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Inherent Vice

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Inherent Vice [Amazon, Bookshop, Libro.fm, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is the sixth Pynchon novel I’ve read. (Well, I’ve also read to the exact midpoint of Against the Day, so maybe it counts as number 6.5?) It has been on my shelf for a long while, but I sort of felt like I was up against a deadline, because I certainly wanted to have read it already when the movie hits theaters a few months from now. I read it fast, finishing it in under a week. It lacks the lovely sprawl so characteristic of books like VGravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon, but it is highly engaging. 

Larry “Doc” Sportello is the pothead gumshoe who is the protagonist of this 1970 LA set-piece. As is typical for Pynchon, there are a cavalcade of quirky characters, a thickly-layered conspiratorial plot, and a narrative nose for injustice. Comments on the forthcoming movie have compared it to The Big Lebowski, which isn’t terminally off-the-mark, and in fact cued me in to what is perhaps a certain kindred spirit between Pynchon and the Coen brothers. (The movie, however, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose fondness for big casts equips him to handle a Pynchon story.)

I was a few dozen pages in when I realized with a start that this, to me, breezy and often hilarious book presumed so heavily on the cultural knowledge of the reader that it might be entirely impenetrable to some younger (or more quadrangular) readers. Now, it’s easy to make fun of stoners, but Doc’s humane wisdom and sublime presence of mind (when he could maintain consciousness) kept me laughing with him, rather than at him. 

None of which is to dismiss the book’s darker aspects. There is real menace about the obscure villains of the book, and fitting paranoia about Doc’s closest friends and allies. Another comparandum might be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for the book’s elegiac contemplation of the hippie counterculture and the ultimate futility of its aspirations — and an actual trip to Las Vegas in the course of the beach-based adventure. 

This book certainly didn’t eclipse any of the other Pynchon novels, but it is a fine work regardless, enjoyable and reflective in its own off-beat way.

Camelot 3000

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Camelot 3000 [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Mike W Barr, Brian Bolland, &c.

Barr Camelot 3000

I remember Camelot 3000 as having made a big, favorable impression among comics readers in the 1980s, but I don’t think it has aged very well. As futurism, it’s risible. And its mythic elements seem confined to transplanting and simplifying the Arthurian tale, without enough further engagement to help us understand why the story has had such durability in the affections of storytellers and readers. 

Features of the characters that might have been considered complex or even “daring” in comics writing thirty years ago (e.g. transsexual reincarnation and its upshot) aren’t very impressive now, after comics have (rightfully) taken their place as a medium capable of as much cultural transgression and advance as any. The settings are, as mentioned earlier, simply silly — an unreflective and sometimes inconsistent notion of our civilization’s future.

Bolland’s art is solid, and still looks okay, but I don’t think this was his best work. (That might be “The Actress and the Bishop”!) 

Much of the buzz about the original Camelot 3000 may have had to do with its pioneering position in the direct-sales comics market as a 12-issue “limited series” from DC. The reprint volume I read, a hardcover 2008 “deluxe edition,” was certainly a lovely piece of material work, on heavy gloss paper, with a ribbon bookmark.

The Law of Thelema fulfils the necessary conditions. It is not limited by ethnological, social, religious or linguistic barriers. Its metaphysical basis is strictly scientific. Its principle is single, simple and self-evident. It does not deny human nature or demand impossible virtues. It offers to every individual the fullest satisfaction of his true aspirations; and it supplies a justification for all types of political systems beyond the criticisms which have undermined all previous theories of government. There is no need for the fraud of divine right or the cant of democracy. The right of the ruler to rule depends solely upon the scientific proof of his fitness to do so, and this proof is capable of confirmation by the evidence of the experience that his measures really result in enabling each individual in his jurisdiction to fulfil his own peculiar function as freely as possible.

Aleister Crowley, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, Chapter 87

Hermetic quote Crowley The Confessions of Aleister Crowley law thelema necessary conditions not limited scientific single simple self evident human nature impossible virtues individual function freely as possible

The State of the Art

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The State of the Art [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 4 in The Culture series. (n.b. there is a new paperback edition, due April 2024 [Amazon, Bookshop, Libro.fm, Publisher, Local Library]).

Banks the State of the Art

The jacket copy boasts that The State of the Art is “the only collection of Iain Banks’ short fiction,” and it appears that it does account for most of the short fiction that he ever published. Three of the eight stories, including the novella that makes up about half of the eponymous book, are explicitly Culture tales, and several of the others seem to sit comfortably in the Culture’s universe. It is thus figured as the fourth book of the Culture series, and I read it as such.

The novella brings the Culture’s exploratory agency Contact to 1970s Earth, thus linking Banks’ science fiction to the hardly sfnal “Piece”–a meditation on censorship and violence with an arch irony–and to the quite terrestrial prose poem “Scratch.” The narrator of “The State of the Art” is even Diziet Sma, the Special Circumstances operative from Use of Weapons.

I had wondered before about the genealogical relationship of the Culture’s posthumans to our own population. Banks clearly implies that we are a not-especially-remarkable instance of a galactically ubiquitous pan-humanity, products of parallel evolution it appears. The differences between the Culture’s phenotype and ours are briefly described in what Sma needs in order to pass for Earth-human: “I got a couple of extra toes, a joint removed from each finger, and a rather generalized ear, nose, and cheekbone job. The ship insisted on teaching me to walk differently as well” (106-7).

The story “Cleaning Up” involved an extraterrestrial influence that was almost certainly not the Culture. It seemed like Banks’ take on the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, playing up the comical elements of that work. The comedy in all of these stories tends towards the decidedly dark.

There is a full-page illustration by Nick Day for the frontispiece and one for each story. These are all in black-and-white and seem to be linocuts. The style is more diagrammatic than representational. By refusing to offer more eidetic images, these made me conscious of their lack in the larger Culture corpus, where the cover art tends to be abstract and symbolic. A quick ‘net search for art depicting the Culture revealed that just last week saw the posthumous publication of The Culture: The Drawings reproducing Banks’ own diagrams and sketches of Culture environments and technology.

Despite The State of the Art being a quick read, I think I’ll likely take a breather from the Culture for a little while, since I don’t have a copy of Excession, and I am also engaged with a couple of other series that seem to have more urgent plot continuity between volumes.

Presidents Day

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Auteur: Presidents Day [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Rick Spears, James Callahan, Luigi Anderson, & al, book one of The Auteur series.

Spears Callahan Anderson the Auteur Book One Presidents Day

My local dealer (comics dealer, you know), who has a good sense of my tastes, recommended this book to me when it was in its third or fourth individual issue — just late enough that it was easy to decide to wait for the collected volume that should surely ensue if it lived up to his praise. Well, here it is.

The book chronicles the misadventures of a manic movie producer who is balanced on the precipice of career decline. Well, I’ve read a lot of lurid, exploitative, and trashy comics in my day, and this title can certainly be classed with the worst (i.e. most effective) of them. Sex, drugs, gore, and basic inhumanity are all very well, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never before read a comic that seemed to harbor such affection for vomit.

That’s Hollywood for you, I guess.

In addition to the first six issues of the comic, the volume contains reprints of all the individual issue covers (standard and variant) and some movie posters for imaginary films alluded to in the story: the space opera flop CosmosZombie High (starring Sandra Masters and Penelope Envelope), Death Fist (“It is coming. You will die.”), The Ten Commandments 2, and the film produced in the course of the present narrative Presidents Day.

The comedic pacing of the book is excellent, the allusions witty, and the overall effect profoundly gross, with a dollop of sentimentality.

A Dweller on Two Planets

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Dweller on Two Planets: Or the Dividing of the Way [Amazon, Abebooks, Internet Archive, Local Library] by Phylos the Thibetan (Walter Pierson, Frederick Spencer Oliver).

Phylos the Thibetan Pierson Oliver a Dweller on Two Planets

“Phylos the Thibetan” was the mantonym of Walter Pierson, a gold miner who is the contemporary narrator of this 19th-century work. Frederick S. Oliver, who wrote it in 1886, claimed to have been the amanuensis for the adept Phylos. Oliver was a seventeen-year-old in Reno, Nevada when he received the book by intermittent dictation from its author. Although later secondary references often describe the production as a case of “automatic writing,” Oliver himself expressly disclaimed that his hand was moved by any other force or that he was in a trance, insisting that he heard Phylos’ speech and set it down, with chapters being delivered out of sequence and often backwards, sentence by sentence.

However, the book wasn’t published until 1905 after Oliver’s death, and a great deal of editorial treatment may have been involved. Most of the book reads like a straightforward novel of the reincarnation romance genre–already a popular mode of fiction when it was written–although it is notable for having its principal earlier age set in antediluvian Atlantis or “Poseid.” In that period, Pierson was Zailm, an up-and-coming Atlantean gold miner. (No reader should be too surprised to find out that the teenage Oliver was involved with his family’s mining claims in Nevada.)

Ancient Atlantis has a great deal of super-technology, which Phylos assures us will be surpassed by modern America, the new Atlantis. It is also an enlightened socialist state with a religion of solar deism. There is, however, a fairly plain prophecy of Christianity (72). A bit more than the first half of the book consists of the Atlantean tale, which gradually culminates in great tragedy.

Part II picks up with the life of Pierson in the mid-1800s. Eventually, he is received by a society of adepts who dwell in Mount Shasta. These recognize his development (largely the work of prior lifetimes) and he is taken by one as a student to the other of the “Two Planets” of the title. The second planet is Venus, or as its inhabitants call it, Hesper. Phylos explains a scheme according to which spiritual progress involves centripetal migration through the solar system, with the interior spheres acting through finer sorts of matter, so that when Phylos goes to Venus, he does so in his consciousness only, a new, more spiritual body being supplied for him there.

Another doctrine important to the story is that of the original sexless soul divided into differently-sexed complementary beings who are mutually dependent for spiritual attainment (311-2). This process is expected to take long ages to resolve in any given case, so no one should assume that they have access to their own destined spiritual partner. But of course we see it worked out in the story. In addition to this accomplishment, Phylos is provided with a guardian angel (379ff., interestingly with explicit reference to John 16.13). Then he undergoes the Ordeal of the Abyss, under the figure of the Tempting of Christ in the desert.

The much shorter Part III has three main features: 1) It ties up the whole Phylos narrative, bringing him to perfected adeptship and confirming the continuous identities of his reincarnating associates in the Atlantean and modern settings. 2) It gives an account of the Fall of Atlantis, involving moral decline and physical catastrophe. 3) It offers prophecies regarding the United States, taken as the Atlantis of our current historical cycle, and many of these are dire. This third section is thick with Bible exegesis. But the Bible is placed by Phylos on a par with the Vedas.

The book is a real smorgasbord of American metaphysical religion. While recounting his trials as Zailm in Part I, Phylos indulges in some New Thought. The interludes between incarnations take place in devachan, a term doubtless taken from Theosophical sources. He has an occultist’s contempt for Spiritualism. While anti-racist, he also manages to give voice to some strident Nativisim (252-3), and he expresses a species of feminism (305, e.g.). His praise for Atlantean socialism is paired with an indictment of modern Capitalism as “denying the God-born declaration that all men are created free and equal, and warping it to seem a giant lie” (419).

The prose style of this book is dated and plodding. There are many digressions of little consequence. Although Oliver was greatly impressed at the prophetic accuracy of Phylos regarding Atlantean technology and modern science, I think it rates as tepid science-fictional insight. The religious elements were far more interesting to me, and I did catch glimpses of some genuine esoteric doctrines. It seems likely that Oliver did have some unusual experiences that resulted in the original text of this book, but what made it to print has the style of a weak imitation of Bulwer-Lytton.

I think there was as much genuine spiritual insight, greater moral sophistication, and far higher literary quality in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, another saga of reincarnation published a century after A Dweller on Two Planets. But given my interests in that peculiar period when Oliver’s book was written and published, I don’t regret the effort that I put into reading it.

Phylos the Thibetan Pierson Oliver a Dweller on Two Planets 1905

The Hungering God

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hungering God [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Alan Bligh and John French, book three of the Lord of Nightmares trilogy.

Bligh French the Hungering God

This book is the Hegelian synthesis of the two prior volumes in its trilogy: Dance of the Damned which featured the Legion of Rapture cult, and The Lies of Solace with its kindred the Hand of Solace. Both cults continue on after metamorphoses in The Hungering God, and the rather similar structures of the earlier books are put to good use. In this strange little series, it appears that the authors wrote the earlier volumes in parallel, and then brought the two plot-lines together for a finale. 

Despite the basis for these books in the settings and characters of the Arkham Horror gaming franchise (itself erected on the foundation of a Derlethian Cthulhu Mythos), neither place nor person is left as an unchanging piece of the story in this final segment. The telling is full of dreams, hallucinations, and disruptions of the continuity of space-time and personal identity, so that readers may be rather bewildered in efforts to follow the plot. Given the conceit (introduced forcefully in The Hand of Solace) that the External Powers at stake could rewrite a prior course of events, I began to suspect that the end of this trilogy would offer an “explanation” for the absence of Arkham and Miskatonic country from today’s geography. I was wrong, but not as wrong as many of the book’s characters become. 

Strangely, while women investigators were central to both of the prior volumes, they are no longer center stage in this one. A new character Grace Ziolkowski (a physician at Arkham Sanitarium) takes their place to a minor extent, while the male characters of the previous books (Charles Raker, Professor Walters, Doctor Fields, Tony Morgan) provide the continuity. 

On the whole, I am impressed with the work of Bligh and French in creating a multi-volume narrative out of Yog-Sothothery for which the paradigmatic form is the short story.