Tuesday 21 April 2015

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #51: now available for free download!

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Welcome to Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #51! We have six stories for you this time: “Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind” by Marshall Moore, “One Slough and Crust of Sin” by Walt Brunston, “Water Imperial” by Charles Wilkinson, “The Assassin’s Lair” by Howard Phillips, “Whale on a Tilt” by Andrea M. Pawley and “Cybertronica” by Antonella Coriander. There are also fifteen reviews, by Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek and Jacob Edwards.

We review books by Lavie Tidhar, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, Henry Kuttner, David Ramirez and Joe Abercrombie, plus a Brenda & Effie audio play by Paul Magrs. We also consider Space Battleship Yamato, Jupiter Ascending, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (twice), the Kindle Voyage, the Amazon Fire TV, season 9 of Supernatural, season 1 of The Leftovers, and season 1 of Constantine.

  • Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind, Marshall Moore
  • “One Slough and Crust of Sin”, Walt Brunston
  • Water Imperial, Charles Wilkinson
  • The Assassin’s Lair, Howard Phillips
  • Whale on a Tilt, Andrea M. Pawley
  • Cybertronica, Antonella Coriander
  • The Quarterly Review
  • Also Read
  • Also Reviewed
  • Forthcoming Attractions

Here are the contributors to this post-celebration hangover issue:

Andrea M. Pawley’s spirit animal is the piranhamoose. Hear her burble-roar at http://www.andreapawley.com.

Antonella Coriander has a plan, but she isn’t saying what it is yet. Her story in this issue, “Cybertronica”, is the fifth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Charles Wilkinson’s story in this issue is “Water Imperial”, about the peculiar goings-on at the Imperial Spa Hotel and Conference Centre. His publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories and Ag & Au. His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries, Unthology, London Magazine, Able Muse Review, and in genre publications such as Supernatural Tales, Phantom Drift, Horror Without Victims, The Sea in Birmingham, Sacrum Regnum, Rustblind and Silverbright and Shadows & Tall Trees. New short stories are forthcoming in Ninth Letter and Bourbon Penn.

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. This time he reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. His website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Phillips is a dissolute poet whose contributions to this zine have ranged from the mediocre to the abysmal. In this issue he continues his latest autobiographical tale, A Dim Star Is Born, in “The Assassin’s Lair”. The previous instalment received such bad reviews that he wept for three days, burned seventeen unpublished novels, and wrote a series of angry blog posts accusing various parties of disparaging his genius. We asked him why he had taken it so badly, and he replied, “If you need to ask, you’ll never know.”

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards flies with Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but meets us in the pub between runs. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He also has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him! In this issue he reviews The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, Space Battleship Yamato and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Marshall Moore makes his TQF debut in this issue with “Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind”. He is the author of four novels (Bitter Orange, An Ideal for Living, The Concrete Sky and Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon) and three short-fiction collections (The Infernal Republic, Black Shapes in a Darkened Room, and the forthcoming A Garden Fed by Lightning). With Xu Xi, he is the co-editor of the anthology The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong. In addition to his work as an author, he is the principal at Typhoon Media Ltd, an independent publishing company based in Hong Kong, and he is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales. For more information, see http://www.marshallmoore.com.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s story in this issue is “One Slough and Crust of Sin”, his adaptation of issue two of The Two Husbands. We don’t know where he got those comics – apparently he’s got the full run. We’ve never been able to find them in the UK. He’s said that if we ever cross the pond he’ll let us stay over and read them, but they have guns in the USA, and no NHS, which seems to us a remarkably dangerous combination.

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

Friday 10 April 2015

Gatchaman | review by Jacob Edwards

The tokenism of casting a bat (and batted eyelids) amongst the pigeons.

Anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman has gone through several permutations since the seminal television series of 1972, perhaps foremost of which is the fondly remembered English-language adaptation Battle of the Planets (1978). Gatchaman / Battle of the Planets centres around five orphans – Ken (Mark), Jun (Princess), Ryū (Tiny), Jinpei (Keyop) and Jō (Jason) – whose bird-themed ninja superpowers and techno-wizardry enable them to stand against the evil forces of Galactor (Spectra). Imagi Animation Studios (which released Astro Boy in 2009) began work on a Gatchaman feature film in 2004, but the project stalled, languished and eventually was cancelled in 2011. Gatchaman then rose again as a live action movie directed by Toya Sato and released by Nikkatsu Studios in 2013.

Back in 1978, cuts and voiceovers were used to make the American-tailored Battle of the Planets more children-orientated than the original serial, the main differences being less violence, fewer human casualties, no references to transgenderism, and the rather upbeat replacement of environmentally conscienceless corporate villains with a more SF-generic alien foe. Thirty-five years on, the live action incarnation of Gatchaman serves as something of a prequel, not only restoring much of what was lost to English translation (Berg Katse’s hermaphroditic shifts, for instance) but also fleshing out the backstory of Ken and Jō’s strained relationship. Oddly enough, given that Battle of the Planets twisted its reworking partly so as to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon of the late 1970s, Gatchaman also now genuflects to George Lucas, postulating a yin-yang relationship between Galactor’s and Ninja Team Gatchaman’s powers, and even culminating in a fluorescent pastiche of the lightsaber duel from The Empire Strikes Back. Notwithstanding such concessions, much of Yoshida’s founding premise remains, albeit somewhat revamped and elevated to the brash absurdities of the big screen.

The Japanese film industry has a special term – tokusatsu – for works that make extensive use of special effects. Cultural nuance renders the word closer to Hollywood’s blockbuster than to the more British utter codswallop, but anyone who’s seen Man of Steel (2013) will doubtless have suffered through the gist. Clocking in at 110 minutes, Gatchaman has more than enough bouncing-off-buildings and faster-than-the-eye-can-follow fight sequences to tick off those viewers who weigh their lives by number of hours invested and pointlessly lost; yet, such is the speed disparity between the movie’s live action and animated sequences, that the blur becomes at times quaintly cartoonish, as if the feature film format were being used not to break but rather to recreate the constraints of its forerunner. Harking back to and elevating the action components of 1972’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman may seem at once questionable yet strangely in keeping with the cinematic zeitgeist of the 21st century, but then again there can be little doubt that 2013’s Gatchaman has been realised at least in part as a new-age kitsch homage.

Certainly, this is the case when we see the prototype Phoenix (G-Force’s distinctive supersonic plane) launch belatedly upon its maiden flight, and then again when it turns fiery, the dramatic pre-eminence of these events clearly playing more to notions of audience nostalgia than to their function within the film. As per the television series, music is employed to rousing effect in underscoring such iconic themes, but Toya Sato and writer Yusuke Watanabe also use it to cheat their way out of attention to scripting, manipulating the audience so as to cover up (or indeed barefacedly create drama from) some conspicuously nude plot points. One brazen example of this is when Ken and Jun must infiltrate a high-security masquerade, Jinpei scrambling desperately to hack the computers and establish forged identities before they reach the checkpoint. It’s undeniably a tense moment, but of course the timing is arbitrary and there was no reason for them to line up before Jinpei had finished his work. The sense of peril is entirely manufactured.

Although its plot is loose, its action cartoon-chaotic and its themes as vague as they are epic, Gatchaman 2013 does in one respect meaningfully elevate itself above the franchise’s small-screen origins of forty years previous. Live action affords, if nothing else, the potential for stronger characterisation, and in the persons of Ken (Tori Matsuzaka) and Jō (Gō Ayano) – and to a lesser extent Ryū (Ryohei Suzuki) and Naomi/Berg Katse (Eriko Hatsune) – that opportunity has been capably seized. Matsuzaka has a real presence. Ayano positively smoulders. Whenever there is (inter)acting to do, rather than racing all about the place, fatuously martial-fartsing, we are given at last a fully rounded sense of what those teeth-grinding, angst-ridden expressions were all about back in the days of hand-drawn emotions. Watanabe’s script, in truth, gives the actors precious little to work with, but Matsuzaka and Ayano nevertheless put in performances well worthy of both 1970s Gatchaman and the dark superhero genre’s broader swathe. It’s just unfortunate that Toya Sato’s modernisation – to give a western comparison – proves rather closer to Michael Bay’s oeuvre of filmmaking than to Christopher Nolan’s.

Possibly the most damning evidence of Gatchaman’s failure to better itself for the big screen and the new millennium, is the mind-blowingly vapid characterisation of Jun (Ayame Gouriki). Granted, the animated Jun/Princess was never much more than a wet handkerchief with which to dab the perspiring foreheads of the male leads, but the Jun of 2013, far from correcting this imbalance, has fallen into a condescension machine and emerged, wide-eyed and pouting, as a perverse archetype of bland, tittering, puerile, hormonal brainlessness. Jinpei (Tatsuomi Hamada) may be the least developed of Ninja Team Gatchaman’s quintet, but whereas he is merely neglected by Sato and Watanabe, Jun has been actively depicted (objectified? fantasised?) as recycled plastic. She is to female dignity and empowerment what Elmo has been to the Muppets, which is more than just a shame; it’s out-and-out shameful.

One advance trailer for the curtailed Imagi Animation production of Gatchaman shows Ken, Jun, Ryū, Jinpei and Jō leaping from a skyscraper and swooping down towards an insectoid death mecha, Jun’s inane little giggle jarring badly with the urgent musical score and the more determined exertions of her fellow ninjas. In another piece of test footage she winches (wenches?) up through a scene of explosions and mayhem, waving coquettishly. Could it be that some quirk of Japanese culture has doomed her character to play the flighty swan and to candy all those action scenes, no matter what form Gatchaman takes? If such is true then it hints at a damning shallowness of artistic vision, and we can only lament that the courageous orphans of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman – and those who shape their adventures – have matured little across forty years. Some fans may rejoice that a feature film treatment of Gatchaman even made it off the ground, but if the 2013 movie soars at all then, sadly, it is to heights not much greater than adolescent wish fulfilment.

“Bird, go!” has always been the command phrase for transforming the Gatchaman team into ninja mode, but in this instance somebody should most definitely have stood up to director Toya Sato and screamed instead, “Bird, no!”

Wednesday 8 April 2015

It Follows | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Controlled study in terror rebels against contemporary horror tropes, explores teenage sexuality and parental influence

The image of Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers, with his impenetrable motives and his patient pursuit of his single-minded purpose (to kill), has embedded itself in the horror aficionado’s consciousness. There is something quite unsettling about an impending threat that can’t be reasoned with. Clearly John Carpenter’s iconic film has influenced writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which exploits this strategy of approaching doom, coupled with creepy audio and smart filming techniques, to deliver an atmospheric masterpiece in which everything, from the proliferation of soda cans to the pronounced lapping of waves, is rich in implication.

Jay Height (Maika Monroe) is a somewhat woolly-headed teen who likes to lounge in her pool and gaze up at the sky. After she consummates a budding relationship with Hugh, her life takes a turn for the much worse: Hugh passes on a sexually transmitted ghost – can we call that an STG? – that assumes a human form. The ghost pursues the latest person to contract the curse with a Michael Myersesque determination. “It could look like someone you know,” says Hugh, “or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”

The infected person can divert “It” by sleeping with someone else. However, once it kills the newly infected person, the force moves to the previous person in the chain. Thus Jay is fraught with challenges regarding not only how to evade the pursuer, but also whether and to whom she should pass on the curse. Neighbourhood heartthrob Greg Hannigan? Awkward long-time family friend Paul? Total strangers?

The Fears of Height
It Follows evades the gore, pop-out scares, and petty squabbles of the typical horror film that has a teenage cast. Its believably lethargic teens engage in mundane activities (e.g. sitting on a swing, watching an old sci-fi film, lounging on a beach, playing old maid), yet through all of these ostensibly benign scenes lurks the threat.

In one early scene, Jay’s professor reads an extended passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – the film uses several direct literary quotes – while the camera does a 360 degree pan. It starts with a view outside showing a distant figure (who doesn’t quite fit with the other students) walking unsteadily toward the classroom. The camera then slowly pans around the classroom, giving the viewer time to question what he or she saw outside, before the view returns to the courtyard to reveal the figure has come closer.

This isn’t the only time Mitchell uses the 360 degree pan. The technique sucks Jay Height and the filmgoer down the drain of this nightmare, and creates a boxed-in feeling: no matter which way you turn, you can’t escape this ghost.

The use of sound also distinguishes It Follows. This includes the eighties-style synthesizer-heavy tunes of Disasterpeace’s soundtrack and the unnerving repetition of sounds (e.g. swing set creaking, waves lapping) amongst otherwise quiet settings.

Additionally, though filmed in Detroit, It Follows really takes place in an unknown place, at a time that’s hard to pin down. What are we to make of the odd clothing, the dated automobile, and the old television sets despite the present day feel of the film? Why does Jay’s friend Yara, with her seventies-style glasses, read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on a shell-shaped e-reader?

Surfaces and Layers
Mitchell seems obsessed with liquids in this film. Jay and company are often near water sources and/or drinking from aluminum cans. Perhaps this is Mitchell’s way of challenging us to look below the surface. Yes, It Follows is about a supernatural predator, but it also explores sexual-related repercussions, whether they be STDs or emotional turmoil. In other words, it follows.

Adult figures are conspicuously absent in this film, which challenges the viewer to consider how parents’ presence (or lack thereof) in their teens’ lives impacts teenage sexual decisions.

The film evokes other questions, the answers to which are beyond the scope of this review. For instance, why is the human form that the ghost adopts often fully or partially exposed? Also, why does the ghost sometimes choose a guise that resembles characters’ parents?

What Mitchell has achieved with It Follows is a sense of dread that lingers from the strange opening sequence that reveals what “It” is capable of, to the equally disturbing conclusion. See this film, but expect it to follow you long after you’ve left the theatre. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday 3 April 2015

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris and friends | review by Stephen Theaker

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris, Carlos Valenzuela and Michael Walsh (IDW, tpb, 138pp) tries to follow the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 in providing the comics continuation of a beloved and much-missed television series. Unlike Buffy, Mulder (as played by David Duchovny, until recently shedding his trousers twelve weeks a year on Californication) and Scully (Gillian Anderson, last seen on Hannibal and the BBC) had pretty much given up the fight by the time their series ended, their replacements Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Reyes (Annabeth Gish) taking the limelight up until the originals returned for the disappointingly low-key second feature film.

All four feature in this series, as do other favourites like Skinner, the [redacted] and the [redacted], but Mulder and Scully are the stars. They’re still a couple, still retired from the FBI, but living under assumed names, Scully working as a doctor. The plot follows on from the final episodes of the TV series, which tried to link the cyborg assassin storyline of the later seasons with the alien invasion story that drove its glory days. A group of mysterious types with glowing eyes want to prepare the way for the alien colonisation of Earth to finally go ahead, and for that they need Mulder and Scully’s magical baby William.

I wish I could say it’s fantastic. I really wanted it to be, because I do miss these characters and at its best The X-Files could be magnificent. But this book’s just okay, about on the level of the old Topps series. The sketchy artwork tells the story clearly and does a fair job of capturing likenesses without conveying the eerie atmosphere of the programme – Mulder and Scully fill the frame like superheroes. The story covers all the right territory, but not enough of it is new. If Mulder and Scully ever return to television, you’d be surprised if this story was considered canonical. Readable – for fans, anyway – without being essential. ***

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Insurgent | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Heroine keeps fighting the system in slightly soppy, though ultimately triumphant sequel

In Divergent (2014), Beatrice “Tris” Prior and love interest Four put a dent in the Erudite/Dauntless alliance (between those who value knowledge above all else, and those who value bravery above all else) aimed at seizing control of a future Chicago whose inhabitants are divided into factions.

This time, Insurgent, directed by Robert Schwentke, has the duo on the run from the mental giants at Erudite and the Dauntless goons that they employ.

Tris, distraught by major losses, does what rebellious teenage girls have been doing for years: she chops off her long hair. Perhaps this is a way to shed her grief or redefine herself (or distinguish herself from rival dystopian blockbuster heroine Katniss Everdeen). Then the girl with a boy’s hairdo undergoes a series of trials that will shed more light on what she and her Divergent label mean to the future of this world.

Tris and Four undertake a journey that allows the viewer to experience the different factions: the glass dome, green roofs, and farms of the hippie-like Amity; the austere concrete headquarters of the always truthful Candor; and the gleaming white tower in which the Erudite scheme. Insurgent also introduces the lair of the punk rockeresque Factionless, those who are not compatible with any faction and who seek to destroy the existing system to establish a new society.

The film’s makers took a great deal of liberty in manipulating the novel (by Chicagoan Veronica Roth) that inspired it. Characters and major scenes are cut, goals and obstacles are simplified, and key concepts are reimagined. Sure… purists will gripe at such slicing and dicing. However, this film is an entertaining sequel that at its worst resembles a soap opera, but at its best stuns the viewer with breathtakingly technologically indulgent action sequences.

It even treats the viewer to a couple of highly entertaining minor characters. There’s the hulking, zero-conscience Dauntless army leader Eric, who looks prepped for an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. Then there’s the self-serving smart aleck Peter, played by Miles Teller, star of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014). Both Eric and Peter have a knack for pushing Tris’s buttons, and push they do.

The standouts in Insurgent are Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Erudite mastermind Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

As in Divergent, Woodley proves her ability to convey emotion. Look to the trial scene at Candor headquarters, where Tris is injected with a truth serum. Feel the pain as she struggles to hold back a secret that wracks her with guilt and that will hurt one of the onlookers.

Equally engaging is Winslet’s Jeanine Matthews. Veronica Roth’s villain isn’t very fleshed out: Matthews has no redeeming qualities and no backstory. Considering that Winslet doesn’t have a lot to work with, she does a fine job portraying a character that, in a less capable actor’s hands, might have been staid (e.g. the antagonist in The Host (2013)) or even overblown.

Everything about Matthews is severe: her pulled back hairstyle, her tight blue dress, her economy of movement, her affectless expressions. Whereas Tris is the girl-boy, Matthews is determinedly adult, an undiluted dark monarch who threatens to annihilate those who would bring change to the rigid systems that have been imposed on this society.

In one of the film’s most blatant departures from the novel, the filmmakers put the mystery on which this story hangs front and center in the form of a metallic capsule. Each side of the pentagon contains a faction logo. It sits in a closely monitored room in the Erudite headquarters. Nobody knows what’s in the capsule, but it has to be important!

Matthews rounds up those with the highest levels of divergence because the capsule can only be opened when a Divergent passes simulation tests for all five factions. When a test is passed, the corresponding symbol on the capsule illuminates (it must be Wi-Fi compatible). Subjects are attached to snake-like wires that descend from the ceiling, inject substances, and then suspend them in a kind of zero-gravity acid trip. The problem is that a failed simulation means death for the subject.

This capsule is a major simplification of what happens in the book, but it works. Similar to the Tesseract in The Avengers (2012), it’s as if the filmmakers are saying to characters and the audience, “Here you go… this is what the protagonist needs to open.”

There is a term in food industry jargon called “bliss point”. It has to do with the amount of unhealthy ingredients (i.e., salt, sugar, fat) needed to maximise taste.

During Tris’s Dauntless simulation, Insurgent achieves a kind of cinematic bliss point. In this technology- and drug-induced sequence, Tris attempts to save a departed loved one in a burning, crumbling house that floats over a city. The scene contains many elements (e.g. dream, intense special effects, damsel in distress) that would make most critics scoff, but to those of us willing to let go, this unapologetic immersion into Hollywood extravagance makes the film worth seeing in the cinema. Legolas would be proud!

The scene also makes up for Insurgent’s shortcomings, namely too many lovey-dovey scenes, too much dull table talk, and the lackluster personality of Four. When it comes to love, perhaps Tris is a little more certain of her soul mate than Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan. Great in real life. Boring in film and fiction.

“Defy reality.” Such is the challenge that Insurgent advertisements pose to the filmgoer. The film, with its simulations, strong polarization between good and evil, and contrasting factions, lives up to its promise and keeps the fictional dream alive. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of Divergent.