Friday, 29 July 2016

Patchwerk, by David Tallerman (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

Scientist Dran Florrian has sneaked on to the TransContinental, in the cargo hold of which is his great invention, Palimpsest. The result of five years of work and a lifetime of thought, it is too powerful to be in the hands of a ruthless weapons man like Harlan Dorric, who is waiting for him in the hold. Also there, two hired guns, a technician who blocks Florrian’s neural connection to his clever machine, and Karen, the wife he lost while buried in work. Hang on, no, that’s not right. He’s D’ren Florein, on a queenship, an intelligent insect trying to counter the Nachtswarm, entomological engineering gone mad, and Halann D’rik is the one trying to take control of Palimpsest. No, wait, that’s not right either… This is a good novella that could easily have sprung from one of the Baen collections of classic science fiction by Poul Anderson or Murray Leinster, but instead it’s from David Tallerman, one of our own past contributors. He thinks up lots of neat tricks for the protagonist, whatever his name at any given time, to play with the Palimpsest, weaving a sharp little thriller through the middle of it. So far, the Tor.com line of ebook novellas is living up to expectations, and my expectations were high. ***

Monday, 25 July 2016

Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, by Volition Software (Deep Silver) | review

An Xbox One re-release of the lovably reprehensible Xbox 360 game, including two expansions, Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Saved Christmas, this picks up in gameplay terms from where the Saints Row: The Third expansions went: superpowers. Jumping over (small) buildings in a single bound, almost as fast as a speeding bullet, and throwing blasts of ice and fire like Spider-Man’s amazing friends. When the game begins you are president of the United States of America, and Keith David is vice-president. Luckily the tedium of governing the nation is broken by an alien invasion, who abduct you and your staff and at least some of the human race before blowing up the planet and sticking you all in a computer simulation of your home town. Yes, this series may have begun as a cheap knock-off of Grand Theft Auto but it’s carved out territory of its very own in the places other grown-up games don’t go: the ludicrous, the unrealistic, the absurd, the capricious. It’s post-modern, metatextual, and constantly self-referential. The Enter the Dominatrix expansion, for example, is presented as a series of deleted scenes from the main game, with the characters from the game commenting on their portrayal in the scenes and their performances, and climactic sequences shown as pre-vis rather than expensive cut-scenes. There are aspects I don’t much like: search for the game on Google Images and you’re likely to see unflattering snapshots of strippers, bondage gear and giant dildo bats. However, the option to customise your main character means that this can be (and was for me) a game about the amazing brown-skinned female president who saved humanity. While wearing nifty costumes, like a pirate suit or a superhero costume or pretty much anything else you can think of, up to and including a giant Barack Obama head. And then she makes friends with a race of dinosaurs! This may not ever be a series of games that I’ll buy on release day, but when the DLC is bundled in and you can get it for a good price it becomes an essential purchase. There is a deep well of nonsensical fun and intelligent idiocy here that other games would do well to draw on. The item I’d like to take from this game into others: the Christmas dubstep gun, that makes everyone bounce around to a Yuletide jingle. Stephen Theaker ****


Friday, 22 July 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, by David Tallerman (Digital Horror Fiction) | review by Rafe McGregor

David Tallerman has achieved not only remarkable but rare success with his short fiction. In the space of nine years, he has had more than seventy-five stories published in venues such as Clarkesworld, Interzone, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare, AE, Chiaroscuro… and of course Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. This is his first short story collection – the appearance of which is itself an achievement given the reluctance of publishers to take on such projects. The short story came into its own with the rise of literacy in Europe and North America during the nineteenth century, but declined dramatically with the rise of domestic television ownership during the twentieth century. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is easy to forget that many of the most famous speculative fiction writers – Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and even Stephen King – began their careers as writers of short fiction. The notion of supporting oneself financially by short fiction alone is already archaic and authors like David (and publications like Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction) breathe life into what might otherwise be a dying art form. I must interject a disclosure (or perhaps disclaimer) before I proceed: I met David while he was living in York and was surprised to discover that he had been kind enough to dedicate The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories to me in memory of the small assistance I was able to give him with the initial drafts of some of the stories. Our acquaintance has not prevented me from writing this review, however, because my primary concern is not the quality of the stories. That has already been judged by others: thirteen of the fourteen have been previously published – in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Nightmare, Flash Fiction Online, Necrotic Tissue, Bull Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Angry Robot’s blog, and three anthologies – with “War of the Rats” appearing for the first time.

The collection makes several hard to acquire or out of print publications available again, most notably “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” from The Willows and Spectral Press’s “The Way of the Leaves”. For this, Digital Horror Fiction (which is an imprint of the Digital Fiction Publishing Corp) should be praised, as well as for selling both the digital and paperback editions at reasonable prices. The publisher is nonetheless the target of my main criticism, which is that the paperback appears to have been deliberately extended across as many pages as possible. The font is on the large side of medium and the lines are double-spaced, so that even a work of flash fiction (the excellent “The Desert Cold”) is stretched over four pages (six if one counts the illustration). Each story has its own black and white illustration, by the talented Duncan Kay, on a verso page but the respective recto pages have been left blank and there is altogether too much white space between front and back cover. What puzzles me is that if there was a need to increase the page count – and I understand that there often is for a variety of reasons – the publisher didn’t include more of David’s stories. There are plenty to choose from – “Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn”, published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #37 (2011), to take just one example. Kay’s illustrations provide an impeccable complement to the stories, from first (“The Burning Room”) to last (“The Way of the Leaves”) with no exceptions. Where they are particularly successful is in the pictorial representation of the way in which David mixes the literary with the pulp uses of language. Kay offers David’s readers a mirror in which the pitch of each story is perfectly reflected, from the humour and self-conscious playfulness of “My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Aged 7” to the sophistication and seriousness of “Prisoner of Peace”. Kay has also pulled off another balancing act, revealing enough of each tale to tease his audience while expertly avoiding spoilers in a completely harmonious match between illustrator and author.

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories is introduced by Adrian Tchaikovsky of Shadows of the Apt and insect-kinden fame. Commenting on the theme of the volume, he writes: “Every story here opens a door onto some human trauma: loss, grief, death, murder and madness, encounters with the horrors of the supernatural and perhaps the worse horrors that simple mundane world can inflict” (p. 2). I’m not sure whether his description is accurate. If it is meant to indicate a distinctive world-view, in the sense that S.T. Joshi takes as definitive of the weird tale as opposed to other categories of speculative fiction, then not because there is no consistent gestalt that underpins these stories. If it is meant to indicate that all of the collected stories belong to the horror rather than fantasy or science fiction genres, then Tchaikovsky is correct and whatever else they achieve, they inspire the right combination of the fear and disgust that one demands from the tale of terror traditional or contemporary. The absence of underlying world-view does not detract from the unity of the volume; one of its strengths is the way the stories criss-cross the style and substance of subdivisions within the genre – gothic romanticism, the English ghost story, and the cosmic weird to name but three. The collection is to my mind well-named: “The Sign in the Moonlight” is my favourite story, where fact and fiction combine to produce a tensely entertaining tale inspired by – rather than a slavish pastiche of – the themes explored by H.P. Lovecraft. My only disappointment is “A Twist Too Far”. The narrative is accomplished enough on its own, and was no doubt an asset to the issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in which it appeared, but is eclipsed by “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” here. The stories are quite similar and the latter is superior in both intrigue and ingenuity. A minor complaint in a collection that is a major success.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Invincible, Vol. 18: The Death of Everyone, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cliff Rathburn (Image Comics/Skybound) | review

Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, is an extremely strong and durable (albeit not indestructible) superhero who inherited his powers from his father, an alien who was originally hanging around on Earth with a view to making it a part of his people’s empire. As this volume begins, Invincible’s powers are on the blink, and Zandale, the hero formerly known as Bulletproof, has been keeping his costume warm. But Zandale is about to make the mistake of telling his parents his astonishing origin story, and Mark will discover that sometime ally, more often enemy Dinosaurus has been making big plans. It’s a shocking book from start to finish, as you might expect from the collection that spans this comic’s hundredth issue. That’s one of the things I love about this comic, its scope for telling those huge stories: it’s as if Crisis on Infinite Earths, Civil War, Infinite Crisis, The Death of Superman and Zero Hour all happened in the same ongoing series. The status quo can be completely upended in Invincible – and in this volume it does, a good half dozen times – without concern for the effect upon twenty other books that feature the same character. This isn’t the remixed version of a story I’ve read three times already, and when Mark’s friends are in danger there’s every chance that they could really die. That’s why I’m up to volume eighteen of this when I haven’t even reached issue eighteen of a new DC or Marvel universe book in years. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 July 2016

Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone Collector’s Edition, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag) | review by Rafe McGregor

I wonder if (m)any readers remember the thrill of picking up The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the first time? Of realising that they hadn’t lost their thread in the real world, but were lost in the maze under the mountain? Or of not realising they were in the maze until the appearance of the deadly Minotaur? Firetop Mountain, the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, published by Puffin in August 1982. The series was a great success, with fifty-nine books available by 1995. The first instalment nonetheless remained the most popular, spawning two sequels – Return to Firetop Mountain (#50, 1992) and Legend of Zagor (#54, 1993) – various spin-off products, and reprinting as late as 2010. I find it difficult to convey the excitement of Fighting Fantasy to twenty-first century readers, but one must remember that they appeared in a decade without the internet or household computers, where “TV games” (for those who could afford them) were restricted to Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which was well underway when Firetop Mountain appeared, Fighting Fantasy was aimed at young adults rather than children, with the best adventures combining compelling storytelling with pleasing terror at what awaited in the next numbered section. I must have played Firetop Mountain for the first time in 1985 or 1986, but quickly left Fighting Fantasy for a newer series. Lone Wolf was written by Joe Dever and launched with Flight from the Dark, first published by Sparrow in 1984. Where Fighting Fantasy were all standalone adventures, some of which took place in different universes, Lone Wolf adventures were self-contained but constituted an extended quest by a single character who progressed to new levels of expertise in a vividly-drawn and complex world called Magnamund. The epic began with the extermination of the Kai – an order of warriors dedicated to protecting the nation of Sommerlund as well as the rest of the free (medievally-speaking) world – at the hands of the demonic Darklords of Helgedad. Readers adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf), the sole survivor of the Darklord attack, and his first mission was to convey the bad news to the king. The missions became gradually more challenging as Lone Wolf advanced in power and ended up with the destruction of the Darklords in The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988). The road to Helgedad and beyond was a rocky one, however, no more so than for Dever himself.

The first sign of the troubles ahead began between books 7 and 8, Castle Death (1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (1987), when Dever had an acrimonious split with his illustrator. Once the Darklords were destroyed and the (New Order of the) Kai re-established, there seemed little work left for Kor-Skarn, but Dever launched the Grand Master series with The Plague Lords of Ruel in 1990. Although readers continue with the same character, who had by now reached unprecedented levels of power, there was no overarching epic quest and each new adventure saw Lone Wolf troubleshooting evil in a previously unexplored region of Magnamund. I must admit my interest flagged a little at this stage – partly due to my age, no doubt, but also because I found the individual missions something of an anti-climax after the extended campaign of the first dozen. If some, like me, left the fold temporarily, replacements must have been pouring in as the Grand Master series raced to its conclusion in The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). Kor-Skarn’s powers were now demigod-like and Dever did something risky but astute, introducing a new persona for readers. Twelve books were planned for the New Order series, beginning with Voyage of the Moonstone in 1994. The second New Order adventure, The Buccaneers of Shadakai, was published in the same year, but Red Fox had concerns about the internet-technology-inspired loss of interest in gamebooks and dropped Dever after The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998).

Dever then made another wise decision, authorising a group of enthusiasts calling themselves “Project Aon” to upload all of the gamebooks as free ebooks in various platforms, i.e. used precisely the technology that had killed the series to maintain interest. Such was the fan base that all twenty-eight books were made available over the next fifteen years (Project Aon completed in 2014 and can be found at www.projectaon.org). In the interim, the secondhand market for Lone Wolf paperbacks went berserk. There had been some problem with the publication of The Buccaneers of Shadakai, the result of which was that it sold out almost immediately in 1994. Five years later, copies were selling for hundreds of pounds. I confess to spending the most I have ever spent on a book (£200) at a time when I really couldn’t afford it (1999) to acquire a copy (left on my town centre doorstep by the postman). A new copy of the same paperback is now going for £999 on Amazon. The final instalment is currently the most sought after: The Hunger of Sejanoz varies between £699 and £999 for used copies.

The gamble with Project Aon seemed to pay off in 2004 when Mongoose Publishing launched a Lone Wolf Role Playing Game. The following year, however, Dever underwent surgery for cancer and was out of the public eye for some time. In 2010, with Dever fully-recovered, Mongoose announced that they would republish all the Lone Wolf books in a hardback Collector’s Edition, with new illustrations and fresh revisions by Dever. The books were priced at about £15, very reasonable given the quality of the covers, paper, and binding, and Mongoose furthermore offered a Megadeal: all twenty-eight plus the previously unpublished books 29 to 32 for something like £300 (a substantial saving). Despite my previous profligacy I was wary, having been burned by small presses before (and since). I was initially proved wrong, with seventeen books released in three years, but there was a lull of a few months in 2012 and the following February Dever announced (via Project Aon) that he and Mongoose had split by mutual consent. Two further announcements followed in quick succession: the German Mantikore Verlag would be publishing books 18 to 28 (in English) in the same Collector’s Edition format (March) as well as the final four volumes (April).

Mantikore published book 18, Dawn of the Dragons, in May 2013 and began the New Order series with the Collector’s Edition of Voyage of the Moonstone – which this review is supposed to be about – last year. The Buccaneers of Shadakai was also published in 2015 and I have found them easiest to acquire via Amazon (rather than the publisher). The books appear to automatically revert to “unavailable” on the publication date, but can be bought at the same price (still £15-odd) via secondhand sellers (at least one of which is based in Germany). Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, all my Mantikore edition purchases have been entirely satisfactory – purchased more for support than anything else as the first gap in my collection is book 25. I’m not completely convinced I’ll ever hold a copy of Trail of the Wolf as publication appears to have slowed down again, although cover artwork is available for Mydnight’s Hero (#23) and The Storms of Chai (#29). According to Wikipedia, the series (published in numerous languages – there are three on Project Aon alone – and including numerous spin-offs) has sold eleven and a half million copies worldwide, but the real figure must be considerably higher given all the craziness on the secondhand market.

Voyage of the Moonstone begins thirty-three years after Flight from the Dark and readers must create a new character by use of the series’ standard method, a random number table. I’m afraid my New Order warrior has the rather delicate name of True Friend, but he is a Kai Grand Master, can kill you with his bare hands, live off the land indefinitely, and move small objects by looking at them, so you’d better not tease him about it. True Friend’s first mission is to return the magical artifact called the Moonstone (with which readers of the series will be familiar) to its rightful owners on the Isle of Lorne. One of the reasons Dever’s decision to reboot with True Friend was shrewd is because it does away with the only consistent criticism of books 3 to 20: that they are either too easy or too hard, depending upon the combination of whether one acquired the Sommerswerd (the broadsword to end all broadswords) at the end of Fire on the Water (#2, 1984) and one’s Kai level (determined by the number of books one has previously completed). I think the critique is overly harsh because I picked up the Sommerswerd on cue, but remained far from invulnerable – aside from which there are various other magic weapons to be found in unlikely places. Notwithstanding, True Friend has no such problems, carrying no Sommerswerd and with no previous adventures counting towards his skills.

Given my emotional and financial investment in Lone Wolf, I can hardly do anything other than recommend Voyage of the Moonstone. I shall, however, say that although the first New Order adventure is as good as many of the originals (and perhaps better than several of the Grand Master series), the finale – always a single combat with a particularly nasty denizen of Magnamund (or the Daziarn Plane) – is a little disappointing. The Otokh is a giant lightning-spinning sea-spider (depicted on the cover), which sounds sinister as I type, but wasn’t quite as menacing as some of the antagonists I’ve dispatched with the Sommerswerd. A regular feature of the Mantikore editions has been the inclusion of a bonus mini-adventure and the first New Order Collector’s Edition continues this practice with a return to Kor-Skarn entitled “Echoes of the Moonstone” (written by Eberhard Eschwe and Swen Harder). This is an unusual choice, subject to the problems noted above despite having a strategy for dealing with them, but is close to the main adventure in length so the reader at least gets two for one. Voyage of the Moonstone ends midway through the mission such that it is not clear whether True Friend will end up on an epic quest of the likes of his master’s early years or take over as Magnamund’s chief troubleshooter. The mission continues in The Buccaneers of Shadaki – going for a song at £13.71.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Legend of Tarzan | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

New take on classic story swings engagingly between action, setting, and character.

Whether you’ve confronted Tarzan in a comic book, a Disney cartoon, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, chances are you don’t envision the iconic jungle-dwelling adventurer as a tea drinker.

However, sipping tea among British diplomats is exactly what the now civilized hero (Alexander Skarsgård) is doing when we meet him in The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. The man raised by apes wants his colleagues to address him not as Tarzan, but rather as John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke. But that’s not what we viewers want!

So comes the call to adventure. Tarzan sets out to his motherland, the African Congo, with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and gun slinger George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to save his countrymen from slavery at the hand of Belgium’s King Leopold, who’s exploiting the land for his own gain.

Unbeknownst to Tarzan, Leopold’s chief envoy Leon Rom, masterfully played by Christoph Waltz, has promised Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that he will deliver Tarzan in exchange for the coveted diamonds of Opar. To up his odds, Rom captures Jane to lure Tarzan. Thus begins our ultra-ripped hero’s swinging, hollering, brawling quest punctuated by flashbacks to his jungle upbringing.

If you’re a huge fan of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) type nonstop zany action, then The Legend of Tarzan probably isn’t for you. However, if you approach this film with the same patience and reverence with which Tarzan approaches a cup of tea (or a lion), then you can walk away more than satisfied. Tarzan is, at its core, a damsel in distress story that shows the lengths to which an alpha male will go to save his mate (and his friends). It offers a sufficient dose of action including jungle acrobatics, battling troops and tribes, and attempting to escape the jungle’s deadliest creatures. Tarzan even takes on his gorilla brother in an attempt to regain his standing within the band. Sure, the film is rife with Hollywoodisms – watch for a gorilla waving on a herd of stampeding wildebeests – but isn’t that part of the Tarzan charm?

The film’s true strength lies more in its devotion to setting. The Legend of Tarzan is, above all, a milieu story about exploring a world much different than ours. This Tarzan isn’t an eccentric or complicated guy, but then again, he never was. Tarzan and the jungle are indelibly linked, and this film shows that relationship in his interactions with the natives and with the majestic creatures that today hover on the brink of extinction.

Another strength is the always entertaining Christoph Waltz, who tones down his typical verbosity with a more reserved Leon Rom. Though his panama suit and hat and the rosary he constantly clutches suggest a pious individual, Rom is anything but. He uses that rosary, made of super strong material, to strangle those who stand in his way.

Despite the outdoors focus, the film’s most entertaining scene occurs in the dining quarters of Rom’s boat, where we get to see Waltz in his element… table talk, that is (see Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) for shining examples). Here Rom attempts to host a cordial meal with his captive Jane. While his outward civility masks his true intent of testing Jane, Rom’s facial expressions, smiles, diction, and attentiveness to his guest serve up a delicacy at this cinematic feast. He even reaches over the table to reposition one of Jane’s utensils on her plate after she leaves.

Comedy relief sidekicks have the potential to be annoying, but Samuel L. Jackson makes it work as George Washington Williams. Williams spends most of this film trying to keep up with the hero, expressing shock, and commenting on Tarzan’s abilities. It’s as if he’s nudging the viewer and saying, “Can you believe this guy?”

Tarzan swings through the jungle. He cuddles with lions. He takes on gorillas and small armies. That is hard to believe. It’s also the stuff of legends. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Like the first one… just much worse.

Although President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) rousing speech in Independence Day (1996) is clichéd and overly dramatic, people can’t help but love it. It makes them feel something.

The makers of Independence Day: Resurgence had to make sure that Whitmore gave another speech. This time, the motley, over-medicated has-been attempts to do so in an airport hangar. Music plays. People gather. At the end, David Levinson’s (Jeff Goldblum) smirk seems to say, “Yeah, nowhere near as good as your first one.” Such is the sentiment that summarizes this film.

Independence Day, though far from a masterpiece, gained many fans. It showed nations uniting for a common cause. It revealed Will Smith’s emerging talent. It gave us the zaniness of Dr Brackish Okun, as well as Whitmore’s “Nuke ‘em. Let’s nuke the bastards.” It even started this whole monument destruction thing.

Roland Emmerich returns to direct a Smith-less (and witless) sequel that tries too hard to be like its predecessor. Major characters make sacrifices that fizzle, excessive pilot whooping gets annoying, skies filled with aircraft and lasers grow tedious, and attempts to stir emotion fall flat. In fact, the big idea of this film (i.e. aliens attack Earth, humans fight back) duplicates that of the first. Why even make this sequel?

The film takes place in a rainbows and butterflies (e.g. no terrorism, peace between nations) alternate present twenty years after the alien attack. You will hear that twenty years have elapsed again and again and again: two decades ago, 1996, twenty years ago, 7,000 days. Enough already!

It’s easy to see very early in the film why critics ripped this one apart: shallow characters, sub-par to abysmal acting, and expository dialogue.

Since this is an event movie, it presents no clearly defined protagonist. Instead, we are left with a stumbling cast of new characters, including dull pilots, a not-so-funny comic relief, Whitmore’s forgettable daughter, a sabre-wielding, scowling African warlord whose attempts at drama are laughable, and a psychiatrist who specializes in alien mind control. Then there are all the returning characters stuffed into the film.

One of the cast’s two saving graces is Jeff Goldblum, whose quirky walk and idiosyncratic speaking style always entertain. I’m paraphrasing here: “There’s a queen in there… a very… big… queen.” Goldblum’s professorial demeanor makes the film’s juvenile objective (i.e. blow up the bad guy) seem like a brilliant scientific deduction.

The raggedy Dr Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner), who springs up after a 20-year coma with his mind teeming with alien formulae, is another favorite. However, even his maniacal approach doesn’t have the same oomph as it did in Independence Day. Okun does manage to pull off the film’s one scene that transfers emotion to the viewer.

Where are the filmmakers trying to go with this movie? Are they trying to be silly-serious in the vein of Ghost Rider (2007)? They don’t succeed. Are they trying to tap into viewers’ emotions? They’re way off base: the film has too many palm-slapped-against-forehead failed attempts to wring out emotion. Ultimately, Independence Day: Resurgence, hovering somewhere between sci-fi drama and comedy, doesn’t know what it wants to be.

When I saw Independence Day twenty years ago, my fellow theatregoers responded with an intensity of clapping that I’ve never seen matched. After Independence Day: Resurgence, the theatre, though full, was silent. Do yourself a favour: just watch the original again. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday, 8 July 2016

Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams (MacMillan Audio) | review by Jacob Edwards

Laughter beyond fits.

Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book, and not just for the cosmic pull-tab placed so aptly on its front cover. Like its predecessors it is an existential satire with vast and brilliant ideas. Like its predecessors it projects human foibles onto the whole of creation, thence to bounce back in a fatalistic and absurdly funny manner. And like its predecessors it indulges in a digressive, facetious and distinctly Adamsey disregard for the sanctity of traditional prose narrative. Unlike its predecessors it isn’t really a Hitchhiker’s novel.

Capturing the internal zeitgeist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is, of course, impossible. Almost everyone who’s read Adams has attempted at some stage to do so, and in almost all instances the attempt has proven at least moderately unwise. The person who came closest was – perhaps unsurprisingly, but then again perhaps not, given that he’d written Hitchhiker’s as a duology and that the story wrapped up rather neatly at the end of the second book – Douglas Adams. But even the man himself found it something of a strain to replicate the freewheeling, towel-toting, mind-blowing hoopiness of what he’d set down previously. Less a continuation, more an inspired adlib sucked into the ravenous vacuum of unfulfilled publishing contracts, Life, the Universe and Everything is nothing short of a jump-started series reboot; a greatly laboured-over extemporisation that nevertheless is, as mentioned, quite remarkable.

The full scope of Life, the Universe and Everything is difficult to impart without going into the sort of detail best served by reading the book. The basic storyline, however – the threads of plot used by Adams to connect the various dots and squiggles he’d laid down – is that of the people of Krikkit, a peaceful and isolated race whose sudden introduction to the wider universe provoked in them a xenophobic resolve to wipe out everyone who wasn’t them. Thus came the Krikkit Wars, at bloody culmination of which they and their planet were locked away in a Slo-Time envelope until the end of days. Unfortunately, a cohort of bat-wielding Krikkit robots escaped incarceration and have been roaming the galaxy, ruthlessly reassembling the Wikkit Gate, which is the key to releasing Krikkit from its temporal prison. Should they succeed, the aforementioned end of days will take place somewhat earlier than the rest of the universe would like…

Even for those who know nothing of a Doctor Who pitch that Adams wrote for the BBC during Tom Baker’s ascendency, entitled Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, this underlying concern of Life, the Universe and Everything seems rather more like a problem in need of solving, Doctor Who style, than the sort of thorny bewilderment that Hitchhiker’s regularly put out there for its quasi-heroes to blunder through, run away from or fail utterly to comprehend or even notice. Adams himself admitted to a certain frustration upon finding that none of his Hitchhiker’s characters were remotely qualified to play the part of the Doctor; yet he persisted and – remarkably – found a way to compensate for and even make a virtue of the dearth of players. Ever the innovator, Adams told the story almost exclusively by way of digressions. More on this shortly.

At the conclusion of the first two Hitchhiker’s books – and also the TV series – Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are left stranded on prehistoric Earth, wistfully resigned both to the future destruction of the planet and to never finding a satisfactory question to complement the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. This is the natural endpoint of Arthur’s journey, and from the unused draft chapters collected in Jem Roberts’ Adams biography The Frood (Preface, 2014) it seems that Adams had tremendous difficulty writing him back into the story. He had, admittedly, done so once previously in Fit the Eighth of the radio series, but only through recourse to a second lightning strike from the infinite improbability drive. Having judged this unsatisfactory, Adams laboured until he came up with a wholly different deus ex machina solution, extricating Arthur and Ford from the antediluvian bathtub of prehistory and dropping them into the middle of Lord’s Cricket Ground just in time for the Krikkit robots’ first explosive appearance. Arthur subsequently travels in the Starship Bistromath (which is powered by restaurant physics), is abducted by Agrajag (a crazed bat-like incarnation of a creature whom Arthur has inadvertently killed many times over on the circle of life), learns how to fly (by throwing himself at the ground and missing), and faces off with a Norse god at an airborne party, none of which virtuoso pieces of Hitchhiker’s lore seem immediately germane to the subject of Krikkit. In fact, Adams appears almost resentful of Arthur’s lack of usefulness, and thus to be punishing him through a barrage of inventiveness that serves only to emphasise the qualities fostering that resentment. Arthur Dent, one of literature’s most passive protagonists, becomes also one of its most passive-aggressive antagonists. Meanwhile, the story itself refuses to unfold. Except…

Somehow, it does. Amidst digressions that seem merely nostalgic, digressions that loop about themselves and come back together like tied shoelaces, digressions within digressions, which transpire to be not just digressions but indeed crucial plot points hiding in brazen anticipation of the big reveal, somehow the story of Krikkit is told. (And by this we mean not just the backdrop of Krikkit – which Slartibartfast exposits shamelessly – but the actual story; the saga of Krikkit once wrested away from the Doctor Who canon and repurposed for Hitchhiker’s.) Arthur Dent remains totally ineffectual, Ford Prefect feckless and hedonistic, Zaphod a restless gadabout, yet through their free-floating conduit and surging by way of discursive slingshot, Life, the Universe and Everything takes on its own unique character. Adams, after dedicating the book, writes that it is “freely adapted” from the radio programme. The two words form at best an infelicitous understatement. In truth, and under cover of its irrepressibly zany content and an overly deliberate, at times predictable stylistic enunciation, the third Hitchhiker’s novel was entirely retrofitted.

Nowadays, there are several different manifestations of Life, the Universe and Everything to choose from, not least of all an audiobook read by Adams himself (from which was taken his outrageously apoplectic posthumous contribution to the third Hitchhiker’s radio series, voicing Agrajag with lisping, fang-tearing relish in Fit the Sixteenth). One such rendition that adds definitive nuance to Adams’ text is the 2006 audiobook read by Martin Freeman, who in 2005 had played Arthur Dent in the film version of Hitchhiker’s. Not only does Freeman exhibit a well-pitched array of character voices, he brings also a dash of his more assertive film persona to the narration, the story thus coming across almost as if filtered through the perceptions of a more rounded, more self-assured Arthur Dent. If Life, the Universe and Everything has garnered one particular criticism it is that, unlike the seat-of-the-pants exuberance of its much-vaunted predecessors, its word follies, for all their careful construction, feel inexplicably piecemeal. Freeman’s contribution goes a long way towards plastering over the cracks in the façade.

All told (and as frequently related in this review) Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book. Perhaps not wholly remarkable – perhaps not reaching the fanciful heights of perhaps the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – but remarkable nonetheless, and even more so as read by Martin Freeman. Thirty-four years on, pulling the ring-tab will still open to readers a novel of largely unparalleled zest.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #55: now out, in print and ebook!

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

Issue fifty-five of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is now out!

It is guest edited by the zine’s long-time cover artist, Howard Watts, and includes stories inspired by his art, including competition winner “The Departure” by Mark Lewis, “Our Sad Triangle” by Len Saculla, and “The Stone Gods of Superspace” by Howard Phillips (a TQF crossover special featuring many friends from past issue), plus the more tangentially related “This Alien I” by Antonella Coriander and “The Little Shop That Sold My Heart”, and an entire weird novella from Anthony Thomson, “My Place”. Then a sixty-page review section features the work of Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards, Howard Watts and Rafe McGregor. The cover art is by Howard Watts.

We look at the work of Alcatena, Andy Diggle, Brian K. Vaughan, Cherie Priest, David Tallerman, Douglas Adams, Frazer Irving, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Guy Adams, Henry Flint, Jimmy Broxton, Joe Dever, John Wagner, Peter Tomasi, Phil Hester, Pia Guerra, Steve Yeowell and Tony Harris. Plus there are reviews of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Ash vs Evil Dead, Deadpool, Fallout 4, Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1, Gods of Egypt, Jessica Jones: Season 1, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, The Boy and The Witch.

The spectacular wraparound cover art is, as ever, by the marvellous Howard Watts.



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Anthony Thomson has an idea he lives in Brighton, but can never be sure. His short story “Burning Up” was published by ABeSea magazine. He’s influenced by the paintings of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varos, and he mines the soundscapes of sixties music for psychedelic nuggets.

Antonella Coriander has never been happier. “This Alien I”, which appears in this issue, is the sixth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Len Saculla had a story entitled “Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck” in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #52. He has also had work published in the BFS Journal, Wordland, Unspoken Water and anthologies from Kind of a Hurricane Press in America. In 2015, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Mark Lewis has recently had work published in The Four Seasons anthology from Kind of a Hurricane Press, and in collaboration with fellow Clockhouse London Writers in The Masks anthology by Black Shuck Press. He has also had fiction and poetry widely published in the independent press, including the British Fantasy Society Journal, Escape Velocity, Scheherazade, Estronomicon, The Nail, and others. He has also written and performed in pantomimes. More of Mark’s writing can be found at: http://syntheticscribe.wordpress.com.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s 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 pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Phillips typed up the novella that appears in this issue, “The Stone Gods of Superspace”, after finding a draft version in his moleksine notebook. He does not remember writing it, and is not sure whether those events really happened or not.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides the wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at www.jacobedwards.id.au. He has a Facebook page at www.facebook.
com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can now be found on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

Rafe McGregor has published over one hundred and twenty short stories, novellas, magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. His work includes crime fiction, weird tales, military history, literary criticism, and academic philosophy.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.



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