Monday 25 February 2013

Counter-Measures, Series 1 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who spin-off Counter-Measures, Series 1 (Big Finish, digital audiobook, c.4 hrs, plus 65 mins of bonus features) follows on from one of the seventh Doctor’s best television adventures, Remembrance of the Daleks. Some of the soldiers and scientists who helped him face down two Dalek armies, in particular Group Captain Ian Gilmore (Simon Williams), Professor Rachel Jenson (Pamela Salem) and Alison Williams (Rachel Gledhill), come together again to form a special counter-measures group for responding to such “insurgencies”. As you might expect from that, it’s quite reminiscent of Torchwood, if it were set in the sixties, or English black and white science fiction films of that period.

In the first adventure, Threshold, by Paul Finch, the coalescing team has to investigate the activities of Professor Heinrich Schumann, a former Nazi scientist (played by Vernon Dobtcheff) whose experiments in teleportation have attracted the attention of something… from beyond! The long single episode format makes the story feel rather special, and the cast is excellent. As ever, Big Finish’s talent for sound design delivers the goods; whether in headphones or through a surround sound system it all (notably the throbbing teleportation machine, and a talking doll animated by an alien intelligence) sounds marvellous. A very good start to the series.

Episode 2, Artificial Intelligence, is by Matt Fitton, who puts the team up against a psychic computer, a “learning intelligence” built to run a spy network – and it speaks with Professor Jenson’s voice, thanks to a spot of industrial espionage by former colleague Professor Jeffrey Broderick (Adrian Lukis); all great fun. A neurochemist working on the project, Czech defector Dr Nadia Cervenka (enthusiastically voiced by Lizzie Roper), has a romantic past with Group Captain Gilmore that goes back to post-war Berlin; the encounter reveals how passionate Gilmore is about helping those who need it, even those who were on the other side of the war.

There are shades of Moonraker and Quatermass II (the latter perhaps acknowledged by the use of “Keir” as a pseudonym) in episode 3, written by Ian Potter, as the team investigate The Pelage Project. Pelage, a new industrial town, has sprung up out of nowhere with government approval, and fish nearby are dying in their hundreds, all at once, of “massive necrotic metastasis”. Like the first two episodes, this story features a memorable aural element: in this case an oppressive, controlling tannoy announcer (“Onward and upward!”), but the orders come from the Alan Sugar type who built this town of biddable workers to serve his construction plant: Ken Temple, played with by belief and gusto by Stephen Grief. He’s a man with both eyes on the future, and he expects the worst.

Episode 4, State of Emergency by Justin Richards, was for me the best of the series, featuring a fine turn from Duncan Wisbey as Prime Minister Harold Wilson. After Winston Churchill’s excellent team-ups with the eleventh Doctor, it’s only fair to have a Labour PM given a similar chance to shine, and Wilson’s well-known terror of a military coup provides the basis for an excellent story that feels like a proper season finale. As Sir Toby Kinsella, manipulative controller of the Counter-Measures group, Hugh Ross is superb in all four stories, each line delivered with the lizardly drawl of a Sir Humphrey Appleby, and this story seems him at his best.

A fifth CD/file takes us behind the scenes, and there’s the usual mix of straight-talking and polite professionalism, with the odd moment that hints at hurt feelings and creative disagreements along the way. One concern discussed is the need to distinguish the stories from U.N.I.T. adventures, which is why Professor Jenson, by way of a slightly awkward conversation in episode one, ends up in charge rather than Group Captain Gilmore.

Taken as a set, Counter-Measures, Series 1 is very satisfying. There’s a good team of characters, each with interesting, distinctive voices. Ongoing storylines, such as Alison’s relationship with her beau Julian, build gently without detracting from the stories’ individuality. Each of the four stories is a substantial adventure and all are deeply rooted in the period’s politics, hopes and fears, making the sixties setting much more than atmospheric window dressing. It would be easy to say that this would be good enough to appear on Radio 4, but in fact I like it rather more than most of the drama I hear on there. Despite all the Who stories and spin-offs they’ve already produced, Counter-Measures shows that Big Finish are still finding new corners of that universe to explore and new stories to tell.

Available to purchase here.

Friday 22 February 2013

Cloud Atlas – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Drawing together and falling apart through six degrees of separation. Cloud Atlas (directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski), released 26 October 2012 (US); 22 February 2013 (UK).

1. Returning to slavery-era San Francisco from the Chatham Islands, a convalescent Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) must put his faith in either the sickly smiling Dr Goose or a Moriori stowaway; he keeps a diary while wrestling with his conscience… 2. Acting as an assistant to a famous but cantankerous old composer, bisexual wunderkind Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds Ewing’s diary and is inspired to complete his own great work; when Frobisher commits suicide, he leaves the finished composition to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith… 3. Now an old man and a nuclear physicist, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) shares a broken elevator with journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who then becomes embroiled in a plot to cover up a nuclear accident-in-waiting; she subsequently drafts a novel based on the conspiracy… 4. Ne’er-do-well publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), having dismissed Rey’s manuscript, receives his karmic comeuppance when he finds himself on the run and imprisoned in a bogus nursing home; later, he writes a screenplay based on his ordeals… 5. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a clone manufactured to work in a fast food joint, watches a snippet of Cavendish’s film after being liberated by union rebels; awakened to her plight, and that of her fellow clones, Sonmi broadcasts a public incitement to rebellion… 6. Living in a society where Sonmi-451 now is seen as a divine entity, post-apocalyptic goat herder Zachry (Tom Hanks) must choose between “Old Georgie” – a devilish vision whose whispered goads once saved him from cannibals – and Meronym, a “prescient” who would use her knowledge of the old technologies to send a distress signal to distant planets; ultimately, Zachry’s fate is determined by ripples spreading through time…

Those looking to locate Cloud Atlas somewhere within their cinematic experience should crane their necks no further back – be it with nostalgic gaze or crimped grimace – than Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Magnolia (1999). Both films run close to the three hour mark; both embrace a creative freedom (albeit from different geneses – whereas Anderson, on a high from the success of Boogie Nights, was given carte blanche by New Line Cinema, Cloud Atlas was independently produced and financed); and both feature ensemble casts, not merely for the purpose of stud-fastening their theatrical posters (indeed, although Tom Cruise subsequently won a Golden Globe for his enthusiastically misogynist portrayal of self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey – or what history may now show to have been method acting when the wind changed – Anderson at the time made a point of not over-publicising Cruise’s involvement[1]) but rather to flesh out a collaged and in places tangentially linked potpourri of short life stories.

While Magnolia was a film as much about locale as it was an exploration of rutted, everyday tragedy and the more overt theme of happenstance so unlikely as to take on an aura of Fortean interconnectedness, Cloud Atlas scatters its six tales across time and place, ranging from the South Pacific (circa the mid nineteenth century abolitionist movement), through 1930s and present day UK, San Francisco in the early seventies, and then forward to a futuristic new Seoul and subsequently a post-cataclysmic, tribal Hawaii. Cloud Atlas is based on the eponymous novel (2004) by David Mitchell; but where Mitchell progressed sequentially through half each of the first five stories, pivoted on the whole of the sixth, and then reversed neatly back to the beginning, Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix; V for Vendetta) jump with whimsical, almost perverse abandon from story to story, thus taking the challenge and intrigue of Magnolia and stretching these to a point of disjointedness and gooey disorientation from which viewers must slowly, ever-so-slowly extricate their wretched and silicone bemired babel fish.

“While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flash-backs and flash-forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment,” narrates Jim Broadbent as the weaselly Timothy Cavendish, anticipating, presumably, any real life criticism that might be forthcoming, “you will find there is a method to this tale of madness.”

Yet, whatever method there is appears, even to those who previously have exhibited a penchant for deconstructing such plot intricacies, to be obfuscation almost for the sake of it; or at charitable best a deliberate contrivance aimed at sublimating traditional (albeit puzzled together) narrative meaning into a more intuitive, artistic, almost osmotic appreciation. While the merits of this approach are debatable (and certainly, each individual story is diffused of some of its impact when picked at this way, rather than being consumed in one or two sittings; the purist cannot help but contrast with Dickens’s – or for those of us too ornery to bother, Blackadder’s – more straightforward exposition in A Christmas Carol; or indeed, with Tykwer’s own less convolutedly inventive Run Lola Run), even if we are to take Cloud Atlas at some emotive but intricately masqued face value, it is clear that Tykwer and the Wachowskis were looking at a different page of the cloud atlas when adapting their cumulus from Mitchell’s original cirrus. Where Mitchell speaks of “predacity”[2] – the unchanging propensity for humans, individually or in groups, to make ill-use of each other – Cloud Atlas instead takes the more metaphysical aspect of his vision (that is, the reincarnation of souls) and hints not at constancy, but rather the capacity for change – and, more specifically, self-improvement – over time.

This particular straw is floated in a voiceover by Tom Hanks as complicit stooge turned good-man-doing-something Isaac Sachs, just short of the ninety minute mark (when unforewarned and still baffled viewers might be expecting the film to wrap up), and would seem at first to give some significance to the fact that each actor in Cloud Atlas plays multiple roles, thus linking the characters across scenarios that otherwise would remain only tenuously related. Admittedly, there lies as well a prejudice motif swathed unrefined, perhaps unavoidable, right there on the surface; but the deeper, underlying theme remains personal integrity – the sanctity of the right-minded individual in standing against history’s dark wash – and it is here that Cloud Atlas is served poorly by its unremitting emphasis on presenting familiar faces: in the two UK segments the incongruity of recurrence merely highlights those stories’ irrelevance – though functioning well enough both as vignettes and within Mitchell’s take on humanity, these nevertheless constitute one third of the film’s screen time while adding nothing to the primary, soul-searching character arc featuring Tom Hanks’s and Halle Berry’s various incarnations. Indeed, with Hanks representing the only “soul” to undergo any development significant enough to span the entirety of the film (Berry remains constant, as does a resurgent Hugh Grant; well, mostly), when all is said, done and unravelled, the actors’ bi-, tri-, quad-, quint-, and sext-faceted incarnations, much though these may have proved gratifying from their own, professional standpoint, serve little purpose as a storytelling device, and so come across more as an overdone piece of faux-cleverness, or a poorly disguised attempt to keep the $100 million budget from growing any fatter and splitting off into separate organisms.

Notwithstanding their effect on the film as a whole, the actor/character dynamics are well played, with each of the leads giving strong performances, particularly within his or her primary story (even if a back-to-nature Hanks perforce calls to mind his role in Cast Away, thereby evoking aural flashbacks to poor old Wilson). It is a credit to Tywker and the Wachowskis that they have in any way melded together the six, quite disparate tales of Mitchell’s book; yet, while none of these are altogether lacking in merit when considered, uneviscerated, as single entities (contextual relevance aside, SF junkies undoubtedly will take close interest in dystopian new Seoul, with its clone-fuelled economy and dark futurism rising stark and unrepentant over the protruding tips of its mostly submerged predecessor), nevertheless it seems fair to conclude that the film treatment of Cloud Atlas has lost something in the mix, the inevitable jigsaw puzzle intrigue gradually giving way to dissatisfaction as the whole, in this distended case, proves to be in no discernible way greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, where the narrative causality of the links is flimsy – verging, some would argue, on puff-of-smoke illusory – at least some bond has been provided courtesy of a clever score by Tykwer and his long-time collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; but for all that Tykwer and the Wachowskis should be applauded for the scope and audacity of their interpretation (they wrote as well as directed), nonetheless they should carry censure, also, for not committing more fully to that (admittedly hard-to-define) underpinning rationale by which their work clings to yet remains separate from Mitchell’s.

Upon release, Magnolia quickly found its niche as a film to be well-(though not always fondly-)regarded; and while Lana and Andy Wachowski have suggested – perhaps rightly, in many cases – that any maligning of Cloud Atlas need evidence nothing more than an ad hoc dismissiveness of those rare cinematic offerings that present viewers neither with an easy understanding nor the usual dose of formulaic expectations and click-of-the-fingers gratification,[3] still this shapes as a dodge; by sacrificing clarity (of purpose, not just content) for complexity (no matter how artfully achieved), what they and Tykwer have demonstrated, ultimately, is not the shortcomings of appreciation by which everyday cinemagoers and professional critics are drawn together, but rather the subtle yet striking difference that exists still between a bona fide masterpiece and the mere grandiosity of a magnum opus.—Jacob Edwards

1. Puig, Claudia, “Dangerous Ground is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Turf”, USA Today (January 7, 2000) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Magnolia (film)]

2. Mitchell, David, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 “Bookclub” (June 2007) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Cloud Atlas (novel)]

3. Robinson, Tasha, “The Wachowskis explain how Cloud Atlas unplugs people from the Matrix”, A.V. Club (October 25, 2012) [,87900/]

Monday 18 February 2013

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The recurring themes of Moscow But Dreaming (Prime Books, pb, 286pp) by Ekaterina Sedia are not happy ones. These are stories of drudgery, degradation and misery, of people with nothing to live for, and women worn away to nothing, like the ghosts of murdered young women in “Tin Cans”, or the unnamed protagonist of “Zombie Lenin”, numbed by misery, followed by a zombie Lenin since she was a little girl, and institutionalised for talking about it, or the protagonist of “Citizen Komarova Finds Love”, an aristocrat before the Russian Revolution, who now works in a consignment shop in the town of N. and gets involved with a cavalryman. “With him, he brought the cutting wind and the sense of great desolation”, not to mention a horse’s leg in a burlap sack, but compared to most men we meet in this book he’s George Clooney carrying a Marks & Spencer’s ready meal for two.

With such imagination and skill that it’s a pleasure to read despite the grim subject matter, the book catalogues the cruel ways in which women are disappointed, exploited and betrayed. In “Chapaev and the Coconut Girl” we learn the legend of the Coconut Girl, who pooped out lots of lovely gifts and was then murdered by villagers who resented the gratitude they owed her. In “Seas of the World” a husband tells a child a secret that breaks the mother’s heart. “Ebb and Flow” is a myth to explain the tides, as the story of Persephone explains the seasons: the daughter of the Sea kami Watatsumi begs husband Hoori not to look at her during childbirth, and of course he does. “The only happy stories you will ever hear are told by men”, she tells us. In “Kikimora” a young woman must sacrifice her own life, one that's just beginning, to bring life back to the city. In “Munashe and the Spirits”, Munashe hasn’t looked after his mother well, and she dies. Unlike many men here, he gets to (and wants to) make amends. Spirited off to wash a female being’s sore back, he is given a way back home.

Upon his return Munashe meets two abandoned, starving children, and neglected and orphaned children appear here frequently. In “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” a little girl adopted from an orphanage is severely wounded by said monster; her new parents will be blamed. A girl is assaulted in “You Dream”; a boy intervenes with horrible consequences. “A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets” features a sock puppet used in a centre for autistic children; after seeing the children mistreated, the glove escapes to find one of them in the outside world. The kikimora of “One, Two, Three” is turned into a wretched human child by an unhappy childless couple who catch it and cut off its hair. In “A Handsome Fellow” Svetlana (her beauty “heightened by hunger”) tries to keep brother Vanya and sister Yasha alive during the siege of Leningrad, but in her desperation takes help from the wrong man.

Other stories are less easy to categorise, but show Sedia’s range and invention. “The Bank of Burkina Faso” features one of the book’s best and most amusing ideas: two apparent spammers really do have money stuck in the mysterious bank of Burkina Faso, and they really do need a foreigner’s help to access it. “A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas” is a quirky riff on the names of the lunar “seas”. In “Yakov and the Crows” an office worker feeds the crows that gather outside his window; other workers begin to poison them. The narrator of “By the Liter” discovers that booze left next to a corpse absorbs the deceased’s memories, and becomes addicted to the secondhand experiences. “Cherrystone and Shards of Ice” is set in a city where the dead live on in deaders’ town, where they struggle to stay cool to slow their decomposition. Like many men in these stories, protagonist Lonagan hurts a girl, albeit inadvertently: a deader who bangs her head, accelerating her decay.

“I feel my cheeks burning as if from a slap. How I hate that word, exotic. How I loathe it, how stupid I feel not to have realized until now that he spoke to me because I was exotic too, a bored quest for novel experiences with a minimum of investment and always at someone else’s expense.” After reading that passage on the exotic in “Chapaev and the Coconut Girl”, one would be wary of laying too much stress on that forming part of the book’s interest. Its (mostly) Russian settings and the unfamiliar (to this reader, at least) types of characters it portrays undoubtedly provide it with a degree of novelty, but the book’s interest comes as much from each story’s determination to stimulate: to express powerful emotions, to examine different lives, to understand how people manage to keep on living in the worst of circumstances, and in some cases why they don’t. It’s a book of clever, insightful stories about miserable people.

Friday 15 February 2013

Dan Dare, by Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Rather than a reboot or a re-imagining, Dan Dare (Dynamite, ebook, 198pp), by Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine, is a sequel in seven chapters to the original adventures of Frank Hampson’s Eagle character. Dare has retired to a virtual country village on a piece of class six spatial debris (asteroid #2333419, to be precise). His peace won’t last. Old friends like Digby miss him, and soon they’ll need him. Professor Peabody is Home Secretary, working for a Prime Minister with echoes of Blair (based in Millbank, “he’s been in too long … he’s shrugged off too much bloody wrongdoing”) who took charge of the world after the USA and China blew each other to bits. There are treens on the western approaches of the solar system, and they’ve brought two devastating weapons with them: a black hole, and the malign intelligence of the Mekon.

Garth Ennis explains in an introduction that his first Dan Dare was the one in 2000AD (as it was for me, by way of the wonderful 2000AD Quiz Book, which also introduced me to everything from The Quatermass Experiment to The Thing from Another World). My Dan Dare was the great-great-great-grandson of the original, who starred in the resurrected Eagle, though I’ve since read the originals. The Dare of this comic lacks the elegance and charm that characterised the two Eagle characters. He cares about whether the prime minister should resign, he’s run away from a world that could really have used his help, he’s gone years without seeing his friends, he’s surly and judgemental, with not an ounce of dash. On paper Ennis would have seemed the ideal writer for this project, honour and duty being such important themes in his work, but he just doesn’t click with Dare.

Elegance is also lacking from the artwork by Gary Erskine. His spaceships, treens and Mekon are excellent, but the humans often seem awkward, perhaps because of his use of photo reference; it might be unfair, but I think humans drawn in the correct proportions don’t always look quite right in comics. Dare and “Blair” are barely distinguishable in certain panels. I liked his artwork on The Filth, where the protagonist is not really heroic, but his Dan Dare never looked quite right, and a preponderance of close-ups left me hankering for the epic look of stories from the fifties and eighties. Overall, this didn’t feel, to me, like Dan Dare. A major character’s death contributes to that sense, making it unlikely that future stories will reference this one. It is a good space adventure, a decent read, but it has the taste of a licensed product, not the real thing.

Friday 8 February 2013

Clementine by Cherie Priest – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

As Clementine by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press, ebook, 2508ll) begins, the American Civil War has ground on for twenty-four years or so, rather than lasting from 1861 to 1865 as it did in our history. Airships sail the American skies: from huge armoured battleships down to speedy two-seaters (for passengers who don’t mind a stiff breeze). Slavery persists in the south, and strange things are going on up in Seattle. Across these disunited States, in a tiny, nameless airship, flies Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey – one of the twelve Macon Madmen, who “made a big, nasty show of escaping from the prison there in ’64” – and his two men Simeon and Lamar, in pursuit of the Free Crow. His ship has been stolen by the scoundrel Felton Brink, renamed the Clementine, and sent cross-country with a mysteriously heavy load. Southern lady Miss Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd has been sent to stop him by the Pinkerton Agency, but an encounter with an old friend will bring her older loyalties to the fore.

The TQF41 editorial discussed Lavie Tidhar’s comment that “Steampunk was fascism for nice people”, with regard to the apparent failure of some steampunk fans and writers to acknowledge the less pleasant sides of the nineteenth century. That certainly isn’t the case here. Our protagonists are a black captain who can’t visit some states – who can save a man’s life and still not be allowed to drink in his bar – and the white woman who could have a noose around his neck with a single scream. But though we sympathise with the prejudice Hainey encounters, we’re not asked to admire his thievery and killings, and he’s shown to be something of a sexist, insulted that a woman has been sent to bring him down – at least until he realises who she is. Belle is a former actress and sometime spy, who’s “been in prison a few times, been married a few times, and killed a few fellows if they interfered with her”. Each chapter is told from either his or her point of view, and we only see the villain when they do, which keeps the novella nicely focused.

Though this isn’t a book you would note for its magnificent prose, it tells its story effectively with a minimum of fuss. Action and adventure is the order of the day, with a flavour of Star Wars to many scenes. I appreciated the novelty of the setting, even if I imagine many of its attentions to American history passed unnoticed by this English reader. The plot is straightforward, but the characters have richly conflicting loyalties: Hainey to his men, his duty, his own skin; Boyd to the south, to Pinkerton, to decency. They unite in dislike of villain Ossian Steen, aptly described by an otherwise polite nurse as a “wicked bastard”, “a fiend, and worse” – he’s the most believable kind of villain: the one that thinks he’s the good guy, even as he terrorises old men, women and children.

Like the other Subterranean Press ebooks covered in this issue [TQF42], this is an older title (it’s from 2010) recently made available at a very reasonable price. All are well worth reading, though you may quickly come to share my frustration at the unfortunate (and presumably unavoidable) region restrictions on many of the publisher’s ebooks.

Friday 1 February 2013

The White City by Elizabeth Bear – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The White City by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, ebook, 1669ll, originally published in 2010) stars Sebastien de Ulloa. Though that’s just one of many names used by this “wampyr, hobbyist detective, peculiar old soul”, it’s the one he’s using in 1903, at the time of this trip to Moscow. He is travelling with what we are told is an unusually small court: “lady novelist” Mrs Phoebe Smith and “forensic sorcerer” Lady Abigail Irene Garrett Th.D. (Abby Irene for short). There is a murder in a house where he was planning to feed, quite consensually, on Irina Stephanova, an old friend; though he is found on the scene by police, suspicion gives way to his reputation as “The Great Detective” and he and Abby are enlisted in the search for the murderer. A second strand describes events six years earlier in the same city, where Jack Priest, a young member of Sebastien’s court who has since been killed, gets involved with Irina and the circle of artists among which she moves; again, there is a murder.

It’s a book of nice detail and careful thought. For example, Sebastien was once considered tall, but thanks to improvements in food and health since he turned he’s now just above average. In another scene Jack notes the dangerously splintered ice on the floor, deducing that the “topmost layer had frozen first and been shattered by hooves”. There are intriguing allusions to a changed world history: the American War of Independence seems to be going still, or has begun late, while in Russia the “Imperial Sorcerers united with democratic revolutionaries to overthrow Ivana II in 1726”. Jack is just sixteen years old, but wants to show he’s old enough to be a full member of Sebastien’s court; there’s a painful irony in his efforts, since we know he will die when still very young.

As you can tell from this issue’s book reviews [TQF42], I bought a number of these Subterranean Press ebook novellas at once: I didn’t pay much attention to what they were about. Upon realising this was a vampire tale, I may have grimaced a little. Though not entirely sick of the genre, I’m in no rush to buy more – but any preconceptions were quickly scattered: this is one of the better, more intelligent vampire stories I’ve read. The Russian setting, and the bars full of artists, nihilists and revolutionaries it provides, is a fascinating place to visit, and the book’s theme provides its protagonists with original motivations: the persistence of art, how much that might mean to beings destined to outlive the people they love, and, conversely, how the carefully-constructed and self-protective emotional disengagement of these vampires affects the people who come to love them.