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Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ (2004)

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Godzilla-_Final_Wars

After a long break, I decided to watch a film and, because I never like to be wholly predictable, chose Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ (2004). This is somewhat perverse since so many films of potential interest have appeared over the last year or so (including the latest Hollywood attempt at a Godzilla film), but this seemed to have the right level of silliness to match my current mood. It turns out the Japanese have not lost their sense of wackiness when it comes to Kaiju films. This is the twenty-eighth in the series and it celebrates fifty years of Godzilla. Yes the man in the rubber suit first appeared on our screens in 1954 and has now been venerated by his very own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. All other monsters (with the possible exception of Geiger’s Alien) look on enviously at the international success of this rubber suit (still no sign of CGI replacing of monster of choice as he stomps through cardboard buildings while incinerating troops on the ground with his radioactive halitosis).

Masahiro Matsuoka, presumably the one on the left

Masahiro Matsuoka, presumably the one on the left

This time around, we’re looking at an alien invasion plot which, to some extent, puts our monsters in the shade. Here comes a short summary. This is an invasion some 12,000 years in the planning. I suppose, with the time dilation effect, the aliens could have come to Earth, done the necessary, and then gone home or whizzed round the galaxy a couple of times so it was only a year or so for them, and 12,000 years for us. Such details are never considered in Japanese science fiction films. Anyway, these aliens with a name so unpronounceable they decide to call themselves X, plant Gigan, a cyborg, in readiness. They also introduce a gene into some local monsters, and one or two humans. Our Xians are into serious mind control and, once the gene spreads through the host’s body, the aliens can control the body with their thought waves.

Godzilla doing what he does best

Godzilla doing what he does best

Coming forward, Earth has been developing a group of mutant soldiers to form the core of Earth Defence Force. Yes, the mutation for stronger, faster and more intelligent (sometimes) soldiers is the X-gene. This looks to be a great idea until the Xian mothership appears over the EDF HQ and takes over all the mutant soldiers bar one who’s that one-in-a-million mutation the Xians call a Kaiser. Yes, he’s a kind of superman just waiting for the right set of circumstances to wake up his superpowers. Coming to the crunch, the aliens want to smash our civilisation. They want to farm the few surviving communities for food so call up all the monsters containing the X-gene and have them rampage around. The EDF is overwhelmed and realise their only hope is to wake up Godzilla and have him/her/it fight and beat them all, while the few remaining humans fight the Xians on their mothership. The aliens die. All the monsters bar Godzilla, Mothra and Minilla die, and the obvious couples go off into the rubble to begin repopulating the Earth.

Don Frye and his epic moustache

Don Frye and his epic moustache

As to the cast Shin’ichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka) is not the most lively of actors but, courtesy of some very forgiving cutting and slow-motion, fights quite well when called upon to defend Earth. His love interest is Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa) who’s supposedly a biologist but, apart from using it to store costume jewellery, would not know what to do with a test tube. Her older sister, Anna Otonashi (Maki Mizuno) is more credible as a newscaster but she’s only there to look like a love-struck mooncalf at Colonel Douglas Gordon (Don Frye) who’s one of these mixed martial artists turned “actors” who hides behind a large moustache and pretends he can’t speak a single word of Japanese. Other humans are involved but they are less important. The cast of monsters is impressive including Anguirus, Ebirah, Kamacuras, Rodan and others. Minilla is, as always, endearing with the Twins and Mothra doing their fortune cookie act to warn the humans of the need to die with dignity if attacked by monsters. Given we have the serial destruction of Paris, Sydney, New York and other iconic cities, we get to see extras of many different nationalities and races throwing themselves around with considerable enthusiasm. All of which just leaves us to talk about the Xilian Regulator (Kazuki Kitamura) who has gone on to do good work in the Galileo and other series. Courtesy of the lighting and careful fight choreography, he does well as the villain who learns the hard way that using hard attacking styles all the time loses out to soft power. The only other name I need mention is Tsutomu Kitagawa who’s one of Japan’s best suit actors. You may not know it, but he’s the stuntman behind many of the monsters and the Power Rangers. Truly a man making a career out of anonymity. Put overall, Godzilla: Final Wars or ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ is so absurd it becomes enjoyable. Not having seen a “proper” Godzilla film for several decades, this was a wonderful excursion down nostalgia lane.

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterdays-Kin-by-Nancy-Kress

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, one section of the world’s population became fixated by the possibility of nuclear armageddon. Wherever you turned, the media was full of news stories about what Russia was supposed to be doing and the countermeasures being taken by the West. In fiction, words and images bombarded us with alien invasions and other apocalyptic shenanigans as metaphors for what mutually assured destruction would achieve if either side pressed the button to signal the commencement of hostilities. So from the earliest age, I was immersed in every conceivable form of plot involving the arrival of aliens. Some were Greeks bearing gifts, others made no bones about their intention to wipe out humanity, while a very small percentage actually proved benign. Having endured sixty years plus reading years of watching this trope played out in all the media, it doesn’t exactly light my fire to see Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, 2014) arriving on my to-read pile. These aliens turn up, claim to have peaceful intentions, and then just sit there for two months not doing anything serious except exchanging a few ideas with the United Nations.

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

I mean, just how boring are these guys! There’s none of the gung-ho, shoot them from the skies aggression we’ve come to expect from either side. Of course, the politicians talk while the conspiracy theorists go nuts trying to work out why they have really come all this way. Surely it can’t just be to say, “We come in peace. Take us to your leaders.” I mean, what civilisation would spend all that cash to send such a wimpy crew to do nothing but sit there?

So our author has to do something to make all this passivity interesting. She has this family of a mother (the father was a drunk who passed on some years ago) and her three children. She’s a top research scientist in genetics, and her children are a border guard, an environmentalist, and a dropout. Notice the subtle hints. One keeps illegal aliens from coming into America from the south. One deals with invading species which disrupt the local ecology. And the other does a new type of street drug and experiences an acute form of empathy. Wow, are those going to be useful skills, or what?

Needless to say, the story quickly resolves itself into mother and dropout versus the aliens. After the first few chapters, I guessed the plot. Although the detail has some degree of originality, the core is simply a different version of duplicitous aliens. So the end result is rather sad. Perhaps in another writer’s hands, there would have been more tension, or the characters, both human and alien, would have emerged to engage our sympathies or other relevant emotions. But what we have here is purely functional storytelling. This author has had a reasonably good idea and wants to get it down on paper with the minimum fuss and bother. The result is a predictable plot and characters that failed to offer any connection. The workaholic and somewhat socially dysfunctional mother failed to connect with the dropout before the aliens arrived. After their dramatic appearance, the young man gets on rather well with the aliens. Indeed, it turns out he shares something quite important with them. But, like most dropouts, he was not particularly likeable to his fellow humans. He did rather better with the aliens, managing to get one of them pregnant. So this is a quick read to see whether your guess as to the reason for the aliens’ arrival is correct. If you fail to get the right answer, keep reading for another fifty years when all such plots will be transparent to you. Overall this is a pedestrian effort and not really worth your time and attention.

For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Steal Across the Sky

Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Small Town Heories cover

As we grow, we learn about the world that surrounds us. The first independent exploration across the floor brings us a sense of the space around us, but strange phenomena like steps are beyond us. Then as our eyesight and cognitive functions improve, we appreciate vision in three dimensions. We grasp the idea of depth and “see” a context for the faces of mommy and daddy that have loomed above us in the cot. Our natural curiosity propels us to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new lives for ourselves, and boldly going where no baby has gone before.

This may seem a perverse way in which to begin the review of Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon, the fifth in the series, Wearing the Cape, featuring Astra and the junior team of Sentinels, but it nicely captures the spirit of the problem confronting all those who write a serial. When the first episode sees the light of day, the author waits with trepidation to see whether he or she’s managed to find the magic formula that will pay the bills while the next in the serial is written. In fact, this author has the talent to produce new books at a steady rate. He’s now a professional writer with a loyal following, keeping everyone happy. Well, keeping most people happy.

The problem may be put simply. The world of the superhero can be very two-dimensional. Each character comes with inbuilt strengths and weaknesses. In the right circumstances, any given character will prevail by using the strengths and shielding the weaknesses from attack. The plot in each book is therefore like a structured game or dance as opponents manoeuvre against each other to face combat in circumstances which favour one side. If the plot comes out right, the good guys have the edge over the bad guys, and we can pass on to the next thrilling instalment. Except, after a while this can grow a little repetitive. There are only a limited set of conditions in which each class of superhero can win or lose. After a few fights, we’ve seen most of these situations played out. So if the series is to develop, it must gain depth and context, i.e. the characterisation must show real growth, and there must be world-building so we understand how and why these particular superheroes and their antagonists came into being, and what motivates them to fight.

Marion G Harmon

Marion G Harmon

This book makes a more serious attempt not only to give some of the history explaining how this particular version of reality came into being, it also introduces a wider political context for the action, some of which takes place in Cuba. So, for the first time, we can begin to locate the American experience of superheroes in an international context. More interestingly, there’s also a discussion of the different types of political system that might emerge if some of the local citizenry develop superpowers. It’s all very well to assume some people would side with the forces of law and order, offering help to subdue superpowered villains as they break the law. But this ignores the need for a legal structure in which the powerful may be protected from civil liability. Imagine the problem if a gang of supervillains breaks into a bank. Superheroes surround the area and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, a significant amount of damage is caused to buildings, the street furniture, and any vehicles in the area. And that’s before you get to any ordinary humans who get caught in the crossfire. So who pays to repair all the damage, replace broken fixtures and fittings, and cover the medical expenses of the humans injured? There must be careful liaison between conventional police officers and the superpowered helpers. Rules of engagement must be agreed. There must be penalties if the superpowered exceed their defined roles. There must also be investment in new forms of jail to hold those villains with different powers, and in the development of new weapons that can defeat the supervillains when none of the superheroes are around, or, perish the thought, if one of the superheroes goes rogue.

So one of the joys of reading books like this is to see an author making a real effort to develop the basic scenario. The opening books were auspicious because there’s real ingenuity in the way they exploit the information made available through time travel. However, as the series has progressed, the changes made using this information have produced an increasingly divergent reality which no longer matches the future from which the information was gleaned. So now the heroes are flying more by the seat of their pants, hoping their best decisions are good enough to keep their world on a safe track. Our primary hero, Astra, is also growing up. She’s still making mistakes as you would expect of someone of her age, but there are signs of maturity creeping in. Some time soon, she’s going to become a fine superhero leader. While she waits for more responsibility and some national recognition, the rest of her team rally round for the big set-piece fight at the end with others making guest appearances from earlier books. It’s pleasing to see how everyone gets their place in the action as a new set of supervillains poses different challenges to overcome. So having wobbled very slightly in the last book, Harmon is very much back on track with Small Town Heroes, leaving a mess of troubles for Astra to deal with when she gets back home in the next book.

For reviews of the other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape
Young Sentinels

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer designed grunge border and aged textured background

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2014) Legends of the Duskwalker 2 follows on from Three with the young boy Wren now the Governor of Morningside. The title to the book is a spoiler in its own right because it announces that this citadel that’s stood against the Weir for a significant period of time is not going to do all that well as the pages turn. So this is a book that straddles a number of rather different genres. At its heart, this is a political thriller which examines how a self-contained group of people that has been in a stable situation should react when their autocratic leader is removed. The senior citizens who had been in a supporting role now find themselves as council members with a young boy nominally in charge. Unfortunately, one of this boy’s first instructions is to allow the people who had been living outside the city to take up residence. Worse, he has been awakening some of the Weir and expecting the city dwellers to accept these “people” as safe to live alongside them. The general rule is that people don’t respond well to change. Those who now have more obvious routes to power might be inclined to plot against the boy. Those on the streets might take it personally if outsiders start moving into accommodation next to them.

 

Secondly, this is a science fiction, post apocalypse novel. We still have absolutely no idea what precisely has gone wrong with this world but we seem to have a rump of humanity surviving in fortified cities (although, in the first book, we did meet one community surviving outside without walls) and under threat from the Weir. Now these are not simple zombie-like creatures. They retain some level of purpose and can also communicate with each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances, they are capable of co-ordinated action. There are also a small number of human mutants such as Wren who has a natural ability to interface with electronic systems and he can reawaken the human personality of a Weir. When awakened, he or she will retain the changed body and, depending on the length of time between turning and reawakening, it’s possible for the personality to return almost unchanged.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Thirdly, this is a hybrid military SF or Wild West weird. There’s a considerable amount of fighting between what’s left of the human armed forces and the Weir. The humans have some advanced weaponry, but they are relatively small in number. It’s therefore not unlike groups of white settlers, militia or US Cavalry going into the land occupied by large numbers of less well-armed Native Indians. Finally, this is a coming-of-age story as Wren and the young “friend” he has awakened adjust to circumstances around them and find themselves forced to take responsibility for what they are or may become.

 

The first novel in the series was very impressive because the main character was the titular Three who acted as the protector of, and guide for, Wren and his mother. This gave us a chase across the landscape as Three led the inexperienced boy to a place where there might be some safety. They were being pursued by a small group led by Wren’s older brother. Although not much of the world was explained, there was considerable tension in the chase and we did pick up clues about the Weir and some of the different ways in which human mutants could operate. Unfortunately, Three is killed at the end of the book which leaves Wren as the primary protagonist in this book. This is unfortunate because, frankly, he’s not that interesting most of the time. We’re waiting for him to grow into his mutant powers. So far, he’s just dabbling and lacks the self-confidence to really get things done. So although he can occasionally say relevant and quite powerful things in the political arena, he’s essentially dependent on his mother for political decision-making, and the cast of bodyguards to keep him alive. When things get too hot inside Morningside, they take off into the desert and this leads to some quite repetitive chase and fighting sequences. If the editorial staff had been prepared to cut down the length by at least ten percent, this would have been a better book. As it is, the book starts off not unpromisingly, but lacks an adult point of view to deal with the political situation. It’s only as we approach the end that there’s more emotional investment in the characters and we get into the conflict that will leave us ready for the next book in the series. This leads to the general conclusion that even though this improves towards the end, Morningside Falls is significantly less successful than the first in the series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Three.

 

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran

August 20, 2014 1 comment

ZombiesMoreRecent-600

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins with a fairly robust defence of the subgenre which, for better or worse, seems to have become essential to modern culture through The Walking Dead and other television series.

“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson takes us on an emotional journey as a nurse tours the camps where the infected wait to turn. She does her best to keep them healthy and, on her way back to the Ranger’s camp, she rescues a young girl from three who have changed. This is going to slow her down, particularly when the girl’s grandmother also joins them. At some level, we always do our best to care for those we love. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn (reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow) is one of these delightfully ambiguous stories which leaves us guessing where the musicologists “found” the music they recorded. “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey is a wonderful story that arises because the Religious Right insists on an amendment to the Constitution marking the start of life as the moment of conception. That means the innocent babies have to be rescued whenever their zombie mothers are killed. Well, surprisingly, some of them are and this is what happens when one of the rescued bonds with one of her jailers. “Pollution” by Don Webb may be set in Japan but it’s actually a universal story about the quality of life those more marginalised members of any society can expect. The zombie element is pretty cool as well with the virus and subsequent use of those infected having a macabre commercial logic.

“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin is short and to the point. It may be predictable, but it still manages to pack a bit of a punch with the last line. “The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh (collected in After the Apocalypse) gives us a prisoner who survives to learn a little about zombies and their lifestyle (tinfoil figures in this). In fact, they prove a lot more interesting than the other inmates and he can make them useful in his study of the zombies. “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane brings us news of an old outbreak and hope for a defence against the undead. Which brings us to “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss and the terrible contortions the guilty must go through to stave off the possibility of discovery. This has a surprising sense of humour as Maisie finally finds the right person to talk to.

“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones answers a question that’s been bothering baseball fans for years. If a ball hits a zombie and doesn’t fall to ground, is that a good catch and is the batter out? “The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney explores the old truism that the best thing that can ever happen to a rock star is that he or she dies. Record sales go ballistic as everyone remembers how good he or she was. Well, this is only a little different if slightly more entertainingly manic. “The Children’s Hour” by Marge Simon is a short poem to celebrate mother coming home. “Delice” by Holly Newstein is a traditional voodoo zombie tale of justice claimed when society had turned its eyes away. It’s good to see the old ideas stand up so well against the new. “Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton gives us the chance to consider why someone would want to raise the dead, and what qualities a person would have to have to kill both the undead and those who raised them. In entertaining stories like this, sometimes, you get a match.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky is an outstanding story of office life in which the religious zealot is confronted by evidence incompatible with her faith. When bell, book and candle fail to do the trick, perhaps she should resort to more extreme measures. At the very least, this should provide a better rug for the survivors to admire. “Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas gives us the chance to consider where the dead might come from. Of course, it could be from the past. But suppose, just suppose, it was from our future. Would that make any difference to the result? “Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Maka Tai Meh) transfers the threat to North America in which the old Indian ways give the chance of salvation, but the young have been corrupted by the White Man’s ways and so they will go to their doom. It’s surprising how much the change of culture and locale invigorates the plot. “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan takes us into Anglo Saxon times with one of these annoying bodies that just will not stay in the ground. “Jack and Jill” by Jonathan Maberry is a remarkably effective piece of atmospheric writing as the family on the not remote enough farm gets caught between a storm threatening to bring down the levee and a crowd of dead neighbours. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan nicely captures Gothic romance as the ever-inquisitive scientist seeks first death and then reanimation. Except there’s one small possibility he neglected to consider: that she may not have come back alone. “Rigormarole” by Michael A. Arnzen offers a slightly different way of spreading the infection. “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn has a gatecrasher at a party in Denver give Kitty a different way of starting the New Year. The most pleasing feature of this story is the tone of normality. Hey, perhaps, it’s a zombie. Let’s see what Google has to say.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genvieve Valentine shows a practical community way off the beaten track in the far north, recognising the value of good work and the need for people who can fit in. This produces a delightful story as the new gravedigger, a perfectionist, finds himself challenged. “Chew” by Tamsyn Muir is an effective tale of revenge best served cold with a dish of gum. “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey deals with the perennial problem faced by husbands who have buried their wives only to find them coming home again. Locking them in a cupboard is somewhat undignified, but when they are dead, who’s going to complain? “There Is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay gives us the perfect answer to the age-old question: what must a woman do when every fibre of her body wants to possess just that one man? “What Once We Feared” by Carrie Ryan challenges us to decide how long we would want to live if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the undead. What would be the point of surviving?

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory takes us into a world of fortified cities surrounded by a wilderness of zombie bears, wolves and humans. Here one man suddenly sees the chance to have a real life outside the walls. All he has to do is die according to city records. “Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti sees a parallel between past and current events as a medical student dissecting a body finds himself at the centre of what may be a zombie outbreak. Perhaps his research can show how best to respond. “I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart sees a B-movie scriptwriter with an impeccable record get the inside dope on how to complete a movie when your star lead has died. Except his eyewitness account is just not quite up to the minute and he’s pre-empted by the real news. This is great fun. “Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill is thoughtfully brilliant. If time and space permitted, I would write a lot about it. “A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater gives us a different way of reinventing the undead so they have some degree of social utility even though, as the title suggests, they have no more intelligence than sheep. “The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman is the day you sit waiting for that call.

“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo is very elegant high fantasy in which a sorcerer reanimates a great general to serve him for as long as he desires (which might be a very long time). “Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace makes a nice point about the tense authors use to tell their stories and then fast-forwards to the moment of sacrifice. “The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale changes the biter-bit trope into the shooter-shoot trope as a couple try to work out their marital problems. And then comes the payoff. At least he might have thought it worth waiting for. “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross has us on a starship with the crew in slowtime when the power fails. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, particularly because the crew have just been exposed to a big burst of radiation. When it comes to triage, the dead are the last in line for treatment. They are not going to get any worse. But if any were to wake up, they would be hungry.

I admit to being overwhelmed by this evidence of my own ignorance. Here was I thinking the zombie story was dead and buried, only to find this anthology full of stories of such range and quality. And most of these stories are only a few years old. There’s still good work being done on old and trusted tropes. So thank you Paula Guran. The pennies have fallen from my eyes and I can now shamble forward to seek out more stories such as this for intellectual nourishment. Zombies: More Recent Dead is great value for money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Beyond Apollo by Barry N Malzberg

August 18, 2014 3 comments

Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg

I’m reviewing this book in response to comments made by one of the site’s “followers” when I confessed to not having read any of the novels or short stories by Barry N Malzberg (although I now realise I had read some of his work under a pseudonym). This title was offered as one of the best by the author. To understand this book, I have to return to the early 1960s when, narrowly avoiding conscription, I was safely ensconced in university. In literary circles, this was a time of great experimentation when young(ish) authors decided to tear up the rule book and do their own thing. This meant the idea of paragraphs or chapters was rejected. Even sentence forms became optional in some cases. Switching between first and third person at random, and mangling the tenses became standard. And the idea of a coherent narrative? Well, that was strictly gone, man. The approach was not so much to search for quality in the story told, but to be seen to be slaying sacred cows and clasming icons. Think the cut-up and fold-in approaches popularised by William S Burroughs and you have the context in which Barry Malzberg sat down to write Beyond Apollo. A brief glance at the format shows us sixty-seven short chapters, a very unreliable author, some metafiction, and some explicit sex — a real witches brew for a book published in 1972.

In science fiction, there was a general reaction against the pulp plots of the Golden Age. Although the same ideas might be addressed, the authors deliberately chose to come at them from a different direction. So this book may be seen as a completely standard trope. Both in books and the B-movie industry, a small crew of American astronauts is sent off to Mars or Venus. On the planet’s surface, they may not find anything that looks particularly interesting. But the moment they seal the hatches and set off back to Earth, it becomes apparent they have a monster aboard. Now the trick is to kill the monster and for the maximum number of humans to get back to Earth. Except, of course, there’s the problem of what the survivors might say to Mission Control when they land. “Well, you see, there was this monster. . .” does not, perhaps, have quite the right ring of plausibility. So here we have a story about human destiny. Just like the salmon swimming upstream to spawn, man has always moved forward to the next challenge. That’s how the Europeans moved across the Atlantic and colonised the eastern seaboard of America, and then moved across to the West, down into Mexico, and so on. There are always new barriers to break through.

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

There’s just one problem. A small percentage of people are heroes and they do a great job of trail-blazing out into wildnernesses, coming back with maps and encouragement for others to follow them. But the mass of people are lazy. Many are corrupt. As humanity has grown in size, the percentage of lazy and corrupt people has become a drag on progress. So although leaders may make grandiose calls like, “Let’s go to the Moon this decade!” or “Let’s conquer the planets before the end of the century.” it’s left to the bureaucracy to implement these lofty goals and, for the most part, the civil servants end up sabotaging the efforts of the heroes. To that extent, this book is somewhat satirical, highlighting the various ways in which the pencil-pushers fail. Indeed, one of the responses to this book would be to question what the point would be of going to another planet. There’s no particular glory in it, particularly if said planet turns out to be vacant rock without enough buried geological treasure to make commercial sense in planning a mining operation there. This is not a book that promotes a spirit of optimism about the value of space flight. It’s just an expensive way of spending resources that would be better spent on relieving poverty on Earth.

At various points, the one astronaut who made it back to Earth from the flight to Venus, is able to outface all the planetside generals and professional psychiatrists. He was a hero. That’s why they picked him from the thousands who applied. He does not acknowledge their right to question him now. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is this astronaut’s desire to write a book about his experiences (not have some hack ghostwriter do it for him). He thinks about how he will write it and engages in general metafictional discourse. So what’s going into this book? Well, it all has to start and, in a way, finish with the relationship between the returning astronaut and the Captain who disappeared. How do we relate to authority figures? Perhaps we depend on them or do we perversely reject their right to command and rebel? Perhaps it’s the same with a spouse. We should sacrifice some of our freedom to make a partnership between equals work. But if we become obsessed with the competition to go on an interplanetary flight and invest all our time and energy in that, the marriage will likely fail. Indeed, if the testing causes impotence or less active interest in sex, the end of the relationship will be hastened.

Of course, all this assumes there really was a flight to Venus. It may all be in the mind of this man who hallucinates the journey, the Captain and the Venusians who would rather the people of Earth left them alone. If that’s the case, perhaps the man Forest, a psychotherapist, really is trying to help this delusional man recover some sense of the reality surrounding him. That the patient believes he was going to Venus represents his desire to find love, whether with his wife or a male authority figure. From this uncertainty, you’ll realise it’s interesting to speculate on precisely what the book is actually about. Indeed, for those who enjoy books that provoke them into thought, this is a doozy (a word much loved by serious reviewers). This leaves me grateful my “follower” prevailed on me to acquire a copy of Beyond Apollo. It’s a prime example of everything that was good or bad about the explosion of experimentation in the sixties and seventies. Alternatively, if you prefer books to be obviously about something, you’ll probably hate this.

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