Monday, 1 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When do you hope the finished book will be available?

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

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

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

Friday, 29 August 2014

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human / review by Tim Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not quite the complete package.

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

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

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

Looking forward to reading the sequel? You bet.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #48: out now!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #48 features six stories, twenty-two reviews, and a grumbly out-of-date editorial. The fiction includes epic punk fantasy (“A Thousand Eyes See All I Do” by Charles Wilkinson), Oulippean island adventure (“Beatrice et Veronique: Into the Island” by Antonella Coriander), meetings with the almost-dead (“The Collection Agent” by John Greenwood and “Contractual Obligations” by Howard Watts), self-published silliness (“I Couldn’t See Past the Spider” by Stephen Theaker) and even some genuine wisdom (“The Riches” by Tim Jeffreys).

Books by Charlie Human, Carrie Patel, Eviatar Zerubavel, Matthew Hughes, Ian McDonald, Katherine Addison, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, Joe Schreiber and Henri Vernes are reviewed, and there are also reviews of comics (A.B.C. Warriors, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Luther Strode), films (Edge of Tomorrow, Ernest et Célestine, Godzilla, Maleficent), and television programmes (From Dusk Till Dawn, Game of Thrones, The Tripods, True Detective). Plus a game (Injustice: Gods Among Us) and an album (Indie Cindy by the Pixies).

Here it is: free epub, free mobi, free pdf, print UK, print USA, Kindle UK storeKindle US store.

These are the bakers of those tasty doughnuts:

Antonella Coriander has (in this reality, at least) only ever been published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, to her great dismay. Her story in this issue is the second part of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

John Greenwood’s stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn and Rustblind and Silverbright, but his most recent fiction for our own magazine seems to have been all the way back in 2010, when the long-running (and much-missed) saga of Newton Braddell came to a conclusion in #32. He returns to the front of house in this issue with “The Collection Agent”.

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Snowman and Other Poems (Iron Press, 1978) and The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries, Unthology, London Magazine, Able Muse Review and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims, The Sea in Birmingham, Sacrum Regnum, Rustblind and Silverbright and Shadows & Tall Trees. Ag & Au, a pamphlet of his poems, has come out from Flarestack and new short stories are forthcoming in Ninth Letter and Bourbon Penn. His story in this issue is “A Thousand Eyes See All I Do”, which may somewhat surprise readers after the quiet horror of the previous stories we have published by him.

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 five pets. In this issue he reviews the film Maleficent. His website:

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue and a story too, “Contractual Obligations”.

Jacob Edwards belongs in truth to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but we’re happy that he dabbles with us. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at: In this issue he reviews Edge of Tomorrow, Ernest et Célestine, Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown and The Tripods.

Stephen Theaker reviews too many things to list in this issue, but given that he has another twenty unfinished reviews on the go perhaps he should consider making them a bit shorter, hm? Or not trying to review absolutely everything he reads, hm? No one is interested in what he thinks about Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories! Anyway, his work has also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal. His hobbies include the creation of new authorial pseudonyms and watching the arguments in Kickstarter comment threads.

Tim Atkinson makes his TQF debut in this issue with a review of Apocalypse Now Now. Tim lives, reads and works in the West Midlands. Sporadically he jots down thoughts about SFF and more at

Tim Jeffreys is another Tim making his first TQF appearance in this issue, with the story “The Riches”. He is a UK-based writer of horror and speculative fiction, whose work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines.

Bonus! To celebrate this new issue, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear ManHoward Phillips in His Nerves Extruded, Howard Phillips and the Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Howard Phillips and the Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

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

Monday, 11 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy / review by Stephen Theaker

Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel, 121 mins), directed and co-written by James Gunn, begins with a boy, Peter Quill, saying goodbye to his dying mother. Running in tears from the hospital he is abducted by aliens. It’s the beginning of a life of adventure, and that’s where we meet him next, a couple of decades later. He’s a dumbcracking rascal, going by the name of Star-Lord, on the trail of an ancient relic. So are Yondu Udonta (a merc, his former boss), Ronan the Accuser, and Nebula and Gamora (the adopted daughters of Thanos). And Star-Lord has two two bounty hunters on his own tail: tree-like Groot and Rocket, a cybernetically-enhanced raccoon. After causing a scene on a peaceful planet, Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot and Gamora end up in space prison, where they meet Drax the Destroyer, an implacable enemy of Thanos. At first, the five seem to have little in common, but they will become… the Guardians of the Galaxy!

The original Guardians of the Galaxy stories were set in the 31st century; this film adapts the short-lived Abnett and Lanning series about a present-day group that nicked the name – though the film leaves out Quasar, Mantis and Adam Warlock, and reduces Cosmo the psychic space dog to a non-speaking role. If none of those names mean anything to you, it might seem strange that such a little-known comic has made it to cinemas ahead of, say, the Flash, the Teen Titans, or Wonder Woman, and it is strange, but this isn’t a second-string film. The special effects are spectacular, both big (giant spaceships in battle) and small (Groot’s glowy spores). The cast plays it with gusto, but they hold tight to the hearts of their characters. The use of music is inspired: Star-Lord’s prize possession is a mixtape made by his mum in the eighties, and classic (and some not-so-classic) tracks are dropped into the film at the perfect times. And it has a post-credits scene that left me gobsmacked. Wish I could watch a film like this every week.  ****

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Theaker's shorterly reviews

Hi chums!

You may notice that my reviews for our blog and zine, rarely very lengthy, get quite a bit shorter in future. It's not a general policy change for our publication: we're as happy as ever for reviewers to work at their own preferred length. It's just a change for me as a writer. I've been leaving an awful lot of reviews unfinished, because I don't have a lot of time to write, and it's been bugging me.

For one thing, the backlog has been a drag on my reading, because I don't want to start reading other books that are for review and thus add to the pile. And I think a timely hundred-word review is more use to everyone than a five hundred-word review that arrives three years after the book. I'll probably end up writing about the same amount in total, just spread across more items, and with reviews appearing more promptly.

As part of this change, I'm adding star ratings to my reviews. They're not universally popular, but if you're only writing a hundred words or two, a star rating saves a lot of time, saying quickly and clearly exactly how good you thought something was. I thought about returning to our old ten-point scale, but it doesn't have the equivalent of three stars, which I think is the perfect rating for something you enjoyed just fine but didn't adore.

Anyway, hope that's all okay. Just wanted to let you all know!

I Need a Doctor: the Whosical by Jessica Spray and James Wilson-Taylor / review by Stephen Theaker #edfringe

I Need a Doctor: the Whosical, by Jessica Spray and James Wilson-Taylor, showing daily as part of the Edinburgh Fringe at the Pleasance Above during August, is a comedic musical starring two performers, Jess and James, whose hopes of staging a Doctor Who show have been thwarted by BBC red tape. Hoped-for guest stars from the Whoniverse have sent their apologies and only the two of them are left. Undeterred, they press on. Jess will play the companion, and James will play everyone else: the Exterminators, Da Masta, Amy Wand, K-10, and a doctor (not the Doctor), cleverly dodging copyright concerns in an adventure through time and space. The songs are catchy (I even bought the CD), the performances are energetic and joyful, and with jokes about Tennant-fancying and fanlore this works as well for big kids as little ones.  ****

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

I Killed Rasputin by Richard Herring / review by Stephen Theaker

A film, I Killed Rasputin (1967), has been made of the memoir of Prince Felix Yusupov, who claims to have killed Rasputin, the dangerously influential Russian monk. Well, he claims to have kicked off the process with a bit of poisoning, before shooting and drowning finished the tenacious Mad Monk off. Or did it? Was any of the story true? An American journalist has his doubts, and comes to interview the elderly Yusupov (played by Nichola McAuliffe), though the prince’s wife Irina (a niece of the executed tsar) often chips in. This is the story of I Killed Rasputin, a new play by Richard Herring, showing during August at the George Square Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a very funny piece, cleverly staged – the windows of the prince’s apartment double as windows into the past, scenes playing out behind the fog of transparencies. To some extent it’s the dramatisation and exposition of a theory, but it’s an interesting theory and it works with the characters, illuminating rather than overwhelming them, taking us further into the heart of the foolish man who says he did it. Even now he is plagued by the Mad Monk: the play begins with him seeing off Rasputin once again, this time with a waste basket! Though at first it came as a slight disappointment that Herring wasn’t playing Rasputin (I thought that was him in the poster), the cast is excellent, right down to the prince’s dog, showing wit and versatility. And though I saw a fairly early show in the run, it felt well-rehearsed, the quick changes passing off without a hitch. I do recommend it, though families should be warned that the 12+ rating in the Fringe guide is a bit off – I’d put it at 15 at least, thanks to swearing and simulated (albeit jokey) sex. Otherwise, if you’re in Edinburgh this month, be sure to catch this play. ****

Monday, 4 August 2014

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Ian McDonald’s Empress of the Sun (digital audiobook, Audible, 10 hrs 40 mins), read by Tom Lawrence, is on the whole a audiobook of two sides. One deals with Everett Singh, off on an airship, Everness, that can slide between alternative Earths with a rough and ready crew. In this adventure they find themselves on an Earth where the dinosaurs never died out, and their evolution and development continued, to the point where they were powerful enough to re-engineer most of the solar system into a great torus around the sun.

The other side of the book concerns the alternative-world Everett who has taken his place back home, and his efforts to avoid detection. That’s not the kind of thing his cyborg powers make any easier, especially when you add best friends and potential girlfriends to the mix – it’s hard to resist showing off. He is originally from a world ruled by the Thrin, who powered him up and sent him off to make trouble elsewhere, and they aren’t too happy that he has gone off-mission.

A lot of the book’s fun comes from the efforts of the two boys to interact with members of the opposite sex: bolshy captain’s daughter Sen on one side, snarky schoolgirl Noomi on the other. One girl shows her interest by making crude comments on the ship’s deck, the other starts a Facebook page devoted to the cyborg’s bum, asking people to vote on snapshots taken while he’s keeping goal. All the awkwardness should resonate with a teenage readership, and at least amuse older readers.

The reading by Tom Lawrence is good, the characters easy to tell apart, the narration moving from action to comedy to drama without ever running into trouble. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to listen to or read earlier or later books in the series, of which this is the third instalment – it’s aimed at a younger audience than me, and it doesn’t push my particular buttons. But I don’t begrudge the time I spent listening to it, and I finished the whole thing over the course of two or three days, pretty much the fastest I’ve ever listened to a full-length audiobook novel.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Buried Life by Carrie Patel, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In The Buried Life (Angry Robot, ebook, 4443ll) Carrie Patel tells the story of two women. Jane Lin is a laundry woman trusted by the height of high society to deal with their dirtiest and daintiest unmentionables. Liesl Malone is a police officer, currently getting used to a new partner with a theatrical background. They are brought together by a series of murders: Malone is shut out of the investigation – at least officially – but won’t let that stop her getting at the truth, while Jane is knocked unconscious after literally stumbling across the body of a Mr Fitzhugh during a late night laundry run. A conspiracy is afoot!

Mystery builds. Death will strike again. People scurry in the dark after curfew. Secret pasts abound. Motivations emerge from the shadows. Orphans discover how their parents died &c. Jane stays involved in all this at the prompting of Malone, who has no other way in to this world, but also on account of her own attraction, despite herself, to surly, sexy Roman Arnault, reputedly a button man for the council. He takes a shine to her, and literally sweeps her off her feet at a dance before saying, “I could show you who I am, what I do, and why they run. But will you like what you find?”

Roman is the kind of melodramatic anti-hero that seems to be all over fantasy at the moment, thanks maybe to the commercial success of Cullen and Grey, though of course they’re part of a long tradition of literary gits, going back through Mr. Darcy and Pamela’s Mr. B. Whether you find that type appealing may affect your enjoyment of the book. Jane has it bad – “Something in her chest fluttered as she watched him unnoticed” – but he didn’t do much for me. By the end he seems rather less significant and interesting than at first, and rather too many mysteries are resolved by him deciding to explain, just because at last he feels like it.

So far you might think this a Victorian novel, and it rather felt like one. However, it is set in the future, hundreds of years after a disaster. Far enough ahead for time to rub away most of the letters on a copper plaque, but close enough that paper books have survived and can still be read. Events take place, for the most part, in the underground city of Recoletta, but these people aren’t mutated – physically or psychologically – by the centuries underground. This isn’t, say The Caves of Steel: when Malone visits the surface she’s awed by the big sky, but not so much that it stops her climbing on the roof of a moving train.

There is nothing like the sense we get in City of Ember that keeping an underground city going might be difficult – though we do hear briefly about “orphans and unfortunates … working twelve-hour shifts on factory machines and assembly lines” – nor is there any shocking reality-shifting revelation upon emergence like the one in The Hero of Downways. Recoletta felt to me like Victorian London with a roof, its most unusual feature a ruling class who grow their nails slightly long because they can. The discoveries on the surface will feel old hat even to people who haven’t seen Logan’s Run or read Kamandi. It’s hard not to groan at the cheesiness of Roman revealing the collected Shakespeare he keeps in a hidden compartment.

For me, a hurdle the book struggled to clear was its initial similarity to City of Stairs, which also begins with the murder of an academic but heads off in more appealingly fantastical directions. The Buried Life doesn’t have any new science fiction ideas to offer, and for the most part it stays stubbornly away from anyone playing an active role in events. Yet for all that it was an enjoyable enough novel. I had a good time reading it and found the characters appealing. I worried about the danger they were in, hoped they would make it out alive, and was sad when some didn’t. I probably wouldn’t read a sequel, and I don’t expect this one to stick with me, but I’d look out for other books from the same author to see if they had a more interesting premise.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Injustice: Gods Among Us, Ultimate Edition, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Injustice: Gods Among Us (Xbox 360) begins in the aftermath of the nuclear destruction of Metropolis by the Joker. He’s in custody, being roughed up by Batman, when Superman turns up and gets uncharacteristically rougher. Then we cut to a scene of the Justice League fighting various villains, and, if we didn’t already know, we discover at last what kind of game this is: a 2D fighter, like The Way of the Exploding Fist without the tranquil backdrops. Each chapter of story mode lets us fight a few bouts as a well-known character, as “our” JLA is thrown into the dark dimension now ruled by a dictatorial Superman.

Fighting games are not usually my bag: I can’t be bothered to stick with one combatant to learn all their moves, which makes for more variety in the short term but holds your skills back. Injustice asked way too much from my fingers – I wasn’t fast enough to pull off many of the special moves – but button mashing produces entertaining results. The main appeal of this game for me was in the variety of DC characters involved, including a decent selection of female heroes and villains. It is always pleasant to see Green Lantern pound Doomsday with a green hammer, and to be at the controls when it happens.

Drawing on the DLC that followed the original game, this Ultimate Edition adds six new characters to the roster: Lobo, Batgirl, General Zod, Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion (I think Injustice is built on the architecture of the recent MK revamp). It also includes lots of special missions – mini-games in which you have to pull off certain moves or achieve special objectives, like blasting asteroids or winning a battle without being hit – and many extra skins, based on classic stories like Superman: Red Son and The Killing Joke.

It’s everything I wanted from a DC universe fighting game, and as well as being a good game it tells a good story, as reflected perhaps in the success of the tie-in comics. The return of voice actors from the DC animated universe was a treat, and though I generally skip cut scenes, those here are well done. It seems daft at first to see Harley Quinn fight Doomsday without being instantly killed, but this is explained in the story mode: a gift from the evil Superman to his lieutenants. Local multiplayer works well, allowing logged-in players to swap in and out with no problems. It’s all good fun. Grim, dark fun.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Winds of Gath by E.C. Tubb (audiobook), reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Winds of Gath (4 hrs 55, Wildside Press, Audible edition) is the first book in the long-running Dumarest Saga by E.C. Tubb. This is a new audio version produced by Wildside Press, and read by Rish Outfield. It could, however, have been book six or seven just as easily, since when we join Dumarest for this first time he is already an adult, already searching for Earth, already tested by circumstance and hardened by experience. This first novel is the most derivative of those I’ve read – it copies Dune very closely, with its own Bene Gesserit (the Matriarchs of Kund), mentats (the Cybers), a duel with a beautifully sculpted muscle man, a bedroom encounter with a flying assassin, etc. But it’s much shorter than Dune, much less portentous, and subsequent volumes do head off in new directions.

Elements that seemed dated and sexist reading an old paperback are even more striking when appearing in a new audiobook: “Dyne had his cold predictions, based on known data and logical extrapolation, but she had better than that. She had the age-old intuition of her sex, which could confound all logic.” E.C. Tubb writes men well, women less so. A lonely, dangerous brooder who is good at violence but tries to avoid it, Dumarest is worshipped and feared by men, irresistible to women. He’s not far away from being the hero of a romance novel, though here he once again suffers the indignity of an unflattering cover portrait, albeit one not quite as bad as those that (dis)graced the Arrow paperbacks.

It took me a little while to get used to the American narration, by Rish Outfield – I’d always imagined these stories being told in the voice of a stern English headmaster! – but these books were I think originally written for the US market, so it makes some sense. There are a number of long conversations in the book, and Outfield handles the range of characters required very well. The simpering of Seena at the beginning may be a barrier for some listeners, but it’s fair to say that Outfield’s performance fairly reflects the book’s portrayal of her as rather a ninny. The audio production seems a bit inconsistent, as if the reader changes position between chapters, or parts were recorded in different studios, but that doesn’t spoil it: I only read this book a couple of years ago, and listening to it again so soon on audio was still a pleasure.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Deliver Us from Evil, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Demonic possession/police procedural mash-up delivers, but doesn’t stand among most hallowed horror films

A mysterious hooded figure hanging out at a zoo coaxes a woman into attempting to kill her child. So begins an investigation that will call into question Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie’s (Eric Bana) faith (or lack thereof) and sanity. 

Deliver Us from Evil (2014), directed by Scott Derrickson, adds a police procedural twist to levitate the film to above par status in the overdone demonic possession subgenre. During Sarchie’s journey, the viewer encounters a horde of proven scare tactics: disturbing video footage, creepy wall text and symbols, basement explorations, toys moving on their own, faces and bodies popping onto the screen, and sinister noises.

Sarchie begins to link the zoo incident footage (which calls to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008)) to three Iraq War veterans. As Sarchie navigates “the sewer” of his precinct, his findings take a toll. His relationship with his wife and child worsens. He starts to see and hear things that others cannot. An event from his past begins to surface. Then there is the more immediate threat of the hooded figure, who grows more dangerous as Sarchie gets closer to the truth.

Eric Bana, known to many as “the first Hulk” (Hulk, 2003), proves a wise casting choice. He offers a hardened cop with a believable lack of introspection. Sarchie’s raw protestations against the supernatural add a bit of humor. I’m paraphrasing here: “I hate it when people blame little fairies for all the bad shit they do,” or “She didn’t try to kill her kid because she’s possessed. She tried to kill her kid because she’s fuckin’ crazy.” The concerned expression that Bana has perfected and his New York accent are bonuses.

Funny man Joel McHale of the TV series Community plays Sarchie’s wise-cracking sidekick Butler. He’s the type of guy who wears a Boston Red Sox hat in Yankees territory to see how people will react. One would expect a little more depth from him. 

Possessed by Possession Tropes

There really isn’t anything groundbreaking about Deliver Us from Evil. Still, like a slew of other recent horror films, especially James Wan films like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), it effectively packages horror film tropes. I was engaged throughout.

One of Deliver Us from Evil’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. For instance, there are times when Sarchie’s flashlight searches—remember, he’s a cop so there’s a justification for doing so—go silent to ratchet up the tension. Additionally, a leitmotif of static and children’s laughter builds and connects with an incident from Sarchie’s past.

An invisible entity likes to make noises in Sarchie’s daughter’s room. Though they are not adequately explained, the loud scratching and her toy owl’s unprompted “haha hoo haha hoo” are admirably nerve-racking. And no matter how many times we hear it, the “Pop Goes the Weasel” song that accompanies the jack-in-the-box continues to build tension.

The inevitable exorcism in this film is theatrical and a bit lengthy, yet entertaining in a “how far will they take this?” kind of way. There’s even humor: a cop, viewing the event through one-way glass, occasionally makes overly dramatic comments rife with profanity.

Deliver Us from Evil gives a fix to horror aficionados, but they will find its scares short-lived. So continues the quest to outdo the abiding terror that Paranormal Activity brought in 2007. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 11 July 2014

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds (Vertigo, tpb, 336pp), written by Peter Hogan, collects two mini-series set on Earth, though not our Earth, nor the Earth of Tom Strong, although he has visited. He dubbed this Terra Obscura. It mimics his home in many ways, and provides a home to super-heroes from the forties who have fallen out of copyright and trade mark protection, like the atomic-powered American Crusader, The Liberator, The Woman in Red, The Green Ghost and the Scarab.

Some of these characters were familiar to me from the use to which other publishers have put them, for example Project Superpowers, supervised by Alex Ross, which gave the characters their own comics universe to inhabit. That was a more serious, epic book in the vein of Kingdom Come, but this pulpier take was fun too. These stories focus mainly on Carol, the daughter of the Fighting Yank, frustrated by the loss of her powers since her father’s death, and Ms Masque, who had no powers in the first place.

The first story picks up some time after Tom Strong’s most recent visit. A field which nullifies electrical devices is expanding from a canyon near Vegas, with refugees pouring out of the zone “babbling nonsense about monsters and demons”. Surviving members of S.M.A.S.H. (the Society of Major American Science Heroes) are sent to investigate. In the second story timeslips are being caused across the world by the return of long-lost hero Captain Future and his bizarrely distorted spaceship.

The background to both stories is the rising influence of the Terror: a dead Batman survived by a potentially malign copy of his intelligence and a half-mad Robin.

The artwork by Yanick Paquette is bold and attractive throughout – maybe too much so in some distractingly cheesecakey panels! – and the colours are a treat. A clever feature of Tom Strong is the way letterer Todd Klein makes Strong’s dialogue a bit bigger than everyone else’s, subtly enhancing his heroic aura, a trick repeated here for Tom Strange. If I were a comics artist, this would be a dream assignment: cool stuff happens on every page. This art team makes it look every bit as cool as it should.

Peter Hogan’s foreword explains how DC declined to publish the first mini-series unless Alan Moore was involved, but Hogan wrote the actual scripts, and I’m much keener now to read the two Tom Strong mini-series he has written. This book clearly sets up future series that did not materialise, but the stories stand well enough alone that this doesn’t spoil things. This may not be the very best work pubished in the America’s Best Comics setting, but it’s a good chunky read, in page count and story content, and it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, 7 July 2014

A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The stories in A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01 (Rebellion, tpb, 308pp) are all written by Pat Mills, with artwork from a superstar cast of artists that includes Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Brendan McCarthy, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brett Ewins, and Simon Bisley (the only one I hadn’t heard of before is the mysterious S.M.S.). With a line-up like that you’d expect the book to be much better than it is, but it’s still pretty good.

The first batch of stories, drawn in a relatively straightforward and readable style, date from 2000AD’s early days – issues 119 to 139, from 1979. Here we see a group of eccentric robots joining Sergeant Hammer-stein for a special mission: Happy Shrapnel, Joe Pineapples, Deadlock (Grand Wizard of the Knights Martial), immense, vengeful Mongrol, reprogrammed Volgan war criminal General Blackblood, and molten monster The Mess. It’s gleefully violent: you wouldn’t give it to a child nowadays without asking a parent first. Once the team are assembled, they are packed off to tame Mars, the devil planet! The premise sets them up for a long run, but after dealing with cyboons, mutants, the red death, robot tyrannosaurs, and big George with five brains (none of which work properly), it wraps up very suddenly with a declaration that “we’ve straightened out this side of Mars now”. I enjoyed all of these stories, though they’re not so memorable that I didn’t realise until later that I’d already read them in the 2002 Titan collection The Mek-Nificent Seven.

The strip returned to 2000AD in 1988, nine years and four hundred issues later, the long gap perhaps explained by the problems that had “plagued the strip from beginning to end” (according to Kevin O’Neill, speaking in a reprint volume from 1983): “Group stories are like breaking rocks for writer and artist alike. Pat Mills broke the biggest rocks and the splinters flew off in all directions.”

The new setting – the future Earth known as Termight – suggests that in the interval the warriors have been involved in the adventures of Nemesis the Warlock. Joined by Ro-Jaws, Hammer-stein’s old friend from the Ro-Busters, and then Terri, a human who thinks of herself as a robot, the team battles foes including The Monad, the quintessence of human evil from the end of the world, who causes havoc after escaping into the time wastes. The art in this half of the book by Simon Bisley and S.M.S. is admirable in many ways – it’s challenging, energetic and expressive – but it’s difficult to tell what is going on, especially when events take place in one tunnel after another, with backgrounds often entirely white or entirely black. It’s trying very hard to be grown up and significant, and though the stories are still being written by Pat Mills, these aren’t half as much fun. I would probably pass on volume 02 if it took the same approach.

But even though the two parts are so different that it’s like reading a book that’s half Curt Swan, half recent Frank Miller, I liked it overall. Its best ideas are brilliant – poor old George staggering across the surface of Mars while his hands and feet argue with his head! – and it still comes as a surprise to see robot heroes killing humans, when mainstream entertainment so often goes out of its way to give human heroes zombies or robots to murder. I wouldn’t say that appealed, exactly (you’d worry about me if it did), but it still feels fresh and honest.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Justice League of America, Vol. 1, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Justice League of America, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, tpb, 192pp) is mostly written by Geoff Johns, with most art by David Finch. It presents us with an all-new JLA B-team in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe, where, on the evidence of this book at least, continuity has quickly become as knotty as it was in the old one. The team is led by Steve Trevor, apparently fresh from romantic disentanglement with Wonder Woman, and also features Green Arrow, Katana, Vibe, Martian Manhunter, Stargirl, Hawkman, a ludicrously undressed Catwoman and a new (to me) Green Lantern.

Aside from Grant Morrison’s batbooks (which seem to pretty much ignore the universal continuity change) and the first few issues of Justice League Dark, I haven’t read much of the New 52, but it was easy enough to jump in. Green Arrow hasn’t grown his beard yet, the Martian Manhunter isn’t munching on Oreo cookies, and it seems that Hawkman hasn’t yet found his Hawkgirl, but most comic readers, even those who no longer read them month to month, are so used to alternate worlds and elseworlds and what-ifs that a whole new universe doesn’t take much getting used to.

The biggest surprise here, given that the introduction of the New 52 was the point at which DC went day-and-date digital, is that absolutely no consideration has been given in the comic to making it suitable for reading in digital formats, with double-page spreads used as enthusiastically as ever. No one expects every comic to be arranged in nine-panel grids like the Baxter format Legion of Super-Heroes, but that’d be a lot easier to read in guided view than any of this.

This review is based on an pre-release pdf, so the final edition may have changed to some extent, but this book is rather a mess. It begins reasonably enough with a story of the new Justice League of substitute heroes being formed by Amanda Waller (who has lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her) and Steve Trevor, and then going on their first adventure: fighting Professor Ivo’s android versions of the real Justice League.

It’s not very good, but at least I understood what was going on. Then we seem to be thrown into the back end of a crossover, with some crucial events skipped over, and I was reminded why I don’t read many DC Comics these days. The next chapter is something called Trinity War Chapter Four with no information about the content of chapters one to three – and then that story will be continued in Justice League Dark!

A missed opportunity. Digital comics encourage asynchronous reading – people now, more than ever, will plough through an individual series rather than reading several comics that happen to be out in a particular month. On this showing, DC are still so focused on monthly sales, on crossovers and events, that the comics are hobbled. There was a glimmer of something good here, and these are characters I like and have been reading for thirty years, but I didn’t enjoy this enough to want to read volume two.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Maleficent, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Mistress of All Evil repackaged as multidimensional heroine

Excepting the horror genre, not many films are named after a villain. Villainesses are even rarer. Moreover, it’s hard to find a fully developed hero in a contemporary special effects-heavy blockbuster.

Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg, fills these gaps exquisitely by recasting the iconic Mistress of All Evil as a fairy born into a privileged, human-free life of gallivanting amid an idyllic forest filled with magical inhabitants. Then she meets the boy Stefan, who ultimately betrays her to assume the throne. Jilted lover Maleficent slaps a curse on King Stefan’s daughter: before her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and fall into an eternal sleep, lest she be awakened by true love’s kiss.

The king orders the elimination of all spinning wheels and dispatches his daughter to a remote cottage, where Maleficent immediately finds her.

The majority of the film juxtaposes King Stefan’s self-destructive search for the evasive “villainess” and Maleficent’s relationship with the unsuspecting Aurora.

Initially, the film seems to move toward an eco-tale in the vein of Avatar (2009) when the child Maleficent chides a human intruder for stealing a precious stone from her forest. However, Maleficent veers from this direction and instead focuses on an unlikely relationship between a Goody Two-shoes and a shadowy sorceress. The film offers a moving, if predictable climax and healthy doses of what the best fairy tales deliver: justice and triumph.

A Jolie Good Performance
Having borne Charlize Theron’s overly dramatic portrayal of Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—the actress made the most of a poorly scripted character—I was concerned that Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent would follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, Jolie, armed with those unmistakable horns and some vicious cheekbones, rises to the occasion.

There are times when Jolie rages. When Maleficent discovers that she has been betrayed, for instance, she conveys first shock with her quiet realization, then shrieking outrage. Fortunately, she avoids the Hollywood cliché of extending her arms and screaming at the sky.

But what truly makes Jolie’s performance a pleasure to watch are her moments of restraint. When Maleficent tells Aurora that “there is evil in this world, hatred and revenge,” one senses both forced constraint and self-castigation in her tone. When people speak to her, Maleficent may stare at them for a couple seconds before responding. Her reserved nature, coupled with her economy of movement and rigid posture, rebels against a real world that never stops talking and moving.

In one of the most endearing scenes, a mud fight breaks out between Aurora and the forest creatures. When a stray splotch of mud hits Maleficent, the revelers look worried and quiet pervades the scene, with one exception: Diaval, Maleficent’s shapeshifting henchman, bursts into laughter. A torrent of mud slams him in the face and as the laughing resumes, Maleficent smiles…slightly.

Go Forth Fearlessly

Disney’s revamp of the villainess joins other blockbusters like the The Hunger Games and Divergent series in the ongoing dialogue about the role of contemporary women both within and beyond the silver screen.

Once, the childless recluse with an unorthodox sense of fashion was restricted to desolate outposts and gloomy alcoves. Now Maleficent has stepped out unabashed. There is something liberating about plopping a gaunt-faced villainess in flowing black robes into a sunny, verdant landscape where a blonde frolics.

“I am not afraid,” Maleficent tells Aurora, who embodies the old-fashioned notion of what a woman should be. Maybe, Maleficent hints, a woman’s success lies not in being whisked away or saved by a man, but rather in her own ingenuity. Maybe they should have named this film Femaleficent. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Would save if my house burned down: Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer #bookaday

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer (subtitled Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time), is the book I would save if my house burned down, without a doubt. Not because it's a terrific book, although of course it is – chapter three in particular should be taught in schools - but because it is one of the first books on the first bookcase when you enter our house, on a shelf at chest height, and it sticks out from the other books on there.

Because if my house was on fire, I wouldn't give a stuff about my paper books. They're only possessions. I'd get by with the books in my Kindle archive, or the eARCs in my Dropbox. But The Borough Press, who set this challenge, presumably plan to be there, to make sure I don't leave without a book, perhaps even forcing me to go back inside! In those circumstances I would go for the easiest to grab: Why People Believe Weird Things.

I got off to a slow start with this series of #bookaday posts, so here’s a quick catch-up on the four I missed at the beginning.

Favourite book from childhood: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. So many lands to visit! The slippery slide! The Saucepan Man! Silkie! (My second literary crush.) It gave me the most amazing dreams and the most terrifying nightmares. I tried reading the modern bowdlerized version of this to our children but it was painful. The sexism of the original is deplorable, but the modern version replaces it with a pathetic vagueness. And Fanny and Dick were always funny names, that was half the fun!

Best bargain. Nearly all my books were bargains. For my first twenty-three years I could only afford secondhand books, and by the time I could afford new books I had so many secondhand books that there wasn’t much room for much else. I could pick something like The Best of McSweeney’s Deluxe, where I pre-ordered it and the price went up by twenty quid before publication. There was a nice time when sterling/dollar exchange rates were such that Marvel’s hardback deluxe collections of things like New X-Men and Runaways were only fifteen quid each. Three quarters of my collection of 2000AD graphic novels (the Hamlyn and Titan editions) came from places like The Works and Leicester Book Clearance. My pick, though, would be the two carrier bags full of Doctor Who books I bought on one glorious day in Sutton Coldfield, back in 1998 or 1999. It was a popup shop that seemed to be gone in a week, so thank goodness I had plenty of money in the bank that day. They had pretty much the full range of Virgin New Adventures and Missing Adventures, plus loads of the non-fiction and hardbacks, and even, I think, collections of comics. I bought everything I didn’t already have, spending a hundred and fifty quid or so and coming away with forty or fifty books.

One with a blue cover: Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber. This is the Night Shade edition, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown. This was a kind gift at FantasyCon from someone I had helped out that year with my awesome publishing skills. Here it is on the overloaded coffee table in my office.

Least favourite book by favourite author: Monsters in Orbit by Jack Vance. An early undistinguished work. I don’t remember much about it, except the disappointment!

So that's it for this #bookaday series of blog posts. It's been a fun experiment, and tomorrow I'll probably be back to blogging as infrequently as ever. (Although I do have almost thirty reviews half-finished – time for a review a day?) I love that this got me to root around in my stupidly huge book collection, which was a great way of bringing it back to life. For example I found a bunch of unread books by people like Clifford Simak, James Tiptree Jr, Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner that had previously been lost to double-shelving.

Must find time to read those soon.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The one I have reread most often: The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide #bookaday

Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker was my first thought here. I must have read it all a dozen times over, bit by bit. You start by looking up a transmission date, then begin reading the analysis, and next thing you know it's time to go to bed and you're wondering where the day has gone.

Other Doctor Who books were contenders too - Planet of the Daleks, The Discontinuity Guide, The Claws of Axos (which I got in exchange for some marbles at middle school), Day of the Daleks (77p at Millers), and Image of the Fendahl (borrowed from the town library three or four times and read in a single night each time).

Then I thought about novels, like Planets for Sale by A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (which led me to read loads of tedious A.E. van Vogt books before realising I should probably have been looking for E. Mayne Hull books), The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova, The Time Trip by Rob Swigart, The Stainless Steel Rat for President by Harry Harrison, or Biggles in France by Captain W.E. Johns.

But no, it had to be the second edition of The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide, edited by Frank Plowright, a wonderful series of critical essays surveying American comics from the 1930s to the present day. The other books I've read several times, but this book I've never stopped reading. It was published in 2003, over 3800 days ago, and I'd estimate I've read from this book on at least three quarters of those days.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bought at my fave indie bookshop: Bone and Jewel Creatures at Weightless Books #bookaday

Millers in Keighley was my favourite independent bookshop as long as I lived there. It had a great mix of new and secondhand titles at a wide range of prices. It fed my hunger for science fiction for years. I would walk into town to save my bus fare so that I could afford to buy a 15p comic or three 5p books from the discard box. I bought loads of books there – lots of Moorcock, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Sword of Shannara. Their new books had often been sitting on the shelves a while so they still had old prices on, making them more affordable than in other shops.

However, I’ll always hold against them that they took my entire collection of Doctor Who books and gave me just £5.50 for it, most of which I spent on one book, a tie-in to the TV show Murder in Space. Easily the worst decision I have ever made. Not really their fault, but they made no effort to talk me out of it! So they can’t be my favourite. Too much pain! It’s made me reluctant now to ever throw anything away, for fear of future regrets, to the point that I’ve had to put “throw something away” on my to-do list for every Saturday, to counter my hoarding tendencies.

I spend more money on books at Amazon than anywhere else by a long, long way, but does it count as an indie bookshop? I don’t think they are owned by anyone except themselves. But still. If I had chosen them, I’d have gone for one of the many books that would have been too expensive for me to buy anywhere else, like my box set of Penguin Mini Moderns.

I’ll pick instead Weightless Books, who are doing a great job of making ebooks available from the small press, without DRM, at reasonable prices, and in a variety of formats. I like the books put out by people like Subterranean Press, but I don’t have the money or shelf space for buying collectable hardbacks. The particular book I’ll pick is Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear. The vampire books I bought from the same shop at the same time by the same author were very enjoyable, so I’m looking forward to reading her more fantastical work.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Her, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Love bytes.

The Goodies episode “2001 and a bit” (1976) is perhaps the most fantastically offbeat of all the Goodies satires, extrapolating a violent yet progressive, absurdist future from the social mores and concerns of the mid-1970s. Each Goodie plays the lookalike son of one of the others – they were equally fond of Raquel (Welch, the picture from One Million Years B.C. would suggest), so when triplets came along they guessed and took one each – and in revealing whatever it was that became of Graeme, Tim confesses that, “He was put away for having an unnatural relationship [half-pause] with his computer.” Never mind that such an affair already had been the subject of “Women’s Lib” (1971), one memorable scene of which sees Graeme and his desk-sized desktop skipping hand-in-hand through the woods. In 1976 the idea still was ludicrous enough to power a good one-liner.

Fast-forward to the year 2013 (and a bit), and writer/director Spike Jonze has brought us Her – a movie in which the human/computer relationship is taken not as the subject of a throwaway guffaw or outlandish thought experiment, but rather as a foregone social trend whereby insular digital natives such as Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) quite naturally will bond and form intimate relationships with their AIs. The computer romance idea is by no means new to cinema – nearly thirty years have passed since Electric Dreams (1984) had its fling with the silver screen – but Jonze’s take is both disquietingly stark and unnervingly serious (notwithstanding that a few uneasy chuckles served somehow to earn the film two spurious Golden Globe nominations in the comedy genre). Her, as the title might suggest, is no mere conceit around which to structure a plot, but rather a reasoned, often uncomfortable extrapolation wherein the once-unimaginable has become an acceptable and inevitable reality, burgeoning yet manifest, from which necessarily there must be both repercussions to face and truths to learn. What is human? What is love? Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is in many ways no less real to the audience than is the metrosexually liberated Twombly with his Tom Selleck throwback moustache and his unselfconscious inversion of the seventies swinger lifestyle. Samantha does not exist to drive the narrative; she is the central yet unseen feature around which it flows. As both Twombly and the audience project onto her their expectations, desires and ideals, well might there be some deeper truth lurking beneath the revelation that, beyond the fleeting yet ultimately intangible bond of interaction, we don’t really know her at all.

Aside from his cinematic treatment of Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Spike Jonze is best known for directing the cleverly eccentric turned bizarre and disturbing Charlie Kaufman-scripted films Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). Although Kaufman made no direct contribution to Her, his rampantly, unabashedly obtuse Synecdoche, New York (2008) has been cited by Jonze as an inspiration;[1] and while it may be said with some cause that neither Kaufman nor Jonze is quite the same without the other to complement him, nevertheless Her presents as very much of the Kaufman/Jonze oeuvre, taking a quirky idea and playing it not for laughs but rather for dark and gritty (sur)realism. There’s great honesty in this approach, but also the inherent danger that it can produce a high-quality movie of low-enjoyment; a film where nothing can be faulted, per se, yet where the viewer is left ever-so-slightly dissociated throughout, and will exit the cinema possessed in vague combination of feelings perturbed, unfulfilled and off-kilter. Her walks this line, trembling with a certain aplomb through an engrossing yet not particularly easy to watch two-hour traversing of a feature length tightrope (which reputedly was a wobbling half-hour longer before Jonze sought advice from fellow filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on how possibly to cut it back).[2] Phoenix inhabits his character with a sorrowful, lonely truthfulness, as does Amy Adams playing Twombly’s similarly sequestered, alone-in-a-crowd neighbour. The hollowness of the emotional world in which they live is craftily hidden beneath a technologically slick facade – a tragic yin and yang embrace that Jonze stitches together seamlessly and to great effect – and if Twombly’s job as a ghost-writer of personal correspondence were not unsettling enough in its own right, then his detached aptitude serves to bring home the point, the emotional forgery of scripting other people’s happiness falling like drizzled vinegar upon the limp lettuce of Theodore Twombly’s own private life. All in all, it’s a gleaming but downbeat near-future dystopia; terribly good in its own claustrophobic way, yet nonetheless an immersive depiction from which, at journey’s end, one might quickly seek to escape, if not with considerable relief then at least without undue regret.

If to Her we might ascribe a flaw – beyond that of not compromising the filmmakers’ artistic integrity to within maintenance parameters of an audience comfort zone (if indeed some critics might find this problematic) – then it is the inescapable shortcoming of the movie’s having pinned its dénouement, its thematic closure and telling twist of perspective, on a character whose depth, development and growing self-determinism are revealed but sparingly and only ever with directional reference to Twombly’s more overt character journey. Granted, it would be nigh impossible for filmgoers to experience with any sort of fidelity either such thoughts as must be driven by Samantha’s superhuman processing power, or for that matter the unfathomable intricacies of the AI’s multitasking or her lightning-quick capacity for growth – perhaps this keening lack of viewer/subject compatibility even constitutes in some measure the movie’s forlorn raison d’être – but no matter whether it be judged warranted, or of solipsimal necessity, still this remains a shortcoming that lessens the film’s capacity to pass meaningful comment on its central themes of what constitutes love and life. As such, Jonze’s brainchild is born into our world as a yearning future depiction of where the here and now may take us. She sparks briefly, lighting up a murky unknown, then is gone, our relationship with Her revealed at barb’s end as having been not only unnatural but in fact unattainable. Theodore Twombly will move on, as must we all, leaving everything and nothing behind, save for an odd not-quite-resonance and a strange feeling that whensoever next we shall encounter Scarlett Johansson, she’ll have a very particular, almost conspiratorial look directed at each and every one of us.

1. Michael, Chris, “Spike Jonze on letting Her rip and Being John Malkovich”,, posted September 10, 2013 []

2. Harris, Mark, “Him and Her: How Spike Jonze Made the Weirdest, Most Timely Romance of the Year,”, posted October 7, 2013 []