Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Scratchman

DOCTOR WHO: SCRATCHMAN
Tom Baker 

BBC hardcover £16.99

**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary 

An irresistible novelty book, this delivers on the promise of genre-franchise fiction in a manner rarely seen but always welcome. An actor famous for a beloved incarnation of a favourite character turns his hand, somewhat belatedly in his professional career, to an original novel based on his own performance of British SF-fantasy & horror superhero, the Doctor. The book attempts, quite boldly, to distil everything admirable, fascinating, and quirkily eccentric about Tom Baker’s tenure on the TV show into a chaptered story that flits effortlessly thorough Whovian lore, and Gallifreyan mythology, complete with much space-time gallivanting, with engagingly distressed, and endangered, companions. It never challenges readers' loyalty to the on-going show, and mostly fulfils expectations. OK, so there are no Daleks, but a Cyberman guest-stars, and both Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are very well represented in a devil-bracing narrative dotted with mortal perils. All things considered, Doctor Who: Scratchman is great fun, and nearly a new kind of retro-Who masterpiece. 

It starts with a small island, besieged by animated scarecrows. Not just any old farming-related traditional menace, but zombified creatures, seemingly the ‘possessed’ bodies of local folks, victims of an inter-dimensional invasion. It’s a fairly typical Doctor Who foe, at first, but shocks accumulate, horrors increase, and stakes are raised as eldritch forces behind the evil goings-on makes a claim upon planet Earth, and the mystery of ‘Scratch’ unfolds. In-between all of the present-tense developments, on the morbidly conquered island and later, in a surrealistic version of ‘Hell’ that Terry Gilliam might have once imagined, the Doctor confronts antagonism outside of his familiar adventures in an episodic court-room drama that requires him to educate the immortal Time Lords about fear itself and its philosophical consequences for a multiplicity of intelligent life in a wholly indifferent universe.   

Yes, Scratchman is often a genuinely subtle story concerning the mortal dreads found at the heart of horror as a distinctive genre. Its varied menaces, drawn by Scratch from ‘the dreams of ghosts’ depend upon widescreen cinematic mayhem but, in this ever-relatable incarnation of the Doctor (all of our hero’s dialogue is carefully worded so as to facilitate the tones of Baker’s distinctive voice in the reader’s imagination), even troubles of death-games on a fantastical, enchanted battlefield that rudely mixes pinball and chess, can be overcome by a charming ideological perseverance, sincere brand loyalty, and honestly heroic self-sacrifice to honour human friendships.

The inclusion of jelly-babies and neutron-flows are wittily integrated into this SF/ fantasy adventure and will surprise no fans of Doctor Who in the 1970s, but the Doctor’s knowing humour extends far beyond a merely jokey approach, and exploitation of such familiar check-list items. Appearances by previous Doctors are handled with levity but also respect for the other actors potent contributions to the franchise. Scratchman delivers an expansive narrative in less than 300 pages, and it’s a publication that offers the hugely satisfying appeal of a ‘last chance to see’ event.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Cunk On Everything

Cunk On Everything: 
The Encyclopaedia Philomena
Philomena Cunk

Two Roads hardcover £12.99 

**** (4 stars) review by Steven Hampton  

At last, here is a populist educator, or at least a cult-worthy explainer of the esoteric and the mundane, to rival Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Noah Chomsky and Richard Dawkins, but she’s also a person who closely resembles TV star Philomena Cunk. In fact, this is a (reportedly non-fiction) book composed by Cunk actual (alias, Diane Morgan), the great BBC presenter herself. 

This practically definitive, if not quite definitively practical, volume is a guide to learning. An encyclopaedia that’s just like the so-handy kind of condensed package of sundry items and supremely fascinating information that we used to have at home when I was a kid. It is an all-purpose repository of superior knowledge, not unlike that single-volume reference Enquire Within. That was a weighty book, but this is a rather lighter text. You see, it’s so fashionably lite, it might leave you feeling light-headed with glee... the glee of eccentric absurdism that is. 

From ‘Adam & Eve’ to ‘zombies’, Cunk On Everything covers the sum total of vital human knowledge to date. It has all you could want to know, but are too witless to ask. Perhaps innocence, not ignorance, is the New Bliss. If you have heard of Occam’s razor, here is a scalpel of stupidity, dissecting human reality. It charges forward with a head full of steam and there’s just no point in arguing or feeling any sense of exasperation at the book’s various spelling errors, because they’re all clearly intentional.   

Sincerely, going on about historical Britain, Cunk tells it like it never was: The ‘BayWatch Tapestry’ is “one of the few photographs made of string”, and (of course!) “if the Anglo-Saxons had been on Twitter today, it would be exactly like it already is.” On the subject of ‘animals’, Cunk declares that only ducks, insects, snails, and tigers are important, while the Art world is defined by the likes of Michael Angelo and Tony Hart. Meanwhile: “Ballet is like dancing, but you don’t do it yourself, someone else does it.”

Monty Python, in all of the comedy troupe’s media guises from TV or movies, to stage, recordings, and picture books, have long since defined the best of British humour, with a subtle combination of intellectualism and the infantile, or the profound in contrast with the puerile. Cunk’s article on ‘books’ notes how the reading social media on our smart phones is better, probably, and The Phone Book offers the best of both worlds. Confused? You will be, when the copious non sequiturs kick in, and they boggle your mind as practical inventions are written off as discoveries. ‘Police’ were discovered, but ‘Legs’ were invented. ‘Evolutionary psychology’ is capable of explaining “why people have children” - and it’s “to become so tired that death isn’t such a big surprise”.

Why do Buddhists make such a fuss about ‘knowing yourself’ when you can find out by simply filling in a questionnaire? History is defined by references to ‘black and white photo times’ when many media-related things were “the Internet of their day”, as if an exciting modernity was crushed by a wave of humdrum stuff. There’s also frequent recourse to stream-of-unconsciousness narratives disguised as irreverent humour, with nothing worthy to say about important subjects and far too much comment about trivia. Thankfully, Cunk wisely devotes more pages to ‘the human mind’ than to ‘hiccups’.

During the 1980s, ice cream was by revolutionised Viennetta, which is “what ice cream would look like on its wedding day”, or perhaps it’s what the Taj Mahal is made of? It’s unfortunate that Jesus can’t even be mentioned here without off-beat and scattershot allusions to Danny Dyer, but they probably deserve each other, just as nightmares follows newspapers. Shakespeare gets a whopping whole nine pages, explaining how he invented theatre and perfected English, just in time to save many poor people from boredom in those olden days of yore and forsooth.

While writing about television, Cunk opines that phones “used to be a thing for communicating with people.” Now, as new phones get bigger (to match the size of TV sets?), they are “for looking at and ignoring people.” Radical criticism and wild interpretations of unaccountably popular TV continues with an assertive assertion that Top Gear was actually Last Of The Summer Wine rebooted. When considering ‘truth’, Cunk confesses that “I might have been made up by someone for a laugh.” Like many meta-fictional conclusions “it’s a comforting thought.”

Friday, 27 July 2018

Raft

Raft
Stephen Baxter

Gollancz paperback £9.99

**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary

An SF Masterworks reprint of Stephen Baxter’s debut novel, Raft puts its space colonists in a weird universe where the force of gravity is a billion times stronger than Earth. It’s a fabulous realm where nebula gases are condensed into a breathable atmosphere so that people can live unsheltered in space, where the short-lived stars are only scant miles across, and the rains that fall like a hail of bullets are merely a distraction from the even greater environmental dangers of a dying galactic suburb.

Rees is a young miner, part of a ramshackle outfit working an asteroid-sized, burnt-out star for iron ore, whose intense curiosity leads him to the Raft, humanity’s base-camp in this strange shrunken cosmos. The Raft is a platform built upon the shell of a crashed starship, now hovering near an eternally hungry black hole. There, the ambitious hero learns of the fate that awaits the whole struggling community of survivors is the class-riddled military, scientific, and labour factions cannot settle their differences soon, and work out how to escape from the doomed island nebula.

Although it’s a rather episodic adventure, Raft maintains interest and a steady pace towards a gripping open-ended climax that may, unfortunately, be all too predictable if you are familiar with the 1950s SF classic movie When Worlds Collide. The great strengths of this story are Baxter’s startling ideas. For despite the seemingly outrageous premise the scenario is credibly and engagingly worked out with admirable attention to detail. The book has several moments when Baxter demonstrates a sharp authorial affinity with and genuine feel for a sense of wonder that’s all too rare in the genre of 1990s SF.

Raft remains is a minor miracle of human plotting and extreme cosmological speculative science.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Director: Denis Villeneuve

**** (4 stars) review by J.C. Hartley
As Danny Kaye and Frank Loesser would have it ‘The King is in the altogether, but altogether, the altogether’, and so on. I’m not actually saying that Blade Runner 2049 is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, but despite the display of five stars from various publications adorning the DVD box, I’m not convinced that it’s the seamless masterpiece those ratings might suggest. In the LA of Blade Runner’s dystopian future, it’s a case of plus ça change.  Following an uprising by the Nexus replicants bio-engineered by the Tyrell corporation, culminating in an EMP attack resulting in the ‘Blackout’, replicant production was banned. Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose visionary technology has restored food production and arguably saved the world, as well as continuing to advance off-world colonisation. Planet Earth, and particularly the L.A. of the film, is still an ecological disaster area. Wallace’s new generation of replicants are subservient slaves, constrained by protocols similar to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, but Tyrell-era Nexus replicants are still at large, hidden in plain sight due to the data-loss brought about by the Blackout. Ryan Gosling’s ‘K’, an obvious reference to Kafka’s troubled hero from The Trial (1925), is a replicant blade runner tasked with hunting down and ‘retiring’ his own kind.

During a confrontation with the replicant ex-soldier Sapper Morton (played by go-to heavy-with-a-heart Dave Bautista), at the latter’s protein farm, K is told he has ‘never seen a miracle’. K discovers a grave which is revealed to contain the skeleton of a female replicant who died giving birth by caesarean section.  To prevent exposure of the discovery that replicants can sexually reproduce, K’s superior officer Lieutenant Joshi (Wright) orders K to find and ‘retire’ the child.  At the Wallace corporation HQ, K is able to access pre-Blackout records belonging to the former Tyrell Corporation. His investigations reveal that the dead female’s remains are those of an advanced replicant named Rachael, who absconded with blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). However, Niander Wallace is also determined to find the child, in order to unlock the secret of replicant reproduction, and orders his replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track her down. 


Alongside the police procedural of Blade Runner 2049 we see something of K’s home life. K lives with Joi (Ana de Armas) a holographic female interactive A.I. who fulfils the role of wife and companion. In a frankly baffling scene, K gives her the gift of an emanator which expands her sensory range and allows her to move beyond the limits of K’s apartment. Although de Armas performs her role with commendable sincerity, the sheer silliness of the concept acted like a dead weight on the film for me, dragging it back like the anchor on Dick Dastardly’s Mean Machine. 

For the expanded edition of the late Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys Last All Summer Long (2001), the author revealed his parting-of-the-ways with film director Stanley Kubrick, over their different visions for a film of the original eponymous short story, which imagined a future where childless couples could ‘raise’ artificial surrogates. Aldiss claimed that Kubrick became obsessed with adapting the story as a re-telling of the tale of Pinocchio. K’s relationship with Joi brought this back to mind. Is Joi K’s Jiminy Cricket, or his Blue Fairy? The parallel is made even more striking when Lieutenant Joshi suggests that K might become ‘a real boy’. 

A further point of reference, this time to The Matrix trilogy, suggests itself when K starts to believe that he might be Rachael’s replicant child, a sort of messiah for replicants everywhere. This plot-line arises out of his implanted memories which tantalisingly summon up incidents from a ‘remembered’ childhood. As one assumes that replicants are brought into the world fully-formed as adults, like the Uruk-hai Orcs in Lord of the Rings, a fact confirmed by Wallace’s overseeing of a replicant ‘birth’ early in the picture, clearly K’s ‘memory’ of his childhood must be an implant, a situation he accepts. K then uncovers evidence that suggests his implanted memories might be genuine, something confirmed when he visits Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory designer, who works for Wallace from the confines of a sterile ‘bubble’ due to a deficient immune system. K’s belief is later unpicked when he encounters the replicant freedom movement, and it is revealed that all replicants believe themselves to be Rachael’s child. 

The film suffers somewhat by the weight of history behind it.  While it will be perfectly possible for a newcomer to the world of Blade Runner 2049 to enjoy the film without ever seeing its influential precursor, familiarity with the earlier film obviously allows for the minimum of exposition, its themes already apparent to that audience. The great drawback of this is that long-term fans of the ‘franchise’ are impatiently waiting for the introduction of Deckard. The fact that Gosling perambulates through the action like a morose cocktail-sausage only emphasises Ford’s portrayal of Deckard’s vulnerable damaged humanity.  But that was intentional, right? Ford and original director Ridley Scott famously disagreed over whether Deckard was a replicant, Ford saying no, his director saying yes. A ridiculous question, and one suggesting that Scott misunderstood his own material, Deckard clearly has to be human. It would be nice to think that Denis Villeneuve has deliberately directed Gosling as replicant K to downplay any hints of human empathy, in the way that Kubrick presented the people of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as practically de-humanised automatons, however I’m not convinced this is the case. 

In this the bi-centenary of the first publication of the three-volume edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), it seems appropriate to consider source material and themes. In his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (1973), Aldiss not only declares Frankenstein to be ‘the first real novel of science fiction’ but saw in it ‘the seeds of all later diseased creation myths’. If James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is famously a novel no one has read, Frankenstein, like its post-Gothic counterpart Dracula (1897), is a novel people haven’t read but think they know. Familiar through its creative afterlives, Frankenstein, is much more than the ‘diseased creation myth’ Aldiss acknowledges, but is ‘accompanied by a psychological depth’. After Frankenstein’s creature is rejected by his creator, and realising that his appearance militates against his acceptance by humanity, he acquires language and culture but finds himself still facing rejection. He urges his creator to make him a mate, but Frankenstein, wary that a pair of creatures will engender a race of monsters, aborts his female creation. 

Having already murdered Frankenstein’s younger brother, the creature then goes on to murder his friend Clerval and his fiancée Elizabeth. The creature as the instrument of monstrous acts is the character that has survived through the original novel’s creative afterlives, but Shelley was careful to show that it was the human Frankenstein who lacked the very qualities of emotional attachment that his creature was desperate to find fulfilled. In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968), another novel that people have probably never read but might think they know, Phillip K. Dick mixed cultural and economic satire, with his trademark philosophical musings. The androids of Dick’s novel are concerned not only with their own survival but in exposing the religious cult of Mercerism as a sham. Mercerism is based on the ability of humans to share empathy, the thing that sets them apart from the androids, if the androids can debunk the humans’ belief system, the distinction between human and machine-human becomes blurred. 

In Blade Runner, Deckard and Rachael’s love affair, and the replicants’ emotional attachment to each other, acknowledged a post-human evolution.  Roy Batty’s emotional monologue at the end of the picture, ruined for me by a lady’s stifled snort of derision behind me in the cinema (actually I thought the doves were pretty corny too), confirmed the replicants’ very human aspirations.  Does Blade Runner 2049 move the story on by having a replicant as the central character, displaying the same 21st century angst as the humans around him, seeking to assuage his loneliness with ever-more advanced technological companions and casual sex? It’s a bleak portrait if one looks beyond the shoot ‘em up police story. Personally, I’d have preferred a tighter and considerably shorter story, Blade Runner got its themes over in less time, and I don’t believe the intervening 35 years has made for any more depth or sophistication in the argument. The new film does look fantastic, and credit must go to Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography. 

An interesting set of extras with a rather repetitive set of links. There are three filmed prologues filling in the intervening years between the original Blade Runner and the new film. 2022: Blackout is an anime by Shinichirō Watanabe depicting the triggering of the EMP device by Nexus replicants. 2036: Nexus Dawn by Luke Scott shows Wallace attempting to get the authorities to lift the ban on replicant production, and 2048: Nowhere to Run, also by Scott, shows Morton’s flight from L.A., and the tip-off that leads to K tracking him down. A mixture of talking-heads and footage, Blade Runner 101: Replicant Evolution, Blade Runners, The Rise Of Wallace Corp, Welcome To 2049, Jois, Within The Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish, & Barracudas, introduces some of the background, and technology, in the film.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon
Richard Morgan

Gollancz paperback £8.99

**** (4 stars) review by Christopher Geary   

Reprinted as a tie-in book for its adaptation as a Netflix TV series, Richard Morgan’s debut SF novel, Altered Carbon (2001), is a genre-busting, hardboiled noir murder mystery, with body-swap identity crises, and plenty of ingenious gadgetry that’s used, and abused, in the service of mass slaughter and cyberpunk adventure.

Takeshi Kovacs was an agent for the UN Protectorate on Harlan’s World. After being killed in action, his mind is transmitted to Earth and he’s reborn in a rented body and hired by a wealthy private citizen to investigate a suspicious death. If that sounds bizarre, his employer is also formerly deceased, resurrected with no recent memory, and wants to know whether he actually committed suicide or not. Kovacs has never been on Earth before. So, in addition to hostility from local cops and the unnerving experience of waking up with a new face, he has culture shock, old religion, and some variant social mores to contend with.

The practicalities of immortality are a common SF theme. Here, the process is such an everyday occurrence that cloned or rental bodies are called ‘sleeves’ and police detectives are more concerned with sorting out ‘organic damage’ than increasingly rare homicide. Kovacs finds himself caught up in political machinations with ethical and moral implications for the ‘re-sleeve’ trade on both sides of the law, and is forced to resort to extremely violent means to make progress with his inquiries. Blade Runner is an obvious inspiration for some of the plot mechanics here, and Morgan does an excellent job of mixing Philip K. Dick’s mind-expanding ideas with the literary attitude and relentless cyber narratives popularised in the late 1980s by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Remarkably detailed and convincingly matter-of-fact, Altered Carbon sets out to amuse and thrill readers with its darkly savage humour and pulverising shoot ’em up fire-fights. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also deeply intriguing crime drama, sharply defined characters with quirky idiosyncrasies, a worthy hero facing down staggering odds, and a satisfying conclusion that manages to defy spy-fi conventions. You want frissons? Genre glee? Paranoid paroxysms? Altered Carbon surpasses all expectations! 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

SF: A Literary History

Science Fiction: A Literary History
Edited by Roger Luckhurst

British Library hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary    

A splendidly concise historical narrative emerges from this collection of new essays, exploring conceptual sources, miscellaneous influences, unpredictable developments, and - nowadays, especially - the vast scope of genre SF, roughly defined as speculative storytelling balancing utopian and dystopian streams, alongside many alternaties and writing styles. 

With incisive commentaries on proto-SF and the effervescent pulps, the book ploughs through assorted definitions and revisions, noting the murky origins of a genre which poetically agrees with the uncertainty of quantum theories rather than the cosmology of a Big Bang. The ‘new stranger’ of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be a favourite, but the journeys of H.G. Wells and the voyages of Jules Verne form a foundation with greater variety that consolidates ideas from romanticism into a mono-mythic quality. Each chapter concludes with a listing of ‘what to read next’ that any genre newcomers might find an extremely useful guide to essential classics and other canonical texts.

The book’s editor Roger Luckhurst contributes much contextual evidence in chapter two: From Scientific Romance To Science Fiction, explaining how framed discussions about ‘creative destruction’ shouldered aside challenges to a marvellous authenticity from occultism and colonialism, to embrace a ‘global modernity’. Caroline Edwards’ chapter, Utopian Prospects, charts the rise of racial tensions and feminism in dreams of decadence, and the menace of increasingly apocalyptic visions, where all optimistic viewpoints fail because of human imperfections and hard truths fuel harder SF where only maths might reign supreme.  

The New Wave Revolution by Rob Latham notes “R.A. Lafferty... sometimes labelled a New Waver because his fiction is weird and delirious, but a careful reading of his work makes clear that the only faction he belonged to was extraterrestrial in origin.” It’s an amusing jest that further characterises the typically off-beat nature of SF when examined in light of the genre’s formative apprehension from speculative rationalism. Chapter six also offers, among other astute comments, a corrective to wild tales of pro and fandom woe about ‘holy wars’ between pulp-inspired empires of trad SF and canny rebels of a New Wave alliance. This book notes that 1960s’ cultural aspirations changed ‘golden age’ SF, not by revolutionary upheaval against existing social mores but by enlightenment and mutation of an already stable form.

There are considerable overlaps in the informative coverage between the chapters on eras, generations, and specific genre movements, but it’s all to be expected because everything is connected - whether by common themes, technological advances of the publishing industry and systems of book distribution, or new thinking about future possibilities heralded by political and social changes at global scales. Great minds of various writers might simply imagine the same things, of course, without any actual copycat books being the result.       

“We live in an era of obsolete futures and junked dreams,” suggests Gerry Canavan’s New Paradigms chapter, where dodged bullets and post-millennial anticipation runs the gamut of prediction from SF in today’s cultural dystopia and climate change when the post-normalism of the inadequate Singularity becomes our Anthropocene period. Can a space opera renaissance and escapism into virtual gaming provide sufficient SF thrust to lift human spirits beyond a one-world horizon?

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Art Of Horror Movies

The Art Of Horror Movies: An Illustrated History
Edited by Stephen Jones

Applause hardcover $40

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary   

Since the beginnings of cinema, horror on screen has been troubled and distinguished by the difference between the explicit and the merely suggestive. Whether purveyors of generic imagery intended to scare audiences with atmospheric settings and lurking menace, or shock them with raw terror and gory displays of special effects, the results might be just as impressive and quite artistically valid. Perhaps even strong enough... provocative enough in its vicarity to promote catharsis. Celebrating the contributions of painters, illustrators, and creature designers, to a century of delicious frissons and ghastly disgust, this companion to The Art Of Horror (2015), that was also edited by Stephen Jones, delivers the very goodies and nasty baddies in a beautifully presented hardback packed with a stunning range of colour and B&W pictures. 

Writers, directors, and actors made a considerable impact upon horror movies, but it must be acknowledged that genre cinema would not exist without the essential works of visionary artists. After the foreword by John Landis on the iconography of horror, standout chapters are Christopher Frayling’s exhumation of sinister expressionism in the silent era noting the diversity of influences, including romantic literature, theatre, and crazy carnival traditions, upon a veritable onslaught of surreal gothic portrayals.    

Noir of the 1940s is revisited by Barry Forshaw, who notes the decade’s filmmakers’ imagination and ingenuity overcoming the strict limitations imposed by Hays code censorship, by “subverting the permissible” in pursuit of the macabre. Even as horror is almost crippled by parody, the rise of lurid colour cinema as a new standard saved the genre.   

Studios with style in the 1960s, championed by psychedelic pop culture remixed with fetishistic gore, are charted by Kim Newman. Shifting from period settings into more contemporary scenarios distinguished urban horror from traditional source material, and the gruelling spectacle of warfare on TV prompted an escalation of shock as new zombies arrived, straight from hell, in George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night Of The Living Dead (1968).  
   
After the creators of major special effects became iconic stars in their own right in the 1980s, when a video nasty scandal and genre revisionism dominated works by horror auteurs, Anne Billson considers the 1990s' offerings that were often driven by pre-millennial anxieties leading a transition from B-movie fun to a fearsome mainstream. But that was before the dismal end-of-century trend for ‘found footage’ threatened to turn genre cinema and no-budget media into a cultural dystopia. As usual with this type of art book, texts and captions provide the chronicle’s broad sweep, while images deliver the depth. And, really, this is worth buying as an Xmas gift for any fans you know if only for its gallery of eye-catching portraits... Dorian Gray, included.