Friday, 9 March 2018

Hard Sun | review by Rafe McGregor

Policing the End of the World.

Hard Sun is written by Neil Cross, who is best known for his creation of Luther, the gritty British detective series that was first released in 2010 and is currently scheduled for a fifth season. (I should perhaps point out to readers outside the UK that many British series are in fact mini-series and the longest season of Luther was six episodes.) Cross’s television work includes episodes of Spooks and Dr Who, as well as the adaptation of the M.R. James short story, “‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad’”, first published in 1904 and screened as Whistle and I’ll Come to You in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in 2010. He has also written for film and had one of his novels – Mr In-Between (1998) – released as a film in 2001. This film was both Paul Sarossy’s directorial debut and directorial swansong, but was in my opinion highly underrated (along with the novel) and was what first drew Cross to my attention. I mention Mr In-Between because it provided a clear but complex exploration of existential themes – abandonment, angst, authenticity, alienation, and absurdity – which return to take centre stage in Hard Sun.

The first episode introduces the two protagonists, Detective Inspector Elaine Renko (played by Agyness Deyn, a highly successful model who has been acting since Clash of the Titans in 2010) and Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Hicks (played by Jim Sturgess, best known for his role in Cloud Atlas in 2012), both of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Renko is a newcomer to Hicks’ major investigation team, taking over after his previous deputy’s murder. Their first case together is the suspicious suicide of a hacker, who appears to have gained access to GCHQ’s network (Government Communications Headquarters is the UK’s equivalent of the National Security Agency in the US). Renko and Hicks follow another hacker to a meeting with a media magnate and intervene when the sale of a flash drive turns violent. They arrest both men and are en route to the police station when all four of them are attacked by an MI5 death squad (MI5 is the UK’s Security Service). They escape and the premise for the rest of the series is set up when the flash drive is revealed to contain information about Hard Sun, an “extinction event” involving an explosion of or emission from the sun that is due to occur in five years. Renko’s response to acquiring the knowledge is to go public in order to guarantee her safety while Hicks opts to cooperate with Grace Morrigan (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, a familiar face on the UK small screen, particularly for her part in Luther), the sinister MI5 intelligence officer who emerges as the narrative’s antagonist. The conflict between Renko and Hicks is exacerbated when the former is found to be investigating the latter, who is not only corrupt but suspected of having murdered his deputy, and when Morrigan attempts to manipulate the latter to kill the former. Both detectives are vulnerable in virtue of their families: Hicks has a pregnant wife and a step-daughter he wants to adopt and Renko was raped when she was fourteen and has a mentally ill teenage son who is in a (not-so-)secure unit after attempting to murder her.

The Renko-Hicks-Morrigan triangle in the shadow of Hard Sun provides the backdrop for the rest of the series: the government and the media quickly represent Hard Sun as a conspiracy theory, along faked moon landings lines, and the plot involves Morrigan’s attempts to recover both the flash drive and a recorded video broadcast from Renko. At the thematic level, Renko, Hicks and Morrigan’s responses to Hard Sun are used to examine ethical questions about action and responsibility in the face of what existentialists would call the ultimate boundary situation – not just death in the face of contingency, but the death of the entire species (and consequently, for most philosophers within this tradition, the end of all values). Does the end of the world mean anything goes because nothing matters anymore? Or do our actions matter more because there is less time in which to undo harm or seek redemption? Each episode provides a case to solve within this context: a spree killer (episode 2), a lone wolf Hard Sun terrorist (episodes 3 and 4), a domestic murder (episode 5), and a serial abductor cultist (episode 6). There is a sense of absurdity in that Renko and Hicks are for the most part investigating crimes committed by “truthers” (people who believe in a conspiracy theory) whose views are actually true (because Hard Sun is real), but held for the wrong reasons (because they are obsessed or trying to justify their desire to harm others) – and that Renko and Hicks are two of a very small group of people who know that the truthers' claims are correct.

This brief plot outline reveals the main flaw in the series, that what makes it most compelling at the start – the human species' response to the impending apocalypse – quickly fades into the background. The narrative becomes episodic at the expense of cohesion to the extent that it has a disjointed, directionless feel by episode 4. There are also minor irritations. Despite being a detective inspector in prestigious investigation unit, Renko treats every day of the week as dress-down Friday and even though she is deadly with her extendable baton and brass knuckles (as Hicks and several others discover to their detriment) it’s implausible that the chief wouldn’t have told her to stop wearing her anorak to work. In his portrayal of Hicks, Sturgess is a little too breathless too often for my taste and seems to rely on whispering for gravitas. Finally, I would like to have seen more of Amuka-Bird, but just as Morrigan is emerging as a more complex character the series crashes to its climactic conclusion. The few reviews of Hard Sun that I’ve seen so far have all been poor and it looks like this is going to be a repeat of Mr In-Between for Cross: underrated and unappreciated but well worth seeing. I was very close to awarding four stars because episode 5 is particularly gripping and episode 6 makes particularly effective use of a trope from hardboiled detective and police procedural narratives when the protagonists stop working against one another, join forces, and turn the tables on the antagonist(s). The problems are that there isn’t enough of a narrative bridge to connect the striking start to the exciting end and I’m still not sure whether Hard Sun is the motor that drives the plot or a setting that links a series of subplots. ***

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Annihilation | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Fantasy/eco-horror film revels in uncertainty.

When Annihilation ended, the fellow next to me said, “I’m gonna need the CliffsNotes on this one.” I, too, was a bit confused by the film (directed by Alex Garland) and its message. However, further contemplation revealed that being comfortable with a lack of answers may just be the mindset the film advocates.

Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) shows up confused a year after his covert Army mission to “The Shimmer”. Biology professor Lena then tags along with four other women – they all have a secret – who enter the no-man’s land within The Shimmer’s iridescent borders. She wants to find out what happened to her husband; her cohorts want to know why none of the previous explorers, excepting Kane, have returned. There are two theories regarding what happened to the men: they were killed by something within The Shimmer, or they killed each other.

The film flashes backward and forward to scenes in Lena’s life as the group journeys through the lush tropical environment. Their goal (and the presumed source of the phenomenon) is a lighthouse.

Annihilation examines the human tendency to mentally or physically “self-destruct”. It also takes to the extreme some of the new wave sentiments that posit man’s physical connection with the natural environment.

One statement that comes up frequently in this film is, “I don’t know.” Thus, if you prefer a movie with a clear-cut explanation, then this is not the one for you. However, if you prefer films that challenge you to probe deeper into meaning and theme, Annihilation is a must-see.

Another way to experience the film is to simply resign oneself to not knowing and indulge in its floral and faunal delights: kaleidoscopic fungal displays, crystal-like trees, deer with flowering wooden antlers, and more. Also watch for the prismatic light that occasionally pierces the mist-shrouded area. This light may reflect the discerning viewer’s experience of the film.

If someone asks me if I like Annihilation, my response is likely to be, “I don’t know.” Maybe that’s a bad thing, or maybe it’s the sign of a brilliant film. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 5 March 2018

Black Panther | review by Rafe McGregor

Coogler’s third strike is as complex and compelling as his first two.

I was worried about watching this film – almost as much as Blade Runner 2049 (reviewed for TQF here) albeit for entirely different reasons.  I wanted to like Black Panther, but the odds seemed stacked against me. I wanted to like it because I admire Ryan Coogler for his artistic genius and for the way in which he has extended both black consciousness and consciousness of anti-black racism in his previous two films, Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015).  Merely releasing a film with the title Black Panther, which recalls the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of the 1960s and 1970s, in the era of Black Lives Matter, heightened racial tensions in the US, and Trump’s New Nationalism constitutes a political statement in itself.  The Alt-Right countered with attempts to sabotage the success of the film via social media, but their efforts proved spectacularly unsuccessful when Black Panther broke several opening weekend box office records.  I felt this took a little of the pressure off me because regardless of what I write now the film is already a commercial and critical achievement by Coogler.  Why did I think the odds were stacked against me?  Despite many attempts, I just can't get to grips with superheroes as protagonists, with superhero narratives, or with the superhero aesthetic in general. I can’t even manage a second viewing of The Dark Knight Trilogy, which is by one of my favourite directors. Black Panther is a Marvel Comics character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 (coincidentally, the same year in which the  Black Panther Party was founded), and Black Panther is the eighteenth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The film is also the second of three in which Black Panther appears, after Captain America: Civil War (2016), and before Avengers: Infinity War, due later this year.

I solved my ethical-aesthetic dilemma by approaching the work from the perspective of the Afrofuturist rather than the superhero genre.  Alondra Nelson, a sociology professor at Columbia, characterises Afrofuturism as a movement that uses technical and creative innovation to make statements about black life and history with the aim of representing the Afrodiasporic experience in new ways.  Popular examples include Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979), Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010), and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015, the first book in her The Broken Earth series).  Taking these three books as a guide, the following features of the genre are apparent: strong female leads, a deeply-embedded environmental ethic, the assertion of shared humanity through black experience, a seamless blend of tradition and modernity, and the reconciliation of the destructive and beneficial aspects of technology.  With the exception of the first, these are all present in Black Panther. There are several strong female characters – most notably Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) – but the lead roles are all male: Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as T’Challa, the Black Panther, from Captain America: Civil War, and fights first Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) and then N’Jadaka (AKA Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan).

The plot is very straightforward: T’Challa’s succession to the throne of Wakanda is usurped by N’Jadaka, his estranged cousin. In keeping with his previous films, however, Coogler exploits this simplicity as a means to the end of exploring extremely complicated themes.  The first of these concerns the ethics of isolationism. Wakanda is a hyper-prosperous country in central Africa that makes use of its superior scientific development to hide its technology from the rest of the world, including its neighbours, many of whom are beset by political, criminal, and social turmoil. T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, was opposed to any engagement with the rest of the world, but others – such as N’Jadaka and Nakia – believe that Wakanda should end its sequestration. For N’Jadaka, Wakanda’s duty is to lead a global African uprising that will turn the tables on the legacy of European colonialism and create a new world order where Africans (led by Wakanda of course) are masters and Europeans slaves. Nakia has a more benevolent goal, in which Wakanda takes a leading role in the UN and exports its science and technology to the world. T’Challa is torn between T’Chaka’s isolationism and Nakia’s internationalism, between tradition and modernity, respect for his father and admiration for his lover. The second theme is the appropriate response to colonialism and postcolonialism. T’Challa is opposed to reinforcing the oppressive hierarchy by simply inverting the power relation between white (Europe) and black (Africa) and aims to subvert the whole structure, to take the lead by example not force and to influence the rest of the world through existing international organisations. Coogler has already been criticised for the conservatism of his vision of black empowerment, but given the political context in which the film has been released (mentioned above) and the complexity and significance of the issue at stake, I think the critique fails to recognise the sophistication and nuance of his response. Part of the subtlety of Creed, for example, was the way in which Coogler was able to tell Adonis Creed’s story such that it showed what was missing in the representations of Rocky Balboa in the 1970s without undermining the importance of Balboa’s own story.

The richness of Coogler’s exploration of these themes and their relevance to the real world make it an outstanding example of Afrofuturist cinema and my guess – based on the box office results – is that it’s a pretty good superhero movie as well. Notwithstanding, there are a couple of flaws, which is why I haven’t awarded a fifth star. I noted above that the lead roles are all male and Black Panther is, furthermore, a traditional story about men, by men, and for men – not only must T’Challa fight Ulysses Klaue and N’Jadaka, but his kingship must be secured by ritual combat and there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement that the toughest guy in the kingdom might not make the best monarch. Second, given that Jordan has played the lead in both of Coogler’s previous films, I was hoping for a lot more screen time for him and for more of his character’s backstory to be revealed. I don’t know how much of either of these criticisms can be put down to what I imagine are major artistic limitations imposed by Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I do know that this film is worth watching – even if you care as little about whether superheroes live or die as I do.****

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Voting opens in the TQF Awards 2018!

For the next fortnight TQF readers (and non-readers, if they want) can vote in the faintly embarrassing TQF Awards 2018!

Click here to vote. Anyone can vote, and you can vote for as many items in each category as you like.

The longlist consists of everything we reviewed in issues 58, 59, 60 and 61, in the categories that appeared in the Quarterly Review (audio, books, comics, events, films, music and television), plus categories for best TQF story, cover art and issue. If you aren’t sure what to vote for, click the links provided below to find out more.

Voting will continue until midnight, 25 February 2018, with the winners to be announced in TQF62 a few days later.

You can rate each item our team reviewed according to how much you'd like it to win, from 1 (not very much) to 5 (a lot). For the items from TQF you can either tick each item to vote for it or not.

Last year's award prizes were customised rulers. This year I think they will be tiny toy astronauts. I'm hoping to persuade my daughters to paint little waistcoats on to make them look like our logo.


  • Children of Eden, by Joey Graceffa (and Laura L. Sullivan) (Simon and Schuster Audio) – see TQF59, p. 186
  • The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi (Audible) – see TQF59, p. 188
  • John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection, by John Wyndham et al. (BBC Worldwide) – see TQF61, p. 86


  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells ( – see TQF60, p. 108
  • Autumn Snow 1: The Pit of Darkness, by Martin Charbonneau, Joe Dever and Gary Chalk (Megara Entertainment) – see TQF58, p. 80
  • Black Dog, by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus (Headline) – see TQF58, p. 90
  • Closet Dreams, by Lisa Tuttle (infinity plus) – see TQF60, p. 109
  • The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove (Titan Books) – see TQF59, p. 190
  • The Drowning Eyes, by Emily Foster ( – see TQF59, p. 194
  • Final Girls, by Mira Grant (Subterranean Press) – see TQF60, p. 110
  • The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan (Subterranean Press) – see TQF59, p. 195
  • I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books) – see TQF59, p. 196
  • If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell (Aurum) – see TQF59, p. 198
  • Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971, edited by S.T. Joshi (PS Publishing) – see TQF59, p. 200
  • Metronome by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories) – see TQF59, p. 202
  • The Monarch of the Glen, by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus (Headline) – see TQF58, p. 86
  • Pawn: A Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War, by Timothy Zahn (Tor) – see TQF61, p. 90
  • Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications) – see TQF59, p. 203
  • Proof of Concept, by Gwyneth Jones ( – see TQF60, p. 110
  • Resurrecting Sunshine, by Lisa A. Koosis (Albert Whitman) – see TQF59, p. 205
  • A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson ( – see TQF59, p. 207
  • A Wizard’s Henchman by Matthew Hughes (PS Publishing) – see TQF59, p. 209
  • Working for Bigfoot, by Jim Butcher (Subterranean Press) – see TQF60, p. 112


  • Adventure Time: Marceline Gone Adrift, by Meredith Gran and Carey Pietsch (Boom! Studios) – see TQF59, p. 211
  • Bloodshot: Reborn, Deluxe Edition 1, by Jeff Lemire, Mico Suayan, Butch Guice, et al. (Valiant) – see TQF59, p. 212
  • The Complete Scarlet Traces, Volume One, by Ian Edgington and Disraeli (Rebellion) – see TQF59, p. 213
  • Groo: Fray of the Gods, by Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Tom Luth and Stan Sakai (Dark Horse) – see TQF59, p. 215
  • I Hate Fairyland, Vol. 1: Madly Ever After, by Skottie Young (Image Comics) – see TQF60, p. 113
  • The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt and chums (DC) – see TQF59, p. 217
  • Michael Turner’s Soulfire: Omnibus 1, by Michael Turner, J.T. Krul, Marcus To and chums (Aspen Comics) – see TQF60, p. 114
  • Princess Jellyfish 01, by Akiko Higashimura (Kodansha) – see TQF59, p. 218
  • Superf*ckers Forever, by James Kochalka and chums (IDW) – see TQF59, p. 220
  • X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel) – see TQF59, p. 222


  • Eastercon 2017: Innominate – see TQF60, p. 116
  • Into the Unknown: a Journey Through Science Fiction, curated by Patrick Gyger (Barbican) – see TQF60, p. 118


  • Alien: Covenant, by John Logan and Dante Harper (Twentieth Century Fox et al.) – see TQF60, p. 120
  • Annabelle: Creation, by Gary Dauberman (Atomic Monster et al.) – see TQF61, p. 92
  • Arrival, by Eric Heisserer (21 Laps et al.) – see TQF58, p. 94
  • Assassin’s Creed, by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Ubisoft et al.) – see TQF59, p. 224
  • Blade Runner 2049, by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (16:14 Entertainment et al.) – see TQF61, p. 94
  • The Bye Bye Man, by Jonathan Penner (Intrepid Pictures et al.) – see TQF59, p. 226
  • Doctor Strange, by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Marvel Studios) – see TQF58, p. 98
  • Geostorm, by Dean Devlin and Paul Guyot (Warner Bros et al.) – see TQF61, p. 100
  • Get Out, by Jordan Peele (Blumhouse Productions et al.) – see TQF59, p. 229
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, by James Gunn (Marvel Studios) – see TQF60, p. 123
  • It Comes at Night, by Trey Edward Shults (A24 et al.) – see TQF60, p. 124
  • It, by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman (New Line Cinema et al.) – see TQF61, p. 102
  • Justice League, by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (Warner Bros et al.) – see TQF61, p. 104
  • Kong: Skull Island, by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly (Legendary Entertainment et al.) – see TQF59, p. 231
  • The Lego Batman Movie, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers et al. (Warner Bros) – see TQF59, p. 235
  • Logan by Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green (Fox) – see TQF59, p. 237
  • The Mummy, by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman (Universal Pictures et al.) – see TQF60, p. 126
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, by Jeff Nathanson (Walt Disney et al.) – see TQF60, p. 128
  • Prometheus, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Twentieth Century Fox et al.) – see TQF60, p. 131
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney) – see TQF59, pp. 240, 243
  • Spectral, by George Nolfi (Netflix) – see TQF59, p. 244
  • Split, by M. Night Shyamalan (Blinding Edge Pictures et al.) – see TQF59, p. 246
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm et al.) – see TQF61, p. 106
  • Thor: Ragnarok, by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost (Marvel Studios et al.) – see TQF61, p. 109
  • Wonder Woman, by Allan Heinberg (Warner Bros et al.) – see TQF60, p. 134


  • Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone) – see TQF60, p. 136


  • Ash vs Evil Dead, Season 2, by Craig DiGregorio, Cameron Welsh, Noelle Valdivia and chums (Starz/Virgin) – see TQF59, p. 250
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Season 1, by Max Landis and friends (BBC America/Netflix) – see TQF59, p. 252
  • Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker (BBC) – see TQF59, p. 254
  • The Expanse, Season 1, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Robin Veith and chums (Syfy/Netflix) – see TQF59, p. 258
  • Iron Fist, Season 1, by Scott Buck and chums (Marvel/Netflix) – see TQF60, p. 138
  • iZombie, Season 2, by Rob Thomas and chums (The CW/Netflix) – see TQF59, p. 259
  • Legion, Season 1, by Noah Hawley and chums (FX) – see TQF60, p. 141
  • The Man in the High Castle, Season 2, by Frank Spotnitz and friends (Amazon Video) – see TQF59, p. 261
  • Sherlock, Series 4, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (BBC One) – see TQF59, p. 265
  • Supernatural, Season 11, by Andrew Dabb, Jenny Klein, Robert Berens and chums (E4) – see TQF58, p. 101
  • Westworld, Season 1, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and chums (HBO/Sky Atlantic) – see TQF59, p. 271

Covers of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction

  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk, Howard Watts – see TQF58
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, Howard Watts – see TQF59
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, Howard Watts – see TQF60
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #61, Howard Watts – see TQF61

Fiction from Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction

  • Amongst the Urlap, by Andrew Peters – see TQF60, p. 53
  • Anathema: The Underside, by Chris Roper – see TQF59, p. 145
  • The Armageddon Coat, by Howard Watts – see TQF58, p. 47
  • The Baby Downstairs, by Jessy Randall – see TQF59, p. 63
  • Bound for Glory, by Allen Ashley – see TQF61, p. 9
  • The Constant Providers, by Charles Wilkinson – see TQF59, p. 73
  • A Desert of Shadow and Bone, by M.S. Swift – see TQF58, p. 11
  • The Devil’s Hollow, by Rafe McGregor – see TQF59, p. 17
  • Doggerland, by Jule Owen – see TQF60, p. 91
  • The Fisherman’s Ring, by Drew Tapley – see TQF58, p. 35
  • Give You a Game? by Michael Wyndham Thomas – see TQF59, p. 49
  • The Guidance Counsellor, by S.J. Hosking – see TQF61, p. 21
  • The Lost Testament, by Rafe McGregor – see TQF60, p. 15
  • Man + Van, by David Penn – see TQF59, p. 89
  • The Night They Sacked New Rome, by Elaine Graham-Leigh – see TQF59, p. 129
  • Quand les queues s’allongèrent, by Antonella Coriander – see TQF58, p. 27
  • Regression, by Libby Heily – see TQF61, p. 73
  • Scrotal Quilt, by Douglas J. Ogurek – see TQF58, p. 69
  • Tether, by A. Katherine Black – see TQF61, p. 33
  • To Ashes, Dust, by Tim Major – see TQF61, p. 47
  • Turning Point, by Nicki Robson – see TQF60, p. 25
  • Yttrium, by Douglas Thompson – see TQF60, p. 37

Issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction

  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk, ed. Howard Watts – see TQF58
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, eds Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood – see TQF59
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, eds Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood – see TQF60
  • Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #61, eds Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood – see TQF61

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene | review by Stephen Theaker

“They say the fair holds one example of all that there is in the world – every food, every spice, every pleasure and every vice,” says nobleman Lahiru, who, though married with three children, will be “hunting the finest boy flesh to be had for many miles” during his visit. Smiler’s Fair is a travelling city, drawn by mammoths from place to place, because no one stays still for too long in this world. Do so and the worm men will get you! The fair, home to scoundrels, scum and psychopaths, takes a daily census of its inhabitants and visitors, and when the first death comes the fair moves on. For our cast of characters, all roads pass through this exciting, squalid, movable feast.

The eyes of Krish have silver irises, and so King Nayan, his birth father, wanted him dead to undo a prophecy. Cut from his mother’s belly and stolen away, Krish knows nothing of that, and lives as a shepherd until a brush with the king’s flying squad sets him on the run. Lady Nethmi has been sent by her uncle to marry old Lord Thilak, but he already has a good woman to share his bed.

Eric is a teenage sellcock, growing too old for the sleazy customers of his owner, Madam Aeronwen. He decides to follow his favourite client home from the fair. Dae Hyo, perhaps the last of his tribe, would avenge the murder of his people and reclaim his homeland; trouble is, he’s also a recovering alcoholic chased out of town after he fell asleep on the job and got a team of miners killed by the worm men.

Smiler’s Fair is very much the first part of a series, and doesn’t work brilliantly as a standalone novel. The protagonists move around the board, but few of their stories progress very far. It feels like threads were added till there were enough to fill the pages, rather than because they were truly needed. There’s a common theme to some of them, of scorned and mistreated wives: the woman who adopted Krish, beaten by the husband she always wanted to leave; Nethmi, an unwilling wife with an uncaring husband; Babi, wife of gay lord Lahiru, humiliated by the lover brought into their home. But with no common catalyst, it feels oddly coincidental that these life-changing adventures all begin at once.

The prose style feels uncomplicated and perhaps even deliberately simplified: in one five-page section I looked at, ninety-five per cent of the text was made up of one and two-syllable words, with only two of eighteen hundred words reaching five syllables. It feels like the language is pitched at someone with the reading age of eleven or twelve, though the content is far too salty for that age group. This makes it an easy and accessible book to read, but once you notice it’s hard not to feel like the book is talking down to you.

Levene’s editorial work on the excellent Doctor Who line from Virgin Books was very well regarded, and this feels rather like a book written by a canny editor who has surveyed the market, thought about what will be marketable (it will appeal to fans of Game of Thrones), and produced a book designed to fit the bill. Some parts are a bit corny – one man becomes the captive of a society of women, who of course require impregnation! – but it’s a solid adventure and I enjoyed reading it. I’m sure it will find fans, though I probably won’t read any sequels: I’m not worried about the characters, nor really intrigued by the trundly setting.

The worm men are frightening at first, but the premise of the book, that they can’t dig up into your home if it’s on the move (because the sun poisons the land against them), was unconvincing, and felt like an arbitrary way to set this world in motion. For me that world is in some ways too similar to our own: there are mammoths, but also snakes, cows, horses, goats, rats, etc. Maybe it is our world, or maybe it’s just parallel evolution, but the inclusion of Earth Prime animals in a fantasy novel always feels to me like a wasted opportunity. It’s ironic that fantasy is often less adventurous than science fiction when it comes to these things.

Promisingly, events later in the book suggest that the Hollow Gods of the series title might play a bigger role in future volumes. More weirdness and magic would certainly have made this book more appealing, and it might prove easier to take an interest in the lives of these mostly unpleasant characters if they were set in opposition to gods who are even worse. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #254.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #61: now out!

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Issue sixty-one of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is out now! It contains two stories from old friends – Allen Ashley (“Bound for Glory”) and Douglas Thompson (“Yttrium: Part 2”) – plus four stories from first-time contributors – S.J. Hosking (“The Guidance Counsellor”), A. Katherine Black (“Tether”), Tim Major (“To Ashes, Dust”) and Libby Heily (“Regression”) – plus “Frakking Toasters”, a non-fiction article on the language of Battlestar Galactica from Jessy Randall.

Then there are nine reviews from the usual team of Douglas J. Ogurek, Rafe McGregor, Jacob Edwards and Stephen Theaker: the BBC Radio John Wyndham Collection, Pawn by Timothy Zahn, Annabelle: Creation, Blade Runner 2049, Geostorm, It, Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok. The wraparound cover artwork is by the marvellous Howard Watts, completing a run of thirty-one consecutive covers!

Sorry it’s so much later than planned. But we always get there in the end! We're ten issues ahead of my heroes at McSweeney's now, you know, and we gave them a ten-issue head start…

Here are the splendid and soulful contributors to this issue:

A. Katherine Black is an audiologist on some days and a writer on others. Her fiction has appeared in Farther Stars Than These, Seven by Twenty, Abstract Jam and others, and is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine. She lives in Maryland with her family, their cats and her coffee machine. Website:

Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor with six groups running across north London, including the advanced science fiction and fantasy group Clockhouse London Writers. He is the judge for the annual British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition and is currently working on an editing project on behalf of the BFS.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. Douglas’s website can be found at and his Twitter account is at
Douglas Thompson won the Herald/Grolsch Question of Style Award in 1989, second prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007, and the Faith/Unbelief Poetry Prize in 2016. His short stories and poems have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including Ambit, New Writing Scotland and Albedo One. His first book, Ultrameta, published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, was followed by eight subsequent novels and short story collections: Sylvow (Eibonvale Press, 2010), Apoidea (The Exaggerated Press, 2011), Mechagnosis (Dog Horn Publishing, 2012), Entanglement (Elsewhen Press, 2012), The Rhymer (Elsewhen Press, 2014), The Brahan Seer (Acair Books, 2014), Volwys (Dog Horn Publishing, 2014), and The Sleep Corporation (The Exaggerated Press, 2015). A new combined collection of short stories and poems The Fallen West will be published by Snuggly Books in early 2018. His first poetry collection Eternity’s Windfall will be published by Red Squirrel in early 2018. A retrospective collection of his earlier poetry, Soured Utopias, will be published by Dog Horn in late 2018. “Yttrium: Part 2” is taken from his novel Barking Circus, forthcoming in 2018 from Eibonvale. “Yttrium: Part 1” appeared in TQF60.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. His website is at, his Facebook page at, and his Twitter account is at

Jessy Randall’s stories, poems, and other things have appeared in Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, McSweeney’s and Theaker’s (most recently in April 2017). She is a librarian at Colorado College and her website is “Frakking Toasters” was originally written for the wonderful and now-defunct Verbatim: The Language Quarterly.

Libby Heily’s short stories have been published in The Write Room, Mixer Publishing, Bookends Review, The Dirty Pool, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and Twisted Sister Literary Magazine. Her plays have received multiple staged readings around the country and have been produced at Longwood University, Davis and Elkins College, Sonorous Road Theater and by the Cary Playwrights Forum. Her Young Adult novel, Welcome to Sortilege Falls, was published in 2016 by Fire and Ice YA Publishing. The sequel, Wrong Side of the Rift, was published in November 2017.

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

S.J. Hosking enjoys a wide variety of literary genres, and historical fiction, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and gothic are amongst his favourites. His literary influences include, but are not limited to, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Robert Harris, C.J. Sansom, and Stephen King. S.J. has had one story published so far, “The Princess and the Tower”, in Aphotic Realm magazine (Apparitions, June/July 2017). Aside from short stories, S.J. also writes poetry and flash fiction, and has had a sestina published online. He is currently working on his first novel. When not writing, S.J. enjoys running, walking, swimming and tennis.

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. His reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal.

Tim Major is a freelance editor and co-editor of the British Fantasy Society’s fiction journal, BFS Horizons. His first novel, You Don’t Belong Here, was published by Snowbooks. He has also released two novellas: Blighters (Abaddon) and Carus & Mitch (Omnium Gatherum). In 2018 ChiZine will publish his first YA novel, Luna Press will publish his first short story collection and Electric Dreamhouse Press will publish his non-fiction book about the silent crime film, Les Vampires. Tim’s short stories have appeared in Interzone, Not One of Us and numerous anthologies. Find out more at

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

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).