Sunday, 21 October 2018

British Fantasy Awards 2018: the winners (and my guesses!)

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2018 in Chester. I kept my thoughts about what might win to myself until now, since I might be thought to have inside knowledge about the juries I wasn't on. I didn't – there was no crossover between the jury I was on and any of the others – but better safe than sorry. Note that the jurors given below are those that were originally announced; I haven't seen any announcements that anyone dropped out or was replaced, but it is possible. So here, after the fact, are the guesses I made, and more importantly the actual winners:

Anthology
Winner: New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
My guess: New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
Jurors: Adam Baxter, Pauline Morgan, Pete Sutton, Maz Wilberforce, Virginia Wynn-Jones

Artist
Winner: Jeffrey Alan Love
My guess: Victo Ngai
Jurors: Ruth Booth, Alex Gushurst-Moore, Helen Scott, Catherine Sullivan, Tania Walker

Audio
Winner: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs for Radio 4
My guess: Tea & Jeopardy (Emma Newman and Peter Newman)
Jurors: Susie Prichard-Casey, William Shaw, Allen Stroud

Collection
Winner: Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
My guess: Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
Jurors: Richard Barber, Peter Coleborn, Katherine Inskip, Shona Kinsella, Laura Langrish

Comic/Graphic Novel
Winner: Monstress, Vol. 2, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Image)
My guess: Tomorrow, by Jack Lothian and Garry Mac (BHP Comics)
Jurors: Ed Fortune, Emily Hayes, Elaine Hillson, Kiwi Tokoeka, Susan Tarrier

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Winner: The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
My guess: The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
Jurors: David Allan, Rebecca Davis, Michaela Gray, Caroline Hooton, Kirsty Stanley

Film/Television Production
Winner: Get Out, by Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures)
My guess: The Good Place, Season 1, by Michael Schur et al. (Netflix)
Jurors: Kimberley Fain, Theresa Derwin, Craig Sinclair, Gareth Spark, Paul Yates

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Winner: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
My guess: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
Jurors: Charlotte Bond, Sarah Carter, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Ross Warren, Mark West

Independent Press
Winner: Unsung Stories
My guess: Unsung Stories (George Sandison)
Jurors: Stewart Hotston, Georgina Kamsika, Aleksandra Kesek, Joni Walker

Magazine/Periodical
Winner: Shoreline of Infinity, ed. Noel Chidwick
My guess: Black Static, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Jurors: Colleen Anderson, Helen Armfield, Dave Jeffery, Alasdair Stuart, Chloë Yates

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)
Winner: Jeanette Ng, for Under the Pendulum Sun (Angry Robot)
My guess: R.J. Barker, for Age of Assassins (Orbit)
Jurors: Eliza Chan-Ma, Elloise Hopkins, Steven Poore, Erica Satifka, Neil Williamson

Non-fiction
Winner: Gender Identity and Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. F.T. Barbini (Luna Press)
My guess: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jurors: Laura Carroll, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin, Emeline Morin, Graeme K. Talboys

Novella
Winner: Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)
No guessing required, I was on this jury, and it was a very enjoyable experience!
Jurors: Joel Cook, Alicia Fitton, Susan Oke, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Stephen Theaker

Short Fiction
Winner: Looking for Laika, by Laura Mauro (Interzone #273)
My guess: Four Abstracts, by Nina Allan (New Fears)
Jurors: Andrew Hook, Terry Jackman, Juliet Kemp, Tim Major, Sam Mohsen

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award)
Winner: N.K. Jemisin
My guess: I had no idea.
Jurors: the BFS committee (currently Katherine Fowler (BFA admin), James Barclay, Phil Lunt, Andy Marsden, Lee Harris, Shona Kinsella, Tim Major, Allen Stroud, Helen Armfield, Neil Ford, Karen Fishwick, Allen Ashley and Christopher Teague; though not everyone necessarily takes part and the committee can change over the course of the year).

A Legends of FantasyCon award was also announced. This isn't a British Fantasy Award; it's awarded by the FantasyCon committee. The winners this year were Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner.

I haven't read N.K. Jemisin's work yet, but she seems like a perfect choice for the Karl Edward Wagner Award. I do think it's a problem, though, that the BFS membership wasn't invited to make suggestions, contrary to the award rules.

Last year I guessed six right, this time only four. The current system is based on people, usually BFS members or FantasyCon attendees but perhaps less so this year, sitting down to read the nominees and deciding the awards on that basis, and that makes it hard to predict (and indeed quibble with) the results unless you've read all of them too. And this year there were more jurors than usual that I didn't know, making it even harder than usual to predict what they would like. Next year I'm going to try reading a few of the categories: it'll be interesting to see if that helps my guesswork!

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and as a BFS member, thank you to the jurors who devoted so much of their summers to helping out with our society's awards, and also to Katherine Fowler, the awards administrator, who once again pulled it all together. I think it is a very respectable list.

Valerian: Shingouzlooz Inc., by Wilfrid Lupano and Mathieu Lauffray (Europe Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Valerian and Laureline series of albums, created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, lasted for twenty-two volumes, but many have only recently been released in English. The Dargaud French editions I collected include both of them in the title, but like the recent film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (based closely on L’Ambassadeur des Ombres), this volume reverts to just the dude, which is misleading when hot-tempered, ultra-capable, politically-engaged Laureline is clearly the star of the show. The original creators having wrapped up their story, they have now allowed others to take a spin in the Astroship XB982. The artwork is a little different, but still good, and it’s recognisably the same characters and the same universe. There is a lot going on: the Shingouz, little aliens with a nose for information, are being pursued by an old friend of Valerian’s. Valerian and Laureline are trying to catch a class 1 android, Mr Zi-Pone, parts of whose brain are being used as tax havens, and the android is trying to catch a quantum migration tuna from Vahamine that it can sell for two thousand times Valerian’s salary. Laureline is as spunky as ever, Valerian as much of a dork. It’s a fun and frisky adventure. And for me at least, reading these in English turns out to be much easier than reading them in French. ***

Saturday, 20 October 2018

What happened when I (tried to) read 300 books in 300 days

An article was doing the rounds on social media earlier this year, called "What happened when I (tried to) read 30 books in 30 days". I'd already done that, so I thought I'd have a go at reading 300 in 300 days.

I did pretty well: I read (or listened to) 300 books in 292 days. But I did make it easy for myself – whereas the writer of the 30 books article tried to read improving books that she didn't really enjoy, and so she ran out of steam, I deliberately focused on short books, graphic novels and short audiobooks that I really wanted to read.

You can tell how short the books I read this year were, because in 2016 I reached 300 books after 51,355 pages (and twelve months), but it only took 43,040 pages this year.

Some of the people responding to the 30 books in 30 days article thought it was impossible to do even that, or only possible if you only read bad books, but short or quick to read doesn't equal bad: I gave 25 books five stars on Goodreads this year, twice as many as the most I've ever given before.

One of those was to Chicken Licken by Vera Southgate. I thought it would be nice for my 4000th book read, more or less, to go back to the first fiction author I read on my own, and she didn't disappoint. I also gave five stars to all four omnibus volumes of BPRD: Plague of Frogs and to lots of Usagi Yojimbo collections, and of course to Down the Badger Hole by my inspiration R. Lionel Fanthorpe.

I did take quite a liberal view of what counted as a book for this, but, so far as anyone would care enough to quibble, I spend about half my working day proofreading, so even if all the Doctor Who audios were discounted I reckon I've still read over 300 books.

I should say that the books at the bottom of the picture are unrated, not zero rated. They're either books I've read for review, where the review hasn't been published yet, or books I read in the course of judging the BFA best novella award, which hasn't been announced yet.

Legion, Season 1, by Noah Hawley and chums (FX) | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s astonishing that after creating season two of Fargo, probably my favourite programme of that year, Noah Hawley went straight on to creating this remarkable show, bringing Jean Smart and Rachel Keller with him. Some viewers took strongly against the slight science fiction elements of Fargo, but no complaints here since this is set in the X-Men universe. When exactly it is set has been a talking point, since of the X-Men films its design looks most like X-Men: First Class, set during the Cuban missile crisis, and the technology seems quite retro. Eventually an adult character, Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), mentions hearing 99 Red Balloons on the radio when he was five years old. So my guess is that this is taking place in the present day, or slightly in the future when the wheels of retro fashion have rotated once again.

There is another possibility, that we can’t trust anything on screen, that this is how our protagonist sees the world. As in the comic which clearly inspired the show, X-Men: Legacy (reviewed in TQF59), our protagonist is David Haller (Dan Stevens, so good in The Guest), son of a powerful mutant, with a head full of powers. In the comic, the powers are his, each of his separate personalities having a different ability (like Crazy Jane of the Doom Patrol), and the powers activate either when he gets control of the split personality, or when the split personality gets control of his body. Things aren’t so straightforward (if that’s the word) in the programme. David is seen wielding immense power in moments of great stress, but whether the powers are his to control is unclear. He’s been brought up to think that he is mentally ill, and he has been institutionalized ever since a particularly low point in his life. But at the institution he meets Syd Barrett, played by Keller, and their tentative, sweet romance will lead him out of the institution and into the middle of a war between mutants led by Dr Melanie Bird (Smart) and a mysterious, militaristic governmental department, while trying to cope with his burgeoning powers and mental health problems – if that indeed is what they are. Not everyone thinks so.

In the world of superhero adaptations, this programme stands apart. Much as I enjoy The Flash and Supergirl, no one would consider them a work of art, and that’s what Legion is. Visually it is astounding, as stylish as the work of Mike Allred or Jack Kirby. It is probably the most self-indulgent programme I’ve seen this side of Hannibal, but I think it is exactly the programme it wants to be, and it trusts the viewer to go along for the ride – or perhaps trip would be a better word.

It is absolutely terrifying in places (what’s that at the edge of David’s memories?), but funny in others, and the experienced cast handle every turn of mood with aplomb. It reminded me at times of Patrick (H) Willem’s short film, What if Wes Anderson Directed X-Men?, and I loved that about it. The words “best television ever” were uttered in our living room during the penultimate episode. Between this, Dirk Gently and Preacher it really does feel like they are making television programmes specifically for me these days. I hope other people are enjoying them too so I get plenty more of the same. *****

Monday, 15 October 2018

Venom | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Losers unite! Defrocked reporter and brazen alien team up in latest superhero venture.

The alien Venom has a tar-like muscular body, humongous jaws, and a tongue that would put Gene Simmons to shame. One would think that Sony Pictures would be foolish to launch its Marvel Universe with such a character, who seems better suited as a Scooby Doo villain. Not so fast.

Rather than settling on a one-dimensional action film star, Sony gives the role to Oscar-nominated method actor Tom Hardy. And instead of wallowing in apocalyptic solemnity, the film embraces its own ridiculousness. The result is that Venom, directed by Ruben Fleischer, delivers an amusing story that combines a picturesque setting (San Francisco), heart-pounding action (with lots of explosions!), and a likable protagonist strengthened by Hardy’s commitment to character.

Disgraced investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) discovers that wildly successful entrepreneur (and psychopath) Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is using the disadvantaged to carry out biomedical research. Drake wants to find suitable human hosts for the amorphous blobs called “symbiotes” that his company Life Foundation has harvested from another planet. Unfortunately, symbiotes are picky, and if the match isn’t right, the prospective host dies. Eddie happens to be a perfect match for the symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). When Riot, another symbiote in Drake’s collection, decides to take over the earth, Eddie and Venom must stop him.

One of the most entertaining aspects of Venom is Eddie’s reaction to the gradual revelation that the alien has “infected” him. Venom first reveals himself as a disembodied voice, which leads to plenty of jittery confusion on Eddie’s part. Hardy’s physicality and facial expressions make his reactions believable. Watch for the restaurant scene in which a ravenous Eddie reaches the peak of his distress about his “parasite” – a word that Venom hates. 

Another refreshing aspect of the film is the normalcy of its protagonist. Viewers identify with Eddie because he’s an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances.

The contrast between Venom’s deep, diabolical voice and his colloquial dialogue heightens the film’s humour. Venom speaks casually about his dietary preferences (humans, that is) and even taunts Eddie when the latter refuses to jump out a window.

It’s a pleasure to watch the tenuous relationship between Eddie and Venom develop. “On my planet I was a loser like you,” says Venom. People love to root for losers – how much better when there are two of them! – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Metabaron, Episode 1: The Techno-Admiral, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen and Valentin Secher (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

The first of eight volumes, with a story by original Incal writer Jodorowsky, written by Jerry Frissen, translated by Quinn and Katia Donoghue, and then given a polish by Hardware director Richard Stanley. A lot of writers involved but they don’t spoil the metabroth. The first four pages suggest that events won’t go terribly well for our hero, before the book shows us how it all began. The Metabaron, coolest character in the first Incal saga, has pledged to kill no more, and for months has stayed in his quarters. He doesn’t eat, sleep, drink or presumably go to the toilet. But eventually his spaceship, the metabunker, requires a replenishment of its fuel, epyphite, currently being mined by slaves on the Metabaron’s home planet of Marmola. This will it seems bring the Metabaron into conflict with the resurgent Techno-Techno Empire, its Technopope and Techno-Vatican, and its greatest Techno-Admiral, Wilhelm-100, whose giant robot arms, also powered by epyphite, can cut a man in half with a single blow. The overuse of techno as a prefix in this album becomes rather comical, but the story is played seriously, and although sexual assault is for once in a Humanoids book kept offstage the horrors inflicted on the losers in the techno-tussles are still extremely unpleasant. The villains are truly despicable, and one is left hoping that the Metabaron will abandon his vow sooner rather than later. As ever with Humanoids books, the artwork is stunning: detailed, full-colour and expressive. The volume is available on its own digitally, or together with volume two (The Anti-Baron) in an oversized deluxe hardback. ***

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Gorillaz have produced a series of innovative, experimental and listener-friendly albums, and being cartoon characters has undoubtedly helped, freeing them from many of the expectations and audience-imposed boundaries that often plague bands. Think of the pushback to Radiohead going electronic on Kid A or to David Bowie dabbling in jungle on the underrated Earthling. All we expect from Gorillaz is that they will give us something new every time – new collaborators, new sounds, new approaches – and that’s exactly what we get from them on Humanz. It’s like a top twenty from the future, a stylish album that in its variety sounds to me like a tenth generation descendant of the Beatmasters’ Anywayawanna (someone reissue that, please!), especially on tracks like Sex Murder Party, combined with a techno crispness that reminded me of Inner City’s marvellous debut album, all those years ago. There are twenty-six tracks in total, although seven are (brief) interludes. Highlights include “Momentz” featuring a turbo-charged De La Soul, “Ascension”, with an angry Vince Staples, and “Charger”, in which Grace Jones slowly uncurls, regal, like an aural version of the Alien queen. “Provocative!” It’s a joy that this song exists in the world. Apparently Grace Jones was in the studio for hours improvising her lyrics, and if there’s a four hour version of this track I’d love to hear it. It also features 2D at his most delightfully feeble. Conversely, “Andromeda” features one of 2D’s strongest vocal performances, on a track that could almost have been drawn from the Pet Shop Boys’ sleek and groovy work with Stuart Price. “Submission” contrasts Kelela’s gorgeous vocals with Danny Brown’s hyperactive cartoon rap in a way that seems inexplicably perfect. “We Got the Power” is bottled inspiration, just when we all need it. The deluxe edition (surely the version most people will want) adds six tracks (one of them an interlude) to the twenty on the standard version, including another of the very best songs, “Out of Body”, a herky-jerky dance number featuring Kilo Kish. The album is unpredictable but consistent, every song a novelty, full of weird noises and unexpected movements, with a multiplicity of voices woven into a whole by virtue of a consistently funky, tight sound. ****

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Manfried the Man, by Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow (Quirk Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where human-sized cats keep cat-sized men as pets, Steve the cat is struggling a bit. His home is a mess, he isn’t happy at his call centre job, his relationships with female felines are not purring at all, and his little man Manfried is lovable, but lazy, and doesn’t get on well with other little men. One day Steve leaves his window open and Manfried gets out. Steve’s life totally collapses, though maybe it’s necessary, since that’ll give him the chance to rebuild a better version. The relationship between Steve and Manfried is sweet, and Manfried is very cute, although the chubby little bearded fellow looks quite a lot like this reviewer so I would think that. Unlike him, I wear clothes, at least most of the day, and he looks very comical running around with his gentlemanly parts dangling around. There are no female pets in this book, and no reason is provided in the story; perhaps that’s being saved for the sequel, planned for 2019, or maybe it’s just that it would feel like a different kind of book with lots of naked women running around. The book defamiliarises our relationships with pets: it makes the reader consider just how similar our behaviour in that situation might be to theirs, how odd it is that people keep pets at all, and how much those animals mean to people, especially people who don’t have others to care for them. The cartooning is very cute, but never fails to provoke sympathy for Steve’s distress as his life goes terribly wrong, or little Manfried’s when he gets into a fix outside the house. ****

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, by James Gunn (Marvel Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker

The writer of the slightly shocking (but mostly fun) video game Lollipop Chainsaw seemed a brave choice to direct a family-friendly space blockbuster, but as so often seems to have been the case Marvel were rewarded for their confidence, the first Guardians of the Galaxy being very entertaining, with lots of jokes, a likeable bunch of leads, and a vibrant corner of the Marvel universe to play in. Now the same director and the same cast are back for Vol. 2, thus named for the second Awesome Mix tape that Peter Quill, Star-Lord, received at the end of the first film. Music again plays an important role in the film: the opening sequence shows us Baby Groot trying to dance to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky while his colleagues battle a space monster in the background, for example. Unusually for a super-hero movie, this film doesn’t set up an ultimate villain right away. It’s refreshing for a blockbuster film to have the confidence to do that, knowing our attention won’t drift because we’re happy to hang out with these characters even if they’re just getting into everyday (for them) scrapes and getting to know long-lost family members. Kurt Russell appears as Ego, though Marvel readers will know there’s usually a few more words in that name. It’s a very pleasant film, just like its predecessor, again with plenty of laughs, though it perhaps missteps a little in not giving as many of them to Star-Lord this time – if Chris Pratt is starring in your space comedy, you need to give him a handful of jokes, even when the focus is mainly on what makes him unhappy. My overriding memory of the film is how beautifully colourful it is. When so many super-hero films of the past have been painted in shades of black, that makes a big impression. ***

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Predator | review by Rafe McGregor

Two lonely men too many…

Alien vs. Predator (2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) confirmed that the Alien and Predator franchises (of four and two films respectively, at the time) were set in the same universe.  Although the first crossover and its sequel were both commercial successes, they were rightly panned by critics and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007, directed by Colin and Greg Strause) is the lowest-grossing film in both franchises (when adjusted for inflation).  I remember my initial reaction to news of the release of Alien vs. Predator being what’s the point, quickly followed by who are we supposed to root for?  There are deeper problems with the intersection of the two franchises, however, an essential incompatibility that may explain some of the artistic failures of both films. First, Alien (1979, directed by Ridley Scott) is a paradigmatic work of cinematic art, part of the canon of not just great science fiction, but great film. While the quality may have varied, all five of its sequels have retained the thematic complexity and stylistic sophistication of the original. In contrast, Predator (1987, directed by John McTiernan) is essentially an action spectacular, a testosterone-fuelled charge through the jungle terminating in an Arnie vs. alien duel to the death.  Second, the Alien franchise has employed a wide range of cinematic effects and techniques to represent a species at the very limits of human conception whereas the predators in the Predator franchise have (up until now) clearly been men in monster suits (Kevin Peter Hall, who stood at seven feet two inches, for the first two), an updated creature from the Black Lagoon with an anthropodic mandible that looks like it would be able to hold food as effectively as a dog’s dewclaw.

In other words, the Predator franchise has, at best, been the superficial, juvenile, and action-obsessed relative to the Alien franchise, neither striving for nor achieving the latter’s artistic or technical excellence. For all its simplicity, Predator was nonetheless very entertaining, deserving of its 80% on the Tomatometer with a narrative as strong and toned as Arnold Schwarzenegger and his musclebound henchmen. Predator 2 (1990, directed by Stephen Hopkins) brought the predator to the urban jungle, which seemed like a good idea, but was poorly-executed with curious decisions to use a dystopian futuristic Los Angeles as its setting and to replace Arnie with Danny Glover. Glover was an unlikely and unconvincing action hero, in the middle of his appearances as Roger Murtaugh – whose catchphrase was I’m too old for this shit – in the Lethal Weapon franchise. In consequence Predator 2 was also deserving of its Tomatometer score, a deplorable 27%.  The third film, Predators (2010, directed by Nimród Antal) returned to the rural jungle and the hunter-turned-hunted storyline of the first. Critical responses were better, with the Tomatometer raised to an acceptable 65%, but the plot was improbable, a duplication of the original that made little or no sense. Neither the belated decision to accord a female character a significant part (Isabelle, played by Alice Braga) nor the acting talents of Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne were sufficient to overcome Predators’ B-movie presentation, consolidated by a disappointing climax that was also a pale imitation of Predator.

20th Century Fox kept prospective audiences of The Predator in suspense pre-release, providing very little information beyond a return to Earth (true), another tough-guy protagonist (in a manner of speaking), and a promise to fill in the gaps between Predator 2 and Predators (false). The film is directed by Shane Black, who played the part of Rick Hawkins in Predator.  Black has previously directed the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the well-received Iron Man 3 (2013), and the entertaining but morally problematic The Nice Guys (2016). Perhaps Black was too comfortable with his multiple roles within the franchise – starring in the first and co-writing (with Fred Dekker) and directing the fourth – but after three successful outings as a director, he has crashed and burned on the fourth. The Predator is by far the worst film of the franchise to date, including the disastrous crossovers (scoring 20% and 11% on the Tomatometer respectively). Crashing and burning is where the narrative begins, with a premise that is plausible if not particularly imaginative. The predator species is evolving such that an internecine conflict is raging between their equivalents of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. At an unspecified time, which seems close to the near-future of Predator 2, one of the former crash-lands on earth in the middle of a US special forces team’s hostage rescue operation in an unspecified Latin American country. The team’s captain, Quinn McKenna (played by Boyd Holbrook), is the sole survivor of the encounter, escaping, evading, and mailing the alien’s helmet to his estranged wife in order to provide evidence for the inquiry to come.  The story then switches to Quinn’s young son, Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autistic spectrum but has an eidetic memory and a genius for languages. Despite the segue facilitated by the mailing of the helmet, I did wonder why anyone thought a depiction of troubled childhood had a place in a science fiction thriller and the scene does indeed herald some of the many problems that follow.

There is nothing wrong with genre braiding, blending, or bending, but a film that tries to be all things to all audiences runs the risk of substantive incoherence. Black has mixed science fiction, action adventure, family drama, gross-out horror, and comedy and the mélange is as messy and self-contradictory as the list implies. The comedy is especially poor and the fact that it is initiated when Quinn is placed on a bus full of mentally-disabled veterans is indicative of its taste and wit. It is also indicative of the many inconsistencies of the film: we are invited to sympathise with some mentally disabled people (Rory), but to laugh at others (the five veterans).  The comedy is further diminished by numerous in-jokes (many of which were lost on me), but the film also fails as a parody. Aside from the genre chaos, The Predator stages a shocking waste of talent. Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jayne are all accomplished actors yet they deliver dialogue that aspires to be cringeworthy. There is also an apparently appalling absence of expert advice on subjects crucial to the plot (I use the term loosely), including (but unfortunately not limited to) biology, linguistics, aerodynamics, and military hardware and etiquette. Yes, I know it’s fiction and science fiction at that, but one cannot choose what does and doesn’t pass through one’s bowels and university professors are not trained to use automatic weapons. Dr Casey Bracket (played by Olivia Munn) is not only handy in a gunfight, but can survive a tranquiliser dose designed for a predator and run as fast as a spaceship can crash-land. I must have missed those courses on the last staff training day. Somehow, The Predator has managed a wildly exaggerated 34% on the Tomatometer. A far better indication of its artistic and entertainment value is that my fellow film nerd and I were the only two people in the movie theatre… we were two lonely men too many*

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Cosmonauts of the Future, by Lewis Trondheim and Manu Larcenet (Europe Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

First of a three-album series, this album was originally published in French in 2000 on Dargaud’s Poisson Pilot label. This English translation followed in 2016. It’s about two awkward children who struggle to get on with their peers or their parents. The girl, Martina, thinks everyone is a robot, and has a habit of twisting the skin on people’s hands to see if they will pretend to scream to seem human. The boy, Gildas, a new arrival at school, thinks everyone is an alien, and he tells Martina that he is a a “highly-trained cosmonaut”. They have a begrudging go at being friends, stop talking when the other children make fun of their relationship, but eventually team up to investigate the world and discover which of them is right. This is a really sweet portrayal of a childhood friendship, with witty and perceptive dialogue, and cartoonish but effective and emotive art. Children will enjoy it very much, although parents should be warned that it shows the children lying to their parents and going secretly on a train ride to another town, and what’s more taking a little sister with them on this jaunt, not something one would want to encourage. There’s also a scene where the boy punches a little girl at school without any consequences, which might be enough to keep this out of primary school libraries. Happily, an extremely jarring event later in the book turns out to be less serious than it seems at first, and this takes the book in a new and interesting direction that places it more solidly in TQF territory. Recommended for adults as well as children. ****

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Soulfire: Omnibus 1, by Michael Turner, J.T. Krul, Marcus To and chums (Aspen Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Mal is a teenage boy in the year 2211 who is, as he will find out, a chosen one, the bearer of a spirit that has moved through many lives in preparation for its ultimate destiny. A flying woman with black speech balloons comes to kill him, while another winged woman, Grace, comes to rescue him, and while a giant robot dragon attacks his home city Grace whisks him away, to meet mystics who can train him to use his powers, and then to other allies in their fight against the evil Rainier and his soldiers. He’s a bad guy who survived the end of the last age of magic by embracing technology, and now that magic is on the rise again he is ready to combine the two to ensure his dominance. Luckily Mal has a pair of excellent friends in Sonia and PJ, who have got his back in all this and are willing to follow him way out of their depth.

This is not the kind of comic I usually read, but I can rarely resist a five hundred page omnibus or a comics Humble Bundle and this combined both. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, very much in the vein of the Final Fantasy games. It shares some contributors with Top Cow’s The Darkness, and there are plenty of pin-up pages of beautiful women, but it’s not as sleazy or grotesque as I found The Darkness to be (see TQF41 for the review). It would actually be fairly suitable for a young teen. The publisher Aspen is planning to add age ratings to their comics, which has provoked some dismay, but it’s possible that, rather that warning children off mature content, their goal is to alert school librarians and parents to the fact that they are publishing books that are suitable for children and that children would like.

It’s a simple story told quite well. The experienced Jeph Loeb writes the earlier issues, with J.T. Krul then taking over. Michael Turner draws most of Volume One (the first ten issues collected here), and gets a story credit on them, while Marcus To, whose appealing style suits the story a bit better, takes over on pencils for Volume Two (the next nine issues). It’s light, frothy nonsense, and I wouldn’t recommend it to our more serious readers, but it was a nice way to spend a few hours. It’s colourful and pretty: many scenes take place by the ocean, and the blues of the seas and the sky and the exotic locales give it something of a holiday feel. Like Laura Allred’s work on Madman, Beth Sotelo’s colours and effects in Volume Two are so good that they become a reason to read the comic in their own right. I loved Grace’s shimmering Star Trek teleporter hair. ***

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Chasma Knights, by Boya Sun and Kate Reed Petty (First Second) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the cute and colourful world of Chasma Knights, discarded toys roam free in the wild like Pokemon. Everyone goes through a lot of toys, as many as eight a day, because of the fun of catalyzing with them. “Oxygen, chrome, recognize!!” they might shout, “Meet, merge catalyze!” Then they merge with the toy and gain special abilities. It’s a lot of fun. Beryl, however, is a Neon Knight, supposedly too low-powered to catalyze, so she catches toys in the wild for a secret project. She is especially thrilled to capture a cute little dinosaur with a gold core, but no sooner has she stored it within her meowpack than three bad boy sulphur knights show up and steal it from her! To get it back she goes to the toy market, but there she also meets Coro, an oxygen knight who follows Beryl back to her amazing workshop and sneaks in. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, although it will have its ups and downs (literally so at times). This is a bright and charming adventure for children that will particularly appeal to fans of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire. The art style is very pretty – imagine a combination of Adventure Time and Katamari Damacy – and as usual with First Second books it would make a great gift. Any parent or school would be happy to see their children learning the lessons of this story. It encourages recycling and repairing, kindness and resilience, recognising everyone’s contributions to a joint project and sharing the credit fairly, making amends for bad decisions, and (most important of all) following safety instructions carefully. ****

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Working for Bigfoot, by Jim Butcher (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This collection of three short stories seems like a handy introduction to the Dresden Files, a highly successful series of novels about the work of Harry Dresden, a professional magician. These tales take place at different points in his life, Harry being hired three times by a bigfoot with the brilliant name Strength of a River in His Shoulders, to look in on his half-human son, Irwin Pounder – a scion, as they are known. Although these stories have very different sources – “B Is for Bigfoot” first appeared in a book for young readers (Under My Hat: Tales From the Cauldron), while “Bigfoot on Campus” debuted in a book of erotica (Hex Appeal) – there’s no difference in tone or style, just in content. The last story is especially steamy, but not inappropriately so given that the young half-bigfoot is by then the right age for such matters. It’s clear from these stories why the character of Harry Dresden is so popular: he’s very capable and reliable, and the same goes for the writing. It reminded of the Jack Reacher books I’ve read, but with all the fantastical elements that are so sadly missing from the thrillers of Lee Childs. A good little book. ***

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Conan Omnibus, Vol. 1: Birth of the Legend, by Kurt Busiek and chums (Dark Horse) | review

Conan is a burly, quick, strong and sharp fellow who wields a broadsword and wears a horned hat. He is a great thief, a great warrior, and eventually a leader of armies and a great king. He never gets the hang of magic, though, and over the years plays a pretty big part in ending its dominion over humanity. But that lies ahead. An unobtrusive framing device – a wazir reading tales of Conan to his prince in the distant future – takes us back to Conan’s birth, on the battlefield, after his pregnant mother Fialla rushes to help his father Conaldar. He is a month premature, but is still a very big baby. He already has a mean stare. To some extent, he is already the man he will grow up to be, even as a child. Rather than seeing him formed as he grows up, we see him revealed, through interactions with other children, adults, wild animals. He is as keen to learn as he is to fight. After bringing war upon his people, he leaves home, and then we see his first travels, with the traditional enemies of his people, and then being enslaved by the Hyperboreans.

This 456pp book collects issues 0 to 15, 23, 32, 45 and 46 of the monthly Conan series from Dark Horse. You can’t tell, however, which issue you are reading; a contents page would have been nice, or for issues to be separated by their original covers, or for artists to be credited for particular issues, but this format is standard for Dark Horse’s omnibus series, and probably appeals to people who just want the story without the apparatus. The artwork, by Greg Ruth for the early years, by Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates for the Hyperborean story, who are joined by Tom Mandrake for the third set of tales, is consistently magnificent. I’ve read that its distinctive visual style was produced by Dave Stewart and Greg Ruth applying the colour directly over pencils.


The book’s cover, by another artist altogether, undersells it, and led me to expect a glossier retread of the Marvel comics, but it’s meaty, smart, visceral and stylish. This is Conan at his best, not the lunkhead seen on the cover. He feels like a character, not just a fantasy. But it is a fantasy, of course, and there’s plenty of bedding beautiful women, none of whom seem to worry about getting pregnant. The lettering is worth a shout too, by Richard Starkings and Comicraft. There’s quite a lot of narration, and if that had appeared in a pseudo-handwritten font or (as in early issues of Savage Sword of Conan) something hard-to-read like thin white text on black backgrounds, it would have quickly become a chore. Instead, after the prologue, a typewriter font is used, as if the captions were torn from the manuscripts of Robert E. Howard. It’s easy to read and evocative of the pulps.


Dark Horse’s licence to publish Conan comics ends this year – if the rest is as good as this, they can look back on a job very well done. So frequently their licensed products don’t just live up to the source material, they outshine it. Much as I have loved what I’ve read of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword Sword of Conan, this is the best adaptation of Conan I’ve read. Volumes two to five are already available, with six and seven to follow later this year. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Waking in Winter, by Deborah Biancotti (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

In this science fantasy novella, reminiscent in good ways of Whiteout or The Thing, Muir is working on an alien planet, part of a group of glacionauts working from the Base Station. She’s a couple of days away from going home, though she isn’t keen because her mother’s funeral awaits. On what would have been one of her last trips in her twin-seater flying Otter she sees something under the ice: a gigantic woman, a mermaid with a six-metre-wide tail and miles of hair. She assumes it’s been carved into the ice, but when other team members look at it they each see something different, something rooted in their own cultural heritage. No one wants to talk about it, and Muir doesn’t think it’s a good thing. When a colleague says he sees a lotus flower, “Muir felt something slip inside her. The beginning of an avalanche.” The book never lets us forget how cold it is there, so the reader understands very quickly how dangerous the situation could become. There are only two days until winter sets in, and it’s going to get dark, but her colleagues are keen to dig up what they can. As you might imagine, that’s a mistake. I enjoyed this a lot: it was frightening, and awe-inspiring, and very good at showing how co-workers who spend too much time together can wind each other up. Available here.  ****

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Schedule update

We had been planning to have a big catch-up with TQF over the next few months, putting out monthly issues till we were back on our original schedule.

But a combination of workload, new responsibilities (I am now the vice-chair of a school's governing body!) and realising that after all we've already published three quarterly issues this year has changed my mind.

So instead of having an issue a month till Christmas to get back on our original schedule, we're going to just have issue 64 in December and then carry on with a quarterly schedule after that.

As a result, we've re-opened to submissions for TQF64, and will remain open until the end of October 2018. Hope that's all okay. It'll be nice to end each year on a multiple of four!

Monday, 10 September 2018

UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2 (TQF63): now out in paperback and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

GUEST-EDITED BY DOUGLAS J. OGUREK

“Ghastly.” “Bloodthirsty.” “Transgressive.” “Over-the-top violence and sexual deviation.” So said the reviews of UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first official collection in the unsplatterpunk subgenre.

Now, seven goreslingers and propriety defilers have grossed up their game to deliver UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2. True to the unsplatterpunk subgenre, these stories deliver a moral message while shocking or repulsing the reader. The collection includes a foreword by criminologist, philosopher, and aesthetic commentator Rafe McGregor.

Returning contributor Drew Tapley kicks off the awfulness on an impressively juvenile note with the anthology's most straightforward story. In “First Kiss”, a high school student deals with an expulsive situation with as much stoicism as Conan the Barbarian… maybe “Barfbarian” is more relevant. Trophy hunting is Triffooper Saxelbax’s target as his protagonist, a designer of controversial augmented reality games, takes on the corporate obsession with teamwork in “The Villainy of Solitude”. Hugh Alsin’s satirical piece “Convention Hitler!” explores intolerance run amok when the story’s namesake attends a British horror convention. In “The Music of Zeddy Graves”, Stephen Theaker brings his planet-hopping duo of Rolnikov and Pelney to Melodia, whose inhabitants participate in an endless music festival, and whose main attraction goes to gruesome extremes to achieve her compositions. Douglas J. Ogurek’s “Gunkectomy” alternates between an embittered architect/author and a husband hunter who finds commercial and social value in her earwax. “The Tapestry of Roubaix” by Howard Phillips seems to come off the shelf of a nineteenth century library, until it reveals what the protagonist does in his washbasin. M.S. Swift, another returning contributor, closes out the collection with “The Bones of Old England”, an extravaganza of mania-induced carnage.

Delve deep into the cesspool that is UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, and remember – sometimes to learn a lesson, you might have to get dirty.



Here are the unsplattered contributors to this issue:

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in over forty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g. extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. He guest-edited Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology. He also reviews films at that same ezine. Recent longer works include the young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) and the horror/suspense novella Encounter at an Abandoned Church (Scarlet Leaf Publishing). More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. Twitter: @unsplatter

Drew Tapley is a copywriter, journalist and filmmaker based in Toronto.

Howard Phillips is the author of His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta and The Day the Moon Wept Blood.

Howard Watts provides the exceptional wraparound cover for this issue.

Hugh Alsin is a writer who now stays away from conventions, although he stresses that the events in his story are completely fictitious, and any resemblance to people living or dead is either unintentional or for the purposes of satire or parody.

M.S. Swift’s work has been published in a wide range of horror and fantasy anthologies, including the first TQF unsplatterpunk collection. Swift’s writing is inspired by the landscape and mythology of his native Britain. He recently completed a witch hunter novel set in an alternative medieval Britain and is seeking a publisher courageous enough to back it.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Leeds Trinity University and the University of York. He is the author of The Value of Literature, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent book is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Stephen Theaker has written several novels, but does not recommend reading them.

Triffooper Saxelbax is an emerging (and often grating) voice in the unsplatterpunk subgenre. When he is not writing, he stir-fries vegetables and decorates pine cones. His work has not been translated into any other languages. Neither has it been nominated for nor appeared in the year’s best so and so. Saxelbax’s mental exertions have caused numerous regional power outages.



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

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Vintage) | review by Stephen Theaker

Amatka is a settlement which readers might assume is on an alien world, though it could perhaps be somewhere like a warmed-up version of Antarctica. Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, information specialist with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, and Vanja for short, is sent there to research whether it is a suitable market for the export of cleaning products. She gets on with the work but neglects to utter the name of her suitcase, with the result that it dissolves, and from then she becomes more interested in a budding relationship with her host, Nina, and with what is going on in the world. Why does everything need to be named? What happened to the fifth colony? Questions like these are forbidden, but a friendship with a librarian (as is so often the case in our world too) proves a useful source of information.

One of the first Philip K. Dick novels I read was Time Out of Joint, where a chap in a picture perfect American town starts to notice that things are wrong, that things aren’t really there, just pieces of paper bearing the names of things. This excellent novel, originally published in Sweden in 2012, and translated by the author for this edition, is about a world where people must name things in order for them to exist. That makes for a riveting plot, a Kafkaesque mood, and a real mystery, and it also reflects how language works in our world too, how it divides reality up into manageable portions. For example think how the colour orange didn’t exist as a separate entity until the fruit gave it that name.

It’s also a book about romance, oppression, intellectual curiosity, the effect of separating children from their parents (all children here are brought up in dormitories), and it fits all that into an efficient two hundred pages. The best praise I can give the book is that it lives up to the author’s excellent short story collection, Jagannath. ****

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Final Girls, by Mira Grant (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Virtual reality horror scenarios are being used to heal family wounds. Sisters like Kim and Diane go in hating each other, and their relationships are reforged in the fire of being hunted by by a serial killer. A journalist, Esther Hoffman, comes to investigate the process, concerned by the power of such false memories, a deeply personal concern because of what happened to her father when she was young. Unfortunately her visit coincides with that of an industrial spy and so her trip into virtual reality becomes even more horrific than expected. It’s a good novella that explores the interplay between memories and emotions and relationships and asks whether, if we could tweak those things to make them better, we should. The horror scenes are frightening enough to convince the reader that going through them would have the claimed effect. ****