Sunday 31 March 2013
Every vote matters! In every category!
If there is nothing you wish to vote for this year, or if you are not keen on awards in general (because, let's face it, the idea of pitting one book against another in mortal combat is, while fun, not without its ridiculous aspects), I would be grateful even for empty voting forms, just so I know we reached you.
Be strong, be vigilant, be voting!
Monday 25 March 2013
I choose to believe in Adam Roberts, not merely because of the twelve previous novels Gollancz have put out in his name, but because most of the stories in this collection have already appeared in other anthologies and magazines over the past decade, and I find it hard to imagine the publishing industry as a whole managing to pull off such an elaborate Venus on the Half Shell style hoax. Denis Bayle, the invented science-fiction author at the centre of this puzzle, is rather a pathetic figure, floundering from one sub-genre to the next, stumbling on popularity with his space operas of the sixties and seventies, but baffled by cyberpunk, finally meeting his demise while still mired in the first draft of an opus described as "A La Récherche Du Middle Earth Perdu".
I got the impression that Adams is a speculative writer rather than a post-modernist playing with genre conventions. Perhaps I've been unduly influenced by the toy robot on the front cover: initially some of the shorter pieces put me in mind of a series of intellectual whirligigs, shooting off ideas in many directions. It's true that many of these brief pieces are too short for much of a plot, and occasionally dispense with it in favour of a startling "what if" and some dialogue between two characters (robots, souls in the afterlife, scientists) to explore the consequences. What if souls got bored in Heaven, because what they really craved was new information, and only Hell could provide such variety? What if irradiated forests around Chernobyl had become a kind of organic supercomputer? What if we put anti-psychotic drugs into the general water supply, just to make everyone that little bit nicer to one another? Given Roberts's flair for conversational zing, this is often all that's needed to keep the reader entertained and intellectually needled.
Sometimes the speculations wander outside the normal sf territory: in "And tomorrow and", Roberts applies a bit of Stewart Lee style pedantry to Macbeth, following the logical consequences of the witches' spell until we find ourselves in something resembling the film Highlander.
Stylistically, he plays with narrative conventions, often addressing the reader directly (ribbing her/him for not keeping up with the science, for example). When done to death, this sort of thing can be a bore, but I found Roberts's authorial interventions rather charming, and helped me overlook what sometimes felt to this fairly scientifically ignorant reviewer as rather hand-wavy scientific explanations. The only story I can't say I enjoyed was the long narrative poem "The Mary Anna", but you have to admire the chutzpah of telling the story of a family business of interplanetary cargo ships in rhyming couplets.
The longest story in the collection - "The Imperial Army" - loses some momentum on its march through territory familiar from Orson Scott Card and the film of Starship Troopers. The other long pieces at the end of the collection are rather more ambitious and for my money the best. "The Woman Who Bore Death" creates a mythological narrative about the origins of death among a pre-scientific people, and owes a very honourable debt to Le Guin. "Anticopernicus" manages to combine what felt to me a very original speculation about extra-terrestrial life with convincing character-building and an engaging problem-solving plot about how an astronaut might survive a micro-meteorite impact. "Me-topia", in both its subject matter and elegiac charm, reminded me of Ray Bradbury (which perhaps shows how outdated my mental map of the genre is!) I couldn't say which of these was my favourite, but they're all serious (not over-serious!) science-fiction. There wasn't one of these stories that didn't leave me eager to get started on the next one. The range of ideas and styles is quite dazzling, but the later stories show a depth and erudition that one might not suspect from the slightly kitsch B-movie cover illustration.
Monday 18 March 2013
This book differs from the two previous tenth Doctor volumes in having, for the main part, a single writer: Dan McDaid. (Jonathan Morris contributes a brief tale of “Space Vikings”, drawn from an annual.) McDaid is thus able to build a run of stories, which reads, and deliberately so during the specials year, like a traditional season of the television programme, constructed around an interesting non-companion, Majenta Pryce. She first appears as the time-meddling villain of “Hotel Historia”, held over from the previous book. For her crimes she ends up in a space prison, and in “Thinktwice” the Doctor runs into her again. Though he remembers her, she doesn’t remember him – or herself.
She employs the Doctor (or at least that’s how she sees their relationship) to take her to the world of Panacea, where she hopes to have her memory replaced. Along the way there’s a return to Stockbridge (“The absolute centre of the universe, Majenta, and don’t let anyone tell you different!”) and a reunion with Max, UNIT battling the Skith in Sydney harbour, a fishy tribute to The Spirit, a world where no one can speak, ghosts on the London Underground, and all sorts of other fun. This builds to a climax revealing the secrets of Majenta’s missing memory, and how that connects to a mysterious recurring image: the Crimson Hand.
It’s all entertaining, and for me is the best of the three Tennant collections, even if it shares with other tenth Doctor tie-ins a tendency to lean rather too hard on particular verbal tricks from the TV series – although that might just be another way of saying that the tenth Doctor’s voice here rings true. The book would obviously be of little interest to an adult who doesn’t enjoy Doctor Who, but that’s the worst I could find to say about it. The Doctor’s description of UNIT – “fantastically well-trained and expert tea-makers” – is almost enough to make the book worth reading on its own. Or at least it would have been, if you hadn’t now read it.
Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
The commentary pages are as fascinating as ever: substantial, indiscreet and full of information. They show just how much work can go into something so frothy, the writers and artists involved working under a loving but heavy editorial hand. McDaid seems to have had scripts rejected by the dozen, and talks of curling up on the sofa following one rejection, almost in tears. Rob Davis, asked to illustrate the homage to The Spirit, was then told not to take it too far, since readers wouldn’t have heard of the character. It’s an entertaining book, but one wonders if it would have been all that much worse had the writers and artists been given a little more freedom. Those pages also reveal interesting bits about the parent show, for example that at one point the magazine staff thought there was a chance of the resurrected programme ending after the fourth series. Makes you wonder what they know right now.
The book’s great strength is the way it looks. It’s printed immaculately – it looks as good in print as other comics look on the iPad – and the artwork is very good throughout. It’s a treat to see Jack Staff creator Paul Grist’s work on the two episodes of “Ghosts on the Northern Line”, and Rob Davis provides a fun cartoon style on a pair of strips, but Martin Geraghty (“Thinktwice”, “The Age of Ice”, “The Crimson Hand”) and Mike Collins (“The Stockbridge Child”, “Onomatopoeia”) illustrate the bulk of the book, and it’s all very appealing; few TV tie-in comics are produced to this quality, and when they have been, it’s never been for such a prolonged period. I could throw out three quarters of my Star Trek comics without the slightest remorse, whereas the DWM strip has very rarely faltered. If I had the right words to describe it, I could have spent this entire review rhapsodizing about the colouring of this book by James Offredi, which is among the most glorious you’ll see this side of a Laura Allred comic. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers at the height of summer; this is a book my children pick up just to gawp at the pictures.
Friday 15 March 2013
It’s not a book in which you’ll get every joke, and they can be relentless, but if you catch enough to make them count it can be a funny book; just one that’s best read a chapter at a time. In all honesty, two thirds of the way through I was sick to death of it. I took a break, gave it another chance, and I was in fact thoroughly sick of it! But I plugged away to the end and it was a decent book. Not one I’d outright recommend buying, but give the Kindle preview a try.
Friday 8 March 2013
In an era of texting and tweeting and so many other technological temptations, this film gives credence to something that has taken a backseat in recent years: the face-to-face, technology-free relationship.
When Warm Bodies opens, R shuffles around a neglected airport with his zombie cohorts, and offers the viewer a treat that is a rarity in zombie films: inner monologue. That’s right, a sentient zombie. Seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But it works, and it adds to the film’s charm and humour. “This is what we are now,” thinks R. “This is a typical day for me. I shuffle around, occasionally bumping into people, unable to apologize or say much of anything. It must have been so much better before when everyone could express themselves, communicate their feelings and just enjoy each other’s company.” These thoughts are juxtaposed with a pre-apocalypse flashback in which the airport’s harried occupants, entranced by their technology, pay no attention to one another.
R and his best friend M go out hunting, where they encounter Julie and her crew on a medicine-seeking mission. R eats Julie’s boyfriend’s brains, then gains some of his victim’s memories about the young lady. Smitten, R rescues Julie from his hungry cohorts and brings her to the grounded airplane he calls home. As he gradually regains his humanity, R must keep his brethren and the even more threatening “bonies” (skeletal-like degradations of the zombies who’ve “given up”) from eating his find, while convincing Julie that he’s the corpse for her.
The chases and the fighting, compelling as they are, are not what makes this film a standout. Rather, Warm Bodies achieves its greatest allure in the quiet conversations in which R and Julie – don’t those names sound suspiciously similar to a famous literary couple? – get to know one another. In one fuselage scene, R plays Guns ’N’ Roses’ “Patience” for Julie. What a perfect anthem for what the film conveys.
Nicholas Hoult portrays R as a hoodie-wearing, shrugging, awkward young man. Take away the zombie makeup and add a smartphone, and he’s not all that different from the technology-
benumbed Gen Y male. While Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Number 6 in I Am Number Four was a bit overblown, she plays a convincing, if not quite flawed enough, heroine in Warm Bodies.
If there were a zombie version of the Oscar’s (Zoscars?), Rob Corddry would deserve a “best supporting actor” nod for his role as M. Inspired by the blossoming relationship between R and Julie, M and his fellow zombies struggle to break free of the mindlessness that grips them. M’s clumsy quips (e.g. “Bitches, man.”) stand among the most humorous parts of the film.
Warm Bodies also serves as a declaration of the value of tolerance. When Julie brings R home to her zombie-hating father played by John Malkovich, R could just as easily be a person of another race, sexuality or religion.
At the risk of sounding fogeyish, I believe that technology, despite all its benefits, has a tendency to fragment people. Think about the dinner table at which Dad searches his tablet, Mom texts, Suzie updates her Facebook status and Timmy plays video games. Or what about the typical business presentation whose participants text, email, google… anything but listen to the speaker?
Warm Bodies and its references (e.g. record player, Polaroid camera, drive-through theatre) to a bygone era challenge viewers to put down the devices before they lose the elixir of the personal relationship. It holds out hope for that family, for those businesspeople and especially for those teens in the theatre who text throughout the film. In the film’s opening, R thinks, “I just want to connect.” One wonders how many young people, in a world full of violence, are having that same thought.
Warm Bodies serves up action, romance, suspense, literary allusion, violence, horror, John Malkovich, humour… everything that makes a film fun. But there is one thing that is conspicuously scarce: characters using technology.—Douglas J. Ogurek
Monday 4 March 2013
Six of those tales also appear in the earlier collection, The Gist Hunter (Night Shade Books, ebook, 5336ll), along with a series of three stories about Guth Bandar (who appears as an intriguing supporting character in the novel Black Brillion), and four unrelated tales: “Shadow Man”, “The Devil You Don’t”, “Go Tell the Phoenicians” and “Bearing Up”. Bandar is a noönaut, an explorer of humanity’s collective unconscious, the Commons, where he encounters archetypal Locations, Landscapes and Situations and has to deal with the figures that populate them, known (though not to themselves) as idiomats. Part of the fun here is in identifying the myths, memories and folk tales in which (despite the chanting which is supposed to keep him out of sight and out of trouble) he becomes embroiled.
The stories in both collections are excellent, each a clever little thought experiment performed with style, humour and action. One has to recommend 9 Tales over The Gist Hunter, if only because it’s self-published and so the proceeds go directly to the author, who indicates in its introduction that any success the book achieves may lead to further Hapthorn stories. Both collections have formatting imperfections: 9 Tales lacks a built-in contents, and underline is used for emphasis instead of italics, while The Gist Hunter has a line of space between each paragraph (at least for me; these issues can sometimes be device-specific), but neither problem is likely to harm your enjoyment. It may not be a surprise that I went straight on to another of Hughes’ novels after reading these collections.
Friday 1 March 2013
Although this is not a book that quite explains the author’s stellar reputation (the same could be said for the individual works of many science fiction greats; it’s a genre where great reputations are often built on consistently good bodies of work), I enjoyed it, especially the depiction of Captain Tephe and first mate Neal Forn, good men caught in a bad system. They are like children taught that believing in god is enough to make them virtuous, here tested to their limits by revelation. The gods of the book are interesting, each of them different: Tephe’s ship is powered by a Loki-esque trickster, while others are dignified, quiet, grovelling, obsequious. Those mentions encourage the reader’s imagination to wander past the book’s few pages to imagine what else is going on in this universe. The mixture of religion and space war makes it strongly reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000, while there are shades of Firefly in the sexual healing offered by the on-board Rookery and the Captain’s feelings for his head rook, but such comparisons are almost forgotten as the book plays its trump cards: the brilliant first line is matched by a climactic succession of memorable and surprising scenes, leading to a horrific and emotional conclusion.