Breaking the Vibrational Barrier – 1968


Justice League of America 64, “The Stormy Return of the Red Tornado!”/Justice League of America 65, “T.O. Morrow kills the Justice League – Today!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Dick Dillin (pencils) and Sid Greene (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

It’s a quiet day in the Justice Society meeting rooms, with no crimes happening anywhere: The Flash, Hourman, Doctor Fate, Starman and Black Canary are bored. But Hourman unveils his new Crime-Caster computer, which can forecast future crimes.
Before this can give out a result, the meeting rooms are invaded by some form of a whirlwind which, before Starman can bring it down, resolves into a red-costumed figure who claims to be the old Justice Society member, the Red Tornado, come to rejoin the JSA.
The sceptical members swiftly rebut this claim, the ‘real’ Red Tornado being a non-powered, heftily built woman, who only played a minor part in the very first JSA meeting. Nevertheless, the newcomer still protests he is that Red Tornado. But when ‘he’ removes his helmet to see if anyone recognises him, ‘he’ is found to be an android with no face.
Before this puzzle can be explored further, Hourman’s Crime-Caster predicts a robbery happening soon at the 20th Century Museum. The JSA take off, bringing their ‘suspicious’ visitor with them: the Tornado wished to prove himself.
They arrive to find the Museum being stolen, by being turned into atomic clouds and captured, by faceless androids just like the Tornado. He denies any connection to the robbers and wades in alongside the JSA, demonstrating that his power is the ability to turn all or part of his body into, well, tornados.
Unfortunately, he is clumsy and unpracticed in a fight, plus the effects of his tornados not being confined to those they’re aimed at, which leads to one disaster after another. Black Canary is knocked into the path of a ray-gun and killed. Starman is blown out of the heavens, and lands on Hourman, killing both. The Flash is vapourised by a blown away weapon.
Desperate to salvage something, the Tornado tries to help Doctor Fate, who has sealed the remaining androids’ guns with mystic sands. But his tornadoes jar the sand loose and, when it falls on Fate and the Tornado, it paralyses both. They are dumped from the plane into the sea, though this washes the sand away and restores both of them.
The Tornado goes in search of redemption, finding himself drawn by some form of ‘homing instinct’ that leads him to the secret base of criminal scientist Thomas Oscar Morrow. Inspired by his initials, Morrow obsessed over the future and devised a way to steal future technology and bring it to the 20th century. On Earth-1 he fought The Flash and Green Lantern, but seemingly die, crushed in the coils of a great machine.
Instead, he used this to conceal his escape by vibrating himself into Earth-2. Here, his future computer has predicted that to defeat the Justice Society he had to construct the Red Tornado. Morrow’s musings are interrupted by the Tornado, who he ‘kills’ using one of the ray guns. However, his computer still insists he can only win if the Tornado is there to stop him. Puzzled, he reveals that the Tornado is not dead but rather, like the fallen JSA quartet, filled with ‘futurenergy’. Withdrawing the energy will restore life. He restores the Tornado, in slow motion, making his escape.
Meanwhile, Fate has summoned another half dozen JSA members. They go in pursuit of Morrow’s latest crime, only to find the Red Tornado ripping up the joint and hammering Morrow and his men. They warmly greet him as a fellow member.
Trembling with pride, the Tornado brandishes a futurenergy gun, explaining that their fallen comrades aren’t dead, and can be restored by reversing the energy. As he does so, the room explodes, killing the rest of the JSA. A happy Morrow had anticipated this and surreptitiously filled the room with futurenergy, causing the blow-up.
Now he’ll go back to Earth-1 and challenge the Justice League. Will he win? As long as the Red Tornado doesn’t show up to stop him…
End of Part 1


On Earth-1, a routine meeting of the Justice League is interrupted by five wives and girlfriends bursting in and planting smackers on their amours. Midge puts her tongue down Snapper Carr’s throat, Steve Trevor plants one on Wonder Woman, Mera gives Aquaman an intimate lip-lock, Hawkgirl cosies up with a redhead’s passion to Hawkma, and Jean Loring manages to locate the Atom’s lips, even though her mouth is as big as his face.
And all five Leaguers die, as the other halfs dissolve into pure energy. A mysterious voice orders the rest of the League (except the absent J’Onn J’Onzz) to tackle three cosmic monsters he’s unleashed on Earth: when they are defeated, he’ll reveal himself in their Souvenir Room. By teamwork, Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow defeat this menace, which disappears like the ladies (and Colonel Steve) did.
Back at the Souvenir Room, Morrow shows himself, to be recognised by Flash and Green Lantern. He has animated five trophies from past League cases: Starro the Conqueror, Amazo, Super-Duper, Dr Light’s light machine, and Felix Faust’s magic bell, which wind up killing the last five Leaguers.
As an encore, Morrow decides to build a beacon that will inflame the populations of Earth-1 and Earth-2 with hatred for each other, then tear aside the vibratory barrier and let them attack each other.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-2, the Red Tornado, who was ‘earthed’ by holding the gun, comes round. To restore the JSA he has to find Morrow and one of his guns. The Tornado’s ‘homing instinct’ is just strong enough to get him to the Justice League sanctuary on Earth-1, where he finds the gallery of ‘dead’ heroes and a tape recording of Morrow’s diary.
Unable to revive the five most recently killed Leaguers without a futurenergy gun, the Tornado concludes that he can restore the first five by having their real-life ladies give them a snog. Being a mere robot, he goes about this task with a lack of tact and diplomacy (although apparently with enough tact and diplomacy not to explain to Jean Loring exactly why she has to cheat on her fiancé Ray Palmer for the good of the cause).
Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Atom and Snapper are led to Morrow by the Tornado. Whilst Wonder Woman smashes the beacon, the boys knock down the androids and the Tornado slaps Morrow about until he confesses everything, with a strong dose of petulant nastiness about how the Red |Tornado is a nothing, a nobody, a machine.
Having been given this to think about, the Red Tornado takes a gun back to Earth-2 and saves the Justice Society who, despite everything, take him on as a member. But that’s no longer enough. The tortured robot now wants a face, a name, a personality (with Gardner Fox writing?): he wants a place in the world…
* * * * *
The sixth annual JLA/JSA team-up is a story on the cusp of change. Its first part marks the debut of the Justice League’s first new penciller since the beginning, Dick Dillin and its second part was Gardner Fox’s swansong, his final Justice League story.
Change was coming to DC, an overdue change that the company would approach with considerable uncertainty, and in which they would make many mistakes. But it was an historical imperative, inevitable in one form or another since Fantastic Four 1. For all its success, for all its surface slickness, DC had barely changed since the late Forties, least of all in its personnel.
The editors and creators who made DC had been in the industry since the Forties. New people might have broken into comics at Marvel, or at less respected places like Charlton, but DC remained inviolate. Marvel were contained thanks to their distribution contract, which severely limited the number of titles they could put out, but that was closing in on its end. And the writers had tried to get together, ask for benefits that, as freelancers, they had never had. DC refused to play, and the old gang was on the edge of vanishing. Broome was spending more time travelling than scripting, Fox’s oddball plots were losing all coherence.
Carmine Infantino, the doyen of DC artists, had his sights set on higher things. He’d been attending editorial meetings for some time, getting a different perspective on the business, and the company had made him art director, to keep him from being poached by Marvel. He was then promoted to editorial director, in which capacity he started creating new editors, choosing artists rather than writers, and bringing a new sensibility to the role.
One of these was Sekowsky, taking Wonder Woman over from Robert Kanigher, and abruptly abandoning his role as the JLA’s only penciller. His replacement, Dillin, was not noted for superheroes; in fact, he had been the regular artist on Blackhawk, having drawn 133 issues of that title at DC alone before it was cancelled. Nevertheless, Dillin adapted so well to the Justice League that he would draw 115 issues, a run ending only with his death in 1980. Ironically, having begun his JLA career with a JSA team-up, his last issue would be the first part of another such.
Dillin was a good fit for the JLA. It’s fair to say that he was a good meat-and-potatoes penciller: firm, clear, unspectacular and reliant on stock poses, but like Sekowsky he could handle multiple heroes, layout crowded scenes with clarity, and keep the reader’s eye moving from beginning to end.
And it’s doubly ironic to think the the Justice League’s longest running penciller cut his teeth on an issue in which the League’s only appearance was the logo on the cover.
I’ll deal with Fox’s replacement in the context of the next team-up, but the old Reynard proved himself adept at structuring his team-ups with variety to the very end. Not only is issue 64 a solo Justice Society adventure – the first since All-Star 57 – but the two teams do not meet.
The link that connects this two-parter is the villain, T.O. Morrow, and, of course, Fox’s last creation, the new Red Tornado. Morrow had previously appeared in a 1964 issue of The Flash, in a team-up  with Green Lantern, in which he’d been killed off. It was an ingenious notion of Fox’s to revive him by having him fool the heroes into thinking him dead whereas he’d actually removed himself to Earth-2, and by pitting him, very plausibly, against not one but two teams, gave Morrow a basis for a long, if somewhat intermittent career.
The Red Tornado was a different kettle of fish entirely. He was the first revived Golden Age character for over a decade, and it’s very difficult from this team-up to divine what Schwarz and Fox’s motives were. For one thing, there’s the coincidence of the near-simultaneous appearance of The Vision, in The Avengers. For another, the character is simply entirely outside the range of characters created by Fox and/or Schwarz down the decades.
He’s a faceless robot, an android who wants to be human, like some souped-up version of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. As such, and in the context of 1968, and especially the hidebound DC, he’s a fascinating notion, full of unimaginable potential, a symbol of alienation like you could only dream of.
But he’s created to be a member of the Justice Society of America, on Earth-2, meaning that he can only be seen in two comics each year, and then as part of a much larger, nostalgia-laden group. It’s like creating a ghost character, one not to be seen. And on top of his metaphysical dilemma, there’s the intriguing one of how does the poor bugger function in a team when using his powers makes him equally dangerous to the rest of them?
There’s never been a consistent portrayal of the Red Tornado in the years since, I think partly because he was such an unfathomable departure for DC himself, and because he was cut off from the beginning. If he’d been inserted into the Justice League then, instead of years later, the Tornado would have been able to put down roots, to develop.
But that was Julius Schwarz for you. What mattered most was what the readers wanted. If the readership wanted a Red Tornado, they would have to write in and say so. No dropping a brand new, wholly unestablished character into the Justice League.
It was all a very long time ago.
As for the Justice Society’s role this year, they may have got their first truly solo run-out, but overall the story was a bit of a throwback to the ignominious days of 1964: the JSA are comprehensively beaten – they all ‘died’, remember – leaving the Justice League to save everyone’s day.
Practically the whole Society turns up in the first issue, though the active members are the quintet of Doctor Fate (proving again his major popularity), The Flash, Hourman, Starman and, as the sole female, Black Canary. The other half-dozen are no more than cameo cannon-fodder, though there are some interesting details among the line-up. Mr Terrific is not only there again but is the first to appear, whilst Wildcat is excluded entirely. Dr Mid-Nite attends, in the group panel, but is then left out of every other group shot Dillin composes.
As for the other no-shows, these are, sensibly, the Big Three, and Johnny Thunder.
Unless and until Schwarz was prepared to allow Superman and/or Batman to turn up as Justice Society members, there was no-one new left to revive now. This aspect is conveniently filled by the Red Tornado, who becomes the Justice Society’s first new member for, ah, twelve months.
The story itself is entertaining, though in places relatively unconvincing, especially once the action transfers to Earth-1. Fox kills off half the team, subjects the other half to two fights, the first of which feels uneasily like stuffing, to take up pages, then revives the first half to take over the story. And whilst it’s possible to accept the concept of ‘futurenergy’ that ‘kills’ but does not kill people (and robots), there is nothing but symbolism to support the idea that the real girl-friends can reverse the kiss of death and restore life. It’s a major gap in the internal logic of the story, and we can only assume that Schwarz and Fox decided that such mass passion would cloud the mind of the League’s adolescent audience (a tactic that worked on at least one pre-teen reader, far away from  New York City).
Though we can only boggle at the absolute naivety of Jean Loring, being inexplicably called in to snog the face off a superhero the size of a toy. Call herself a lawyer? No wonder it took about twenty years for her to ‘establish herself in her career’ before marrying Ray Palmer.
Finally, does this issue make it into post-Crisis canon? It’s possible to orient the story to Morrow tackling first one team then the other, though it would require a major retcon of his previous appearance, whilst the idea of setting the populations of two Earth against each other would have to go… The bare bones might be there, but it would require a different story being laid upon them, so, no, not this time.

On Writing: NaNoWriMo 2013 day 20


Sometimes, it can be a useful exercise, when writing something that has no strong overarching plot, to imagine yourself explaining it to another person. It can be very reassuring when you’re writing something character-oriented, by making you realise how much is actually going on, in the absence of a plot-driven story.

And having defined to this mythical person’s satisfaction where you are currently at, you can then go on to describe where it’s going from here, even if, in your daily sessions, you are concerned only with the words of the moment, and no regard to what follows.

If your writing mind is attuned to what it is doing, it can reveal a satisfying amount of the forthcoming story, to the point of giving you the spine of the next several days sessions, up to a satisfactory point at which to reveal one of your major plot elements, a card that you have always had in mind, without knowing when it will come into play.

It is not, however, necessarily a sensible thing to do when you are about to go in the shower, preparing for a ten-and-a-half hour day on the phones at work. The biggest drawback about such speculative thinking is that when you do hit the motherlode of what is instinctively right for what you are doing, you have done so at the very point where it is not feasible to write down the fruits of your writing mind’s invention.

This can lead to attempts to scribble down barely-legible notes at the bus stop, and even less successful attempts to do that whilst the bus is in motion.

This process is inevitably complicated by the fact that at each turn, your mind offers little snippets of conversation, expanding upon the flashpoints of your scenario.

However, between that and a break two hours into your shift, the work can be done. After that, however, comes the very worst of it: the terrifying itch inside the skull as your mind keeps dipping into this spinal outline, continually starting conversations between your three leading characters at almost every point, conversations that you simply cannot write down and which, when you come, in order, to these moments, will inevitably haunt you with the ease and relevance of the unwritten words and leave you feeling decidedly unimpressed at how feeble and pale the ones you will actually write seem to be.

I feel like I could write more or less any of these scenes, in full, and the inside of my head itches with this frustrated feeling of being unable to attend to the book.

This is when you really hate not being a full-time writer.

Quadruple Nelson: R.E.Marathon


Allow me my foibles: this is this blog’s 444th post since starting out in 2011, and bear in mind that it was only February this year that I hit Double Nelson, so I’ve doubled the number of posts here since February. I can’t help feeling that I can’t possibly have enough to say to justify 444 posts. So Far.

Anyway, at the moment I’m listening to “I told you I wanted to be wrong”, the best track on R.E.M.’s rather dismal 13th album, Around the Sun. It’s the thirteenth successive R.E.M. album I’ve listened to in the last twenty four hours, and I intend to have listened to Accelerate and Collapse into Now before I go to sleep.

I have a mate at work who keeps telling me to get onto Twitter and Facebook to promote myself, this blog and my books more. Just think if I were letting you know bits of trivia like this on a regular basis? Yeah, I thought so.

Here’s to the next 111 posts.

The Prisoner: 26, 17 or 7?


Trying to work it out can feel like this sometimes

The stories have varied down the years.
I have a vague memory, obviously inaccurate, of someone in a newspaper claiming that The Prisoner was originally meant to run for forty episodes, and even at the age of twelve, and with the series finale coming up, being immediately intrigued at what all the other twenty-three episodes would have been about.
Then I learned about how it was supposed to have been twenty six episodes, two series of thirteen, but the ratings for series One fell away and it was decided to make it seventeen, on an emergency basis, to fill a scheduling gap.
And then it was how McGoohan had proposed The Prisoner as a seven episode mini-series, before we had mini-series.
Then that the emergency episodes weren’t supposed to be filler after all, but instead a genuine series Two
And there’s yet another wrinkle to add to this ever-shifting tale of just how many episodes of The Prisoner there were supposed to be, because Patrick McGoohan gave this interview in 1979 in which he claimed that, far from insisting on twenty six episodes in two series, Lew Grade accepted the mini-series Prisoner from the outset, as a seven issue run.
Under this theory, the first location shoot at Portmeirion was intended to be the only one. The bulk of McGoohan’s septet were filmed there: Arrival, Free For All, Checkmate, Dance of the Dead and The Chimes of Big Ben, with Once Upon a Time shot at Elstree immediately after. That was what the budget was for, that was what the show was about.
You’ll notice that there’s no mention of Fall Out in that theory: Fall Out did not, at that time, exist. The series had an ending, McGoohan just hadn’t created it then.
But then, in this latest explanation, Grade phoned up to say he couldn’t sell the series as seven and it would have to be twenty six. So McGoohan and Tomblin sat down and dragged out every idea they could think of, phoned Grade back and told him they could do seventeen, and so seventeen was agreed.
It’s an interpretation that’s inconsistent with everything that had gone before it, but then when it comes to The Prisoner everything is inconsistent with everything else. Even Robert Fairclough then went on to refer to six other episodes being made as being far too expensive on a budget that was working out as £75,000 per episode, instead of another eleven episodes for this insistent seventeen episode series.
Including the still-not-extant Fall Out.
He does identify the inconsistencies, including the evidence that supports one incompatible theory against another, rendering the whole thing completely impossible to resolve, rather like the series as a whole will become when the final episode is made.
Because the production staff of The Girl Who Was Death are the first to hear that the next episode will be the last episode, which suggests to me that up to that point The Prisoner was making episodes in a piecemeal fashion, lacking any kind of anchor as to series length. Like those who, decades ago, wrote and drew Marvel’s successful Star Wars comic between the end of the adaptation of Star Wars and the appearance of The Empire Strikes Back: spin the wheels, keep it in motion, but the one thing you can’t do is do anything.
I’m more than willing to accept that Patrick McGoohan saw – and pitched – The Prisoner as a tightly-conceived seven episode mini-series, and that in his mind those seven episodes are the real series (though never in all the time I have had the DVD box-set, or the less expansive one before it, or even the videos I made of the C4 repeats, have I watched McGoohan’s ‘pure’ Prisoner, something I must do).
I’m equally willing to accept that the commercial realities of commercial television in 1966 made such a thing impossible, and required the dilution of the idea by additional episodes, some of them of very high quality, to make up a conventional series length.
But I’m not prepared to believe that Lew Grade would break the commercial habit of a lifetime by blithely signing up to the ‘pure’ Prisoner and I’m equally not prepared to believe that the filler episodes were made as part of a predecided single seventeen episode series.
And I’m also not prepared to believe that Fall Out would have happened in a ‘pure’ Prisoner. When he sold the idea to Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan had outlines, notes and titles for six episodes. Unless some sensational discovery is yet to be made of a seventh story contemporaneous with the first six, I believe McGoohan went into The Prisoner without an ending.
With ideas, yes, inchoate, unresolved, unshaped, and ideas that would be eventually expressed in Fall Out, but I cannot bring myself to believe that what became the ending of The Prisoner was implicit in its beginning or that it could have come to be without the experience of the sixteen episodes that preceded it.
In Roger Zelazny’s popular Chronicles of Amber, he makes it plain, by casual, offhand remarks, that their narrator, Corwin of Amber, is telling his story to some unnamed person, in some unidentified and potentially disastrous situation. The first two novels (of five) each cover distinct and separate periods of, in the first book, years and in the second months. The remaining three books cover approximately one subjective week, are continuously written and include cliff-hanger endings.
The change in tone between books two and three is so distinct that I am convinced that, at the very least, Zelazny threw away his original plans for the continuation and end of the series in favour of others of much greater proportions, and that the auctor revealed at the end of the penultimate chapter of the fifth book is not the person who heard the first two.
Welcome to the fall out.

Welcome


To my considerable surprise, I have gained no less than five new followers today alone, which deserves the courtesy of a response: welcome to you, one and all. I’m pleased to have you around and I hope I stay interesting enough to make you glad you’ve plumped to be notified of every little thing I write.

And as I do Shameless Plugs from time to time, may I direct your attention to the category ‘Novels’, where you will be able to learn about even more of my stuff that can be acquired in dead tree format, as well as on Kindle.

Remember the heading of this Blog…

On Writing: NaNoWriMo update day 15


There wasn’t time for a weekly update yesterday, given that I was out all day, but the work did get done and, now yesterday’s two sessions have been typed up, my updated wordcount is 25,553: just over halfway on the halfway date.

It’s obvious to me that this is going to go well over 50,000 words – I still haven’t introduced my second lead, although she should be coming onto the scene by the end of the weekend at worst – but as I’ve said, that’s not really the point. Part of me would love to cross the 50,000 word line by November 30 and ‘win’, though what sort of a ‘win’ it would be if the book is far from complete at that time, I don’t know. Realistically, I’m looking at having the first draft done by mid-December, as long as I maintain the discipline of writing evey day.

So far, so good.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1967


Justice League of America 55, “The Super-Crisis that struck Earth-2!”/Justice League of America 56, “The Negative Crisis between Earths 1-2!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Sid Greene (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

In China, bandit How Chu is tied to a stake, awaiting execution, when a black sphere appears out of the sky and merges into him. He gains immense strength and invulnerability to bullets and escapes to continue robbing. In Chicago, stenographer Claire Morton is dreaming of jewellery during her lunch hour when a black sphere merges with her: she smashes the windows and steals the gems. In London, businessman Horace Rowland is striding towards the bank to complete a profitable business deal when a sphere lands near him, and he picks it up out of curiosity: he breaks into the vault with great strength and steals the cash. Lastly, ex-fielder Marty Baxter, invalided out of the game due to arthitic pain, is disconsolately watching baseball when he too is merged: full of anger, he sets out to destroy the stadiu,.
Rapidly, all four people adopt costumes and start a crime rampage.
All this, we learn, has taken place on Earth-2, where the Justice Society are meeting to welcome their first new member in 19 years. This is Robin, the former Boy Wonder, now fully grown and inducted into the JSA as an (implicit) successor to Batman (who is not present: though semi-retired, he takes on special cases and is off on one at the moment).
Robin’s first mission is to assist the JSA against these four super-powered crooks. The Sports-Smasher beats Wildcat and Robin into a pulp. Wonder Woman is beaten by Gem Girl’s ability to manipulate jewels to assist her. Hawkman and Mr Terrific are brought down by the Money Master’s ability to manipulate external objects and floor them, whilst Hourman tackles How Chu, but is left buried by his ability to conjure up whirlwinds.
The defeated JSA return to their meeting rooms to find Johnny Thunder, who’d been late, waiting for them. Directly he hears what’s been going on, Johnny T sends his Thunderbolt to capture the four super-crooks, but half an hour later, the Bolt returns, beaten and bruised and unsuccessful.
Crestfallen, Johnny sends the Bolt to Earth-1 to bring back some Justice Leaguers, in the hope they have some new ideas. The Bolt returns with Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, all of whom are similarly dishevelled, and none too pleased at being snatched off their Earth. It seems they have been struggling against similar super powered foes and didn’t like being interrupted. However, they agree to stay and see if a joint action can bring any results they can take back to Earth-1.
By chance, it is revealed that the Thunderbolt, being less dumb that Johnny Thunder, has checked out what the black spheres are. It appears that they were creatures from another Universe. They, and it, had reached the peak of evolution and, when their Universe began to fall back, flung themselves into Earth-2’s Universe, hoping to connect with creatures that can help them survive and grow further.
Unfortunately, for the black spheres, only four of them made contact with humans and, unfortunately for everybody else, a chemical reaction between the two has turned the humans evil. What’s worse is that, at the moment, the black spheres are dormant in their hosts’ bodies. When they awake to full sentience, they will be unstoppable.
End of part one.


Suddenly, Robin has a brainwave. Only four black spheres may have connected with humans, but all the others may have left radiation that they can use to enhance their own powers. The four fastest heroes team-up to find, mark and mine sites, eventually gathering enough radiation to energise four heroes. Because they have powers already, these are Earth-2’s Wonder Woman and Hourman, and Earth-1’s Flash and Green Lantern. And because each of them will be vulnerable to the evil effects of the radiation, each is accompanied by other heroes.
Superman and Robin accompany Hourman to Rome, where Marty Baxter is carrying on his destructive course. As soon as he comes within the villain’s influence, Hourman turns against and fights his colleagues. He is beating them when Robin realises that Hourman has unnecessarily avoided his blow when on the banks of the Tiber: bodychecking his team-mate into the river, he confirms that the black spheres are affected by water, and Superman brings the irradiated hero down.
Hawkman and Green Arrow and tracking the Flash against How Chu, until the Flash goes bad. However, Green Arrow that notices that the Flash preferred to cut, dangerously, across the path of one of his trick arrows rather than run through a wisteria field: the heroes are tipping their colleagues off as to their weaknesses, and the black spheres are allergic to wisteria blossom.
Wildcat and Mr Terrific are shadowing Green Lantern as Horace Rowland is now robbing in Scotland (complete with steam trains and gorges). But when the Lantern uses a power ring glove to punch Wildcat up into a tree, it breaks off a branch that floors the Emerald Gladiator: wisely, the two heroes grab branches and beat the crap out of him.
Finally, Wonder Woman, with Johnny and his Thunderbolt for company, trails Gem Girl to the villains lair. As soon as she turns bad, the Amazon Princess knocks Johnny out and actually starts fighting her opponent, until they inadvertently smash a water-cooler, which wakes him up. Gem Girl flees as the Bolt discovers that the black sphere people have been simply reflecting his magic back at him.
Nervously, Johnny tries to clear the air with a joke, a terrible joke, but Wonder Woman giggles. Encouraged, he tries another (equally bad) which renders her helpless with laughter: it is a major, major black sphere weakness.
Having incapacitated Wonder Woman, Johnny advances to find all the villains together with the Bolt warning him that the spheres themselves are about to wake up. Fortunately, Johnny has not exhausted his stock of cheap gags, creasing up the villainous quartet until the Bolt can drive the spheres out of everybody’s bodies, to their death.
Almost immediately, heroes arrive from all over with water, wisteria and wood, only to discover that they’ve been outdone by, er, wit. Kindly, they don’t let on to Johnny that he hasn’t saved the day all alone, not that he’d notice as he’s so busy writing out jokes for the Justice League quartet to take back to Earth-1 to overcome their black spheres…
* * * * *
It’s Johnny Thunder again, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed. At least it’s the real Johnny Thunder this time, in all his… glory… and not some purple jacketed imposter.
Having run out of old Justice Society members to bring back, Fox and Schwarz went to the opposite extreme and inducted a new JSA member for the first time in almost two decades. In doing so,they acknowledged a point that the previous year’s team-up had rather fudged – that the whole Golden Age revival to this point had fudged – which was the question of whether there were also two of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
So now we know there were, which opened up a smaller but, for those interested in the minutiae of continuity, absolutely fascinating can of very exclusive worms. Batman exists in the Justice Society (though it is noticeable that he can’t be bothered to turn up to celebrate his ward’s graduation into the big time). And if Batman exists on Earth-2, Fox and Schwarz can introduce Wonder Woman for a first active adventure.
Needless to say, there is little (or in Wonder Woman’s case, no) time spared to explore the differences between the Earth-2 edition and the standard model. The Earth-2 version is staider in her fashion tastes, preferring to retain those laced Grecian sandals than revert to red and yellow boots. However, it is Robin who is the sartorial highlight, choosing for some incredulous reason to retain the design of his costume but kit it out in Batman’s colours, whilst retaining his yellow cape and insisting on a symbol of a bright red R superimposed on a headless bat.
The story is astonishingly simple compared to previous editions of the team-up. Villains rob. Villains beat JSA. Villains beat Thunderbolt (offstage). Thunderbolt hauls in four JLAers to make it into a team-up before Fox goes into typically talky ending to explain what’s going on. Heroes supercharge some of their number to try to compete. Each one goes evil and, in Marvel fashion, turns on their team-mates. However, in Fox fashion, each drops a clue as to how they can be beaten and Johnny Thunder saves the day (he actually does, you know: the others didn’t get there in time).
What bulks the tale out is splitting the action into four fights each time, with each fight taking rather longer than most JLA/JSA encounters have previously done, in which we see the growing influence of Marvel again. Bigger art, more fights, heroes turning upon one another (albeit via a perfectly reasonable alien influence, they would never have done that normally). The Sixties were beginning to catch-up to DC.
Structurally, Fox once again rings the changes. The action, this time, takes place wholly on Earth-2, and for the first part, the Justice League are literally out of sight and out of mind, until page 20 of 23. The overwhelming prominence of the Society, and the fact that the League are in exactly the same state as them, deprives the move of the suggestion it might once have had  of the JSA being inferior.
And Fox is careful to split the heroes chosen to be infected with the black sphere radiation equally among the teams, although by this point there are nearly twice as many JSA as JLA.
It should be noticed that, with this team-up, Dr Fate loses his perfect record, and that Mr. Terrific doubles his previous number of missions with the Justice Society. Twice in three years: unfortunately, this was not the beginning of a new lease of life for the Man of a Thousand Talents, the Defender of Fair Play: he would appear in action only twice in the next decade, the second of these very briefly before his death. But that’s a matter for another day.
This story is also a good illustration of the attitudes that Americans have towards those lesser beings who fill out the more unimportant parts of this planet. As an English citizen, I obviously look with a critical eye upon money magnate Horace Rowlands. True, he is introduced in bowler hat, rolled umbrella and briefcase, and it’s only when he gains super-powers that he acquires a florid top hat and a monocle (none of the villains fare well on costumes, except for Gem Girl, with her mini-dress, kinky boots and utterly chic little hat).
But as Horace, he’s an accurate picture of a City-based businessman of the time, and at least he doesn’t have a double-barrelled surname, and I for one have seen dozens of incredibly more insulting portrayals down the years in American comics.
Though I do have issues with the idea of England sending its as yet unstolen gold into Scotland on trains travelling on wooden trestles across deep gorges in the Scottish Highlands that are far to the north of cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh that might have security facilities better than the Bank of England for gold bullion. Gorges, incidentally, in which primroses grow and apple trees offer bright red apples of a shade not even a supermarket has yet produced.
But you can’t complain about that when you’ve got the question of How Chu (and yes, that gag is also in there). How Chu is a Chinese bandit, which is an almighty cliché in itself. In 1967, China was a Communist country, saving only Nationalist China on the island of Taiwan. This much is, apparently, recognised when we meet How Chu about to be executed by Chinese Communist Soldiers.
However, once How Chu makes his black sphere inspired escape, he dresses something like a Mongol warrior from the days of Ghenghis Khan, and robs ancient Chinese merchants on the Silk Road from Lanchow to Kashgar (so, not Taiwan, then). The Silk Road, of which there are many, was a trading route from the west into China, dating back to the First Century BCE. The Chinese merchants (on a 2,000 year old road) in Communist China, are being chauffeured in an ancient, black 1930’s car of a kind usually only found in very early Terry and the Pirates adventures, before Milton Caniff started doing research. These merchants, in Communist China, are carrying bags of gold and are dressed in mandarin suits of bright collars, in which they stand, hunch-shouldered, their hands concealed in their great, wide, drooping sleeves, whilst wearing little skull-caps on shaven heads.
Nearly a decade later, Paul Levitz would become the first Justice Society writer to exploit the fact that Earth-2 was a different planet, likely with a different political history. It’s possible that, in a subtle manner, Fox and Schwarz may be prefiguring his efforts by presenting a China that had never known a Mao Tse-Tung. But I doubt it.
It was all so long ago, and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. And yes, it was a kid’s comic. But it is emblematic of the total disregard for accuracy as to conditions in other countries that typified mainstream America than and, sadly, now.
I nevertheless enjoyed it in 1967, and the fun it brought me burns still in my memories, meaning that I can specify its flaws, and still forgive it those failings, because a part of me lives in this story still.
And a shout out must be made about the horribly dull titles for this pair of issues.
Unfortunately, this is one of those that could very easily be adapted to fit the post-Crisis canon. It sorta works that way, doesn’t it?

A little bit of what it used to be like


Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi
Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi

A couple of years ago, I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, meeting a bunch of on-line friends. Paz had lived and worked in the city for years and showed us all sorts of places, before leading us up Arthur’s Seat, which was great stuff. I hadn’t done any serious uphill walking in years by that point, and whilst I got to the summit and found the vista incredible, the actual walk was a shameful struggle, my right calf threatening to go into a very painful cramp a couple of times, but my overall progress being slow and sluggish, holding everybody up.

Ok, I was the oldest member of the party, and by thirty-odd years on most of us, but that still didn’t make me feel better about how difficult it was to complete. And that wasn’t even over 1,000 feet.

Today, I went up to the Lake District: train to Windermere, bus to Ambleside. I did this last year, though it was dull and overcast then, and today was sunshine, blue skies and puffball clouds, though not without some higher, murkier stuff moving out of the central areas.

As soon as I hit Ambleside, it was through the churchyard and onto the lane to the park, across that to Miller’s Bridge – a good old packhorse bridge made of Lakeland slate – and from there to the private lane that winds up the side of Loughrigg Fell. I’ve climbed Loughrigg twice, once by this route. It’s not much more than 1,100 feet high, though I was aiming for something even more modest than that: Todd Crag, an outcrop at the southern end of the wedge-shaped landscape, that boasts a superb view of the head of Windermere that I’d once seen in a calendar. That wasn’t even as high as Arthur’s Seat.

But this is the first piece of serious uphill walking I’ve done since Edinburgh, and my knees are pretty knackered, and I’m overweight, have no stamina, and not even the proper gear: waterproof coat instead of anorak, shoulderbag, not rucksack, trainers not boots. So I’d scaled back my ambition pretty ruthlessly, unsure of what I could achieve.

As soon as I reached that private lane, I tried to drop into the fellwalker’s gait, the steady, almost metronomic, one-two, one-two pace that, if achieved, can eat up miles as easily as a kid can polish off a Big Mac (though he’s far better off on his hind legs). The Rothay valley and Ambleside was behind me, as was the Fairfield Horseshoe, circling empty Rydale, with Red Screes showing its long south ridge beyond the Morning Arm.

It didn’t take much height for my spirits to rise. I have spent so much time at ground level, I have been too much away from the Lakes. Just to be here, a hundred feet or so above the valley was to put a grin on my face that just kept getting wider. There were others of the lane, couples and parties, heading up, heading back, but at a bend I found a series of slate steps set into the wall, leading to an overhung, leaf-scattered path heading away south. Once I was on this path, I was alone: alone enough that in the next two hours I saw no-one except at some distance.

This is what walking is for me. Neither holding up nor being held up, just walking at my pace, in the air, among the fells, in silence and freedom. Grass and rock and bracken, no two steps alike, the wind striking whenever I crossed a skyline, further fells appearing as I moved from outcrop to outcrop. Ill Bell and Froswick, overlooking the Troutbeck Valley, Little Hart Crag above Scandale Head, Steel Fell and Tarn Crag, hovering over invisible Grasmere.

I was happy, as I haven’t been in a very long time, and I was back in my world, a world I’ve been displaced from, a world that I had begun to fear I would never come back to. But even in this limited expedition, this modest target, though its view was as stupendous as I hoped, I was one of them still, still a walker, not an exile. Let the wind blow, let a spurt of spots dampen the day, even as it created a perfect rainbow with ends in Ambleside and Grasmere. I was in my own again, and it felt good.

Of course, there was the matter of return, in which more caution was required, because descent is usually more tricky, and more painful when you have to put up with knees like mine. And wearing trainers too, which caused a few slips here and there, earning me the first time a dirty seat to my jeans, and on the other two occasions, abrupt foldings up of my left knee in a manner it really does not like.

Of course I took a different route back, striding out with ease wherever I could, following my nose and my experience, which wasn’t particularly clever. In spite of, or maybe because of the profusion of paths on this side, I got onto the wrong line, found myself descending, precipitously, beside a wall protecting a steep and bubbling beck. It was not a wise course, even correctly kitted out, and I am not too stupid to admit when I’ve gone wrong, even if it meant a retreat uphill that my waning energy could ill-afford.

But eventually I saw the lane, and a way across to it, and could make my way down in relaxed fashion. Well, not all that relaxed, really. Going downhill is worse for the knees than going up, and that lane certainly felt steeper on the way home than it did when I was trudging up it, two hours earlier.

And coming down, there were a couple in their thirties walking upwards, and as we passed, we did the fellwaker’s nod and greet, the recognition of who we were and what we shared, and I said, lacomically, “Bit of wind, up there,” and they said, “Thanks,” for warning and help acknowledged, and yes, I truly was in my own again.

I occupied the rest of my time looking at Ambleside’s familiar bookshops – one of which I’ve been visiting for over fifty years – and in a pint and a burger in the pub I will always think of as the Sportsman‘s, even though it is now apparently the Ambleside Tavern.

With it getting rapidly dark, I wandered achingly round to catch the bus back to Windermere and the train. Ahead of me at the stop, and in front of me when we sat down inside, was a woman who TV or film or newspapers would probably disregard, but who I found stunningly gorgeous. And not just gorgeous: she looked, indefinably, as if she would be as good to talk to, to spend time with, as she looked: someone with whom you would immediately feel relaxed, and at home: and these things are far better than looks.

The weird thing about it was that she was looking at me at the bus stop before I was looking at her, and I kept catching her glancing at me, even half-turning in her seat to catch me in her peripheral vision. That doesn’t happen often, often here being defined as even once, although it could perhaps have been a slutchy smell from the soggier of my rather dirty trainers that she was objecting to, but she didn’t have a look of distaste on her face, and believe me, I can spot them.

Sadly, she had an older woman with her, dependant upon a stick, who I assumed was her mother, so there was no opportunity to speak to her and discover if she was as nice as my instincts were telling me. Not that I would have, if she’d been alone, or maybe this time: I could have asked her about the bus whilst we were waiting to get on.

I got the impression she was not far into her forties, which would have been perfect as far as I was concerned: her face was unlined and her slim fingers free of rings, but then again she was someone who, when she reaches 65, I would have looked on with delight.

Nothing happened though. I got off at Windermere Railway Station and they stayed on the bus, which was heading down the hill to Bowness next.

Just the brief sight of her, on a day as happy as today has been, was delightful. I even got a good NaNoWriMo session done, two spells of writing on the train, one each way (though the latter had to be done in pencil when my pen abruptly packed up). It must be at least 1,000 words, but I’m not going to find out tonight because I’m not starting to type it up at this hour.

The photo is from this afternoon, about 1.00pm. My knees are killing me now, but it was so good to be there, and to know that I am still not an exile.

The Prisoner: episode 16 – Once Upon a Time – discursion


Once Upon a Time was the sixteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the sixth to go into production. It was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, although the shooting scripts used on set bore the name Archibald Schwarz, McGoohan being nervous of the reaction of everybody to such a bizarre episode.
After the last half-dozen episodes, the intensity, the underlying seriousness of Once Upon a Time comes as a shock: a welcome shock, a dose of cold, clear water after a series of sweet carbonated drinks. This is unsurprising, given that the episode was one of McGoohan’s original seven, the mini-series he wanted, the episodes he stood behind. It is one of the episodes filmed on the first run of shooting, although it uses only a tiny handful of location shots.
It followed on from The Chimes of Big Ben, hence the re-appearance of Leo McKern as Number Two. Despite their differences in the previous episode, the two actors respected each other and McGoohan invited McKern to remain, and it is all to the good for the episode.
Not only was McKern one of the best Number Two’s, not only did his scenes with McGoohan demonstrate a genuine, mutual respect between the characters, but the mere fact of a return, of a superior Number Two being recalled after a string of inferior men and schemes, leant the episode an immediate gravitas. McKern’s performance nails it instantly: he doesn’t want to be back, but if it is so important that he is needed, then it will be done, once and for all.
And it is. In a way, Once Upon a Time is the true conclusion to The Prisoner, and its final episode is accurately depicted by the title Fall Out. If the episode had been what it was long supposed to be, a cliff-hanger conclusion to series One, then we don’t need the evidence of supposed series Two episodes like Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling to tell us that a second series would have been an artistic disaster that would have pulled the roof down on the series forever.
That wasn’t the opinion of everyone. George Markstein held the script in contempt, called it utter gibberish, and a cold, hard look at it on the page, with its lengthy sequences of McGoohan and McKern shouting “Five!”, “Six!”, or “Pop,” “Pop,” “Pop pop,” at each other, makes it hard to justify.
But it is not just the two leads’ performances that turn this episode into an intense, psychological battle that envelops the viewer on levels beyond the rational.
The episode overall breaks down into two sections. There is Number Two’s return, the sanctioning of the mysterious Degree Absolute and the secrecy with which the preparation is made. The episode is at its most coldly rational in this long introduction, even down to the singing of nursery rhymes to the drugged and brainwashed Number Six in his bed.
And there is the sequence in the Embryo Room, one long, extended scene, on a minimalist set, where props are obviously props and the real is abandoned, as the process of Degree Absolute – the episode’s working title, incidentally – takes the fight into Number Six’s own mind.
The episode wears its roots lightly, in Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, which are to be recapitulated in the week of the ordeal, recapitulated but manipulated to turn the roots of the character McGoohan plays into a creature amenable to the requirements of the Village, whilst retaining those elements that make him so valuable to that organisation.
Indeed, McGoohan throws in a couple of autobiographical notes as part of this cascade of impressionistic moments: his own boxing training, his first job as a Bank Clerk, before he became involved in acting. We can even see John Drake, through this prism, being recruited to the Service via an ancient and traditional organisation whose bases align with the security of the country.
It’s a tight, claustrophobic sequence, for all its refusal to confine itself to grounded reality. McGoohan faces McKern, with Angelo Muscat – promoted in the opening credits to ‘Featuring’ status – as a silent, grave presence, unassuming, solid, and in the final act shifting his loyalty to naturally, so airily, to Number Six, as control of the process slips into the latter’s hands and the countdown starts to the inevitability of Number Two’s death, a death that comes from no cause save only dramatic requirement and the demands of a process that has taken on an inevitability far beyond anything the players can do to halt it.
Number Two made the risk plain at the beginning. The processes’s title reinforces it. It really is an Absolute. One or the other. Six or Two. We may not see what we hoped to see in the charming Number Two of so very long ago, of the second broadcast episode, as near to the beginning as this is to the end: there is no battle of wits, not with a Number Six deprived of them until an end whose own reality may not be what we want it to be. But we see a man who does believe in what he does and who, to further the cause for which he works, goes willingly to what he knows, if he succeeds, is his own death: corporeal or mental.
And then the promise. Enter the Supervisor: cold, unsentimental, indeed a little contemptuous of his fallen colleague, even though he has expressed a sadness at what was then, in his mind, only a possibility: sorry to lose you.
Number Two is sealed away, out of sight. Number Six may have what he wants, and what he wants is what he’s wanted from the very beginning, what we who have watched this series have wanted, and that is answers. The answer is Number One, and there are no more obstacles, no more frustrations, no prevarications, just: I’ll take you.
Only the most forensic of minds, and how many are there in that moment, would recognise that that promise is not a promise to reveal anything, just a commitment to transport the once and former Number Six to something.
Of course, such prescience is easy when it’s no longer prescience.
I have a theory about Once Upon a Time, but not one that I can speak of here, because there is still an episode to come. My theory – not my theory in its origins but I find it impossible to run away from – explains too much that should not be spoken of until we have reached the end. I will say here only the word Brazil.
McGoohan, McKern, Muscat, and Peter Swanwick (whose steely glaze concealed serious frailties that brought about his death later in 1968): these are the players. John Cazabon (as the man with the Umbrella) and John Maxim (as Number 86 though his scene and his two lines were edited out after the credits were produced) are the only other actors, save for the unknowns who populated the Control Room.
It’s getting very late now.

Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam – Uncollected Thoughts


It’s, what, thirty years ago since I bought The Colour of Magic as a Corgi paperback, back when it looked like someone doing a Douglas Adams-job on fantasy, as opposed to SF. Bought it, read it, thought it was ok but couldn’t really see wanting to read it again so moved it on in the way you did with unwanted books before eBay. And it’s still that, what, thirty years ago since I was on holiday in the Lakes, and faced with an evening in a Keswick guesthouse with nothing to do or read and limited options in picking up a book before bedtime, so I bought The Light Fantastic, knowing it would keep me going for the evening and I could always move it on.

Except that it was very much more entertaining, a lot funnier, more enthralling and altogether the work, it seemed, of someone who’d sat down with his first book (we didn’t know better then) and looked at it hard until he’d worked out what he’d done wrong and had used it to make the second book work.

Raising Steam is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (counting Young Adults but noy Diaries, Almanacks and Cookbooks) and it’s thirty years on, and as I’ve already said more years back than I’d prefer to remember, against all the odds of series fiction, the books are still brilliant (insert number of years here) later, and indeed many of the later ones are the best, well, I’d have been sceptical, to a very high value of sceptic.

Raising Steam is also, to be technical, the third Moist von Lipwig book, as well as being the fourth to be written since Terry Pratchett announced that he was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s. It was published last Thursday but I’ve held off reading it until today, as a present to myself.

And now I’ve read it, what are my first impressions of it and how it matches up with the oh-so-often splendid array of its predecessors?

Raising Steam has a curious feel to it. It’s very different from the ‘usual’ Discworld book, in that it is focussed upon its theme, almost to the exclusion of its characters. Each book is gifted with a clear and present central idea – it is part of Pratchett’s immense skill that he has found so many distinct and individual ‘abouts’ to build a story upon – but in all cases prior to this, the story has played out through the central characters, whose fates and fortunes are bound up in the resolution of whatever threat may be about to unbalance the Discworld, or some discrete part of it.

In Raising Steam, there are two such forces. The first and most obvious of these is the discovery of steam power and the creation of the Railway. This arrives courtesy of Dick Simnel, the Discworld’s first Engineer (and a self-evidently translated Lancastrian – as opposed to Lancrastian) and his Goddess of controlled Power, Iron Girder. The power of Steam comes to Ankh-Morpork, the fulcrum on which the Discworld’s balance swings, and it is accepted, welcomed and in every way facilitated, to transform the world in a way more radical than any such idea before it. Where the clacks system brings people together mentally, the railway will bring people together physically. In one single idea, Pratchett changes his creation to the greatest extent, pushing science to the forefront of the world and magic to the back in an act that, more than anything else, makes Discworld more correspondent to our own Roundworld.

This is because, instead of translating a Roundworld notion into Discworld terms, what Pratchett has done is to bolt the Railway in the very form we know it to be, on top of his fiction. Discworld has now had the Industrial Revolution, and just as that changed our world out of all recognition, so too is Discworld changed. And the thing about change is that it doesn’t have to be for the better, or for the worse: it is Change, and it can’t be undone.

The real problem with this in terms of the novel is twofold. Whilst most Discworld books take place in a relatively short compass of time, the actuality of steam and rails occupies years: though Pratchett tries to play this down, time plays a greater part in Raising Steam than in any other (apart from Thief of Time, of course). The story takes over a year to play out, and most notably of all, there are for the first time references to previous stories having taken place at identified intervals in the past. The increasing prominence of goblins is specifically dated to two years ago (in Snuff) and the Low King’s election in Uberwald (in The Fifth Element) is specified as eight years ago.

Discworld in this book, acquires a concreteness that cannot help but change the nature of the books.

The biggest problem, however, is that there is no conflict. Steam arrives and, apart from a couple of diversionary conversations early on, everybody’s ready for it, everybody wants it, everybody welcomes it, everybody gains from it. Which makes it a most  unconvincing vehicle for Moist von Lipwig (subliminally reinforced by the absence of Chapters, signalling that everybody’s favourite ex con-man has been absorbed into mainstream Discworld). Lipwig has no uphill struggle, no enemies of any significance, no obstacles to overcome to drive his latest task into acceptance: instead, he’s surfing a tidal wave, whose objectors have no substantial power to resist, on a road where whatever (briefly) threatens to get in the way is overwhelmed by others, not Moist’s special ingenuity.

I mean, he’s even married to Adora Belle now, so he’s not fighting her, and whilst Moist occasionally drops the pet name in, it’s significant that the book usually calls her Adora Belle, not Spike.

In a way, it’s only a Moist von Lipwig book because he’s primus inter pares: whilst he’s the only one whose head we really get into, the book is as much about the Patrician, Harry King (of the Golden River), Dick Simnel, the goblin Of the Twilight the Darkness, Rhys Rhysson, Low King of the Dwarfs and Sam Vines as it is about Moist.

The secondary force of the story does constitute opposition. Indeed, it’s nothing but opposition. This is the revolt of the grags, the dwarf hardliners/priests introduced in Thud!, who are trying to overthrow the Koom Valley Accord and the growing peaceful relationship between dwarf and troll (mainly in Ankh-Morpork), and to drag the dwarfs back down into the darkness that they believe is their spiritual home.

The grags start off trying to destroy clacks towers, an ineffectual approach that only earns universal opposition, and they go on to ‘overthrow’ Rhys Rhysson when the Low King is out of Uberwald. This is where the railway saves the day, delivering the Low King back to his kingdom, against all the opposition of the grags.

This provides the ‘opposition’ that the railway badly needs for the book to fully function as a book, but the problem with that is that although opposition to the Railway is as fundamental to the grags’ being as is hatred of clack towers, it isn’t integral to the railway. The grag opposition is coincidental, in that it’s happening at the same time, and that opposition is directed not at the railway but something larger and less definable, of which the railway is only an incidental symbol.

The two are not direct opponents, and Moist’s success in getting the railway through is a lesser triumph besides Rhysson’s resumption of her throne, which deprives the book of its necessary triumph. Indeed, Moist’s greatest battle is not with the grags’ attempt to derail Iron Girder, but with the natural obstacle of a gorge and a bridge unable to support the train’s weight.

This may be in bad taste to mention, but I’m sure it’s a common trait amongst those of us for whom each new Pratchett is a highlight, especially now we are aware that the time is definitely coming when Pratchett’s condition will end the delight we’ve had these, what, thirty years. Put crudely, it is: Can he still do it? Or is he beginning to fail?

So far, the answer has been fervently No. Indeed, I Shall Wear Midnight, and Snuff have been two excellent novels, as was the non-Discworld story, Dodger. But to me there’s a sense of a waning to this book. There is no one, lineal story to which everything, no matter how discursivve or digressive, is ultimately related. Instead, there are a succession of buffers, each quickly knocked down, too quickly. And I find myself seriously worried that Raising Steam is so open about the natures of both Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician. They each tell each other too much about what they do and why, acknowledging it instead of it being a matter of half-sentences and indirection. There is an entirely too large amount of Tell, and much less Show, especially about Lord Vetinari, who goes around explaining all those little things that people used to speculate about, worriedly.

I hate to think this, and I so desperately want to be proved wrong by next year’s book, whatever it is, that the Pratchett mind, that source of invention and wit, that has so many times used these things as the architecture and construction of very serious nd very important tales, is still focussed, still sharp, still faster than most everyone of us.

But Raising Steam has raised doubts, that we are now seeing the the onset, seeing what pessimism has thrust before us since the announcement of Terry Pratchett’s condition, and those doubts are desperately sad.

Ultimately, though these criticisms are making it sound as if Raising Steam is a failure, it’s not. It’s not up to Pratchett’s high standards (and I should know as I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books recently, concentrating on the ones you don’t automatically turn to as being the ‘great’ ones). Indeed, it lacks a lot compared to them, even as Pratchett slips in a lot of ideas from Roundworld, not to mention cameos from people like Ridcully, Captain Angua and, less likely, Lu-Tze and Feeny Upshot. But that’s down to the problem of Pratchett’s standards being so very high, because this is still going to be better than most stuff out there on the market.

Which isn’t as assessment I anticipated making after reading The Colour of Magic, what, thirty years ago.