who was neither wilting and forever losing her clothes nor a "tough bitch with a disintegrator and extra Y-chromosome". Halo, a 50th century everywoman, proved to be one of 2000 AD's classic characters, appealing to both with male and female readers, and her story went on to three 10-story segments before foundering over Moore's dissatisfaction over creator's rights issues.
      Book 1 introduces Halo's mundane life, where she dreams of escaping from the Hoop, a dystopian floating urban complex where even a shopping trip is a perilous affair. Book 2 follows her when she leaves in the hope of finding adventure off-world via a job as a hostess aboard a luxury star liner. Book 3 takes a darker tone as she finds enlistment in the military the only available career choice. The story is tragi-comic, full of strong female characters, and Moore and Gibson's imagined world is packed with intricate social detail (the creators are not afraid to leave slang and other trivia unexplained).
      In this early work, Moore shows the talent for clever allusion that manifested in his later works such as From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: for instance, Book 3 shows unmistakable references to several other classic anti-war SF works: David Masson's short story Traveller's Rest, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero. All are worth finding. - Ray

Friday, 13 October 2006

Rider Haggard

These days, Sir Henry Rider Haggard is best known for his most famous novels, She and King Solomon's Mines. He was, however, a far more prolific and influential author who brought his own experience and perspective to his novels: a late-Colonial administrator who had worked in South Africa at the time of the Zulu Wars and Boer War, and developed some sympathy for local cultures. (See, for instance, his non-fictional commentary Cetywayo and his White Neighbours).
      His African-based work grades into a larger body of historical fantasy: epic and readable in general, though some is a little silly in premise. His co-written The World's Desire, for example, brings together Helen of Troy and Odysseus in Biblical Ancient Egypt. You can find many of these lesser-known novels online (see, for instance, Project Gutenberg and Gutenberg Australia - the latter also has his 1926-published autobiography ). There's also an annotated bibliography at Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Violet Books website, which specialises in scholarly material on "Antiquarian Supernatural, Fantasy & Mysterious Literatures, Vintage Westerns, Swashbucklers, & Juveniles". Salmonson makes a strong case for Rider Haggard's influence on the 'Lost Race' genre and other fantasy literature of the later 19th and early 20th century.
      This influence continues to the present. For instance, DM Thomas's 1984 Swallow, a novel about a storytelling Olympiad, features one segment that's a bawdy retelling of King Solomon's Mines. (I'm sure it's no coincidence that it also shares a title with Rider Haggard's Swallow: a tale of the great trek). The quintessential Rider Haggard hero, Allan Quatermain, embodies Haggard's colonial sentiments: a hunter and adventurer who is nevertheless aware of his prejudices and, for the genre, sympathetic to the cultures he meets. As Rider Haggard's work developed, Quatermain increasingly encountered the supernatural and mystical. In the final stories, the elderly Quatermain uses a drug, taduki, to explore his past lives in Babylon and the Ice Age.
      If you like the genre of Victorian fantastic fiction, I recommend the two-volume graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Its basic premise is of Wilhemina Murray (from Dracula), Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man being brought together as a national crime-fighting team in a technically advanced alternative 19th century.
      Moore has melded an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian literature with iconoclastic creativity to produce a gripping and tightly-allusive 'steampunk' adventure (nearly every frame contains some in-reference). Volume I brings the main characters together, and contains a standalone short story, Allan and the Sundered Veil, that brings the events of the later Quatermain stories round to the starting point of the graphic novel, where he is found in a Cairo opium den by Mina Murray. Volume II is a retelling of HG Wells' War of the Worlds.
      If you don't mind spoilers, Jesse Nevins' Notes on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen gives some of the flavour with a frame-by-frame analysis of the many literary allusions. The movie is enjoyable enough, but shares very little with the book except the basic characters. - Ray

Thursday, 5 October 2006

White Magic

Rather quiet in the shop today - autumn setting in - so I had a chance to finish reading White Magic, the early autobiography of stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. As you can see from the Channel 4 microsite, Magic at War, Maskelyne's name resurfaced in recent years for the interesting accounts of his WWII exploits in the field of camouflage (notably his vanishing the Suez Canal and hiding Alexandria harbour by creating a duplicate).
      White Magic precedes all of this, and covers the broader story of Maskelyne's family, from the Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne via Jasper's grandfather and father (both stage magicians, the former also having been the inventor of a range of coin-operated slot machines and an early variable-spacing typewriter). Most of the book, however, is devoted to Maskelyne's own recollections of his pre-War career.
      It's interesting stuff - but, as is often the case with with showpersons' memoirs, some of it grades well into the fanciful ("Devil Worship in London" - "I attend a Witches' Sabbath" - child sacrifice in France, and so on). This is a bit of a problem with most Maskelyne accounts. Military historian and magician Richard Stokes maintains a website, Jasper Maskelyne, Master of Make-Believe, for a meticulous critique of the Maskelyne story, originally a 21-article series written for the Australian magic magazine Geniis Magic Journal. His research shows that the general view of Maskelyne comes largely from David Fisher's 1983 book The War Magician, which reworked, with additional material, Maskelyne's own ghost-written 1949 memoirs, Magic - Top Secret.
      Stokes documents the many chronological errors and unsubstantiated elements, concluding that Maskelyne's wartime role has been highly embroidered, both by chroniclers and by Maskelyne himself. In Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, Stokes furthermore presents solid evidence for the identity of the ghost-writer, a Frank S Stuart who specialised in sensational reportage. Nevertheless, it all makes good reading: The Scotsman wrote of White Magic, "This book is almost as fascinating as an actual display of skilful conjuring". Perhaps the telling of a good yarn should be viewed as a performance in itself - as long as it's not taken as reliable history.

- Ray