Wednesday 30 September 2020

Westworld, Season 3 | review by Stephen Theaker

Caleb Nichols is a former soldier making a living on the fringe of a society that doesn’t give him any other options. Meeting Dolores Abernathy in the park, a beautiful woman who has just survived an attempted abduction (for which he supplied the car and drugs), will lead him into an adventure that will turn his life upside down. That’s sort of what it’s about, anyway.

Really, Caleb, played by Aaron Paul, has been shoehorned in. It’s less “We have a great character so we need a great actor” and more “We have a famous actor lined up so we need something for him to do”. The character does nothing to explain why android mastermind Dolores would see him as a potential leader, or why we are spending so much time with him. He follows her through the series like a puppy, completely unfazed by all of her murders.

For this is a season where our protagonists are undoubtedly the villains, there’s no two ways about it. They murder tons of people in order to destroy the world for “freedom”. In this it feels very much of the pre-coronavirus era, because it’s much harder to romanticise freedom at the expense of safety these days. For each person they kill on screen, a million more could die as a result of their actions.

During season one, my guess was that their world was heading for a cataclysmic disaster, something that made our transfer into artificial bodies (or creating artificial lifeforms to replace us) an imperative. In this season we find that there has indeed been an apocalypse coming, but it was us. The supposed villain of the season has been holding it back, at great expense, with the help of a supercomputer that keeps us in line.

Which is to say, this season is as much a sequel to Jonathan Nolan’s earlier programme, Person of Interest, as it is to previous seasons of Westworld.

If this had been set years after the previous seasons and the supercomputer had been built with the Westworld data everyone was fighting over in seasons one and two, this might have felt like a more organic development of the story, but instead this computer has been around for ages, based on data handed over decades ago, and the computer is pretty good at its job, making all the fighting over the newer data seem a bit redundant.

Thematically, though, the programme is still very consistent. It focuses once again on the meaning of free will, and this time applies it to the human world outside the theme park. But it’s not quite the same. Being turned down for a job that you want, because the computer knows that you are a violent murderer, would actually be great for those of us who don’t want to work with violent murderers.

And while the show is still frequently spectacular, it feels like there have been budget cuts since season two. There are fewer episodes, only one historical location (briefly used), and many characters are left behind or reduced to guest appearances. While the cast are still excellent, doing their best to imbue it all with the seriousness of previous seasons, the grandeur and sense of wonder is missing, replaced by cheap and pointless fights.

And hardly any of it takes place in Westworld. I liked these characters, but it’s like making a season of Doctor Who without the Doctor. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed watching it. This is a dip rather than a jumping of the mechanical shark, and this is a programme that in season two delivered perhaps my single favourite episode of science fiction television ever in the glorious “Kiksuya”. It gets to have a poor season. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 25 September 2020

Susurrus on Mars, by Hal Duncan (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

An experimental, gay, fantastical book that one could easily imagine as a Penguin Modern Classic, described by the publisher as a “novella-length collection of ... idylls”. It’s the densely allusive (to myths, legends and botany) story of two chaps who meet on a Mars where plants seem to be conscious of their history back on Earth, and where people can change their own sexuality with a quick mindhack. I was glad to be reading it on Kindle, so that I could look up all the words I didn’t know. *****

Friday 18 September 2020

A Song for Quiet, by Cassandra Khaw ( | review by Stephen Theaker

A bluesman in the sixties has a seed in his head, which, if he lets it grow, will let a being from a nearby dimension annihilate or reshape the world. A girl who is also infected finds that quite tempting, because the world she knows is so terrible. This was very good: what you might get if Philip K. Dick and James Baldwin collaborated on a Lovecraftian horror story. I particularly appreciated how it got across the kind of altered mental states that playing or listening to music can produce. ****

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Castle Rock, Season 2 | review by Stephen Theaker

Season one of Castle Rock was one of my favourite shows of 2019. It told the story of a weird young man found in a prison basement, whose presence distorted the world around him. Though it ended with hints that we might next be taken to the Overlook Hotel, season two instead puts a thirty-something Annie Wilkes, travelling under an assumed name with her daughter Joy, in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.

It gets off to a cracking start. Lizzy Caplan is brilliant as Annie Wilkes, desperate to get hold of anti-psychotics to keep herself on track, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen what she can do with an ice scream scoop. The story could easily have been mistaken for a new season of Fargo, with the various members of a local family fighting over property and money. The supernatural elements, as they creep in, do not let it down at all. Tim Robbins plays Pop Merrill, while Paul Sparks is chilling as his son “Ace” Merrill – the bully from Stand By Me. Oscar-winner Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama are also very good as Pop’s adopted Somalian children.

The one real problem I had was that some episodes (but not all, so it wasn’t a deliberate artistic choice) were missing the subtitles for their Somalian dialogue. The same problem happened with an episode that had lengthy sections in French, but in that case I was at least able to pause the programme and translate. (We were watching via the Starzplay channel on Amazon Prime Video.)

It feels more like a traditional Stephen King mini-series than season one, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The first is weird and disorientating, the second has more action and more explicit ties to Stephen King’s work, and both are smashing in their own way. The only disappointment is knowing that we probably won’t see any of these characters again in season three.

And we did get to visit the Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep, the director’s cut of which was like the most expensive mini-series ever made. We also loved season one of The Outsider and enjoyed Mr Mercedes too, even if the villain of that one was essentially someone who had re-invented the Phillips Pronto. I saw someone joke recently about setting up a Stephen King television channel. I’d subscribe to any channel necessary to get season three of Castle Rock. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 11 September 2020

Athena Voltaire and the Sorcerer Pope, by Steve Bryant and Ismael Canales (Action Lab) | review by Stephen Theaker

Two British Special Intelligence agents are assigned missions in 1936. One agent is to assist a pair of archaelogists and Athena Voltaire in their quest for a relic, while the other will operate behind the scenes and try to nab the treasure first. Both are hindered by Nazis. It’s an Indiana Jones adventure with decent art, though it’s hard to tell some of the men apart. Sadly, the sorcerer pope of the title is the creator of the relic, rather than (so far as we know) an active character in this story. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday 9 September 2020

A Rainy Day in New York | review by Stephen Theaker

This is effectively an English-language remake of the To Rome With Love storyline about a young couple who get separated for the day, the woman meeting a film star, the man inadvertently meeting an escort. And it does for New York and its tourist board what To Rome With Love did for that city, giving those of us in lockdown a vicarious holiday in the process.

Elle Fanning is hilarious and sparky as the ambitious and self-possessed 21-year-old journalist whose quest for a good story brings her into contact with a trio of foolish older men in the film industry. (Only an imbecile could watch the film and think Woody Allen approves of these buffoons and their clumsy attempts to woo her.)

Meanwhile Timothée Chalamet noodles around the city while he waits for her, and bumps into the younger sister of an old girlfriend. The actor’s public betrayal of the film’s director works well for him in this role; it made it easier to believe that this boyish chap was, as the film puts it, attracted to the demi-monde.

I thought this film was absolutely charming. Some newspaper reviews have complained about its nostalgic tone, forgetting that the narration begins with Woody Allen playing a much older version of Chalamet’s character; this is 2018 as it might be fondly remembered in 2078 (hence it qualifying, just about, for a review in TQF). I was also somewhat baffled by a reviewer who claimed that for Chalamet’s character to be a poker-player was anachronistic; I hadn’t heard that people had stopped playing.

As usual people who haven’t seen any Woody Allen films except Annie Hall will say it’s not as good as Annie Hall, but personally I tend to prefer his later films.

One trick I liked here was that new characters were rarely introduced with a close-up: we saw them from a distance, meaning that we met the character before realising it was, for example, Jude Law. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 7 September 2020

Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Lightning strikes repeatedly in quartet of tales rich in character and sensory details.

In Strange Weather, a thunderstorm does not just get you wet – it gets you torn apart by crystal nails. And a photograph doesn’t simply capture your image – it steals your memories. 

Each of the four short novels in this collection not only testifies to Joe Hill’s inventiveness, but also ratchets up the tension while nimbly doling out character and setting details that firmly root the reader in the action. Whether a scene involves a botched shooting at a mall jewellery store or a man who’s about to jump out of a plane despite a paralyzing fear of heights, the reader will be fully immersed in the experience thanks to Hill’s mastery of the senses. 

Moreover, these stories can end on a hopeful note with characters experiencing new insights, or they can end abruptly, leaving the reader with a sense of dread. Kudos to Hill for defying conventions.

In "Snapshot", Silicon Valley adolescent narrator Michael Figlione encounters the Phoenician (for the script tattooed on his arms), a Cadillac-driving, Cuban heel-wearing villain who uses a Polaroid camera that steals memories from its subjects. Michael, who has a penchant for invention, deals with his own weight problems while helping his former bodybuilder neighbour and the neighbour’s longtime wife, now suffering from dementia. The story admirably balances a B movie feel with a thought-provoking exploration of memory and relationships. 

The second tale, "Loaded", registers well with today’s focus on the discrimination of people of color. After disgruntled ex-cop George Kellaway takes on a job as a mall security guard, he gets involved at a jewellery store shooting and is eventually hailed as a hero. However, both Kellaway and the reader know what really happened. 

Reporter Alicia Lanternglass, who witnessed the unjustified shooting (by a cop) of her friend in her childhood, wants to get to the bottom of the jewellery store incident. The story grows more tense as Kellaway takes increasingly drastic steps to cover up what happened. All the while, raging wildfires grow closer to the characters. 

As the only non-speculative entry in the collection, "Loaded" takes a raw look at issues like gun ownership, mental illness, post-traumatic stress, domestic abuse and racial discrimination.  

Most stories involving a character wandering around are terrible. "Aloft", the third and most fantastical story in this collection, is a rare exception. Musician Aubrey Griffin walks around a cloud that materialises a variety of cloudy objects ostensibly to entice him to stay. Aubrey considers how he’s going to return to terra firma, but he also spends time reflecting on whether Harriet will ever love him the way that he loves her. The story flips between Aubrey’s cloud adventure and flashbacks about Harriet and their dying mutual friend. While he comes to discover something about the cloud’s odd source, Aubrey also learns something about himself in this tale that explores the complexity of relationships. 

The final story, "Rain", introduces a weather system that makes the typical thunderstorm look like a few drops. Narrator protagonist Honeysuckle Speck – how’s that for a name? – is a lesbian in a fulfilling bi-racial relationship with Yolanda. Then crystal nails pour from the sky and throw Honeysuckle’s life into chaos. Apparently, other parts of the world have fared even worse. Honeysuckle goes on a physical and psychological journey during which it’s hard to distinguish who’s good and who’s bad. Among the characters she encounters are a mixed martial arts fighter with a dying cat, a Russian neighbour who pumps up the volume of a Hugh Grant film, and even an astrological cult that likes to sing Phil Collins and Peter Cetera songs. Despite its destructive downpours, the most piercing elements of "Rain" revolve around love and character. 

In the outro, Hill comments on the difficulty of writing shorter novels. Undoubtedly, he has risen to the challenge with stories both terse and tense. This one is a keeper – multiple readings of these stories are likely to unveil new insights. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday 5 September 2020

Five Feathered Tales by Alison Littlewood and Daniele Serra | review by Stephen Theaker

Five Feathered Tales (Short, Scary Tales Publications) is a collaboration between Alison Littlewood and the award-winning artist Daniele Serra. A luxurious picture book for adults, rather like the Dave McKean edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Homecoming, it publishes five of Littlewood’s excellent short stories with over two dozen fully-painted illustrations by Serra. What’s more, there is also an introduction by the highly esteemed Peter Tennant, a name perhaps familiar to Black Static readers.

Each story features a feather of a different colour – black, blue, golden, brown and white – but the stories are far from as charming as that might make them sound. “Black Feathers” takes us back to territory familiar from The Unquiet House, where siblings quarrel and put one another in all too believable danger. There’s a little brother, a rope swing, and a sister who makes him a cloak of feathers… It’s almost too excruciating to read.

“Golden Feathers” is about Azusena, another girl with a little brother. When she threatens to hit him, a golden bird appears in her hand. This power comes to the attention of the Sultan, who realises that she can reveal the intentions of his enemies. “Blue Feathers” is another story of magic: Andy goes to the circus, where he is disappointed at first by the lack of real magic. Then he notices how much attention his grandad pays to a young female magician, and comes to realise that there’s more to his world than meets the untrained eye.

If the book has sold out by the time you read this, “White Feathers”, about a girl who appears to be oddly changed by a feather she places under her pillow, will appear in Best New Horror 28, and for me that’s not even the best story. That would be “Brown Feathers”, an outstanding science fiction or fantasy tale about the dwellers of buildings whose windows are deliberately obscured by the so-called outwallers. Young Mellor takes part in a sortie, but gets stuck out there among his enemies. The image that will stick with readers is of his friend Luce staring at a tiny patch of window, hoping to see a cloud, only for an outwaller to smear muck over it.

Five Feathered Tales is a remarkable collection, the unsettling mood of its stories perfectly enhanced by Serra’s eerily fluid illustrations, which feel as if they might start flowing off the page if you don’t pay enough attention. The book reflects Alison Littlewood’s ability as an author to turn her hand successfully to many genres and styles. That talent might make it hard to identify in the novels a distinct narrative style, but the themes are consistent and compelling: children in danger, broken family relationships, the dangers of the past, and the warnings buried in myths and legends.****

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.

Friday 4 September 2020

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron is a glamorous superhero/secret agent team, which includes a mixture of women, drag queens, trans women, the mysterious M (described as an animate slab of leather) and their leader Bunny, the superheroic alter-ego of Phillip Howard Craft the Third, who like Kid Miracleman prefers to live as the alter-ego full-time. It’s not entirely fair to judge a book against the expectations you had for it, but here I was expecting something rather like the Senor 105 or Iris Wildthyme books, and while it has a similar tone and sensibility, I was disappointed by how little of this book saw the team in action, most of it being side stories or flashbacks or recruitments. Nevertheless, the stories it does tell are sensitive and moving. It doesn’t present joining the team as a cure-all for the personal problems everyone faces, but it gives them a supportive place to work things out. The final story does give us a fully-fledged adventure for the team as a whole, but it’s a bit of a let-down, being a perfunctory fight against a pair of mad scientists who have created giant insects. Overall, though, I thought it was a good book. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday 2 September 2020

The Walking Dead, Vol. 32: Rest in Peace, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

And so this astonishing comic comes to an end, having inspired multiple hit games and tv shows, and no doubt hit films to come. It is a difficult to discuss the content of the book, since pretty much anything I could say – including the names of the characters involved in it – would be a spoiler for the previous thirty-one volumes and their constant twists and turns. Even knowing that it is the last book is a mild spoiler, given that when the final issue was published, no one knew it was all over till they read it. Essentially, though, this book is about a possible civil war in the largest settlement we’ve seen to date, and then we get a lengthy epilogue showing what the future holds for the survivors. I found it to be a satisfying and moving end to the saga.

Did it run out of steam towards the end? Well, perhaps a bit in previous volumes, but it had travelled a long way before that happened, and it maintained its integrity throughout. It’s almost Racinian how all thirty-two volumes flow from that one source: the dead came back to life, tried to eat us, and some of us survived. It’s not an original premise but it stuck to it, resisting the impulse to add demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts or aliens, and in the Governor, Negan and Alpha creating three of the best villains comics have ever seen. The one thing that always bothered me a bit is that the survivors never set up abbatoirs to deal with the dead, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been as dramatic as the hand to hand fighting.

There’s no doubt I’ll be reading it all the way through again. Stephen Theaker *****