Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror films of 2017


Once again, sci-fi/fantasy/horror (SF/F/H) films dominated the U.S. box office. Star Wars and superheroes reigned as the top grossing films in 2017. The latest Star Wars installment (The Last Jedi) came in at number one ($583 million at the time of this writing), while five superhero films ranked within the top ten. Others included a fantasy/musical (Beauty and the Beast), an animated action/adventure (Despicable Me 3), a fantasy/action/adventure (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and, thanks to an enchantingly creepy clown, a horror (It).

All ten were either remakes or part of a series. This shows how much the filmgoing public leans toward the familiar and the predictable.

Nevertheless, following are my selections for the best mass market SF/F/H films in 2017. Though numbers three through five rank within the top ten grossing movies, the top two spots do not. What sets these two apart is their concept originality, depth of character, and the complex themes that they explore. They give the viewer something to think about, and they don’t rely too heavily on special effects.

#5: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Four very different high school students get pulled into a video game world that leads them to challenge their beliefs about themselves and each other. The viewer escapes into a consistently funny, sometimes touching story highlighted by the Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart duo’s boyish charm and Jack Black’s portrayal of a self-centered teen female stuck in a middle-aged male’s body. The tropical setting (filmed in Hawaii) and underdeveloped, goon-like secondary characters add to the film’s lighthearted mood. Full review.



#4: Wonder Woman
Marvel gracefully inducts a full-fledged female champion into the pantheon of big budget contemporary superhero films. Gal Gadot’s Diana/Wonder Woman quickly wins over the viewer – she leaves her idyllic, women-only island and arrives in World War I London with a mix of wonder (“A baby!”) and shock at that society’s misogynistic and sometimes callous tendencies. And from an action perspective? Wonder Woman lives up to her name with the lethal combination of agility and power that she displays during fight scenes. Some action sequences – watch for the one in which Wonder Woman rallies the Allies – are breathtaking, even if you know what the filmmakers are doing is way over the top. Full review.



#3: Thor: Ragnarok
The only thing that’s heavy about the god of thunder’s latest adventure is his hammer Mjölnir… and that’s what makes this film such a pleasure to watch. Director Taika Waititi takes the viewer on a mind-blowing interplanetary romp rich in humor, otherworldly settings, and characters that range from temperamental to odd. Thor has his work cut out for him – he faces off against a gigantic beast, a presumed ally, an eccentric dictator, and a powerful sister/goddess intent on revenge. This is dumbed down entertainment at its best. Full review.



#2: Get Out
Fortified by humour and suspense, Get Out gives the cliché-saturated horror genre a much-needed shot in the heart. It tells the story of budding photographer Chris Washington, an African American who visits his white girlfriend’s wealthy parents’ estate. Something is off with the African American hired help – they behave strangely. Oddity builds upon oddity until Chris discovers the shocking secret behind this world of white privilege. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, with its novel ideas and implications about race, deserves the critical acclaim that it received. Full review.



#1: Split
Explosions, weapons, superheroes, and special effects dominate the contemporary moviegoing experience. Thus, the SF/F/H film that manages to entertain while, for the most part, avoiding these elements achieves something special. Most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films accomplish this feat. He takes the road less traveled by exploring original ideas that stem from a simple question – what if?

Split examines victimization and questions the extent to which a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) can, through his shattered mind, alter his body’s chemistry. Like other Shyamalan films, Split serves up a potent mix of subtext, technique, and atmosphere, plus it leaves the viewer with something to ponder. The protagonists have no superhuman abilities; rather, they are three teenage girls trapped in their captor’s lair. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a strong performance as Casey, a quiet girl who is wise beyond her years (common in Shyamalan films). The snippets from Casey’s past that are gradually unveiled add to the film’s foreboding ambiance and support a climax that is much more than a physical confrontation.

The film’s greatest strength is James McAvoy’s gripping portrayal of Kevin Wendell, who suffers from DID. The personalities that emerge from this consummate performance range from that of a little boy to a British matriarch. Not since Heath Ledger’s the Joker have I seen an SF/F/H character who evokes so much curiosity about what he will say or do next. Full review.



See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2016 and 2015.

Friday, 5 January 2018

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell (Aurum) | review by Stephen Theaker

One of the first things we learn about Bruce Campbell in this partially updated autobiography is that he was quite an awful young man. He shoots a girl, peeps on women, and deliberately directs fireworks at a neighbour’s house, almost hitting her. At least that makes it easier to laugh later on when we read about Sam Raimi putting him through hell while filming The Evil Dead, the film that put them both on the map – though not necessarily in the pink. One of the big surprises of the book is that even though Bruce Campbell was regarded by fans as a star, he wasn’t always financially comfortable. “People often wonder why some actors fall off the face of the Earth for no apparent reason,” he writes. “I’ve got news for you – there is always a reason, and frustration with the business is a huge factor.” Makes you glad he had such a long run on Burn Notice, even if it never felt like we got the full Bruce on that show. We do now, in buckets (of blood), on Ash Vs Evil Dead, and this book shows us how that all began, in lots of detail, from the early films they made to show their friends, to raising the money to make the film, something in which Campbell was much more involved than you might have expected an actor to be. If raising the money was hard, filming it was a frozen nightmare, and that it turned out so well is a testament to the ingenuity, imagination and endurance of all involved. The book goes on to cover the rest of Campbell’s career, in greater or lesser detail depending on whether he has a good anecdote to tell. The day he spent on the set of The Quick and the Dead turned up trumps in that regard, and it was also very funny to read about his work on the film version of McHale’s Navy, where he launched Operation Screentime with French Stewart, an attempt to beef up the roles of their underused characters. It’s a book of short chapters, that’s fun and easy to read. It’s the first time I’ve read a book typeset entirely in a sans serif font, but there are pictures on almost every page so you can understand why the UK publisher probably didn’t want to retypeset it. ***

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Everyone can now suggest items for the British Fantasy Awards 2018

Having totally forgotten last month to put forward any items for the British Science Fiction Association awards, I was ready to go when rival organisation the British Fantasy Society opened the door yesterday to suggestions for its own awards, my very favourite awards, the British Fantasy Awards. I spent a good long time last night converting last year's ebook purchases to rtfs so that I could check the word count and put the books in the right category. As I said on Twitter, that's my idea of a party!

If you want to suggest items yourself, the form is here.

The suggestions list that produces is here.

And for easy reference, here's a table with the items sorted into alphabetical order.

It is well worth submitting your work published in 2017, and other work you found interesting. In previous years the suggestions list has had a big effect on voting (increasing it, and focusing it), and it has an effect later on too, with BFA juries often looking at the suggestions list for ideas in the course of deciding whether to add two extra items (known as egregious omissions) to the shortlist.

Like it says on the suggestions form, it "doesn't matter if you're a member or convention goer, or if it's your own work, or anything like that – the idea is to produce a useful, comprehensive eligibility list".  I had added dozens of items to the list before remembering to add the most important of all…!


Don't be embarrassed to add your own stuff – it's part of the reason the eligibility list was created in the first place, and it's generally a big help to the awards admin.

For one thing, as a writer you can easily look up the proper word counts of your work, so you know whether to put a piece in short stories (0 to 14,999), novellas (15K to 39,999) or novels (over 40K). You don't want to miss out on a nomination because your readers have voted for it in the wrong category. And you don't want to miss out on an award because your novel was voted onto the horror shortlist when despite the spooky cover it's really much more fantasy.

What's more, you'll also provide the correct title, spell your own name properly, be able to provide the publisher, and know whether it was first published in 2017 or not.

Following a vote at the 2017 BFS AGM, these already expansive and generous awards have added a new category: audio. This has been defined in the awards constitution very widely, which I think is brilliant:

"An audio work performed by one or more participants and published for the first time in the English language in any part of the world in any audio format during the relevant year."

So that would include fantasy-related podcasts, radio programmes, audiobooks, music, audio plays and even, one imagines, Alexa skills (anyone really, really into Ambient Sounds: Space Deck?), if first published during 2017. I think it's great that so many additional types of fantasy have been brought into the purview of the BFAs, and I think it could be an absolutely fascinating category.

Updated 5/1/18: Oddly, it looks like the awards constitution was rewritten today to provide different eligibility requirements (new bits in bold):

"A spoken word audio work (e.g. audio book, radio drama, podcast) performed by one or more participants and published for the first time in the English language in any part of the world in any audio format during the relevant year."
Presumably what happened was that someone saw music being added to the awards suggestions list and didn't like it, and so the constitution was rewritten to render music ineligible. This is rather strange, since the BFA constitution explicitly says it cannot be changed except by a vote of the AGM, and a "committee vote may not be used to reverse a decision of the AGM".

Maybe this is seen as a correction, i.e. that the original wording didn't reflect the proposal that was made. Unfortunately, members of the society weren't told about the original proposal beforehand, and haven't been provided with the text of it, and haven't seen minutes of the meeting either, so we don't know. If the AGM voted on a proposal that contained the first wording, that's what should be in the constitution.

Either way, this is why it's a good idea for people making an awards proposal to set out exactly the words they wish to appear in the revised document, and to tell members about the planned change in advance, so that they can discuss the ramifications in more depth than is possible when a surprise proposal is dropped on an AGM with a relatively small number of attendees.

Similarly, this is why it's a good idea, as soon as possible after an AGM, for the minutes to be released, and for the awards administrator to explain to members what changes have happened, and how they will be implemented in the awards constitution, so that any issues can be worked out before the new constitution goes live and the ball gets rolling on the next awards cycle.

It's also why we previously had the rule (bafflingly removed at the 2016 AGM after a proposal from the society's chair) that awards proposals should be supplied in writing to the awards administrator before the AGM, so that the awards administrator could ensure everything was ship-shape and explain to the proposer what the likely and often unexpected consequences of their proposal would be.

Anyway, what a shame to narrow the category so much. It's hard to see what is gained from excluding music from the awards (except I suppose to make it more likely that the eventual winner will be in the room at the awards ceremony). And what a blinking waste of my time it was looking for suitable items to add to the list in that category!

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The Breakfast Club meets Indiana Jones in absorbing comedy-adventure with a message.

The Breakfast Club (1985) made an impact that still resonates today. Its strategy involved forcing together dissimilar teens and having them discover things about each other and themselves. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, directed by Jake Kasdan, uses this same technique in a tropical adventure that is consistently funny, endearing, and, at times, moving. The film takes four of The Breakfast Club’s character tropes (the nerd, the socially awkward girl, the star athlete, and the self-absorbed pretty girl) and places them in detention (another carryover from the ’80s masterpiece). However, the action quickly strays from the reality-based path of The Breakfast Club when the newer film’s characters get sucked into the world of ’90s video game Jumanji (unlike the original Jumanji [1995], where the board game world comes to them).

Each player occupies an avatar who is, in many ways, his or her physical opposite. Nerdy Spencer becomes archeologist/explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Bravestone, endowed with muscles, brains, and a “smoldering intensity”, has no weaknesses (according to his character profile). Fridge, star football player and estranged best friend of Spencer, downsizes to zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Spencer’s budding love interest Martha inherits “killer of men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a martial arts expert whose repertoire includes “dance fighting”. In the biggest physical reversal, egotistical beauty Bethany becomes Dr. Sheldon (Shelly) Oberon (Jack Black), a middle-aged male cartographer.

The film goes on to offer a lot of what one would expect in an Indiana Jones movie: a concrete goal (i.e. return the “Jaguar’s Eye” jewel to the tall jaguar stone statue deep within the jungle), a one-dimensional villain (Bobby Cannavale), and lots of action. However, unlike Jones, the characters in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle make more significant personal journeys and discoveries.

The video game setting feels authentic. For instance, each character gets three lives, and peripheral characters often repeat themselves in their attempts to guide players’ decisions. In one action sequence, Spencer/Bravestone calls out his moves and makes contact noises in the vein of the late-’60s Batman series as he plows through bad guys.

Teaming up for the second time—the first was Central Intelligence (2016)—Johnson and Hart prove an effective comic duo. What works so well for Johnson is that while we’re used to seeing him in heroic roles, many of his actions in this film are decidedly unheroic: he runs from trouble, kisses awkwardly, and makes high-pitched declarations of surprise. Hart delivers his typical high-energy, highly physical performance. Black shows he is at ease playing any role—it truly feels as if he is a female teen trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. One of the most engagingly awkward developments is Bethany/Oberon falling for one of Jumanji’s male inhabitants.

Most, though not all, of this film is predictable, and that is okay. The humour and original concept carry it through. Its teenage characters, who live in a world that values appearance and physical feats, get an opportunity to do some much-needed introspection—those lacking confidence get more physically advanced avatars, while those who thrive on appearance and physicality get taken down a notch physically… and they all learn something. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 1 January 2018

Extreme Horror Writers: Two Months Left to Submit to UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2 Anthology

Contribute to an emerging subgenre and become a humanitarian in monsters’ clothing.

Many fiction anthologies, journals, and zines have a similar attitude when it comes to “excessive gore” or “shock value”—they don’t want it. We do… for the forthcoming sequel to Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction’s controversial UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthology.

Unsplatterpunk has all the grotesqueness and transgressive subject matter of splatterpunk, plus it contains a positive message—that’s where the “un” fits in.

We encourage emerging and established writers to “take a stab” at this subgenre and submit a story to UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2. Here’s the official call for submissions.

Unsplatterpunk is the villain that helps the needy, the pool of vomit that nourishes. So if you have some diabolical idea brewing, spew it out and send it to us. You have two months.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Last Jedi | review by Rafe McGregor


Johnson can’t shake the shadow of the striking Empire.


The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII, released in 2015 and directed by J.J. Abrams) set up the Sequel Trilogy very much in the image of the Original Trilogy, drawing a fine line between revisiting and rebooting.  Despite the upbeat end of the latter, with the Empire defeated and Luke Skywalker a fully-fledged Jedi, the beginning of Episode VII found the galaxy far, far away in much the same state as those of us who saw Episode IV in the seventies found it.  Luke had disappeared and taken the Jedi with him; a much-aged Han Solo was scouring the galaxy for his son, Kylo Ren, with the ageless Chewy back at his side in the Millennium Falcon; and the Empire had reformed as the First Order, its rise checked by the Resistance.  Some of this came as a non sequitur: the Jedi won the Galactic Civil War and should have been re-established; junior Jedi Ren seemed to have destroyed the Jedi academy with relative ease (recalling Anakin Skywalker’s rampage in Episode III); the First Order was clearly not the first anything and the Resistance wasn’t the resistance – just the New Republican Armed Forces – if anything, the First/New Order were the resistance, challenging the New Republic’s victory.

The reproduction of the setting of the Original Trilogy was matched by Episode VII’s characters, who closely paralleled those of the first: Luke became Rey, R2D2 became BB8, Han became Finn (both renegades turned good guy), Darth Vader became Kylo, Yoda became Luke, the Emperor Palpatine became Supreme Leader Snoke, and Chewy was still, well, Chewy.  In addition, the plots of Episodes VII and IV were almost identical, involving a mission to destroy the Death Star in the latter and a mission to destroy the Death Planet in the former.  These similarities raised the question of whether Episode VIII would follow Episode V – one of the most popular of all the various trilogies and series (the Anthology Films were launched in 2016, with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) – or take the Sequel Trilogy in a different direction from the Original.

The signature opening crawl that begins Episode VIII reveals that events have moved along rather rapidly since the end of the last episode and that the skirmishes with the First Order were in fact more than they appeared, putting the New Republic first on the back foot and then on both feet on the run.  The story starts with the New Republican battle fleet fleeing from the First Order and Rey attempting to persuade a reluctant Luke to join the fray.  The New Republican forces – which are now indeed the Resistance – are led by Leia Organa and the central narrative is focused on the fleet, with various efforts being made to evade an extended pursuit that ends with a handful of survivors on the planet Crait.  The reproduction of Episode IV in Episode VII is itself reproduced as the various locations of Episode V are revisited in Episode VIII: Hoth has become Crait, with the AT-ATs lumbering on salt rather than snow; Dagobah has become Ahch-To, host to a disgusting species or two of its own; and Bespin has become Cantonica, playground where the greedy rich spend their ill-gotten gains. 

The combination of similar characters, similar places, and a similar plot sets the Sequel Trilogy firmly under the shadow of the Original, a shadow from which it unfortunately fails to escape in Episode VIII.  This is not to say that Rian Johnson doesn’t introduce original and unexpected subplots and character complexities, just that they are insufficient to set Episode VIII on a par with its predecessor.  Johnson also explores new themes, including a strong environmental ethic that sees Chewy turn vegetarian and Finn rescue a Fathier herd from captivity, but somewhere between Episodes V and VIII some of the magic was lost.  The fault is with the Sequel Trilogy in general rather than Episode VIII in particular.  Two thirds of the way through, I wonder if the main problem isn’t the absence of the affective structure that the sometimes overlapping but more often conflicting motives, desires, and goals of Luke, Leia, and Han brought to the original.  The Prequel Trilogy tried to reproduce the dramatic tension with Anakin and Padmé and failed.  The Sequel Trilogy is attempting the same with Ren and Rey and hasn’t quite succeeded yet.  Perhaps two just isn’t enough and three isn’t always a crowd?***               

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt and chums (DC) | review by Stephen Theaker

This four-hundred page Kindle edition collects issues 284 to 296 (and the first annual) of the series that had previously been Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, from 1982 and 1983. This includes the introduction of the team’s first brown-skinned human member (a new Invisible Kid) during an attack by Computo, and “The Great Darkness Saga”, a lengthy story whose long-teased surprise villain is rather given away by his appearance on the front cover of this book. This is what I think of as the real Legion. Reading these stories again, all these years later, fully restored, colour reconstructed, in the right order, with no missing issues, was little short of joyous. The stories stand up. Saturn Girl, Light Lass and Shrinking Violet can be a bit drippy in these issues, but to be fair the boys cry a lot too, and they are all going through a rough time. It has a huge, imaginative and entertainingly fractious cast of heroes, a universe full of danger and adventure, and a knack for switching from jokes to deadly seriousness as the stories require. A lot of the comics I read last year were perfectly decent, but this was a startling reminder of what it was like to read a comic I had truly loved for decades. *****



Merry Christmas! Hope you enjoy your presents as much as I enjoyed this! – SWT

Monday, 18 December 2017

Groo: Fray of the Gods, by Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth and Stan Sakai (Dark Horse) | review by Stephen Theaker

Groo is one of my favourite comics characters of all time, his idiotically violent behaviour a reliable source of chuckles since the day I first read an issue. He’s better than Asterix, if you ask me, and the stories are better, and that he’s not quite as famous can only be down to him being published on the whole in single issues in the USA rather than albums in France. The previous series, Groo: Friends and Foes, was the comic at its very peak, fabulously coloured and brilliantly drawn (not to mention wittily scribed), with some of the detailed double-page spreads being absolutely stunning. It set the bar very high for this follow-up, which tells the story of an upstart god trying to take his place among the pantheon, and was originally announced as being twelve issues long, but by the time of release was down to four instead, with a new series to come soon. There’s no mention of the change in the issues themselves, but it does feel like the story reaches a natural conclusion. It shows us something of how religion works in Groo’s world (and ours too, for that matter) as the power of the gods waxes and wanes in proportion to how many believers they have. Groo causes the usual chaos, and there are plenty of chuckles to be chucked, and if it didn’t quite hit the glorious heights of the previous run it’s still one of the funniest things I read all year. ****



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, 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 (Gal 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. ***