Friday 31 May 2013

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Another streaming pile of BS. Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, directed by Jonas Pate, released 9 November 2012 (online); 10 February 2013 (television).

War with the Cylons has been raging for ten years when gung-ho new pilot William Adama (Luke Pasqualino) is posted to the Battlestar Galactica. His first mission, alongside jaded co-pilot Coker Fasjovik (Ben Cotton), turns from placidity to peril when their “cargo”, Doctor Beka Kelly (Lili Bordán), redirects them to a top secret rendezvous and subsequent infiltration deep within Cylon territory. As sacrifices are made and motivations uncovered, the idealistic young Adama must come to terms with war’s gritty reality…

—or some such. Consider it an exercise in loose terminology.

The original series of Battlestar Galactica (1978) become a cult hit, its premise – that of mankind’s seemingly futile, Frankensteinian fight for survival against its own ruthless progeny – proving sufficiently compelling to outlast memories of the lacklustre sequel series Galactica 1980 and eventually give rise to a successful relaunch with the born-again Battlestar Galactica of 2003–2009. Fronted by Edward James Olmos as the esteemed Commander Adama, this new take on the franchise started strongly before dwindling away into the ever-increasing spiral of absurdity that seems de rigueur of series that seek eternal renewal without ever a hint of resolution. This downward spin culminated in the abysmal Caprica (2010), at which point many a delirious viewer was left glassy-eyed and pining for the appearance (unforthcoming, except perhaps allegorically) of the scything seppuku Battleship ChickenTikkaMasala. Or Flight of the Conchords qua highly strung robots, singing, “The humans are dead, the humans are de-ead…” Or perhaps even Metal Mickey. Anything, really. Whatever was necessary just to make it stop.

And yet, streaming online and then direct to TV, the saga now continues.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome may satisfy some dark, destructive craving on the part of BSG’s most diehard fans – of which there are some 4,500, judging by the farcical 7.4 rating on IMDB – but in essence what it amounts to is a step-by-step progression by which stock characters go through standard arcs amidst whirling, computer game graphics so as to provide a backstory so intrinsically bland that it will have papier mâché artisans the world over packing up their wares and heading for the nearest SF convention. Pasqualino is a slightly odd choice as the young Adama (his Italian retrofitting somehow more reminiscent of Keanu Reeves than of Edward James Olmos), and while Ben Cotton does his best, he’s very much fighting an uphill battle against cliché and pique. Blood & Chrome’s music, at least, is well done – kudos here to Bear McCreary, who also scored the 2004–2009 series and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – but, truth be told, this still seems precious little upon which to hang even one’s small screen expectations.

The most obvious shortcoming of BSG:BC is, unsurprisingly, its script, which was set down like a bucket of soapy water by messieurs Taylor, Eick, Thompson and Weddle (all of whom were on deck when the revamped series started to sink). So as to avoid spoilers, let us imagine their plot in terms of another epic BC production – Homer’s Iliad:

The Greeks and the Trojans are ten years into a great war, which the Greeks are losing quite desperately (even though the incumbent deprivations are yet to filter down through their affluent economy). Drawn by the propaganda posters advocating duty, survival and wanton, communal bathing, Young Achilles aces his sword-fighting exams and – dreaming that the gods have farted poisonously on him, but that he has blithely outwitted them – signs up for the army. Although he is immediately consigned to rowing a cargo ship alongside world-weary Odysseus, the delightful Helen (who accidentally started the whole war, and whom Achilles has just encountered in the shower block) redirects his boat to a hush-hush assignation somewhere out near Trojan territory. They arrive, but the Greek trireme they were expecting to meet has been obliterated, and now is of little use other than to provide a floating obstacle course of debris and dead bodies. Wait! There are Trojans lurking. They attack, but Achilles is a fine rower. He whisks his boat to safety, destroying his three pursuers even as Odysseus blubbers in the gunwale and shrieks at him to stop being so bloody stupid. Phew. Now that the threat has passed, Helen tells Achilles and Odysseus to shout out their location as loud as they can. Sceptical, they do, and are immediately told where to sail next by a helpful Greek lookout who’s been skulking around close by. Off they go, Odysseus protesting and Achilles getting a kick out of this whole military duty thing. They arrive at Agamemnon’s secret depot of Greek warships and immediately are threatened with annihilation… unless they have the password! Achilles doesn’t have it. Odysseus doesn’t have it. Helen does, but she’s not paying attention, and in any case doesn’t know it. She has to read it in the orders she’s carrying. Where is it? Where is it? Oh, phew. That was close. Ah-ha! The secret mission is unveiled. Achilles and Odysseus must escort Helen to Troy – a near-deserted city deep within Trojan territory, from which incursion point Helen will do something vital to the war effort. Possibly a striptease. The city is most likely unguarded, but just in case some Trojans do appear, Achilles & Co. are concealed within a giant wooden horse. Good plan. They arrive, and– darn it, just at that moment, an army of Trojans appears on the horizon. They haven’t seen the Greeks yet. Good. Agamemnon has a plan. Achilles, Odysseus and Helen can dress up in a horse suit and try to sneak into the city, while the rest of the Greeks use the giant horse as a decoy. Risky. Couldn’t we come back later…? No! This is war, damn it. (And besides, Helen’s pole-dance can’t wait a moment longer.) Point of no return. Achilles & Co. set off, as do various other Greeks in horse suits. The Trojans attack. The Greeks are outnumbered. The giant horse is taking heavy fire from flaming arrows and well-aimed ballistae. The Greeks in horse suits are being shot down. There are Trojans on Achilles’ tail (again)! But all is not lost. While Achilles, Odysseus and Helen galumph towards the city, Agamemnon decides to ram the Trojans with the great wooden horse. The Trojans obviously respect this decision, for once the horse starts towards them, they immediately stop attacking it. The horse grows nearer. The Trojans wait. The horse collides with the Trojan’s horse (which is bigger and has a fancy plume). The Greek horse is destroyed. All on board perish. Bummer. But at least there’s only three Trojans chasing after Achilles & Co., who by this stage have reached the city gates. Achilles steers the horse suit brilliantly, destroying two of the pursuers. The third is taken care of by releasing a stream of horse poo and setting it on fire. Achilles, Odysseus and Helen enter the city, whereupon the Trojans forget all about them, perhaps thinking that they perished during the galloping crash with which they crossed the line. Ah, but they didn’t! So far, so good. Except… the Greek insurgents they were supposed to meet have all been killed. Odysseus and Helen fall down a hole. Thinking of nothing better to do, Achilles jumps after them. They are attacked by one of Cassandra’s serpents, and rescued by the sole survivor of the Greek commandos. (He’s a bit of a psycho and has set booby traps everywhere. Because– well, you never know, do you?) They head for Priam’s chambers to take shelter for the night. Nobody’s looking for them, but– Okay, well they are now that some Trojans have wandered into the booby traps. The psycho gets drunk. Odysseus plays the harp. Achilles and Helen have sex. The Trojans attack! The psycho calls out “cooee” to a Trojan, and is spitted with arrows. Achilles is cornered, but beats a Trojan (call him Hector) to death using an old piece of seaweed. Helen is cornered as well, but the Trojan seems quite fond of her necklace… Poignant moment, but then Odysseus and Achilles come to the rescue. Trojan dead. Helen sad. Mission continues. They must go to the temple and send a message to the gods. The gods will broadcast it to the Trojans, and the Trojans, being highly susceptible to such things, will give up. The war will be over. But Helen has other ideas. (Just look at what they did to Paris, she sobs.) The war – oh, this terrible war! – will only end when the Greeks surrender. Hence, the Trojans must be helped. The message to the gods is a trick to reveal the location of Agamemnon’s secret fleet. Odysseus spots it, and shoots Helen, but is himself shot. Achilles is shot. Helen goes to shoot him again, but thankfully runs out of arrows. Achilles shoots up the temple, then takes Odysseus and leaves. The two of them sit around in the moonlight and shout out “Help!” until those of the Greeks that weren’t slaughtered in the burning horse suicide run come along and whisk them off to safety, not a Trojan in sight.

There is, needless to say, a further twist, but by this stage the embers have burnt down and Homer has shuffled off to empty his bladder and gnaw on some old goat pieces. And the saddest part is, that capriciously transposing Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome onto an ancient setting in no way makes it less plausible. (Indeed, the conscious disparity might well be said, through tacitly acknowledging the film’s Achilles’ heel, to have lessened the negative impact of its prickle-embedded and limping plot.) Because, in essence, BSG:BC is a free-floating morality-of-war film that pays scant attention to either the specific conflict or the details of the human/Cylon universe. It tries instead to force tension and adrenaline into scenarios that lack sufficient build-up, and to superimpose drama onto characters that have been dolloped up from the stockpot of eternal blandness. Worst of all, the filmmakers’ grasp of military tactics, strategy and grand strategy is… tenuous (mild censure of the day); or perhaps just simplistic (with all the tell-tale incision marks of a four-pronged lobotomy). Actually, the one term that springs most readily to mind is “General Melchett-like”, only without the requisite comic intent or a sardonic Blackadder character to play up the absurdity.

In some respects, watching Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is reminiscent of being shepherded across the road by a lollipop lady at a school crossing where there are no kids and no cars – an uneasy mixture of embarrassment and empathic condolences for all concerned. Yes, the name “Nate Underkuffler” does appear in the closing credits (for those who threw themselves grasping at straws, but missed), but surely, even in the most arid and undiscerning of parallel universes, that cannot by itself provide sufficient impetus for a movie to take flight…? And yet, BSG fans might smugly riposte, seven-point-four on IMDB, when even The Frighteners only managed seven-point-one

Yes, well put it this way: if Mr T hadn’t taken a vow of silence, there’s every chance he’d even now be stomping around his mansion, tearing his mohawk out and proclaiming, “I pity the fool!”

Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Host, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Don’t expect another Twilight. In her hugely popular Twilight Saga, author Stephenie Meyer perfected a strategy that compelled people in droves to purchase her books (over 100 million copies sold worldwide) and then convince their partners to accompany them to the films. Meyer’s formula involves two young men vying for the heart of a female protagonist, while outside forces threaten that triangle.

The Host (directed by Andrew Niccol), the film inspired by Meyer’s first post-Twilight Saga novel, relies on a similar strategy. However, the characters, the threat and the action in The Host are diluted in comparison.

Aliens that resemble glowing bugs have rid the Earth of violence and hunger by commandeering human bodies (i.e. hosts). A few humans have managed to evade the invaders and go into hiding. Not a new concept. However, what is new is that this body invasion film makes little mystery about who’s human and who’s not. If the eyes glow, they’re aliens.

After she is implanted in a human body, the alien who calls herself Wanderer discovers that her host, Melanie, isn’t going to give up her mind without a fight. While Wanderer’s emotionless colleagues encourage her to use Melanie’s memories to help them track down other humans, Melanie pushes Wanderer to help humans. The film relies on voiceover to reveal what Melanie is saying to Wanderer. So Wanderer has to speak to show that she’s talking. Though inescapable, the technique loses much of the intimacy of the novel. Also, there’s something inherently silly about voiceover, which is partly why it works so well in a film like Warm Bodies, and is less effective for the purportedly serious The Host.

The majority of the film takes place in a cave in the southwestern U.S. Here Wanderer and Melanie carry out their struggles with a group of humans led by Melanie’s uncle Jeb, the “benign dictator” of the underground community. As Jeb, William Hurt affects a Patrick Swayzesque sense of sagely calm. This could be the first and last philosopher named Jeb.

It’s also in the mountain where the filmmakers fall short of the potential within Meyer’s formula. Melanie wants to convince boyfriend Jared that she is still somewhere in her body, while Wanderer falls for Ian, despite his initial attempt to strangle her. A complex dynamic. Here is the chance to really flesh out these young men, to make them passionate and driven like their Twilight predecessors. No such luck. Jared has none of the eccentricities that make Edward so compelling, and Ian is to Jacob Black as a gnat’s exhalation is to a tornado.

Additionally, the aliens’ means of locating Wanderer are a bit underwhelming. A race of aliens that has managed to conquer nine planets relies on desktop computers, sports cars, motorcycles and helicopters to locate their prey? Moreover, the silver vehicles, glass and steel buildings, exposed concrete walls in minimalist interiors, and white clothing give one the impression that these aliens base their society not on their planet-conquering ingenuity, but on Hollywood’s sci-fi clichés.

Perhaps the worst problem of The Host is the dialogue, some of which seems to have been culled from greeting cards. One of the most flagrant offences occurs in a flashback during which Melanie and Jared arrive at a carpe diem conclusion regarding the consummation of their relationship. The aliens are coming, Melanie points out, so we better get going! Only she does it in a sickeningly sentimental fashion.

The Seeker is the (female) leader of the alien pursuers. Compared to Arro, the enchantingly peculiar lead bad guy in Breaking Dawn, The Seeker is as memorable as a snowflake in a desert.

The Host isn’t great, but it doesn’t quite deserve the critical excoriation that it received. Though the concept of a human communicating with an alien occupying her body isn’t new in literature (read Frank and Brian Herbert’s 1986 A Man of Two Worlds), the idea has not been explored in film to a great extent. Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Or maybe the next attempt will learn from this film’s shortcomings.

Like Minority Report, though far inferior and probably much less prescient, The Host disperses several interesting ideas throughout the film to keep the viewer engaged. Take the inner-mountain wheat field that gets sunlight from mirrors embedded in the rock above it. Or the grocery store (pragmatically named “Store”) with brand-free goods that customers simply pluck from the shelves, then take without paying.

From an American perspective, perhaps the most appealing advance is the aliens’ healthcare system. No waiting. No paperwork. No insurance. Just a quick spray and you’re healed. One wishes that such a spray were available for The Host.—DOUGLAS J. OGUREK (

Friday 24 May 2013

Borderlands 2, reviewed by Howard Watts

It’s impossible to cover every complexity Borderlands 2 (2KGames, PS3) provides the player. Its scope is astonishing, its detail overwhelming both visually and from a character POV, even though the scenario is fairly basic. In short, there’s a bad guy called Handsome Jack in partial control of the planet Pandora, and the player or “Vault Hunter” is pitted against him, his minions and the indigenous lifeforms of the planet. Did I say player? You can choose from four characters (with a fifth, the mechromancer, available via DLC): an assassin, a siren, a soldier and an atypical heavyweight grunt. Each character enjoys their own unique special combat action skill, which is enhanced via levelling up. These characters also enjoy three skill trees, enhancing combat in a variety of ways.

This all sounds simplistic, but the real attractions of Borderlands 2 are its visuals and characters. Characters are all finely drawn (some appearing a second time from the first game, as is one location) providing a great deal of humour, tragedy and depth. From a killer robot’s A.I. core wanting to change its ways and be installed into a radio, to another obsessed with introducing sexual innuendo into its conversations, a commando stating: “And I was just gonna complete my comic collection,” as he corrodes into a cloud of gas, Pandora in all its open world splendour containing its insane inhabitants soon becomes a believable, viable setting. Although some critics have objected to the comic book appearance of the graphics (think Moebius in Heavy Metal magazine) the alien landscapes – from frozen wastes to dusty deserts – contain an enormous attention to graphical detail, making you wander up to objects to wonder exactly what they’re for. The entire planet has an established ecosystem, populated by various plant and animal life that all add depth to the setting.

The game is a shopper’s heaven, with thousands of boxes, lockers, crates and other containers to loot. Some contain money, or a basic rusty pistol that performs with a pathetic “tut, tut, tut”, others an acid firing bazooka that reduces badass gun loader robots to sizzling scrap. The developers have gone on record saying the software generates millions of different gun types, all with varying effectiveness for the many missions and adversaries encountered. Along with these, the player will need to match protective shields (some absorb bullets and add them to your inventory, others electrocute enemies when they melee attack) as well as grenades that can steal an adversary’s health, or bounce up down on the spot spitting bullets as they rotate. There are some devastating combinations to be assembled early on in the game, forcing the player to believe the following levels will be a breeze. However, you’ll soon find your favourite pistol/SMG/rocket launcher/sniper rifle will become sadly redundant against more formidable foes and objectives. It’s hard to let go, but it has to be done as more goodies tempt you with their devastating effects. The attention to design detail for these objects is superb, with every pick-up beautifully rendered.

Borderlands 2 provides a game experience like no other. Every aspect speaks of quality, from the atmospheric soundtrack that’s not too intrusive, to the sound design and animation – weapons feel as they should, the larger ones taking just that little longer to heft. Okay, it’s not perfect, as some objectives can become a little repetitive, but the game allows missions to be toggled – so it’s just a case of switching to a different mission – either side or main story. The whole package is huge in its scope, and you’ll be spending a great deal of rewarding, challenging game time caught up in the absorbing locations of Pandora’s borderlands. Spend your money. 9/10.

Monday 20 May 2013

Señor 105 and the Elements of Danger, edited by Cody Quijano-Schell, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

“I am Señor 105 of Mexico. I fight for freedom, the defense of mankind and I am a friend to all children.” Iris Wildthyme’s superluchador chum, who has a mask for every element and (I think) a power for every mask, takes his place in the spotlight in Señor 105 and the Elements of Danger (Obverse Books, 106pp), edited by the character’s creator Cody Quijano-Schell, who also supplies the cover design (Paul Hanley being the artist) and a story, “Jackalope”, in which a pair of skinnydippers are attacked by horned bunny rabbits. That gives you a taste of what to expect here! If you go back far enough I think this book counts as a spin-off from Doctor Who, but the tone is more reminiscent of the quirky (and sadly short-lived) television series The Middleman, which also featured a luchador or two; its comedy comes from the seriousness with which a rather silly world is treated by its unfortunate (from our point of view) but happy-go-lucky inhabitants.

In “Señor 105 contre el Bigote de Perdición” by Lawrence Burton, 105 is up against the man with the mightiest moustache in Mexico. It feels like a great idea for a story, without becoming a great story itself. Similarly, “Megaluchador vs Iguanadios” by Jonathan Dennis, which sees 105 climbing into a giant robot version of himself to battle a giant lizard, isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds. “Are You Loathesome Tonight” by Blair Bidmead features a lounge lizard (literally) Elvis who is creating a malformation of space and time with his music, the results described in powerful simile: “‘It’s like an Escher drawing,’ gasped Sheila. ‘Made of meat,’ I concurred.” Take the space between this paragraph and the next to let that image sink in!

This is another worthwhile collection from Obverse, though I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of their other titles. On the whole, the stories don’t quite manage to fulfil the promise of their wild ideas: reading the summaries above and below, I’m still surprised I didn’t like the book more. The dialogue and narration tends to lack the spark, crackle and wit a concept like this needs to make it soar. But the book does get stronger as it goes on. In Julio Angel Ortiz’s “Anti-Element”, Matador de Almas, Chiquito Invader, Terrible Prince, Capitan Muerte and the Princess of Pandemonium (Pandora X) collaborate to send 105 to die at the hands of the desperate hero of a battle-ravaged dimension, the result an entertaining interdimensional team-up. “There and Back Again” by Niamh Petit has a clever idea – a time control device that lets a person switch with past and future selves – and makes of it the best story of the collection. A future version of Señor 105 has bad news about what’s to come, and as the story moves into that future he keeps switching with progressively unhappier selves from further ahead. In “Glyph” by Joe Curreri an old enemy returns, one with a grudge from the days when he was merely Señor 93, before the book ends with a fragment from the editor and a note putting the character in context.

Like previous Obverse titles, the review copy of Señor 105 and the Elements of Danger was marred by a number of small errors, but I’ll always put up with those for the sake of this publisher’s dedication to publishing the kind of books I always look forward to reading. In an indie scene dominated (or perhaps it would be fairer to say propped up) by horror, it’s good to have a small press devoted to this quirky, modern brand of science fantasy. This being a fairly old book now, one whose shiny, unfulfilled promise caught my eye from the depths of the review pile, and a limited edition in the Obverse Quarterly series at that, it may not be available for purchase in your preferred format by the time you read this (see below for links). If not, look out for similar titles from Obverse in future, or try the series of Señor 105 novellas being published by Obverse’s ebook offshoot Manleigh Books. I will: Señor 105 doesn’t manage a smackdown here, but the potential is definitely there.

Ebook available here. Print available here.

Friday 17 May 2013

Aliens: Colonial Marines, reviewed by Howard Watts

Aliens: Colonial Marines (Sega, PS3). It would be pointless for me to go into great detail regarding the backstory to this game: suffice to say, it follows straight on from the events of James Cameron’s rather excellent Aliens.

From the outset, it’s clear the developers have attempted to maintain a cinematic experience in this game. The titles and original music by James Horner create the perfect atmosphere, and we’re assured by this beautifully rendered intro that we’re in safe hands. From then on the backstory establishes the game’s scenario: explore the Sulaco

The film’s original sets are replicated well, but the lack of options for setting up the game’s video display (screen brightness, position) cause an early frown, as the game is very dark, and the position of the HUD is clipped slightly on my 46" set. I shook off these two minor niggles and discarded my frown, unaware at such an early stage it would return with a vengeance very soon.

The characters are stereotypical for military FPS: gravel-voiced grunts, mirroring my frown of earlier, looking as though they’ve just walked out of a WWF game and donned combats. They lead you onto the Sulaco where the ship’s cryogenic sleep chamber is perfectly realised. Other areas appear bereft of creativity with unimaginative repeating corridors, decorations and patterns. My frown now began to creep back, as the textures lacked detail, the controls rather jerky and somewhat “heavy”, the continuing darkness (lacking contrast) maintaining for an obvious “what’s in the shadows?” effect. When Michael Biehn’s character, Corporal Hicks, makes an appearance you’ll be forgiven for thinking things are on the up. They’re not, as the likeness to Michael Biehn is utterly terrible, and the actor performs voice duties with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.

As the game “progressed” down to LV426 and the settlement of Hadley’s Hope, nothing much changes I’m afraid. The darkness continues, and as the first xenos appeared I shook my head. The detail and colour gamut are straight out of a 1990s effort, a betrayal of gamers and fans of the Alien series alike. The xenos are cartoony, perfectly matching their adversaries. The game then leads you from one “You gotta push this so we can do that” objective to the next. Character is non-existent, leading me to skip the story segments to see if things would improve and if I’d care. They don’t and I didn’t.

Then I found myself climbing into a Power Loader, sealed in an arena with a big “Boss” xeno, accompanied by its smaller cousins. The boss was instantly dispatched by a choking grip from the loader’s claw, only for the boss to die and fall through a wall. The smaller xenos kept on coming, and coming, and coming, until it was obvious after five minutes of repeated play the software had glitched. Reset. I plodded on, from one badly rendered environment to the next, unimpressed by the ability to “upgrade” my weapons with either an extended mag, silencer, or telescopic sight, or collect movie characters’ weapons, with only a “sneak by” level providing me with any thrills (in spite of the xenos looking like men shuffling in uncomfortable rubber suits). Finally, after eight or so hours of play, the whole shoddy affair was over, and I breathed a sigh of relief and groan of sorrow. “Game over man, GAME OVER!”

Indeed, and not a moment too soon. Save your money. 2/10.

Monday 13 May 2013

A Game of Groans by George R.R. Washington, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Comedy is an awfully subjective thing. Much as I adore Annie Hall, I reckon Dana Carvey’s The Master of Disguise runs it darn close as one of the funniest films of all time (“Sometimes the Master of Disguise he comes back, sometimes he don’t!”), an opinion likely to earn me the hatred of most right-thinking IMBD users. It just tickles me, as do The Animal, Jack and Jill and The Love Guru. So I understand how subjective comedy can be, and I’m not a comedy snob. I’ve watched every single episode of Two and a Half Men.

Having said that, I can now go on to discuss A Game of Groans by George R.R. Washington (chortle!) (Virgin, pb, 232pp), and, while acknowledging that you might well find this parody hilarious, explain why I thought it such a miserable, joyless experience. It just isn’t funny. I read the entire book stony-faced, never cracking a smile and laughing just once, on page 128, at the name “Lord Analwarts Candlestick”. Even that was a quick, thoughtless bark rather than a sign of true appreciation, mentioned here only to pay the book its due, small as it is. Most of this book’s jokes revolve around wind-breaking (chapter one begins “Allbran Barker broke wind”). Normally a fart joke is all I need to make me laugh (Brent Spiner’s inadvertent squeaking in The Master of Disguise was so funny our children came downstairs and asked us to laugh more quietly so that they could sleep) but these weaker emissions dissipated without provoking the slightest mirth.

The plot is basically that of A Game of Thrones, with the threat from the north here being the Others, though in a typically pathetic running joke they want to be known as “The Awesomes!”, and interject to say as much whenever other characters mention them. If you’re not laughing yet, you will be when you hear that the Others (“The Awesomes!”) are Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, Spock, C-3PO, Aslan and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Hilarious!

The book has one notable feature. After all the jokes made in the UK about those daft Americans who’d think The Madness of George III a sequel, or couldn’t have coped with the Philosopher’s Stone, here’s a book whose subtitle has been changed for our benefit, from A Sonnet of Slush & Soot to A Parody of Slush & Soot. Presumably because we wouldn’t have got the joke (it’s rather shorter than A Song of Ice and Fire) and would have thought it actually was a poem.

Would that the solicitous soul who changed the title for we simple British folk had read the book itself, at least to page two, because then we would have been spared what looks like (unintentionally, I’m sure) the most racist joke I’ve encountered since, well, since I left Keighley. I’ll give the American author a pass on that (a similar gaffe was once made by Guy Gardner, to his writer’s horror), but the writer must take the blame for turning abused and exploited women from the original into raging nymphomaniacs, or having a tribe talk in Ooga-booga language (even if they are pretending). Whether having the Jon Snow character speak Spanish, with his every utterance translated in footnotes, is offensive or not is for Spanish speakers to decide, but it makes for desperately feeble, tedious humour.

A Game of Groans is so poor that, not having read the George R.R. Martin original (so admittedly I may have missed the nuances of some jokes), I began to read through it, ignoring the surface attempts at humour to discern what I could of the original inspiration hiding within, like reading Plato to get a glimpse of Socrates. Daft, but I had to find a way to get through this enthusiastically, relentlessly, ruthlessly (because you just know it was written to order) unfunny book. I tried reading it with a bottle of Crabbies on the go, and I tried reading it after watching episodes of New Girl and The Big Bang Theory that had me in stitches, and both times it still fell flat. Or to put it another way (as the book does at p. 184): “Ever watched Anymal House while sipping on grog, gnawing on a turkey leg and rubbing a cheese grater across your stomach? It was a lot like that.” It’s less funny than Meet the Spartans and takes three times as long to get through. It’s also surprisingly unpleasant about the writer whose work it is exploiting. But if you enjoy this I won’t judge you, so long as you don’t judge me for liking Happy Gilmore and Freddy Got Fingered.

Friday 10 May 2013

A Coming of Age by Timothy Zahn, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Second life, not secondhand. A Coming of Age by Timothy Zahn (Open Road, 2012).

When people who were born in the twentieth century grow old and look back upon their lives, one topic they are sure to reminisce about – to the utter bafflement of those younger generations who dutifully will now send forth their avatars to visit – is that of the secondhand bookshop; a dying breed even today, but each with its own idiosyncrasies and charm, its unique layout and ever-changing stock, its worn carpets, creaking floorboards and double-stacked shelves (or occasionally just high-risen piles that have become structurally integral), its ensconced, often erudite owner and of course its ever-curious and -acquisitive, peripatetic clientele of book-loving nomads, who whenever they arrive somewhere new find themselves drawn inexorably to the tell-tale bargain bins out front, and then nosing forward and inside, lungs swelling contentedly at the heady inrush of old book smells.

Ironically, what has doomed these esteemed bastions of the well-thumbed, pre-loved book is not, as one might have soothsaid, a groundswell of illiteracy, a flash fiction mentality or some mindless and storm-blown reverence for the blog-ridden txt (even if we oldsters-in-the-making tend to bristle more at such irritants) but rather an electronically expanded horizon and the gobsmacking globalisation of the bookshops in question. The world is now a warehouse. Bowerbirds of the printed word may line their nests merely with a click of the beak and have their eclectic reading materials delivered from anywhere on the planet. Moreover, with the advent of print-on-demand and ebooks, an author’s back catalogue need never be out of print; rather, the capacity exists for all heretofore-rare tomes to be stored and made available, without appreciable overheads, direct from the publishers. Bibliophiles be warned, the cursor is well and truly blinking on the wall.

Much though one might fulminate against this general affront to the way things were, nevertheless there must lie some insidious appeal in being able to lurk at home like a Bandersnatch and gratuitously just reach out and latch on to those skittish works that never previously strayed within range or set timorous foot in a secondhand bookshop. Such undeniably is the case with Timothy Zahn’s novel A Coming of Age, which first appeared in 1984 – the same year that Zahn himself came of age as a SF writer, winning a Hugo Award for his novella Cascade Point – and which now has been re-released in both POD and e-formats. So much attention has Zahn garnered over the last two decades for his serial novels and involvement with the Star Wars universe, that new readers might easily have overlooked the quality (indeed, in some cases the existence) of his earlier, stand-alone novels and shorter fiction. Gratifyingly, this need no longer apply. A few minor typographical errors notwithstanding, each bookshop owner’s dark plight becomes here the SF lover’s gain; and not just YA readers (who doubtlessly will be drawn in alongside the fourteen-year-old protagonist) but anyone who has cultivated an appreciation of clearly written, well developed, genuinely imaginative, ideas-driven science fiction.

The crux of Zahn’s scenario in A Coming of Age is the powerful telekinetic abilities that all children of the planet Tigris gain from five years of age and then lose upon entering puberty. The resulting power balance has considerable ramifications for Tigrian society, and yet Zahn explores this with the subtleness almost of peripheral vision, all the while keeping his readers absorbed and focused on two major (and one minor) intertwined storylines. The first of these centres on Lisa Duncan, whose childhood position of responsibility is about to segue (or perhaps plummet) into a daunting new adult life, her coming-of-age fears pre-empting an illicit interest in literacy and so bringing about an upheaval in her cosy but strictly regimented world order. The second follows the investigation of police inspector Stanford Tirrell and his preteen right-hand man Tonio as they search for a five-year-old boy they believe to have been kidnapped by a “fagin” – unscrupulous criminals who by proselytising and brainwashing exploit children for their teekay abilities. Zahn mixes urgency with suspense in recounting the various intrigues of A Coming of Age, but in contrast to some of his later novels – The Icarus Hunt, for example, or The Green and the Gray – makes no attempt to sustain one overriding mystery throughout the course of the story. Instead, he moves his twin plots forward on carefully laid tracks of dramatic irony: tantalising; revealing; forever taking the reader into his confidence, but only sufficiently to show the protagonists drawn deeper and deeper into peril.

Because A Coming of Age is so deeply enmeshed in its underlying conceit, each plot progression brings creeping with it a deeper appreciation of the (slyly dystopian) child/adult dynamic that Zahn posits. In this sense even the one slightly jarring feature of the book – Lisa’s dropping back to the periphery as events necessitate Tirrell’s greater involvement – can be seen less as a shortcoming and more as a young novelist’s aptly placed piece of discord, the disparity serving to resonate, however unnervingly, with adolescent ignorance and trepidations concerning what the future might hold. For those of us who would have been young adult readers when A Coming of Age was first released, such misgivings have long since been replaced with a stomach-pitted fear for the world’s secondhand bookshops (in all their dwindling number). The novel itself, however, has lost none of its allure or relevance – thirty years on and Zahn’s early work is every bit as fresh and compelling as when first it hit those musty shelves.