Work in Progress


I can’t remember when I last gave you a progress report on this year’s literary project, The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel. Probably it was around the time I completed the Second Draft, which was when I put the project to one side for a while, to get some distance from it and allow it to ‘brew’ in my subconscious (which is where most of the hard work takes place anyway).

About a month ago, I started on the Third Draft. To be honest, I found the process a bit unsatisfactory. Beyond some mainly cosmetic changes, smoother expressions, eliminating unnecessary phrases, implanting some foreshadowing, there seemed oddly little to do. A lot was done at Second Draft level, but much of that was as a response to transcribing unfamiliar work in the First Draft. I expected to do more.

But I’m cycling back through it again, and this time it feels looser, more expressive. Ages ago, I described this as being like a collaboration between me and the younger version who wrote this down to begin with, and this time I feel like the modern me is taking a fuller part in the collaboration, is not being precious about his younger colleague’s words.

I’m looking, under normal circumstances, at about another month’s work, but after tomorrow I have eleven days off work. Whilst I’m reserving two of them for bingewatching Twin Peaks – The Return, and if the weather improves on us, I may slip off to the Lakes for a day, to make up for last November’s debacle, I should be able to take at least a modest leap forward.

After this phase, I’m hoping the book will be ready for publication. It still needs a title, and I’ve started trying to come up with something. I am absolutely useless on titles, it always takes forever to come up with something that feels right. At the moment, I’m trying to develop something as a variation to a very early Talking Heads song title, which means I’m looking to insert little lines, here and there, that would link to such a possible title.

At the moment, I’m hoping to get the book into publication through Lulu.com in November at the latest: in time for my birthday if possible as that seems appropriate. As and when it’s ready, there will be notifications on here, and I’ll be expecting my two regular followers who have expressed interest to dig into their pockets. I’m not saying it will make an ideal Xmas present, but I’m going to exploit every opportunity I can!

Deep Space Nine: s05 e10: Rapture


New uniforms – dull!

“Rapture” is a pivotal episode in several senses, from the relatively trivial matter of the change in uniforms to the foreshadowing of matters that will before too long dominate the remainder of the entire series, and to the resetting, at least for a while, of a major supporting character. There were times during this episode where I genuinely could not foresee where it might go but, given the status of the story as an episode in an ongoing series, there were certain outcomes that were next to inevitable.

Matters pertaining to Bajoran religion, and Captain Sisko’s status as the Emissary of the Prophet, usually went down about as well as a brick pigeon, but “Rapture” proved to be unusually popular, to the surprise of the production team. This episode is loosely defined as part 3 of the ‘Emissary Trilogy’, and it’s the one where the Captain comes fully to accept his role, and that being the Emissary is not necessarily in alignment with his Starfleet duty.

Three things come together to create the situation. In ascending order of importance: Kasidy Yates’ six month prison sentence for aiding the Maquis comes to an end (fittingly about six months after s04 e22, “For the Cause” aired), the Federation accepts Bajor’s application for admittance and Cardassia releases an ancient Bajoran piece of art, depicting the lost ‘holy city’ of B’Hala.

This last intrigues Sisko, who is fascinated by a partially seen pillar decorated by strange symbols. He’s already showing signs of incipient obsession, trying to reconstruct the symbols on the hidden sides, when a holosuite accident nearly fries his brain. Instead, it gives him the power of visions: as a result of odd synaptic potentials, as Bashir diagnoses it, as a result of the Prophets according to Major Kira and Kai Winn.

It’s an interesting neurological and storytelling opposition, reminiscent of Peter Carter’s ‘visions’ of his trial in Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death where the audience is given the choice of whether these visions are true and revelatory of a life beyond our own or are the result of a brain injury.

Sisko’s obsession with finding B’Hala interferes with the other two factors. Welcoming Kasidy back is subordinated to his hunt for, and location of the lost city, playing his part in the Signing Ceremony is deeply subordinated to his need to explore his visions and what they ultimately mean. In each succeeding scene, he grows more and more psychicly perceptive.

Unfortunately, he grows more and more weak as the visions rip into his brain. Bashir insists on brain surgery. Admiral Whatley, here for the Signing, demands it. But Sisko refuses to let go of his visions, considering these to be far more important than his life. The show dances with not quite confirming this, but the situation makes no sense unless we accept that not only does the Captain see sacrificing himself to his visions as more important than his relationship with Kasidy Yates but, far more important, being there for his already-motherless son.

In the end, it is Jake, as next-of-kin, who authorises the surgery which, of course, robs Sisko of his visions. Jake acts out of selfishness, but who wouldn’t? But narrativium demanded some such ending, pulling Sisko back from the brink of one final, glorious, future-shattering and undoubtedly explicit revelation, but saving his life.

Not before Sisko’s last revelation, and his status as the Emissary ensures the entirely-foreseeable outcome that the Bajor’s put off acceptance of the Federation application. A vision of locusts, hovering over Bajor before heading towards Cardassia. A deliberately vague foreshadowing of major developments to come, cleverly set out. It is too soon. Bajor must stand alone or it will be destroyed.

Sisko has undercut the very purpose of his role as Senior Federation Officer on Deep Space Nine, as given to him by Picard in the Pilot. By all rights, he should be cashiered, removed from his command, transferred to the space equivalent of the boondocks. But, well, he is the Emissary, don’tcha know, not to mention the guy whose name comes first on the credits every week, plus he assures the Admiral that Bajor will eventually join the Federation, as both the Emissary and as a Starfleet Captain, so that’s fine, tune in next week.

What the episode also does, in invaluable fashion, is to throw a few different shades into the character of Kai Winn. Previously, she’s been a one-note baddie, a double-died villainess, whose subtlety of approach doesn’t disguise that she’s basically a power-mad dictatress. She’s still not down with Bajor joining the Federation: five years of independence is far too little for Bajor’s culture and rekigion to assert itself after fifty years of Cardassian rule, and she’s right about that, which all too rarely is acknowledged.

But Sisko’s discovery of B’hala throws all out off. Winn is shaken. Her self-centred rejection of Sisko as Emissary is swept away. Her beliefs demand it of her and she’s sincere enough in her faith to not only accept what is personally discomforting, but also to openly admit it. Kira, surprised but admiring, applauds her courage, and gets her head handed to herself when Winn challenges the Resistance’s self-sustaining belief that only they were courageous in the face of Cardassia: the priests had to be equally courageous, and without a means of fighting back, outside maintaining their faith. It’s a more than pertinent corrective.

Of course I’m going to have to bring up the uniforms, aren’t I? The new design, introduced in the Star Trek: First Contact film (one of only two Star Trek films I went to see in the cinema, at the request of a former friend), was always intended to be introduced in DS9 but was held back until now, the first episode after the official launch of the film.

I’ve got to say I don’t like them, and my first thought at their bulkier design, with a fleece-like top covering a colour-coded undershirt that de-emphasises the traditional branch colours, made me think that the Federation was undergoing an Austerity phase, with the central heating turned down by 30% to economise. They’re heavier, and they make everybody look as if they’re dressed the same, de-individualising each Starfleet role. Too late to complain now.

Incidentally, the series doesn’t reference First Contact, which co-starred Michael Dorn as Worf, because the film brought in DS9‘s ‘Defiant’ only to trash it.

Overall, a superior episode, with more to come.

Walter Becker, R.I.P.


It’s not that well-known people have stopped dying in 2017, though it does feel as if the rate at which they are leaving us has slipped down the scale a notch or two, but rather that those who have gone on ahead haven’t had the same significance to me as the death toll of 2016. There have been times when I have wondered about adding my own response to losses, but my feelings have never been sufficiently personal, or overawed, to be worth relating.

To be perfectly frank, the death of Walter Becker, one half of Steely Dan, doesn’t come up to that level. For all their success and influence, Steely Dan have played very little part in my musical landscape since long before their long hiatus, and none at all since they returned to recording. The increasing jazz influence in their music, and the hermetic, airless, overly-polished production of their later records are the antithesis of what moves me in music.

But there was a time. Like many people in Britain, my first exposure to Steely Dan was the initial release of ‘Do It Again’ as a single in the back half of 1972. It got a decent amount of airplay from Radio 1, as did its early 1973 follow-up, the instantly catchy ‘Reeling in the Years’, but like many others before and since in that decade, they were doomed to be turntable hits.

‘Do It Again’ was reissued in 1975, and came close to making it, peaking at no. 35 in the years before Britain went to a Top 40. I bought ‘Reeling in the Years’, was not overly impressed by the Countdown to Ecstacy singles but was hooked on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ from Pretzel Logic.

I didn’t buy any of the albums until 1978, when, six years late, I took a punt on Can’t Buy A Thrill. ‘Dirty Work’ was an immediate favourite, but then, and now and at all the times between, that section of my heart that grooves to Steely Dan has cherished ‘Midnite Cruiser’, with its wistful recollections of youthful excesses beyond recapture: The time of our time has come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long…

Countdown to Ecstacy, then as now, was a more difficult album. The New Musical Express review at the time distinguished Can’t Buy A Thrill as a songs album and Countdown as a band album, and it’s true that the sound is much more cohesive and solid, as if the Dan was, for a time, a conventional, on the road group, who had hammered out their licks together. But it hasn’t got the instant, commercially tinged songs of the first album, good though it may be.

And Pretzel Logic put the two together. But that’s where it ended for me. ‘Haitian Divorce’ saw the Dan crack the UK Top 20 for the first and only time, and two unreleased early tracks, ‘Dallas’ and ‘Sail the Waterway’ (the first of which I loved) were released on a 12″ EP, but that was the end of it for me and Steely Dan.

But I still have those first three albums, and I still play them, and I still sometimes privately, in the silence of my own head, sing ‘Midnite Cruiser’, wishing that for one more time someone’s madness could run with mine. So hail and farewell, Walter Becker, for the old times and Steely Dan on the radio in 1972/3.

Twin Peaks: The Return – The End


In the end, the ending was as unexpected as we expected, and as open as we suspected. If there is to be any more, and I suspect that we have now finally reached the place from which there is no going forward, then I hope it takes less that twenty-five years to reach it, because I haven’t got twenty-five years left in me, or at least I don’t expect it.

This time, though, I am content. Content to leave the final episode undisturbed, with its tiny echo of the last line of long-ago Quantum Leap: Dr Sam Beckett never came home.

Special Agent Dale Cooper did come home, briefly, and many people will choose to stop at episode 17, with its final musical coda, Julee Cruise, still as fragile and delicate of face, body and voice as she was back then. The other Cooper was sent back, Evil Bob destroyed and the past, the whole past of Twin Peaks, the entire impulse and purpose, removed from the beginning, as Cooper intercepts young Laura Palmer in the woods and led her away from the path to the body wrapped in plastic. It was a moment that had me in tears.

But energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be changed, and thus one final episode let us out there into the darkness and the emptiness and left us in a place that had changed. No conclusion, no denouement, nothing but questions, more questions.

Twin Peaks‘ return after all this time has been a dream, a gift, a joy. Like some, I have been entranced by all of it, now matter how slow, how elongated it has been at times. In a summer in which so many things have come to seem infuriatingly, crushingly slow – long parts of Wonder Woman, practically all of Preacher until it bored me out of watching, I am looking at you – every slow second on Twin Peaks has held me in fascination. I have no critical faculties with which to approach this. I have only an absence where the last sixteen weeks have been, and nothing now to fill it.

I feel it in my bones: there will not be a season 4. I sense this is where the trail goes cold and only our own imaginations remain to paint whatever pictures our own hopes, fears, needs and wants dictate.

But it has been good, oh so good, to have gone back. It’s been priceless.

David Lynch. Mark Frost. Kyle MacLachlan. Sheryl Lee. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

Eagle – Volume 5 (1954)


‘Prisoners of Space’ begins

From the shortest Volume of Eagle to the longest, as the vagaries of the calendar gave Volume 5 53 Fridays on which to publish. From this point onwards, each Volume represents a calendar year.
We’re very close now to Eagle‘s classic form, with only one feature still to make it’s debut. Well in advance of that, a stalwart of the first four years took it’s bow: only two short serials, both drawn by Hampson assistant Harold Johns, not long before his unjust sacking, before Tommy Walls came to an end in issue 13: four years, almost to the week, of fanatical ice cream consumption. Did the average health of 11 – 14 year olds suddenly soar?
Otherwise, there was little change in the strips and series, the main ones being MacDonald Hastings’ return as Eagle Special Investigator and the debut of the best of its half-page true-life/nature series.
ESI’s second run lasted just over a year but, as the readers themselves noted, did not involve the same degree of potentially dangerous activity as before, and much less need for Hastings’ brand of self-deprecation. Every so often, his page was supplanted by Readers Letters about his adventures, the best of which earned an ESI Pen-knife.
His break was taken up mainly by real-life adventure stories, but in November he was back, this time with a serial adventure featuring Mac and his regular photographer, Chris Ware, on an extended African safari to find the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, which carried over into the following year.
The other feature was to be a long-running half-page by popular TV naturalist of the era, George Cansdale, with splendid detailed and coloured art by Backhouse. Too many of Eagle’s half-pagers, though factually accurate, suffered from sketchy and imprecise art, but Backhouse’s style, and his vivid colouring, set a standard the comic never equalled in any other of its factual features, and the series ran for years.
Dan Dare saw ‘Operation Saturn’ through to its end, and a substantial portion of ‘Prisoners of Space’. By this time, there’s no overt suggestion that Frank Hampson is doing any part of the drawing, and its usually accepted that the latter part of ‘Saturn’ was pencilled by Don Harley and, because the studio was greatly reduced of assistants, and Hampson’s second physical breakdown meant that prolonged rest was essential, the work was sent out of the studio to be finished by Desmond Walduck, the preferred freelancer for situations like this.
But, especially in ‘Saturn’, there was still a clear difference in art between the cover and page 2, with the latter less-detailed and more bland, except in close-ups of Vora, last of the High Ones. When ‘Prisoners of Space’ takes over, however, Walduck’s style more or less swamps that of Harley, and there is little of interest in that. Colouring on both stories is flat and dull, making the style particularly two-dimensional.
This is not a good volume for the qualities of Dan Dare.

Brian Reece: PC49 on radio and film

PC49 was fully settled into a familiar groove, in which each case would be inspired, in one fashion or another, by a new Boys Club member. ‘The Case of the Bad Egg’ introduced potential wild kid Dusty Dawson, fending for himself whilst his mother was ill in hospital, and trying to help his Uncle Knocker, of Knocker and Slim and ‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ in Volume 2. But Dusty believes what his Uncle has told him about being framed, and as soon as he discovers Knocker is a crook, and one who intends forcing him into the business, he does his best to break away and help 49 and the Boys Club bring in the crooks.
But Dusty doesn’t reappear, despite being made a member at the end, and being invited to bunk in at Mrs Mulligan’s until his Mother is out of the hospital (the Mulligan Twins, well aware of their own brush with wildness, have turned into the most generous with waifs and strays needing somewhere to stay).
In contrast, Tam Piper, who is so much a Scot he goes around in a tartan kilt (and tartan pyjamas) doesn’t generate the case, but being a mechanically inclined young lad, is central to the Boys Club being able to present an old crock of a car to their President, to relieve his sore feet, and have it run. But the car conceals a map of the stash from a jewellery heist ten years ago, coincidentally in the same Cornish cove 49 and the boys are going to on holiday and the theif has just got out of prison… But Tam stays on and features in other stories, with his heavy Scots accent.
Partway through the volume, the increasingly simple adventures of Harris Tweed are moved out of the back half of the comic and onto page 5, opposite ESI, whilst David Langdon’s ‘Professor Puff’ continues on its mildly fantastic way, with the Prof and his dog Wuff having adventures initially in the Arctic and then in Outer Space.
It’s still not all that enthralling and, with Swift coming along to complete Hulton’s little group of Redtop comics, aimed at the gap between the kiddies of Robin and the more mature readers of Eagle/Girl, it may have been a bit more appropriate to shunt Puff and Wuff sideways a bit.


When we left Luck of the Legion, the Sergeant and Corporal Trenet were taking on a new mission in ‘The Secret City’. Bimberg turned up working (inefficiently) as a cook, but when the new Commandant refuses to believe in the mission, Luck and Trenet fake an attack to cover breaking away in defiance of his orders, and take Bimberg with them, as he actually is a good sharpshooter. It marks the beginning of the true partnership, and the continual balance between Bimberg’s childishness, love of toffees and ability to form relationships with every kind of animal, and the senior Legionnaires’ constantly inventive insults about his weight and general competence.
The Three J’s was also as well-established as PC49 and adopting a similar formula in introducing a new boy at Northbrook School in each story, who in one form or another turns out to be at the heart of the adventure, being a French boy facing kidnap attempts, Martin ‘Goosey’ Gander, who is confined to a wheelchair, or the mysterious ‘Somebody’ who is running a secret protection ring.
Ling by now was cleverly attuning his stories to the rhythm of the school year, alternating 10-12 week serials corresponding with terms, and 4-6 week serials set in school holidays. On the other hand, every time the J’s started a new School Year, they were always back in the Fourth Form, which, with two supposedly clever boys among the Three, suggests that everybody was bloody awful at exams and kept having to be kept back en masse!

A typical Bimberg scene

Storm Nelson demonstrated its international spread, concluding the first adventure in rescuing not merely Lloyds Agent Don Kenyon – who would become a regular source of commissions for the Silver Fleet – but Captain Kidd, aka Kerfuffle’s Dad, who promptly leaves his spunky Aussie son in Storm’s care to run permanent risk of death and danger!
The Silver Fleet next turned up in the Mediterranean, running a fake archaeologist and an exiled bandit to a Greek Island wracked by earthquake in search of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, before sailing out to the Pacific to intercede between feuding South American republics. Jennings’ art was clear and bold, robust and dynamic, and his depiction of Honeybun and Xerxes were lovely models of eccentric looking people who nevertheless remained completely believable.
On the back page, ‘Alfred the Great’s life story continued until issue 16, after which it was succeeded by that of Scout Movement founder, Robert Baden-Powell. Marcus Morris was at pains to point out the personal significance of this to artist Norman Williams who, as a Scout aged 12, had been commended for his artistic skills by B-P himself!
To be honest, I found the hagiographical portrait of B-P, especially in his school and early Army career, to be off-putting of the man, making him appear to be arrogant rather than confident, but then I am not and never have been a Boy Scout or any similar creature, so I’m not necessarily the best to judge. Or maybe I am? The series was collected as an Eagle book in 1957, incidentally.
To conclude: I’ve already mentioned that Frank Hampson is popularly regarded as having been absent from Dan Dare throughout this period, and his name does not appear on any page of art in the series. Indeed, ‘Operation Saturn’ strays widely from the original synopsis Hampson develops, completely dropping the attack on eugenics he’d conceived as fundamental, and despite his using his son Peter as the model for ‘Flamer’ Spry (at least from the neck up!), I can’t see him having any input into ‘Prisoners of Space’.
And there was still a substantial chunk of that story to go in Volume 6, but Frank Hampson did contribute one page of splendid art, beautifully coloured and detailed, on the penultimate page of the Christmas issue. Entitled ‘The Editor’s Christmas Nightmare’ it is a fantastic mash-up as (nearly) all Eagle‘s characters turn up in a single spot, wearing each other’s gear – Dan and Digby swapping outfits with Jeff Arnold and Luke, Sergeant Luck and PC49 arresting each other for impersonating the other, and Harris Tweed improbably popping up in the Mekon’s pink jumpsuit and on his flying boat, to lead everyone to the true culprit, Marcus Morris sleeping on the job after too much wine at Christmas lunch!
It’s brilliantly drawn, in the mature style Hampson would unveil when he made his full-time return to Dan Dare, but there’s also a bit of barely suppressed nastiness to it, with Morris being ridiculed openly (the bit about the wine was definitely true to life), and the panel where he pleads for mercy from the characters had to be altered to eliminate the noose Hampson had put around his neck…
But as a harbinger of what to come, it’s mouth-watering, and Volume 6 would see that standard of art burst onto the scene, along with the final piece of the classic Eagle puzzle.

 

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Free Live Free’


On the surface, which is always a dangerous place to be in a Gene Wolfe book, Free Live Free is a seemingly mainstream story, with strong elements of farce and screwball comedy, about four misfits and no-hopers who meet by taking advantage of an unusual offer of free accommodation, before becoming involved in a quest to find their missing benefactor, who they believe possesses a mysterious and lost treasure that could benefit all or any of them.
This is an accurate description of this book.
It’s equally superficial to say that this prolongedly mainstream tale, which flits backwards and forwards between its four principals then takes an awkward left turn into an implausible SF conclusion that has no connection with the initial 95% of the book, and which never quite explains itself.
This much is also true and accurate.
But by now it must be apparent that the words ‘no connection’ are singularly inappropriate to a Gene Wolfe book, and that the reader who knows this will have kept his or her eyes open throughout and will have realised far sooner that there is something going on that we, Madame Serpentina, Jim Stubb, Osgood M. Barnes and Candy Garth are not being told about.
And the reader who is on their second or subsequent approach to the story will at some point realise, with a deep sense of foreboding, that Free Live Free is a deeply disturbing story, and that it is the prelude to a horror story that never quite arrives but which, by the end, is inevitable as sin, and that no part of the snowy Chicago winter that these events occupy can be as cold as what will come after.
Read in one fashion, Free Live Free is an archetypal fantasy quest story. A group of strangers, each with their own unique abilities and attributes, band together to seek a magical object that is a passport of some kind to some higher state of being or existence. A story told many times over: The Lord of the Rings for one.
But practically no quests are set in the midst of a Chicago winter, among dilapidated and condemned houses, small hotels, railway stations, bars and a mental asylum, nor do they feature homeless, penniless, friendless strangers, who between them are a seeming mystic and probable conwoman, an unlicensed private investigator, a one-eyed salesman of cheap, gimcrack novelties, and an overweight, alcoholic prostitute.
The set-up is that all four have responded to an advert under the heading ‘Free Live Free’. It has been placed by elderly Ben Free, who is living in a dilapidated house condemned to demolition, and who is inviting tenants to live free in return for helping him keep the house standing.
This draws four people. Madame Serpentina, who presents herself as a mystic, and is known as such, is sultry, exotic, attractive and mysterious. She speaks in a mixture of tongues and dialects, is an accomplished conwoman and would rather search alone for old man Free’s missing key, his passport to the High Country, hidden in a wall somewhere, but finds herself all but blackmailed into partnering with, first Jim Stubb, then the other two. She is, it appears, a gypsy named Marie.
Jim Stubb, a very short and short-sighted man, would be a private investigator if he could afford the licence. He has the analytical mind common to many of Wolfe’s characters, able to piece together disparate information to perceive a situation that the reader would not otherwise understand, but his height cripples him psychologically. His employment is as a legman for real PI’s, doing stake-out and trailing jobs, but he scratches for pennies, and is attracted to those rare women – of whom two appear in the book – who are even shorter than him.
Ozzie Barnes is a salesman. It’s suggested that once he was a good one, of good materials, married with a wife and a son, Little Ozzie, and he’s still an inveterate salesman but his goods are cheap, nasty and frequently of an adolescent sexuality, things that reveal a naked woman if you do this, that or the other. He has a generous, or at least unselfish bent, and he knows how certain types of people think, but not very far underneath, he’s desperate and lonely, an answerer of Lonely Hearts ads with hopefully misleading and old-fashioned letter.
And Candy Garth. Some people have problems with how Wolfe writes women, and it’s with such creations as Candy that I can see their point. In some reviews, Candy is described as a sex therapist, and it may well be that she has a knack for understanding the wants and needs of her quasi-formal clients, but it would be more honest to call her what she is, a part-prostitute. Candy is blonde, relatively young and massively overweight, straining at her clothes. She’s a glutton and a drunkard, forever in search of the permanent satisfaction of her wants, which don’t visibly extend beyond food, drink and sex. She meets Ozzie’s son, Little Ozzie, by coincidence: his mother has abandoned him to his absent father whilst she goes off with her boyfriend, by sending him by train to Chicago. But she quickly forgets about him when something puts her in a rage, and the attack she goes off on gets her held in the aforementioned asylum, starting a long and farcical sequence where everybody gets locked in, for one reasonable reason or another, and it all steadily gets further out of control.
Despite varying degrees of ingenuity, the quartet fail to keep Free’s house from being wrecked, and in the confusion the old man goes missing. Everybody ends up hanging out in the hotel room Madame Serpentina has scammed into for her own use, and agrees to team up to look for him and his ‘passport’ to the High Country. It’s partly out of genuine concern for the benefactor who took them in, but when it’s learned Free is dead, apparently a mugging victim, their concern transfers wholly to the ‘passport’.
What it is, they have no idea, though fittingly Stubb comes the closest, seeing Free as the ‘black sheep’ member of an upper Class family who revolted against wealth, yet kept a way back in.
But as the story moves along, each of our quartet are separated, by people known to them or whom they might normally trust, each of whom lead them along paths that offer them the things they want, things that satisfy. Some of them recognise, afterwards, that they have been put under a test, to see how they can handle their desires. Each of them, to differing degrees, fails, and Madame Serpentina and Stubb are both honest enough and perceptive enough to recognise this.
Failures lose, are rejected, usually. But despite their failings, the quartet have been driven back together. They are shown the ‘passport’, they are taken to the High Country. And suddenly, what has been a very down to earth book, literally, with glimpses of a horror shot through at differing times, becomes a completely different fiction, a fiction of the kind more usually associated with Gene Wolfe.
It is as if 95% of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has consisted of the games of John, Susan, Edward and Lucy, and they had only travelled to Narnia ten pages from the end, to the eve of battle.
It’s an awkward ending, one that sits uneasily with everything else, and it is not entirely an ending, not even with a one page epilogue that indicates what decision our quartet have made.
But the reader approaching this ending for the second time has knowledge. And maybe he or she has made a connection. Between the prediction Madame Serpetina makes to Sandy Duck of Psychic Monthly, and the paranoid fears of Sergeant Proudy after he brains himself with his own axe, and the last line of the book.
From there, you make your own choice as to how this story really ends, in pages far beyond the last point at which Wolfe writes. Despite what Ben Free says, about what happens after you get your greatest desires, my reaction was one of horror. It’s how I can see this book. Crazy, lively, farcical, frantic, deep-lying… and frightening.
Make your own reading of it.