Thursday, 12 July 2018

Nominations for the British Fantasy Awards 2018!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The resulting nominees are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The jurors have also been announced:

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Shape of Water | review by Rafe McGregor

Black Lagoon to Baltimore via the New Weird.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018: the winners!

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



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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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


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


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

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

Monday, 18 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #62: out now!

| Free pdf |

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

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

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



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

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

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

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. His reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal. To this issue he supplies “Dundoronum”, an adventure of Rolnikov and Pelney.

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



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

Monday, 4 June 2018

Deadpool 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Douglas’s review of Deadpool.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Coming Soon: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2

Stories selected for sequel to controversial genre-defining anthology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The City & The City | review by Rafe McGregor

Detecting the New Weird.

By curious coincidence, cinematic adaptations of works by both of the best-known practitioners of the New Weird have reached the small screen in the UK within a month of each other. In my review of Alex Garland’s Annihilation in March, I introduced the New Weird and noted that the term either referred to a new subcategory of speculative fiction that explored humanity’s place in the world in the era that sociologists are fond of calling ‘late modernity’ or a deconstructive take on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft that became so influential after his death. The genre was established with the publication of The New Weird, a collection of short fiction published by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in 2008, and consists of two main strands, one in the US and the other in the UK. In the former, VanderMeer himself published the Southern Reach Trilogy, which begins with Annihilation, in 2014. In the latter, China Miéville published King Rat much earlier, in 1998, and The City & the City constituted one of his distinctively urban contributions to the genre, published in 2009. While the New Weird has existed for at least two decades and been an established genre for a decade, none of either VanderMeer or Miéville’s work has to my knowledge appeared on either the big or small screen – until now, when we have a Netflix film released in March and a BBC television mini-series released in April. This is of course great news for New Weird enthusiasts and I’ll return to the question of whether the New Weird is about to reach an audience the (Old) Weird never did in my conclusion.

The City & the City is an intriguing, sophisticated, thoughtful, and important novel that requires either a series of films or a television series for adaptation. The need for an extended representation is largely due to the complexity of the setting, which is very difficult to grasp conceptually. The city and the city are probably most concisely introduced by a short passage in the book, where Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel polizei is explaining a previous visit to Berlin. He says:

“I was young. It was a conference. ‘Policing Split Cities.’ They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Besźel and Ul Qoma.”

He might have added any of South Africa’s cities during the apartheid era or the many global cities divided by polarities of wealth and poverty in the neoliberal era. The main difference between Besźel/Ul Qoma and, for example, West Berlin/East Berlin is that there are no physical barriers between the city and the city. Berlin had its famous wall complete with bunkers, observation towers, and dog runs, but Besźel and Ul Qoma are two city states without a wall, a little like Rome and the Vatican City. Unlike its Italian counterparts, however, the two states are sworn enemies, similar in size and population, and crosshatched. ‘Crosshatched’ means that the border between the two cities has not been established in a symmetrical shape (like Berlin and Rome) so there are areas where one side of the same street is in Besźel and the other in Ul Qoma or, even worse, where public squares and terraced houses are divided between the two cities. These apparently porous borders are maintained by the combination of two forms of control, one informal, the other formal. First, rigorous education by parents and in schools trains children to ‘unsee’ rather than see the other city. Second, both cities cede their sovereignty to an organisation called Breach, which exists solely for the purpose of maintaining the border and dealing with those who commit the crime of breach, i.e. cross the border, talk to someone across the border, or even see (rather than unsee) someone across the border. Breach is the most serious of all crimes in Besźel/Ul Qoma and anyone who breaches is subject to immediate and extrajudicial arrest and punishment by Breach. What exactly happens to breachers is not made clear, but it is something nasty – execution, life imprisonment, or exile – for they are never seen (or unseen) again in either city.

The most intriguing part of the cinematic adaptation for me was how this strange situation would be represented visually and it was achieved, like much else, with great finesse. The protagonist of both the book and the mini-series is Borlú (played by David Morrissey) and the audience sees most of the latter from his perspective (mirroring the first person narrative of the former). Borlú lives in a crosshatched part of Besźel and if he looks out of the wrong window of his flat or walks to work, the Ul Qoma side of the street simply appears as a blur. If he surreptitiously commits breach by seeing Ul Qoma, the people, buildings, and vehicles across the border come into focus. Typical of both the Weird and the New Weird, The City & The City combines at least two genres – police procedural (of the hardboiled variety) and fantasy (of the urban variety) – and the story begins with the discovery of the body of an American university student enrolled at university in Ul Qoma in a crosshatched area of Besźel/Ul Qoma that is part of Besźel. Borlú is assigned the case and allocated an able if unorthodox assistant in Constable Corwi (played by Mandeep Dhillon). The first point he must establish is whether breach has taken place because breach takes precedence over murder and falls under the jurisdiction of Breach rather than the polizei (or Ul Qoma’s militsya). The circumstances of the case take Borlú to Ul Qoma (which can only be entered legally at a single border post), where he is provided with another able (albeit more orthodox) assistant in Senior Detective Dhatt (played by Maria Schrader). The murder is linked to the disappearance of another student and both students are connected to Professor David Bowden (played by Christian Camargo), a public intellectual notorious for his theory that there is a third city, called Orciny, that exists in spaces between the other two. The notion is perfectly suited to Miéville’s internal logic: if training and habit can cause citizens to unsee one city, how can they be sure that they are not also unseeing a second? The plot is thickened by the fact that Borlú’s wife, Katrynia (played by Lara Pulver) – who disappeared at the hands of Breach – was one of Bowden’s many student-lovers prior to her marriage. The introduction of Katrynia as a major character (by means of both Borlú’s memory and imagination) is the only alteration in an otherwise almost entirely faithful adaptation of the novel. The change makes for an innovative interpretation and Miéville must have been happy with the result as he has a brief, non-speaking cameo in episode 2 (at precisely the halfway point).

I wasn’t sure whether Morrissey had the screen presence to carry the lead in a story told almost exclusively from his point of view, but he is supported by such a strong cast of able women – Dhillon, Schrader, and Pulver – that my fears were soon allayed. As such, I have only two criticisms of the mini-series. First, although it follows Miéville’s form almost exactly, the emphasis of the content quickly becomes the conspiracy theories surrounding the existence (or not) of Orciny and there is a sense in which the police procedure and murder mystery is lost in the ensuing intrigue. This is somewhat remedied in the surprising, understated, and effective close of the narrative, but I found the conspiracy less compelling than the murder, in consequence of which episodes 2 and 3 dragged a little. Second, and this may be related to the dominance of fantastic conspiracy over realistic murder, the mini-series fails to plumb the philosophical depths of the novel. Miéville seems to be saying something significant about the very concept of national borders in the twenty-first century – perhaps something along the lines of the absence of moral justification for sustaining internecine and even international conflicts in the age of globalisation, an age characterised by refugee crises, a return to the extremism of the previous century, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. These deeper questions are largely lost in the mini-series, with the exception of the briefest allusion when Bowden’s infamous treatise, Between the City and the City, is discussed. In the same way that Between the City and the City proposes the existence of a third city that threatens to undermine the house of cards upon which Besźel/Ul Qoma is built, so The City & The City proposes a situation in which borders have been pushed to their hyperbolic and farcical limit, undermining a concept that is crucial to the way in which we understand the world and construct our own identities.

I’ll conclude by returning to the subject with which I began, the New Weird and whether or not 2018 will be the year in which it reaches a mainstream audience. At the time of writing, Annihilation has received much critical acclaim, with 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, but has failed to earn the $40 million-odd it cost to make. The consensus opinion in print and online media is that Authority and Acceptance (the second and third parts of the Southern Reach Trilogy) are unlikely to appear onscreen. There is no Tomatometer available for The City & The City, but a scan of UK newspaper reviews would place it at about the 75% mark, i.e. mostly but not overwhelmingly positive. So far, the mini-series will have reached far less of an audience than Annihilation, and although Dhillon has been much-praised for her role, the absence of internationally-recognisable stars such as Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson will probably maintain this imbalance. The answer is thus no, the New Weird isn’t in any more danger of reaching a global audience than the Weird was in the nineteen-thirties, but for anyone who wants to know what the genre is all about, The City & The City is a very good place to start. ****

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Big purple guy gives Avengers/Guardians of the Galaxy a run for their money, and helps them make a ton of money

Since Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark first blasted onto the scene in Iron Man (2008), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has pumped out 18 additional films… and changed the moviegoing landscape. Many thought that the latest offering, Avengers: Infinity War, which unites most of the Avengers plus the more adult-focused Guardians of the Galaxy in one of the most expensive movies ever made, was bound to break the opening weekend box office record. It did.

Infinity War, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, doles out a lot of what Marvel fans want: humour, spectacular fight scenes, the universe in peril, strained relationships, and settings both earthbound and otherworldly. But this installment also delivers the Avengers’ most formidable foe to date, and with him, some unpredictable outcomes.

Because of Infinity War’s large cast – this was the first time this reviewer got a playbill at the cinema – it cannot focus on a single hero for long. Therefore, the character who grabs the most screen time is the villain. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a Hulk-sized purple warrior-king, wants to achieve balance and preserve the universe’s resources. Sounds like a noble goal. Unfortunately, his method – annihilate half of the universe’s population – is rather extreme. To carry out his plan, Thanos must secure six infinity stones spread throughout the universe. He already has some, while others are protected by certain protagonists… a problem for Avengers and company, since Thanos will stop at nothing to achieve his end.

Fight scenes range from magical showdowns in the streets of New York and Scotland to off-planet confrontations to all-out brawls in Africa. Though Infinity War doesn’t match the humour of Thor: Ragnarok, it does offer its fair share. Among the film’s most humorous exchanges are the verbal sparring between big egos like Iron Man and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and even more so Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Arguably, the Guardians Peter Quill and especially Drax (Dave Bautista), with their impulsive and sometimes juvenile actions, stand out as the funniest. Another humorous character is Peter Dinklage’s Eitri, a weapon-forging giant whose ultra-dramatic, deep utterances don’t always fit with what he’s saying.

And what about the casual filmgoers, those who don’t spend most of their waking hours watching and reading everything they can about these characters? Will they still enjoy this film? Absolutely. There is something appealing about many characters with superhuman abilities coming together to protect life. And there is something appealing about a brutish, yet brilliant villain who wants to destroy life… or does he want to preserve life? Thanos is, in some ways, an embodiment of the MCU, which has barreled through the contemporary film scene. In its opening weekend, Infinity War made $258.2 million in the U.S. and more than $630 million worldwide. Now that’s power.
 – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 23 April 2018

Rampage | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

MONSTERS! + The Rock + Jeffrey Dean Morgan + ecological awareness = entertainment with a purpose.

The arcade game Rampage stomped onto the scene in the mid-eighties. The player, assuming the identity of one of three gigantic creatures, attempted to pound the crap out of a city. It was dumbed-down, straightforward fun. One could say the same of director Brad Peyton’s latest blockbuster film loosely based on the game.

True… Rampage is yet another movie with massive creatures tearing apart prominent human developments – in this case, it’s the City of Chicago. However, this film offers the much-loved Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) in the leading role and the ever-smirking Jeffrey Dean Morgan as support, plus a well-timed warning about environmental exploitation.

Primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) has a strong relationship with San Diego wildlife preserve resident George, the last remaining albino silverback. They even joke around and use lewd gestures with their sign language. Then George gets sprayed with an experimental chemical that rapidly enhances his size and strength. Soon, he escapes and gives a new meaning to the term “apeshit”. Okoye and disgraced geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) set out to stop George without harming him.

Adding to the film’s entertainment quotient is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Harvey Russell, an OGA (Other Governmental Agency) agent with Texas swagger. Russell wears a big ol’ belt buckle and a pearl-handled revolver and quips, “Like my grandpappy always said: us assholes gotta stick together.” Morgan, his slim frame leaning this way and that, retains some of the feistiness of Negan, the bad boy antagonist he plays in The Walking Dead.

The film’s biggest shortcomings include a few clichés – the coincidental relevant newscast drives me nuts – and underdeveloped antagonists. Wyden siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy), the mastermind and the nervous Nellie, control genetic engineering firm Energyne, based in Chicago’s famed Willis Tower. But it’s so easy to forgive these flaws when one sees a massive gorilla pick up a tank as if it were a chair and hurl it at a helicopter.

Despite its boyish impetus (i.e. destroy stuff), Rampage earns a star for sticking up for conservation: it speaks to our children by placing a revered action hero in the role of anti-poacher/defender of animals. And it’s got MONSTERS! – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 16 April 2018

A Quiet Place | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Silence means survival in ultra-tense film that resounds thunderously within horror canon

Three minutes into A Quiet Place, I was about to grab some popcorn, when my wife seized my hand and shook her head. The theatre was so quiet, its occupants so immersed in the Abbott family’s attempts to keep quiet, that my hand reaching into that bag would have sounded like a jet taking off. That tension and absorption in the characters’ plight dominated the remainder of the film, written and directed by lead actor John Krasinski.

An antagonist is close. The protagonist struggles not to make a peep. It’s a tension-building method used in thousands of horror and suspense stories… but not to this extent. Krasinski skyrockets the tension by introducing an antagonist with super-sensitive hearing. The creatures don’t need to be in the same room to hear their prey – they need to be in the same town!

The film opens 89 days into the invasion, with the Abbotts scavenging a vacated convenience store. It’s what you’d see in The Walking Dead, but you get the impression that the adversaries are something much more threatening than zombies. And they are.

Krasinski doesn’t waste time with expository dialogue about the creatures – he can’t really, since most of the film’s clipped dialogue is subtitled sign language. Instead, the camera lingers on Lee Abbott’s markerboard, which bullet points the creatures’ characteristics and asks the question on which the Abbotts’ survival hinges: “What are their WEAKNESSES?”

The film also introduces relationship complexities that go beyond the hunter/prey surface story. Particularly engaging is Lee Abbott’s strained relationship with deaf teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She wants more independence and involvement; he wants to keep his family alive, even if that means somewhat stifling his daughter.

Initially, I was disappointed when the film’s preview offered glimpses of the creatures. I was mistaken – this is not a film about withholding the adversary; it’s a film about avoiding detection by the adversary.

A Quiet Place, confident in its new but not-so-new concept, detours from the contrived scares and plot hoops of the typical horror film. During the brief hour-and-a-half playtime, expect to wince, cringe, sympathize, and maybe even choke up. And be sure to skip the snacks – they’re too noisy. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley | review by Stephen Theaker

The Beauty (Unsung Stories) is a story told by Nathan. Telling stories has been his job ever since the women and girls first began to fall sick and he stood up at the commune’s campfire and retold the story of a famous boy wizard to keep away the silence of the night. It has now been six years since the last women in the valley died, all of them victims of an aggressive fungal infection. The future is bleak, but he tells the surviving men and teenage boys tales of the past, doing his best to keep the women alive, in their thoughts at least. For sex and love the younger men make do with each other. That brings comfort, but there’s no future in it for the species, and no hope, even for a community that was self-sufficient before the disaster.

That is, until Nathan’s encounter in the woods with what he calls the Beauty, a being very like a woman in some ways, disturbingly different in others: “It has breasts, globes of yellow, and rounded hips that speak to me of woman, of want, and that disgusts me beyond words.” His return to the commune with his Beauty, and a crowd of others like it, changes everything, and those changes are not welcomed by all. But he finds an unexpected ally in his Uncle Ted, who till now had lived out in the woods, up to who knows what, and the teenagers are very enthusiastic about the new situation: they “wear skirts, and cite the ease of joining with their Beauties – no more zips to undo, simply lift the material!”

This is a short book with a lot to say, all of it interesting. About what people are prepared to do in order to survive, and how far others will go to prevent change; or, if we step back from Nathan’s point of view, a book about collaborators, and how collaboration can corrupt and degrade. On another level it’s about how men are affected by the absence of women, and later how they might react to losing their ill-earned place as the dominant gender: some with relief, others with murderous rage. Or it could be taken as an interrogation of that male fantasy, the all-sex all-the-time relationship, the always-available partner; it suggests how quickly life with a sexbot (or here, a sex mushroom) might lose its shine. Though it’s not quite a horror novella, its awful transformations of the flesh would do David Cronenberg proud.

Most of all it’s about the power of storytelling to preserve our past and shape our future, and so one can see why it would appeal to an imprint called Unsung Stories; on this evidence a name to look out for. The Beauty is intellectual and visceral, frightening and thoughtful, an adventure and a meditation. Letting my copy of Whiteley’s Mean Mode Median go unread for so long has clearly been a huge mistake. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #254.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Annihilation | review by Rafe McGregor

From New Weird novel to small-screen-feel alien movie.

The term ‘New Weird’ became popular in the first few years of this century, but has not been universally accepted. Nor is it clear whether New Weird denotes a new genre, related to but distinct from the (Old) Weird, or simply the way in which new authors have breathed fresh life into the old genre. S.T. Joshi, the critical authority on the Weird, has little time for the term and refers to the ‘modern weird tale’ instead (publishing a book with that title in 2001). Joshi defines the Weird as a retrospective category of speculative fiction, published from 1880 to 1940, that is essentially philosophical in virtue of representing a fully-fledged and fleshed-out world view. He regards H.P. Lovecraft as the exemplar of the genre, which includes Arthur Machen, Edward Plunkett (Lord Dunsany), Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce and M.R. James. He also sees the tradition as having been continued through to the present by the likes of Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti and Caitlín R. Kiernan. The New Weird was initially associated with China Miéville in the UK and subsequently Jeff VanderMeer in the US. Miéville’s first novel was King Rat, in 1998, and he began his Bas-Lag series with Perdido Street Station in 2000. VanderMeer was best known for his short stories and as an editor and anthologist, editing two definitive collections – The New Weird and Steampunk – with his wife Ann in 2008. He joined Miéville as the co-exemplar of the New Weird in 2014, when all three parts of the Southern Reach Trilogy were published: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance.

Miéville has his own characterisation of the Weird, set out in his essay ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’ (published in Collapse IV in 2008), that it is distinguished from the horror fiction derived from myth, legend, and folktales on the basis of the cephalopod natures of its monsters, which broke from previous tradition. As such, he includes H.G. Wells and William Hope Hodgson in the genre dominated by Lovecraft. There are several interesting elements to this approach, although it appears to ignore or at least regard as irrelevant the fact that the legendary kraken has been cast in a cephalopod image since at least the eighteenth century. VanderMeer acknowledges the importance of the tentacle and what it represents, but foregrounds the Weird’s pursuit of an abstruse and possibly even unattainable understanding of the supra-natural and the un-rational, i.e. as the expression of our dissatisfaction with and uncertainty about reality. For VanderMeer, weird tales also engage with the particular problems of peculiarly modern life and with the extremes of that life, a trend which increased as the century progressed. Miéville rejected ‘New Weird’ when it was applied to Perdido Street Station and it is difficult to reconcile his repeated emphasis on the urban – in works such as King Rat, Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, Un Lun Dun, The City & the City, and The Last Days of New Paris – with VanderMeer’s biophilia (from E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis), as suggested by reviewers’ descriptions of the Southern Reach trilogy as ‘Weird Ecology’ (Los Angeles Review of Books) and ‘Weird Thoreau’ (The New Yorker).

VanderMeer defines the New Weird (or at least Miéville’s New Weird) as urban speculative fiction that is based on complex real-world models, employs elements of the surreal or transgressive, and is acutely aware of the politics of the modern world. His own New Weird is an ecological, environmental, or uncivilized (in Dark Mountain Project terminology) variant of the genre he describes. If there is a feature of the two authors’ oeuvres that connects Miéville’s city to VanderMeeer’s wilderness to the extent that it establishes a new type of Weird, then it is the self-conscious subversion of one of the central themes of Lovecraft’s fiction. Lovecraft had an aversion to the reproductive process, irrational fears about genetic inheritance, and a horror of miscegenation – the last either disclosed by the explicit racism of some of his stories or the implicit racism of his obsession with inter-species crossbreeding. Miéville and VanderMeer both explore the theme of crossbreeding without the racist overtones and with the implication that the contamination of humanity might be a source of empowerment or evolution and is thus neither necessarily terrifying nor necessarily dreadful. This new take on the Weird is an important part of what makes the Southern Reach trilogy original in its contribution to literature, relevant to life in the Anthropocene, and perhaps even visionary. Notwithstanding, I was a little underwhelmed when I read Annihilation, as the narrative failed to reach the potential promised by the premise of the novel. Part of my disappointment with the film is not so much that it has been dumbed-down or popularised, but that the adaptation process has opened a greater gap between narrative and premise, involving a dual failure to resist first the urge to explain and second, the urge to prioritise the human over the hybrid.

Alex Garland’s adaptation is as classic a story as can be, a literal instantiation of John Yorke’s wonderful guide to storytelling, Into The Woods: the hero leaves home to go into the woods and comes back both changed and having changed something in the woods. Our hero, who is an unnamed biologist in the book but has become an ex-soldier-turned-academic named Lena (played by Natalie Portman) in the film, leaves the safety of the Southern Reach to go into Area X. Area X, AKA the Shimmer from the electromagnetic field that forms its boundary, is a remote part of the south coast of America where unexplained ecological changes have occurred following the impact of a meteor (providing an explanation that is deliberately withheld in the novel). The Southern Reach is the government agency that has been established to contain and explain the Shimmer, but the various expeditions sent into it have all resulted in disaster. The same is true of Lena’s journey into the swamp: the narrative structure is a-chronological and we quickly learn that she is the sole survivor of her team. Lena’s call to action – to use Yorke’s terminology – is the return of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac), a Special Forces soldier, from the previous expedition into the Shimmer. He arrives home nearly a year after entering Area X and many months after being declared missing-presumed-dead, walking into their house with an almost complete loss of memory and massive organ failure. Lena is recruited by Dr Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a senior official in the Southern Reach, and her readiness to volunteer for what appears to be a suicide mission is explained by her guilt at having had an affair with a colleague while Kane was missing-in-action. Lena joins Ventress and three other women, all of whom have suffered serious psychological trauma of some sort, on an expedition to reach the lighthouse on the coast of Area X.

As soon as Lena and her companions cross the Shimmer, there are indications that either time functions in a different way in Area X or that the environmental anomaly has a disturbing effect on human beings’ perceptions of time and memory retention. This phenomenological disruption is followed by evidence of hyper-hybridity as unexplained mutations of first flora and then fauna are discovered. As the expedition travels deeper into Area X they find further evidence of both animal and plant life crossbreeding with human beings to produce more or less successful hybrids. We are, of course, in the land of Lovecraft’s worst nightmare, although there is a suggestion (albeit weaker in the film, which remains for the most part anthropocentric) that this is not as horrific as it seems – or, more accurately, not as horrific as our innate speciesism has conditioned us to believe. Aside from the small cast, which I expected, and watching it at home on television (Annihilation was distributed by Netflix in the UK), for which I compensated, there was something about the cinematography that gave the film a small-screen-feel. This impression was confirmed at the conclusion when, in the climactic scene, poor visual special effects were exacerbated by a strange choice of soundtrack, the combination of which transformed what was intended to be a tense sequence into something approaching farce and made what followed bizarre at best. This is not to say that the film is not worth seeing. Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson (playing Josie Radek, a physicist) both present strong performances and there are several subtle touches in the storytelling by Garland, particularly with respect to the respective fates of Lena’s team. Most of the initial reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive and I’m one of only two people I know who doesn’t concur. Perhaps, like so many movie adaptations, it’s better if you haven’t read the book first.***

Friday, 9 March 2018

Hard Sun | review by Rafe McGregor


Policing the End of the World.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Annihilation | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Fantasy/eco-horror film revels in uncertainty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 March 2018

Black Panther | review by Rafe McGregor

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

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

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

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

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