Monday 30 May 2016

None of Our Yesterdays, by Vaughan Stanger | review

Two fine stories of alternative history in a nice little ebook. In “The Peace Criminal”, which first appeared in Postscripts, a television producer and his researcher interview a strange old man who remembers what happened in England after Germany won World War I. At first they think his story might make a good episode of Myths and Mysteries of the Twentieth Century for the History Channel, but his story is more disturbing than expected. “The Eyepatch Protocol” (which after reading the story one realises is a fantastic title) follows a bomber crew tasked with retaliation after the Cuban missile crisis leads Krushchev to launch his missiles. (Weird to remember how a phrase like “four-minute warning” haunted my childhood, when now I shout it to let the kids know their dinner is almost ready.) It’s shorter than the first story. but equally powerful. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday 28 May 2016

TQF contributors: send us your news!

If you have ever contributed to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, you'll probably know that we have a long-standing offer to run free advertisements for suitable projects in the magazine. And if you don't, sorry, it's because I forgot to say, but it still applies!

I thought it might be nice to collect smaller bits of news from contributors too, for a section in the magazine, maybe also for blog posts, if there were enough to make a blog post worthwhile.

So if you've been a contributor to the magazine, and have any news about what you're up to now, here's the link. Bookmark it and let us know whenever you've got something going on.

Monday 23 May 2016

Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a Visual Compendium, by Sam Dyer and friends (Bitmap Books) | review

An attractive book that looks back over the lifetime of the immensely successful ZX Spectrum, which came out in 1982 and provoked an astonishing torrent of games. It has 304 pages, all as bright and colourful as the Spectrum itself. The focus is on graphics and artwork, so the interviews are mostly with artists rather than programmers. The text can be a little bit repetitive, the artists all having been asked the same questions, and giving very similar answers – graph paper and colour clash come up a lot. The company profiles are more interesting, but only five are covered: Ultimate, Beyond, Durell, Odin and Vortex. But as shown by the designer not the writer being identified as the author in the copyright notice, this is a book about the pictures, and they are great, lot of double page spreads of games that still look good today. I regret not having properly played games like Heavy on the Magick, Fairlight and Tau Ceti. There are also several nice pieces of painted artwork by the brilliant Crash cover artist Oliver Frey. Sadly, nothing appears from my absolute favourite Spectrum games, the Gollup brothers’ Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad, though there’s a loading screen from their Lords of Chaos. One surprise was seeing games we had at home that none of my friends had ever heard of, like 3D Tanx, Wheelie and Harrier Attack! Another was realising how few of these games we actually bought, an initial C90 and C60 from a work friend of my dad giving me the trading power to build up a massive library of cassette copies. Tut, tut, young me! A third surprise was to see on the copyright page that the Sinclair name and brand is now owned by BSkyB – can’t imagine why they wanted it! Overall, it’s a very expensive book, so not one for casual fans. There are cheaper retro bookazines to be found in WH Smiths. But it’s very lovely to look at, and my money, at least, was well spent on it. Stephen Theaker ***

Captain America: Civil War reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

More heroes… more fights… more fun! 

Every time a new Avengers offering comes out, the filmmakers have to raise the bar for the easily distracted contemporary moviegoer ever poised to grow weary of today’s superhero blitz. The fast-paced and effects-packed Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Rizzo, manages to keep the Avengers juggernaut barreling forward.

It’s the typical talk fight talk fight superhero formula. Our favorite egomaniac Tony Stark/Iron Man offers the most entertaining repartee, while the spirited battle action ranges from Natasha Romanoff’s/Black Widow’s acrobatics to the monumental airport battle that earns the film its name. These films just keep getting bigger, faster, and more intense.

Taking Sides
The action starts in Lagos, where Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch uses her psychokinetic powers to lift an active bomb out of harm’s way. However, it detonates before it gets to the top of a building and there are civilian casualties. This opens up an investigation into the many fatalities left in the wake of those thrilling Avengers battles. It also leads to the split that propels the film: in an uncharacteristic move, a guilt-ridden Stark encourages the Avengers to sign a UN-sanctioned accord that limits their previously unchecked authority. Conversely, Steve Rogers/Captain America, the hitherto obedient soldier, refuses to sign because he trusts in his own (and the Avengers’) superior morality and decision-making abilities.

Rogers has something else to worry about: protecting his mentally unstable WWII friend Bucky Barnes (aka Winter Soldier), the tenacious assassin of the last Captain America film. Bucky is a suspected terrorist and former Hydra pawn wanted by the same authorities that seek to limit the Avengers’ powers.

So Iron Man and Captain America each build a six-person army that leads to the airport conflagration. But none of this is all that original, is it? After all, we’ve seen this kind of freaks versus commoners and superhero infighting since X-Men (2000). However, what follows shows how Captain America: Civil War takes things in a new direction.

Battle Aftermath Exploration
For a couple decades, we’ve watched mutants, shapeshifting robots, and superheroes tear apart a variety of settings in their epic battles. However, as we chomped our popcorn, did we ever think about the toll that all this destruction takes on bystanders? In a brilliant “What if…” consideration, the makers of Captain America: Civil War pose this challenge to the heroes and in so doing, explore the pros and cons of utilitarianism.

It’s About the Conflict Within
Captain America: Civil War does have a minor villain (with a strong motivation). However, unlike X-Men, this film focuses on the conflict between our beloved heroes, and it’s a strategy that makes the logical viewer uncomfortable. It’s impossible to choose a side; they all think they’re doing the right thing. Every time Iron Man blasted away at Captain America, I cringed. Every time Captain America hammered away at Iron Man, I cringed.

Stark: “I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart.” Rogers: “You did that when you signed.” Yikes!

New Characters
Note that the movie poster for Captain America: Civil War shows a faceoff between two sets of five characters, yet I said that each side has six. That’s because two characters new to the Avengers universe make an appearance. The filmmakers make it seem like these two characters are a secret, knowing full well that they will build buzz for the film. That’s a brilliant marketing strategy.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man enters the scene like a little boy, thrilled just to be asked to be part of Captain America’s team. Look for the film’s funniest quote when Ant-Man takes off his helmet after one skirmish.

A barely post-pubescent Peter Parker/Spider-Man takes a bit more convincing to join Stark’s side. Parker has homework, after all. In the film’s most entertaining talk scene, Stark drops in on the apartment of Parker and a refurbished (and much more attractive) Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Tom Holland’s Parker is an energetic and chatty “little guy” who adds some youthful zeal to the Avengers, like when he refers to “that really old movie Empire Strikes Back.”

“That Cat Guy” 
Do we really need the hero that one audience member referred to as “that cat guy?” Or was T’Challa/Black Panther, with his cat ears and metal claws, just thrown into the fray because the filmmakers couldn’t afford The Hulk or Thor and they needed a sixth man to round out Stark’s team? And how come this Black Panther, not genetically modified like Rogers or Bucky, can run fast enough to keep up with cars?

However, in Black Panther’s defense, he does bring a kind of peripheral motivation to the conflict: his singular goal is to kill Bucky.

This is a minor irritant in an otherwise absorbing film that offers everything from the clashing humor of Captain America driving a Volkswagen Beetle to the expression of virtue through action (or inaction). I am tempted to conclude this review with some witticism regarding the brilliance of this film. Alas, instead I resort to the comment of a boy: “those fights were awesome!” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Check out Douglas’s reviews of The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Monday 16 May 2016

An Occupation of Angels, by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications) | review

Secret agent Killarney pursues a cryptographer, Dr Eldershott, across cold war Europe, fighting enemy agents on the Trans-Siberian Express and discovering secret bases carved out of rock. But this isn’t the world of James Bond. Thirty-five years ago the angels came, and now their obese bodies lounge within places like Notre Dame and Saint Paul’s while the angels extend their influence over human affairs. At least until the assassinations begin. Who is behind the killings, and what is the being that occupies Sophie Stockard’s body, and speaks in such a terrible voice? Killarney has some experience of angel-killing herself, but must stop this wave of deaths before the balance of power is broken and the cold war goes hot. Yet another good novella by Lavie Tidhar. The pace is fast, jumps in time making each chapter begin with a snap, and there are surprises and new ideas all the way through. Killarney herself seems to have secrets that are only hinted at here. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 9 May 2016

Vince Cosmos: Glam Rock Detective, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review

January 1972, and Poppy Munday (played by Lauren Kellegher) moves down to London, where she feels at first like she’s living in a movie. She moves in with a friend, but then struggles to find work, and her favourite pop star is shot while playing live on radio. Things are getting a bit miserable before she gets a frantic call from her mum back home: Poppy has won a competition to attend the launch of Galactic Cinders, the new album by her favourite, Vince Cosmos. He’s a lot like Bowie/Ziggy, full of facets and wearing make-up and feeling the zeitgeist and talking about the cosmic godhead. Weirdly, the creepy, angry little man who lives in the flat above hers is at the launch too. Is he there to assassinate Vince? This two-part story feels like a pilot, in that we’re a long time into the story before we finally get to spend time with Vince himself. I expected to love Julian Rhind-Tutt in this – he was brilliant as a similarly foppish character in the highly underrated sitcom Hippies – but somehow it doesn’t quite work, maybe because it doesn’t feel like he believes the more pretentious Bowie-like utterances of his character. He’s knowing when he should be oblivious. He does a good job with Vince’s songs, though, and by the end I wished that he’d been in it more. I also enjoyed the links to a classic piece of sf literature, and to the Brenda and Effie stories: the ventriloquist’s fuzzy bat out of hell shows up here at a royal variety performance, still in his pomp. Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday 7 May 2016

Freewrite: first impressions

Yesterday it finally happened! My Freewrite (originally known by the more distinctive name the Hemingwrite) arrived! Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or has not yet unfollowed me on Facebook, or indeed has stood next to me at a bus stop, is bound to have seen my excitement about this device.

It is basically an upgrade of the wonderful Alphasmart, which got me through the writing of a fair few novels, or going back even further the Sharp Fontwriter on which I bashed out Professor Challenger in Space: a dedicated writing device.

Where it scores over the Alphasmart is that it has a proper keyboard, and the files are backed up constantly to the web. I loved my Alphasmart (and still do, I'm not about to throw it away), but I would rarely have chosen to use it at home in preference to Scrivener and my Das Keyboard. The Freewrite shares the Alphasmart's portability, single purpose focus, and long battery life. To those it adds an e-ink screen that can be read outdoors. And where the Freewrite scores over the Sharp Fontwriter is that it doesn't have a big heavy printer built in!

So, what are my first impressions?

I like it a lot. I'm writing this blog post on it, and it's a really nice typing experience. The screen is easy to read whether I lean back or lean forward, and the keys aren't as noisy as I had expected – it's much quieter than my Das Keyboard, while being just as nice to type on. You probably wouldn't want to take it into a quiet meeting, but no one will hear it over the racket of a Nanowrimo write-in at a coffee shop.

(Oh, how sales of this device will soar once that crowd sets their eyes on it!)

The only big problem so far for me is that the device hasn't shipped with the promised Dvorak support in place, which reduces its usefulness dramatically for now. I can tap out a blog post or book review in Qwerty, but it'd be a pain doing a whole novel like that. Never mind, though, because the manufacturers have said it's coming soon, and you can understand why building and shipping the physical devices will have been their focus up till now.

Another slight niggle is that the frontlight, a last minute addition to the device, which is a great option to have, can't be turned off. It's not like the Kindle Ghostlight, which was totally spoilt by the permanent green tinge of its frontlight, but I'm glad that the option to turn it off is on the way.

Would I recommend the Freewrite?

That depends on how you go about your writing. If you like to start at the first word and keep typing till you reach the last word, like I do when I'm writing novels and my shorter TQF reviews, you'll like it, and probably adore it, if you can spare the cash. It'll fit the way I write to a tee.

If, however, you're the kind of writer who writes a line, then goes back to add something to the previous paragraph, then goes back to the beginning to tweak that, you'll find it practically useless, because there are no cursor keys. The only way of going back into the text is to use the backspace button. There are page up and page down buttons, but just for looking back over your text, not for editing. That suits me fine, it keeps me moving forward, but it's not for everyone, especially at this price.

Is it going to be the life-changing device I thought it would be when I bought it? Might be, once it has the Dvorak layout. Just knowing it's always there, always ready to be typed on, will be massive. What the Kindle is for books, I think this could be for writing, at least for me. Fingers crossed. Quite literally, since I'm typing this in Qwerty!

Friday 6 May 2016

Elektrograd: Rusted Blood, by Warren Ellis (Summon Books) | review

A private eye with a habit of shaking down his clients has been murdered in Mekanoplatz, the northernmost district of Elektrograd, the city of the future, or at least it was, back in the early twentieth century. The idea was that it would be an experimental city, where new forms of architecture and living and work could be tried out. In Mekanoplatz the buildings can walk, reconfiguring themselves to meet new manufacturing needs. They’re in the middle of a change now, though homeless people remain where they are, living in the hollowed-out carcasses of abandoned construction robots. Even a beat this dead has a cop who cares: Detective Inspector Ervin Stross, driving an old car that could explode at any time, trailed by a rookie and an ambitious detective sergeant. Behind the murder lies a mystery, and it’s a mystery that doesn’t want to be uncovered. This is a good novella by a writer better known for his comics like Transmetropolitan and the immensely influential The Authority, but he spins a good story in prose too. This is like a science fiction version of a satisfying episode of Columbo or Luther. Warren Ellis’s original plan was to write a novella in each region – hope he finds time to write them. It would be great to see more of Strauss’s investigations in this fascinating city. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 2 May 2016

The Huntsman: Winter’s War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Angry, beautiful women with ostentatious wardrobes cast spells, voyeuristic tiny creatures hide in trees, and much more.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, gave me what I expected, and I’m good with that. This sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) isn’t mind-blowing. It doesn’t present anything staggeringly original, nor will it change your life with some profound message, but it will allow you to escape into a fantasy world rich in costumes, effects, atmosphere, and justice.

When jilted by her forbidden lover, Freya (Emily Blunt) discovers her ability to conjure and manipulate ice, then retreats to “the north” to build an empire. A reclusive ice queen? Hmm . . . that sounds a lot like Elsa from Frozen (2013). However, Freya’s blood runs much colder: her manipulative sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), now trapped in Snow White’s famous mirror, is the spellbinding supervillain who fumed and enchanted her way through the first film.

Queen Freya seizes children to raise as an army of fierce warriors (the huntsmen), which she uses to expand her kingdom. She imposes only one rule on her adult “children”: no love allowed! But huntsmen standouts Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) aren’t having it. So Freya uses her sorcery to separate the lovers.

Years later, Eric and Sara reunite, albeit discordantly, on a quest to retrieve the now lost magic mirror before Freya gets it and catastrophe ensues. They are joined by four dwarves, highlighted by Nion (Nick Frost) and the feisty widow Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith).

Though Winter’s War advertisements exhibit the villainous sisters in all their regal splendor, the film offers a more traditional hero. Eric faces the dual challenge of finding that mirror (i.e. saving the world) and convincing Sara of his constancy. Our hero smiles, chuckles, and tosses around his machismo in typical Hemsworth fashion.

It’s Not Plot
And what will this band of likely and unlikely heroes do when it gets the mirror? Does it really matter? The mirror is really just a device holding things together. The strength of Winter’s War lies not in plot or concept, but in the special effects that, like the gold flakes around Ravenna’s eyes, sparkle throughout the film to create an atmosphere.

Besides the sisters’ conjurations—more on this later—the special effects engineers rise to the challenge with a collection of CGI creatures that populate this fairy tale world: too-small-to-see sprites that leave light trails in their wake, bright red squirrels, swarms of butterflies hitching a ride on a hedgehog, bling-wearing goblins that look and move like apes but have ram-like horns, and turtles and snakes with skin made out of grass. Then there are the voyeuristic, pint-size slender creatures that hide in vegetation and silently watch the adventurers. Creepy. Cool.

Winter’s War also offers several rousing fight scenes, especially the quarrels at the palace entry and tavern. The tension builds, the outnumbered heroes remain remarkably calm, the enemies assemble, and then the powerful Eric and acrobatic Sara deliver a beat down . . . or get beat up. The lack of music during these scenes adds to the intensity by emphasizing the thumping, crashing, and other skirmish sounds.

Sisters Sorcerous and Sexy 
Someone once said, “There’s nothing quite like angry, beautiful women in glittering regalia working magic.” Actually, I don’t think anyone said that, but there is some truth to it.

The film treats Freya and Ravenna with the reverence that royalty commands. For instance, the grandeur of the sisters’ costumes gets elevated by audio embellishments such as the chain-like slinking of Queen Freya’s train as she promenades toward her captives, or the metal finger claws that Ravenna taps and scrapes on various surfaces.

Freya is the subdued, though still highly dangerous version of her older sister. Her finery glistens like frost and offers a contrast of colourless austerity and glittering flamboyance much like the character. Example: she might tear up while she casts a spell that ruins a person’s life.

But don’t expect any tears from Ravenna, unless they’re tears of rage. The only criticism of Theron’s ruthless sorceress is that she isn’t on the screen more. Indulge in Theron’s mastery of her craft as she greets Eric after a long absence, slathers a supervillain laugh over her adversaries, and seduces her chess partner.

During the climax, the sisters use Freya’s royal hall to put on a rock concert of sorcery, their instruments being ice (Freya) and tar-like tentacles (Ravenna) that aim to impale.

When life’s pressures mount, mindless fantasy films like this one offer a much-needed respite. I’ve seen characters using magic powers to freeze stuff. I’ve seen goblins and dwarves. I’ve seen super clear distinctions between good and evil. And I don’t mind seeing it all again: that stuff’s therapeutic. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****