Graphic Science

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery,

Darryl Cunningham,

Myriad Editions

Now here is one of 2017’s UK graphic novel releases that I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Quite a few years ago Darryl Cunningham was our cartoonist in virtual residence on the blog, before going on to be one of the first wave of creators from then-new Blank Slate Press, with the deeply moving, well thought-out Psychiatric Tales. Since then he has, with an industrial level of research to accompany his cartooning, carved out a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for some fascinating factual comics works, such as Science Tales and Supercrash (both also published by Myriad Editions), frequently sharing glimpses of works in progress on his blog.

With Graphic Science Darryl brings us a book that isn’t just about scientific development and breakthroughs, this is as much about history and the society these seven subjects lived in, and the influence of the prevailing societal and academic norms of their time, the challenges of race, of gender. Giving us a book which explored important breakthroughs which, outside of academic science circles, are not as well known to the general public and putting them into some context, giving the discoveries and the discoverers their due respect for adding to the sum of knowledge, for helping shape the world we live in now, that would be an achievement in itself. But Darryl doesn’t just craft an accessible view into research which changed our understanding of our world, in Graphic Science Darryl gives us seven tales that are remarkably, warmly human experiences. This is as much about the people as the science, and that makes Graphic Science not just intellectually fascinating, but emotionally compelling and rewarding.

He was all too human, with flaws and idiosyncrasies. We should appreciate the man, not the myth.” Darryl on Nikola Tesla

The book takes in seven different scientists from across the last couple of centuries: Antoine Lavoisier, Mary Anning, George Washington Carver, Alfred Wegener, Nikola Tesla, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Fred Hoyle. Some of those names may be familiar to you already, others not so much, perhaps. Darryl has, from a wide possible array of influential scientists selected this group of seven as much for the personal interest in their lives and times, which proves as fascinating as their scientific discoveries. Born into the last generation to be enslaved before the end of the US Civil War, George Washington Carver overcomes racial prejudice (indeed, sometimes outright hatred), Mary Anning fights sexism and poverty in 19th century Britain, while even in the middle of the 20th century that gender gap still has to be faced by a new generation of scientists like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. For German scientist Wegener the dogmatic, entrenched position of the established view stands in the path of his theory.

Darryl looks at the science, such as Lavoisier experimenting with chemicals, unlocking the secrets of the air we breathe, but he also pays attention to the world around Lavoisier. We see pre and post-revolutionary France, we we the interaction with the findings and debates with other scientists, the politics of the time (which would have a terrible price for Lavoisier), but also the domestic – home life, marriage. And rather nicely he pays attention to Marie-Anne, who not only becomes Lavoisier’s wife, she becomes an important part of his work. Intelligent, witty and social, she holds salons where scientific and artistic guests meet regularly, feeding each other’s thoughts and ideas (she even charmed Benjamin Franklin, painting his portrait). And she uses her intelligence and her skill with languages to help her husband, translating scientific papers from other countries for him, recording his own work with the meticulous detail that is the bedrock of scientific research, her contribution to helping her husband’s work given its due respect. In the chapter on Carver there’s a lovely moment, in stark contrast to the hideous racism of 19th century America, when his fellow students, impressed by his intellect and gentleness, get together to buy furniture for this young student’s rooms, or leave small gifts of money.

There isn’t room here to go into all seven chapters, but each shares this rather lovely approach – putting the human face on these events, people and discoveries. These aren’t cold facts, or distant historical figures, these are real people, people we can relate to. And while that makes the book more engaging emotionally, it also, for me, enhances the thrill of the discovery, of invention – these are not works by some remote, isolated genius, they are by genuine people, a reminder of our shared human connections, and by extension a reminder that scientific discovery is not just the domain of well-heeled, upper class white males, that all sorts of people from all sorts of origins have – and still do – contribute massively to our shared pool of human knowledge.

The art retains that nice, cartoony feel of previous works by Darryl, a style which I’ve become very fond of over the years, and which he uses well to denote emotional moments, or to illustrate and explain a complicated point. Each chapter has a limited but different colour palette for the most part, giving each its own look. There are some nice little moments of humour sneaked in their too ( for example, an explorer falls down a crevasse in a glacier, the image shows the hole and a “help!” speech bubble, which made me giggle). While many pages stock to a six-panel layout, some, for good effect, change this, such as a facing pair of two small and one large panel pages as Fred Hoyle’s mind considers the birth and death of stars, or showing the ancient land-mass of Pangea from Wegener’s thoughts on continental drift, one large panel of that long-gone supercontinent, two smaller panels showing the movement towards today, a span of billions of years covered in three panels, a pillar of modern scientific understanding, one we have all grown up with and taken for granted, illustrated as the powerful, divisive, controversial idea it once was (a reminder that our knowledge is not always fixed, that some people can give us an entire new perspective on the world, also that it is no bad thing to ask questions and explore ideas).

I’ve always had a deep interest in science, a side-effect of a lifetime of reading science fiction, no doubt, and I did actually know each of the people highlighted in Graphic Science, some only a little, others, like Bell-Burnell I knew much more about. But even with the scientists I was familiar with I learned new aspects to their work, to the person themselves, and, crucially, the social, historical and personal context, giving me a much rounder view of them, and a deeper appreciation the discoveries they made. Graphic Science is a rich, rewarding, fascinating and warmly personable view into some of those who, often against the odds, have added fuel to the shining beacon of learning and knowledge which has helped defined our species, our place in the world, our understanding of that world and the vast cosmos around us. A wonderful read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. You can read a guest Director’s Commentary by Darryl talking about Graphic Science here on the FP blog

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

Reviews: a dog’s life – Talking With Gina

Talking to Gina,

Ottilie Hainsworth,

Myriad Editions

Anyone who has ever shared their life and home with animals – dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, horses and many more – will already be aware of the enormous impact our furry friends can have on our lives, especially our emotional well-being, and how they become truly part of our families. And this is what Ottilie articulates here so beautifully and warmly that if had a tail I would be wagging it.

Gina is, perhaps, not the most likely hound for someone to adopt. In a world where there are so many animals in rescue shelters, desperate for homes, the cutest are usually the first to be adopted for their “furever home”. Gina is a dog who looks more like a fox, and in her picture Ottelie describes her as “half-blind, mangy. Your skin was black with dirt.” Yes, the cutest dogs and cats get rehomed more easily, but, thank goodness there are also many animal lovers who find critturs like Gina irresistible, in a way that’s hard to explain, they just feel the desire to give them a chance for a home, attention and love. And the thing about giving that love? You get it back. And then some.

Ottelie’s home already includes husband, young children and several cats, and it is into this mix that Gina arrives. Ottelie has a little case of the jitters – she wants a dog, she chooses Gina, but she also worries if she has made the right decision, if she knows what she’s doing. I think that’s familiar to everyone who has adopted an animal, I know I experienced it several times with different cats; the joy of bringing them home mixed with worry that we may not get along, or that I’m not the right person to look after them, the thought that I had taken on responsibility for the welfare of these creatures for their entire lives. It’s a pretty natural reaction, and if anything I think it’s a healthy one – it means the person is thinking about matters fully, the possible negatives and not just blindly thinking oh this will all be wonderful.

Things feel a bit odd at first – humans and dog and cats are not used to each other, and for poor Gina it is all new, and much sniffing around must be undertaken. There’s that slow process as they all get to know each other, the humans in the family to understand Gina’s moods and expressions (and, please, don’t tell me animals don’t really have expressions, that we imagine it all, because anyone who has lived for years with them knows they do, we can see them, and they can pick up on ours too). And Gina starts to become more comfortable, more relaxed, realising this is her home, she’s safe and loved here, she has a place in the pack – obviously the cats are higher up the scale, but then the cats are sure they are higher up the scale than the humans too, usually, and she realises the children are indeed children, “cubs” of her new pack, and she is loving and protective of them.

There’s a huge amount here that anyone who loves animals will empathise with enormously and recognise. The new reality for both human and animal as they first start to share a life together, then the growing comfort with one another, as they get to know each other, a comfort that turns into more than love, into a bond that goes deep into your soul and leaves you always better for it. There are delights – meeting new people when out walking Gina, Gina herself making new doggy friends in the park, playing with the kids.

Naturally it isn’t all happiness though, and again anyone who has lived with animals knows there are the worries – injuries, illness, and the sad, inescapable fact that most animals have a far shorter lifespan than we do. We know when we take them into our lives and into our hearts we will face hurting those hearts somewhere down the line, there’s no avoiding it, no avoiding the pain, the loss, the grief. And yet it’s still worth it, because they bring such light into our lives, warmth, love, lift us even on the darkest days. And astonishingly they continue to do that even after they’re gone – yes, there is pain, but mostly there’s a warm place left inside us that they touched that stays with us forever, it’s a truly remarkable gift.

Ottilie brings this out with very simple but highly effective cartooning – this is more illustration than actual comics, an image per page with text – and her style works perfectly for the subject matter, deftly catching the emotions in expressions, the body language of both humans and animal; where a more detailed, heavier style would simply not carry the emotion so well as it does here. This is a very warm, honest and touching book, and anyone who loves animals will recognise much here, the moments that make you laugh, the moments that make you mad, the moments where you just want to melt into a warm, fuzzy ball of happiness.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Red Right Hand – Kleist’s superb graphic biography of Nick Cave

Nick Cave – Mercy on Me,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style…

I’ve been a huge admirer of Reinhard Kleist’s work going right back the best part of a decade, before it was even translated into English, impressed with a German journal’s spread on his Johnny Cash graphic biography, I See a Darkness (reviewed here). I was delighted when SelfMadeHero published the English-language edition, their first European translation, if I recall correctly, and happily the first of many since. Over the years since then I’ve read several of Kleist’s books, all published by SelfMadeHero, and even had the pleasure of chatting to him for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And, like many of you, I suspect, I’ve been a Nick Cave fan for, well, most of my life. Singer, writer, poet, actor, an artist that doesn’t fit easily into any generic boxes, creator of works, some of which you can explain why you like, some of which, you can’t articulate, you just feel and know.

So finding out Reinhard’s new book was about Nick Cave? Oh yes, you better believe I’ve been more than eager to read this. I’ve been waiting months for it to arrive on my desk. And was it worth that wait? Oh yes. In fact I would say this is Kleist’s finest work since Cash: I See a Darkness.

Nick Cave seems like a perfect match for Kleist’s approach to graphic biography, much like Cash. And in fact some elements here – quite deliberately, I would think – echo parts of his approach to that earlier work on the Man in Black. Cash started with Johnny hunting down a man, shooting him, acting out “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. Nice Cave: Mercy on Me begins with a young man, stifled in his small home, running away to explore the big, wide world, but coming into a town where a dark-garbed man simply shoots him – strangers not welcome. The shooter resembles a certain Australian singer, but it’s fair to say the young, wounded man is also an avatar of Cave’s personality. Later on Cash will be referenced more directly, as an influence in Cave’s artistic evolution. It feels highly appropriate, two very different musicians, but both of them with much overlapping in common, both driven by inner demons as much as creativity, both with the urge to perform, both of them ultimately larger than their music, becoming cultural icons, crossing genre boundaries.

I referred to this as a graphic biography earlier; that isn’t quite correct, that’s not exactly how Reinhard brings us into Cave’s world. He doesn’t go for the normal approach of a prose biography, the simple, chronological narrative of birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood and their respective events and influences on later life, neatly tabulated. Nor should he – we have prose works for that sort of thing. What Kleist does is more delicate and intriguing and ultimately highly effective: he takes moments from different points in the musician’s life – from his youth in Australia, travelling to Britain, the time in Berlin, the desperate, sometimes self-harming, self-destructive push to be different, change, do something new, through to the modern day, throwing in a burning road through a Hellish landscape, a certain Bluesman from a certain crossroads and even the great particle accelerator in Geneva. Wide-ranging doesn’t begin to cover it, and the use of his own words, Cave’s own writing and Kleist’s artwork all serve to give a perspective only comics can offer.

The insights into parts of Cave’s life we see here intertwine with his work – his music and his writing and even nods to film work like 20,000 Days on Earth. It’s rarely easy to separate an artist from their work, and when it is an artist like Cave, that’s even more true: Kleist doesn’t even try, he understands that both his normal life (if there is such a thing, especially for Cave) and his art and his creative process are all blended at the molecular level, symbiotic, each a part of and informing the other. And so instead with references to his songs, his novels and more and moments from his life against those lyrics – or sometimes the life as part of those lyrics – give us a flavour of the man and his art. This isn’t a chronological exposition of a man’s life and career, it’s more of an attempt to allow us to experience some of his creative process.

There are so many wonderful touches here, Kleist’s art creating many different versions of Cave – not just the obvious ones of younger Cave, older Cave, but the fictional Cave, or the semi-fictional, or perhaps sometimes the totally imaginary, the real man and the avatars from his music and writing blending, interacting. The art goes from depicting the everyday reality – a cold, winter street in Berlin or London, a dive bar in a small Aussie town – to flights of creative imagination, scenes from his songs, or characters from his books and lyrics not just coming to life, but talking to Cave, to their creator, asking why he does what he does to his creations. There are simple but highly effective moments, such as being picked up by his love, Anita, perhaps the only one who can reach him, from an addiction clinic, the back seat of the taxi growing wider between them from panel to panel in a move that visually recalls Citizen Kane’s breakfast table scene, or Cave lost in space, sending a message back to home.

If you wrote a song about us, now, would it be a love song?

Yes, but love songs don’t always end well.”

Throughout it all is a sense of struggling, right from the childhood in a stultifying, boring, buttoned-down small town and the desperate, angry desire – need, really – to push against the norm, to kick it up, to change things, to evolve, mixed with frustration with himself at perceived lack of ability and direction and those around them (often in very self-destructive ways). During his time in Berlin – the Cold War, West Berlin, still divided – a musician friend tells him “if the wall wan’t there, then West Berlin would be as boring as the rest of West Germany.” It’s a remote island surrounded by a savage sea, the first to be overcome should the worst happen, and yet sometimes the edge of the volcano is where some kinds of artists need to dance, they need that sense of danger and urgency, they draw on that energy and channel. Kleist brings all of this over superbly.

This is a book I honestly can’t totally get over in terms of a review, this is, like Cave’s music, something that you can only explain so far, the rest, it just has to be experienced. Stick your best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on the stereo, then sit back and let yourself sink into this headtrip into the creative being of one of our most unique artists. This one will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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