William Gibson returns with Agency

Agency,
William Gibson,
Viking Penguin,
Hardback, 416 pages, £18.99
Published January 2020

Bill Gibson, arguably one of the most influential SF writers of the last few decades, returned to full-on science fiction with The Peripheral several years back (reviewed here). Agency follows on from that book, but there has been a pretty substantial, five year gap between the two, much of this caused by the pesky Real World interfering in the plot. Agency is not so much a direct sequel to Peripheral as a story set in the same world established in the preceding novel, with some characters carrying over and new ones taking the lead. It retains the idea from the Peripheral of a century or so hence future where our world has been radically changed after the “Jackpot”, a series of events (environmental, war, disease, political, economic) which decimated the global population and left the descendants of the super-rich oligarchies (the “klepts”) in charge, democracy a distant memory, the world barely stabilised by the use of cutting edge tech.

And again it involves the “stubs” – these rich oligarchs have discovered a mysterious server which allows them to connect digitally to what seems like their past. They can’t go there physically – there is no actual time travel as such here in the traditional sense (although sometimes they can go visit via telepresence in a remote controlled artificial body) – but can exchange information, allowing them to interfere in those eras, some for entertainment (often for malign kicks), as if they were playing a Civilisation style video game, except these are real people’s lives that they are playing with, (not hard to see the real-world commentary here!). This has no effect on their own timeline’s history as the moment they make contact with any such past it branches off into a parallel timeline, the so-called “stub”.

The formidable police inspector Lowbeer is tasked with ensuring that none of these klepts acts in too outrageous a way, that could threaten the precarious stability of their society (a society run by corrupt oligarchs not exactly being too stable to begin with). A new stub has come to her attention, one where Trump lost the Presidential election and Brexit never happened – and this is where the long delay between the two books comes in. Poor Bill was taken by surprise by the results of both of those votes, as many were, and realised some of what his characters would be doing made no sense in a world in which Trump and Brexit existed, causing a long delay and much re-writing and new thinking.

However, if you didn’t know this I doubt you would pick up on it from the writing – Gibson is far too professional for that. He’s always had a knack for smooth descriptions and highly-crafted prose style, and I think that is a skill which has just become better over the years. Here it has resulted in him taking the world-building from The Peripheral but delivering a related but very different story. Despite avoiding some of our timeline’s mistakes the new stub is still facing similar dangers the main timeline did (the looming Jackpot disasters), not to mention a looming threat of war around Syria and Turkey that could spiral into nuclear Armageddon very easily.

In this stub, unlike the main timeline, what may be a true AI agent – Eunice – has emerged from a murky mixture of covert military tech and Silicon Valley development, and some are panicking about what they may have unleashed when testing her. Verity, an influencer and “app whisperer” has been given Eunice to test by a tech start-up, unaware of the vast conspiracy that comes with this until she is dropped into it, while Eunice is going to have to develop very quickly if she has any chance to survive and grow, let alone maybe, just maybe, be able to help the human characters steer her timeline from its destructive course. Lowbeer feels some responsibility to help this timeline, and Eunice, and recruits Wilf (last seen in the Peripheral) to aid in whatever way they can to protect this stub from disaster (both from her own interfering timeline and from the potential disasters of its own timeline).

The best science fiction has always, at its core, addressed the problems of the modern world and society, no matter how disguised by futuristic settings and tech, and of course Gibson is no stranger this; it is something he has done in most of his books from Neuromancer onwards. Agency continues this, very satisfyingly hitting a number of hot-topic buttons, from the One Percent and their unprecedented level of control and influence in larger society, environmental collapse, the role of tech in our society (for good and ill), potential global flashpoints like Syria Turkey and Russia that could easily spiral into something worldwide, the dangers of undermining democratic institutions, of taking moral responsibility for our actions.

Couple this with a tense narrative, delivered in short, punchy, often fast-pace chapters, and characters you can’t help but care about (I think I fell in love a little bit with Eunice and Verity in particular, and the odd relationship developing between the pair) and you are in for a terrific, involving read from a great author at the top of his game. Well worth the wait.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction, featuring short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and more.

Best of the Year 2019

Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.

Books

Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)

I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)

Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.

Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.

Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)

Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.

On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)

I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.

Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)

I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.

The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)

I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez

I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.

Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)

I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.

Americana, Luke Healy

Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.

The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)

The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.

Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)

I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.

Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).

Films

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.

1945

Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)

Jojo Rabbit

I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)

The Accountant of Auschwitz

A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)

Apollo 11

Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.

Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…

Stan and Ollie

I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)

The Wind

I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.

Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)

Reviews: Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts,
Jeff VanderMeer,
Fourth Estate

(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)

I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.

Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.

The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.

VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.

Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.

Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”

Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.

I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction and fantasy.

Reviews: Billionaires

Billionaires,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Ever since Blank Slate first published his achingly honest Psychiatric Tales I have eagerly anticipated each new work by Darryl Cunningham, who has, with a mixture of detailed research, touches of humour, savvy observation and sensitivity, become for me one of our finest cartoonists working in non-fiction fields. Billionaires is a very timely publication: while there has been a division between the richer and poorer probably since the earliest civilisations, the disparity has grown enormously since the 1800s until we now have a tiny amount of people – the “one percent” as they are often referred to in the media – who have more wealth than most of the rest of the billions of people on the planet combined.

While the sheer levels of wealth and indulgence and the differential between those at the top and the rest of us may now be hugely exacerbated, Darryl points out right from the introduction that this is not new, drawing parallels to the “Gilded Age” of tycoons like Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts. This is not just an examination of the sheer accumulation of wealth, however, this is more about the effects of that level of wealth both on those who have it and on the wider society around them (which doesn’t have it), and again Darryl points out historical antecedents to our modern One Percent-influenced world, with those early tycoons and their use of wealth to garner power and influence that can be used to shape government policy and public opinion to service their own beliefs and their own, short-term corporate goals (the dismantling of environmental controls, for instance, or laws safeguarding worker’s rights).

For the purposes of the book Darryl has chosen to focus on three billionaires – Rupert Murdoch (media baron), the Koch Brothers (oil and gas) and Jeff Bezos (online services and technology). As he points out himself this means all of his subjects here are male and white, but as he comments, most billionaires are white and male, and while he could cover female billionaires or billionaires of colour (and he hints perhaps he may some day), given Western society has been disproportionately shaped by wealthy, white males, it made sense to focus on them here. Elsewhere in the book Darryl also addresses the fact his choices here are all very right-wing in their political outlook, but notes that such is the influence given to these few super-rich individuals now that regardless of where they are on the political and moral spectrum (the two are often quite separate) the fact just a few people can hold such power over millions of others is worrying.

For each of the three main sections we follow each of the subjects, from early life and influences through to their current positions. In each case I must say that Darryl does his level best to be fair-handed, probably more so than many of us would have been in his place, and that is to his credit – this is no hatchet job, although, of course, it does cover many actions by these men that most of us would probably find morally reprehensible. But it also covers more positive aspects of their life stories – Charles and David Koch labouring on their father’s ranch as youngsters, to learn the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, their father trying to teach them a lesson and not allow them to grow up as what today we’d probably refer to as spoiled trust fund brats.

Or a young Bezos thriving despite a difficult start in life, with a wayward father, who was later replaced by an immigrant man who married his mother and who applied himself in the American Dream style to better himself and his family (and did), along the way encouraging the young Jeff, or showing that the self-capable Bezos starting Amazon in his garage, building office desks himself by woodworking some old doors into work tables. There are even some surprising revelations (well, at least to me!), such as young Murdoch arriving in the UK to study for his degree and becoming so attracted to left-wing politics his rich father was worried about him.

While the early life lessons that formed these men may differ in subject and time and place, there does seem to be a common theme, which is a slow but relentless push by all of them to accrue more power, and the more they have, the more they want. The wealth itself seems almost secondary in some ways, to the power and influence they allow them, be it being able to command the lives of thousands of employees as they wish (Bezos and his demand that everyone in the company works as many hours as him and to hell with family life and the like, for instance), to being able to directly influence the levers of governmental power (and indeed to do so on an international, not just national scale), be it the Koch’s use of vast funding to power so-called Think Tanks and policy groups or college programmes to create “research” that backs their own views, or Murdoch and his “king-maker” model, where his media empire could make or break a political leader, making even Prime Ministers dance to his tune rather than serving their electorate or the national interests (one telling scene with very contemporary overtones notes that Murdoch loathes the EU because in the UK he can lift the phone and tell the PM what to do, but in Europe they don’t care who he is).

The artwork is in Darryl’s familiar, cartoony style (down to the free-drawn lines of buildings, no rulers here!), which is a style I have to say I have tremendous affection for. It is also a style that serves Darryl’s work well – it is clear, concise but very easy on the eye, helping to render the mountains of research and complex details into very simple to understand, accessible graphics. He makes it look very simple, and I am sure it is anything but. The art also leavens the heavyweight subject matter with some welcome touches of humour here and there (a page on young Jeff Bezos on his grandfather’s ranch, learning hands-on skills, including how to castrate bulls, has a cartoon bull staring at the reader and asking in alarm “What?!?!”).

As someone who has read all of Darryl’s works, right back to when he was creating his humour strip on the now-vanished Forbidden Planet Blog years ago, I found Billionaires especially interesting. Not just because it is a fascinating subject and an erudite, accessible examination of these people who have far too much influence over their fellow citizens, not to mention very contemporary (we see laws and even entire government policies changed to suit a few billionaires, not the electorate), but because it ties in very nicely to much of Darryl’s earlier works. Taking in the lives of these billionaires also covers the economies (which Darryl has covered before, most notably in Supercrash) and the environment, which has featured in his science books. While they may not be designed as a connected series, for those of us who have read his previous works, it’s interesting and gratifying to notice many connections to elements of those earlier books.

As with all of Darryl’s works this takes some very important and complex subjects – many of them matters which directly impact on the lives of ourselves and millions of others around the world – and distils all of that huge amount of research into a clear, thoughtful narrative that delivers detail without overloading the reader, and does so in a hugely compelling and fascinating manner. At this rate I think Darryl Cunningham may be becoming the UK’s equivalent to the great Larry Gonick, and our vibrant comics scene is all the richer for his work. Hugely recommended reading.

You can read my reviews of Darryl’s Supercrash here on the blog, Graphic Science is reviewed here, and Psychiatric Tales is reviewed here.

Cymera 2020

Back in June I was delighted to both attend and also take part in the very first Cymera Festival of literary science fiction, fantasy, YA and Horror here in Edinburgh, at the Pleasance (here’s my report and, of course, photos). It went amazingly well, especially for a first time outing (huge kudos to Anne and the other organisers and volunteers),I caught many panels with a wide variety of authors, some new to me, some old friends I’ve known years, and had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Ken MacLeod, Gareth Powell and Adrian Tchaikovsky about their books.

I’ve known that a second Cymera was being planned for June 2020, and now the festival has started its Crowdfunder appeal. I’ve already backed it as I did last year (which also gets me the weekend pass so I can come and go to any and all events through the whole festival, a bargain and dibs on booking which events I want to catch). If you enjoy good science fiction, fantasy, YA and horror literature then this is an event I highly recommend, and unlike many SF cons I have been to, it is in a nice venue in the city centre, not some out-of-town hotel. The Crowdfunder page is here, and there is a short promotional video (warning, the video does include a little bit of me!):

Reviews: Americana

Americana,
Luke Healy,
Nobrow

Two thousand, six hundred and sixty miles: that’s the length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Running right across America’s great west coast, it runs through some truly remarkable landscapes as it takes hikers from the Californian-Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border, taking in burning deserts, vast forests and huge, snow-capped (even in summer) mountain ranges like the High Sierras. Hikers of all ages and abilities try to tackle the PCT each year, many “thruhikers” are determined to cover the entire trail in one season, from baking, scorched deserts to frigid mountains, people from all over the world, including Irish cartoonist Luke Healy, who previously brought us How to Survive in the North, reviewed here)

Luke explains that he is not the athletic, outdoor type – far from it. In self-deprecating tones he notes his general unfitness, that his preparations that mostly consisted of doing some extra walking round town back home (not quite the same as doing regular hillwalking and the like!), and this is apparent very quickly as he depicts himself huffing and puffing along through the roasting landscape of southern California, and knowing he has thousands of miles to go. So why has he committed himself to this test of endurance?

It’s a good question, and while Luke muses on possible reasons for this voyage across America’s landscapes – not least his own fascination with the country, like many Irish folk he has a strong draw to that land (new opportunities) but also negative connotations (so many family members emigrating there never to return). And certainly seeing any country on foot as you pass through it is a pretty good way to learn more about it, to appreciate not only the land and the sights but the people, in a way travelling that distance by plane never could. And yet I strongly suspect the main reason is simply that the idea got into his head and wouldn’t leave him, no matter how unlikely a figure he was for a long, tough hiking trip.

And that’s no bad thing – sometimes we get an idea we just can’t get rid of, that may drive us to try something very different from what we would normally do. And in many ways I think Americana benefits from Luke not being a seasoned outdoorsman – we’ve all seen books by Bear Grylls or Joe Simpson, and fascinating though they are, I often find myself a little detached and removed from those accounts, because those writers have trained and endured to function in those spaces at a level far above anything I would manage. In Luke’s account I find it more personable because here’s someone not too different from me, with all the problems that may entail, and I can empathise far more with his account.

I think the comics medium is a splendid forum for travel literature – I’ve long admired Guy Delisle’s work, for instance – and Luke makes good use of the medium here to document his travels and experiences. The art is mostly black and white with some red and blue, and takes a relatively simple approach. That’s not a criticism, the cartooning here is not overly detailed or elaborate, but it doesn’t have to be – Luke delineates landscapes, from tree-covered hills to mountains to deserts with simple but effective, clear strokes, the sequence of panels giving the impression of the continual nature of the trail, onwards, onwards, onwards, across those vast, diverse landscapes of North America.

While I very much enjoyed taking in the changing landscapes, the towns, the trails, I think for me Americana shines most when Luke is describing and depicting his interactions with other people. There are “trail angels”, such as people who kindly leave caches of water along the desert stretches for hikers to make use of (he contrasts this with those who also leave water supplies for illegal migrants crossing the southern border, which are destroyed by the border patrols if found, unlike the hiker supplies), the many who drive near those routes and routinely offer a lift to tired walkers or offer them a space to settle for the night. There’s a lot of generosity and kindness on display here.

The main interactions, however, are with his fellow hikers. As the long route starts to hone him, burning off excess weight, making him fitter and leaner, building his stamina, he encounters more and more people. Some he will keep meeting again and again as they pass each other then catch up on rest days in small towns along the route, and many of those become friends, all with their own trail nicknames (he is given the name “bivvy” for his bivouac and rudimentary camping skills). There are points where he wishes to hike alone, but then he always encounters some of the same people again and again and he finds himself enjoying being with them, the camaraderie of the trail seeps into him.

These newly forged friendships contrast with the feeling of distance from his home and family in Ireland, especially when he gets a phone call to tell him a beloved family member is seriously ill. That’s the sort of news that would make any of us far from home feel isolated and depressed, and while it does have this effect, the ever-changing landscapes and the people he has befriended keep him going. There are many times he feels weak, ill, depressed and ready to throw in the towel, and other moments of small triumphs as he marches tiredly past another milestone and feels that sense of achievement. Does he make it all the way? That you will need to buy the book to find out.

Americana is a lovely read, Luke’s pretty humble approach to his own abilities (especially at the start, untried, inexperienced) endears him to the reader, someone we can identify with, the love-hate-love relationship Irish families have with that vast land over the ocean, the depiction of the simply astonishing range of landscapes and terrains that huge continent offers, from the sand and rock and rattlesnakes of the sun-blasted deserts to bears and deer among the green trees of the hills and mountains. But for me it is the nature of travel and endurance to awaken something in our souls that is the strongest element here, something Luke handles with a quiet effectiveness, and above all the friendships formed along the way.

Reviews: Rosewater – Redemption

Rosewater: Redemption,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 374 pages

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

The third and final part of Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Tade Thompson’s rather excellent Rosewater series arrives from Orbit, and it proves as engrossing as its predecessors. The first novel introduced us to the world of Rosewater, this unusual near-future Nigerian shanty-town that had grown into a city state, based around a vast alien dome, the power politics going on between locals, such as the city’s major, the Nigerian government, the secret police, the aliens and other groups, and the “sensitive” Kaaro and his psychic abilities, which are linked to the alien-created xenosphere. Book two, Insurrection (reviewed here), took us away from Kaaro’s point of view and expanded our experience of this world through the eyes of several other characters, less a direct sequel as viewing events from another angle, giving a much rounder picture of both characters and the history that has lead to this point.

Insurrection also expanded on the alien presence, far from the benign if mysterious visitors who do annual “healing” ceremonies (one of the things which has put the once shanty-town of Rosewater on the political map and made it important) and brought us the xenosphere, this is, in effect, a very slow-motion invasion of our world. It is one which has been going on behind the scenes for decades, centuries even, the base, Wormwood, with roots deep below the Earth. And now more of the aliens are coming from their distant world – or at least the digitally archived mental imprints of that now otherwise extinct species, downloaded into dead human bodies and re-animated in a process similar to the “healing” gifts given to human pilgrims and their injuries.

Jack Jacques, the mayor, has a tenuous alliance with the aliens, or at least a section of them (it appears there are cracks in the aliens and their plans and approaches, just as there are divisions between the different human groups), allowing them to take dead bodies for this resurrection project. Understandably many bereaved families are aghast as this use of the body of their deceased loved ones being used as a vehicle for an alien mind. The arrangement does buy Jacques some bargaining power with the belligerent Nigeria though, still smarting from losing Rosewater as an independent city-state – with the power of the alien behind him, they can’t move too openly against Jacques (not that is stops all sorts of backroom plans and schemes).

Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 04
(Tade Thompson on stage at the first Cymera Festival of literary Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Edinrugh this summer, photo from my Flickr)

But this is a delicately balanced situation and not one that can be maintained for long. Nigeria and other powers are interested in what is going on and want to move more openly, laying plans to disrupt the city’s routine and destabilise it, Jacques knows also that he cannot rely on the protection of the alien, and even if he could, he understands that each new one that is brought here and downloaded into a former human body is another nail in the eventual coffin not just of Rosewater but for the human race on Earth. He’s buying time, but that’s all, and he may have less than he thinks – bad enough people are forced to surrender the freshly dead bodies of their loved ones, but what if the belief that the resurrected bodies are entirely blank slate until the alien mind is downloaded are false? What if there is even a partial imprint of the original human soul still trapped in that revived body, now shunted to the back of the mind as the alien takes control?

A lot of hard decisions are going to have to be made by different powers, all squabbling for their own angle and unwilling to face the fact that perhaps their angle is, in the long-run, meaningless if they don’t unite to try and prevent the eventual extinction of their own species and the take-over of our planet by another. Assuming, of course, it is even possible to stop something like this, which has been happening for so many years already, a slow-motion invasion that had established a beach-head long before humans even realise they were at war…

Thompson takes the multi-character angles from the second book and deploys them again here to great effect, giving us insights into the competing human and alien interests, from the ones who are tying to co-operate at some level to the ones who will stop at nothing to impose their own will, consequences be damned (not hard to see echoes of this in, for example, the current climate crisis in the real world and the groups that fight around that despite the dire consequences awaiting all groups regardless of their prestige or power or angle). The notion that the newly resurrected formerly human cadavers, now home to alien intelligences, could also still retain vestigial elements of the original person’s mind, their essence, trapped in there, is horrifying, and brings the idea of global invasion to a very personal, individual level, upping the horror element (it is also not hard to compare this to the often brutal colonial/imperial era of history in Africa).

With so much at stake none of the original characters are safe, and there is a feeling throughout of how precarious the lives of even characters we have come to love are, how easily they could die by the hand of the slow alien infestation or by the quicker hand of their own fellow humans still trying to score points for their own agendas. There will be a blood-toll here, and there is a sense of increasing desperation as some of the players start to fully realise the stakes they are playing for, even as they try to form new plans that they have no idea they can pull off.

It really is all to play for here, and Thompson immerses us in the situation and in the character’s fates – it is a real gut-punch to see something bad happen to some – and keeps us guessing right to the end, how this will play out for both our individual characters and for the fate of humanity and the world. This all comes wrapped in a style and setting which sets it apart from a lot of other recent SF – Tade is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting new voices in the genre, and I can’t commend this series enough to your reading pile.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction writing.

Reviews: the stunningly beautiful I Go Quiet

I Go Quiet,
David Ouimet,
Canongate

I am different. I am the note that’s not in tune. I go mousy. I go grey.”

Oh where to begin with this stunningly beautiful, deeply emotional little book? When a book arrives with glowing endorsements on the front and back covers from Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Stephen Fry it almost feels redundant for me to add my humble tuppence worth of opinion; I’d imagine many readers would already be leaning towards reading I Go Quiet just on the recommendations of those exceptionally fine writers alone.

Nonetheless I’m going to try and say a little about it – I feel compelled to, this book just spoke to me, right from the moment I first put it on the shelves of the bookstore I work in. I was totally taken with it right away, right from the cover, before I had even opened a page. Sometimes that just happens with readers, we find treasure and some part of our literary soul recognises something new and important that we simply must read. Over the years I’ve referred to that sudden tingle I get from a new book, that feeling that I just know I will love it even before reading it, as my bookselling Spidey-sense, and it has never steered me wrong.

Our protagonist is a young girl – rather lonely, isolated, alone even in a busy crowd. She moves through the beautifully painted city scenes, some in dark, industrial Gothic shades of grey and dark blue and black, others brightly lit daytime scenes of a handsome, bustling city, full of life. In each, though, she is solitary, walking alone through empty nocturnal streets, or again always alone through the crowded, sunlit daytime scenes. The vast school scenes and the endless ranks of others hint at Gilliam Brazil-like darkness and emphasise her aloneness: there is that feeling in crowds that everyone else around you seems to know what they are doing, where they are going, what their part is in the greater group and how to get along with it. Our girl, as she observes, doesn’t know how to be in these groups. She fears she hears whispered words as she passes by, as if the larger group is talking about this strange, solitary little figure.

It’s a feeling most of us will have had at some point – it is so very easy to feel alone even in a vibrant city crowd, to think everyone around you seems to have figured out this Life stuff except you, that they all know what they are doing and, perhaps, they are laughing at us for clearly not knowing. And it’s usually nonsense, everyone else is often thinking the same of other people. But that depression and isolation, that lowering of our own self-worth, these things aren’t rational, and telling ourselves that we are being silly and it isn’t really like that doesn’t help our mental state.

Like many of us she has a retreat – she has books. What beautiful scenes Ouimet paints as she browses the bookshelves, enormous, towering stacks of shelves in a dream library that looks like something straight from the mind of Borges. She finds books, reading, words, imagination, escape. The world may be scary, but the books are always there, they are always waiting for her, never judge her. We’re all readers here, I’m sure many of us have experienced similar feelings, embraced the warm, papery touch of books to carry us away from everything that is wrong with our lives in the so-called real world (I’m often unsure that in fact the Real World is any more real than the many worlds I have traversed in books, if I am honest).

But this is not just a retreat from a lonely reality, the library, the books, the stories, the words, they are not just some substitute for the real world for the girl. No, they are her gateway to understanding the wider world and that she does really belong in it. She reads how everything is created of the same stuff, and that means, she realises, that she too is part of everything in return. She’s not that different, she’s not alone, and if she is quiet, it is because she is biding her time, assembling her words, her stories, and when the time comes:

When I am heard, I will build cities with my words. They will not be quiet.”

I was utterly spellbound by I Go Quiet. I recognise in it the child I was, lost in bookshops and libraries, I recognise also the adult me who still loses himself in pages. And I recognise the influence of those books, of those words, their power to fire the imagination, to inspire, that reading is not a retreat from the world, it is an engagement with it at the most fundamental level, an attempt to understand and articulate the human experience, and that reading can empower us to face the slings and arrows of the world, arming us with a shield made of book covers and a sword forged from words.

The artwork is simply beautiful, painted pages, often using double-page spreads. Using very little text, strategically placed and sized to infer more emotional depth, placed on the pages rather than in speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, I Go Quiet has a mixture of the graphic novel format and the style of a traditional children’s picture book, which seems appropriate as it is an all-ages work, suitable for both younger and older readers. It’s a short work, with little text, but that doesn’t matter, because it is the kind of book you read slowly, drinking it in, then you re-read it, looking for more details in the gorgeous art. I’ve read it several times now and each time I find myself wonderfully lost in its emotional currents, feel it making me both cry and smile.

Unusual, moving, and utterly beautiful.

Reviews: The Book of Forks

The Book of Forks,
Rob Davis,
SelfMadeHero

With the removal of my brain aid, it now follows that I have what you could call Unmedicated Interference Syndrome, or rampant Science Fiction. Or just Interference Syndrome. My inferences are now unfettered. The possible completion of this book is in effect Interference Syndrome left to run its natural course.”

Following on from the fascinating, compelling, wonderfully unusual – and frequently disturbing – Motherless Oven and the Can Opener’s Daughter (reviewed here), Rob Davis completes his trilogy with The Book of Forks. It’s pretty fair to say I have been waiting eagerly for this, it has been high up on my list of must-reads for 2019’s releases, and I am glad to report I was not disappointed. I had the good fortune to chair a talk with Rob Davis and Karrie Fransman at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival, where as well as elaborating on how he used the comics medium to imbue the book with a lot of symbolism (more than could have been achieved with prose alone), Rob also disclosed that he planned sequels, but, understandably those were reliant on the first book doing well enough for SMH to commission and publish the others. I am very, very glad that this happened…

While the Book of Forks includes our three main heroes, the schoolkids Scarper Lee (the boy whose Death Day was due in the first book), the plucky and irascible Vera Pike (the Can Opener’s Daughter) and Castro Smith (their friend with the unusual “brain aid” and an unusual way of seeing the odd world they live in), and a number of other players from the previous books getting a look-in (including Vera’s terrifying Mother, and the vile, old Stour Provost), the major focus here is, as in the previous two volumes, on one of them, this time Castro. Castro seems to be imprisoned in the unbelievably vast Factory (some of Rob’s art recalls the classic prison layouts as seen in Porridge etc), where he and others there follow a set routine, in-between which he is working on the titular Book of Forks, his attempts to lay down on paper what understandings he has made of the worlds of the Bear Park and Grave Acre, of the Mothers and Fathers, the household Gods and Weather Clocks.

This is a terrific narrative device – it allows Davis to expand upon the worlds he has created in the previous books, those peculiar towns that seem in some ways so familiar to a sort of 1970s Britain and yet in other ways are bizarrely, often scarily different, to explore their mythology and origins and evolution as part of the actual story rather than a clumsy info-dump. As before the story is interspersed with single black pages with white-lined art – these are pages from Castro’s book – explaining different aspects and functions of these worlds, how they came to be, which made me think of a grotesquely odd version of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide.

It is through these pages, and the discoveries of the various characters on their journey, that we are slowly given a far larger picture of this world than we’ve had previously, a long history, involving ancient Immortals, “death states”, and heroic Postmen who move between the different states and may just be rebels fighting a system imposed on the people within them, adding a moral and philosophical element to the work that questions perceived societal norms and how they come about.

Scarper, still with his perma-frown, despite being rescued from death, and Vera, still troublesome and with that regular knowing smirk on her face, make up the other main component of this volume, seeking out their friend with dogged determination and bravery, and not a little resourcefulness. This element of the tale was as rewarding to me as Castro’s strand, partly for the adventure of it (they travel and dare, while Castro is mostly in one location, although his thoughts are free to travel, and do), but also for the way Davis develops their character.

The idea of travel and adventure bringing people closer, changing them into something new, something different and hopefully better is, of course, an old one, but it is mined here very well by Davis, and both Vera and Scarper grow as we watch them struggle to find their friend, relying more and more on one another, despite all their bickering. It’s clear throughout that Davis has a lot of respect and affection for his characters, and it shows, I think, in the way he allows them to breathe and develop here.

It would be comforting to believe that the immortals were responsible for the cruel rules that govern us, but my evidence suggests we are doing this to ourselves. Perhaps the question to ask is not ‘why do we suffer?’ but ‘why do we wish to suffer?‘”

The black and white artwork is, once more, an absolute pleasure to behold. So much of the character interactions and the emotional heft of the narrative is carried in the way Davis deftly draws the expressions on the character’s faces, it works perfectly with the script to convey so much to the reader, not just story but emotional insights too, and that, of course, draws us as readers much deeper into the tale, makes us invest more in those characters and care for them (a single panel where Scarper and Vera, normally always arguing, run from a rain of knives and take scant cover, holding each other closely packs a huge amount of emotional information into that solitary frame).

Elsewhere the art conveys so much, from wonder (strange sea creatures, a Factory that touches the skies) to disturbing horror (bodies left hanging in the endless showers of knife rain, vast forests inside a library, the giant bears with faces of babies), and those intervening excerpts from the Book of Forks itself that Castro is working on – it’s a rich, rich stew and, like the earlier two books, one which will likely have most readers going back over it all again several times to drink in details and perhaps notice elements they missed before.

Naturally I won’t spoil this by discussing what happens – do Scarper and Vera find their missing friend, Castro? If so, what happens to them now, what happens to the worlds of the Bear Park and Grave Acre and other realms after so much disruption and death? Do they find out why their world is the way it is? You’ll have to read the books to find out. I will say, however, that quite often I have an intuition of where a story is going – not necessarily because the writer isn’t good, perhaps just because I’ve read so many books you get a feel for narrative flows sometimes and can guess where a tale is leading. I’ve not had that with any of the three volumes in this series, and that has been an added pleasure – I genuinely had no idea where Rob would take this story or the characters, and that made it all the more compelling to the final page. The entire trilogy is an absolute must-read, one of the more unusual, intriguing and frankly downright wonderful stories to emerge in recent Brit comics, in my opinion.

Vanni

Vanni,
Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Myriad Editions & New Internationalist

New Internationalist and Myriad Editions have collaborated on another graphic reportage work, following the fascinating and moving Escaping War and Waves by Olivier Kugler last year (reviewed here). In Vanni Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock explore the tragedies of a land that should be the very image of a tropical paradise, Sri Lanka, starting with the natural catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami, then later the years and years of the grinding civil war in that island, which saw thousands of deaths, disappearances, tortures and other atrocities and masses of displaced civilians caught in the middle, killed, maimed, driven from their homes once more, but this time by human-made disasters, not the anger of the waves.

We get to know Antoni and his family, from the grandmother to the youngest kids, living in a simple but happy life in their wee village on the coast, where fishing provides a living. The Tamil Tigers, fighting against the Sri Lankan army and government which has a long record of treating Tamil people as second class citizens. While understanding the struggle, Antoni and his family are as wary of the Tigers as they are of government troops, and for good reason – they don’t want the young men of their family to be co-opted into the fighting, but of course, inevitably their family is drawn into it (in extremely upsetting scenes later on the Tigers resort to raiding villages and refugee camps, press-ganging any women or men of the right age into service against their will, including some of the young women of the family).

The threat may be on the horizon, but before the war expands to swallow their world, first nature delivers a terrifying event with the tsunami. Pollock’s mostly monochrome artwork moves from smaller panels to four pages with very big panels, the large format of the book (almost quarto sized, I think), allowing the art to really shine. Those four pages utilise the large panels and no dialogue, just “silent” imagery as the wave arrives. The terrified villagers are trying to escape inland, but the angry ocean is far too swift; some desperately make for the roof of the one really solid building, the stone church (their own homes being much flimsier). In four large panels the wave rears up as it strikes the land, washing over trees, buildings, people, the irresistible, awful power of nature made abundantly clear. The following two pages remain free of dialogue, depicting the ruined landscape and shattered village left by the passage of the mighty wave. It is simple and powerful and awful; a terrifying depiction of how vulnerable we are in the face of nature.

The aftermath is extremely emotional, both in story and art – Pollock skilfully depicts the “thousand yard stare” of some of the survivors. Any of us who have been sudden, shocking events such as a bad accident, a sudden death in the family, a fire, will be familiar with that expression that clearly signals the utter shock of your world being ripped apart, the grief, the numbness, the feeling of what just happened, how could it happen, how could things become so terrible so quickly? It’s a form of PTSD, and that is an internal scar on mind and soul that never truly goes away. In another, later scene one of the younger lads of the family, tired of refugee camps, returns to the sea and swims. As he dives under the water his village re-appears on the shore, as it was before, but when he surfaces and looks, all he sees is wreckage and refugee tents; it’s gone for good, and the momentary peace being in the sea gave him vanishes as quickly as the illusion of his old home.

Worse is to come as the civil war grows though. The refugee camps, already struggling, are over-burdened by new columns of civilians fleeing the fighting, and, as in every way our species has ever wages, those civilians often get caught in the cross-fire, shells and bombs hitting the camps. Supposedly by accident, and of course some may be accidental, but as the human rights violations rise it is obvious that some of the attacks on the camps are part of a deliberate fear campaign, with no regard for civilian lives, both sides committing atrocities in the name of their respective goals, both supposedly fighting “for the people” but in reality not giving a damn about those actual people who are suffering and dying.

There are many scenes here which are hard, as you would expect from this subject matter. Not only major scenes of death and destruction, but smaller scale depictions – refugees hobbling in their columns, some missing limbs from bombings and mines, the looks on the faces of children and adults, the obsessive over-protection of some of the older members of the family to the children, clinging to them, not letting them leave the tent or their sight for fear of another attack or disaster claiming them, desperately trying to protect what little is left to them and terrified that in the end they won’t be able to do so; the feeling of panic and helplessness is palpable. In other scenes we see torture and execution – even here though, while not shying from showing the shocking events, Pollock, I noticed censored part of his art where two victims are forced to strip naked to humiliate them before being shot, a small touch, but one I found moving, as the artist attempted to give those men at least a tiny shred of dignity.

Vanni is very much inspired by Spiegelman’s Maus and the graphic reportage of Joe Sacco – Dix, in fact, mentions these in his own notes in the book, and how he read some of these works while he was in Sri Lanka with the UN relief agencies. The characters are fictionalised here, but the stories are real enough, taken from many personal interviews with eyewitnesses (now scattered around the world from India to France, Britain and Canada as asylum seekers), the names and elements of the stories altered somewhat to protect the and their family members who are still in Sri Lanka from potential vengeful retribution from the government there, a government which still downplays the huge scale of the civilian atrocities during the war and their own culpability in it to this day (their continued denials makes it all the more important that books like this give voice to the victims).

No, this is not an easy read, and you may well ask, why do some of us read books like Vanni or Maus or Footsteps in Gaza when we know how upsetting it will be? Personally I have always subscribed to the old adage of “bearing witness” – if you cannot change events (and clearly we cannot with past historical events) then you at least try to bear witness to them, to be aware of them and make others aware, not to let the conspiracy of silence blanket those events and hide the foul deeds of the perpetrators from the eyes of the world. The comics medium is, I think, remarkably well-suited to exploring these kinds of tales in an accessible manner, and Vanni can hold its head up alongside the likes of Sacco for giving a voice to those most of the world has forgotten, to share their cautionary tale of how quickly a seemingly stable, normal society can tear itself apart and its people with it.

Reviews: Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide

Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide,
Kate Charlesworth,
Myriad Editions

Now this, my friends, has been one of the Brit comics works on my Must Read Radar for 2019; I know Kate has been working on it for a long time, a labour of love in many respects. Kate has been contributing to the Brit comics and cartooning scene for many years, from her Auntie Studs character to the critically acclaimed (and quite brilliant) Sally Heathcote, Suffragette with Mary and Bryan Talbot (reviewed here). Kate was also generous enough to create artwork for my short story Memorial to the Mothers which closed out the double Eisner-nominated WWI comics anthology To End All Wars (thanks, Kate! You can read that story in full here on the Woolamaloo). So it is more than fair to say I have heard snippets about this work in production for quite a while and now, finally, thanks to the nice people at Myriad (surely one of our most creator-supportive UK Indy publishers?) I had the chance to read it.

And then re-read it.

Short version: it’s brilliant – it’s a wonderfully warm, often very smile-inducing and laughter-creating, emotionally engaging tour through the last few decades of Queer life and culture in the UK and further afield, intertwining both Kate’s own life experiences as she grows up with the wider cultural and historical changes taking place, which gives Sensible Footwear both an over-arching, wide-ranging historical arc but at the same time maintaining a close, personal aspect to it that allows the reader to experience this as more than historical events or social-cultural changes, we can feel the impact on a more individual, emotional level.

From the hidden gay (predominantly male homosexual) subculture of the 50s and 60s (yes, including the delightfully cheeky and risqué Round the Horne) to the heady days of Stonewall and beyond, the Women’s Liberation Movement gaining ground in the 70s, the increasingly visible presence of LGBT people and the push for more tolerance for all, the horrible early years of the AIDS outbreak and more, along the way taking in lovely little asides on a myriad (no pun intended) of gay icons, from Dusty Springfield to characters from Coronation Street.

Woven through all of this socio-cultural history we also have Kate’s own story, from childhood through to that great rite of passage so many of us go through, the first move away from home to go to college, to adult life, to exploring what her own sexuality and romantic inclinations are, the friends and lovers she meets, the people who inspire her, the intolerant elements she and friends band together to stand against. It’s all laced with a lovely, warm humour throughout – right from the start, after an introductory scene of Kate and her partner Diane on holiday with friends, discussing the old days (a framing device used through much of the book, linking past and present nicely), we go to Barnsley in 1950 and Kate’s birth, which includes a cheeky moment of baby Kate seeing the ward sister and being somewhat smitten.

There is more of that kind of scene as we see her growing up – as a family wedding approaches the young girl wonders what the husband is actually for. And she is less than impressed at being dolled-up in a fancy, very girly dress to be a maid of honour, not her kind of thing at all, oh no. Mind you, she is rather taken with the bride. There are a lot of gentle intimations here that Kate is not going to grow up to be the “regular” young girl then young woman that her family expects (thank goodness!). Balancing this out, later sections in the book hark back to those earlier days, of getting older, starting to realise she is a lesbian and not knowing how to tell her family, how they will react, but we find out as we go on that actually there were more secrets in the family cupboard she simply knew nothing of when growing up and questioning her own feelings and inclinations, because those were generations that simply didn’t share certain things, not even among their nearest and dearest.

Even today coming out is often not an easy thing for anyone – growing up is rarely simple, we’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we want to be, looking for role models and inspiration and supportive friends who will help us. How much harder when society was so horribly bigoted and intolerant? Yes, we have plenty of bigots today – sadly they seem to be on the rise again, racism, sexism, homophobia – but it is still very different, both society’s general attitude and also the law’s stance (where LGBT people are recognised and afforded the same rights and protections any of us should have).

And here we get to see where some of those changing attitudes – and political and legal changes – came from, with groups inspired by Stonewall, the first gay rights movements, the increasingly important woman’s rights movements, the push for greater racial tolerance. I was reminded a little of Sally Heathcote, where Kate and the Talbots made it abundantly clear that the Women’s Suffrage movement was never just about the vote, it was about a whole range of important social issues, including healthcare and educational opportunities. Similarly here, we can see how the fight for tolerance, understanding and equality for any one group is, in reality, always about tolerance and understanding and equality for all. Or as congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights veteran and one of the original Freedom Riders, put it when equal rights for gay marriage was proposed in the US:

I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and colour, not to fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

If you needed any more reminding of that, just think how the same, vaguely-worded Obscene Publications Act that was used to try and stop some gay publications – state censorship, effectively – was the same Act used to try and shut down counter-culture publications like Oz, or, even in the 80s and 90s Tony Bennett’s Knockabout having to fight the Act and HM Customs over importing underground Comix. Like I said, these rights and tolerances – or lack thereof – affect most, if not all of us in some way or another.

For readers of a certain age there is also a lot of nostalgia and a strong sense of “oh, I remember that” moments throughout Sensible Footwear, from the idolising Honor Blackman and then Diana Rigg in the Avengers (strong women characters that took no nonsense without every losing any sense of the feminine) in the 60s to the hideous Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light, using religion as a way to demand that what people watched or read conformed to what they approved of (chilling, and still has echoes today with some (mis)using religion as an excuse to practise bigotry), or “God’s Cop” James Anderton (a favourite of Thatcher), the imposition of the Section 28 whereby the government tried its best to suppress discussion of gay culture, to the emergence of AIDS and the rampant hatred that often followed this in the press of the time, rather than extending sympathy to those suffering illness or losing loved ones.

But through all of this weaves Kate’s own story, or more accurately Kate and all the people she has interacted with, friends, lovers, other creators, support groups, family, beloved icons (Dusty!), a reminder of how what is personal and individual to us or our small circle of friends is also part of the larger picture of our ever-changing society, and this makes the events covered in this history much more accessible, more emotionally personal, regardless of the reader’s own orientation. The artwork moves from cartoon to an almost collage style when incorporating numerous old publications, or flyers or badges or media clippings from the time, with good use of colouring and shading for different aspects of the story or different times being depicted.. The art is also frequently funny – young Kate staring into a mirror after he friend asks if she may be a lesbian, trying to see if it is obvious, is just one of many parts that had me laughing out loud.

Sensible Footwear can’t, of course, be an encyclopedic history of all of LGBT culture in the UK for the last few decades, and Kate notes that herself – there is only so much anyone can cover, and besides, as she also comments, everyone’s experience is a bit different, so you can’t always show what every single person was going through. What it does do though is encapsulate several decades of LGBT history in a very accessible manner, often touching on areas some of us might not even have realised were important to the emerging Queer Culture at the time, and shows how it is part and parcel of the forever changing, diverse nature of our whole society, not apart from it. And most of all that wonderful, warm, personal aspect to the whole book that engages you, like a chat with a dear chum over drinks on a summer afternoon. A book that left me with a very satisfied smile on my face.

Cymera

From 7th to 9th of June I was at the very first Cymera festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. I was chairing a triple-header with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth Powell, which turned into a very enjoyable event with the guys discussing their own work and space opera in general, as well as how they approach creating their works, from plot to characters to world building.

Richard Morgan at Cymera 01

On the first evening I saw Richard Morgan, who I haven’t seen in person for years. Some chums and I were early supporters of his work when his first book, Altered Carbon (now adapted by Netflix, with a second series on the way) came out back in the day (I still have my signed first edition).

Richard Morgan at Cymera 04

Richard Morgan at Cymera 06

I caught a great discussion by Samantha Shannon – I liked her Bone Season, and several of us in the bookshop have been eager to have a look at her new standalone book (it may eventually be joined by other books, she said at the event) The Priory of the Orange Tree, the only problem being it is a huge tome and if I start on that (and I do want to!) it means several others books waiting on my pile.

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 02

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 04

Cymera 2019 - Samantha Shannon 06

Obviously I couldn’t take any of the event I was chairing, but here are Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky about to sign for readers after our panel:

Cymera 2019 - Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky02

This is Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, and SJ Morden being interviewed by Andrew Lindsay at Cymera:

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Cymera 2019 - Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, SJ Morden 02

Cymera 2019 - Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, SJ Morden 03

Cymera 2019 - Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, SJ Morden 04

Charlie Stross and Jonathan Whitelaw being interviewed by Andrew J Wilson:

Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 01

Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 06

Cymera 2019 - Charles Stross, Andrew J Wilson, Jonathan Whitelaw 03

I hadn’t read Helen Grant, Clare McFall or Rachel Burge’s books (yet), but their panel on supernatural fiction sounded pretty interesting and I had a gap in my schedule, so I decided to check it out (trying new creators is part of going to festivals, surely?), and it proved to be very intersting (and a little spooky!)

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 02

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 05

Cymera 2019 - Helen Grant, Rachel Burge & Claire McFall 07

James Oswald (and his trademark pink jacket) is best known for his bestselling crime fiction (with a supernatural element), but his first love was fantasy and he began writing with his Sir Benfro series, which he discussed here with writer, tutor and former 2000 AD editor David Bishop:

Cymera 2019 - James Oswald and David Bishop 02

Cymera 2019 - James Oswald and David Bishop 04

Cymera 2019 - James Oswald and David Bishop 07

I really liked this element of Cymera – Brave New Words. Before the events in the main theatre new writers were given a few moments to do a reading from their work, a nice way to support new talent. Here’s Justin Lee Anderson –

Cymera 2019 - Justin Lee Anderson

Den Patrick, Leo Carew and Rebecca Kuang discussing their fantasy worlds:

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Cymera 2019 - Leo Carew RF Kuang Den Patrick 05

Cymera 2019 - Leo Carew RF Kuang Den Patrick 08

Cymera 2019 - Leo Carew RF Kuang Den Patrick 011

I really enjoyed Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard’s talk, which took a different angle from more common Western cultural tropes. Tade’s debut novel Rosewater made my Best of the Year list for 2018 and the sequel Insurrection, out just a couple of months ago, is even better (reviewed here). I have Aliette’s books on order…

Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 01

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Cymera 2019 - Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard 08

Organiser Ann got a suprise ceremony and gift at the very end of the weekend as thank you for the whole festival. It was pretty damned amazing, especially for a first outing – I talked to a lot of writers and readers, and they all enjoyed themselves. Hats off to everyone who took part and organised it, fingers crossed it becomes an annual event.

Cymera 2019 - Ann Landmann