Friday 31 August 2012

The Orphan Palace by Joseph S. Pulver Sr – reviewed by John Greenwood

What would be an effective method to convey a character’s emotion of overwhelming hatred, say for his parents? Here’s how Joseph S. Pulver Sr goes about it in The Orphan Palace (Chômu Press, pb, 376pp):

“The HATE…The HATE…grinding…The HATE…LARGER…LARGER…hatehatehatehatehate…”

These are techniques that Pulver uses throughout the novel: ellipses (more than in any other book I’ve read), sentence fragments or just single isolated words, words capitalised for emphasis, words run together, and of course repetition (of the fourteen words in this fragment, eight are just the word “hate”). It doesn’t express, it just reminds us what the author should have found some means of expressing.

To describe The Orphan Palace as experimental fiction doesn’t give much of an indication of how Pulver organises his material. “Stream-of-consciousness” isn’t a term that helps much either, because the chains of sentence fragments, strung along long threads of ellipses like a funky gothic necklace, are not merely an attempt to reproduce the inner monologue of the protagonist. This is fairly typical:

“The stiff wall of Nightblack frozen forever takes all of you into its disaster of old rage… 
The monster mask growls, hungry knife-thorn swallows dawn.
Smears ointments of blind worm seed and dead tongue curse on crouching hearts smashed on Null…
The blind moon-tempest mask ringing with translations of All Fall Down-rises, its seven torch-eyes writhe…shines as a shadow drinking the tear-miles of open blood veins…”

I suppose you could call it a prose-poem, or beat poetry, but what it brings to mind most readily is the lyric sheet of a heavy metal band. Like an extended rock opera, there are whole pages where no line reaches the other side of the page, and no sentence finds its full stop, on occasion even using the “/” character to break the line. Pulver quotes Springsteen before the book gets going, and lists his preferred soundtrack at the end. Since the advent of Spotify it would be possible for readers to listen to Pulver’s recommended tracks while working through the book, but the artists he cites (from Kronos Quartet to Steve Earle) have little in common with his unvarying vocabulary of blood, death, sexual predation and insanity, familiar to me from early eighties metal bands (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Accept, Dio, early Metallica) but no doubt still the core business of contemporary metal and goth bands. When not staring into the Abyss, Pulver has us adrift in a small-town America of sleazy bars and cheap motels, whisky slugged from the bottle and cold coffee from paper cups, easy girls drawn to the mysterious drifter (morphing into the iconography of Hair Metal).

It’s not all improvised coda: there is a plot, and it concerns Cardigan, ex-inmate of an occult, abusive orphanage, hard-drinker, arsonist and serial killer, who is making his way East across the USA, shooting up lonely gas stations, burning down motels, picking up women in bars before murdering them and mutilating their bodies. He’s on a mission of revenge against the evil Dr Archer, whose obscure but depraved experiments on the kids in his charge have turned Cardigan into a monster. Along the way, Cardigan tries to penetrate the mystery of a series of pulp noirish novels he finds in every motel room he visits, and is advised along the way by a number of supernatural or perhaps hallucinatory mentors.

A lot of strange things happen: plot devices are introduced (such as a coin to magically detect lies, and a ghoulish impregnation) and are promptly forgotten about. Stranger still, Cardigan, who is seen casually slashing up women for fun in the first half of the book, is by the second half almost one of the good guys, at worst troubled, if rather more than misunderstood. An old friend from the orphanage urges him to give up his quest and settle down to run a beachside bar with him, as though we had switched channels from American Psycho and found ourselves in the closing scenes of The Shawshank Redemption. His violent outbursts start to take on a more moralising intent. He murders a man who tries to hit a dog in a park, and I got the impression that I was invited to applaud this vigilante justice. He confronts a violent pimp and sets the prostitutes free, imploring them to go and seek the light. Oddest of all, Cardigan shoots the pimp’s bodyguards, only to find them alive and well on the next page, and slays them again.

Over and above such slips, any reader without amnesia or psychopathy should be wondering how this is the same character who was driving around with a woman’s severed nipple in his pocket just a few days previously. And despite over three hundred and fifty pages of impulsive slaughter, theft and arson, the police only appear in the book once, and show no interest in Cardigan’s rampage. While I wasn’t expecting social realism, the complete lack of consequences in The Orphan Palace gives it the feel of somebody who has discovered a cheat to turn off the cops and gain powers of invincibility in Grand Theft Auto.

The best that can be said of The Orphan Palace is that it has a restless, grotesque fecundity, like the random strings of images and words that one is aware of just before sleep descends:

“…a face in the bridal chamber mirror…Baby…HER FACE…BABY…a serpent with seven eyes…I LOVE YOU…the skull of an angel kissed by the mysteries of the worm…she bellows…I will possess your demon art…I knit gloom with your October fables…fly back to the Stygian dew of my texture spread in regal luster…”

But the language sticks so closely to the clichés of Lovecraftian gothic horror that it becomes predictable. The slackness of the narrative, combined with these long stretches of formless ranting about the Hounds of Tindalos and other such touchstones of weird fiction, make The Orphan Palace a slog through well-trodden territory with little compensation other than the grim satisfaction of having made it to the last page.

Still, you have to hand it to Chômu Press. Since 2010 they have been publishing unclassifiable out-on-a-limb fiction on a punishing schedule (twenty books at my last count), in elegantly strange covers that ought to be the envy of mainstream publishers. Like specialist species of insect hiding away in their narrow ecological niches, small presses have traditionally thrived in very well-defined sub-genres where there is a limited but proven supply of readers. Chômu (Japanese for “dreaming butterfly”) is a different creature altogether, willing, one might even say anxious, to take chances on authors who are similarly drawn to such risky behaviour in their writing. Sometimes these risks pay off (see the review of Justin Isis’s collection of short stories from TQF35), but not here.

Monday 27 August 2012

Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

DNA, the Doctor, and another punt at Cambridge. Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts, based on the original scripts by Douglas Adams (BBC Books, hb, 407pp).

When Chris Parsons, in an attempt to impress a girl he’s serially failed to declare his love for, borrows some books on carbon dating from retired Cambridge don Professor Chronotis, he has no idea that the Professor is actually a Time Lord, that Chronotis’s college room is the inside of a TARDIS, or that one of the books Chris has borrowed is, in fact, the most dangerous book in the entire universe. As the coldly villainous Skagra appears on campus, armed with a mind-sucking sphere, and intent on unlocking the secret of Shada (the long-lost prison planet of the Time Lords), Chris finds himself embroiled in it all and, to his own enduring bafflement, hitchhiking through time and space with a long-scarfed eccentric known to all and sundry (even the college porter) as the Doctor.

Had Douglas Adams novelised his three Doctor Who scripts, it seems likely that readers could have traversed his Hitchhiker’s and Doctor Who books as if they were all part of the same, skewed Möbius strip. (Or, throw in Dirk Gently and one could lap them up as if drinking from a Klein bottle.) Adams’s first attempted involvement with Doctor Who was a rejected script, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, which he later novelised, sans the Doctor, as Life, the Universe and Everything. His first actual involvement came as the result of submitting his pilot Hitchhiker’s script to the Doctor Who production office, whereupon he was commissioned to write The Pirate Planet, and subsequently taken on as script editor. It was in this capacity that he wrote City of Death (notoriously in a single, coffee-fuelled weekend) and Shada, the infamous “lost” serial that was abandoned, partially made, after strikes at the BBC. And, of course, it was from City of Death and Shada that Adams drew much of the framework for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Everything was interconnected. And still is.

The BBC, having launched Adams to stardom through the Hitchhiker’s radio serial, inexplicably turned down the rights to the novel, just as Target Books then declined to offer Adams more than £600 per story to novelise his Doctor Who scripts. The reasons behind these precipitate non-actions have always been something of a mystery … until now, when finally the probability has been calculated of the TARDIS materialising onboard the Heart of Gold, and Douglas Adams’s lost story thus has manifested, not on film or in a paltry Target offering, but instead, at last, between the solid covers and with the gilded lettering of a BBC hardcover. This, one cannot help but feel, is what was always meant to happen when Adams threw himself at Doctor Who but missed.

Of course, Douglas Adams hasn’t actually written this new book, but Adams/Hitchhiker’s/Who fans should rest assured that, in this instance, the act of not writing it has been carried out in rather a good way. To elucidate: when Terry Jones novelised Adams’s interactive computer game Starship Titanic, expectant fans were rightfully disappointed that the book, though true to what Adams had scripted in the game, and funny enough in a Jones-ey sort of way, nevertheless carried no obvious input from Adams himself (who was very much alive at this point); and more recently, when with Adams having passed away Eoin Colfer was bequeathed the task of penning a sixth Hitchhiker’s novel, And Another Thing . . ., he did sowith Adams’s characters and overt Hitchhiker’s references yet very much in Colfer’s own—not Adams’s—style. The overarching response engendered by these pseudo-Adams offerings must necessarily be a somewhat muted joy, that Adams’s imagination continues at least in some sense—but not the most important one—to produce new works. Yet, this is not the case with Gareth Roberts’ novel. With Shada, there can be no misgivings or second guessings.

Because Shada—and Adams fans should brace themselves at this point, and promise not to snarl and come after the reviewer with Agrajagian intent—is better than what Adams would have written.

“Would” rather than “could”—an important distinction, representing not the obvious tragedy that Adams is no longer with us, but instead two rather telling features of Adams’s later output (and particularly his ongoing Hitchhiker’s saga): firstly, the fact that his books post-Restaurant at the End of the Universe did not feature the Doctor or any character of equivalent strength, and yet clearly were written anyway, in full and certain knowledge of this shortcoming; and secondly, that Adams clearly had no great desire to write these books at all. The job of crafting novels had become, for Adams, an onerous, unwanted task that was necessitated, to be sure, by having accepted the six-figure advances, but in all other respects was merely a distraction from life, lunches, and everything technological. What’s more, Shada wasn’t something that Adams had fully embraced even at the time of scripting it. He’d had a different idea in mind (vetoed, unfortunately, by producer Graham Williams), and in any case was working concurrently on the Restaurant at the End of the Universe novelisation, the second Hitchhiker’s radio series, and also a script for the Hitchhiker’s television adaptation. Shada, not surprisingly, was put off and put off some more, until inviolable deadlines necessitated that it be written—in just the sort of madcap frenzy that could be guaranteed to trip all the synapses of Adams’s unparalleled imagination—and then abandoned and wiped from his brow with a sigh of relief.

Whereas Adams’s interest in Shada, then, extended no further than delving back into it and reusing the character of Professor Chronotis, Gareth Roberts has approached the story with the reverence of an Adams fan, the professional background of a long-time Doctor Who novelist, and the investigative nous of a screenwriter turned private investigator. He’s tied up the loose ends left flapping by Adams’s hasty scripting and the abandoning of Shada’s production. He’s taken the mind-blowing glut of Adams’s ideas and, while staying true to everything that Adams actually wrote for Shada, has fleshed out and made perfect sense of it all, giving depth to characters that otherwise were there just to project a stream of zany inventiveness onto, and generally managing to make a rounded, humorous novel out of what would, had it been completed, have been a no-less-funny but probably quite shambolic television production.

Roberts channels Adams’s voice remarkably well; not, perhaps, the exquisitely droll prose of Adams at his finest, but certainly the satirical frivolity of the first Hitchhiker’s radio series. In essence, he presents us with another Hitchhiker’s novel (for Arthur Dent, read Chris Parsons), but he does so far more faithfully than did Jones or Colfer, and furthermore, succeeds in the task also while staying within the bounds of—indeed, while managing to enhance—the structured universe of Doctor Who in general and in particular the iconic, some would say sacred, era of Tom Baker. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given that Adams’s Doctor Who was basically Hitchhiker’s with a more established lead character; but even so, Gareth Roberts’ novelisation is a who/ptious achievement indeed, melding Hitchhiker’s to Doctor Who in a way that Adams clearly would have loved to do when writing Life, the Universe and Everything without recourse to that same bond. It remains to be seen whether Roberts will be invited back to novelise Pirate Planet and City of Death, but if Shada is anything to go by then one might certainly hope so. For what could be better, given the constraints of history yet unexpected access to the TARDIS, than another Hitchhiker’s trilogy?

Jacob’s review originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 56. For his review of And Another Thing…, see “A Biro From the Blue” in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 44.

Friday 24 August 2012

The Moon Moth by Humayoun Ibrahim and Jack Vance – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Adapted by Humayoun Ibrahim from the short story by Jack Vance, The Moon Moth (hb, 128pp) is another interesting comic from First Second, who previously published the very decent Orcs: Forged for War and seem to be making a praiseworthy habit of looking beyond the obvious candidates for adaptation into graphic novels. An opening introduction to Vance’s work by Carlo Rotella is not uninteresting—especially insofar as he actually visited Vance to interview him—but like Brandon Flowers discussing the Pet Shop Boys in A Life in Pop he seems rather too embarrassed about his enthusiasm for his subject. Never mind, the main course is the actual comic, and that is excellent.

Edwer Thissell has a mere three days to prepare for his mission to Sirene, a world on which he will be at constant risk of death should he give offence: the previous representative of the home worlds having been instantly beheaded after approaching a woman in the street. There is no money on Sirene, the only currency being glory—strakh—and everyone must wear masks appropriate to their strakh. Despite being the representative of one hundred billion people, Thissell is discouraged from wearing too showy a mask: “If the home planets want their representative to wear a sea-dragon conqueror mask they’d better send out a sea-dragon conqueror type man!” He settles for the lowly, dowdy moon moth.

And not only must he wear the right mask, he must sing everything he says and accompany it with a musical instrument appropriate to the status of the person to whom he is talking! After three months of music lessons and slow adjustment a message arrives: Haxo Angmark—“assassin, agent provocateur, and ruthless criminal”—has landed on Sirene and must be captured—and if not, killed without hesitation. The problem for Thissell, of course, is that Angmark is now wearing a mask, just like everybody else. In a society where murder falls under the heading of “religious differences … of no importance”, but removing a mask has the gravest possible consequences, how can Thissell unmask—literally and metaphorically—the criminal?

This is a very fine adaptation of Jack Vance’s story. The pacing is excellent, the superbly clever conclusion played to fullest effect, the art bold, vigorous and exaggerated, but ornate and detailed where necessary. Right up until the end Thissell is portrayed in a manner that’s rather more skittish than you would normally imagine of a Vance hero, with flecks of sweat flying from his mask, but in the circumstances his fearfulness is hardly unreasonable. Hilary Sycamore’s colours are nothing short of wonderful, and the lettering manages superbly the difficult task of conveying the way in which words are being sung. I will certainly look out for further work from Humayoun Ibrahim.

Monday 20 August 2012

The Avengers – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

During the opening weekend of The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK), directed by Joss Whedon, Americans plunked down $207.4 million to watch their beloved Marvel superheroes join forces. The earnings, to borrow a term from the Hulk’s lexicon, “smashed” the previous record-holder, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, by over $38 million. Worldwide, The Avengers brought in over $650 million in 12 days.

Frenetic, heavy on special effects, and one-dimensional, The Avengers achieves its success by giving easily-distracted contemporary moviegoers what they crave. And this film didn’t simply materialise through a portal in the sky; it is built on a foundation of several stand-alone films that show what each Avenger is capable of independently. “And now they’re coming together?” thinks the common man. “I’ve got to see that!” Brilliant marketing.

It is this reviewer’s belief that those who paid to see this film did so for three reasons: to laugh, to see mass destruction, and to watch heroes trounce villains (am I really spoiling anything?). With the force of Thor’s hammer, The Avengers pounds viewers over the head with these three elements. It even keeps the love interests to a minimum. Sorry, Pepper Potts and Jane Foster!

The standout character is “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark (i.e. Iron Man), who keeps the viewer wondering what he’s going to say next. A great deal of the film’s humour comes from Stark’s smart aleck comments. He refers to Thor as “Point Break”. He calls Captain America a “lab rat”. He addresses Hawkeye as “Legolas”. And unlike his cohorts, Stark wants to watch Dr David Banner go green: “Dr Banner, your [scientific] work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”

As the Hulk’s third big-budget manifestation, after Eric Bana in Hulk (2003) and Ed Norton in The Incredible Hulk (2008), Mark Ruffalo portrays a more subdued, professorial Banner who has learned, for the most part, to control his powers. Banner repeatedly warns (e.g. “Don’t make him angry . . . ”) others about his alter ego. This builds anticipation for when he will transform.

As in their previous films, Thor and especially Captain America are less about character, and more about action, while Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Clint Barton/Hawkeye drift through the film like ice particles in a tropical drink.

Tom Hiddleston maintains his role from Thor (2011) as Loki, Thor’s adopted demi-god brother and the chief villain. With his elegant bearing, smooth tongue, and patience, Loki embodies what many filmgoers loathe and fear: intelligence. Sure, Stark and Banner are brilliant. But Stark wears a Black Sabbath shirt and drives cool cars, and Banner’s just a normal guy.

Learning from recent successes like Transformers and Chronicle, The Avengers culminates in an urban blitzkrieg. This time, the streets and skies of Manhattan swarm with superheroes, aliens, and a fleet of gigantic ships that seem to move through water rather than air. The number of explosions would make Monty Python’s Tim the Enchanter proud. In a particularly impressive filming technique, the camera follows one Avenger’s flight path or weapon trajectory, then switches to another Avenger.

And what’s all this fighting about? A glowing cube called the Tesseract. If Loki gets it, the Chitauri, his alien friends, conquer the galaxy and he takes over Earth. So the Avengers must stop him. Despite all the technological progress in movies, it’s still about the treasure hunt.

Yes, The Avengers is a masterpiece of customisation to the masses’ cinematic preferences. Like Transformers, it even offers longer stretches of explanatory dialogue (about the Tesseract, about technology) so that attendees can check their urgent texts (e.g., “Johnny’s soccer team’s winning!!”) and make critical Facebook entries: “watching avengers OMG this is so awesome!!! And johnny’s team’s winning!!”

Is The Avengers an entertaining movie? Absolutely. Is it a phenomenal film? No. Titanic. Gangs of New York. Signs. Those are phenomenal. However, although my fellow moviegoers did not clap after those films, they did after The Avengers. Hmmm.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Shelflings #2 - NOT available for free download from the British Fantasy Society!

The British Fantasy Society has made issue two of its reviews ezine available for free [accidentally, as it turns out - see below] to the general public. That means you!

SHELFLINGS #2 has been compiled by Stephen Theaker (me!) from reviews edited by Craig Lockley, Phil Lunt and Jay Eales for the British Fantasy Society website. It features almost 30,000 words of reviews by Carl Barker, Chris Limb, Craig Knight, David A. Riley, David Brzeski, David Rudden, Elloise Hopkins, Glen Mehn, Jacob Howard, Jay Eales, Katy O’Dowd, M.P. Ericson, Mario Guslandi, Matthew Johns, Mike Chinn, Pauline Morgan, Phil Lunt, R.A. Bardy, Rebekah Lunt, Selina Lock, Steve Dean and Stewart Horn.

Creators and editors whose work is reviewed include (deep breath!) Adrian L. Youseman, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Alex Miles, Alison Littlewood, Andy Chambers, Anne Lyle, Anthony Reynolds, Armand Rosamilia, Ben Counter, Bev Allen, Brian-Joseph Baker, Joshua D. Brice, Dillon Langlands and John Bromley, Charlaine Harris, Chris F. Holm, Chris Wraight, Christopher Priest, Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Jim Rugg, Dan Abnett, David A. Sutton, David Elroy Goldweber, David Rix, Deborah Harkness, Frances Hardinge, Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows, Gary Fry, Graham McNeill, Howard Hopkins, James Brogden, Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, Jilly Paddock, Jim Beard, John Charles Scott, John Dorney, Jonathan Morris, Joseph Nassise, Justin Gustainis, Kim Lakin-Smith, Lee Batters, Madeline Ash, Magnus Aspli, Dave Acosta, Jeremy P Roberts, Goran Kostadinoski and Alex De-Gruchy, Mark C. Scioneaux, R.J. Cavender, Robert S. Wilson, Matthew Clements, Maynard Sims, Michael Croteau, Nancy Kilpatrick, Nick Kyme and Gav Thorpe, Paul Dini, Carlos D’Anda and others, Paul Magrs, Paul S. Kemp, Peter Bell, Phil and Kaja Foglio, Reggie Oliver, Richard Davis, Richard Ford, Richard Morgan, Rob Sanders, Sarah Newton, Scott Sigler, Shaun Jeffrey, Simon D. Smith, Simon Yates, Terrance Dicks, Trevor Jones and Liz Williams, and William King.

Shelflings #2 is available to download from these links: in epub format and in mobi format. [Links removed! Turned out the issue had been made publicly available by mistake rather than design.]

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - reviewed by John Greenwood

In the world of The Dog Stars, humanity has been decimated by a combination of killer flu and a HIV-like blood disease, with only zero point something of the population surviving the apocalypse. The survivors, at least in the USA where the novel is set, can be divided into isolated homesteaders and marauding bands of scavengers. Amateur Cessna pilot Hig is one of the former, and together with his gun-obsessive friend Bangley, he defends a tiny rural airport against any feral remnants of humanity who make it over the mountain. Together they make an effective, if inharmonious team. Hig can't stomach the killing, and Bangley the ruthless tactician cannot secure their perimeter without regular flights to check for intruders approaching their borders. But after nine years of this successful strategy, Hig suffers a shock that leads him to follow a faint transmission from another airport situated beyond his fuel supply's point of no return.

The Dog Stars isn't as big a book as it first appears. There's an unusually large amount of white space spread across its pages. A whole line between each short paragraph and between each line of dialogue means that many pages contain less than 100 words. At first this led me to wonder whether it was a deliberate attempt to express the silence and emptiness of the post-human American wilderness, the way Aaron Copland removed the middle notes from his chords to evoke the wide open spaces of the frontier years. More prosaically, it might simply be that readers in the era of Twitter are growing more intolerant of large, dense blocks of text, combined with the cheapness of paper, and steadily growing expectations of what is a normal novel length.

The other stylistic quirk that jumps out is Heller's tendency to truncate and de-punctuate, so that we get sentences such as "My memory serves but not stellar ha", or simply "And" or "Then" followed by a full stop. Once I clicked with the vernacular rhythm, it felt like listening to a good raconteur who is speaking between swigs of beer at a bar, or more likely trying to concentrate on doing something else (like flying a Cessna airplane) while breaking off every now and then to continue the narrative. Hig's is a very engaging voice, and only in the final third of the book, when he and the female lead character reveal something of their back stories to one another, does the tone lose its tautness and drive, and begins to sound like the sort of monologue delivered onscreen as Oscar-bait.

The pace shifts gears efficiently between meditations on Hig's past during his hunting and fishing trips into the mountain, and grisly skirmishes in which Hig and Bangley fight off poorly-armed but well-motivated desperadoes, Bangley's tactical perfectionism means that the author can ratchet up the tension in these fight sequences, as they are first rehearsed in exquisite technical detail, then enacted in far more chaotic and nerve-jangling fire fights.

Bangley is a fascinating character in his own right - a humourless, merciless survivalist whose day has finally come. His motto is the Hank Williams Jr. song title "A Country Boy Can Survive", and it is his ilk who inherit the earth once the plague has swept the last vestiges of civilisation away. Hig's reflective, impulsive, almost flaky character is a liability for them both. Although far from preachy, The Dog Stars is a novel which opposes two world views. Bangley will always prevail, but as he litters the airport perimeter with corpses, he can ultimately only grow more alone. Hig is not a competent survivor: he loses concentration and hankers after the old days. But it takes a foolish mistake on his part and an admission of his own vulnerability to establish the possibility that communities might again develop between the few atomised individuals left alive.

In the last third of the novel, I began to see the plot rolling out ahead of me according to the standard Hollywood model of redemption, but for the most part this is a well-written, highly entertaining and serious-minded take on the end of the world, and it deserves to do well.

 The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is published by Headline Review on 7th August 2012. ISBN 978-0755392599. Hardback, 320pp.