Monday 25 June 2018

The Shape of Water | review by Rafe McGregor

Black Lagoon to Baltimore via the New Weird.

The Shape of Water, which was released in December 2017, received thirteen nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards – more than any other film – and won four, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film was conceived by Guillermo del Toro, who co-authored both the screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor) and the novel (with Daniel Kraus). The latter was released in March this year and publisher Macmillan are clear that it is not a novelisation, but a project that “has been developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of film and literature.” I am not entirely convinced by this denial, having found the work lacking in the characteristics I associate with literature. The book should also not be confused with Andrea Camilleri’s 1994 Italian novel of the same name, La forma dell'acqua, which inaugurated the popular Inspector Montalbano detective series, was translated into English in 2002, and appeared on UK television screens in 2012. To return to the film, Del Toro’s premise picks up where an alternative Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, directed by Jack Arnold) might have left off, with the merman or piscine humanoid captured rather than killed.  

In the now cult classic horror movie, white men with guns plunder the deepest, darkest Amazon for first fossils and then the Gill-man who inhabits the lagoon of the title. It’s not quite clear how steaming upriver – away from the sea – brings the intrepid heroes to a saltwater lagoon, but perhaps we shouldn’t pull at that thread too hard. The white men with guns have thoughtfully brought along some brown men to feed to the monster and a white woman to feed to the audience’s appetite for eye candy (many swimsuit scenes) and ear candy (much high-pitched screaming). Despite the offensive stereotypes and poor special effects, the film is surprisingly strong in some of its storytelling. The use of a webbed, clawed hand as the monster’s motif was no doubt sinister at the time of release and the underwater cinematography is both functionally and formally effective, bringing a level of supra-human grace and power to the Gill-man in the water that stands in stark contrast to the actor staggering around in an oversized rubber suit on land. The narrative is also tautly constructed and cultivated, pushing the plot forward at a compelling pace without detracting from the portentous atmosphere. The first half of the film involves the discovery of the Gill-man, which produces a conflict between Dr David Reed (played by Richard Carlson), who wants to study it, and Dr Mark Williams (played by Richard Denning), who wants to kill it. Williams wins out and the ichthyologists hunt the Gill-man before it manages to turn the tables on them. Had Reed won the battle of wills, one could imagine (bearing in mind that the film is set at a time when Cold War tensions were escalating rapidly) that the United States (and Soviet Union) would very quickly have become interested in the military potential of the creature – as a weapon, as a subject of research for nuclear survival, or as an asset in the Space Race.

This is precisely what has happened in The Shape of Water, which jumps to the early nineteen sixties, with the Amphibian Man captured, imprisoned in an aquatic coffin, and transported from the Amazon to Baltimore for observation, study, and – ultimately – vivisection. The asset – as he is for the most part called – is played by Doug Jones (in his sixth collaboration with Del Toro) and is cast almost exactly in the image of the Gill-man, albeit with realistic representation replacing the rubber suit. Viewers who have watched Creature from the Black Lagoon will notice Del Toro’s emphasis on the asset’s clawed, webbed hand – although in a much more subtle manner than Taylor. The story unfolds largely from the perspective of protagonist Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins), an apparently physically disabled woman who works as a cleaner at a secret government installation in Baltimore. The antagonist to Hawkins’ protagonist is Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon), a former military officer turned intelligence operative who functions as both head of security and the asset’s handler. In Del Toro’s tale, Strickland is the monster and he embodies everything that is bad about white maleness and the hypocrisy of an American society dually obsessed with prosperity and decency. Elisa first befriends and then falls in love with the asset and the plot follows her attempt to free him from captivity and save him from the scalpel. Like Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Shape of Water is well-paced, moving swiftly from scene to scene in a way that maintains tension and without feeling rushed. The conclusion is fitting for a film labelled as a “romantic dark fantasy drama”.

This crossover of genres – romance, fantasy, and drama, with a touch of horror – is one of several indications that the film belongs to the tradition of Weird fiction. In my review of The City & the City in May I noted the coincidence that two of the best known works in the New Weird genre had been released on the UK small screen within a month of each other. I introduced the genre in my review of Annihilation in March, paraphrasing Jeff VanderMeer’s (author of the Southern Reach trilogy) characterisation of it as combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. I added that the work of both China Miéville (author of The City & The City) and VanderMeer self-consciously subverts one of the central themes of Lovecraft’s Weird oeuvre, his racially-motivated aversion to and obsession with miscegenation.  Similarly, Del Toro portrays the monstrous as positive rather than negative, as a subject of curiosity rather than fear. Like both VanderMeeer and Miéville, he represents miscegenation as a site of empowerment, enhancement, or evolution as opposed to contamination. This makes The Shape of Water the first – or at least the first critically and commercially successful – film in the New Weird genre and, again, there is a puzzling coincidence in the release of The Shape of Water, Annihilation, and The City & the City all within a few months of each other. Given my penchant for the genre, I should perhaps be a little more enthusiastic about the work, but two considerations deterred me from awarding a fifth star. The first is that one needs to be familiar with Creature from the Black Lagoon for a comprehensive appreciation of The Shape of Water (and had I not seen the former, I might well have dropped a second star from the latter). Second, in the words of the director of my own non-secret, non-government institution, it is “self-congratulatory”. Del Toro knows he is telling a story that is clever, transgressive, and relevant and there is something slightly smug about the tone of the film.****

Saturday 23 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018: the winners!

As announced in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #62, these are the winners of the Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018. Voting was open to the public from February 11 to 25, and people could vote for as many items as they wanted in each category. Items were eligible if they had appeared in or were reviewed in the previous four issues of the magazine. Here are the results!

  • 1st John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection, by John Wyndham et al. (BBC Worldwide)
  • 2nd Children of Eden, by Joey Graceffa and Laura L. Sullivan (Simon and Schuster Audio)
  • 3rd The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi (Audible)

  • 1st Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications)
  • 2nd I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books)
  • 3rd Metronome, by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

  • 1st Adventure Time: Marceline Gone Adrift, by Meredith Gran and Carey Pietsch (Boom! Studios)
  • 2nd X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel)
  • 3rd The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt and chums (DC)

  • 1st Eastercon 2017: Innominate
  • 2nd Into the Unknown: a Journey Through Science Fiction, curated by Patrick Gyger (Barbican)

  • 1st Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm et al.)
  • 2nd Blade Runner 2049, by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (16:14 Entertainment et al.)
  • 3rd Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney)

  • 1st Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone)

  • 1st Sherlock, Series 4, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (BBC One)
  • 2nd Westworld, Season 1, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and chums (HBO/Sky Atlantic)
  • 3rd Legion, Season 1, by Noah Hawley and chums (FX)

Issue of TQF
  • 1st Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood
  • 2nd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek
  • 3rd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood

TQF cover art
  • 1st Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60, art by Howard Watts
  • 2nd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #59, art by Howard Watts
  • 3rd Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #61, art by Howard Watts

Fiction from TQF
  • 1st Bound for Glory, by Allen Ashley (TQF61)
  • 2nd Man + Van, by David Penn (TQF59)
  • 3rd The Lost Testament, by Rafe McGregor (TQF60)

Congratulations to all the winners! To claim their prestigious Theaker’s Quarterly Awards trophy, winners should email a postal address to us at

Monday 18 June 2018

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #62: out now!

free epub | free mobi | Free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

We really needed to start work on our Unsplatterpunk special, so at first we released Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #62 just in pdf form. More formats are now available!

Issue sixty-two contains three stories: “The Nine Dread Ladies of the Tyranium” by Antonella Coriander, “Dundoronum” by Stephen Theaker and “Listen to the Loudest Whisper” by Walt Brunston, plus twenty-one reviews, all by Stephen Theaker.

It also features some “fascinating” statistics about Stephen's lifetime of reading, and the announcement of the winners of the Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2018!

Here are the superb and mostly pseudonymous contributors to this issue:

Antonella Coriander knows when you’ve been naughty, and she’s going to use that information against you. To this issue she supplies the latest adventure of Beatrice and Veronique: “The Nine Dread Ladies of the Tyranium”.

Howard Watts provides the exceptional wraparound cover for this issue. He is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his DeviantArt page: His novel The Master of Clouds is available on Kindle.

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. His reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal. To this issue he supplies “Dundoronum”, an adventure of Rolnikov and Pelney.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle. To this issue he supplies “Listen to the Loudest Whisper”, a new instalment in the adventures of the Two Husbands.

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

Monday 4 June 2018

Deadpool 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Masked chatterbox returns with frenetic blend of violence, vulgarity, and pop culture references perfect for distracted contemporary audience

I’m getting a little tired of superhero movies. Aren’t you? They’re starting to blend together, and they’re taking themselves too seriously. Thankfully, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has returned to commiserate with us in Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch. This time, the even more reckless antihero strives to prevent abused fourteen-year-old mutant Russell/Firefists from harming humans. The quick-witted, potty-mouthed and in some ways self-absorbed Deadpool delivers a barrage of pop culture quips and ultra-violent dispatches of scumbags.

If one were to make a drinking game based on Deadpool’s pop culture references, one would quickly be inebriated. References to films alone range from eighties action flicks and rom-coms to extreme horror to Avengers: Infinity War, released less than two weeks before Deadpool 2. Add to that drinking game decapitations, severed limbs, bullet holes and stabbings, and the player would be unconscious within the first fifteen minutes of the film.

Deadpool is the kick in the pants that the superhero subgenre brought on itself. Early in the film, he wears an eighties-style, high-cut yellow jersey emblazoned with an “X” as he accompanies a few X-Men to calm down an enraged mutant. Not only does he make jabs at other superheroes – he even signs “Ryan Reynolds” on a kid’s cereal box depicting Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – but he also mocks genre conventions by pointing out what’s going to happen. Before a massacre accompanied by a Dolly Parton song, he says, “Hit it, Dolly.” He also points out a “huge, steaming ball of foreshadowing” and a “big CGI fight comin’ up”.

Deadpool’s chief nemesis is Cable (Josh Brolin), a “grumpy old fucker with a Winter Soldier arm” (referencing the second Captain America film). With his gruff demeanour and clipped dialogue, the time-travelling ruffian makes a stark contrast to Deadpool. The latter claims that he once had a fanny pack like Cable’s (carrying case) in “nineteen ninety-never” and repeatedly (and unjustifiably) calls the cyborg a racist. However, the two characters also have something in common.

The film achieves its humour in large part via foiled plans, gory injuries, and the insertion of a ridiculous element into an otherwise commonplace scene. For instance, Deadpool assembles a ragtag group of superheroes with odd powers and gives them the uninventive name “X-Force”. What happens during their first mission arguably takes the crown for the film’s funniest sequence.

Whether he’s commenting on people’s lips, sustaining a gruesome injury, or planning a mission on a map that looks like it’s been drawn by a child, Deadpool is the perfect entertainer for a restless, information-overloaded society. The only concern is that the film’s abundance of contemporary references poses the risk of giving it a short shelf life. Regardless, Deadpool’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to appeal to the nerds who live and breathe comics, and to the general public.

When interviewing potential X-Force members, Deadpool encounters one gentleman, Peter, who confesses he has no superpower, but rather “just saw the ad”. The response that Deadpool gives speaks not just to Peter, but to all theatregoers: “You’re in.”
 – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of Deadpool.

Saturday 2 June 2018

Black and Brown Planets, ed. by Isiah Lavender III | review by Stephen Theaker

Subtitled The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, this book (University Press of Mississippi, hb) aims to show “what SF criticism means when joined with critical race theories and histories of oppression”. Part one, Black Planets, features essays about African-Americans and sf. Lisa Yaszek introduces the idea of “The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness, and Magic in Black Science Fiction”, explaining how Benjamin Banneker’s life has inspired stories of “black technoscientific genius”. The essay identifies several interesting works, but it’s not clear that there are many distinct examples of the Bannekerade.

In “‘The Best Is Yet to Come’; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism”, De Witt Douglas Kilgore writes about the episodes that threw Commander Sisko into the life of a black writer in the fifties, and wonders whether Star Trek’s racism-free future is as positive as it seems. In “Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany”, Gerry Canavan reads that story “as an allegory for life under the regime of legal and customary segregation known as white supremacy”.

As well as the introduction, Lavender writes “Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’”, where he suggests that Butler’s story can be read as an allegory for race in America. In “The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction Is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” Marleen Barr argues that children’s sf featuring black heroes “causes a wrinkle in time, a respite from the history of oppression”.

Part two, Brown Planets, ranges further afield, though surprisingly not to India (“Africa and Asia are beyond the scope of this collection”).

In “Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” Grace Dillon explains how that novel incorporates “indigenous scientific literacies, a forward-thinking way of characterizing indigenous knowledge in opposition to Euro-Western characterizations of ‘native superstition’ and magic”. In “Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” Patrick Sharp makes similar points, while comparing post-apocalyptic narratives with a novel about a town affected by uranium mining.

The view of science put forward in those essays seems almost Victorian, all taxonomies and determinism. In “Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro (The Black President): Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil”, M. Elizabeth Ginway explains how science earned that bad reputation, using a 1926 “chilling fictional experiment in genocide” to illuminate the thinking behind the Brazilian eugenics movement. A highlight is Lobato’s honest surprise that no US publisher wanted his racist book.

In “Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” Lysa Rivera reads Hogan’s novel as a science fictionalization of José Vasconcelos’s theory that the melting pot of Mexico might eventually produce a cosmic “fifth race”, which will lead us into enlightenment. Matthew Goodwin’s “Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” critiques the notion of cyberspace as post-racial utopia, considering, for example, how it provides cheap labour without allowing immigration. In “A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” Malisa Kurtz applies the concept of “raced” characters, who may not face problems relating to their ethnicity, but are marked in other ways, such as Emiko’s built-in physical stutters.

Though it’s a reprint, “Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” is worth reading first, as Edward James provides a useful overview of how American sf has tackled race (or not). It gives context to the more tightly focused essays, though his concerns about “the problem of the recognition of race in SF” – the risk of assuming sf is about race and not, say, technology – aren’t shared by many contributors.

In “The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In” Robin Reid notes the variety of fans who asserted their presence after Racefail, and catalogues how they described their ethnicity and nationality. It addresses the book’s title: “white readers of SF … simply did not see all the planets (black and brown and many other colors) that exist and have existed, independent of white observers”. Like “new” planets now being discovered, minority readers and writers of sf were always out there.

Like any book of literary criticism, it can be dull, but that’s outweighed by the issues, authors and stories it works so carefully to bring to our attention. A few essays make great claims without much evidence, but all provide much to think about; it opens up the conversation, rather than having the last word. Walter Mosley is quoted inside as saying: “The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised or simply by asking, What if?” Black and Brown Planets shows how writers and critics are doing just that. ****

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in Interzone #255.