Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Hey, Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #46 is out now! Free ebook, cheap paperback!

Amazing fiction! Insightful reviews! A self-indulgent editorial! Yes, it’s Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #46! This issue features alphabetically-ordered stories by Gary Budgen, Mitchell Edgeworth, Josie Gowler, Stephen Palmer, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson and Ross Gresham, plus eighteen reviews from Stephen Theaker, Jacob Edwards and Douglas J. Ogurek. Our spacechristmassy cover art is by Howard Watts.

Our print format changes a bit with this issue, shaving an inch off in each direction. Not sure if we'll stick with the new size until we see how the printing goes, but as ever the goal is to make the publication easier to produce and easier to read. I hope you'll like it.

Links

Paperback edition: on Amazon.co.uk / on Amazon.com / on CreateSpace
Epub version (free)
Mobi version (free)
PDF version (free)
Kindle edition: on Amazon.co.uk / on Amazon.com
The ebook is also available on Feedbooks and Lulu (both free)

All 45 back issues are also available for free download, in various formats.

Contributors

Charles Wilkinson’s short stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries and London Magazine. A collection, The Pain Tree and Other Stories, was published by London Magazine Editions. Ag & Au, a pamphlet of his poems, recently appeared from Flarestack Poets, Birmingham. Previously in Theaker’s: “Notes on the Bone” (#41) and “Notes from the Undergrowth” (#44). This issue: “Petrol-Saved”.

Douglas J. Ogurek reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for us this time. His work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. His website: www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Gary Budgen’s fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Interzone, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (“Through the Ages”, #43) and Morpheus Tales. Recently he has had stories in the anthologies Where Are We Going? and Urban Green Man. He is a member of London Clockhouse Writers. Read more at http://garybudgen.wordpress.com. In this issue: “Black Ribbon”.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the fantastic cover art for this issue. In fact, he provided it over a year ago, for the issue originally intended for Christmas 2012! Check out his Deviantart page.

Jacob Edwards reviews About Time, Computing with Quantum Cats, The Day of the Doctor and Gravity in this issue. His heart belongs to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but we’re happy to be his holiday romance. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s site: www.jacobedwards.id.au.

Jessy Randall’s stories, poems, and other things have appeared in Asimov’s, Flurb, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, LQQK, McSweeney’s, and Star*Line. Her website is personalwebs.coloradocollege.edu/~jrandall/. Her story in this issue: “The Night of Red Butterflies”.

Josie Gowler specialises in writing weird tales set in the English East Anglian Fens, and science fiction and fantasy short stories; she has most fun when these all overlap. She’s been published in 365 Tomorrows, Lorelei Signal, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (“Soldier”, all the way back in #28) and Bewildering Tales. She is a Napoleonic re-enactor and is currently working on a trashy coming-of-age space opera. Her story in this issue is “The Lazarus Loophole”.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia, and his fiction has been published in The Battered Suitcase and SQ Mag, as well as here. He keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com and tweets as @mitchedgeworth. “Customs” is the fourth in his Black Swan series to appear in these pages. Like everything we publish, it can be read quite happily in isolation, but if you want to find out how the Black Swan got off the ground, see his stories in #40 (“Homecoming”), #42 (“Drydock”) and #43 (“Flight”).

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His stories have previously appeared in #34 (“Name the Planet”), #41 (“Milo Don’t Count Coup”) and #44 (“Milo on Fire”). His story in this issue is “Wild Seed”.

Stephen Palmer is the author of seven published novels, including Memory Seed and Glass (Orbit), Muezzinland, and Urbis Morpheos (PS Publishing). His short fiction has been published by NewCon Press, Wildside Press, SF Spectrum, Rocket Science, Eibonvale Press, Unspoken Water, Infinity Plus and Solaris, plus two more currently unmentionable. Ebooks of all his novels have recently been published by Infinity Plus Ebooks, who will also be publishing his forthcoming novel Hairy London. He lives and works in Shropshire, UK. His story in this issue: “The Mines of Sorrow”.

Stephen Theaker reviews all sorts of things in this issue. He even liked some of them. Further to last issue’s editorial, he got up to 107 consecutive days of writing at least 250 words a day (getting up to an average of 837), before post-Nanowrimo fatigue kicked in and brought the run to a halt on December 5. His work has also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism, the BFS Journal, and the letters page of the NME. (He wrote to defend the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers, comparing them favourably in that regard with bands like Curve. Time has – as usual! – proven him quite right.)

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek



Smaug may desolate, but Legolas steals the show in a superb epic fantasy adventure

Ostensibly, The Hobbit film series is about its namesake character: Bilbo Baggins. The first film, An Unexpected Journey (2012), focuses on Bilbo, who undertakes an expedition both physical and mental. However, in this second installment, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), returning director Peter Jackson (who also directed the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy) moves further back, assuming a wider view on a group of unlikely and in some cases likely heroes. Those coming to see Desolation aren’t just coming to see Bilbo; they’re coming to see a collection of beloved characters. Moreover, true to the contemporary western culture that spawned such blockbusters as The Avengers (2012), Desolation has minimized those pesky internal struggles, and taken external challenges and battlefield bravura to the next level.    

Bilbo, his dwarf companions, and Gandalf the Grey (wizard) continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain on the once-thriving dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which the dragon Smaug has desolated (hence the title). Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield hopes to gain passage to the mountain and use Bilbo’s thieving skills to seize the Arkenstone. Then Oakenshield can assume kingship and the dwarves regain their home from Smaug, who has shacked up in the mountain’s treasure trove.

The action begins when Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf arrive at Mirkwood, a forest that poses threats both arachnid and elfin. The barbaric orcs are in pursuit of the dwarves, and to top it off, Gandalf, without sufficient explanation, concludes that he’ll be unable to accompany Bilbo and company through the forest.   

The group confronts a variety of adventures in the woods. A scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves ride wine barrels down rapids stands as one of the most compelling action sequences this reviewer has seen. Axes and arrows fly, orcs fall, barrels bob and roll, and through it all skips, slides, spins, and hops Legolas, the consummate elfin warrior. More on him later.

Another highlight is Bilbo’s descent into the treasure trove. The smug Smaug’s resonant voice (provided by Benedict Cumberbath) and the shlinking – yes, I made that up – sounds as Bilbo climbs and slides down the vast swells of gold and jewels in pursuit of the Arkenstone immerse the viewer in the action.

Meanwhile, Gandalf’s side quest to discover more about the mysterious Necromancer seems a bit forced in its attempt to neatly package The Hobbit and LOTR stories.

Look Everyone: It’s the Inimitable Legolas
Some of this reviewer’s favorite scenes from the LOTR trilogy involve the battlefield acrobatics of Legolas. From a standing position, he mounts a galloping horse. He single-handedly ascends a massive Oliphaunt, takes out all its passengers, kills the creature, and then slides down its trunk for a picture-perfect landing. And the speed! The astounding speed!

The blond elfin bowman and beloved member of the LOTR Fellowship of the Ring does not technically appear in Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. Therefore, Jackson risks ostracizing Tolkien purists by sliding Legolas into Desolation.

The risk pays off. From his smooth entrance in a Mirkwood fray to his orc slaughter in Laketown, Legolas moves through this film like a whirlwind.

The spell that Legolas casts over so many fans deserves further scrutiny. As the SF/F community continues to endorse stories with “QUILTBAG” elements, Legolas, with his Barbie doll locks and his impeccable shave, presents a somewhat genderless counterpoint to the traditionally gruff male action hero exemplified by Thorin Oakenshield. During their journey, the dwarves climb through toilets or get fish dumped on them. That sort of filth seems below Legolas, to whom even a tiny nosebleed seems amiss.  
   
Legolas never gets dirty, his speech never falters, and he rarely misses his mark. To watch Legolas fight is comparable to watching a ballet set to technical death metal music. His fighting ranges from displays of agility to the barbarity of shooting arrows into orcs’ faces at point blank range.

Desolation also introduces Tauriel, Legolas’s female counterpart. Though Tauriel’s lineage isn’t as royal as Legolas’s, her battlefield skills are nearly as impressive. With Tauriel comes the beginning of a love triangle between her, Legolas (who isn’t very affectionate), and the dwarf Kili. When Kili is injured, Tauriel must make choices between doing what “Mr. Perfect” requests (i.e., staying out of the fight) or helping Kili.

Economics Carved in Arkenstone
Desolation also perpetuates the age-old arguments about the influence, both good and bad, of wealth. The character affected most deeply is Thorin Oakenshield. The Arkenstone that Thorin seeks represents not only the resurrection of his people, but also the potential to corrupt the would-be king. Remember that an obsession with wealth lead to Thorin’s father’s downfall. So avarice is in the blood.

And how does Thorin appeal to the people of Laketown to support his quest to defeat Smaug and take back his home? Redemption? No. Safety? Wrong again. Glory? Courage? No and no. Rather, the deep-voiced leader uses the almighty dollar! He promises the humans a share in the gold within the mountain. Smart.

Certain scenes could have been cut – the “skin changer” at whose residence the group hides comes to mind – but on the whole, Desolation stands as a highly recommended epic fantasy that equals in excellence the film that precedes it. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Twenty artists by whom I’ve only ever bought one album

Twenty artists by whom I’ve only ever bought one album (for myself, at least), and in brackets what the album was:

  1. Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City)
  2. The Streets (Original Pirate Material)
  3. The Magnetic Fields (69 Love Songs)
  4. S’Express (Original Soundtrack)
  5. The Prodigy (Their Law)
  6. Korn (Follow the Leader)
  7. Mouse on Mars (Rost Pocks)
  8. Los Campesinos! (Hold on Now, Youngster...)
  9. T'Pau (Bridge of Spies)
  10. The Hold Steady (Boys and Girls in America)
  11. Yo La Tengo (Summer Sun)
  12. Bomb the Bass (Enter the Dragon)
  13. Big Fun (Paradise)
  14. Liza Minelli (Results)
  15. The Bloodhound Gang (Hooray for Boobies*)
  16. The Cooper Temple Clause (See This Through and Leave)
  17. Oasis (What’s the Story, Morning Glory)
  18. The Art of Noise (In Visible Silence)
  19. Editors (The Back Room)
  20. Klaxons (Myths of the Near Future)

How about you?

And by the way, Merry Christmas! With any luck this will be the only new article on the internet today and our hits will go through the roof.

Wednesday is list day. This is list #16.

* I’m so, so sorry.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Doctor Who and the Pescatons by Victor Pemberton, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

It has been quite a while since I last dipped into the six-story collection Doctor Who: The BBC Radio Episodes. I began with the Jon Pertwee story The Paradise of Death, reviewed in these pages many years ago, and it wasn’t too bad. A bit later I listened to The Ghosts of N-Space, which was so painfully awful I couldn’t bring myself to review it, especially since that was shortly after the deaths of Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney and it wasn’t the right time to give their work a slating, however richly deserved. If you haven’t heard that story and you’re curious what was so bad about it, as an example let’s just say I never needed to hear the third Doctor explain the meaning of “sodomite” to Sarah Jane Smith.

Recently I’ve found that the new Audible iPad app is a very nice way to listen to audiobooks, and it’s kind enough to let you listen to non-Audible titles too, so I’ve been digitising and loading onto the iPad a lot of older audio adventures that got lost in the rush originally. Where those are ones I bought (for example the first eight in the Big Finish Companion Chronicles series, picked up in a sale), I may or may not review them, depending on whether I have time, but where (like this story) they were originally submitted for review and got stuck in the pile I will try to do the honours, though it’s a couple of years late. I don’t suppose anyone comes to this magazine/blog expecting timely reviews!

So, explanations aside, on to a short review of Doctor Who and the Pescatons (AudioGO, 1xCD, 46 mins; supplied by publisher), which was (the box says) originally broadcast on BBC Radio on 27 August 1993, but first existed as an LP in the seventies. This again features Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, this time paired with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, making this a rare example of a spin-off featuring the current on-screen cast. It’s really more of a story told by the Doctor than a drama. Sarah Jane’s contributions are very limited, and the only other speaking part is Zor (Bill Mitchell), the leader of the baddies who pops up for a couple of scenes. The script is by Victor Pemberton, who had previously written the seaweed serial “Fury from the Deep”.

The plot concerns, you won’t be surprised to learn, the Pescatons, who are a shark-like species of aliens who can walk around on land using their flippers. Though their invasion of Earth is motivated by the need to escape their own doomed planet, there are few shades of grey here: the Doctor says this is a clash between two civilisations, one good (by which I think he means us), one evil (probably the Pescatons). The invasion leads to some terrifying sequences where Pescatons wander round London eating people up. The screams are so full-blooded you worry for the sanity of any children who got their hands on the LP! But I wish I had.

Looked at objectively, this story isn’t terribly good, but it is a great deal of fun and a fascinating product of its time. Given its short length I’m sure this won’t be the last time I listen to it. It’s just a shame that there are no songs! A fan of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds can’t help hearing the points in this story at which a disco beat might reasonably have kicked in, leading us off to new worlds of groovy Whovian fun. Justin Heywood singing for the Doctor, Sarah Brightman for Sarah Jane, David Essex for the Pescaton leader. It would have been glorious! But you can’t have everything. Someone should really get Tom Baker involved in a project like that: his brief contribution to Mansun’s Six shows how magnificent it could be.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Diablo III, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Diablo III (Blizzard Entertainment, Xbox 360; Amazon purchase) is the first of the series I’ve played, and since I don’t play games on the PC, the Xbox 360 version is a new game to me. It’s an isometric dungeon crawler, an action RPG where your heroes run around semi-randomly generated environments bashing hordes of creatures, fulfilling simple fetch-quests. Players can choose from wizard, demon hunter, barbarian, witch doctor and monk, and from male and female versions of each. The setting is pretty much indistinguishable from other fantasy games, with your regulation ghosts, zombies, skeletons etc to fight. Sometimes you get a funny feeling you’re just playing Dragon Age: Origins or Oblivion from a different point of view, though some laser-like magical powers would be more at home in Halo.

It feels slightly odd to be enjoying the game so much (we’ve yet to stop playing it), since there’s little here that wasn’t present in much older console games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. This kind of gameplay more commonly shows up cut-price in the Xbox Live Arcade these days, in games like Torchlight, Realms of Ancient War and Daggerdale. The graphics, though they are pretty enough, don’t feel at first like a ten-year advance on Dark Alliance. But as enemies, powers and enemies’ powers accumulate you realise how well it all works, the game never visibly slowing despite the hundreds of objects flying around. The more you play, the more you appreciate the neat little touches that show how much work went into it.

It has a chemistry and balance that is difficult to define, though having a drop-in-drop-out four-player mode which works so well accounts for some of it. Put your controller down to sip your cup of tea and your character ambles along after your friends on their own – teleporting if need be – avoiding the most frustrating aspect of some previous games in a similar vein.

Similarly, a capacious sixty-slot backpack (at least in easy mode, in which we began playing it) makes for a free and easy approach to loot. As does the knowledge that it’s all fairly random: in other role-playing games, you worry that failing to explore every tunnel in every location might mean missing out on your one chance in a fifty-hour playthrough to get a key piece of equipment. Here you can just run around dungeons aimlessly looking for fights, and then afterwards check the map for unexplored territory. And you can save at any time without losing any treasure, making it perfect for brief gaming sessions.

It’s not very long, but like, say, the Dynasty Warriors games it’s designed to be replayed over and over, your character levelling up, acquiring magical weapons and armour, and training their travelling artisans. What I would think of as the “proper” roleplaying elements are perfunctory, the dialogue skippable, non-branching and quite missable, it being unnecessary (at least so far as I have found to date) to talk to anyone other than the indicated characters to acquire quests. It’s a vehicle stripped down to its chassis: fight monsters, open chest, get treasure, sell treasure. An endless torrent of glittering gold!

When I mention playing it with the children, you might look with concern to its age rating. But though it’s rated 15 by the BBFC, the ratings board judges games via video recordings rather than playthroughs, and, aside from a few particularly gory dungeons which I had to face alone, I’ve found this to be a super game to play with the younglings: they just love throwing jars full of spiders at the bad guys. Mrs Theaker has been playing it regularly too, despite the jars full of spiders, and I’d say it’s been our favourite family game since Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim.

The only flaw with regard to the multiplayer seems to be that all of us share one game save, regardless of who is logged in. It’s a bit annoying to have to wipe out my progress on a level when the children want to log in and play a section that’s a bit less challenging on a lower difficulty level. Maybe that’s because everyone created their characters within my initial game save, but it’s the only Xbox 360 game we’ve ever played that behaves in that way.

As usual, I haven’t played the game online, so I can’t comment on that. But otherwise, highly recommended, especially if you have chums at home to play it with.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rarely does a movie outshine the book that inspired it. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire blazes as an exception.

Catching Fire, the middle installment in Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular Hunger Games trilogy, divides into two stories that could stand alone. The second and far better half details the Hunger Games’ 75th anniversary “Quarter Quell”. District 12 tributes (i.e., competitors) and winners of the last game, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, square off in a fight-to-the-death match against past victors from the nation of Panem’s other eleven districts. Collins writes about this battle royal with skill, and the film follows suit.

The first half of the novel, however, only fizzles in Katniss’s introspection—the first person present narration doesn’t help—about goings on within the districts, about the threats her sister and mother face, and about the two young men (Peeta and Gail) vying for her attention. It just takes too long to get to the good stuff.

This film version presents the two stories, but in the first half, it glides over the novel’s boring elements, dispatches with the introspection, and moves quickly in and out of less emotionally charged scenes. Additionally, the diversity in settings, ranging from the cold and desolate Victors’ Village where past Hunger Games winners reside to the technological pomposity and vivacious fashions at President Snow’s Capitol party, brings to the film a visual interest that the novel cannot achieve.

The first half of the film chronicles Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour, and drops hints, some subtle, others not so, at the rising tension between the wealthy Capitol and the twelve districts it oppresses. Katniss has her work cut out for her: she must keep her family safe from President Snow’s threats by convincing Panem that she loves Peeta (despite her uncertainty); she must placate the districts whose children were slaughtered in the game that she and Peeta won; and she must come to terms with the districts’ growing desire to embrace her as a symbol of revolution. All that, plus President Snow, the most powerful man in Panem, wants her dead.

The film shrewdly portrays the unrest within Panem. It’s in the crowds that Katniss and Peeta address. It’s in the graffiti that they glimpse while on the tour train, and it’s in their reactions to the growing presence of Capitol soldiers.

As it transitions into the second half, the film transfers to the filmgoer the pre-game jitters as effectively as did its predecessor. Then there is the tension and disorientation when Katniss gets conveyed to the arena where the game takes place. Water. Sunlight. Trees. Other tributes. The camera pans. Where’s Peeta? So much to absorb before the whistle blows and the killing begins.

Director Francis Lawrence also adds a few new touches in his approach to showing the game. This time around, the most antagonistic players take a back seat to the dangers that the elaborate setting hurls at Katniss, Peeta, and their alleged allies. With fewer subplot cuts, the film more thoroughly immerses the viewer in the action. And when a character dies, it’s fast. No dying speeches. No prolonged agony.

The film transcends other recent big budget action films by showing secondary characters with eccentricities and psychological, rather than physical, weaknesses. We meet individuals with backstories, and characters propelled by passions ranging from love to rage. Johanna Mason, portrayed as an axe-wielding femme fatale, strips naked in an elevator as her audience looks on with annoyance (Katniss), discomfort (Peeta), and admiration (drunken mentor Haymitch). Catching Fire also introduces District 4 playboy Finnick Odair. Although the flashy name underscores his arrogant fa├žade, Odair is much more than a handsome hotshot.

A who’s who of recent Oscar winners and nominees bolsters the Catching Fire cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers a subdued, but by no means subpar performance as head gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee. Unlike other Capitol minions, Heavensbee wears little makeup and avoids flamboyant clothes. His smirk and his calculated comments suggest that he knows something that other characters don’t.

On the other extreme, actor Stanley Tucci endows Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman with a trademark cackle and a kind of disingenuous fascination with the tributes he interviews. Flickerman’s gleaming teeth and purple hair are as vibrant as his movements and verbal flourishes. He is bullshit embodied.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen is convincing and emotionally engaging. When Katniss and Peeta address a silent District 11 crowd during their victory tour, families mourn beneath giant screens that show recorded footage of their fallen children. While Peeta speaks, Lawrence uses facial expressions to convey a complex mix of emotions.

The role of Katniss Everdeen in the contemporary motion picture canon deserves mention. The typical action film portrays women as one-dimensional, highly sexual objects. Katniss makes a refreshing departure. She doesn't use sexuality to get what she wants, nor does she rely on magic or super powers. She only has her intelligence, her resolve, and her drive to protect those she loves. Perhaps Katniss represents not only a redeemer to the people of Panem, but also a new kind of heroine to the filmgoing public. Things are catching fire indeed. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Ten things which I learned of from Steven Gilligan

Ten things I had no experience and/or knowledge of until I was introduced to them by our much-missed friend Steven Gilligan:
  1. Buffalo Tom
  2. John Constantine, Hellblazer
  3. J-Pop
  4. My Bloody Valentine
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire
  6. Using a small amount of water to wash out the inside of a ketchup bottle
  7. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out
  8. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
  9. Wim Wenders
  10. Funerals
I'm grateful for some more than others. My life has not been improved by the addition of Mini Moni songs to my inner playlist. Not one bit. On the other hand, the first time Steven showed me an episode of Vic Reeves, I laughed so hard and so suddenly that tea shot out of my nose.

Wednesday is list day. This is list #14.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 2 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Nexus Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse, ebook, 423pp; Dark Horse app purchase), written by Mike Baron with most artwork by Steve Rude, collects issues 12 to 25 of the original series from First Comics. They continue the comic’s odd mix of high seriousness and low humour. The former: the punishment of genocidal maniacs, as super-powered Nexus puts to death the mass murderers of whom he mysteriously dreams. An example of the latter: the ongoing adventures of Clonezone the Hilariator, a terrible Catskills-style comedian who travels the galaxy from one crummy gig to another, always in hope of making it big.

In this volume the main storyline goes in a number of interesting directions. The dreams get too much for Nexus and he has surgery to blank them out, leading to him live like the guys from Men Behaving Badly, only with more smashing of televisions and accidental deaths. Nexus’s girlfriend gets fed up with him and leaves their home planet Ylum to establish a spaceship factory on Mars. When Nexus’s powers are finally restored, his nightmares will bring him to our own solar system.

I wish I could have read this book in Comixology’s app. Dark Horse do deserve respect for not joining the rush to hand the entire comics industry over to one distributor, but using their apps is a struggle. The iPad app crashes if the device isn’t connected to the internet, it took months for this purchase to show up on there, and even then the app couldn’t complete the download without crashing. The Android app downloaded the book, but the guided panel view is unhelpful, an unnecessarily huge swipe is required to turn the page, there are no options for blanking out the panels not currently focused on, and it hangs for a second before flipping.

Despite those off-putting problems, I enjoyed the book. Mike Baron’s writing here has a sour flavour, seeming to find its source in anger and frustration rather than joy or pleasure, but that gives it a unique feel. It’s a book about consequences, whether it’s Nexus giving retribution for almost-forgotten sins, or the surviving children of his victims vowing to seek out and punish him in their turn, and as consequences accumulate it becomes very grim. The bursts of zany humour didn’t click with me at all, especially when mixed with stories featuring murder and abuse. The book’s biggest flaw is the interpolation of the painfully unfunny Tales from the Clonezone backup strips, which break the more consistent mood of the Nexus adventures. Getting through its eight pages was never anything less than a trial, nobly endured to reach the next episode of Nexus.

The artwork is where the book shines. The stylish pencils on the main strip are by Steve Rude, with inks by Eric Shanower and John Nyberg, while Shanower, Mark A. Nelson, Hilary Barta and Keith Giffen pencil backups and fill-ins. Despite the many hands at work, the style is consistent, striking page and panel design always a major feature. Perspectives constantly change and aliens look truly bizarre. Artistry is evident on every page, not least in Les Dorscheid’s subtly shaded colours; the Marvel and DC colouring of the period looks rudimentary in comparison.

Overall, recommended, but buy it in print – not often you’ll hear me say that! – and skip the Clonezone stories till you’ve read the rest. They rarely feed back into the Nexus stories, and you’ll resent them much less as an extra.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

British Fantasy Awards 2014: add your favourites to the eligibility list!

I'm running the British Fantasy Awards again next year. I plan for voting to begin on 1 January 2014, so now is the time to add your favourite works of 2013 to the BFS's eligibility list:

Submit your items here: http://tinyurl.com/suggestions2014

They will appear on the list here: http://tinyurl.com/list2014

You do not have to be a member to contribute to the list.

The list is especially short on newcomers, magazines, films/tv, comics and artists, so get racking your brains. Last year I could tell that a lot of voters were using the list – the text of many votes had been copied and pasted from it.

And check the list for your own work. Let me know about any mistakes, typos, misattributions, etc you spot so that I can correct them. Last year a mention of "Subterannean Press" made it all the way to an actual awards envelope before I finally noticed it. Some proofreader I am!

Unfortunately this great magazine of ours, all the marvellous stories and non-fiction and artwork we publish, and any books we put out are all ineligible, because of my involvement. I know, it sucks, we'd be sure to win otherwise. But anything fantastical you've published elsewhere during 2013 is eligible.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ten signs you have an unhealthy relationship with the internet

Ten signs you (okay, I) have an unhealthy relationship with the internet:

  1. You don’t get any work done at all when the internet is on.
  2. Your children have had to password protect their Kindles to stop you using them to go online.
  3. You would rather spend all day refreshing Digital Spy for new items than doing anything else.
  4. You really miss reading Ceefax from 100 to 999.
  5. You can’t put your cursor in Chrome’s box without autotyping the first two letters of your favourite url.
  6. You actually use the internet browser on your Xbox 360 or PS3.
  7. You spend more time reading Guardian comment threads than reading to your children.
  8. You’re happy when people start arguing on Twitter.
  9. You spend more time looking at the websites of wallies than the websites of people you respect.
  10. You read listicles right to the end.

What are your worst (PG-rated) internet habits?

Wednesday is list day. This is list #13.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Thirteen things I learned (or was reminded of) during Nanowrimo this year

1. I have my best writing sessions with the PC off. In previous years it was writing on the Alphasmart that saved my bacon. This year it was Daedalus Touch on the iPad, and then Pages. Small screens for the win.

2. Backing up daily is essential, because things always go wrong.

3. Updating writing apps during November is a bad idea. I updated Daedalus Touch five or six days from the end, and it completely stopped working. Luckily I’d been emailing the chapters to my PC to go into Scrivener every day. I had to switch over to Pages, which crashed a fair few times itself.

4. Sixteen picture playing cards laid out face down in a four by four grid make a nice series of treats for finishing each hundred words, and provide a useful visual representation of your progress. (I’ve got Judge Dredd, Doctor Who, James Bond and NME packs of cards, which all took a turn this month.) Micro-encouragements like that work well for me.

5. Being behind from the beginning (thanks to an early morning trip to Brighton on the first weekend) can be rather helpful, much as I hated it. At no point was I thinking, 49,500 words to go. I was chasing a target that was always just a few thousand words ahead.

6. I think best with my fingers. Thinking about my writing too much doesn’t sem to suit me very well, because it leads me to prevaricate. I can never get all the thinking done. What worked well this year was setting my timer going and starting to write my way in. Sometimes that meant circling back to the first paragraph to add extra details, but that just added to the word count.

7. It’s not a good idea to start your Nanowrimo novel with all your characters flying through a featureless landscape with no way to talk to each other. Makes it so much harder than it has to be!

8. Nanowrimo novels get much easier towards the end. You know who your characters are, and they have a lot more to talk about.

9. A frequent change of setting makes Nanowrimo easier. There’s only so many ways to describe the same rooms, and that’s not your friend if you’re writing at speed. If your characters are in a different location every chapter, it’s easier to find a little something to say about each one.

10. I find myself really funny. I’ve been in stitches reading some of the stuff I wrote this month.

11. How clever other writers are. Writing my silly, pulp, nonsensical and very short novel was a great deal of fun, but it was still hard work. I’m in awe of the novelists who write books that are actually good.

12. There’s no excuse for how long I’ve taken to finish off some old writing projects. I just need to set my timer going and get on with writing them.

13. Nanowrimo is quite a forgiving challenge. 1667 words isn’t that much – a couple of hours’ work. So even if you miss three days, there’s a chance of catching up if you put all of the fourth day into it. I only wrote on 23 of the 30 days last month, and only reached the regulation daily 1667 words on 14 of those days.

Twelve things I didn’t like about doing Nanowrimo this year

1. I couldn’t make it to any of our local events, which was a shame because I used to regularly produce four or five thousand words at write-ins. I had to keep an eye on the children while they watched Netflix marathons of Winx Club and Jesse.

2. The word “but”. I incessantly seem to think in a way that argues against myself. In reviews I try to keep myself down to one “but” construction, but often fail. (There it is again!) When my six-year-old daughter looked at a passage I was writing she said, “You use ‘but’ too much. You should use other words like ‘however’.” My speed went down by about 25% after that.

3. Having to keep quiet on Twitter. I know Nanowrimo tweets can drive people mad – normal word count tweets are annoying enough, but during November there are thousands more of them! – so I didn’t want to tweet about it. Since it was all I thought about during November (at least in my leisure time) that left little else to tweet about.

4. Being behind. Doing the final set-up bits for the British Fantasy Awards and travelling down to Brighton for the British Fantasy Society AGM got me off to a pretty bad start, and I didn’t catch up until the very last day.

5. The “rebels”, or “hangers-on”. There have always been a bunch of people who sign up for Nanowrimo who don’t want to write a novel from start to finish, think doing so would be a waste of effort, and often don’t like novels at all – or even know what they are! It’s got much worse in recent years because the organisers introduced the idea of “rebellion”. So people who aren’t taking part in the challenge but want to sip from the same cup can designate themselves rebels, converse in their own forum, buy their own special hoody, and hang around without taking part, all the while discouraging other people from the job (and joy) of writing a novel. Whenever a question is asked about the rules of the challenge, someone always pipes up to say, “But you don’t have to! You can be a rebel, like me!” It’s baffling that the organisers positively encourage people to not take part in their own event, until you realise that “rebels” are encouraged to donate money. The rebels’ presence gives the impression that raising money is more important than keeping the event focused.

6. Which leads on to: the fundraising. When I stopped being an ML for Birmingham there were a few reasons – one was that our venue for write-ins had given us the boot! But another was that the MLs were being asked to actively fundraise for the event – an event for which we were already doing a great deal of volunteer work. I’ve always been happy to buy a t-shirt or two, and donating $10 to cover the costs of running the forums seems reasonable. But this year the fundraising got out of hand, with a day being set aside for marathon sessions, promoted with guff like “Write for two hours? You should donate $100!” – as if our hard work on our own novels would mean we owed the organisation money. In the end, you don’t need that organisation to write a 50,000 novel in November. They had a good idea, and run good, very useful forums full of excellent advice and support, but if their company were to collapse the event would go on.

7. Being miserable most of the day until I got my 1667 words done.

8. Having to be extra grumpy with my kids to get them out of my study.

9. The embarrassment of seeing the appalling novels other wrimos are writing. It’s depressing to read a novel synopsis composed entirely of broken sentences – beside a word count of 150,000!

10. The disappointment at seeing the brilliant novels other wrimos are writing – that they never publish!

11. The number of people advising participants to stop trying. “You can write any time, not just in November!” “Real writers write all year round!” “It’s just a silly pointless competition!” But writing as part of Nanowrimo is special. It gives you permission to neglect everything else for a month, to burn the candle at both ends for a while, to push yourself harder than there’s ever normally a reason to. Without the deadline to aim for, I’d never have spent last Saturday writing eight thousand words. I’d have been expected to help the children with their homework in the morning, make a decent lunch for them, do the dishes, order the pizza, watch a film in the evening, and so on. I have a new novel in my hands, and if I’d listened to the numbskulls saying not to bother, that novel wouldn't exist.

12. That it’s over for another year.

Twelve things I liked about doing Nanowrimo this year


1. The incredible feeling you get when you’ve done your 1666 words for the day and you keep writing. Whether you’re catching up or ploughing ahead, it feels brilliant.

2. Slowing down the passage of time. Each time I’ve written a novel is a huge landmark in my life. The children we had five minutes ago are growing far too quickly, but by this time next year it will feel like I wrote this novel a million years ago.

3. It made me take a break from the Xbox 360. Always a good thing. Mrs Theaker pin-protected my Xbox Live account, which helped.

4. Ending up with a new Stephen Theaker novel to read. I appreciate that others may be less enthused by this than me! I’m not a very good novelist, but there are few writers whose novels I like better than my own. I leave out all the stuff I find boring in books, and include all the things I love. Why else would you write a novel, if not to create the kind of book you want to read?

5. It got me listening to Radio 3. Never really done that before, and it turns out I quite like it. Not that I’ve become a fan of classical music, exactly. It’s more that it can so easily be ignored when writing or working, while still providing a buffer against the distracting sounds of everyday life.

6. It reinforced my sense of how brilliant my other half is. If I stayed up late writing, she dealt with the children in the morning and let me sleep in. She took an extra turn at the dishes. She put up with my grumpiness. (As did the children, who were exceptionally understanding and encouraging.) She was brilliant.

7. Getting ideas from the children. Whenever I talked to them about my novel, they were full of excellent suggestions, nearly all of which I incorporated. Of course, I take all blame for the inferior quality of the final product. You can’t spin lead into gold, but the reverse is quite possible.

8. There’s a cruel, malicious pleasure in knowing that however bad my novel ends up being, there are people writing seriously, taking years and sweating blood over their work, who won’t ever write anything half as entertaining as the book I just wrote in a month. I know, that pleasure makes me a bad person, but to get a novel written in a month requires the strength of all aspects of your character, not just the nice, fluffy bits.

9. This was the first novel I’ve written (it’s the seventh I’ve finished, after Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear Man, His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, and The Day the Moon Wept Blood) that I would be happy for my daughters to read. The others have all been from the point of view of men, most of them rather sexist, lecherous men. I think this is the first of those seven novels that would pass the Bechdel Test.

10. Attempts to justify not writing led me to reorganise my home office, and get rid of all the junk that had been clogging it up. There’s twice the floor space in here now, and half as many televisions.

11. Commercial writers suddenly becoming terribly precious about their writing. “Sixteen hundred words a day? The thought is simply dreadful! If I wrote more than two hundred words of Thoognoth the Unthoughtable: Assistant Lord Chancellor of the Middle Under-Realms XIII: The Jewels of Yesterday’s Tomorrow, Part II in a day my muse would desert me! Each word must be dragged screaming from my soul by hours of meditation and intense personal reflection! Oh, what’s that, you want me to write an email of encouragement to Nanowrimo participants? And there are how many of them? You don’t say! And I’ll be able to mention that Thoognath XII is now out in paperback? Well, I would be delighted! As I have always said, what a marvellous event this is!”

12. That it’s over for another year.

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Unsettled Dust and Other Stories by Robert Aickman, read by Reece Shearsmith, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

As far as I know, The Unsettled Dust and Other Stories by Robert Aickman (Audible, digital audiobook, 8 hrs 37 mins; supplied by publisher) has been my first taste of this writer’s work. He is of course very well regarded in horror circles, and has long been on my to-read-at-some-point list. I wasn’t disappointed.

The narrator of this edition, published by Audible themselves, is Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen. The recording is very clear. There are no sound effects or music, but their absence feels appropriate. His reading is splendid, aside from a couple of tiny fluffs.

In “The Unsettled Dust” (90 mins) he manages to find exactly the right tone to convey the stuffiness and dullness of its protagonist, Mr Oxenhope, without boring the listener; a clever trick. In that story Oxenhope tells us of his peculiar experiences while acting as the agent of a fund rather like the National Heritage. He is sent to a dusty old manor house in which two sisters live, and he becomes enamoured of one of them.

“The Houses of the Russians” is a creepy story about a property man looking for a good investment to bring a big fish; his evening walk takes him to an area where there are strange parties going on in every house. “No Stronger Than a Flower” is a warning to spouses tempted to badger their partners into changing, and in “The Cicerones” a solitary artist has a peculiar experience in a Belgian church. “The Next Glade”, one of five stories longer than an hour, introduces us to a bored housewife whose interest in extramarital diversions leads to trouble for her and her husband.

“Ravissante”, after a lengthy preamble discussing an awkward friendship, moves on to an artist’s account of his visit to the house of a elderly lady who gives him the willies, yet seems to be able to control him. “Bind Your Hair” concerns a woman struggling to resign herself to a very sensible marriage, who against all expectation goes out for a long walk on her own and meets a pair of odd children, their pigs and a very odd lady. The last story is the longest, “The Stains”, another steadily horrible story of a man who tries to settle with an unsuitable woman.

The stories all take their time, and never try too hard, having a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that is very dignified. They don’t try to knock you off your perch with cheap scares, but instead leave you wondering whether your apparently solid perch might actually be quite rotten. That subtlety and patience was admirable, even if my preference is more for writers who push the weirdness a little further, and don’t allow the dullness of the protagonists to set the pace of the stories to quite such an extent.

I found the audiobook best suited to headphones, its quiet, undemonstrative narration too easy to tune out with passive, ambient listening, and I’m sure that in the course of the book’s eight hours I missed several important details. It is worth allowing a period between each story, lest the protagonists run into one.

They tend to be drawn from the same well: men who would be better off avoiding marital entanglements, and less frequently the women who have become entangled with them. The theme, that women really are quite a bother, dates the book somewhat, since men who find women and their ways such a terrible nuisance are no longer required to marry them, but I still found myself gripped by the stories whenever they had my undivided attention.