It Don’t Come Easy…

It Don’t Come Easy,

Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,

Drawn & Quarterly

I’ve loved the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian’s work for many years – I’ve even struggled through some of it in the original French (no mean feat given how rusty my French skills are) – and I’ve grown very, very fond of Monsieur Jean over those years, not to mention the ensemble cast which has grown around Jean. In fact they’ve been around so long, and growing older (not necessarily wiser!) as the years passed, that they’ve become like old friends. You know, the sort of friends you have known forever, right back to when your eyes were clear and wrinkles were something you couldn’t imagine ever having. The sort you used to be around every day and couldn’t imagine it would ever be any other way.

Then one day you realise that Real Life has gotten in the way – you are all older, you’re still friends, still part of each other’s lives, but you see each other less frequently as work, relationships, family and more build up, or you find yourselves living in different cities. Revisiting the cast in this new D&Q collection, which collects fourth through to seventh of the Monsieur Jean series, feels a lot like that, and as the years rolled past for Jean, Felix, Cathy and the rest, so they did for the readers, and I think that’s part of what is so endearing about this series. There’a a lot here that most of us can empathise with; even if it doesn’t mirror our own lives exactly, we’ve all been through similar moments, and that makes it the stories all the richer and more emotionally satisfying.

Doing the best you can. Maybe that’s the trick. I try. Sometimes I even feel like it all makes sense. Everything just falls into place. Every breath I take, every thought: it’s all clear. Clear in a way you can’t put into words. It’s a fleeting sensation. It disappears the second I try to explain it. But when it’s there I know… Everything I do...”

We’ve seen Jean go from struggling writer to published success and acclaim (and then the treadmill of what do I write next? Will it be as good? Problems which plague every creator as much after success as the problems they had in trying to be published in the first place), a young man, single, playing the dating game, enjoying life, dealing with the highs and lows. And now here he is – Jean is in his forties, he has a baby girl (Julie), and he and Cathy are struggling with their relationship. Or more accurately Jean has little wobblers – little nervous moments, is this the life he wanted, is it too late to change, if he could, would he? Cathy, meantime, mid 30s and thinking she can’t wait forever for a man who can’t commit fully.

And meantime the old crowd are still there, notably disreputable best chum Felix, with his adopted young son. And Felix is still a dreamer, floating through life, seemingly not a care in the world, free-spirited, not bothered about settling down into his own place, solid job or any of that stuff. All of which seemed quirky and charming when younger, but as he gets older – and is responsible for a child – seems more like being selfish. And yet, despite frequently rubbing Jean up the wrong way, he is still his best friend, and you know he’s always going to forgive him after being angry with him.

That said, even Felix can surprise you – he seems his old, laid-back self, floating through problems (even a social services visit about his parenting skills gets treated lightly by him, as always). And yet Felix cares about the boy, not even his biologically, but the child of a former girlfriend who didn’t want him, and he’s taken responsibility (well, relatively, this is Felix, a man who can forget to pick the boy up from school, but that’s okay, Jean will do it, right?) for all these years. And when a family event offers him a huge opportunity, but one that comes with a horrible revelation, dear old Felix will show a strong side he’s never shown before, even if it costs him dear (although this may be a closing one door but seeing another, unexpected one open situation).

We travel from Paris to the countryside to New York as work for Cathy and Jean moves them, and so does their own relationship, both trying to figure out what they want in terms of career and family life, and realising, as we all do sooner or later, that you don’t get everything you want, that you have to compromise with the important people in your life, with their needs and desires as well as your own, if you’re going to make it work. And that creates tension and problems, and sometimes it leaves you unsatisfied… And other times it makes you feel like everything is perfect and you wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is all worth it.

In between these ups and downs we get treated to those flights of fantasy that have been a bit of a hallmark of the series; Jean’s imagination runs riot around a story involving an antique picture, bleeding into his own life and worries, his formidable concierge takes on monstrous forms in his dreams, or he has weird visions about Cathy, pregnancy and fatherhood (drawn in a totally different style to the usual version both Dupuy and Berberian create for the series). We revisit favourite old spots, like the bridge over the Canal Saint Martin, but also new places, like a stay in New York (a good excuse for our writer, Jean, to visit literary NYC landmarks like The Strand). People stay the same but also change at the same time, the essence of life.

The Jean books have always put me in mind of Woody Allen movies, circa mid to late 70s, still laced with humour but more dramatic and emotional than the earlier outright comedies, not quite as dry as the later ones, with dashes of the soap opera that is life and the Absurd and flights of fancy, both narratively and sometimes artistically. There’s a real sense of growth (painful, sometimes two steps forward, one step back variety, but that’s life, isn’t it?) for all the characters here (even old Felix), of realising, sometimes slowly and painfully, where they need to be in life, and more importantly, who they need to be there with. An absolute pleasure to lose myself once more in the company of Monseiur Jean and his friends.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hellboy: Kramupsnacht

Hellboy: Krampusnacht,

Mike Mignola, Adam Hughes,

Dark Horse

Now here’s a very timely seasonal treat for all the good readers (the bad ones aren’t allowed, they’re on a list and it has been checked twice): Hellboy in Krampusnacht. Actually this is a double treat as it sees HB’s creator Mike Mignola teaming up with superstar writer Adam Hughes (and I’m guessing Adam was most likely delighted to get to play in the Hellboy sandpit). The long winter nights are ideal for spook stories, and there is a long tradition of a ghost story around Christmas – just the other evening my long running SF book group enjoyed some classic M R James ghost stories for our final meeting of the year, in dark, wintry Edinburgh. And here we not only have a nice spook tale for a dark, winter night, but one with a distinctively Christmas theme but, thankfully, not the type of festive theme that lays on the sugar and heartstrings, no this is one more suited for us, thank you.

Krampus himself is an ancient piece of folklore, in latter centuries associated more as a dark partner of Saint Nicholas, but while jolly old Nick delivers presents to the good girls and boys and non-binary children of the world, Krampus punishes the wicked. As is often the case with such folklore, the origins stretch far further back, and more than likely the modern version of the last couple of centuries lifts from several earlier, pre-Christian fokloric versions. In the modern day Krampus has become better known in the Anglophone world, becoming something of a pop-cultural figure in horror and fantasy circles as a nice antidote to the artificial sweetness of much of Christmas, but his roots are much more steeped in that Mittel-Europa culture (the same that has been home to all sorts of wonderful mythic archetypes, from the vampire to the Baba Yaga), and this offering from Mike and Adam draws on that background.

It’s 1975, and Hellboy is making his way slowly through a deeply snow-filled forest in rural Austria, when the ghost of a woman appears, and begs him to save her little boy, before vanishing, leaving only an old-fashioned, carved wooden child’s toy in the snow. Pushing further through the icy forest he sees the lights of a lonely house and on approaching, the inhabitant, an elderly man, opens the door and hails him by name – he is expected, won’t he come in for some food and drink and warm himself by the fire? Naturally it is not what it appears – the old, genial man had previously made an appearance in a local church, causing a supernatural incident, specifically to draw Hellboy’s attention, for he has something he wishes to get off his chest, and a favour to ask, something only Hellboy can do.

And I’m not going to risk spoiling this for you by going any further on the story front. But I will say I enjoyed the hell out of this, no pun intended. As you’d expect from Mignola, the story is littered with references to folklore and myth, from the mysterious, solitary house in the woods, the dangers of the dark forest, through the dead offering advice and help, to the Krampus figure himself. There are shades of Dracula too as “Herr Schulze” invites Hellboy into his lonely, isolated dwelling to take food and drink; I almost expected him to say “Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring…” Unlike the Count, however, Schulze does drink wine…

Hughes’ art creates a lovely contrast between the icy blue-white winter forest and the warm, yellow glow of the candle and fire-lit home, and you can almost imagine knocking the snow off your shoes before stepping inside. That contrast is also carried over to a lovely vingette back at the BPRD with his adoptive father and Liz, by a roaring fire, hot drink to hand and Christmas tree in the corner, again standing against the cold, blue of the winter forest (a scene which, intentionally I imagine, recalls the like of James telling his yuletide ghost stories to friends in his college chambers), with great use of colour here to convey mood and atmosphere almost as much as the art itself does. Hughes also does a grand job of deploying his own fine style but ensuring it visually fits with that iconic Mignola Hellboy imagery, which is not the easiest balance to strike, but he does so admirably.

A lovely little seasonal one-off Hellboy gift to readers – do yourself a favour, take half an hour out of the frentic festive frenzy, treat yourself to a copy of Kramupsnacht and a hot chocolate or a nice mulled wine, and sit back (preferably at night, by the fire) and enjoy a good read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Who betrayed who? Judas #1

Judas #1,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom Studios

Performing my normal early-morning perusal of the new titles at the start of New Comic Book Day, this one jumped out at me, something a bit different from most of the other four colour delights on offer this week. Judas is a character I have found fascinating since being forced to sit through excrutiatingly boring Bible classes on a Sunday as a child. I always found the simplistic portrayal of Judas taught in those classes to be very limited – they were, unsurprisingly for those kinds of indoctrination groups (because that’s what they really were, as far as I could see) it was presented in simple black and white, good and bad lines.

This always seemed to me to be skipping serious questions around the supposed greatest betrayal in human culture: was Judas just selfish and evil, and that is why he betrayed his friend (and saviour)? If he was evil then why on Earth did Jesus ask him to become one of his disciples? Or was it his plan all along to use Judas to betray him because he needed a sacrifice, even of himself (and how many tales of various gods involve some kind of sacrifice, deities, it seems, just cannot get enough of those) and here was the perfect man to use, his very own patsy, his own Oswald? If so that’s hardly the actions of a decent, moral person, is it?

Or was it that Judas knew this had to happen and only he could do it, knowing he would be damned for it, but he did it for the greater good, off his own bat or because his friend told him there was no other way, it had to thus and only he could do it? There are many complex moral and philosophical questions around that kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, that betrayal. And if all that happens is God’s will then presumably the betrayal was always ordained, and so poor Judas was a marked man from before he was born (and does that mean he is responsible for his actions then?). Indeed some gnsotic texts – beyond the pale to mainstream religious authorities – hail Judas for setting in motion what had to happen for human salvation.

Where the teacher in Sunday School was reluctant to engage, I have found over the years that many others have had similar thoughts, and the character of Judas has been explored many times in fiction, those complexities of the nature of morality, responsibility and destiny (free will or are we all following a pre-ordained script) and more have been fertile grounds for compelling drama, so it’s hardly surprising storytellers would pick up on it, from novels by Amos Oz or Tosca Lee, to the film Dracula 2000, which wove the myth into the vampire tapestry. Only a couple of years ago W Maxwell Prince and John Amor gave us the interesting Judas: the Last Days, which I found fascinating – review here. Loveness and Rebelka’s take, certainly in this first issue, continues that tradition of mining the motivations and actions of Judas Iscariot for some exceptionally compelling human drama.

That infamous betrayal is handled economically but efficiently and powerfully within the first few pages – this is a well-known story, and both writer and artist know they need only call forth a few specific scenes, such as the bag of silver coins, the leaning in for that kiss to mark out Jesus, the carrying of the cross by the scourged Christ, then the suicide by hanging of a bereft Judas, and those are sufficient to conjure forth the story in the mind of the reader. It’s a lovely bit of efficient and yet powerful storytelling by Loveness and Rebelka, and those few panels have real power, even to a non-believer like me (because this ancient story is a powerful one, regardless of faith or lack thereof, its human aspects make it endlessly compelling). Especially that single panel of the kiss, only half of the faces visible, below the eyeline, the intimacy and the betrayal so close they are interwoven, the colours muted, save for hints of bright red highlights that hint at the blood to be spilled.

No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

By only the third page we have seen the kiss, the betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver and the sad, lonely suicide, dangling from a solitary tree as a blood-red sunset stains the evening and night falls. And then Judas opens his eyes to find himself elsewhere, somewhere dismal, horrible – the Pit. Where else would the great betrayer go but Hell, of course? But does he truly deserve to be there? As he starts to walk through this nightmare landscape and the damned souls and the demonic entities that reside there to torment them, his dialogue continues and we see flashes back to his life on Earth, before meeting Jesus, and then also as a disciple.

And he asks the questions many would ask? He believes in his Lord, but if he can truly heal the sick, why are so many ill? If he can feed the hungry why do so many starve? If he can raise the dead, why then do we endure the immense pain of losing our loved ones? And if he was his friend and the source of all forgiveness, couldn’t he forgive Judas? But as Judas recalls the overpowering call from his very first encountered with Jesus, of hearing that voice calling him forth, he also recalls another voice, one which sowed doubts, that told him to question, which would lead him to this path in life and the hereafter and even now, in Hell, he can hear that voice still…

This is a hugely thoughtful and compelling piece of storytelling, and beautifully handled by both writer and artist here. There are some lovely touches too – in a lot of early Christian art (and indeed still common in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church art), the disciples and saints are often depicted with their golden halo (usually like a bright, golden disc behind their heads), and here Judas too has such a symbol behind his head, but his is jet-black instead of the glittering gold of a saint, a small detail, but a very telling and clever one, or little changes in lettering by Bell (Jesus’s lettering in red, seems to infer a voice different to normal ones, a voice that cannot be ignored, that compels, reminiscent of Jesse Custer in the Preacher comics). One of the more unusual comics of the year, and one which not only spins a good narrative, but which will leave you arguing with yourself over morality, the nature of free will and more questions that have been asked for eternity and which we rarely can answer completely.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Curios of the Paper Moon

The Curios of the Paper Moon,

Kat Hall,

One Little Apple


Kat Hall’s charming fantasy The Curios of Paper Moon is available as a regularly updated webcomic, but I must confess I hadn’t come across it (more interesting webcomics out there than there is time to browse them all!), before chatting to her at the recent Edinburgh Comic Art Festival. While we were nattering at her stall I was having a browse of a collected print edition of the series, and my initial impression made me want to buy it right away, which is usually a good sign.

Having had a wee chance to sit down and read it now, I am once more glad I listened to my instincts and picked it up, as this was just a lovely, lovely read, the sort of one that charmed me and left me smiling. The print version includes both the Prologue, which sets up the basics of what you need to know about Kat’s fantasy world of Little Garden, and the first chapter of the webcomic, which delivers a decent, self-contained story, the pair of them combining to give you a tale which you can take on its own, but more likely will leave you interested in reading more.

In this world there are treasures, monsters and dungeons, and treasure hunters like Clair who enjoy questing for them – for financial gain, either on behalf of a client, or to claim the treasure for their own. Clair, who between adventures has her own small store, also has a bit of an advantage on these quests as in addition to her formidable treasure hunter knowledge and skills she is also a witch. When she comes across the diminutive form of young Marina, the young woman persuades her to help find her friend, Barrett who unwisely ventured into a dungeon himself, seeking a special treasure. Clair isn’t indifferent, but she’s no charity case either, and agrees to help, for a fee.

I’m not going into too much detail on the quest here, because it would be a shame to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there are some elements you’d expect – and indeed, want – in a dungeon quest: the experienced, confident leader, the younger sidekick who has to learn fast (but is better than they think), surprises and twists, some very lovely tea cups (well, even a dungeon questor need to sit down and have a cuppa now and then). And, oh boy, some fabulous dungeon locations – not just the dark, dank caverns under the earth, but terrific fantasy architecture, bridges over chasms, Kat embraces the fantasy element to let her visual imagination indulge itself, and why the heck not? I mean if you can’t indulge yourself with wonderful visuals in a fantasy tale, where can you?? And that also includes some cracking fantasy creatures to encounter (yes, including dragons, I mean come on, you can’t have a proper dungeon quest and no dragon, can you? Just not the done thing!).

You can follow Curios of Paper Moon online as a webcomic, but it’s far more satisfying to have the print version, so I’d highly recommend picking it up (it also means you give some money to the creator, which is always a good thing). It’s utterly charming and delightful, the art manga-tinged but not too much, and nicely coloured (giving depth and feel to the fantasy world without going over the top), with some lovely visuals, and a story which functions as a good, standalone tale but also as an introduction to this world and characters, hints at paths to follow further and histories as yet undiscovered, and a nice little bit of world-building (including nice touches like what look like magical talismans but which on closer inspection also seem to be a sort of phone and social media device too). Still smiling just thinking about this comics…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Complex relationships in Batman: White Knight

Batman: White Knight #1 & #2,

Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth,

DC Comics

I somehow missed spotting the first issue of White Knight last month. Fortunately we had a copy still on the racks, so when issue #2 came out this week I could grab both for a catch-up. I’ve admired Sean Murphy since the blistering Punk Rock Jesus – I think that marked him out as a writer and artist to watch out for, so I was intrigued to see what he was going to do with one of the iconic relationships in all of comics history, that of the Joker and the Batman. A word of warning, since I am catching up two issues here there may be spoilers…

The title White Knight hints at subverting the normal Gotham set up, and the opening pages of the first issue begin with what appears to be a fairly normal (for Gotham) scene of the Batmobile (a design reminiscent of the Burton movies era) pulling up to the infamous Arkham Asyum, the guards welcoming the occupant, who replies dryily that he knows his way around Arkham. It’s only on the third page that we see that the visitor who stepped from the Batmobile is “Mr Napier” – the Joker without his make-up and psychotic persona, almost unrecognisable – and the inmate he is there to visit in Arkham is the chained-up Batman. This isn’t just subversion, this is inversion.

We flash back a year to a more regular Gotham scenario – a clinically insane Joker on the rampage, fleeing Batman, Batgirl and Nightwing. Along the way the Joker invites them to play a hit-list of Bat-stereotype moments: jumping a raising bridge, pursuing (in the car!) over rooftops and so on, until the Joker is finally cornered in a warehous full od secret drugs. Batman chases him in, roughly pushing a security guard out of the way, but is not content with capturing the Joker, as the Joker starts explaining his theory about their relationship to him, an angry Dark Knight beats him repeatedly, before finally grabbing some of the warehouse drugs and forcing them down the Joker’s throat as a horrified Batgirl and Nightwing watch, and Commissioner Gordon and the police stand by but do not intervene.

We’re a team, Bats. Admit it! That’s our dynamic, all that’s missing is the make-up sex. I don’t expect you to acknowledge it. You are, after all, the distancer, I’m the overly complicated one.”

The Joker carries on telling Batman that they are part of the same system, and that far from fighting crime, his vigilante approach has made Gotham a crime hell, a form of therapy for him, perhaps, but victimising the very city he claims to protect. Or at least he does until the beating and forced drugs almost kill him, in a horrific, brutal sequence, drenched in red. Unfortunately for Batman and the GPCD this is all caught on camera, and it doesn’t make either of them look good. And when the Joker recovers after hospital treatment, the secret drug seems to have restored his brain to a normal balance. He is Mr Napier now, not the Joker any longer, and he soon turns his fierce intelligence to the law books, suing the city for the vigilante treatment and expanding on his argument that the Batman is actually a force for evil in Gotham.

These first two issues are absolutely fascinting. I’d go so far as to say this is the most compelling psychological exploration of the dynamic between the Joker and Batman since Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke. The thing is, the newly reminted Napier does actually conjure up some compelling arguments against the Batman (and the GCPD’s complicity) – even Batgirl at one point yells at Bruce during the earlier pursuit as they roar over an apartment block roof “there are people living in these buildings, Bruce! How do you know they won’t crumble?” Even his friends and allies are deeply concerned about Batman and how he is fighting his war on crime. All of which makes Napier’s arguments all the more convincing.

The inverted roles continue: Bruce Wayne continues to spiral more out of control as both the Batman and as Bruce, while Napier, now freed, is becoming something of a folk hero (pointing out most of Batman’s fights take place in the poorest parts of town, and afterwards those areas are worse off so predatory capitalists move in and buy cheap, a practise confirmed later by a wealthy associate of Wayne’s, that the crime fighting spree is good for buying cheap real estate).

And Napier himself, returning home to find Harley waiting for him but Harley as mad as ever and not too happy about this sane version of her “puddin'” and convinced at first it is a trick. Only to be confronted by a second Harley, this one in the original jester’s costume. It appears when insane as the Joker he had the real Harley walk out on him, fed up with competing with Batman for his attention, and this replacement in sexy cut-offs took her place (none of which he can now recall). Ohhh, but this is juicy stuff, girls and boys and other intelligent lifeforms, it wades deeply into the messy lives and psychologies of the main characters, and it is hugely compelling, while happily riffing on previous Batman tales like Killing Joke or the media and pop-psych evaluations of the Joker and Batman in Dark Knight Returns.

It’s well versed in Bat-history, with obvious love for these characters, with wonderfully appropriately moody artwork by Murphy (and very complimentary colouring by Hollingsworth, right down to lovely fine details like flickering flames coming out the side of the revving Batmobile), crumbling cityscapes of Gotham that look like something from Kelley’s Elseworlds Batman art crossed with Will Eisner, and some scenes which just encapsulate the inner turmoil of the characters perfectly (a splash page of Harley waking in their bedroom to see the Joker has left her side and instead kneels in a nearby room which is a shrine to all things Batman is powerful).

And of course you are left wondering – how much of this is true? Is the Joker really gone for good, is Napier a reformed man reclaiming his place in society? Or is it part of a greater scheme to destroy his old nemesis? Even if this is all true, will Napier stay as Napier, or will the dark Clown Prince of Crime reassert himself in the end? So many murky shades here, no Dark Knight, no White Knight, endless combinations of grey. And red….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Ceci n’est pas une graphic novel – Magritte

Magritte: This is not a Biography,

Vincent Zabus, Thomas Campi,

SelfMadeHero

SelfMadeHero’s exellent Art Masters series continues with this look at one of the great kings of Surrealism, Rene Magritte, and appropriately enough this does not take the regular biographical format. Which is, I think, quite the correct approach – an artist with a body of work like Magritte is not best served by the traditional biographical means, this is more a voyage through his life and his work, and an acknowldgement that the two can’t really be separated, and also that the experience of the viewer is vital, even if we can’t always explain quite why a piece touches us so.

Rather than following a chronological narrative of Magritte’s life and work we meet a very ordinary man, Charles Singulier. Charles seems very mundane, boring even, perhaps, with little or no knowledge of Magritte or art, almost a mirror image of Magritte himself, who often looked like the most ordinary of suburbanites – the suit, the bowler hat, the house in the burbs rather than a city centre studio in the hurly-burly of the capital’s cultural life, he looked like a bank manager or accountant, yet within this Surrealist artistic genius was boiling away. Charles, who really is a boring suburbanite is just what he seems, but when he celebrates a promotion by splashing out on a second hand bowler hat – an uncharacteristic move – his inner life is about to be changed. The hat belonged to Magritte, and once donned Charles may look rather dapper, but he starts to see odd things. And he can’t take the hat off.

This is the start of any odyssey through Magritte’s career, from Charles’ perspective – with this hat stuck on his head, his perspective starts to change, his life becomes like a reality version of one of those short movies the Surrealists liked to play with. His visions take the form of Magritte’s paintings, both famous and the less well-known, starting off small (getting home, admiring his new hat in the mirror but seeing only the back of his head reflected in the looking glass), or exploring a gallery of Margitte’s work, affording some comedic relief as one painting begs him to spend more time regarding it, as it isn’t as famous as his other works and visitors normally walk past it quickly. This quickly escalates until Charles is essentially walking through Magritte’s works, his entire world is becoming that of the Surrealist genius.

He’s told the only way to remove the hat and end this is to reach an understanding of Magritte and his work, to fathom some the secrets from his often bizarre imagery. Fortunately he has help – the unnamed Mademoiselle, a gallery curator and expert in Magritte who advises him, the artist’s official biographer, who arrives on a locomotive driving out of a fireplace (affording more comedy – the train is the size of a child’s model railway, so when the biographer speaks from his tiny-scaled body his speech bubble is minute and Charles cannot hear him). Charles finds himself moving through different artworks from different phases of Magritte’s life, attempting to form some understanding, but this is an artist who was never fond of easy explanations, his work, frequently using everyday items but in peculiar ways, challenges perceptions, that even the mundane may conceal weird wonders, depending on how we see it, or how we can learn to see it from different perspectives. And dull, ordinary Charles is having his perspectives challenged in a pretty radical way…

This is an approach that wouldn’t really work in a prose biography, but the comics medium can do beautifully; the Ninth Art exploring the world of the fine arts visually, as Charles literally finds himself in the artist’s work. Yes, perhaps cinema could do this visually too, but in comics form we can pause, a still image, just like the paintings, lingering over some panels, allowing ideas and notions to spark against one another in our head as we take it in. This is the sort of work which the comics medium can do better than any other, and here Zabus and Campi clearly understand that, and use it to wonderful effect to explore Magritte’s ouevre.

As with the likes of the recent Reinhard Kleist graphic biography on Nick Cave (also published SelfMadeHero – reviewed here), this avoids the normal life story of a standard biography and instead mixes that real life with the artist’s work, more interested in giving us a flavour of that work than a mere repetition of facts and dates and happenings, and it is all the better for it. A gorgeous, delightful walk through the mind and work of one of the great artists of the 20th century, laced with gentle humour and observations, it will leave you wanting to spend more time in galleries, which is never a bad thing.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Creepy tales for the dark nights: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2,
M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Al Davison, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Meghan Hetrick
SelfMadeHero

Autumn winds blow, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees, the temperature drops, and the nights stretch out towards the direction of winter, darkness falling earlier every night – the ideal time to curl up indoors, preferably by the fireside, and read a damned good ghost story. And few ghost stories are more classic than those of Montague Rhodes James a medievalist scholar of some academic renown, but best remembered today as one of the all-time great tellers of ghostly tales, many originally designed for him to read to friends and students by candlelight on Christmas Eve. They’ve been enormously influential, and adapted to other media across the last century, including two rather fine volumes adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the second of which has just arrived from SelfMadeHero.

There are four tales here, each illustrated by a different artist. Number 13 by George Kambadais, Count Magnus by Abigail Larson, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by Al Davison and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Meghan Hetrick. M R James was a master of crafting short, unsettling stories, and these are just the right length to establish the story and, just as important for a James tale, the atmosphere. Because James, as with Poe, it’s as much about that atmosphere, from the seemingly mundane to the first inkling that something isn’t quite right, then that slow building sense of unease that grows into dread then fear as those hints of movement in the shadows manifest.

The Number 13 plays on the Western tradition of that number being considered unlucky – many hotels, for example, will avoid naming a room or floor with it and go from 12 to 14, and that’s the case here, where our visitor, exploring some local Scandinavian history returns to his hotel room one evening, and find it odd that he hadn’t noticed room 13 just next to his own when he had passed it during the day. Gazing idly out of the room window as he smokes, he notices the room light casting the shadow of himself and his window on the nearby building – and that of his neighbour, in room 13, also standing at his window. Except next morning, there is no room 13… Kambadais’ art does a terrific job of slowly stretching the everyday normality of a regular hotel into something…other…wrong… threatening, nice and subtle to begin with (astonishing how uneasy just a door can make you…) and then changes in shadows and colour and… Well, read it to find out, I’m not going to blow it here!

And that is the down side of short horror tales – personally I think the shortform story particularly suits horror, but in a review it does present certain problems, most pointedly that you can’t say too much without risking a spoiler. So I’m trying to be very careful here, and talk more about the art and the atmosphere than the narrative of the four tales here. Larson’s Count Magnus (one of James’ more famous creations) has a more stylised art, the depiction of the eponymous count glimpsed in an oil painting long, angular, distinctive, the panels set in an ancient Swedish churchyard and crypts conjures up a feeling of confinement and claustraphobia, while the colouring by Al Davison is simply gorgeous, adding much to Larson’s art on the Count (a scene with the multiple colours from the sunlight streaming through a stained glass window into the church is beautifully done, or a single beam of light into an old tomb).

Davison takes on the main art duties in the next story, an old, old favourite of mine, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which I’m sure is a favourite with many others too, not least for the classic 1960s TV adaptation of this superbly creepy story. Again we go from the mundane, almost boringly normal – starting with a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge dons chatting over dinner about their holiday plans – to the slowly building sense of unease, the art style and the colour palette shifting from a well-lit, realistic depiction to a cold, icy blue, night-time view of shifting shadows and strange, distorted figures and that horrible feeling that there is something there, right there, in your room close to you, something that should not be there.

Red Thorn artist Meghan Hetrick completes this volume with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This starts out like a conventional adventure story, our protagonist following a well-worn path of those before him who have tried to find the secret key that reveals where a fabled treasure has been hidden, a treasure most now consider to be just an old folk tale. And like any great adventure hero our clever chap stumbles across a clue no-one else has, that puts them on the trail. And that’s where this starts to diverge from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure type adventure of clues and hidden doorways and secrets concealed and uncovered, because, after all, this is an M R James story, and this rapidly goes from high adventure to something far more disturbing, almost Lovecraftian-level disturbing. The scenes of preparation and discovery take in bright, sunlit villages, grand houses with beautiful stained-glass windows, in stark contrast to the scenes where they start to uncover secret areas, panels depicting them descending spiral stones of an old well, lit only by the flickering lamp, linger in the mind after the story is finished.

In fact all of these stories linger in the mind, especially if, as I did, you read them as they – and the originals – should best be read: on a dark, autumn night, by the fireside, happily lost in the slowly-building atmosphere of fear and dread each tale crafts so perfectly, until you suddenly start back to yourself when the wind howls down your chimney and for just a moment you feel a stab of fear, the creeping fingers of the stories still stirring your perceptions, until you realise that sound in the chimney was just the wind, that the blinds only rattled because you forgot to close the window and the breeze is shaking them. Or wait, you did close that window earlier, didn’t you, and it was just a sudden breeze that blew out the candle, wasn’t it?….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Provenance: Ann Leckie returns to her Ancillary universe

Provenance,

Ann Leckie,

Orbit Books

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to come out of nowhere and conquered all before it, scooping the Arthur C Clarke, the Hugo and the Nebula awards among others, and for my own part it (and the following two books in her Radch trilogy) made my annual Best of the Year lists (in fact I recall Justice also made a few of our guest Best of the Year selections too, it impressed a lot of people). Her new novel, Provenance, is set in the same universe, but isn’t directly connected – it’s a different world and society (outside the imperialist Radch space), and different characters, and I think that was a wise move by the author, giving fans something fresh but at the same time also expanding the universe she has built previously.

Much of the events in Provenance rotate around or involve Ingray Aughskold, a young woman from a highly privileged, important and influential family on the world of Hwae. These kinds of mover and shaker families don’t operate just like a classic dynastic model though, they also frequently foster and adopt other children, raised to be part of the family and with them competing to be the one who will be named as the heir. In her case she suspects her brother is their mother’s favourite to inherit her name and title, he simply seems more devious and determined and scheming. Not terribly pleasant characteristics, but for the sort of political wheeling and dealing class, quite useful. And so at the opening we find Ingray, somewhat out of her depth, on a station in another system, where she has used all of her remaining resources to have someone secretly rescued from what is euphemistically called “compassionate removal” (essentially a prison planet where undesirables are dumped and have to fend for themselves).

Ingray’s world is obsessed with “vestiges”, historical artifacts and documents which are used to prove worthiness and rights, both on the personal level to the family history to the entire planetary society itself (not unknown in our own history, think of the supposed Wallace Sword in the Stirling monument, or Henry VIII’s Arthurian round table). The person she has had broken out of imprisonment, Pahlad Budrakim, also comes from a powerful family like her own (actually one her mother, the current Netano, has contested against for political office). And he was put away for stealing the family vestiges and replacing them with clever forgeries. Ingray’s plan to get Pahlad free, return to Hwae and find the never-recovered vestiges and present them to her mother as proof of her abilities is a bit desperate, even to herself, a last-ditch, all-or-nothing approach. So she is already filled with self-doubt as she embarks on this mission… And then when she finally gets Pahlad Budrakim delivered, removed from stasis, the person who emerges, despite looking like Pahlad Budrakim, claims not to be that person or even to know them. It seems her plan has fallen apart right at the first hurdle and all that remains to do is go home, broke and resigned to failure and the inevitable gloating of her brother.

Needless to say, this is not exactly how Provenance plays out, or it would be a very shot read. Instead Ingray finds that her travels and her scheme have brought her into wider plots, involving some of those she meets in her journey, her family, her planet and other powers. She will find herself again worrying about being out of her depth, of attempting to form plans in response to strange new turns of events, then finding her plans don’t always work and she’s going to have to have a wee panic but then settle down and think again. There’s actually something very pleasing about this – Ingray isn’t some superbly-gifted character, highly-trained and with capabilities normal people can only envy (the sort of character we see all too often), she’s a regular person, and a young one, inexperienced and learning as she goes. It’s as much a coming of age story as it is a mystery and conspiracy tale, and Ingray feels quite natural and believable, and increasingly likable as the story progresses.

In the Ancillary series the imperial Radch normally use the pronoun “she” for any citizen, they don’t differentiate in language between genders. Here in the Hwaen and other cultures which come into play here, Leckie expands that, with Hwaens using three gender pronouns, he, she and e, and eir instead of their, while different cultures also follow different naming conventions (much as some Earth cultures do – for example, not every culture follows the Western model of forename and surname in that order). My only problem with “e” is as a British person when I see “e opened the airlock” I can’t help but imagine it in a Cockeny or Yorkshire accent, or another which drops the “h”, which I imagine isn’t a problem American readers have. And this and with exposure to these other cultures, including the alien Geck and people from various walks of life, Provenance feels more rounded socially than the Ancillary trilogy – a part of that universe, of course, but showing us whole different parts of that universe, and hinting at more to explore. And that’s something we SF geeks do love, for sure, a good bit of world – or universe – building, and it expands that setting from the original trilogy nicely, widening that set for more future tales (I sincerely hope) set in that universe. An extremely satisfying and enjoyable read.

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.