Category Archives: The Project

Floating: A Year (or more!) of Stephen King

“We all float down here, Henry! We all float! When you’re down here with us, you’ll float too! Kill them all! Come visit, anytime. Bring your friends!”

This is my crazy idea- I’m going to dedicate 2016 (and maybe part of 2017) to reading Stephen King’s entire body of work in chronological order. You know I’m serious because I’ve made a spreadsheet to keep the details straight. I’ve tracked down almost every book I was missing from the collection. I’ve organized my bookshelf so that King’s books are ordered by publication date. I plan on ringing in the New Year with a cold bottle of Shiner Holiday Cheer and a battered paperback copy of Carrie.

Why?

I don’t know, and I do know, and I’ll probably spend most of the next year justifying it in one way or another. King’s books were hugely formative for me when I was a teenager; copies of his books and Kurt Vonnegut’s were early gifts from my parents. As detailed elsewhere on this site, King is mixed into the foundation of my friendship with Smitty. I have inside jokes with my sister about The Stand TV mini-series (in fact, we once wrote a parody of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” based on The Stand). I have distinct memories of talking about the surprise appearance of an old favorite at the end of The Waste Lands with my cousin during annual visits to Ottawa, IL over twenty years ago. Uncle Pappy and I have spent hours casting and recasting King books and films over drinks at the Outlook or the Taproom.

The time feels right. I’m not old, but middle age is beckoning over the horizon and there are so many new and new-to-me books and writers that I want to experience. So if I’m going to- not exactly waste, but perhaps monopolize- a year of my life to do this, it might as well be now. It also helps that I think King is experiencing a late-era renaissance. I don’t know if he’s on his third act or his fourth or fifth, but I know that everything since Under the Dome has been a solid double, with enough outright home runs mixed in to shame other writers.

I hope to review each book here at Shelfbound; I hope to bring Smitty back into the conversation, as well as anyone else who wants to join in. If you’d care to follow me over on tumblr I’ll be posting some shorter pieces, almost a reading diary, as well as some process notes about how I organized this whole project. I might collect these into larger posts here, I might not.

And there’s this (more wisdom from Pappy): I start a new job on Monday, after 16 years at the same company. For that, as well as for other more personal reasons, this is going to be a year of challenge and change. It might be nice to have my reading (and by extension writing) decisions made for me. It might be nice to escape from the outside world with the company of old friends. It might be nice to float.

[Boring admin stuff: We’re still cleaning up the site after some inactive years, so I apologize in advance for spam links in some old posts. Hopefully most everything works, and feel free to drop me a line if something doesn’t. Things will probably be text only for a bit as I update some back-end stuff; I imagine a wholesale redesign is in our future, but I want to get a few posts published before I undertake anything of that scale. Happy New Year!]

The Cornelius Project, Part Two: “The Central Ambivalence of Sex”

What: The Cornelius Chronicles by Michael Moorcock, a tetralogy starring British spy (amongst other things) Jerry Cornelius. Published in the US as The Cornelius Quartet.

Why: The adventures of Jerry Cornelius have been influential on a generation of sci-fi writers and graphic novelists; in particular, Shelfbound favorite Grant Morrison, who relied heavily on the character and his mythos for King Mob”s origin in The Invisibles.

(Check out Part One here.)

“He shouted in Jenny’s ear, “You can’t tell the men from the women, can you?”

“She seemed to hear and shouted something back, which he missed the first time. She shouted it again. “Not these days, no!””

This Week: The Final Programme, “Phase 2,” “Phase 3,” and “Phase 4” (Chapters 6-18 and “Terminal Data”)

First Impressions: Are pretty much all I have at this point. This is due to burning through the rest of the first Cornelius book and having more questions … or perhaps, questions of intent. On a quick flip-through, Phases 2 and 3 are about the same length as Phase 1 and present fairly discrete “adventures,” each building off the last. Phase 4, the last part of the book, feels like an addendum in its brevity–even with the epilogue “Terminal Data” attached, it’s about a fifth of the length of the other parts. But it contains, as we’ll see, the crux of the argument. What that argument is is still a bit unsatisfactory. (As this Project contains, of necessity, SPOILERS, you get a warning here if you want to read the book blind some day. So. WARNING. There ya go.)

Text: It turns out that “The Final Programme” is this weird alchemy of hippie “love-in” and fascist mechanization of society, which in a way seems like the two great sci-fi societies–utopian and dystopian–combined into a Chinese finger trap. But before I address it, I should talk a bit about Phases 2 and 3. Each of these parts begins with a long section of “down time,” Phase 2 with Jerry and various companions out in the streets and bars trying to get away from their own lives, Phase 3 with Jerry throwing a massive, months-long party at his house. These chapters aren’t just space fillers, dealing as they do with Cornelius in the real world and how immensely part of it he is while simultaneously disconnected: “He never felt really comfortable unless he had at least fifteen miles of built-up area on all sides ….” And make no mistake, it is the real world of the 1960s, with the Beatles, the Kennedys, Jung, and all sorts of other pop and psychological references popping up. That sci-fi trappings are placed over this world without any kind of explanation makes the boundary between fiction and reality pretty nebulous, as Cornelius himself states: “Jerry no longer had any idea whether the world he inhabited was “real” or “false”; he had long since given up worrying about it.”

But eventually, Cornelius must rejoin the adventure, and that involves a secret cave base in Sweden built by Nazis during World War II, a final nail gun battle with his brother Frank, and a supposedly important document that contains 203 pages of the word “ha.” Cornelius leaves the plot behind again for a while, but is inevitably drawn back into Miss Brunner’s web, his will slowly dissolving under her project and control. Soon he kills for her, and attempting to avoid whatever may be coming, flees for the final time, assuming a false name and marrying a woman named Maj-Britt (this happens over the course of about 3 pages, by the way) until he and his wife, along with the professor he was talking with in the Prologue, are manipulated back into the project for the final time.

And what is that project? Let’s let Miss Brunner explain it to you:

“”We have been working, ladies and gentlemen, to produce an all-purpose human being! A human being equipped with total knowledge, hermaphrodite in every respect–self-fertilizing and thus self-regenerating–and thus immortal, re-creating itself over and over again, retaining its knowledge and adding to it. In short, ladies and gentlemen, we are creating a being that our ancestors would have called a god!””

This “secret of “Crying Game”” moment was brought to you by the 60s. But seriously, it’s an intriguing premise that doesn’t shy away from the negative side of its achievement. When Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner (do we ever learn her first name?) are placed in the “large oval metal chamber,” have sex, and become one being named Cornelius Brunner, the moment could quickly spin out into speculative hogwash … which Moorcock swiftly undercuts by having Cornelius Brunner’s first words be “Hi, fans!”

And then the really unsettling thing happens. Borne up on the shoulders of the scientists who created him/her, C.B. marches across Europe and erases the individuality of everyone, leaving cities decimated in its wake:

“The thousands became millions as the new messiah was borne across the continent, whole cities abandoned and the land crushed in its wake. … The millions did not march along–they danced along. Their voice was one melodious song. … All the great cities of Italy. All the great cities of Spain and Portugal.

“And then, with a slight note of boredom in its voice, Cornelius Brunner gave the last order:

“”To the sea!”

“Within six hours, only one head remained above water. Naturally, it was the head of Cornelius Brunner, swimming strongly back towards the beach.

The book ends with C.B. contemplating what area of the world it’ll move to next, and sending a stray missed individual galloping happily into the sea. What the heck are we supposed to make of this ending? Due to Cornelius’ vampiric nature (he is said to live off the energy of others) and Miss Brunner’s habit of somehow consuming her companions, their hermaphroditic union may incorporate every individual they swallow up and sacrifice to the tide. But as an “all-purpose being,” Cornelius Brunner already has all the information and personality he/she needs, so may just feel that the rest of humanity is unnecessary and induce mass suicide. C.B.’s flippant tone at the end is both joyous and creepy, and I’m left wondering which judgment Moorcock expects us to render–is this evolution or devolution? (Of course, there’s the obvious answer that he doesn’t expect either judgment and is just posing the question to us.)

Regardless, all that culture, all those ideas, all those silly and fantastic characters that once populated the world of The Final Programme are already gone or endangered, and in their place stands something more like a god. It is the end of times, as the Prologue suggested. Or as Miss Brunner would have it:

“”This was a gift-wrapped, throwaway age, Mr. Cornelius. Now the gift-wrapping is off, it’s being thrown away.””

See? Creepy.

Questions: There are lots of little questions, and things of note I’ve not even touched upon here. (Like the implications of the great line “”The secret was saved by overinterpretation.”” Don’t I know it.) But I guess the big question now is, seeing as this is the first of four Jerry Cornelius books, where the hell do we go from here? Join me next week to find out!

The Cornelius Project, Part One: "A Messiah of the Age of Science"

What: The Cornelius Chronicles by Michael Moorcock, a tetralogy starring British spy (amongst other things) Jerry Cornelius. Published in the US as The Cornelius Quartet.

Why: The adventures of Jerry Cornelius have been influential on a generation of sci-fi writers and graphic novelists; in particular, Shelfbound favorite Grant Morrison, who relied heavily on the character and his mythos for King Mob’s origin in The Invisibles.

“As he looked up at it, Jerry thought how strongly the house resembled his father’s tricky skull.

“Virtually every room, every passage, every alcove had booby traps, which was why Jerry was so valuable to the expedition.”

This Week: The Final Programme, “Preliminary Data” and “Phase 1” (Chapters 1-5)

First Impressions: The cover of the old British paperback of The Cornelius Chronicles features all warm hues of orange, red, and yellow, with blue blobs surrounding the stylized lettering of the author’s name like a pair of parted lips. Beneath the text-heavy top half of the cover, a tiny Jerry Cornelius stands astride a futuristic hovering car, one arm across his body and the other lazily pointing a gun at nothing in particular. The marketing people promise that he’s “the most original science fiction hero of our times,” and the fact that “times” is plural may hit closer to the themes of the tetralogy than the marketers even realized.

For now, we are meant to see Cornelius as a rock god sci-fi super-spy Jesus, able to bed anyone, rock any suit and drive any car. He is the ultimate sex symbol of the Swinging 60s, for better or worse.

Text: The Final Programme is the first of the four Jerry Cornelius books and, thus far, upholds the promise of the cover. Cornelius is appropriately murky as a character, sliding in and out of a variety of scenarios with the kind of malleable identity necessary for a gun-toting, sister-loving, Eastern philosophy-espousing lover/assassin. So far it’s difficult to determine exactly what he wants (other than to be “the hero” for his sister Catherine), or what’s on the microfilm in his father’s house that instigates the plot. But the snappy dialogue and action keep the reading pace up, and the supporting characters–Frank the mad junkie, Miss Brunner the warrior-dominatrix, John (Cornelius’ Alfred), a gentleman named Mr. Smiles–provide a bizarre prism through which Cornelius himself appears practically normal.

Also, the idea of the Final Programme is in place:

“The ultimate point in the past would therefore be the ultimate point in the future. But what if something interrupted the cycle? An historical event, perhaps, of such importance that the whole pattern was changed. The nature of time, assuming that it was cyclical, would be disrupted. The circle broken, what might happen? … If she could get her computer built and start her other project as well, she might be the person who could save something from the wreckage. She could consolidate everything left into one big programme–the final programme, she thought. Idea and reality, brought together, unified.”

But what all this really means is yet to be revealed. The notion of time being cyclical, introduced in the Preliminary Data (this would be the “Prologue”), has some kind of presence in the book but it’s hard to say if it’s just there for Sci-Fi New Wave-y bullshitting or if it’s going to have a genuine impact on this first book. It greatly recalls Grant Morrison’s comic book opus The Invisibles–I say “recalls” even though it was written thirty years earlier because I read The Invisibles first–in which all time is the same time, simultaneously unchanging yet ready to fracture at the barest touch. I’ll talk more about Moorcock’s influence on The Invisibles, and particularly on the character of King Mob, as I get further into The Cornelius Chronicles, but certainly the thematic resonance is pervasive.

“‘I’m not sure why I bothered with the shooting–probably just because I enjoyed it.'”

At the conclusion of Phase 1, Jerry has infiltrated his father’s fortress and attempted to rescue both an important microfilm and his sister from his drug-crazed brother–and failed at both efforts. He leaves behind him a heap of bodies and spends weeks in the hospital recovering. The violence is oddly lackadaisical, as though the Cornelius brothers are just going through the motions, as indicated by Frank’s line above. Its ultimate futility is an interesting choice for the genre, usually divided between military rah-rah-ing and ponderous morality plays. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as a video game, Doom in text form. As a genre sci-fi has always been at its best when critiquing the ways in which society really operates; here, the “first person shooter” aspect of Phase 1, with death dealt meaninglessly, serves as an interesting commentary on the disconnect so many of us have with real violence. (Back to Morrison, who in an interview stated: “We should be grateful that we live in a culture so insulated from true horror it can afford to play with fear as entertainment.”)

Despite the grand failure of his efforts, Jerry seems relatively unfazed by the experience, and the episode seems complete. I wonder if we’re moving more into the idea of time and The Final Programme now, or if the home invasion and microfilm plot will continue to develop.

Questions: Phase 1 of The Final Programme is a mostly complete novella, quite able to stand on its own. How will it contribute to the larger plan of the novel as a whole? And will we learn anything more about Cornelius … are we even meant to? How will the novel turn now to the ideas presented in the Preliminary Data and Miss Brunner’s Final Programme? And speaking of Miss Brunner … did she physically absorb her submissive male companion? Can that be right? Oh so much more to come.

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