Wednesday 30 November 2011

TQF: interviews and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

A round-up of TQF-related bits and bobs you may have been lucky enough to miss...

In this interview from 2009 on the blog of Gareth D. Jones I talk a bit – or rather, at extraordinary length! – about TQF, what kind of fiction we're looking for, and why I don't think we'll go semi-pro in the near future.

In December 2010 I was interviewed by Justin Bostian, who included it in this market report for students at Columbia College Chicago. (Link is to a pdf.)

In September 2011 I was slightly less loquacious answering a few questions from Duotrope.

We got a nice write-up in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd edition – "its real purpose is the publication of absurdist fiction which uses all of the images, tropes and concepts of science fiction and mutates them into indescribable forms" – as did one of the contributors to our most recent issue, Rhys Hughes.

I spent hours as a youngster reading the first and second editions of the Encyclopedia in the university library, so you can imagine how thrilled I was that we got a mention…

A Chômu Press happening: Thursday night in London

The ever-interesting Chômu Press have organised a unique book launch for Jeremy Reed’s novel Here Comes the Nice, with two bands playing: The Ginger Light, fronted by the author, and Lord Magpie and the Prince of Cats.

Admission is five pounds, which will be refunded upon purchase of a copy of the book (as long as stocks last).

So that's at 8.00pm till 11.00pm on Thursday, November 31, at Jamboree, 566 Cable Street, London, E1W 3HB.

Sounds to me like an event well worth supporting. Really: if I went to something like that I'd feel like I were in a film. But then that's how I feel whenever I'm in London!

More information about the book here.

I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to Peter Tennant’s lengthy and fascinating interview with Quentin S. Crisp, one of the prime movers behind the press, over on the Black Static blog: Chomu Press in Focus. I love that they have a secret aesthetic, and that somehow Quentin manages to seem both idealistic and practical.

One last point. Perhaps some of you think I’m too fusty to use a word like “happening” and get away with it? Well, I’ll have you know that as I type this I’m wearing a necklace of huge pink beads. Thank you, daughters! I’m with it!

Monday 28 November 2011

Doctor Who: The Wreck of the Titan, by Barnaby Edwards – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Every so often an item refuses to be reviewed, fights me at every turn, or like Lucius Shepherd’s Viator Plus is simply beyond the limits of my barely nascent critical faculties. I’ve struggled to review this sixth Doctor adventure. At first I used MP3 Merger to turn it into one long audio file and put it on the Kindle to listen to, but the way it begins with a preview of the next story, the long stretch of incidental music at the end of episode two (during which I invariably fell asleep), and a big chunk of episode three going missing during the merge process all conspired with a story of timeslips and shifting locations to leave me as confused as Jamie and the Doctor are in this story. Trying to listen to it on the iPod or iPad didn’t go any better – I kept losing my place. The PC then? No, Windows Media Player got muddled up by the metadata.

Newer, less intransigent stories came in for review, and I retreated from this one, defeated by a combination of circumstance, technology and sleepiness. Now, having built up my strength reviewing the Companion Chronicles, I decided it was time to make another assault upon the Titan. I’ve got into the habit of burning the digital Who releases to CDs, which might seem a surprisingly retrograde step for someone so keen on ebooks and other forms of digital delivery, but if a CD is one of the five in my stereo I’ll usually listen to it once a day at least while working. This one I must have listened to nine or ten times, and I still can’t be sure I’ve quite got it, so I beg your indulgence for any silly mistakes.

The sixth Doctor and the older Jamie we met in City of Spires land on a grand ship, which they expect to be the Queen Mary, for whose maiden voyage the Doctor has tickets. But things aren’t right, and Jamie is the first to spot it: they are on the Titanic. Doors leading below decks don’t open, the band seems out of sorts, and the first officer is not the man the Doctor remembers. And then it gets really strange, with the story introducing people who are either pretending to be or really think they are Captain Nemo (played perfectly by DS9’s Alexander Siddig) and Professor Aronnax. This mysterious, adventuresome story forms the second part of a trilogy, continuing themes from the City of Spires, and ending on a remarkable cliffhanger that is surely resolved in the next story, Legend of the Cybermen. I can’t guess how a cyberman story might relate to this one, so there must be further surprises to come.

Though I found this story quite hard to get to grips with, that’s a function of how I listen to these adventures (usually while working or on my way to sleep). The script is keen, Colin Baker and Frazer Hines as the Doctor and Jamie clearly enjoying the quality of their dialogue. Howard Carter’s incidental music is very good, creating quite the grand sweep in the listener’s mind. The Doctor is completely wrong once or twice in this story, which he would presumably find a novel experience. It’s good for him, and good for the story: for once he isn’t in complete control of the situation and that encourages the listener to take it more seriously. It’s a good story for Jamie, too. He may not remember the Doctor, but his good sense is unimpaired, and he shows himself ready to think his way around a problem – or a conversation – until he finds a way in.

I enjoyed City of Spires, but this one just about tops it. The only disappointment is a sneaking suspicion that the next story will bring this excellent reunion to an end. I hope not, but shall find out soon.

Doctor Who: The Wreck of the Titan, by Barnaby Edwards. Big Finish, 2xCD.  This review (leaving off the first two paragraphs) originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Sunday 27 November 2011

British Fantasy Awards: why I'd reluctantly suggest that BFS members vote against the proposed changes

The BFS has announced its proposals for the British Fantasy Awards, and, to be frank, I think they’re a bit of a mess. The previous procedure had a leak or two, but the new proposals chop up the boat and build a rickety raft that I reckon will sink the first time it hits a storm. Even the new awards administrator says she has a lot of questions about how they are supposed to work, and no one involved in proposing them has come forward to explain.

It's a procedure that's been put together in a rush – albeit with good intentions – and it shows. Basic issues are unaddressed, such as how the administrator should decide between ties. When you have a hundred or so people recommending a hundred different books for four slots, you’re going to get a lot of ties. I can't imagine that there’s a fair way to decide between ten books that all got three votes, and putting them all onto the shortlist would be ridiculous (and isn’t countenanced by the new rules). Rolling a D10 is great when it comes to dodging a goblin's sword thrust, but it's not how the BFA shortlist should be decided!

I’m not sure why they didn’t just keep the old system but have a jury read the shortlist. That was what we thought we were voting for, more or less. For example, there had been no suggestion until this procedure was announced that voting on the longlist was going to be abolished. Or that members would be limited to making three recommendations. At the 2010 AGM I tried introducing a rule that limited members to five recommendations: the response was so negative I withdrew the proposal without even putting it to the vote!

I’m really disappointed by what that all means: there’s going to be very little member participation in the awards. We won’t get to vote, and only a handful of us, if any, will be involved in the juries, which are unclearly stated to "comprise individuals directly or indirectly related to the writing, publishing and bookselling genre fields". Although everyone who reads a book is at least indirectly related to the publishing fields, the intention seems to be to limit the jurors to industry types. Ordinary BFS members are going to pay for the awards, but will have practically no say in the results. (Except in so far as their recommendations will contribute to the shortlist, and that contribution may be discounted at the discretion of the juries – see below.)

One big but unannounced (and possibly inadvertent) change is in the detail of the wording: what was a constitution now becomes just guidelines. This is a potential nightmare: under these proposals the BFS committee will lose the ability to vote for changes to the procedure, but since the rules will now be just guidelines, the administrator can make up new rules on the fly as they need them, as long as they don’t actually add them to the formal rules. So we’ll end up with the awards being run on a series of unwritten and informal – and thus inconsistent and unaccountable – rules. I’ve seen that happen in the past, and it wasn't pretty.

The problem is, I think, that the people who have put together the new procedure haven’t (as far as I know) run a cycle of the awards between them. So they’ve decided what the rules should be, based on what they don’t want to happen (i.e. they don’t want Sam Stone to win again), but don’t seem to have thought ahead and imagined how the awards will play out based on these rules.

Let’s do that.

For example, we know that Sam Stone won best novel having got at least 24 votes this year. Let’s imagine that those 24 people split their 72 short story recommendations for 2012 over four of her short stories from her 2011 release, Zombies in New York. All four stories would be practically guaranteed a place on the shortlist.

(In fact, going on recommendations levels in previous years, I reckon six, five or even four recommendations will usually be more than enough to get a spot on the shortlist under the new rules - in the best novel category in 2010, only one title got as many as six recommendations, and that was when members could make unlimited recommendations per category, not just three. I reckon that under the new rules a canny publicist could buy a book straight onto the shortlist for under £300.)

So we have a shortlist for best short story that is entirely made up of Sam Stone’s short stories. Now what does the awards admin do? Well, nothing, the rules don’t allow her to. Although since the rules are now just guidelines, she could go off-track... but that way lies madness!

So the shortlist goes to the jury, who have no idea who recommended a piece or why. By the rules proposed they have to read the stories to decide whether they should be kicked off the shortlist. So they request them from the publisher, who supplies five copies of Zombies of New York. The jury reads them, and then has to decide whether to throw them off the shortlist.

If they don’t kick them off, the shortlist is announced as four stories by the same author from the same book, and the BFS is right back where it started, mired in controversy and accusations of nepotism.

If they do want to blackball them, they’re going to have to play detective. They’ll have to trawl Facebook and Twitter to see if there’s any evidence of the suspected canvassing, which is just a ludicrous thing to expect of literary jurors. If they find any, they can then kick the stories off the shortlist. If they can’t, then presumably the stories stay on the shortlist.

(Note that the option to remove books from the shortlist for canvassing only applies to bad books. If you have what the jury considers a good book, canvassing is not against the rules, and no one will go looking for it. Nothing unfair about that, is there?)

If the shortlist is then announced without any of Sam’s short stories, the publisher is going to know that she has been kicked off the list, and there is going to be a scandal. BFS members are going to know that their votes have been discounted. The publisher will be annoyed about all the money he spent on supplying those books. And the BFS is going to have to publicly defend its decision that the short stories were so bad that they only got onto the shortlist by “canvassing”. It’s not catastrophizing to say that the BFS, its award administrator and the jurors could very, very quickly (by which I mean next April) find themselves on the wrong end of a defamation suit.

So that’s why I’m against that bit. Another problem is that although 50% of people surveyed voted against splitting the best novel category into fantasy and horror awards, it’s been proposed anyway. The proposers think it’s an important step to put fantasy back at the heart of the awards, and I can see why they think that. But this has been proposed before, and the proposed new rules don’t address any of the problems that have previously been raised with it. They have just left all the problems for the next awards admin to sort out. Lucky her!

My preference would have been for the “Conan” amendment I suggested, reserving one spot on each fiction shortlist for sword-swinging fantasy. Easy and practical to implement, saves the cost of an extra awards trophy, and sidesteps all the problems a split award will introduce. Another obvious and fairly easy option would have been to have a separate award for sword-swinging fantasy. Keep the best novel, but add an award for that particular sub-genre. (The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy had its roots in a proposed BFS award of this type.)

It’s also frustrating that in naming the award for Fantasy after Robert Holdstock – who was of course a wonderful writer who fully deserves to have awards, streets and bridges named after him – they’ve (i) failed to identify it as an award intended to highlight the kind of fantasy that is so neglected in the BFS awards, and (ii) named yet another award after a man. If this proposal goes through we’ll be up to four awards named after men (some of them fairly obscure), and none named after women. The BFS has an ongoing problem with gender representation in its awards: this would have been an ideal opportunity to do something about that, rather than make it worse.

Members will take part in an online vote on these proposals from from mid-day on 1 December 2011 to mid-day on 8 December 2011. Ideally, one would hope that the proposers will take the criticism of the proposals on board and try to fix them before we have to vote, or at least separate out the controversial bits. If they don't, would voting against these proposals leave the BFS in a fix, as has been suggested? No, because the existing awards constitution, which is a pretty robust document, allows the committee to introduce changes by a formal vote. The new committee will be able to sift through the wreckage of these proposals and implement the bits that were a good idea (having a jury read the shortlist) and ditch the rest (pretty much everything else, as far as I can see).

The key question for BFS members to consider is this: would things have been better had these rules been in place for this year’s awards?

If you didn’t like David Howe asking his girlfriend, her BFF and their other friends to hand out the awards at the ceremony, how would you have felt if they had been appointed to a jury that decided eight of the awards? And how would you have felt about them having the ability to secretly kick your books off the shortlist? I doubt David would actually have done that, of course, and had those people been on a jury I’m sure they would have fulfilled their duties admirably and conscientiously, but that's the power the awards administrator and the jury will now have. It's easy to trust a hypothetical juror. Think of people you don't trust (for some of you that'll be me!): would you want them to have that power?

I wanted a change to the procedure as much as anyone – I was one of the first to say online that this year's results were a sign we should consider introducing a jury system – but I can't in good conscience vote for proposals that include secret blackballing of nominees, give a commercial sponsor the power to pick a jury, make it easier than ever to game the shortlist, and reduce the rules to the status of guidelines. Unless these things get fixed, I'm afraid I think that members should vote no. The proposals, as they stand at the time of writing, will in my opinion make the awards worse, not better.

But if you vote yes, I’ll forgive you. I just want to point out the problems before it all gets set in stone. We can always get rid of the bits that don't work at the next AGM.

Friday 25 November 2011

Holy Terror, by Frank Miller – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The names have been changed to protect the innocent intellectual properties, but it’s basically Batman and Catwoman snogging away when a sexy exchange student suicide bomber blows up the club on which they're snogging. They get to their feet, swing around the block, and take the fight to the oldest mosque in Empire City, beneath which they find a secret underground Al-Qaeda base.

I’ve loved or at least enjoyed everything I've read that Frank Miller’s been involved in: Daredevil, Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Martha Washington, Sin City, 300; I even enjoyed his film The Spirit – so not liking this should have been an uphill struggle. It really wasn’t. The story is thin, the artwork feels like a cut and paste of Miller’s earlier work, and, to be blunt, it’s completely bonkers.

If, as Miller has said, this is propaganda, what is it propaganda against? It’s not as if many people in the West need persuading that terrorists are thoroughly bad people. Batman punching Bin Laden would have been as reasonable as Rory Williams telling Hitler to shut up and locking him in the cupboard. But this isn’t propaganda against Al-Qaeda: it’s propaganda against Muslims.

What this comic seems to posit is that every Muslim out there shares an implacable hatred of the West, that anyone not fighting them is letting them win. Of course there are insane, murderous Muslims, but there are insane, murderous Christians, Hindus and Jews as well. There are nutters of every denomination. And sane people too.

This book seems so paranoid that it’s hard not to read it as satire. If the last page had shown George W. Bush face-down in a mountain of cocaine, it would have made perfect sense. Unfortunately, time overtook this review and Miller’s comments about Occupy Wall Street make such a sympathetic reading impossible. He really seems to mean it.

What to make, for example, a panel that shows Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter (I think it is) grinning under the banner “Our Moment Now”, as the Statue of Liberty is blown up? They’re in a line-up that includes Gaddafi, Ahmedinajad, Kim Jong Il and a shocked Hilary Clinton, obviously realising the error of her peacenik ways.

If you’re going to fight a war with comics, best make them good ones. If Miller has a point to make – and in The Dark Knight Returns, for example, I think he did have an at least arguable point about the Batman’s responsibility for the Joker’s murders – it’s lost among the sheer hysterical silliness. It’s like reading a comic written by a Daily Mail columnist.

Holy Terror, by Frank Miller. Legendary Comics, hb, 120pp.

Monday 21 November 2011

Doctor Who: The Whispering Forest - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Following the events of Cobwebs, the fifth Doctor asks the Tardis to listen out for trouble. She takes them to Chodor, a planet on which the listener has already encountered human colonists. Besieged by Takers who snatch them from their beds and the whispering ghosts that flock in their wake, they rub their skin raw to keep themselves clean and cut their hair short. The humans have lost their leader, and the Doctor and friends, with their dangerously long hair and baby soft skin (“Er, thanks...” says Tegan), become pawns in a power struggle, between Sesha, progressive daughter of lost Anulf, and Mertil, his righteously murderous widow.

Whether Mertil was a true believer or a cynical manipulator of the belief of others I wasn’t sure; each interpretation would make her actions and tone of voice at certain points a bit out of character. Also, I had a problem I often do with stories where the status quo is so badly out of balance, and yet the situation has persisted for a very long time. As Tegan says, "Things change around the Doctor", but they tend to change without him too, and it’s hard to believe none of the humans have figured anything out for themselves. People brought up in a religion inevitably ask themselves at some point whether it’s all made up; hard to believe people forced to scrub their skin raw wouldn’t ever question its utility.

So it’s a story that brings up some big questions, and as usual the Doctor helps everyone find the answers they need. As in the previous story, there’s a big secret to be discovered, but the resolution of this one is not quite as satisfying, and the story as a whole is rather gruelling. One answer is given away a bit too early: what’s up with Tegan? Be sure to skip the trailer for the following story, inconveniently placed before the first episode of this one. Then again, I missed the trailer, and so the answer to that question hit me with full, nightmarish force. You might want to avoid that experience..! Overall, a decent but not outstanding adventure - with an unforgettable ending.

Doctor Who: The Whispering Forest, by Stephen Cole, starring Peter Davison. Big Finish, 2xCD.

Friday 18 November 2011

Melancholia – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Bats in the belfry, beans in the bell jar.

As the rogue planet Melancholia performs a crazy, slingshotting trapeze across the galaxy, privileged sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) live out their final days in dismal, otherworldly isolation and country estate gloom, a state of existence that is induced only in part by the prospect of planetary dancing partners Melancholia and Earth spinning and twirling their way to doomsday.

Melancholia commences with eight minutes of self-spoiler, the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde flowing forth and bringing with it a collage of slow-motion images: stately lines of dual-shadowed hedges; a bride, page boy and bridesmaid stepping forward beneath the light of twin moons; a woman fleeing with child in arms across the nineteenth green of a deserted golf course; bats dropping from the sky; falling leaves, falling horses; the bride floating serenely in water, standing unaffected, striding through sticky undergrowth like Mr Knox through Mr Fox’s new blue goo; and, most notably, ectoplasmic wisps of electricity dissipating off into space, upon which galactic stage there unfolds an impending, then actual, planetary collision. By “outing” his movie’s cataclysmic ending in this way, writer/director Lars von Trier ensures that it remains just a backdrop to the story. Planets will clash, the world will end, yet – freed from any worrying uncertainty as to how events may pan out – fretful viewers are left to focus unencumbered on what the film really has to say.

Cue the Emperor’s special new 2D glasses.

Plot-wise, Melancholia is split into two parts – the bizarre, hoity-toity wedding reception of Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and the post-wedding, pre-apocalyptic calm wherein Justine comes to stay with her sister Claire and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The imagery is striking throughout, the music portentous, and with the protagonists’ fates already determined, the planets are in perfect alignment for insightful character studies and explorations as to what makes the main players tick.

Which is where von Trier’s cinematic cleverness turns problematic.

Melancholia presents a plethora of odd characters, from sisters Justine and Claire themselves (supernaturally disengaged and obsessive-compulsive, respectively) to their bipolar-disorderly and estranged parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) to Justine’s supercilious boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and fleeting, interloperly co-worker (Brady Corbet) to new brothers-in-law Michael and John, both of whom display a quirkiness that, though palpable in its own right, barely registers against the film’s high background levels of outlandish and unnatural behaviour. The acting in all cases may be unimpeachable, but in no instance is an explanation given for any of these extremes of personality. Dunst and Co. seem to be portraying strange for the sake of strange, and as Melancholia falls with art-housed inevitability across its own backdrop, many cinema-goers will find such deliberate sketchiness – a conscious surrealism, almost – to be painfully insufficient.

Having already disavowed the scientific rigour of his fiction1 – but leaving incredulous viewers with plenty of downtime in which to wrap towels around their heads and wrap their heads around the so-called planetary dance of death – von Trier pleads the Fifth Amendment vis-à-vis character exposition, wilfully negating all the character in what purports to be a character study. Consequently, what remains to the viewer is little more than what Justine constructs for her young nephew; that is, a “magic cave” tee-peed together from whittled sticks; the fashionable illusion – or delusion – of a privately beholden intellectual mansion or exclusive golf course par excellence. In short, it is The Emperor’s New Clothes – another Danish creation – all over again, only with Hans Christian Andersen dying in pre-production and his place having been taken by Lars von Trier, lost progeny of the Brothers Grimm.

For those viewers whose bent it is to suffer through wistfully hollow cinematography, let it not be said that Melancholia offers nothing of value. Alluded to in plain sight within the movie’s title is a striking (if harrowing) mood piece: a study in depression and of the debilitating – or, in times of great stress, liberating – effect this can have on people. Depression, of course, is a serious subject, and is perhaps felt especially close at heart by light-starved denizens of the Nordic countries; yet, as much as Melancholia might capture the stark emptiness or colourless stupor of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the realisation of this condition on-screen, even at its most haunting and compelling, cannot disguise or excuse the film’s wanton faithlessness in respect to creating representative, believable characters. If mood disorder is the opera of the day – lugubrious melancholia, Wagner riding shotgun – then von Trier, in scripting so artificial a clique of players, seems to imply that it affects only those who are in some way peculiar or mentally unstable to begin with. He excludes out of hand all the everyday people who are afflicted, and by focusing instead on strangely flawed, “interesting” protagonists – an admission, surely, that mood alone cannot sustain a movie – he cheapens the film’s underlying premise. If Melancholia is intended to present itself as a lingering, evocative landscape of mental disorder, then it does so only covered in pointless and fanciful anomalies – as if Easter Island were dotted not only with hundreds of Moai but also with five or six randomly assembled, thirty-foot-high Mr Potato Heads.

The sad truth of Melancholia is that it fails to engage. Whole scenes could be shunted around – many a forlorn and popcorn-bereft viewer will have contemplated this, surely? – all dialogue could be omitted save Kiefer Sutherland’s, and it would hardly make any difference. The most damning reaction that can follow a movie is the one where nobody leaves the cinema when the end titles roll, not because they are so enamoured that they wish to hang on to every last tendril of the experience, but rather because stultification has set in and every pair of eyes is locked to the credits, wild and staring like those of a gambler on a losing streak, searching feverishly for an unnoticed cameo or funny crew name or anything that might justify having frittered away the preceding two hours.

Melancholia, for those who might have missed it, gives thanks to Penélope Cruz (who made no appearance) and employed Dr Dirk Poppendieck as legal advisor.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier. Zentropa, 136 mins.

1. Per Juul Carlsen, “The Only Redeeming Factor is the World Ending”, FILM 72 (May 2011), pp. 5–8. []

Monday 14 November 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

With each instalment in a series spawned by a groundbreaking horror film, the risk for failure increases. Many things can go wrong: the once effective scare tactics grow tired; acting talent diminishes; humour scenes fizzle. In a worst case scenario, the film flounders as a hastily assembled disaster that pales in comparison to its namesake. Paranormal Activity 3, like its predecessor, manages to avoid this fate.

This prequel reveals the haunted childhood of sisters Katie (PA 1 protagonist) and Kristi (PA 2 protagonist). In 1988, Dennis, the girls’ somewhat bumbling yet loving stepfather, discovers on a home video something odd enough to impel him to pursue it further (and therefore resume the raw footage technique that fuels the PA dynasty).

Though Dennis, a wedding videographer by profession, uses a roving camera to capture some of his home footage, his stationary cameras create the biggest impact. The camera in the couple’s bedroom shows a side view of the bed, a slightly opened door with views to the hallway, and, in a nod to the eighties, a view of itself in a mirrored closet. Another camera films the girls’ room, which, at night, glows with an eerie purple-white luminescence cast by their aquarium. What that camera doesn’t reveal is the waist-high storage space just behind it. This creates a particularly creepy effect when younger sister Kristi converses with an off-camera presence she calls “Toby”.

But the camera that gets the viewer’s heart pumping the fastest is the one that Dennis, seeking a wider vista of his lower floor, mounts on a rotating fan. This view moves between the foyer, a brick-enclosed fireplace, and the kitchen. The effect is one of severe tension: as the camera pans back and forth, the anticipation builds. What will it reveal?

PA 3 delivers a fun theatregoing experience. At several points, when the tension escalates, the directors treat the viewer to a laugh. For instance, Dennis’s videographer sidekick Randy shines as a gawky counterpoint to the gravity of the situation and the rigidly defined sets. The shaggy haired, rail-thin young man’s reactions to Dennis’s footage are legendary. At one point, Randy gives in to Katie’s whim to play “Bloody Mary” using the bathroom mirror. His response to what transpires admirably combines horror and humour. After another conflict-heavy scene, the camera shows a close-up of Teddy Ruxpin, the iconic eighties teddy bear.

Though it by no means equals PA 1’s ability to implant in the viewer a tension that lingers well beyond the experience of the film – perhaps no horror film does – PA 3 does pass the litmus test for a true horror film: it creates a physical reaction.

The PA trilogy has achieved its success not through eccentric characters, complicated plots, or vibrant settings. Each of these facets is developed only to the point it supports the cameras, and frightens the moviegoer. The strength of the PA series is keeping the viewer focused on what’s around the corner; what is not shown is just as important, if not more important, than what is. Thus, these films have the unique and surprisingly effective strategy of entrancing viewers by showing them an empty room in which nothing is happening.

In hindsight, one may unveil several flaws within PA 3: the motivation of the supernatural entities, the use of a mysterious symbol, straying a bit too far from the PA “less is more” mantra, and connection issues with the previous films. But these shortcomings should not impact one’s experience of the film. It’s a movie. So let it be a movie. And let it scare you.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Paramount, 84 mins.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Sword Man on a one-star Goodreads rampage!

Returning to the blog for a minute – and no, my novel isn't going well at all, thanks for asking! – to note that Goodreads has got itself an amusing new anonymous member, going by the moniker of Sword Man, who has been handing out one star reviews like he or she bought a big box of them at a fire sale.

See if you can spot a connection between the people whose books are getting slammed:

  • The Taken, Sarah Pinborough
  • Torchwood: Into the Silence, Sarah Pinborough
  • A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough ("Really badly written")
  • Zombie Apocalypse, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Mammoth Book of Zombies, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Mammoth Book of Vampires, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Shadows Over Innsmouth, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • The Art of Coraline, Stephen Jones 
  • Department Nineteen, Will Hill
  • The Deluge, Mark Morris ("Weak")
  • The Silent Land, Graham Joyce ("Dull Characters and an unoriginal setting")
  • TQF36, Stephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year OneStephen Theaker (ed.)
  • TQF Year TwoStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year ThreeStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year FourStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)

Most of the reviews were posted on October 16, with a few more added today after I started following his/her reviews. S/he has also voted two of Sarah Pinborough's books onto the Worst Books of All Time list.

But you'll be glad to hear Sword Man is not all negative!

Sword Man has, just in case you haven't made the connection to the BFS awards brouhaha yet, given five star reviews to Sam Stone ("She calls hersle the New Queen of Vampire Ficion on her website and I'm inclined to agree"), Raven Dane ("Well written and a golly good read") and Rules of Duel from Telos.

The highlight for me is the one-star review of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction: Year Two, which states:

"This man really has no clue at all when it comes to reviews and reviewing. It seems to me that Theaker enjoys writing self-indulgent twaddle - nasty gibes - and spends most of his time writing negative, not informative reviews. I haven't seen one he's written that I would say I agreed with."

The funny thing is that there are no reviews in that book. None whatsoever!

Sword Man strikes – and fails!

The irony is that this is exactly the kind of behaviour that seems to have got the BFS and its awards into hot water into the first place. So while Sword Man may feel like s/he is hitting back, s/he is really just confirming that people were right to suggest that there might be a bit of a problem.

Monday 7 November 2011

The Gift of Joy, by Ian Whates – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Though Ian Whates, chair of the BSFA and organiser of Northampton’s Newcon convention, has gone on to (presumably) greater things with novels for Solaris and Angry Robot, this self-published collection of short stories is an inauspicious beginning, one that never strains to reach beyond the closest language to hand, and rarely reaches beyond the most obvious ideas. The best of the stories are perhaps “Darkchild”, in which psychics are caught in an alien trap found in the asteroid belt – the ending was surprising – and “The Gift of Joy”, in which a former deep cover spy uses his talents for mimicry to work as a gigolo. “Hanging on Her Every Word”, horror rather than sf, has an old plot but a painful conclusion.

The book bears a self-inflicted wound: author’s notes at the end of every story. At best such notes are like a magician showing the secrets of his tricks; how much worse when the tricks weren’t all that magical. For example, we learn with very little interest that the plot of “Knowing How to Look” was sketched out in a pub. That “The Final Hour” – which features seconds ticking away between paragraphs, an interesting effect spoilt by dialogue that would take much more than a second to say – was rejected by the anthology for which it was written. And that “Fear of Fog” lifted the collection’s most interesting idea – a human world living peacefully in alien space when Earth is at war with those aliens – from Stephen Baxter.

“Ghosts in the Machine” provides a line that could well be applied to the whole book: “What remained of the adventure was pretty straightforward.” The Gift of Joy is not awful; that would at least be entertaining. It’s just unremarkable, generic and straightforward, the stories feeling more like competent assignments than bursts of inspiration. The part of the book I’m most likely to remember, unfortunately, is when the protagonist of “Flesh and Metal”, prior to his fight with a shape-shifting android assassin, passes blithely by the scene of a gang-rape, describing the girl as a “stupid cow” for wearing the wrong clothes. “She’d certainly have something to tell her friends in the morning.”

The Gift of Joy, by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, hb, 254pp. Amazon UK. Amazon US. This review was originally written for BFS Journal #3.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Abandoning my post!

Upon reflection, to give myself the best possible chance of completing a novel this month (as mentioned here), I'm going to abandon the blog, along with, as previously mentioned, Facebook, the forums and Twitter, until I'm done with the novel – or until November is done with me!

We're open to short story submissions for the magazine as usual. Guidelines here. I've preloaded a few reviews, so the blog won't go completely dead. See you on the other side!