Monday, 25 July 2016

Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, by Volition Software (Deep Silver) | review

An Xbox One re-release of the lovably reprehensible Xbox 360 game, including two expansions, Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Saved Christmas, this picks up in gameplay terms from where the Saints Row: The Third expansions went: superpowers. Jumping over (small) buildings in a single bound, almost as fast as a speeding bullet, and throwing blasts of ice and fire like Spider-Man’s amazing friends. When the game begins you are president of the United States of America, and Keith David is vice-president. Luckily the tedium of governing the nation is broken by an alien invasion, who abduct you and your staff and at least some of the human race before blowing up the planet and sticking you all in a computer simulation of your home town. Yes, this series may have begun as a cheap knock-off of Grand Theft Auto but it’s carved out territory of its very own in the places other grown-up games don’t go: the ludicrous, the unrealistic, the absurd, the capricious. It’s post-modern, metatextual, and constantly self-referential. The Enter the Dominatrix expansion, for example, is presented as a series of deleted scenes from the main game, with the characters from the game commenting on their portrayal in the scenes and their performances, and climactic sequences shown as pre-vis rather than expensive cut-scenes. There are aspects I don’t much like: search for the game on Google Images and you’re likely to see unflattering snapshots of strippers, bondage gear and giant dildo bats. However, the option to customise your main character means that this can be (and was for me) a game about the amazing brown-skinned female president who saved humanity. While wearing nifty costumes, like a pirate suit or a superhero costume or pretty much anything else you can think of, up to and including a giant Barack Obama head. And then she makes friends with a race of dinosaurs! This may not ever be a series of games that I’ll buy on release day, but when the DLC is bundled in and you can get it for a good price it becomes an essential purchase. There is a deep well of nonsensical fun and intelligent idiocy here that other games would do well to draw on. The item I’d like to take from this game into others: the Christmas dubstep gun, that makes everyone bounce around to a Yuletide jingle. Stephen Theaker ****


Friday, 22 July 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, by David Tallerman (Digital Horror Fiction) | review by Rafe McGregor

David Tallerman has achieved not only remarkable but rare success with his short fiction. In the space of nine years, he has had more than seventy-five stories published in venues such as Clarkesworld, Interzone, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare, AE, Chiaroscuro… and of course Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. This is his first short story collection – the appearance of which is itself an achievement given the reluctance of publishers to take on such projects. The short story came into its own with the rise of literacy in Europe and North America during the nineteenth century, but declined dramatically with the rise of domestic television ownership during the twentieth century. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is easy to forget that many of the most famous speculative fiction writers – Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and even Stephen King – began their careers as writers of short fiction. The notion of supporting oneself financially by short fiction alone is already archaic and authors like David (and publications like Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction) breathe life into what might otherwise be a dying art form. I must interject a disclosure (or perhaps disclaimer) before I proceed: I met David while he was living in York and was surprised to discover that he had been kind enough to dedicate The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories to me in memory of the small assistance I was able to give him with the initial drafts of some of the stories. Our acquaintance has not prevented me from writing this review, however, because my primary concern is not the quality of the stories. That has already been judged by others: thirteen of the fourteen have been previously published – in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Nightmare, Flash Fiction Online, Necrotic Tissue, Bull Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Angry Robot’s blog, and three anthologies – with “War of the Rats” appearing for the first time.

The collection makes several hard to acquire or out of print publications available again, most notably “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” from The Willows and Spectral Press’s “The Way of the Leaves”. For this, Digital Horror Fiction (which is an imprint of the Digital Fiction Publishing Corp) should be praised, as well as for selling both the digital and paperback editions at reasonable prices. The publisher is nonetheless the target of my main criticism, which is that the paperback appears to have been deliberately extended across as many pages as possible. The font is on the large side of medium and the lines are double-spaced, so that even a work of flash fiction (the excellent “The Desert Cold”) is stretched over four pages (six if one counts the illustration). Each story has its own black and white illustration, by the talented Duncan Kay, on a verso page but the respective recto pages have been left blank and there is altogether too much white space between front and back cover. What puzzles me is that if there was a need to increase the page count – and I understand that there often is for a variety of reasons – the publisher didn’t include more of David’s stories. There are plenty to choose from – “Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn”, published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #37 (2011), to take just one example. Kay’s illustrations provide an impeccable complement to the stories, from first (“The Burning Room”) to last (“The Way of the Leaves”) with no exceptions. Where they are particularly successful is in the pictorial representation of the way in which David mixes the literary with the pulp uses of language. Kay offers David’s readers a mirror in which the pitch of each story is perfectly reflected, from the humour and self-conscious playfulness of “My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Aged 7” to the sophistication and seriousness of “Prisoner of Peace”. Kay has also pulled off another balancing act, revealing enough of each tale to tease his audience while expertly avoiding spoilers in a completely harmonious match between illustrator and author.

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories is introduced by Adrian Tchaikovsky of Shadows of the Apt and insect-kinden fame. Commenting on the theme of the volume, he writes: “Every story here opens a door onto some human trauma: loss, grief, death, murder and madness, encounters with the horrors of the supernatural and perhaps the worse horrors that simple mundane world can inflict” (p. 2). I’m not sure whether his description is accurate. If it is meant to indicate a distinctive world-view, in the sense that S.T. Joshi takes as definitive of the weird tale as opposed to other categories of speculative fiction, then not because there is no consistent gestalt that underpins these stories. If it is meant to indicate that all of the collected stories belong to the horror rather than fantasy or science fiction genres, then Tchaikovsky is correct and whatever else they achieve, they inspire the right combination of the fear and disgust that one demands from the tale of terror traditional or contemporary. The absence of underlying world-view does not detract from the unity of the volume; one of its strengths is the way the stories criss-cross the style and substance of subdivisions within the genre – gothic romanticism, the English ghost story, and the cosmic weird to name but three. The collection is to my mind well-named: “The Sign in the Moonlight” is my favourite story, where fact and fiction combine to produce a tensely entertaining tale inspired by – rather than a slavish pastiche of – the themes explored by H.P. Lovecraft. My only disappointment is “A Twist Too Far”. The narrative is accomplished enough on its own, and was no doubt an asset to the issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in which it appeared, but is eclipsed by “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” here. The stories are quite similar and the latter is superior in both intrigue and ingenuity. A minor complaint in a collection that is a major success.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Invincible, Vol. 18: The Death of Everyone, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cliff Rathburn (Image Comics/Skybound) | review

Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, is an extremely strong and durable (albeit not indestructible) superhero who inherited his powers from his father, an alien who was originally hanging around on Earth with a view to making it a part of his people’s empire. As this volume begins, Invincible’s powers are on the blink, and Zandale, the hero formerly known as Bulletproof, has been keeping his costume warm. But Zandale is about to make the mistake of telling his parents his astonishing origin story, and Mark will discover that sometime ally, more often enemy Dinosaurus has been making big plans. It’s a shocking book from start to finish, as you might expect from the collection that spans this comic’s hundredth issue. That’s one of the things I love about this comic, its scope for telling those huge stories: it’s as if Crisis on Infinite Earths, Civil War, Infinite Crisis, The Death of Superman and Zero Hour all happened in the same ongoing series. The status quo can be completely upended in Invincible – and in this volume it does, a good half dozen times – without concern for the effect upon twenty other books that feature the same character. This isn’t the remixed version of a story I’ve read three times already, and when Mark’s friends are in danger there’s every chance that they could really die. That’s why I’m up to volume eighteen of this when I haven’t even reached issue eighteen of a new DC or Marvel universe book in years. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 July 2016

Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone Collector’s Edition, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag) | review by Rafe McGregor

I wonder if (m)any readers remember the thrill of picking up The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the first time? Of realising that they hadn’t lost their thread in the real world, but were lost in the maze under the mountain? Or of not realising they were in the maze until the appearance of the deadly Minotaur? Firetop Mountain, the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, published by Puffin in August 1982. The series was a great success, with fifty-nine books available by 1995. The first instalment nonetheless remained the most popular, spawning two sequels – Return to Firetop Mountain (#50, 1992) and Legend of Zagor (#54, 1993) – various spin-off products, and reprinting as late as 2010. I find it difficult to convey the excitement of Fighting Fantasy to twenty-first century readers, but one must remember that they appeared in a decade without the internet or household computers, where “TV games” (for those who could afford them) were restricted to Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which was well underway when Firetop Mountain appeared, Fighting Fantasy was aimed at young adults rather than children, with the best adventures combining compelling storytelling with pleasing terror at what awaited in the next numbered section. I must have played Firetop Mountain for the first time in 1985 or 1986, but quickly left Fighting Fantasy for a newer series. Lone Wolf was written by Joe Dever and launched with Flight from the Dark, first published by Sparrow in 1984. Where Fighting Fantasy were all standalone adventures, some of which took place in different universes, Lone Wolf adventures were self-contained but constituted an extended quest by a single character who progressed to new levels of expertise in a vividly-drawn and complex world called Magnamund. The epic began with the extermination of the Kai – an order of warriors dedicated to protecting the nation of Sommerlund as well as the rest of the free (medievally-speaking) world – at the hands of the demonic Darklords of Helgedad. Readers adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf), the sole survivor of the Darklord attack, and his first mission was to convey the bad news to the king. The missions became gradually more challenging as Lone Wolf advanced in power and ended up with the destruction of the Darklords in The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988). The road to Helgedad and beyond was a rocky one, however, no more so than for Dever himself.

The first sign of the troubles ahead began between books 7 and 8, Castle Death (1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (1987), when Dever had an acrimonious split with his illustrator. Once the Darklords were destroyed and the (New Order of the) Kai re-established, there seemed little work left for Kor-Skarn, but Dever launched the Grand Master series with The Plague Lords of Ruel in 1990. Although readers continue with the same character, who had by now reached unprecedented levels of power, there was no overarching epic quest and each new adventure saw Lone Wolf troubleshooting evil in a previously unexplored region of Magnamund. I must admit my interest flagged a little at this stage – partly due to my age, no doubt, but also because I found the individual missions something of an anti-climax after the extended campaign of the first dozen. If some, like me, left the fold temporarily, replacements must have been pouring in as the Grand Master series raced to its conclusion in The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). Kor-Skarn’s powers were now demigod-like and Dever did something risky but astute, introducing a new persona for readers. Twelve books were planned for the New Order series, beginning with Voyage of the Moonstone in 1994. The second New Order adventure, The Buccaneers of Shadakai, was published in the same year, but Red Fox had concerns about the internet-technology-inspired loss of interest in gamebooks and dropped Dever after The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998).

Dever then made another wise decision, authorising a group of enthusiasts calling themselves “Project Aon” to upload all of the gamebooks as free ebooks in various platforms, i.e. used precisely the technology that had killed the series to maintain interest. Such was the fan base that all twenty-eight books were made available over the next fifteen years (Project Aon completed in 2014 and can be found at www.projectaon.org). In the interim, the secondhand market for Lone Wolf paperbacks went berserk. There had been some problem with the publication of The Buccaneers of Shadakai, the result of which was that it sold out almost immediately in 1994. Five years later, copies were selling for hundreds of pounds. I confess to spending the most I have ever spent on a book (£200) at a time when I really couldn’t afford it (1999) to acquire a copy (left on my town centre doorstep by the postman). A new copy of the same paperback is now going for £999 on Amazon. The final instalment is currently the most sought after: The Hunger of Sejanoz varies between £699 and £999 for used copies.

The gamble with Project Aon seemed to pay off in 2004 when Mongoose Publishing launched a Lone Wolf Role Playing Game. The following year, however, Dever underwent surgery for cancer and was out of the public eye for some time. In 2010, with Dever fully-recovered, Mongoose announced that they would republish all the Lone Wolf books in a hardback Collector’s Edition, with new illustrations and fresh revisions by Dever. The books were priced at about £15, very reasonable given the quality of the covers, paper, and binding, and Mongoose furthermore offered a Megadeal: all twenty-eight plus the previously unpublished books 29 to 32 for something like £300 (a substantial saving). Despite my previous profligacy I was wary, having been burned by small presses before (and since). I was initially proved wrong, with seventeen books released in three years, but there was a lull of a few months in 2012 and the following February Dever announced (via Project Aon) that he and Mongoose had split by mutual consent. Two further announcements followed in quick succession: the German Mantikore Verlag would be publishing books 18 to 28 (in English) in the same Collector’s Edition format (March) as well as the final four volumes (April).

Mantikore published book 18, Dawn of the Dragons, in May 2013 and began the New Order series with the Collector’s Edition of Voyage of the Moonstone – which this review is supposed to be about – last year. The Buccaneers of Shadakai was also published in 2015 and I have found them easiest to acquire via Amazon (rather than the publisher). The books appear to automatically revert to “unavailable” on the publication date, but can be bought at the same price (still £15-odd) via secondhand sellers (at least one of which is based in Germany). Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, all my Mantikore edition purchases have been entirely satisfactory – purchased more for support than anything else as the first gap in my collection is book 25. I’m not completely convinced I’ll ever hold a copy of Trail of the Wolf as publication appears to have slowed down again, although cover artwork is available for Mydnight’s Hero (#23) and The Storms of Chai (#29). According to Wikipedia, the series (published in numerous languages – there are three on Project Aon alone – and including numerous spin-offs) has sold eleven and a half million copies worldwide, but the real figure must be considerably higher given all the craziness on the secondhand market.

Voyage of the Moonstone begins thirty-three years after Flight from the Dark and readers must create a new character by use of the series’ standard method, a random number table. I’m afraid my New Order warrior has the rather delicate name of True Friend, but he is a Kai Grand Master, can kill you with his bare hands, live off the land indefinitely, and move small objects by looking at them, so you’d better not tease him about it. True Friend’s first mission is to return the magical artifact called the Moonstone (with which readers of the series will be familiar) to its rightful owners on the Isle of Lorne. One of the reasons Dever’s decision to reboot with True Friend was shrewd is because it does away with the only consistent criticism of books 3 to 20: that they are either too easy or too hard, depending upon the combination of whether one acquired the Sommerswerd (the broadsword to end all broadswords) at the end of Fire on the Water (#2, 1984) and one’s Kai level (determined by the number of books one has previously completed). I think the critique is overly harsh because I picked up the Sommerswerd on cue, but remained far from invulnerable – aside from which there are various other magic weapons to be found in unlikely places. Notwithstanding, True Friend has no such problems, carrying no Sommerswerd and with no previous adventures counting towards his skills.

Given my emotional and financial investment in Lone Wolf, I can hardly do anything other than recommend Voyage of the Moonstone. I shall, however, say that although the first New Order adventure is as good as many of the originals (and perhaps better than several of the Grand Master series), the finale – always a single combat with a particularly nasty denizen of Magnamund (or the Daziarn Plane) – is a little disappointing. The Otokh is a giant lightning-spinning sea-spider (depicted on the cover), which sounds sinister as I type, but wasn’t quite as menacing as some of the antagonists I’ve dispatched with the Sommerswerd. A regular feature of the Mantikore editions has been the inclusion of a bonus mini-adventure and the first New Order Collector’s Edition continues this practice with a return to Kor-Skarn entitled “Echoes of the Moonstone” (written by Eberhard Eschwe and Swen Harder). This is an unusual choice, subject to the problems noted above despite having a strategy for dealing with them, but is close to the main adventure in length so the reader at least gets two for one. Voyage of the Moonstone ends midway through the mission such that it is not clear whether True Friend will end up on an epic quest of the likes of his master’s early years or take over as Magnamund’s chief troubleshooter. The mission continues in The Buccaneers of Shadaki – going for a song at £13.71.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Legend of Tarzan | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

New take on classic story swings engagingly between action, setting, and character.

Whether you’ve confronted Tarzan in a comic book, a Disney cartoon, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, chances are you don’t envision the iconic jungle-dwelling adventurer as a tea drinker.

However, sipping tea among British diplomats is exactly what the now civilized hero (Alexander Skarsgård) is doing when we meet him in The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. The man raised by apes wants his colleagues to address him not as Tarzan, but rather as John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke. But that’s not what we viewers want!

So comes the call to adventure. Tarzan sets out to his motherland, the African Congo, with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and gun slinger George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to save his countrymen from slavery at the hand of Belgium’s King Leopold, who’s exploiting the land for his own gain.

Unbeknownst to Tarzan, Leopold’s chief envoy Leon Rom, masterfully played by Christoph Waltz, has promised Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that he will deliver Tarzan in exchange for the coveted diamonds of Opar. To up his odds, Rom captures Jane to lure Tarzan. Thus begins our ultra-ripped hero’s swinging, hollering, brawling quest punctuated by flashbacks to his jungle upbringing.

If you’re a huge fan of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) type nonstop zany action, then The Legend of Tarzan probably isn’t for you. However, if you approach this film with the same patience and reverence with which Tarzan approaches a cup of tea (or a lion), then you can walk away more than satisfied. Tarzan is, at its core, a damsel in distress story that shows the lengths to which an alpha male will go to save his mate (and his friends). It offers a sufficient dose of action including jungle acrobatics, battling troops and tribes, and attempting to escape the jungle’s deadliest creatures. Tarzan even takes on his gorilla brother in an attempt to regain his standing within the band. Sure, the film is rife with Hollywoodisms – watch for a gorilla waving on a herd of stampeding wildebeests – but isn’t that part of the Tarzan charm?

The film’s true strength lies more in its devotion to setting. The Legend of Tarzan is, above all, a milieu story about exploring a world much different than ours. This Tarzan isn’t an eccentric or complicated guy, but then again, he never was. Tarzan and the jungle are indelibly linked, and this film shows that relationship in his interactions with the natives and with the majestic creatures that today hover on the brink of extinction.

Another strength is the always entertaining Christoph Waltz, who tones down his typical verbosity with a more reserved Leon Rom. Though his panama suit and hat and the rosary he constantly clutches suggest a pious individual, Rom is anything but. He uses that rosary, made of super strong material, to strangle those who stand in his way.

Despite the outdoors focus, the film’s most entertaining scene occurs in the dining quarters of Rom’s boat, where we get to see Waltz in his element… table talk, that is (see Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) for shining examples). Here Rom attempts to host a cordial meal with his captive Jane. While his outward civility masks his true intent of testing Jane, Rom’s facial expressions, smiles, diction, and attentiveness to his guest serve up a delicacy at this cinematic feast. He even reaches over the table to reposition one of Jane’s utensils on her plate after she leaves.

Comedy relief sidekicks have the potential to be annoying, but Samuel L. Jackson makes it work as George Washington Williams. Williams spends most of this film trying to keep up with the hero, expressing shock, and commenting on Tarzan’s abilities. It’s as if he’s nudging the viewer and saying, “Can you believe this guy?”

Tarzan swings through the jungle. He cuddles with lions. He takes on gorillas and small armies. That is hard to believe. It’s also the stuff of legends. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Like the first one… just much worse.

Although President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) rousing speech in Independence Day (1996) is clichéd and overly dramatic, people can’t help but love it. It makes them feel something.

The makers of Independence Day: Resurgence had to make sure that Whitmore gave another speech. This time, the motley, over-medicated has-been attempts to do so in an airport hangar. Music plays. People gather. At the end, David Levinson’s (Jeff Goldblum) smirk seems to say, “Yeah, nowhere near as good as your first one.” Such is the sentiment that summarizes this film.

Independence Day, though far from a masterpiece, gained many fans. It showed nations uniting for a common cause. It revealed Will Smith’s emerging talent. It gave us the zaniness of Dr Brackish Okun, as well as Whitmore’s “Nuke ‘em. Let’s nuke the bastards.” It even started this whole monument destruction thing.

Roland Emmerich returns to direct a Smith-less (and witless) sequel that tries too hard to be like its predecessor. Major characters make sacrifices that fizzle, excessive pilot whooping gets annoying, skies filled with aircraft and lasers grow tedious, and attempts to stir emotion fall flat. In fact, the big idea of this film (i.e. aliens attack Earth, humans fight back) duplicates that of the first. Why even make this sequel?

The film takes place in a rainbows and butterflies (e.g. no terrorism, peace between nations) alternate present twenty years after the alien attack. You will hear that twenty years have elapsed again and again and again: two decades ago, 1996, twenty years ago, 7,000 days. Enough already!

It’s easy to see very early in the film why critics ripped this one apart: shallow characters, sub-par to abysmal acting, and expository dialogue.

Since this is an event movie, it presents no clearly defined protagonist. Instead, we are left with a stumbling cast of new characters, including dull pilots, a not-so-funny comic relief, Whitmore’s forgettable daughter, a sabre-wielding, scowling African warlord whose attempts at drama are laughable, and a psychiatrist who specializes in alien mind control. Then there are all the returning characters stuffed into the film.

One of the cast’s two saving graces is Jeff Goldblum, whose quirky walk and idiosyncratic speaking style always entertain. I’m paraphrasing here: “There’s a queen in there… a very… big… queen.” Goldblum’s professorial demeanor makes the film’s juvenile objective (i.e. blow up the bad guy) seem like a brilliant scientific deduction.

The raggedy Dr Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner), who springs up after a 20-year coma with his mind teeming with alien formulae, is another favorite. However, even his maniacal approach doesn’t have the same oomph as it did in Independence Day. Okun does manage to pull off the film’s one scene that transfers emotion to the viewer.

Where are the filmmakers trying to go with this movie? Are they trying to be silly-serious in the vein of Ghost Rider (2007)? They don’t succeed. Are they trying to tap into viewers’ emotions? They’re way off base: the film has too many palm-slapped-against-forehead failed attempts to wring out emotion. Ultimately, Independence Day: Resurgence, hovering somewhere between sci-fi drama and comedy, doesn’t know what it wants to be.

When I saw Independence Day twenty years ago, my fellow theatregoers responded with an intensity of clapping that I’ve never seen matched. After Independence Day: Resurgence, the theatre, though full, was silent. Do yourself a favour: just watch the original again. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday, 8 July 2016

Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams (MacMillan Audio) | review by Jacob Edwards

Laughter beyond fits.

Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book, and not just for the cosmic pull-tab placed so aptly on its front cover. Like its predecessors it is an existential satire with vast and brilliant ideas. Like its predecessors it projects human foibles onto the whole of creation, thence to bounce back in a fatalistic and absurdly funny manner. And like its predecessors it indulges in a digressive, facetious and distinctly Adamsey disregard for the sanctity of traditional prose narrative. Unlike its predecessors it isn’t really a Hitchhiker’s novel.

Capturing the internal zeitgeist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is, of course, impossible. Almost everyone who’s read Adams has attempted at some stage to do so, and in almost all instances the attempt has proven at least moderately unwise. The person who came closest was – perhaps unsurprisingly, but then again perhaps not, given that he’d written Hitchhiker’s as a duology and that the story wrapped up rather neatly at the end of the second book – Douglas Adams. But even the man himself found it something of a strain to replicate the freewheeling, towel-toting, mind-blowing hoopiness of what he’d set down previously. Less a continuation, more an inspired adlib sucked into the ravenous vacuum of unfulfilled publishing contracts, Life, the Universe and Everything is nothing short of a jump-started series reboot; a greatly laboured-over extemporisation that nevertheless is, as mentioned, quite remarkable.

The full scope of Life, the Universe and Everything is difficult to impart without going into the sort of detail best served by reading the book. The basic storyline, however – the threads of plot used by Adams to connect the various dots and squiggles he’d laid down – is that of the people of Krikkit, a peaceful and isolated race whose sudden introduction to the wider universe provoked in them a xenophobic resolve to wipe out everyone who wasn’t them. Thus came the Krikkit Wars, at bloody culmination of which they and their planet were locked away in a Slo-Time envelope until the end of days. Unfortunately, a cohort of bat-wielding Krikkit robots escaped incarceration and have been roaming the galaxy, ruthlessly reassembling the Wikkit Gate, which is the key to releasing Krikkit from its temporal prison. Should they succeed, the aforementioned end of days will take place somewhat earlier than the rest of the universe would like…

Even for those who know nothing of a Doctor Who pitch that Adams wrote for the BBC during Tom Baker’s ascendency, entitled Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, this underlying concern of Life, the Universe and Everything seems rather more like a problem in need of solving, Doctor Who style, than the sort of thorny bewilderment that Hitchhiker’s regularly put out there for its quasi-heroes to blunder through, run away from or fail utterly to comprehend or even notice. Adams himself admitted to a certain frustration upon finding that none of his Hitchhiker’s characters were remotely qualified to play the part of the Doctor; yet he persisted and – remarkably – found a way to compensate for and even make a virtue of the dearth of players. Ever the innovator, Adams told the story almost exclusively by way of digressions. More on this shortly.

At the conclusion of the first two Hitchhiker’s books – and also the TV series – Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are left stranded on prehistoric Earth, wistfully resigned both to the future destruction of the planet and to never finding a satisfactory question to complement the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. This is the natural endpoint of Arthur’s journey, and from the unused draft chapters collected in Jem Roberts’ Adams biography The Frood (Preface, 2014) it seems that Adams had tremendous difficulty writing him back into the story. He had, admittedly, done so once previously in Fit the Eighth of the radio series, but only through recourse to a second lightning strike from the infinite improbability drive. Having judged this unsatisfactory, Adams laboured until he came up with a wholly different deus ex machina solution, extricating Arthur and Ford from the antediluvian bathtub of prehistory and dropping them into the middle of Lord’s Cricket Ground just in time for the Krikkit robots’ first explosive appearance. Arthur subsequently travels in the Starship Bistromath (which is powered by restaurant physics), is abducted by Agrajag (a crazed bat-like incarnation of a creature whom Arthur has inadvertently killed many times over on the circle of life), learns how to fly (by throwing himself at the ground and missing), and faces off with a Norse god at an airborne party, none of which virtuoso pieces of Hitchhiker’s lore seem immediately germane to the subject of Krikkit. In fact, Adams appears almost resentful of Arthur’s lack of usefulness, and thus to be punishing him through a barrage of inventiveness that serves only to emphasise the qualities fostering that resentment. Arthur Dent, one of literature’s most passive protagonists, becomes also one of its most passive-aggressive antagonists. Meanwhile, the story itself refuses to unfold. Except…

Somehow, it does. Amidst digressions that seem merely nostalgic, digressions that loop about themselves and come back together like tied shoelaces, digressions within digressions, which transpire to be not just digressions but indeed crucial plot points hiding in brazen anticipation of the big reveal, somehow the story of Krikkit is told. (And by this we mean not just the backdrop of Krikkit – which Slartibartfast exposits shamelessly – but the actual story; the saga of Krikkit once wrested away from the Doctor Who canon and repurposed for Hitchhiker’s.) Arthur Dent remains totally ineffectual, Ford Prefect feckless and hedonistic, Zaphod a restless gadabout, yet through their free-floating conduit and surging by way of discursive slingshot, Life, the Universe and Everything takes on its own unique character. Adams, after dedicating the book, writes that it is “freely adapted” from the radio programme. The two words form at best an infelicitous understatement. In truth, and under cover of its irrepressibly zany content and an overly deliberate, at times predictable stylistic enunciation, the third Hitchhiker’s novel was entirely retrofitted.

Nowadays, there are several different manifestations of Life, the Universe and Everything to choose from, not least of all an audiobook read by Adams himself (from which was taken his outrageously apoplectic posthumous contribution to the third Hitchhiker’s radio series, voicing Agrajag with lisping, fang-tearing relish in Fit the Sixteenth). One such rendition that adds definitive nuance to Adams’ text is the 2006 audiobook read by Martin Freeman, who in 2005 had played Arthur Dent in the film version of Hitchhiker’s. Not only does Freeman exhibit a well-pitched array of character voices, he brings also a dash of his more assertive film persona to the narration, the story thus coming across almost as if filtered through the perceptions of a more rounded, more self-assured Arthur Dent. If Life, the Universe and Everything has garnered one particular criticism it is that, unlike the seat-of-the-pants exuberance of its much-vaunted predecessors, its word follies, for all their careful construction, feel inexplicably piecemeal. Freeman’s contribution goes a long way towards plastering over the cracks in the façade.

All told (and as frequently related in this review) Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book. Perhaps not wholly remarkable – perhaps not reaching the fanciful heights of perhaps the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – but remarkable nonetheless, and even more so as read by Martin Freeman. Thirty-four years on, pulling the ring-tab will still open to readers a novel of largely unparalleled zest.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #55: now out, in print and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Issue fifty-five of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is now out!

It is guest edited by the zine’s long-time cover artist, Howard Watts, and includes stories inspired by his art, including competition winner “The Departure” by Mark Lewis, “Our Sad Triangle” by Len Saculla, and “The Stone Gods of Superspace” by Howard Phillips (a TQF crossover special featuring many friends from past issue), plus the more tangentially related “This Alien I” by Antonella Coriander and “The Little Shop That Sold My Heart”, and an entire weird novella from Anthony Thomson, “My Place”. Then a sixty-page review section features the work of Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards, Howard Watts and Rafe McGregor. The cover art is by Howard Watts.

We look at the work of Alcatena, Andy Diggle, Brian K. Vaughan, Cherie Priest, David Tallerman, Douglas Adams, Frazer Irving, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Guy Adams, Henry Flint, Jimmy Broxton, Joe Dever, John Wagner, Peter Tomasi, Phil Hester, Pia Guerra, Steve Yeowell and Tony Harris. Plus there are reviews of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Ash vs Evil Dead, Deadpool, Fallout 4, Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1, Gods of Egypt, Jessica Jones: Season 1, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, The Boy and The Witch.

The spectacular wraparound cover art is, as ever, by the marvellous Howard Watts.



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Anthony Thomson has an idea he lives in Brighton, but can never be sure. His short story “Burning Up” was published by ABeSea magazine. He’s influenced by the paintings of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varos, and he mines the soundscapes of sixties music for psychedelic nuggets.

Antonella Coriander has never been happier. “This Alien I”, which appears in this issue, is the sixth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Len Saculla had a story entitled “Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck” in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #52. He has also had work published in the BFS Journal, Wordland, Unspoken Water and anthologies from Kind of a Hurricane Press in America. In 2015, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Mark Lewis has recently had work published in The Four Seasons anthology from Kind of a Hurricane Press, and in collaboration with fellow Clockhouse London Writers in The Masks anthology by Black Shuck Press. He has also had fiction and poetry widely published in the independent press, including the British Fantasy Society Journal, Escape Velocity, Scheherazade, Estronomicon, The Nail, and others. He has also written and performed in pantomimes. More of Mark’s writing can be found at: http://syntheticscribe.wordpress.com.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Phillips typed up the novella that appears in this issue, “The Stone Gods of Superspace”, after finding a draft version in his moleksine notebook. He does not remember writing it, and is not sure whether those events really happened or not.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides the wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at www.jacobedwards.id.au. He has a Facebook page at www.facebook.
com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can now be found on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

Rafe McGregor has published over one hundred and twenty short stories, novellas, magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. His work includes crime fiction, weird tales, military history, literary criticism, and academic philosophy.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Prepare for what might be the most entertaining action scene that you’ve ever experienced.

I thought that these X-Men movies would start running out of gas, but they haven’t… and I don’t want them to. X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest installment in the longstanding series, keeps it moving full speed ahead. Director Bryan Singer serves up his fifth X-Men work with all the ingredients of a great action/adventure: humour, loss, vengeance, spectacular visuals, great music (ranging from Beethoven to Metallica), extreme character change, and of course, violence. Plus we find out how Ororo Munroe/Storm got white hair and how Professor Charles Xavier lost his hair. Bam!

And yes, the film rather blatantly jumps on the apocalypse bandwagon, but so what? If people like the prospect of a destroyed Earth, then give them that.

In an alternate 1983, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant, awakens in Cairo after a 5,500-year nap. The supervillain recruits four susceptible mutants (just like four horsemen, eh?), then sets out to conquer the world. A larger group of mutants, headed by younger versions of the ever peaceful Charles Xavier and the pre-antihuman Raven/Mystique, wants to stop them.

There are many fun tidbits sprinkled throughout the film. Following are a few examples:

  • Storm hurls lightning while screaming like a tennis player. 
  • Kurt Wagner/Nightstalker wears Michael Jackson’s famous red leather jacket. 
  • Jean Grey reveals her extreme power (and a little of her mental instability).
  • After two characters say that Mystique’s heroics changed their lives, Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver says, “Mine too. I mean, I still live in my mom’s basement, but pfft. Everything else is, uh… well, it’s pretty much the same. I’m a total loser.”

Acting ranges from satisfactory to great. It reaches its peak with Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Since the havoc he wreaked in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Erik has retreated to a Polish village, started a family, and become a dependable blue collar worker. However, tragedy must strike to put this metal manipulator on the path to villainy. It’s difficult for an actor to convincingly convey grief in a superhero film, but Fassbender pulls it off.

Oscar Isaac delivers an enjoyably over-the-top bad guy in En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (aren’t the most ridiculous villains often the most entertaining?). He kills people by merging them into walls or the ground. His vocals shift between a whisper and a multi-voice roar: “Everything they’ve built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one!”

A Speedster and a Maniac
Even for those who think it’s time to put a big X over this franchise, it would be downright inhuman not to enjoy the two best scenes, which are really only peripherally connected to the plot. The first begins when the film speed slows, the camera focuses on a bee, and synthesizers kick off the Eurythmics’ eighties classic “Sweet Dreams”. Then the super-fast Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steps into the scene. Prepare to laugh out loud and be awed as Peter attempts to save other mutants from an exploding building. Because it’s from his perspective, everything around him appears in slow motion. Watch him backtrack to save an airbound fish, then grimace as two youngsters lean in for a sloppy kiss. If you saw Peter’s talents displayed in a similar scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, then you’re in for a treat: this one takes it to the next level. At the film’s end, the woman next to me said, “That was the best action scene I’ve ever seen.”

The second standout scene could be interpreted as a cameo trick to boost box office sales, but doesn’t everyone love a good trick? In it, a shirtless Wolverine goes on a rage-induced killing spree during which he uses his new adamantium claws to slice and impale his way through 40 or 50 men before running out into the snow. No talking. No magic. Just growling and slashing and killing. Raw power. As Wolverine retreats, a stunned Scott Summers/Cyclops can only say, “Hope that’s the last we’ve seen of that guy.”

In the Moment
Certainly there are things that the fussy moviegoer can pick apart. That’s partly because there’s so much chronological shifting in the X-Men series. So questions emerge: Shouldn’t character A and character B be closer in age? Didn’t character C first meet character D much later?

Moreover, the underdeveloped Raven/Mystique character didn’t require an actress of Jennifer Lawrence’s calibre, and the “adult” Mystique of earlier installments was more “mystiquey”.

Then there are the typical critic jabs (e.g. “tired”, “unimaginative”) that seem to come with any long-lasting series. Maybe they stepped out to sharpen their critical spears during the scenes with Quicksilver and Wolverine.

Here’s some advice for watching this film: enjoy it in the moment… – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

King Ted Reading Challenge: 50% done

My older daughter's school (nickname King Ted) sets the children a reading challenge, and I decided this year to do it too. The pupils are challenged to read two books in each of twenty categories, without counting any author more than once. I've added my own wrinkle, that a maximum of one book in each category can be from a male writer. And while the children do the challenge over the school year, I'm doing it over a calendar year (which gives me a bit longer). On schedule so far. New books in bold.

Short story zone
1. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams. Bright yellow collection of super-short stories published by McSweeney's.
2. King Wolf, Steven Savile. Interesting short stories about a writer and his illustrator. Review in TQF55.

Mystery zone
1. Hunters & Collectors, M. Suddain. Science fiction novel about a celebrity food critic on a quest to eat at the exclusive restaurant of an elusive hotel. Review planned for Interzone #266.
2.

History zone
1. The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff.
2.

Thriller zone
1. Thieves Fall Out, Gore Vidal.
2.

Diary zone
1.
2.

Witch Child by Celia Rees and review
1.
2. [Counts as two books, if you write a review.]

Biography zone
1. Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgio Vasari. From the brilliant Penguin Little Black Classics box set. Also includes the stories of two other artists.
2.

Science fiction zone
1. World of Water, James Lovegrove. Reviewed in Interzone #265. Follow-up to World of Fire. Enjoyed them so much I bought them both for my dad for Father's Day.
2.

Horror zone
1. I Travel By Night, Robert McCammon.
2. Amityville Horrible, Kelley Armstrong. Subterranean Press novella about a real psychic pretending to be an ordinary (i.e. fake) psychic who goes on a reality ghosthunting show. Good but it had some very saucy bits.

Fantasy zone
1.
2.

Comedy zone
1. The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman.
2. Yes Please, Amy Poehler. Listened to the Audible version of this brilliant book. Funny, inspirational and very clever in the way it plays with the form, e.g. having other people read particular passages.

Romance zone
1. Come Close, Sappho.
2.

Friends and family
1. Patchwerk, David Tallerman.
2.

Classic zone
1. Mrs Rosie and the Priest, Giovanni Boccaccio.
2.

Myths, fairy tales and legends from around the world
1.
2.

Award-winning
1. The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold.
2.

Non-fiction
1. The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon.
2. The Accidental Indexer, Nan Badgett. I have to do a tiny bit of indexing in my day-to-day work, and I felt it was somewhere I could level up my skills a bit. This is mainly about being an indexer, rather than doing the indexing, but there's some good advice and it's really helped me improve my work.

Adventure zone
1. Jacaranda, Cherie Priest.
2.

Crime zone
1.
2.

Friends recommended
1. Stet, Diana Athill. A present from my co-editor John and his wonderful family! A fascinating book about an editor who worked with big names like V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, with scandalous stories about them all.
2. The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien. Another present from John and co. Didn't get far into this before thinking it reminded me a lot of Lost – e.g. weird guys in an underground office taking measurements of reality, and a threatening ghostly figure in an abandoned house – and turns out that indeed this was referenced on the show.

So halfway through the year I'm halfway through the challenge. I'll post an updated version of the list when (or if) I get to 75% and 100%. I'm currently reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, only a decade after I bought it, which'll go into Fantasy, and A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, which'll go into Adventure.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Empowered: Unchained, Vol. 1, by Adam Warren and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review

Collects various one-shots about Empowered, most of them featuring a colour section drawn by a guest artist. One special is all about Maidman, who dresses as a maid and thus casts more fear into the hearts of criminals than anyone dressed as a bat would ever do. In others: a horny robot’s cyberfantasies run riot in a dump for the detritus of superhero battles; Ninjette explains the nine stages of her drunkenness; Empowered fights a gang of animal-themed superheroes, and explains how much more useful cars can be in battle if you don’t just throw them at your enemies; and Empowered and Ninjette take a fantastic voyage into an alien baby who is bigger on the inside. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 20 June 2016

Empowered, Vol. 8, by Adam Warren (Dark Horse Books) | review

Sistah Spooky is still devastated by the loss of her lover, and it’s made all the worse by her having kept their relationship secret during their time together. Emp is feeling terrible about it too, wondering if she could have done something different on the Superhomeys’ space station D10. So the two of them do something really stupid that involves using forbidden alien weaponry (forbidden because six years ago it created a new volcano in San Antonio) to batter at the gates of hell. We’ll learn lots more about Sistah Spooky and even a bit about Emp’s unfortunate tendency to get tied up by supervillains. This book keeps up the high standards of the series. From an unpromising beginning Emp has grown into one of the bravest, most admirable and most determined superheroes in comics. I may have only bought the whole series because it was on sale at Dark Horse Digital (it was Father’s Day and I deserved a treat!), but it’s now a solid favourite of mine. The stories take a while to bloom, but when they do you care because the roots go so deep. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 13 June 2016

Doctor Who: The Good Soldier, by Andrew Cartmel, Mike Collins and chums (Panini Comics) | review

A 128pp collection of strips from Doctor Who Magazine issues 164 to 179, plus a couple from specials, and a pair of text stories. This is the third collection of stories featuring the seventh Doctor, as played by Sylvester McCoy, not the easiest of Doctors to draw, and the twentieth Panini collection overall. As ever with this series of books, the reproduction of the artwork is flawless, as is the overall presentation. Unlike Nemesis of the Daleks, the previous seventh Doctor collection, this doesn’t include any sub-par strips from The Incredible Hulk Presents. It gets off to a great start with “Fellow Travellers”, illustrated by Arthur Ranson. “The Mark of Mandragora”, in which the malevolent and ancient intelligence manipulates the Doctor and the Tardis, has previously been collected in a Marvel graphic novel, but it’s not a patch on the title story, “The Good Soldier”, by Andrew Cartmel and Mike Collins, where the Doctor and Ace encounter the original Mondasian Cybermen on a trip to 1954 Nevada. In its look and feel it points towards how consistently ambitious the strip would become during the eighth Doctor’s tenure. The commentary section is as fascinating as ever. My very favourite panel of the book makes the writer of that story cringe! And did you know that Andrew Cartmel approached Alan Moore to write for the television programme? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 6 June 2016

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard (Nine Dragons River)

The Great Virtue Emperor is losing control of the star-spanning Dai Viet Empire. Rebels like Lord Soi are tearing it apart. Linh, the highly educated magistrate of the Twenty-Third Planet, was induced to flee before it fell to the war-kites of the rebel lords. The shame of that flight is bad enough, but she also sent a strongly-worded report on the civil war to the Emperor, which some might see as treasonous in its questioning of his leadership abilities. Le Thi Quyen is the administrator of Prosper Station, working with the Mind – the Honoured Ancestress – who controls its every function. As well as the arrival of Linh and all the danger that brings, she must investigate the apparent malfunctioning of the Honoured Ancestress and the betrayal of her own brother, Huu Hieu, who sold off the memory chips containing the thoughts of their revered ancestors. The station’s Mind helps its inhabitants to cope with the unnaturality of life in space, sharing their thoughts and cloaking the metal and rivets with poetry and decoration, but as she loses her strength, the comfort and connection she provides ebbs away, putting the lives of everyone on the station in the hands of Linh and Quyen, and at the mercy of their quarrel. This novella is imaginative and intense, each character stretched to their breaking point, many spouses missing in the war, now struggling to cope with current crises while knowing that worse is to come, fighting their own worst impulses when the wrong word at the wrong time could be fatal. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Closing to submissions till December (except for the Unsplatterpunk Special!)

We've just closed to submissions for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #56, and looking at what we have in hand already for that issue, and the additional submissions that have come in over the last month, and the pile of material produced by all of my hard-working pseudonyms, I think we have enough now for both #56 and #57, while #58 is a special issue (see below), so I've decided to close to regular submissions until December.

The exception would be reviews, which are always welcome, and further instalments in any of our ongoing serials, which we can always squeeze in.

Frustrated? Need another outlet for your literary genius? Turn your attention instead to #58, our upcoming Unsplatterpunk Special, edited by TQF regular Douglas Ogurek: submission guidelines here for that one!

By the way, apologies for the delay in publishing issue 55. It's all my fault. Our guest editor Howard Watts completed his work a while ago and it's been waiting for me to do my bit. It'll be with you soon, and it'll be worth the wait, I promise. Issue 56 will probably follow hard on its heels.

Monday, 30 May 2016

None of Our Yesterdays, by Vaughan Stanger | review

Two fine stories of alternative history in a nice little ebook. In “The Peace Criminal”, which first appeared in Postscripts, a television producer and his researcher interview a strange old man who remembers what happened in England after Germany won World War I. At first they think his story might make a good episode of Myths and Mysteries of the Twentieth Century for the History Channel, but his story is more disturbing than expected. “The Eyepatch Protocol” (which after reading the story one realises is a fantastic title) follows a bomber crew tasked with retaliation after the Cuban missile crisis leads Krushchev to launch his missiles. (Weird to remember how a phrase like “four-minute warning” haunted my childhood, when now I shout it to let the kids know their dinner is almost ready.) It’s shorter than the first story. but equally powerful. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 28 May 2016

TQF contributors: send us your news!

If you have ever contributed to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, you'll probably know that we have a long-standing offer to run free advertisements for suitable projects in the magazine. And if you don't, sorry, it's because I forgot to say, but it still applies!

I thought it might be nice to collect smaller bits of news from contributors too, for a section in the magazine, maybe also for blog posts, if there were enough to make a blog post worthwhile.

So if you've been a contributor to the magazine, and have any news about what you're up to now, here's the link. Bookmark it and let us know whenever you've got something going on.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a Visual Compendium, by Sam Dyer and friends (Bitmap Books) | review

An attractive book that looks back over the lifetime of the immensely successful ZX Spectrum, which came out in 1982 and provoked an astonishing torrent of games. It has 304 pages, all as bright and colourful as the Spectrum itself. The focus is on graphics and artwork, so the interviews are mostly with artists rather than programmers. The text can be a little bit repetitive, the artists all having been asked the same questions, and giving very similar answers – graph paper and colour clash come up a lot. The company profiles are more interesting, but only five are covered: Ultimate, Beyond, Durell, Odin and Vortex. But as shown by the designer not the writer being identified as the author in the copyright notice, this is a book about the pictures, and they are great, lot of double page spreads of games that still look good today. I regret not having properly played games like Heavy on the Magick, Fairlight and Tau Ceti. There are also several nice pieces of painted artwork by the brilliant Crash cover artist Oliver Frey. Sadly, nothing appears from my absolute favourite Spectrum games, the Gollup brothers’ Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad, though there’s a loading screen from their Lords of Chaos. One surprise was seeing games we had at home that none of my friends had ever heard of, like 3D Tanx, Wheelie and Harrier Attack! Another was realising how few of these games we actually bought, an initial C90 and C60 from a work friend of my dad giving me the trading power to build up a massive library of cassette copies. Tut, tut, young me! A third surprise was to see on the copyright page that the Sinclair name and brand is now owned by BSkyB – can’t imagine why they wanted it! Overall, it’s a very expensive book, so not one for casual fans. There are cheaper retro bookazines to be found in WH Smiths. But it’s very lovely to look at, and my money, at least, was well spent on it. Stephen Theaker ***

Captain America: Civil War reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

More heroes… more fights… more fun! 

Every time a new Avengers offering comes out, the filmmakers have to raise the bar for the easily distracted contemporary moviegoer ever poised to grow weary of today’s superhero blitz. The fast-paced and effects-packed Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Rizzo, manages to keep the Avengers juggernaut barreling forward.

It’s the typical talk fight talk fight superhero formula. Our favorite egomaniac Tony Stark/Iron Man offers the most entertaining repartee, while the spirited battle action ranges from Natasha Romanoff’s/Black Widow’s acrobatics to the monumental airport battle that earns the film its name. These films just keep getting bigger, faster, and more intense.

Taking Sides
The action starts in Lagos, where Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch uses her psychokinetic powers to lift an active bomb out of harm’s way. However, it detonates before it gets to the top of a building and there are civilian casualties. This opens up an investigation into the many fatalities left in the wake of those thrilling Avengers battles. It also leads to the split that propels the film: in an uncharacteristic move, a guilt-ridden Stark encourages the Avengers to sign a UN-sanctioned accord that limits their previously unchecked authority. Conversely, Steve Rogers/Captain America, the hitherto obedient soldier, refuses to sign because he trusts in his own (and the Avengers’) superior morality and decision-making abilities.

Rogers has something else to worry about: protecting his mentally unstable WWII friend Bucky Barnes (aka Winter Soldier), the tenacious assassin of the last Captain America film. Bucky is a suspected terrorist and former Hydra pawn wanted by the same authorities that seek to limit the Avengers’ powers.

So Iron Man and Captain America each build a six-person army that leads to the airport conflagration. But none of this is all that original, is it? After all, we’ve seen this kind of freaks versus commoners and superhero infighting since X-Men (2000). However, what follows shows how Captain America: Civil War takes things in a new direction.

Battle Aftermath Exploration
For a couple decades, we’ve watched mutants, shapeshifting robots, and superheroes tear apart a variety of settings in their epic battles. However, as we chomped our popcorn, did we ever think about the toll that all this destruction takes on bystanders? In a brilliant “What if…” consideration, the makers of Captain America: Civil War pose this challenge to the heroes and in so doing, explore the pros and cons of utilitarianism.

It’s About the Conflict Within
Captain America: Civil War does have a minor villain (with a strong motivation). However, unlike X-Men, this film focuses on the conflict between our beloved heroes, and it’s a strategy that makes the logical viewer uncomfortable. It’s impossible to choose a side; they all think they’re doing the right thing. Every time Iron Man blasted away at Captain America, I cringed. Every time Captain America hammered away at Iron Man, I cringed.

Stark: “I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart.” Rogers: “You did that when you signed.” Yikes!

New Characters
Note that the movie poster for Captain America: Civil War shows a faceoff between two sets of five characters, yet I said that each side has six. That’s because two characters new to the Avengers universe make an appearance. The filmmakers make it seem like these two characters are a secret, knowing full well that they will build buzz for the film. That’s a brilliant marketing strategy.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man enters the scene like a little boy, thrilled just to be asked to be part of Captain America’s team. Look for the film’s funniest quote when Ant-Man takes off his helmet after one skirmish.

A barely post-pubescent Peter Parker/Spider-Man takes a bit more convincing to join Stark’s side. Parker has homework, after all. In the film’s most entertaining talk scene, Stark drops in on the apartment of Parker and a refurbished (and much more attractive) Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Tom Holland’s Parker is an energetic and chatty “little guy” who adds some youthful zeal to the Avengers, like when he refers to “that really old movie Empire Strikes Back.”

“That Cat Guy” 
Do we really need the hero that one audience member referred to as “that cat guy?” Or was T’Challa/Black Panther, with his cat ears and metal claws, just thrown into the fray because the filmmakers couldn’t afford The Hulk or Thor and they needed a sixth man to round out Stark’s team? And how come this Black Panther, not genetically modified like Rogers or Bucky, can run fast enough to keep up with cars?

However, in Black Panther’s defense, he does bring a kind of peripheral motivation to the conflict: his singular goal is to kill Bucky.

This is a minor irritant in an otherwise absorbing film that offers everything from the clashing humor of Captain America driving a Volkswagen Beetle to the expression of virtue through action (or inaction). I am tempted to conclude this review with some witticism regarding the brilliance of this film. Alas, instead I resort to the comment of a boy: “those fights were awesome!” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Check out Douglas’s reviews of The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Monday, 16 May 2016

An Occupation of Angels, by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications) | review

Secret agent Killarney pursues a cryptographer, Dr Eldershott, across cold war Europe, fighting enemy agents on the Trans-Siberian Express and discovering secret bases carved out of rock. But this isn’t the world of James Bond. Thirty-five years ago the angels came, and now their obese bodies lounge within places like Notre Dame and Saint Paul’s while the angels extend their influence over human affairs. At least until the assassinations begin. Who is behind the killings, and what is the being that occupies Sophie Stockard’s body, and speaks in such a terrible voice? Killarney has some experience of angel-killing herself, but must stop this wave of deaths before the balance of power is broken and the cold war goes hot. Yet another good novella by Lavie Tidhar. The pace is fast, jumps in time making each chapter begin with a snap, and there are surprises and new ideas all the way through. Killarney herself seems to have secrets that are only hinted at here. Stephen Theaker ***