Monday, 26 January 2015

Supernatural, Season 9 / review by Stephen Theaker

The ninth season of this long-running series about a pair of monster fighters begins with the boys – well, men now! – suffering the after-effects of their attempt to close the gates of hell in season eight. Sam is in a hospital bed, in a coma, and the outlook isn’t good. The other consequence of season eight’s conclusion was that all the angels fell from heaven, wings burning, thanks to Metatron’s betrayal. One of those angels approaches Dean with an offer. He’ll enter Sam’s body and fix it from the inside, but there’s a catch: Dean mustn’t tell Sam. And so the two brothers are back to keeping secrets again.

The world needs the Winchesters as much as ever. A resurrected Knight of Hell is challenging cuddly old Crowley for the crown. Many angels died in the fall, but the survivors are not getting along and are looking for host bodies – evangelists are only too happy to help, even if half of those thus possessed simply explode.

This is another good season of a reliable show. I sometimes wish it’d move on from the angels and demons storylines, but when this season also features a Wicked Witch from Oz, werewolves preparing for Ragnarok, a guy who is experimenting with combinations of animal powers, and the return of Cain, the first murderer, you can’t complain too much about the variety.

Part of the programme’s longevity must be down to its ability to contain within itself a wide range of moods, from tortured guilt and gut-wrenching horror to postmodern games (would-be god Metatron lecturing the viewer on story structure) and daft humour (Dean learning to speak dog, and in the process learning to appreciate a good game of fetch).

The one duff episode this season is “Bloodlines”, a backdoor pilot for a proposed spin-off that didn’t get off the ground. Showing the lives and loves of the warring monster families of Chicago, it seems like an attempt to do Gossip Girl within the Supernatural universe. That may sound daft but Arrow has done pretty well after a similarly unpromising start. I won’t mourn the spin-off, especially since Supernatural itself has just been renewed for an eleventh series, so no one’s jobs are on the line.

Not sure how long it’ll be before we get to see season 10 – E4 have just picked up the show, but aren’t known for their timeliness – but I’m sure we’ll wolf it down as quickly as we did this one. That’s pretty much unprecedented for me with an American drama. Even NCIS (which has a similar knack of combining humour and high drama) fell off our radar eventually. But we’ll keep watching Supernatural as long as they keep making it with this much verve and imagination. ****

Friday, 23 January 2015

World of Fire by James Lovegrove / review by Stephen Theaker

Dev Harmer has a new body, not for the first time: this one is heavyset and muscular, with nocturnal vision and hyper-efficient thermoregulation. Dev is a troubleshooter, sent by Interstellar Security Solutions wherever needed to combat the sneaky attacks of the machines. The overt war is over, but the covert one continues, as atheist Earth battles the religious AIs of Polis+ for control of vital resources. Dev died in that war, but his consciousness was saved and now this is his life, hopping from one body to another in hopes of eventually earning a new one to call his own.

This time Dev has been sent to Calder’s Edge, a sweltering hot mining colony on Alighieri – hence the body modifications – and as soon as he arrives someone tries to blow him up. From then on it’s one thrill after another as he tries to uncover the cause of the earthquakes that are making the miners and colonists think about leaving for safer working environments. There are giant man-eating worms, brainwashed scientists, runaway trains and a local chief of police, Captain Kahlo, who won’t give him the time of day till he proves he’s not just another one of her problems.

I read this on holiday and it was perfect for kicking back. It’s something of a throwback to the likes of Dumarest and James Bond, where a tough dude gets chucked into a tough new situation and fights his way out of it, albeit with a more enlightened approach to its female characters. I’m guessing a story arc will develop over the series (as it did in Dumarest), but if in the unlikely event I never read another of Dev’s adventures this one was completely satisfying on its own.  ****

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Things making me happy in January 2015

A few small things that are currently making me happy.

Penguin Little Black Books: I love small books. I only read about twenty to thirty full length books a year, so the little Penguin books of the past have let me try a much wider range of authors that I would otherwise have got around to. And Penguin are about to do a new series of eighty-page classics for 80p each. I’m going to buy them all, no doubt about that. The only question is whether to buy the print copies, or the slightly cheaper ebooks, or to wait for April for the box set.

The return of Psych: I also love Psych, the US show about an extremely sharp-eyed doofus who pretends to be a psychic to help the police and his long-suffering best friend. The eighth season is at last being shown on UK TV. At some point this’ll be picked up for daytime BBC1 and become the hit it should have been, but for now it’s on Universal at 7pm on Sunday nights.

Betty White’s birthday flashmob: To celebrate Betty White’s 93rd birthday the cast and crew and staff of Hot in Cleveland threw her a flashmob. That’s another show that seems to have made no impact at all in the UK, but at its best it’s among the funniest programmes on television. The kind of spirit and affection you can see in the flashmob video are there in the programme too.

Our new living room table: It may sound daft, but having a big round table in our living room has been making me very happy. I resisted it for many years, but on Boxing Day Mrs Theaker gave me bacon butties for lunch and ginger beer all afternoon, and we watched The Expendables 3, You Only Live Twice and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I was ready to buy anything she wanted. In the end, I love it. It’s great having somewhere I can sit and comfortably write, without going to a different room or turning my back on the children.

The Hemingwrite has been fully funded: Still on writing, I backed the Hemingwrite on Kickstarter, the first thing I’ve ever backed on there. Perhaps I should have started with something a bit cheaper, but in this case I thought the risk was worth it. It’s a writing device with a proper keyboard, an e-ink screen, long battery life, and cloud backup. So, basically, an expensive upgrade to the Alphasmart which I still dust off every November. What it doesn’t have is cursor keys. It’s not going to let you move around in the text to add bits in or delete them. You can’t cut and paste. At first that put me off, and I assumed it was just down to the technical limitations of an e-ink screen. That is a factor, but the creators of the Hemingwrite have argued quite persuasively that this isn’t a replacement for your word processor, it’s more like your journal, somewhere that you just write and write without looking back. I find that very appealing. It’s how I write my novels each November. I wrote my first novel, Professor Challenger in Space, on a Sharp Fontwriter where the refresh rate was so slow that I might as well have been writing blind. When writing for long sessions on my PC, I unplug the mouse and put it away to stop myself straying from the text to other programs. Even writing reviews, more than once I’ve been stumped on a review with a deadline looming and then bashed out the basics of it in a single pomodoro splurge. So I’m really happy to have backed the Hemingwrite, I think it’ll really suit the way I work. It’s due to be delivered next September. I’m guessing they’ve chosen that date because a lot of people will, like me, be hoping to use it for next year’s Nanowrimo novel in November. Fingers crossed they come through. It’s going to be a long wait!

Markdown and Multimarkdown: One side-effect of backing the Hemingwrite is that I got interested in the possibilities of using markdown and multimarkdown, a simple way of marking up plain text writing so that formatting can be applied later. I’ve been using it for lots of stuff ever since, like writing blog posts and reviews, and compiling the email bulletins I produce at work and for the BFS. It makes it so easy to add hyperlinks and headings, but best of all it makes my writing totally independent of the apps and programs that I’m using to do the writing. I’m writing this particular blog post in the excellent iOS app Editorial, but I could just as easily be writing it in Notepad++, Word, Google Docs, Simplenote, Scrivener, the iOS Notes app or anything else, because I can copy and paste the text from one to another as necessary without losing or messing up the formatting. To turn the plain text into neat html I use the compile mmd to html option in Scrivener.

The Logitech k480 keyboard: This darling device has a dial that lets you switch between three attached devices, and buttons for connecting to new ones, which is such an improvement on the last Bluetooth keyboard I had: the Apple one, that wouldn’t connect to anything new unless everything else it had ever connected to was entirely switched off. Plus the k480 has a brilliant groove for holding tablets or phones in place. It’s given a new lease of life to my series one iPad, and made writing on other devices much, much easier. Recommended.

And that is what’s making me happy this month.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez / review by Jacob Edwards

First up, the funambulist.

Entrenched within the Noah, an unimaginably vast city-spaceship, the remnants of mankind trek obdurately through space en route to a new home-world. Adults labour for the common cause, enduring whatever stringencies are necessary. Children are raised by the state, the course of their lives determined by aptitude tests and the latent strength of their psychic abilities. Hundreds of generations pass. The mission is everything. Yet, for all she has been indoctrinated to believe that species survival is paramount, telekinesist Hana Dempsey, suddenly at odds with the power-elite who run the ship, finds herself embroiled in an unsanctioned hunt for a serial killer who shouldn’t exist but whose grisly touch ghosts across the Noah’s Nth Web, hinting at a conspiracy beyond nightmare.

In terms of concept, debut novelist David Ramirez with The Forever Watch sets out to walk a tightrope. Stylistically, he does so without a safety net. There are some wobbles along the way, yet by the end of the book there can be little doubt that, should he be able to repeat and build on the performance, he will garner sufficient reputation to secure a future in the profession.

The Forever Watch is written in the present tense, which from the outset puts it in an odd minority. The shift in perspective requires a degree of acclimatisation – from both reader and writer; Ramirez sways woozily on a few occasions when shuffling from absolute to relative tense – but soon ceases to be a distraction. There is a sense of immediacy to eyewitness accounts presented in this way, particularly as Ramirez favours short sentences; the story is told through small blocks of thought, almost as if unfolding in real time.

Further to the boldness of making a novel-length foray in the present tense, Ramirez transplants his authorial voice into a female protagonist for the first person narrative. Male writers have been (collectively) accused of underrepresenting women in science fiction. Ramirez therefore deserves credit for placing Hana Dempsey at the crux of his world; but of course, in doing so he lays himself open to all manner of possible criticisms as to the fidelity of his depiction. The men in the story are themselves a mixed bag: minor character Hennessy, for example, is given a certain depth, whereas Barrens (second billed behind Dempsey) is somewhat stereotyped to cyberpunk preconceptions and speaks in a jarring, unwarrantable pulp-detective patois. The characterisation of Hana serves perfectly well in the gender-neutral sense of moving the plot forwards; for some readers, however, judgment of The Forever Watch may ultimately come down to a verdict on whether Ramirez’s portrayal of her is closer to creditable or culpable.

One undeniable strength of Ramirez’s work is his imagining of the Noah’s insular, pseudo-totalitarian society, the basic framework of which is established via an adroit series of flashbacks to earlier in Hana’s life (still written in the present tense) and then fleshed out as events unfold in the here and now. The world of The Forever Watch is vividly realised and integral to Ramirez’s story, yet has been unobtrusively (though very deliberately) brought to life. What is most impressive about this is not so much the creative vision but Ramirez’s commitment to what he has put in place; rather than preserve his setting for possible sequels, he instead allows the scenario to play out in full, affording scope not only for a symbiosis between action and locale but also for a novel that is unusual in its high level of self-containment.

Having set off across the tightrope, Ramirez does falter slightly at about the quarter-way mark (there is a lull in impetus, which many will find off-putting), but he then takes a deep breath and forges ahead, letting the balancing act play out come what may. For all that each step follows the previous, the shadowy endpoint he reaches is considerably removed both from where Hana and Barrens started and from where we might have expected their investigation to lead. In what is a darkly satisfying, uncompromising debut, The Forever Watch sends an exotic, visceral shiver through the dystopian genre, and in doing so flags Ramirez as an author to be kept under close observation.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Theakerly thoughts: resolutions, controllers and page sizes

Thought 1. The first in a new series: questions I have been asked by the radio. What resolutions have you made for 2015? Thanks for asking, radio, but none this year. There are things I’d like to do, like writing and publishing reviews more quickly after reading books. I’d like to get back onto my “small plate diet”, once the Christmas goodies have run out. I’d like to say no to more things, so that I can take the time to enjoy doing the things I choose to do. But no resolutions this time.

Thought 2. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #50 is far too long. It’s taking me forever to get it done, and I got distracted for a while last year by helping out on the BFS Journal again. But it’s on the way, don’t worry. Proofs should be with all contributors this weekend.

Thought 3. I have been having great fun of late after hooking a wired Xbox controller up to my PC and using Xpadder to interpret its commands, e.g. using the triggers to page up and page down when proofreading. It’s very groovy in Word, where I’ve hooked up the controller face buttons to my favourite editing macros. For example, pressing Y highlights the next word and adds a “Look up and check!” comment to it.

Thought 4. I’ve been struck lately by the weirdness of doing so much on-screen editing work on an A4 page, when pretty much nothing I work on in Word ever gets printed out from there. (I’m not a fan of Normal view.) So when reading subs now I change them to a landscape 13 cm x 29 cm page to snugly fit my screen, and working on other stuff I default to A5. Free your mind, dude!

Thought 5. One day I’d like to meet a doorstep evangelist who doesn’t condone the killing of everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. #kickmurderoutofreligion

Thought 6. A few years ago I had an email chat with an author who admitted using Fiverr to pay for reviews of her book, All My Love, Detrick. She told me that everyone makes mistakes, and the important thing is to learn from them. Well, the book is now up to 296 five-star reviews and 105 four-star reviews. Wonder how that happened?

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar / review by Tim Atkinson

What’s the point of a text-only graphic novel?

I’ve enjoyed a few superhero stories in recent years – Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible being a good example. Yet I find they share a common problem: they try to tell the Pop Art tales of their greatest influences with solid but conservative prose. Competing with comics on comics’ terms, they’re always bound to pull up short.

And this is speculative fiction we’re talking about here – chock full of mind-melting ideas and techniques half-inched from serious literature, underway well before Superman was a twinkle in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s eyes.

A good superhero novel should then draw strength from the novelistic tradition at least as much as from its forebears in the funny papers. Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century goes at least some way towards demonstrating this point.

Central to the novel is the idea that, while American costumed crime-fighters, Nazi Ubermenschen and Soviet champions of the proletariat clashed in public, Britain trained its special talents instead as secret agents and players in the great game of espionage.

As the novel opens in the present, Fogg, a telekinetic British operative long since retired, is recalled by an old comrade for one final debrief on an unresolved matter dating back to the end of WW2. His interrogation frames stories of adventure, horror, love and collusion across enemy lines from the past – each revealing more of the real reason for his summons.

Since it draws on war stories and Cold War thrillers more than it does Marvel and DC, The Violent Century sidesteps the anxiety of influence affecting previous superhero novels. Despite a few sly references to Stan Lee and Siegel and Shuster, it’s confidently its own work.

While reading the novel is an intensely visual experience, the movie in your head is less Avengers Assemble, more Inglourious Basterds. Tidhar shows himself to be master of the tone needed, writing vignette after vignette from the battlefields of Europe.

Using the tropes of spy novels also allows an altogether more pessimistic take on the uses and abuses of power than you’d normally find in a four-colour universe. As you might expect, Fogg and his fellow British spies owe more to George Smiley than to Nick Fury, but the costumed heroes with which they coexist are not one whit less morally compromised.

Beating the Nazis and the Soviets – the book suggests – comes at the cost of gradually sacrificing one’s own principles.

Does The Violent Century make the case for the superhero novel as something with real merit in its own right? For me, it’s a resounding maybe; since the book makes most sense as a stylistic exercise, a playful what-if, rather than something with serious intent behind it, in practice it lends support to either view.

Yet while it might not be the return favour that superhero comics still owes literature for Watchmen, it is fun, fast and deeply atmospheric. I’m glad that The Violent Century exists as a novel, rather than being confined to panels and speech bubbles.

And that, at least, is progress.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Zenith: Phase One by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell / review by Stephen Theaker

1987. Zenith is a pop star superhero who has never bothered learning to fight; there are no super-villains, so why bother? His closest friend seems to be his agent, and his power levels are determined by his biorhythms, so they are careful to schedule public appearances for the right time of the month. The only cloud in his bright blue sky is that he doesn’t know what happened to his parents, Dr Beat and White Heat.

Or at least it was the only cloud, until the return of Masterman, the Nazi superman last seen when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Berlin in 1944. Turns out he wasn’t so much a superman as the vessel for a dark god come down from overspace, and the Order of the Black Sun have now prepared a new, even more powerful body for it. Zenith will need the help of what’s left of the last generation of superheroes to survive the coming battle.

This comics collection was previously published by Titan in the eighties but Zenith, like his close cousin Miracleman, then went out of print for a long time, there being questions over rights and ownership. That made it one of the few Grant Morrison stories that I hadn’t yet read in full, and I appreciate it being available even while hoping no one’s rights are being trampled. In the context of his career it can be seen as leading neatly into both the superhero work and the weirder stuff.

Steve Yeowell’s art is mostly in black and white, as was usual for 2000AD at the time this story appeared (progs 535 to 550), though one significant page towards the end appears in full colour to excellent effect. It’s not quite as good as his later art, but it tells the story well and excels when portraying the more otherworldly elements, like the creatures from beyond and the hallucinations of hero hippie turned Tory cabinet member Mandala. ***

Friday, 9 January 2015

Turbulence (audiobook) by Samit Basu / review by Stephen Theaker

Turbulence by Samit Basu (digital audiobook, Audible Ltd, 10 hrs 18 mins) is read by Ramon Tikaram, so, of course, having theoretically appeared in one of his sister’s music videos I was well disposed towards it from the off.

Vir Singh, a young Indian pilot, has acquired super-powers, and as the novel begins we meet him flying through the air on his way to interfere with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. He is not the only one with new powers. Everyone Uzma meets falls in love with her, and she hopes to parlay that into a film career. Aman, a young man who can interface directly with the internet; Narayan, a scientist who builds mad devices in his sleep; Tia, a duplicate-triplicate-infinite girl, and so on. (Apologies for any spelling mistakes – names are always tricky when reviewing an audiobook.) All must come together to fight Jai, a soldier who, like all the others, got exactly what he wanted, from whoever or whatever it was that gave them these powers: for Jai, that was to be the perfect soldier, powerful and indestructible.

Heroes feels like a big influence – of course Heroes borrowed its plots from a hundred different comic books itself (the writers even talked about how little work they got done on new comics day!) – but it’s the approach that feels so similar. With an audiobook it can sometimes be hard to tell if it’s the tone of the book that’s odd, or the tone of the reading: here, the mood seems to change from sentence to sentence – serious, quirky, foreboding, fun – making it hard to get a sense of the novel. Ramon Tikaram doesn’t seem to be taking it entirely seriously. The result is that, at least in audio form, it felt more cheesy blockbuster than serious science fiction. It’s okay, but still a bit of a disappointment.  ***

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Brenda and Effie Mysteries: The Woman in a Black Beehive / review by Stephen Theaker

A 92 minute audio drama (available to buy from Bafflegab Productions) about the new adventures of the elderly Bride of Frankenstein, now going by the name of Brenda and played brilliantly by Anne Reid. The story begins soon after Brenda buys her small bed and breakfast in Whitby, and the first scene proper is when she meets “spiky old lady” and future best friend Effie for the first time. Their friendship is rather forced by a musical feline haunting, thought to stem from the epic fish and chips war between Cod Almighty and A Salt and Battery – but other supernatural forces are at work. Written by Paul Magrs, it’s similar in style to the entertaining Tom Baker stories he wrote for BBC Audio, the story told on the whole by a first person narrator, with sound effects and snippets of dialogue when appropriate. The spirit of the novel series (reviews of Hell’s Belles! and The Bride That Time Forgot can be found in #34 and #38) is here in buckets. Though the novel didn’t knock me out, I still enjoyed this audio version. A good start to the series.  ***

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano / review by Stephen Theaker

The Seventh Miss Hatfield (Gollancz, ebook, 3320ll) is a novel by Anna Caltabiano, suitable for young teenagers, about a young woman who impersonates the niece of Mr Beauford, a wealthy steel magnate, in order to steal one of his paintings. The year is 1904. While undercover she begins to fall for the steel magnate’s son, Henley, who quickly rumbles her as an imposter, and what was originally planned as a quick theft turns into a months-long stay. Handsome Henley is promised in marriage to another, the vain and proud Christine Porter, and though the thief knows she cannot stay, and certainly cannot marry the man, the thought of separation is breaking both of their hearts.

So why, you might be asking (and probably not for the first time), is this book being reviewed here? Because it’s being sold as a literary fantasy, rather than a historical romance. Look at that lovely cover. I expected a literary modern fantasy in the vein of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, but got instead a book that would have been too tame and unadventurous for my children.

There is a fantasy twist to the story sketched out above. The indolent thief begins the book as Cynthia, an eleven-year-old girl in 1954, who upon visiting the home of the mysterious Miss Hatfield (sixth of that name) is dosed with a drop of the elixir of life, turning Cynthia into the seventh Miss Hatfield. Now eternal, barring accidents, they have the ability to travel in time, and the sixth Miss Hatfield uses that to age her successor to adulthood. Before the former Cynthia can get on with the fun of being a time-travelling eternal, Miss Hatfield number six has a little job for her: the painting theft mentioned above.

It takes a conversation that lasts almost a fifth of the book to get to that point, and from then on we are into romance territory, where the only real nods to time travel are that number seven has a slightly poorly tummy, which gets worse the longer she stays in the past. This is used in an attempt to add a bit of urgency to the proceedings, albeit with unintentionally comic effect as number seven mentions it, then casually notes another week or three having gone by. It doesn’t help that our protagonist isn’t worthy of that label. She is slow to act, inertia her primary characteristic. If she were a Doctor Who companion every episode would last a fortnight. All she needs to do is steal a painting, or even destroy it – there’s no need at all for her to spend months waiting for the right opportunity.

She doesn’t seem to worry too much about number six’s strange actions towards her, and just follows her orders. She is exceptionally callow and selfish, being for example quite happy to let everyone (including Mr Beauford himself) think Mr Beauford is a lunatic when she knows full well he is not, just in case. She sets great store on being polite to Mr Beauford’s servants, but doesn’t worry too much about the overall unfairness of a system that would leave a young woman being grateful to receive the scrapings from her plate.

Maybe that’s down to Cynthia’s original age, but the book doesn’t make that explicit. The way that she is a eleven-year-old in a twenty-five-year-old body could potentially have been interesting, though that potential has been explored previously in films like Big and Freaky Friday, but the book shows no interest in this. There is no sign here that adult relationships are any different to those of eleven-year-olds. Cynthia grows up in a flash, but the book doesn’t explore what she has missed in the interim. You can’t help thinking that if the book wanted a grown-up main character, it might as well have started with one.

This is a below average book that feels as if it is being pitched to quite the wrong audience. As a novel for young teenagers it might find an appreciative audience, but as a literary fantasy novel for adults it’s some way out of its depth. The afterword explains that the author was seventeen when she wrote this. I’d have been very proud to write a book as good as this when I was that age (or indeed at any age), but, unfair as it is, it’s hard not to read that and think, right, okay, that probably explains why the book is the way that it is.  **

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Epic trilogy closes with brutality and finesse. If you’re seeing this film in the theater, do not buy a giant soda: there is no good time to go to the loo.

The dragon Smaug is pissed. The Dwarves have banished him from the treasure-filled Lonely Mountain that he stole from their ancestors. Now the fires rage in Smaug’s belly as he approaches the human-occupied Lake-town to take out some of his frustration. Thus begins a riveting opening sequence that will set the tone for the final installment of director Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.

The film’s title, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, makes a hefty promise: there aren’t just two, three, or even four armies destined to clash. This is J.R.R. Tolkien, and this is epic fantasy in which the fate of the world is in jeopardy. So in the end, five armies will go at it! And Peter Jackson continues to deliver what he has brought in all his adaptations of Tolkien’s classics since the Fellowship of the Ring first gathered back in 2001: acts of valor and treachery, displays of inhuman (Elven, to be precise) agility, seemingly insurmountable obstacles overcome, and speeches that, despite the often small stature of their speakers, deliver a wallop.

Word has spread that Smaug has left the treasure. Now everyone wants a piece. The Men of Lake-town want the share that Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the Dwarf band now holed up in the Lonely Mountain, promised. The Elves want to reclaim a handful of gems (also in the mountain) sacred to their race. And unbeknownst to most, the ruffian Azog is leading a massive Orc army to the Lonely Mountain. Dwarves, Elves, Men, Orcs, and a mysterious fifth army. The movie builds toward the battle outside the entrance to the Lonely Mountain. It is coming, it’s going to be big, and at its center bravely stands Bilbo Baggins, the series’ namesake, in all three feet of his splendor.

A Thorin in Middle-earth’s Side 
Most of the fate of Middle-earth rests on Thorin Oakenshield, the heir to Erebor (i.e., the Lonely Mountain). There’s just one problem: Thorin seems more interested in protecting the mountain’s treasure hoard than he is in keeping peace or helping his Dwarf race survive. For all those who want to stake a claim to the mountain’s treasures, forget it; Thorin is in the throes of the gold sickness that claimed his father.

Thorin’s growing greed disappoints traveling companion Bilbo Baggins, jeopardizes Dwarf relations with the Men and the Elves, and has the potential to allow evil to overtake the world. It’s the money thing.

During discussions with his Dwarf companions and with Bilbo, Thorin reveals the extent of his depravity. His face alters as he tells fellow Dwarf Dwalin that he isn’t above killing other Dwarves to get what he wants. During a conversation between Thorin and Bilbo, the camera shows an extreme close-up of Thorin as the film speed slows and he vows that he “will not part with a single coin”.

It would take a monumental self-discovery for Thorin Oakenshield to change his ways, and monumentality is what The Hobbit films are all about.

More Great Battles
The battlefield action offers everything one would expect from a Tolkien-inspired Peter Jackson film: destruction, gigantic creatures, displays of bravery, and acts of cowardice. Though the full-scale battlefield action is enjoyable—note the contrast between the gleaming and orderly Elven army and the comparatively uncouth Dwarf army—what impresses most is when protagonists confront their Orc nemeses in one-on-one action. Watch for the battle on ice in which an Orc tries to crush his much smaller adversary by swinging a chain attached to a massive block.

At some point in the battle, the filmgoer is likely to question whether Legolas will enter the fray. Enter he does! From his transit into the action to his fight with a key antagonist, the Elven master bowman holds his reign as the most exciting character to watch in action. Best of all, we know that Legolas won’t die: he’s in the The Lord of the Rings adventure that follows.

It’s Not Just the Fights
On the surface, this film is all about fighting. Note the film’s title, or the posters that depict Bilbo Baggins brandishing his little sword. However, despite this heavy focus on physical battle, the fate of Middle-earth also hinges on a Hobbit whose true power lies not in battlefield skill, but rather in guile.

What Thorin Oakenshield wants most is the Arkenstone, a jewel that he needs to consummate his power. Thorin commands his followers to find the stone amongst the mountain’s treasures, but Bilbo has a trick up his sleeve, or rather in his pocket: concluding that more harm than good may occur if Thorin gets the stone, Bilbo selflessly conceals it. This decision comes at great risk to the Hobbit, for if Thorin discovers the truth, he will likely kill Bilbo.

Bilbo also gives the filmgoer a character with whom to identify. When we see the agility of the Elves, the strength of the Dwarves, and the barbarity of the Orcs, we might feel as helpless as Hobbits on the battlefield. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, with his curious expressions and his occasional nose twitch, gives us a down-to-earth traveling companion who makes us comfortable and gives us a moral ideal toward which to aspire. Repeatedly, Bilbo proves his friendship to Thorin and to the Dwarves. Even when Thorin wallows in his gold sickness, Bilbo manages to evoke a smile.

The Journey Ends
In a brief scene near the end of this film, Gandalf the Grey (wizard) sits beside Bilbo. While the wizard taps and prods his trademark pipe, Bilbo twitches his nose and appears to struggle to find words. Their quest has been long and arduous. They have experienced major triumphs and major losses. These friends who started the journey to Erebor together decide to withhold the dramatic speech and instead, simply smile at one another. Some might consider this a throwaway scene, but this reviewer considers it among the most touching scenes in the series.

Thus concludes a trilogy made enjoyable in so many ways: music, maps, characters, speeches, conflicts, drama, action, creatures, costumes, setting. Perhaps some of us will learn from its central message: “If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.” True, true. But having a $250 million movie budget helps deliver that message exceptionally well! – Douglas J. Ogurek

Read Ogurek’s review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Read Ogurek’s review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler / review by Jacob Edwards

A mile-long star ship, an alien cantina and a dogfight in space. Everything else is detail.

Anybody who by 1977 had been associated with SF being made for either the small or the big screen would attest that Star Wars (later subtitled: A New Hope) changed everything. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the enormity of Star Wars’ impact in retrospect of all the flashy SF and CGI-driven fluff that has come after – one would have to judge the movie only in the context of filmmaking to that point in time; which, like requiring a jury to disregard evidence, is asking the impossible – but even those who were born too late to experience Star Wars upon its original cinematic release perhaps will have found themselves drawn into watching it on DVD (often several times) or habitually whensoever it is shown on television, commercials and all. The franchise nowadays is taken for granted, as are the visual effects for which Star Wars was the forerunner, yet in its day the movie was an unprecedented phenomenon – as suddenly huge as it was unexpected – and weighing in at 362 large, glossy pages (28cm x 26cm), the majority of which are resplendent with production photographs, artwork and designs, J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars (Aurum Press, 362pp; 2013; first published: Ebury Press, 2007) both establishes the cinematic milieu in which George Lucas’s film was made and goes a long way towards fostering an appreciation of its significance. Drawing for the most part on rediscovered interviews that Lucasfilm vice-president Charles Lippincott had conducted between 1975 and 1978 for a “making of…” book that went unwritten, Rinzler promises his readers a host of contemporaneous recollections and thence the definitive account of Star Wars both as it unfolded and as it was perceived shortly after completion, before the effects of its trailblazing became fully evident: in other words, the inside story of a history that was still very much in the making.

For all that the finished product proved to be of lasting consequence, Star Wars had a troubled genesis both creatively and in terms of George Lucas’s strained working relationship with Hollywood and the studio system. Lucas had enormous difficulty developing and explicating his grand concept, and much though 20th Century Fox might come across as short-sighted and unreasonable in its dealings, this is the one instance in which Rinzler has allowed his exposé to carry a selective bias, the pro-Star Wars effusiveness of his source material resulting in a favouring of the film’s historical success over what may well have been quite valid concerns on Fox’s part. Lucas himself is treated in more balanced a fashion, and emerges as a quintessentially independent filmmaker attempting through sheer force of will to exert control over every aspect of a gargantuan undertaking, not so much because he was obsessive/possessive (although clearly he was) but because the intricacies of the movie, in combination with its epic and ambitious scale, necessitated that each component have its requirements and problems attended to in minutiae by people who worked in artistic isolation, glimpsing only a sliver of Lucas’s overarching visualisation until such time as Star Wars was fully realised and came to be shown on the big screen. George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted – his orchestrating of talents calls to mind Brian Wilson, who would compose Beach Boys songs in his head and assign parts to each member of the group, the tunes then emerging fully formed – but while Lucas shaped every nuance and every frame of Star Wars, other people nevertheless made seminal contributions, and the constraints of time and budget also played their part in determining what was achievable. Furthermore, Lucas’s absolute purity and exactitude of vision would come to the fore only after several (at times nebulous) globules of creativity had coalesced to the point of registering on his internal scanner of certitude and so becoming part of the production process. Fans who live and breathe Star Wars through a continuity filter they cannot suffer to remove should remember that much of the detail they now hold as sacrosanct, Lucas patched together over many years to accommodate nothing more de rigueur than a broad reenergising of the space opera genre and two or three set piece scenes he thought would be visually effective. Darth Vader’s iconic mask was originally part of a spacesuit, not a core element of his character. The Millennium Falcon took on its distinctive shape as a hasty revision after there appeared on Space: 1999 a ship too much like the model already built. Luke in one draft was a woman, and only at the eleventh hour was renamed Skywalker (from Starkiller, which was thought to evince A-list celebrity murders). Even something as seemingly quintessential as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s demise aboard the Death Star was a late script change, concocted during filming and (at least in its initial form) to the disgruntlement of Sir Alec Guinness.

While making Star Wars George Lucas demanded something akin to godlike autonomy within a constantly evolving framework – almost as if directing a lucid dream – and in examining each scene of the movie from conception to final edit, The Making of Star Wars shows not only how particular he was in piecing together his magnum opus, but also, oddly, how malleable the Star Wars universe proved in its formative stages and how very different each element could have been. The movie that is so greatly beloved by audiences in fact fell well short of what Lucas had hoped to achieve, and throughout pre-production, filming and then post-production he consistently expressed his disappointment: so much so that amidst the cornucopia of production photos in Rinzler’s book – an invaluable visual record and an idiosyncratic time capsule of 1970s fashion – it is difficult to look upon Lucas’s bearded, curly haired, frustrated visage and not construe a harbinger of Rowan Atkinson’s oft-thwarted Elizabethan incarnation of Blackadder. Such nefarious associations aside, the lush and unstinting pictorial content ensures that The Making of Star Wars is well worth delving into as a coffee table book, albeit one that retails at £40.00 and contains matter-of-fact prose sufficiently exhaustive to constitute heavy reading for even the most dedicated of fans. From the technical side of filmmaking it is hard to envisage a more comprehensive work, but Rinzler’s compendium is valuable beyond its dry chronicling of method and fact, offering much also by way of anecdote and in bringing out the personalities of those people (particularly Lucas) who dedicated themselves to the making of Star Wars.

All told, Rinzler’s is a book that should appeal to anyone with a fondness for Star Wars or an interest in the history and development of SF motion pictures. The question of whether or not it’s worth the cover price might fall ultimately to such intangibles as how badly you’d like to meet the walrus who voiced Chewbacca, or how curious you are as to how a bantha may be brought to life sans CGI but one elephant to the good. If nothing else, though, The Making of Star Wars constitutes an unparalleled vista of behind-the-scenes enterprise, and for most of us an eye-opener as to the vast quantities of time, money and effort poured into each labyrinthine second of screen time on a science fiction classic such as that which Lucas delivered unto the world in the cinematic dawn of 1977.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Lucy / review by Stephen Theaker

Sorry to say it, but Lucy would be a better film if Morgan Freeman’s scenes were cut. It’s no fault of the actor: his character’s lecture on accessing the full potential of the human brain is so daft that if I’d been watching on TV I’d have changed the channel. In the cinema, I got through it by deciding that this film takes place on an Earth where animals really do use only a few percentage points of their brains – though why would evolution encourage them to do so? – and human brains are similarly wasted.

Until Lucy, that is, who while being forced to act as a drug mule gets kicked in the belly, making an experimental drug leak into her system. It’s an artificial replication of the substance that lets a foetus develop so quickly in a mother’s womb, and the effect on Lucy is to cause all the cells in her body to be replaced at an incredible rate, letting her “colonise” her own brain and acquire incredible powers.

Super-strength and super-intelligence come first, then later telekinesis, mind control, changing her physical appearance, and tapping into electronic communications. By the end she can do pretty much everything she sets her mind to, apart from, apparently, dealing adequately with the gangsters who want their drugs back, leading to a bloody massacre of the police protecting the university laboratory where Lucy tries to save herself.

Lucy would be a typical film from the Luc Besson European action factory, another in the line of The Transporter, Unleashed and Taken, all guns, gangsters and car chases, but it’s a bit better than that for two reasons: the science fiction angle, because although the science is ludicrous, the powers in action are great fun; and Scarlett Johansson, who is compelling and committed, giving an Oscar-level performance in a film that seems surprised to contain it.

Not bad, but don’t take 100% of your brain to the cinema.  ***

Friday, 12 December 2014

Infidel by Kameron Hurley / review by Tim Atkinson

There’s nothing this reviewer better enjoys than returning to an author and finding that they’ve upped their game. Compared to God’s War, Kameron Hurley’s still striking debut, its sequel Infidel is better in every respect.

While the former foundered a little under the weight of its baroque world-building, Infidel returns to the same setting to tell a story. And by revisiting much the same cast, building on what has gone before, Hurley shows that she can invest these characters with depth and moral complexity.

Infidel’s fictional universe resists easy categorisation: Hurley herself suggests bug-punk, which is at least pithier than grimdark-feminist-biotech-anti-clerical-planetary romance.

But try picturing a crapsack desert planet populated by bloody-minded Abrahamic monotheists: some matriarchal, nearly all of them homicidal. And then throw in the insects. Lots and lots of insects.

Once tools of terraforming, colonies of genetically engineered critters are now the basis of the planetary economy of the remote world of Umayma. Transport, medicine, architecture, war: all are powered by bugs manipulated by specially attuned “magicians”.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I like this idea.

While its treatment in Infidel is pretty much indistinguishable from magic, the concept is SF to the core, extrapolating boldly from the remote-controlled flies of today’s laboratories. And for me a real taste of otherness is a fair exchange for some authorial hand-waving.

Having done most of this scene-setting in God’s War, Hurley kicks the sequel off in media res and pushes onwards at a cracking rate, alternating between bloody action and murky intrigue. Our main point-of-view character is Nyx: bounty-hunter, former state-sponsored assassin and all-round toxic individual.

Starting out in the first book as not much more than forward momentum with occasional swearing, she has grown in the sequel to become a tragic protagonist. She is not a nice person by any definition: she murders, tortures and betrays to get her way. But Nyx is a self-aware monster; she doesn’t like what she’s become. She’s capable of radical selflessness in her dealings with her team. And she’s guided more than she admits by her own residual but strangely irreducible code of honour.

It’s her honour and loyalty to her country which led Nyx in Infidel to accept an offer to investigate the attempted regicide of her Queen by renegade assassins. In no time at all, she finds herself a barbarian in a foreign country, unexpectedly reunited with former team-mates, out of her depth, double-crossed and played.

All of this makes for a much better constructed plot than God’s War. Hurley still may be a little too prone to invoking the Coincidence Fairy to tie up the loose ends, but there’s a fine thriller underneath all the insectile trappings. And while I honestly still couldn’t tell you exactly what the antagonists actually wanted in the first book, here I don’t just know their aims, I could even empathise with them to some degree.

Despite being a giant leap forward for the author, the same things “bug” me about Infidel as its predecessor. Hurley has impeccable liberal credentials – as anyone who has read her blog will be aware – yet as Adam Roberts has pointed out in an otherwise positive review of God’s War, writing pseudo-Middle Eastern desert-dwellers intent on killing each other over religious differences is inherently open to problematic readings. And for all that faith is core to the world Hurley has created, there’s no sense of why it matters so vitally to its people or fuels global conflict.

Infidel may fall short of greatness, but it’s still a very good book. And it’s only her second, people, only her second! My hopes for Rapture, the third in this trilogy, are high indeed.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Games shift from arena to conference room as heroine juggles public persona with personal quandary

Director Francis Lawrence had his work cut out for him with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the first of the two-part conclusion to The Hunger Games series. He had to adapt the first (and more subdued) half of the final novel in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy into a film that maintains the viewer’s attention and builds tension without stealing the show from the finale.

Though the film’s beginning suffers from an overindulgence in mourning war ruins, Lawrence pulls off what turns out to be a tense and emotionally stirring film more about psychological games than fights and explosions… but it still has some of the latter!

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen, having thrown a wrench (an arrow actually) into the most recent game, recovers in the underground headquarters of District 13, hitherto rumored to be destroyed. Here Katniss discovers that although the arena games are over, she’s still a contestant in a game whose stakes are much higher.

The districts of Panem, fueled by Katniss’s Hunger Games heroics, have grown more hostile toward the Capitol, their wealthy oppressor. District 13’s scheming leadership wants to intensify this animosity to overthrow the Capitol. Their plan: convince Katniss to become the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution that will stoke the fire building within the districts.

Sounds like a great plan. However, one huge obstacle deters Katniss from jumping into that role wholeheartedly: her two-time Hunger Games cohort and budding love interest Peeta Mellark has been captured by the Capitol.

When Action Wanes, Bring in the Big Shots
Because Mockingjay – Part 1 has notably less action – I count two brief action scenes – than The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it needs something beyond the reputation of its predecessors to keep the viewer engaged. The solution comes in an all-star cast.

The Hunger Games mainstays Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) continue to offer strong performances. Particularly impressive is Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta’s mental deterioration. shown in a series of video interviews. Nevertheless, these two take a back seat, enabling other equally engaging characters to step forward.

The Manipulators
The buttons in Mockingjay – Part 1 get pushed mostly by three conference room connivers intent on manipulating the public and duping their adversaries.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s post-mortem appearance as Plutarch Heavensbee shows what a loss the film world experienced. Heavensbee, a District 13 political puppeteer, seeks to unveil and capitalize on what makes Katniss so appealing to the public. He sees Katniss as a tool to overcome the Capitol. When Katniss gets angry, Hoffman/Heavensbee could just as well be an automobile enthusiast admiring the roar of a Maserati.

Julianne Moore slips rather than barges into the conflict as District 13 President Alma Coin, a less easily categorized complement to the other publicity-seeking (Heavensbee) and confrontational (Snow) power players. With her grey clothes, eyes, and hair, Moore portrays a tepid leader whose true intentions are hazy. Is she good? Is she bad? She’s “in the grey”. Flip a coin!

On the Capitol side, Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is a case study in self-control, arrogance, and cunning. Snow, whose pristine white hair and suit belie his malicious intent, has a nearly omniscient view of district goings-on. His carefully prepared televised speech explains to the have-nots that the Capitol is the reason they are alive. “Your districts are the body,” he says. “The Capitol is the beating heart.” The implication: you can’t survive without a heart. And don’t you dare let him catch you giving the Mockingjay salute!

Katniss Everdeen: Pawn, Liberator, or a Bit of Both?
In popular films, there are still far too many beautiful numbskulls and female action heroes who do what a typical male action hero would do. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, ranging from tentative warrior to distraught teenage girl, offers hope for the plight of female leads. Katniss uses guile and pluck rather than sexuality or boys’ club bravado to achieve her objectives.

One example of Lawrence’s talent is the contrast between Katniss’s awkwardly delivered prepared speech and a rage-charged impromptu invective against President Snow. “If we burn, you burn with us!”

With all those power players tweaking the dials, what is Katniss’s role? Is she merely a pawn, or does she influence the outcome? Here’s something to think about: Katniss must find the balance between District 13’s desire to fuel the uprising and her own desire to protect Peeta. Complicating matters, a psychologically off-kilter Peeta doesn’t win any district friends when he encourages would-be Capitol enemies to lay down their arms.

Peeved with a Capitol President
With President Snow and the Capitol’s privileged inhabitants, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives us “The Man”. What makes this film (and the whole series) so compelling is the goal of “sticking it” to him.

And who does society rest its hopes on? Not on Thor or Jason Bourne. Not on James Bond or the Men in Black. Instead, the fate of Panem rests on a 17-year-old girl who can’t stand seeing others in pain.

So we wait another year until the conclusion. Hopefully, it’s faithful to the book. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 5 December 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid, Vol. 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Mark Waid applies a soft reboot to the Man Without Fear, referencing the dark stories of previous years but permitting Matt Murdock to make a conscious decision to let it go and make a fresh start. Yes, his secret identity made the news, but who believes what they see on the news any more? Taking new cases when there’s a media brouhaha is tricky, but Matt and loyal legal partner Foggy Nelson decide to work behind the scenes, coaching litigants in person, and that leads Daredevil into encounters with new enemies. To someone who has read the headline Daredevil stories – like those by Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Brian Michael Bendis – without digging deep into the back catalogue, this felt like a novel take on the character. Less grubby than usual, with a bright colour palette and a good deal of humour; Daredevil’s a supersniffer, so he wants Foggy eating fresh food instead of Wotsits. With its acrobatic and cheerful but still-damaged hero, strong design sense, and science adventure elements, Waid’s Daredevil is reminiscent of Mike Allred’s Madman, though it’s a bit less poppy and zany. The writing and art are clever and imaginative, the stories showing the many uses to which the blind superhero can put his supersensory powers, and the artists, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, finding many clever ways to show how those powers work – the cover being a good example. It’s nice to see Daredevil dragged out of the doldrums and having some fun.  ***

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ten reasons I failed at Nanowrimo this year…

Disappointingly, I didn’t finish my November novel this year. Never mind, I wrote about a third of it and got nine chapters done, so it’ll run for two years as a serial in TQF before I have to decide what happens next! Why did I fail? Let’s investigate. I write this mainly for my own reference next year, so I don’t make the same mistakes again.

1. I just didn’t spend long enough working on it. That’s always the main reason. Everything else is just detail. Was it really wise to buy Grand Theft Auto V in the middle of the month? Could I not have gone a month without watching Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory? Did I need to read sixteen books and graphic novels?

2. My structure was too bitty. My novel was to be made up of thirty self-contained episodes, one to be written a day. Making them so self-contained will be great for when they run in the magazine, but it meant each chapter needed much more thought than my daft novels usually do.

3. I tried writing a novel in the present tense. For the first time. I was trying to create a sense of excitement and immediacy (inspired in part by reading Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century). But I kept forgetting and slipped into the past tense over and over, and had to go back through what I’d just written to change the tense.

4. The writing never became routine. All month I was trying to carve out space for writing my new novel instead of it being set aside from the beginning. I never developed any good habits. In the run-up to the 2013 event I had written at least 250 words a day for the previous 73 days, and it wasn’t hard to ramp that up a bit for November.

5. I didn’t do enough in October to clear my (hobby) desk. I didn’t get TQF49 finished till November, and out of some daft sense of duty I took on issue thirteen of the perpetually accident-prone BFS Journal instead of putting my own project first. I’m going to be a bit more selfish about my time in 2015.

6. I let my writing muscles go cold. After the first week, I decided to work extremely hard on everything else I do so that I could take the last week off to write my novel, but that meant that by the time I reached the last week I was worn out from working so hard and hadn’t done any writing of any kind, not even reviews or blog posts, for weeks.

7. I faffed about too much deciding where to write and what to write on. I love writing in Daedalus Touch on my iPad, but my series one iPad doesn’t get many updates any more and the app is unreliable. I got into a terrible mess when it synced to Dropbox and added duplicate versions of my chapters. Next year it’s Scrivener all the way, except when I’m out and about. If I feel like a change I can always use Word to edit the Scrivener files.

8. My idea was almost too good (by my standards). I liked it so much that I didn’t want to spoil it, and spent ages thinking about how to fulfill its potential instead of just getting on with it and writing the usual gubbins.

9. I’ve let my typing get rusty and lazy. I need to find my copy of Mavis Beacon, or buy a new one, because I’ve developed some bad habits. One of my little fingers isn’t pulling its weight.

10. My sleeping patterns were all wrong. At the moment I get up early and go to bed early, but a couple of lonely hours last thing at night are better for writing than a couple of hours in the morning with the children.

But never mind! I’ll do better next year. Because I’ll read this blog post. (Hi Stephen of 2015! Don’t make the mistakes I did. Regards, Stephen of 2014. xoxo)

If you finished your own novel last month, well done! If you didn't, don't be downhearted. Buy a new notebook and leave it on your desk. Won't be long before you start thinking of new ideas to put in it.

Wednesday is occasionally list day on the blog, and this is list #18.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe / review by Stephen Theaker

Not to be confused with the book of critical writings by the same name about the same author, Shadows of the New Sun (Tor, hb, 416pp) is an anthology of fiction celebrating the work of Gene Wolfe. Two of his own stories bookend the collection. In “Frostfree” Roy Tabak gets home to find a new refrigerator with unusual capabilities has been delivered. The story develops in interesting directions, but in itself isn’t quite enough to demonstrate why Wolfe is the kind of writer to deserve a tribute. Closing story “Sea of Memory” is more reminiscent of the work for which he is lauded. Adele is helping to build a colony, but memories are foggy and time seems strangely confused. The conclusion disappoints, but the disorientation is convincing.

Neil Gaiman may attract as many readers to this book as Gene Wolfe, and “A Lunar Labyrinth” won’t disappoint them. An aficionado of rural attractions goes to see a maze which visitors would wander at night, until the locals decided to burn it. Less superstarry names offer stories that are just as good. Steven Savile’s “Ashes” is a moving, subtly magical story about Steve, whose sweetheart died; in desperation he goes on the honeymoon they had planned. “...And Other Stories” by Nancy Kress plays on the fiction-hopping of “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, telling the story of Caitlin, cursed by her grandmother to live through the most miserable of fictional lives. Jack Dann’s “The Island of Time” riffs on the same source, but this time fiction is an escape from abuse. The stories here are generally short, but Aaron Allston’s fifty-page “Epistoleros” justifies the space it’s been given, from its clever title – it’s a story of gunslingers told through a series of letters – to its equally clever ending.

The notes don’t always identify the stories to which these are paying tribute, and most can be enjoyed without having read the originals, though that means you get Wolfe’s ideas secondhand. “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick, about the daughters of a wealthy perfumier, and whether they are the descendants of colonists or the descendants of natives who murdered and replaced the colonists, is one of the best stories here, but “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” deserves to be read first. Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s “Tourist Trap” visits the protagonists of “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton” in a Bavarian prison, and makes much more sense read after the original story.

Despite the title, disappointingly few stories connect to the Book of the New Sun, though of course there’s more to Wolfe than that quartet. “In the Shadow of the Gate” by William C. Dietz has Severian, between Shadow and Claw, targeted by an offworld assassin and battling beast men while passing through the great wall surrounding Nessus. The queerness of Severian’s world is captured better by Jody Lynn Nye in “The Dream of the Sea”, set after the coming of the new sun; the Order of Esoteric and Practical Knowledge sends Nedel on a quest to find the missing Autarch. Severian makes a guest appearance (as does Wolfe) in Joe Haldeman’s “The Island of the Death Doctor”, a “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” with fictional rather than historical characters.

Surprisingly, Wolfe is revealed as a friendly, convivial figure, quite unlike his stern, unforgiving narrative style: “what would you do to earn a Gene Wolfe approving chuckle?”, asks Judi Rohrig, while Nye describes him as “a courtly gentleman with a twinkle and a sense of humor, modest, patient, appreciative”. The notes mention convention encounters as often as his fiction, creating a sense that many contributors were chosen as much for their friendship with Wolfe as their artistic affinity with his work. Songs of the Dying Earth introduced Jack Vance’s readers to writers with similar sensibilities; that’s less likely to happen here, but the range of stories will encourage readers to explore Wolfe’s rich back catalogue.

Michael Stackpole’s “Snowchild” is a good adventure story – a soldier and a war-mage form an unhappy alliance to rescue a girl from the maggot-folk – and his X-Wing novels have their admirers, but one wouldn’t especially recommend them to Wolfe’s fans. Timothy Zahn”s ‘A Touch of Rosemary” is a fun, clever fantasy, as the Wizard Knight sees off an invading witch king by inviting him to dinner. Todd McCaffrey’s “Rhubarb and Beets” has a nice line in casual cruelty – a fairy girl who gloats about her father’s cleverness to a man he stole from his family – and ends very well. “The Log” is a good story by David Brin about Russian families living miserable lives to be near exiled dissidents. There are no dull stories here, just a couple that are confusing, and most are very good. Novices might prefer to read The Very Best of... first, but if not they’ll still enjoy this.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #247, back in 2013.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 / review by Stephen Theaker

The seven volumes in this series look very smart lined up on my bookcase, but that made me forget that I hadn’t yet read Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse, tpb, c.400pp) (or its sequel), so I’ve put that right with great pleasure. Taken as a set, the seven omnibus volumes make a fantastic companion to the television programme, especially since their contents have been arranged in chronological order. The stories in these issues come from around the time that the Initiative was in town, so Buffy is dating Riley, Spike has a chip in his head, Willow is exploring witchcraft and romance with Tara, and Xander is with Anya. On television that felt like a sad time in the characters’ lives, even if they were all falling in love, because Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles, the original gang of four, were drifting apart, and frequently unhappy with each other. That made perfect sense in the show, but it’s nice that here in the comics everyone is still good and chummy. The writers include Christopher Golden, Tom Fassbender, Amber Benson and Jane Espenson. It’s odd that the kind of three-issue stories that seemed trivial when gathered together in flimsy graphic novels of under a hundred pages are satisfyingly substantial when run together as big, long stories in these books. It helps that this volume comes from the later, better period of the comic. The art, mostly by Cliff Richards, is good to great, the dialogue funny, the plots, well, maybe not brilliant but in the right enough ballpark that it felt authentically like Buffy.  ***

Monday, 24 November 2014

John Brunner by Jad Smith / review by Stephen Theaker

Sarah Pinborough once said that “anyone who thinks any writer, bestseller or on the breadline, writes for the money, is a fool”, but it would be equally foolish to think money has no effect on what they write – and especially on what we get to see of their work. This book on John Brunner (University of Illinois Press, hb, 196pp), who gave up scholarships and well-paying jobs to concentrate on writing, but frequently focused his efforts on fulfilling the particular needs of the market, illustrates both sides of the coin. Smith draws a picture of him as a writer often stranded in “interzones” (a word used here so frequently that a review in these pages was surely inevitable): too pessimistic and unpredictable for American readers, too market-orientated for the new wave; a devoted fan (after leaving the RAF he hoped to “spend a year at home writing ... and fanning”), but apparently unpopular on the convention scene.

Though coming from a university press – it forms part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois – this book isn’t steeped in literary criticism or swamped in jargon; general readers interested in the subject will find it perfectly accessible. Where it is polemical, it’s in support of the author’s ideas rather than his politics, in particular his thesis that Brunner’s whole oeuvre is worth studying, not just the books that won awards; he wants to situate “his better-known works within the larger arc of his career”. He shows how Brunner’s writing career did not progress neatly from Ace entertainments to hardback Hugo-winning literature. Rather, the two types of book intertwined throughout his career, as he rushed some books out to fund the concentrated spells of attention that more ambitious works required.

That Stand on Zanzibar was released to a hostile reception, and treated as a commercial, American appropriation of the New Wave, may be a surprise to readers accustomed to regarding it as a well-established part of the science fiction canon. A review of Telepathist in Vector described it as the kind of affected intellectualism “one might expect from an author who sports a goatee and a wine-coloured corduroy jacket”. Although the book is very much on Brunner’s side in such matters – Moorcock, Aldiss and Platt are portrayed as nothing short of schoolyard bullies – it does acknowledge his moodiness and, for example, Zanzibar’s immense debt to Dos Passos. Asides such as that describing “John and Marjorie’s relationship as sexually open and emotionally tumultuous” suggest a biography proper would be worthwhile.

Given that this is a book which, very usefully, draws on several hard-to-find primary sources – fanzines, letters and convention speeches, for example – it’s disappointing that it is so parsimonious with its quotations, rarely providing more than a line or two of Brunner himself. While that contributes to its readability, it does mean the reader is left to accept the author’s paraphrases and interpretations of Brunner’s words, rather than being able to come to their own conclusions. A short interview is included, from 1975, but that gives us only a snapshot of a particular period of his writing, a single mood. An extensive bibliography takes up the book’s last quarter, so at least signposts to the original texts are there for those who want to investigate further.

The book doesn’t provide a radical new way of looking at Brunner’s work – the overall effect is of a well-crafted and lengthy encyclopaedia entry written by someone with a slight bias towards to the subject – but it argues well for the continuing interest and relevance of his work. Hard to argue with that when Smith’s summary of The Sheep Look Up sounds like a week’s worth of headlines from The Independent: “Fish stocks are depleted. Natural bee populations have collapsed ... Human bodies fester with once-controlled but now drug-resistant diseases.” Smith is also right to highlight the strangeness of such a book coming from the same writer as, say, The Super Barbarians and its goofy portrayal of human exceptionalism.

Readers unfamiliar with Brunner’s novels would find this a perfect introduction to them (except in so far as it gives away the plots, but that’s only to be expected in a critical study). Even those who have read the award winners may find their interest piqued by discussion of fringe titles: The Atlantic Abomination sounds much better than the title would suggest. Smith mentions in places that certain works were never reprinted, and it’s a sad fact that Brunner was almost entirely out of print at the time of his death, but one pleasure of reading this book is knowing almost all of it is now available (albeit, in some cases, marred by appalling typos) via the SF Gateway. This book left me keen to read more Brunner, and also to read further titles in the Modern Masters range.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #245, back in 2013.