Sunday 31 March 2013

British Fantasy Awards 2013: last chance to vote!

If you are a member of the British Fantasy Society (congratulations on your wise choice of association!) or if you attended the glorious celebration of fantasy that was FantasyCon 2012 in Brighton (wasn't the weather good for October?), today is the final day to cast your votes in the British Fantasy Awards (which I'm running again now).

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

Adam Robots, by Adam Roberts – reviewed by John Greenwood

Adam Robots is a real book - I have it here next to me on the desk in paperback format. Adam Roberts is, as far as one can trust the many internet witnesses to his physical existence, a real writer (although he has been known to use pseudonyms for the several literary parodies he has perpetrated). And despite rumours to the contrary, I am not myself one of Stephen Theaker's pseudonyms. I say this simply to forestall the possibility of meta-fictional regression. In the tradition of Borges, Calvino and Lem, Roberts has included in his first collection of short stories, a meta-review of Denis Bayle: A Life, the fictional account of an imaginary book dealing with the life of a non-existent science-fiction author, from the standpoint of a made-up reviewer Thomas Hodgkin (not to be confused with his namesake, the very real Oxford don and Marxist). So we are putting a stop to that right now.

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".

By contrast, Adam Roberts presents himself in this anthology as a trickster and bricoleur, ticking off each sub-genre of science-fiction in turn without getting bogged down in the conventions of any of them for more than a few thousand words. That's not to say they are parodies, more like tapas dishes, neat little mouthfuls of each style. They're often knowing and have one eye on their science-fiction heritage. A character trapped in a kind of time-loop, in which the rest of the world repeatedly forgets his existence, spends time watching Groundhog Day and Memento, and noting the differences between their temporal difficulties and his own. In another story, future archaeologists are unearthing the ancient heroic narratives of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein and the science-fiction fantasy of how Neil Armstrong once travelled to the moon. And how would Wells's alien invaders have justified the invasion of Earth to themselves?

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

Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand by Dan McDaid, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins and chums (Panini, pb, 258pp) is the long-awaited (especially by those of us who didn’t notice its publication in 2012) follow-up to The Betrothal of Sontar and The Widow’s Curse, finally completing the reprints of the tenth Doctor’s comic strip adventures from Doctor Who Magazine. This volume collects the strips from issues 400 to 420, plus one from 394 and another from an annual. According to the introduction by Russell T Davies, rights issues held up its publication, presumably related to the not-entirely-awful Who comics being produced by IDW over the pond or the graphic novels being produced for younger readers by BBC Books. Whatever it was, the roadblock is gone, and this book has been followed swiftly by the first collection of eleventh Doctor DWM strips, The Child of Time (#421–441), with a seventh Doctor collection forthcoming: Nemesis of the Daleks, featuring the return of Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer! I’m only an occasional purchaser of the source magazine – it’s a terrific, well-written publication, but I’m not quite such a fan of the show that I need to read a magazine devoted to it every four weeks – so these Panini volumes are full of fresh stories for me, all fourteen of them to date instant, unthinking purchases up there with new Nick Cave albums, Jack Vance novels, or Muji to-do-list pads.

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

Mere Anarchy, by Woody Allen – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Mere Anarchy (Ebury Press, ebook, 1816ll) is a collection of Woody Allen’s humour pieces for the New Yorker, some of which have fantastical elements. A slight glitch in the ebook has the annoying effect of indenting all the text to the same extent as the introductory extracts that inspired Allen’s pieces: a New York Times article about Veerappan, a magazine article on technologically enhanced clothing, items in church newsletters – the everyday things that set him thinking.

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

Warm Bodies – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Introspective zombies? Hell yeah! R, the zombie protagonist of Warm Bodies (directed by Jonathan Levine), moves his finger in a circular motion and mumbles “more real” (I think it was) to explain to love interest Julie (a human) his preference for vinyl records. In this simple gesture, R captures the message of the zombie apocalypse/romantic comedy crossover Warm Bodies.

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

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn / The Gist Hunter, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn (self-published, ebook, 4412ll) collects eight adventures that were not included in the superb trilogy of novels about that character – Majestrum, The Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira, all previously and gushingly reviewed in these pages – and one story that was. He is a detective of the far future, a Sherlock of the Old Earth, whose investigations invariably lead to entertaining banter with his integrator and his outspoken intuition, and direct him to the unavoidable conclusion that the rumours are true: the underlying principle of the universe is on the cusp of changing from science to magic. How can he eliminate the impossible from his investigations when he has seen the impossible happen with his own eyes? The stories interweave with the novels, and include crucial moments in Hapthorn’s life, making them essential (and very pleasurable) reading for his fans.

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

The God Engines by John Scalzi – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The God Engines by John Scalzi (Subterranean Press, ebook, 1223ll, originally published in 2009) opens with a classic first line: “It was time to whip the god.” That job falls to Captain Ean Tephe. The Righteous is powered by an enslaved god who must be punished if recalcitrant, with a whip whose handle is carved from the bone of a god, whose leather is godskin embedded with “first-made” iron, born in the heart of a star and never buried in the ground of a planet. Wounded gods can be healed with blood of the faithful, and thus each ship bears a complement of priests and acolytes; the book has no mention of engineers. The god worshipped by Tephe and his people long since enslaved his rivals, establishing dominion over this part of the galaxy, but the god powering the Righteous is not unique in his rebellion. The Righteous is thus sent on a mission to a world of people who do not yet worship any god (despite my groans when this world was first mentioned, it isn’t Earth!), whose faith will thus be of the most powerful kind: first-born, freely given. Mission success will gain Tephe a promotion but take him away from his sweetheart; a happy outcome for him seems unlikely.

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.