Le Roi En Jaune

Le Roi en Jaune (The King In Yellow)Le Roi en Jaune by Simon Bucher-Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Once again, I apologise to those following my blog through Goodreads, who will end up seeing this twice.)
This is a review I should have written a long time ago. Simon Bucher-Jones, a writer I admire very much, sent me – more than a year ago – a preview copy of his book The King In Yellow, and I have shamefully neglected to say anything about it up to now.

This is not, to be clear, because I dislike the book – I nominated Simon’s similar Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes for the Best Novel Hugo this year, and only didn’t do so for The King In Yellow because I wasn’t sure of its precise publication date (I think it may have been very late 2014 rather than early 2015) – rather the opposite. I’ve been wanting to give Simon’s book a proper, good, review, and frankly for much of the last year I was in no fit state to do so. I kept waiting to be in a better writing mood, or to be less tired, so I could actually do the job properly. But the best is the enemy of the good, and frankly it’s much better to have a review out there than to have it be the perfect review.

Now, as so often, a disclaimer. Simon is a friend of mine, and a supporter of my writing, and he sent me my copy of this book for free. But as is so often the case, we became friends precisely because I like Simon’s writing, and so I don’t think I’m being unduly biased here.

The King In Yellow is a scholarly edition, in French and English, of a play by the French playwright Thomas de Castigne. Up until Bucher-Jones’ edition, the only evidence that we had that this play even existed was in the work of the same name by the American scholar Robert Chambers, widely regarded as a piece of pulp fiction until Bucher-Jones’ rediscovery of the text. Chambers’ book recounts the lives of several people who were affected by reading the text itself, driven mad by its revelations about the nature of the universe and the Yellow King. The play itself is deemed to have caused their madness, and to be unreadable without causing such insanity. Later, the play was influential in the tormenting of Sir John Babcock by the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley – a persecution which took the combined genius of James Joyce and Albert Einstein to uncover – and one can see clear relationships between the events depicted in the play and those discussed by the American journalist Howard Philips Lovecraft in later years.

…Or at least, that’s the kind of thing one is meant to say in this kind of review. Of course, there’s no real truth in Chambers’ account. No such play could possibly exist. The very idea is foolish. Of course. Keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll sleep tonight.

Apart from a brief endnote, Simon’s book presents itself quite seriously as a work of scholarship – the French of Castigne’s “original” text on one page, an English translation facing, annotated with thirty-four footnotes, and some historical notes on the text, its provenance, and its original performance. The play itself is written in very convincing blank verse, and while I can’t judge the quality of the French, my GCSE-level understanding suggests that it works both as verse and as narrative about as well as the (excellent) English “translation”.

Possibly the closest comparison I can make to the book is Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. Both books involve recreating fin-de-siecle decadence, and creating a world out of elements of other pulp fictions – in this case, however, Simon combines the influence of Lovecraft and his imitators (who were of course working in a tradition based partly on Chambers’ book) with Chambers’ romantic/decadent contemporaries – Wilde and Jarry both figure heavily in the annotations, and their influence is clearly felt in the text itself. But there are also passing mentions of the actor Merridith Merridew and a 1973 biopic about him, as well as to more consensus-reality figures like Liane de Pougy or Mme Curie.

The result is an artefact that seems to come to us from a slightly different reality, one in which Hastur and Carcosa have meanings far greater than the mere horror fiction they are in this world.

The book isn’t perfect – my copy has a few minor typographical oddities and some idiosyncratic punctuation at points, though no more so than many other self-published books I’ve recommended before – but it’s about as good a job as one could do of reconstructing, from the textual hints in Chambers’ book and scattered references in later stories inspired by Chambers, something that is very, very close to the play described. Obviously, it won’t send you mad when read in the English, but as I’m monolingual I’ll make no claims for the French. Caveat lector.

In a truly just world, Simon Bucher-Jones would be regarded as one of our great authors – he’s certainly one of the very best writers working today in terms of fecundity of ideas. Unfortunately, for some reason, self-published annotated plays based on 19th-century horror fiction don’t tend to become bestsellers, any more than the Doctor Who and Faction Paradox fiction which has been much of Simon’s output thus far. He’s writing for a niche audience, and he knows it.

Nonetheless, it’s a niche that could comfortably expand to accommodate several more readers, and I suspect that anyone who likes my more outlandish blog posts will find this very much to their taste, as will anyone who loves macabre fiction.

And so my child is born,
After the passing of requisite time,
After exquisite tearing of the womb,
After the world has drowned within the Lake,
And all is silent under the black stars.

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Various Updatey Bits

There’ll be a proper post tomorrow, but I’ve got a few updates to make here.

First, my book in the Black Archive series of books looking at individual Doctor Who stories is now available to preorder in paperback (the ebook will be available in time). It’s on The Mind Robber, one of my favourite 60s stories. Patreon supporters will be receiving an ebook version as a free bonus, thanks to the generosity of my publisher and editor, but because this isn’t a self-published book I won’t be able to send them free paper copies as I do with my self-published ones.

Second, and related, you can also buy a T-shirt of the Medusa image on my book’s cover. If any of you have ever wanted a T-shirt based on one of my book covers, you can now buy this one. Alternatively, if you have ever wanted a T-shirt with a cool picture of Medusa on it, but are not interested in my books and don’t even like me, you can buy this with the knowledge that none of the money goes to me (it does go to one of my friends, but you can’t have everything) and it doesn’t say my name on it so no-one will know it’s to do with me. Win-win, in other words.
Go and buy this T-shirt, is the point.

Finally, in the next two months, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean, are all releasing autobiographies. I shall definitely be reading all of them, and so it’s likely I’ll review them on here. Would people (especially Patreons who are, after all, paying for the posts) be more interested in separate reviews of each book (though I’m not all that likely to do a review of the Dean Torrence on on its own) as they come out, or a single, longer, compare-and-contrast piece on all three?

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What Autism Feels Like On The Inside (To Me) Part 1: Social Signals

It occurred to me today that, while I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions on here that I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum, I’ve never really clarified what that means in terms of how I feel on the inside. I thought that might be something that the neurotypicals among you might find interesting.

A couple of caveats here. First, and most important, is that *I am not speaking about all autistic people*. There is still a lot of dispute about what even properly counts as an autism spectrum disorder, and to what extent some difficulties are caused by autism and to what extent they’re caused by comorbidities. I’m still waiting for an official medical-records-type diagnosis (I’ve been given unofficial diagnoses by… basically everyone, medical professional or otherwise, who’s spent two minutes talking to me. Getting it on one’s medical records as an adult is a multi-year process in the UK though due to chronic underfunding in this area.) but I am 100% certain that that diagnosis will be of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is still medically recognised as a separate diagnosis in the UK but not in the US, where it’s lumped in as part of “autism spectrum disorder”. So my experiences almost certainly won’t match those of, for example, nonverbal autistic people. It may even be (though I suspect not) that when the causes of autism are properly identified, those people will turn out to have an entirely different neurology than mine.

There’s also the fact that autism spectrum disorders don’t travel alone — almost everyone with an ASD has a lot of other things as well, which I strongly suspect are actually different expressions of the same underlying cause. In my case many of these things (my autoimmune problems like asthma and arthritis, my stress-related health stuff like hypertension, my gut problems) are purely physical, but some (the diagnosed anxiety, depression, and dyspraxia, and the sensory processing disorder which hasn’t been diagnosed but I *strongly* suspect I have) are brain/mind related. I may be assigning some symptoms to ASD that are actually symptoms of one of these, and so other autistic people may read this and think “what’s he talking about?”

And there’s the converse of that — there’s no control me who isn’t autistic to compare notes with, so there may be things I say here that are just part of the universal human experience. I’m not very good at knowing what’s something that happens to everyone and what’s specific to my own bunch of peculiarities.

So this is what it feels like on the inside to be me, and some of this may be true of some or all other autistic people…

The first and most important aspect, from my point of view, is that *everyone else is playing a game, they won’t tell me the rules, and if I break one the penalties could be anything from nothing at all to ostracism or even death — and which penalty applies when is one of the rules they won’t tell me*.
Everything from flirting to how to behave professionally in the workplace to proper subjects of conversation at a party to queuing protocols in different types of shop is governed by rules that one is expected to know without ever being told them, and this expectation is so strong that even to ask for clarification of the rules is, often, itself against the rules. There’s a reason so many autistic people are paranoid or anxious.

The cause of this *seems* to be to do with sensory processing, which I’ll talk about a bit later. There are a lot of cues for behaviour, in things like body language, tone of voice, or facial expression. And for me at least, and I think many other autistic people, it’s not that we don’t pick these up, but that we pick them up *along with about thirty other things*.

You might think that the slight raise of the eyebrow is communicating “offer to buy me a drink” — and it might well do so to a neurotypical person. But I, at least, am also noticing dozens of other things in posture, tone of voice, and so on, and find it impossible to determine which is the signal and which is just noise. The options (which I vacillate between, as do many autistic people I know) are either to just throw everything away as noise (and thus miss any hint less subtle than a giant neon sign), or to treat everything as signal (and annoy you because I’m trying to work out what you really *meant* by scratching the side of your nose, when what you meant was that your nose was itchy).

This is, incidentally, the root of the idea that autistic people have no empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Autistic people are incredibly empathetic *when you communicate with us in a way we understand*. Often much more so than neurotypical people.
But the result for us is that we often find ourselves in situations where everyone expects us to behave one way, won’t tell us what that expectation is, and then punishes us for getting it wrong.

Imagine walking into a room, saying “hi”, and getting punched in the face. When you ask “what was that for?” everyone just says “you know”. This happens to you seemingly randomly, maybe once a year, but the rest of the time if you walk into rooms and don’t say “hi” people think you’re being rude. Eventually, after maybe twenty years, some kind person takes you aside and tells you that on the third Sunday of a month with a “y” in its name you’re meant to guess a number under fifty when you enter a room for the first time. This stops you getting punched for a couple of years, then one day you walk into a room, say “thirty-seven”, and everyone jumps on you and beats you up because your advisor had forgotten to tell you that the number shouldn’t be prime if it’s a leap year.

This is how every single social situation (or at least those involving a majority-neurotypical population, such as being in an office or at a party, or, increasingly, participating in online social networks) feels, at least to me, and I think to many other autistic people.

I’ll have more to say on this, and on sensory issues and executive function, in part two…

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The Beach Boys on CD: Gettin’ In Over My Head

2004 was a big year for Brian Wilson. On February 24, he performed live, for the first time, a completed version of Smile, the unfinished album that had hung over his head and dominated all discussions about him for nearly forty years. In September, he released a studio version of that completed Smile which became his most successful solo album.

The completion of Smile, though, overshadowed another album he released that year. Gettin’ In Over My Head was the first studio album he had recorded in six years, and the first with his touring band.

The album was widely disliked by fans, and it’s easy to see why. The performances by the backing band are exemplary, but Wilson himself sounds tired, and is frequently off-key (not helped by the decision, thankfully never made again, to have him sing nearly all the harmony parts himself). There were rumours at the time that Wilson was unhappy to be working on the album at all, and that he was largely unresponsive in the studio, and whatever the truth of those rumours, the vocals on much of the album certainly give one that impression.

But what the fans were ignoring was everything else about the record. This is understandable in many respects – most of the songs on the album dated back many years, to the Andy Paley sessions of the mid-nineties, to the unreleased Sweet Insanity album, or in some cases as far back as the early 1980s. Bootlegs of those versions had been available for years, often with more engaged vocals on Brian Wilson’s part. So it’s easy to see why this was seen as a set of inferior remakes. And it certainly didn’t help that the cover, by Peter Blake, looked cheap and nasty, more like a collage made by a five-year-old than the work of one of the most acclaimed artists of the last sixty years.

In many ways the album seems to be trying to present a crafted image of a Brian Wilson album, aimed at a target market, but falling between two stools – the arrangements, for the most part, are Pet-Sounds-esque, full of vibraphone and bass harmonica, but the special guests appearing on the album are the kind of “classic rock” that simply doesn’t mix well with that – Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Elton John.

But if you come to this not listening to it as a collection of remakes of songs you’ve already heard, and especially if you’re not listening to it as something to wait for while counting the hours til Smile finally comes out, there’s a lot to like about this album. Wilson’s backing band are all superb musicians, the instrumental arrangements have a lot of interesting touches, and in particular we hear for the first time something that will become very much the secret weapon of Wilson’s later solo work, the string arrangements of Paul von Mertens. Mertens’ orchestrations here are, on the handful of tracks in which he gets to demonstrate them, spectacular, with violin lines almost reminiscent of Bartók or Eastern European folk music, but also rooted in the same kind of Americana that Van Dyke Parks (who wrote new lyrics for a Wilson song here for the first time in thirty years) has mined so productively in his solo work.

And the songs themselves are, taken on their own merits, occasionally superb. The quality here is very variable, but even the least enthusiastic listener will admit that “Soul Searchin’”, the title track, “Rainbow Eyes”, and “Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel” are among the best work Wilson has produced since the early 1970s.

So something of a curate’s egg, then. But one that genuinely is good in parts – and one that has more good parts than not. And it’s probably the most honest, unfiltered, Brian Wilson album of all his solo albums. It’s an album that’s long been overdue a reevaluation.

(All lead vocals Brian Wilson except where noted)

How Could We Still Be Dancin’?
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas
Lead vocals: Elton John and Brian Wilson

The opening track is a song (and apparently, at least in part, a backing track) left over from Imagination, and rather better than much of that album, though little more than disposable fluff.

The verses could, in fact, easily have been a minor hit for Elton John, who sings lead on them (and plays piano – reportedly Wilson told him to “play it like Billy Joel”). John has the unenviable task of trying to sing “how could” at the start of almost every line in a single syllable, and so at times sounds almost like Vic Reeves’ “club singer” character, singing “HA! we still be…”, but the verses are a lot of silly, goofy, fun, with some great honking saxophone.

Unfortunately, the bridges and intro, which feature a stack of off-key Wilsons singing far too high for his range, are almost unlistenable. Notably, when Wilson performed this song live, he took lead on the verses but gave those sections to his band to sing.

Soul Searchin’
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley
Lead vocals: Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

This song – and track – dates back to the mid-90s Beach Boys sessions for an album of Wilson/Paley songs that never happened. Only this song and “You’re Still A Mystery” were ever completed, and the album had been shelved.

For this album, Brian Wilson took Carl Wilson’s lead vocal from a session co-produced by Don Was and synched it to an earlier backing track largely cut by Andy Paley, largely replicating a mix that had been circulating on bootlegs for several years. He replaced the other Beach Boys’ backing vocals with his own (and replaced Carl Wilson’s lead vocal on the middle eight) and got Paul von Mertens to add a saxophone solo over the original organ one, but otherwise it’s largely identical to that bootlegged version.

(A mix of the full Beach Boys version was later released on the Made in California box set).

The song itself is a 60s soul ballad pastiche, largely the work of Paley, it’s the kind of thing that would have made a very serviceable single for James Carr, but is elevated to greatness by Carl Wilson’s vocal – the last lead he would ever record for a Beach Boys song, and one of his best.

You’ve Touched Me
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Steve Kalinich

And this song sums up everything that is frustrating about this album. It’s another reworking of old musical material, this time a ballad Wilson had written in the 80s with Gary Usher, “Turning Point”, turned into an uptempo, bouncy piece with some lovely bass harmonica playing and string arrangements. (The reworking is more thorough than on many of the other songs, but compare the descending chords on “I’m on top of the world/I’m just floating on clouds” to “So hard waiting for you/So hard working it through” on the earlier track) Wilson also does a far better job on the lead here than on many of the other songs.

But the lyrics…ouch. Steve Kalinich is someone with whom I share many mutual friends, so I don’t want to say anything too harsh about his lyrics, but lines like “You are a part of me/You make my spirit whole” would be banal at best, but when fitted to a melody for which their stress patterns are completely inappropriate they make the whole track sound amateur.

Gettin’ in Over My Head
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

This, on the other hand, is heavenly. Another song dating from the Paley sessions of the mid-90s, this recording is actually a remake co-produced by Joe Thomas around the time of the sessions for Imagination (though presumably sweetened somewhat in 2004, as it sounds very like the rest of this album). With a vibraphone part that hints at the similar part of “Til I Die”, and a far better lead vocal than many of the rest on the album, this just sounds like Brian Wilson on top form (though as with many of the Paley songs it’s hard to tell what’s Wilson’s own contribution and what’s Paley imitating Wilson. My guess is that the verse melody is Wilson, the middle eight Paley – the descending “I just might not ever come back from this” is very, very Paley to my ears, and the chorus could be either).

A gorgeous ballad that, other than the older lead vocals, could have fit easily on The Beach Boys Today!, this is one of the best things Wilson’s solo career has produced.

City Blues
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And this is one of the worst. This song dates back originally to 1981, and frankly it sounds it. This is something that should have been on a soundtrack to the type of film that starred Michael J. Fox, perhaps performed by Kenny Loggins or Survivor – though in truth what this sounds most like is the musical stylings of David Hasselhoff. Eric Clapton guests on guitar but squeals all over it rather than playing anything interesting, and the whole thing is a noisy, unpleasant, mess.

The song is mainly interesting in retrospect from a purely historical perspective, as it’s the first song to credit Scott Bennett as a co-writer (he added additional lyrics to finish off the song). Bennett would be a frequent collaborator with Wilson over the next decade, and we will discuss his contributions more on future albums.

Desert Drive
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

Another song originally from the Paley sessions in the mid-90s, this is the only track on the album to feature vocals from Wilson’s band – Paley (who was at the time of recording still playing percussion in Wilson’s band), Jeffrey Foskett, Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett all add vocals, and the difference is immediately obvious. This is how the vocals on the whole album should have sounded.

The song itself is a fun bit of fluff – a car song, mostly the work of Paley, based loosely around the riff from “Salt Lake City”, about taking a drive into Las Vegas, wearing “shades in case the rays get mean” and watching Wayne Newton’s show.

A Friend Like You
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Steve Kalinich
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney

This is, while not the worst song in Brian Wilson’s solo career, certainly the biggest missed opportunity. Given the opportunity to duet with Paul McCartney (who also plays guitar on the track), he has McCartney sing literally one solo line – the line “a friend like you, a friend like you”. Wilson takes all the verses himself, and drowns McCartney’s vocals on the other lines of the chorus in a stack of his own voice.

Which wouldn’t be too bad were this in any way a good song, but it’s not. The one song on the album that (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t date back to much earlier, it’s also the weakest song, as a song, on the album, with music that has no points of interest and lyrics that barely rise to the level of Hallmark cards.

Dreadfully, dreadfully, disappointing.

Make A Wish
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A song dating back to the Sweet Insanity sessions, and apparently inspired by the Make A Wish Foundation, this is a perfect example of the generic feelgood protest-generally-bad-things songs that were inexplicably popular for a few minutes in the late 80s. Apparently racial peace, equality, cures for all diseases, enough food for everyone, and love replacing hate would all be good.

Fair enough, one doesn’t look to Brian Wilson to provide coherent analysis of the structural inequalities that prevent those things happening, any more than one looks to Noam Chomsky to write catchy pop songs. But frankly Chomsky could probably come up with a better melody than this one.

Rainbow Eyes
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

And now we’re back to loveliness again. This song is another Sweet Insanity leftover, and one of the best things recorded for that album, with its gorgeous nursery-rhyme melody.

This isn’t one of the better-produced tracks on the album – there’s some heavy-handed drumming which feels out of place, Wilson’s slurring the words, and the mix seems badly balanced – but if you can get past that, this is a wonderful, wonderful, little song, with some gorgeously bizarre chord changes under the simplistic melody.

Saturday Morning In The City
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

This is, with the exception of a few small overdubs, a recording from the mid-nineties Paley sessions (and thus featuring Paley on backing vocals) of a song that had been started in the 1980s. And it’s utterly wonderful, and utterly different from anything else on the album. A glorious little slice-of-life song, it sounds like something written for a Muppet or Disney film setting the scene – describing the people washing their cars (and one minor change from the Paley version that always disappoints me – in the original recording the people washing their cars are “new wavers”, while in the version here they’re just “young people” – I suppose Wilson must have noticed between 1996 and 2004 that the New Wave was no longer a thing), the garage sale next door, and the dog barking at the person delivering the post.

Musically, it’s like all the most upbeat, cheerful, parts of Smile without even a hint of the darker side – a cascade of different variations on the same basic ideas, with Swanee whistles, popping sound effects and car horns. Astonishingly, this is the shortest song on the album by a good half a minute, but it has more musical ideas than many other tracks on the record have in nearly twice its length. It’s good-natured, fun, and quite, quite beautiful.

Fairy Tale
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and David Foster

Another song dating from the 1980s, this was originally a collaboration between Wilson and (allegedly) Eugene Landy, a fatuous song called “Save The Day” about how everyone in the 60s was wonderfully enlightened and marched for peace.

At some point David Foster (a record producer who has worked with Chicago and Celine Dion, among others) was called in to work on the music with Wilson, and recorded the song under the new title “Is There A Chance?”, with new lyrics by Foster’s wife Linda Thompson (the ex-wife of Caitlyn Jenner, not the singer formerly married to Richard Thompson). While none of Foster’s changes remain in “Fairy Tale”, he retains a credit.

The song as finally released by Wilson is…a fairy tale. The original lyrics are completely replaced by new ones about fighting a dragon and saving a princess.

An 80s-style power ballad, about fighting dragons, which quotes the Ronettes at the end, might not be your kind of thing – it certainly isn’t mine – but the fact that this seems natural coming after “Saturday Morning In The City” shows what an odd, eclectic, and exciting album this actually is.

Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another Sweet Insanity leftover, though I’ve seen stories that this was written as early as 1981. Which would mean that this song, the best single song of Brian Wilson’s solo career, was ignored for two Beach Boys albums , the Usher sessions, and Wilson’s first solo album before finally being recorded for Sweet Insanity. And then left for more than another decade.

In truth, none of the recordings of this song are perfect – this one has something of Imagination‘s production values about it, but after listening to this, and to the three bootlegged versions from the Sweet Insanity sessions, a platonic ideal version of the song is now in my head.

Even this version, though, marred as it is by being a real recording made by human beings rather than an unachievable ideal, is quite startlingly lovely. Wilson once again returns to the regular theme of the woman who’s so far above the man she’s with that he can’t begin to imagine why she’d be with him (“don’t let her know she’s an angel…I’m scared that she’ll want to go free” – one of the things I prefer about some of the earlier versions is that that line is instead the less controlling “I’m scared that she’ll want to leave me”).

It’s a touching, lovely, song, and one that really deserves a wider audience.

The Waltz
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And the final track on the album is, as the title suggests, a waltz – and about waltzing, at a high school dance. The song is, yes, another Sweet Insanity leftover, when it was originally titled “Let’s Stick Together” and featured Weird Al Yankovic on accordion. This version is in every way superior to that, with Mertens’ skittish fiddle arrangements working perfectly with Van Dyke Parks’ new lyrics to conjure up a bygone age.

Oh yes…those lyrics. More than anything on this album, they caught flak from fans, and this song became the whipping boy for the whole album. Certainly lines like “She had a body you’d kill for/You hoped that she’d take the pill for/She up and said ‘I’m a dancer/Don’t tell me, you are a Cancer’” are not what Brian Wilson’s fans were, in general, hoping for. But there’s a sweet, witty, erudition to these lyrics that is perfectly Parks – the syllables fall in such a way that no other writer could have come up with them, and express Parks’ own personality perfectly. If, as it does for some, Parks’ Southern gentility and loquaciousness rubs you up the wrong way, then I can see why you’d dislike this. But for me, as a fan of Parks almost as much as I am of Wilson, this is just sublime, and easily one of the best things on the album.

Gettin’ In Over My Head
is nobody’s favourite Brian Wilson record, but it’s far more of an expression of Wilson as an artist than many would like to give it credit for. In his entire career, Wilson has only released four albums that consist entirely of songs he wrote or co-wrote and which he hadn’t put on a previous album – Smiley Smile, The Beach Boys Love You, Brian Wilson, and Gettin’ In Over My Head (2015’s No Pier Pressure would count in the “standard” edition, but not in the expanded version which is what most people who purchased it actually have). Of those, this is definitely the worst, but it’s very much of a piece with those earlier albums, and like them I think many people have found the flaws rather easier to see than the very real strengths.

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Linkblogging for 10/08/16

Sorry for lack of posts — the headache turned out to be a blood pressure headache which is only just dying down now two days later. There *will* be a proper post tomorrow, when I’m able to think of words, but for now have some more links…

The black dog and the wicker man

A partial defence of Jeremy Corbyn

The government considered nationalising a pub so that MPs could still get drinks when Parliament is held in a different building. What gets me about this is that the idea of just not being on the piss while at work doesn’t even seem to have occurred to our elected leaders.

The curious case of Dorothy L Sayers and the Jew who wasn’t there

Microsoft have accidentally leaked the Secure Boot keys. This is why security backdoors are always a bad idea

Stop talking about the trolley problem

The poor and the North didn’t cause Brexit

Real post tomorrow.

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No new post tonight

I have a migraine so no new post today. But tomorrow there’ll be two — a Batpost and a post on the Beach Boys

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The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

Before I start this review proper, a couple of notes. Firstly, to apologise to my Goodreads friends, who will see this both on my blog feed and in the reviews — an unfortunate problem with having one’s blog syndicated to a review site.
Secondly to say that Lance Parkin is a Facebook friend of mine, and that I received this as a review copy from his publishers (unrequested — I was actually on their list for an earlier book of his, which I rather shamefully didn’t review because it coincided with a period of illness — but gratefully received). While I don’t think that either of those things have affected my review — as with many of my writer friends, I got to know him because I admired his work, rather than the other way around — you might want to bear them in mind.

The Impossible Has Happened is subtitled The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek, but in truth the work takes centre stage. This is not a book like Parkin’s previous biography (Magic Words, which will remain the definitive biography of Alan Moore for many years to come) which goes into every detail of the subject’s upbringing and social status; rather the first forty-plus years of Roddenberry’s life are summed up in the first forty or so pages of the book — and most of that is spent looking at which actors he worked with would later appear in Star Trek, or what ideas from his earlier series The Lieutenant would be reused for his more famous show.

But this is not in any way a demerit of the book. Put simply, Roddenberry was clearly just not a very interesting person for anything other than his one famous creation. The picture one gets of him from this book, no matter how sympathetic Parkin is towards him (and he is) is of a repellent individual, physically and emotionally abusive towards his first wife and a serial sexual harasser of women who worked for him, horribly insecure about his own work, and even more insecure about the people who arguably did far more of the work than Roddenberry himself. Basically, move the life of Bob Kane forward in time thirty years, and stick him in the middle of the “sexual revolution”, with all the ambiguously unpleasant attitudes towards women that entails, and you have Roddenberry.

Parkin really does try his best to see Roddenberry’s good points, as well as his bad ones — this is a scrupulously fair-minded book — but the story becomes very clear, and rather depressing. Roddenberry was a mediocre writer of TV melodrama who came up with a reliable formula for a space adventure show, which other, more talented, people (mostly Gene Coon, DC Fontana, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner) turned into a mildly successful TV series Roddenberry was slowly edged away from. Thanks largely to an actor (Leonard Nimoy) Roddenberry disliked and who loathed Roddenberry so much he would barely mention his name, the show developed the kind of female fanbase that sustains TV shows after they’ve been cancelled, and as with so much genre TV fandom, those fans reinvented the show in their own image, taking a handful of odd bits of background detail here and there and extrapolating them until the show became, in their minds, a vision of a utopian future.

And Roddenberry was unsuccessful enough in everything else he did, while also being a massive egotist and claimer of credit for others’ work, that he eventually seems to have convinced himself that he had created that future, and the man who couldn’t write a description of a female character without talking about how much like a stripper she was found himself playing the role of a frustrated utopian visionary whose great work had been watered down by those philistine executives.

But he became a genuine advocate for this fan-created vision of the show, and genuinely seemed to believe that the progressive, liberal, future the fans saw in his work was one worth creating, worth fighting for, and worth turning into TV and films.

He got the chance to do just that when the opportunity arose to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which went woefully over budget due in large part to Roddenberry’s constant tweaking of the script to make it fit his conflict-free utopian vision. While I have a lot more time for that film than most, and while it was a massive hit, Paramount decided once again to ease Roddenberry out of his creation — he hated the subsequent films, for which he basically got paid to shut up and go away — because it was regarded as being dull and lacking drama, and because no-one liked working with him.

He then had the chance again to put “his” vision of Star Trek on the screen, with The Next Generation. And once again, it was a success, but regarded as lacking in drama, and no-one liked working with him, and he was slowly eased out of the show.

In many ways it’s a horribly sad story — the story of a very flawed man discovering the possibility of a better person within him, but then also discovering that that better person is, if anything, less likeable and successful than he was to start with. On the other hand, Roddenberry was probably comforted at least somewhat by the multi-million dollar annual income and the adoration of hundreds of thousands of fans, and all the people telling him he’d changed their lives. Would that we could all be such failures.

Parkin’s book is extremely well-written, with a very light touch that belies the amount of research it must have taken. While it doesn’t give Roddenberry the man the same amount of attention his earlier book gave Moore, that’s more to do with the relative statures of the two figures — Moore is, whatever one thinks of him as a person, a very serious artist, while Roddenberry simply wasn’t. At times it seems as if he was only the stone in the stone soup that was Star Trek, responsible for nothing of what made it work. That’s probably an exaggeration, but scarcely less of one than the official Trek history version where the show sprang fully-formed from Roddenberry’s brow. The fact that Parkin manages to make Roddenberry, despite all his flaws, into someone with whom it’s impossible not to sympathise, shows what a skilled writer Parkin is, as well as what a fascinating show Roddenberry created.

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