Archive for November, 2010

ResAliens Issue 4

November 8, 2010 10 comments

Well, here’s a novelty. I haven’t looked at a magazine for years (what with books being so fascinating and all). And this is one of these micro-press efforts that struggles valiantly to survive, needing every possible encouragement to get from one issue to the next. Having been in the small press game, I’m always prepared to give support to deserving causes. The name above the door is ResAliens guest-edited by John Ottinger III. This is Issue 4.

So, here we’ve got two burning issues of the day.

Given the micro-press world can’t afford to pay the cents-per-word demanded by the serious pros, the task of the editor is to find stories good enough from the ranks of the up-and-coming. Having sat in the position of resident critic to a new writers’ website, I know how great the struggle to persuade people they haven’t got what it takes. Only every now and again do you come across someone who not only has interesting ideas, but can capture them in readable prose and is prepared to accept editorial guidance. So, when you put up your shingle as a new magazine, how many of the stories offered make the grade?

Second, even if the stories are good enough, the economics of the small publishing business are always hand-to-mouth. In hard copy, these magazines are selling for $8 plus shipping. The alternative is to buy a download from Lulu for $2. For whichever sum, you get 60 pages or so of fiction. Not allowing for sales tax which varies from state to state, the price for a new mass market paperback anthology or collection is likely to be between $6.99 and $8.99, so with more words, the paperback is potentially better value for money.

We start off with “Fishing the Moons of Jupiter” by Jason Rizos. This is flirting with the old idea of capturing aliens to either solve a problem on Earth or as a drug for our entertainment. In this case, it’s a rock-eating worm that can help produce geothermal energy and so reduce the risk of global warming. Curious that, even in this future time, we still have oil — not over the Peak — and the Earth is apparently not too badly damaged by climate change — just goes to show that warming must be a myth. Anyway, my real objection to this story is the random approach to fishing for these “life-saving” worms. No-one in their right minds is going to spend this amount of money to send men that far without investing a few extra dollars in some systems for underground imaging. Real fishermen today use sonar*. This group of hunters could use technology based on temperature differentials since the worms give off heat, or identify oxygen molecules on the surface or, as with current mining and construction works, use ground-penetrating radar systems to map the tunnels and other voids. While the main body of the story is quite effective once the tunnel has been located, the ending is really strange as we are left uncertain whether this is real or a delusion induced by the head injury to our POV character. Shame really. With a little more thought, this could have been really good.

“Overgrown” by Stoney M. Setzer is decidedly clunky. The opening desperately gives us exposition in a few words of conversation, closely followed by infodumps on Carla and Brady’s living arrangements. Anyway, here we remember The Day of the Triffids and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as a magic fertiliser made from meteor dust gets plants moving. This is not to say that derivative stories can never be any good. But rather that, if you are recycling the plots of classic novels and B-movies, you’d better do it well. Sadly, this is not done well.

“Immortals” by Leah Darrow adds a twist to immortality in that a woman dies if she has a child. This is an idea with great potential and, to some extent, it’s realised. There’s good technique on display in suggesting how society has developed rather than resorting to mere exposition — I particularly like the security guards for the cheese. But when we get to the nub of the plot, it pulls its punches. Emotionally, we are invited to see a woman’s desire for a child as unselfish. It may well have become socially unacceptable to die in this way — in a world where people may live for a thousand and more years, only those depressed by the endless passing of the years might choose to die — but her desire to live on through her child is left without a real context. We are told there’s a “tiny island state” where the Traditionalists live. Friends’ initial joy turns to what? How does the rest of society react? Would her pregnancy lead to her being ostracised and invited to join the Traditionalists? What discriminations might the child face when growing up surrounded by adults embarrassed by what he represents? What is the significance of this forty year period — is this a Logan’s Run cut-off when suicide is demanded? There are so many questions left unanswered. Nevertheless, this is a brave effort.

We then end with a good run. “End of Eden” by Shane Collins is better written and creates a not-unlikely scenario in a post-apocalyptic world. It would have been improved if it had explained what caused the problem and where most of the people had gone. Starting off in medias res never works well for me. “Salieri: An Untold Story of Griffin and Kemp” by Marina Julia Neary is dedicated to H. G. Wells and is in a league of its own. Although it adapts the terminology of British life for US readers and is not really Wellsian in style, it’s a nicely judged story which elegantly captures the stifling quality of Victorian academic and professional life as one generation is groomed to succeed the next. “The King of Infinite Space” by Jason Reynolds is also a well-executed story, overcoming its lack of originality with real wit and style. While “Testament” by Michael C. Lea dabbles in a future academic research facility where the death of one in a delightfully confused love triangle may signal the end of contact with a world on the cusp of a major event that will resonate through its history and culture.

So there you have it. Looking at the scores on the doors we have four hits, two brave shots, and one clear miss. Not bad for a micro-press magazine. There’s many a magazine or short anthology produced in the professional publishing world that would be grateful for such a record.

Now here’s the rub. This is a set of stories that could have been genuinely excellent, but circumstances have conspired to leave things in this somewhat unsatisfactory state. Allowing for everyone’s taste being different, I can say the whole represents an interesting read but, for me, it’s not worth the money in hard copy (unless you think it’s going to be a collectible). At $2 in download form, however, this is a good buy. You know you should. We should all support up-and-coming micro-press magazines. One day, thanks to our support, they may become great.

*My heartfelt thanks to Jason Rizos for pointing out my error — see the comments below.

Bleak History by John Shirley

November 7, 2010 1 comment

Reading is a strange process. You think you have it all worked out and then, suddenly, it surprises you. When I started reading this book, the first thought was how quickly it reads. Having just staggered through an anthology with some stories distinctly challenging to finish, I was immediately seduced by the transparent, albeit noirish, style. John Shirley has a flair for cutting everything back to basics and getting on with the story. The eye seems drawn through the text as if all bumps in the road have been smoothed away. The mood improves. There’s a greater sense of enjoyment. And yet. . .

I have to start with an admission of prejudice. I’ve been a fan of Shirley ever since I read City Come A-Walkin’ some thirty years ago. Wow, you say to yourself. Was it really that long ago? And you smile because you can still remember the plot. Sometimes, good things just stick with you. So when I start reading an urban fantasy whose hero prefers independent action against bad guys, I feel on familiar territory. OK so this is a bounty hunter rather than the physical manifestation of a city’s consciousness, but there are resonances. And yet. . .

And yet, this is not quite as good as it threatens to be. It has all the elements that should be there for a successful witches brew of terror, except it’s all rather matter-of-fact. Take our hero. He’s had traumas to deal with. His brother died (or at least went missing) during childhood. He finds he’s got supernatural powers (disconcerting to even the most calm of people). His bible-bashing parents can’t stand having him around and send him off to a military school. From which he joins the army and learns all about survival (a little supernatural power here and there helps him through on the physical side, but he’s left with emotional scars). And then he’s chased by the usual government agency that wants to lock up all mutants as a threat to national security.

But, as is predictable, this government agency is run by an out-of-control megalomaniac who wants to use the people with supernatural powers to rule the world.

And only our hero can stop him. I have seen this kind of plot before.

It all starts off quite well as our hero meets the girl, but I’m immediately curious to understand how this magic system works. It seems he can draw on power to form “bullets” or transfer this power into real bullets which then act like grenades. He can also levitate and has this neat ability to know when he’s being watched. And he can talk to ghosts which is useful if you want someone to look inside a room for you and warn you of possible danger. But how does this bullet throwing thing work? He’s something of a softball pitcher and obviously has a good arm. But instead of being to guide these little packages of energy to their targets, he can miss. Except, when confronted by men with guns, he can suddenly fire at will and hit the guns (not the men holding them) every time without apparently taking serious aim. It’s all a bit frustrating for the reader because slightly more time is taken in explaining how Gulcher, one of the bad guys, interfaces with a comparable power. I would feel better about the hero if I understood the strengths and weaknesses of his abilities. He seems to prefer human fighting to solve his problems. Why is he so reluctant to explore and use his supernatural powers? If he can bend tranquiliser darts away from himself and shield himself from an exploding fragmentation grenade, why is there a problem with bullets? Put another way: for someone who has had years to live with “powers”, he does not seem that comfortable in using them. He could see a fence and walk over it. He could break down doors or knock holes in walls. It could all be so casual. Yet he seems to have to steel himself to do any of it. Indeed, even those with comparable powers express frustration they have never really seen him in action.

This seems to cast a shadow over the tone of the book. Our hero is not that convincing. Worse, he’s been set up by fate to be manipulated through his relationship with the girl. This leads to a somewhat curious situation in which, eventually, the girl shoots someone important to him. And his reaction is muted, ending up with them getting in some sack time. OK, so we know from the out that the hero will get the girl, but his reaction to the shooting is curiously numb.

The major threat from Moloch is also understated. Even though only a small portion of this being is able to get through the barrier, it seems content to feed on a few people in a casino until taking over a key General with access to the President. There’s very little mayhem even though we are told other “bad guys” have been affected. I suppose evil prefers to move quietly until a positive foothold is established, but this is all very small scale.

So we have Shirley’s trademark prose whizzing us effortlessly through the story, but have a story that’s a bit thin. It’s a case of almost a great book. With slightly more thought invested in the development of the ideas, we would have had real drama and tension. As it is, I was interested to see how it turned out and, when I finished, I picked up the next book with hope in my heart.

For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis, a standalone novel, Doyle After Death, plus a chap book fiction/non-ficton collection New Taboos. There are two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern

November 6, 2010 1 comment

Always one to start off these reviews with a slightly different view of the world, I recall a poem called “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns, the first verse of which is:

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away. . .

It’s a pleasing paradox as, self-evidently, if he is not there, he cannot go away. This is something we can all smile about as absurd and, for a brief moment, it holds our attention. Then, as is always the way with these things, we give up thinking about absences and focus on those who are present.

In this rough and ready way, I am highlighting the problem with the theme selected by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern for their new anthology Is Anybody Out There? They invited authors to dally with the Fermi Paradox. Put simply, if there are so many civilisations out there, why have we seen no sign of them? So the challenge to the authors is to make the absence of aliens somehow entertaining. Whereas Mearns reached a satisfactory outcome in a few words, we are to wade through more than 300 pages explaining why there are no little men on the stair today.

We start off with “The Word He Was looking For Was Hello” by Alex Irvine which, truth be told, I found tedious. “Residue” by Michael Arsenault is a pleasing conversation between a couple lying out on the grass, looking up at the night sky. As a piece of writing, it comes in well up the scale of skill, and it holds interest as a moment of affection, perhaps amounting to love. I suppose it’s tangentially science fiction because the editors have included it in this anthology. “Good News From Antares” by Yves Meynard is somewhat weird as a writer at a convention has a Sagan moment in an armchair which transports him dreamlike into a meeting with an alien character from one of his story sequences. While “Report From the Field” by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn works hard to sustain a joke rather in the style of William Tenn. It’s a brave effort to spin out a thin idea over this length.

“Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake is one of these referential stories depending for part of its effect on the readers picking up all the in-jokes. The idea of where aliens might be hiding is quite entertaining in a story of mutiny in the depths of space, but the point of the story — that some answers are in themselves errors — is somewhat laboured. Similarly, “The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow is not a bad idea thrashed to death to make it fill the pages. One or two explorations of paradoxes might have held my interest, but this just seemed interminable. I dare not comment on “One Big Monkey”. Definitely not my kind of story!

The few good stories are “Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul di Filippo, a rousing tale of boredom and its inevitable descent into mere disinterest, followed by complete loss of interest in continuing life. “Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch, is a rather touching story of a dying astronaut’s relationship with a young girl. It manages to blend interesting character development with the unknowable, seducing us into suspending disbelief long enough to get to the end. I would like music to be a key to understanding the universe so, in a way, the plot appeals to my prejudices. “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford is a sophisticated piece which suggests a novel way of communicating and different possible motives for the communication. In a way, this starts a trend where the editors cheat on their theme because aliens are shown to exist, but I forgave them because this and the other stories are good enough on their own merits.

The best of the bunch is “The Dark Man” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which has another “real” alien periodically appearing in Rome. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing which blends a journalist’s scepticism and determination to debunk paranormal claims, with a real sense of mystery. “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan is another pleasing idea which has us able to see into different dimensions if certain types of tumor affect the brain. It’s nicely done because the symptoms as presented are those ascribed to those suffering seizures, and the results are nicely ambiguous with agents of “authority” naturally characterising talk of aliens as evidence of mental disorder. “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes is an elegant rehash of an old idea in which an alien, possibly a child, has accidentally been trapped in a human body and really would like to call home and get out of this Hell. “A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson comes up with a unique way for AIs to communicate with us. Kudos to the Old Master for remaining so creative and giving us such a fun ride. “Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What completes the list of good eggs with a story somewhat like those YA stories I read decades ago of salmon returning to the river where they spawned. This has just enough contemporary reality to keep the interest in the “aliens” going.

So, on balance, I would look to pick this up secondhand. Although there are some very good stories, the overall standard is disappointing. I think the editors bit off more than they could chew with the theme, and then felt obliged to take some weaker stories to make up the numbers.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Other Earths.

Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec or Adele: Rise of the Mummy (2010)

November 4, 2010 2 comments

France and Belgium have several noble traditions and one is the bande dessinée. Forget the notion of anything so crude as a comic and never dare compare them with the graphic novel. They are an institution of the best kind, spawning pale imitations in the rest of continental Europe. One of the more interesting of the series is Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec by Jacques Tardi, now brought to the big screen by Luc Besson. It deals with the adventures of Adèle, an investigative journalist who seems to end up in extraordinary situations.

This is a classic cinematic farce, bringing a series of endlessly improbable events to the screen with a quite wondrous sense of the absurd. Sadly, the dubbing wiped out the soundtrack. I would have appreciated the chance to judge the original use of language. But the succession of sight gags is sheer delight. As a child, I spent years watching many of the silent films being recycled. Although the talkies were the exclusive fare for the cinema, television used the older films as fillers. I was therefore subjected to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and absorbed the conventions of silent comedy. When I went to the cinema, I was then able to appreciate some of the best of the new breed like Jacques Tati who, in Jour de Fête and later films, created new ways to make us laugh without words being necessary. Think of this as an approach relying on a universal kind of laughter. It’s not related to a specific time or culture. It’s inherently amusing.

Luc Besson is attempting a modern farce with similar conventions where you are shown every component necessary to make the gag work, and then allowed to watch how all those components are brought together in sequence to get to the punchline. So, in the mummy’s tomb, you are allowed to examine all the different entrances and exits, to walk around the rooms and view machines. When a door opens and oil emerges on the the sand, you wait to be shown the cigarette lighter, and so on. Sooner or later, you know someone will fall in the machine and, having been shown exactly what it used to do, you wait to see exactly how it turns out in modern times.

The major elements that make this particular plot work are the “mad” professor with psychic abilities, the pterodactyl, the establishment of incompetent officials and, of course, the mummies who are urbane and civilised, and not a little disappointed we turned out, well, so unsophisticated. Fortunately, they are able to suggest the courtyard of the Louvre as a perfect place to build a pyramid — one of the more conventional “spoken” jokes.

When it comes to a comparison, it’s instructive to think of Stephen Sommers’ version of The Mummy. This is a brash Hollywood epic which, by mining the past conventions of “egyptian” stories, is able to bring us homage mixed with a little mockery. It’s entertaining in a take-no-prisoners style of film-making. It does make us laugh, but it’s an obvious and broad humour, exploiting our knowledge of past films to create contemporary enjoyment.

Adèle also depends on our understanding of the past, but it embraces our best memories and treasures them. It starts with the music which is a clever 1930’s or 40’s pastiche of all things Egyptian. The CGI recreation of Paris in 1912 is subtle and kind. The mockery of the overweight and magnificently hirsute upper class and officialdom is affectionate. We can see all their faults and forgive them because they had no sense of their own ridiculousness. They were passionate about their food, not a little prurient when it came to sex, and deeply incompetent when it came to getting anything done. Adèle, on the other hand, is everyone’s dream of an indomitable French woman. There was nothing such a woman could not achieve if she put her mind to it — even her approach to tennis would put Maria Sharapova to shame.

Although some of the CGI involving the pterodactyl is a little clunky at times, the mummies and human cast work round the small technical problems with considerable aplomb. Louise Bourgoin is calm and self-possessed no matter what is going on around her, while Jacky Nercessian is perfect as the resurrectionist mad professor.

Overall, this was a wonderful way of passing time in the cinema. I regret the dubbing, but can understand why a distribution company should think it necessary. Subtitled films do not sell in the US. Frankly, even with the dubbing, I am not sure this film will sell in the US. I would like to hope it would but it’s so European in general, and French in particular, I fear the cultural gap will be too great. There is action. Sadly, it’s not the kind of Hollywood action audiences expect to see in “mummy” films. Where were the car chases and explosions? Why was there no bloodshed (not counting the sheep)? All in all, there’s too much whimsy in the fantasy. The horror is not hard-hitting. For God’s sake, it’s an intelligent farce, a comedy! How can this be watchable cinema in the US? So, given all its weaknesses, let’s selfishly keep this as an unappreciated treasure for ourselves in the rest of the world. We can unhesitatingly recommend it to each other and smile indulgently when “they” don’t get the joke.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

November 2, 2010 1 comment

When I was no-but a lad, I used to spend some of my own pennies buying Dennis Wheatley. Perhaps in the 1980s, I might have felt some embarrassment about this but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it as being perfectly in tune with contemporary taste. Despite his often appalling prose style, he had a knack for being able to construct good adventure stories. If you combine this with the emerging interest in Satanism and the publication of crypto-history books like The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwela and Jacques Bergier and The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, you can see the world turning its gaze on the unthinkable. Even the cinema got in on the act with charismatic Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richeleau in The Devil Rides Out.

Since the 1950s and 60s, the trend has, if anything, accelerated. The running was taken up by a surprisingly large number of comics from Hellboy and the Justice Society of America battling Hitler as he wielded the Spear of Destiny, through to all the films and documentaries from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones to efforts by the History Channel — slightly ironic that a TV station claiming “history” as its fetish should give credence to allegedly true stories such as Hitler and the Occult. But, hey, a commercial station always gives people what they want to see. And all this before we start on the games like the Wolfenstein series.

So Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis, Volume One of the Milkweed Triptych, has us retreading well-trodden ground from the Duc de Richleau in They Used Dark Forces by Dennis Wheatley, John Graham in Lammas Night by Kathryn Kurtz and many others. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises the bar an author has to jump over if he wishes to say something new and interesting. As it starts, this is not promising. The choice of Eidolons is distinctly odd. For the most part, the genre tends to see these “beings” as phantasms or ghosts. In Ancient Greece, it meant a supernatural being who looked exactly like a real person — a different way of thinking about the soul or that part of a person surviving after death to enter Hades where consciousness would continue in a new environment. For Tregillis to be using this in a more diabolical form is going against history and expectation. Nevertheless, if we overlook the choice of word, the result is actually more interesting.

The book starts in a very naive way with both Germany and the British moving into a conflict, but the darker side soon emerges. The mechanisms for producing the German superbeings is pure steampunk cruelty, while the British are relying on these powerful supernatural beings as their defence and paying them off with local blood sacrifices. Everyone in positions of power is being totally rational in promoting their national interests. In war, morality bends to satisfy the needs of expediency.

Had this simply been British warlocks fighting German “supermen”, it would quickly have grown pedestrian. But it’s saved by one thread. The practical way in which our precog understands the forces of cause and effect is a delight. Throughout, she carefully walks the path that must happen for her own survival and the best outcome for. . . Well, that’s the hook. Since we have no idea what she thinks is the best outcome, watching her decision-making is fascinating. It’s also good we get off the broad structure of history as it is and into an alternate. Although there’s an alliance between the British, the Russians and, thus far, an isolationist US, we are left with Russia in control of continental Europe. The pragmatic British are following the German example and inducting their own children into a weapons program. While the Japanese are pushing on the Russian flank. It’s all nicely balanced as we wait to see exactly what the Russians have been working on other than copying the British EMP weapon.

As one who makes a lot of money writing in US English, I always look with interest when one of my trans-Atlantic cousins writes in British English. Except this is even more complex because, having decided to set the work in an essentially British or German locale, the publisher needs the resulting book to be comprehensible to US readers. We therefore have a most curious end-product which flirts with much of the vocabulary of English as she was spoke around the time WWII broke out, but has editors positively intervening when word choices were judged completely incomprehensible. So, for example, in the middle of sentences describing our younger heroes in a pub, drinking tea (remarkably) and eying the birds, one pays for the drinks out of his billfold. It’s not that I mind the odd lapse. Indeed, when I look at the extent of the Anglicization, I’m impressed by the bravery of the publishers in not having a glossary at the end explaining some of the more obscure words. For example, how many Americans know that the “blower” is the telephone and a “bob” was a shilling, i.e. a unit of currency? I suppose everything is reasonably guessable in context. But it’s a stretch. Overall, there’s a mannered clunkiness to the dialogue, somewhat matching the period. Not in the best way, it reminded me of Noel Coward.

Taking one step back from immediate impressions, I’m left with a good feeling about the result. Even though I suspect US readers may have problems with some of the vocabulary, there’s a very positive momentum to the writing. It pushes us along and keeps us interested. More importantly, there’s a postmodernist recognition that angels do not win wars. Leaders pay the prices they must to protect their countries. They cannot afford the luxury of scruples. More minor figures may end up shell-shocked, not only in the post-traumatic stress disorder sense, but also when they realise how immoral they must be to win. Such weaklings, for now, have left the kitchen.

I have ordered the second in the series to see how it works out.

For reviews of the second and third in the series, see The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. There’s also a free-standing Something More Than Night.

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