Monday 30 September 2013

Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The publicity material for Live_Transmission: Joy Division Reworked (The Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 28 September 2013), performed by Scanner and The Heritage Orchestra, made it clear that one should not expect a Joy Division covers band, a niche well served already by Peter Hook and the Light. However, what it did not make clear was that these were not, on the whole, Joy Division songs at all, but rather entirely new pieces vaguely inspired by Joy Division songs. From time to time the slightly repetitive short films by Matt Watkins that illustrated the performance (for example by moving through cross-sections of the human body or showing space invaders fighting over the pattern from the Unknown Pleasures cover) would display snatches of lyrics, which was fortunate because otherwise listeners would rarely have had any idea which songs were theoretically being reworked.

But it began quite promisingly, with a building swell of white noise and light that burst at last into a thudding, percussive take on “Transmission”, the bassline and drums used to drive a Krautrockish instrumental version. But it went on a bit too long, and there was (as the case for most of the concert) no sign of anyone singing the song. A few snatched samples were pretty much all we got in that line, aside from a closing performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (over apparently random orchestral playing) that left you wishing for Paul Young. Unfortunately that take on “Transmission” was the concert’s high point for me, as from then on the Joy Division elements of the performance became ever harder to discern.

Other songs performed included (I think), “She’s Lost Control”, “Isolation” and “Dead Souls”, but billing the concert as Kraftwerk, Bowie or Hans Zimmer Reworked would have been almost equally plausible, given the scarcity of obvious links to the originals. Since watching the concert I’ve read interviews with those involved, who stressed their desire to avoid being a “crass tribute act”, and that’s a reasonable goal, and I’m sure there are subtle connections to the original songs that were difficult to spot on a first listen, but it’s being sold as Joy Division Reworked, not as original avant garde pieces. I did try to take it on its own terms, but as avant garde music it felt uninspired and unchallenging, putting me in mind of nothing so much as the ambient remixes of Moby’s cover versions played loudly.

More positively, the players were well-rehearsed, the performance going without any apparent hitches, and it was all appropriately moody and atmospheric (so dark in fact that we could rarely see the performers from our position). There have been tweets from other attendees who thought it was wonderful, though in some cases even they note the high numbers of people dashing off to the bar. If these compositions are released as an album, I’ll probably grow to like it. Perhaps if I’d had a chance to get to know the music first, or if I’d been able to see what the musicians were doing, I might have enjoyed the performance more. Even now, though I remember being unimpressed and rather bored during the concert, there’s a part of me thinking, Joy Division songs, ripped up, remixed and played by an orchestra in the Symphony Hall: that sounds great. So why was it so dull?

The show is on tour for a few more days and you may like it much more than I did. Further dates here.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Pilgrims at the White Horizon by Michael Wyndham Thomas – now out!

It began with The Mercury Annual. It ends here!

Kidresh, Mopatakeh and Dreest, panicked Tharles of Razalia, separated from Earth by vast distances and untold layers of reality, are determined to contact their maker, the one who left their world unfinished. That wasn’t Keith Huxtable, expert handyman, but since he’s just about the only person who remembers their world’s fleeting appearance in a 1950s comic strip, he’s the one they’ve got pegged! The unfinished bits are spreading. Eating away at Razalia. Beings are falling in and they don’t come out. Can Keith fix it? And get back home in time to save his comics collection and his marriage?

A tribute to the magic of British annuals! A father and daughter in an intergalactic adventure beyond imagination! The story you weren’t expecting but will never forget!

Pilgrims at the White Horizon. Part 2 of Valiant Razalia.
ISBN 978-0-9561533-4-0. 300pp. Ebook/paperback. Cover art by Simon Bell. Cover collage and design by the publisher.

“one of the strangest stories I have read in a long while”
— Antony G. Williams, The British Fantasy Society, of The Mercury Annual

Available in the following convenient places:


Ebook (DRM-free)

Kindle MatchBook
Every print copy purchased from Amazon will get you a free Kindle copy, once Amazon’s MatchBook kicks in! (Currently expected in October.)

Kindle lending library
If you have Amazon Prime you can borrow the ebook for free!

The Mercury Annual
Pilgrims at the White Horizon can be read perfectly well without having read its predecessor, but completists should know that The Mercury Annual is now free on Kindle and will remain so for the next few days ( /

Review copies
If you produce reviews (it doesn't matter where – Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, magazines, Twitter, Facebook, oral declamations) get in touch and we’ll be delighted to send you a free ebook copy of Pilgrims (or any of our other books).

Saturday 28 September 2013

Pilgrims launch – photographs!

Yesterday was the launch of Pilgrims at the White Horizon, and, astonishingly, even though it was the night of the UK premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the last ever episode of The IT Crowd, people came!

A few photos of the event, which took place at The Light House Media Centre in Wolverhampton.

Here is Michael Thomas reading from the book:

And from a distance:

And here he is being quizzed about the book by Campbell Perry:

As I mentioned at the launch, this is probably the oddest novel I’ve ever finished reading. But then it is a sequel to The Mercury Annual, a book that ended with what was effectively a sixty-page conversation!

Be sure to give this one a chance to cast its peculiar, poetic spell on you!

More information about the new book will appear on the site tomorrow, to coincide with its predecessor being free for a few days.

Friday 27 September 2013

Dodger by Terry Pratchett, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Dodger by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, hb/pb, 347pp). Tuppence more and up goes the donkey.

Dodger is a tosher – a youngster who scavenges for lost valuables in the sewers of Victorian London. Toshers generally live short and sordid lives (a tosher who makes it to his thirties is considered most venerable indeed), but Dodger is not just a tosher. He is also a geezer – somebody cunning and street-smart, a paragon of underclass wiles; someone who knows everyone and is known to all. And besides this, Dodger is more than handy with a pair of brass knuckles. When he rescues a young lady one particularly noisome evening, he finds himself thrust suddenly into the role of upstanding citizen. Determined both to protect the girl and bang to rights her erstwhile tormentors, Dodger must bring his artful talents to bear upon the upper stratums of society. And all the while keeping his new suit clean.

Dodger is marketed as a young adult novel, which unusually for Terry Pratchett does not take place within the realms of his much-beloved Discworld series. The distinction, however, is quite arbitrary. The only young adult feature of Dodger is its protagonist (in truth Pratchett shows fewer inhibitions than usual in touching upon mature audience content), while London itself presents with such squalor and debasement that it could easily pass for a borough of Ankh-Morpork – at least in the early Discworld novels, before that city started to benefit from what has proven to be an ongoing societal renaissance.

One of Dodger’s most notable features, and perhaps its greatest strength, is that Terry Pratchett in no way romanticises the cobblestoned London we so often find associated with gentlemanly mores and stately carriages being pulled clippity-clop through the mist. Rather, he takes aim at the city’s underbelly and displays almost porcine delight in wallowing in its filth, smog and human detritus. The writing as ever carries a light tone, but with Dodger Pratchett has taken considerable pains to keep his subject matter down to earth… and not infrequently in the sewers below. The exception is Dodger himself, whose precocious sangfroid must surely be at odds with the reality of his station. But such is the magic of storytelling. The fantastical element, though small, is what distinguishes Dodger from historical fiction, or for that matter from the insidious proselytising of Dodger’s new acquaintance – journalist and soon-to-be novelist Mr Charles Dickens.

In assembling the dramatis personae for Dodger, Terry Pratchett has quite cleverly mixed historical notables (Dickens, Disraeli, Peel, et cetera) with fictional archetypes (Dodger, Solomon, Sweeney Todd), the conceit being that Dodger and company must have been real people upon whom Dickens then drew in writing his novels – particularly Oliver Twist. This pseudo historicity adds a certain intrigue to Dodger. In fact, it may well spur some readers to further investigate the period thus dramatised. Equally, though, it seems to have placed something of a constraint upon the plot. Whereas devotees of the Discworld novels (including its purportedly young adult Tiffany Aching books) have come to expect from Pratchett a certain convolutedness of narrative – an atmospheric pea-souper in written form – Dodger’s storyline is not so intricate, and plays less to the reader’s sense of unfolding mystery. This is a failing, perhaps, but only in relative terms; and by way of trade-off there manifests a gloriously heightened sense of characterisation, not so much in Dodger himself but rather in the steaming, pungent London it is his misfortune to inhabit.

Dodger offers up something slightly different from Terry Pratchett: lighter than his coming-of-age classic Nation (2008); more darkly shaded than his Discworld novels; Dodger is a book both witty and sincere – as tellingly sharp as Sweeney Todd’s razor.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Pilgrims at the White Horizon: launching on Friday at 7.00 pm, Wolverhampton

In 2009 we published a novel by Michael Wyndham Thomas, The Mercury Annual. That was a mistake. I love the book and I’m glad it’s been published, but it deserved a better publisher than me, one dedicated to publishing books and bringing them to readers’ attention rather than squeezing them in around a quarterly magazine! I haven’t made time to do any of the books I’ve published by other people any justice.

However, undeterred by my rubbishness Michael Thomas came back to us with the follow-up, and after a dilatory gestation period Pilgrims at the White Horizon will finally be launched this Friday, at 7.00 pm, at the Light House in Wolverhampton.

In this volume Keith is dragged off to Valiant Razalia, a far-off world hardly anyone remembers – because it only ever appeared in one panel of one comic strip in one British annual! – by bizarre alien beings who think he’s their creator and want him to finish the job. Along for the ride is Keith’s daughter, for whom it’s at least a break from her studies.

This will probably be the last book I publish for a while by anyone but me and John (unless I decide to give book publishing something more than a half-hearted go). I’ve taken an absolute age to get it ready for publication and I feel terrible about that. But it’s worth the wait. If you can’t make it to the Light House, watch out for it on Amazon this weekend.

Event: Book launch! Of Michael W. Thomas’s new novel, Pilgrims at the White Horizon. Date: Friday, 27 September 2013, 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm. Venue: The Light House Media Centre, Wolverhampton.

For more information about the author see:

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Ten films I’ve seen three times or more

Wednesday is list day. This is list #7. Ten films I’ve seen three times or more:

  1. The Thing
  2. Death Race 2000
  3. Time Bandits
  4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and IV, VI and VIII)
  5. The Matrix Reloaded
  6. Superman: The Movie (and II, and III)
  7. Big Trouble in Little China
  8. The Wedding Singer
  9. The Thing from Another World
  10. Quatermass and the Pit

Which films have you watched to death?

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Theakerly thoughts #7: Library of Birmingham, impromptu interview, Goodreads battle-shelving

Thought 1. I took our children to see the new Library of Birmingham at the weekend. I’ve got mixed feelings about it. It’s a good-looking building, inside and out, though one can’t help imagining what it might start to look like once the cost of keeping it looking so nice kicks in. It feels rather like a London building that has teleported to Birmingham. It’s odd to walk into a library and not know where to find the books. The open plan means it’s quite noisy, more like visiting a popular museum than a library. One fluff is a row of spinning red reading chairs lined up along a long desk, even though the desk is impossible to reach when sitting in those seats. I hated those chairs at first, but sitting in them later completely converted me, and now I want one for my office. I got the children to crawl underneath looking for a manufacturer’s name, but they let me down. So if anyone can point me in the right direction, please do!
     The library does have plenty of nice places to just sit and read, and I could quite easily see myself popping down there to get some reading done. It doesn’t feel like there are any more books than in the old library: see my photo below of the woefully understocked (or perhaps just extremely popular) horror section. The new children’s section is nice, but out of the way, and the circular desk surrounding the staff discourages queuing, which encourages squabbling and irritation. The series of huge steps at the back will be brilliant for storytimes, though I overheard the staff saying they were too busy to actually have any, and its large rectangular plastic cushions were being thrown around and used to construct forts and rafts rather than sat on. It’s exciting to see the range of cultural activities planned for the library overall, and I hope that doesn’t stop once the launch period is over.

Thought 2. My post offering authors a few points to consider before getting stuck in over a review has been pushing up our page views like no one’s business, and a writer turned up in the comments who had done just that, with us, a couple of years ago. I took the opportunity to interview him about his reasons for doing so, and I think the answers give a useful insight into the way some authors persuade themselves that this really is the right thing to do. The conversation left me with the feeling that there’s little point advising anyone not to attack a review. If they want to, they will, they’ll draw a line wherever it needs to be to put the review on the wrong side of it. And people who aren’t inclined to get huffy about reviews will nod at the advice and just do what they would have done anyway. Can I really claim my self-control is any better on this issue when I’ve never been confronted by a review with which I really wanted to disagree? (Well, apart from this, arguably, but I’d suggest that doesn’t count as a review.) I’ve had pretty bad reviews, for example a two-star one in SFX of my second self-published novel (here it is), but I can hardly say, look, I didn’t start an argument with the reviewer, because I didn’t want to argue with him. In fact, I thought the review was spot on, and if anything much kinder than the book deserved!

Thought 3. Goodreads have tightened up their rules on certain matters, in particular prohibiting the battle-shelving of books, making quite a few people really unhappy. For example, if an author has done something to earn the opprobrium of militant readers, they might till now have found their books added to shelves like “not-in-this-lifetime” or “author-to-avoid”. You might expect me to be against Goodreads on this change, but I do get it. For one thing, leaving stuff like that up could get them into legal trouble. For another, the people using those battle-shelves were almost always people who hadn’t read the books and who had no intention of reading them. So visiting a book written by a dodgy author you’d see little about the book itself, but dozens of comments about the author, and that was unfair to the books. Even complete gits can write good books.
     I have more sympathy for people told by email that loads of their reviews had been deleted as part of the site’s purge of this kind of thing, but anyone who has been on Goodreads for more than five minutes should know that such things are a fact of life there. Rogue librarians wrongly deleting or merging books, questions over whether single issues of comics and magazines should be included in the database (you could easily write a review of something only for the item to then be deleted), the sudden withdrawal of Amazon’s metadata at one point: this stuff happens all the time, and if that’s the only place you’re putting your reviews (no for me) or tracking your reading (yes for me) you’ve got to regularly download a spreadsheet of your booklist or risk losing it. Click on Export to a CSV file on this page.

Thought 4. “And f— you again, Aaron Sorkin, for hiring Constance Zimmer, Olivia Munn, Kelen Coleman, Natalie Morales, Alison Pill, Chasty Ballesteros, Hope Davis and Margaret Judson and leaving their fucking clothes on.” Ugh. It is 2013, right? Between that and this, I’m done with AICN. Looking forward to watching The Newsroom, though, which just arrived from Lovefilm.

Monday 23 September 2013

Alien Legion Omnibus, Vol. 1, by Alan Zelenetz, Frank Cirocco et al, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The French Foreign Legion in space: a perfect set-up for a long-running comic, and Alien Legion Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse, ebook, 352pp; Dark Horse app purchase) collects the eleven issues where it began. These stories were originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned line Epic Comics in 1984 and 1985. There’s no slow build-up here: the first words of the first panel are “Sneak attack, major”, and there’s not even time to activate energy shields before Harkilon photon accelerators take out the main engines and Nomad Squad is crash-landing in an escape shuttle on Wedifact IV!

Alien Legion is a slightly odd series in that it seems to have been treated as a franchise from the beginning, copyrighted to Carl Potts though he doesn’t contribute as a writer here (he inks one short story). Alan Zelenetz writes all of these stories, while Chuck Dixon wrote many later issues. Pencils on the first six stories are by Frank Cirocco, with Chris Warner taking over for the final epic, “Slaughterworld”, not that the switch was particularly noticeable; the style is very consistent. Larry Stroman and Terry Shoemaker chip in with pencils on a few shorts.

The foreign legion premise means the comic needn’t contrive to gather a bunch of disparate characters with desperate pasts. Most interesting is Sarigar, his serpentine lower body always striking, both visually and literally. Durge is a slow-moving tank of a character who develops a pill-popping problem. The psychic powers of four-armed medic Meico, survivor of an ecological catastrophe, play a useful role in many stories. The breakout character is Jugger Grimrod, basically Wolverine in a helmet. He never stops feeling like a cynical copy, even if it is fun to see Wolverine fighting a war in space.

Alien Legion is generally good entertainment. It lacks the verve and imagination of the better creator-owned work of the period (Nexus, for example), but it’s well put together, and if you want to read light, reasonably exciting stories about soldiers in space with low key ongoing story arcs, it does the trick. Titan have announced an Alien Legion mini-series by Potts and Stroman for 2014, and the fact that new issues are still being published thirty years after the series began shows the strength of the idea. That the comic is still so little-known is a sign, perhaps, that the idea’s strength has yet to be fully exploited.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Fifteen things to consider when tempted to respond to a bad review of your book

Fifteen things to consider when tempted to respond to a bad review of your book:

1. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, and this person chose to read yours. Millions didn’t. Your gratitude for that should really outweigh your irritation at them “getting it wrong”.

2. If you respond, this will be for many, many people the only thing they ever know about you.

3. The book isn’t an exam you have set for readers. You don’t need to mark the answers at the end.

4. Before you get mad at someone for not paying attention, consider whose job it was to make them pay attention.

5. If a review is egregiously wrong, someone else will point it out. If no one ever does, it’s probably because no one is reading the review anyway. You know how people are about correcting other people on the internet.

6. Banish the phrase “set things straight” from your thoughts. That path leads only to the dark side. Be insouciant. Look at the picture of Jughead that illustrates this listicle: that’s you, that is.

7. Like a punch-up with a kitten, this is a fight you lose as soon as it begins, whatever the outcome. There is no way to win, nothing to gain. Let it lie and, if you must, comment on it indirectly later.

8. Unless it’s on Amazon, the review that bothers you so much will be forgotten before long, if anyone even notices it in the first place. The best way to make sure a bad review is never forgotten is to make a big fuss about it.

9. If you really can’t resist, at least spellcheck and punctuate your comments before posting them, or you’ll look like you’ve lost your temper.

10. Write your reply offline, on your PC, and take your time over it. Make it as short as you can. Aim for zero words.

11. Not many people, in the scheme of things, will buy your book at all. A variable percentage of those will read it. A very small number of those will be inspired to write about it. Not many of those will write about it when it is still in bookshops. Even fewer of those will have a significant platform for their writing. Don’t make yourself a writer that those people want to avoid writing about. And don’t make them give up writing reviews altogether because they’re sick of being hassled.

12. Remember that you haven’t read the book yet, not like they have. You’ve seen the words and read the sentences, but you brought to your reading all your notes and ideas, the unwritten backstory, the plans for the sequel and the roads not taken, and they didn’t. They’ve just read the actual book.

13. If your author chums are cheering you on, ask yourself if they’ve ever done it themselves. Are they supportive on Facebook, where the wider internet can’t see, but curiously absent from the blog comments? Sure, they’re glad that someone is doing it, but they know how daft it is, how bad it is for the reputation. They’ll let you take one for the team, but the team doesn’t have your back, not on this, not unless you can find a way to make it not about the review.

14. Still determined to set things straight? Read this blog post summarising author meltdowns from 2012 and see how it tends to go.

15. Oh sod it, man, go for it. Get stuck in. It’s never good for you, and it may be upsetting for the reviewers you’re about to browbeat, especially if your fans join in and start sending death threats, but it’s entertaining for everyone else,  and it gives us something to write hit-bait blog posts about. Like this one.

Wednesday was supposed to be list day. This is list #6.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Theakerly thoughts #6: audiobooks on Kindle, author firewalls, Mike Barrett

Thought 1. I’d forgotten how much I liked listening to audiobooks on my Kindle v.3 (the grey ones, now renamed Kindle Keyboards). Unlike an iPod it has little speakers that are fine for speech, and there’s a headphone jack for playing the books out to stereos, speakers and headphones. The older Kindles are even compatible with Audible files, and keep your place in them. Best of all, you can’t do anything else with the device while you’re listening. I have a bad habit of playing an audiobook on, say, the iPad, then wondering what else I could do while listening, and five minutes later turning off the audiobook because I’m reading a newspaper article and not paying the book any attention. You can’t do that with the old Kindles.

Thought 2. Ironic that the staunchest defender of an author who dived into a comment thread to set a reviewer straight is the same fellow who said this last May when explaining why he doesn’t review self-published books:

We don’t know how you’ll react. The erratic behaviour of the author mentioned in [another article] is a strong illustration of why we don’t read self-published authors. We don’t have a firewall between us and the writer. Books from publishing houses that don’t have any self-published books give a level of detachment between what we write and the reaction we’ll get.”

So last year it was all about firewalls and detachment from the author’s reaction, this year “I welcome author’s [sic] comments” and those who don’t are bullies. Perhaps it’s different when the author is relatively famous.

Thought 3. During the all-too-brief time I edited Dark Horizons for the British Fantasy Society, some of my favourite articles were those by Mike Barrett on the history of fantasy and horror publishing. Some of those articles, plus several others, have now been collected in an Alchemy Press collection, Doors to Elsewhere, with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell. The articles were carefully researched, educational and well worth your time. More information here.

Monday 16 September 2013

The Resurrectionist by E.B. Hudspeth, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Resurrectionist by E.B. Hudspeth (Quirk Books, hb, 192pp; review copy supplied) is a very curious book. Billing itself as “The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black”, it combines sixty pages of stories about his life with over a hundred pages of anatomical illustrations of eleven mythical creatures: sphinx, siren, satyr, minotaur, elephant-headed boy, chimera, cerberus, pegasus, Chinese dragon, centaur and harpy. Before reading the book, one assumes that these will be specimens of cryptids Dr Spencer Black had discovered, acquired and dissected, but one finds out, unexpectedly, that he was in the business of creating the creatures himself, that these are all guesses, deliberate fakes, used to illustrate his theories and show what might have been had the evolutionary process been a little more forgiving. We hear how he began by stitching parts of human and animal corpses together, before trying his hand, with some ghastly success, at operating upon living beings, first animals, and then humans, including his own son. As one might guess, this does great harm to his family life and medical reputation.

This is an intriguing project, but while one appreciates the careful work and thought that went into it, it isn’t, unfortunately, very interesting to read. A quote on the back cover that mentions Jorge Luis Borges can be accounted for only by his having written about fictional works of reference; this isn’t a book that plays intellectual games. It’s awfully dry, the fiction unpredictable only in so far as it’s about a mad scientist with a passion for fashioning freaks, rather than the discovery of fantastical creatures (though Black claims that at least some specimens are real). The fiction does the job it is asked to do, putting the diagrams in context, but it is very much by-the-numbers and has little to say that you wouldn’t have guessed at from a flick through the book. It’s like the functional, got-a-job-to-do text used in art books like The Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania or The Diary of a Spaceperson to thread disparate images together, and one wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the two elements of the book were at one point intended to be intertwined.

But although I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a good story, it would make a quirky (double meaning intended) present. The cleverness here is in the detail of the drawings, not the writing that introduces them, though for most people seven pages of skeletal and muscular diagrams of a three-headed dog will be six pages too many. One group of people might really appreciate this book: fantasy writers. Because when your centaur gets an arrow in the butt you can look him up in this book and then cleverly discuss the damage to his semimembranosus. A fully-fledged book of this kind, ditching the fictional trappings, but covering a more expansive range of creatures, might well see Hudspeth as ubiquitous on fantasy writers’ shelves as Oxford or Fowler. As it is, it’s an unusual reference book to which few people will ever need to refer.

Friday 13 September 2013

Theakerly thoughts #5: Left Behind, PCHH, Simon Amstell on Wait Wait

Thought 1. Received our first ever payment from Amazon in respect of Kindle sales. I think we finally reached a magical £20 barrier, and it only took three years or so! The future is bright!

Thought 2. I’m beginning to wonder whether, if one purpose of genre societies is to give people involved in that genre something in common, the mistakes they make can actually be a good thing. Writers are happy to have something to talk about, about which to be interesting and clever, even if it makes them mad. The logical consequence of this is that societies should actively plan to do something controversial on a regular basis!

Thought 3. Ranjna and I have finally started to get into Breaking Bad. In the same way that it’s hard to get Ranjna to watch dramas made in the UK, it’s hard getting me to watch dramas without aliens or spaceships. I try to kid myself that Breaking Bad is set in the early days of Borderlands, before things got really crazy, or maybe a retro town in the Firefly universe. Lawrence of Arabia was much more fun when I imagined it was set on Arrakis.

Thought 4. We watched Left Behind: The Movie last weekend. It’s an odd film about an attack on the United States of America (and, though not shown on screen, the rest of the world) by the shadowy head of a religious organisation with its roots in the Middle East, who kills over 125 million people directly (I think that was the number), many of them children and babies, all of them entirely innocent and wiped from the face of the earth in an eyeblink. Untold millions more are indirectly hurt and killed, for example as a result of planes and cars crashing after their drivers are killed. Astonishingly, the film sides with the quislings who think the best course of action is to start worshipping the mass murderer! Hopefully the second and third instalments will show us some real American heroes who won’t stop fighting till they end his atrocities forever.

Thought 5. I love shredding my to-do lists. Partly because it’s so satisfying to be done with the day’s work, and partly because we have lovely orange Niceday to-do pads that make very attractive strips, but also because there’s absolutely no need to shred them at all, and I love the idea of someone patiently piecing them together in the hope of finding some useful personal information.

Thought 6. I also love Pop Culture Happy Hour, the podcast from NPR, which I started to listen to a couple of months ago. It’s refreshing to hear people talking intelligently about their love of television, movies, games, comics and music, without the specimen-on-a-slide feel that you get when similar subjects are considered in, say, the BBC’s Late Review. They talk about what they love, but don’t ignore the things they find problematic. They’re also really decent about avoiding spoilers, which makes it listenable even for those of us in the UK.

Thought 7. Still on podcasts, Rambling Through Genre, Episode 8 features Lizzie Barrett, one of the jurors on this year’s British Fantasy Award for best newcomer (also known as the Sydney J. Bounds award), which comes up briefly, though Lizzie is appropriately discreet! The sound quality is poor, but Lizzie and the hosts have lots of interesting things to say. Well worth a listen. Elsewhere, Lizzie has suggested that such awards might be better judged anonymously to lessen bias, which is an interesting thought, one that might become practical as more publishers submit work for judging electronically. It would be harder to make it work with paperbacks, which often have the author’s name on every other page. It would also, as Lizzie mentions, mean nominations couldn’t be announced until the judging was done. But certainly an idea worth bearing in mind, and a good thought experiment.

Thought 8. I hope not to become a word count bore, but my plan to write 250 words a day seems to be working out. I’ve kept the chain going for over three weeks now. Admittedly, many of those words have been going into blog fluff like this, but the reviews are stacking up too, as well as a few bits of fiction. By the time we reach November I hope my writing muscles will be all set for NaNoWriMo, which I haven't won once since standing down from being an ML. I’m also finding it quite therapeutic; where things are bothering me I can write something about them here. Some thoughts may not ultimately be suitable for publication (there were originally thirteen thoughts in this post!), but it’s healthy to write them down and get them out of my system.

Thought 9. I was listening today to Peter Sagal’s appearance on NPR’s trivia quiz show, Ask Me Another (podcast 222, from 5 September 2013), and he was asked about the worst ever experience when hosting his own NPR quiz show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, which is like a laid-back, avuncular version of our own News Quiz. Turns out it was the time they had Simon Amstell on as a panellist. Can’t believe I missed that one. Sounds like a classic example of Amstell’s comedy of awkwardness. Apparently he made fun of the show’s beloved topical limericks and the crowd turned against him! Peter Sagal said Amstell had obviously never heard their show before (how many people in the UK have?), but you can’t imagine they’d seen anything of his either if his approach came as a surprise. Peter Sagal did say he found it very funny. I hope I can track that full episode down, but there are highlights here.

Thought 10. I’ve been listening to the five new Pixies songs so much that I’m beginning to worry about wearing them out, so I’ve mixed in a few Black Francis/Frank Black/Grand Duchy songs that are in the same vein. “Black Suit” is the one of those that I’d really like to hear the Pixies record or perform. Always makes me think of Matt Bomer in White Collar.

Monday 9 September 2013

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia’s Story by Anne Rice and Ashley Marie Witter, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Interview with the Vampire: Claudia’s Story (Headline, hb, c.224pp) is adapted from the relevant parts of the novel by Anne Rice, and she is listed as the author, but this book seems to be essentially the work of Ashley Marie Witter. Memorably played by a creepy young Kirsten Dunst in the film adaptation, Claudia was turned as a child, and is cursed to remain a child forever, causing her much frustration and angst; she will never be a woman.

This graphic novel charts the course of her dismay; it begins with her eyes opening, ends with them closing. We see her waking from near death and being turned, her first hungry feeds, her efforts to escape with Louis from their mutual maker, Lestat, and her tragic fate in the Paris sunshine.

Well, tragic-ish – she is a serial killer! But without her desperate desire to grow up, she and Louis would have stayed away from Europe, and would not have fallen into the orbit of the more powerful, older vampires.

This story isn’t without interest, looking at the unusual familial relationships that might develop among vampires not bound by our social considerations. Lestat and Louis are all at once father and son, lovers, brothers, friends and enemies, and fathers to Claudia, the baby they had to save the relationship.

In the emotional manipulations of Lestat the book shows how a dominant vampire might exert his will over others, something often taken for granted or demonstrated through violence in such stories; he’s an abusive father, a domineering mother and a bad uncle, all in the body of a moody pop star.

As the relationship between Louis and Claudia, following their escape from Lestat, shades into a love affair between an adult and a child, it all feels uncomfortably icky. We learn eventually that they don’t have a physical relationship, but in Paris they are said to be “in love”, and there’s a fair bit of nuzzling and sweet talk. It’s a book about an abused child who is upset because a grown-up won’t abuse her some more; it’s unnecessary to explain why that didn’t appeal.

The manga-romance-style artwork plays into that theme, but is generally quite good, even if there’s not a lot to distinguish one pretty boy vampire from another. However, the colouring, a few shades of greeny-beige with splashes of red when required, makes the book look rather samey and unappetising, while the text, typeset in an unsympathetic font rather than properly lettered, and all in italicised sentence case, makes the dialogue and captions a trial to read. Recommended only for fans.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Theakerly thoughts #4: TTA reviews, 2000AD, holidaymakers

Thought 1. My review of Alison Littlewood’s new book Path of Needles appears in the forthcoming Black Static #36, and my review of the star-studded audiobook World War Z: The Complete Edition will probably appear in Interzone #248, out at the same time. So look out for those! Thanks to book review editors Peter Tennant and Jim Steel for giving me the opportunity to strut my stuff on a respectable stage. Lifetime subscriptions to both magazines are now available, and very much recommended. How much I wish now that I’d taken out a lifetime sub to Interzone when I was a teenager!

Thought 2. Another magazine I wish I’d subscribed to sooner is 2000AD. Though I’ve read dozens of the collections and reprint magazines, and subscribed to the Judge Dredd Megazine (for about a year) and the 2000AD Xtreme Edition (until it was cancelled), I don’t think I’d ever read two issues of the original comic in a row. Somehow I missed out on it as a kid which is a shame because I would have loved it; I adored the work Pat Mills and John Wagner were doing in Doctor Who Weekly. The last one I remember buying must have been a decade or so ago, since it featured a Spice Girls in space strip! I wasn’t impressed enough to buy another issue. And while I loved the Xtreme Edition, I found the Megazine a bit of a drag, the strips too short, samey (just by virtue of being all Dredd-related), and slow to progress (because it was a monthly). (I do however treasure the pack of Dredd playing cards that was supplied set-by-set over four issues! I use it at work, for measuring/rewarding my progress through long proofreading jobs!) But when Clint came to an end last month I realised I was going to miss the experience of reading comics as serials, so I bought myself a year-long sub to 2000AD, and I am really enjoying it. It’s not just the content, though that has been interesting, varied and much more suited to grown-ups than I’d expected, but also the experience of having a brand-new comic delivered through the door every week, seeing the stories develop, waiting for cliffhangers to be resolved. Arriving on Saturday morning makes it a great reward for the week’s hard work. Super. If I have the money spare when the time comes around, I’ll definitely be renewing my sub.

Thought 3. It’s been a year now since I deleted my Facebook account. I do miss the gossip, squabbling and drama. Have I missed anything good?

Thought 4. Do holidaymakers really prefer print? This article on the Telegraph's website says they do. But hang on a minute, do you really think they do? Doesn’t that just seem bonkers? Between us, my family read somewhere between twenty and thirty books during a five-day holiday this year. We would have needed an extra suitcase to carry that lot!
    And if you read the Telegraph article, a couple of things become apparent. For one thing, it’s only in the headline and lede (which are not usually written by the journalist) that it’s claimed holidaymakers prefer printed books to e-readers.
    The claim in the article is actually that the “the feeling of holding and thumbing through a real book was the main reason that 71 per cent of travellers said they would pack one over a slimmer, electronic version”.
    The main reason they said “they would”, not that they actually did!
    Read on and you discover the source of this research: Heathrow Airport’s retail director!

Monday 2 September 2013

Finches of Mars by Brian Aldiss, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Finches of Mars by Brian Aldiss (The Friday Project, epub, 2782ll; reviewed from Netgalley epub) is a dry report, in thirty-four short chapters with footnotes and an appendix, on the colonisation of our neighbour following the discovery of water in a great underground lake. Inspired by Herbert Amin Saud Mangalian’s argument that “humanity on Earth was doomed, and that the only solution was to send our best away, where they could strive – on Mars and beyond – to achieve true civilization”, the universities of the world collaborate first in sending two hydrologists, and then in building, maintaining and populating six towers, close enough to each other to avoid isolation, but distant enough to maintain independence. Each tower gathers speakers of one language family, to promote harmony. For similar reasons a decision is taken to allow no religious people on Mars. While problems back on Earth multiply and worsen, the colonists face their own troubles, most particularly the difficulty of bearing children on Mars. We learn most about the West tower, and its friendly relationship with the Chinese tower, friendly at least until door guardian Phipp shakes a member of the Chinese delegation by the throat. Phipp is Sheea’s partner but not the father of her baby, the first to survive childbirth, and takes offence at being congratulated.

The main theme, I think (as indicated by its title), is an examination of how living on another world – “a steady environmental change” – would affect humans, both in terms of the physical changes caused by a different gravity, and in how it might “act like a switch on our consciousness and our extended consciousness”. Colonising other worlds, it suggests, is not just a matter of building domes and oxygen pumps, but also of accepting the influence of new evolutionary pressures. As far as Earth goes, this book presents a worst case scenario, and through Mangalian (who has the last word, the appendix a summary of his influential book) argues that the worst case is inevitable. The recommendation is to spread our bets and keep our expectations low. As long as we rely on this one planet to keep the human race alive, and as long as we keep doing our best to muck it up, we’re on a knife edge, a few bad decisions (like that of Phipps, say) away from becoming a footnote in geological history.

The book is rather angry and pitiless in its dissection of humanity. Noel, the colony’s leader, may ultimately declare that “We are the great resource”, but the book doesn’t seem to particularly care whether we survive, wondering through Mangalian whether “this creature who has unsparingly overrun the planet deserves its self-inflicted misery”. Leaving the zealots behind on Earth seems like a good idea, especially when colonists returning to Earth face threats from suicide bombers, angry at their attempts to escape from God’s sight. But when hope seems to fade on Mars, with devastating consequences for the hope of all humankind, there’s a sense that perhaps some irrational faith in the future, for all its foolishness, might have been helpful: “Hope was such a hateful weakness. It sang out, sprang out, when least expected.”

The meticulous examination of such themes makes for a talky, thinky and theatrical novel, with figures moving on and off stage to say their significant words and think their significant thoughts – and I liked that about it. A Hollywood blockbuster version of exactly the same story can be imagined (and of course it would give away all the twists in the trailer), but this isn’t it. Finches of Mars will apparently be the last science fiction novel from Brian Aldiss, which is a great shame since this fascinating, provocative book, so dense with thoughts and speculations that a review can only draw out a handful of threads, is certainly not the work of an author in decline. If this had been his first book, one would eagerly anticipate the second.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Theakerly thoughts #3: female avatars, Abrams, worst son ever

Thought 1. The new MGMT single “Your Life Is a Lie” has taken a little while to grow on me, but now I’m loving it, and singing it till my family begs me not to, albeit with slightly altered lyrics (”Your life is a lie / I like to eat pie / Aeroplanes fly / You’re making me cry”). It must be hard when your first big single is such a definitive rock statement. Where do you go from that? Well, I think they’ve found some interesting places.

Thought 2. Apparently it’s a thing that lots of men don’t like playing games with female avatars, to the point that the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect and its sequels has acquired a separate label: FemShep. Supposedly only a small proportion of men play as her. This baffles me, and not for feminist reasons. Quite the opposite: lecherous reasons! If I’m going to spend thirty hours in a third-person game staring at a character’s bottom, I’d rather it was a female bottom! And ideally my wife’s! In pretty much every game where I could choose a customized character (Mass Effect, Oblivion, Skyrim, Saints Row the Third, etc), I’ve created one that looks an awful lot like Mrs Theaker. Okay, so sometimes I give her green skin, or blue hair, but that makes her easier to spot in the thick of battle. So I find it really weird that dudes are so adamant about playing as blokes. Perhaps they need to identify more closely with the player character than I do. Maybe they play online more than I do, and prefer an online avatar that will closely resemble them. Or maybe it’s a variety of homosexual panic: playing as a female character means you tend to attract romantic interest from male characters. Well, whatever. Doesn’t matter what those guys think of Commander Ranjna Shepard, they still owe their lives to her bravery!

Thought 3. An old thought, this. A review begun a long time ago but out of date before it was published. My thoughts from last year on watching the first few episodes of Person of Interest:
     Long-time readers will probably have guessed that I disagreed with Howard Watts’ scathing assessment of J.J. Abrams’ television productions in his review of Alcatraz, in particular when it came to Lost, which I’d rank among the very best programmes I’ve seen. Many people have an inflated idea of how many mysteries in Lost were left unanswered, possibly because they were answered as the programme went along with little fanfare, and so the masses who turned up for just the last episode thought they hadn’t been answered at all. In fact, there’s an irritatingly stubborn and just plain irritating idea abroad that the last episode revealed the whole programme to have been set in purgatory, which of course it didn’t. (The “purgatory” bits were a sequel to the events of the island, not an explanation for them. Their main purpose, I felt, was to show us the characters in different situations, letting us distinguish which of their characteristics were the result of circumstances, which were innate.) Alias and Fringe were brilliant at times, and even Felicity had its moments!
     I didn’t get around to watching Alcatraz (it was still piling up on the TiVo when it was cancelled), so I’ll defer to Howard’s opinion on that one, but I have been watching Person of Interest, Season 1, executive produced by Abrams, but created and written by Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of the Batman film trilogy.
     John Reese (Jim Cavaziel) is a war veteran living on the streets recruited by mysterious, wealthy Finch (Michael Emerson) to intercede in situations where someone is going to die, the twist being that he doesn’t know if the name he’s got is the victim or the murderer. It’s been excellent so far, the premise a successful cross between The Equalizer and Quantum Leap, with potential for one-off stories and longer arcs. Maybe it’s just my knowledge of the programme’s writer talking, but it’s not at all far off a Batman television series, albeit with the money transferred from Batman to Alfred, as Reese monitors each situation from the shadows before unleashing his violence skills at the crucial moment. He has some marvellous dialogue, my favourite from episode one being the warning he gives a crooked police officer: “I don’t particularly like killing people, but I’m very good at it.” One to check out, even if subsequent episodes tended more to the procedural than the exceptional.

Thought 4. Because the person who writes an FAQ has to write down the question as well as their answer, FAQs can sometimes provide an interesting opportunity to consider the difference between the questions that are being asked, and the questions someone thinks they are being asked.

Thought 5. Another old thought. Two hundred words on the subject of Once Upon a Time, that I decided weren’t suitable for publication as a review, given that I’d only half-watched the half of it that I watched:
     Once Upon a Time, Season 1 (Five) hasn’t been essential viewing for me, but the three female quarters of our family love it, and each casting announcement for season two (Mulan, the Little Mermaid, Captain Hook, and so on) has been a big deal for them. Superficially very similar in concept to the comic Fables, with fairytale characters living in our world (in this case in the town of Storybrook), it has played out very differently, with much of the focus being on events back in fairyland, which has the odd consequence that the programme’s lead character (Emma Swan, daughter of Snow White, sent to grow up in our world Superman-style) only appears in its best bits as a baby. Structurally it’s very similar to Lost, with the flashbacks focusing on a character at the heart of that episode’s current-day story, with revelations about that character’s history toying with your expectations of how that story will resolve. My favourite episode so far featured Grumpy the dwarf, born from a giant egg, and his doomed romance with a fairy (played by Amy Acker). The present day stories were at first a bit ordinary and repetitive when contrasted with the invention and magic of the fairytale stories, but as memories of that other world return it’s all becoming more interesting overall. Worth a look.

Thought 6. I’ve bought a wired Xbox 360 controller and the Xpadder software to let me use the controller on my PC. Not to play games, though maybe I will eventually, but more for when I want to lean back (or stand up) and read something on the PC screen without being tied to the keyboard and mouse. It’s taken a bit of customization, but it’s working quite nicely now. As with many of my previous brilliant office innovations (battle board, laboratory coat, daily scores out of ten), the family have mocked me for it.

Thought 7. Noticing that today was the first day of September, I realised that meant last month was August. Then thought, hang on, isn’t my mum’s birthday in August? No!!! I’m the worst son of all time. But every item on her Amazon wishlist is now on the way to her. And now I need to pluck up the courage to phone her.