Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Very Best of Kate Elliott | review by Stephen Theaker

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

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384pp, $15.95) include all her published stories; none appeared in magazines; all are from anthologies or previously unpublished.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 November 2017

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

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

Monday, 20 November 2017

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

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

Thor: Ragnarok | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 November 2017

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

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



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

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Geostorm | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 November 2017

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

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