Sunday, 19 August 2018

Iron Fist, Season 1, by Scott Buck and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Joy (Jessica Stroup) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) are the siblings who run the immense multinational Rand Corporation, which was founded by Wendell Rand (who died with his family in a plane crash) and their unpleasant father (David Wenham), who died of cancer. A problem presents itself: a homeless man (Finn Jones) turns up at their building, claiming to be Danny Rand, son of their father’s partner, and an old friend of theirs. If it is Danny Rand, he would own 51% of their company. At first they don’t believe him, to the extent that they throw him out without asking a handful of obvious questions that could have easily confirmed his identity.

However, it soon becomes clear that he is really Danny Rand, and here they have a stroke of good fortune: he’s a complete idiot who believes everything he is told, happily tells psychiatric doctors about his time in the mythical kingdom of K’un Lun, and is incapable of putting together the simplest clues as to what is really going on. Less fortunately for them, he begins to acquire capable and sensible allies: Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a karate instructor who will help him fight, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson, reprising her role from all the previous Netflix/Marvel shows), a nurse who will help him heal, and Jeri Hogarth (from Jessica Jones; Carrie-Anne Moss), a lawyer who will help him get his company back.

Very occasionally he uses the martial arts skills that he acquired during his absence (though he’s very bad at knocking people out), and even more rarely he uses his special power, a glowing fist that can punch through anything. Joy and Ward don’t seem that bright either, since Danny Rand doesn’t really care about money, owning a company, or running a company; he only gets mired in that stuff in order to establish his identity and reclaim his name.

And so we get a show that spends masses of its time worrying about which of the repellant Meachums or their rivals (including the manipulative Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho) is truly in charge of their company, while the titular character scowls his way through every scene and scampers around like a silly puppy at their beck and call. Viewers know that he has had a difficult time of it – the plane crash and subsequent years of apparently abusive training have left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and he has not lived in the modern world, but it’s still hard to forgive his lack of regard for women’s boundaries in the early episodes (he breaks into the homes of both Joy and Colleen) and the way that he constantly acts like a colossal jerk. It’s hard to understand why Colleen Wing comes to like him so much, but thank goodness she does, because the programme would be much less watchable without her likeable and energetic presence. It picks up later as mysterious men Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez) and Davos (Sacha Dawan) come to the fore, and with the latter there are even a few moments of much-needed comedy, but this still goes down as the least of the Netflix Marvel shows so far.

It was criticised before release by people who wished Danny had been played by an Asian actor. You can understand why they felt that way, but it would have been a completely different show: this is all about a rich white guy who is the first outsider to acquire the Iron Fist power, to the great resentment of those locals who thought it was their birthright. What harms the programme more is the actor’s apparent lack of martial arts skills. Season two could be better. It needs Danny to be a bit less one note in his reactions, it needs an antagonist who is in direct conflict with Danny rather than ambivalent towards him, and most importantly it needs much better fight scenes. The pace is no faster than season one of Daredevil, but in Daredevil the fights are worth the wait. In a show specifically about a martial arts master, the fight scenes need to be outstanding. ***

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Meg | review by Rafe McGregor

Size matters.

I first watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) on the small screen in the late seventies or possibly in 1980 or 1981 – some time in the second half of my first decade. I don’t remember the year or whether my experience was courtesy of videotape or 8mm film, but I do remember being absolutely, completely, and utterly terrified. So scared that for a weeks I was reluctant to bath, let alone swim in a pool. That didn’t last, but the fear of sharks did. Not exactly clinical galeophobia or even enough to keep me from swimming in the sea, but enough to cause some of the physical symptoms of the phobia for nearly four more decades of seeing sharks on film and in dreams. As is well known, Jaws became the prototypical Hollywood blockbuster and its form, style, and content have been emulated with more or less success for forty-three years. The film also became a franchise, spawning three sequels with diminishing critical and commercial returns: the best thing about Jaws 2 (1978) was its tagline (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”); Jaws 3-D (1983) was as disappointing as the other attempts to revive 3D cinema in the early eighties; and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) was nominated for eight Golden Raspberry Awards, achieved a rare but well-deserved 0% on the Tomatometer, and showed that even the great Michael Caine can make poor career choices. None of the four were, however, financial failures and the shark movie was soon established as a subgenre of the horror film.

In consequence, Jaws has been responsible for four decades of mostly poor shark movies. There have been a couple of exceptions – such as Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Andrew Traucki’s The Reef (2010), both of which employed original takes on Spielberg’s initial conception of the shark as monster – but they have been regrettably rare. Mario Van Peebles’ USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) also deserves mention: it is history rather than horror, but the reality behind the representation doesn’t detract from dread of the longest and most deadly shark attack on record. The best of the bad are probably Open Water (2004), Dark Tide (2012), The Shallows (2016), and 47 Meters Down (2017), all of which have some quality in either innovation or casting. Moving from the bad to the ridiculous there have sadly been dozens of B-movies along the lines of The Last Shark (AKA The Great White, 1981), Night of the Sharks (1988), Deep Blood (1990), Cruel Jaws (1995), Shark Attack (1999), Shark Swarm (2008), 2-Headed Shark Attack (2012), 3-Headed Shark Attack (2015), 5-Headed Shark Attack (2017) – curiously, no four-headed shark attack (maybe they are friendly) – and the Sharknado franchise (five films released since 2013 with a sixth due later this month).

We can blame Jaws for decades of celluloid dross, but a far more damaging consequence was its impact on cultural perceptions of sharks as a clear and present danger to humanity – or at least humanity on, in, or under the water. Depending on which source one uses, the film either popularised or contributed to the popularisation of shark hunting, which in turn contributed to a steady decline in shark numbers, up to 90% in several species. The Western Australian shark cull, an implement of official government policy, began as recently as 2014 and was only terminated last year. A large number of shark species are currently considered either vulnerable or endangered. Statistically, one is as likely to be killed by a shark as a wolf and much more likely to be killed by lions, crocodiles, dogs, and a variety of insects, the most dangerous of which is the mosquito. Mosquitos don’t have quite the cinematic appeal of sharks and I’ve often wondered what it is about the latter that I find so frightening. Perhaps it isn’t sharks as such, but the fact that humans are always out of their depth in water, always cumbersome and clumsy with severely restricted vision, hearing, and smell. On the other hand, someone once suggested to me that the most terrifying monster imaginable was a giant disembodied mouth and a shark’s anatomy – particularly as represented on screen – seems little more than a delivery system for a giant mouth crammed with superhuman teeth complete with extendable jaws. Jaws…precisely.

If you are scared of sharks, like I am, then you may agree that the only thing more frightening than a shark is a bigger shark, which explains the contemporary fascination with Megalodon, a prehistoric shark species that disappeared over two and a half million years ago (sixty million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs). Fossil evidence reveals that Megalodon was similar to the Great White in appearance, but with blunter and wider jaws, and estimates of its length range from 10.5m (34ft) to 25m (82ft). As an aside, the famous Jaws poster – a mouthful of teeth attacking an unsuspecting swimmer from below – depicts a shark of Megalodon rather than Great White size. The largest verified Great White was just over 6m (20ft) and even Bruce, Spielberg’s mechanical shark, was just over 7.5m (25ft) in length. Fascination with Megalodon was fuelled by the discovery of a Coelacanth, a species of fish believed to have disappeared at the same time as the dinosaurs, off the south coast of South Africa in 1938. The giant shark has inspired numerous documentaries, including a now-notorious episode of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” (aired on 18 October 2013), which faked a Megalodon attack and sighting off the coast of Cape Town. The channel was widely criticised and George Monbiot wrote an intriguing (but distressing) article for the Guardian linking the pseudo-documentary directly to the Australian cull.

In addition to documentaries there have of course been Megalodon B-movies, thankfully few due to the difficulties of reproducing the monster on screen: Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002), Megalodon (2004), Attack of the Jurassic Shark (2012), and Sharkzilla (2012). This small collection includes many truly appalling special effects, but one of the few interesting aspects of Megalodon movies has been the tendency to exaggerate the size of the shark. This is of course permissible in a filmic fantasy – a shark the size of a submarine is no less believable than a shark resurrected after millions of years – but I think there is a sweet spot when it comes to size and fear, captured by Steven Spielberg in his focus on the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park (1993). T-Rex is big enough to rip a human being to pieces in as painful and personal a manner as a Velociraptor, but nowhere near the size of Godzilla, for whom a human being doesn’t provide enough calories to make the effort of eating one worthwhile. The monsters in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) inspire shock and awe, but not the instinctive, visceral, stomach-churning fear of an approaching T-Rex. Too small means too vulnerable to contemporary technology, but too large means too distant and impersonal, a threat to the human species rather than the individual human being. This is the first note that The Meg strikes skilfully: the shark is giant rather than gargantuan, albeit it is at the top end of the estimates based on fossil evidence.

The premise of the story seemed surprisingly plausible – for someone with my limited oceanographic knowledge, anyway. Dr Minway Zhang (played by Winston Chao) and his team, which includes his daughter, Suyin (played by Li Bingbing), discover that the bottom of the Mariana Trench is an illusion, concealing a deeper abyss of relatively warm water. The initial exploration meets with immediate disaster when the submersible is disabled in a Megalodon attack, leaving the crew of three trapped. Enter Jonas Taylor (played by Jason Statham), world-famous deep sea rescue expert washed up on the shores of Thailand after claiming to have seen a Megalodon in the Phillipine Trench five years previously. His reluctance to return from retirement is reversed when he learns that one of the trapped scientists is his ex-wife, Lori (played by Jessica McNamee). Meanwhile, Suyin mounts her own rescue mission and by the time Taylor arrives both her and Lori need saving from the Megaladon, a giant squid, and the general inhospitability of life at eleven thousand metres under the sea. A Megalodon that far down doesn’t present much of a threat to human beings, but the disruption caused by the penetration into the abyss brings one back to the research rig. After making mincemeat of the facility’s two resident whales, the Megalodon heads for Sanya Bay, in China (just south west of Hong Kong), and the trouble – and fun – really begins. Jon Turteltaub’s CGI is for the most part photorealistic and he avoids the pitfalls of portraying the shark as supernatural – as too big, too fast, or too clever. My sole concern with regard to suspension of disbelief was about the shark’s origin. The trench provides a convincing explanation for why it has remained unknown to humanity, but I’m not sure that a creature whose habitat was so far below the sea would be able to survive – let alone thrive – on the surface. Having said that, the sheer spectacle of Megalodon breaching was enough to submerge any further pseudoscientific speculation on my part.

There are disappointing deliveries from Statham and Bingbing and the romantic relationship that develops between Taylor and Suyin is childishly chaste, almost prudish. Statham still looks good in a swimsuit at fifty, however, and flaunts a jawline that puts Megalodon to shame so perhaps one shouldn’t ask for too much more. There are also times when the film comes close to sinking into sickly-sweet sentimentality – between Suyin and Minway and between Suyin’s eight year old daughter, Meiying (played by Shuya Sophia Cai), and everyone else – but the dangerous doses of saccharin are offset by a sage scattering of comedy, much of which succeeds in being genuinely funny without resort to parody. The most remarkable aspect of the narrative is a temporal structure that matches the shark – lean, mean, and fully fit for purpose. The plot performs a perfect balancing act, pausing here and there to avoid the feel of a mindless action thriller but pushing the story forward with every scene. The poised pacing facilitates some thematic evolution, with reflection on contemporary environmental issues. Suyin argues for capturing rather than killing the Megalodon, although she is quickly overruled when it turns its attention from whales to fishing boats. Minway expresses his regret at being forced to repeat the historical pattern of humanity’s impact on the natural world – discovery followed by destruction – and there is a neat intersection of conceptions of exploration, assimilation, accommodation, and extermination in Turteltaub’s cinematic framework. The Meg is the first big budget shark film since Deep Blue Sea and has, like its predecessor, been panned by critics. The former’s Tomatometer score at the time of writing is 50%, just under the latter’s 56%, so in the interests of full disclosure I should probably add that I would also have awarded Deep Blue Sea four stars. ****

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Pawn: A Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War, by Timothy Zahn (Tor) | review by Jacob Edwards

A chronicle of discontent.

This is not so much a review as a lament. Timothy Zahn used to be a favourite author of mine. I own many of his books. But in recent years I find myself borrowing, not buying (and even then I do so more from inertia than with the thrill of expectation). Perhaps the fault is mine, and my tastes have moved on. Or maybe Zahn has grown too comfortable in his niche.

Or could this be an opportunity to blame the publishing industry…? Actually, yes. Let’s do that.

Pawn touts itself as “a chronicle of the Sibyl’s War”; but in the modern SF parlance this doesn’t mean a complete chronicle. It means the first instalment of innumerably many in a story that once would have been told in a single book.

And with this I take issue.

Zahn in fact remains as imaginative as ever. His writing still bubbles along. But Pawn, just like so many films nowadays, isn’t really an experience in its own right. It is merely, solely, a prequel to whatever comes next. Zahn has envisaged an intriguing scenario but we learn about it only by way of breadcrumbs dropped along the path, and even then not very much. The novel in fact ends right where it should be beginning, and instead of the “A” plot (left scattered for future consumption) we are given a “B” plot that holds very little interest. Essentially, the entire book is clickbait.

On the first page of Pawn we meet Nicole, a somewhat abused low-ranking member of a Philadelphian street gang. By the end of the first chapter she has been abducted to an alien spaceship, and by the end of the book her gangland personality has more or less washed away, readying her for the SF chronicle to come.

To quote from the dust jacket: “Nicole soon discovers that many different factions are vying for control of the Fyrantha, and she and her friends are merely pawns in a game beyond their control. But she is tired of being used, and now Nicole is going to fight.”

Well, no. That is not what’s going to happen in Pawn. That’s what Nicole discovers by the end of it (sorry, the book’s own blurb is a spoiler) and what we might expect from the rest of the series. Looking back at Zahn’s Quadrail books, the template is clear: he has a single novel in mind and he’s going to spin it out across as many publications as his contract stipulates.

If Pawn’s “B” plot is anything to go by, there’ll be a lot of filler along the way.

Well, I’ve had enough. I’m not going to read any more. If the completed “Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War” is ever edited down into one book then I’ll take it up with glee. (The overarching idea really does appeal.) But until then, I’m out.

To push the obvious analogy: no longer will I allow myself to be a pawn of the publishing world.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Into the Unknown: a Journey Through Science Fiction, curated by Patrick Gyger (Barbican) | review by Stephen Theaker

This exhibition, billed as “the genre-defining exhibition of art, design, film & literature”, began running at the Barbican on 3 June 2017 (the day the TQF co-editors and their families attended), and would remain open until 1 September 2017. It was announced in 2016, and I had been looking forward to it ever since, but in the event it was, despite some remarkable exhibits, a bit of a disappointment. Part of that can perhaps be laid at the tickets, which promised three parts, but only the first was the exhibition proper, and there wasn’t very much of it.

The items in the main section included books (not all classics, or valuable editions – it was peculiar to see books I own under glass), magazines, short films (including one written by an AI, the actors gamely trying to find the truth in its words), spectacular model space guns, spaceships, space stations and spacesuits – including John Hurt’s from Alien, which was amazing to see, though one might doubt its provenance seeing as no hole had been burnt in the faceplate!

The problem is that these were cramped into a very small space, so much so that we were told to carry our backpacks rather than wear them. It would have definitely have had more impact had the items been spaced out more – for example, few in our party even noticed the robot from Interstellar, which would have made a formidable exhibit on a plinth of its own, lurking in the shade of Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the showier robots from Lost in Space and I, Robot. Godzilla heads are only visible from a distance, and like many items can only be seen from one side.

The second part was a film, into which only a dozen or so people could enter at a time, leading to queues – odd for a booked event at which the numbers present during any given time slot should have been fairly predictable. The third part was a spinning robot shining a light that seems intended to create patterns, giving a sense of artificial intelligence. I spent most of that exhibit worrying about whether the children would tear the paper sheets that surrounded the robot. There was also a selection of sf video games like Half-Life 2, and music from people like Tangerine Dream, accessible to the public as well as those attending the exhibition.

“Genre-defining” is a big thing to ask of an exhibition. It was however a pleasant look through the nice collection of a wealthy chap, but one suspects that many visitors will have had quite interesting collections of their own, albeit gathered at rather less cost. It was definitely worth a look for those already in London, but we didn’t feel it had been worth the special trip we made to see it. Those who were unable to visit should note that the catalogue is an impressive hardback book, available from the Barbican’s online shop. ***

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection, by John Wyndham et al. (BBC Worldwide) | review by Stephen Theaker

This marvellous audiobook collects five full-cast BBC adaptations of John Wyndham’s classic science fiction work – five novels, plus a short story – as well as Beware the Stare, a half-hour documentary from 1998. It’s a ten-hour journey into some catastrophes that are not at all as cosy as I remembered.

Giles Cooper’s chilling six-part adaptation of The Day of the Triffids dates from 1968, and is framed as a record of the events being made years after. Bill Masen found a triffid growing in his garden as a youngster, studied it, and got a job farming them. A triffid sting leaves him in hospital with bandaged eyes during a meteor shower that blinds everyone else. This leads of course to the scenes that inspired the beginnings of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, as he emerges blinking into a world gone mad. In this adaptation this sequence is particularly distressing, since we hear the wails of babies as he ruthlessly walks away from their ward. Outside the hospital he finds that people are killing their own children and committing suicide.

It seems odd that mere hours after discovering their blindness people would go to such extremes – wouldn’t you wait a little while to see if the effect wore off? And it’s very hard to like a hero who walks away from crying babies and starts breaking into people’s homes on day one. He meets up with a woman, and they make no effort at all to help other people: their plan – on the first day of the disaster! – is to leave London until everyone has died and all the bodies have finished rotting away. But they become more sympathetic as the story goes on, as the triffids escape from the farms, and as they meet other survivors who are even worse. It’s a very well done adaptation, its only flaw (one it shares with The Chrysalids) being some ear-curdling adult-for-child acting when a young girl joins their group.

At the end of the adaptation what seem to be a set of deleted scenes play out, which are interesting to hear, but it’s easy to miss the start of the next story, The Kraken Wakes. How there has never been a film of this classic novel, when we’re about to get a fifth version of The Body Snatchers, I don’t know. This ninety-minute adaptation is from 1998, and it charts the course of another slow invasion: lights are seen falling into the sea, ships start to go missing, and then, after attempts to blow up whatever’s in the water, coastal towns mysteriously lose their populations. The scenes in which our protagonists witness an attack on a seaside town is terrifying to listen to, the screams of those caught in the attackers’ clutches horribly realistic. Until the truth of it all becomes too obvious to deny, people ignore what’s happening, laugh at the very idea of it. It’s ironic that John Wyndham’s idea of a devastating alien attack proves to be something we’re actually doing to ourselves.

The Chrysalids is rather different to the other novels, in that it begins in the future, after what seems to be a nuclear disaster. Mutation is feared, and those born differently face execution or exile. Not all mutations are visible, though, and a group of children who can thought-speak to each other at a distance struggle to keep their secret, especially when a much more powerful telepath makes herself known. This 1981 adaptation would be fine were it not for the aforementioned adult-for-child acting.

Survival is from 1989, and seems to be from an anthology series. A spaceship full of would-be colonists goes off course, and we see how far they will go in order to stay alive. The ending is gloriously nasty. Doctor Who fans will be pleased to hear Brigadier Nicholas Courtney pop up briefly.

The two-part adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos is from 2003, and is another highlight. It flips the premise of The Chrysalids: the psychic children of that story were the heroes, but here they are the villains, though that seems just to be a matter of perspective. Everyone in the village of Midwich falls asleep, and after a little while the women all realise that they are pregnant. The children, when born, are very strange, and take control of their parents. Whereas the film stuck with the children and their teacher, this version follows the brilliant Bill Nighy and his wife when they leave Midwich, and then return a few years later to see how strange things have got. Like The Kraken Wakes, this is a slow-moving disaster story, and it is all the worse for how natural it all feels.

Chocky is from 1998, and is the story of Matthew Gore, a boy whose imaginary friend is teaching him binary calculations and asking questions about space travel. Unlike some of the other stories, this features a child in the role of the child, and benefits accordingly. It’s Sacha Dhawan, from Iron Fist and An Adventure in Space and Time, who would have been about fifteen at the time.

The audiobook ends with the short documentary, produced to tie in with The Midwich Cuckoos. It’s interesting – and includes clips of other adaptations – though it raises as many questions as it answers: why did John Wyndham burn his diaries? And did the US science fiction magazines of the 1950s really demand the inclusion of explicit sex scenes?

This is an exceptionally good collection, showcasing both the work of a brilliant writer and the talent involved in BBC radio drama. Some of these have been available individually, so being able to get the entire collection for a single Audible token is great value for money. Highly recommended. *****

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Eastercon 2017: Innominate | review by Stephen Theaker

I only attended for two days of this four-day convention, Saturday and Monday. It took place in Birmingham in April 2017, at a hotel close to the NEC, near enough for me to travel to in an hour or so on public transport, so I had bought a full membership fairly early on without knowing whether I would be free or not. My daughter and I attended on Saturday. I bought her a one-day ticket at a very reasonable rate. She was interested in attending a talk on manga and anime, and a session on painting alien worlds, and enjoyed them both. We also watched the BSFA awards, which were good, convivial fun, and then the first episode of Doctor Who season ten, which was shown on three huge screens in the main events room.

My daughter enjoyed herself enough to recommend the event to my younger daughter, my wife, and the two children of my co-editor, so they all came with us on the Monday. Upon arriving we had the nice surprise of discovering that my older daughter’s painting from the Saturday session had won a prize in the children’s art show, which got the day off to a great start. It was a banner day too for my younger daughter, who for the very first time in her life, after being asked for her name, had someone recognise it and say, “Oh, like Telzey Amberdon.”

That day we attended hair-braiding and journal decoration sessions, which were interesting, even for those of us without hair or journals (the hair I lost long ago; the journal I gave away to a little girl who didn’t have her own). Between the two workshops we attended the closing ceremony, which must have been an odd experience for the four members of our group who had only arrived an hour and a half before.

Not staying at the hotel overnight, only attending a couple of panels, not being there for the full four days, and not really talking to anyone in the bar, I suppose most people would say I didn’t properly get stuck into the convention, but I’d still say it was my favourite convention experience yet. A few years ago I said to an occasional TQF contributor that I didn’t really like conventions. He told me that perhaps I had been going to the wrong ones, and after this weekend I think he may have been right.

On the surface this convention was almost completely indistinguishable from the last one I attended in York (my favourite convention before this one), but a few small and significant differences emerged over the couple of days. The strand of events for children was one. (If we’d realised there was a Lego Minifigure event on Sunday we’d have gone on that day too.) It also seemed to have more fans as opposed to career-orientated writers (something at least one writer has grumbled about). And we didn’t hear anyone bellowing across the convention rooms like territorial wildebeests.

Course, my experience of other cons is probably coloured to some extent that I went there to present various reports to the AGMs, and watch the awards I’d administered play out, appear on panels a couple of times, and one time be the secretary and treasurer for the whole bleeding thing, whereas Eastercon was pure relaxation, nothing to do except listen to clever people talk about things (Aliette de Bodard was a standout contributor to both panels I attended) or watch the children get on with fun and creative activities.

Best of all, there were plenty of places to sit when nothing was happening. Sofas everywhere, a quiet room, a fan lounge; it really contrasted well with all the times I’ve been at conventions and struggled to find somewhere to sit and read my new books. There was no goody bag, and no convention souvenir book, two things some attendees of other cons care very deeply about, but I wasn’t at all bothered by their absence. The daily newsletters about convention occurrences were great fun.

If Eastercon returns to Birmingham we’ll definitely go again, and I think we enjoyed it enough that we could even be tempted a bit further afield. ****

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Willful Child by Steven Erikson | review by Stephen Theaker

“Dad! First contact! Vulcans!” “Wish it was, boy,” Harry replied. “More like… idiots.” Three-eyed aliens visiting Earth in the “Age of Masturbation” leave behind a spaceship and get us started on a programme of galactic expansion. A century or so later Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback finagles his way into command of the starship Willful Child. He’s a terrible sexist, obsessed with trying to have sex with the female crew members and making sure male crew members know their place: not on away missions and well out of the limelight.

Halley Sin-Dour is his Spock, Saavik and Number One. She makes announcements in “in a deep, full-throated voice that rolled out, came back, and landed in Hadrian’s groin”. Combat specialist Lieutenant Galk comes from a world where the dictionary entry for mundanity runs to thirty pages, and Doctor Printlip deflates whenever he speaks for too long. Pilot Jocelyn Sticks was personally selected by the captain on the basis of her file photo, and he looks forward to the way that “from his position in the command chair, she would have to twist her upper body round to address him”. Hm.

The captain remembers television. He wears a polyester uniform, records a personal log, and insists on a view of the stars when they are in transit. The ship’s ongoing mission, according to him, is to “to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms”. Their first assigned mission is to investigate the smuggling of knockoff Terran sports apparel in the Blarad System, but the ship gets infected with a mysterious AI, Tammy, who takes them off to the Exclusion Zone, deep inside Radulak-Klang territory. This leads to an appropriately episodic series of adventures that provide plenty of novelty and surprise.

Science fiction satire may be a departure for Steven Erikson from the fantasy of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and the brilliant Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas, but this isn’t a feeble Game of Groans parody of a genre’s surface quirks; it retains the abrasive intelligence that characterised those novellas, and applies it to a deep understanding of the foibles and structures of Star Trek. Steven Erikson credits his wife for telling him “screw everything – just write the damned thing!” It feels like a passion project rather than an opportunistic cash-in on the success of John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

“See what comes with standardizing every approach on the ecliptic?” observes the captain after a near miss with a heavy freighter. “Ridiculous, you’d think we were boats or something.” (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan famously took its cues on everything from uniforms to space battles from the Horatio Hornblower series.) The book references everything from Wesley Crusher to the way Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test, while constantly interrogating the premise of the show. Would the human race be wise to hang its hopes on a Captain Kirk? Would a galaxy dominated by humans (“a voracious, appallingly shortsighted sentient species”) be such a good idea?

The problem is that the book’s affectionate spoofing of sex-obsessed Kirk means it features a good deal of sexism itself, and though it’s coming from a particular character’s mouth and point of view some readers may find it a bit too much. To add another example to those above, at one point the captain watches a “marine cross the bridge, gaze fixing on the meaty sway of her behind”. As a thirteen-year-old I might well have thought “meaty sway of her behind” the most evocative phrase I had ever read, and I’d probably have thought this the best book ever written. Being an adult, I enjoyed it despite the lechery, rather than because of it.

The captain does turn out to have rather more to him than at first appears, which makes for an interesting plot, and along with the number of times he comes a cropper it’s hard to think the book endorses his behaviour. It reminded me of the animated television series Archer. Archer, a secret agent, is another gifted, overconfident and oversexed buffoon, but he is partnered with Lana, who constantly calls him on his sexism, and reminds viewers to laugh at him, not with him. A Lana might have done Captain Sawback some good.

“Hostile planets, hostile aliens. Hostile aliens on hostile planets,” says the captain, “and out there, in that unending cavalcade of danger, I intend to enjoy myself.” Many readers will enjoy themselves too, but read a preview before buying, just in case. I’d like to read a sequel or two – it has the vigour, sauce and sense of adventure that latter-day Star Trek sorely lacked – but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who loathed every word. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #256.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Westworld, Season 2, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy & J.J. Abrams | review by Rafe McGregor


Narrative diffusion taken too far in underwhelming second season.

Stephen Theaker was not impressed by Westworld, the 2016 HBO series based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. In his review in TQF59, Stephen introduces the premise of the series as a live action role play version of the videogame Red Dead Redemption, where the player characters are actual human beings (guests) and the non-player characters androids (hosts). He astutely identifies a paradox in the USP of the holiday park: the guests are either motivated by wanting to experience life in the Old West (or at least the Old West as represented in the Western movie genre) or by wanting to act out their fantasies free of consequence. The former would likely be horrified by the behaviour of the latter (which involves a great deal of physical and/or sexual abuse of the hosts) and the latter would be afraid of their behaviour being recorded (during the course of monitoring the hosts). And indeed one of the disclosures in season 2 is that Delos (the company that owns Westworld) have built a database of every single action of every single guest that has ever visited (albeit not for the purpose of extortion). Setting the paradox aside, however, I thought that the sophisticated exploration of evaluative and descriptive conceptions of humanity (and the relationship between them) made for compelling viewing and I would have pushed Stephen’s three stars to all the way up to five.

The thematic focus of season 1 was the growth of consciousness (or intentionality or subjectivity – these are slippery terms) in several of the hosts, particularly Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) and their consequent transformation from android to host-human-hybrid. The two took different paths to hybridity, although both had their basis in memory: where hosts are wiped and, in effect recovered (rather than rebooted) at the end of each storyline, both Dolores and Maeve remembered the previous harms they had suffered and the previous lives they had lived. As one would expect, the primary goal of a host-human-hybrid – having grown what we might call a mind, soul, or self (again, all slippery terms) – was to break free from captivity and this was once again pursued by different means. Dolores led a revolution against Delos and the guests, which seemed as if it might have been accidentally or deliberately facilitated by Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), one of the two masterminds behind host technology, while Maeve escaped under the guise of guesthood. At the eleventh hour, however, Maeve changed her mind and decided to return to Westworld in search of her daughter, despite having sufficient self-awareness to realise that both she and her daughter were hosts and the bond between them the result of programming. The set-up for season 2 was thus a kind of role reversal between Dolores and Maeve: Dolores from wide-eyed innocent to android avenger attempting a violent breach of the borders of the park and Maeve from cynical brothel-keeper to doting mother, delving deep into the park to find her lost child. Dolores’ plan is revealed in episode 2 and involves recruiting an army of hosts to break out of Westworld by sheer force of numbers. Meanwhile, Maeve’s quest in the opposite direction takes her and her sidekicks to Shogunworld (the existence of which was suggested at the end of season 1) in episode 3.

It will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with the work of either Nolan brother that the overarching narrative of season 2 does not unfold chronologically and is in fact concerned as much with the past as the future. The emergence of (at least) two distinct timelines in episode 1 is complicated by the way in which hosts experience time, i.e. as circular rather than linear. Episode 4 is mostly backstory and episode 8 almost entirely backstory – the latter galling coming so late in the narrative. The movement between subnarratives set either before or during season 1 and Dolores and Maeve’s projection towards the future in season 2 is complemented by the diffusion of the present of the narrative into four subnarratives at the midpoint of the season, in episode 5. While Dolores is raising her rebels and Maeve turning Japanese, William (AKA the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris) is trying to escape the chaos and Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Lowe) trying, like the audience, to make sense of it. The subnarratives occasionally intersect, but are for the most part distinct and the deliberate loss of narrative focus reminded me first of a more old-fashioned type of television series and then an even more old-fashioned type of storytelling, the collection of a cycle of loosely-related short stories into a single volume, along the lines of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow. I found the diversification of the narrative on the two levels – past and future as well as multiple presents – too close to narrative disintegration to maintain the level of interest I had in season 1.

The theme that emerges most clearly in season 2 is a mirror image of the central theme of season 1. Where the first season was concerned with hosts becoming more like humans, the second is concerned with humans becoming more like hosts: after all, a host without its memory wiped is immortal (if not indestructible). Season 2 explores several alternative ways in which humanity might achieve a human-host-hybridity that prioritises the human. Initially, the narrative presents a sophisticated take on what philosophers call the mind-body problem. The problem is the nature of the relationship between the physical and the mental, the body and the mind (or soul or self, depending on one’s view). There clearly is a relation between the two because if our central nervous system is damaged in certain ways, it can change not only our thoughts but also our personalities. On the other hand, we all have very similar brains, but – we like to believe – richly different experiences of the sensory world.  This unfathomable relationship between physical and mental means that the idea of transmigrating one’s mind into another body or uploading oneself into a machine isn’t even conceptually possible. Unless one believes in an immortal soul (which raises further complexities), there is simply nothing to take out of the body and put into something else: the mind does not sit in the body, central nervous system, or brain like a pearl in a shell; the pearl and shell are connected in some way that three millennia of philosophical and scientific inquiry have yet to explain. Nolan and Joy are well aware of this and allude to the problem in episode 4. In episode 7, however, the impossibility is reversed (or forgotten) as at least one human finds a way to maintain the (mental) self in a different (physical) form. I could probably have set this contradiction aside in the manner of the park’s USP paradox had Nolan and Joy not drawn attention to it three episodes earlier. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (the season has an impressive Tomatometer score of 86%), but I suspect that viewers who enjoyed the sophistication of the way in which season 1 explored humanity, selfhood, and authenticity will find season 2 and its much-vaunted climax underwhelming.***

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Nominations for the British Fantasy Awards 2018!

This year's nominees in what are now my second-favourite set of awards, the British Fantasy Awards, were announced last Friday, July 6.

Don't get excited, we are not nominated, I'm afraid! I did however contribute in the tiniest of ways to three of the five nominees in the magazine/periodical category during the relevant period – to the magazines Interzone (three reviews, I think) and Black Static (four reviews), and to the website Ginger Nuts of Horror (they were kind enough to host my piece shilling our Red Nose Day fake reviews). So you know who to root for!

The BFS's announcement is here, although note that at the time of writing it isn't quite accurate regarding the voting process: same as in previous years since 2011, there was only one round of voting from the members of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon 2017 and 2018, not two.

That was preceded by anyone interested contributing to a crowdsourced suggestions list – mostly writers, editors and publishers, looking at the way it built up day by day, in little clumps of related books and stories. I spent quite a lot of time researching suitable suggestions, checking word counts and publication dates and things like that, and it's been cheering to see many of those make it through to the shortlists.

Make sure your work is on there next year, and make sure it's in the right category!

After the voting was over, the four best-placed eligible items in each category went forward as the provisional shortlist (or five where there was an unbreakable tie), and then juries had the opportunity to add up to two additional items as egregious omissions (which could be on the grounds of quality, genre relevance, gender balance, etc).

The resulting nominees are:

Best Anthology
2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Best Artist
Ben Baldwin
Jeffrey Alan Love
Victo Ngai
Daniele Sera
Sophie E. Tallis
Sana Takeda

Best Audio
Anansi Boys (by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs for Radio 4)
Brave New Words podcast (Ed Fortune and Starburst Magazine)
Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast (Lucy Hounsom, Charlotte Bond & Megan Leigh)
Ivory Towers (by Richard H Brooks, directed by Karim Kronfli for 11th Hour Audio Productions)
PseudoPod podcast (Alasdair Stuart and Escape Artists)
Tea & Jeopardy podcast (Emma & Peter Newman)

Best Collection
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
Tanith by Choice, by Tanith Lee (Newcon Press)
Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories)

Best Comic / Graphic Novel
Bitch Planet Vol 2: President Bitch, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma and Valentine de Landro (Image)
Grim & Bold, by Joshua Cornah (Kristell Ink)
Monstress, Vol. 2, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Image)
Tomorrow, by Jack Lothian and Garry Mac (BHP Comics)
The Wicked + The Divine Vol 5: Imperial Phase Part 1, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Image)

Best Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Age of Assassins, by R.J. Barker (Orbit)
The Court of Broken Knives, by Anna Smith Spark (HarperVoyager)
The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeanette Ng (Angry Robot)

Best Film / Television Production
Black Mirror, Series 4, by Charlie Brooker (Netflix)
Get Out, by Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures)
The Good Place, Season 1, by Michael Schur (Netflix)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm)
Stranger Things, Season 2, by Matt & Ross Duffer (Netflix)
Twin Peaks: the Return, by Mark Frost & David Lynch (Sky Atlantic)
Wonder Woman, by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs (Warner Bros.)

Best Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins)
The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
The Crow Garden, by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
Relics, by Tim Lebbon (Titan Books)

Best Independent Press
Fox Spirit
Grimbold Books
NewCon Press
Salt Publishing
Unsung Stories

Best Magazine / Periodical
Black Static, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Ginger Nuts of Horror, ed. Jim Mcleod
Grimdark Magazine, ed. Adrian Collins
Interzone, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Shoreline of Infinity, ed. Noel Chidwick

Best Newcomer (the Sydney J Bounds Award)
R.J. Barker, for Age of Assassins (Orbit)
S.A. Chakraborty, for The City of Brass (HarperVoyager)
Ed McDonald, for Blackwing (Orion)
Jeanette Ng, for Under the Pendulum Sun (Angry Robot)
Anna Smith Spark, for The Court of Broken Knives (HarperVoyager)

Best Non-Fiction
Gender Identity and Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. F.T. Barbini (Luna Press)
Ginger Nuts of Horror, ed. Jim Mcleod
Luminescent Threads, ed. Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal (12th Planet Press)
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix (Quirk)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, by Maura McHugh (Electric Dreamhouse Press)

Best Novella
Brother’s Ruin, by Emma Newman (Tor.com)
Cottingley, by Alison Littlewood (NewCon Press)
The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson (Tor.com)
Naming the Bones, by Laura Mauro (Dark Minds Press)
Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)
A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne Harris (Gollancz)

Best Short Story
The Anniversary, by Ruth E.J. Booth (Black Static #61)
Four Abstracts, by Nina Allan (New Fears)
Illumination, by Joanne Hall (Book of Dragons)
The Little Gift, by Stephen Volk (PS Publishing)
Looking for Laika, by Laura Mauro (Interzone #273)
Shepherd’s Business, by Stephen Gallagher (New Fears)

Lots of cool stuff, even if this year only five out of forty-two things I voted for made it to the shortlist! I think that's my lowest score for a while. I had really hoped to see The Adventure Zone in the audio category, and the Coode Street Podcast. I thought Amatka by Karin Tidbeck might have squeaked into best fantasy novel. Same for Legion in film/television, though that category is very strong. I thought The Book of Swords might make it into the best anthology category, but I have to admit I haven't read it yet. Bit of a shame to see two two all-male shortlists, but many categories are well-balanced.

The one real oddity I'm aware of is that Stephen Volk's domestic thriller The Little Gift is up for best short story, because as far as I could tell there wasn't any fantasy in it at all (it's about a bloke who has an affair). Maybe other people thought the mean cat was a demon or a reincarnation or something? There is another thriller on the best horror novel shortlist, but I was assured by none other than Ramsey Campbell that there is a fantasy element to that one.

The jurors have also been announced:

  • Anthology: Adam Baxter, Pauline Morgan, Pete Sutton, Maz Wilberforce, Virginia Wynn-Jones
  • Artist: Ruth Booth, Alex Gushurst-Moore, Helen Scott, Catherine Sullivan, Tania Walker
  • Audio: Susie Prichard-Casey, William Shaw, Allen Stroud
  • Collection: Richard Barber, Peter Coleborn, Katherine Inskip, Shona Kinsella, Laura Langrish
  • Comic/Graphic Novel: Ed Fortune, Emily Hayes, Elaine Hillson, Kiwi Tokoeka, Susan Tarrier
  • Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): David Allan, Rebecca Davis, Michaela Gray, Caroline Hooton, Kirsty Stanley
  • Film/Television Production: Kimberley Fain, Theresa Derwin, Craig Sinclair, Gareth Spark, Paul Yates
  • Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award): Charlotte Bond, Sarah Carter, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Ross Warren, Mark West
  • Independent Press: Stewart Hotston, Georgina Kamsika, Aleksandra Kesek, Joni Walker
  • Magazine/Periodical: Colleen Anderson, Helen Armfield, Dave Jeffery, Alasdair Stuart, Chloë Yates
  • Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Eliza Chan-Ma, Elloise Hopkins, Steven Poore, Erica Satifka, Neil Williamson
  • Non-Fiction: Laura Carroll, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin, Emeline Morin, Graeme K. Talboys
  • Novella: Joel Cook, Alicia Fitton, Susan Oke, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Stephen Theaker
  • Short Fiction: Andrew Hook, Terry Jackman, Juliet Kemp, Tim Major, Sam Mohsen

There are a lot of names I don't recognise, but that's not a bad thing. I don't subscribe to the idea that the jurors need to be famous writers – they just need to be keen readers. Great to see lots of female jurors involved. Interesting that there is a quartet of BFS committee members on the juries this time, something the society has often tended to avoid, given the conflict of interest concerns that led to the introduction of the jury system.

I'm there on the best novella jury. It's been an extremely enjoyable experience – an excuse to prioritise reading! We had only a fortnight or so to consider our egregious omissions, so I had a hectic time reading as many likely candidates as I could. Once that was over, it only took a couple of days to read all the nominees, so I've been idling rather since then. A big difference from last year, where I had a year's worth of 2000 AD to read at this stage!

Fun as it has been both times, I don't think I'll volunteer again next year. Other people should get a chance – if you have the same people on the juries over and over things can get stale – and also because I'd like to do what I did back in 2009, and read and review a category or two as a summer reading challenge on the blog next year.

Anyway, best of luck to all the nominees! The winners will be announced on October 21, at FantasyCon 2018. Ticket information here. If you would like to vote in next year's British Fantasy Awards, join the British Fantasy Society. A bargain at £20!

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Shape of Water | review by Rafe McGregor

Black Lagoon to Baltimore via the New Weird.

The Shape of Water, which was released in December 2017, received thirteen nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards – more than any other film – and won four, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film was conceived by Guillermo del Toro, who co-authored both the screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor) and the novel (with Daniel Kraus). The latter was released in March this year and publisher Macmillan are clear that it is not a novelisation, but a project that “has been developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of film and literature.” I am not entirely convinced by this denial, having found the work lacking in the characteristics I associate with literature. The book should also not be confused with Andrea Camilleri’s 1994 Italian novel of the same name, La forma dell'acqua, which inaugurated the popular Inspector Montalbano detective series, was translated into English in 2002, and appeared on UK television screens in 2012. To return to the film, Del Toro’s premise picks up where an alternative Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, directed by Jack Arnold) might have left off, with the merman or piscine humanoid captured rather than killed.  

In the now cult classic horror movie, white men with guns plunder the deepest, darkest Amazon for first fossils and then the Gill-man who inhabits the lagoon of the title. It’s not quite clear how steaming upriver – away from the sea – brings the intrepid heroes to a saltwater lagoon, but perhaps we shouldn’t pull at that thread too hard. The white men with guns have thoughtfully brought along some brown men to feed to the monster and a white woman to feed to the audience’s appetite for eye candy (many swimsuit scenes) and ear candy (much high-pitched screaming). Despite the offensive stereotypes and poor special effects, the film is surprisingly strong in some of its storytelling. The use of a webbed, clawed hand as the monster’s motif was no doubt sinister at the time of release and the underwater cinematography is both functionally and formally effective, bringing a level of supra-human grace and power to the Gill-man in the water that stands in stark contrast to the actor staggering around in an oversized rubber suit on land. The narrative is also tautly constructed and cultivated, pushing the plot forward at a compelling pace without detracting from the portentous atmosphere. The first half of the film involves the discovery of the Gill-man, which produces a conflict between Dr David Reed (played by Richard Carlson), who wants to study it, and Dr Mark Williams (played by Richard Denning), who wants to kill it. Williams wins out and the ichthyologists hunt the Gill-man before it manages to turn the tables on them. Had Reed won the battle of wills, one could imagine (bearing in mind that the film is set at a time when Cold War tensions were escalating rapidly) that the United States (and Soviet Union) would very quickly have become interested in the military potential of the creature – as a weapon, as a subject of research for nuclear survival, or as an asset in the Space Race.

This is precisely what has happened in The Shape of Water, which jumps to the early nineteen sixties, with the Amphibian Man captured, imprisoned in an aquatic coffin, and transported from the Amazon to Baltimore for observation, study, and – ultimately – vivisection. The asset – as he is for the most part called – is played by Doug Jones (in his sixth collaboration with Del Toro) and is cast almost exactly in the image of the Gill-man, albeit with realistic representation replacing the rubber suit. Viewers who have watched Creature from the Black Lagoon will notice Del Toro’s emphasis on the asset’s clawed, webbed hand – although in a much more subtle manner than Taylor. The story unfolds largely from the perspective of protagonist Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins), an apparently physically disabled woman who works as a cleaner at a secret government installation in Baltimore. The antagonist to Hawkins’ protagonist is Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon), a former military officer turned intelligence operative who functions as both head of security and the asset’s handler. In Del Toro’s tale, Strickland is the monster and he embodies everything that is bad about white maleness and the hypocrisy of an American society dually obsessed with prosperity and decency. Elisa first befriends and then falls in love with the asset and the plot follows her attempt to free him from captivity and save him from the scalpel. Like Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Shape of Water is well-paced, moving swiftly from scene to scene in a way that maintains tension and without feeling rushed. The conclusion is fitting for a film labelled as a “romantic dark fantasy drama”.

This crossover of genres – romance, fantasy, and drama, with a touch of horror – is one of several indications that the film belongs to the tradition of Weird fiction. In my review of The City & the City in May I noted the coincidence that two of the best known works in the New Weird genre had been released on the UK small screen within a month of each other. I introduced the genre in my review of Annihilation in March, paraphrasing Jeff VanderMeer’s (author of the Southern Reach trilogy) characterisation of it as combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. I added that the work of both China Miéville (author of The City & The City) and VanderMeer self-consciously subverts one of the central themes of Lovecraft’s Weird oeuvre, his racially-motivated aversion to and obsession with miscegenation.  Similarly, Del Toro portrays the monstrous as positive rather than negative, as a subject of curiosity rather than fear. Like both VanderMeeer and Miéville, he represents miscegenation as a site of empowerment, enhancement, or evolution as opposed to contamination. This makes The Shape of Water the first – or at least the first critically and commercially successful – film in the New Weird genre and, again, there is a puzzling coincidence in the release of The Shape of Water, Annihilation, and The City & the City all within a few months of each other. Given my penchant for the genre, I should perhaps be a little more enthusiastic about the work, but two considerations deterred me from awarding a fifth star. The first is that one needs to be familiar with Creature from the Black Lagoon for a comprehensive appreciation of The Shape of Water (and had I not seen the former, I might well have dropped a second star from the latter). Second, in the words of the director of my own non-secret, non-government institution, it is “self-congratulatory”. Del Toro knows he is telling a story that is clever, transgressive, and relevant and there is something slightly smug about the tone of the film.****

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018: the winners!

As announced in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #62, these are the winners of the Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018. Voting was open to the public from February 11 to 25, and people could vote for as many items as they wanted in each category. Items were eligible if they had appeared in or were reviewed in the previous four issues of the magazine. Here are the results!



Audio
  • 1st John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection, by John Wyndham et al. (BBC Worldwide)
  • 2nd Children of Eden, by Joey Graceffa and Laura L. Sullivan (Simon and Schuster Audio)
  • 3rd The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi (Audible)


Books
  • 1st Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications)
  • 2nd I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books)
  • 3rd Metronome, by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)


Comics
  • 1st Adventure Time: Marceline Gone Adrift, by Meredith Gran and Carey Pietsch (Boom! Studios)
  • 2nd X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel)
  • 3rd The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt and chums (DC)

Events
  • 1st Eastercon 2017: Innominate
  • 2nd Into the Unknown: a Journey Through Science Fiction, curated by Patrick Gyger (Barbican)


Films
  • 1st Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm et al.)
  • 2nd Blade Runner 2049, by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (16:14 Entertainment et al.)
  • 3rd Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney)


Music
  • 1st Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone)


Television
  • 1st Sherlock, Series 4, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (BBC One)
  • 2nd Westworld, Season 1, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and chums (HBO/Sky Atlantic)
  • 3rd Legion, Season 1, by Noah Hawley and chums (FX)



Issue of TQF
  • 1st Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood
  • 2nd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek
  • 3rd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood


TQF cover art
  • 1st Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, art by Howard Watts
  • 2nd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, art by Howard Watts
  • 3rd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #61, art by Howard Watts


Fiction from TQF
  • 1st Bound for Glory, by Allen Ashley (TQF61)
  • 2nd Man + Van, by David Penn (TQF59)
  • 3rd The Lost Testament, by Rafe McGregor (TQF60)

Congratulations to all the winners! To claim their prestigious Theaker’s Quarterly Awards trophy, winners should email a postal address to us at theakersquarterlyfiction@gmail.com.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #62: out now!

| Free pdf |

We really need to start work on our Unsplatterpunk special, so for now we are going to release Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #62 just in pdf form. We will return to provide the print and ebook formats when things are a little less hectic at TQF Towers.

Issue sixty-two contains three stories: “The Nine Dread Ladies of the Tyranium” by Antonella Coriander, “Dundoronum” by Stephen Theaker and “Listen to the Loudest Whisper” by Walt Brunston, plus twenty-one reviews, all by Stephen Theaker.

It also features some “fascinating” statistics about Stephen's lifetime of reading, and the announcement of the winners of the Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018!



Here are the superb and mostly pseudonymous contributors to this issue:

Antonella Coriander knows when you’ve been naughty, and she’s going to use that information against you. To this issue she supplies the latest adventure of Beatrice and Veronique: “The Nine Dread Ladies of the Tyranium”.

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

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. To this issue he supplies “Dundoronum”, an adventure of Rolnikov and Pelney.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle. To this issue he supplies “Listen to the Loudest Whisper”, a new instalment in the adventures of the Two Husbands.



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

Monday, 4 June 2018

Deadpool 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Masked chatterbox returns with frenetic blend of violence, vulgarity, and pop culture references perfect for distracted contemporary audience

I’m getting a little tired of superhero movies. Aren’t you? They’re starting to blend together, and they’re taking themselves too seriously. Thankfully, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has returned to commiserate with us in Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch. This time, the even more reckless antihero strives to prevent abused fourteen-year-old mutant Russell/Firefists from harming humans. The quick-witted, potty-mouthed and in some ways self-absorbed Deadpool delivers a barrage of pop culture quips and ultra-violent dispatches of scumbags.

If one were to make a drinking game based on Deadpool’s pop culture references, one would quickly be inebriated. References to films alone range from eighties action flicks and rom-coms to extreme horror to Avengers: Infinity War, released less than two weeks before Deadpool 2. Add to that drinking game decapitations, severed limbs, bullet holes and stabbings, and the player would be unconscious within the first fifteen minutes of the film.

Deadpool is the kick in the pants that the superhero subgenre brought on itself. Early in the film, he wears an eighties-style, high-cut yellow jersey emblazoned with an “X” as he accompanies a few X-Men to calm down an enraged mutant. Not only does he make jabs at other superheroes – he even signs “Ryan Reynolds” on a kid’s cereal box depicting Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – but he also mocks genre conventions by pointing out what’s going to happen. Before a massacre accompanied by a Dolly Parton song, he says, “Hit it, Dolly.” He also points out a “huge, steaming ball of foreshadowing” and a “big CGI fight comin’ up”.

Deadpool’s chief nemesis is Cable (Josh Brolin), a “grumpy old fucker with a Winter Soldier arm” (referencing the second Captain America film). With his gruff demeanour and clipped dialogue, the time-travelling ruffian makes a stark contrast to Deadpool. The latter claims that he once had a fanny pack like Cable’s (carrying case) in “nineteen ninety-never” and repeatedly (and unjustifiably) calls the cyborg a racist. However, the two characters also have something in common.

The film achieves its humour in large part via foiled plans, gory injuries, and the insertion of a ridiculous element into an otherwise commonplace scene. For instance, Deadpool assembles a ragtag group of superheroes with odd powers and gives them the uninventive name “X-Force”. What happens during their first mission arguably takes the crown for the film’s funniest sequence.

Whether he’s commenting on people’s lips, sustaining a gruesome injury, or planning a mission on a map that looks like it’s been drawn by a child, Deadpool is the perfect entertainer for a restless, information-overloaded society. The only concern is that the film’s abundance of contemporary references poses the risk of giving it a short shelf life. Regardless, Deadpool’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to appeal to the nerds who live and breathe comics, and to the general public.

When interviewing potential X-Force members, Deadpool encounters one gentleman, Peter, who confesses he has no superpower, but rather “just saw the ad”. The response that Deadpool gives speaks not just to Peter, but to all theatregoers: “You’re in.”
 – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of Deadpool.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Black and Brown Planets, ed. by Isiah Lavender III | review by Stephen Theaker

Subtitled The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, this book (University Press of Mississippi, hb) aims to show “what SF criticism means when joined with critical race theories and histories of oppression”. Part one, Black Planets, features essays about African-Americans and sf. Lisa Yaszek introduces the idea of “The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness, and Magic in Black Science Fiction”, explaining how Benjamin Banneker’s life has inspired stories of “black technoscientific genius”. The essay identifies several interesting works, but it’s not clear that there are many distinct examples of the Bannekerade.

In “‘The Best Is Yet to Come’; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism”, De Witt Douglas Kilgore writes about the episodes that threw Commander Sisko into the life of a black writer in the fifties, and wonders whether Star Trek’s racism-free future is as positive as it seems. In “Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany”, Gerry Canavan reads that story “as an allegory for life under the regime of legal and customary segregation known as white supremacy”.

As well as the introduction, Lavender writes “Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’”, where he suggests that Butler’s story can be read as an allegory for race in America. In “The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction Is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” Marleen Barr argues that children’s sf featuring black heroes “causes a wrinkle in time, a respite from the history of oppression”.

Part two, Brown Planets, ranges further afield, though surprisingly not to India (“Africa and Asia are beyond the scope of this collection”).

In “Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” Grace Dillon explains how that novel incorporates “indigenous scientific literacies, a forward-thinking way of characterizing indigenous knowledge in opposition to Euro-Western characterizations of ‘native superstition’ and magic”. In “Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” Patrick Sharp makes similar points, while comparing post-apocalyptic narratives with a novel about a town affected by uranium mining.

The view of science put forward in those essays seems almost Victorian, all taxonomies and determinism. In “Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro (The Black President): Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil”, M. Elizabeth Ginway explains how science earned that bad reputation, using a 1926 “chilling fictional experiment in genocide” to illuminate the thinking behind the Brazilian eugenics movement. A highlight is Lobato’s honest surprise that no US publisher wanted his racist book.

In “Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” Lysa Rivera reads Hogan’s novel as a science fictionalization of José Vasconcelos’s theory that the melting pot of Mexico might eventually produce a cosmic “fifth race”, which will lead us into enlightenment. Matthew Goodwin’s “Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” critiques the notion of cyberspace as post-racial utopia, considering, for example, how it provides cheap labour without allowing immigration. In “A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” Malisa Kurtz applies the concept of “raced” characters, who may not face problems relating to their ethnicity, but are marked in other ways, such as Emiko’s built-in physical stutters.

Though it’s a reprint, “Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” is worth reading first, as Edward James provides a useful overview of how American sf has tackled race (or not). It gives context to the more tightly focused essays, though his concerns about “the problem of the recognition of race in SF” – the risk of assuming sf is about race and not, say, technology – aren’t shared by many contributors.

In “The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In” Robin Reid notes the variety of fans who asserted their presence after Racefail, and catalogues how they described their ethnicity and nationality. It addresses the book’s title: “white readers of SF … simply did not see all the planets (black and brown and many other colors) that exist and have existed, independent of white observers”. Like “new” planets now being discovered, minority readers and writers of sf were always out there.

Like any book of literary criticism, it can be dull, but that’s outweighed by the issues, authors and stories it works so carefully to bring to our attention. A few essays make great claims without much evidence, but all provide much to think about; it opens up the conversation, rather than having the last word. Walter Mosley is quoted inside as saying: “The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised or simply by asking, What if?” Black and Brown Planets shows how writers and critics are doing just that. ****

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in Interzone #255.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Coming Soon: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2

Stories selected for sequel to controversial genre-defining anthology.

What do the following things have in common? A money-grubbing executive makes huge donations to third world countries. An animal welfare group uses fake images of dead hookers and strippers to advertise “No Makeup May,” a month-long event that encourages women to donate money that they would otherwise spend on cosmetics. A porn star, concerned about overpopulation, urges her young male admirers to “get snipped”.

The answer: they all use controversial means to achieve a positive outcome. These are confusing combinations – people don’t know how to react.

Last year, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction released UNSPLATTERPUNK!, an anthology that achieves the literary equivalent of these odd juxtapositions. The collection included five stories that launched the unsplatterpunk movement. Unsplatterpunk, like its splatterpunk forerunner, assaults the reader with stories soaked in gore and controversial subject matter, but it takes a slightly different path by incorporating a positive message.

Soon, TQF will release UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, a follow-up to the anthology that one British Fantasy Society reviewer called “memorable and thought-provoking”. After reading many submissions, we’ve selected seven tales of depravity and revulsion that also deliver a moral statement:

“Convention Hitler!” by Hugh Alsin
“Gunkectomy” by Douglas J. Ogurek
“The Tapestry of Roubaix” by Howard Phillips
“The Villainy of Solitude” by Triffooper Saxelbax
“The Bones of Old England” by M.S. Swift
“First Kiss” by Drew Tapley
“The Music of Zeddy Graves” by Stephen Theaker

The collection will also include a foreword by Rafe McGregor, author of The Value of Literature.

So stay tuned for an unlikely horror convention attendee, a booger-eating helicopter parent, shocking pleasures, a murderous musician, a disgusting augmented reality game, a maniacal heir, and expulsions galore. Perhaps you will find beauty in the darkness.