Friday 26 December 2014

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler / review by Jacob Edwards

A mile-long star ship, an alien cantina and a dogfight in space. Everything else is detail.

Anybody who by 1977 had been associated with SF being made for either the small or the big screen would attest that Star Wars (later subtitled: A New Hope) changed everything. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the enormity of Star Wars’ impact in retrospect of all the flashy SF and CGI-driven fluff that has come after – one would have to judge the movie only in the context of filmmaking to that point in time; which, like requiring a jury to disregard evidence, is asking the impossible – but even those who were born too late to experience Star Wars upon its original cinematic release perhaps will have found themselves drawn into watching it on DVD (often several times) or habitually whensoever it is shown on television, commercials and all. The franchise nowadays is taken for granted, as are the visual effects for which Star Wars was the forerunner, yet in its day the movie was an unprecedented phenomenon – as suddenly huge as it was unexpected – and weighing in at 362 large, glossy pages (28cm x 26cm), the majority of which are resplendent with production photographs, artwork and designs, J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars (Aurum Press, 362pp; 2013; first published: Ebury Press, 2007) both establishes the cinematic milieu in which George Lucas’s film was made and goes a long way towards fostering an appreciation of its significance. Drawing for the most part on rediscovered interviews that Lucasfilm vice-president Charles Lippincott had conducted between 1975 and 1978 for a “making of…” book that went unwritten, Rinzler promises his readers a host of contemporaneous recollections and thence the definitive account of Star Wars both as it unfolded and as it was perceived shortly after completion, before the effects of its trailblazing became fully evident: in other words, the inside story of a history that was still very much in the making.

For all that the finished product proved to be of lasting consequence, Star Wars had a troubled genesis both creatively and in terms of George Lucas’s strained working relationship with Hollywood and the studio system. Lucas had enormous difficulty developing and explicating his grand concept, and much though 20th Century Fox might come across as short-sighted and unreasonable in its dealings, this is the one instance in which Rinzler has allowed his exposé to carry a selective bias, the pro-Star Wars effusiveness of his source material resulting in a favouring of the film’s historical success over what may well have been quite valid concerns on Fox’s part. Lucas himself is treated in more balanced a fashion, and emerges as a quintessentially independent filmmaker attempting through sheer force of will to exert control over every aspect of a gargantuan undertaking, not so much because he was obsessive/possessive (although clearly he was) but because the intricacies of the movie, in combination with its epic and ambitious scale, necessitated that each component have its requirements and problems attended to in minutiae by people who worked in artistic isolation, glimpsing only a sliver of Lucas’s overarching visualisation until such time as Star Wars was fully realised and came to be shown on the big screen. George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted – his orchestrating of talents calls to mind Brian Wilson, who would compose Beach Boys songs in his head and assign parts to each member of the group, the tunes then emerging fully formed – but while Lucas shaped every nuance and every frame of Star Wars, other people nevertheless made seminal contributions, and the constraints of time and budget also played their part in determining what was achievable. Furthermore, Lucas’s absolute purity and exactitude of vision would come to the fore only after several (at times nebulous) globules of creativity had coalesced to the point of registering on his internal scanner of certitude and so becoming part of the production process. Fans who live and breathe Star Wars through a continuity filter they cannot suffer to remove should remember that much of the detail they now hold as sacrosanct, Lucas patched together over many years to accommodate nothing more de rigueur than a broad reenergising of the space opera genre and two or three set piece scenes he thought would be visually effective. Darth Vader’s iconic mask was originally part of a spacesuit, not a core element of his character. The Millennium Falcon took on its distinctive shape as a hasty revision after there appeared on Space: 1999 a ship too much like the model already built. Luke in one draft was a woman, and only at the eleventh hour was renamed Skywalker (from Starkiller, which was thought to evince A-list celebrity murders). Even something as seemingly quintessential as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s demise aboard the Death Star was a late script change, concocted during filming and (at least in its initial form) to the disgruntlement of Sir Alec Guinness.

While making Star Wars George Lucas demanded something akin to godlike autonomy within a constantly evolving framework – almost as if directing a lucid dream – and in examining each scene of the movie from conception to final edit, The Making of Star Wars shows not only how particular he was in piecing together his magnum opus, but also, oddly, how malleable the Star Wars universe proved in its formative stages and how very different each element could have been. The movie that is so greatly beloved by audiences in fact fell well short of what Lucas had hoped to achieve, and throughout pre-production, filming and then post-production he consistently expressed his disappointment: so much so that amidst the cornucopia of production photos in Rinzler’s book – an invaluable visual record and an idiosyncratic time capsule of 1970s fashion – it is difficult to look upon Lucas’s bearded, curly haired, frustrated visage and not construe a harbinger of Rowan Atkinson’s oft-thwarted Elizabethan incarnation of Blackadder. Such nefarious associations aside, the lush and unstinting pictorial content ensures that The Making of Star Wars is well worth delving into as a coffee table book, albeit one that retails at £40.00 and contains matter-of-fact prose sufficiently exhaustive to constitute heavy reading for even the most dedicated of fans. From the technical side of filmmaking it is hard to envisage a more comprehensive work, but Rinzler’s compendium is valuable beyond its dry chronicling of method and fact, offering much also by way of anecdote and in bringing out the personalities of those people (particularly Lucas) who dedicated themselves to the making of Star Wars.

All told, Rinzler’s is a book that should appeal to anyone with a fondness for Star Wars or an interest in the history and development of SF motion pictures. The question of whether or not it’s worth the cover price might fall ultimately to such intangibles as how badly you’d like to meet the walrus who voiced Chewbacca, or how curious you are as to how a bantha may be brought to life sans CGI but one elephant to the good. If nothing else, though, The Making of Star Wars constitutes an unparalleled vista of behind-the-scenes enterprise, and for most of us an eye-opener as to the vast quantities of time, money and effort poured into each labyrinthine second of screen time on a science fiction classic such as that which Lucas delivered unto the world in the cinematic dawn of 1977.

Friday 19 December 2014

Lucy / review by Stephen Theaker

Sorry to say it, but Lucy would be a better film if Morgan Freeman’s scenes were cut. It’s no fault of the actor: his character’s lecture on accessing the full potential of the human brain is so daft that if I’d been watching on TV I’d have changed the channel. In the cinema, I got through it by deciding that this film takes place on an Earth where animals really do use only a few percentage points of their brains – though why would evolution encourage them to do so? – and human brains are similarly wasted.

Until Lucy, that is, who while being forced to act as a drug mule gets kicked in the belly, making an experimental drug leak into her system. It’s an artificial replication of the substance that lets a foetus develop so quickly in a mother’s womb, and the effect on Lucy is to cause all the cells in her body to be replaced at an incredible rate, letting her “colonise” her own brain and acquire incredible powers.

Super-strength and super-intelligence come first, then later telekinesis, mind control, changing her physical appearance, and tapping into electronic communications. By the end she can do pretty much everything she sets her mind to, apart from, apparently, dealing adequately with the gangsters who want their drugs back, leading to a bloody massacre of the police protecting the university laboratory where Lucy tries to save herself.

Lucy would be a typical film from the Luc Besson European action factory, another in the line of The Transporter, Unleashed and Taken, all guns, gangsters and car chases, but it’s a bit better than that for two reasons: the science fiction angle, because although the science is ludicrous, the powers in action are great fun; and Scarlett Johansson, who is compelling and committed, giving an Oscar-level performance in a film that seems surprised to contain it.

Not bad, but don’t take 100% of your brain to the cinema.  ***

Friday 12 December 2014

Infidel by Kameron Hurley / review by Tim Atkinson

There’s nothing this reviewer better enjoys than returning to an author and finding that they’ve upped their game. Compared to God’s War, Kameron Hurley’s still striking debut, its sequel Infidel is better in every respect.

While the former foundered a little under the weight of its baroque world-building, Infidel returns to the same setting to tell a story. And by revisiting much the same cast, building on what has gone before, Hurley shows that she can invest these characters with depth and moral complexity.

Infidel’s fictional universe resists easy categorisation: Hurley herself suggests bug-punk, which is at least pithier than grimdark-feminist-biotech-anti-clerical-planetary romance.

But try picturing a crapsack desert planet populated by bloody-minded Abrahamic monotheists: some matriarchal, nearly all of them homicidal. And then throw in the insects. Lots and lots of insects.

Once tools of terraforming, colonies of genetically engineered critters are now the basis of the planetary economy of the remote world of Umayma. Transport, medicine, architecture, war: all are powered by bugs manipulated by specially attuned “magicians”.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I like this idea.

While its treatment in Infidel is pretty much indistinguishable from magic, the concept is SF to the core, extrapolating boldly from the remote-controlled flies of today’s laboratories. And for me a real taste of otherness is a fair exchange for some authorial hand-waving.

Having done most of this scene-setting in God’s War, Hurley kicks the sequel off in media res and pushes onwards at a cracking rate, alternating between bloody action and murky intrigue. Our main point-of-view character is Nyx: bounty-hunter, former state-sponsored assassin and all-round toxic individual.

Starting out in the first book as not much more than forward momentum with occasional swearing, she has grown in the sequel to become a tragic protagonist. She is not a nice person by any definition: she murders, tortures and betrays to get her way. But Nyx is a self-aware monster; she doesn’t like what she’s become. She’s capable of radical selflessness in her dealings with her team. And she’s guided more than she admits by her own residual but strangely irreducible code of honour.

It’s her honour and loyalty to her country which led Nyx in Infidel to accept an offer to investigate the attempted regicide of her Queen by renegade assassins. In no time at all, she finds herself a barbarian in a foreign country, unexpectedly reunited with former team-mates, out of her depth, double-crossed and played.

All of this makes for a much better constructed plot than God’s War. Hurley still may be a little too prone to invoking the Coincidence Fairy to tie up the loose ends, but there’s a fine thriller underneath all the insectile trappings. And while I honestly still couldn’t tell you exactly what the antagonists actually wanted in the first book, here I don’t just know their aims, I could even empathise with them to some degree.

Despite being a giant leap forward for the author, the same things “bug” me about Infidel as its predecessor. Hurley has impeccable liberal credentials – as anyone who has read her blog will be aware – yet as Adam Roberts has pointed out in an otherwise positive review of God’s War, writing pseudo-Middle Eastern desert-dwellers intent on killing each other over religious differences is inherently open to problematic readings. And for all that faith is core to the world Hurley has created, there’s no sense of why it matters so vitally to its people or fuels global conflict.

Infidel may fall short of greatness, but it’s still a very good book. And it’s only her second, people, only her second! My hopes for Rapture, the third in this trilogy, are high indeed.

Monday 8 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Games shift from arena to conference room as heroine juggles public persona with personal quandary

Director Francis Lawrence had his work cut out for him with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the first of the two-part conclusion to The Hunger Games series. He had to adapt the first (and more subdued) half of the final novel in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy into a film that maintains the viewer’s attention and builds tension without stealing the show from the finale.

Though the film’s beginning suffers from an overindulgence in mourning war ruins, Lawrence pulls off what turns out to be a tense and emotionally stirring film more about psychological games than fights and explosions… but it still has some of the latter!

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen, having thrown a wrench (an arrow actually) into the most recent game, recovers in the underground headquarters of District 13, hitherto rumored to be destroyed. Here Katniss discovers that although the arena games are over, she’s still a contestant in a game whose stakes are much higher.

The districts of Panem, fueled by Katniss’s Hunger Games heroics, have grown more hostile toward the Capitol, their wealthy oppressor. District 13’s scheming leadership wants to intensify this animosity to overthrow the Capitol. Their plan: convince Katniss to become the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution that will stoke the fire building within the districts.

Sounds like a great plan. However, one huge obstacle deters Katniss from jumping into that role wholeheartedly: her two-time Hunger Games cohort and budding love interest Peeta Mellark has been captured by the Capitol.

When Action Wanes, Bring in the Big Shots
Because Mockingjay – Part 1 has notably less action – I count two brief action scenes – than The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it needs something beyond the reputation of its predecessors to keep the viewer engaged. The solution comes in an all-star cast.

The Hunger Games mainstays Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) continue to offer strong performances. Particularly impressive is Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta’s mental deterioration. shown in a series of video interviews. Nevertheless, these two take a back seat, enabling other equally engaging characters to step forward.

The Manipulators
The buttons in Mockingjay – Part 1 get pushed mostly by three conference room connivers intent on manipulating the public and duping their adversaries.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s post-mortem appearance as Plutarch Heavensbee shows what a loss the film world experienced. Heavensbee, a District 13 political puppeteer, seeks to unveil and capitalize on what makes Katniss so appealing to the public. He sees Katniss as a tool to overcome the Capitol. When Katniss gets angry, Hoffman/Heavensbee could just as well be an automobile enthusiast admiring the roar of a Maserati.

Julianne Moore slips rather than barges into the conflict as District 13 President Alma Coin, a less easily categorized complement to the other publicity-seeking (Heavensbee) and confrontational (Snow) power players. With her grey clothes, eyes, and hair, Moore portrays a tepid leader whose true intentions are hazy. Is she good? Is she bad? She’s “in the grey”. Flip a coin!

On the Capitol side, Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is a case study in self-control, arrogance, and cunning. Snow, whose pristine white hair and suit belie his malicious intent, has a nearly omniscient view of district goings-on. His carefully prepared televised speech explains to the have-nots that the Capitol is the reason they are alive. “Your districts are the body,” he says. “The Capitol is the beating heart.” The implication: you can’t survive without a heart. And don’t you dare let him catch you giving the Mockingjay salute!

Katniss Everdeen: Pawn, Liberator, or a Bit of Both?
In popular films, there are still far too many beautiful numbskulls and female action heroes who do what a typical male action hero would do. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, ranging from tentative warrior to distraught teenage girl, offers hope for the plight of female leads. Katniss uses guile and pluck rather than sexuality or boys’ club bravado to achieve her objectives.

One example of Lawrence’s talent is the contrast between Katniss’s awkwardly delivered prepared speech and a rage-charged impromptu invective against President Snow. “If we burn, you burn with us!”

With all those power players tweaking the dials, what is Katniss’s role? Is she merely a pawn, or does she influence the outcome? Here’s something to think about: Katniss must find the balance between District 13’s desire to fuel the uprising and her own desire to protect Peeta. Complicating matters, a psychologically off-kilter Peeta doesn’t win any district friends when he encourages would-be Capitol enemies to lay down their arms.

Peeved with a Capitol President
With President Snow and the Capitol’s privileged inhabitants, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives us “The Man”. What makes this film (and the whole series) so compelling is the goal of “sticking it” to him.

And who does society rest its hopes on? Not on Thor or Jason Bourne. Not on James Bond or the Men in Black. Instead, the fate of Panem rests on a 17-year-old girl who can’t stand seeing others in pain.

So we wait another year until the conclusion. Hopefully, it’s faithful to the book. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday 5 December 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid, Vol. 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Mark Waid applies a soft reboot to the Man Without Fear, referencing the dark stories of previous years but permitting Matt Murdock to make a conscious decision to let it go and make a fresh start. Yes, his secret identity made the news, but who believes what they see on the news any more? Taking new cases when there’s a media brouhaha is tricky, but Matt and loyal legal partner Foggy Nelson decide to work behind the scenes, coaching litigants in person, and that leads Daredevil into encounters with new enemies. To someone who has read the headline Daredevil stories – like those by Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Brian Michael Bendis – without digging deep into the back catalogue, this felt like a novel take on the character. Less grubby than usual, with a bright colour palette and a good deal of humour; Daredevil’s a supersniffer, so he wants Foggy eating fresh food instead of Wotsits. With its acrobatic and cheerful but still-damaged hero, strong design sense, and science adventure elements, Waid’s Daredevil is reminiscent of Mike Allred’s Madman, though it’s a bit less poppy and zany. The writing and art are clever and imaginative, the stories showing the many uses to which the blind superhero can put his supersensory powers, and the artists, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, finding many clever ways to show how those powers work – the cover being a good example. It’s nice to see Daredevil dragged out of the doldrums and having some fun.  ***

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Ten reasons I failed at Nanowrimo this year…

Disappointingly, I didn’t finish my November novel this year. Never mind, I wrote about a third of it and got nine chapters done, so it’ll run for two years as a serial in TQF before I have to decide what happens next! Why did I fail? Let’s investigate. I write this mainly for my own reference next year, so I don’t make the same mistakes again.

1. I just didn’t spend long enough working on it. That’s always the main reason. Everything else is just detail. Was it really wise to buy Grand Theft Auto V in the middle of the month? Could I not have gone a month without watching Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory? Did I need to read sixteen books and graphic novels?

2. My structure was too bitty. My novel was to be made up of thirty self-contained episodes, one to be written a day. Making them so self-contained will be great for when they run in the magazine, but it meant each chapter needed much more thought than my daft novels usually do.

3. I tried writing a novel in the present tense. For the first time. I was trying to create a sense of excitement and immediacy (inspired in part by reading Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century). But I kept forgetting and slipped into the past tense over and over, and had to go back through what I’d just written to change the tense.

4. The writing never became routine. All month I was trying to carve out space for writing my new novel instead of it being set aside from the beginning. I never developed any good habits. In the run-up to the 2013 event I had written at least 250 words a day for the previous 73 days, and it wasn’t hard to ramp that up a bit for November.

5. I didn’t do enough in October to clear my (hobby) desk. I didn’t get TQF49 finished till November, and out of some daft sense of duty I took on issue thirteen of the perpetually accident-prone BFS Journal instead of putting my own project first. I’m going to be a bit more selfish about my time in 2015.

6. I let my writing muscles go cold. After the first week, I decided to work extremely hard on everything else I do so that I could take the last week off to write my novel, but that meant that by the time I reached the last week I was worn out from working so hard and hadn’t done any writing of any kind, not even reviews or blog posts, for weeks.

7. I faffed about too much deciding where to write and what to write on. I love writing in Daedalus Touch on my iPad, but my series one iPad doesn’t get many updates any more and the app is unreliable. I got into a terrible mess when it synced to Dropbox and added duplicate versions of my chapters. Next year it’s Scrivener all the way, except when I’m out and about. If I feel like a change I can always use Word to edit the Scrivener files.

8. My idea was almost too good (by my standards). I liked it so much that I didn’t want to spoil it, and spent ages thinking about how to fulfill its potential instead of just getting on with it and writing the usual gubbins.

9. I’ve let my typing get rusty and lazy. I need to find my copy of Mavis Beacon, or buy a new one, because I’ve developed some bad habits. One of my little fingers isn’t pulling its weight.

10. My sleeping patterns were all wrong. At the moment I get up early and go to bed early, but a couple of lonely hours last thing at night are better for writing than a couple of hours in the morning with the children.

But never mind! I’ll do better next year. Because I’ll read this blog post. (Hi Stephen of 2015! Don’t make the mistakes I did. Regards, Stephen of 2014. xoxo)

If you finished your own novel last month, well done! If you didn't, don't be downhearted. Buy a new notebook and leave it on your desk. Won't be long before you start thinking of new ideas to put in it.

Wednesday is occasionally list day on the blog, and this is list #18.

Monday 1 December 2014

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe / review by Stephen Theaker

Not to be confused with the book of critical writings by the same name about the same author, Shadows of the New Sun (Tor, hb, 416pp) is an anthology of fiction celebrating the work of Gene Wolfe. Two of his own stories bookend the collection. In “Frostfree” Roy Tabak gets home to find a new refrigerator with unusual capabilities has been delivered. The story develops in interesting directions, but in itself isn’t quite enough to demonstrate why Wolfe is the kind of writer to deserve a tribute. Closing story “Sea of Memory” is more reminiscent of the work for which he is lauded. Adele is helping to build a colony, but memories are foggy and time seems strangely confused. The conclusion disappoints, but the disorientation is convincing.

Neil Gaiman may attract as many readers to this book as Gene Wolfe, and “A Lunar Labyrinth” won’t disappoint them. An aficionado of rural attractions goes to see a maze which visitors would wander at night, until the locals decided to burn it. Less superstarry names offer stories that are just as good. Steven Savile’s “Ashes” is a moving, subtly magical story about Steve, whose sweetheart died; in desperation he goes on the honeymoon they had planned. “...And Other Stories” by Nancy Kress plays on the fiction-hopping of “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, telling the story of Caitlin, cursed by her grandmother to live through the most miserable of fictional lives. Jack Dann’s “The Island of Time” riffs on the same source, but this time fiction is an escape from abuse. The stories here are generally short, but Aaron Allston’s fifty-page “Epistoleros” justifies the space it’s been given, from its clever title – it’s a story of gunslingers told through a series of letters – to its equally clever ending.

The notes don’t always identify the stories to which these are paying tribute, and most can be enjoyed without having read the originals, though that means you get Wolfe’s ideas secondhand. “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick, about the daughters of a wealthy perfumier, and whether they are the descendants of colonists or the descendants of natives who murdered and replaced the colonists, is one of the best stories here, but “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” deserves to be read first. Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s “Tourist Trap” visits the protagonists of “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton” in a Bavarian prison, and makes much more sense read after the original story.

Despite the title, disappointingly few stories connect to the Book of the New Sun, though of course there’s more to Wolfe than that quartet. “In the Shadow of the Gate” by William C. Dietz has Severian, between Shadow and Claw, targeted by an offworld assassin and battling beast men while passing through the great wall surrounding Nessus. The queerness of Severian’s world is captured better by Jody Lynn Nye in “The Dream of the Sea”, set after the coming of the new sun; the Order of Esoteric and Practical Knowledge sends Nedel on a quest to find the missing Autarch. Severian makes a guest appearance (as does Wolfe) in Joe Haldeman’s “The Island of the Death Doctor”, a “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” with fictional rather than historical characters.

Surprisingly, Wolfe is revealed as a friendly, convivial figure, quite unlike his stern, unforgiving narrative style: “what would you do to earn a Gene Wolfe approving chuckle?”, asks Judi Rohrig, while Nye describes him as “a courtly gentleman with a twinkle and a sense of humor, modest, patient, appreciative”. The notes mention convention encounters as often as his fiction, creating a sense that many contributors were chosen as much for their friendship with Wolfe as their artistic affinity with his work. Songs of the Dying Earth introduced Jack Vance’s readers to writers with similar sensibilities; that’s less likely to happen here, but the range of stories will encourage readers to explore Wolfe’s rich back catalogue.

Michael Stackpole’s “Snowchild” is a good adventure story – a soldier and a war-mage form an unhappy alliance to rescue a girl from the maggot-folk – and his X-Wing novels have their admirers, but one wouldn’t especially recommend them to Wolfe’s fans. Timothy Zahn”s ‘A Touch of Rosemary” is a fun, clever fantasy, as the Wizard Knight sees off an invading witch king by inviting him to dinner. Todd McCaffrey’s “Rhubarb and Beets” has a nice line in casual cruelty – a fairy girl who gloats about her father’s cleverness to a man he stole from his family – and ends very well. “The Log” is a good story by David Brin about Russian families living miserable lives to be near exiled dissidents. There are no dull stories here, just a couple that are confusing, and most are very good. Novices might prefer to read The Very Best of... first, but if not they’ll still enjoy this.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #247, back in 2013.

Friday 28 November 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 / review by Stephen Theaker

The seven volumes in this series look very smart lined up on my bookcase, but that made me forget that I hadn’t yet read Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse, tpb, c.400pp) (or its sequel), so I’ve put that right with great pleasure. Taken as a set, the seven omnibus volumes make a fantastic companion to the television programme, especially since their contents have been arranged in chronological order. The stories in these issues come from around the time that the Initiative was in town, so Buffy is dating Riley, Spike has a chip in his head, Willow is exploring witchcraft and romance with Tara, and Xander is with Anya. On television that felt like a sad time in the characters’ lives, even if they were all falling in love, because Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles, the original gang of four, were drifting apart, and frequently unhappy with each other. That made perfect sense in the show, but it’s nice that here in the comics everyone is still good and chummy. The writers include Christopher Golden, Tom Fassbender, Amber Benson and Jane Espenson. It’s odd that the kind of three-issue stories that seemed trivial when gathered together in flimsy graphic novels of under a hundred pages are satisfyingly substantial when run together as big, long stories in these books. It helps that this volume comes from the later, better period of the comic. The art, mostly by Cliff Richards, is good to great, the dialogue funny, the plots, well, maybe not brilliant but in the right enough ballpark that it felt authentically like Buffy.  ***

Monday 24 November 2014

John Brunner by Jad Smith / review by Stephen Theaker

Sarah Pinborough once said that “anyone who thinks any writer, bestseller or on the breadline, writes for the money, is a fool”, but it would be equally foolish to think money has no effect on what they write – and especially on what we get to see of their work. This book on John Brunner (University of Illinois Press, hb, 196pp), who gave up scholarships and well-paying jobs to concentrate on writing, but frequently focused his efforts on fulfilling the particular needs of the market, illustrates both sides of the coin. Smith draws a picture of him as a writer often stranded in “interzones” (a word used here so frequently that a review in these pages was surely inevitable): too pessimistic and unpredictable for American readers, too market-orientated for the new wave; a devoted fan (after leaving the RAF he hoped to “spend a year at home writing ... and fanning”), but apparently unpopular on the convention scene.

Though coming from a university press – it forms part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois – this book isn’t steeped in literary criticism or swamped in jargon; general readers interested in the subject will find it perfectly accessible. Where it is polemical, it’s in support of the author’s ideas rather than his politics, in particular his thesis that Brunner’s whole oeuvre is worth studying, not just the books that won awards; he wants to situate “his better-known works within the larger arc of his career”. He shows how Brunner’s writing career did not progress neatly from Ace entertainments to hardback Hugo-winning literature. Rather, the two types of book intertwined throughout his career, as he rushed some books out to fund the concentrated spells of attention that more ambitious works required.

That Stand on Zanzibar was released to a hostile reception, and treated as a commercial, American appropriation of the New Wave, may be a surprise to readers accustomed to regarding it as a well-established part of the science fiction canon. A review of Telepathist in Vector described it as the kind of affected intellectualism “one might expect from an author who sports a goatee and a wine-coloured corduroy jacket”. Although the book is very much on Brunner’s side in such matters – Moorcock, Aldiss and Platt are portrayed as nothing short of schoolyard bullies – it does acknowledge his moodiness and, for example, Zanzibar’s immense debt to Dos Passos. Asides such as that describing “John and Marjorie’s relationship as sexually open and emotionally tumultuous” suggest a biography proper would be worthwhile.

Given that this is a book which, very usefully, draws on several hard-to-find primary sources – fanzines, letters and convention speeches, for example – it’s disappointing that it is so parsimonious with its quotations, rarely providing more than a line or two of Brunner himself. While that contributes to its readability, it does mean the reader is left to accept the author’s paraphrases and interpretations of Brunner’s words, rather than being able to come to their own conclusions. A short interview is included, from 1975, but that gives us only a snapshot of a particular period of his writing, a single mood. An extensive bibliography takes up the book’s last quarter, so at least signposts to the original texts are there for those who want to investigate further.

The book doesn’t provide a radical new way of looking at Brunner’s work – the overall effect is of a well-crafted and lengthy encyclopaedia entry written by someone with a slight bias towards to the subject – but it argues well for the continuing interest and relevance of his work. Hard to argue with that when Smith’s summary of The Sheep Look Up sounds like a week’s worth of headlines from The Independent: “Fish stocks are depleted. Natural bee populations have collapsed ... Human bodies fester with once-controlled but now drug-resistant diseases.” Smith is also right to highlight the strangeness of such a book coming from the same writer as, say, The Super Barbarians and its goofy portrayal of human exceptionalism.

Readers unfamiliar with Brunner’s novels would find this a perfect introduction to them (except in so far as it gives away the plots, but that’s only to be expected in a critical study). Even those who have read the award winners may find their interest piqued by discussion of fringe titles: The Atlantic Abomination sounds much better than the title would suggest. Smith mentions in places that certain works were never reprinted, and it’s a sad fact that Brunner was almost entirely out of print at the time of his death, but one pleasure of reading this book is knowing almost all of it is now available (albeit, in some cases, marred by appalling typos) via the SF Gateway. This book left me keen to read more Brunner, and also to read further titles in the Modern Masters range.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #245, back in 2013.

Friday 21 November 2014

Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman / review by Stephen Theaker

“… imagine if you could convince someone who hasn’t seen the episodes to sit through them all? Someone who wouldn’t know if a story was supposed to be good or bad before they’d even sat down to watch it; a person who didn’t know what was coming next; a person who’d agree to watch the whole thing with an open mind and without prejudice. That’s where you come in, Sue.”

In 2011, Neil Perryman persuaded his wife Sue to watch all of Doctor Who, from start to finish, going so far as to watch fan-made reconstructions where the originals remain lost. While the viewing marathon was underway, one or two stories being watched a night, Sue’s reactions and ratings were being recorded on a blog, Behind the Sofa, quoted here in small chunks. Adventures with the Wife in Space (Faber and Faber, ebook, 3179ll) is the story behind this adventure.

I found that a bit disappointing, in that I was more interested in reading about the adventure itself. But that’s the blog. This is more The Making of Behind the Sofa, a behind-the-scenes book, packaged in a way to make it seem of more general interest. More than the story of watching the series, this is the story of Perryman’s relationship with the series, and although he’s a few years older than me (his first memory – “of anything” – is from the month I was born: the drashig in “Carnival of Monsters”), it’s one very similar to my own. Love for the Tom Baker years, interruption during the Davison years (rugby for him, cubs for me), not watching much of Colin Baker, and then, at university, realising that he had missed the renaissance of Sylvester McCoy’s second and third years and that leading back into enjoying the programme as a whole.

This will be an enjoyable if unsurprising read for fans of Doctor Who, and it may also appeal to fans of Nick Hornby; it reminded me a lot of Fever Pitch. But it’s not essential, and those intrigued by the book’s pitch who haven’t heard of the blog will probably be disappointed by what’s not here. In the early chapters I was thinking, okay, that’s enough build-up, let’s get onto watching the episodes, but it never really happens. Plenty of life, but could have done with more wife.  ***

Monday 17 November 2014

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck / review by Stephen Theaker

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish writer who, frustrated by a lack of local opportunities, began a few years ago [before this review was originally published] to translate her own work into English, leading to appearances in Weird Tales and other US magazines. A previous Swedish collection – Vem är Arvid Pekon? – included all but four of these fourteen stories, but this is her first book in English. There are many points of similarity here with Ekaterina Sedia’s similarly strong collection, Moscow But Dreaming. Both write stories set in parts of the world and featuring legends and character types not yet reduced to cliché by English and American writers, stories that can be rather miserable, about ground-down people and the difficulty of finding love and support in a heartless world; both are part of a tradition of fantasy that takes in Kafka but sidesteps Tolkien.

While Moscow But Dreaming tends to focus on the women being damaged, Tidbeck’s collection is interested in the effects of their absence. Some characters never even met the person they needed. “Arvid Pekon”, for example, who spends his nights alone and works among telephone operators who frustrate the public for unknown purposes, or “Herr Cederberg”, hurt by the casual cruelty of other people – when people spoke of him, “the most common simile was pig, followed by panda, koala, and bumblebee, in no particular order” – and tries to fly away from it all. “I might have gone mad,” Pekon tells his terminal after losing control of his behaviour: that’s a sentiment shared by many of Tidbeck’s characters. The protagonist of “Beatrice” seems equally sympathetic at first, falling in love with an airship. Unfortunately she has been sold, and he settles for Beatrice II. By a landlord’s accident they come to share a warehouse with Anna Goldberg, a printer’s assistant in love with a semi-portable steam engine. This all seems cute and quirky, but an unexpected ending resets the reader’s expectations for the rest of the book.

Beatrice is not the last female lost in these stories: wives, mothers, friends, and in “Reindeer Mountain” a sister: “Cilla was twelve years old the summer Sara put on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappeared up the mountain.” The loss, strangeness and confusion in that sentence give a good sense of the book as a whole. “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom” are written by a daughter after his drunken, lonely death, his life ruined by his fey wife’s disappearance from the commune in which they lived. “Rebecka” is a friend lost first to pain and then to divine judgment; it begins with her outline scorched against a wall, “arms outstretched as if to embrace someone”. God exists, but let a horrific attack last three days before interceding. The “Aunts” are three immense women fattened by Nieces until their grotesque bodies are ready to produce the next generation. As so often here, an interesting idea is pushed that little bit further, showing how the Nieces try to cope when the Aunts fail to reproduce, reflecting our own efforts to deal with tragedy and bereavement.

Like “Aunts”, many stories have the feel of dark fantasy but can be read as science fiction. One such is “Brita’s Holiday Village”, where the narrator stays in a resort unchanged since the seventies. In May, “white, plum-sized pupas hang clustered under the eaves” of the bungalows, and in June she dreams of distant relatives who stay in the cottages and hold increasingly odd summer parties. “Pyret” takes the form of an academic article, presenting evidence that this mythical mimic is not “a cryptid but a real being”. After examining historical accounts of the creatures, including, most eerily, the Sjungpastorn, who held mass and sang a wordless song to isolated churchgoers, the writer comes to worrying conclusions. Title story “Jagannath” is the last in the book, the second longest (albeit at just eleven pages), and the most straightforwardly science-fictional, in which the much-altered survivors of a great disaster live and work inside Mother – but she can’t survive forever. She’s the last and most important lost woman of the book.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are highly respected editors, and their first publication as proprietors of Cheeky Frawg is sure-footed, from the intriguing cover onwards. The print edition is handsome, the ebook perfectly set up (rarer than it should be, even with major publishers), the introduction ideal, the author’s afterword fascinating. The print version is perhaps slim for its price, so the cheaper ebook may prove attractive for UK readers, but the stories are so intensely emotional that you wouldn’t necessarily want it to be any longer. I spent much of my last holiday reading the much shorter books in the Penguin Mini Moderns series: Barthelme, Calvino, Petrushevskaya, Borges, Jackson, and so on. The remarkable stories of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg Books pb, 160pp) would be perfectly at home in that company.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #244, back in 2013.

Friday 14 November 2014

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49: now out!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #49 is now out, at last! Sorry to all the contributors for how long it’s taken me to finish this one off. It features novellas by Ross Gresham (“Ut in Fumum!”) and Michael B. Tager (“Nebuchadnezzar”), and an Oulippean story by Antonella Coriander (“Beatrice et Veronique: Tunnel Panic!”), plus cover art by Howard Watts, reviews by Tim Atkinson, Jacob Edwards, Rafe McGregor, Stephen Theaker and Douglas J. Ogurek, and an interview with Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad.

Reviewed this issue: Adventures with the Wife in Space by Neil Perryman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus Vol. 6, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, Daredevil by Mark Waid, Deliver Us from Evil, Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork, Guardians of the Galaxy, I Killed Rasputin, I Need a Doctor: the Whosical, Infidel by Kameron Hurley, Lucy, The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, Mr Mercedes by Stephen King, Penny Dreadful, Season 1, Return to Armageddon by Malcolm Shaw and Jesus Redondo, The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano, The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti, Turbulence (the audiobook) by Samit Basu, The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, World of Fire by James Lovegrove, and Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress.

Here it is: free epub, free mobi, free pdf, print UK, print USA, Kindle UK store, Kindle US store.

Here are the artisans who wove those wonderful tapestries:

Antonella Coriander has (in this reality, at least) only ever been published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, to her great dismay. Her story in this issue is the third episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. In this issue he reviews the film Deliver Us from Evil. His website:

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue.

Jacob Edwards is a steward on Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but he moonlights with us when in port. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at: He also now has a Facebook page (, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. He can be liked and followed. (More than that, he should be!) In this issue he reviews The Making of Star Wars.

Michael B. Tager’s work has appeared in the Atticus Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Schlock! and The Light Ekphrastic. He likes Buffy, the Orioles and theatre. His debut appearance in the magazine is with a forty-page novella, “Nebuchadnezzar”.

Rafe McGregor, absent from these pages for far too long, reviews Mr Mercedes and The Spectral Link in this issue. So good to have him back!

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His stories have previously appeared in #34 (“Name the Planet”), #41 (“Milo Don’t Count Coup”), #44 (“Milo on Fire”), and #46 (“Wild Seed”). “Ut in Fumum!” is I think the longest in the Milo and Marmite series yet. You’re going to enjoy it!

Stephen Theaker is both human and dancer. Someone should tell The Killers that there’s no need to choose. His reviews have also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal. His hobbies include watching television and reading books. His ambition is to completely clear his backlog of reviews in TQF50.

Tim Atkinson lives, reads and works in the West Midlands. Sporadically he jots down thoughts about SFF and more at". In this issue he reviews Infidel by Kameron Hurley and The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar.

Bonus! To celebrate this new issue, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear Man, Howard Phillips in His Nerves Extruded, Howard Phillips and the Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Howard Phillips and the Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Forthcoming Theaker

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #49 will be with you on Friday. (Sorry for the delay!) While you're waiting, here is information on three other forthcoming publications that feature my work, as well as the contributions of many other people whose names you may recognise:

Interzone #255: includes my review of a fascinating book of essays, Black and Brown Planets, edited by Isiah Lavender III, plus columns by Jonathan McCalmont and Nina Allan, a story by Thana Niveau, and much, much more.

Black Static #43: includes my review of The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood, as well as many, many more reviews by the peerless Peter Tennant, stories by Ralph Robert Moore, Andrew Hook and Aliya Whiteley, and loads more.

BFS Journal #13: will contain quite a few bits by me, thanks to a bit of a crisis at BFS Towers, including an interview with Lavie Tidhar, a piece going through the results of the BFS president's recent survey, an article about my experiences at FantasyCon 2014, and a round-up of responses from former BFS chairs to my questions about that hot seat. Almost two hundred pages of stories, poetry and articles! The link for this one will take you to the Join the BFS bit of the BFS website, because that's the only way you can get hold of this fine publication. I'll be sending it to press on November 17, more or less, so make sure you've joined by then to get onto the mailing list. The cover (selected by the outgoing editor) is by our own Howard Watts.

Monday 10 November 2014

The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson / review by Stephen Theaker

Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render, insane lord sorceror of West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding, celebrates dominion over Spendrugle village with daily tortures of his brother, his rule upheld by three iron golems with buckets for heads, at least one of whom took him five months to create. By his law, being a stranger is punishable by death, which suits the villagers since it leaves no survivors of the shipwrecks from which they draw their pocket money. But the new folks brought in by the tide are the kind that take a fair bit of killing. Most dangerous are the first to arrive: Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, necromancers, one sharp and expansive, the other taciturn and brutal, both ready to kill at the twitch of an eye.

The Wurms of Blearmouth (PS Publishing, hb, 124pp) is the fifth novella about this pair and their loyal servant, Emancipor Reese. The fourth, Crack’d Pot Trail, was quite brilliant but unusual, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach in the wings till the end as their pursuers preyed upon fellow travellers. Here, the necromancers play a more active role, rather like children poking an anthill. Chronologically, it seems to follow book two, The Lees of Laughter’s End, but knowledge of other books isn’t required for the enjoyment of this one. Characters enter the scene with colourful histories, battle-wounded and vengeful, and whether relevant events happened in previous novellas, Steven Erikson’s eleven colossal Malazan novels or collaborator Ian Cameron Esslemont’s four won’t matter much to anyone except fans trying to piece everything together.

It’s a story of venal grotesques, each uniquely drawn, with whom we’re happy to see dark powers play. Lord Fangatooth, who has Todd Ingram’s way with a quip and a scribe on hand to record them. Whuffine Gaggs, the beachcomber who greets survivors with a smile, but hides a knife behind his back. Felooval, innkeeper, brothel owner, hiding a deadly secret in her bosom. Her daughter, dreaming of big city prostitution while stroking her lizard cat. The broken taxman who wants to take her (but not the cat). Ackle, who, hung by the neck, lives on, and worries about freezing solid in the winter. Hordillo, the sergeant who will never admit to an exceedingly unfortunate marriage. Tiny Chanter, Wormlick, Sordid: all distinctly – often uncomfortably – memorable.

Though its length would make this ideal for those unready to embark upon the ten thousand pages of Erikson’s Malazan novels, only fans and collectors are likely to find twenty pounds an attractive price for such a short book; those unsure should try the novellas collected cheaply as The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach. Those three are terrific, but this is even better, an entertainment for brain and gut; clever, vivid, funny and surprising, with a delicious tone, mining a rich, dark seam – “the delightful pleasure of evil”, Erikson calls it – producing murderously good dialogue. “What? What have you done to me?” asks one villain, to receive Bauchelain’s reply: “Why, I have killed you.” And like Erikson, he does it with style.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #243, back in 2012.

Monday 3 November 2014

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher / review by Stephen Theaker

The supervillains of the world are gone – defeated, retired, arrested – leaving two to fight the bad fight: The Cowl, billionaire industrialist by day, conscience-free killer by night (and sometimes by day too), and Blackbird, his untrustworthy sidekick with a heart of ice. Gangs throughout San Ventura, California wear his omega tag with pride. The city cowers. With no other supervillains to battle, the world’s superheroes have retired too, leaving just the Seven Wonders – Aurora’s Light, Bluebell, Sand Cat, Linear, Hephaestus, SMART and The Dragon Star – to deal with The Cowl, a job they handle with staggering and apparently wilful ineptitude.

Into this comes Tony, who wakes in the night with energy powers, then gains strength, bulletproof skin and flight, that last while interfering with The Cowl’s bank robbery. New friend Jeannie trains him and creates a costume with her atomic sewing machine, but the question for Tony is: what to do with these powers? Take out The Cowl? But if that’s obvious to him after just a few days of having powers, why haven’t the Seven Wonders done it? That question also troubles Sam Millar, detective on the SVPD SuperCrime unit, her husband one of thousands killed by The Cowl.

From that point on, Seven Wonders (Angry Robot, pb, 480pp) by Adam Christopher could be admired for not going where expected – this isn’t The Boys – but where it goes instead could have been more interesting. Though the novel has a detective at its heart, it gives her very little to detect; she doesn’t get to unmask anyone, for example. Bluebell’s ability to manipulate minds casts doubt over much of the novel’s action, but if we take events as read this is a simple story of power that corrupts. The incorruptible heroes are those without character flaws. Those corrupted can be set straight by siphoning off their powers.

Recent comics dealing with similar themes have given us the superbly evil Batman of Nemesis, the genocidal Superman of Irredeemable, and Invincible battling his own father to defend the human race from enslavement. In Seven Wonders there are no grand revelations, no ethical conflicts, no great insights into the way power corrupts over time or the immense pressure that would come with such immense responsibility. Everyone is pretty much what they appear to be, and that’s generally either bland or angry. Had the novel’s finale revealed the Seven Wonders as Billy Batsons pretending to be grown-ups it wouldn’t have surprised.

Happily, an alien invasion ends the book on a high, its cosmic fire and fury playing to the strengths of the novel and its heroes better than earthbound plots. The heroes and villains that assemble in space are entertaining and imaginative (Lucifer Now! Lady Liberty and her team of android Presidents! Connectormatic! A Terrible Aspect!), as is, earlier, the explanation for Aurora’s Light’s awkward name: supervillain Red Tape’s “final act of bureaucratic terror”, a contract so binding it would wrench the West Coast apart if broken! It’s a shame such fun ideas don’t play a bigger role in the novel.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #242, back in 2012.

Friday 31 October 2014

Shutting down for November

If you're a long-time reader of our magazine, I'm sure you can guess what I'll be starting tomorrow. Yes, a new novel. And this is going to be my first good one. I'm so confident this time. There are going to be themes, and characters, and descriptions, and all the sorts of things that you might expect to see in a novel by a proper novelist.

So things may be quieter than usual on the blog for the next month, but never fear, there will still be something to read on here: a selection of my Interzone reviews from 2012 and 2013 will appear on Mondays, with reviews from recent issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction probably appearing on Fridays. And we'll have a blog post within the next week or so announcing TQF49.

Have a good month in my absence, and wish me luck!

If you are taking part in the event, here are links to some of the fascinating things I've written about it in the past:

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

Thirteen things I learned (or was reminded of) during Nanowrimo 2013

Twelve things I didn’t like about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Twelve things I liked about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, long, long ago, 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.

Someone new seems to be in charge of the Nanowrimo website this year, and the FAQs have been changed to say it's okay for participants to carry on with works-in-progress and co-write their novels. Madness! I think we can safely ignore such nonsense!

The challenge, as it still (at least for now) says on the front page of the website, is to "Write a novel in a month!" Not half a novel, or the beginning of a novel, or the middle of a novel, or the end of a novel, but a novel. A 50,000-word novel in a month, start to finish. Writing any old 50,000 words isn't the same thing.

Writing a novel in a month is a goal with cachet, something non-participants understand clearly as a worthwhile thing to do. Being challenged to do it licenses us to be selfish for a month. To stop doing the dishes, or overtime, or being an good friend, or an attentive spouse, or a top-notch parent. Being challenged to write any old 50,000 words doesn't give people the same licence.

Anyway, that's what I reckon. Bye!

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Ask Theaker's!

Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask the TQF staff? Why are we so mean to Howard Phillips? Is John Greenwood really a pseudonym? How ashamed are we of the cover art of issue 21? Now's your chance! In issue 50 we'd like to answer all your questions, about anything you like! And our answers will be honest. Or funny. To us, anyway.

Click here to submit your questions.

Monday 27 October 2014

Theaker’s Fab Five: October 2014

My Panasonic five-CD changer stereo is still going strong, though I don’t use it as much as I used to since getting an iPod. Some of my recent purchases are still in their shrinkwrap, thanks to Amazon auto-rip. I still love my stereo, though – there are times when the iPod is out of power, and I just want to set a few albums going with a single button press, and not have iTunes grinding away at my PC’s innards. Last week my iPod got into a muddle after I duplicated a playlist and it made all the music on the thing invisible. Needs a reset but I can’t be bothered. So back to the stereo, and that means a new blog post. Here’s what’s in those five slots right now.

1. Syro by Aphex Twin

If you were to put an individual track on from this and ask me which Aphex Twin album it was from, I’d have no idea. But I’ve never listened to his music as albums, and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than half a dozen tracks. I just treat it all like one big album. Listening to this as a CD for the first time, it’s very similar to the Analord EPs I love so much: they’re pretty much my idea of perfect music. It’s what I imagined acid house would be like before I actually heard it. This won’t stay in my CD changer long, though, because of a bit of swearing. Tut, tut!

2. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey

The same thing applies to this one: quite a few naughty words, so I can’t have it popping up in the rotation when the children are doing homework in my study! I only got interested in Lana Del Rey recently, I think because of all the chat about the possible return of Twin Peaks, and David Lynch seems to be a big influence on her music – it just clicked. The Lana Del Rey persona feels like she stepped out of a movie, or a novel, perhaps by Philip K. Dick. Maybe this will become a favourite album, even if it’s a bit too creepy for everyday listening, or maybe it’ll end up filed with the fads. (I can’t even imagine the thinking process that once led me to buy albums by Dido or Blink 182!) But right now I’m really into it. I love the wooziness, the character, the melancholy, the odd tempos and structures. Feels drunk and high, like an album made after most people are in bed. (That weird pattern on the CD in the photo seems to be the reflection of a bookcase.)

3. Lost Sirens by New Order

My first reaction to this – eight songs that were originally planned to form part of their next album proper – was that it’s woeful. The lyrics aren’t great (“You’re one of a kind, high on my agenda”). The music is a bit MOR. And I still think that, but it’s growing on me. I’ve caught myself singing bits of it while doing the dishes. And at eight songs it has as many tracks as some of their proper albums. I’m not one of those people who ever wishes their favourite artists would just stop releasing records. Even a sub-par album can produce a great track – I doubt I’ve listened to Get Ready more than a dozen times, but “Crystal” is one of my favourite songs ever. Tentatively looking forward to their next record – Hooky’s left, but Gillian will be back, and they said in Mojo a while back that they had been looking again at Power, Corruption and Lies, which is my favourite studio album of theirs. I liked them best when they were being weird and cool, the tracks that were about noises and moods rather than verses and choruses.

4. The Virgin Years: 1974–1978, Disc 1, by Tangerine Dream

It was late at night, I had internet access because I had been doing an online thing for work, and I’d been listening to Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and been surprised by how good it was. I noticed two Tangerine Dream compilations on Amazon, The Virgin Years: 1974-1978 and The Virgin Years: 1977–1983, compressing all their albums from that time onto eight CDs, for about twenty quid in total. I’m a sucker for omnibus editions, so now I own far more Tangerine Dream albums than I really need to. Some of the later stuff sounds (at first listen, at least) to be abysmal, but this first CD is Phaedra plus side one of Rubycon, and it’s very good. I like space music. (And I reserve the right to change my mind about the later stuff once I’ve given it a better listen.)

5. Indie Cindy by Pixies

One of only a handful of albums I’ve reviewed for our magazine, I like it no less now than when I wrote the review. Super stuff. Black Francis never stopped writing great songs, and I never stopped buying his records (Teenager of the Year, Fast Man Raider Man and The Golem are all excellent), but songs on albums like Bluefinger and Petit Fours felt like they had been written for the Pixies, and I’m so glad they finally got it together. Just wish it had come in a proper jewel case. And it feels odd that “What Goes Boom” is first on the album when it was last on the EP. How can it be both a final track and a first track? It boggles me.

What next?

I’m looking forward to the new album from Public Sector Broadcasting. The War Room EP was great, their album too, and I hoped they might one day apply their dialogue-sampling techniques to old science fiction films. They haven’t quite, but it’s close enough: their new album is about the real-life space race. I think that’s going to be a real treat. But will I be writing about it in the next Theaker’s Fab Five, whenever that may be? Will the five-CD stereo survive another year? Will I ever find anywhere to keep all these bloody CDs? There’s only one way to find out: keep reading our magnificent blog.

Friday 24 October 2014

The Tripods / review by Jacob Edwards

Challenging the rule of three.

When setting out to make The Tripods for BBC TV, producer Richard Bates faced the daunting prospect of having his work judged against two veritable institutions. Firstly, there was the source material: the critically and popularly acclaimed trilogy of books by John Christopher (the SF pen name of prolific author Sam Youd). Secondly, there was Doctor Who, in whose traditional Saturday evening timeslot The Tripods was to be broadcast, and against whose ailing ratings it would be measured as a successful (or otherwise) purveyor of children’s SF drama. Working in Bates’s favour was, of course, the strength of Youd’s post-apocalyptic, historically regressed invasion-cum-resistance adventure narrative, but also a budget of unprecedented splendour and the opportunity to shoot on location across England, Wales and Switzerland. Composer Ken Freeman – who’d previously played keyboards on Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of The War of the Worlds – synthesised a classic score full of portent and menace. Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry was brought in to direct. The battle lines were set.
“This was when Richard Bates was making The Tripods. He scrupulously sent advance scripts and asked for comments and thanked me for them, but took no notice.” – Sam Youd, interviewed by Colin Brockhurst in 2009.
Series 1 of The Tripods comprises 13 half-hour episodes (although these appear to have been edited down to 25 minutes for commercial broadcast and, frustratingly, at least some editions of the DVD), and follows The White Mountains, which is the first book of Youd’s trilogy. Screenwriter Alick Rowe clearly set out to closely capture the spirit and much of the detail of the original book, and at first any deviations reflect merely the disparity that necessarily must exist between a written first-person narrative and a more visual depiction of context and conflict. That the adaptation becomes looser as the series progresses can largely be explained (and was, by Bates to Youd) as a different sort of necessity: that of having used up the allotted portion of location work and thus having to extemporise new material for a studio setting. Despite any affront this might have caused to those who read first and watched second, the narrative and its realisation remain compelling. The eponymous tripods are used sparingly, but to good purpose, and where The Tripods overtly broke from Doctor Who’s mould in allocating more of its budget towards realistic settings and effects than towards a high-profile principal and guest cast, nevertheless the acting stands up. The three main characters (Will, Henry and Beanpole) are adolescents, and the actors (John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel), though largely inexperienced, were rigorously auditioned – there were 400 applicants for the role of Will – and play well off each other in carrying the story forward. (Many viewers today would be genuinely surprised to learn that none of the three went on to establish an acting career subsequent to The Tripods.) The cliff-hangers are less forced and certainly no less effective than the pantomimic “end of episode” howlers that seemed de rigueur of John Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who at the time, and perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of the first series of The Tripods is that some of its more extreme moments of character imperilment are, upon resumption, glossed over with little or even no explanation proffered. Notwithstanding such liberties, the production as a whole succeeds admirably in portraying both the subjugation of mankind and the three boys’ at times harrowing quest to find the free men living in the white mountains. The Tripods averaged somewhere in the vicinity of 6.3 million viewers across the 13 episodes of its lustrous debut. A month later Doctor Who returned to Saturday evenings after its dalliance with midweek broadcasts, and in comparison averaged 7.1 million for the season.
“After the reasonably faithful book-replication at the beginning, I was probably bound to find the increasingly wide divergences irritating. My guess was that someone thought he could improve things by following a more orthodox science-fiction path. … I just thought it silly. The second series got so far off my path that I just couldn’t recognise it.” – Sam Youd, ibid.
Series 2 of The Tripods comprises 12 half-hour (or 25-minute) episodes, and ostensibly is based on The City of Gold and Lead – the second book of Youd’s trilogy, in which Will and newcomer Fritz (Robin Hayter) infiltrate one of the tripods’ cities and encounter the beings who have enslaved mankind. The acting remains very good, as do the special effects in fashioning an alien environment that successfully walks a tightrope between the bedazzlingly futuristic and the fuzzy electrobuzz of Plastic Bertrand’s music video for Ça Plane Pour Moi. The story adaptation, however, in the second series comes not from Alick Rowe but rather courtesy of Christopher Penfold, who had made numerous contributions to Space: 1999 and seems to have taken this as some sort of creative licence to senselessly pervert Youd’s original work. With no obvious impetus for doing so, Penfold cuts the casual brutality of the alien masters and pastes it (along with a recurring, fetishist riff) onto privileged macho men guards whose function is inexplicable within the world setting and who present more as a sadistic clique of collaborationists than the docile, mind-controlled slaves of the book. By spurning not just the physical but also the textual gravity of Youd’s scenario, Penfold strips the series of much of its narrative weight, thereby rendering The Tripods in much the same faux dark, yet garish and rather discordant shades that ran through mid-eighties Who. Considered as an unfolding adventure, series two of The Tripods still holds the viewer’s attention, but there are jarring ups and downs, and by the point where Penfold has invested his version of the city of gold and lead with a kitsch synth-sleaze nightclub and a wholly manufactured, manifestly unnecessary second race of alien beings, audience figures were starting to drop, averaging out at 5.1 million across the twelve episodes. This, as it turned out, was more than the next season of Doctor Who would manage (4.8 million), but it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Michael Grade (then controller of BBC1) had little time for SF that didn’t pull its weight, and so Doctor Who was sent into hiatus, Colin Baker uttering the bitter parting words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. The Tripods was axed altogether, and what had been intended as an Empire Strikes Back-style purgatorial ending that would leave people pining for the third series (“Has it all been for nothing?” Will laments), turned out to be the proverbial it: a most sombre and unsatisfying conclusion indeed.

Never repeated by the BBC, yet fondly remembered and in sufficient demand as to be released 25 years later on DVD, The Tripods remains an engrossing SF adventure drama that will appeal to today’s young adult audience every bit as much as it did to that of the mid-1980s. Though relatively sedate in terms of plot, none of the episodes feel slow-moving. In fact, viewers may well find themselves swept along, watching several instalments at a time and caught up in events until the bad penny drops and suddenly, confoundingly, the adventure is cut short. It is impossible now to say whether the unmade third series would have done justice to The Pool of Fire – the concluding book, in which Will, Henry, Beanpole and Fritz head a last-ditch attack to overthrow the masters and save the Earth from the deadly terraforming that has been planned. It could perhaps have been as rousing and poignant as Youd’s own dénouement. In the wrong hands it could have been a fiasco. Without the act of observation, we’ll never know; but if the series’ cancellation hangs dourly over television history, clouding our appreciation of the BBC, at least in this instance there is a silver lining: very few people who watch The Tripods will be content to finish off where Michael Grade drew his bottom line; many will turn to the novels, and in doing so will come to know Sam Youd’s enthralling trilogy (plus prequel) in its written form, and also, hopefully, the wider canon of his John Christopher output and thence the enduring lure of imaginative and well-crafted science fiction.

DVD release: 23/9/2009 (2|entertain / BBC Worldwide). Original broadcast: 15/9/1984 – 8/12/1984 (Series 1); 7/9/1985 – 23/11/1985 (Series 2).

Friday 17 October 2014

Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown by Joe Schreiber / review by Jacob Edwards

Blowing the horns of dilemma.

When the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menace, was unveiled with grandiose, heraldic fanfare across cinema screens in 1999, the lightsaber thrum of expectation was always likely to sputter and fizzle. Disappointed, we were, and not just with Jar Jar Binks. There was also Darth Maul: the red-skinned, horned and tattooed, mad-eyed, devil-modelled Sith Lord, whose agility and snarling savagery promised a danger no less than that of the dark, prowling power of Vader, but whose ultimate delivery – standing non compos mentis while an erstwhile-dangling Obi-Wan springs up and out of the reactor shaft, force-grabs Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber, somersaults over Maul’s head and cuts him in half – proved utterly, almost insultingly flaccid. This was someone with the Force aptitude to wield a double-bladed lightsaber and take on two Jedi simultaneously. To die with such ineptness… It was a dramatic let-down, the emotionally hollow like of which could only be achieved by such clumsy scripting as having Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than allowing Darth Vader to strike him down in A New Hope, instead merely tripping on his own robes and accidentally impaling himself on Vader’s lightsaber. To have Maul dispatched in so undignified a manner was to reduce a martial virtuoso to the level of an extra from Japanese fight-fantasy Monkey, and pratfalling along with him went any aspirations the prequelogy might have harboured to match strokes with the original Star Wars saga.

Vale, Darth Maul: the true phantom menace of the film.

Carrying this perspective fifteen years into the future, the more casual Star Wars fan could be excused for greeting Joe Schreiber’s latest book with a Binksian droop of scepticism and ambivalence. Maul: Lockdown (Century) is set pre-prequelogy and in the main features no familiar characters other than Maul himself, with only fleeting appearances by Jabba the Hutt and a nascent Darth Sidious. The story takes place in a diabolical prison, to which Maul has been sent to track down a spectral arms dealer, and begins with a six-page fight to the death that blends horror motifs with comic book sensibility. These two elements interplay throughout the novel, and as each short chapter unfolds and Schreiber demonstrates himself to be neither squeamish nor overly concerned to remove action scenes from their still-frames (indeed, one particularly casual sequence jump on page 128 sees Maul, who is under a moratorium on Force use, physically grab hold of a Chandra-Fan who just previously had scuttled up a ladder and thus was nowhere near him), those of us whose readership is grounded in the big-screen revelations of 1977 will quickly realise that Schreiber’s manifestation of Star Wars is not the rousing space opera that we signed up for. Sweeping, swashbuckling and fanciful are set aside in favour of confined, gruesome and humourless. In fact, with an amoral protagonist pitted against foes who remain almost entirely unmitigated in their respective evils, Maul: Lockdown could well be repudiated as holding no substantial connection to the Star Wars canon. As the publishing industry continues to spawn its offshoots, George Lucas’s vision seems to be receding into the long time ago and the achingly far away. This is not Star Wars at all. It’s the garbage compactor of A New Hope magnified beyond all proportions and left to its own dark devices.

Divorced from its origins, it’s also rather good.

Maul: Lockdown is built around a seemingly unpromising premise, and is made by both cover and blurb to seem literature-poor and pulpy. Schreiber, however, though unashamedly engaging the comic book action/horror hyperdrive, transcends this red-blurred veneer and delivers a surprisingly substantial payload. His prison setting is far from typical – a Rubik’s penitentiary in space, its design constantly subject to reconfiguration – and the inmates are free to wander the complex, limited only by failsafes implanted in their hearts and an obligation (thus warranted) to return to their cells for televised death matches: grist to the mill for the prison warden and the gambling underworld. This floating pocket of the Star Wars universe is depraved and grotesque yet suitably fleshed out, the dramatis personae falling within a broadly malevolent swathe but given sufficient individuality both to defy stereotype and to foster genuine intrigue. Schreiber writes in a series of vignettes – 76 chapters squeezed into 330 pages; caged restlessness giving way to pent-up release – yet the story builds across three broad acts and the overall pacing conveys something not unlike that hallmark epic quality, manifest throughout A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, that might well be thought lacking in many of the freestanding Star Wars novels, and indeed in the prequelogy arc spanning The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Schreiber also deserves credit for successfully presenting an antihero, allowing the reader to engage with Maul’s ignoble mission while remaining unsympathetic to him within a broader Star Wars context. Maul is relentless, and though his deadly prowess – which is to the fore, even sans any recourse to the Force – does give rise to the unfortunate side-effect of accentuating the limpness of his demise in The Phantom Menace, his developing backstory in Lockdown is at least representative of the formidable figure we see up to that point. The character lacks depth and is inherently odious, but the same could be said of Anakin Skywalker as he goes through his contrived metamorphosis to become Darth Vader. Schreiber’s portrayal of Maul was the more difficult task, and though the reading is not always pleasant, we should take some grim satisfaction that as warden of the dark side he has kept his charge believable and consistent.

Second time around the trilogy bush, that’s more than George Lucas managed.