Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Spectre | review by Rafe McGregor

Weird Bond.

Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Ian Fleming seemed to tire of his literary creation quickly. After three novels presented almost exclusively from James Bond’s point of view, he is absent from the first chapter of the fourth, the first ten chapters of the fifth, and the latter – From Russia, with Love (1957) – ends with him dying at the hands (or, rather, the foot) of Colonel Klebb of the Soviet Union’s SMERSH. Bond was resurrected in Dr No (1958), but there were a series of departures and experimentations after Goldfinger (1959): For Your Eyes Only (1960) is a collection of five short stories; Thunderball (1961) is Fleming’s novelisation of a screenplay, which he wrote with four collaborators; The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is written in the first person, from the point of view of a Canadian woman, with Bond appearing only in the final third; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) ends with Bond being married and immediately widowed; and You Only Live Twice (1964) ends with Bond en route to the Soviet Union where – we imagine – imprisonment, torture and death await. The remaining two books were published after Fleming’s death. Bond was resurrected for the second time in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), but Fleming had completed only a first draft by the time of his death and the novel is slim and unsatisfying. Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966) is a collection of four short stories, two of which are very short indeed. I cannot recommend any of the fourteen books because although Fleming was a master storyteller whose clean, crisp prose is reminiscent of Hemingway, the narratives all betray implicit and explicit racism and homophobia and a misogyny that borders on sexual sadism. I mention them, however, because of the “SPECTRE Trilogy”, which comprises Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. The trilogy provides the most comprehensive portrayal of Bond’s private life, fleshing out his personality beyond his profession as an authorised assassin. It also stretches the espionage thriller genre to its very limits, spilling over into speculative fiction.

These days there is nothing unusual about mixing crime, thriller and mystery fiction with horror, fantasy or science fiction, but the elements of strangeness stand out like a sore thumb in Fleming, whose success was built on a hard and fast realism authenticated by his service with Royal Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Thunderball introduces the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE) and its sinister head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The novel begins with an incredible and unlikely coincidence that turns out to be entirely supplementary to the central narrative. Bond just happens to be recuperating in the same spa as an undercover SPECTRE agent at the same time as SPECTRE launches its first global operation and the feud between the two men, which is unrelated to the subsequent search for nuclear missiles, occupies the first third of the story. Coincidence is central to the narrative of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The novel opens with Bond fed up with his failure to find Blofeld. He happens to have a fleeting romance with Teresa di Vincenzo, who happens to be the daughter of the head of the Unione Corse (Corsican mafia), who happens to be one of the only people in Europe with the resources Bond requires. The conclusion is even more unlikely. After Bond and his criminal cronies destroy Blofeld’s Alpine retreat, he arranges to meet Teresa in Munich, where they intend to marry. Blofeld and his sidekick-cum-lover Irma Bunt not only escape, but decide to flee to Munich as well and – in a city with a population of more than a million – just happen to bump into Bond on the street. The surreal, strange and coincidental reach their apotheosis in You Only Live Twice. The novel opens with Bond on his last legs professionally, bungling jobs as he pines for Teresa. In an act of kindness, M sends him on a diplomatic mission to negotiate British access to a Japanese cipher machine. The head of the Japanese secret service agrees to provide access if Bond performs a service for him. That service is the assassination of a man who has established a garden of death – containing deadly plants, insects and fish – where hundreds of forlorn Japanese have flocked to commit suicide. In the most incredible coincidence of the entire series, the gardener – the ludicrously-named Guntram Shatterhand – turns out to be Blofeld in his third incarnation, complete with Bunt in tow. As if this wasn’t fantastic enough, Fleming saves the most surreal part until the end: Bond becomes an amnesiac, Bond fathers a child with Kissy Susuki, and Bond leaves Japan for the USSR.

Thunderball (1965, directed by Terrence Young) was the fourth Bond film and was followed by You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Peter R. Hunt). The film version of You Only Live Twice bears little resemblance to the novel, conforming to what had already been established as the template for the series: Bond discovers the lair of a supervillain, Bond infiltrates the supervillain’s lair, Bond and his allies battle the supervillain’s army, and Bond saves the world from (usually nuclear) destruction. The villain in this case was indeed Blofeld and the battle set in Japan, but he is holed up in a volcano attempting to provoke World War Three by interfering with US and USSR spaceships. Sam Mendes’ Spectre actually has much more in common with Fleming’s novel, which is why I have described the SPECTRE Trilogy in so much detail. Casino Royale was the first Bond novel (1953) and twenty-first film (2006). Director Martin Campbell took advantage of the coincidence of the prototypical title with Daniel Craig’s first appearance as Bond to reboot the Eon Production series. The series was also revitalised by presenting Casino Royale as the first half of what appeared at the time to be a two-part narrative: Quantum of Solace (2008, directed by Marc Foster) begins minutes after Casino Royale ends and sets the new Bond up against a new enemy, a mysterious organisation called Quantum. While the third Craig film, Mendes’ Skyfall (2012), appeared to return to the previous standalone format, it also emphasised a monumental change in the series since the Roger Moore films of my youth. Yes, directors were making Bond more palatable to contemporary audiences, but the quality of the films was almost incomparable. Take the cast of Skyfall as an example: Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, and Ralph Fiennes – it is no exaggeration to say that all six of these are great actors. And that ignores Albert Finney, Ben Wishaw, and Rory Kinnear in supporting roles. Skyfall turns attention to Bond’s aging, exploiting Craig’s aging in real life (potentially problematic for the physicality with which he plays Bond) and the four year interval between the second and third instalments of the reboot to the director’s advantage. With aging comes reflection and, in a similar manner to the SPECTRE Trilogy, the audience discovers a great deal about Bond and his childhood. As Spectre will show, Skyfall is not in fact a departure from the Quantum narrative, but a setting up for the final instalment, where Bond will be faced with a battle that is personal rather than professional.

Spectre offers us even more information about Bond’s childhood: we already know he is an orphan; now we find out that his parents died in a climbing accident and that an Austrian man named Hannes Oberhauser became his legal guardian until the death of Oberhauser and his own son, Franz, in an avalanche. One is immediately struck by the weirdness of Spectre – weird as in strange and fantastic like You Only Live Twice, but also weird in the speculative fiction sense, specifically China Miéville’s definition of the weird in terms of the cephalopod nature of its monsters (set out in his essay “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire”, published in Collapse IV in 2008). Quantum is revealed to be cover for a more pervasive and powerful organisation, SPECTRE, and in the opening scene the emblem of this organisation is disclosed as a seven-tentacled octopus. The title sequence, a significant part of the film series since it began, features giant black octopuses, sucker-studded tentacles, and cephalopod ink bullets. In an interview about his creation, title designer Daniel Kleinman said: I thought the bit with the lovers and the octopus’s arms coming ’round them just had the right level of sensuality but creepy weirdness to it. Creepy weirdness is right and continues long past the credits as it becomes evident that this film is not about Bond’s professional endeavours, but about the personal battle between Bond and Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz). Franz, Bond’s childhood companion, faked his own death in the avalanche and recreated himself as Blofeld, soon to be head of SPECTRE. Oberhauser/Blofeld has in fact orchestrated all of the key events of not only this narrative, but the entire reboot and has been enjoying tormenting the child he hated for becoming the cuckoo in the Oberhauser nest. Reciprocally, we discover that Oberhauser/Blofeld actually killed his father out of jealousy, in consequence of which the young Bond literally created his own archenemy.

In The Weird and the Eerie (published in 2016), the late Mark Fisher describes the weird as a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete, producing feelings of both disapproval and pleasure in the audience. Spectre is, in this sense, essentially weird, staging such encounters on both the dramatic and thematic levels: the Secret Intelligence Service, run by M (played by Fiennes) is about to be absorbed into a new National Security Service, to be run by the current head of the Security Service, C (played by Andrew Scott); and Bond’s entire career with the Secret Intelligence Service is exposed as nothing more than the pursuit of his adopted brother, whose career in organised crime and terrorism was inadvertently initiated by Bond himself. Aside from the ever-present symbol of the octopus, there are several more subtle allusions to the weird: the man without a face motif; the rats in the walls in Tangier (or, rather, one very important mouse); the reminder of cosmic indifference in the meteorite display; and the surreal sequences in Blofeld’s North African lair. The film is also striking in two other aspects. First, the number of cinematic references to previous films. Spectre manages, in one way or another, to provide visual quotations of the majority of its twenty-three predecessors, perhaps even all of them. (The most obvious sources being You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die and The World Is Not Enough.) Spectre also references the SPECTRE Trilogy, reproducing the novels’ shift from professional and public to personal and private, from Bond with free agency to Bond’s life as determined by destiny, and from hard-bitten realism to fully-fledged fantasy. The second aspect is, once again, the quality of acting and actors – if anything, an improvement on Skyfall as Craig, Fiennes, Harris, Wishaw, and Kinnear are joined by Waltz, Scott, Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci. My single reservation about Spectre has nothing to do with the film itself. Craig is returning for the as-yet-unnamed Bond 25, which was being directed by Danny Boyle until he withdrew from the project earlier this month, and is due for release late next year. The reboot has told the new Bond’s story from recruitment to retirement, but now he’s back. Will there be a rehash of previous recalls from retirement, cinematic and literary? If so, that will be disappointing given the ingenuity and innovation that have characterised the reboot so far – an achievement all the more impressive for being based on novels that have been past their sell-by date for more than five decades. *****

Closet Dreams, by Lisa Tuttle (infinity plus) | review by Stephen Theaker

Part of the infinity plus singles series, which aim to bring back the feel of buying a vinyl 45, and then liking it so much you would buy the album too. Short stories are the singles, collections the albums. In this case the single has already been a hit, having appeared in Postscripts, been shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award, and and won the International Horror Guild Award. It’s the chilling story told by a young woman, who says, “Something terrible happened to me when I was a little girl.” Held captive in a small closet by an abductor, she describes the miraculous escape that baffled her family and the police. It’s not a long story, so it’s hard to say much more without giving too much away, but it certainly achieved the goal of making me want to read more by the same author. ****

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Penny Dreadfuls, Volume 2, by David Reed and Humphey Ker (BBC Audio) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Penny Dreadfuls are a comedy troupe – Humphrey Ker, David Reed and Thom Tuck – three chaps who retell classic tales in comedic fashion. The stories are scripted, rather than improvisational: Reed writes the plays, with additional material from Ker. This volume collects three of their productions, which originally appeared on Radio 4: Macbeth Rebothered (2014), The Odyssey (2015) and The Curse of the Beagle (2016). A typically appreciative Radio 4 audience is audible throughout, and adds to the atmosphere. Volume one was published concurrently, but, since it looked to be more focused on spoofing actual history, I went straight to the more obviously fantastical volume two. Margaret Cabourne-Smith appears in all three stories, performing most of the female roles, and getting many of the best lines. Susan Calman, Robert Webb, Greg McHugh and Lolly Adefope also take part.

Calman narrates the story of the Scottish play. They call it that as if it’s the only one, she observes, and at the end declares: “This has, without any doubt, been a tale, told by some idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but at least it had some jokes in it.” They were good jokes too, but The Odyssey had the most and biggest laughs, for me, because Robert Webb’s foolish and vain Odysseus is such a funny character, who never fails to rush into trouble in search of spoils. Eventually he comes to a realisation: “I had always believed my actions to be good and honourable because I had followed my heart. Not once had I considered that my heart might be a bit of a bell-end.” In The Curse of the Beagle, a young Charles Darwin travels on the ship of that name, but there seems to be something supernatural going on, involving a hairy beast that uses its long gentleman’s part as a belt. If he doesn’t sort it out, he will fail his degree. It was a bit hard to relax into this one: it’s odd to hear comedy cannibals with funny voices in a modern day radio programme, even if it ends up undermining the old stereotypes.

Listeners who haven’t read the original texts won’t be lost, since the stories are kept quite intact and given room to be told properly – each audio play is about an hour long. Even where jokes are based on the quirks of the original texts (e.g. Odysseus having implausibly repetitive adventures), the plays quickly key listeners in so that everyone can get the next joke about the same thing. It should appeal to anyone who has been enjoying Upstart Crow as much as I have (which is quite a lot): the plays have a similar mixture of clever literary jokes and very silly ones, and they are also narratively very satisfying, with proper heartfelt moments. ****

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

People are using wormholes to travel to distant planets, and since that can be a dangerous business their insurers tend to insist that the expeditions include a so-called murderbot (a SecUnit) to do any necessary killing. They also record every conversation for later data-mining. One of these robots is our protagonist, and since it has hacked the governor module that would normally keep it under control the explorers don’t realise how much danger they are in. Luckily for them, the murderbot prefers soap opera to grand guignol. Less luckily, someone or something else has tampered with their equipment and data. When a competing base on the other side of the world goes dark, the murderbot accompanies the scientists on a trip to investigate, while trying to deal with the social anxiety that inevitably results from spending time with people who at any moment could rumble its secrets and have it disassembled. They freak out enough even when seeing it has a humanoid face under its helmet. This is a short, very enjoyable book about an anti-hero who can take a lot of damage and keep on going, who almost despite itself starts putting others ahead of its own interests; a bit like Wolverine or Snake Plissken but with the insecurity that comes from its particular circumstances. Placing a character like that in a terribly dangerous scenario with ruthless villains on the loose and a bunch of decent scientists to protect makes for good reading. The fight scenes are very well worked, and so is the evolution of the robot’s relationships with its colleagues/leaseholders. I doubt this’ll be the last book I read about this robot. ****

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.