Captains Stupendous – Rhys Hughes

I have received my purchased copy of this book:
Telos Moonrise: Steampunk Visions (2014)

All my previous reviews of Rhys Hughes fiction are linked from here, including my earlier review of ‘The Coandă Effect’ (Ex Occidente Press 2010).


19 thoughts on “Captains Stupendous – Rhys Hughes

  1. PART ONE: Scipio: ‘The Coandă Effect’

    This first third of ‘Captains Stupendous’ was published in a very limited numbered edition that I previously real-time reviewed in 2010 and the text of this review is copied and pasted below:
    (For Corto, please read Scipio)

    [[ The Iceberg

    “…a tight-lipped character who never spoke of his work to anyone…”

    This is Captain Nullity. Seems an appropriate name to me. Actually made me laugh out loud, as one says on the internet. Seriously, this seems to be a hilarious and telling introduction to a sailor who is not due to become the central sailor character of this book. As it is told at the end of ‘The Iceberg’, the central character is someone named far more sensibly as Corto Maltese. Without creating a spoiler, this first tale represents a typically ingenious Rhys-Hughesian conceit – here relating to the Titanic Iceberg and its later fate. Seriously, hilarious brilliant stuff. (2 Dec 10 – another hour later)

    The Airshow

    “…a display of incredible nonchalance.”

    Can great literature represent such a display in itself, I wonder? I trust this book will prove it finally one way or another. The book’s pages are made of paper too stiff and unbending to predict such matters yet. The dustjacket is even stiffer. Deliciously so.

    Here, the narrator (a Welsh journalist) fatefully meets Corto Maltese (apparently at least half-Welsh, too?) at the Brescia airshow in 1909. Full of more nifty conceits and Kafka, too. The best conceit is left to the end of this chapter – concerning palmistry. It has to be read to be appreciated fully. There is also a general bombastic feel of competing with Fate or using it, yes, nonchalantly… (2 Dec 10 – another hour later)

    The Bicycle

    “…he finally admitted his work was theory alone. I turned to leave in disgust but he tried to recapture my attention…”

    Our journalist narrator passes through a year or two making connections with his earlier yet unrepeated meeting with Corto in Brescia (and subsequent meeting with an inventor of prototype flight by exploding bicycle?) and, another few weeks later, the Titanic Iceberg pops up again into the reader’s attention (i.e mine). [I’ve received this hot-off-the-press book so quickly (despite the snow), I am probably its only reader as I speak, but not for long.]

    I am reluctant to continue re-narrating in shorthand the plot as it happens in this review. I’m merely giving you a running start (or premature take-off?) as you delve further into the book. My future reports here will be more free hunches than free lunches. [Meanwhile, I draw attention to the excellent fiction work of Tim Nickels that I’ve sometimes compared to that of Rhys Hughes, and vice versa. TN’s long story ‘Supermarine’, also about aeroplane flight, I recommend as a side-dish to this novella. Or this novella as a main-course to an otherwise brilliant starter. Seriously.] (2 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)

    The Sailor on Land

    “…and failed yet again to read his favourite book […] right to the end.”

    I hope that fate is not mine. Although a perfect state would be forever reading one’s favourite book without reaching the end?

    This short chapter is a perfectly styled description of Corto’s brooding life since the Brescia airshow and since his meeting with our Welsh narrator (who is now presumably at least partially out of the plot loop?).

    Corto in Paris and elsewhere. A sailor on land. Sheer blissful prose. (2 Dec 10 – another 2 hours later)

    The Collector

    “I had a hunch…”

    Our narrator takes up my evening’s post-prandial slack as he gets embroiled with some well-delineated characters not unconcerned with the remains of the Titanic Iceberg. The narrator delineates himself well, too – by inference.

    You know, I’m really enjoying this book as the duel between “that which exists and that which exists not” promises to last forever. There will now be a short delay in my reading for this review as I hope ‘The Coandă Effect”, too, will last forever. (2 Dec 10 – another hour later)

    The Modern Pirate

    “Captain Tom ‘Red’ Alaerts, the terror of the high seas.”

    …the pirate with whom our narrator is about to join up on a sea quest, a quest geared to instructions from Mr Pugh Bloat in Porthcawl, South Wales and not unrelated to the Titanic Iceberg. And with what “dignified man” watching a monoplane being assembled does our narrator lock eyes before embarking on the quest? As he doesn’t yet know, I’m sure he’s about to find out and then tell me in a later chapter. Story-telling as an act of trust between reader and narrator, if not always between reader and author.

    As you can see, I could not resist reading another chapter before going to bed. I hope to continue this review tomorrow. But we shall see. Meanwhile, goodnight. (2 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)


    The Oasis

    ” ‘…there are times when men must persist with a chosen course of action, not only in spite of danger but because of it.’ “

    It is genuinely good to wake up to this book, especially at this point in it. The narrator seemingly gone, we learn more about Corto (e.g. a gold earring or did we know that already?) and his mission to establish his credentials as a sailor, an unlandlocked sailor, a sailor-with-a-mission. First he needs the sea – and the Oasis where he meets a political-minded helper seems to promise a gateway via inner machinations [machinations not dissimilar, I have to say, to something I envisaged myself in part of my NN novel, assuming I have envisaged correctly those machinations here!]

    The reading mission of great fiction (like ‘The Coandă Effect”) is similar to Corto’s own style of missioning. Not to be a missionary but a missionery (Cf the difference between ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’). Honestly love this book. So far. (3 Dec 10)

    Into the Atlantic

    ” ‘Everyone who sails with Captain Tom needs a special name.’ “

    As the narrator resumes the coverage (for journalistic purposes) of his own sea quest alongside the pirate captain, I shall now leave you new readers of the book (I’m not a new reader but an old one) to your own devices vis a vis the plot as it unfolds before my eyes – or even the plot’s plot. Suffice to say, this chapter has an interesting take on ‘identity’ and its uses. (3 Dec 10 – an hour later)

    Meanwhile in Romania

    ” ‘I remember breaking an icicle off my roof, long and thick as a lance it was, and going out to hunt wolves. I had to find and kill them before the icicle melted.’ “

    Slightly post-Titanic, we learn (from narrator or author?) a history lesson of tensions regarding the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states, including more plotted machinations involving two characters you haven’t yet met regarding possible to-be-newly-invented weapons. [I, for one, don’t believe in wars, so I usually withdraw my best interests from things for even better, if the same, interests later – but that has nothing to do with this book, a book that continues to intrigue and delight me.] (3 Dec 10 – another 4 hours later)

    Blood and Fog

    This chapter title sounds to me like a Shakespearean expletive. And, indeed, for me, this book here takes on (briefly?) a Shakespearean soliloquy in feel if not in substance, where the relationship between the narrator and author goes backstage and that between narrator and hero enters: “I wanted to be like him, but I didn’t know how!” Which makes a very telling, if inadvertent, resonance later with: “This seemed an irresponsible way to conduct an act of piracy…” And piracy and privacy in subtle dramatic terms take on a new combined vision when the buccaneering sea-quest is out-nonchalantised by an abrupt penetration from the sub-cortège prefigured in the Oasis chapter. (3 Dec 10 – another 90 minutes later)

    The Iron Coffin

    ” ‘Truly this world of ours is full of odd coincidences.’ “

    To be full of something means you must have somewhere else outside to put the contents if the inside capacity gets too cramped. And I’m leaving much of the plot in my brain rather than filling this review with the contents of my brain, however much the two coincide (or not). Suffice to say, the dialogue throughout this chapter between Corto and the narrator fills much in for me – but my confident nonchalance about what I’m being filled with as a simple reader who bought this book to read (not to discuss ambiently on this blog necessarily) is shaken at the end of the chapter by Corto getting the narrator’s name wrong.

    [As an aside, the possibly relevant information that Corto’s mother came from Gibraltar gives another link with the story ‘Supermarine’ that I mentioned earlier.] (3 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)

    The Converter

    ” ‘The twist is that I never seemed to get full…’ “

    Meanwhile back to the ‘Meanwhile in Romania’ scenario. You no longer, of course, need this review to gauge whether you will like this book. You will have already made up your mind and will probably want to read it to find out, inter alia, why it’s entitled ‘The Coandă Effect’. However, if you’ve decided not to buy the book, you’ve probably not reached this far in this real-time review in any event! However, is this book, for all you know, a device for converting literary energy into physical force…? Only reading it will show you the importance of that rhetorically elliptical question, perhaps. (3 dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)

    The Coloured Glass

    “Soon enough I was able to clearly discern figures engaged in a fierce duel, two of them;”

    A thought-full chapter, whereby we are led to soliloquise on the nature of herosim, and the changing nature of heroes in actual real-time and real retro-causality of hindsight. The plot’s action (and reaction) meanwhile progresses delightfully, although I’m sometimes suspicious that I am being led by false beacons on to narrative rocks. As if I’m the only reader; the only one to perish by this book’s enticement to cross swords with its machinations? (3 Dec 10 – another 30 minutes later)

    The Bandit Queen

    “I was clearly the witness of a story far too secret to be written down in full, but I had entered midway through the tale, at a late chapter.”

    A witness is inside a story, a reader outside of it, a real-time reviewer both inside and outside it? Whatever the case, I was wondering if the chapter titles themselves give spoilers as to the audit trail of the plot. They are all listed by name at the beginning of the book. This one is about an intriguing female character. (3 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)

    The Morning After

    A change of plan on my part. Off to Romania with Corto. Upon a cross between Biggles and Manga (Porco Rosso). I’ve lost my way a bit. (3 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later)

    The Demonstration

    That word makes me believe there is evil or horror in everything we do. Here a Mad Professor scene back in Romania, converting into a synergy many of the conceits of the book heretofore. Including the art – as I earlier stabbed at without hitting the target – of sacrificing something of yourself for the sake of something inferior to what you sacrificed … or here, sacrificing life or immortality in the certain belief that, as a result, you will win a war – or a duel? There seems something in this ‘demonstration’ that is intrinsic about the nature of European History in the 20th century. Amid the absurdity, a sliver or chip off the cold block of truth. (3 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)

    The Letter

    Jules Vernian flights and landings – and our narrator is now a wanted man as imparted to him by a letter from his boss, a letter delivered by the mechanics of the plot, a letter that is simultaneously information for him and his physical punishment for what that information implies. Like the subtext of this book to its reader. Or a present from author to narrator via reader, because without a reader, there is nobody to read the narration. But then what of the author…? (3 Dec 10 – another 30 minutes later)

    The Arrival

    ” ‘I had a hunch something wasn’t right…’ “

    The Iron Dream made truth. Or vice versa. Imagination rampant. But does one need imagination at all to create machines from words? Or words from machines? All you need is invention. And mad inventors to believe in them, as through madness one can imagine it being truth itself.

    Just brainstorming. That’s what Rhys Hughes fiction makes you do. Especially, as I’ve now discovered, when reading it as part of a public exercise in reportage on a machine like this one. A narrator of a narrator beyond my control. A reporter of a reporter. My whole philosophy of real-time-reviewing within the forgotten Art of Reading put under the microscope. At least while I’m brainstorming here, I’m not letting real plot spoilers escape into the aether… (3 Dec 10 – another 45 minutes later)

    The Ending

    I’m not sure I believe in endings of any plots in fiction. But let’s drink to this one; I’ll have mine with ice. Here’s to the words and their conceit. Their splendid nonchalance coupled with severe wit. Their raising-both-arms-to-each-side-like-a-schoolboy-aeroplane. Their unique invention. Here’s to this book that contains them: a great read for all readers who can read it with a sense of absurdity as well as sufficient seriousness to do its madnesses and perhaps inadvertent wisdoms justice. Here’s to the author. Finally, here’s to pilots that turn from just dropping bombs to dropping themselves. Cutting lifelines to match their destinies. A lesson for future wars and acts of terror and nullity. (3 Dec 10 – another hour later) ]]


    • Today in 2014, I repeat from above what I wrote in 2010:
      “Finally, here’s to pilots that turn from just dropping bombs to dropping themselves. Cutting lifelines to match their destinies. A lesson for future wars and acts of terror and nullity. “

  2. An extract from Rhys Hughes’ own public blog in August about this whole book:

    “This novel began life as a ‘Corto Maltese’ novella entitled ‘The Coandă Effect’, published by Ex Occidente in Romania a few years ago. I rewrote it so that the main character is now Scipio Faraway. Then I wrote two novellas as sequels featuring Scipio’s brothers, Distanto in ‘The Gargantuan Legion’ and Neary in ‘The Apedog Incident’.
    All three novellas together constitute the novel.”

    As far as I can judge, the first part, reviewed by myself above, has only been rewritten insofaras to change the name of the main protagonist in it. So I now start in real-time 2014 from….

    PART TWO: Distanto: The Gargantuan Legion

    The Lance
    “The dusty decades sighed into the past like the pages of an old book.”
    A tractable prelude depicting the Toynbeean challenge-and-response of the Spanish interface with Mexican history (at least partly fantastical) from the 16th century to more recent times, depicting conquering feelings of superiority generated by Christianity, and, for me, a mind-stretching concept of a musket and lance crucifix… This seems to be vintage Hughes, thank goodness.

  3. As an aside, I would like to say that, during the long summer just passed, I mostly read a massive novel entitled ‘Against The Day’ by Thomas Pynchon, a complex but exciting science fiction adventure about brothers travelling separately worldwide and across-time (America and Europe during the first world war and other periods and places) and I mention it here.
    I already sense that ‘Captains Stupendous’ might have a conscious or unconscious fraternity to it – or neither. If the two books do connect in any way with each other, this bodes very well.

  4. The Tavern – Shipping Out – Distance Is No Object
    “…but anyone who crossed borders at that time couldn’t fail to notice how clouds of war were gathering…”
    I am a great believer in the dirigibility of gestalt real-time book reviewing and I read the above passage only an hour or so after reviewing here a story actually entitled ‘Border Crossings’! – a story by Ursula Pflug whom, incidentally, I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rhys Hughes.
    Now, I, the narrator, Welshman Lloyd Griffiths, encounter Scipio Faraway’s brother Distanto in a Dresden tavern while thinking it was still Scipio, but I end up being fatalistically whisked away by him on an airship as navigator – amid encroaching Kaiserish storm clouds of war…
    Distanto has one less finger than Scipio, that he cut off as a child while aiming and missing to cut a missing fate line into his palm – a fact that reminded me of when I shortened one of my own childhood fingers by turning my bicycle upside down and twirling the wheels with one of the foot-pedals as a handle and, hmmm, experimentally poking my finger into the whirling wheel-spokes…
    I do not intend further to recount the plot of this so far engagingly fictionatronic book, but hopefully just describe my reactions to it.

  5. Bicycle Interlude – The European Desert
    “…and through secretive groves he raced,…”
    And today, earlier this morning, I happened to take this photograph of the tree below that only I seem to know about – in the secretest grove of all not far from where I live…Being retired, I have time to find such entities….
    …and to read and report upon great books such as this one. It mentions a ‘spectacular view’ from the airship as it travels over Europe towards, I gather, Brazil. This book itself is full of its own spectacular views – not only geographical but imaginary and absurdist-philosophical. The lance also reminds me of the mystic spear from my favourite opera ‘Parsifal’… And the Mexican link is renewed at the end of these two sections.

  6. The Syndicate – The Great Work – The Stealth Empire
    “Ay caramba! Ay ay ay ay ay! Arriba, arriba!” – this book is a bit of stealth empire itself with quite short chapters and generous amounts of blank page between them and between title pages of the book’s main parts! But I once wrote a blank story so that doesn’t matter to me, in fact pleases me. But for any reader who is concerned by that, they will surely by recompensed by the intriguing theme and variations on ‘brother’, now a ‘brotherhood’, like masons or illuminati or, even, fascisti, exercising an extrapolated form of Alchemy, a golden tongue to go with Neil Williamson’s golden nose I reviewed recently here, and leading, amid much Porthcawl (Porth-caul?) conspiracy, toward dissembling and spying plus another amazing form of alchemical machination, that of Geography, including global parasitism by countries etc. I’m a sucker for such suckers.

  7. Flock of Assassins – Higher Noon – Gathering Storm
    “But public transport in Wales is dire. / Because of infrequent and unreliable services, the pack of assassins is unable to disperse. They must all wait for the same bus; it’s the only one that day.”
    That had me laughing out loud. I may be mistaken but Rhys’s prose in recent years has become ‘Young-Dictatorish’ simpler, while the adult plots have become even more complex; the jokes and conceits have, for me, compensated for when there is a loss of prose texture and for my often getting lost among the madcap turnings of the action. Thank goodness ‘Gathering Storm’, with some vintage Rhys-Hughesian textured prose, helps summarise what is happening in various global arms of this book’s conspiracies and handshake-signalling brotherships…

  8. The Point – Suited To The Task – Conflicting Rascals
    Pleased to see real electrical engineer Tesla features, as he did in ‘Against the Day’. Irrespective of my garb, I wonder if I am ‘Suited To The Task’ of this review…bearing in mind how many Rhys Hughes books I’ve already reviewed; here blatant self-referential digressions interweave absurdity with sharp-ended and conspiratorial derring-do, where the absurdity strangely makes everything else seem real. How does that work? I call the method ‘fictionatronic’.

  9. The Legions of Legions – The Third Prong – Quaint Little Pillage – Shangri-La Farce
    “At an arbitrary moment, some unknown intelligence, perhaps the mass mind of the gestalt mob…”
    And at that moment, I realised I had finally lost my grip on real-time reviewing and been left with a dreamcatcher full of holes…
    So ends the second main part of this novel, full of blatant self-references and a fevered pent-up authorial anger that the reader is not colluding sufficiently well with words made literally unreal rather than metaphorically real, as if the reader’s head has become a skull, his body a skeleton, with nothing but exit points between the bones to keep the gestalt integral within it. The blank pages may indeed symbolise those very texit points in this wild adventurous book that seems to be its own book written about itself, as if Distanto Faraway is his own brother? As if an airship is wholly made of the air that gives it its name? Hot air.

  10. PART THREE: Neary: The Apedog Incident

    The Bone Banana
    “He informed them that the bulges were tumours.”
    I think this chapter will be big in the history of genetic engineering literature. At times inspiring the reader, at others demeaning the reader, and ending with a curt challenge to the reader, if not to the whole world. Think a Russian Frankenstein. Think a Penal Colon Schoenberg. Think vintage Rhys Hughes.

  11. imageThe Fungus – The Clean Balloon – The Midget – The Monogorgon
    “Wisdom exists inside every man; so does a skeleton.”
    Existential concerns for myself as I remain a skeleton, then beset Swiftly with being hemmed away or knotted up by those who have no tolerance for such strangeness and, later, a Lilliputian or Midget is caged inside my skeleton…
    Rhys Hughes often uniquely writes via the agonisingly or angrily conscientious Literature of the Red Tape, whereby tolerance is measured and words or expressions page-tested.

  12. image image image
    Steam Elephant – Locomotive Breath
    I now meet Neary, the third of the Fantastical Faraway Brothers… Wow!
    The front cover of this book states: “Too much travel can flatten the mind…”
    I agree, but I do go real travelling some time. But the best travel is not travel at all – journeys without advice, in the mind, in your own mind or in someone else’s mind fictionatronically.

  13. Brigands – Various Other Doings – A Transindianocean Tunnel, Hurrah – Next Stop the Future
    “I slept standing up. My dreams were pointless.”
    Rhys Hughes is sometimes disingenuously childish (such as the scenes featuring a character called Jason Rolfe) rather than his more regular state of being creatively child-like – but the former may be a narrative trick that I have not yet fully gestated into the latter. Bad books are generally the reader’s fault, not the author’s.
    There is a mind-unflattening underground railway system-concept in these sections that however compensates for my losing grip again on the wild plot and for the renewal of short, simpler, staccato paragraphs. Not that staccato is always bad. But short and simple, though, I’d leave only for Hemingway!

  14. Humanzeeville – The Finnish But Not The End – The Promised Digression
    “And a thin crescent moved amid them like a sickle.”
    Can a digression be promised? Hmmm. A digression tends to be spontaneous, I suggest. Or you might have a digression up your sleeve that you know you will release with some prestidigitation or sleight of hand that promising would spoil.
    It is as if the author is showing us his scenery before the curtains have lifted – and, thinking about it, that is not at all surprising with the likes of this author. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Amid some editable-outtakes that Telos should have taken out in the latter sections, there is much matchlessly wild hybridising of ideas as well as of creatures, human included. You will not forget this book. It’s like having a zombie removed from yourself as a tumour needs removing. Let’s hope it doesn’t grow back.

  15. The Xylophone – Coincidence – Apedog At Last – The Final Chapter – The Book Group
    It as if the book’s final blending is the author reaching his own ‘promised digression’ of “serenity and justice”
    Stringent Strange become the New Messiah?
    There are other apocalyptic metamorphoses at the end here … But where have I read a similar xylophone vision before? – I’m sure it is in Rhys Hughes, but cannot find it.
    And the final irony, the last, if not ‘final’, chapter hilariously makes this whole review of mine retrocausally obsolete! (In other words, if this had not been a real-time review, I would not have reviewed this book at all.)
    Read this book against the day you haven’t yet.

    My photo from Clacton Pier

    My photo from Clacton Pier

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