A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

Chester Brown returns with Jesus Wept Over the Feet of Jesus

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,

Chester Brown,

Drawn & Quarterly

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Chester Brown has to be one of our more uniquely interesting comickers, tackling sensitive – indeed even controversial for some – subject matter with a deft hand, an open mind and a strong element of respect and sensitivity. And tackling Biblical topics is an area likely to generate debate and, I would imagine, controversy, especially when the subtitle is “Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible” (some people just can’t deal with those concepts, and sadly those are the sort of people who could most benefit from reading and thinking about some of the issues raised). Those of us who have enjoyed Chester’s frank and thoughtful work such as Paying For It, which looked at the world of sex workers and those who go to them, will not be at all surprised to find that here he is considering elements of sexuality and gender issues and perception and where they fit into the general human condition.

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And again Brown tackles what could very easily be exploitative material in lesser hands with his customary dexterity and thoughtfulness. Indeed throughout this entire book there is a genuine impression of Brown looking at some of the issues he raises and considering them, not just taking the standard interpretations of Gospel material, but presenting a selection of example tales – Cain and Abel, the Talents, Job Bathsheba, Ruth and more – allowing the reader to absorb them and start forming their own impressions, then, in an expansive Notes section going into far more detail about why he selected those tales and what his own reading has lead him to think about what lesson they really are trying to convey. And I have to say that I often found this latter part even more fascinating than the comic adaptation of the Biblical stories.

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That is no slight on Brown’s comicking ability, by the way – I love his style; the deceptively simple, mostly four-panel layout and the way he retains a cartoonish look but still packs a huge amount of expression into his characters’ face, making them much more relatable and believable and human. And of course those fascinating Notes wouldn’t make much sense without the context he prepares first with the actual comic strips. But it is clear from the Notes how much thought and study has gone into which tales Brown has chosen here to illuminate his chosen topics of obedience, morality, responsibility, gender roles, sex and prostitution. The Notes have extensive bibliographic references to the source books he has drawn from for inspiration, including, to his credit, some that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but includes their reasoning and argument, which adds balance but also again prompts the reader to think more about their own assumptions, which is never a bad thing.

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(the parable of the Talents)

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I’ve little time for religion myself – my interest in it isn’t theological or a matter of faith, but  pretty much the same as the interest I’ve always had in the stories of the Olympian gods, or Norse pantheon, or the gods of the Mayans or Aztecs.  I’m more fascinated by what the worship of these beings and the stories constructed around them to explain what they are and why they do what they do says about human nature and our attempts to explain the world around us, and also to try and codify a coherent shared structure of beliefs and rules that can help shape and bind a society (for both good and ill). And of course quite often some of these are also just pretty interesting stories – the best of them, like many other good stories of all types, still holding relevance to today. The gender issues raised here are especially still of much relevance to our modern society, and you’d think by 2016 it shouldn’t be (come on, two thousand years later!), but sadly yes, it is and so it’s a good thing authors like Brown are highlighting them again, reminding us we’ve still a long way to go in improving ourselves and how we deal with others. Going back to a time when women were almost just property, where they had to rely on “a good match”, it’s not that far off from some of what you pick up on millennia later in the likes of Jane Austen (not so much the stories, but the position of women, the restricted choices they have to make in a hugely paternalistic society) and other writing from the Modern age.

I often disagreed with both the mainstream and Brown’s own conclusions about the meanings behind some of the stories – as with a lot of religious discussion it is easy to get tied into mental knots attempting to explain the reasoning behind the actions of some (to me totally imaginary) sky-daddy figure, when to me it seemed that, as with the likes of the Olympians, it’s better to just never trust the reasoning by any god because deities seem to change their fickle minds rather too often and then blame poor mortals for any mistakes. But cynical as I am I was still deeply fascinated by the reasoning Brown showed here, and the underlying theme of compassion he clearly has, and found that after reading his fascinating Notes section that I had to go back over each of the strips again several times, feeling as if I was looking at them from a slightly different angle, and that, my friends, is a real gift to a reader, not to convert you to the author’s point of view (and to be fair I doubt that was his intent anyway), but to share with the reader various viewpoints and competing ideas and allowing them to open different perspectives in the reader.

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

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I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

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Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

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Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

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And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

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It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

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In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

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Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

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And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

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This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

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And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

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The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

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(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

Step Aside, Pops! A Hark! A Vagrant Collection,

Kate Beaton,

Jonathan Cape (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (Canada/US)

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Oh, where to start with this wonderful collection… Those of you who read our blog will have already seen us praise Canadian creator Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant work over the years – as well as a previous collection, Kate generously posts a huge amount of her work online for all to read, and we’ve absolutely loved it. It’s mostly short-form cartoon strips, just a few panels (although she also does quite a few linked together in a series), but Kate packs an enormous amount into her short strips, she’s a tremendously skilled comicker. I don’t just mean in the technical sense of her ability to draw (although her artwork alone frequently cracks me up – just the cover alone for this book had me smiling hugely, I so want that on a T-shirt), but in the way she can use just a few, short panels so damned cleverly. It’s far too easy to have a good giggle and them move on without thinking too much about the effort that went into those four panels, but with a lot of Kate’s work they lodge in your brain and leave you thinking about them long afterwards, they’re not just funny, they’re funny-clever, and that tickles me just right.

Kate’s subjects range all over the place on her site and here in this collection too. There are strips drawn from worries and incidents in real life, or modern concerns (several linked strips see parents having to chase bizarre militant scary feminists from their children’s bedroom like some strange modern fairy tale creatures), others draw on popular culture, like her take on famous comics characters – in a series on Lois Lane she pokes fun at the way the whole Lois-Clark Kent-Superman relationship has been depicted over the years. As Kate adds in her footnote “don’t give me those comics where Lois is a wet blanket who can’t figure out the man beside her is Superman. If Lois isn’t kicking ass, taking names and winning ten Pulitzer Prizes an issues, I don’t even want to know.” Following this comment with a strip which shows Clark Kent in full nudge-nudge, wink-wink mode:

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

Well, I have a secret too. Psst, come here…”

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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It’s not just the final gag, it’s the whole short build-up, her art showing Clark so pumped up with a sense of himself he’s radiating smugness and is too clueless to pick up on Lois’ body language which is clearly saying if he doesn’t stop hassling her, she’ll stick a lump of Kryptonite where the sun doesn’t shine… Or a bystander asks Wonder Woman why she isn’t chasing a bad guy who is running away, “Girl, I’m wearing a strapless bathing suit and high heel boots, what would you do?” And then there’s her pretty prickly persona for Wonder Woman…

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A running theme with Kate’s work, for which she’s rightly become both loved and respected, are her delightful – not to mention frequently damned clever – strips which riff on classic literature or on historical figures. Sometimes it can be a very well-known historical figure, such as her series of “Founding Fathers in a Mall”, some loving this modern shopping experience while others like George Washington go and sit on a bench, despondent and complaining this is worse than Valley Forge… Sometimes it can be a historical figure new to you – one I hadn’t heard of before was Doctor Sara Josephine Baker (known to her friends and patients as “Doctor Jo”), a pioneer and campaigner in hygiene and in children’s health, Kate poking fun at the way some things we take for granted today weren’t known back in the day, so we get the lady telling her that her baby is sick. Doctor Jo looks, takes the child and rights him, commenting “you baby is upside down” in a perfectly timed piece. I’m impressed that Kate also got a couple of strips in on Catalonian inventor Monturiol and his remarkable early submarine, a historical curiosity I’ve always found fascinating but few folk seem to have heard of, so I was cheered to see her covering him and his amazing machine in this collection.

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Classic literature proves a rich and fertile seam for Kate’s pen and wicked sense of humour – the Brontes being a particularly happy hunting ground (“Next time on Wuthering Heights – no-one is lonely in a graveyard” complete with raving mad Heathcliff clutching Cathy’s bones). Or in another Byron and Shelley discuss their dreams, Shelley being sure a dream of a naked child rising from the seas was a portent of his death by drowning, Byron more interested in hey, when you say kid, you mean like who cares or more like eighteen and naked, as he pervs away oblivious to Shelley’s worries. “You know, I don’t like it when they call us pariahs,” adds Shelley. “Yes you do,” replies Byron… Or Pride and Prejudice gets reworked but this time with a whole “house full of Mulders”. Yes, our favourite “I want to believe” FBI man, but lots of him, all catching the eyes of the ladies at the local ball (except for “Miss Scully” who is less than impressed). Some old Broadsides woodcut images from the Bodleian Library’s online collection also prove great starting points for Kate to go off on her own tangent (one classic one ruminating on mortality shows a woodcut of three skeletons, leading into Kate’s strip where one complains about their expressions: “ok, so we’re skeletons, but do we have to be sad skeletons?”).

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Ultimately it’s hard to really get over in words just how effectively these strips work, you really have to read them for yourselves to get the full effect, from the artwork and the brilliant expressions Kate gives so many of her characters (I was frequently in kinks of laughter just from the art and expressions alone) and the beautifully observed timing of the frames of each strip (and so much of comedy relies on that innate good timing). And while we all enjoy a good laugh at a decent “gag strip”, there is so much more going on in the world of Hark! A Vagrant – the literary references for some strips are knowing but not elitist, anyone can get them (and they show a love for the original books while still poking fun), the historical strips are funny but also rely on actual knowledge, which just makes them both funny and also clever, the asides on everyday life and pop culture are well-observed (and frequently make a quiet point that will linger in the mind afterwards, more effectively than any amount of soap-boxing might have done).

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The amount of laughter this generated between me and colleagues all demanding to know what I was laughing at, only to be reduced to guffaws themselves when they looked… It’s a real pleasure to read so much of Kate’s work in one big hit like this, it’s truly smile-inducing work. If you’ve already encountered Kate Beaton’s work then you’re probably already ordering this; if you haven’t then go check her Hark! A Vagrant online and I’m sure you’ll soon be wanting to give her money by purchasing her books too.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: If You Steal

If You Steal,

Jason,

Fantagraphics

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Norwegian comicker Jason has carved an impressive reputation among lovers of Indy comics over recent years, and deservedly so, consistently offering up some truly wonderful comics with lovely, (deceptively simple) clear-line art, stories that can offer both humour and tragedy (often in the same tale) and which, with a fairly minimal sequence of panels, totally engage the reader. He’s also one of those great creators who “collaborates” with his readers, offering just enough intimation of the narrative (often wordless, or at least with very little dialogue) and respecting his readers enough to trust them to fill in what happens between those panels, or to draw their own conclusions from a “silent” sequence, which I find hugely satisfying.

If You Steal is a collection of short stories by Jason, covering a variety of topics and emotions, from drama and tragedy to gleefully humorous homages to other artforms and cultural pursuits. Some, like the eponymous If You Steal, which opens the collection, are melancholy in tone, allowing the reader to observe a man on a downward slide – gambling his money away, owing more to criminals, having to commit crimes to pay his debts, trying to earn enough to clear himself, to treat his girlfriend who he loves and yet who he also turns against in his rage and sense of helplessness as his life spirals out of control and everything he tries to make it better simply makes it worse and worse.

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Again we have that very minimal approach, Jason using mostly three or four panels a page, like excerpts from the story – for instance, in just four panels we see the man leaving a card game, having lost a lot of money, walking down the stairs to the street, then suddenly running round the corner to be physically ill at what he has done. The whole sequence is only four panels, only one of which has dialogue (a whole two lines at that). Masterfully done and a perfect example of the skill of Jason as a cartoonist.

While the despair and desperation and loss permeates that opening story, this collection is no gloom-fest, it is in fact quite a nice mixture, from outright humour to fun-loving homages to delightfully surreal elements. In Karma Chameleon, for example, Jason is clearly having fun paying homage (and poking fun – lovingly though) at the great 1950s sci-fi B movie creature feature. We start in fairly traditional B-movie mode with people going around their everyday lives before looking up startled, only to be dragged off by an unseen menace, before the authorities step in, the local sheriff, the eccentric academic called in as expert (complete with attractive young daughter for the small town hero to fall for), the reveal of a giant version of a regular creature (here a chameleon) wreaking havoc and, of course, threatening the scientist’s daughter and leading to a showdown in the desert with the US Army. Being Jason though he can’t help but add in some cheeky humour of his own, not least the professorial expert having a strange compulsion to talk about masturbation to everyone.

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There’s more delightful homage work with Night of the Vampire Hunter, which mixes up the Gothic vampire slaying holy man with (classic film fans will be unsurprised to hear) Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter film (right down to the preacher having “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles). Lorena Velazquez pays tribute to another form of film, those wonderfully bonkers Mexican horror movies in which a masked Lucha Libre wrestler is the hero taking on staples of the horror genre instead of a Van Helsing character. Of course Jason starts this one like so many of those generic (yet fun) Mexican horrors, the masked wrestler hero breaking into the grim castle to rescue the beautiful maiden from the scheming, hooded villains. Except Jason then turns the dial up to eleven – as soon as he beats the robed, hooded villains he is attacked again before he can free Lorena, this time by a Dracula figure. Defeating him again he finds the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, mummies, aliens and… Well, you get the picture. It’s a brilliantly mad overload of an already fairly mad (in the good way) sub-genre and left me with a huge, huge grin (it may have been my favourite in the collection)

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We veer back to crime fiction with Polly Wants a Cracker, following a female assassin, seemingly a quiet, unassuming lady but on a job a ruthless and deadly killer, albeit one who adores and loves her parrot. Ask Not takes an entirely different tack, starting with druids at Stonehenge sacrificing animals for a glimpse into the future, then seeing that future evolve, leaping to Nostradamus dreaming a prophecy of a young president shot down in his prime in an open top car as his wife screams, through to the Twin Towers, a few minimal panels taking us from pre-history through to the modern day but all of it controlled and manipulated by a shadowy group of conspirators in a nice twist on all those tales of the Illuminati and other secret societies who are supposedly behind every big historic event. It’s funny but also a thoughtful piece.

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Jason changes gears again for the final story, Nothing, where we see an elderly lady, Emma, struggling – as she tries to eat her food a very creepy black-eyed character snatches her fork from her hand. As she looks on perplexed a nurse asks her what’s wrong. “They took the… to eat with.” “A fork?” “Ah, yes. A fork,” Emma replies and suddenly the fork is in her hand again. As the story progresses we see these same disturbing, black-eyed characters trying to remove other items – they take a painting from the wall, Emma confused points to what to her is now a blank wall, only for her son to ask if she is looking at the painting. As soon as she hears the word the painting re-appears, and slowly it dawns on us that she has Alzheimer’s or a similar degenerative disease, the dark-eyed characters are her mind’s way of seeing the disease slowly robbing her of her senses and faculties and memories. It’s incredibly clever and also terribly poignant, not least when her daughter comes to visit and the dark-eyed character holds his hand in front of her face – now Emma can’t recognise her own daughter, although there are small victories such as the black-eyed characters attempting to carry off something else, but she looks them in the face and names it, and Jason imparts such a sense of triumph on her face as he realises one small victory.

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If you haven’t read Jason yet then this new collection of short stories from Fantagraphics is an ideal introduction, while for those of us who are already fans it is a welcome addition to Jason’s oeuvre, offered up in a handsome small hardback volume. There are some sad, touching moment, some very emotional scenes, but also some brilliantly funny scenes, to make you sad, to make you laugh, to make you think, and all with just a few brief panels and hardly any dialogue, the accomplished work of an absolute master of the comics form. Superb.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jessica Jones: Alias

AKA Jessica Jones : Alias Volume 1,

Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos,

Marvel

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You’ve all been watching the new Jessica Jones TV series over the weekend, right? A companion piece of sorts to Netflix’s superb Daredevil series, it follows Jessica Jones, formerly the superhero Jewel, now retired from the capes and tights and running her own private investigation agency, Alias. Created by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos back in 2001, the original volumes have been getting reprinted recently ahead of the new TV series, and that makes it a pretty good time to draw attention to them for those who missed them first time round, or for those who read them years ago and are feeling the urge to revisit them (you should, they stand up very well).

When we open this first volume we meet Jessica, in her small PI’s office, having an argument with a less than happy client. A lot of PI work involves morally messy stuff – spouses who suspect their partner is cheating on them, paying Jessica to find out and then, if their suspicions are confirmed, turning their anger on her in a “shoot the messenger” style. And that’s what this fairly seedy looking bloke in the “wife beater” vest does when she shows him the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Despite the fact he paid her to investigate his wife and find this evidence, he turns his anger on Jessica and curses all women as the same (how could his wife cheat on such a charmer, muses Jessica), then he gets violent… And oh boy, has he picked the wrong woman to get violent with. She may be much smaller than he is, but Jessica was a superhero. In the next scene the man is flying through the glass window on her office door (and yes, they did borrow this for the start of the TV show, and it works great there too). I know violence rarely solves anything, but also have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a violent creep like this being taught a lesson by someone he thought was “defenceless” and weak…

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It’s clear from the start that Jessica is a damaged character, bitter, a little self-destructive, in many ways a classic 40s/50s private eye character that Raymond Chandler might recognise, carrying mental scars from her past experiences, although where those classic Noir gumshoes were all mentally scarred by what they saw in the war, with Jessica it is events during her time as a cape. When asked by various people why she gave up being a superhero her normal answer is that she didn’t quite fit into it, she was never going to be as good as the A-list heroes, that she didn’t have that drive they have. And some of that may be true, but as the series unfolds we find out there is a much more complex, emotional (and upsetting) core to why Jessica left the superhero line.

But it doesn’t leave her. Although she runs a regular detective agency, given her past and abilities it’s hardly surprising that the world of the capes intrudes into her life whether she wants it to or not. Sometimes in good ways – she’s maintained a friendship with Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), although in true Jessica fashion she can be a bit of an arse about it, pushing away those who like her and want to help (of course this just makes the reader feel for her all the more and become more emotionally invested in her). Or her on-off relationships with Luke Cage or Scott (Ant-Man) Lang.

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And some of these scenes really work oh so well, they ground that fantastical world of superheroes – we see Jessica and Cage hanging out in a bar, or her and Carol doing lunch and enjoying a good gossip about which superhero is seeing who and how Luke Cage is a bit of a “cape chaser” according to Carol. I thought he was a good guy, protests Jessica (who has had close relations with him herself). He is, Carol opines, but he just can’t resist superpowered women. It’s the everyday, social stuff that you don’t see so much of in the main superhero titles (although to be fair Marvel has always had an element of the everyday life for many characters included in stories). And it lends a realism to the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe to have such ordinary events like two girl chums chatting over lunch.

Naturally there is more going on here, and even in this first volume Jessica finds herself being manipulated by shadowy forces, pushed into an investigation that just happens to include spying on a woman who it turns out is covertly dating a major superhero, an iconic figure. Who takes off his mask while she is filming the tryst. She had his secret identity on tape and panics – of course she doesn’t want to air it, in fact her first instinct is to destroy it so it can’t be used against an upstanding superhero.

Then she thinks about it and realises she has been set up. But who knew this hero was going to see this woman and why did they want her to film it? If she destroys it she might throw away something that could protect her later. And then when a murder is thrown into the mix Jessica finds herself implicated (and rather thankful that Luke Cage asks a certain Matt Murdock to go in as her lawyer and demolish the shaky cop case). But that still leaves a very shadowy conspiracy going on that Jessica has unwittingly been drawn into…

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It’s hugely compelling and immensely well-written, as you would expect from Bendis, delivering both a good introduction to Jessica Jones and her world and troubles and juggling both larger story arcs (which will reveal much more about Jessica’s past experiences as the volumes progress) and the much more believable, personal, human level. And that is just so profoundly satisfying; it also means that the creators really manage to hook the reader totally into Jessica and her life in a very effectively emotional level.

Gaydos’ art manages the trick of portraying a woman who can be incredibly powerful and strong or can be lost, emotionally hurt and damaged, and again as with Bendis’ script this makes Jessica a much more believably human, three-dimensional character. Gaydos also uses some nice visual tricks – rapid, multiple small panels for a police interrogation scene, hinting at the bewildering speed of events as the detectives try to get her off balance, or a visit to Avengers Mansion being shown from a low perspective behind her, the imposing gates towering over Jessica, suggesting her emotional state of mind on a visual canvas.

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It’s an unusual side-on view of the world of Marvel superheroes that makes it all feel more realistic and believable, delivering a good, twisting detective story with added capes now and then, and a very engaging emotional core. All centred around a female lead who is neither impervious strong hero or emotionally ravaged victim to be saved, but, like most people, has her good and bad days, days where she may just want to break down and run away from it all, or days where a boasting “man mountain” gets the hell kicked out off him by a very strong and angry woman. She’s not a glowing heroic icon of perfection nor is she a damsel to be rescued, but sometimes she has elements of both, which is much more true to life (and also much more compelling for the reader). Jessica is no cipher or archetype, she’s a wonderfully realised, complex human character, with flaws and good points, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and conflicting emotions, and that may be the single best thing in this engrossing series, just how human Jessica feels.

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With Marvel reprinting the series in larger collections (this first volume has nine issues-worth of material, a great way to get into it) and the TV series making a good impression on viewers over the last week, it’s a good time to revisit Jessica Jones and find out why she deserves a place in your classic comics collection.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A serious head-trip through billions of years: Jen Harder’s Alpha

Alpha Hardcover,

Jens Harder,

Knockabout

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I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.

In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.

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The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.

At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”

The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.

As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.

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We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.

And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…

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Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.

Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.

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It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.

And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.

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It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…

It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.

This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.

Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.

Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –

I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –

I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*

(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog