Sunday 5 December 2021

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Superflu survival story combines low tech with high pressure

It’s hard to believe that in the middle of Station Eleven, a novel that is, on its surface, about people trying to survive decades after a superflu, there are interviews between high-profile job coaches and corporate executive administrative assistants, or between tabloid journalists and movie stars. This oddity comes thanks to author Emily St. John Mandel’s unique (and in this case, effective) structure. 

The story revolves around a live performance of King Lear during which two major things happen: prominent actor Arthur Leander dies and the Georgia flu that will decimate 99% of the world’s population takes hold. The rest of the novel moves back and forth in time, from the events immediately following Leander’s death to the new world that exists decades afterward, and back to the stories of Leander and his acquaintances well before the event. Among the characters, all of whom are connected to Leander, are his wives, fellow actors, business associates, friends, and the adult manifestations of those who were children when he died.

The post-apocalyptic protagonist is Kirsten, a member of the Travelling Symphony that performs orchestral music and Shakespearean plays in a world where people will kill you for the contents of your backpack. The symphony uses a caravan of pickup trucks that run not by gas — that ran out three years after the collapse — but by horses. The front of the caravan bears a slogan: “Survival is insufficient.” And thus St. John Mandel poses a question to the reader: if survival isn’t enough, then what is?

The symphony confronts a cult led by the Prophet, a charismatic and cryptic smooth talker with some questionable behaviours. After they abandon the cult, the performers are concerned that it might have long tentacles … tentacles that come after them. 

Woven into the novel are highlights from Arthur’s life including his ascent from a nobody on a small island in British Columbia to an internationally revered film star and the many complications that come with such fame. 

Miranda, one of Arthur’s wives, is the creator of Station Eleven, a far-future sci-fi comic book, which not only foreshadows the actual novel’s apocalyptic events, but also ends up revealing the long-lasting and unpredictable power of art. With his trademark Pomeranian and red fedora, Dr. Eleven, along with his colleagues, lives on a moon-sized space station (Station Eleven) that resembles a water planet. Miranda sees Dr. Eleven and his strange world as a source of comfort. She is not concerned about publication — it’s more about the love of creation. The obscure comic, gifted to Kirsten by Leander before he dies, will play a pivotal role in her story. 

Another storyline follows Arthur’s longtime friend Clark, a former C-suite coach who lives at an airport after the superflu. There he curates an exhibit of technologies that no longer work. Among the unique cast of characters at the airport are Elizabeth (Leander’s second wife) and her son Tyler. 

Just as much as it is a post-apocalyptic survival story, Station Eleven is a reflection on mankind’s accomplishments and foibles. In one excerpt, St. John Mandel reflects on the things lacking in this new world that characters (and we readers) took for granted in the modern world … things like the internet and airplanes. With or without those things, the reader learns, there are going to be problems and opportunities.—Douglas J. Ogurek****

Monday 8 November 2021

Pinocchio (2019) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

No strings attached: sometimes he’s a hero, sometimes he’s a jackass

Poor carpenter Geppetto (Roberto Benigni) carves Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) from a piece of magical wood. Geppetto proudly proclaims his love for his son. Alas, Pinocchio is much more an adventurer than he is a student, and because of his disobedience, he gets separated from his father and their small Italian village. Thus begins a quest to make it back to Dad.

During his journey, Pinocchio undergoes several challenges and encounters a variety of eccentric characters. Some of the adults, many of which are thinly disguised as animals, have malicious intents, while others want to help the wooden boy. Examples range from a seemingly avuncular old man who transports carriages full of boys to a place where they can play all day to a cautionary cricket and a melancholy tuna.

This Italian version, directed by Matteo Garrone, resurfaces most key elements of the original story. I was taken aback by the brevity of the nose-growing scene. Shouldn’t this classic Pinocchio detail be given more screen time? As it turns out, the original Disney version only had a brief scene as well.

Initially, I was also disturbed by Pinocchio’s lukewarm desire, which isn’t expressed until halfway through the film, to be a boy. But then, this is a boy—how many boys know what they really want? Sure, he misses Geppetto and wants to get back to him, but there are so many opportunities for fun. Like a boy, Pinocchio is easily distracted and flits from one thing to the next. The way to become a real boy (or is it a man?), the film suggests, is to give up selfish aims and instead focus on caring for others. 

In a commendable departure from CGI, this film relies on human actors to play animals. Nevertheless, shysters Fox and Cat, two such characters that get the most screentime, offer stagy performances (e.g., overblown gestures, extreme facial expressions, funny voices) that compete with the annoying exuberance of typical CGI characters. But children like such exuberance, don’t they? Fox and Cat waylay Pinocchio and attempt to steal his coins so they can fulfil their obsession of finding something to “nibble.”

Pinocchio’s absence of strings is another interesting consideration. When he gets involved with a traveling puppet show, his fellow puppets are all controlled by strings. Interestingly, those who control the strings are never shown. Thus, when the puppets are outside, for instance, their strings lead back into the trailer. The protagonist’s missing strings comment on Geppetto’s strength as a father . . . his willingness to sacrifice control and let Pinocchio learn from his mistakes. 

Most enjoyable about this film are the details with which the settings are rendered, from the muted colours of pubs and woodworkers’ shops—it’s as if everything has been coated in a layer of ash and sawdust—to the vibrant fields that Pinocchio traverses. 

This is the kind of movie that makes you want to sit in front of a fireplace in a wooden chair and smoke a pipe or sip a whiskey on a winter’s eve. Do you really want to do that, though?—Douglas J. Ogurek***

Saturday 2 October 2021

Ghosts of War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Soldiers sit in a mansion and wait for bad stuff to happen to them.

For some reason, five American soldiers get tasked with watching over a mansion that the Americans have commandeered from the Germans in Nazi-occupied France. The group that they’re relieving is eager to get out. The five fellows sit around and drink and smoke while the mansion’s nefarious objectives intensify. And there’s a mysterious word that keeps popping up: “Vetrulek.” 

The Ghosts of War players include the following: Butchie (Alan Ritchson), a musclebound brute who likes fighting; Tappert (Kyle Gallner), a southerner who enjoys cutting off body parts and yanking out gold teeth from dead Nazis; Kirk (Theo Rossi), a guy with an itchy foot; Eugene (Skylar Astin), a scholarly type; and Chris (Brenton Thwaites), an unmemorable leader. What they have in common is a lack of development and little to put the viewer in their corner. The most engaging of the quintet is sharpshooter Trappert, whose off-his-rocker comments and contradictory actions give him some zest. Trappert’s cohorts are more than a little perturbed about the game of cat’s cradle he played with Nazi youth.

Ghosts of War, written and directed by Eric Bress, attempts to merge Saving Private Ryan-type soldierly bonding with the typical haunted house fare. Among the clichés are hushed or threatening voices, scraping, creaking, jump scares, cryptic symbols, and of course, creepy dolls and music boxes that start on their own. There’s even a brief scene when Eugene—he’s the one who wears glasses and drinks Earl Grey, so you know he’s the cerebral one—stands before a bookshelf and lectures. 

The revelation of what is happening in the mansion is likely to make jaws drop for some and eyes roll for others. One thing is for certain—the reveal is hard to predict. 

One aspect that sets this film apart from the typical war story is the threat of a secondary enemy. When they do take place, skirmishes get spiked with a supernatural elixir to make them more entertaining. Hence the military horror categorization. A more action-oriented and satisfying contender in this subgenre is Overlord (2018). Nevertheless, Ghosts of War is worth the watch, if merely to experience its twisty resolution.—Douglas J. Ogurek***

Sunday 12 September 2021

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Tordotcom) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sci-fi and urban magic realism merge in near-future tale that explores the challenges and potentials of young black adults.

Though Riot Baby suffers from clarity issues because it moves so quickly, this short novel does a fine job commenting on the difficulties that black Americans face. Kevin, the titular character, is born in South Central Los Angeles during the 1992 riots in that region. By the second chapter, Kevin, his sister Ella, and their mother have moved to another dangerous neighborhood in Harlem. 

Ella has magical powers – Kevin calls them her “Thing” – that enable her to levitate (or crush) objects, manipulate temperatures, and fly. She can also see into the future and mentally transport herself and others… to other countries, to a racetrack, or even back in time to her mother giving birth to a stillborn. Their mother worries that Ella will do something bad. Fortunately, when Ella’s powers begin to move toward major destruction, she retreats to a desert to get them under control. 

The most compelling part of the novel involves a young Kevin navigating his Harlem neighborhood while dealing with various threats. Another section details Kevin’s experience as a prisoner at New York’s notorious Rikers Island, where everything is a threat. Here Ella “visits” Kevin and slips into the heads of various people to see what they’re about to do or what is about to happen to them. 

This story’s rapidity, along with the flipping back and forth in time, makes it a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, Riot Baby makes a statement about racial injustice and encourages the empowerment of black individuals. ***Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Full Throttle by Joe Hill (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Hill conjures another masterwork of genre fiction with a literary bent. 

“I’m always ready to see Another Marvelous Thing. Are you?” So says the narrator in “Late Returns,” one of thirteen stories in Full Throttle. That narrator’s comment relates to the magic of books, but it’s also author Joe Hill’s invitation to readers to drop their concerns and come along for a ride . . . and such a memorable ride it is. Are you open to thinking about how different things could be . . . and maybe are? Are you ready to accept that all may not be as it seems? 

Full Throttle is a fitting title for Hill’s fourth collection—the stories grab the reader and refuse to let go as the action barrels forward and the conflicts stack up. I was so captivated by one story, “Fawn,” that I ate half my wife’s bagel without even noticing. 

Though Hill references “full-throttle” action films and books in his intro, these stories are far from shallow—they plunge far beneath the surface with a potent mixture of themes, backstory, and perspectives, while charming the reader with sensory details (a house that smells like “Bengay and neglect,” for example). 

The characters within these tales straddle a wide spectrum. Sometimes, a would-be villain turns out to be a hero. Other times, an ultra-conservative bigmouth—these turn up several times in this collection—surprises the reader with a glimpse of compassion. Some of Hill’s characters undergo dramatic changes. Others seem on the brink of a major shift, but instead revert back to their old ways thanks to Hill’s refusal to conclude every tale on a positive note. 

In the introduction, Hill talks about his literary ascent. How inspiring it must have been to see your parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, pounding away at their typewriters and keyboards day after day. Hill reflects on the books his parents would read to him, bumps in the literary road, his pivotal experiences with makeup artist Tom Savini on the Creepshow set, and his switch from more literary writing to horror. 

The opening story, “Throttle,” cowritten with Stephen King, is a pedal-to-the-metal ride in which a demented trucker goes after a motorcycle gang. It’s a masterful story that offers intense, brutally violent scenes, but also explores tension between characters. 

Don’t start reading “Dark Carousel” if you have something to do—you won’t be able to put it down. The story, which Hill refers to as “a cover” of his father’s work, reminded me of one of the lovely Creepshow 2 (1987) segments called “Old Chief Wood’nhead.” This time, four teens run into a conflict at a carnival and something awful happens as a result. This story exemplifies Hill’s knack for details, especially with the carnival. He writes about the smells of cotton candy, the puke with popcorn floating in it, and the carousel operator’s lips. The “chill factor” of this story is off the charts.  

In “Wolverton Station,” a satirical piece about class and capitalism, an idealistic youth turned American corporate scoundrel opens a coffee business that employs children in foreign countries and decimates mom and pop shops. Saunders is the kind of guy who fires a pregnant woman with a dismissive text. His life changes when an atypical passenger sits right next to him on an otherwise empty first-class train car in Britain. Astonishingly, Saunders isn’t afraid to talk back to this rather intimidating character, who has some negative things to say about Americans who think they can bring their moneymaking franchises into other countries. 

Brothers Joel and Ben Quarrel (interesting surname) and their friend Gail London discover a dead plesiosaur that has washed ashore in “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain,” a multi-layered story about our inability to control death. A fog surrounds not only the children, but also the reader (as it relates to our understanding of death). Is the creature, essentially a symbol of death, nothing more than a large rock as the characters initially suspect? Or is it an actual dinosaur? The story, which also takes on loneliness and parental abuse, is at once still and sinister.

“Faun,” a fairy tale version of Jurassic Park, follows a group of trophy hunters who get the opportunity to pursue prey unlike anything they’ve encountered, but there is a cost. This one has everything one could possibly want in a story: characters with depth, plot twists, a fantastical setting, and much more. “Fawn” condemns not only people who perpetuate crimes against the environment, but also those who sit back and do nothing about it. 

In “Late Returns,” a man gets a job on a bookmobile, where he encounters some visitors with unresolved issues. He discovers a way to comfort them by letting them borrow books. In the hands of a less capable author, this story would have been a disaster: clichéd, boring, etc. But Hill pulls it off. 

“All I Care About Is You” is a sci-fi story that is in some ways Cinderella-like and in other ways, the opposite. The 16-year-old girl protagonist wants to wear a mask that gives her a different face that will impress her friends—it’s like an expensive pair of blue jeans or sneakers today. Hill explores the figurative masks that people wear and the idea of being content with what you have versus always wanting more. 

Mal (that means “bad”), the female protagonist in “Thumbprint,” has returned from Iraq, where she and her fellow soldiers did some questionable things while interrogating an Iraqi prisoner called the “Professor.” The story comments on trust and how war affects different individuals. 

Paragraphs in “The Devil on the Staircase” look like steps. A little gimmicky, but entertaining nonetheless. After protagonist Calvino commits a horrific crime, he descends an outdoor staircase that purportedly leads to hell. He then meets a boy who gives him a bird that releases a beautiful song every time a lie is told. 

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” is told in tweets from a teenage girl whose family stops by a circus after a vacation. During the first half of the story, she’s bored to tears and fed up with her mom, but she does enjoy her jokester brother’s antics. Then they stop at a circus and things change… Hill was wise to use tweets to tell the story, which explores the negative impacts of social media. 

“In the Tall Grass,” also cowritten with Stephen King, might be classified as “eco horror.” It details the travails of an adult brother and sister who enter a field of tall grass in Kansas with hopes of finding a child they hear calling for help. The first third of the story is superb: the siblings discover that within this grass, direction and distances are skewed. Leap up to see above the grass. A church appears on the horizon in one spot. Leap up again and the church appears to have moved. The prospect of returning to their car grows dimmer. At one point, the reader feels a bit disjointed with what’s happening in the story, but perhaps that’s how getting lost in a field of tall grass would feel. 

“Mums” focuses on thirteen-year-old Jack, whose father is a right-wing southern separatist who plans to do something extreme. The story starts strong, but the eventual introduction of supernatural plants speaking in a cryptic fashion is a bit silly. However, I appreciate the point that Hill is trying to make about the nation being divided and the role of the environment in our ascension. 

The collection concludes on a note that is both beautiful and frightening in “You Are Released,” a tense story that merges three-dimensional characters and deep meaning. It focuses on an event as experienced by passengers on a flight. Hill releases evidence of the catastrophe not in one massive explosion, but rather in much more frightening fragments. The reader feels the seriousness of the situation and the terror of the passengers. The narration jumps into the perspectives of a diverse cast of characters that encapsulates all the divisiveness, complexity, and potential of humans. Though the action is restricted to the goings on within a single airplane, the story acknowledges that humans are, for better or worse, stuck together. 

The stories in Full Throttle are so diverse that it’s hard to fathom that they were written by the same author. Most of them achieve the rare distinction of entertaining on the first read, but also tempting the reader to return to them to discover new insights. 

Within this volume, you will find characters who will astound you and piss you off, characters who are heroic and characters who are irredeemably selfish. One story will drag you down, then the next will lift you up. Up and down Hill goes.*****Douglas J. Ogurek

Sunday 8 August 2021

A Quiet Place Part II | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Suspense and a reluctant hero speak volumes in a world where the slightest sound means death.  

Returning director John Krasinski plunges us back into the muted existence of the Abbott family in A Quiet Place Part II. The family’s surviving members leave the safety of their home to find potential allies while evading blind aliens with super-sensitive hearing. And make no mistake . . . these invaders are vicious creatures whose killing sprees involve impaling and throwing around humans like rag dolls. 

The challenge that Krasinski faces in this sequel is whether he can give viewers the same strong doses of suspense as the first film, while bringing something new to the table. He achieves the first hurdle with the ever-present anxiety that comes with characters keeping out of the creatures’ earshot, as well as with new obstacles such as oxygen deprivation and human threats. A favourite scene involves strangers with questionable motives—the new, threatening characters must be silent because of the situation.

The second challenge, that of adding something not in part one, is achieved with the reluctant hero. Cillian Murphy’s Emmett, once a fellow community member of the Abbotts, has managed to survive the aliens at great cost. When he comes across Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) and her three children, Emmett does not want to help them—because of what he’s witnessed since the invasion, he has lost hope in humanity. People, he thinks, are all out for themselves. But Regan Abbott (Millicent Simmonds), the teenage girl who proved her mettle in the first film, has other ideas about people. Worth comment is Murphy’s performance as Emmett: he’s not an overblown maniac, but rather a quiet, standoffish guy living a grim existence. 

The majority of A Quiet Place Part II splits into three scenarios: Emmett and Regan traveling toward an island off the coast of New York, Evelyn going to get medicines for an injured family member, and Evelyn’s son Marcus (Noah Jupe) protecting his new-born sibling. Another treat is the opening sequence, during which a major threat looms. 

One of the film’s biggest (and perhaps most overlooked) strengths, like its forerunner, is the extreme juxtaposition between the hearing abilities of Regan and her adversaries. Talk about an underdog.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of A Quiet Place.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, July 2020, ISBN 9781916268043

Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium is the seventh (of twelve) gamebooks in the New Order series of the Lone Wolf cycle of thirty-two, all but one of which have already been published although the majority remain out of print (1 to 29 can be played online, at Project Aon). I won’t bore regular readers with details of either the cycle or its publication as they are described at length in my reviews of books 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, and 31, all available on this blog. Vampirium is also Holmgard Press’s eighth publication and maintains the high standard of production values begun with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. The New Order series turns away from protagonist Lone Wolf to focus on a new member of the Kai order, Sommerlund’s warrior elite, and combines standalone with campaign adventures. Vampirium begins a campaign that is continued through gamebooks 28 and 29, despite the elapse of nineteen years of real time and seventeen years of game time between the latter two. The adventure begins three months after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain and sees Grand Master True Friend (of randomly-generated-name-fame) once again pitted against the agents of the evil deity Naar.

The Kai have received a second request for assistance from the Kingdom of Siyen, which borders on the Doomlands of Naaros and was last visited by True Friend a year ago in Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero. The King’s Ranger Regiment have been keeping an eye on an incursion into the Doomlands by Autarch Sejanoz, the three-thousand-year-old monarch of Bhanar, which also shares a border with the barren wasteland that was formerly ruled by Agarash the Damned, Naar’s most powerful servant on Magnamund. The rangers report that a squad of the Autarch’s Imperial Guard have found the Claw of Naar, a wand of great malignance, and are in the process of returning it to Bhanar. The Siyenese patrol consists of only four rangers and True Friend is dispatched post-haste to rendezvous with them and take possession of the Claw once the ambush is launched. The insertion is as smooth as it is speedy and the adventure begins with True Friend’s rendezvous with Ranger Captain Gildas in Sunderer Pass, courtesy of Lord Rimoah’s flying ship, Cloud-dancer. The narrative that follows is divided into three parts, the first of which is a wilderness adventure. The ambush is only partly successful and True Friend must first pursue the surviving guardsmen, then recover the Claw, then flee from the guardsmen, and then pursue them again when he loses the claw. The second part is an exploration of the town of Yua Tzhan and its military barracks, from which the Claw must be stolen. After fleeing from the town, the final part of the narrative begins when True Friend discovers that the Autarch has cut his party off from escape to the sanctuary of Chai by sending an army to the Anfeng Forest and occupying the border town of Zuda. In what remains of the mission, True Friend must either break or sneak through enemy lines to reach the Chai Wall, where Cloud-dancer awaits.

The gameplay of Vampirium is curious and distinct from any of the previous adventures. As my summary of the narrative suggests, the game begins with an action set-piece in the ambush and then consists of an exciting series of pursuits and flights. There are, however, very few combats that employ the Combat Results Table in the method regular players of the cycle have come to expect and enjoy. My first combat was after leaving the Vanchou Forest (late in the first part) and that was only because I decided to stop and fight rather than continue fleeing. I only fought two more combats in the remainder of the gamebook and it is testimony to the late Joe Dever’s skill and expertise in game design that the lack of combat did not detract from the suspense and satisfaction of play. I found the New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines of Animal Mastery, Assimilance, and Elementalism particularly useful. It is probably also worth noting that once one reaches Yua Tzhan, there is a great deal of luck involved and a bad day on the Random Number means one may well find that: ‘Tragically, your life and your mission end here…’ In consequence, the adventure is both exciting and difficult to complete without having to restart at least once.

The bonus adventure is ‘Shadow Stalkers’, which is written by Florent Haro. The player character is Captain Ernan of the 1st Kirlundin Isles Marine Cassel, part of the armed forces of the kingdom of Sommerlund, the homeland of both Lone Wolf and True Friend. The narrative moves forward in time to the ‘present’ of the cycle, the year MS 5103, which is eighteen years after the events of Vampirium and in between Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night and Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai (due for publication shortly). I think this was a good idea, serving to remind players that the cycle is building to a climax four decades in the making, but I was disappointed by the adventure itself. I have two criticisms. First, my initial reaction was that for a short gamebook (it is exactly half the length of Vampirium), it took a while to get going, with several lengthy and consecutive sections of description before there is any gameplay. This tendency continues throughout the gamebook, however, with the result that my criticism is precisely the same as that I reluctantly levelled at The Dusk of Eternal Night: it is more like an experimental young adult fantasy novella than a gamebook and while many readers may like this format, I have always ‘played’ rather than ‘read’ the series. The second criticism is completely different, but also concerns gameplay. Ernan’s equivalent to the Kai Grand Master Disciplines are the Kirlindun Marine Skills. As one would expect, several (two of six) of these skills are sea-based. Given the player character’s profession and skill-set, a surprising – and, for me, disappointing – proportion of the adventure takes place on land.

Monday 5 July 2021

Dredd | review by Rafe McGregor

Dredd, by Pete Travis (Entertainment Film Distributors) 

Zero tolerance for the wretched of the Earth. 

Film form refers to the narrative, pictorial, and technological elements of a cinematic work and one of its functions is to configure the cinematic experience. The cinematic experience of Pete Travis’s Dredd is configured by a combination of cinematography and voice from the moment the film begins to the last few seconds before the end credits, providing three points of reference that structure the cinematic event. Mega City One is an imagined future urban sprawl on the eastern seaboard of the US in which over double the current population of the country is packed into less than two percent of its territory. The representation of urban space was created by applying computer-generated imagery to photography of contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolitan area, itself plagued by extreme poverty and hyper-violence. The narrative opens with several aerial tracking shots of Mega City One during which Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) introduces a post-apocalyptic America, the megalopolis, mega-blocks (vertical slums), and the criminal justice system (in which the functions of police, jury, and judiciary are combined in the figure of the judge). As the camera tracks up the edifice of the Hall of Justice, Dredd concludes: ‘Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: the men and women of the Hall of Justice…juries, executioners, judges.’ In the fifteenth minute (of ninety-five) there is a scene that will be familiar to police officers the world over, in which patrols depart the Hall of Justice for their tours of duty at the beginning of the shift. The camera focuses on Dredd and Cassandra Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby), a trainee-judge, as they mount their Lawmaster motorbikes. Dredd informs Anderson of the daunting task ahead: ‘Twelve serious crimes a minute, seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.’ The final scene of the film (the last forty-five seconds) returns to the opening, with two aerial shots of the megalopolis. There is a second voiceover from Dredd, which repeats part of the first: ‘Mega City One: eight hundred million people living in the ruin of the old world and the mega-structures of the new one. Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: judges.’ The combination of reproduced reality with Dredd’s gravelly saw-cutting-through-bone voice configures a cinematic event in which zero tolerance policing is endorsed as a response to violent crime, his authoritative tone supplemented by pictorial and statistical evidence.

One of the unusual features of Dredd is that the eponymous character experiences no psychological or moral change during the course of the narrative. Dredd is a model law enforcer, completely convinced of the moral necessity of his role, neither exercising discretion nor employing extrajudicial force. In contrast, Anderson has doubts about both her ability and the role, being selected solely on the basis of the potential value of her extra-human psychic powers. The central plot of the narrative is initiated when she and Dredd are trapped in Peach Trees mega-block, run by Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headey), the ruthless head of an organised crime group. The ethical movement of Dredd is focused on Anderson’s moral maturation, from her uncertainty about non-discretionary policing to her extended confrontation with Kay (played by Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants, to her embracing of the necessity for non-discretionary policing and flourishing in its execution. This change is partly constituted by a withdrawal of sympathy for the residents of Peach Trees, made explicit by the juxtaposition of two scenes. In the first (in the sixteenth minute), Anderson responds to Dredd’s cynical attitude towards the ‘underclass’ residents by reminding him that she was herself born in a mega-block. Approximately forty minutes later (fifty-third to fifty-fifth minute), Anderson appears to be exercising her sympathy when she interrupts Dredd’s brutal interrogation of Kay. Instead of reducing the level of coercion, however, she amplifies it, using her psychic abilities to frighten him into complete compliance. The ethical perspective enacted by the combination of form and content thus endorses a punitive perspective on criminal justice, in which zero tolerance policing and the increased use of custodial sentences are employed in response to increases in violent crime.

Film form is itself determined by the context of the production and reception of a film. Dredd is a British production and the relevant context of its release is the combination of the ‘culture of control’ with austerity. Criminologist David Garland charts a transatlantic change in criminal justice culture from mid-century welfarism to a fin de siècle culture of retributivism, punitiveness, and control, which is motivated and sustained by the twin pillars of market and moral discipline. The rise of this criminal justice culture was encouraged by the ‘Great Crime Decline’, a sustained decrease in violent (and other) crimes in the US and UK (and elsewhere) from 1994 to 2014. Advocates of the punitive perspective claimed responsibility for the drop in violence, but its cause remains unclear, contested by a host of rival hypotheses, including decreasing lead levels in drinking water. Dredd began filming in November 2010, five months after the official announcement of fiscal austerity – a dramatic reduction of public spending – in the UK. The likely consequence of this measure during a period of high unemployment was fewer police officers (in virtue of reduced budgets) dealing with an increase in crime (in virtue of the combination of reduced welfare with increased unemployment). Dredd both represents and reproduces these circumstances, not merely endorsing non-discretionary police practice as a response to rising crime, but providing a rationale for and justification of an increasing use of force by a decreasing ‘thin blue line’. This context regulates Dredd’s form, calibrating cinematic realism to the culture of control and structuring the cinematic event in terms of Dredd’s three saw-through-bone pronouncements of the moral impeccability of zero tolerance policing. Much like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), released three years before, the comic book façade masks an ultra-reactionary and deeply conservative worldview. ***

Monday 28 June 2021

Minority Report | review by Rafe McGregor

Steampunk criminology, paradoxical policing.

Minority Report, which was released in 2002, is set in Washington, D.C. in 2054, in the ninth year of PreCrime, a crime prevention programme. The programme originated with genetic experimentation conducted by Dr Iris Hineman (played by Lois Smith) for the purpose of healing the neurotrauma suffered by the children of women addicted to neuroin, a powerful opiate that was becoming popular in the illegal drug market. The intervention was unsuccessful, with most of the children dying, but unintentionally provided three of the survivors with the power of prevision. These ‘precogs’, pre-cognitives, developed the ability to envision murders – and only murders – up to four days in advance of their occurrence. This mutation was exploited by the District of Columbia’s criminal justice authorities, who use the precogs to drive an apparently perfect, albeit unverifiable, predictive policing programme under the directorship of Lamar Burgess (played by Max von Sydow). PreCrime is maintained by sequestering the precogs in a room called the ‘temple’ in police headquarters, where their neural activity is permanently monitored while they are kept in a state of semi-consciousness, semi-immersed in a tank of amniotic liquid. Their visions are projected onto a screen that police detectives use to solve the crime before it occurs and the programme involves both judicial and penal participants, with a judge and forensic expert witnessing the detection and detention by videolink and arrested suspects sent to the Department of Containment, where they are kept in a similar state of semi-consciousness to the precogs for the rest of their lives. PreCrime has been operational for six years and was an immediate success, reducing the murder rate in Washington, D.C. by ninety percent in its first month and one hundred percent ever since. The projected visions of all three of the precogs, Agatha (played by Samantha Morton) and identical twins Arthur and Dashiell (played by Michael and Matthew Dickman respectively), are apparently always complementary and the balance of probability of the available evidence suggests that they have always been accurate. Occasionally, the precogs see the same murder more than once, but these ‘echoes’ are easily identifiable and disregarded by the detectives and PreCrime is widely recognised as a perfect crime prevention programme.

The operational head of PreCrime is Chief John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) and the narrative opens at a crucial stage of its development: despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Attorney General is considering expanding it from a municipal to a national initiative and has sent a Justice Department agent, Danny Witwer (played by Colin Farrell), to subject it to a final scrutiny. The central plot of the film is set in motion when Anderton, who is a neuroin addict, is alerted to a future murder in which he is the perpetrator and the victim a man named Leo Crow (played by Mike Binder), who is unknown to him. The identification of Anderton as a murderer provides an exploration of the relationship between free will and determinism as he attempts to find Crow in order to discover why the murder has been predicted – but in doing so brings himself and Crow into close proximity, enabling the murder. Now that he has been identified as a perpetrator, Anderton is anxious to find out whether there have ever been any differences in the predictions of the three precogs and discovers that there have been times when Agatha has made predictions that differed from those of the twins. These are the ‘minority reports’ of the title and the film is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story, ‘The Minority Report’. While Dick is the most obvious inspiration, the ‘sprawl’ and the repeated use of the prefix neuro are both allusions to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), the first novel in his Sprawl Trilogy. In Gibson’s dystopian novel, the Sprawl is an extended urban area on the eastern seaboard of the US, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. In Minority Report, the sprawl is a neglected, crime-ridden part of Washington, D.C. Spielberg’s acknowledgement of the influence of Gibson is a reminder of another of the latter’s works, The Difference Engine (1990), his collaboration with Bruce Sterling.

The novel is the canonical work of the steampunk genre, which Patrick Jagoda characterises as ‘alternative histories that frequently explore the rise of new technologies in Victorian England and throughout its global empire’. Like steampunk, Minority Report combines the old (Victorian setting and film noir style respectively) with the new (advanced technology in both) and this combination of the retrospective and the prospective is repeated in the central concept of the film, the PreCrime Programme. The desire to be able to predict all crime (or all of a particular type of crime) with perfect accuracy harks back to the positivist imperative of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which sociological, biological, and psychological variations of determinism aspired to be able to forecast human behaviour with mathematical certainty. The London of The Difference Engine features a ‘Central Statistics Bureau’ that is home to departments of ‘Quantitative Criminology’, ‘Deterrence Research’, and ‘Criminal Anthropometry’, all of which are aimed at the making of ‘utterly objective, entirely statistical investigations’ of social reality. The idea is that if crime can be predicted with accuracy, it can be prevented with certainty, producing a crime-free utopia. What elevates Minority Report above its achievement as a gripping and clever thriller is the logical paradox it identifies at the heart of all crime prevention programmes: the moment one combines prediction with policing, the prediction is falsified. The previsions would only be accurate if the murders were allowed to take place – but the whole point of employing the previsions in PreCrime is to alter the future they predict. The real-life paradox to which the fictional film alludes involves a second combination, between pre-emption and prosecution. Pre-inchoate offences, which have become increasingly popular since the beginning of the War on Terror, are concerned with pre-empting harmful conduct before the opportunity for its commission arises. But if an offence is not even in its initial stages, then the only means by which it can be called an offence is prediction. The paradox, which is legal rather than logical, is how anyone can justify prosecuting a suspect for such an offence. We can, it seems, have pre-emption or prosecution, but not both. What I find particularly interesting about Minority Report is that it was filmed in the spring of 2001, several months before the September 11 attacks that have produced so many changes to so many laws in so many countries ever since. *****

Monday 26 April 2021

TQF69: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4 is now out in paperback and ebook!

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

Welcome to UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek. Six stories unite the gruesome contents of the splatterpunk subgenre with the millennia-old notion that art should offer moral instruction. In the tales that follow, villains use advantages, whether a silver tongue or a silver spoon, to subject others to humiliation and violence. Things get shoved into or pushed out of tight places. Flesh tears. Eyeballs burst. And of course, people get eaten by familiar and not-so-familiar species. However, these stories also offer moral nuggets that can’t be found in splatterpunk: a call to share our feelings with those we love, a declaration about the importance of tolerance and unity, a critique on capitalism in America, an appeal to use our skills for good, and a warning about imposing our values on others. This instalment concludes with what could be the most repulsive entry in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! canon: Rick Saldana’s “Boot Camp”, a mind-and-other-body-part-expanding examination of economic disparity, youthful indiscretion, and the ability to transcend life’s most trying moments. Prepare yourself for the next phase of unsplatterpunk – you’re about to learn some painful lessons.

Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Chisto Healy has been writing since childhood, but he only started following his dreams and writing full time in 2020. On top of the award-nominated, self-published novels from his earlier days, he now has more than 100 published stories. You can find out more at his blog or follow him on Amazon, where his new stuff is constantly coming out. He lives in North Carolina with his fiancé and her mom, his daughter Ella who has inspired his stories, his daughter Julia who has been published alongside him, and his son Boe who thinks the world is his drum..

Born into a large Italian family in the Arts District of Dallas, Texas, Edward Villanova is the product of culture and chaos. He began writing at the age of four, and credits reading Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream at the age of six as the definitive moment that he fell in love with horror. Edward hosts the comedy horror podcast Eddie V’s Horror Show, where he discusses terrifying happenings, scary movies, and the art of writing, all with a comedic bent. His published works include political nonfiction under another name, as well as fiction in The Scarlet Leaf Review and via Kindle Direct Publishing.

Ben Fitts is the author of more than thirty published short stories. His debut collection My Birth and Other Regrets was released by the indie press NihilismRevised in 2019. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he writes weird stories, plays guitar in the indie rock band War Honey, and puts too much hot sauce on everything.

Tim J. Finn was born in Boston and still calls the area home sweet home. He penned his first story, an origin tale for Aurora’s Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare kit, while enrolled in Catholic school. The good nuns no doubt felt his literary tastes confirmed their convictions regarding the sinister nature of a left-handed person. Tim is a member of New England Horror Writers and the Horror Society and holds a B.A. in English from Grinnell College. His work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. Please visit his website

Eric Raglin is a speculative fiction writer, podcaster, and horror educator from Nebraska. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. His work has been published in Novel Noctule, Fever Dream and Shiver. Find him at and

Rick Saldana is an award-winning pig breeder from Wales. He also writes fiction..

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at and his Twitter account is at

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism, Dark Horizons and the BFS Journal.

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

Monday 1 March 2021

Oedipus, Carthago, Sweet Tooth and other reviews in brief

Brief reviews of the books I finished reading (or listening to) in February. Creators, publishers, etc as per Goodreads; apologies to anyone left out. (Apologies as well to everyone waiting for TQF69! Almost there!)

Hedra, Jesse Lonergan (Image Comics): Short, silent graphic novel about a spacewoman who sets off from an Earth devastated by nuclear war to find plant life that can survive in our soil. Interesting use of panels throughout, for example some that twist around the page to convey the feeling of crawling through caves. ***

The Victim, P.D. James (Faber & Faber): A former assistant librarian thinks back to the year that followed his divorce, and all the effort he put into preparing what he thought would be the perfect murder. It's very good. I was surprised by how unconcerned he was about DNA evidence, but then realised it's from 1973. ****

I Am Legion, Vol. 1: The Dancing Faun, John Cassaday, Fabien Nury, Laura Martin (Humanoids Inc): Two supernatural body-swapping blood creatures, one in London and one in Nazi-occupied Romania, are up to no good. One of their abandoned bodies sparks a murder investigation. Looks great throughout, but it's very much a chapter of a story rather than a complete story in itself. ***

Carthago, Vol. 2: The Challenger Abyss, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): A scientist's daughter is kidnapped by a reclusive billionaire, to force her into joining a megalodon hunt. A big summer blockbuster of a comic that already had a lot going on before throwing a giant yeti, a secret undersea base and a dinosaur attacking a U-boat into the mix. The animals look spectacular throughout. ***

The Raven King, Liz Tuckwell (Demain): DI Lis Liszt of the Supernatural Crimes Squad is assigned a sneery DC while they investigate the disappearance of the ravens from the Tower of London. Nice little story. The denouement perhaps overestimates the effect of throwing one's female body at a hulking thug during combat. ***

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book One, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Michael Sheen, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): After Earth is devastated by plague, some of the survivors start to have children who appear to be human-animal hybrids. Gus lives in the woods with his father, but gets forced out into a world that's not kind to people like him. A classically Vertigo mix of fantasy and violence. ****

The Oedipus Plays: An Audible Original Drama, Sophocles (Audible Studios): This was one of my favourite ever Audible books. The first two plays, despite their tragedies, often had me chuckling thanks to the dialogue sometimes sounding, in the mouths of modern actors, like an Absolutely or Armstrong and Miller sketch. For example: "I will go, but you know there are conditions." / "Tell me. Once I hear them I'll know what they are." At times the arguments people had sounded just like online arguments, with all the same tactics and complaints: people haven't changed all that much! The drama still packed a punch. Then the third play knocked my socks off. Hayley Atwell was thrillingly virtuous as uncompromising Antigone, doing what she thinks right despite the consequences, and Michael Maloney was equally excellent as the king whose desire for order and obedience leads to his own ruin. The scene where his son tries to persuade him to clemency was especially stunning, and so full of wisdom. There's a reason new adaptations of these plays are still being made, twenty-four centuries after they were written. *****

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book Two, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): A man of violence tries to look after a gentle little deer-boy, whose very existence could be to blame for humanity's doom, or could be its salvation. It's enjoyable and looks great, but on the whole it's quite familiar territory. The symbolic covers for each issue are very good. ***

Carthago Vol. 3: The Monster of Djibouti, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): Dr Melville and two colleagues take individual submersibles down into the ocean off Djibouti to look for a giant shark, with predictably unfortunate consequences. Other shenanigans are interspersed among awesome drawings of giant beasts and wonderfully detailed dinner spreads. ***

Can You Just Die, My Darling? Vol. 1, Majuro Kaname (Kodansha Comics): A boy gets infected with an illness that makes him want to murder the girl he loves, Hanazono. It also gives him super-strength. He resists, but everyone else in school loves her too and the infection is spreading. On the whole, rather unpleasant, but Hanazono was quite funny. ***

The Devil's Own Work, Alan Judd, Matt Godfrey (Valancourt Books): After a decent first book, a writer is made much more famous by his scathing review of a big name author's latest tome, and is invited to interview him. Only one will leave the room alive! An interesting story of supernatural literary ambition, read very well by Matt Godfrey. ****

Batman: The Dark Knight – Master Race, Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, Eduardo Risso, John Romita Jr. (DC Comics): Surprised by how much I enjoyed this, after how much I didn't enjoy Holy Terror. Plus, part of The Dark Knight Return's appeal was it being the last Batman story, and sequels make it just another Batman story. But this was great fun. I loved Andy Kubert's art, and how epic and legendary it all felt. ****

The Funeral Birds, Paula R.C. Readman (Demain Publishing ): A can-do wife joins her detective husband on the case of a murdered woman. Needed a bit more editing (e.g. "It looks to be a grave. An old very one."), but I was amused by the husband/wife team and the way the husband's hunches came via a ghost granny making him want to poop. ***

The History of Sketch Comedy, Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key (Audible Original): An enjoyable audiobook about the history of sketch comedy, from the ancient Greeks through to one-season wonders on Netflix. Co-writer and narrator Keegan Michael-Key also talks about his own influences and career, and acts out favourite sketches like Fork Handles with infectious enthusiasm. Nice! If there's a criticism, it's that it makes US comedy sound rather rule-bound and regimented, but maybe that's because it is? The "You can't do that!" refrain in each chapter sounds a bit odd to listeners used to sketch shows where people regularly do all that and more. I was also struck by how few US sketch shows there seemed to be, whereas the episode about the UK was packed solid even without mentioning Not the Nine O'Clock News, Harry Enfield, French & Saunders, The Fast Show, Absolutely, Big Train or The League of Gentlemen. ****

The Banks, Roxane Gay and Ming Doyle (TKO Studios): Three generations of women team up in an attempt to rob a creep. There's potential in the idea but the book feels far too rushed, with duff dialogue, plot handwaving and even unfinished art in a few places. The robbers keep saying how good they are, but seem like complete blunderers. **

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton, read by William Russell (BBC Audio): The first Doctor and chums on a world of giant insects! Oddly fond of this since it's long been the audiobook I put on when I'm poorly and need to sleep. It's perfect for such times because William Russell's reading is warm and grandfatherly, and the story is very, very dull. ***

The Killer Vol. 1: Long Fire, Matz and Luc Jacamon (Archaia): A ruthless hitman thinks about his career while waiting for a target to show up, then scarpers to Venezuela when things go wrong. Apparently I read a different edition of this already in 2011, but I didn't remember much after the first issue. His worsening frame of mind is conveyed in interesting ways. ***

Robert Silverberg's Colonies: Return to Belzagor, Vol. 2, Philippe Thirault and Laura Zuccheri (Humanoids): Second and final part of an adaptation of Downward to the Earth follows a bunch of humans on their journey to see a mysterious ceremony of renewal. A good story, but the book's biggest strength is the art of Laura Zuccheri, who really makes it feel like we are on an alien planet. ***

The Metabaron Vol. 2: Khonrad, The Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen, Valentin Sécher (Humanoids): The Techno-Admiral's flunky Tetanus devises a plan to destroy both his boss and the Metabaron by cloning an Anti-Baron, but it all goes horribly wrong, especially for the clone's mothers. Typical Jodo-nonsense from the Incal-verse: beautifully drawn and full of casual misogyny. ***

A Quiet Apocalypse, Dave Jeffery (Demain Publishing): In an England where a virus killed almost everyone and deafened most of the survivors, a former teacher kept as a slave for his ability to hear tries to make his way to freedom. Appropriately bleak, but malapropisms, mistakes and overexuberant prose work against the post-apocalyptic tone. **

Carthago Vol. 4: The Koube Monoliths, Christophe Bec, Milan Jovanovic, Eric Henninot (Humanoids): The megalodons become public knowledge after a terrible tsunami leaves one aground in Malaysia. Spectacular art as ever, with beautifully drawn animals and awe-inspiring undersea locations, but it's book four now and the ongoing story has barely moved forward since book one. ***

Mr Salary, Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber): A 24-year-old woman returns from Boston to Dublin to visit her dying father, and stays with an older relative by marriage who lent her a room during her penniless university days. About as steamy as a book can get without being explicit. ****

Dante and the Lobster, Samuel Beckett (Faber & Faber): Belacqua goes out to get some stinky cheese but it isn't stinky enough. He collects a lobster for his Italian tutor, and gets upset when he realises it's still alive and she's going to cook it. The book includes 14 blank pages at the end for anyone minded to write a continuation. ****

Free Speech and Why It Matters, Andrew Doyle (Constable): A short (very short: the main text ends at 55% of the ebook) run-through of arguments in favour of free speech, arguing that protecting the free speech of our political enemies is a key part of protecting our own free speech. Not funny like his Titania McGrath books, but it makes its point. ***

Buck Danny Vol. 1: Night of the Serpent, Francis Bergèse (Cinebook): While flying over the Korean DMZ an American is dazzled and left reliant on the autopilot, which stubbornly refuses to go anywhere but north. Buck Danny (in his 49th Belgian tome, but first from Cinebook) is involved in the rescue mission. A good, detailed, Bigglesish adventure. Had to re-read the bits that take place in darkness to properly understand what was going on. ***

Sergeant Bigglesworth, C.I.D., Captain W.E. Johns (Hodder & Stoughton): After World War II ends, Biggles and his chums get a job investigating airborne criminals. Their first assignment is to stop a gang of ruthless thieves led by a Nazi and an American mobster. It's the early Sopwith Camel stories that I love, but this later book (the 32nd) had its moments. Biggles is surprisingly obnoxious at times, but made me chuckle with his occasional ejaculations. (Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn attention to this ebook: it’s now been removed from the Kindle store.) ***

A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor (Faber & Faber): A racist grandma gets her son and his family into serious trouble by sneaking a cat into their car and asking to see a plantation on which she was wooed in her youth. It's very good, but, like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, I rather regret reading it, because now it's in my head forever. ****

Monday 15 February 2021

BFS Journal #21, by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming (eds) (The British Fantasy Society) | review by Stephen Theaker

At the time of writing (July 2020), it’s been four years since the release of a new issue of the BFS Journal was last mentioned on the British Fantasy Society’s website, and almost four years since the society last announced a new issue on Twitter, but new issues are still being regularly released.

The last issue I reviewed was BFS Journal #18, edited by Allen Stroud (see TQF64). For this issue he moves on to Advisory Editor, while Sean Wilcock takes over as editor. Sarah Deeming is introduced as Reviews Editor, a review section making its welcome return to the publication after an absence of some years.

The first couple of articles are quite hard work. The first tries to persuade us by way of Jungian theory that mazes, water and eating are traditionally feminine. Taking a theory and shoe-horning a few cherry-picked moments from books into it doesn’t tell us anything very much about the books or the usefulness of the theory.

The second, about “Jung’s Concept of the Anima in Fantasy and Science Fiction Pulp”, has a similar problem, and puts forward the nonsensical idea that the UFO craze of the fifties resulted from a Buddhist symbol springing from the “collective unconscious” relating to “the totality of the self”. Hm.

The third article, “When Fantasy Meets Uchronie” by Pascal Lemaire, is genuinely interesting and knowledgeable, telling us about an area of science fiction I knew nothing about: French alternate histories. I’ll be reading some of them in future. It also introduced me to the excellent phrase used for vampire romance in France: bit lit.

The fourth article is a lengthy history of Ladbroke Grove counterculture, taking in people like Pink Floyd, Mick Farren and Michael Moorcock. It’s interesting – I hadn’t known for example how the Notting Hill carnival had begun – but not rigorously academic: many quotations are unsourced, and sometimes even the speaker is unidentified.

Three shorter articles include Allen Ashley’s visit to a witchcraft exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Jessica Pascoe on a guided tour of Middle-Earth filming locations, and three academics talking about a seminar series on international fantasy at the University of Leeds, and setting out their mission statement.

The review section starts with a six-page review of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House which devotes only a few paragraphs to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House rather than the book. A review of the Nicholas Eames book Bloody Rose tells the reader that we might “love him or hate him”, without explaining why we might hate him.

There are also informative reviews of The Godserfs’ Trilogy, The Girl King and Dragon Heart, all of which make it clear how good (or otherwise) the reviewers thought the books were, which I always appreciate. The issue’s one editorial wobble comes with a review of Kingdom of the Wicked: Rules, which seems to have been published in an early draft.

Otherwise, the egregious errors that plagued #18 have gone, and once you get past the thirty pages of Jungian nonsense at the beginning, there are some good articles with useful knowledge to share. Also, the bibliographies now have the date immediately after the authors’ names, making them much easier to use.

Overall, a good deal of improvement since the last issue reviewed. ***

Monday 8 February 2021

Venus in the Blind Spot, by Junji Ito (Viz Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

An extraordinarily creepy collection of short stories by writer and artist Junjo Ito, translated by Jocelyne Allen and Yuji Oniki. It presents the reader with one horrifying image after another, while reflecting on themes of loneliness, misogyny and obsession. “Billions Alone”, for example, gives us a world where anyone gathering in a group is mysteriously stitched together, naked, in increasingly bizarre patterns.

Two stories are adapted from the work of Edogawa Ranpo (a Japanese writer whose name is a play on Edgar Allen Poe). “The Human Chair” is the disturbing story of a writer who comes to suspect that there might be a pervert hidden inside her armchair, while “An Unearthly Love” is about a newlywed who discovers her husband has another, less human sweetheart.

The title story, about a beautiful woman who cannot be seen except from a distance, was my least favourite, and the most shocking, for exactly the same reason: the sexual violence at its conclusion is so much more real than the supernatural elements that predominate elsewhere. “The Licking Woman” is the most revolting of the stories: she licks people at night with a grotesque tongue, her spit dooming them to a painful death.

“How Love Came to Professor Kirida” is about a man plagued by the sexual attentions of an obsessive ghost, based upon a story by Robert Hichens. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is about a dad who finds himself in a tight spot, a metaphor perhaps for the pressures faced by an old-fashioned “man of the house”. “Keepsake” is about a baby found in a coffin, nine months after a woman was buried by her adulterous husband.

The endings aren’t always satisfying; in fact, rather than stories, it might be more accurate to think of these as nightmares. They have the logic of dreams, and their vividness. But “Master Umezz and Me” is a change of pace, a memoir of the author’s love of Kazuo Umezz’s comics and cartoons, though even that finds room for a handful of horrific images (Junjo Ito makes his younger self as alarmingly obsessive as any of his characters).

“The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is the story that will stay with me longest: an earthquake leaves people-shaped holes exposed in the side of a mountain, and people are drawn to those holes. Every aspect of this story felt like it had been dragged from my worst fears. I wish I hadn’t looked through it again while writing this review: doing so can only increase the likelihood of having nightmares that draw upon it.

The copyright page offers an alternative title, “Ito Junji Tanpenshu Best of Best”. Although I loved the film Uzumaki, based on his book, I haven’t read his work before, so I can’t say if these truly are the best of his best, as claimed, but given how good these stories are, it would be highly impressive if his other work was even better. ****

Thursday 4 February 2021

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | review by Stephen Theaker

This ambitious anthology collects science fiction from the Indian subcontinent (home to about 1.7 billion people) and from the global diaspora. As well as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are contributors living in Scotland, Iceland and the USA, and the editor himself was born in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, then, it offers a wide variety of stories, presented in what Manjula Padmanabhan’s foreword self-deprecatingly calls ‘a bouquet of styles that are endearingly – perhaps even irritatingly! – local’.

Tarun K. Saint’s highly detailed and informative introduction might be best saved for reading after the stories, but it provides a useful historical overview of the genre in the region, and is likely to send the reader after other books mentioned, such as (for this reviewer) the utterly charming Professor Shonku stories of Satyajit Ray. Saint explains that the genesis of the anthology, as set out in a concept note to potential contributors, was to explore ‘a sense of disturbance with the situation in contemporary South Asia’, and to explore the power of science fiction to ‘generate alternative visions of the future’.

If, as the editor suggests, this aspect of sf has yet to be fully appreciated on the subcontinent, this anthology makes an admirable attempt to redress matters.

There are twenty-three stories, four poems and a prescient series of extracts from a longer work, The Twenty-Second Century by Rahul Sankrityayan, dating from 1923. Six items are translations, twenty-two were written in English. The copyright acknowledgements list only nine, so most would seem to be original to this anthology.

They explore issues such as post-colonialism, religion, colourism, partition (a trauma explored in the editor’s own ‘A Visit to Partition World’), bureaucracy, class, American and British cultural imperialism, sewage management and police corruption (amusingly satirised in Harishankar Parsai’s ‘Inspector Matadeen on the Moon’). They don’t on the whole go very far into the future, and rarely visit space, tending to explore a recognisable world.

The mistreatment of women is a frequent theme. ‘A Night with the Joking Clown’ explores the effects of Male Hypertoxic Syndrome and extrapolates the exploitation of women to its ultimate end. Giti Chandra’s ‘The Goddess Project’ imagines android goddesses created (or perhaps summoned) to fight back against such oppression. In ‘We Were Never Here’ by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim the women just up and leave (although the only sf element of that one seems to be that it posits ninth and tenth waves of future feminism, without explaining what they are).

Despite the serious intent, it’s far from a humourless book. ‘The Man Who Turned into Gandhi’ by Shovon Chowdhury is the quirky story of a chap who loses his hair and teeth, becomes ambidextrous and can no longer eat chicken or wear clothes. Transformed into Gandhi, he finds out how the hero of the independence movement might be treated if he reappeared now, and delivers lengthy lectures to his wife. ‘You used to talk very little,’ she says. ‘It was one of your few good points.’

‘Dreaming of the Cool Green River’ by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is another satire, and a highlight of the book, introducing us to the Chief Sanitizing Archivist, who in theory collects Objectionable Art and Ideas so as not to offend HurtMobs, but in fact is creating copies so that she can sell the originals.

The New Horizons bit of the title has been added for UK publication, perhaps to stress that these are mostly new stories. For me it was almost all new horizons: the only name I recognised was Vandana Singh, who contributes the flowery final story, ‘Reunion’. I must have missed Anil Menon back in Interzone #216, but his story here is a good one: ‘Shit Flower’ concerns a ‘computational immunologist’ who taught sewage control computers to understand jokes as a security precaution. Surprisingly moving, given its faecal subject matter.

That the anthology was originally produced for an Indian audience is perhaps reflected in the absence of a glossary for untranslated words and phrases. This can be a bit frustrating when they are crucial to understanding the story, but Google was usually able to help.

New Horizons is an entertaining book that offers a generous selection of locations, viewpoints, issues and styles. Don’t expect the censorship of Bollywood films: these address adult themes in an adult world. It does a lot of different things and it tends to do them very well; this review could only fail to encompass them all. This anthology feels like a labour of love, and with respect to Manjula Padmanabhan, readers should find it stimulating rather than at all irritating.

Note that this review was written in January 2020, based on an advance review copy, and originally appeared in Interzone #286. The book's UK publication was then postponed to 2021. Any changes made to the book during the intervening time won't be reflected in the review.

Monday 1 February 2021

Tomorrow, When I Was Young, by Julie Travis (Eibonvale Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

I’m often a bit nervous to read books by writers I know, because no matter much I like them, I’m still going to rate their books honestly. I needn’t have worried: this chapbook was terrific. Zanders, a woman who in the present was suffering from the physical injuries left by domestic abuse, has now awoken in the past, on a ship called The Giantess, with the mysterious and rather romantic figure of The Golden Sea Captain, and gains a kind of peace through adventure. Highly recommended. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 31 January 2021

Glork Patrol, Thorgal, Doctor Who and other reviews in brief

Brief reviews of the books I finished reading this month. Creators, publishers, etc as per Goodreads; apologies to anyone left out.

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Vol. 9, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Marvel): Stan and Jack not at their best in this one. The saga of the new house was particularly silly. The Thing as a gladiator on a gangster planet was also fairly daft. ***

The Fourth Power #1: Supramental, Juan Giménez (Humanoids): Graphic novel from Humanoids. Beautiful art, with a story I didn't follow at all till I read the book's description on Comixology. Basically, Earth's been egging on a war, so some of the locals fuse four attractive women into a rather less attractive (but equally buxom) psychic weapon. ***

Rumble, Vol. 1: What Color of Darkness, John Arcudi and James Harren (Image Comics): Good graphic novel by a writer, artist and colourist who all worked on BPRD, and quite a close cousin to that book. A great warrior comes back as a scarecrow, to fight monsters for whom I felt quite sorry, since they were the survivors of a war waged to clear the Earth for us. ***

Thorgal, Vol. 2: The Three Elders of Aran, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Two albums in one. Wish I'd bought the French versions (the English ones are censored and in a different order), but these stories were still enjoyable. Quite old-fashioned, beautifully drawn, in a pick'n'mix world where anything goes, from goblins to UFOs. ***

Babylon Berlin, Arne Jysch and Volker Kutscher (Titan): Very good hard-boiled graphic novel from Hard Case Crime, about a detective in 1930s Berlin. Hoping to wangle a permanent transfer to the homicide division, he plays his cards too close to his chest and gets into a spot of bother. Adapted by Arne Jysch, whose art is excellent. ****

Homeland, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber): A family takes their Cherokee great-grandma on a road-trip to where she grew up, but it's changed beyond recognition. It's all told from the point of view of a child, Gloria, who is tasked by her great-grandma with remembering everything; the story is one way of keeping that promise. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 3: Beyond the Shadows, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook Ltd): Best yet of the Cinebook volumes, this includes two linked stories, Beyond the Shadows and The Fall of Brek Zarith, where Thorgal goes on a quest to the underworld and beyond to find his missing wife and child. Gorgeous art, ideal for panel by panel reading on a nice bright screen. ****

Zikora, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Amazon Original Stories): Excellent story, with more character in thirty-five pages than some books do in five hundred, about a woman going through childbirth while thinking about the women in her life and the men who let them (and her) down. I felt much less sympathetic towards her after she had the baby boy circumcised, as if she were punishing him for other men's failures – no wonder he wouldn't stop crying! – but that was all part of what made it so interesting to read. *****

Valentine, Vol. 1, Vanyda (Europe Comics): Sweet, well-observed story about a French teenager who has a group of friends, but not a true best friend, and the leader of the group isn't very nice. It's good, but ends oddly, perhaps because it was originally the first half of a longer black and white book, Celle que je ne suis pas. ***

The Caduca, Elaine Graham-Leigh (The Conrad Press): The first prose novel I finished this year, a political science fiction thriller. I loved it – and not only because TQF gets a nod in the acknowledgments! Review (with appropriate disclaimers regarding my obvious bias) to follow in a future issue of TQF.

The Problem with Men: When is International Men's Day? (And Why it Matters), Richard Herring (Sphere): A funny little book about how he tried for a decade to reply to the hundreds of men who ask the same daft question every International Women's Day: when is it International Men's Day? I might have to buy the audiobook too, just to hear those pathetic, whiny tweets read out loud. It's not perfect: the title's a bit grand for a book with such a narrow focus; the ebook footnotes are confusing; it uses the word gender in some places where sex would make more sense; and it's slightly misleading to say no one gets mad about International Men's Day. Also, I don't think Bill Burr was at all wrong to be suspicious of the inauthenticity of many self-described male feminists. They frequently turn out to be actively sexist and anti-feminist, enthusiastic proponents (and consumers) of prostitution, pornography and paid surrogacy. But it's good. Its biggest strengths are (a) being funny and (b) setting out a vision for what International Men's Day could be about: praising positive male role models, checking in with friends, helping those who need it. A day where we put our energy into being the best men we can be. ***

Thorgal, Vol. 4: The Archers, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Two stories that take place after Thorgal sails off in his little boat and loses it. Left behind on the island, his wife and child have to deal with a supernatural green-haired boy, while Thorgal enters an archery contest to win money for a new boat. Very good, apart from the shocking way Thorgal treats new character Kriss de Valnor. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 5: The Land of Qa, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Another two connected Thorgal stories, both drawn with astonishing detail but censored by the British publisher for the sake of "our more sensitive readers". Thorgal is coerced into a mission by Kriss de Valnor, angrier than ever after the way he treated her in the previous book, while his son gets to meet his grandad from space. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 6: The City of the Lost God, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Another pair of censored but brilliantly-drawn stories conclude Thorgal's mission to bloodthirsty Mayaxatl, and then take him back to Xinjin, where his son Jolan has been installed as a god. Not entirely original, but all the wildly disparate elements are patched together nicely. I have mixed feelings about the censorship. I probably like the books better for them being a bit less exploitative of women's bodies. I might have suggested the same changes myself, if editing the original books. But I'd still rather read the real version and judge that. ****

The Worlds of Thorgal: Louve #1: Raïssa, Yann and Roman Surzhenko (Le Lombard): A spin-off for Thorgal's daughter, Louve, who was still in the planning stages in the last Thorgal book I read. After fighting local boys, she befriends a wolf who was banished from her pack. Different creators, same feel, lots of talking to animals, gets weirder as it goes on. ***

Orion's Outcasts, Vol. 2, Éric Corbeyran and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Based on the work of French sf writer Julia Verlanger, this is about Rebecca, an sf hero trying to escape a barbarian world so that she can save its people – despite all their efforts to kill her. Not as good as the first book, and it felt a bit rushed, but it had its moments. ***

Oblivion Song, Vol. 2, Robert Kirkman, Lorenzo De Felici, Annalisa Leoni (Image Comics): Second part of Oblivion Song takes us back and forth between the universes a few times without moving the story forward very far, though there's plenty of personal growth and lots of monster fighting. Like a lot of Robert Kirkman books, it ends very well. Nice art, great colours. ***

Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor, Vol. 1: Gaze of the Medusa, Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby, Brian Williamson, Hi-Fi and Alice Zhang (Titan): Fairly good story for the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, who tangle with some Greek myths and the woman who worships them. Catches the Doctor's character well and the likenesses are good, but far too many panels stretch across two pages, making it quite irritating to read onscreen. ***

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard (SelfMadeHero): New edition of the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation by I.N.J. Culbard, published by SelfMade Hero. It's about a weird young man who goes too far in his quest for weird knowledge. Thought I'd read all of Lovecraft's stories, but this wasn't familiar at all. Review to follow in TQF70.

Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples (Image): A very good crime story. A pickpocket and occasional bankrobber is persuaded to work a dangerous job, even though he knows something is up. Meanwhile he's trying to look after his mentor, his dad's partner-in-crime, who is suffering from dementia and sexually assaulting his nurses. ****

Exorsisters, Vol. 1, Ian Boothby, Gisèle Lagacé and Pete Pantazis (Image Comics): Two twins (sort of) help people get their souls back from hell, while their mum gets involved in something shadier. It is just getting started by the end, but so far I liked the characters more than I enjoyed the story they were in. They're a bit like Maggie and Hopey crossed with John Constantine. ***

The Power of Negative Thinking, Oliver Burkeman (BBC Digital Audio): Oliver Burkeman always seems so wise and sensible on Twitter and in his Guardian columns, so I got this from Audible and it didn't disappoint. Worrying about whether you can do things better and fretting about what could go wrong can be very useful, properly channelled. ****

Nailbiter, Vol. 1: There Will Be Blood, Joshua Williamson, Mike Henderson, Adam Guzowski and John J. Hill (Image Comics): A town has produced 16 serial killers, each with their own gimmick. A guy who thinks he's figured it out goes missing so his pal stays in town to investigate. The mysteries are interesting and there are some good twists, but there was too much actual nailbiting for my comfort. ***

By The Numbers, Vol. 2: The Road to Cao Bang, Laurent Rullier and Stanislas (Humanoids): A sad story about a young accountant up to no good in Saigon during the dying days of French colonial rule. He falls in love with a woman who loves gambling much more than him. Unusual subject matter for a comic, but I thought it was well-handled. I found the art very appealing. ****

Black History In Its Own Words, Ron Wimberly (Image): Thirty-nine Facebook-friendly portraits of black cultural figures and their words. Not a substantial or always reliable read but the portraits are pretty good. Wasn't sure what to make of Angela Davis's quote about radical meaning "grasping things at the root" being followed by one in praise of onanism… ***

Citizen Jack, Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson (Image Comics): A sexist, slovenly, mendacious, corrupt man with no understanding of politics decides to run for president and finds that the worse he behaves, the more his public adores him. I don't know how comics creators come up with these crazy ideas! There's also a dolphin news anchor. ***

Doctor Who: Land of the Blind, Scott Gray, Dan Abnett, Lee Sullivan, Gareth Roberts, Nicholas Briggs, Martin Geraghty, David A. Roach, James Offredi, Kate Orman, Gary Russell, Barry Mitchell and Gary Gillatt (Panini): A treat of a book, with black and white retro adventures for the first five Doctors, often with television companions that weren't allowed to appear in the comics of their day. A self-aware commentary from the creators pre-empts criticism, e.g. as to the second Doctor's encounter with a "speculum". ****

Doctor Who: The Child of Time, Jonathan Morris, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid and others (Panini): Surprised to see I had this down as unfinished on Goodreads, but there was indeed a bookmark in it. No idea why I stopped reading it with 50 pages of story to go. Enjoyed finishing it off, but the commentary makes writing the strip sound like an utterly miserable experience. ***

Glork Patrol on the Bad Planet, James Kochalka (Top Shelf Productions): Another hilarious adventure for the Glorkian Warrior and his patrol, with a new publisher and at a shorter length. I loved the previous three books, even if they were aimed at children, and this one had me laughing out loud again with its glorious stupidity. ****

The Kamandi Challenge, Tom King, Peter J. Tomasi, Neal Adams, Marguerite Bennett, Dan Jurgens, James Tynion IV, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan DiDio, Dan Abnett, Paul Levitz, Gail Simone, Rob Williams, Greg Pak, Keith Giffen, Steve Orlando and Bill Willingham (DC Comics): Fairly enjoyable book that tries to recapture the wild creativity of Jack Kirby by getting a ton of top creators to run a relay race with one of his characters, the last boy left alive in a planet of the apes, sharks, rats and robots. Pretty good, but the ending was a bit of a letdown. ***

Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard (Profile Books): Thought-provoking little book, discussing how "women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard". Also interesting when it talks about "the power of followers not just of leaders" and "women's right to be wrong, at least occasionally". ****