Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Space Captain Smith, by Toby Frost

Toby Frost is obviously a science-fiction/comedy nerd. I know because I am as well. Which makes Space Captain Smith one of the more confusing works I've read in some time. It's not the story, nor Frost's frankly excellent storytelling ability, but that he so obviously inserts pop-culture references liberally into this novel that it makes the (knowledgeable) reader wonder if it's parody or a method of overcoming writer's block by attempting to parody familiar sources.

Undoubtedly the greatest influence on this work is Douglas Adams' immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, which pits a lone earthman against an ever-expanding universe in which anything is possible. While lacking Adams' universal scope (Who could match it? Or want to?) Space Captain Smith exhibits many of the same characteristics - the ostensible hero's essential Britishness, the importance of tea and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" attitude exemplified by the island Kingdom. Add a handlebar moustache and bluster to Arthur Dent, and you have Isambard Smith.

Frost writes - at most times - extremely well, able to interest you with his ability to maintain a narrative. This skill, however, is thrown into sharp relief by occasional unwieldy sentences and editing errors: mis-spelling "mantelpiece", for example. His apparent literary hero Adams (mine, too) had the ability to write simply but also in a beautiful twisty-turny manner, where he was able to fluidly and languidly take the reader around what he wanted to say without actually writing it. It was, to coin a phrase, in an almost (but not quite) totally unique manner.

While he writes in an easily-understood, frank and smirk-inducing style, descriptions aren't Frost's strong point. The entire novel (305 pages) features a relatively small circle of characters and although you get to experience their thoughts, much of their physical characteristics (with the exception of the mysterious Rhianna Mitchell) aren't drawn well. It could represent Smith's British Raj-style thinking, but any aliens are remarkable only for their colourings and vague descriptions rather than actually being fleshed out well. Unfotunately this includes one major charater, Smith's best friend, the M'Lak (Morlock), Suruk.

Frost leans so heavily on his background knowledge of British SF comedy that if you know the genre, you can pick out where he's lifted certain lines from (in)famous sources. The author either doesn't realise (or care) that we've seen Blackadder's Christmas Carol, or fails to realise there are people like myself who possess a sad gift for remembering throwaway lines of TV. Within the first half-dozen pages he lifts "I give you this much Greeting" from Christmas Carol and makes sure to follow it up with many more deft thefts. It happens so often that one asks if this is still parody or just kind of cheating. I still don't know the answer.

Some of those parodies aren't well judged, either. The entire sequence satirising The Matrix doesn't work at all (Smith and his fellows meet characters in black longcoats, who always wear sunglasses and are named Neil, Trinny and Morris) and feels lie it was added because a ) it scanned well at the time or b) he needed an extra thirty-five pages. On the whole -and this is a statement rather than a criticism - Space Captain Smith reads like a first novel, which indeed it is.

Prosaic SF comedy is tough to do wihtout falling back on cliches. It's what made Hitchhikers' and Red Dwarf so special - neither was afraid to laugh at the situations the characters found themselves in, but both also didn't fall into cliche set pieces. The setting was a vehicle for comedy, rather than comedy thrust into the situation - kind of why so many American sitcoms are set around the home (and end up banal and boring - like Two and a Half Men, eeeeuuggghh), while British ones have a little more variety in location. The last number of "first attempts" I've read in the genre - this and Simon Haynes' Hal Spacejock: First Course - both feature bumbling space captains with preconceived notions of their own importance/greatness, somehow manage to get the girl, in beat-up freighters with a non-human best friend. And that's just the main character - several plot devices are very similar as well. There are heaps of cliches in SF and authors have made full use of them.

The difference is though that Haynes was attempting to be original while Frost set out to employ some and parody others. Space Captain Smith embraces bumbling heroes, beat-up spacecraft and bloodthirsty-but-friendly aliens, but attempts to parody other media sources rather than totally rely on creating a farce and failing.For this, Toby Frost should be congratulated for knowing just how many cliches to cling to.

That's not to say that Space Captain Smith isn't a good book. Parts are very enjoyable - the interplay between characters is both charming and witty and Frost is obviously someone who has a keen comic mind as there are throwaway jokes in nearly every paragraph (some of which work and bring a wry smirk, some of which fail horribly). He's also created some characters worthy of having novels written about them but unfortunately I'm unconvinced at this stage if Isambard Smith, a combination of Arthur Dent and General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, is one of them.

Frost and his publishers Myrmidon obviously think Isambard Smith is worthy of sequels as there have been two subsequent novels published in the series which could be worth checking out. Rating is difficult: somewhere between golf balls and tennis balls, depending on one's sense of humour.

Image courtesy:

Review: The Willow Wand – Derek Birley

The Willow Wand's aim is to explore some of the many myths of cricket. However, for the most part it is somewhat difficult to identify truly what myth is at any one point that being investigated. One must have an in-depth knowledge of cricket and indeed English cricket to truly take in what most of Birley has to say. Despite the significant amount of historical research put into this work, it does not provide a systematic presentation of cricketing history.

But this is not meant to be a negative opinion, just a reduction in the expectations with which I approached this work. What you do get from The Willow Wand is a mosaic of characters and time from throughout the long and rich history of the sport.

The book drives constantly that cricket is a medium in which persons sought to prove distinguishable features. Gentlemen from Players (Amateurs from Professionals), Wealth from Poverty, light skin from dark – none ever proved to be successful and in hindsight all actions of the sort proving petty and hypocritical. Such is the ridiculous extent of sociology that cricket has been pushed and pulled. Birley took time to sum up his beliefs in the final chapter titled 'Fun and Games' whereupon as you might expect from the title he concludes that one cannot see cricket through any other lens.

Refreshingly honest about the figures of the past, Birley does not airbrush over the faults of the game and its traditions. He questions long held views of the cricketing figures of the past such as Lord's Harris & Hawke as well as P.F. (Plum) Warner; opinion on the latter he makes reference to in his updated edition as drawing criticism from some parts upon the books initial print run in 1979.

Of particular enjoyment personally were his descriptions of West Indian crickets background, a topic not often broached, as well as his discussion on whether cricket and art can be stated as being one and the same. For the modern cricket enthusiast stung by the increased commercialism and descent into the abyss of gambling-driven corruption it may hurt to read that the prominent driver of many of the earliest recorded matches was commercialism and gambling. Matches were often fixed not for monetary gain but as an act of patronage to the amateur dignitary!

Being a cricketing nerd, I enjoyed the book as I became immersed in the nostalgia and dreamed of being involved during golden times in cricket history. But it is only a book for those like myself who bring a certain level of background knowledge to it and can enjoy it to the full. Others will become confused and frustrated as it constantly switches back and forth between stories, eras and personalities. The high English used by Birley remains difficult for the modern reader (criticism at this point can be leveled in both directions) - Birley is clearly a man of an age where cricketers of the right ilk never had names, only initials. Somewhere between tennis balls and footballs.

Cover Image thanks to

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, by Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson is a funny guy - unless you're Jimmy Fallon, you don't get a late-night talk show by being boring. He's also a guy who went through the wringer with alcohol and debt before he finally making it as a comic actor/writer after fifteen years on the second string. His gift with words isn't in his ability to weave together long, fluid narratives - it's an uncanny expository ability which allows you to see - simply and with a minimum of fuss - exactly where he comes from. His ability to explain alcoholism and how it messed up his is perhaps my defining memory from reading his autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

I was first introduced to Ferguson as Lister's personified Confidence in an episode of Red Dwarf called Confidence and Paranoia. In said episode, he played a character with a deep, scheister-like mid-Atlantic accent, "like Bing Baxter, the American quiz-show host". Although aware of his work since (particularly as Mr. Wick in The Drew Carey Show), he next captured my attention when hosting an episode of his late night show last November given over to my favourite TV show, Doctor Who. The irony of a man I first knew as an American in a British Sci-Fi sitcom now being a Scot in an American TV format wasn't lost on me - it was, as he seems to be, charming.

Ferguson tries hard to sew together a fractured narrative with an overriding wish to live and work in America - the land of milk and honey (or in his early days, cocaine and Stolichnaya). Though most definitely true, it seems to me to be a muddled way of linking together his life story, but serves mostly to position his memoir for the nearly mutually exclusive British and US autobiography markets. It's always off in the distance but never real. Most of the work is heavy with hindsight and introspection where he's been able to rationalise - but not justify - the mistakes of his past, admit to his youthful shortcomings and portray them in an amusing, but touching way: descriptions of those he hurt while a misguided 1980s party-boy are particularly effective.

As much as he's spent most of the past twenty years here, was naturalised in 2009 and counts his sons as American, he's explains succinctly on closing how citizenship in a global society becomes more a state of mind, rather than a birthright - a mindset dictated often by your experiences and choices. As a new resident of the United States myself, I found this particularly poignant. Ferguson, a Scotsman with staunch Celtic roots, is able to identify with both the people of his birthplace and of his adopted homeland so well that American on Purpose becomes less a showbiz autobiography and more an inspirational piece of self-help literature.

When selecting the book, I hoped for an amusing, yet thoughtful approach from a Briton on a topic which currently vexes me. I chose well. As my life appears set to remain on these shores for the foreseeable future, my inner battle as to my (and any future kids') nationality is an issue which unsettles me in a deep, but non-violent way: I identify myself as an Aussie but accept that a full life in America demands my embracing the country - in all it's self-promoting, freedom-spouting - and occasionally gun-toting - beauty.

As my personal battle for self-identity begins, Ferguson's ends. I could do much worse than learning from his example. Footballs.