Sunday 22 October 2023

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (Ecco) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Details and tangents detract from dystopian tale.

Something bad has happened, but what? Such is the concept that propels Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel about two families converging at a rental home in the Hamptons amid a mysterious catastrophic event. 

Many compelling works – Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs come to mind – have successfully used this strategy. Characters are confined to a remote location, where they speculate and gradually learn about what has happened in the larger world. 

This work, however, suffers from two major problems. First, the characters and their behaviors/conflicts are not compelling enough to keep the reader engaged. It takes far too long to get to the inciting incident (i.e., the knock on the door). Vacationers Amanda and Clay and their two nondescript children are surprised when G.H. and Ruth Washington, owners of the property, show up amid what they believe could be a disaster. 

My second gripe against this book is that Alam goes on too many tangents and whips up a whirlwind of irrelevant details. An encountered object, for instance, stops the novel’s progress and allows a character to reflect on a memory. I often found myself thinking, Wait. Why are you stopping here? Don’t tell me about that. This is most apparent at the beginning, where the author gets mired in the mediocrity of middle-aged parenthood. I don’t need a list of what Amanda’s buying at the grocery store. 

The omniscient narration compounds the problem. Although this strategy enables Alam to slip in hints about what’s happening beyond the Hamptons, dipping into each character’s head slows the progress. Moreover, the narrator tends to break into the story and state, in effect, what the character didn’t know was that [fill in the blank] was happening or what was happening was much worse than they were imagining.

Nevertheless, some details, such as changes in characters’ bodies or the local wildlife, are intriguing. The novel does get better and the tension escalates near the end, but it’s not enough to recommend this one.—Douglas J. Ogurek**

Monday 16 October 2023

UNSPLATTERPUNK! 7 open to short story and art submissions

To disgust and instruct: Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction welcomes short story and art submissions for seventh instalment in annual UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthology that gives splatterpunk the kick in the nards it needs. 

Extreme horror authors and artists: are you fed up with calls for submissions stating, “No excessive gore?” Here’s your chance to let out your innermost degenerate… and your hidden saint.  

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, purportedly the UK’s second-longest running sci-fi/fantasy/horror ezine, has opened the floodgates for submissions to the seventh instalment in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies”. Douglas J. Ogurek returns to edit the anthology slated for release in summer 2024.

We’re on the hunt for short stories (10,000 words or fewer) that not only exaggerate the ultraviolence and subversive content of the splatterpunk genre but also incorporate a positive or morally instructive message. That’s what makes it unsplatterpunk. We’re also looking for cover art submissions that support the unsplatterpunk concept. 

Forget the squeamish fans of mainstream horror, the instructors who told you not to write with a theme in mind, and even the splatterpunk writers mired in nihilism and gore for gore’s sake. We’re open to any genre, from vile fantasy and gruesome sci-fi to backwoods perversion and raw realism, provided that your tale magnifies the visceral content and conveys a virtuous message. It’s all disgusting… and it’s all enlightening.

Dig into the first six anthologies, all available for free download: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 5, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6

The UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthologies boost the distasteful content of the typical splatterpunk story while adding a lesson in virtue. The message can be straightforward or subtle — we’ve even used extended metaphors. Background photo: Eistreter, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tips for Writers

Unsplatterpunk submissions get rejected for two key reasons:

  • Not controversial/visceral enough – You’ve just written a story full of decapitations, amputations, and eviscerations? We can get that by turning on the TV. How will you take it to the next level?
  • No positive message – You’ve completed a transgressive piece that will shock and disgust even the most dedicated splatterpunk enthusiast? Great, but if it doesn’t have some positive message, we’re not interested.

Other advice:

  • Make the story as attention-grabbing as a stripper in a nunnery. 
  • Make the content so revolting that readers think to themselves, Why am I reading this?
  • Approach your subject matter with a thirteen-year-old boy’s “gross is great” mentality and your writing with the technical skills of a seasoned author.
  • Gorge yourself on splatterpunk stories so you understand what’s already been done.
  • Read previous entries in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! series. Why not? They’re free.
  • Imagine a man with a violin standing next to you as you write. Each time your writing gets dramatic, he starts playing. Don’t let him play! In other words, don’t impress us with big words, abstractions, and philosophical concepts – impress us with your story.
  • Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t write your story in a chatty style full of colloquialisms. You’re writing to your reader, not your bestie.  
  • Don’t end your story in a quagmire of esoteric nonsense. 
  • Avoid standard revenge stories – vengeance isn’t morally enlightening, and the market is flooded with these tales.
  • Our thoughts on classic creatures: Vampires brooding around a castle? Cliché. Zombies wandering through woods? Dumb. Werewolves at a sexual harassment prevention training seminar? You have our attention. 
  • Make comedy your friend: some of the most successful splatterpunk authors recognize the excessive nature of the genre and therefore incorporate humour in their stories. Those who take things too seriously often devolve into dramatic hogwash. Thus, if you’re going to yuck it up, why not yuk it up? 

The Gory Details

Send stories (no poetry, please) and artwork to Put “UNSPLATTERPUNK! 7 submission” in the subject line. In your cover letter, include a bio and tell us about the positive message your story conveys.

  • Deadline: 30 April 2024
  • Max word count: 10,000
  • Reprints: No
  • Multiple submissions: Yes
  • Simultaneous submissions: No. We’ll get back to you within a couple of weeks.
  • File type: .doc (preferred) or .docx files for stories; .pdf or .jpg files for artwork
  • Payment: This is a non-paying zine. However, free epub and pdf files will be available to everyone.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication. See the TQF standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters. 

A Note on No Payment

Because our contributors do not receive monetary payment, some have accused us of using authors’ “slave labour” to get rich. The UNSPLATTERPUNK! series (and the TQF ezine in general) is not a moneymaking venture. Rather, it’s a group of dedicated hobbyists trying to have some fun. That’s why we make .pdf and ebook versions of all UNSPLATTERPUNK! anthologies available for free (with an option to purchase a hard copy on Amazon). Over the course of the UNSPLATTERPUNK! series, we have collected less than nothing from hard copy sales, and all of this nothing has gone right back into the publication of the anthology. We will also work with authors to ensure their stories are concise, precise and hard hitting.

Nevertheless, if writing is your job – or one day you want it to be your job – then of course you won't want to do it for free. Submit your stories to a paying journal or anthology, or save them for your collection. And if you've been inspired to write something unsplatterpunkish, let us know so we can send readers your way!

Also, keep in mind that while some anthologists select contributors from a tiny pool of acquaintances, we take a different approach here. First, our sole criterion for acceptance is a good story that follows the parameters. Thus, everyone who submits has an equal chance of getting a story selected. Second, we read every submission from beginning to end. If we reject it, we tell you why. If we find promise in a story, we work closely with the contributor to make it as illuminating and nauseating as possible. 

Earn the UNSPLATTERPUNK! badge. Submit stories and artwork by 30 April 2024. 

Tackle Problems and Turn Stomachs  

The world overflows with problems: speciesism, environmental degradation, inequality, poverty, intolerance, and so many more. Now pick one and address it through fiction. 

Hacking off heads and limbs. Tearing skin. Removing organs. Breaking bones and shattering spines. Sticking objects both chewy and pointy into this or that orifice. Ingesting vomit and other expulsions. Splatterpunk fans have seen it all. How will you take it to the next level? 

Join the ranks of Hugh Alsin, Antonella Coriander, Garvin Giltinan, Joe Koch, Eric Raglin, Triffooper Saxelbax, Drew Tapley, and many others who’ve earned the unsplatterpunk badge.

You have until Tuesday, 30 April 2024. 

Shock us. Nauseate us. Edify us.

Friday 13 October 2023

Search Party, Season 5 | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I would usually be quite reluctant to review the fifth and final season of a television programme, given that it can be hard to do so without revealing spoilers for the entirety of the preceding episodes. But in this case I don’t think that’s a huge problem because season five of Search Party is barely connected to the previous four seasons.

Season one was basically a hipster Nancy Drew show. Dory (Alia Shawkut), Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) were four aimless New Yorkers. When Dory threw everything into a search for a missing acquaintance from college, the other three were dragged along with her, with consequences both hilarious and tragic.

Seasons two to four, rather than moving on to new mysteries, explored the consequences of season one in ever-greater depth, becoming a gripping psychological comedy-thriller. It took the story in some extremely surprising directions, and to be honest I would have preferred three more seasons of hipster Nancy Drew, but it was still rather brilliant.

Season five – and stop now if you don’t want any spoilers – sees the four protagonists leave all that behind, become the leaders of a cult, start working with a Steve Jobs type played by Jeff Goldblum, who wants to sell whatever they have to the masses (or at least to investors), and then they start a zombie apocalypse. Seriously!

Reading that paragraph back to myself, I think it sounds great. I usually love it when programmes do off-the-wall things, take weird turns, and surprise me. And of course I love fantasy and science fiction television programmes more than any other kind, so why didn’t I love it when Search Party became one too?

I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because the show abandons any sense of realistic characterisation. It almost felt like they were trying to get cancelled, as if they were sick of making it but contractually had to do more. For a show about the consequences of our actions to have people levitating felt wrong, like it undid everything that came before.

But it didn’t, really. The first four seasons are as good as they ever were, and adding a bizarre epilogue can’t change that. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I hadn’t watched all five seasons in one go on the iPlayer. If I’d watched them over the course of six years, per its US broadcast, perhaps I’d have been ready for a change of pace.

I would still say anyone watching it should watch it right to the end. Speak to me a year from now and I may have forgotten how terrible most of the episodes were, and praise the boldness of ending a television show this way. But now, I just remember how painful it was to watch. Physically so, since I spent almost the entire season frowning in dismay. Stephen Theaker **

Monday 9 October 2023

Ahsoka, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

Ahsoka is a sequel to several projects all at once, as well as setting up projects to come. This eight-episode season follows on from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, in which Ahsoka Tano, as played by Rosario Dawson, made an appearance (and met Luke Skywalker), and it also follows on from two animated series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which showed Anakin Skywalker take her on as an apprentice during the war with the Trade Federation and its allies, and Star Wars: Rebels, about a ragtag bunch of rebels who appear in Ahsoka too: Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), Hera Syndulla (now a general, and played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi).

The latter's disappearance during the rebellion (round about the events of Return of the Jedi, I think) is what motivates Ahsoka and Sabine in this show. They think he's still alive, somewhere, and they think they can find him -- but only if they can repair their broken relationship, and Hera can keep the jobsworths and penny-pinchers and traitors in the New Republic administration off their backs.

The problem is, Ezra wasn't the only one to go missing that day. So did Grand Admiral Thrawn (played here, as in Star Wars: Rebels, by Lars Mikkelsen), and efforts are afoot to find him too. Leading the search are two fallen jedi, Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati, the former played so brilliantly by the late Ray Stevenson that the show is almost spoilt by the knowledge that he won't be returning. If they manage to find Thrawn, what will follow?

Dedicated fans will remember Timothy Zahn’s sequel trilogy from the 1990s, which breathed new life into Star Wars, and in which Thrawn was the primary antagonist.

For such fans, especially those who watched the two animated series, I’m sure that Ahsoka had all sorts of resonances that passed me by. But I still loved it. You don't need to have watched anything else to understand why Sabine wants to rescue her friend, or why everyone is afraid of a powerful grand admiral from the Empire. I found it gripping, and although there were moments here and there that dragged, the overall effect was rather majestic.

Ahsoka herself is an interesting character. She knows by this point that her master, Anakin, became Darth Vader, and she struggles with that knowledge – her fear of that happening again damaged her relationship with her own apprentice. But she also remembers what was good about him, before his turn to the dark side. Her movements in combat are perhaps a bit less fluid and precise than one might expect from a jedi; it would be interesting to know if this was a deliberate choice, to reflect the character's age at this point, or if perhaps the actor needed a bit more time on combat training. By the final episodes that's much less of an issue, with multiple jedi engaging in combat and all sorts of fun things happening. Sabine's combat style is particularly entertaining: a jedi in a Mandalorian suit of armour, fighting with both pistol and lightsaber, is truly a sight to behold!

The special effects are, just like The Mandalorian, almost unfairly good. The ominous approach of Thrawn's damaged imperial destroyer to a tower was particularly stunning, but the space whales and David Tennant's ancient robot character Huyang were also excellent. If we have passed the high-water mark of Disney's spending on science fiction shows, as the cancellation of Lando and Marvel cutbacks might suggest, it's a shame, but one can understand why such extravagance wouldn't be sustainable.

Hopefully the story will be concluded, whether that's in another programme bringing all these characters together, or in a feature film. If not, Ahsoka is still worth watching on its own merits, for the spectacle, for all the lightsaber battles, for the performances and for the surprises, which I won't spoil here… Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday 4 October 2023

The Creator | reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In 2055, Los Angeles was devastated by a nuclear bomb. Artificial intelligence was blamed, and the US government decides that all AIs must be destroyed, both within its borders and outside them. The AIs in this film are individual beings, each with their own robotic bodies, who talk and emote in ways that seem very human. Some, known as replicants, are given humanoid faces, replicas of existing people. Others are more obviously robotic, with big blocky heads.

The determination of the US to wipe them all out leads to war with the East, where AI beings have more or less integrated into society.

Joshua (John David Washington) was an undercover operative in that war, on a mission in the East to uncover Nirmata, the father of AI, but he fell in love with his target, Nirmata's daughter (Gemma Chan). When an impatient US government attacks the rebel base, using their deadly new sub-orbital weapons base, the USS Nomad, Joshua loses his wife, his unborn child, and his desire to keep on fighting. He takes a job clearing up the mess of LA.

Five years later, his old bosses get a lead on a new superweapon being developed by the AI, and they show Joshua photos of his wife at the scene. He reluctantly rejoins. By one twist and another that leads to him on the run in Asia, with an adorable AI child in tow, pursued by and under fire from all sides.

I loved watching this film. I've wondered how much of that was the rare pleasure of seeing an original science fiction film in the cinema. (And one that uses the full width of the cinema screen too! This really is a film to see on the big screen if you can.) But I didn't react like that to 65. Yes, the plot of this is very similar to something like Children of Men, and yes, its portrayal of AI as very human, individual intelligences, rather than the networked, alien consciousness it would more likely be, felt a bit old-fashioned. But it does everything so incredibly well.

Take the special effects, for example, which are magnificent. Compare it to Expendfourbles, in cinemas the same weekend, which was set in the real world but looked completely fake throughout. The Creator portrays a near-future science fictional world and makes it look utterly realistic, a place that could be right around the corner. The director Gareth Edwards has talked about the innovative approach he took to making the film: shooting the whole thing first, much of it on location, using a small, indie-style crew whenever possible, before applying all the effects in post-production. The results would be stunning on a budget twice the size.

Like many of the most popular science fiction films, it is also a great action film, but the action is grounded in plot and character. John David Washington, his character put through the wringer, physically and emotionally, is as good here as he was in Tenet, a film with a similar tone. Let's hope he makes a habit of starring in such intelligent science fiction thrillers. Little kids can be hard to cast, but Madeleine Yuna Voyles is also very good in a demanding role, while Allison Janney makes a superb villain (or last-ditch desperate defender of humanity, depending on your point of view). That their performances distract the viewer’s attention from the stunning scenery and effects is impressive in itself.

Whether it's robot children with cooling holes running through their heads, or gigantic wartech that looks like it emerged from a Chris Foss book cover, the film delivers. And thematically it has much to offer too: about change, and how to adapt to it, and what our species is willing to do to stay on top. If like Children of Men this takes a while to find its audience, that will be a shame, but there’s no doubt it'll happen. If there were a film like this on at the cinema every weekend, I would be at the cinema every weekend. Highly recommended. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 1 October 2023

Klara and the Sun: a Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Superhuman observational skills meet childlike naivety in moving AI story that shines light on hope

Klara and the Sun is a testament to the power of friendship, a eulogy to broken relationships, and above all, an ode to hope. Klara, the story’s protagonist, is a solar-powered artificial intelligence with the power to discern human emotions and navigate the complexities of relationships while remaining calm and somewhat detached. And yet, she repeatedly tugs at the reader’s heartstrings. 

When sickly 14-year-old Josie adopts Klara as her Artificial Friend (AF), the latter leaves the metropolitan retail shop where she’s lived her short “life” and enters a whole new, much more rural world. The book focuses mainly on Klara’s interactions with and responses to Josie, Josie’s mother and father, and a wise-beyond-his-years boy named Rick, who has known Josie for many years and plans to marry her. 

When she discovers Josie is suffering from an illness, Klara hatches a plan involving the sun and “his nourishment” for banishing the illness. The plan and its miraculous implications are preposterous from a human point of view, but not necessarily from an AI’s perspective. Josie’s mother, who is no stranger to life-threatening illness, has another plan. It involves the man – there’s something fishy about him – whom she has commissioned to do Klara’s portrait.

Not all scenes in this novel are riveting. For instance, Ishiguro details a game that Josie and Rick play. She draws pictures of children with dialogue bubbles and Rick fills in the words. It’s meant to be complex communication between the two of them, but it’s rather dull. More interesting in these scenes is Klara, who pretends to stare out the window and instead listens to and watches the reflections of Josie and Rick. 

By making Klara the tale’s first-person narrator, Ishiguro aligns the reader with her as she experiences not only her adoptive human family but also a near-future society in which some children are “lifted,” meaning that they have more opportunities to succeed in life. Not too foreign a concept, really. Moreover, the author is careful not to impose human emotions on the protagonist. What a strange brew of outrage, pity, and helplessness the reader feels when Klara remains polite and calm despite the quarrels and manipulations that surround her. When Josie and her mother use Klara as a tool against each other, for example, the AI remains neutral and attempts to handle the situation judiciously.   

One of the most fascinating aspects of Klara is the contradictory nature of how she views the world. On the one hand, she skilfully reads human emotions and intentions via their facial expressions and hand gestures. Typically, such details would weigh down a story; here they add authenticity. Ishiguro describes how Klara’s vision splits into different boxes that enable her to analyse people. At one point when talking with the mother, Klara “could see joy, fear, laughter, sadness in the boxes.” She draws from this data to make decisions, most of them wise. On the other hand, Klara has a skewed – one could even say juvenile – perception of the sun as a godlike entity that can be bargained with so it will intervene in human affairs. From her viewpoint, when the sun sets, it physically lands in a place near Josie’s home. A party pooper might question why such a technologically advanced being fails to understand the science behind the sun. A more illuminated reader, however, will recognize Klara’s sun as a powerful symbol of her hope, determination, and… um… heart?—Douglas J. Ogurek****