Monday, 11 December 2017

Adventure Time: Marceline Gone Adrift, by Meredith Gran and Carey Pietsch (Boom! Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker

Following the successful tour recounted in a previous title, Marceline the musical vampire has lost her mojo. She’s spent too long eating nachos with Finn the human and Jake the dog, and that’s not enough to inspire her. While bemoaning this state of affairs she and Finn get walloped with a burst of electricity. When Marceline apparently goes on a rampage as a result, Princess Bubblegum feels she is forced to shoot her off into space. The result is that both are left heartbroken, Finn goes feral, Cinnamon Bun declares himself king, Suspencer tries to cash in on Marceline’s apparent demise, and Jake keeps eating nachos. Adventure Time has been one of the best shows on television for the last few years, and its art style translates perfectly to comics. As does its ever-changing moods, this story displaying all the whimsy, ebullience and melancholy fans of the show have come to expect, while focusing on the loving but fractious relationship between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum that has produced some of the finest television episodes. And it’s clever and beautiful and funny. Ordered into battle by Princess Bubblegum, the leader of the banana guards declares, “All right dudes. Can’t be ripe forever.” ****

Monday, 4 December 2017

Justice League | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Does the latest grandiose tribute to solidarity hold its own? Ye-ah!

One-dimensional bad guy threatens to take over or destroy the world. Good guys overcome their differences and unite to take on the bad guy. It’s a scenario that plays out in the most recent batch of superhero films. Justice League, the latest entry in this category, does not offer anything glaringly new. But damn, it was fun to watch! One can’t help but succumb to the spell that its action sequences cast – Wonder Woman spinning and deflecting bullets, Aquaman shooting through the sea, and many others.

This time, the bad guy is Steppenwolf, a huge brute who beams down to Earth from the planet of Apokolips (he must be from the City of Overly Dramatic Speeches). Steppenwolf wants to find three Mother Boxes, the joining of which will allow him to take over Earth. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) sets out to assemble a group of heroes to stop the horned tyrant and his horde of flying Parademons. Wayne’s list includes the ever-entertaining Wonder Woman (Gail Gadot); the gruff Aquaman (Jason Momoa); the Flash (Ezra Miller), who views the world of superheroes with boyish admiration; and the ultra-serious Cyborg (Ray Fisher), robotized by his father after an accident. Moreover, there is a volatile potential sixth member, whom the team confronts in the film’s best scene.

Though not as funny as Marvel’s most recent blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League does have its moments. Especially enjoyable is Aquaman, who blends a rock star’s attitude with a 13-year-old boy’s vocabulary. His quotes are legendarily simplistic: “My man!,” “I dig it!,” and most profound of all, “Ye-ah!” In one scene, Aquaman, who has clearly established himself as a badass with the introspection of a sea cucumber, is duped into sharing his feelings.

Slo-mo scenes that show action from the Flash’s perspective are entertaining, though not as well done nor as humorous as those depicting Quicksilver in recent X-Men films. The funniest Justice League slo-mo scene has the Flash registering shock when another character sees him approaching at super speed.

The film also executes a brilliant marketing scheme – yes, the heroes come together as a team, but each has his or her own logo. Who’s your favorite? Though Batman has neither the strength nor the speed of his cohorts, he may be the most powerful hero. After all, he’s the one who unites the heroes. When Barry Allen/the Flash asks him what his special power is, Bruce Wayne responds, “I’m rich.” And for an instant, reality takes hold. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Very Best of Kate Elliott | review by Stephen Theaker

This excellent book is currently available as part of a Tachyon Humble Bundle, which includes several other books that went down very well here at TQF Towers, such as Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress and Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds.

Short stories don’t seem to have played a major part in Kate Elliott’s career. The twelve collected in The Very Best of Kate Elliott (Tachyon Publications pb, 384pp, $15.95) include all her published stories; none appeared in magazines; all are from anthologies or previously unpublished. She’s had twice that number of novels published, so it’s a fair bet that in truth her very best work lies there. And yet no reader would guess that from how good these stories all are. The book also includes four essays and an introduction, “The Landscape That Surrounds Us”, which sets out an explicit agenda.

She aims to write fantasy and science fiction stories about female characters, “to build landscapes of possibility and expansion”, to challenge “received wisdom, of ossified expectation, and of unchallenged assumptions”. The book is full of characters who do this. Like Eili, in “Making the World Live Again”, who wants to see the world, and persuades her family to let her go to the big temple in Eridu instead of accepting the offer of six sheep and a brindled ox from a suitor’s family. Now she’s a woman she will get her chance to take the priestess’s test, and then learn how the world really turns.

This isn’t a book of Red Sonjas; more often these stories show female courage as an everyday part of living in a male-dominated world. As in “With God to Guard Her”, where young Merofled takes the fancy of the Duke Amalo, who sends his servants to seize Merofled “like a sack of grain”. They bring her to his bed to “accept the honor of the Duke’s attention”. Where classic fairy tales like “The Princess and the Frog” or “Beauty and the Beast” advise women to accept unwelcome marriages, Elliot’s story shames men who would abuse their power. In “On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New”, a queen who left her king is watched by his spies; any man she sleeps with will be killed.

Elliott’s women are never passive, even if their actions might be forgotten or elided by the grand sweep of history, like those of Anna, the brave hero of “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine”. A general loyal to the king lies injured, and she must take word of the treachery to the king’s sister; her age lets her pass by enemy soldiers unmolested. Sometimes their actions are subtle but the effects are great, as in “The Queen’s Garden”, where cloistered Princess An and Princess Yara bring down a king with a handful of short, exquisite notes.

Though settings range from the fantastical pre-Roman to the far future, all show determined women getting important things done in difficult situations. Cannons bombard the city of Trient in “The Memory of Peace”; children like Stepha loot the ruins for food. In “A Simple Act of Kindness”, Daniella, out in a storm at twilight to collect a lost black sheep, encounters twelve whispering, dark shapes; they hunt a stranger hiding in the village church. Daniella volunteered to find the sheep in part to avoid sexual harassment from her cousin Robert, in part because she likes storms.

The common thread in the four essays is we should all try a little bit harder. “The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze through Female Eyes” draws attention to fiction that drifts from the limited third person perspective to omniscience when the author wants the reader to ogle his female characters. “The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building” defends “obsessive world-building” against the criticism of Damien Walter, arguing that the creation of detailed fantasy and science fiction worlds prevents writers and readers from assuming that the status quo applies.

“And Pharaoh’s Heart Hardened” pleads for tolerance, arguing that the diversity of immigration makes the USA strong, while “The Narrative of Women in Fear and Pain” explains how much Elliott is creeped out by Hollywood “scenes of young women in poses of sexual passivity being terrified and mutilated and screaming screaming screaming”. But she says that “there is an important and even vital place in our literature (books, films, etc.) for strong, fearless depictions of suffering and injustice, so we don’t lose sight of what we must strive to change”.

We see that throughout this collection. Mary hangs in a cage at “The Gates of Joriun”, her own name almost forgotten, her brother is the rightful king. We see how she keeps it together, to lend the strength of her endurance to her brother’s cause: “Let me not weaken. It is so hard.” Kereka, in “Riding the Shore of the River of Death”, wants to be a warrior not a wife, and so goes in hunt of a head, only to find herself the captive of a wizard; she ends up taking a mad risk for a chance at freedom.

A couple of stories are funny, making it clear that the absence of humour elsewhere is just a matter of maintaining an appropriately serious mood. The sunniest story in the book is “To Be a Man”, a sex comedy about Felicia and Ami, who shelter and bathe Rory Barr, the handsome were-sabre-toothed-cat who ate their lady’s nasty little pug, Coco. “My Voice Is in My Sword” is comedic sf, about actors on a brief tour to an alien planet, performing the Scottish play with a pair of big stars on board, one of whom takes advantage of his position to grope his castmates in character.

The two sf stories in the book were among my favourites. The other is “Sunseeker”, in which a bunch of spoiled rich kids who circle the world on a promotional jaunt are snatched. One of them manages to flee, but ends up in the hands of commercial pirates with a grudge. As ever, the fortitude of the protagonist is uplifting, and her pride: Eleanor has refused to remove the birthmark on her cheek, a rebuke to a father who cares about celebrity and career more than his daughter.

This author’s agenda doesn’t lead to didactic, hectoring stories, but to stories with variety, high stakes, interesting perspectives, and different pleasures. Strength isn’t just slaying enemies with a broadsword; it can mean saying no to powerful men and women, or to a society that stands against you. Elliott’s characters dominate the pages, and live on when the stories are over. If this were the best of collection by an author who had published five hundred short stories you wouldn’t expect it to be any better.

This review originally appeared (after editorial amendment) in Interzone #257 (March–April 2015).

Monday, 27 November 2017

Westworld, Season 1, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and chums (HBO/Sky Atlantic) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the future life is too easy (good to know they fixed that whole global warming thing!) and so people jazz up their lives by coming to Westworld, a live action roleplay version of Red Dead Redemption, with robots playing the parts of all the non-player characters. The original film didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about how any of this would work, simply showing people having a gunfight and bedding girls in brothels before setting Yul Brynner off on his famously terrifying rampage, but this new series is all about life in Westworld, and specifically what life is like for the robots who live there. For reasons best known to the park’s founders (one of whom is here played by Antony Hopkins, bringing his usual gravitas to a show that really appreciates it, since it is trying its hardest to be taken seriously), these robots, rather than being all run by some central computer system, have individual minds of their own, some of which have been operational for over thirty years, and they are beginning to have strange thoughts. They start to notice the glitches in their matrix, they start to remember their mistreatment at the hands of the park’s patrons, and they start to get angry about it. Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden portray brilliantly some of the androids as they react to their dawning knowledge of their unconscionable situation, and here the show is at its best: how should we treat non-human people, and how will they react to that treatment, it asks. The programme’s problems come when you think too much about the park itself, and how it is supposed to work, and why people would want to go on holiday in such an unpleasant and horrible place. Yes, we’re happy to play Red Dead Redemption, but when you fall off your horse in that game you won’t break your actual neck. Westworld guns may not work when pointed at a human, but a knife will kill you just as quickly if a visitor decides to kill you and there aren’t any androids around to stop them. Would anyone want to go to dinner in a place where your fellow holidaymakers could start sexually assaulting someone right in front of you? And would the people who liked the idea of doing that kind of thing be happy to be filmed doing it? The programme does show one chap being blackmailed, so it’s unclear why this doesn’t bother everyone else. Equally odd is the way the quest lines work. They seem to proceed whether any players turn up or not, which leads to a great deal of damage being done to the scenery and the androids, all of which (it’s a major plot point) needs to be repaired, apparently pointlessly. Hard to understand why they don’t just use squibs for the explosions of blood, rather than wrecking the androids every day. And why use expensive androids rather than cheap human actors, as, for example, in Austenland? Plus, if you’re a guest who rolls out of bed a few hours late, how happy would you be to find that all the storylines have gone on without you? Would you be happy paying $40,000 a day to twiddle your thumbs? The important new storyline being created by Hopkins doesn’t seem to have any role for a human at all – though that might foretell a twist to come in season two, showing that the new storyline is not actually the one we’re shown; there do seem to be some metagames going on. (Though there’s nothing to suggest this in the first series, I wondered if it will eventually be revealed that the Earth faces disaster and so the park is an attempt to accelerate the evolution of post-humans who might survive it.) It’s an HBO programme, so there’s a requisite amount of nudity. Most of it is degrading and unsexy, in the course of the androids being repaired, reprogrammed and analysed; you’re supposed to feel bad for the androids, as demonstrated very clearly by a scene where Antony Hopkins’ character rips away the clothing a lab technician has allowed one robot, but you feel bad for the actors too. That doesn’t stop it being an interesting programme, though, and it rewarded the time it took to watch it with some later developments making clever sense of what had previously appeared to be storytelling non sequiturs. I would never go there on holiday – at least in Austenland the food looks nice! – but I’ll be happy to watch more idiots risk it. Here’s hoping for Roman World in season two. ***

Monday, 20 November 2017

iZombie, Season 2, by Rob Thomas and chums (The CW/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Liv Moore is a zombie, after being scratched by one at a really wild boat party a couple of minutes into season one. Luckily she won’t go “full Romero”, as they call it here, as long as she keeps snacking on brains. Since the brains work just as well if the owner is already dead, she got a job in a morgue, where she works with lovable Englishman Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), who soon learnt her secret and began to work on finding a cure. In season two Liv continues to use her brain-visions to solve murders with Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), a grumpy detective. What she doesn’t know is that Vaughn Du Clark (Steven Weber), the owner of Max Rager, the energy drink involved in kicking off the original zombie freakout on the boat, is experimenting on zombies and has ensnared someone close to Liv… At nineteen episodes this series is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be (season one was a tidy thirteen), and having a couple of arch-enemies in the main cast means that (like the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) we check in with them very frequently, even though the meat of the programme isn’t the ongoing arc, it’s the stories of the week, where the humour of Liv dealing with her new brain-given personalities make it come close to being the replacement for Psych that I really, really want. This season includes episodes where she eats the brains of a fraternity brother, a real-world vigilante, a librarian who writes erotic fiction, and a country singer, always with amusing consequences. The funnier it is, the more I like it. ***

Thor: Ragnarok | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Slugfests, humour, otherworldly settings, eccentric characters. What more could you ask for?

Recent Star Wars and Transformers films are way too dramatic and way too serious. Think about it – a grand declaration to “fulfill … your … destiny” from a creature whose face looks like a pool of vomit? Conversely, films in the Avengers universe continue to have fun with their own ridiculousness. The visually spectacular comic action/adventure Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, stays true to this strategy.

The demon Surtur – think of a gigantic flaming Satan – plans to initiate Ragnarok, which is basically the apocalypse-like annihilation of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), along with the rest of Asgard’s inhabitants. But there’s a more immediate threat: Odin’s eldest child Hela (aka the Goddess of Death) wants to take over Asgard. Meanwhile, Thor is stuck with the untrustworthy Loki and the short-fused Hulk on Sakaar, a planet that is part garbage dump, part toy store. He needs to find a way to get back to Asgard and stop Hela.

In this film, the third in the Thor series, humor is as abundant as the God of Thunder’s muscles. For instance, a hero makes a heroic comment, then attempts a heroic action that results in a decidedly unheroic accident. An imposing stone warrior talks in a matter-of-fact, high-pitched voice. Thor and his brother Loki resort to an underhanded fighting strategy that they call “get help”.

The film’s fight scenes adhere to Marvel’s high standards. Thor takes on the Hulk in a gladiator-style showdown, plus there are several exhilarating battles in which heroes and villains mow down opposing armies. Particularly entertaining are Thor’s massacres accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (which references Norse mythology).

Antagonists are equally enjoyable. Cate Blanchett’s Hela is a smooth, ultra-confident supervillain. Her perfect diction and poise contrast with Jeff Goldblum’s characteristically Goldblumian Grandmaster, captor of Thor. The chatty, golden-robed leader of Sakaar incorrectly labels Thor “Lord of Thunder”, pits him against the Hulk, kills captives with a “melt stick”, and breaks away from a conversation to play synthesizer in a jazzy jam session. “Hey, Sparkles,” he says to Thor, “here’s the deal: you want to get back to ass-place, ass-berg, wherever you came from…?” “ASGARD!” retorts Thor.

A building-size projection of Goldblum gesticulating and speaking in his stilted style jars with our notion of what a villain should be – severe, eloquent. Goldblum, like many elements of this film, does not fit in a presumably sombre world of Norse gods. Perhaps that is why Thor: Ragnarok is so effective. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Expanse, Season 1, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Robin Veith and chums (Syfy/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

James S.A. Corey’s novel Leviathan Wakes was one of the first books I ever requested from NetGalley, back in 2011, but I never got around to reading it. This excellent television version suggests that was a big mistake. As the series begins, humans have not yet left the solar system, so far as we know. There is a good deal of tension between Earth, Mars and those who live further out. Julie Mao, a young woman with connections to the Outer Planets Alliance, has gone missing, and a freighter is attacked while investigating what we know to be the ship she was on. Our protagonists are a group from the freighter who survive, led by James Holden and Naomi Nagata, trying to find out what happened and why, and a cop on Ceres, Joe Miller, played by Thomas Jane, who also has a very groovy haircut, and has been hired to investigate the young woman’s disappearance. It may not be a surprise to discover that there is a lot of shady stuff going on, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of surprises. This is a proper science fiction television series with a really good series-length plot that feels perfectly paced and still makes each episode feel like a significant chapter in the story. The effects are at times absolutely excellent, and never less than needed to tell the story clearly. The cast is excellent, and seem to be taking it all very seriously. I’m very much looking forward to season two. ****



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Geostorm | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Cliché-ridden? Yes. Stupid? Perhaps. Enjoyable? Undoubtedly.

Gerard Butler’s presence in a film may be, for some, a red flag. For me, it’s a draw – typically, Butler plays an aggressive type who doesn’t take crap from anyone. In Geostorm, he sticks to his calling card as tough guy American scientist Jake Lawson.

Jake invents and oversees Dutch Boy, a space-based system that controls weather and prevents natural catastrophes. Then Jake’s younger brother Max, a politician with close ties to the US President, fires Jake from his job as director of his own invention. Three years later, when Dutch Boy starts to malfunction and kill people, Max convinces Jake to head back up to the space station and solve the problem.

The remainder of the film is a race against time to determine what went wrong and who is responsible. Amid the tempest that is Geostorm are political intrigues, familial conflict, ticking time clocks, close calls in outer space, and, the reason why most come to see this film: mass destruction.

The poster for this film leads one to believe that Butler will be earthbound… running around with his daughter to avoid destruction in the vein of 2012 (2009) or The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Rather, Geostorm differentiates itself by not only adding the mystery element, but also by sending its protagonist to a space satellite for most of the film.

Critical rails against this film range from tepid catastrophes to a lack of sophistication. In the case of the former, perhaps they missed the firestorms and refrigerator-sized hailstones. They also miss the mockery, intended or not, embedded in the film. Geostorm pokes fun at a market flooded by large-scale destruction wreaked by aliens, weather, superheroes, and robots. It’s as if the directors consulted with schoolboys to take it to the next level. The acting follows suit – some of it is so bad that it appears to be read off a script. Then there’s the tough guy mentality that permeates the film. President Andrew Palma (Andy Garcia) acts like a mob boss, his right-hand man Leonard Dekkom (Ed Harris) has a hardass demeanor, and when Butler’s gruff Jake Lawson isn’t leading an international team of scientists, he’s drinking brewskis and fixing muscle car engines.

I read somewhere that the traditional hero (e.g. a Gerard Butler character) is no longer believable. That may be true, but when the shitstorm hits, that traditional hero sure can be entertaining. Next time your brain is fried on a Friday night, crack open a beer, grab some chips, and pop on Geostorm. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 6 November 2017

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Season 1, by Max Landis and friends (BBC America/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Elijah Wood plays a hotel busboy, Todd Brotzman, who discovers a bloodbath in a hotel room, just after apparently seeing himself (in pretty bad shape) in a corridor. He loses his job, but the universe seems to give him a new one, whether he wants it or not, as the assistant to Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett – Renfield from Penny Dreadful, not I would ever have realised that without the help of the IMDB), a detective who doesn’t rely on evidence so much as the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The story involves an equally holistic assassin, the Rowdy Three (all four of them), two police officers, the FBI, the CIA, and Todd’s sister, whose illness causes her to have hallucinations. Her brother’s recovery gives her hope, but all the nonsense that’s going on would be enough to make anyone doubt their grasp on reality. It’s a long time since I read the two novels, but this seems from a reference to a sofa and Thor to be loosely a sequel to them. The first Dirk Gently novel grew out of what was once the unused script for Shada, and here Dirk Gently is very explicitly Doctor Whoish. He’s a bit more useless and self-doubting than the Doctor, but you could put most of his dialogue in Tom Baker or David Tennant’s mouth without it sounding at all odd, or at least, without it sounding any odder. I thought this was brilliant, a total delight, an unfathomably successful cross between Who and Fargo (the series), with perhaps a dash of Psych. Every change of scene takes us to a great character. Fiona Dourif is particularly spectacular as Bart Curlish, the holistic assassin who believes that the universe sends her to the people that she needs to kill, but has never slept in a hotel room or used a shower. If her father Brad Dourif ever retires from being cinema’s favourite psychopath, there’s no need to worry: the family business is in good hands. Jade Eshete is also terrific as Farah Black, a private security operative who is trying to rescue her old boss’s daughter. If the show has any flaw at all, it’s that it has a slight case of what I call Hellboyitis (after the first film), where we seem to spend less time with the title character than with the chap who has just entered his world, but Elijah Wood is so likeable, even playing a bit of a jerk, that you can never resent the programme focusing on him. After the madness is over, just as the programme seems ready to settle into being Psych, it gets even better: the ending barges in and sets up season two very nicely. I would never have expected to be cheering just because someone was holding a rock, but that’s where this excellent show takes you. *****

Monday, 30 October 2017

Ash vs Evil Dead, Season 2, by Craig DiGregorio, Cameron Welsh, Noelle Valdivia and chums (Starz/Virgin) | review by Stephen Theaker

This is how you make a second season. It takes everything that was right about the first season – Ash the selfish jerk, buckets of blood, a teenagerish desire to shock, and an anything goes sensibility – and turns up the dial on all of it as far as it will go, then breaks the dial off, jams its own fingers into the hole where the dial used to be, and twists it even further. This reviewer and his night-time television buddy were constantly looking at each other in amazement, slapping our knees, and letting out howls at the grossness. It even led to a falling-out at one point when your reviewer was told to stop laughing so loud because it was going to stop the children sleeping, even though the thing on screen was probably the single funniest thing this reviewer had ever seen in his life.

After the events of season one, Ash and his two pals are living life large in a beach party town, but it won’t last, and soon they are on their way back to where it all started: Ash’s home town, and the original cabin in the woods. Ash meets his dad again, and his dad is played by Lee Majors. Episodes still last for half an hour, and there’s even less filler this season, each part trying to top the blood, gore and ridiculous over-the-topitude of the one that came before – and largely succeeding. My one criticism: I’m still not a fan of the gendered language thrown at women when possessed by the evil dead – apart from not enjoying those terms being used by the heroes, it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not the women who are evil, it’s the monsters possessing them. It feels like a slander on someone who has already been unfortunate enough to die horribly. ****



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney) | review by Stephen Theaker

The empire has ruled the galaxy since the events of Revenge of the Sith, but the Rebellion has been growing in strength, necessitating the construction of the Death Star, a weapon of planet-busting capabilities. Jyn Erso is in the Empire’s custody, but she is sprung by rebels who hope her family connections can get them the information they need to destroy the Death Star (presumably so called because Death Sphere or Death Moon didn’t sound quite as cool). She ends up going with a ragtag band of rebels on what may be a suicide mission. She’s hoping to rescue her father (played by Mads Mikkelsen), while others in the squad have orders to kill him. Overall, this reminded me very much of the Dark Horse Star Wars comics. Respectful and serious in intent, lots of nods to the canon, well-made, but rather missing the mad invention of the six George Lucas films, which never stopped throwing new stuff at the screen even when the films weren’t all that good. One real sticking point in the film is the appearance of a character from the original Star Wars, rendered with a mix of computer animation and a body double. If this were a CGI film, he would look fantastic, but standing in a room of human actors he sticks out like a sore thumb, and one wishes they had simply recast the character. It’s not as jarring as the young Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy or the big brawl Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, but at least in those films you could put the problems down to glitches in their electronic environments. Another problem it has is that the two lead characters are not quite as colourful as their fellow rebels. I wish I hadn’t heard that Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black was up for the role of Jyn Erso, since she would have been so perfect for it, but Felicity Jones does everything she’s asked to do. At the last it over-reaches once again, trying for a special effect and just falling short, but if the film had ended thirty seconds earlier, one would have said it ended very well. ***

Friday, 13 October 2017

Bloodshot: Reborn, Deluxe Edition 1, by Jeff Lemire, Mico Suayan, Butch Guice, et al. (Valiant) | review by Stephen Theaker

“Who was Bloodshot?” asks the first page of this comic. “Red Eyes. White skin. Guns… Lots of guns.” He was a vicious, psychopathic killer manipulated by false memory implants, working for the government, presumably in previous Bloodshot comics, but that’s all over now. At some point before this book begins he gave up his powers (regeneration, strength, aiming – basically Wolverine plus the Punisher) with the help of a woman he loved called Kay. That restored his humanity, but Kay didn’t survive, and now, six months later, he’s trying to keep calm and stay under the radar while working at a motel. Unfortunately, the nanites that provided his abilities are now taking over other people, civilians who aren’t equipped to handle them, and they are going on murderous rampages. His conscience gives him no option but to travel across the country recovering them, because at least he would be able to keep the nanites under control, but will it mean giving up his humanity once again? It’s the archetypal story of the superhero who wanted to give up the powers that were ruining his life, but can’t escape his sense of responsibility once they are gone. After that adventure is over, there’s then there’s an Old Man Loganish story set in a Mad Maxish future, where he teams up with other surviving Valiant heroes, which will probably be a treat for fans of those characters. Overall, I thought the book was a good read without being outstanding. It’s as well-written as Trillium by the same writer, and there are plenty of ideas, it’s just that it’s about a character who doesn’t massively appeal to me, and probably isn’t intended to. ***

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Lego Batman Movie, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers et al. (Warner Bros) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lego Batman was one of the funniest things about The Lego Movie, against strong competition, and the three Lego Batman games were all terrifically successful (and great fun to play), so it’s no surprise to see him back in a film of his own. It doesn’t refer back to his adventures in the previous film, but Batman is still a master builder who knows that he is made of Lego and can rebuild and reshape the world around him at high speed. This is in addition to his usual Bat-powers: money, gadgets, fighting skills, acrobatics, and (in these films at least) the ability to shred on the electric guitar. For all his success, though, he’s very lonely, and this really comes to a head when Commissioner Gordon announces his retirement. Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) is going to take over, having cleaned up Bludhaven (this is a film made by people who have paid attention to the comics), and she’s not so keen on vigilantes. Batman also upsets the Joker, by denying the two-way nature of their relationship, and that inspires the Joker to team up with some of the greatest villains of all time, some of them (not giving away any spoilers, because the identity of these villains was a wonderful surprise for those of us who didn’t know in advance) British. A daughter of mine described this as one of the best films she has ever seen at the cinema, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a great deal of fun. Batman himself gets a little less funny as the film goes on and, as so often happens with comedies, the plot kicks in, but his brand new Robin Dick Grayson more than makes up for that, and that the two of them are played by Will Arnett and Michael Cera (a.k.a. Job and his nephew George Michael from Arrested Development), only adds to the enjoyment, as do many references to Bat-stories of old, including the Adam West film. The animation is gob-smackingly detailed, with dozens if not hundreds of characters on the screen at the same time, the cast excellent, and the script very funny, not at all the mess you would expect from a film with five credited writers. So much about this film made me happy, and a lot of it I wouldn’t want to give away, but part of it is that Billy Dee Williams, who played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, finally played Two-Face. It’s not the best Batman film there’s ever been, but it might be the best one not directed by Christopher Nolan. ****

Friday, 6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 | review by Rafe McGregor

Villeneuve’s sequel replicates, reverses, and reproduces Scott’s original(s).

I qualified my review of The Voyage of the Moonstone in TQF 55 with the admission that my emotional and financial investment in the late Joe Dever’s gamebook series precluded any objectivity in my review. I must make a similar disclaimer here, although it’s more of an emotional and intellectual investment. Watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner at the drive-in – probably in late 1982, the year of its release – is one of my first memories of the big screen. At the time, my main interest on the small screen was cop shows rather than sci-fi, more Miami Vice than Star Trek, and my parents had told me that Blade Runner was a cop film set in the future in order to pique my interest. Strictly speaking, they were right – blade runners are police officers – and part of the film’s continuing appeal is the way it merges elements from the crime, romance, and speculative genres. Another reason for its first cult and then mainstream popularity is the number of versions that have been screened from 1982 to 2007. If we exclude those edited for television and minor alterations in the Swedish release, the IMDb lists six. Excluding the two shown as previews in 1982 leaves: the International Cut (1982), the Domestic Cut (1982), the Director’s Cut (1992), and the Final Cut (2007). The Domestic Cut is the International Cut edited for graphic violence and the Final Cut is billed as the definitive Director’s Cut, so we can concentrate on two distinct cuts, International (which was very likely the one I saw in 1982) and Final (Blade Runner: The Final Cut [5-Disc Ultimate Collectors’ Edition] has pride of place in my DVD collection).

What is particularly remarkable about these two cuts is that although they are the same length (113 minutes) and have only minor alterations, the story they tell is almost completely different. The changes are: the removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration, the change of a single word in Batty’s dialogue, the insertion of a short dream sequence, and the removal of the happy ending. The removal of the voiceover and the insertion of the dream about a unicorn combine to represent blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a replicant (androids that are almost identical to human beings) rather than a human being. Significantly, he does not know that he is a replicant until the final few seconds of the film, before he escapes with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant who thinks she is a human being. The narrative of the Final Cut puts the film firmly in the speculative rather than crime genre and given my early exposure to and enjoyment of the International Cut, I was deeply disappointed when I first saw the Director’s Cut at the movies in 1992. I could see how the change improved the story in some ways, but was adamant that the original combination of detective character and science fiction setting was superior in all those that mattered. Nearly twenty years later, I attended a symposium on Film, Philosophy, and Death at the University of York where a professor from St Andrews was speaking on the themes of empathy and mortality in Blade Runner. One lecture and a brief conversation later, I was convinced I’d been wrong and eventually wrote a short essay on the merits of the Final Cut for the journal Aesthetic Investigations.

Having finally (no pun intended) wrestled the problem of the better Blade Runner into submission, I was disconcerted to hear that Ford had a role in the sequel – to the Final Cut, we presume – Blade Runner 2049. Because of their potential threat to human beings replicants are constructed with a built-in failsafe, a lifespan that is limited to four years from inception. If one watches the Final Cut after the International Cut, as many viewers will have, one may carry the suggestion from the earlier film that the latest version of replicant has been allotted a longer lifespan, but one thing that replicants do not do is age. Short or long, they are automatons rather than organisms and, as the famous scene in which Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) expires shows, they simply short-circuit and become inanimate. So, if Deckard is indeed a replicant, which was the whole point of the change from International Cut to Final Cut, then whether or not he is still alive in 2049, one thing he should not be is thirty years older. Ford was forty in 1982 and is now seventy-five, reflecting the apparent aging of Deckard thirty years after all the versions of the first film, which is set in 2019. If Deckard has aged, then Blade Runner 2049 appeared to be a retcon (short for retroactive continuity) rather than a sequel or reboot. My concerns were amplified by Alien: Covenant (reviewed in TQF 60), where Scott (credited as executive producer of Blade Runner 2049) almost completely disregarded the narrative arc set up by Prometheus in the alleged sequel to the Alien prequel. As the opening date of the Blade Runner sequel drew nearer, further alarm bells were sounded with the release of Nexus: 2036, a six minute short that explained what had happened in the thirty years between the two films. I studiously avoided watching or reading about this, all the while wondering why, if there was no retcon, any explanation was required. When Digital Spy chipped in with ‘Rutger Hauer doesn’t understand why a Blade Runner sequel even exists’ (20 September 2017), I feared all was lost, and settled on the tagline: Ridley ruins reviewer’s childhood...

A more appropriate tagline might be Ridley obsessed by original as much as reviewer. Blade Runner 2049 is both a replication (pun intended) and reversal of the Final Cut, a classic dismantling and rebuilding of a narrative that raised more questions than it answered. The protagonist of the sequel is K (Ryan Gosling) and in 2049 Los Angeles all blade runners are replicants known by serial numbers rather than names. Although there is less philosophical concern with identity in this film, there is commentary on what philosopher Kelly Oliver calls the grown-made binary opposition, where priority (humanity in this case) is always accorded to the organic over the automated. The discovery that replicants – or at least Deckard and Rachael – can reproduce is the inciting incident of the film. While hunting a rogue replicant, K discovers a buried box of bones. An autopsy identifies the cause of death as childbirth. The science of replicant reproduction is never explained – indeed, unlike HBO’s Westworld for example, there was very little scientific explanation or under-the-skin revelation in The Final Cut – so it seems we must rely on a kind of Jurassic Park-style “life will find a way” to suspend disbelief. In an even closer combination of replication and reversal, Deckard’s discovery that he is really a replicant courtesy of an origami unicorn is mirrored here courtesy of a toy horse (relatively early in the film).

Blade Runner 2049 constantly refers back to the Final Cut, to such an extent that my concerns about it merely being part of a franchise are entirely unfounded. If anything, the only potentially significant fault in the film is that it is too obviously, faithfully, and closely a sequel. In consequence, I find it hard to imagine a viewer who hasn’t seen (or doesn’t remember) either the Final or International Cuts being able to appreciate (and perhaps even understand) Blade Runner 2049. This is not merely the case for the represented sequence of events, but for the shots, scenes, settings, music, mood, and characters. Dennis Villeneuve has been particularly ingenious with respect to character, performing a complex and satisfying deconstruction of the roles in the prequel such that, for example, K is not only a replication of (or equivalent to) Deckard, but a hybrid of Deckard and Batty. Similarly, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – personal-assistant-cum-chief-of-staff to Niander Wallace (the new Tyrell, played by Jared Leto) – combines Rachael’s vulnerability with Pris’s (Daryl Hannah) deadliness in combat (although there is also a Pris look-alike who appears to share her predecessor’s function as a “pleasure model”). The revisiting and inversion twists and turns in on itself so that where Deckard was supposed to hunt Rachael but helped her, Luv is supposed to help K but hunts him. In yet another success, the story engages as both science and detective fiction, with the mystery of the replicant child becoming more complicated as the narrative progresses. Like the various Blade Runners, the film is deeply philosophical, exploring less the question of what it means to be human and more the question of how to be human: how memory, perspective, and psychological reality construct and sustain individuality.

There is a hint of retcon when Wallace confronts Deckard, but this is merely a tantalising suggestion rather than a second undoing of the plot of the International Cut and Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a paradigmatic sequel, a model to which future directors and authors should aspire. The work provides an almost continuous and near perfect play of similarity and difference that is both similar enough to capture all that audiences enjoyed about the originals and different enough to delight, intrigue, and compel. Blade Runner 2049 is so essentially a sequel, however, that it is likely to leave most if not all new viewers nonplussed, as I noted above. The only fault from my personal point of view is that the appearance of the septuagenarian Ford is neither explained nor even commented upon. Perhaps those replicants who can reproduce must also suffer the indignities of old age and even the despair of death? Life has, it seems, found a way with one hand and taken away with the other.*****        

Superf*ckers Forever, by James Kochalka and chums (IDW) | review by Stephen Theaker

A five-issue miniseries of the utmost puerility, this is very entertaining. The Superf*ckers are a Legion of Super-Heroes-esque gang of teenagers who live inside a club house and act like complete idiots. Even Vortex, who fixes up the universe every time the others destroy it, is willing to lie down on a sofa that has just been peed on by his colleagues Jack Krak the Motherfucker and Ultra Richard (it’s better than weeing in the toilet, they decide, because you never have to clean it). The skull possessed by interdimensional super-villain Omnizod shows up, first getting turned into a lamp by stinky Grotessa, then encouraging Princess Sunshine down a megalomaniacal path. Orange Lightning is jonesing for his next fix of Grotus’s slime, Computer Fist is struggling to get his robot fists working properly, and team leader Superdan returns from Dimension Zero just in time to lead a pointless new mission into Dimension Zero. The stories are sweary, rude and gross, and all the better for it. Kochalka’s artwork is as brilliantly characterful as ever, while a series of backups by other creators show that these heroes look just as silly through their eyes. The entire series can be read in under an hour, but what a great way to spend an hour. ****

Sunday, 1 October 2017

British Fantasy Awards 2017: the winners (and my guesses!)

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2017 in Peterborough. I kept my thoughts about what might win to myself until now, since I might be thought to have inside knowledge about the juries I wasn't on. I didn't – my fellow jurors on the comics/graphic novel jury quite properly didn't talk about their other categories at all – but better safe than sorry. So here, after the fact, are the guesses I made, and more importantly the winners!

Anthology
Winner: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim
My guess: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim

Artist
Winner: Daniele Serra
My guess: Daniele Serra

Collection
Winner: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill
My guess: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill

Comic / Graphic Novel
Winner: Monstress, Vol 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Dark Horse)
No guessing required, I was on this jury, and it was a fascinating experience!

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Winner: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky
My guess: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Film / Television Production
Winner: Arrival
My guess: Black Mirror, Series 3, by Charlie Brooker and chums (Netflix)

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Winner: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay
My guess: The Searching Dead, Ramsey Campbell (PS Publishing)

Independent Press
Winner: Grimbold Press
My guess: Fox Spirit Books

Magazine / Periodical
Winner: Tor.com
My guess: Uncanny Magazine

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)
Winner: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)
My guess: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)

Non-fiction
Winner: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My guess: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K Le Guin

Novella
Winner: The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
My guess: Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley

Short Fiction
Winner: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce
My guess: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award)
Winner: Jan Edwards
My guess: Mark Morris

I'm surprised that I managed to guess six right. The current system is based on people, usually BFS members or FantasyCon attendees, sitting down to read the nominees and deciding the awards on that basis, and that makes it hard to predict (and indeed quibble with) the results unless you've read all of them too.

(I was terrible at predicting what would win even when I was running the awards and could read half the jury discussions!)

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and to the awards administrator who carried it off so successfully, Katherine Fowler, who can now have a nice break all the way until, well, January, when it all starts again...!

[NB: I originally included in the list the first ever Legends of FantasyCon award, which was given to David Sutton and Sandra Sutton, after the BFS publicity officer confirmed on Twitter that it was a BFA. However, the BFS treasurer said shortly afterwards, "No, it's not a British Fantasy Award. It will be presented before the BFAs start, each year it is given out." So I've taken it off the list.]

Call for submissions: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2

Extravagantly grisly, stealthily virtuous: Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction seeks stories for second anthology in controversial subgenre.

Earlier this year, Theakers Quarterly Fiction #58 eviscerated the extreme horror community with the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 

Unsplatterpunk overtly or subtly integrates a compassionate message into an otherwise splatterpunk story. In other words, unsplatterpunk retains all the taboo subject matter, over-the-top violence, and gruesome details of splatterpunk, but puts a positive spin on it.

Since the release of UNSPLATTERPUNK!, which the British Fantasy Society called “memorable and thought-provoking”, the subgenre has had a polarizing effect. Dr Rafe McGregor of the University of York calls unsplatterpunk “a very risky but highly original take on aesthetic education (or the ethical turn) for those philosophers (or theorists) amongst you”.

Once again, TQF is taking the low road to get to the high road. We’re looking for authors to submit stories that take the first anthology’s depravity and gore to a new low, while still imparting a benevolent message.

Douglas J. Ogurek will reassume editorial duties, while author, critic, educator, and philosopher Rafe McGregor will contribute a foreword.

Unpublished stories of 10,000 words or fewer are welcome. Alas, since TQF is a “for the love” market, we cannot offer monetary payment. Thus, we’re primarily seeking hobbyists who want to make a splash – maybe “splat” is a better word – with their writing rather than people who make their living this way. However, that's not to say we wouldn't welcome submissions by established splatterpunk writers willing to integrate a positive message into their stories. All authors will, like everyone, receive a free pdf of the widely distributed journal. The anthology will also be available for print and ebook purchase via Amazon.

Advice

  • Offend John and Jane Doe in the first paragraph
  • Embrace taboo subject matter
  • Make story concept as attention-getting as death metal at a yoga session
  • Convey a positive message, blatantly or subtly
  • Thinking of writing a revenge story? Remember that revenge alone isn’t a virtue.

Be a part of the phenomenon that has evoked reader responses ranging from “ghastly” and “sickening” to “transgressive” and “crafty.”

Deadline: February 28, 2018

Word count: 500–10,000

Reprints: No

Multiple submissions: No

Simultaneous submissions: No

File name: [story title]-[author surname].doc

Payment: Non-paying zine (free epub, mobi, and pdf copies available to everyone including contributors) plus participation in an emerging subgenre

Send submissions as a .doc or .rtf attachment, along with a 3rd person bio, to TQFunsplatterpunk@gmail.com. Please include UNSPLATTERPUNK! in the subject line.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication.

See standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker (BBC) | review by Jacob Edwards

Seeing is believing – the BBC is your ser-vant.

Although most Doctor Who fans have a favourite Doctor, for many the choice is as much about era as actor. Style of story, and the broadcast years during which the viewer was of formative age, must go a long way towards shaping this preference.

Regardless of who comes in at number one, few people will rank the Doctors of the classic series without listing Patrick Troughton in their top two. Whatever the show itself was like, the second Doctor himself was exceptional.

Which merely adds to the tragedy of the BBC’s junking policy. Fifty-three Patrick Troughton episodes are missing – the equivalent of two whole seasons of new series Who – and the word “missing” is itself a misnomer giving false hope. The master tapes were wiped, their content destroyed. When a lost episode miraculously turns up at a relay station in Nigeria or a rubbish tip in New Zealand, any celebration is tinged with cold comfort.

For many years one story particularly lamented for its absence was The Power of the Daleks. Not only was this Patrick Troughton’s first full appearance (following the regeneration scene at the end of The Tenth Planet), it also sounded like a cracking tale: Earth colonists on the planet Vulcan find and activate three daleks, which pretend to be subservient while repowering. Heedless of the Doctor’s warnings, blinded by their own conflict, the colonists are turned upon and for the most part exterminated.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it is probably because Mark Gatiss pinched the idea – more kindly, homaged it – when writing the Matt Smith story Victory of the Daleks (2010). And why not? The concept is far more chilling than the daleks’ usual mindless blather; and after all, it wasn’t as if new generations of Who fans had the opportunity to watch the original…

Not until 2016, fifty years after The Power of the Daleks was first broadcast, when the BBC, in celebration and atonement, released the story in full animation. All six episodes!

Animation was first used to reconstruct episodes one and four of the eight-part Cybermen classic The Invasion (1968), synching the footage with audio recordings of the original broadcasts. It was employed in similarly stopgap fashion for several other stories, but never had fans expected it to pull a wholly missing serial from the hat. Who would have thought? Half a century on, the chance to watch (and review) The Power of the Daleks

Beyond its mere existence the animation is in many ways extremely good. Granted, the characters often stay front-on when moving sideways, resulting in an odd shuffle reminiscent of paddle pop stick puppets; true, there’s a fair bit of bobble-about background acting; but this is entirely understandable. Remember, we’re not watching a multi-million dollar production for cinematic release! More importantly, each person is well portrayed. The movement of mouths matches their speech. The characters are facially expressive. They have personality.

The backgrounds too are superbly rendered (and expertly lit), capturing the sinister moodiness of the story at large. Reconstruction producer-director Charles Norton has handled his job well, drawing from camera scripts, no doubt, but also conceptualising the action to complement a soundscape that features long sections without speech; passages that in audio alone would be quite bewildering. The first episode in particular sees the Doctor behaving erratically post-regeneration, and Ben and Polly wracked with uncertainty. From the patchiness of dialogue it seems the original broadcast version must have relied heavily on nuances of movement and expression, which the animation to some extent captures.

And so, to the story itself…

The Power of the Daleks is something of an oddity: yes, in part due to the nature of its reconstruction; but also because Patrick Troughton is feeling his way into an (at the time) unprecedented situation; and because there’s a deliberate intention to obfuscate from viewers in 1966 whether this new Doctor really was the Doctor (a neat parallel with the newly submissive daleks); and indeed because it’s the only second Doctor adventure not to feature steadfast companion Jamie McCrimmon. Add to this some obvious flaws – such as why Lesterson believes a single dalek, armed with a sink plunger, will double the colony’s mining output; and why he and Bragen go unnecessarily stark raving mad – and one might start to doubt the “classic” appellation bestowed upon this so-called great lost serial…

And yet, it really is very good. The Vulcan colony, with its scheming factions, has a complexity that more or less justifies the story’s six episodes. The Doctor shows newfound fallibility and a sorrowful, Stan Laurel-like expressiveness, the acting is impeccable (until Lesterson goes to pieces), and through much of the story there resonates that unnerving dramatic irony of the viewer perceiving an impending doom of which most of the characters aren’t cognisant. All told, we have here the blueprint for the classic Troughton-era “base under siege” tale, kick-started by the daleks in a more frightening and cunning manifestation than seen so often before or since.

And of course the big point now is that we can see it. Just as portended by that final scene where the TARDIS departs and a shattered dalek raises its eyestalk, the destruction wreaked upon The Power of the Daleks turns out not to have been total. All in all, it’s a most admirable un-junking.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Assassin’s Creed, by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Ubisoft et al.) | review by Jacob Edwards

if you like eagles* flying

if you like lots of fighting

if you like people liable to jump from

the tops of high places

their options like eyelids, unbatted

surviving, unflappable, by means of –

[cut away]

why, i’d say this just might be for you



if you like falcons* flying

and jeremy irons

if you value high orders of god corporate

cluelessness, science divine

in its improbability

plots lines that spew from computer screens

proving the existence of game theory

really, this could be for you



if you like your hawks* flying

if you like your films stylish

if you like your macguffins quite rounded

your heroes brought low

but still bearded, gruff, cut from a mould

if you like all the conflicts to stay unresolved

’til the sequel that’s stealing the plot

well, what ho! this’ll do



if turkeys* are flying, if you stand to decry

but you find yourself writing reviews

with a semblance of rhyme

in the hope your denial won’t show

and that no one will find out you didn’t despise it

console yourself knowing the trailer with matt damon

blank-faced and fighting off dragons in china

probably gave you perspective (false positive)

rose-tinting all you’d expect to find dire



* despite prolonged opportunity, this viewer failed properly to distinguish

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Contributor news: Branch Turner vs the Currants by Douglas J. Ogurek

TQF regular takes on Little League baseball in new young adult novel.

Douglas J. Ogurek, TQF contributor and editor of the controversial TQF UNSPLATTERPUNK! issue, has produced a work that signals a more wholesome detour. Ogurek’s young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) takes the reader into the baseball-focused world of twelve-year-old Branch Turner. Here’s the synopsis:
The Tigers’ Branch Turner wants to steal more bases than any other player in the Union City Pony League. Then Coach Tillman from the Currants, the Tigers’ biggest rival, tells Branch about “bam.” This begins Branch’s search to discover the most important part of baseball. 
Branch’s journey will include his old-fashioned teammate Pine Tar Yore, the Currants’ show-off Eli Tillman, the dangerous fastball pitcher Louie Horton, and many other colorful players.
So what is the most important part of baseball? Is it winning? Having fun? Playing by the rules? Or is it something else?
“I grew up in a Chicago suburb where baseball was a rite of passage,” said Ogurek. “My friends and I lived and breathed the sport.”

Ogurek’s typical summer day might have included any combination of the following:
studying pro ball stats in the newspaper, sorting baseball cards, playing backyard Wiffle ball, playing old-school video games (baseball, of course), playing neighborhood games in the field down the street, playing organized Little League games, and watching pro ball on TV (or taped on the VCR). Ogurek drew from many of these tween experiences to write the book, which took more than ten years to complete.

Branch Turner vs the Currants contains many of the elements of the classic sports story – a protagonist who comes to terms with his weaknesses, an underdog who strives to overcome the obstacles, and characters who aim to win by means fair or foul. It also offers plenty of on-field antics and humor, as well as a mysterious hockey player who skates in and out of the story.

Ogurek said, “I hope that what will make this story fun for readers of many ages are the polarities that it explores – tradition vs novelty, mass popularity vs individual preference, and at a deeper level, personal gain vs social outreach.”

Branch Turner vs the Currants is available in paperback and Kindle via Amazon.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Complete Scarlet Traces, Volume One, by Ian Edgington and Disraeli (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Before the films, before the games, before Richard Burton and the brilliant album, and even before the book by H.G. Wells, my first version of The War of the Worlds was a comic strip. It was introduced by Tom Baker’s head in Doctor Who Weekly, though my guess is that it was a reprint from Marvel’s Classics Illustrated. It made a real impact, and yet this adaptation (and then sequel) was even better. I’m sure all of our readers know the story already, but anyway… The astronomer Ogilvy spots great flumes spouting from Mars, just as it is at its closest point to Earth. A great cylinder falls on Horsell Common, then unscrews, and from it emerge first the Martians themselves, and then their weapons, to incinerate humans with as little thought as we would give to swiping at ants on a picnic blanket. It’s crucial for an adaptation of this story to get the horror of these scenes right, and here they are terrifying, Disraeli’s artwork capturing brilliantly the fear on the faces of all those people realising that they no longer rule the world, they no longer even rule Horsell Common. This is pretty much a perfect adaptation to comics of the novel, in my opinion. After that the book moves on to a sequel, ten years later, by the same writer and artist. Again, this is well-trodden territory, though it hasn’t always been trod with great distinction. There were books such as The Nyctalope on Mars (reviewed back in TQF31) and The Space Machine by Christopher Priest (described as dull by its own author), an awful television series, and the overwritten Marvel adventures of Killraven, born in the Martian pens. More recently, Stephen Baxter has written a sequel novel of his own, The Massacre of Mankind. The approach in Crimson Traces is to use new characters in a murder mystery story set in a Britain that has been greatly changed by the war between the worlds, the technology that was left behind by the Martian attack having been cracked open and repurposed to keep the empire running in tip-top shape. While delivering an action-packed thriller, the story also considers the results of automation without social equality. It’s a problem that is likely to only get worse for us, and there’s a warning here about how bad it could get. The sequel reminded me a bit of Bryan Talbot’s equally excellent Grandville series, as it puts some tough, likable characters up against a mystery of national importance and a bunch of vicious villains. Definitely worth your time, even if you think you’ve probably had enough of the Martians and their tripods by now. ****



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

It | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Cinematic take on King classic needs more Pennywise, less Kumbaya.

Viewer responses to the 1990 miniseries It typically evoke some variation of “not great”. So it was with much fanfare that the film version of Stephen King’s chunky 1986 novel surfaced. According to both critics and the general audiences, the film has lived up to the hype.

It does offer a brilliant portrayal of the infamous Pennywise the Dancing Clown and captures the spirit of growing up in the late eighties. However, the structural glue that holds the film together is a bit weak, and in more than one scene, the film dips into a sentimentality incompatible with modern horror masterpieces.

A year after his brother Georgie disappears, child protagonist Bill Denbrough and his outcast friends attempt to find the missing boy. As the group navigates King’s fictitious Derry, Maine, it discovers the evil responsible for the horrific incidents that assail the town every twenty-seven years.

The opening scene, in which Pennywise/It (Bill Skarsgård) lures Georgie into the sewer, is cinematic magic. Skarsgård’s nuanced delivery puts the drooling, unstable Pennywise in the same league as Heath Ledger’s Joker. With his fluctuating vocals and eye colors, Pennywise is hard to pin down. Is he a friendly clown or a diabolical fiend? One thing is certain – he is not human. Alas, this scene is arguably the best in a film that sacrifices such intimate dialogue for demented attacks. The filmmakers should have let Skarsgård talk more.

Nevertheless, most of Pennywise’s attempts to terrify the children are engaging. In one scene, he crashes a meeting in Bill’s garage using means both subtle and blatant. In another, he transforms into a headless reanimated corpse that stumblingly yet quickly chases a boy through a library.

It is also a coming-of-age story about a group of friends and the problems they face, such as parental abuse and peer bullying. The film explores the growing attraction between the stuttering Bill and Beverly Marsh, the group’s only female. The film’s most entertaining character is Richie Tozier, a potty-mouthed smart aleck whose Coke-bottle glasses exaggerate his bold and often humorous comments. Often though, the acting among the children takes a turn for the worse. The dramatic speeches don’t register and expressed grief or concern is sometimes laughable. Additionally, group hugs and holding hands in a circle seem more fitting for a kids’ movie than a horror film. And yet, these characters are kids, and nerdy kids at that.

Still, It is worth seeing for Skarsgård’s performance. Perhaps in the sequel, he’ll get more dialogue. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 11 September 2017

Now out: Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #60!

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

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60 is now available! It contains five stories: “The Lost Testament” by Rafe McGregor, “Turning Point” by Nicki Robson, “Yttrium, Part One” by Douglas Thompson, “Amongst the Urlap” by Andrew Peters, and “Doggerland” by Jule Owen. The wraparound cover is by Howard Watts, and the editorial answers the most urgent queries in Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions. The issue also includes almost forty pages of reviews by Douglas J. Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker.

They review books by Martha Wells, Lisa Tuttle, Mira Grant, Gwyneth Jones, Jim Butcher, Skottie Young and Michael Turner, plus the films Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, It Comes at Night, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Prometheus, and Wonder Woman, the album Humanz by Gorillaz, the tv shows Iron Fist and Legion, and a pair of events: Eastercon 2017: Innominate (or at least two days of it), and Into the Unknown, the exhibition at the Barbican.



Here are the kind and beautiful contributors to this issue:

Andrew Peters is an Egypt-based financial writer, who has recently started to publish fiction. His short story “In Dogpoo Park” was chosen as Editor’s Pick in the Aestas 2016 Short Story Competition run by Fabula Press, and was published in an anthology this year. Some of his flash fiction will also be appearing in the 2017 Fish Anthology, having been chosen in competition.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Douglas Thompson won the Herald/Grolsch Question of Style Award in 1989, 2nd prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007, and the Faith/Unbelief Poetry Prize in 2016. His short stories and poems have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including Ambit, New Writing Scotland and Albedo One. His first book, Ultrameta, published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, was followed by eight subsequent novels and short story collections: Sylvow (Eibonvale Press, 2010), Apoidea (The Exaggerated Press, 2011), Mechagnosis (Dog Horn Publishing, 2012), Entanglement (Elsewhen Press, 2012), The Rhymer (Elsewhen Press, 2014), The Brahan Seer (Acair Books, 2014), Volwys (Dog Horn Publishing, 2014), and The Sleep Corporation (The Exaggerated Press, 2015). A new combined collection of short stories and poems The Fallen West will be published by Snuggly Books in late 2017/early 2018. His first poetry collection Eternity’s Windfall will be published by Red Squirrel in early 2018. A retrospective collection of his earlier poetry, Soured Utopias, will be published by Dog Horn in late 2018. “Yttrium: Part One” is taken from his novel Barking Circus, forthcoming in 2018 from Eibonvale. Part Two of “Yttrium” will be published in TQF61.

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

Jule Owen was born and raised in Merseyside and now lives in London. By day she is a practising digital technologist, working on products that involve machine learning and automation, by night she writes stories about future and other worlds

Nicki Robson writes fantasy and horror fiction. She has had short stories placed in competitions run by the British Fantasy Society and others published in anthologies from Twilight Tales in the US. She is based in Yorkshire and is currently working on a YA fantasy novel.

Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, five collections of short fiction, and over one hundred magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. He apologises for this issue being three months late, but expects the next one to be along quite soon.



Back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are usually available for free download. However, Dropbox have just turned off their public folders function (they did warn me!), so unfortunately the download links for free epub, mobi and pdf copies of the back issues won't work till I rebuild them.

Monday, 4 September 2017

A Wizard’s Henchman by Matthew Hughes (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

For those readers who have had the immense pleasure of reading several of this author’s Archonate books, A Wizard’s Henchman is simply unmissable. Over many short stories, novellas and novels we have been shown a universe on the point of collapse, rapidly approaching the point at which reality will flip, from being based like ours (one hopes) on scientific principles to being ruled instead by magic, or, to be more precise, by the will. Some books have shown magic bleeding through, and others have even taken us into the future for a brief glimpse of what is to come, but this is where it actually happens! It is very abrupt. Flying cars fall out of the sky. Buildings collapse. People starve. But not our protagonist. Knowing a little bit about what is going to happen, he gloms on to a promising candidate for wizardship and keeps him safe while he prepares and later learns to use his new powers. Less pleasant magic users are also making their play, and the denizens of other dimensional planes are also ready to take advantage of the new status quo. The book offers a comfortingly familiar mix of science fiction, fantasy and mystery, while never being reluctant to offer a shocking image or idea when appropriate. It gives us a protagonist for whom self-preservation is at first a priority, but who grows in stature into a true hero, in large part thanks to his determination to adapt and learn. A brilliant book, probably my favourite new book of 2016. *****

Monday, 28 August 2017

Resurrecting Sunshine, by Lisa A. Koosis (Albert Whitman) | review by Jacob Edwards

As human as it gets.

The rest of the world knew her as Sunshine but to Adam she was Marybeth, the love of his troubled adolescence. Behind the alter ego, beyond the music and the fame, Marybeth meant everything to Adam; and when Sunshine died she took Marybeth with her. Adam’s life fell apart.

But what if he could bring her back? What if his memories could help resurrect Sunshine in a clone body? He would give anything, wouldn’t he?

But will it really be Marybeth? Will having her back take the pain away?

The more Adam commits to the procedure, the more he starts to wonder if maybe Marybeth’s death came a long time before Sunshine’s…

I first happened upon Lisa A. Koosis when editing for Andromeda Spaceways. Her story “Soul Blossom” was sad and beautiful. As soon as I read it I knew hers was a name to look out for.

Resurrecting Sunshine returns to the same themes as “Soul Blossom” – loss; grief; hope beyond death – but gives them a book-length treatment, aimed at teens but no less profound in the telling. As an adult reader I found myself intrigued, drawn in and then taken by the story’s flow. (As a reviewer I’d usually try for some kind of simile at this point, but it feels wrong; Koosis’s writing calls out to stand by itself.) The novel is perfectly paced. I read it in three sittings, each longer than the last yet seeming to go faster. There was a sense of inevitability to the narrative, but not predictability. When the ending came, it brought closure.

In her acknowledgments Koosis describes Resurrecting Sunshine as “the book that would not die”. This suggests also a book that didn’t want to be born; a story that came but grudgingly into the world; and yet, whatever difficulties it posed the author, the end result is seamless. In fact, it is Koosis’s obvious investment in her work that makes it so compelling. Underlying the spec-fic “now” tale is a heartfelt backstory whose gradual emergence brings a depth of emotion so lacking in most teen novels. All the characters feel genuine. They’re not just there to tell a story; they’re living through one.

Resurrecting Sunshine is written in the present tense from a first-person male perspective. Koosis handles this well, as does she that fine balancing act between keeping the reader guessing and allowing the book to retain its integrity. Resurrecting Sunshine is a profound, beguiling debut that transcends genre to resonate with yearnings deep within. Buy it for yourself and then buy a copy for someone you love. Because this is as human as it gets…

And wouldn’t you do anything?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella tells an alternate history story based on the anarcho-syndicalist republic that was declared in the formerly Italian city of Fiume, a city where “there were more great world causes to fight about than there were men to represent them”, that was to become part of Yugoslavia after the first world war. In our reality the republic fell after fifteen months, but in this story a clever and capable engineer, Lorenzo Secondari, having been revived from death by a medical experimenter’s “psychically advanced séance”, arrives in the city in time to get its weapons factories up and running again. They had been taken over by female workers, including the formidable Frau Fifer, who becomes a companion of Secondari. As a result of his successes, Secondari rises to become “Minister of Vengeance Weapons”, the original title of Pirate Engineer being rejected as not quite right. Eventually Harry Houdini shows up, a secret ambassador from the United States, accompanied by Robert Howard and a surprisingly chipper H.P. Lovecraft. I really liked one bit of dialogue from Secondari, when he says, “I don’t have to believe any more, because it’s the truth!” I’ve often thought that when someone says they believe in a thing, that can be a sign that they don’t think it’s actually true (or at least isn’t true yet), whether they realise that or not. I enjoyed the book while finding it a bit hard to get to grips with, much like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable books. The book also contains an introduction by Warren Ellis, an interview with Bruce Sterling, a useful afterword by Christopher Brown, and a note by the cover artist, all of which, while interesting and often educational, does make you wish the story itself was a bit longer. ****