Reviews: the Doctor will see you now – Strange Practice

Strange Practice,

Vivian Shaw,

Orbit Books

Oh now this was an absolute delight to read. There has been a large trend in the last couple of decades for  urban fantasies, depicting a world that is recognisably our own, everyday realm, but where, usually in the shadows, unsuspected by most people, fantastical elements secretly exist. Charlaine Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (True Blood as it was for the TV version), Jim Butcher’s brilliant Harry Dresden novels (a gumshoe in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard), there has been an explosion in this area of fantastical fiction. So much so that these days I find myself a bit wary of new ones sometimes, but I had my bookseller’s Spidey-sense tingle when this arrived from Orbit, and I trust that little gut instinct. And I think Will Staehle’s cover (and some nice matching interior illustrations with a wicked sense of humour) had much to do with that too, a nice mix of woodcut style, with contemporary elements that also nods to those wonderful old Penny Dreadfuls.

And I’m glad I listened to those instincts, otherwise I would not have met Doctor Greta Helsing (her medical family long since dropped the “van”), a GP in London – in the famous Harley Street locale, no less, although unlike most their Greta is not exactly well-heeled. Except Greta’s practice takes in a very unusual set of patients – she, like her father before her, offers medical care to London’t community of preternatural creatures. Vampires, ghouls, were-creatures, vampires (and indeed vampyres, slightly different blood drinkers), even creating prosthetic bone replacements for elderly Egyptian mummies or treating a ghoul leader with clinical depression problems, it’s all in a day’s work for Greta. It’s long hours, like any GP, but it is very satisfying to her that she is not only helping people, but helping creatures that would never otherwise be able to access medical care.

However, London is a city in fear – a serial killer is stalking the city, the body count is rising, each victim found with cheap, plastic rosary beads. And those are just the ones the public and police know about – there are other victims, victims hidden from society, supernatural beings also being stalked by strange, monk-like figures, seemingly human, but stronger, with oddly-glowing blue eyes and a burning desire to destroy anything “unclean” before their god. And that includes some of Greta’s patients and anyone who helps them…

I’m not going to blow any spoilers by going any deeper into this tale here – it partakes as much of the detective novel as it does fantasy, and as such I don’t want to risk revealing any of the twists or turns here before you get a chance to read it. But I will say this is – especially for a first book in a series – this is a remarkably well-realised world and cast of characters; it really isn’t very long before you find yourself not only enjoying the story but the world demi-monde Greta moves in, a world where you can take the regular London Bus or Underground but which also has ghouls in the sewers, or Lord Ruthven in his Embankment House grand home.

Ruthven is just one of a number of literary characters who populate Greta’s world (in face Ruthven is a close family friend), we also meet the likes of Sir Francis Varney – as in Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood), one of those great penny-dreadful schockers of the 1800s), although, pleasingly, Shaw doesn’t drop in such famous Gothic characters in the way say Moore would in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they feel far more realised and realistic as actual, believable people (who just happen to be centuries-old sanguivores). That’s not me taking a swipe at LOEG, by the way, I do enjoy those too. And if, like me, you have a long-standing fondness for old Gothic novels and characters, this is a lovely extra layer to Greta’s world and its details. Vivian also gets extra vampy brownie points for me for referencing the likes of the Croglin Grange Vampire,

There is also a nice strand of social commentary running through this book – the religious fundamentlism of the “monks” who think they are doing the will of god (while overlooking breaking important commandments like “thou shalt not kill”) has more than a few echoes in the real world, from terrorists to religious zealots who refuse equal rights for those they disapprove of, those who consider themselves so right that they feel they can use bloody violence to enforce their will. The supernatural community that Shaw sketches out nicely here also hints at social problems in the real world – the segments of society that are Different, Not Like Us, Other, and therefore feared, hated, often turned on as easy targets.

There’s a lovely moment where Varney asks Greta why she does what she does, even for beings like him, a monster, damned to the Pit should he be killed. And Greta tells him he’s not a monster, none of them are, she sees them all as people, and she thinks all people should be able to access medical care. It’s a nice pairing of messages, that being a person is more than simply being physically human, it is qualities of being that define someone, and that medical care should be something anyone who needs it can obtain. In a world where many give into the darkness of bigotry and see even other humans as less than human (and therefore deserving of awful treatment) and many can’t get even basic healthcare, these are very welcome, warm, human messages to weave into the story, and nicely done via the medium of non-human beings. They also made me love Dr Greta all the more. As I said right at the start, this was an absolute delight to read. I look forward to more time spent with Greta…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Laundry is changing – the Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief,

Charles Stross,

Orbit Books

The latest volume in the brilliant Laundry Files arrives from the delightfully warped brain of Charlie Stross. I’ve enjoyed Charlie’s books for many years, but I have an especially soft spot for his Laundry novels; in fact they’re a particular favourite of mine, a delicious mixture of fantasy-horror, laced with dark humour and some fine satirical sideswipes at society and organisations, and, in the form of husband and wife team Mo and Bob, characters that grow on you very quickly and who you become very fond of and invested in.

For those not in the know, the Laundry is nickname for a very special section of British Intelligence, with a very unusual remit – like MI5, MI6 and predecessors like the famous SOE they track and attempt to neutralise threats to the security of the realm. Except the Laundry deals with what most would consider supernatural threats – vampires, portals to other realms, mind-crunching extra-dimensional parasites and unspeakable Elder Gods.But this is no Buffy-esque secret Watcher society, the Laundry may be super-secret (even most of the cabinet doesn’t know about this, and they operate beyond even the secretive oversight of the other intelligence services (which is going to be one of the problems in this volume) but they are still a part of the civil service, and that means procedures, HR requirements and lots of paperwork in-between trying to save the world from soul-devouring monstrosities.

After an enormous incident in the preceding novel though, involving many deaths and an invading force from another dimension in a major British city, the usual clean-up protocols are useless – the Laundry has been exposed to the public and government scrutiny, and as we open poor Bob, who has faced everything from unicorns (nasty buggers) to the skin-crawling horror of the The Sleeper, has an even more terrible foe to face – a live interview on Newsnight. With the Laundry exposed the media is diving on this once secret division and of course the government isn’t too happy either, and in best tradition both media and government are looking for someone to blame for the previous disaster. The media scent blood and the embarrassed government wants scapegoats to blame. And there is outrage that the Laundy has been operating beyond the oversight of the parliamentary intelligence committees (and the legalities that constrain just what more regular services like MI5 can and cannot do).

This is just the start of a seismic shift in how this organisation has been run for many decades, and enemies can scent a sudden weakness and opportunity. The fact that the Laundry has held off absolute nightmares from devouring our Green and Pleasant Land (not to mention the rest of the world and humanity with it) seems to count for little in this atmosphere. And some enemies are prepared to use the devious weapons of the political-corporate elites as much as they will use more fantastical means. Why use up your supernatural energies when you can manipulate government ministers and get them to go along with your ideas – privatise and outsource many operations to a private security firm, it’s more cost-effective and market-efficient, don’t you know! And the group pushing the prime minister for this has already successfully taken over entire sections of the Laundry’s opposite numbers in Washington. Bona fide government contractors, what could be better???

Naturally there is much more going on here, the dark forces using ideas dear to certain sections of the political establishment (supposed free-market competition and efficiency that usually actually means even poorer service – usually bailed out by the taxpayers – and contracts given to firms which just happen to have friends in government, and where many politicians go on to serve after retiring from political life), to infiltrate and quietly take over whole sections of the fabric of our society we depend on, without anyone even knowing they have ceded that control. The huge upset in the operations of the Laundry are also mirrored in Bob and Mo’s personal life – in the most recent volumes both have been through enormous changes that have left their marks. They are both still in love but unsure they can be together (not just in the emotional sense after the traumas they’ve endured, there is an actual safety issue, not least because Bob is now also the Eater of Souls).

I don’t want to go to deeply into the unfolding narrative here, it’s nice, tight, packed with tension and turns, as you would probably expect from one of Charlie’s books, but this set-up with the Laundry now in the open and being menaced as much by government rationalisation plans as it is secret societies and dark gods, is one ripe with potential, both for satirical humour and for dramatic tension, and Charlie uses it perfectly, giving a gripping new installment and quite a major development in the Laundry itself. If you are already a Laundry fan you know you need this, and you know you are in for a treat, if you are new to the series then get yourself started with the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue and I think you will soon be as addicted as the rest of us. Clever, funny, gripping, inventive and with more than a few satirical comments on the state of our modern world, what more can you ask for? Except maybe a TV series? Constantly surprised there hasn’t been a Netflix or HBO type series based around the Laundry novels yet…

You can read an excerpt from the Delirium Brief on the Orbit blog. Charlie will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jo Walton as part of Ken MacLeod’s guest selector strand on August 16th. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Parisian Noir: Malet & Tardi’s Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge,

Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,

Translated by Kim Thompson,

Fantagraphics

I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.

Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.

It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…

I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.

Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.

An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”

A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Farthest 02
(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

Yukki-onna – Snow Woman

Yuki-onna / Snow Woman,

Directed by Kiki Sugino,

Starring Kiki Sugino , Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi

Another of the films I caught during the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was Kiki Sugino’s hauntingly beautiful film from Japan, Snow Woman. Drawing on an ancient folkloric tradition of the Yuki-onna, a spirit, almost ghostly being who, like the vampire, has had many variations in the telling and re-telling of her tale across the year. Here director Sugino takes the eponymous role, first appearing in an opening prologue, shot in a silvery black and white as a pair of hunters struggle through heavy snow on the mountains around Hiroshima, the elder male clearly losing the struggle, his young companion aiding him into the relative shelter of an old hunting cabin.

Awoken in the middle of the night, the younger man, Minokichi, is frozen by terror as much as the bitter cold, for their rough shelter has been invaded silently by a pale woman with piercing eyes and long, dark hair, crouched over his companion, and as her chill breath passes over his face the older man dies. Turning her attention to Minokichi the Snow Woman looks as if she is about to do the same to him, but then she tells him she will take pity on him because of his youth, and spare his life, on the condition he never tell another person what happened (a detail nicely lifted from one of the more popular versions of the many stories of the Snow Woman in Japan).

Moving to colour, it is now much later, the winters have departed the mountains, and Minokichi is returning from a hunting trip when he finds a beautiful woman alone on one of the paths. She asks the way to the ferry, and he takes her, inviting her to spend the night in the home of he and his elderly mother. The woman, Yuki, is beautiful but quiet and mysterious – she seems not to know where she came from, or of any family, but she is pleasant and both Minokichi and his mother are happy for her simply to stay with them, Minokichi slowly falling in love with her and asking her to become his wife. And for many years they are quite happy – Minokichi is curious about his strange wife, but as they live and love together and even have a child – a girl, Ume – he swallows this curiosity and seems content to live his life with wife and daughter in their small, barely changing village.

Of course it can’t last – Yuki has a familiar look to her and it is clear Minokichi has wondered if she is related to the Snow Woman he encountered (but if so how can she be here living as a human wife outside of her winter season?). He bites back his curiosity, partly perhaps because the Snow Woman warned him never to mention what happened on pain of death, but mostly, one feels, because he loves her and his daughter. But as the years pass – Yuki looks no older than the day she arrived – and their daughter starts to grow up, events start to happen around the village and mountain, strange deaths, the victims frozen…

This is such a beautifully crafted film – despite the supernatural elements and the folklore it is based on, it avoids the route of J-horror, instead creating a more chilling atmosphere in some places (no pun intended), like a Victorian ghost tale, perhaps. But mostly this is less a tale of strange spirits and more a tale of love and people and men and women, and how they can love one another truly but still sometimes simply cannot share a life, or at least not always, and sometimws can’t even communicate properly to one another (“husbands and wives are strangers to each other” Minokichi’s mother once tells him), a theme of Sugino’s other works too – she explained in a Q&A after the film that as a Korean-Japanese the idea of the outsider and not quite understanding one another is one she is very familiar with, while the tale itself reminds me of elements of the Selkie wife from my own country’s folklore tradition.

Snow Woman is a work of beauty though, the slow pacing and the almost timeless setting (a few items, like electric lights, hint at mid-20th century, but the village and clothing could be almost any time in the last few hundred years) allowing the audience to sink into the pace with the nature the villagers live closely to, and there is a real feeling of the turning of the seasons here (appropriately enough as some versions of the Yuki-onna associate her with seasonal spirits), the feeling of the village life in the shadow of the mountains and forest, the closeness of the natural world (and the supernatural Other World), told in some luscious cinematography and clever, precise use of soundscape until it feels less like watching a film and more like walking slowly through a dream. I can see why Sugino is making a name for herself in Asian cinema.

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Kiki Sugino 02
(Kiki Sugino talking after the film festival screening of Snow Woman)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

This little piggy went to market – Okja

Okja,
Directed by Bong Joon Ho,
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun HeeBong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal

Bong Joon Ho brought us the brilliant monster movie with a twist, The Host and the film adaptation of the Snowpiercer graphic novels, so when I saw his latest film, Okja, was due to make its bow at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I had to grab myself a ticket. A Korean film in both Korean and English – and boasting a nice bonus in the form of the great Tilda Swinton – Okja sees a huge multinational attempting to rebrand itself away from its toxic image, with new CEO (Swinton) waging a PR blitz to try and make the company look warm, eco-friendly and fuzzy after the reign of her father (who even his own family admitted was psychopathic). And the main plank is the superpig, which, over the next ten years, as well as being studied by their own scientists, will be given to traditional farmers in different parts of the world to raise for ten years.

Following the slick (and sickeningly obviously fake) PR launch (riffing nicely not just on how heartless corporations try to hide their agendas with a feel-good PR blanket but also the way so many super-rich CEO seem to desperately want the public to love them), we move to the mountains of Korea and meet Seo-Hyun Ahn’s Mija, who loves with her grandfather and Okja, their now fully adult superpig. Okja is less farm animal and more family member/pet (let’s be honest, to most of us pets are family members), and we get to see Mija walking with him through the woods, playing with him, tapping the sleeping giant animal so he rolls over on his back and she can sleep on his tummy. It’s all quite adorable and I take my hat off to the very young Seo-Hyun Ahn for being able to give such a convincing and emotional acting job to a CG creation she couldn’t see when the film was shooting, it’s a terrific job for such a young actress, and it isn’t long before the audience totally buys into their relationship.

But the day is coming when the corporation wants to pick up Okja and take him back to their American facility, hold their even bigger publicity show and then… Well, gigantic or not, what usually happens to farmed pigs sooner or later? Mija is heartbroken at Okja being taken away from their hillside farm, this is her best friend in the world, and the animal is so clearly bonded with her too. She decides to set off to Seoul after Okja, in what could, in other hands, have become a clumsy Disney-esque “incredible journey” type tale, but fortunately never does. Enter some comedic light relief in the form of some animal liberation activists, apologising to everyone for any harm as they try to free Okja. They have a longer term plan though, and Okja and Mija become a part of it – and of course the corporation too has plans to use both superpig and adorable young girl for their own ends, and the pair are caught between them.

This was such an utter delight – adorable and emotional in places, often wonderfully funny in others, and with some deliciously satirical barbs, especially for giant corporations, the spin doctors who spend vast sums trying to persuade the public how nice they are (really, we are not evil, honest!), and most especially on the way humans treat animals, especially food animals. I don’t think the film is trying to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian (although some scenes made me glad that I am), but certainly to think about the mass-production of animals for food and the appalling way thousands of animals are treated every day so we can buy cheap food from the supermarket and not bother our consciences by thinking of what sort of life the animal that ended up on our plate had before its demise.

The story moves from sweetly emotional to gleefully satirical, with swipes at Almighty Power and healthy doses of our old friend The Absurd, saving perhaps for a later scene where we see what is to happen to the animals, which is just horrifying. The CG for Okja is terrific, the animated animal coming across much more like a giant, good-natured Labrador than pig, and young Seo-Hyun Ahn’s acting with this creature added in post-production totally sells the relationship and is the heart of the film, while Tilda Swinton’s increasingly deranged CEO steals scenes left, right and centre. This is an absolute gem.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

In This Corner of the World

In This Corner of the World,
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi,
Starring Non, Megumi Han, Yoshimasa Hosoya

This animated film, based on the manga by Fumiyo Kōno, has been huge in Japan, and I’ve been eager to see it, so when it appeared on the programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival I booked myself a ticket right away (for those not lucky enough to get to the festival, it is getting a limited UK release over the next couple of weeks, so check your local listings). I was not disappointed; this is a beautiful piece of animation, and quite emotionally satisfying too.

The story is set in 1930s and 1940s Japan, and although the Second World War will be an important part, this is not a war movie. At least, not in the usual sense of a war movie – this is a slice of life, following a young woman, Suzu, from childhood through to early adulthood and marriage, and the wartime years give us a view of the conflict from the perspective of the home front, of civilians who don’t really know what it is all about (only what strictly controlled propaganda the Japanese government give out) and are, basically, increasingly caught in the middle of this titanic struggle, some of them paying the price for events they never instigated or had any real say in, just like untold legions of ordinary civilians through every war in history.

But the war, while important and having lasting ramifications for Suzu and her family, is only one part of the tale here – this is Suzu’s story of her life, not of the war, we concentrate on her and her family, and that gives the whole film a huge amount of emotional resonance. We see her as a little girl, helping her family to collect and dry seaweed, the story littered with loving little details of a bygone era, such as their family, on one special day of the year when the tides are exceptionally low, able to walk right across the now waterless bay to visit their relatives on the other shore (and rush back before the tide returns), a reminder of a time when most ordinary people rarely moved much further than their own small town (trains are pricey and cars very rare). This is a time not really that long ago – we’re talking about the sort of world many of our own grandparents would remember.

We see Suzu as a girl, a bit of a daydreamer, and an artist – a good one, at that. And she has an affinity to often see the art in many situations, although this often means she loses focus on the here and now (in one scene during an air raid the puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft fire become a beautiful Impressionist painting to her eyes – gorgeous but it also means she is too mesmerised to take cover…). Her family lives in Hiroshima, but when she turns eighteen Suzu is offered marriage to a young man she doesn’t know. It’s not an arranged marriage, as such, the families discuss it, and it is clear she can say no, but although allowed, it’s not really the done thing. And so she goes to live with her new husband and his family in Kure, some distance from Hiroshima (again, like her family across the bay it isn’t that far, not to us with cars and fast trains, but back then it’s a big wrench).

Kure is a major naval base, and as Suzu settles into her new life the ships of the Imperial navy are a backdrop – her husband is a civilian navy worker, and her adorable little niece Harumi loves looking at the ships and telling her new aunt which ones are which, while she sketches (this leads to an ugly scene where the military police almost arrest her as a spy for sketching the ships in the bay – this was a time where Japanese citizens could be arrested and disappeared for anything that might hint at questioning the wartime government). And of course as the years roll on the war draws closer – and a naval base like Kure is, inevitably, going to become a target. And such are the horrible fortunes of war that we know it won’t just be the military or industrial targets which end up in the bomber’s crosshairs, it will be the town, the people, including women and children.

In This Corner of the World powerfully illustrates the indiscriminate horror of mass bombing – this is Japan (at this time “the enemy”, as if that makes it any better), but it could have been Clydebank, Coventry, London, Dresden, Guernica or the cities of modern Syria, or anywhere else where civilians are seen as “collateral” damage, and the film shows this both on the personal scale for her family and friends, and on the wider scale (those classical wooden Japanese buildings razed to the foundations by fire-bombing, street after street gone). The atomic bombing of her hometown is, understandably, a major moment, and one we, with the benefit of historical hindsight, know is coming closer and closer, until the day we see that huge flash in the sky, and the awful blastwave that follows.

But while the film shows the hideous aftermath of this first use of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t just show Horishima as the city that the Bomb was dropped on, it shows us the city in the years before, a real, living place and people, and brings it to life, based on the memories of some older survivors and on period photographs, the now iconic Genbaku Dome – the Atomic Dome, one of the few structures close to the blast which survived, and is now a symbol of both the horrors of warfare and the need for peace – clearly visible as tram cars and people pass in the streets, then again in the irradiated ruins afterwards, but then there it still is, after all this passes and the city is reborn.

In This Corner of the World brings us happy moments and very sad ones, some utterly beautiful scenes and some steeped in sorrow; despite the intrusion of the huge, global-altering events of the war, it is, at heart, a family story, a story of a life, with the ups and downs, the moments that we all get, the moments where we feel life has broken us beyond repair but then the moments that make our souls sing with joy, and make it all worthwhile. This is an utterly gorgeous work, and one best seen on the big screen.



This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet International Blog

Review: our history in stone – A Castle in England

A Castle in England,

Jamie Rhodes, with art by Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg

Nobrow Press

Castles. There’s something wonderfully evocative about castles, our shared history in stone, some ruined, some, beautifully maintained, all evoke a sense of visual delight and a sense of wonder as we ponder what those walls have seen, great sentinels to centuries of history. They are visible history, history we can touch, walk around, take in, and in our small islands we are blessed with more than our share, from Highland tower houses to vast medieval castles. Every day on my way to work I pass a huge one, Edinburgh Castle, and every time I see it I consider how lucky I am that my commute to work – normally a mundane event for most of us – takes in this impressive piece of solid history standing above my city, still commanding after all these centuries.

Jamie Rhodes clearly understands this, and a spell in residence at Scotney Castle in Kent has doubtless impressed even further on him the fact that our castles are full of stories from across the centuries, from the everyday lives of those who lived or worked in them or around them to the Big History events of dramatic battles, they’ve marked their time through all the changes in our society across those years. In A Castle in England Jamie has written five stories, each drawn by a different artist – Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg – and taking in a different event in a different period in this Kentish castle’s life, from the medieval peasants of the castle’s earliest days through the religious strife of the reformation, the family drama of dynastic succession, smugglers and women emancipating themselves. It proves to be a lovely series of snapshots out of our shared history, and the use of different artists on each story works well here, giving each historical setting its own look and style.

One of the things Jamie and his collaborators do throughout is to give us stories which give us a sense of a distinct period in history while also showing how often events then are relevant to the here and now (which as a history buff I heartily approve of; history is never just past, it suffuses the present and is part of the tapestry of tomorrow).  The very first tale, set in 1381, as the castle is being completed, and the growing discontent of the mass of the population, the serfs, is about to explode into open rebellion (lead by the famous Wat Tyler, one of the original folk heroes). It’s a glimpse into a very hard life – today we are (justly) outraged at the inequalities in our society, the gulf between the super-rich minority and the rest of us, but for the serf it was even worse. Their rebellion, while unsuccessful, shook the small, ruling elite to the core and would in time lead to changes for the mass of ordinary folks that we benefit from today (and concerns from the powerful over what an angry mass, pushed too far, can do – still something rules and elites try to control today in their fear).

(the Medieval period with The Labourer,  art by Isaac Lenkiewicz)

The Priest, with art by Briony May Smith, takes us into Tudor period and the religious turmoil caused by Heny VIII’s break with Rome. Scotney is now home to the Darrell family; Catholics in a country where that is not just (very suddenly) a minority religion, but one suspected – to be a devout Catholic is to be suspected of being a possible deviant, a traitor, more loyal to a religious leader abroad than to your nation and monarch, dangerous, subversive. It leads to suspicion, persecution, division. It sounds, sadly, not too dissimilar to some of the troubles stalking modern Britain… William Etsey gives us a rollicking tale of smugglers – far from some cut-throat bunch though, most of these are locals, struggling in a depressed economy after losing one of their main industries, doing a bit on the side (and also subverting unfair taxes), against a background of unrest with the status quo of Britain coming from Jacobites in Scotland. Again there are echoes to some of today’s tensions, while the characters are well handled, they feel like real people, people we could know, neighbours, friends, not distant historical characters.

(above The Priest, art by Briony May Smith; below – The Smuggler, art by William Exley)

Becky Palmer’s The Widow brings us to the rational, sensible Victorians, although it opens with a rather less than rational suicide – by blunderbuss, no less… It’s an age of remodeling, the old Castle not so desirable in this modern age, the family now in a fine manor house, much more comfortable, but with that Victorian love of a romanticised past (something we’ve inherited today) the old castle is deliberately partially ruined to create a form of picturesque folly for them to enjoy on their walks round the estate, nicely depicted by Palmer with a giant figure of the lord of the manor, Edward Hussey III, pushing over blocks, blowing them down. There are some lovely scenes of Victorian domesticity too, with touches that made me smile – he showing off the fine, new manor house “this will be the billiard room” he tells his male friends, nearby his new wife chats to her girlfriends “I have plans for his billiard room”. How many couples have had that argument to this very day?!

(enter the Victorian era in The Widow, art by Becky Palmer)

The final piece, The Hunter, is illustrated by one of my favourites, Isabel Greenberg in her distinctive style, and brings us into the twentieth century, the highpoint of Empire, of the last great period of the rich gentry in their great houses before the calamity of the Great War helped hasten the end of that way of life for most. Times may have changed, but some societal rules are still stiff and divisive, the brother allowed to indulge in expensive travel  (which mostly takes the form of lording it over the natives and shooting every animal he sees), the sister stuck at home, not allowed the same privilege of travel but at the same time her station won’t allow her to join in more simple pleasures (she would like to join the working class families who come for working holidays to do the hop picking, but her mother considers this far too beneath her). Here Rhodes storytelling is playing right to Greenberg’s strengths, as the women, supposedly held in their rigid place in the pecking order, use their own guile to exploit circumstances to achieve what they want (the impish smile of success Isabel gives the sister is delightful).

(the twentieth century arrives in The Hunter, art by Isabel Greenberg)

Each story comes with a quick introduction to give some setting to the historical period, and a longer set of notes afterwards, explaining more about both the period, to give some context, and about the family resident in the castle during that time. All in all it’s an utterly charming delight, snapshots of British history viewed through the people who have lived in and around this castle for almost seven hundred years, a reminder, if one be needed, that these magnificent structures are more than just our architectural heritage, or reminders of Big History (kings, queens, civil wars) but the same everyday life each one of us, the loves, deaths, marriages, children, the struggle to get by in difficult times. These great walls have seen all of this and more. When I pass Edinburgh Castle on the way to work it never fails to spark ideas in my head, stories, pieces of history, there is, for me, a real sense of that past right there in the present, alive, not just a monument, and that’s what Rhodes et al do so very well here, remind us that these buildings aren’t just structures, they’re part of our lives and those who came before us, our collective history, our changing society (and the elements which never change, because, well, human nature…).

All delivered with a delicious variety of art styles by Rhodes’ collaborators, and bound in a handsome small hardback (Nobrow really do pay attention to the book itself as a lovely object, not just the contents), this is a lovely and unusual addition to British comics shelves, and a charming read for both those well-versed in history and those who are only dipping their toes in, curious to know more.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: a superhero story with an emotional punch – Ether

The Ether #1,

Matt Garvey, Dizevez

I’ve been hearing good things about Matt Garvey and Dizevez’s The Ether from colleagues in some other FP stores who had managed to get some copies in directly from Matt, so when some arrived in the branch where I’m based I was understandably curious to see what the fuss was about. I am very glad I did.

It’s a strong opening with a very upsetting scene – although one handled visually but Dizevez with some tact, keeping the emotional impact but not using any gratuitous details. Which I was glad of, because it involved the killing of a child, and while that’s a powerful narrative motivation, we really don’t want to see the details, the idea is horrible enough. Dizevez adds nice touches that you don’t notice straight off, attention on the foreground with the detective and a constable standing over shrouded body, but then you notice the light from a nearby doorway in the background and only then realise there’s another officer there, holding himself up by the door frame, shoulder heaving, physically sick at what he’s just witnessed.

Enter our masked vigilante, Ether, in a dapper suit that wouldn’t be out of place on a 60s UNCLE agent or other stylish superspy, but partnered with a daffodil yellow shirt and purple tie (nicely co-ordinated with purple gloves). And topped off by a mask which encompasses the entire head and face, a tight-fitting disguise which appears to have a map of a city printed all over it. The inescapable comparison to any comics reader is, of course, to Watchmen’s Rorschach – suit, gloves, that total head-covering mask. And as Ether offers to help the police find whoever is behind this, and other recent abductions and murders, embarking on a trawl through the local lowlife, asking questions and beating out answers, it reinforces that comparison…

…Except Garvey and Dizevez are obviously well aware readers are going to be thinking that way, and in the latter half we see… Well, actually, I really can’t go into that much because it’s a lovely change in the road that the story seemed to be following. And while I will refrain from describing it because of spoilers, I must say I loved it – it changed the entire tone of the comic and, more importantly, it brought in a very human-level to everything, an emotional engagement (actually a number of them), which was extremely satisfying, and which shattered that Rorschach-clone impression. No more on that, except to say it was brilliant – but you need to read it, not hear a reviewer outline it (and spoil it).

There are some lovely touches here too – there’s that background officer being ill at the sight of the small body I already mentioned, but there are other nicely crafted details throughout. Ether chiding the police for referring to the small body as “the victim”, “Can you both STOP referring to this child as The Victim? Show some respect.” Only to have the detective, his pose the one of a world-weary man who thought he had already saw the worst but had just found a new, lower level of horror, turn to him angrily and explain that he has kids himself and referring to the child as “the victim” is a distancing technique that allows him to process the crime scene and do his job, otherwise he’d fall apart. It’s a good addition to the story by Garvey and a reminder of how many wretched scenes our emergency services deal with (something we were most horrifically reminded of this week), and that for all their calm professionalism, they’re human, and these most awful moments they have to deal with leave a mark on their soul.

That sense of actual humanity is pervasive throughout this first issue and it was a quality which elevated this beyond just another superhero vigilante tale. Dizevez’s art exudes atmosphere, that Noir-esque night-time city, full of nocturnal predators, rain-slicked streets, scenes little by the sickly yellow glow of sodium street lamps, or in a fight in a seedy red-light district the mixture of the hooker-red neon “XXX” sign combined with the sodium yellow casting garish coloured light across the night.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the second issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Ether #1 is available in most Forbidden Planet International stores, or you can get it from Matt’s Big Cartel online shop here

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Biting satire in Hannah Berry’s Livestock

Livestock,

Hannah Berry,

Jonathan Cape

I’ve admired Hannah Berry’s work since her impressive, beautifully painted debut Britten & Brulightly, and since then, when it may have been easier to stick with more stories featuring those same characters, she’s created something totally different each time, and I’m pleased to see she continues to do so with Livestock. Here we have political chicanery, corprorate skulldugery, the deliberate manipulation of the media to mislead public opinion, the obsession with celebrity culture that permeates much of Western society, all wrapped up in a vicious satire which shows how all these different facets of modern society are interconnected, from manufactured celebs to Malcolm Tucker-tinged PR svengali (with great lines like “man’s drier than a taxidermied arsehole”. Yes, this is funny, often exceedingly so, but that humour is angry humour, and so it should be, because the Britain painted in Livestock is awfully close to the bone.

In this world the public relations firms are even more powerful than they are in the real world (a scary thought by itself), effectively taking Herman and Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” ideas to a horrible and all-too-plausible extreme. Here Mr Rourke is the mover and shaker, organising both carefully contrived celebrities (of the type that would make the average boy band look like authentic indy rockers) and also PR work for the ruling government and major corporations. And here those are all very much entwined – we’ve had the nightmare of the “military-industrial complex” for many decades, and the mass media has played a role in promoting and normalising and legitimising for much of the 20th century (we can thank famous psychologist Freud’s descendants for much of that particular took becoming so commonly used to subvert democracy). Here the military-industrial complex comes with an entertainment division – I suppose some would argue it always has, to some extent, but here again it is taken to the logical and disturbing extreme.

Have a problem with a pesky government leak exposing some very dodgy legislation? No problem call Mr Rourke, he’ll have his minions spinning more than a legion of spiders on crack. In Livestock the story has broken that legislation passed several years previously contained laws concealed inside various clauses that actually made legal genetic research into human cloning. It will surprise no-one to learn this secretive law was pushed through by lobbyists for a large corporation; such shadowy deals sadly happen on a daily basis in the parliaments and congresses of most of our supposedly democratic societies. The bumbling, hapless minister responsible, a man who would make Jim Hacker look like Lloyd George, is flailing in public as the reporters pounce on a juicy story. Rourke’s team soon deflects public interest with a mixture of carefully-created personal stories (minister adopts hero dog who saved child!) and throwing every more equally carefully-created celebrity “gossip” (entirely manufactured and controlled) to deflect the public’s short attention span.

In Livestock the main glossy celeb in Rourke’s menagerie is Clementine Darling, twice winner of the Best Female Singer and Political Spokesperson at the Twammies awards. For all her celebrity power – media and public alike hanging off every word as this pop star is expected to speak on everything from her new (again manufactured) romance with a fellow star to the morality of genetic research and cloning, her thoughts (all finely rehearsed and fed to her in advance by the PR team) given as much, or indeed more, weight than those of actual experts, while light entertainment programmes are where these important issues are discussed (a total misuse of the term discussed) rather than on serious, hard news programmes. When Hannah was creating Livestock she couldn’t have known when it came out we’d be in the middle of another general election, and one that has seen the prime minister avoiding serious public discussion while happily appearing with her husband to talk inconsequential nonsense on lightweight entertainment shows, but we’ve had that just in the last few days and it makes Livestock feel all the more pertinent than it already was…

Clementine herself comes across as almost a blank slate, practically programmed for her public outings, be they making a new music video or a carefully orchestrated public spat with a rival. She’s treated almost like a child – her minders lead her to the limo after an event, strapping her into her seatbelt, asking if she wants her juice box and allowing her to “watch her programmes” (mostly a sickly soap opera which nicely parodies many aspects of the lives of the characters in Livestock). It’s exactly like parents taking a toddler on a trip, although there are hints that Clementine may be more than the quiet, docile, clay they shape, that she may be more aware of what’s going on. Her life may be even more arranged than those of a classic 30s Hollywood star (when the studio fixers would even go so far as to arrange marriages that suited the public persona of their big names), and her image may be used to not just sell records but sway the public focus on debates, but there’s a hint here that while she is exploited, and so are the press (and public), she may well be doing some exploiting of her own for her own gain.

It’s a very dark, bitter and entirely too plausible set of scenarios Hannah crafts here (all beautifully illustrated in her lovely, painted style), but fortunately there’s a lot of humour here to leaven those vicious barbs, from the ridiculous collapse of one of the few heavyweight news debates into celeb gossip oooh and ahhh-ing to a nice little aside at a celeb book launch (it took days to write!) where a group of real authors stand around looking at the media turnout and the champagne and muttering how their book launches aren’t like this. One of them adds “I didn’t even get a launch”; that particular author holds more than a passing resemblance to a certain Hannah Berry herself, to my eye. New headline pages of the clickbait variety punctuate the story; where RoboCop used hyped-up US style news programmes as a caustic sidebar to comment on the society portrayed in that film, here we’re down to quick soundbites and links which, frankly, while seemingly OTT for comic effect are actually not as bad as some actual media outlets use now (these also allow for a couple of other famous faces to cameo).

Livestock is dark, clever, bitter, biting and funny satire, laughing at the same time as it weeps at the way our media-saturated, high-channel, low-concentration level society is going, of how easily we can be manipulated, and how much of that blame is on the public as much as the companies, media and governments who try to spin that debate. It will make you laugh while also making you angry, and after the way politics has gone on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few months, Livestock is now even more topical and on the nose than when Hannah started it. Read it before our society devolves even further into the parody-satire that it seems to be becoming.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog