A Year In Books – March

Black As Death – George G. Gilman

The Kid From Hell – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Shogun – James Clavell

 

 

Black As Death – George G. Gilman

I think I have read more books by George G Gilman than any other writer. A tremendously prolific writer of violent, pulpy westerns, George Gilman (just one of the pen names of Terry Harknett) wrote dozens of books during the book period of British pulp in the 1970s and 80s and was a member of the infamous Piccadilly Cowboys whose ranks included Kenneth Bulmer and Angus Wells.

His most notable creation was the black clad Edge the Loner (closely followed by the rifleman Adam Steele) probably best thought of an ultra-violent cousin of Eastwood’s Man With No Name (and similarly Adam Steele might be thought of as an ultra violent Lee Van Cleef in his Colonel Mortimer incarnation). The novels took the cynical edge of the best spaghetti westerns and ramped up the body count, often glorifying in extremely graphic descriptions of death and mayhem.

And, by Jupiter, they were fun, spawning a staggering number of imitators/ homages – Jubal Cade, Hawk, Apache, Herne the Hunter, the Gringos and many, many others.

But perhaps the strangest of them all was Barnaby Gold, known as the Undertaker. If Edge and Steele were violent men living in violent times, simply doing their best to get on with the business of life (Edge, for instance, was briefly married in the early books, until the death of his wife sent him off on the vengeance trail once again) then Barnaby Gold was a stone-cold psychopath. And it was probably the cold, creepy and, at times, slightly, well, pervy, nature of the character that meant his adventures were curtailed rather quickly. There over 60 Edge novels and about fifty with Adam Steele, but the poor old Undertaker only managed half a dozen books before he rode off into the sunset. The world – even the sometimes downright odd world of British pulp westerns – was apparently not ready for such a strange character.

Black As Death is more or less the origin story of the Undertaker, detailing his childhood in flashback and the series of events which led the youthful Barnaby Gold to forsake the family profession and head east, his eyes set on Europe in an inversion of Horace Greeley’s famous clarion cry of ‘Go west, young man!’.

Much, much darker in tone than either Edge or Steele and without the trademark gallows wit that was a feature of Gilman’s other work, the Undertaker has a lot in common with such late period Spaghetti/Euro westerns as Matalo, Keoma, Mannaja or the infamous Cut-Throats Nine.

In some ways, the Undertaker could be thought of as a failed experiment, an attempt to take the (particularly British) pulp western in a different direction.

An interesting museum piece from the golden age of British pulp.

 

The Kid From Hell – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

 

Russian science fiction of the Soviet era is something of a minor passion of mine. I say minor because it’s not easy to get hold of in English (and, to be honest, the translations are often clumsy, lacking a certain something). The Strugatsky Brothers, Boris and Arkady, are perhaps the best known Soviet SF writers and a good deal of their work has been published in English. Their best known works, including the sublime Roadside Picnic and the singularly brilliant Hard To Be A God, are as good than anything published in the Anglo-American sf tradition, made even more remarkable when one considers the political constraint that the writers often had to work under.

Soviet science fiction, like the wider body of Soviet literature, was expected to reflect the struggle, triumph and victory of the State more than glorify the achievements of the individual. But even within this framework, the Strugatsky’s created a body of work which, at its heart, is deeply human and, even in shoddy translation, shines as an example of what science fiction is capable of.

The Kid From Hell (1974) is a short novel set in the Noon Universe (think of a benign space-faring Soviet Union and you’ll get the idea). On the planet Giganda, Gack, a soldier in the elite Fighting Cats is mortally wounded in battle, but is saved by the Earthman Kornei and brought to Earth where he is healed. The novel documents Gack’s adjustment (or lack thereof) to life on Earth and his attempt to escape and return home to the war.

Told alternately from Gack’s perspective and in a wider authorial voice, The Kid From Hell is, in part, a rumination on nature vs nurture. While Gack is treated with nothing but kindness by Kornei, he resents his captivity and longs to return to the seemingly endless wars that plague Giganda. Not that Gack is necessarily a stone killer, but rather his entire life has been given to the notion of war, of victory, and of being part of an elite. It is his duty to return to Giganda, his duty to kill the enemy. But the powers-that-be on Earth have determined that the wars will end and (unlike the protagonist of Hard To Be A God who is forbidden to intervene) have set the wheels in motion to bring peace to Giganda. And in this in particular, the Strugatsky’s toy with notions of Imperialism and Gun Boat Diplomacy asking (albeit obliquely) if Might Is Right and whether the First World has any right to impose itself upon the Third.

There are also shades, particularly at the beginning of The Kid From Hell, of the Great Patriotic War and, as the novel progresses, the Prague Spring and its bloody aftermath and it is this covert political satire which makes The Kid From Hell such a satisfying read.

Soviet SF at its finest.

 

Shogun – James Clavell

 

I have, literally, lost count of how many times I have read Shogun (15 would be a conservative estimate, but I suspect it may be more than that) and the novel is like an old friend, comforting, familiar, but still able to make me laugh, cry and, on occasion, surprise me.

Briefly, Shogun is the story of John Blackthorne, an English ship’s pilot who finds himself and the remnants of his crew shipwrecked on the shores of Japan in 1600, it charts his rise from ‘barbarian’ outsider to honoured samurai status as well as dealing with the political climate of the era which culminated in the battle of Sekigahara and the dominance of the Tokugawa shogunate.

But there is, of course, more – so much more – to Shogun than a simple tale of the outsider brought in. Its characters are rich and multi-layered from Blackthorne himself to Yoshi Toranaga (eventually to become Shogun), Toda Mariko (who will eventually come to love and be loved by Blackthorne), the Lord Ishido (who, with dazzling literary sleight-of-hand, is falsely protrayed as the villain of the novel) and a massive cast of supporting players virtually all of whom live and breathe on the page.

This is not to say that Shogun is without its faults (one of the advantages of having the novel as an old friend is that you come to love its faults as well as its triumphs) Clavell consistently breaks ‘literary rules’ – particularly the ones about tight character pov and the use of flashback – and it doesn’t matter one whit. Equally, he takes liberties with historical fact and, as some critics have pointed out, the central romance between Blackthorne and Mariko would have been inconcievable. Again, none of this matters. We want them to become lovers, we want the wily Toranaga to win the ultimate prize. Put another way, Shogun is a deep lake of a novel and the pleasure of it comes from immersing yourself in its waters.

Unfairly thought of as an ‘airport novel’ Shogun deserves greater accolades than that.

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