Friday, 31 October 2014

Shutting down for November

If you're a long-time reader of our magazine, I'm sure you can guess what I'll be starting tomorrow. Yes, a new novel. And this is going to be my first good one. I'm so confident this time. There are going to be themes, and characters, and descriptions, and all the sorts of things that you might expect to see in a novel by a proper novelist.

So things may be quieter than usual on the blog for the next month, but never fear, there will still be something to read on here: a selection of my Interzone reviews from 2012 and 2013 will appear on Mondays, with reviews from recent issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction probably appearing on Fridays. And we'll have a blog post within the next week or so announcing TQF49.

Have a good month in my absence, and wish me luck!

If you are taking part in the event, here are links to some of the fascinating things I've written about it in the past:

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

Thirteen things I learned (or was reminded of) during Nanowrimo 2013

Twelve things I didn’t like about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Twelve things I liked about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, long, long ago, we created a handout for our local writers, with achievements, graphs to fill in, bits of advice, useful websites, etc. We haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s still available to download and print out on our old website.

Someone new seems to be in charge of the Nanowrimo website this year, and the FAQs have been changed to say it's okay for participants to carry on with works-in-progress and co-write their novels. Madness! I think we can safely ignore such nonsense!

The challenge, as it still (at least for now) says on the front page of the website, is to "Write a novel in a month!" Not half a novel, or the beginning of a novel, or the middle of a novel, or the end of a novel, but a novel. A 50,000-word novel in a month, start to finish. Writing any old 50,000 words isn't the same thing.

Writing a novel in a month is a goal with cachet, something non-participants understand clearly as a worthwhile thing to do. Being challenged to do it licenses us to be selfish for a month. To stop doing the dishes, or overtime, or being an good friend, or an attentive spouse, or a top-notch parent. Being challenged to write any old 50,000 words doesn't give people the same licence.

Anyway, that's what I reckon. Bye!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ask Theaker's!

Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask the TQF staff? Why are we so mean to Howard Phillips? Is John Greenwood really a pseudonym? How ashamed are we of the cover art of issue 21? Now's your chance! In issue 50 we'd like to answer all your questions, about anything you like! And our answers will be honest. Or funny. To us, anyway.

Click here to submit your questions.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Theaker’s Fab Five: October 2014

My Panasonic five-CD changer stereo is still going strong, though I don’t use it as much as I used to since getting an iPod. Some of my recent purchases are still in their shrinkwrap, thanks to Amazon auto-rip. I still love my stereo, though – there are times when the iPod is out of power, and I just want to set a few albums going with a single button press, and not have iTunes grinding away at my PC’s innards. Last week my iPod got into a muddle after I duplicated a playlist and it made all the music on the thing invisible. Needs a reset but I can’t be bothered. So back to the stereo, and that means a new blog post. Here’s what’s in those five slots right now.


1. Syro by Aphex Twin

If you were to put an individual track on from this and ask me which Aphex Twin album it was from, I’d have no idea. But I’ve never listened to his music as albums, and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than half a dozen tracks. I just treat it all like one big album. Listening to this as a CD for the first time, it’s very similar to the Analord EPs I love so much: they’re pretty much my idea of perfect music. It’s what I imagined acid house would be like before I actually heard it. This won’t stay in my CD changer long, though, because of a bit of swearing. Tut, tut!

2. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey

The same thing applies to this one: quite a few naughty words, so I can’t have it popping up in the rotation when the children are doing homework in my study! I only got interested in Lana Del Rey recently, I think because of all the chat about the possible return of Twin Peaks, and David Lynch seems to be a big influence on her music – it just clicked. The Lana Del Rey persona feels like she stepped out of a movie, or a novel, perhaps by Philip K. Dick. Maybe this will become a favourite album, even if it’s a bit too creepy for everyday listening, or maybe it’ll end up filed with the fads. (I can’t even imagine the thinking process that once led me to buy albums by Dido or Blink 182!) But right now I’m really into it. I love the wooziness, the character, the melancholy, the odd tempos and structures. Feels drunk and high, like an album made after most people are in bed. (That weird pattern on the CD in the photo seems to be the reflection of a bookcase.)

3. Lost Sirens by New Order

My first reaction to this – eight songs that were originally planned to form part of their next album proper – was that it’s woeful. The lyrics aren’t great (“You’re one of a kind, high on my agenda”). The music is a bit MOR. And I still think that, but it’s growing on me. I’ve caught myself singing bits of it while doing the dishes. And at eight songs it has as many tracks as some of their proper albums. I’m not one of those people who ever wishes their favourite artists would just stop releasing records. Even a sub-par album can produce a great track – I doubt I’ve listened to Get Ready more than a dozen times, but “Crystal” is one of my favourite songs ever. Tentatively looking forward to their next record – Hooky’s left, but Gillian will be back, and they said in Mojo a while back that they had been looking again at Power, Corruption and Lies, which is my favourite studio album of theirs. I liked them best when they were being weird and cool, the tracks that were about noises and moods rather than verses and choruses.

4. The Virgin Years: 1974–1978, Disc 1, by Tangerine Dream

It was late at night, I had internet access because I had been doing an online thing for work, and I’d been listening to Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and been surprised by how good it was. I noticed two Tangerine Dream compilations on Amazon, The Virgin Years: 1974-1978 and The Virgin Years: 1977–1983, compressing all their albums from that time onto eight CDs, for about twenty quid in total. I’m a sucker for omnibus editions, so now I own far more Tangerine Dream albums than I really need to. Some of the later stuff sounds (at first listen, at least) to be abysmal, but this first CD is Phaedra plus side one of Rubycon, and it’s very good. I like space music. (And I reserve the right to change my mind about the later stuff once I’ve given it a better listen.)

5. Indie Cindy by Pixies

One of only a handful of albums I’ve reviewed for our magazine, I like it no less now than when I wrote the review. Super stuff. Black Francis never stopped writing great songs, and I never stopped buying his records (Teenager of the Year, Fast Man Raider Man and The Golem are all excellent), but songs on albums like Bluefinger and Petit Fours felt like they had been written for the Pixies, and I’m so glad they finally got it together. Just wish it had come in a proper jewel case. And it feels odd that “What Goes Boom” is first on the album when it was last on the EP. How can it be both a final track and a first track? It boggles me.

What next?

I’m looking forward to the new album from Public Sector Broadcasting. The War Room EP was great, their album too, and I hoped they might one day apply their dialogue-sampling techniques to old science fiction films. They haven’t quite, but it’s close enough: their new album is about the real-life space race. I think that’s going to be a real treat. But will I be writing about it in the next Theaker’s Fab Five, whenever that may be? Will the five-CD stereo survive another year? Will I ever find anywhere to keep all these bloody CDs? There’s only one way to find out: keep reading our magnificent blog.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Tripods / review by Jacob Edwards

Challenging the rule of three.

When setting out to make The Tripods for BBC TV, producer Richard Bates faced the daunting prospect of having his work judged against two veritable institutions. Firstly, there was the source material: the critically and popularly acclaimed trilogy of books by John Christopher (the SF pen name of prolific author Sam Youd). Secondly, there was Doctor Who, in whose traditional Saturday evening timeslot The Tripods was to be broadcast, and against whose ailing ratings it would be measured as a successful (or otherwise) purveyor of children’s SF drama. Working in Bates’s favour was, of course, the strength of Youd’s post-apocalyptic, historically regressed invasion-cum-resistance adventure narrative, but also a budget of unprecedented splendour and the opportunity to shoot on location across England, Wales and Switzerland. Composer Ken Freeman – who’d previously played keyboards on Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of The War of the Worlds – synthesised a classic score full of portent and menace. Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry was brought in to direct. The battle lines were set.
“This was when Richard Bates was making The Tripods. He scrupulously sent advance scripts and asked for comments and thanked me for them, but took no notice.” – Sam Youd, interviewed by Colin Brockhurst in 2009.
Series 1 of The Tripods comprises 13 half-hour episodes (although these appear to have been edited down to 25 minutes for commercial broadcast and, frustratingly, at least some editions of the DVD), and follows The White Mountains, which is the first book of Youd’s trilogy. Screenwriter Alick Rowe clearly set out to closely capture the spirit and much of the detail of the original book, and at first any deviations reflect merely the disparity that necessarily must exist between a written first-person narrative and a more visual depiction of context and conflict. That the adaptation becomes looser as the series progresses can largely be explained (and was, by Bates to Youd) as a different sort of necessity: that of having used up the allotted portion of location work and thus having to extemporise new material for a studio setting. Despite any affront this might have caused to those who read first and watched second, the narrative and its realisation remain compelling. The eponymous tripods are used sparingly, but to good purpose, and where The Tripods overtly broke from Doctor Who’s mould in allocating more of its budget towards realistic settings and effects than towards a high-profile principal and guest cast, nevertheless the acting stands up. The three main characters (Will, Henry and Beanpole) are adolescents, and the actors (John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel), though largely inexperienced, were rigorously auditioned – there were 400 applicants for the role of Will – and play well off each other in carrying the story forward. (Many viewers today would be genuinely surprised to learn that none of the three went on to establish an acting career subsequent to The Tripods.) The cliff-hangers are less forced and certainly no less effective than the pantomimic “end of episode” howlers that seemed de rigueur of John Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who at the time, and perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of the first series of The Tripods is that some of its more extreme moments of character imperilment are, upon resumption, glossed over with little or even no explanation proffered. Notwithstanding such liberties, the production as a whole succeeds admirably in portraying both the subjugation of mankind and the three boys’ at times harrowing quest to find the free men living in the white mountains. The Tripods averaged somewhere in the vicinity of 6.3 million viewers across the 13 episodes of its lustrous debut. A month later Doctor Who returned to Saturday evenings after its dalliance with midweek broadcasts, and in comparison averaged 7.1 million for the season.
“After the reasonably faithful book-replication at the beginning, I was probably bound to find the increasingly wide divergences irritating. My guess was that someone thought he could improve things by following a more orthodox science-fiction path. … I just thought it silly. The second series got so far off my path that I just couldn’t recognise it.” – Sam Youd, ibid.
Series 2 of The Tripods comprises 12 half-hour (or 25-minute) episodes, and ostensibly is based on The City of Gold and Lead – the second book of Youd’s trilogy, in which Will and newcomer Fritz (Robin Hayter) infiltrate one of the tripods’ cities and encounter the beings who have enslaved mankind. The acting remains very good, as do the special effects in fashioning an alien environment that successfully walks a tightrope between the bedazzlingly futuristic and the fuzzy electrobuzz of Plastic Bertrand’s music video for Ça Plane Pour Moi. The story adaptation, however, in the second series comes not from Alick Rowe but rather courtesy of Christopher Penfold, who had made numerous contributions to Space: 1999 and seems to have taken this as some sort of creative licence to senselessly pervert Youd’s original work. With no obvious impetus for doing so, Penfold cuts the casual brutality of the alien masters and pastes it (along with a recurring, fetishist riff) onto privileged macho men guards whose function is inexplicable within the world setting and who present more as a sadistic clique of collaborationists than the docile, mind-controlled slaves of the book. By spurning not just the physical but also the textual gravity of Youd’s scenario, Penfold strips the series of much of its narrative weight, thereby rendering The Tripods in much the same faux dark, yet garish and rather discordant shades that ran through mid-eighties Who. Considered as an unfolding adventure, series two of The Tripods still holds the viewer’s attention, but there are jarring ups and downs, and by the point where Penfold has invested his version of the city of gold and lead with a kitsch synth-sleaze nightclub and a wholly manufactured, manifestly unnecessary second race of alien beings, audience figures were starting to drop, averaging out at 5.1 million across the twelve episodes. This, as it turned out, was more than the next season of Doctor Who would manage (4.8 million), but it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Michael Grade (then controller of BBC1) had little time for SF that didn’t pull its weight, and so Doctor Who was sent into hiatus, Colin Baker uttering the bitter parting words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. The Tripods was axed altogether, and what had been intended as an Empire Strikes Back-style purgatorial ending that would leave people pining for the third series (“Has it all been for nothing?” Will laments), turned out to be the proverbial it: a most sombre and unsatisfying conclusion indeed.

Never repeated by the BBC, yet fondly remembered and in sufficient demand as to be released 25 years later on DVD, The Tripods remains an engrossing SF adventure drama that will appeal to today’s young adult audience every bit as much as it did to that of the mid-1980s. Though relatively sedate in terms of plot, none of the episodes feel slow-moving. In fact, viewers may well find themselves swept along, watching several instalments at a time and caught up in events until the bad penny drops and suddenly, confoundingly, the adventure is cut short. It is impossible now to say whether the unmade third series would have done justice to The Pool of Fire – the concluding book, in which Will, Henry, Beanpole and Fritz head a last-ditch attack to overthrow the masters and save the Earth from the deadly terraforming that has been planned. It could perhaps have been as rousing and poignant as Youd’s own dénouement. In the wrong hands it could have been a fiasco. Without the act of observation, we’ll never know; but if the series’ cancellation hangs dourly over television history, clouding our appreciation of the BBC, at least in this instance there is a silver lining: very few people who watch The Tripods will be content to finish off where Michael Grade drew his bottom line; many will turn to the novels, and in doing so will come to know Sam Youd’s enthralling trilogy (plus prequel) in its written form, and also, hopefully, the wider canon of his John Christopher output and thence the enduring lure of imaginative and well-crafted science fiction.

DVD release: 23/9/2009 (2|entertain / BBC Worldwide). Original broadcast: 15/9/1984 – 8/12/1984 (Series 1); 7/9/1985 – 23/11/1985 (Series 2).

Friday, 17 October 2014

Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown by Joe Schreiber / review by Jacob Edwards

Blowing the horns of dilemma.

When the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menace, was unveiled with grandiose, heraldic fanfare across cinema screens in 1999, the lightsaber thrum of expectation was always likely to sputter and fizzle. Disappointed, we were, and not just with Jar Jar Binks. There was also Darth Maul: the red-skinned, horned and tattooed, mad-eyed, devil-modelled Sith Lord, whose agility and snarling savagery promised a danger no less than that of the dark, prowling power of Vader, but whose ultimate delivery – standing non compos mentis while an erstwhile-dangling Obi-Wan springs up and out of the reactor shaft, force-grabs Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber, somersaults over Maul’s head and cuts him in half – proved utterly, almost insultingly flaccid. This was someone with the Force aptitude to wield a double-bladed lightsaber and take on two Jedi simultaneously. To die with such ineptness… It was a dramatic let-down, the emotionally hollow like of which could only be achieved by such clumsy scripting as having Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than allowing Darth Vader to strike him down in A New Hope, instead merely tripping on his own robes and accidentally impaling himself on Vader’s lightsaber. To have Maul dispatched in so undignified a manner was to reduce a martial virtuoso to the level of an extra from Japanese fight-fantasy Monkey, and pratfalling along with him went any aspirations the prequelogy might have harboured to match strokes with the original Star Wars saga.

Vale, Darth Maul: the true phantom menace of the film.

Carrying this perspective fifteen years into the future, the more casual Star Wars fan could be excused for greeting Joe Schreiber’s latest book with a Binksian droop of scepticism and ambivalence. Maul: Lockdown (Century) is set pre-prequelogy and in the main features no familiar characters other than Maul himself, with only fleeting appearances by Jabba the Hutt and a nascent Darth Sidious. The story takes place in a diabolical prison, to which Maul has been sent to track down a spectral arms dealer, and begins with a six-page fight to the death that blends horror motifs with comic book sensibility. These two elements interplay throughout the novel, and as each short chapter unfolds and Schreiber demonstrates himself to be neither squeamish nor overly concerned to remove action scenes from their still-frames (indeed, one particularly casual sequence jump on page 128 sees Maul, who is under a moratorium on Force use, physically grab hold of a Chandra-Fan who just previously had scuttled up a ladder and thus was nowhere near him), those of us whose readership is grounded in the big-screen revelations of 1977 will quickly realise that Schreiber’s manifestation of Star Wars is not the rousing space opera that we signed up for. Sweeping, swashbuckling and fanciful are set aside in favour of confined, gruesome and humourless. In fact, with an amoral protagonist pitted against foes who remain almost entirely unmitigated in their respective evils, Maul: Lockdown could well be repudiated as holding no substantial connection to the Star Wars canon. As the publishing industry continues to spawn its offshoots, George Lucas’s vision seems to be receding into the long time ago and the achingly far away. This is not Star Wars at all. It’s the garbage compactor of A New Hope magnified beyond all proportions and left to its own dark devices.

Divorced from its origins, it’s also rather good.

Maul: Lockdown is built around a seemingly unpromising premise, and is made by both cover and blurb to seem literature-poor and pulpy. Schreiber, however, though unashamedly engaging the comic book action/horror hyperdrive, transcends this red-blurred veneer and delivers a surprisingly substantial payload. His prison setting is far from typical – a Rubik’s penitentiary in space, its design constantly subject to reconfiguration – and the inmates are free to wander the complex, limited only by failsafes implanted in their hearts and an obligation (thus warranted) to return to their cells for televised death matches: grist to the mill for the prison warden and the gambling underworld. This floating pocket of the Star Wars universe is depraved and grotesque yet suitably fleshed out, the dramatis personae falling within a broadly malevolent swathe but given sufficient individuality both to defy stereotype and to foster genuine intrigue. Schreiber writes in a series of vignettes – 76 chapters squeezed into 330 pages; caged restlessness giving way to pent-up release – yet the story builds across three broad acts and the overall pacing conveys something not unlike that hallmark epic quality, manifest throughout A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, that might well be thought lacking in many of the freestanding Star Wars novels, and indeed in the prequelogy arc spanning The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Schreiber also deserves credit for successfully presenting an antihero, allowing the reader to engage with Maul’s ignoble mission while remaining unsympathetic to him within a broader Star Wars context. Maul is relentless, and though his deadly prowess – which is to the fore, even sans any recourse to the Force – does give rise to the unfortunate side-effect of accentuating the limpness of his demise in The Phantom Menace, his developing backstory in Lockdown is at least representative of the formidable figure we see up to that point. The character lacks depth and is inherently odious, but the same could be said of Anakin Skywalker as he goes through his contrived metamorphosis to become Darth Vader. Schreiber’s portrayal of Maul was the more difficult task, and though the reading is not always pleasant, we should take some grim satisfaction that as warden of the dark side he has kept his charge believable and consistent.

Second time around the trilogy bush, that’s more than George Lucas managed.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories / review by Stephen Theaker

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories (Archie, ebook, 349pp) provides a cheap, comprehensive introduction to one of Archie’s most famous characters, a peppy teenage witch who, much as she did in the successful television series, usually lives with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and their talking cat Salem. Salem is an uncle who tried to conquer the world (or, in other stories, broke off his engagement with the head witch) and felinisation was his punishment. Sabrina is a good-hearted girl, but isn’t above using her powers selfishly. She’s usually an agent of karma (turning chauvinists into pigs, for example), at other times its victim.

One problem with the book is that it zags around from one period to another of the comic without a nod to continuity, which will presumably baffle readers who haven’t had the benefit of reading an overview of the series (like the one in Slings and Arrows). In one strip Sabrina’s aunts are green-skinned hags, in another human-looking and pretty, so dateable they end up double-booked. In one strip Sabrina’s dating Harvey and going to school in Riverdale with Archie, Betty and Veronica, in the next she’s at a monster school, her boyfriend is a vampire, and her best friends are an invisible girl (Cleara!) and a genuinely disconcertingly eyeball-headed girl (Eyeda!). The very first story says Sabrina mustn’t fall in love or she’ll lose all her powers and become human, and in the second she’s smooching Harvey on the sofa.

I’ve read a lot of Archie comics on Comixology over the last couple of years. A lot. For one thing they’re cheap and plentiful, which is how I like my comics. (Compare with DC, who not so long ago had only single issues on Comixology, and Marvel whose Comixology collections are often extremely expensive.) And they are ideally suited to digital reading. The lovely bright colours look wonderful on digital displays, and the simple layouts and square panels work perfectly in Guided View on any device. Almost any given panel of an Archie book looks like a pop art masterpiece when zoomed to fit an iPad screen.

But this Sabrina collection was not my favourite of them, and my daughters didn’t find it as appealing as I expected either (they adored other digital collections such as Betty’s Story Time and The Archie Wedding, and have become much bigger fans of the Josie and the Pussycats movie since realising that it’s part of this comics world). The stories here are readable enough, and there are a lot of them, but Sabrina in these comics just doesn’t have the zip that Melissa Joan Hart gave her on television. She lacks any strong personality traits – unless being able to cast spells counts as one – and she doesn’t face any real challenges in the stories.

If you’re looking for an Archie comic to hook children into reading, go for Betty, Veronica or Jughead instead.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Penny Dreadful, Season 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Penny Dreadful is a new television take on an old idea: the out-of-copyright crossover. Here we have young Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (a marvellously melodramatic Rory Kinnear); Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), father of Mina; and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); plus four apparently unfamiliar characters: Josh Hartnett as gunslinger Ethan Chandler; Billie Piper as Brona Croft, the dying prostitute he falls for; Danny Sapani as Murray’s fighting manservant, Sembene; and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, whose prim comportment conceals an ongoing inner battle with the forces of darkness.

The plot of this first series is driven by Murray’s attempts to rescue his daughter Mina from Dracula. The cowboy’s pistols come in handy as they root out vampire nests, and when the fighting is done Doctor Frankenstein performs autopsies on the monster’s bodies. As the series proceeds, there are complications. Dorian Gray works his seductive way through the cast. Frankenstein’s creation demands a bride. Vanessa Ives begins to lose control of her dark passenger, but without its gifts Murray would never find his daughter.

This is a well-made series that I probably wouldn’t have watched to the end were it not for Eva Green’s gob-smacking performance; in control she’s riveting, out of control terrifying. The production values are exceptional, and the special effects terrific, but there is little pay-off on the storylines, too much being held back for a second series that might never have come (though we know now that it will). The vampires are a bit too easy to kill, and seem disinclined to bite; their grand plan is a bit hopeless. Season two will need more compelling antagonists.
Brilliant moments, but not yet a brilliant programme.  ***

Friday, 3 October 2014

Indie Cindy / review by Stephen Theaker

The return of the Pixies with Indie Cindy (PIAS, CD) has not been universally welcomed, coming in for particular scorn from those unhappy that Kim Deal is no longer involved. Her absence is certainly a shame, and there is a space on the album where her backing vocals should be (as there was on Trompe Le Monde), but it’s a bit hard on the remaining members to hit them with that stick. They did wait a decade for her to agree to recording new material, and she only pulled out after the studio was booked and the gear transported to Wales. You can’t blame them for pressing on in those circumstances – and I’m glad they did, because we now have a new Pixies album.

A good test of a new album by a long-established band is whether any of the songs would make it onto a Best Of. Indie Cindy passes that test standing on its head: it’s impossible to imagine a Best of the Pixies without “Greens and Blues”, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Snakes” and “What Goes Boom” on there either. (The latter is surely destined for a long life of soundtracking sporting montages and movie trailers.) An aspect of the band’s success not often mentioned is here in spades: these songs are immense fun to sing along with! Impossible to sing “I’m the burgermeister of purgatory!” (“Indie Cindy”) or “felt a burning in my solar plexus” (“Blue Eyed Hexe”) or “I’m the one with all the trotters” (“Bagboy”) without enjoying yourself.

My biggest grumble about the album is that it is really just a compilation of the previous EPs, or to put it another way, it’s now clear the EPs were just the album doled out a bit at a time. Every song from the EPs is on here, so buying this meant buying most of the tracks a second time over (and the other three appeared on EP3, not available at first in MP3 format) – though that does make it feel like a greatest hits in itself. I hoped, and I wonder if the band hoped, that Deal might return by the album’s release to add her vocals to the previously released tracks. That didn’t happen, but “Bagboy” at least is a slightly different version to the original MP3 release, with the “Cover your teeth” chant coming in much later. It makes the song somewhat sleeker and meaner.

The most exciting thing about a new Pixies album having been released – apart from the existence of the album itself – is knowing that Black Francis never stops writing and recording, so there will probably be another one pretty soon. If it’s as good as Indie Cindy, let alone better, expect lots of articles and reviews applauding their return to form, because everyone loves to tell that story. By then Indie Cindy will be part of the landscape, another part of the back catalogue, maybe not a Doolittle (how many albums are?), but certainly the peer of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, and maybe their better. And if the Pixies don’t make another new album, at least they’ve said a proper goodbye: the album’s last song, the jolly “Jaime Bravo”, ends “Goodbye and goodnight / Goodbye”.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tusk / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile premise spurs tour de force of eccentricity, turns contemporary horror film formula on its head
 
As I walk out of a horror film, I’m typically thinking one of three things: great, so-so, or crap. However, every once in a while, there is another thought: did I like this film? Such was my initial reaction to director Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), a film whose premise involves a madman who wants to physically and psychologically transform another man into a walrus. Yes. You read that correctly.

Obnoxious LA-based shock jock Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), stuck in the “frozen shithole” of Canada, wants to find a “weirdo” interviewee to ultimately make fun of in his popular Not-See Party podcast.

Wallace ends up on the doorstep of Howard Howe, a reclusive ex-seafarer who has a boatload of adventure tales, and a few skeletons (human and otherwise) in the closet. Howe seeks to rekindle the bond he once developed with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk while stranded after a shipwreck. His strategy: make Wallace a walrus.

Directors of recent horror movies tend to manipulate their predominantly unmemorable characters through frightful settings (e.g., catacombs, haunted houses, etc). There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Kevin Smith, the brains behind Mallrats (1995), Dogma (1999), and Clerks (1994), tends to create talk-heavy films with quirkier characters. Tusk follows this strategy and in so doing, departs from—or maybe I should say, in tusk lingo, protrudes discernibly from—the current body of horror films.

One is often hard-pressed to identify something original that characters say in horror movies. Tusk, with its extended scenes of two or three characters talking, offers a smorgasbord of quotable gems. “You want characters?” Smith seems to ask those who consistently blast horror film casts. “You got them!” In Tusk, there are three such characters: the self-involved victim, the astute madman, and the comically eccentric detective.

The Self-involved Victim
Wallace Bryton, with his walrus-like name and moustache, is the type of guy who snaps at convenience store clerks and uses strangers’ backs as desks. He looks down on Canadians (“I don’t want to die in Canada”) and cheats on his girlfriend. His growing fame has gone to his head. This is most apparent when he interviews Howe. Wallace, “not-seeing” the threat inherent in Howe’s anti-human sentiments, examines the odd specimens Howe has accumulated and expresses (loudly and tactlessly) his observations. “Who are you? Rudyard fucking Kipling?”

Typically, films are wise to shy away from obnoxious protagonists, but Wallace, with his crude comments and gestures, contrasted with the literary allusions and deviant philosophies of Howe, captivates the viewer.

Justin Long’s performance as Darry in the film Jeepers Creepers (2001) revealed his strong talent for expressing shock and fear. It’s a talent that he fully exploits in Tusk, whether he’s in a drug-induced stupour and coming to terms with what’s happening to him, making a hushed emergency phone call, or screaming as Howe taunts him.

The Astute Madman

It’s difficult to portray a villain who’s both off his rocker and intelligent. Michael Parks pulls it off admirably with Howard Howe. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Who in the hell would want to be human?”

One never knows what is coming from the misanthropic Howe. He might quote Tennyson or Hemingway, tell an adventure story, or mimic his victim’s screams. He might laughingly sing a nursery rhyme, or he might growl. Howe, the sufferer of egregious childhood abuse, stifles laughter when a horrified Wallace discovers he’s been severely mutilated.

In one of the film’s most off-the-wall scenes (a flashback), Howe stands on a porch with detective Guy Lapointe (more on him later). Howe, pretending to be a dim-witted assistant children’s hockey coach, tries to coax Lapointe inside ostensibly to shoot a brown recluse (spider), but more likely to try to turn Lapointe into a walrus.

Though it probably won’t get credit due to the film’s outlandishness, Parks’s performance puts him in the company of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Howe. What a perfect name for a film like this. How will this turn out? How could a man do something like this? “The walrus,” he says, “is far more evolved than any man I’ve ever known.” Howe indeed!

The Comically Eccentric Detective

The credits reveal that an unknown actor named Guy Lapointe plays himself, a French-Canadian alcoholic investigator on the trail of Howe. Though Lapointe’s time in the film is limited, his crooked eye, stilted delivery, and odd mannerisms make a huge impression. Lapointe is ridiculous, but we can’t look away.

Lapointe’s main scene takes place in a restaurant in which he dominates a conversation with Wallace’s girlfriend Ally and fellow podcaster Teddy. It may be a fast food place, but Lapointe’s audience sits dumbfounded as he treats them to an idiosyncratic feast that’s less about what he’s saying, and more about what he’s doing. He stands up and smashes down his burger, pours hard liquor into his milkshake, and engages in a slew of other fascinating behaviors all while describing his history with Howe. 

People often comment on how many of today’s films (and society in general) never slow down. Guy Lapointe does slow down. At one point, he actually breaks from his twisted monologue to suck from his spiked milkshake while his audience waits—he even comments on his shake’s thickness—for him to continue. And the porch scene with Howe is legendary. Never has so much been communicated with so many words and so little actually said.

Lapointe even offers a bit of intrigue to the film. When the viewer looks closely, he or she might notice familiarity in the eyes, and the voice. That’s because Guy Lapointe is none other than Johnny Depp. It’s as if Smith has transformed one of the most well-known actors into a sideshow act to reinforce what’s happening in the film. Brilliant.

An Opinion Transformed
With Tusk, we get humor, we get gore, we get surprises, we get scares, and we get sadness. Kevin Smith stitches the surgical splatterpunk film like The Human Centipede (2009), the “find the bad guy before he kills his captive” film (think The Silence of the Lambs (1991)), and the dialogue of, well, a Kevin Smith film. Tusk both entertains and gives one an appreciation for the finer things in life, like his or her legs.

During your life, you might encounter a handful of people who are true characters. Some of these people are profound A-holes, some offer a twisted view of the world, and others are so quirky that they are worthy of a movie. Tusk treats us to all three in just over an hour-and-a-half.

Back to my initial question: did I like this film? My opinion on it has metamorphosed, slowly, from one of uncertainty to a walrus-sized yes. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Theakerly thoughts: what's making me happy?

This time I’m going to concentrate on what’s been making me happy this week, in honour of the segment at the end of Pop Culture Happy Hour, one of my favourite podcasts. Please just take it as read that my adorable little family is, as ever, making me happy, and that I am thoroughly enjoying my day-to-day work. I just don’t tend to talk about that kind of stuff in detail on here. Because you’re all vultures who would steal my life if I let you.

So, what’s been making me happy?

Expanding my daily to-do lists from ten to twenty items. At the core of it is still the ten big things I need to get done each day, but the other ten give me credit for all the daily stuff that needs doing – dealing with email, my morning pomodoro of writing, taking the kids to school, collecting the kids, and, erm, weighing myself. It’s good. Instead of the morning run being a frustrating obstacle to my tasklist, it’s now a nice simple job to tick off. Best of all, my weekday scores now produce a percentage. (91% last week!)

The Logitech k480 keyboard. Admittedly it’s a bit plasticky, and the T and Y keys on mine don’t work very well (a replacement is on its way), but this is going to be my best friend during November. A groove along the top lets it hold a tablet, and a dial lets you pick between three Bluetooth devices – which might not sound that amazing till you realise that to achieve the same thing with the Apple keyboard you have to power off all the other devices with which it has previously been paired. Really looking forward to taking this out and about for my November novelling sessions, and writing away on my iPod.

The backlog of reviews is finally starting to melt away. Well, it’s down to twenty. Twelve if you only count things I was given for review, and not things I read and began to write about. My goal for issue 50 is to completely clear the backlog, even if it means re-reading some of the books. A pomodoro (25 minutes) of writing each morning isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot more than nothing, and applied to short stuff like reviews it moves things along quite nicely, without getting in the way of anything else.

The new Aphex Twin album, Syro. It’s a lot like the Analord records, and those come very close to my idea of ideal music, so I’m very happy with it.

The youngest of our family gave me some sparkly dinosaur stickers to stick on the side of my PC.

Using my old Kindle again. Reading about the Kindle Voyage make me realise I’m kind of sick of the Kindle Paperwhite, and its damnable lack of buttons. I’m leaning towards the view that touchscreen ereaders are an abomination. The Paperwhite works better than any other I’ve tried (a Sony and a Kobo), but still, it’s a relief to get back to reading on a device that switches pages with a button press.

Nanowrimo is coming and I have an idea! This usually doesn’t happen until October 30. And I learnt a lot from taking part last year, which is going to help a lot in shaping my plans. Even though it was my umpteenth time taking part, it was my first serious attempt in a while, and my first finished novel in a good few years. I wrote a bunch of blog posts about my experiences last year (here, here and here), so I’ll be studying those carefully in the next few weeks. One thing I remember very clearly: don’t start a novel with someone flying through the air over the ocean alone with no way to talk to anyone, because what the heck are you going to write about? This year’s Nanowrimo starts on a Saturday, which is pretty much ideal for getting off to a good start.

If something’s been making you happy, let us know in the comments!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Game of Thrones, Season 4 / review by Stephen Theaker

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (Sky Atlantic/HBO) feels for a while as if it has hardly moved on from the beginning of the previous season. Jon Snow is still bumbling around beyond the wall, Sansa still wandering with the Hound, Daenarys is marching around Slavers’ Bay with her army, and Joffrey is still doing bad things like the bad little king he is. The weird army we saw marching at the end of season two has yet to arrive anywhere. In television we’re used to things moving rather more quickly, arcs concluding at the end of a season and new arcs beginning the season after. That doesn’t really happen with Game of Thrones, but season three came to a famously cataclysmic conclusion, and the ripples of that final episode become tidal waves in season four. It’s the aftermath of some things, the beginning of others, and there’s a great big battle by the end featuring the programme’s best special effects yet.

As ever with HBO, the gratuitous female nudity plays havoc with the tone, but I’m still enjoying Game of Thrones very much. If there’s a new episode to watch, that’s what we’re watching. The production quality is stupendous, costumes and set design as good as any film I can think of in this genre. The cast is incredible, and always getting better. Indira Varma is a welcome addition this season, not least because this is one programme where her violent death (I assume it’s coming eventually!) won’t come as such a dreadful shock. Her Torchwood colleague Burn Gorman is almost unwatchably horrid as the leader of a gang of depraved deserters from the Black Watch. Diana Rigg joins as a schemer with a grandmotherly air, but the standout new character of the season is the Spanish-ish Viper, a dashing hedonist with a thirst for vengeance.

Westeros and the surrounding lands are a horrible place to live, even for the richest and most powerful. That absence of security, and our knowledge from previous years that any character could die at any time, makes every battle scene, every trial, every flight from danger – even every harsh glance or raised eyebrow! – a source of intense drama and excitement. It all has weight. This season lacks a bit of mystery: Bran’s mystic quest for a three-eyed raven is less than intriguing, and most events and motivations are presented clearly to the viewer. But perhaps other programmes focus on secrets of the past so much because their futures are so limited, except when contracted cast members decide to leave. It’s thrilling to have one programme where (unless you’ve read the books, and I won’t until this show has finished) you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Return to Armageddon / review by Stephen Theaker

In Return to Armageddon (2000 AD, pb, 148pp) spacers find the frozen corpse of the devil on the other side of a deep space anomaly. As you’d expect of any mad scientist worth his salt, the on-board doctor extracts cells to create a clone. Or was it two clones? Two babies are found with his dead body, one cute as a button, the other with black wings and cloven hooves – the Destroyer! The dead are soon walking the spaceship’s corridors, and that’s just the beginning of a story that ends up with Earth under the devil’s rule, humanity nothing but the squealing meat of Satan’s servants.

This strip by writer Malcolm Shaw and artist Jesus Redondo (with two episodes by Johnny Johnson) began in 2000 AD’s third year of publication, and ran continuously from issue 185 to 218. It’s the kind of thing that made 2000 AD Extreme Edition one of my favourite comics: a self-contained adventure story I’d never read before. It is a serial through and through, its only concern to make every episode the most gobsmacking yet, unceremoniously discarding characters and plotlines the second they’ve outlived their usefulness.

And like so many other stories from 2000 AD’s early days, reading it left me gutted that I wasn’t reading this stuff when it came out (though the Eagle and Doctor Who Weekly were good too). I would have loved its gleeful goriness and boyish malice towards its own characters. This is a comic for kids in which the hero – who spends much of the story as a miserable unkillable monster – returns to Earth after a thirty-year absence to find the oceans are now “vast cauldrons of boiling oil” full of people, and both sides of the planet are in perpetual darkness, the only light “coming from burning corpses”. Kids love that stuff. Me too.  ***

Friday, 19 September 2014

From Dusk Till Dawn, Season 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

From Dusk Till Dawn is a television series produced and developed by Robert Rodriguez for his own El Rey network, and shown on Netflix in the UK. Unlike Blade: The Series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Stargate SG-1, this isn’t a sequel, it’s a remake and an expansion. The outline of the plot is mostly unchanged. The Gecko brothers (nephews of Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs) are bank robbers on the run, trying to cross the border into Mexico. They take hostages, a widowed clergyman and his two unhappy children. They end up at a biker bar, a strip club where the star performer is several hundred years older than she looks. The one big difference is that supernatural elements kick in sooner, as Richie’s visions of a mysterious woman inspire him to kill.

The cast is generally very good. D.J. Cotrona and Zane Holtz as Seth and Richie Gecko have more time to explore their characters and relationship than was available to George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, and they use it well. Eiza Gonzalez looks the part, but doesn’t live up to Salma Hayek’s star-making performance as Santantico Pandemonium. Her manipulations never quite ring true, though it’s hard to be menacing when you’re half-undressed, as she is in so many scenes. Wilmer Valderrama is wonderfully serpentine as the shapeshifting vampire who commissioned the Geckos to do the job – and unrecognisable as adorable Fez from That ’70s Show. Robert Patrick (who was in the second film as a different character) takes Harvey Keitel’s role as the grief-haunted father from the first film, and if anything his committed performance is a step up.

Robert Rodriguez is a good fit for television. He’s made a career out of making cheap films look expensive, and here he’s making television that looks better than most cheap films. For most of the season this is a very good, well-made programme. It only goes awry in the last few episodes, after everyone reaches the vampire strip club and heads into a subterranean magical labyrinth for a interminable wander around. The tension disappears, characters lose their drive, and the show falls apart, becoming very nearly unwatchable – it’s the steepest mid-season decline since The Twin Dilemma followed The Caves of Androzani. After the first few episodes I had liked this so much that I thought in all seriousness a Reservoir Dogs television series might be a good idea. By the end, I was hoping they would stay away from Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

I’ll certainly give season two a look – the cast are reportedly enthused about heading into uncharted territory – but it’ll need to get back on track quickly or I’ll be the one heading for the border.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork / review by Stephen Theaker

I had read in the later volumes of American Elf that James Kochalka was working on a video game, but I’d sort of assumed it was going to be a flash game for his publisher’s website or something like that. A big surprise then to find that Kochalka and PixelJam’s Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork (Pixeljam, played on iPod Touch 5; available to buy here) is a fully-fledged app store game, and an excellent one at that. It takes the Glorkian Warrior (whose first book The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza was reviewed in TQF#47) and his trusty backpack and gives them room to run and jump around at the bottom of the screen while waves of invaders attack from above. The backpack constantly shoots, leaving the Glorkian Warrior to worry about dodging bullets, completing missions set by little girl aliens in space armour, and collecting crackers and power-ups. They’re the usual type of thing: fireballs, missiles, wiggly bullets, a tennis ball gun. It’s all a play on Space Invaders, but Kochalka’s designs are so appealing and the gameplay so enjoyable that this became that rarest of things: a mobile game I played out of love rather than boredom or dogged determination. It’s funny, but fair, death always feeling like it’s your own fault, even when the immediate cause is a Magic Robot who throws exploding birthday cakes your way. Points and crackers earn upgrades. The last one, for collecting twenty thousand credits: ennui. The Glorkian Warrior begins to look bored if you stand still.  ****

Friday, 12 September 2014

Ernest et Célestine (aka Ernest & Celestine) / review by Jacob Edwards

A one-bear band and a winter’s dream for two.

Ernest et Célestine is the story of a bear and a mouse, who through the shared bond of imagination and creativity forge the most unlikely of friendships at odds with the proscriptive bigotry of their aboveground and belowground societies. Ernest is a musician, hungry and busking; Célestine an artist, orphaned and reluctantly indentured to the clinic of tooth collection and restoration. When Célestine dissuades Ernest from eating her, and instead leads him to the storeroom of a lolly shop, the sweet-toothed bear and the dreamy mouse end up on the run from their respective police. These implacable forces – lawful and righteous upholders of the great prejudice – in one poignantly damning scene find themselves to have accidentally mingled while in pursuit, and must each beat a wary retreat. They are suspiciously alike in their antipathy towards the two fugitives, just as Ernest and Célestine are alike in repudiating the conventional wisdom. It is a simple parable, guilelessly enacted.

Ernest et Célestine is an animated film, but not of the computer-modelled, hyper-realistic school from which we see graduate a larger, slicker cohort every year. Whereas its American counterparts revel in the new technologies and give us fully malleable, three-dimensional animations and a myriad of camera shots to show off each permutation, Ernest et Célestine evokes the old school, hand-drawn approach and for the most part is filmed in wide shot, as if we’re looking at a picture book. Instead of jump cuts and close-ups and micro-focus on detail, each scene plays out broadly and in toto, classic and quaint, as if running frame-to-frame along the fast-thumbed, flickering edge of a sketchbook. Nostalgia aside, this is somehow very engaging; and of course, the faster the characters move, the more chaotic the spectacle. The style is well suited both to heartfelt quiet moments and to the frenetic galumphing of bears in enclosed spaces.

Based on the eponymous series of books by Belgian author-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent (penname of Monique Martin), Ernest et Célestine is, by and large, a warm family hug of a tale, and one that would retain much of its cosy sensibility even if watched undubbed or without subtitles. There are some dark overtones, however, to the bear and mice societies, where utopian conformity is never far removed from browbeating and the heavy truncheon of a police state. The topside bears are fearful of the mice, who serve as de facto tooth fairies and so underpin the bear cubs’ formative introduction to consumerism. The mice, meanwhile, think very highly of the well-ordered commune they’ve nibbled out of the sewers, yet are incisor-obsessed and vilifying of the bears, and thus have become zealously concerned with maintaining their own insular existence. Capitalist enterprise versus communist dogma? Perhaps. And though the overall tone of Ernest et Célestine is that of a children’s picture book, individual characters are shaded in accordance with the strength of their misconvictions, the resulting grotesquery on occasion calling to mind the deformed cartoons that Gerald Scarfe produced for Pink Floyd – The Wall. Amidst the soft watercolours established by Gabrielle Vincent for her fantasy realm, the happily ever after never seems too far away, but nor entirely does the frightening dystopia that lurks beneath Ernest’s and Célestine’s nightmares and within the writhing, demonic surge of the mouse police.

Vincent is said by director Benjamin Renner to have upheld a childlike ingenuousness in her art, keeping the scariness of the world at bay by immersing herself in its charms.[1] Renner and co-directors Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier evidently have sketched their film designs from this outlook, and in doing so have brought Ernest et Célestine to life as a touching and innocent yet menacing at the edges winter fable: a fitting tribute indeed to a greatly beloved author and her two most famous creations. Those viewers who lay claim to an especially nuanced ear might detect actor Lambert Wilson who played The Merovingian in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions voicing Ernest in the original, French language release of Ernest et Célestine, while those who have attained complete mastery of the apperceptive arts will also distinguish Lauren Bacall as the doom and gloom orphanage caretaker in the English dub. This latter piece of casting seems particularly fitting, given that Bacall (born 1924) and Vincent (1928–2000) were contemporaries, and that Bacall unlike the gavel-wielding bears and mice who so fervidly seek to condemn Ernest and Célestine has long been a proponent of liberal democracy. Ernest et Célestine is both sentimental and gently didactic, but it is also very funny; and this ubiquitous humour, rather than being pitched at viewers of different ages and then shoehorned into the script where specially signposted, blossoms instead with spontaneity, and springs up throughout as a natural and heartily observed corollary of the story. Making no obvious distinction between adults and children, yet remaining equally appealing to both, Ernest et Célestine is a lovely film that in years to come may well garner unto itself that much-coveted and (in this instance) tenderly bestowed accolade: timeless.

Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, released 12 December 2012 (French, with subtitles); 28 February 2014 (English dub).

1. Benjamin Renner, “Ernest et Célestine Making Of”, Blog 25, posted 19 March 2014 [http://ernestandcelestine.tumblr.com/post/80073422214/25-gabrielle-vincent-or-monique-martin]

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

As Above, So Below / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Scooby Doo gone wild: no-frills subterranean archeological horror offers deep scares despite shallow characters/storyline
   
A group gets lost in a maze-like expanse and the threats escalate. Maybe some make it out, maybe none do. The Blair Witch Project (1999) employed the technique masterfully in a wooded setting. The Descent (2005) took the concept to an underground cave system inhabited by violent creatures. The less well-known but still impressive Grave Encounters (2011) used an abandoned asylum.

With As Above, So Below (AASB), director John Erick Dowdle takes to the catacombs beneath Paris to add another gem to the vault of lost in creepy places films. AASB mixes the treasure-hunting adventure of Indiana Jones with the underground exploration of The Descent.

Young Scarlett Marlowe—is that a Heart of Darkness reference?—is quite the archaeologist. She holds multiple degrees, speaks five languages, and approaches her goals with unflagging determination. Though she has all the introspection of a cave bat, she approaches her mission with, to put it bluntly, “balls of steel”. Scarlett continues her father’s driven-to-madness quest to find the Philosopher Stone that holds the key to alchemy and eternal youth. So the Brit bats her eyelashes, mentions hidden treasures, and talks, talks, talks to convince a group of Americans and French to take to the Parisian catacombs, where she believes the stone is hidden.

During their expedition, the group will encounter an increasingly disturbing and dangerous menagerie of horrors. They will crawl over rat-infested bones and attempt to squeeze through the tightest of openings. They will approach dark passages and descend darker tunnels in which scares both cheap and exquisite await. In the most disturbing scenes, they will confront motionless figures. Are they alive? Will they move? An odd collection of sounds (e.g. female cult chanting, distant growling, even a telephone) augments the ominous tone that pervades this film.

These elements add up to make this one of the tensest films this reviewer has seen in a while.

Critics Don’t Get It
Many critics have derided AASB as thin and rudimentary. Sure, the characters aren’t fully developed and are driven by a Scooby Doo-like mentality, but we do know that Scarlett’s archaeologist father was driven to suicide by his quest, and that (kind of) love interest George witnessed the drowning of his younger brother. Isn’t that enough?

Besides, how much backstory and characterization does a film like this need? We as viewers are, in a sense, accompanying these people (who we’ve just met) into the bowels of the earth. Perhaps we are less interested in getting to know characters and more interested in getting scared.

Several critics have commented on the senselessness behind this quest. Although the map viewing, clue accumulation, and especially the translation of ancient Arabic into rhymed verse that kick off the film are silly, there is also some historical information about the catacombs. Still, none of that really matters once the crew plunges into the catacombs. They could have been looking for a slice of pizza and it still would have been engaging.

Then there’s the ongoing critical gripe about the overuse of the found footage filming technique. It’s too shaky, they complain. There’s no justification for using it. I can’t tell what’s going on. How about this: it makes the film seem real. In an age of selfies and home videos, found footage adds a sense of authenticity.

As Halloween approaches, many of us will line up at abandoned buildings temporarily converted into haunted houses. And if, while exploring the dark corridors and spooky chambers, our hearts are repeatedly jump-started, then we will consider that venue a success. Who says that a movie can’t be judged by the same criteria? **** -- Douglas J. Ogurek

Monday, 8 September 2014

Edge of Tomorrow / review by Jacob Edwards

Henceforth, the deceitful must roll a giant jaffa up Hollywood Hill.

Most of Europe has fallen to an alien invasion. Humanity faces extinction. And yet, a new high-tech battle armour brings hope, this being symbolised by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) who, thus kitted out as a new recruit, was able to kill hundreds of alien “Mimics” in a single day. On the back of this, mankind’s first victory, the combat gear goes into mass production and the army into recruitment overdrive, massing for a counteroffensive. As Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), glib spokesman for the powers that be, sitting safe at HQ, is pressganged into the front line as insurance against an anticipated public relations backlash post-war, so the scenario is set for Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman), an action SF film based on Japanese writer Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s illustrated novella All You Need is Kill. Cage dies within the first few minutes of fighting, doused in the acidic blood of an alien he’s managed to take down. Face dissolving, he screams… and regains consciousness the day before battle.

Spoilers, inevitably, but then again the movie’s tagline is: LIVE. DIE. REPEAT. So, not too hard to figure out.

Yes, it’s Groundhog Day rendered as serious SF. (Although with sufficient humour that a homage wouldn’t have gone astray – the drill sergeant slapping Cage awake with a call of, “It’s Groundhog Day, soldier!”, perhaps, in preparation for the D-Day styled landing that’s to come.) The Mimics, it transpires, have evolved the ability to manipulate time. Hence, whenever one of their “Alphas” (a rare breed) is killed, the “Omega” (the brain behind it all) rewinds the clock by a day, resetting events but retaining the Alpha’s knowledge of what has transpired. This makes the aliens nigh invincible, but it’s also their Achilles’ heel. Through inadvertently being turned into a quasi-Alpha (as was Vrataski before him), Cage is able to replay the day prior to his first death, learning from his mistakes and so progressing deeper and deeper into the battle scenario. Computer gaming is an obvious motif here, but the repetition is handled quite well, the viewer being to a large extent shielded from the Sisyphean drudgery that occasionally threatens Cage with despair. Through trial and error all things should eventually be possible, but can Cage and Vrataski find and kill the Omega before Cage himself is hunted down and drained of his new faculties? The scene is set for a SF classic.

Or at least will be, should Edge of Tomorrow die at the box office and take some critical comments back to director Doug Liman and company pre-filming. If not then we’re stuck with what we see; namely, a wonderful premise that has been artificially bent so as to take the shape of a big fat audience hook.

Love him or hate him, objectively Tom Cruise does a good job in portraying Cage through a gamut of personas. Emily Blunt delivers the perfect mix of prowess and pathos, and may well relegate Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton to lesser places on the SF podium of empowerment. Brendan Gleeson is charismatically cheerless in support; and so, in terms of acting, the money has been well spent. And yet Warner Bros. also invested upwards of $100 million in marketing Edge of Tomorrow – retitled from Sakurazaka’s original due to perceived public negativity evinced by the word “Kill” – and there seems to have been an unhealthy level of attention given to charting pre-release audience hype and anticipating how strongly the film would open at the box office,[1] rather than simply making the best movie possible and trusting to an appreciation of quality. Advertising posters showed Blunt and Cruise with pride of place given to their battle armour – the spectacle rather than the substance of a production that didn’t yet have much, the script itself at this stage still lingering through a process of being reworked, re-authored, revised, then re-authored twice more, yet still having no ending by the time that filming commenced.[2] Whether this is more damning of Liman (who at least was striving for a finale, albeit graspingly) or of Warner Bros. (who clearly didn’t care one way or the other), what emerges is an alarming imperative to market first, shoot later and ask questions only in retrospect, all the while making concessions to some profiler’s forecast of what today’s audience must want, expect and (que será, será) be given. One might suspect that this is not how the SF masterpieces of the past came to be made.

Edge of Tomorrow is engrossing, to be sure, and has fought its way to the silver screen without having had its brains blown out; yet, still it has sacrificed something of its artistic vision in pandering to the bottom line, and the supposed tastes of a first- and second-weekend opening crowd. In Sakurazaka’s novella, which is set in Japan, the Mimics take their form from starfish that alien nanobots have forcibly evolved. The beach setting therefore makes sense, but the creatures themselves less so when their initial incursion has been transposed to central Europe. Furthermore, the Mimics are invested with too great a power (oh, blessed effects) to function naturally within a plot that has punched several holes through itself while being many times re-scripted for benefit of Hollywood’s unnatural selection. That the aliens are waiting in ambush suggests that humanity’s charge through France must have played out at least once before, and with sufficient effectiveness to kill an Alpha. Notwithstanding Cage’s first-mission bumbling, however, it is difficult to imagine how this could be the case. Vrataski has lost her pseudo-Alpha abilities (or so she feels; presumably she hasn’t tested this), and without her carefully rehearsed revisions, the army must surely have had about as much chance of mounting a successful onslaught as the actors would have if called upon to extemporise all their dialogue in Japanese. Moreover, it is manifestly unclear why the campaign is being fought by ground soldiers. Memories of Iraq? Normandy? Gallipoli? Yes, it’s something of a paean to futility and our vivid and confronting history of military blunders, but in this instance there are no civilians to worry about; no technological limitations as per World War Two or One. Therefore… Rockets, anyone? Lots of lovely guided missiles, stockpiled for a rainy day and dusted off at last to blow the shiitake out of something multi-leggèd and squidgy? No? Well, maybe next time.

All told, Edge of Tomorrow has too many contrivances – Cage’s blinkered lack of initiative; Dr Carter’s magic Omega-locator; whatever banal version of the ending is showing today – to qualify for anything more celebrated than a single viewing; which is a shame, because for much of that viewing it presents as a film that might not be out of place on the hallowed DVD shelf of SF for the ages. In the end, though, this was Hollywood trying to convince itself while publicity ringmasters inculcated upon prospective audiences the importance of forming sale day queues outside the cinema. History will show that Edge of Tomorrow, sharp-toothed specimen though it may be, was sharp in the wrong places, over-evolved to meet the glittery requirements of Tinseltown’s creative cul-de-sac. Gloss up. Dumb down. Market. Repeat. Thus runs the tepid loop, Alpha blockbusters reporting back to executive Omegas while viewers wait helpless and unknowing for tomorrow to come.

1. Cheney, Alexandra, “Warner Bros., Tom Cruise Gear Up to Make Sure ‘Tomorrow’ Never Dies”, variety.com, May 19, 2014 [https://variety.com/2014/film/news/warner-bros-tom-cruise-gear-up-to-make-sure-tomorrow-never-dies-1201183917/]

2. Lee, Chris, “Doug Liman hopes his wild loop means a hit with ‘Edge of Tomorrow’”, latimes.com, May 31, 2014 [http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-ca-doug-liman-20140601–story.html#page=1]

Friday, 5 September 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett / review by Stephen Theaker

In City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway Books (US); Jo Fletcher Books (UK), ebook, 9396ll) the cruel, capricious gods have been killed by the people they oppressed and all the miracles they performed have been undone, leaving a world that no longer quite makes sense, and is ruled by their former slaves, the Saypuri. Bulikov, former capital of the gods’ empire, has been left in a particularly curious state, with transparent walls, staircases that lead nowhere, and other weird anomalies. It is the year 1719 and a Saypuri investigator has taken it upon herself to look into the murder of a friend. Like Columbo, her plain appearance conceals a sharp mind. Dangerously sharp: it’s going to get her into a lot of trouble. Bulikov is rife with conspiracies and secrets.

This is a book I loved to bits; it entertains on every level. There is the plot, of course, the mysteries uncovered one by one, the revelations and twists and discoveries. There are echoes of our world – it’s a bit like Taiwan and China, a bit UK and India, a bit USA and Mexico – but for a nice change it’s not a bit like medieval Europe. At the end of many chapters the reader is simply left dazzled by the pace of events in them – the sheer volume of cool stuff. Dead gods, vile monsters, lost kings, fractured realities, politics, oiled-up battles on frozen rivers, sex and hopeless romance – it is rich without ever feeling too much. This is exactly what I want when I read a fantasy novel: a strange new world where thoroughly interesting things that could never happen here are happening.  ****

Monday, 1 September 2014

Accessing the Future: interview with Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad

Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad are currently raising funds to publish a special anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction, Accessing the Future, to be published by Futurefire.net Publishing, and here is an interview with them. It sounds like it's going to be very interesting.

Hi Djibril, Kathryn. What made you decide to produce this anthology? What are your goals for it?

Djibril: Thanks, Stephen. This anthology will be the third produced under the aegis of Futurefire.net Publishing (after Outlaw Bodies and We See a Different Frontier), and all three are concerned with social-political speculative fiction from the perspective of under-represented viewpoints. The vast majority of the stories we have published reflect the understanding that oppressions are intersectional: so stories about imperialism recognize the fact that colonial oppression is closely tied in with gender oppression, with racism, homophobia and ableism. An anthology that takes as a starting point the marginalization of people with disabilities (both in reality and in literature), also from an intersectional angle, is a close fit to our aims as a press. We hope to raise enough money to produce a full-size, professional rate-paying, properly distributed anthology on this theme, with authors from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.

Do you feel that disabled people are under-represented in sf at the moment? If so, would you take the excuse that medical advances may leave fewer people disabled in future?

Kathryn: I would say that realistic representations of people with disabilities are few and far between in SF right now (and have been since the inception of the genre). There are many, many SF stories that address disability in some way but for the most part, those depictions are negative, poorly thought out, and insulting to people with disabilities. The idea that medical advances will “erase” or “cure” disability in the future is extremely dangerous and harmful for two main reasons: (1) it ignores the fact that disability is a social/medical construct (i.e., people create disability through language and medical practices, by environmental, social and political barriers to access), and (2) it tells people with disabilities today, “it’s better if you didn’t exist.” Disability will always be with us if we continue to promote an idealized notion of “normal”—we need to recognize that human bodies exist on a spectrum of physical and mental difference, and that people of all abilities deserve the same rights, freedoms, and access to the resources required to live out the lives of their choosing.

Much sf deals with individuals dealing with physical adversity or communications difficulties, albeit because they are in non-terrestrial situations – do you think that makes the genre naturally suited to addressing larger issues around disability?

Djibril: Maybe, yes. For me, though, the interesting thing about science fiction/speculative fiction is the social-political side of the genre. I see SF not just as a medium for high-tech adventures, for world-changing cyberpunk or magical advances, but also and especially for explorations or imaginings of what we might become as the world becomes different in various ways. A world in which society (or some societies) respect and give access to people with disabilities, as well as other marginalized groups, is as mind-blowing and science fictional as a world with space elevators or teleportation technology. And the interplay between the two is the best of all—how does technology enable and lead to better society? How does a more enlightened society develop different priorities for technology and better uses for communication, space travel, replicators…?

Fans of Doctor Who could argue that Davros is one of the greatest television villains of all time, but his name gets thrown at wheelchair users as an insult. Then there’s the Mekon, mutants, cyborgs – should we be more uncomfortable about the association of disability with villainy in science fiction?

Kathryn: Absolutely! Davros is an excellent example of how disability is used as a sign of villainy and evil in our media, especially in science fiction. We should not only be more uncomfortable about the association of disability with some sort of moral flaw or failing on the part of the disabled person, we should be calling such images out when we see them (as we do for racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, etc.). As you point out in your question, these kinds of hurtful representations impact the lives of real people (e.g., a wheelchair user being called Davros). It is simply not okay for the science fiction universe to be populated by people with disabilities who are either (a) evil or (b) to be pitied and “cured”. These kinds of representations need to change: everyone deserves to see themselves, as they are (and not as cartoon-like villains), in the stories they love to read and watch.

Where should we look for more positive portrayals of disabled experiences in science fiction? Are there books and stories that are well-regarded in the disability community, but haven’t had the same impact in the sf field?

Kathryn: I recently wrote a post for Pornokitsch’s “Friday Five” column on positive representations of disability where I pointed to the work of writers like Larissa Lai, Jacqueline Koyanagi, Morgan J. Locke, James Patrick Kelly, and Nalo Hopkinson. I think it’s important to keep in mind that a writer might put out a book that has a realistic or “positive” depiction of disability but it’s not marketed that way. The disability community is quite diverse and I am not familiar with every part of it (my little corners exists as part of the larger SF and scholarly communities) but there are certainly novels and movies that resonate more strongly with some people with disabilities than others. One fantastic resource for people who read YA literature, for instance, is the Disability in Kidlit blog—you can find excellent reviews and discussions of the portrayal of disability in the YA market there.

Some crowdfunding for books runs aground on the criticism that it’s now possible to publish book in print and ebook without it costing the publisher a penny in production costs. Why do you think the Future Fire’s projects have managed to escape that trap?

Djibril: Ha!—primarily because we’ve never raised enough money to completely cover our production costs, for one thing. But seriously, Futurefire.net is not and never will be a profit-making press: any further income we make after cover our costs will go back to the authors. The idea that there are no production costs at all is a fallacy: yes, you can publish via a print-on-demand supplier (as we do); yes, you can hand-craft e-books using XHTML and Calibre (as I do), but that’s not cost-free. Proofreading and copyediting take time; ISBNs and other production/distribution set-up costs money; marketing and review copies cost money. Even a modest, home-brewed anthology has several hundred dollars worth of set-up costs to recoup from sales. (And all this is without factoring in what we pay the authors.)

Why is it important to you that this be a paying publication?

Djibril: From a very selfish perspective, offering a professional rate of author pay is essential, because you receive many more stories this way; most top-notch authors won’t write for free, but even that aside, you need a slushpile of at least a hundred stories from which to select 12-15 great pieces for a themed anthology. On a more principled note, though, it’s important to pay authors a fair rate because writing is hard, it’s feeding your own blood to a beast that maybe no one else will ever love. Writers deserve to be paid (and this is the editor of a ’zine that pays token or “semipro” rates speaking.) Especially since we are hoping to receive many stories from authors who are underrepresented in speculative fiction—people from outside the Anglo-American world, people with disabilities, and so forth—many of these people are already financial disadvantaged, so paying them a fair rate for their fiction is even more important.

How do you approach the creation of perks for funders of your Indiegogo project? Where have you seen other projects go wrong? Has the good track record of the Future Fire in putting out its crowdfunded books, and the good reviews they’ve had, helped with the subsequent projects?

Djibril: We’re by no means authorities on good crowdfunding practice, but I can say that I’ve learned from my own mistakes with a previous campaign. The first is that a four- or six-week fundraiser run is not a long time, so you have to work really hard to get the word out to all the communities who might be able to help. The successful projects are the ones who have tapped into the enthusiasm and support of their networks of collaborators and allies to help with spreading the word, writing or hosting blog posts, and even providing some of the higher level perks (like the story critiques, book bundles and Tuckerizations in our campaign). And yes, I think the success of previous publications both helps with our reputation, our reach and visibility, and increases the size of our network of friends to call on for help.

When the book opens to submissions, what kind of stories will you be looking for? And what aren’t you looking for?

Kathryn: We definitely don’t want stories of “cure” or that depict people with disabilities (visible or invisible) as “extra special” people that are inspirations to the able-bodied. We want to read stories that place people with disabilities at the centre as three-dimensional characters (with strengths and flaws). We want stories that are informed by an understanding of disability issues and politics, and that are intersectional (addressing race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.). We want submissions from writers that think critically about how prosthetic technologies, new virtual and physical environments, and genetic modifications will impact human bodies, our communities, and the planet. We want to know: “What does an accessible future look like?” We want to read submissions from as many voices as possible.

When do you hope the finished book will be available?

Djibril: Our current timescale is for mid-2015; slightly earlier for reviewers and backers of the fundraiser. We’re not committing to anything right now, but that’s a likely target. You’ll certainly be hearing from us when it is!

Read more about the Accessing the Future Indiegogo project here. The campaign began on August 2 and will close on September 16. Tuckerizations are still available! 

Djibril's previous book, We See a Different Frontier, co-edited with Fabio Fernandes, was very good. Read our review here.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human / review by Tim Atkinson

With fantasy these days increasingly resembling the long tail of YA fiction, it’s a post-Potter world in which we’re living now.

And Apocalypse Now Now (Century, pb), the debut novel by South African Charlie Human, exemplifies that shift. Cannily positioned on the cusp of YA and proper grown-up fantasy, it owes a sizeable debt to J.K. Rowling’s creation, even when it’s reacting against it. Indeed, much of its appeal comes from its simultaneous celebration and subversion of the usual teenage wish-fulfilment tropes against the colourful backdrop of Cape Town.

Its schoolboy protagonist, the spectacularly named Baxter Zevcenko, finds himself on a mission to rescue his girlfriend from forces unknown, acquiring plot tokens and magical powers on the way. So far, so Potter.

But his school – a pivotal and vividly described location for the novel’s early scenes – is no Hogwarts, reeling from the impact of gang warfare and the aftermath of a pupil’s murder. Baxter himself is thriving there, masterminding a porn distribution network with his friends and accomplices.

His Holden Caulfield-style first-person narration is one of Apocalypse’s triumphs. Despite his porn business and general air of superiority, Baxter’s funny, insightful and crucially, he’s likeable. He surprises himself as he discovers he’s willing to move heaven and earth for the people he cares about.

This is fortunate, because that’s exactly what he has to do.

Baxter’s school experience prepares him well for the only marginally more dangerous and Darwinian supernatural underworld of Cape Town to which his quest takes him. En route to finding his girlfriend, he meets African legends walking the earth, experiences psychic flashbacks to his Boer ancestors, tangles with occult Government operatives and parasitic spiders, and – as advertised in the title – finds himself staring the end of the world in the face.

Our hero’s adult guide through this world, Dr Jackie Ronin, is another of the book’s trump cards. An approximate hybrid of John McClane, Catweazle and Dr Gonzo, this special forces veteran and self-proclaimed occult detective is a great foil for Baxter and a confirmed scene-stealer.

Reviewing a first novel is essentially looking for promise – and there’s much promise to find in Apocalypse. It’s cute, fast-paced and offers an appealing mix of old, new, borrowed and blue (movies). And it’s always pleasing to encounter a modern-dressed fantasy not mining the exhausted seams of Norse or Greek mythology for inspiration.

But it’s not quite the complete package.

Structurally, considerable time is spent in the first few chapters introducing the school, the conflicts within it and Baxter’s gang of friends, only for all this to be sidelined for much of the kidnapping which starts fifty pages in. It isn’t a long book, but even so it feels like two plots – the home front and the quest – have been stitched together in a way that you can still see the joins.

Apocalypse’s brevity also exacerbates the sense that Baxter’s assumption of his ancestral powers hasn’t been properly earned. He doesn’t have to work for his magic, and even poster boys for wish fulfilment like our Harry have to do that. The final showdown manages to amplify this power-trip to ridiculous proportions while also being a tonal misstep into Michael Bay-does-giant-robots territory.

These slips, together with some plot contrivances that don’t bear too close investigation, bear out a sense that Human lacks full control of his material. Yet the quality of the narration, the novelty of the setting and the subversive homage of the premise combine to make Apocalypse a punchy read and an auspicious beginning.

Looking forward to reading the sequel? You bet.