Wednesday 30 October 2013

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

These are tips specifically to help people complete NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which challenges people to write a brand new 50,000-word novel in the month of November, from start to finish. These are not tips for writing a good novel, nor a ground-breaking novel, nor an important novel.

That’s not to say the results can’t be interesting or worthwhile. The novels I wrote while taking part in NaNoWriMo are infinitely better than any of the novels I’ve written since, because the latter don’t exist. And there’s much to be said for sometimes writing novels for your own amusement, rather than just because they might sell.

So, here are the tips:

1. Aim to write a 50,000-word novel from start to finish in a month. Yes, that’s the whole point of NaNoWriMo, but there are still people who plan to write the first 50,000 words of a fantasy brick, the back end of an unfinished project, or 50,000 words in their journal. If you’re not writing a novel from start to finish, you’ll be a hanger-on, and that’ll sap your enthusiasm for whatever project you’re trying to crowbar into NaNoWriMo. Use another month to write your memoirs.

2. Plan to write the kind of novel that is well-suited to being written in a month. Some novels are easier to write than others. Books with one point of view, with linear timelines, with quests from A to B, etc, or books that draw on clear memories, develop long-held beliefs and ideas, and are set in locations you know well. NaNoWriMo isn’t the best time to write books about the overlapping lives of multiple time-travelling, world-hopping protagonists, nor books that require historical accuracy and extensive research.

3. Write a treatment to narrow your focus. Before you start writing there are a million ways the book could go, which is exciting, but it can be hard to think very far into the novel until you’ve made some firm decisions. Take a sheet of A4 paper and set out your novel’s characters, plot, themes, setting and twists, just as if you were trying to sell an agent, editor or movie producer on the idea. If you’re not happy with it, write another, and another, till you are happy. Each one will only take half an hour or so: much better than getting thirty hours into writing the actual novel and then realising your mistakes.

4. Aim to write 1666 words a day. If you keep doing it each day it’ll build up your writing muscles. If you can’t make 1666, try to write at least something every day, anything to push that word count up. One day without writing can easily turn into two or three and before you know it you’re putting it off to the weekend and facing an uphill struggle.

5. Give yourself a nice, clear job to do each day. I tend to split my NaNoWriMo novels up into thirty chunks, one per day/writing session. It helps to be able to wake up each morning and think, this evening I’ll be writing a chapter where my character goes to see a psychiatrist to deal with his anger issues and discovers the psychiatrist is an alien. And make sure you get that task done. Tomorrow you have another. Don’t get up to 40,000 words and realise you’re still writing the prologue!

6. Draw a map as you go along. I’m not big on world-building: I don’t think it’s necessary for the kind of novels best written in NaNoWriMo. But drawing a map instantly suggests plots and events. How do they get over that mountain? Why is that city surrounded by forests? Who lives in that house on the edge of town? It’s also a good idea to draw a line marking your characters’ progress around the map, noting the dates and times they arrived at and departed from each location.

7. Use your router to block your internet access during the times of day when you’ll be writing, and have someone else set the password. In fact, do everything you can to dedicate a set part of every day to your writing.

8. Stop watching television for the month. Let it build up on the TiVo or Sky+. The only reason you’ve never written a novel before is that you haven’t set enough time aside for it. A novel this length is going to take something like 40 to 60 hours to write. Cut out two hours of television a day and you’ll be well on the way. If you can’t bear to quit the television, give up the Xbox, or reading, or drinking, or however it is that you spent your time last month.

9. Feeling stuck? Never ask yourself what should come next. Ask yourself what could come next. Your character’s thoughts on whether time should be decimalised (clue: it should!) may not be relevant to the plot you have planned, but if you can’t think what else to write, that’s a way to keep moving forward. You can always delete any crap in the second draft. You may find that the digressions turn out to be the best bits.

10. Give your characters a reason to talk to each other, different ways of reacting to things. When you’re struggling to make your word count, having a bunch of idiots jibber-jabber can be very useful. Give them different points of view. Think of something happening in Friends. How does Joey react? (Stupidly.) What about Chandler? (Sarcastically.) Rachel, Ross, Monica or Phoebe? (Selfishly, academically, anxiously, weirdly.) Every new reaction is a way to push up your word count.

11. Ignore the naysayers! Every time NaNoWriMo comes around you get lots of people, often professional writers, sniffily proclaiming their disdain of the event. No wonder, when you think about it: you’re doing for fun what they do for a job, and that can be irritating for them. They’re writing for the man, you’re writing for your inner child. Although some do take part, NaNoWriMo isn’t aimed at professional novelists who spend all day every day staring at a keyboard: writing a fifty thousand word novel in a month isn’t any challenge at all to someone who has all day to write. (Full time, you could be done in under a fortnight.) It’s for people who have other jobs, who wouldn’t clear the space to write a novel otherwise. And remember, however bad your novel ends up being, it has a valuable quality rare in commercially published work: it’s the book you wanted to write, not the book you thought would sell.

12. Give your main character some of the same interests as you. It makes it much easier to win. If you’re mad about the cancellation of Happy Endings, and your character is too, that gives you something to fall back on when you run out of steam. And you know what, while you’re writing what seems to you at first like a digression, your brain is working on a way to integrate it into your plot. An episode of Happy Endings will come to mind that reflects the situation your characters are in, your characters will start talking about that, and maybe it’ll help them to figure a way out.

13. Attend the local write-ins if you can, as long as they are actually focused on writing. The social pressure of being among other people who are quietly typing away makes it easier for you to do the same.

14. If you fall behind a bit, don’t immediately set yourself a increased daily target or try to catch it all up the next day. Focus on getting 1666 words done in a day, and then try to get the hang of writing 1666 words in a single writing session. Once you are confident about doing that, schedule two sessions for a day on which you’ll have time to give it a fair shot.

15. A bit late for this year, but learn to touch-type, ideally using the Dvorak layout. Makes it so much easier if you can type all day without your fingers aching. And look after your fingers this month: don’t play any button-mashing videogames. (Future Stephen, this means you: no Dynasty Warriors!)

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, we created a handout for our local writers, with achievements, graphs to fill in, bits of advice, useful websites, etc. We haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s still available to download and print out on our old website.

Do you have any tips? Pass them on in the comments.

Good luck! See you at the finish line!

Wednesday is usually the list day on our blog. This is list #8.

Monday 28 October 2013

Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks, read by Mark Gatiss, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve read the Target edition of Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks (AudioGO, digital audiobook, 3 hrs 3 mins; Audible purchase) by Terrance Dicks, but as soon as I saw this new reading by Mark Gatiss (with Dalek voices by Nicholas Briggs) it attracted the attention of my monthly Audible token. That voice! Imagine him reading this: “The cover illustration of this book portrays the third Doctor Who, whose physical appearance was altered by the Time Lords when they banished him to the planet Earth in the twentieth century.” In the first story of his fourth season, the third Doctor (with the help of his earlier selves) had won back the right to travel in time and space, but as usual flew straight into serious trouble. First came the drashigs, and then the incipient space war between the human and Draconian empires, a war engineered by the dastardly Daleks to pave the way for their invasion. This story begins with Jo Grant watching over the injured Doctor, the Tardis being sent by the Time Lords to Spiridon. She’ll soon venture out for help, and end up in the hands of its invisible inhabitants, but as the title suggests, this is no longer their planet. The Doctor will eventually wake and go looking for Jo, only to meet a squad of Thals, here to destroy a Dalek base at any cost.

The six original television episodes were scripted by Terry Nation, writer of the Daleks’ first appearance in 1963 (this story came ten years later), and the story is something of a throwback to those early days, with a lot of aimless running around in jungles. Structurally, it’s pretty much a remake of his first story for the programme, The Daleks. The Tardis is incapacitated, the companion falls ill and will die if not treated, the Thals are attacking a Dalek base. The Tardis interior is so tiny in this story that the Doctor exhausts its air in a matter of hours after the exterior is smothered by Spiridon’s plant life. Makes you wonder how its occupants survive when it is flying through space! The third Doctor is as dismissive of others as the first ever was: reunited with Jo after she’s been crawling around the Dalek base, he doesn’t let her speak, because there’s no way of course she could possibly have any important information for him.

But despite its flaws, there has always been something magical about this story for me: it’s Where Eagles Dare starring Doctor Who! Even now it seems unusual in being a sequel to a story from two Doctors before. And like many of the Pertwee-era stories, it benefits greatly from the Target novelisation: ironically, stories that were rather too long on television become quick-paced, action-packed adventures when compressed down to one hundred and twenty-five pages. This is a typical example, its three hours gripping in precisely the way that the six television episodes were not.

The audiobook includes fun sound effects and music stings, and Mark Gatiss’s narration is perfect, an absolute delight. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I once had a cassette copy of Jon Pertwee’s reading of the same book, and it surprises me to say I prefer this version. It’s unabridged, so that helps, but it always seemed odd to have the Doctor reading a text in which he was a character. As read by Gatiss, even the worst dialogue of the story (“I’m qualified in space medicine, I’ll do what I can for your friend”) becomes something to savour, and he tickles the listener with those words and phrases which adults may find amusing (the noise made by the plants splatting on the Tardis). However many times you’ve read the book or watched the episodes, this new audio version is well worth a listen.

Friday 25 October 2013

Doctor Who: Shada, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Doctor Who: Shada by Douglas Adams (BBC DVD, 2013). A thirty-third anniversary celebration or a subdued twenty-first? Tricky stuff, time travel…

Season 17 (1979/1980) of Doctor Who was script-edited by Douglas Adams, and was to have concluded with Adams’s six-part serial Shada. When two studio recording blocks (five days) were lost to industrial action, production on Shada was cancelled. Adams’s last work on Doctor Who went unfinished (gone but not forgotten; Adams subsequently incorporated Professor Chronotis and the Cambridge setting into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). Thirty-three years on, the recorded footage for Shada has been released on DVD, along with an extra DVD of special features. Firstly, to these:

“Taken Out of Time” (25 mins) purports to examine why Shada was never completed. It does so, however, in rather a lazy way (drum roll: there were strikes), as if the people at 2|entertain were quite happy just to punt idly along the River Cam, rather than diving in and splashing around in search of real answers. Didn’t the rising popularity of Hitchhiker’s give the BBC more incentive to remount the production? Did Douglas Adams’s apparent dissatisfaction with the script play any part? Given incoming producer John Nathan-Turner’s enthusiasm for the story, coupled with a dearth of scripts and a short turnaround before the next season, would it not have been possible (nay, advisable) to rework Shada in place of either The Leisure Hive or Meglos, both of which had problematic geneses? These questions are not asked, let alone investigated.

“Now and Then” (13 mins) is a recurring special feature on Doctor Who DVDs. Unfortunately, its mandate is to catch up not with the people involved in production, but rather the locations – an exercise that seems particularly banal in this instance where the setting is same-as-it-ever-was Cambridge.

“Strike! Strike! Strike!” (28 mins) sets out to detail the history of BBC strike action with regard to its effect on Doctor Who throughout the years. The topic of industrial action per se seems unlikely to be of any great interest to most viewers, and the Doctor Who angle is only superficially touched upon. The result: an overlong yet facile documentary.

“Being a Girl” (30 mins) takes a feminist-orientated look at the way in which women have contributed (both off- but primarily on camera) throughout Doctor Who’s history from 1963 to present day. Though easily the most engaging of the special features, “Being a Girl” falls down on two fronts: firstly, in interviewing nobody from within the programme itself (although the outside interviewees come off well); secondly, in selecting material with a view to fitting the argument – not to dwell too much on agendas, but if nothing else the cursory treatment of Romanas I and II (particularly as an extra on a DVD in which Romana features) seems indefensible.

“Photo Gallery” (5 mins) is, as the title suggests, a slideshow of pictures from the production of Shada. Lalla Ward fans will be happy, although DVD is not, of course, the most accessible medium in which to display photographs.

“Shada: Animated Version” (feature length) is a flash-viewer presentation of the BBCi webcast of 2003, wherein a new set of actors – with the exception of Lalla Ward as Romana, and John Leeson (who previously and subsequently but not during the original production had provided the voice of K9) – play out in full the six episodes of Shada. Because Tom Baker declined to take part, the script was tweaked so that Paul McGann could participate as the Eighth Doctor. The plot conceit rather cleverly takes the 1980 non-broadcast of Shada into account, suggesting that this adventure was itself cut short and limited to the Doctor’s and Romana’s leisurely afternoon punt… the one piece of Shada to see transmission (as part of The Five Doctors in 1983). Which is all well and good within the context of the original Shada’s being unavailable (as appeared to be the case once the VHS release – see below – was discontinued in 1996). It does, though, rather go against the feature release on which DVD it is now included! And even if we discount continuity the animated Shada continues to vex with its presence. Its so-called “animation” is primitive at best – more like panning a camera across the face of a comic book – and like attempts to bring Asterix or Tintin to life, shows that limited movement can prove far inferior to the artistic poignancy of a genuine still frame. Paul McGann’s performance – when not sounding like a slightly more responsible cross between Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox; unsurprising, given Adams’s propensity for crosspollination – leaves one lamenting that he made only one televised appearance as the Doctor. (Indeed, it will be this paucity, rather than age or lack of sprightliness, that ultimately precludes him, we must assume, from appearing in the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary special.) But McGann, Ward and Leeson aside, i-Shada had only one redeeming feature at time of webcast: that by following Douglas Adams’s scripts in full it afforded the viewer (or listener, at any rate) the means by which at last to take in what is a wonderfully involved and complicated story. As of 2011, however, there has been available (though not included on the current DVD) a version of Shada put together on spec by Doctor Who fan Ian Levine, featuring the original footage linked together by animations and newly recorded voice work from much of the original cast. It seems a very strange choice by 2|entertain commissioning editor Dan Hall not to have included Levine’s version as a DVD bonus… or possibly in place of the main feature. (Cue the letdown…)

Shada (as presented in the 2013 DVD) is nothing more than the version that John Nathan-Turner eventually cobbled together for VHS release in 1992 – the same video, in fact, that Douglas Adams is said to have authorised only by accident while signing a stack of forms handed to him by Ed Victor. Same score. Same effects. Same linking material by Tom Baker. The picture has been cleaned up a bit but there is, in short, nothing new here – not even an audio commentary such as traditionally accompanies Doctor Who on DVD. Consequently, the overall package will be something of a disappointment to those fans whose interest in Doctor Who and Douglas Adams is sufficient that they know the story already and have tracked down Shada on VHS. As for everyone else… well yes, the 2013 (re-) release will bring to the TV screen a true rarity indeed: a Doctor Who story of which they as yet have no fond memories. And furthermore, it’s Douglas Adams, dating from his most prolific, most imaginative period of writing. Which begs just one question… is it any good?

Although only one block of studio recording was completed, all of Shada’s location filming was carried out and provides the production with a beautiful grounding. The first half of Shada is set in and around Cambridge (where Adams himself had studied not so long beforehand). Into these pleasant surrounds step the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward), who have been summoned by the Doctor’s old friend, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey) – a retired Time Lord who has been residing for three centuries as Regius Professor of Chronology at Cambridge University. Chronotis has brought a book with him from Gallifrey; in truth a very dangerous artefact that he’s absent-mindedly allowed postgraduate student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) to borrow. Stomping through Cambridge in pursuit of this book is the villainous and Liberace-dressed Skagra (Christopher Neame), who intends to unlock the Time Lords’ mysteriously forgotten prison planet (Shada), steal the powers of the fabled villain Salayavin and use them, in conjunction with Skagra’s own mind sphere, to become (not merely take over) the entire universe…

According to Adams, the script for Shada was written in a tearing great hurry once it became clear that producer Graham Williams wasn’t going to let him run with either of the stories he really wanted to make (The Doctor Retires and Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, the latter of which then became Adams’s third Hitchhiker’s novel Life, the Universe and Everything) – and like much of what Adams came up with once actually chained to an impending deadline, the result was quite extraordinary. Shada is zany, yes, but its sleepless, almost delirious flights of fancy stay true to Doctor Who’s ethos. The wit is sharp (and beautifully delivered by Baker, Ward and Carey), but always in counterpoint to the seriousness of the threat that Skagra poses; in short: black coffee humour, which nobody did better than Adams. Daniel Hill provides an excellent “straight” foil to the craziness around him. The action sequences on location are executed with panache. Even the special effects (Skagra’s mind sphere and a typically Adamsish invisible spaceship) appear to stand up. Truly, it would seem, a classic lost in the making. Although—

Well, there’s a tendency to romanticise such things, isn’t there? Shada was, in essence, a first draft, and while it was no doubt a spectacularly good first draft, there is still much about the script that has quietly benefited from not being put before the camera and subjected to great scrutiny. (By all accounts it took Gareth Roberts a good deal of work to sort it all out for his 2012 novelisation.) Victoria Burgoyne’s character (Claire) is half-baked. Skagra’s menace sinks in the middle episodes and then fails to rise. And whereas the Cambridge scenes work marvellously, enough of the studio filming survives to suggest that the non-Cambridge material, if allowed to manifest, would have suffered from the same shortcomings as Adams’s previous non-Earthbound story, The Pirate Planet; that is, wildly unrealistic expectations of the visual medium in general and Doctor Who’s budget in particular. The ideas that served Adams so well in print and on radio tended to scupper him when translated to screen, and as the material runs dry and Tom Baker tries more and more frantically to talk the viewer through Shada’s second half, one cannot help but wonder whether the production may, in fact, have been pulled away from the water just in time to prevent it from falling in and floundering helplessly.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Director Pennant Roberts shows some nice touches, and might well have learnt a thing or two since the disappointments of The Pirate Planet. Incidental music by Doctor Who stalwart Dudley Simpson would also have helped (rather than Keff McCulloch’s somewhat incongruous score, which graces the VHS/DVD release). Ultimately, of course, it’s just not possible to say. Welcome though it is, and much though it does provide the “tantalising glimpse” promised by the DVD case, the 2013 release of Shada remains unsatisfying. Did the 1979 BBC strikes spare the audience from another botched effort like The Pirate Planet? Or did it rob them of something more in keeping with Adams’s City of Death? Ian Levine’s version may someday provide us with a better idea, but for now, as it was twenty-one years ago when the patched-up Shada first came out on VHS, we still don’t know.

When he unwittingly authorised Shada’s emancipation on video, a chagrined Adams donated his royalties to Comic Relief. Anyone watching Shada in 2013 should consider purchasing not only the DVD but also a Red Nose Day proboscis to wear while doing so.

Monday 21 October 2013

We See a Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad | review by Stephen Theaker

We See a Different Frontier (The Future Fire, ebook, 3447ll; Kindle purchase), edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad, is an anthology of sixteen stories, and also a special issue of the magazine The Future Fire, which publishes fantasy work with a political edge. After a year’s hiatus, the magazine encouraged applications from potential guest editors. That led first to Outlaw Bodies, edited by Lori Selke, and now to this book. The submission guidelines set an interesting challenge: to approach science fiction from the point of view not of those pushing the frontier out, in their wagon trains to the stars, but from the perspective of those who have experienced the expanding frontier from the other side. When I read the guidelines, my thoughts went towards the alien experience of human expansion, but the introduction makes it clear that the editors were more interested in “us, the aliens from Earth. Foreigners. Strangers to the current dominant culture.” And so only a few of the stories are set in space, most being set here on Earth, using science fiction to address historical, contemporary and controversial issues directly, rather than retreating to the safe Star Trekkian distance of metaphorical alien planets.

But those stories that feature aliens use them well. In “Them Ships” Silvia Moreno-Garcia considers how the flattening of human social structures by an alien invasion might not be entirely unwelcome among those currently at the bottom of the pile. A spacecraft hangs over the city in “A Bridge of Words” by Dinesh Rao, broadcasting an incomprehensible message, while Riya researches the tattoos of the country she left behind. Both are good stories, but Sunny Moraine’s “A Heap of Broken Images” is astonishing. It’s the heartbreaking story of an alien guide showing insensitive human tourists around the scene of a massacre. The story’s point is made by how unsurprised the reader is to learn what happened.

“What Really Happened in Ficandula” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is the only other story to take us off-world. It begins with a strong taste of Battlestar Galactica, as Gemma’s ship arrives at New Cordillera after six hundred and twenty leaps to throw off their pursuers, but it develops very quickly into a fine story with its own flavour that draws on the kind of shameful incidents that go hand in hand with imperial power and colonisation: forced migration, forced adoption, trigger-happy soldiers.

Some stories show us the survivors of global catastrophes, such as Joyce Chng’s “Lotus”, which shows people surviving in a waterlogged land, who find a wonderful source of fresh water and must decide whether to claim ownership of it, given all the consequences that defending it might bring. “Fleet” by Sandra McDonald is the story of a girl called Bridge who used to be a boy named Magahet Joseph Howard USN. She’s married to a man whose other wife hopes she’ll “be gored to death by a goonie pig”. Bridge’s people live on an island which was once part of an empire, and isn’t any more, and they have mixed feelings about re-establishing contact with whatever’s left of civilisation.

Shweta Narayan’s “The Arrangement of Their Parts” is set in 1665, where an Englishman is trying to exploit clockwork life forms, while “Forests of the Night” by Gabriel Murray is told by the unacknowledged son of an English captain, who brings him back to England from Kuala Lumpur. The mother is left behind, the boy employed as a valet. Something is killing sheep, horses and then men, and it needs to be hunted. Though they’re not writers one would expect to meet at this party, Kipling and Doyle came to mind, and the story isn’t embarrassed by the comparison. “Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus” by Ernest Hogan sees Tesla creating a helicopter-borne death ray for Mexican revolutionaries, only for it to be hijacked by a guy angry about Hollywood’s cultural appropriation of his girlfriend. It’s the kind of pulpy cartoon story with a serious theme that would fit neatly into an Obverse anthology. “I Stole the D.C.’s Eyeglass” is about a girl who worries for her stubborn sister, Minisare, who disappears off into the forest and doesn’t want to be given a husband. Sofia Samatar shows a community ruined by commercial exploitation, so used to the roar of machinery that the children can all read lips – but it ends on a hopeful note.

Lavie Tidhar is one of my favourite writers at the moment and “Dark Continents” is another excellent story from him. “We began to edit, but we were sloppy at first”, we read. That process created a new role for Livingstone, an African invasion of the confederacy, a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Style, ideas, storytelling: Tidhar’s stories excel in every area. A sentence here sums up the injustice of colonialism: “We had moved en masse to this land, empty but for its people, granted to us by the power of British empire and its King and parliament.”

Another of my favourite stories in the anthology was “Old Domes” by J.Y. Yang. Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings: when they are to be knocked down or refurbished she must clear the way by killing their guardian spirits. The story looks not just at the ongoing after-effects of colonialism, but also at the histories lost as colonial powers impose a new year zero. And it also has some good fights! “How to Make a Time Machine Do Things that Are Not in the Manual or The Gambiarra Method” is a Rudy Ruckerish story by Fabio Fernandes about researchers who discover time travel “during experiments on locative media and augmented reality as applied to elevators”. This makes sense, since even ordinary lifts are known to cause time dilations. “Droplet” by Rahul Kanakia inverts the usual story of the Indian emigrant who agonises over having taken their skills abroad – see for example the film Swades – to show what happens when they return to India, in this case because the USA has begun to dry up.

“Vector” is a cyberpunk story told in the second person by Benjanun Sriduangkaew: “You. Are. (A weapon. A virus. A commandment from God.)” You are literally plugged into the internet, and the hope is that you’ll do something to reverse the exploitation of your country and the steamrolling of its culture, a recurring theme in the book: “This is how to rewrite a country’s past, and when a past is gone it is easy to replace the present with convenience.” Similar themes are explored in “Remembering Turinam” by N.A. Ratnayake, despite its more historical (or fantastical?) setting. This wasn’t my favourite of the stories here, its protagonist Salai a bit too self-righteous and unpleasant to carry the reader. The story is essentially a conversation, the subject the active erasing of the Turian language by the Rytari invaders, and the question of whether it should be restored, and if so how. An exploration of the viral nature of language might have been very interesting in this context – you can’t keep a good word down! – but language is a topic big enough to inspire an anthology in itself, and a story shouldn’t be blamed for not exploring every angle.

The book was hardly published in hopes of a pat on the head from a white Englishman, and even the act of reviewing it – issuing my judgment upon the hard work of these plucky foreign types! – seems to go against the spirit of the book. The afterword by Ekaterina Sedia is a more sensitive response to the book’s themes than I could ever write (though if I had thought like her that the stories shared an anti-scientific theme I would have seen it as a weakness rather than a strength). But, for what my opinion is worth, I thought the book was absolutely terrific. The short length of the stories meant none had time to waste, and there is a great deal of variety. It’s full of surprising plots and perspectives, and if the premise of the book might make you expect a lecture, don’t think of the finger-wagging kind, think more of an inspirational guest speaker who opens your eyes to new ideas and new approaches. Many anthologists, when asked about the lack of diversity in their work, declare that they care about quality and not quotas. This book shows that diversity needn’t come at a cost, and is in fact an extremely valuable quality for an anthology.

On the technical side, the Kindle edition is fine, apart from (on my devices, at least) being set in block paragraphs with a line space between. That could be a deliberate choice – it does look rather elegant – but it means more page turns, especially on smaller screens. Other than that, the book is very highly recommended.

Friday 18 October 2013

Astronauts, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Astronauts, by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie (Network DVD; original ITV run: 26 October – 7 December 1981 (Series 1); 19 July – 23 August 1983 (Series 2)). Goodies two, Astronauts nil…and the audience is bushnana’d.

Britain’s first ever manned space mission sees an unlikely crew – two men, one woman, one dog – cooped up together for six months trying to break the world endurance record. Cut off from Planet Earth, guided only by an American mission controller (who has to be taught the correct way to read them the football scores), the astronauts must face up to both excruciating boredom and the extreme perils of isolation.

Although the “sit” in “sitcom” need not encompass more than a few rooms – in this case four sections of a space capsule; more than any of the Blackadders – it does at first seem unlikely that Astronauts could successfully derive its “com” element primarily from actual problems documented by the astronauts of NASA’s Skylab programme. Granted, writers Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie had collaborated on The Goodies throughout the seventies, and some of their finest Goodies scripts (“The End”; “Earthanasia”) had come about when late-in-the-season budgets necessitated limiting an episode to the confinement of a single set; but even when tied down The Goodies remained fanciful at heart. Astronauts, on the other hand, was trying to find the funny side of a rather cramped and gritty reality; and not even in a dark, Dr Strangelove kind of way, but rather as a Monday or Tuesday night sitcom. Was that ever going to work?

The answer when Red Dwarf hit our screens on 15 February 1988 was a resounding “yes”. But as for Astronauts, the honest answer is “no”.

Astronauts suffers from an absence of incidental music (a crushing blow for Bill Oddie fans), and a lacklustre studio audience, which laughs only sporadically at fairly slow-moving scripts. Its most obvious shortcoming, however, is that Garden and Oddie, despite writing, did not star in the show. After eight highly successful series for the BBC, The Goodies had just been cut (to free up money for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and had gone over to ITV. Indeed, its one and only ITV series went out from 27 December 1981 to 13 February 1982, just after series one of Astronauts wrapped up. There was no chance that Garden, Oddie or fellow Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor could appear (Bimbo the dog was the only honorary Goodie to make the cast list); yet, because the Goodies wrote for themselves and put much of their own personalities into their onscreen personas, the character of Ackroyd (Barrie Rutter) comes across as quintessentially Oddie, while Mattocks (Christopher Godwin) and Foster (Carmen du Sautoy) manifest sometimes as Garden, sometimes as Brooke-Taylor… and so it is difficult to watch Astronauts series one without thinking of the Goodies – being played by other people! Series two is a marked improvement: in part because Garden and Oddie were no longer writing Astronauts and The Goodies concurrently; in part because they’d had a chance to observe the dynamic that Rutter, Godwin and du Sautoy brought to their erstwhile Goodies-ish characters; but even at its best, Astronauts still comes across rather in the manner of something that Garden and Oddie would quite like to have moved on to, but hadn’t managed to because they weren’t quite finished being the Goodies.

Curiously enough, it was in 1983, as series two of Astronauts passed largely unheralded from TV screens across England, that Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor formed their writing partnership. Graeme Garden once quipped that he and Oddie should have hung on for five years and done Red Dwarf instead of Astronauts; and while it would be spurious to claim that Grant and Naylor in any way salvaged one SF comedy from the drifting wreck of the other, nevertheless it must be remembered that The Goodies was still a high-profile programme at the beginning of the 80s, and that Astronauts – pitched in essence as a Goodies spinoff – consequently was released with quite some fanfare. As budding comedy writers, Grant and Naylor would have been remiss not to check it out and perhaps make a mental note or two.

The first series of Red Dwarf is everything that Astronauts set out to be: a space comedy based on character conflict, confinement and a desert island sense of listlessness; and while only Rob Grant and Doug Naylor could tell us what lessons they learnt, if any, from Astronauts, there are certain aspects of Red Dwarf that do appear to hint at transference. Having the Cat as a humanoid feline, for instance, seems like an idea that might well have been sparked from watching poor old Bimbo’s rather facile inclusion in Astronauts; and similarly, Red Dwarf’s defining brainchild of having its protagonists confined not by a sense of being closed in and constantly watched (as per Astronauts) but rather through being all alone on an enormous empty spaceship effectively without restrictions. Retrospectively, the character of Dave Lister (Craig Charles) is easily discernible in his “scruffy northerner” precursors David Ackroyd and Bill Oddie (qua himself), while Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is undoubtedly Malcolm Mattocks taken to an absurdist extreme. The Red Dwarf duo even look quite like their Astronauts counterparts! None of which is to suggest that Red Dwarf is unoriginal, or that it didn’t blast to comedic galaxies that Astronauts could only covet myopically through a large telescope; merely that without one programme, we might not have had the other. (And as a point of interest to Dwarfers, let it be revealed that Ackroyd’s great, shameful secret is that he, like Rimmer, enjoys a spot of Morris-dancing.)

Astronauts is not altogether without highpoints, many of which come courtesy of Bruce Boa – formerly the American guest from Fawlty Towers, subsequently General Rieekan in The Empire Strikes Back, and throughout Astronauts appearing as the overwrought and effusive, charismatic Mission Controller Lloyd Beadle. It takes a while for this, the only true non-Goodies character to develop, but as series one – and particularly series two – hits its stride, Boa/Beadle quickly emerges as the show’s unheralded star. (Perhaps this in some measure explains the Americans’ interest in making their own series of Astronauts, with M*A*S*H’s McLean Stevenson as Beadle. This venture, like the ill-conceived American Red Dwarf, went no further than one poorly-received pilot episode.) The Astronauts DVD release makes sure to credit not only Garden and Oddie but also nominal script editors Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who teamed up for Porridge) and producer Douglas Argent (Fawlty Towers) – a subterfuge of sorts, having already promoted itself as an “hilarious comedy” (the sort of exaggeration you’d think only Goebbels would have the mettle for, and a rather inane suggestion given such audience reactions as Seema Bakewell going into labour and Alex Mitchell literally laughing himself to death while watching episodes of The Goodies).[1] Add to this the selection of cover photos – which misleadingly depict Carmen du Sautoy as having spent much of the series stripped down to her underwear – and the impression one receives is that Astronauts has been put out as a no-frills, cheap laughs, disposable impulse buy… and while this may, in part, reflect the truth of the original broadcasts, nevertheless it does something of a disservice both to the intentions of the programme and to the role that Astronauts fulfilled within the early development of TV science fiction comedy.

1. Graeme Garden, “The Goodies Still Rule OK Tour Diary”, April 26, 2007 []; Robert Ross, The Goodies Rule OK (ABC Books, 2006), p. 115.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Theakerly thoughts #8: X-Files, Nanowrimo, Bullet Journal

Thought 1. I was quite disappointed when the X-Files reunion panel at San Diego Comic Con failed to produce any significant announcements, which made the panel seem a bit pointless. That appearance, and the one at the New York Comic Con this week, make a bit more sense in the light of stories like this. It sounds like Chris Carter and the stars want to make a third film, and the current publicity round is to show Fox that there’s interest in one. I hope it works, although the problems with the second film were nothing to do with the budget, and everything to do with lousy logic. (If someone claiming to be a psychic leads you to a corpse, and then fails to lead you to a second one, you wouldn’t kick them out on their butts for being fake psychics, you’d question them to find out how they knew about the first body!) Both actors have gone on to success with other projects which I’d guess makes them more comfortable with returning to those defining roles. Among other things, Gillian Anderson was brilliant in Hannibal, and David Duchovny is brilliant if despicable in Californication. (X-Filers are recommended to watch season 4, episode 10 of that show, if no other.) My hope, though, is not really for a film. I want new episodes on Netflix, Arrested Development-style.

Thought 2. Nanowrimo! It’s been a long, long time now since I succeeded at Nanowrimo. In fact, I haven’t finished writing a novel at all, Nanowrimo or not, since stepping down as one of the Birmingham MLs. I think it’s because I haven’t really committed to it, starting it out of habit most years without really caring whether I get a novel finished or not, and I have been very happily busy with work for the last few years. Two years ago I went offline for a month to get it done, in theory, but never got properly started. Also, I haven’t been going to the write-ins, and I used to regularly write 5000 words in the course of our Sunday afternoons at Starbucks. This year I feel very differently. I’m desperate to write another novel – I’m getting anxious about it again. I’m planning to take a week’s holiday at some point in the month to concentrate on it, and I’ve set aside each night from nine to midnight for writing. I’ve been forcing myself to write at least 250 words a day to build up my writing muscles. Checking the figures, I’ve actually averaged 449 words a day over the last 56 days, which is a way off the 1666 a day needed to complete Nanowrimo but a lot more than I managed during the last few Nanowrimos. And I’ve been working like mad this month to get ahead of everything. I’m also going to stop reading books and comics five days before the end of this month, so that I’m not tempted to spend time writing reviews during November instead of my novel, and so that the only story I’m ever thinking about is my own. I won’t say anything about the plot here, because I’ll probably end up publishing it in character, under a pseudonym, but I’m quite happy with the basic concept, and my notebook’s pages are filling up with plans and ideas. I’ve had an idea for one brilliant twist and I can’t wait to write that bit! I doubt that the novel overall will be any good, because none of the novels I have ever written have been any good, but writing them does make me happy. The widgets below should, once November has started, show you how I'm getting on.

Thought 3. Very good news about the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who episodes being found. I’m on a spending freeze, as I recover from paying for a holiday and look forward to Christmas and paying my taxes, so they’ve had to go on my Amazon wishlist for now, but Boxing Day is going to be wonderful this year. Amazing to think how careless the BBC was with these treasures. All three series of my beloved Journey into Space were thought lost for decades before being discovered, misfiled, by an engineer. Makes me worry sometimes what treasures of the future might be going into my recycling bin.

Thought 4. Our old friend Steven Gilligan once bought John and me matching moleskine notebooks, telling us how brilliant they were and how many artists love them, etc, etc. We were a bit baffled at the time, but I think he’d be glad to know that one has finally become a big part of my life, because I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. The big things I like about it are the numbered pages, the contents page that builds up as you use the journal, and the page you create at the beginning of each month listing its days and events. My journal’s now got a bunch of pages relating to this year’s Nanowrimo, others devoted to notes from our monthly TQF meetings, pages listing books read and films watched. The system’s worth a look, especially if like me you have a tendency to scatter your notes and ideas around a bit too much.

Thought 5. My writing appears in the magazines reviewed here and here by Terry Weyna. Unsurprisingly, there’s no particular mention of my brief contributions, but I liked this bit in the Interzone review: “There are nearly 30 pages of book and film reviews following the fiction, written by several reviewers and critics, all eloquent and knowledgeable about science fiction and fantasy, as well as perceptive writers.” Phew – I’m still getting away with it!

Monday 14 October 2013

Insufferable: The Complete First Season by Mark Waid and Peter Krause, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Insufferable: The Complete First Season (Thrillbent, ebook, 557pp; Comixology purchase) is written by Mark Waid, a writer whose work I’ve always liked, but who to my mind has stepped up a level of late, with art by Peter Krause, the two of them co-creating the series. It tells the story of a superhero and his sidekick, who fell out a couple of years ago: Nocturnus and Galahad. Think Batman and Robin, round about the time Dick Grayson got into a snit, dropped the yellow cape and became Nightwing. Now imagine if Dick had revealed Batman’s secret identity on live television. And in response Bruce had burned down Wayne Manor and gone into hiding while Dick became a celebrity idiot obsessed with fame and money. Then imagine Bruce and Dick were… well, no spoilers. Two years later, old enemies are returning to the fray and the dysfunctional duo are pushed back into collaboration, despite all the resentments.

This is a slightly unusual publication, in that you shouldn’t expect a five hundred and fifty-seven page book, despite the page count. Firstly, each of these pages is the equivalent of a half-page in a regular comic, ideal for reading on a tablet in landscape mode, but there are frequently just two or three panels per page. Secondly, many pages feature the same art, with dialogue and colouring changing, or missing panels being filled in. In regular print format, this would perhaps be a hundred or so pages long. Many pages are given over to behind the scenes information: for example, the feud between Nocturnus and Galahad was apparently inspired by a pair of comic creators who fell out. (Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, maybe?)

But so long as you know all of that before purchasing, that you are not getting here the same amount of story that appeared in, for example, the Irredeemable omnibuses from the same creators, none of it is a problem; especially since it is priced accordingly. (And in fact the entire series is also available to read for free on the Thrillbent website.) There’s obviously a sense that the art is being eked out, but it’s fun to see the imaginative ways that comics are being reinvented on tablets, the new techniques being developed before our eyes. (Alex de Campi’s Valentine is another innovator in this area.) Shadows being removed to reveal a second hostage, angry tweets popping up over the screen to barrage Galahad, Nocturnus suddenly appearing in a doorway: it’s all very cleverly done.

The story is perhaps not yet quite as interesting as the techniques used to tell it, but there are as many twists and revelations as you could want. The returning supervillains don’t make much of an impression, aside from one inventive showdown in a maternity ward. There’s a big strong guy, another with sharp teeth, a serial slasher, and an assassin, but they’re all just bit players in the family drama. The most intriguing villain introduced was (I thought) The Headmaster – a great name for a supervillain! – but unfortunately he turned out to be an actual headmaster, albeit not a very good one.

However, the strained relationship between Galahad and Nocturnus is totally convincing, and that’s the heart of the story. Both have valid reasons for feeling the way they do, they’ve both made mistakes, and you spend the story rooting for them to sort it out. Insufferable isn’t quite as good yet as Irredeemable or Incorruptible, but I read those from start to finish in one or two goes, and this story is only just beginning. It’s a good superhero book told with innovative storytelling techniques, perfectly tailored for reading on your tablet.

Friday 11 October 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Star Trek Into Darkness, directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek and stripes: the warp against terror.

When Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Federation Starfleet’s prime directive – not to meddle in the development of emerging civilisations, no matter how well-intentioned the interference – he is demoted and left to ponder what is truly meant by the words “command” and “responsibility”. Barely has he begun to do so, however, before Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns rogue and initiates a terrorist strike that threatens to bring about war between the United Federation of Planets and its would-be enemies, the ferocious Klingons. Reinstated to the Starship Enterprise and armed now with seventy-two of the Federation’s photon torpedo prototypes, Kirk grinds vengeful teeth and leads his crew in pursuit of Harrison… who has taken himself off to the Klingon homeworld and is perhaps something more than he first appears.

Kingsley Amis in his seminal New Maps of Hell (1960) noted the space-warp / hyper-drive as an acceptable science fiction convention, by which writers might – sans technical specifications yet sans also any thumbing of their noses at Einstein – sidestep the narrative tedium that necessarily would abound if all space travel were limited to the speed of light. Star Trek in this respect is grounded in the true spirit of science fiction. Its scope is undaunted, yet its underlying premise is plausible. (Enough so, it seems, to have sparked a genuine line of physics research; see Miguel Alcubierre’s “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity” and subsequent developments.) Indeed, even where Star Trek crosses into the realms of what Amis termed “flagrantly pseudo” science, it at least has the good sense to do so without dragging its heels through too much rationale. “If an apparatus of pseudo-logic is not actually set up to support it,” Amis wrote, “the possibility of recourse to such an apparatus will not be explicitly ruled out. The science-fiction writer works by minimising what is self-contradictory.”[1]

Star Trek Into Darkness begins with First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) diving into a volcano, his sparkly suit suggestive of some higher, lava resistant technology that (happily for everyone concerned) is never held up to the light of exposition. This, and much of what follows, has to be taken very much for granted, but the lack of sharp focus in respect to the film’s science allows writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof – all three of whom, like director J.J. Abrams, have shown prior inclination to build elaborate structures of suspended disbelief on the big screen – to knuckle down and concentrate on their action blockbuster calligraphy: dotting the wide “i”s of drama and suspense; crossing the “t”s on each plot-twisted road; littering the aisles with adrenaline-soaked diacritics. None of it holds water – not even for a goldfish with severe memory lapses – but the humour is well-played (Simon Pegg’s Scotty again the standout), Michael Giacchino’s score boldly runs the gamut, and the whole caboodle fairly jumps forward with the happy abandon of a game of Frogger. As a frivolous piece of feel-good SF, Star Trek Into Darkness can hold its head high. However…

(And as a comparative aside, allow time here for Star Wars fans (lest we feel left out) to contrast the high-spirited grandeur of Episodes IV–VI with the affected pomposity of Prequels I–III. Let us marvel at the filmmakers’ ability to overlook the substance – and so instead take recourse to a mimicry – of what made something great to begin with. Trekkies, of course, will long since have beamed out of the cinema.)

Star Trek Into Darkness is not content merely to play out as a wing ’em and ding ’em space opera. Nor, unlike the Star Trek prequel of 2009, does it pay thoughtful homage to the original television series (1966–1969). What the viewer is presented with instead is something of a mishmash, which through tokenism and bumptiousness may cause not inconsiderable affront to the dignity and intelligence both of serious fans and of casual viewers (although the qualms of hard-core Trekkies[2] will largely pass unnoticed by anyone considering Star Trek Into Darkness as a standalone picture). Granted, the film’s underlying question of “how do you fight evil without losing your own humanity?” seems congruous with the social agenda around which creator Gene Roddenberry moulded the original series; yet in this instance the handling is clumsy. Benedict Cumberbatch is suitably enigmatic (the Sherlock star even contrives to act slightly unconvincingly in a scene where later it transpires that his character was doing just that), but taken as a whole the 9/11 allusions are rather too heavy-handed and – laudable though it may be that J.J. Abrams is involved with the Mission Continues charity[3] – the culminating spoiler (yes, it really does spoil the movie) sees an over-the-top dirge evoking the World Trade Centre’s demise… after which catastrophe there ensues a chase scene where people can be seen walking about in the background, utterly unperturbed; this ho-hum disparity seems somehow quite apt.

Where Star Trek Into Darkness best succeeds, oddly enough, is as a relationship film; and while Trekkies may not necessarily approve of the prehistory now being afforded to Captain Kirk and Co. – in a fan/fiction relationship that began nearly fifty years ago, it seems inevitable that fingers will jab bitterly to point out the characters’ infidelities – there remains nonetheless a quiet charm in watching the crew of the Starship Enterprise forge their backstory, particularly by way of the growing dynamic between headstrong young captain James Kirk and the logic-driven, emotionally neutered Spock. Whether this is enough to inure one to the dubious plot contrivances and character motivations is a question of viewer expectation; but if the Machiavellian acid trip can be taken as an acceptable convention by which physical laws are circumvented and that much-vaunted final frontier laid open, then Star Trek Into Darkness should hold the everyday cinemagoer’s attention… at least for the time it takes a genetically engineered goldfish to warp-drive from one side of its bowl to the next.

1. Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (Four Square Edition, 1963), 16–17.

2. Christian Blauvelt, May 18, 2013 []

3. Anthony Pascale, May 11, 2013 [–vets-four-vets-from-mission-continues-featured-in-film/]

Monday 7 October 2013

Star Trek: Titan #1: Taking Wing, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The idea of a novel series putting William Riker in command of his own starship is very appealing. The guy deserves it. However, Star Trek: Titan #1: Taking Wing by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels (Pocket books, ebook, 5700ll; Kindle purchase), first in the Star Trek: Titan series, does him no justice. It begins during the events of the painfully dull and frustrating Star Trek: Nemesis, which perhaps explains why it took me eight years to read more than the first few pages. Poor old Spock is shown to be still stuck in hiding on Romulus – where he was parked in the Next Generation two-parter “Reunification” – when Tom Hardy makes his bid for power.

Leaving him among the chaos, we travel to Captain Riker, touring his new ship, excitingly the most species-diverse the Federation has ever seen. The ship’s doctor sounds like the result of a facehugger infecting a dinosaur, the astrophysicist is from a zero g world, and another crew member requires an aquatic cabin. But that’s about as exciting as it gets, bar a prison breakout and a quick space battle towards the end. The tour over, the ship is soon sent off on a diplomatic mission to Romulus, where various factions, including the Remans, are battling for supremacy now that Hardy has moved on to better roles.

The Titan’s mission is to make sure nothing interesting happens.

The problem of Trek in its later years has been in finding new chunks of space to explore: the other side of DS9’s wormhole, Voyager in the Delta Quadrant, the Thallonian Empire of Peter David’s New Frontier series. Star Trek: Enterprise felt like it was pottering about in the Vulcans’ backyard. The new films give up on that and settle for making the most of the established locations. In theory, Star Trek: Titan has the widest of open roads ahead, the future of the Trek universe, but it’s too bogged down in continuity to fully explore it.

Everything’s already been decided, little can be changed, and we’re left with a talky adventure that only highlights the sense of narrative exhaustion in the Trek universe, a universe that was once about the three Fs – fighting, f**king and thinking – but was by Nemesis a succession of meetings around a desk, a tradition ignobly continued here. No wonder there are hardcore Trek fans who hate the new films: with every shining, sexy frame they show how badly astray the franchise had gone.

Many of the crew members here seem to be from various television episodes and spin-off novels; I’m not enough of a fan to always know which ones, my Trek encyclopaedia is out of date and I couldn’t be bothered to look them up online. But though the book isn’t considerate enough to give us a footnote or two explaining the sources, it gets constantly bogged down in making sure the reader knows the ins and outs of their life stories. Anything that has ever happened to the character seems to get a reference, all of which would have been better left to be revealed when other characters showed an interest.

It’s a tedious, self-parodic book, no character apparently able to utter a line without it being bracketed by sentences explaining exactly what they meant by what they said, how they feel about it, or how they think the person they are talking to might take it. This reaches its nadir in conversations involving Deanna Troi, still gamely trying to show that a shoulder to cry on is the most important component of a starship. After a Romulan says “[Y]ou are a liar or a fool, human. Which is it?” to a Starfleet admiral, we learn that “Deanna felt haughtiness, with a sprinkling of surprise”. Thanks for that, Deanna.

So why did I read it to the end, even when I had much better books on the go? Well, it was on the Kindle and I was supposed to be reading a paper book and however good the paper book I always drift away, and here’s where I drifted. (Technically the ebook is fine, but it’s worth noting that Kindle use is restricted to four devices, an annoyance for those of us who like to read on whatever device is closest to hand.) And it’s Riker and Troi: however dull the adventure I’m interested in what’s happening to them. Another thing I liked was that it seems to establish (though maybe it was already established elsewhere and I’ve forgotten) that Tuvok was the guy who looked a lot like Tuvok on the bridge of Captain Sulu’s ship in Star Trek VI. That was nice.

I’m sure that there are good Star Trek novels written by people other than James Blish, Peter David and Alan Dean Foster, but this isn’t one of them.

Friday 4 October 2013

Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn (Ballantine, 393pp). Once a force, ensnared now by grappling tendrils, unsurprisingly the colossus must stumble.

The Imperial Death Star has been destroyed – no small thanks to Han Solo – but Han has lost his reward money, and so he and Chewbacca must find some other way to pay back Jabba the Hutt. Retrieving stolen credit tabs from a Black Sun sector chief might seem a risky prospect, especially while his Falleen boss is staying as houseguest, but a torpid, slobbering Hutt is driving Han’s needs; and besides, the payoff for this job promises to be as big as the safe is impregnable. Trusting to his gambler’s luck, Han starts putting a team together.

Since relaunching George Lucas’s franchise with his Thrawn Trilogy (1991–1993), Timothy Zahn has been very much the doyen of Star Wars in written form. Combining easy prose, compelling storylines, scientific exactitude and a knack for characterisation, his novels – nine, prior to Scoundrels – have provided many highpoints within the crowded scatter plot of the rapidly expanding Star Wars universe. Some excellent SF writers have followed Zahn’s lead – Roger MacBride Allen, for instance, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch – but Zahn has remained fan favourite, introducing classic new characters while at the same time fleshing out those of the original films. His passion for Star Wars is manifest, and while doubtlessly it is shared by other authors, to date it has been Zahn playing Wookiee to their Ewoks; R2–D2 to their C-3PO; or dare we say Harrison Ford to their Mark Hamill? Star Wars will always be enjoyable to its hard-core fans. Zahn’s gift has been to afford his novels sufficient independence that they remain accessible to non-aficionados.

Perhaps, then, it is a sense of unfulfilled expectations as much as anything else that makes Scoundrels seem something of a letdown.

Frank Compton, the protagonist of Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series, holds a particular fondness for old movies (and by “old” we’re talking not just from the character’s perspective but also from the reader’s); and from reading Scoundrels one might well suspect Zahn of sharing this nostalgic love… and of having crafted his latest novel in rather indulgent homage to the 1960 Rat Pack heist film, Ocean’s 11. Zahn’s writing is as engaging as ever, but the criminal capers plotline is by its very nature somewhat facile (and yet intricate enough to preclude Zahn’s penning anything but the odd, quickly fired paragraph towards his secondary plots). Scoundrels presents us with a happy heist scenario, and the eleven eponymous ne’er-do-wells, much though Zahn tries to obfuscate the details of their journey, never seem in any real danger of not reaching their destination. The lightness of Zahn’s story is not itself out of place (in fact, some readers may find it refreshing when so many Star Wars books have taken themselves far more seriously than did the originating movies) but it has no corresponding dark element – no destruction of Alderaan; no sacrifice of Obi-Wan – and whatever perils are presented, they lack that trash compactor sense of urgency that allows the audience momentarily to dose on adrenaline and so doubt the foregone conclusion that all will be well. History cannot be rewritten; thus Han, Chewie and Lando Calrissian must behave (and survive!) in a manner that is consistent with their reappearance in The Empire Strikes Back. This surely demands, though, that greater ambiguity be given to the lesser-known characters… and yet, courtesy of the Ocean’s 11 angle, Zahn has lumbered himself with too many of these and has left himself too little room in which to move.

Although several Star Wars books have set out to fill gaps or tidy up inconsistencies within the original trilogy of films, Scoundrels situates itself somewhere in continuity’s no man’s land. It feels squeezed in, almost; fun but essentially pointless; and further to this (lack of) agenda, Zahn at times seems uncharacteristically perfunctory in dealing with the moment at hand: Dayja’s martial prowess; Han’s coat hanger escape; Sheqoa’s going to ground – whereas aspects of technology are expounded upon in depth sufficient to submerge the reader in Zahn’s setting, these foreshortened instances of action, suspense and drama are passed over with an odd sense of neglect, as if Zahn became so caught up in bedevilling the Ocean’s 11 intricacies of plot, that he lost interest in other details and so allowed them to drop sketchily into the background. Zahn’s previous Star Wars novel – Choices of One (2011) – was something of an exemplar, so perhaps it is quibbling to pick thus at his latest offering; yet, truth be told, and readable though it undoubtedly remains, Scoundrels is not Zahn’s finest. Indeed, it is hard not to feel that the Star Wars legacy, rather than being enhanced by this particular story, instead has been misappropriated to provide a convenient setting (and a smuggled pair of crutches) for something that intrinsically should have been a stand-alone work.

Like the Jedi of old, surely Timothy Zahn will return, striding like an AT-AT across the Star Wars landscape, but as for now, well might Wookiee-lovers throw their heads back and warrrgh! forlornly.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #45: free download, cheap in print!

Hey, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #45 is now available and features four stories: “The Colour of the Wind Erodes the Shape of Time” by Howard Watts, “We Slept Through the Apocalypse” by Howard Phillips, “Kingdom Automata” by Katharine Coldiron and “Carcosa, Found” by Robin Wyatt Dunn. The typically tedious editorial concerns my recent conversion to the cult of Scrivener.

The issue also includes six book reviews by Stephen Theaker (Arctic Rising, Finches of Mars, The Resurrectionist, Alien Legion Omnibus, Claudia’s Story and Saga, Vol. 2), two film reviews by Jacob Edwards (Elysium and Man of Steel), and one film review each from Douglas J. Ogurek (The Conjuring) and Howard Watts (Star Trek Into Darkness) (who also supplies the cover art).


Paperback edition: on / on
Epub version (free)
Mobi version (free)
PDF version (free)
Kindle Store: on / on

All 44 back issues are also available for free download, in various formats.


Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in such publications as the BFS Journal, Dark Things V, Daughters of Icarus, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales and WTF?! He lives in Gurnee, Illinois with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. His website:

Howard Phillips is one of this magazine’s most prolific contributors. Poet, musician, philosopher, critic: he does it all, though none of it well. In this issue’s episode of his memoirs, “We Slept Through the Apocalypse” (also to be the title of this novel as a whole when eventually published), he remembers the time he held an impromptu music festival on a farm.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides not only the cover to this issue, but also a story (“The Colour of the Wind Erodes the Shape of Time”) and a review!

Jacob Edwards supplies us this issue with in-depth reviews of Man of Steel and Elysium. But his heart still belongs to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways, and he edited issues 45 and 55 of their Inflight Magazine. The website of this writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist:

Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in The Escapist, JMWW, Unlikely Stories, and elsewhere. She lives in California, blogs at The Fictator (, and contributes “Kingdom Automata” to this issue.

Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in southern California and is the author of three novels. A member of the Horror Writers Association, he is proud to have been born in the Carter Administration. You can find him at He contributes “Carcosa, Found”.

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and his reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal. He wishes there were Kindle and Comixology apps for the Xbox 360.