Sunday 31 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 31 May 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

If you could have the possibility to have a drink with an author, dead or alive, who would it be?Teuta Metra

I wouldn't want to have a drink with someone who would feel their time was being wasted on me, though the authors I have met have all been very nice. I think I'd pick one of the many authors I've never met who have contributed to TQF, like Rafe McGregor, Jacob Edwards, Charles Wilkinson or Douglas Ogurek. Or maybe Ramsey Campbell, not just because of his writing, but because I worked with him for years on the British Fantasy Society Committee without ever having the nerve to speak to him in person.

Six books within reach.Facebook meme

The closest six to me right now: Hainish Tales, Vol. 1, Ursula Le Guin (52 cm), Zenith Phase One, Grant Morrison & Steve Yeovil (61 cm), Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Carolyn Keene (67 cm), Penguin Concise Dictionary (72 cm), New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (73 cm) and New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors (74 cm).

What have you been creating during lockdown?BBC Radio 6 Music

I recorded a song every day for a fortnight and made videos for them all too. My favourites were: Why Did the Chicken (Cross the Road)?, Terry's Theme, Rocking Giant, I Love Your Sad Face, He's Just a Baby! and Feel That Beat. And then to celebrate the Eurovision that never was I wrote another: I Want to Hear What You Think About Things.

Does anyone have tips on how to be better at reading longer books?Facebook group member

Whatever the length, it's the book's job to keep you interested and if it's failing to do that just ditch it. But if you have to read it for school or review or self-improvement or something, set a bearable number of pages to read each day and spend the rest of the time reading something else. Modern novels tend to be too long because that's the length of book the publisher wants to publish, rather than because the author had enough ideas to fill that many pages.

Does anyone know of websites to purchase ebooks for Kindle that aren't Amazon?Facebook group member

I can't think of anywhere other than some publishers' own websites that will be selling DRM-free copies of big new releases, but Weightless Books is good for indie publishers.

Do you have any weird grudges? Mine is against the Roman Empire.@inkasrain

The New York Bagel Co stopped pre-slicing their bagels because of customer feedback. I get angry at those customers every time I have to get the big knife out to slice some bagels. My fingers deserve to be safe.

The hardest you've ever cried in a movie/TV show. – Kevin L. Lee

Watching A.I. Artificial Intelligence in the cinema, when the mother leaves the android boy in the woods. I literally had to stick my fist in my mouth to stop myself wailing out loud. I think we had at that point been through a round or three of IVF which had not worked yet, and it's an emotional film anyway; it was all just too much. But what a big baby…

Anyone want to read an absolutely massive profile of/interview with Michael Moorcock, interwoven with a lot of personal stuff?David M. Barnett

Yes I do! Here it is if TQF readers would like to read it too.

I was reading a book this weekend, got 3/4 of the way into it and realized that I had already read it! Has this happened to anyone else before?Facebook group member

Yes, I spent the whole of Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg trying to remember what it reminded me of, and of course it reminded me of itself. I've also had quite a lot of sf books that were previously published under different titles, like Michael Moorcock's The Blood Red Game / The Sundered Worlds – it was always disappointing to start reading one of those and realise it wasn't new. Thanks to Goodreads and ISFDB for making such unhappy events much rarer.

Someone just told me that “Reading books in paperback format is idiotic because that’s what tablets are for now.” But I still read more paperbacks than ebooks (there’s nothing like the feel of a real book in my hands). What about you?Morgan Wright

I barely ever read paperbacks now. Maybe one or two a year, apart from comics and Penguin minis. I wouldn't say it's idiotic to read them, though! Just a hassle. I might feel differently if our house weren't so dim, and if I weren't mainly reading for review. Drives me mad trying to find particular passages I need in print books.

What is the hill you would die on? What is your cause?Dr Jessica Taylor

That lying is bad. It's caused me problems at work (not current work), in voluntary organisations, in all sorts of situations. I won't do it, I can't help pointing it out, and I can't bear it when other people do it.

Saturday 30 May 2020

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi | review by Stephen Theaker

John Scalzi was by 2017 one of science fiction’s most famous living writers, and though some of that was down to his formidable and somewhat reassuring social media presence, the books played a substantial part too. While the 2013 Hugo award for Redshirts rewarded a book that wasn’t universally adored, it was a sign of how popular he had become with readers, and he subsequently signed a colossal thirteen-book publishing deal (as alluded to in this book’s dedication: “To Tom Doherty … here’s to the next decade”) of which The Collapsing Empire forms the opening salvo.

Cardenia is to be Emperox of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, King of Hub and Associated Nations, continuing the Wu dynasty, which has ruled for a thousand years over forty-seven star systems. She never expected this. She knew her father was the emperox, but didn’t see him much. He had an imperial consort and the heir, Rennered, she had given him, while Cardenia lived with her mother, a professor of ancient languages. Then Cardenia’s princely half-brother crashed his race car, literally lost his head, and left her next in line for the throne.

Cardenia is likeable, intelligent and sensible, so the reader might at this point begin to anticipate the good, wise job she will do of running the empire – but then you remember the title…

There’s no faster-than-light travel in this universe, but by taking their own bubble of reality into the Flow – a “multidimensional brane-like metacosmological structure”, no less – ships can travel through alternate space-time all the way to another star. This discovery saved humanity after Earth was lost, the colonies thus able to share essential resources that none would have had on their own. Hub got its name because it’s the only planet with direct links to all other systems. No one would live there otherwise – it doesn’t spin, so one side is super-hot and the other is frozen, with humans living under the ground or in space stations.

While Cardenia waits on Hub for her father to die, the crew of the Tell Me Another One mutiny while the ship is in the Flow (without even completing the appropriate paperwork), and then things get even worse: they are dropped out of the Flow and back into normal space-time. It’s the beginning of the end for the empire. The streams through the flow are going to dry up, which will leave the interdependent systems in a really tight spot.

It’s a tricky problem for a new emperox to deal with, and a great premise for a science fiction novel. As the apparent villain of the piece Ghreni Nohamapetan says to sweary trader Kiva, whatever this is, “You’ll have a name for it soon.” A small bit of dialogue that says a lot. Another nice moment, made somehow more epic by its mundanity: when an undeniable report of the upcoming apocalypse is presented to humanity’s ruling class, it’s in a stapled paper handout.

About three quarters of the way through the reader will start to wonder whether the story will be finished by the end, and it’s fair to say that it isn’t, nothing like it. Certain plotlines are partly resolved, but unlike, say, Old Man’s War, which kicked off a series but was perfectly satisfying on its own, this feels like the first act of a longer novel divided up for publication. Fans who already know they’ll be reading the whole series won’t mind, but more casual readers may be frustrated.

The book never quite becomes the disaster movie on a galactic scale that early chapters promise, but it’s an easy-to-read, entertaining and commercial novel of the kind you could binge on all summer, similar in tone to the Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, for example. It has a faith in the power of revealing the truth to undo the villains that already seems quaint; not a surprise then to read that the author found it hard to write during the US election.

The acknowledgements mention the author’s film/tv agent and entertainment lawyer, and this seems cut out for television adaptation, with a plot that features sex and thrills but largely turns upon a series of intense conversations, and provides many excellent roles for women, from Cardenia and Kiva down to Captain Gineos, who appears only in the prologue but is so brilliantly capable that her mutineering crew asks her to resume control in a crisis. If you made a deliberate attempt to write an sf Game of Thrones or a modern Foundation, and had the necessary skills, this might well be the result. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #269.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 24 May 2020

Here are my answers to the less important questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments!

Who's the first comic-book creator (writer, artist, inker, colorist, letterer, editor) you've ever met, and how did it go?Paul Renaud

I took my kids to an art event in our local park and John McCrea was there helping out. I was awestruck. He was very nice and gave my daughter some excellent advice.

Describe your favorite film in three words.The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ramona's evil exes.

What’s YOUR favorite film from your least favorite genre?James Gunn

There are quite a few movie genres I don't really like, such as musicals, romance, CGI kids films, family drama, courtroom drama, melodrama, etc, but I would struggle to pick a favourite film from most of those. So I'll go for Westerns and The Hateful Eight. No, wait! I forgot evangelical movies, and the original Left Behind. Unlike the tedious remake, the original was great fun. And it tickles me that worshippers of a god would think a film where he kills a ton of children would be a useful recruiting tool.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 17 May 2020

Here are my answers to the questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to add your own answers in the comments!

We all have odd quirks what's some of yours?GingerNuts of Horror

I can't go to sleep in between books. If I've finished my book I have to choose a new one and I've stayed up two hours doing that before now.

Anyone else have family who doesn't read your books?Deborah Maroulis

My wife read my first novel but none since then. I don't blame her.

What's your best cinema memory?Danny Morgan

I couldn't choose between between three of them. During Django Unchained, a chap at the front of the cinema stood up when Jay-Z's rap came on and performed it for us in time with the film. He was escorted out shortly afterwards. Fast and Furious 6: The build-up to Jason Statham's appearance. Those who had seen Tokyo Drift were slack-jawed because we knew what was coming, while for the other half it all came as a complete shock. And Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor. The twelfth Doctor's eyebrows! I have never heard an audience react like that. It was like white noise. The sound of three hundred geeks exploding with happiness.

Your Twitter handle is now your job. What do you get paid to do?Carlos

First time I needed an internet handle I used the name of a character from a script I entered in a BBC screenwriting contest: Rolnikov. So I guess now my job is to travel from planet to planet having adventures that aren't quite funny enough to win comedy screenwriting competitions.

If band names were literal, what would be the scariest band to fight?Ian Karmel

Have you ever been in a darkened room? Nothing could be scarier than The Shadows. They wouldn't even kill you. They would just keep scaring you, over and over. You wouldn't be able to sleep. They'd always be at the corner of your eye. They'd follow you everywhere. Brrr.

If you could get ONE movie made, what would it be?@Dene71

Tom Hanks in an adaptation of Clifford Simak's novel Way Station. I've always thought that would be brilliant.

I want to know what you think is the best single episode of any television show ever and why.Ian Browne

As far as science fiction goes, I would lean towards "Kiksuya" in season two of Westworld. It's a wonderful example of conceptual breakthrough, as Akecheta slowly realises what he is, and discovers what his world is, and it's heartbreaking.

Sunday 10 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 10 May 2020

Here are my answers to the questions that the world has been asking this week. I wrote my answers over the course of the week so there may be contradictions (e.g. when it comes to the most recent tv show I watched). Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments below.

You are now the main character from the last TV show you watched. Who are you?

Dolores from Westworld season three. Which is great because now I can divide my to-do list between five copies of myself, like she does.

Which sci-fi show's prediction of the future do you wish was true?Big Finish

Struggling to think of one that doesn't feature a cataclysm in the 21st century. So I'll go for Parks and Recreation, which skips into the future towards the end. Their future seems pretty nice. Who wouldn't take Leslie Knope or Ben Wyatt as president right now?

What was the first James Bond movie you saw on the big screen?Scott Mantz

Didn't see one in the cinema till Goldeneye. And since then just Die Another Day and Spectre. Mrs Theaker's not a fan. But she gets me them for Christmas and watches them with me on Boxing Day, so I can't complain.

What's a blurb word that makes you NOT want to read a book?Claire Dederer

Epic. Just means it's too long.

The last TV show you watched is now getting a crossover with the last videogame you played. What is the unholy abomination that has just been created?Alethea Kontis

Far Cry Into the Night. I can see that working.

Can men be feminists?la scapigliata

Maybe men can be feminists, theoretically, but in practice I think we have an insuperable conflict of interest. I used to think that saying I was a feminist was a useful thing to say to other men. But I came to think that, as far as saying it to women went, it was like saying I'm not racist to someone from an ethnic minority, i.e. for them to decide, not me. When I saw the way some self-proclaimed male feminists treat female feminists, that feeling hardened and I started to feel that it could be quite the red flag. So I gave away my John Scalzi-inspired "Hell yes I'm a feminist" t-shirt, which was a shame because it was very comfortable. I would say instead that I'm anti-sexism. And all too often the sexism that I need to be anti- is my own!

Friday 8 May 2020

Fantastic Orgy by Carlton Mellick III | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Originality, succinctness and clarity reign in masterful short story collection 

One of the most common drawbacks of the contemporary short story, especially in genre fiction, is sameness. Carlton Mellick III’s Fantastic Orgy, like many of this bizarro author’s works, stands out as a refreshing exception. With his utterly original content and tight writing style, Mellick introduces a smorgasbord of characters, situations and ideas that the reader has likely never encountered. Whether Mellick is writing about a lollipop-headed musclebound stud sampling cheese, an inadvertent transvestite using her hair to combat berserk enemies, or a “fat lazy half-assed drummer” who’s constantly drunk, he keeps the reader engaged with stories that are humorous, fast-moving and at times poignant.

In some stories, Mellick’s protagonists have a clear goal (e.g. to obtain an STD, to score a “laydaaay”). In others, the characters don’t really know what they want, but they do achieve some realisation. In either case, the reader will be transfixed by the story’s contents.

The collection opens with “Candy Coated”, in which a muscular young man who has a Tropical Sensation-flavored lollipop for a head goes to a cheesery, where he hopes to hook up with a woman. He just has to watch out for the many bearded truckers who are intent on licking his head. The story comments on the shallowness of one-dimensional males looking to “score”.

In “Ear Cat”, more than ninety percent of the population suffers from agoraphobia. Anxiety-ridden protagonist Irene finds comfort in her collections of lamps, “curly horns” (as in the instrument), and expired Gen-cats. Then the Kitty of the Month club delivers ear cat, who has a human-like face and yes, a body covered in ears. After spending time with ear cat, along with a couple other intriguing Kitty of the Month deliveries, Irene starts to discover some things are not as important as she thought.

The titular story, a tour de force of creativity, humour and all-around wackiness, introduces a world where sexually transmitted diseases are desirable. Main character Tim, who has contracted “Dick Talk”, heads to Share Your STD Night at the Demon Seed Society. His goal is to obtain an STD called “Vibrator”. Even without the plot, Mellick’s STD inventions and cast of eccentric characters would be enough to keep the reader riveted.

A punk band with a hit song called “Glass Sandwiches” is the focus of “City Hobgoblins”, where dangerous creatures lurk outside. Things reach a crescendo when a strange object crashes through a window and the bass player narrator falls in love with a shark woman. The band’s discussions and fuck it all attitude are what make this selection particularly funny. Favourite characters include Ass Fort, a constantly inebriated drummer, and Lenny, an artist who insists on preserving all life.

“Porno in August” drops pornographic actors in the middle of the ocean for a film they expect to make, but the crew isn’t there and the characters’ memories are sketchy. Time becomes warped and they gradually discover something startling about themselves. Although the author’s notes playfully argue that he wasn’t trying to make a statement (e.g. commenting on the emptiness of the pornography industry), one has to wonder. Or maybe that’s just me trying to impose a meaning on this profoundly prolific author’s work.

If you’ve ever wondered what the winners of the Golden Ticket felt like when they entered Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, pick up Fantastic Orgy – it’s as close as you’ll get.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday 4 May 2020

Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, April 2020, ISBN 9781916268012

With the release of Trail of the Wolf to schedule, I must confess that my cautious optimism about Holmgard Press has matured into quiet confidence… to the extent that I’d be very surprised if the late Joe Dever’s whole Lone Wolf cycle (books 1 to 32) hasn’t been published by this time the year after next.  As I mentioned in my review of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War, I have never played books 25 and 26 so I was particularly pleased when this arrived very promptly in the post (from Holmgard Press’s website, at:  Trail of the Wolf is the sequel to Rune War and although I provided a brief summary of the New Order series (books 20 to 32) in my review of Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, it is worth drawing attention to the way in which the cycle has been constructed.  The Kai (books 1 to 5) and Magnakai (books 6 to 12) constitute a single quest (or “campaign”, in role-playing game terminology) with a single protagonist (“player character”), Lone Wolf. The Grand Master series (books 11 to 20) consists of ten standalone adventures, in which Lone Wolf plays the part of troubleshooter for the good gods Ishir and Kai, foiling the evil god Naar’s plots to extend his influence in Magnamund (the fantasy world in which all the gamebooks are set). The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (reviewed here) and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 (reviewed here) and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books, beginning with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai (29 and 30 are reviewed here and here; 31 and 32 have yet to be published).

In consequence, I don’t recommend playing Trail of the Wolf without playing Rune War first, although, such is the skill with which Dever created the series, that they can actually all be played as standalone adventures. Rune War saw the New Order of the Kai (the warrior elite of Sommerlund) pitted against Lord Vandyan of Eldenora.  Driven by his hubris, guided by Naar, fuelled by the power of the Runes of Agarash, and with an innumerable horde of Vorka (spawn of Agarash the Damned) at his disposal, Vandyan was in the process of conquering central Magnamund.  While Lone Wolf led the conventional crusade against Vandyan’s army, True Friend slipped inside Skull-Tor special forces style and destroyed the Runes, guaranteeing victory.  Naar managed to snatch his own victory from the jaws of defeat, however, sending Zorkaan the Soultaker, a powerful entity from the Plane of Darkness, to live up to his name and snatch Lone Wolf.  The destruction of the Runes appears to have trapped Zorkaan on Magnamund and Naar took advantage of the situation to place him under the control of the necromancer Xaol (a recurring villain in the New Order series).  Xaol is holding Lone Wolf prisoner in Gazad Helkona, a former Darklord fortress city (the Darklords were defeated by Lone Wolf in the initial campaign of the cycle, books 1 to 12), and True Friend’s mission is to rescue him. The plan is to deploy to the Shezar Hills in Guildmaster Banedon’s flying ship, yomp fifty miles across-country, infiltrate the city, locate Lone Wolf, and await a hot extraction atop one of the citadel’s towers… what could possibly go wrong?  As such, the game can be divided into four parts: a wilderness adventure in the Shezar Hills and the Dead Forest of Helkona; an urban infiltration into the fortress; and then two dungeon crawls, the first to find Lone Wolf and in the citadel and the second to escape to Darklord Chlanzor’s observatory dome and survive until Banedon arrives.

Regarding the mechanics of gameplay, the narrative is quite short, very deadly, and heavily reliant on luck (at the Random Number Table, the game’s equivalent of a decahedral die).  I found the adventure by far the toughest of the New Order series so far (i.e. books 21 to 24) with True Friend being killed three times, once by fall and then by Xaol and an Urgaroh (a reptilian humanoid I could do without) in two combats.  It doesn’t help that when you do find Lone Wolf, he is in no fit state to lend a sword-arm.  The following can all make the game a little less deadly and a less reliant on luck:
  1. Selecting either Spawnspite or Valiance as your Kai weapon.  
  2. Selecting Kai-screen as one of your Kai Grand Master Disciplines.  
  3. Not picking up a Black Amulet if you find one.  
  4. Selecting one of the following Kai Grand Master Disciplines: Grand Weaponmastery (while carrying a bow), Kai-alchemy, or Magi-magic.
As I’ve come to expect from Holmgard Press by now (this is their fifth publication), the production values of the gamebook are excellent.  I did, however, spot three minor typos: the illustration labelled ‘1’ is in fact of section 2; the illustration labelled ‘106’ is of section 105; and there is an unnecessary ‘=’ in the page number 100-101.

In keeping with all of the other Collector’s Editions (with the exception of Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark), there is a bonus adventure, “Dire in the Dark”, which is written by August Hahn.  I usually play these and include brief comments in my review, but I'm writing this under the COVID-19 lockdown and probably won’t get the opportunity for some time. The player character is a Dire, a dead soldier who is now one of the Lifeless, denied death and doomed to walk Magnamund.  This is the fourth instalment of the character’s adventures, which are all authored by Hahn, began in the bonus adventure of Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag, and continued in Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna and Lone Wolf 19: Wolf’s Bane.  My Lone Wolf library is eclectic with regard to editions and of these three I only have Wolf’s Bane in the Collector’s Edition, but I think I’ll play “Dire Straights” before I return to “Dire in the Dark”.  In summary, Trail of the Wolf is a great gamebook, well-worth the price, excellent on its own, but even better if played as part of the cycle.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Zombie Apocalypse: Acapulcalypse Now by Alison Littlewood | review by Stephen Theaker

Despite the painfully punning title, Zombie Apocalypse: Acapulcalypse Now (Robinson) is not a spoof, in fact it’s quite the gorefest, almost a paperback nasty. It takes place in the shared world created by editor Stephen Jones and his collaborators in the typographically inventive anthology or mosaic novel Zombie Apocalypse. Happily this one doesn’t have any difficult-to-read handwritten passages, though it does have lots of italics, for emphasising words, for thoughts, for Spanish phrases. The Monumento que Canta, an ancient ruin, has been plucked from its original location and placed on the top of an ersatz pyramid near Acapulco: a theme resort, the Hotel Baktun. As new staff and the first guests arrive, it’s not long before reports come in of serious problems back in London, of plague pits discovered under cemetaries and “members of the public reportedly biting and scratching each other”.

This isn’t a novel that messes about: by chapter nine of sixty-four the apocalypse is in full swing and by chapter fourteen death has reached the hotel, by way of the sea. First a swimmer disappears from the ocean and then a wonderfully-described man appears at the pool: “Ethan thought at once of fish, delicately nibbling, and he shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. Undercooked eggs, he thought. The jelly of them.” This first zombie to arrive gets hold of a girl, and when he falls to the floor, “a shred of fabric came away with him. Then Ethan realised it wasn’t fabric but flesh, pale on one side, bloody on the other.” The poor lad then goes through the agony of being unable to persuade his mother to run from his infected father: a scenario typical of what this ruthless book puts its poor characters through.

It feels very much like the tie-in that it is, reminding me of the tight, fast-moving Doctor Who novels people like Mark Morris, Paul Cornell and Kate Orman would write. There’s nothing wrong with that – many authors made a name for themselves with those books, and a series like this could perform a similar role for new horror writers, as well as providing a playground for more experienced hands, a chance (as here) to step out of their usual territory. The difference in this tie-in is that no time traveller is coming to save anyone. They must rely on each other, and the book pushes them gleefully into ever more dangerous situations. As with other tie-ins, fans of the series will get the most out of it, but other horror readers should find it entertaining and efficient, whipping through the story like it has somewhere important to be and delivering plenty of shocks along the way.***

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.