As an opening paragraph, I’m forced into a brief consideration of what constitutes a coincidence. At its simplest level, this is two, or sometimes three, events which happen more or less at the same time. Some external observers believe the timing of the occurrences indicates a causal relationship. But, against objective criteria, there’s nothing to actually link the two or three events together. The outside observer is making connections where none exist. The magic word is synchronicity — the magic coming from Police who wrote a song about it, “Effect without cause, Subatomic laws, scientific pause”. This is not a sign I’m desperate to pad out this review. It’s just a coincidence the forces of law and order chose to write lyrics about things that happen at the same time.
For authors, everything is under control in the worlds they create. They can write whatever they like. So when some choose to juxtapose two events, this is not coincidence. This is deliberate plotting. In most cases, the temptation to see a connection is easily resisted. We readers have hundred of t-shirts and know when the author has made a forgivable misjudgment. But the entire plot of Blackout by Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) (Orbit, 2012) (Book III of the Newsflesh Trilogy) depends on a particularly outrageous coincidence. Indeed so outrageous is this coincidence that it somewhat spoils what would otherwise have been considered a worthy ending to a good trilogy. Why is it so outrageous? Because it’s unnecessary! The author has very carefully built up the credibility of an internal government challenge to the CDC. There’s no reason why this group could not have extracted Georgia without the need for this “spontaneous” meeting in a corridor followed by the appropriate explosions.
Having got that off my chest, what about the rest of the book? As an idea, I think the trilogy is rather clever. It manages to take the zombie novel to a new level of sophistication. Not only do we get a detailed context for their unexpected emergence, but there’s considerable credibility in how American society reacts. It has coherence as a near(ish) future history or science fiction extrapolation on current trends in medical research and the politics of government. Obviously we’re nowhere near the level of technology required to achieve some of these “breakthroughs” but there’s enough inventiveness on display to carry us through to the end. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said of the writing. By my standards, like those that went before it, this final book goes on too long. The text finishes on page 632 (we can ignore the Extras). I think it could safely have been trimmed by at least 15,000 words. I’m not denying the interest in some of the discussions and explanations but, overall, more editorial intervention would have produced a manageable length with improved plot momentum.
As a completely idle speculation, I wonder whether the emergence of a separate person in Shaun’s mind is a feature of his reservoir condition. If the virus is adapting to humans and there’s clear evidence it enhances the intelligence of the zombies once they come together in sufficient numbers, perhaps the more intelligent voice in his mind is the virus or an enhancement of his mind manifesting with a different voice (with occasional hallucinations). So where does this leave us in overall terms? On balance, there’s enough constructive thought invested in this trilogy to make it worth reading. The explanation for the zombies is pleasing. There’s a slight loss of balance in that the developments in computing and medical technology is way too advanced without there being more general visible progress in society. Even though the Rising of the zombies would have thrown a spanner into the works, I would have expected there to be more applications in everyday life, e.g. better weapons with which to fight the zombies, lightweight armour to resist bites, biomechanical body parts to replace limbs or to augment human performance, different fuel-type vehicles, more use of solar energy to replace reliance on centrally generated electricity, and so on. That said, the science fiction feels reasonably good. The trilogy also works as a political thriller with the relationship between the blogging community and the rest of the world carefully worked out. So Blackout is quite good as science fiction, it has good thriller set pieces as the characters flee from or fight the zombies, and the various political manoeuvres and conspiracies are plausible. This gives us a reasonable momentum to recommend reading, but be prepared to skip over the slow-moving bits where the editorial pencil failed to strike.
I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.
So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.
The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.
The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.
So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.
This has been a deeply frustrating experience. I like the original story on which The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is based, and even though the television version was drawn out too far and contained some unfortunate missteps, I went to the cinema prepared to like the big screen wuxia version. Indeed, the first five minutes seem to promise much. The cinematography and shot selection is particularly impressive as crane shots change the angle over street scenes and we follow a CGI bird as it flies over the roof tops to the Palace where we get our first view inside Department 6. This is the top policing agency in the Song Dynasty, and it both runs a spy network and has a paramilitary approach to the process of arrest. Obviously it can be a dangerous business to go up against potentially powerful kung fu masters, so this is SWAT with shields and spears ready to lock together to contain difficult unarmed (sic) criminals.
Anyway, the major problem surfaces almost immediately. I had great difficulty in following the plot. Usually, I have everything nailed down as I watch a film, but this time I emerged from the cinema and had to exchange notes with my wife while we tried to work out who was on which side and why people might have been doing whatever they were doing. Eventually, we arrived at a basic grasp of what we think happened, but we still can’t decide quite what the villain was aiming to achieve. I can’t bring myself to believe this was a plan to kill the Emperor, royal princes and the nobility because there just aren’t enough bodies (literally) available to see the assault through once the fighting begins and the capital is alerted. Worse, even if the Emperor’s army
were to be defeated, there seems to be no planning for any kind of takeover. If you are planning a coup, you need a major team of people ready to step into key roles, taking command of tax collection, the military and other key departments of state. Yet all we ever see is one guy and some minions who start off counterfeiting the coinage and, when there’s an investigation, it escalates into an attack on the Prince. This seems completely illogical because there was a plan in motion to infiltrate Department 6 and, once that was under control, the villain could more or less do what he wanted without anyone investigating him. There was every reason not to attack the Prince, particularly in such a spectacular way.
So after our family powwow, this is what we think happens in the first part of the film. We watch the arrival of a new group of female investigators led by Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan) in Department 6. She, her second-in-command called Butterfly and the others who occupy screen time lolling around naked in a sauna (can’t think why they do that), are infiltrators sent by the villain Lord An (Wu Xiubo). The plan is slowly to kill all the more senior officers and allow them to rise through the ranks until they control Department 6. We then get into a pissing competition between Department 6 and the early version of the Divine Constabulary as to who has the better right to track down those responsible for the outbreak of counterfeiting in the capital. At this point, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) (with Sheren Tang in attendance to bring “free” food and wine from her Inn to feed the constabulary family) has his adopted “daughter” Heartless (Yifei Liu) and Iron Fist (Collin Chu) in place as constables. In the first major attempt to arrest one the the leading villains, Zhuge Zhengwo quickly identifies Chaser (Ronald Cheng) in the crowded inn as Constable material and saves him from arrest by Department 6. The final recruit comes courtesy of Department 6 which sends Cold Blood (Chai Deng) as an undercover agent. We then get the traditional bonding sequences as our four find reasons to fight each other so they can be embarrassed into being friends.
Now a few words about the titular four. Personally, I’m always in favour of realism when it comes to fighting abilities. This does not mean I’m against wire work and the more balletic moves. But I think reliance on supernatural skills is lazy. This might be different if we were watching a Marvel or DC Comics blockbuster. We accept Professor Xavier in his wheelchair using mutant psi powers because the whole is intended to be science fiction. Similarly, Wolverine’s ability to grow hairy and throw people around using super strength is vaguely credible because we’ve seen what he had to go through when William Stryker replaced his bones with adamantium. However, seeing Heartless in her wheelchair use telekinesis and telepathy is not really playing the fantasy game. Similarly, Cold Blood’s ability to turn into a wolf, or Iron Fist’s ability to wield fire is not the same as using steampunk technology to weaponise the wheelchair or being good with a sword. Lord An gets in on the mutant powers with the manipulation of both fire and ice. Even Zhuge Zhengwo turns out to be Magneto with an ability to pull metal needles out of inconvenient places.
At every turn, this plot either grinds to a halt while the emotional Heartless and Cold Blood, the wolfman, decide whether their shared love of a puppy makes them suitable sex partners, or we get the completely redundant introduction of zombies. Yes, there’s a zombie plague in the original story as one village falls prey to an infection, but this is recruiting active and motivated soldiers from the ranks of the dead. There’s no explanation of how they are capable of fighting in an orderly way. There’s also a major distinction between the first fight involving one zombie which survives a major assault by the best humans can bring to bear until Chaser accidentally triumphs, and the massed ranks which are mown down rather more easily by all-comers.
Directors Gordon Chan and Janet Chun should have had people on set telling them when the plot made no sense. It costs little or nothing to spend an extra moment making sure we get a clear view of people or a short explanation of why they act as they do. Merely making the film look good is never enough on its own. If directors can’t communicate a coherent plot, all they do is lose the audience’s interest. In fact this happened around us with many giving up and texting their friends until the next action set piece came along. The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is not recommended unless you’re into wuxia regardless of plot.
For a review of the television series, see The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)
Indignities of the Flesh by Bentley Little (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a collection of contemporary horror stories but, unlike many of the other practitioners of the dark arts, this author believes in creating the effect succinctly. Not for him the sprawling prose of Stephen King. He’s the role model for the school of thought, “Little is best, if done well.” (pun intended).
“Rodeo Clown” is a tale about the way in which fear can tip over into the certainty of paranoia. A wife forced to watch her husband ride unbroken horses and bulls in the arena has to live with the probability he will be injured. It may be the next ride. It may be years away. But this is a high risk activity and bad luck will catch up with him sooner or later. The clown is supposed to take the responsibility of protecting the riders in trouble by distracting the animals. But what if the clown fancies the wife and wants the husband dead? Or is this irrational fear? How can she know? “Brushing” continues the idea that people can become obsessional. Any small behavioural trait can slowly become dominant, crowding out rationality. This can lead to stalking. Equally, the person stalked, usually female and living in fear, can take poor decisions and allow herself to become fascinated by the idea of what motivates the stalker. If they should meet and have the chance to discuss matters like adults, I wonder what they would say. “Documented Miracles” changes the mood from obsession to one of dark humour where scepticism rules and a psychic doctor operates on a pain in the neck. “Happy Birthday, Dear Tama” continues in this more light-hearted vein with a wonderfully described birthday in a more cosmic mode. Imagine a loving daddy, much like Old Whateley, setting out to celebrate Lavinia’s birthday, hoping all the while that her brother Wilbur will keep to himself and not join the party. “Gingerbread” reminds us that once you get your teeth into something, you should keep practising, honing the technique until it’s as sharp as you can get it. There’s no sense in scratching at the surface. You really have to dig down to the essentials for perfect results every time.
“Loony Tune” is a particularly elegant story about fear and loathing in Las Vegas as an undeclared war breaks out between the animators of the Disney Studio and a renegade but brilliant man whose cartoons put everyone else’s into the shade. What possible defence could one man, his wife and child have against the massive resources available to the major studio? In reality, of course, he would perish, but somehow, even in death, you feel he would continue to be useful to his family. “The Black Ladies” deals with the phenomenon of recurrent nightmares. As children, we sometimes seem to feel fears move from the real world to our dreams and then back again. Hence, someone bullied at school can feel threatening figures appearing in dreams. If we dream about something coming out from under the bed, it can never hurt to actually check there’s nothing there before going off to sleep. In this case, a young boy seems to be having the same dreams his mother had when she was young. Now that must be more than a coincidence, perhaps even a supernatural threat. “The Pinata” is a more routine haunting based on an interesting possibility of what might happen if you give the birthday boy a baseball bat, blindfold him, and wait for him to strike. “Valet Parking” is one of the weaker entries in this collection. It reminds me of several classic stories in which characteristics of vampirism or werewolfism are passed on from one individual to another as in a chain letter. The problem is that it may be frightening for someone slowly to realise they are turning into a mythic monster, but this is less worrying albeit, on a global level, it would be the end of the world. OK, so that’s kinda scary but inherently less believable. We finish with “Even the Dead”, a surprisingly effective tale of a man and his zombie in which pathos wins out the battle for the emotional response.
Indignities of the Flesh is a slightly shorter than usual collection at two-hundred or so pages but, taken as a whole, this is a book of real quality. Even though I have minor reservations about three of the stories, all are beautifully written and, in their minimalist approach, deliver a real sense what’s good in contemporary horror.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a retrospective collection of Michael Bishop’s short stories. Out of the 140 or so published, it picks those liked the best starting with the first sale, “Pinon Fall” (1970) which captures the moment when the first winged creature comes through to our world, bringing the snow with him, to “The City Quiet as Death” (2009) jointly written with Stephen Utley. In this, it’s not up to me to comment on the choices made, but simply to look at the stories chosen. For the record, there’s been some editorialisation. Not surprisingly, the older and wiser writer has removed redundancies and produced leaner texts where necessary. The results should be considered definitive. There are many I remember from the earlier years, but all of those written during the last twenty-five years are new to me.
“Cathadonian Odyssey” (1974) (Hugo Award nominee) first tells us how best to name a planet and then reminds us it can be dangerous when making a first landfall on a planet, to kill the local wildlife for sport. “Blooded on Arachne” gives us an insight into a rather different coming-of-age ritual while “The Samurai and the Willows” (1976) (Locus Award winner; Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominee) deals with the problems the not-so-young face when trying to find the best place for their ageing parents to spend their final years. Guilt unchecked can do terrible things to people unless they ask sensible questions about whether it was possible to have organised things differently. “The House of Compassionate Sharers” (1977) (Hugo Award nominee) is a moving story about trauma and how one might react if the body was so damaged that it had to be completely rebuilt. As people, we’re used to feeling comfortable in our own skins. Once we know we have a different body, how do we relate to ourselves or to others, for that matter? It’s at times like this we need help. But first we have to admit that need. In a way, we’re most likely to heal ourselves, but only if we want to.
“Within the Walls of Tyre” (1978) (World Fantasy Award nominee) is a sideways move into horror as we consider what might represent the real point of weakness in the armour a woman has woven around herself to keep out the pain. “Storming the Bijou, Mon Amour” speculates on whether you can ever watch too many films or television shows. It might become nightmarish. “The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia” is a hilariously tragic commentary on the lack of empathy displayed by some academics. Some are so self-absorbed, they have no idea what effect they can have on other people. “The Quickening” (1981) (Nebula Award winner) asks and answers a deceptively easy question: if, in an instant, the world stopped being as it was, how would you react? Trying to force it back to what it was, is only going to cause conflict. So what would you like it to become? Perhaps, as suggested in “Dogs’ Lives” (1984) (reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1985), you might think it good to become more like a dog, even live your life through them as, first, innocent children do, and then as parents who, in turn, buy them for their children. “A Gift from the GrayLanders” (1985) (Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominee) reinvents the Cold War paranoia that led many to equip their cellars with food or actually to build fall-out shelters so they could survive should the bombs drop. How ironic, then, to find one small boy who might inadvertently benefit from the anger of the adults around him — although, of course, he wouldn’t see it as a benefit at all.
“Taccati’ Tomorrow” (1986) is not science fiction as such, but makes an elegant point about how the use of language can warm up old prejudices and divide us, if we let it. Equally, some music can reach out and find kindred spirits across other cultural divides. “Alien Graffiti” (1986) naturally follows on the same theme that, when people cannot understand the significance of what’s displayed, they may shift from anger that it has disrupted their lives to worship. Why? Because, when all explanations fail to convince, it’s comforting to believe the source of the inexplicable must be divine. “Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana” (1989) (World Fantasy Award nominee) shows us that, even with weak gravity, there can be an attraction between the physics of string theory and the apartheid regime in South Africa. As they say, it may be a stretch, but if it explains everything, it must be right.
In “Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats” (1991) (Nebula Award nominee) where the form of the narrative matches the title, we’re invited to consider the level of responsibility we accept for maintaining relationships. We can’t all be like one of the characters in this story who, when he can’t find the right piece to fit in the jigsaw, takes a razor-blade and shaves a close match to fit the hole. “Tithes of Mint and Rue” (1999) is a wonderful story about a woman who finds her life unsatisfactory so, in one of those “moments of madness” others can never understand, she runs away to join a circus. Naturally, all she finds is herself but, in a way, that’s all she was looking for in the first place. “Help Me, Rondo” (2002) continues in the same vein and confirms the essential truth that, despite outward appearances, there are human beings inside each body they occupy.
“The Door Gunner” (2003) (Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award winner) is a completely fascinating zombie story. Indeed, at this length, it’s one of the best zombie stories I’ve ever read. This zombie really does go above and beyond the call of duty! “The Road Leads Back” (2003) reminds us that we are the sum of our experiences. All we know and believe comes from what we see and how we interpret it. So what would happen to our beliefs if there was a certain dissonance between what we expected and what actually happened? Perhaps even characterising an event as miraculous is all in the eye of the beholder.
“The Angst, I Kid You Not, of God (2004) magnificently underlines the essential similarity between those who self-righteously interfere in the affairs of others. Regardless whether they believe their motivations good or evil, they’re trampling over the rights of those others. If their reason satisfies utilitarian criteria and is objectively for the benefit of the majority, we might forgive the aggressiveness. But if, on proper philosophical analysis, the reason turns out to be bad for everyone, this might be a source of angst, or not as the case may be. “Bears Discover Smut” (2005) (Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award winner and British Science Fiction Association Award nominee) is a hilarious take on the issue of immigration and offers an entirely plausible solution to the problem. All you have to do is deport every last alien back to Mexico or wherever they came from and then, after a little genetic manipulation to achieve uplift, give all the menial work to the bears. They won’t work for peanuts — only apes do that — but they will keep the economy going with reduced labour costs. Just think how much more time this will give the humans to indulge their passion for soft porn and voyeurism, until the bears muscle in, that is.
“Miriam” (2007) turns the Christian world in a different direction. When Satan interferes, what’s God supposed to do? He can’t let Lucifer deflect His ministry. He must make the best of a bad job and use whoever is to hand. “The Pile” (2008) (Shirley Jackson Award winner) is a tribute to his son who died in one of these unfortunate shootings that seem to afflict American colleges and universities. It’s always good when there’s a sense of community. Self-help and a willingness to share helps people get by. Unless, of course, coincidence suggests one feature may bring bad luck. Or, perhaps, it’s not coincidence and, in that uncertainty, lies the rub. “Vinegar Peace; or, The Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage” (2008) (Nebula Award nominee) continues the process of working through his grief in this fictionally autobiographical piece as our protagonist is designated orphaned by the death of the remaining child and has to face internment in a parental orphanage unless someone can be persuaded to come forward for an adoption. Finally, “The City Quiet as Death” (2009) speculates on what might persuade a person to continue life when, from his point of view, everything around him is either physical or psychological torture. Should he stay for the love of a good woman, respond to offerings from science, or succumb to the temptations of religion?
This is a magnificent collection. If you’re not familiar with Michael Bishop’s work, this is as good a sample as you could hope to find. Hopefully, it will convert you to his cause. Many of his novels are also outstanding! For those of you who are fans, this is going to expand your experience. I had read the earlier collections and picked up one or two more stories in anthologies, but missed several of the early stories and all the most recent. The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy reminds me why I think Michael Bishop one of the best writers still working.
A great piece of artwork from Lee Moyer for the jacket.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the most interesting features of information available to us is how quickly it enters the left ear and leaves by the right with almost nothing to show it ever spent time in-between. Yet, every now and again, one phrase or, in some extraordinary cases, an entire sentence will magically lodge itself in long-term memory. It’s as if we always knew this new thing yet never recognised it before. For example, in V for Vendetta, we discover that, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” We always knew you can’t kill an idea with bullets, but this scene somehow personalises it. We also know the same thing can happen to faith. The major religions of the world and their antithesis atheism seem to have weathered various attempts to eradicate them. Sometimes, the harder you push against a belief system, the harder it pushes back.
One of the times when the battle between faith and its enemies was drawn in more epic terms was during the Enlightenment. Not only were rationalism in general and science in particular threatening to displace ideas thought divinely defined, but religion itself was experiencing the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church started by Martin Luther. This produced a period of intense conflict both physical and political as the emerging secular governments began to assert their right to rule without interference from the pulpits. At this point, let’s consider one simple proposition. In the opera houses throughout Italy, the emotion of life was expressed in newly permitted romanticism. Through the music, audiences could soar to new heights of passion and understanding. In the churches, sung masses were also developing into major musical events where massed voices were raised in celebration of the divine. When both secular and religious music was performed, there was always the possibility of “faith healing”. People in churches might be able to throw away crutches and walk again. People might leave an opera house with a depression lifted. In modern medicine, we talk learnedly of the placebo effect. In those times, such occurrences were considered miraculous or in need of scientific exploration to determine the cause.
So, in The Black Opera by Mary Gentle (Night Shade Books, 2012) let’s assume an alternate world, not unlike our own, in which a third party group emerges to represent the interests of the Prince of Darkness. Now we come to the problem of coincidence. Suppose this group believes in the power of music to change the world in the literal sense. They try an experiment and, while singing a Black Opera to their version of Krakatoa, it explodes and shrouds the world in volcanic ash. Not worrying whether there’s actual cause and effect, this group now plans a second performance. This time, they will sing to Mount Etna or Stromboli or both. Should the local Kings get wind of this plan, they would obviously commission a countervailing opera. We’re in Sicily and the King must find someone he can trust to produce it. At first, he gets the best in Italy to come to Sicily, but all their efforts are frustrated by illnesses and accidents — i.e. subtle sabotage. The project is abandoned as cursed. So he turns to an atheist librettist to pull something out of the fire. I forgot to mention this poet has only six weeks to bring the finished performance to the stage. Fortunately his cross-dressing sister thinks she’s a composer and a top-class violinist so she can also conduct. Now let’s be clear. There’s no need for anyone to believe Mount Etna will actually erupt, but it’s the idea that it might. . . Once it enters the heads of the King and his confidants, it’s not something that can be ignored. The idea has become bulletproof.
Anyway, our librettist is short of inspiration so, naturally, he resists the temptation to bounce ideas off the ghost of his father. He’s sworn an oath of secrecy and can’t trust his father not to talk out of turn. Perhaps someone ought to exorcise the father. Then the King selects a noble-born Count to write the music. He’s a poser who thinks he’s a composer with the librettist’s ex-lover as his wife, except she’s dead — this first zombie is only included because she’s a Countess and blessed with the most beautiful voice opera has ever heard. That’s always going to be a social challenge to add to the shortness of time to get words and music together. Then there’s the problem of the librettist’s dead father’s debts. Surprising, really, how quickly these distractions are piling up. Then the rehearsal theatre burns down. As you will gather, this is a fantasy with a sense of humour. Perhaps all this should become the libretto. It has all the drama. Surely no-one would miss hearing about an Aztec Princess anyway?
While he’s waiting for the music to catch up to his words, our librettist is sent off on a secret mission. The Satanic Cult is planning to destabilise the King of Sicily and something has to be done. After a successful outcome, it’s into the catacombs to continue the rehearsals while rumblings in Etna suggest the Black Opera is also in rehearsal. And then comes a revelation that changes everything! And here’s something to chew on while you read the book. If there was an eruption, there would be a lot of dead people. . .
I can’t remember reading a fantasy with such sensibilities before. It’s a magnificent blend of our history and a radically different alternate history in which religion and rationalism clash in a completely unexpected way. I was entranced by the possibility of our atheist librettist being able to debate theology with the dead. Anyway, putting this speculation to one side, I’m reminded of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. In both our history and this fantasy world, humanity might give meaning to life through a belief in a God. Indeed, the absence of such a belief would be likely to produce a dangerously unstable nihilism. So if an Übermensch was to emerge, it would create a new set of values affirming the value of continued existence without having to rely on Platonic idealism. In such a case, the Übermensch would not be an individual. It would probably take the form of a Volksgeist, a spirit collectively representing the human race, or at least a substantial part of it.
At this point, I apologise to my readers. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by philosophical issues that are not directly relevant to The Black Opera. Mary Gentle is playing with some heavyweight themes, but you don’t need to be interested in such background issues to enjoy this book. So here comes the headline. I was entranced, but I acknowledge that I’m a sucker for big idea books. It’s a wonderful story capturing the detail of how to write and stage an opera in six weeks, hoping it will somehow prevent a volcanic eruption. If that’s all you want, you will enjoy this book. If you want more, you only have to look beneath the surface of what happens when the curtain finally goes up.
And will you just look at the fabulous cover artwork from Sam Burley! Everyone who likes spectacular art should take a moment to look at his site.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s impossible to begin this review of Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW Books, 2012) without mentioning the sad death of Martin Greenberg. Over the decades, he’s contrived to stay at the top of the editing pile by consistently producing anthologies of quality. Although he often shared the editorial credits, this is as good a memorial for his talents as you could hope to find. Now a word of reassurance. Yes, this carries the word “weird” on the jacket, but it’s wonderfully eclectic, combining science fiction with fantasy in a complete disregard for genre boundaries as anything and everything spectacularly odd comes to the Wild West and beyond. There literally isn’t a weak story in this anthology and, as befits anything with claims to supernatural overtones, you’re lucky to find thirteen such excellent stories.
“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” by Jay Lake is a pleasing relocation of the long spoon trope to the cowboy on the range. This sees the Devil happily engaging in a little cattle rustling for BBQ purposes until he’s tracked down by an upright loner. Although we lack some of the sophistication of the storytellers who want to construct a powerful Faustian offer with a clever way of avoiding the soul-loss trap, this more than makes up for it with a nice sense of humour. “The Last Master of Aeronautical Winters” by Larry D Sweazy is a steampunkish city in the sky, partly built using Wild Bill’s savings. When the enterprise is overrun by demons, it comes down to two brave souls to see what they can pull out of the fire (so to speak). Again, this is delightfully knowing as our heroes prepare to ride the elevator of doom up into the sky. “Lowstone” by Anton Strout also has elegant biomechanical additions in this steampunk mining community threatened by zombies. It’s slightly more serious, but no less effective in bending the gender roles to fight the good fight.
“The Flower of Arizona” by Seanan McGuire brings a pleasing touch of whimsy to a hunt for a man-eating chimaera. This is a nice take on the problems faced by the old travelling circus companies when audiences were poor. “Surveyor of Mars” by Christopher McKitterick has us embark on a sequel to H G Wells War of the Worlds. It assumes Earth would have used the Martian technology to colonise Mars. Except, of course, the carpetbaggers would have followed the settlers. In situations where freedom is under threat, what you need is a man embodying the qualities of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The politics are a bit clunky to European eyes, but the spirit of the story shines through despite the fact that only Americans seem to have had the can-do mechanical skills to get to Mars. It would have been more interesting had the Brits also been able to compete for territorial rights. “Coyote, Spider, Bat” by Steven Saus is a powerful and dark story that sees cultural imperialism come grinding to a halt in the face of even older power. European vampires may think they’re at the top of the food chain but, if they come to America, even in disguise, they might be in for a surprise as they end up on the menu of the local Teddy Bear’s Picnic.
“Maybe Another Time” by Dean Wesley Smith plays with one of my favourite time travel themes perhaps best captured in The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. In every respect, this is an unexpected delight to find in an anthology supposedly about weird stuff in the Wild West — whichever version of it you care to pick. “Renn and the Little Men” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is magnificently whimsical, rerunning the Rumpelstiltskin trope in a High Noon showdown to avoid rule by the trolls. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it. This has just the right amount of nuttiness to qualify it as one of the best fantasy stories of the year. Continuing in the same vein, “Showdown At High Noon” by Jennifer Brozek has an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde caught up in an interplanetary conflict involving Ancient Egyptian scarabs and a Norse shapeshifter. As you might expect, this is delightfully weird.
“The Clockwork Cowboy” by J Steven York is a very clever story Isaac Asimov would have enjoyed. The literal Biblical injunction against killing can be enshrined in the software. This will reflect the thinking of all sections of the community, no matter what its racial background or source of mechanical power. Except, as is always the way when one of the minority breaks the programming, the majority humans don’t take kindly to a killer. “Black Train” by Jeff Mariotte takes aim at the zombie theme through the potential use of technology for military purposes. As with every good invention, you always need an antidote or countermeasure. If you release gas, you need a mask. If you release a virus, you need a vaccine. This speculates on what you might need for a mould. Finally, “Lone Wolf” by Jody Lynn Nye manages to conflate werewolves, an Indian Shaman’s insights into soul mates, and a backwoodsman Edison who would would make even a sober Gallegher proud.
I confess Westward Weird is an anthology I resisted picking up, fearing the genre mixture would be indigestible. In fact, it’s proved to be tasty Wild West victuals for them as likes a hot spicy sauce with their eatings. I find myself recommending this as great fun from start to finish.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Ganymede by Cherie Priest continues the Clockwork Century series, this time bringing us a steampunkish submarine. Except, it’s rather more real than fictional. To understand why this is a problem, we need to go back to Jules Verne who launched the Nautilus and several hundred different versions of submersible craft when he published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. That’s the problem with a very good idea. It spawns copies so, for a while, the literature we might loosely call science fiction or fantasy had every manner of different underwater machine floating around causing mayhem. This explosion of discussion was also useful because it helped a naïve public explore issues of morality in warfare. Up to this point, war had theoretically been conducted according to rules of honour. So, you would announce your presence, muster your forces in plain view and then engage. Combatants would always be proud of any wounds they received on the front or sides of their body, and be deeply ashamed of any wounds on the back which might suggest they had been running away from the field of battle. Underwater craft that could sneak up on their enemies without being seen were thought dishonourable ways of fighting. Here was the British navy with vast dreadnoughts commanding the waves. The idea some pipsqueak little boat could attach a mine to the side of one of our battleships and sink them without warning was “beyond the pale”. Only uncivilised folk would fight using such subterfuge — this despite Carl von Clausewitz suggesting wars were always potentially chaotic affairs in which anything might happen. However, by the time we get to the 1930s, real-world engineers have almost perfected the submarine and so there was little point in continuing to treat them as science fiction or fantasy — they rarely appear in the “Gernsback” years and later. Indeed, with only one or two notable exceptions like The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert, you only find them in historical novels and contemporary books involving naval warfare.
Ganymede features a version of the H L Hunley, a submarine built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863. Now I’ve no particular interest in defending genre boundaries. I don’t care if a book labelled steampunk is actually historical so long as it’s a good read. A classic example of such a blurring comes in The Ebb Tide, a novella by James Blaylock. It has series characters Langdon St. Ives, Jack Owlsby and Hasbro navigating the Thames in a bathyscaphe, while Narbondo commands something approximating a submarine. Except, apart from the British locations, it’s more or less pure fantasy with a shipyard under London’s streets and the final confrontation with the villain taking place in a “nightmare” realm under the sea. Cherie Priest has more or less limited herself to the reality of the Hunley and speculates on how it might have been modified to be safer while on the move and in battle. The navigation down the Mississippi and subsequent naval engagement is historical in style. Indeed, apart from the obvious exaggeration in the use of airships and the odd appearance of a rotter, this could be an action version of, say, one of the Benjamin January novels by Barbara Hambly — set in New Orleans in the 1830s, they deal with the difficulties of people of colour in a blend of historical and mystery genres.
This is not to say Ganymede is stronger or weaker because of Cherie Priest’s effort at greater historical accuracy, but it does disturb the general level of inventiveness on display. In Boneshaker we have a digging machine releasing an underground pocket of gas with unfortunate results i.e. it’s a blend of fantasy and horror. Clementine has pursuit and aerial warfare in airships. Dreadnought has a remarkable train and Wellsian fighting machines in a cross-country spy thriller. Ganymede is a more conventional war novel with an army of occupation intent on finding a dangerous newly-invented weapon. There’s a minor flirtation with magic but, with the exception of using the zombies as target practice, the overall feel is realistic. In a sense, this runs contrary to the spirit we would normally expect of a book labelled steampunk.
So we have a brief catch-up on the gossip around Seattle, finding out what the folks have been doing since the last novel, then it’s off to New Orleans for the delivery of the submarine to the waiting Admiral Herman Partridge. It’s competently done but it lacks interest and excitement. The whole point of steampunk is that it exaggerates the reality the Victorian Age engineers could deliver. This dumbs down the adventure to the level the contemporary engineers might have delivered and, with the addition of an air crew, the submersible proves easy to “drive” and use to sink enemy craft. This is disappointing, recalling the by-the-numbers adventure stories I read fifty and more years ago.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
The jacket artwork is, yet again, by Jon Foster.
Well, here we are in sequel land, and with more zombies. Although, in this case, only the best zombies need apply for admission. Following on the success of Feed, here comes Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) with Deadline (Book II of the Newsflesh Trilogy). Stands back for a slightly ragged cheer to rise from the ranks of the massed fans. We were all impressed by the first. Indeed, it’s in the running for a Hugo Award so we’re not alone in thinking this was something special. Our months of waiting are over and we can dive into this thick mass market paperback. This produces an immediate groan. Not, you understand, because a zombie has just sashayed into view and is asking for a quick nibble. But because really long books run the risk of being padded out. The bean counters who have a lot of say in the publishing word want more pages for the bucks of their advances. That way, they can sell the public on the more-means-better marketing approach. Never mind the quality, feel the weight.
And the moment we launch into this sequel, our worst fears are realised. This must be the slowest of slow-burner starts in the history of sequel writing. Instead of starting off clean with a two page summary of what we’ve forgotten about the first, we get into a whole rewrite of the first book spread out over the first fifty pages. It’s immensely tedious and not a little annoying. This goes hand-in-hand with some really weird shit. I know I must have read a first-person narrative starring a hero who’s as mad as a box holding two frogs. I’ve read so many thousand books before. This can’t be a first with a schizo who has fully realised conversations with his dead stepsister (in third-person terms, it’s a bit like Harvey Dent who talks things though with himself rather than just flipping a coin). Indeed, towards the end, our hero Shaun is hallucinating she’s in the same room with him and actually touching him. Talk about someone who’s out of his tree and running around in the long grass looking for his psychotic break. This should be the ultimate unreliable narrator except this figment of his imagination keeps giving him very sane advice. Essentially, George, the dead stepsister, keeps him alive and functioning. This is a lot for us to get our head round (or perhaps that should be “heads”).
However, once we get past the leaden opening, it picks up speed and begins to bowl along with the same energy that kept the first book so entertaining. Except we then have a new phenomenon to contend with. It’s what I call cod science. This is content written in language suggesting it’s real science and, for most practical purposes, it’s probably convincing to everyone who knows nothing about the subject-matter involved. That’s me, of course. I could write everything I know about virology on the back of a Brobdingnagian postage stamp. So we have to stop as various experts are tapped for input and our two-minded hero and his merry (wo)men then try to make sense of it. Yes, all this is necessary to advance the plot in an interesting direction. Indeed, one might actually applaud Mira Grant for constructing a nice exercise to evaluate utilitarianism as it might be applied to disease control. When I was younger and could still think coherently, I used to play around with the basic ideas propounded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, looking for modern scenarios in which we might explore whether the methodology was still relevant. This plot highlights a very interesting dilemma. Although there does seem to be a wider conspiracy in play, one can understand why some of the interested parties might want to hide the “big picture”. Needless to say, our team of news hounds is hot on the trail given that the solution to the problem, as and when it emerges, will also identify the person responsible for the death of stepsister George.
The final problem lies in the use of the cloning trope. I always get the theory of how the body can be grown from the DNA of the original. What I never understand is how the copy comes with the knowledge and memories of the first. Yes, I know we’re not supposed to think about this but, in a book which makes great play of its cod science, you would think there would be some effort to fill in the gaps in our understanding.
Anyway, rather than spoil the enjoyment of getting to the end of this book, I’ll avoid any more discussion of the plot except to say there’s a completely fascinating development to our understanding of the way in which George died and why Shaun has even more reason to feel upset about it. Except, perhaps all this may be a little premature. So, where does all this leave us? If Deadline had been about one-hundred pages shorter, I think it would have been lining up for nominations in its own right. But someone has failed in the editorial stakes and left the blue pencil in a drawer. So be prepared to skip over the draggy bits to get to the heart of a very good story.
And just to prove my standards are too high, this novel is one of the 2011 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees and is shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Blackout.
To be honest, there’s very little left to be imagined in the horror supernatural field. Thematically, there has to be a creature or being that cannot exist in nature as we understand it. Individuals or groups are threatened. In the end, enough humans escape for life to continue. So the test of a good modern supernatural fantasy story is that it should take a well-worn concept like vampires and do something different. Whatever that difference, the result should be sufficiently interesting to hold the attention over the run of episodes, in this case, an appropriately inauspicious thirteen. More recently, we’ve seen the young adult cult of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series hit the screens with Edward and Bella chastely falling in love to the accompaniment of werewolves howling their jealousy (as happens in all the best romances). This is fairly mindless romantic drama for kids. Hellsing or Herushingu is an altogether different proposition. It began life as a manga written by Kouta Hirano, first appearing in 1997. The anime version was produced by Gonzo, directed by Umanosuke Iida and written by Chiaki Konaka.
Hellsing the anime deals with two not uncommon themes. The first is directly related to vampirism and follows the emotional journey of someone whose existence is saved by being bitten. The new member of the undead must come to terms with the consequences of the “life”. Secondly, the serial considers the nature of revenge. How long should a “feud” persist and can either side be justified in prolonging the conflict whether in attack or defence? If we think about religion, reconciliation can be delayed for centuries as in the case of Catholicism and Protestantism. Similarly, there are innumerable examples in relationships between countries, e.g. although it’s politically incorrect to mention it following two major wars, England playing Germany on the football field always seems to have an extra dimension.
I mentioned the Twilight series because these themes are to some extent also present as Bella Swan does become a vampire after having to contend with a revenge attack from a rival coven. There’s also a shared theme of the attackers creating a “vampire” army although, in the anime, this is done by implanting a chip rather than by the more traditional biting — the result being something rather more zombie than vampire in that the soldiers are more slow-moving killing machines directed by the arch-rival to Alucard called Incognito. By way of saying farewell to Twilight, I should explain that Stephenie Meyer did not intend to write “horror” or even “fantasy” novels (albeit simplified for younger readers). The romance genre was always uppermost in her mind. In English terms, this is Mills and Boon meets Dracula (which, by the way, is Alucard when spelt backwards). Both the Twilight books and films are relatively unthreatening. From the first frames onward, everything about the artwork and style of developing the narrative in Hellsing signals a darker intention.
Put simply, mashing up the manga and the anime, there’s a Nazi group called Millennium intent on reviving the Third Reich. It creates an army of vampire ghouls or zombies depending on the chip their operatives implant into the captured soldiers who then attack London. There’s a simultaneous attack by a Vatican group called Iscariot. The joint intention is to bring down the British government, kill the Queen and finally dispose of Alucard who has been defending England for a century. This less than modest agenda also includes displacing the Church of England as the dominant religion in the island. So what we see are the first stages of acquiring subjects for testing the chips and, when all the fine-tuning on the transformation is done, we move on to the big climax fight in London.
The real interest revolves around the relationship between Aculard and Seras Victoria. In her first deployment in Cheddar, she’s taken hostage and, to kill the vampire, Alucard shoots him through her. Not that he feels particularly guilty about this collateral damage, but Alucard does the decent thing and offers to save her. Depending on which version you choose to follow, this “conversion” is possible because Seras Victoria is a virgin. The tradition in vampire lore is that an exchange of blood creates a bond between the empowering vampire and the newbie. In this story, Alucard is more interested in Victoria than we might have expected. In practical terms this may be because Seras Victoria is tough. This is not some wimpy woman. Her father was an undercover police officer. As a child, she was forced to watch his execution. Consequently, she’s turned into a seasoned street fighter and, if necessary, a stone-cold killer. She may feel her morality challenged by now being dependent on drinking blood but, when there’s danger, she embraces her new powers to good effect. Significantly, an early test is the need to take down ex-colleagues from her unit. Seeing what they have become, she confidently disposes of them.
Coming now to the inevitable question of how the women are presented in the story, we have two primary characters to consider. Integra Hellsing is the leader of the defensive team. She’s drawn as androgynous. The basic style of dress is male with little or no emphasis to suggest female characteristics. Similarly her attitudes and behaviour in both getting out into the field and also dominating Alucard suggest real self-confidence and power. Seras Victoria is shown as essentially female but, although there’s some conformity to the more general anime style of sexualised imagery (see Sex, Manga and Anime) with her bigger breasts and the appropriately placed area of shading in the groin area, the overall effect is less obvious than in other series. Taking the image in the context of this bloodthirsty story, the artists show Seras Victoria as a soldier, defending her country against attack.
Overall, there’s some confusion about precisely who the different enemies are and which group they represent. The failure of the British authorities to give complete backing to the Hellsing Organisation is also not well explained. It all makes more sense when you read the manga. But despite a sense of being rushed through the plot, Hellsing or Herushingu is one of the better supernatural animes and worth watching.
Screenshots are from the ever-reliable Autumn Rain.