Rosewater Insurrection

Rosewater Insurrection,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit
Paperback, 375 pages

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson’s first Rosewater novel since I first read it last autumn, and it went on to feature prominently on my annual Best of the Year list for 2018 books, so to say I have been looking forward to this second volume is something of an understatement. In fact when I read the original book I had no idea it was actually going to be a series – it felt very self-contained, in and of itself, although the world Thompson has conjured up was so rich I was very glad to learn he was going to explore it further. With Insurrection Tade has side-stepped the normal serial approach of most multi-volume SF&F, instead rather than lead simply and directly from the previous events he takes different angles here, some of which give another perspective on what we saw in the first book, others moving on the story.

Rather than following Kaaro from the first book, Insurrection follows several other characters, some we are familiar with from Rosewater, others new, prominent among them Eric (another intelligence operative and along with Kaaro the only psychic sensitive left alive), the mayor Jack Jacques (who chose his public name for PR purposes, a real politician!) and Aminat, a scientist and another S45 secret service operative, who is also the girlfriend of Kaaro (in some nice touches which help round out the emotional believability of the characters we see more of their relationship from Aminat’s perspective, and why they love each other, despite Kaaro’s many failings).

This multi-character perspective could be confusing in the wrong hands, but Thompson keeps a tight reign on his narrative and his different characters, each chapter labelled with the name of the person we are following in those pages. This allows for a much wider view of the events taking place in the second book, there’s a real sense of Thompson, having established the world of Rosewater in book one now opening it up. We see not only the ongoing potential threat from the alien presence in Rosewater (perhaps the most slow-motion alien invasion ever in SF?) but the personal lives of various people, from those working like Kaaro did in S45 to gangsters and the political elite (the two not being entirely separate, no-one will be shocked to hear).

The title may refer to the political insurrection, as Jacques attempts to proclaim Rosewater as an independent city-state, evoking a predictably aggressive response from the main Nigerian government. But it may also refer to a secretive society that moves behind the scenes (shades of the Illimunati and other such conspiracies) which Jacques is a part of (but not always following their hidden agenda, perhaps following his own), or even a schism between the lifeforms that have come from the alien presence in Rosewater, with different creatures who may have very different ideas of what they want from planet Earth (while the humans are tossed in the middle, many still unaware of what is really happening).

It’s a much wider-ranging story than the first Rosewater, but the solidity of that first book setting the scenery allows for this expansion, while the multiple character views give not only more angles on what is happening, they also often show conflicting ideas and agendas, reminding us that each person here has their own ideas and goals, and ways they are willing to try and achieve them, which makes them much more believable as characters.

The increase in the threat to humanity from the aliens is ratcheted up several levels here too, and between the Big Threat and the Personal Threats it’s a damned good mix for snaring the reader into this book, while, as with the first book, Thompson’s descriptive prose really gives you a feel for the sights, sounds and smells of this future Nigeria. Thompson builds on the promise of his debut novel brilliantly, clearly a talent to watch out for. I can’t wait for book three…

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

Prospect

Prospect,
Directed by Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl,
Starring Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass

Prospect is one of those small-budget, Indy films that can all too easily slip by without you noticing, and that would be a shame, because this is a very interesting wee science fiction piece, which also borrows liberally from the Western genre. Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and Damon (Jay Duplass), are a daughter and father team of prospectors, with a lot in common with the classic image of the Old West prospectors, except instead of a wagon train they hitch a ride on a space freighter, and rather than a pack mule they have a basic “drop pod”, a small capsule (not a proper ship) which is both cramped home for them and which takes them down to the planet at the end of their hitch on the freighter.

Cee is young and clearly starting to chafe at the itinerant lifestyle, tramping cargo class through space on long hauls to find one place where they can land and try to eke out a living. As the film opens she’s trying to find some space of her own, out of that cramped capsule, prowling the adjoining freighter, listening to music on her headphones. Thatcher conveys well that frustration of being young, of only knowing one, narrow kind of life but yearning for something, anything more, but not sure what or how. Her father, though, is excited, he is convinced that they finally have the jump on other prospectors, the big score, the one that will earn them so much they will finally be set up, and she reluctantly follows because, what else does she have?

Naturally things do not go as smoothly as planned. As Cee and her father start to explore for their big score, they are ambushed by another pair of less than friendly prospectors, who demand whatever they have at gunpoint. And there are others here and there on this otherwise uninhabited planet, few of them any more friendly than these bushwhackers. Prospect soon becomes as much as about trying to survive on a hostile alien world, with equally hostile humans all after the same harvest our prospectors are looking for, as it is a quest to make that One Big Score. And of course I am not going to say any more about how that pans out for fear of spoilers.

Prospect grew out of a short film by Caldwell and Earl, which established the look and feel of this universe, which the feature draws on. This is no Star Trek, gleaming future of a post-scarcity society, this is the ragged frontier, where people scratch a hard living from an unforgiving universe. No mighty warp-vessels here, scratched and dented old freighters that have to obey the laws of physics, a long, slow haul looping around their various planets to release drop pods and landers, that are then stuck there until the ship’s return loop (and if you miss that, you’re marooned). This is a blue-collar future of hard-work, trying to keep the wolves from the door any way you can, it looks lived in, hard lived in – it has more in common with the worn working space of the Nostromo in Alien than it does the Enterprise.

I mentioned the Western tropes that are woven into Prospect, and that extends beyond a science fiction version of those old-time prospectors into the style – Ezra (Pedro Pascal), one of the others who try to get the jump on Cee and Damon, talks in a very stylised, loquacious manner, the verbose style used for more than a few Western characters who like to talk all high-falutin’. Pascal, who you may have seen in Game of Thrones or Kingsman 2, delivers a very nuanced take on his character, taking him from the verbally dextrous but ruthless bushwhacker to something more as the film progresses, crafting a believable, three dimensional character rather than just some cut-out villain. Stand-out performance here, however, is Sophie Thatcher as Cee; Cee is in almost every single scene in the film, she is its spine, carrying the entire movie, and it is a terrific performance, all the more remarkable given it is her film debut and she was only seventeen years old at the time.

This is a clever, low-fi pieces of science fiction tinged with the Western, that works past its small budget with good ideas and locations, and some terrific performances from the leads. As I said at the start, it is too easy for small movies like this to slip by us without noticing them – no big press budget to shout them out, and it’s a shame because this sort of Indy film-making is where we often find little gems like this.

Prospect is out now on DVD and digital online from Signature Entertainment

Death Trench

Death Trench,
Directed by Leo Scherman,
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Shaun Benson, Ted Atherton

Mixing the horror genre with the war film is not a new, and even in recent years we’ve had examples such as Overlord and Outpost, and of course anyone who reads the Hellboy comics will be familiar with mad Nazi scientists that dabble in the dark magics. Death Trench (aka Trench 11) takes a slightly different tack, being set in the final days of the First World War rather than the second. Canadian Lieutenant Berton (Sutherland), is a miner, a tunneller, a sapper who has spent the war not in the trenches but under them, the old Medieval tactic of undermining a fortified position has come back in this statics war of attrition.

After a terrifying cave-in which he barely survived, he’s enjoying some well-deserved R&R and spending time with his French girlfriend. He is none too happy when some military police come looking for him to drag him back in for another mission. Allied intelligence has gotten wind of a secret German underground complex – not bunkers amid the main lines, but miles behind the front lines. As the German lines are starting to crumble and they know it has been hastily abandoned – it isn’t a fortification, they think it is a secret chemical weapons lab. They know one of those involved is a ruthless German scientist who has been one of those developing new strains of previous chemical weapons. With the chaos of retreat there is a chance to investigate and find out what they were doing in this underground lair, and Berton’s tunneller skills are required, along with the intelligence agents and a small escort group of American Doughboys, who are none to happy with being assigned to this mission when they all know the war is coming to an end.

What they find is a secret research bunker, a complex of claustrophobic tunnels and rooms, which should have been destroyed when abandoned, but the demolition charges failed to blow. As the small team, already at loggerheads with one another, descend into the world below they don’t know that Herr Doctor Reiner (Stadlober) is leading a German team back to salvage experimental materials then destroy the complex before the Allies find it. And that’s the least of their problems – German soldiers they are used to dealing with, but some of the test subjects of those secret experiments by Reiner are still down there in the dark, waiting…

The set-up here is fairly simple: two groups of enemy soldiers that will come into contact with one another, but find there is something far, far worse, something that doesn’t care what uniform you are wearing. It may not be the most original plot, but it carries along quite well. The small budget actually works for them in having those small, closed, underground sets, which are budget-effective but also pretty damned good for generating that enclosed, trapped sense of mounting claustrophobia, even before the Bad Things start to appear, and the effects for the experimental subjects is also well-handled.

Sutherland’s war-weary tunneller and Stadlober’s ruthless scientist are the stand-outs here, and they get much of the screen time (I had the feeling Stadlober was relishing playing the seemingly urbane, civilised scientist who is actually totally amoral and determined to finish his work). It’s also interesting to see World War One used instead of the more common Second World War – while not mind-blowing this is still a decently solid addition to the horror-war genre.

Death Trench is released on DVD and digital from May 6th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,
Directed by Robert D Krzykowski,
Starring Sam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller

Several things drew me to this film: it went down well at its FrightFest debut (always a good sign), it features the excellent Sam Elliott, and, well, come on, really, how could I resist a film with a title like that?? Other than those things though, I knew very little about this film in advance, which is something of a rarity these days, and I really didn’t know what to expect at all – high-jinks? Satire? Crazy silliness? With that title you can see why you might suspect that sort of approach, but actually no, this is a very unusual piece of film work that ploughs it own furrow, at its own pace and with its own style, and I applaud all involved for sticking to their approach, because it delivered an absolute wee gem of a film (and naturally some quality Filmic Moustache from Elliott!).

Calvin Barr (Elliott), is an older gentleman, a World War Two veteran now living peacefully in a small town in New England. As with many of us, as the years advance he finds himself more and more thinking of the past than the present, much less the future, and while his body may sit in his favourite armchair or the bar stool of his local pub, his mind is increasingly elsewhere, thoughts drifting back to his youth, to what he had to do during the war, and also to his pre-war life, the quietly satisfying peace of his small town, falling in love with local teacher Maxine (Caitlin Fitzgerald from Masters of Sex), with Poldark heart-throb Aidan Turner playing the younger Calvin.

It’s into this present-day, quiet, fairly lonely life that agents of the US and Canadian governments intrude, asking him to take on a new mission – the legendary Bigfoot exists, and appears to have become infected with a deadly virus that it is spreading. For now it is contained in an isolated wilderness area, but if it escapes this containment the disease will spread, and they have no cure – they are looking at a possible end of civilisation-level pandemic. No others have been able to track and kill the Bigfoot, none have returned, and so this former special operations soldier, the man they sent to assassinate Hitler, is the only one they can turn to, despite his age, he is, once more, tasked with defending civilisation.

And yes, he did indeed complete that mission and kill Hitler – and no, that’s not a spoiler, given it is in the title of the film! You may well wonder how is it that he could have assassinated the Fuhrer since that clearly deviates from recorded history – so is this an alternate history reality? A time-travel paradox or similar? Nope, and I am not going to spoil it for you by explaining how they can have had Calvin kill Hitler in the 1940s but still be true to history, save to say they do come up with an explanation that works fine, allowing the film its conceit of a soldier killing Hitler without contradicting real history.

However, those two strands of the narrative – the wartime exploits of young Calvin and the present-day mission to find the Bigfoot before it can spread the virus – are not really what The Man Who Killed Hitler is about, they are just the narrative framing on which Krzykowski paints a gently-paced exploration of a man’s life, his younger self’s hopes, his older self’s regrets, and the way life can change everything you wanted, everything you planned, especially where war is concerned. “I never wanted to kill a man,” Calvin tells his brother Ed (Larry Miller), “Even if he had it coming.”

As we see more memories of the wartime mission, and the pre-war courting of Maxine contrasted with Elliott’s older Calvin we piece together his story and how the war changed everything, taking him away from the woman he wanted to marry and settle down with, how it lead to this quiet, thoughtful man having to kill and discovering he was good at it, quiet, methodical, making him a good agent even though he hates the idea of it, how it was never the same again afterwards. There’s an echo here in older Calvin of William Munny in Unforgiven, an older man carrying a lifetime of regret for past deeds, although in Calvin’s case he was battling the forces of evil, not an outlaw like Munny, but killing still takes a toll regardless, even if in a righteous cause.

It’s not hard to see Calvin as representing so many young men who answered the call from small towns in America, Canada, Britain and so many other lands, young lads who had been brought up decently, who had been taught Thou Shalt Not Kill but then were forced to do just that again and again during the war to protect the free world. Young lads who came back as men who had seen and done too much (those that got to come back, at least), changed inside, rarely talking about it but forever altered by the memories and guilt. Elliott has a way of carrying a quiet, reserved, dignified air to his characters and that works perfectly in this role (so much so I wonder if the role was written for him?) – no anguished emotional outbursts here, instead Elliott signifies the inner turmoil of Calvin through tiny expressions and body language, some great acting craft here using such little movements to express so much of the character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

This is a wonderfully unusual gem of a film, a richly emotional palette of hope and regret, youth and old age, carried very much on the shoulders of Elliott’s quiet performance, unfolding a piece at a time at a satisfyingly gentle pace, slowly bringing us into the world of this reserved veteran.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot is released by Sparky Pictures on digital from April 15th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 6th.

Leprechaun Returns

Leprechaun Returns,
Directed by Steven Kostanski,
Starring Taylor Spreitler, Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Linden Porco, Mark Holton

The original 1993 Leprechaun was a fun piece of horror laced with comedy, very much in the style of this mid 80s to 90s US horror flicks (and it also boasted a pre-Friends mega-fame Jennifer Aniston). Naturally like many other 80s and 90s horror flicks it spawned a franchise with another six outings over the last couple of decades, and like similar franchises (think what happened with Freddy or Jason) it was often a law of diminishing returns. Leprechaun Returns, made for the SyFy Channel, rather wisely appears to be ignoring the many sequels and instead sees our pint-sized folkloric nasty resurrected some twenty-five years after the original movie, even boasting an appearance from Mark Holton as Ozzie from the original 1993 film (a nice touch).

A group of students have decided to set up an eco-friendly sorority house off-campus in the rural farmhouse from the first film, an off-grid house with solar power and drawing water from, yes, you guessed it, the old well where the Leprechaun was supposedly killed and banished, and has been for the last quarter of a century, everything fine. Lila (Taylor Spreitler) is the daughter of Jennifer Aniston’s character from the first film, moving in with her sorority sisters to fix the old place up. She experiences some premonition-like dreams on the way there, but she puts this down to the stress of recently caring for her terminally ill mother, and continues her college plans and moving into the house with the others, unaware that the little, green, mean, rhyming monster has been awoken from his twenty five year slumber (in a pretty gruesome but darkly funny “rebirth” scene).

Lila heard her mother’s stories, but understandably never believed her tales of some murderous leprechaun with a gold fixation and a penchant for bloody killings, and her first encounter with the leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco) she is convinced for the first few moments that she is seeing things, it’s all in her head, stress from caring for her mother in her last days mixed with those stories she never believed in, but it doesn’t take long to realise he’s very real. Her sororoity sisters and a couple of visiting boyfriends, fairly understandably, think their new friend is crazy, but not for long.

This cracks along at a fair old pace, from the set-up and introducing the new characters we get to the rebirth of the leprechaun himself pretty swiftly, which is good as that’s when the fun begins! Bad rhyming and black humour mixes with some inventive blood-letting as the leprechaun decides some killing – and finding his precious gold, of course – will help to regenerate his powers (he has some ‘performance’ issues with his first attempts after his incarceration).

Okay, you know this isn’t Shakespeare, but so too do the film-makers, and Kostanski delivers a decent mix of dark humour (including some nice touches like the leprechaun taking in the changes since he was last above ground, like mobile phones and selfies, or making fun on an electric car) with the gore and deaths (I won’t spoil them by describing any of them – sure, you can see them coming, but that’s part of the fun in this kind of flick), and ignoring the previous sequels and leading right on from events years before in the original is a good move, as are the nice touches linking the new film to its progenitor. Porco seems to be relishing the role, wicked grin through the grotesque make-up as he delivers blood and bad puns and rhymes, and there’s also a small but welcome sub-theme on gender empowerment.

This is a fun popcorn horror flick, and with Lionsgate releasing this in a double-pack with the original 1993 film this is a good Friday night double-bill slice of horror – set up the snacks and drinks and sit back and have some fun!

Blossoms in Autumn

Blossoms in Autumn,
Zidrou, Aimée de Jongh,
Translated by Matt Madden,
SelfMadeHero

This collaboration between Belgian writer Zidrou and Dutch creator Aimée de Jongh touches on a subject we don’t see all too often – love in later life. We open with Mediterranea, a lady of mature years, dealing with something that sadly we all have to as we get older – losing loved ones to old age. She’s by her mother’s bedside as she passes, and within just a few pages the deeply emotional tone of Blossoms in Autumn is very apparent. Despite having just met this character and being introduced to her world I found myself very moved, my empathy stirred. It has been a slow decline over months before her mother breathed her last breath, and as anyone who has seen a loved family member fighting the inevitable will know, this unleashes a strange mix of emotions – your desire to have them continue to live battling with the feeling that this only leads to prolonged suffering, it is better for them if they just went now (and the guilt for thinking that way) – that pushes you into a bizarre feeling of unreality and disconnection from the everyday world around you.

So this is retirement? This empty feeling…

This scene cuts to Ulysses, a removal truck driver, carefully tidying his van for the last time – the firm he has worked for over decades is downsizing, and he has been given early retirement. For some this might be a gift, more time to enjoy life after work, but his wife Penelope (yes, Ulysses and Penelope, he has heard all the jokes) passed away some years before. Of their two children only one remains, a doctor, married but with no children of his own, so Ulysses doesn’t even have the option of playing doting grandfather to any grand-kids in his old age. Faced with an empty home and a forced retirement that isn’t his choice, he too is facing a moment of unwanted change, perhaps not quite the same as Mediterranea’s loss of her mother, but still a huge, emotional wrench, bringing with it a form of loss and grief too.

Some word have a bite to them. They dart out from the middle of a sentence, like a viper from under a rock… and sink their fangs into your ankle a little deeper with every syllable.”

Mediterranea, still dazed from her mother’s passing, leaves the hospital to take the bus home, her brother’s words about her now being the oldest member of the family echoing in her head along with thoughts of her own age and mortality. De Jongh’s art perfectly captures that wretched dislocation you feel during grief, of trying to do something as mundane and everyday as get on the bus but your mind and spirit are a million miles from the body that goes through these routines, part of you almost unable to take in the fact that the regular world is still going on, the planet still turns, buses still run, people are getting on and off with their own lives to run, oblivious to the emotional bombshell which has just shattered you inside, while outside you still go through all the normal motions.

Aimée similarly crafts some beautifully-drawn scenes with Ulysses, trying to fill his now long, empty, lonely days. Sure there are little fun moments, like hanging with a regular group of fellow supporters of his small (and not very good) football team, cheering and booing, their faces going from triumph to anguish, the post-match drink and talk of how much better it was back in the day. But those are the exceptions and stand in contrast to most of his time, alone at home, or walking by himself in the park. The latter is subtly handled, the expressions and body language she gives to Ulysses passing two other older men chatting amiably on a park bench (why doesn’t he talk to people like that, join in?) or seeing parents playing with young children in the park speaking volumes.

Their paths cross in the waiting room of the local doctor’s office (his son’s office, in fact), and these two drifting souls start to chat, in the way you sometimes do to strangers, which leads Ulysses to decide he has nothing to lose and follow up by visiting Mediterranea at the business she inherited from her mother, a cheese shop. She is surprised but happy to see him again, and she enjoys his candour when he admits since meeting her in his son’s office he has walked past her shop several times already, trying to screw his courage to the sticking place before finally coming in. From this small beginning something rather wonderful begins to blossom, at a time of life when neither really expected any such thing.

There are a myriad of very fine touches throughout Autumn Blossoms, not least the superb translation work by Matt Madden. Translation, like editing, is often an almost invisible job – handled very well it is all to easy for the reader to forget that someone other than the writer and artist had a hand in the work they are reading. Good translation requires far more than a literal swapping of words from one language to another, it also requires the delicate interpretation by the translator of not just the words, but the meaning and style the original language writer is trying to convey, then writing something in English which will carry that meaning in as similar a fashion as possible. Madden’s translation work is quite excellent, carrying the deep emotional undertow of the book into English in an elegant and deeply satisfying manner.

Other lovely touches abound, such as Zidrou and de Jongh arranging crossover cuts from Mediterranea to Ulysses, like the opening scenes I described previously, slowly intertwining their lives, or later, once they are just starting to see each other he finds out that in her youth she was a model and even appeared in a famous magazine, naked. Ulysses finds a vintage copy of the magazine in an old shop, but when he gets home he finds himself troubled, his desire to see what Mediterranea looked like déshabillé in her youth fighting with a sense of unease, that it is unfair, perhaps almost cheating on the older Mediterranea to do so. This cross-cuts with Mediterranea herself, viewing her naked body in the mirror, musing on age, on how that pretty young model could now be in this older woman’s body. It’s a lovely bit of cross-cutting, and again it reinforces the intertwining of both of their stories into one, or the way another, happier change in their life is viewed through a change to a much softer pencilwork, almost sepia toned artwork.

There’s a lot more in this rich, deeply emotional and satisfying story, that handles romance but without ever being sugary or saccharine, instead remaining believable, and laced with some of that humour that just comes out of everyday life and situations in places. A beautiful, warm, joyful story, deftly handled by a writer, an artist and a translator at the top of their game.

The Accountant of Auschwitz

The Accountant of Auschwitz,
Directed by Matthew Shoychet

The Nuremberg Trials, which put many Nazis in the court for crimes against humanity, took place some three quarters of a century ago now, but the echoes of those trials, of the legal precedents they tried to establish (that those who committed horrendous crimes like genocide would be held accountable) and the vile deeds they sought to punish have echoed down through the twentieth and twenty-first century, as we’ve seen more and more genocidal slaughters such as Rwanda or the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia (and the trials in the Hague that followed years later). When it comes to the almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust though, we are very nearly out of the range of living memory, fewer and fewer who were there (survivors or perpetrators) are with us each year.

As such it becomes all the more important that we have documentaries like the Accountant of Auschwitz, which records events around what may well be one of the last such trials of a Nazi for crimes committed during the Second World War, in this case a seemingly normal, frail old man, Oskar Gröning, the eponymous accountant. Looking at footage of this 94-year old man it is hard to picture him as the young man he once was, more than seventy years ago, let alone as a black-garbed officer of the SS working in one of the notorious death camps (one commentator noted seeing such a frail old man enter the court she felt sympathy. But then she recalled what he and his comrades had done, and that sympathy evaporated). But he did, and after a long, long time, justice finally reached out for Gröning.

Hate is a powerful weapon. And it was in the Second World War and it is today.”

Rainer Höss, anti-fascist activist and grandson of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz told the film-makers, adding that the trial was important, not just to try and enact even belated justice, but to remind the newer generations of the horrors that went before and can happen again far too easily (we only need to look at the appalling rise in hate crimes in many countries to see how easily we can start down that road again). Höss also remarked that Gröning’s trial was important because it heard a lot of testimony not just from survivors of the camps, but from the perpetrator. When we have groups who wilfully ignore the huge amount of evidence and still try to claim there was no Holocaust, or that it was exaggerated, the importance of this becomes clear, and some credit must be given to Gröning himself who makes clear that yes, these things did happen, he was there in his SS uniform. And if he says that it is just that bit harder for the modern neo-Nazis to continue their Holocaust denial.

The film doesn’t just focus on this one trial, however, it attempts to place the proceedings into a much longer sequence of events, from the post-war Nuremberg trials to the quite shameful blind eye the new, post-war West German government turned to the many former Nazis who were allowed to go free and live a good life (indeed many ended up in charge of government, industry, the judiciary, so became the class that sets the rules and laws for such investigations and trials), and how the way the law was worded only allowed for very specific, hard to prove charges to be brought (such as a specific act of a specific person killing another during the Holocaust), which allowed many to escape any consequences for their actions.

There was also some element of collective guilt – how many fathers, uncles and grandfathers took part in these events? How much guilt by association does that create for the rest of the country trying to move on and rebuild? The few trials that did happen in Germany rarely convicted and those that did often gave remarkably lenient sentences (a soldier responsible for putting the Zyklon B gas into the fake shower rooms to gas victims to death got only three years). The Demjanjuk case, which some of you may remember from the news some years ago, helped to bring a change in the attitude in Germany. He was found guilty in an Israeli court where witnesses were sure he was “Ivan the Terrible”, but records found after the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that he was not (although it transpired he had much other guilt, which he pretended ill-health to try and avoid answering for). Laws were altered to allow for trials that relied on more data and less on witness testimony (which had proven so unreliable in his case), and for those who may not have killed personally but were there supporting the whole process to also be held liable (such as Gröning, who rifled the belongings of those marked for death for valuables).

D-Day veteran Benjamin Ferencz is also interviewed – Ferencz was one of the chief prosecutors of the notorious Einsatzgruppen at the Nuremberg trials. They knew they could never hold every single person who contributed to the death camps to account – they numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands, they would still be holding trials today, as Ferencz put it. Instead his idea was that they would set a legal precedent with the trials, to show that any country that committed such horrible acts would, sooner or later, be brought to justice and individuals responsible would face trial and judgement. The idea was not just to punish these vile crimes but to put fear into future evil-doers that they would always, sooner or later, be brought to account for their disgusting, inhuman actions (think of the vile Ratko Mladić finally brought to trial in the Hague).

Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm, by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity.

Ferencz spoke these words at the opening of the Nuremberg trials, and the film-makers cut between this now frail, elderly but still strongly motivated man discussing his role and starting to recite his opening speech, which cuts to the archive footage of him in the courtroom in the 1940s, a nice touch. Alan Dershowitz, a former special prosecutor at the US Department of Justice who was involved in modern trials of historic war criminals, also gives some legal, historical and moral context to the trial of Gröning.

The trial itself is fascinating but also, as you can imagine, disturbing – some testimony is beyond comprehension, such as the cold-blooded murder of an infant in front of the mother, something Gröning witnessed a comrade do. I imagine most viewers will realise this horrific details is unavoidable, given the subject matter, but as with the powerful Night Will Fall documentary a couple of years ago (reviewed here), despite that I still commend viewing to people, because, dammit, we’re still seeing the sort of raw hatred of those judged to be “different” and where it leads, and we really, really need to be reminded of it, to learn from it.

The testimony of those who were there, whose ranks thin further each year, is vital, but also the film’s placing the events and their impact into legal and moral context for modern society, and, importantly, for future generations (and possible future perpetrators of such horrors) is extremely important, not only in making sense of it all, but in reminding us that we all, collectively, have to try to learn, to be better, and if and when some of us fail that others can and will deliver justice on them.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is released on DVD and Digital by Signature Entertainment from Monday 15th April

The Hod King

The Hod King,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books,

(cover art by Leino)

I described the first of Bancroft’s remarkable Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends, as “an engrossing, intoxicating delight”, back in 2017. Now into its third volume (of a projected four, I believe), I stand by that description. There can sometimes be a tendency for series to flag slightly in the middle volumes, but both this new third volume, The Hod King, and the previous tome, Arm of the Sphinx, have been, for my money, even better than the first book. I confess, I am smitten with this series, its main cast – poor rural headmaster turned reluctant adventurer Tom Senlin, his missing wife Marya, the irrepressible Voleta, the strong, determined Edith, the mighty yet surprisingly tender-hearted warrior Iren – and its astonishing setting, no less than the Tower of Babel itself, each massive round floor its own “ringdom”, the mysterious upper levels lost in clouds, the original builders and the maintainer – the Sphinx – now almost legend and myth.

Having encountered the mysterious Sphinx in the previous book and finding that person to be far from a myth, our reluctant adventurers are now sent forth on new business – Tom, having overcome his accidental drug addiction, is removed from his former crew and sent ahead to the ringdom of Pelphia, where the missing wife he has been seeking to find and rescue is now known to be living (married to a noble of the ringdom and apparently content, her old life and husband forgotten). He has strict instructions to carry out business as a spy for the Sphinx, although it is made clear to him his personal goal of communicating with his wife, to see if she is truly happy in her new life or wishes to be spirited away, will be supported later by the Sphinx. Naturally Tom gets himself into all sorts of trouble fairly early on – we would expect no less! The question arises, however, when he goes off-mission, is he really breaking the Sphinx’s commandments, or is he merely doing exactly what the Sphinx expected and planned for him to do?

The rest of the crew returns to airship life, although not their tatty old ship, but the fully updated and restored flagship of the Sphinx, the State of the Art (I did wonder if that was a nod to Iain Banks?), with Edith, now fitted with a new “engine” by the Sphinx (a mechanical arm, making her one of the Sphinx’s “Wakemen”, a group of augmented beings spread through the ringdoms and, nominally at least, agents of the Sphinx), becoming captain, much to the approval of the rest of the group. They are to tour the ringdoms, to show off the gleaming, powerful ship as a form of diplomatic gun-boating (behold the power of the Sphinx) and they are to dock at Pelphia, where Voleta will be passed off as an aristocratic lady to this pompous society, in an attempt to contact Marya while also obtaining items the Sphinx requires.

Of course, no plans survive contact with the enemy, and it isn’t long before both strands of this two-pronged tale, Tom’s trials and Edith with the airship crew, start to unravel, forcing them to adapt to often brutal changes or perish. And then, behind the scenes – almost literally, in access shafts and trails hidden behind the walls of the ringdoms – there is another plot brewing, Luc Marat and his army of zealot Hods we encountered in book two have more going on than anyone, even the Sphinx, suspected, and who is the Hod King they acclaim in secret, away from the free people of the ringdoms? There’s a real sense of a mighty storm brewing here, of conflicting forces that have been hidden for many years about to erupt, which may dictate the future of all the people in all of the ringdoms of the Tower, or even, perhaps, if there will still be a Tower…

They’ll say no, no, no, women are weak. They’re foolish. They need looking after and direction. But I think deep down they can’t forget they came out of a woman, were nursed by a woman, and had their little minds sculpted by one as well. When they grow up, just the thought if it makes them uneasy. But rather than face their fear, they look for ways to dominate and possess us, to create proof we are weak and they are strong. I’ll tell you this: the harder a man brags about his thunderous escapades in the lady’s boudoir, the more frightened he is...”

This growing urgency in the narrative goes hand in hand with strong development and growth of the main characters (the huge, powerful warrior woman Iren is especially nicely handled), in a way I found most satisfying. As with the first two volume though, the intriguing characters (who I have totally fallen for) and increasingly complex conspiracies and plots, while a delight, are only a part of the pleasure of Bancroft’s writing – his way with words, his assured, lyrical descriptive passages (he was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in his beautiful way with words), and the mischievous sense of humour, and some nice gender moments (he has some very formidable female characters, often far more capable than the men, as the themselves note), all combine to make this one of the best forms of books – the type you can totally lose yourself in.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

The first of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends, is reviewed here, and the second volume (Arm of the Sphinx), is reviewed here on the blog.

Thin Air

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

Welcome to Mars, soak.

For the first time in several years, and the first time since the well-received Netflix adaptation of his debut Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan returns to science fiction and, I am glad to report, delivers everything a Morgan fan could want. Since that powerhouse debut years back Morgan has enjoyed – relished, in fact – bringing a Hammett or Chandler-esque Noir quality to his science fiction, and with Hakan Veil, a disgraced former gene-tweaked deadly enforced for a mega corporation, dumped on the Martian colony and making a living anyway he can, he continues that tradition, mixed rather interestingly with elements of the classic Western in this High Frontier colony, but also suffused with a burningly angry take on unchecked market forces and runaway corporate capitalism, the vast inequalities it creates, the needless, grinding poverty and anger, and those who exploit it, on all sides of the political spectrum, from the holier than thou supposed revolutionaries to the oily “man of the people” governor in his superbling mansion (with more than a passing comparison to several contemporary politicians of our troubled times).

The details of the everyday life and troubles, from the disgruntled and often corrupt (some more so than others) cops and politicians in the vast colony city in the great trench of the Valles Marineris (crudely referred to by locals as “The Gash”) and gangs to the everyday colonists – many of whom, being several generations into Mars life, don’t see themselves as a colony any longer, they see themselves as Martians, and bridle at the oversight by Earth authorities (a fact played on by various political operators on Mars). And with an oversight committee coming into town from Earth, feelings are running high – some see it as an overdue accounting to hold the corrupt governor and local authorities to rights, others see it as outside influence in Martian affairs. And some suspect there is far more going on in the shadows than a simple audit and rooting out of corruption (shades of the current corruption crackdown in China), that there may be deeper, more sinister motivations behind the entire enterprise.

Freshly sprung from Bradbury police’s jail, police officer Nikki reluctantly hires Hakan, still “running hot” (his genetic tweaks include a hibernation cycle, from which he awakens sharp and ready for violence, a handy thing for his former employer who may have had him on ice on a ship sent out for months to intercept another ship and needed their people to come awake instantly and at full tilt), to be a minder to a junior member of the Earth oversight committee, Madekwe. She seems curiously compelled to investigate a minor missing persons case from several years before, out on the much rougher uplands (think the Wild West of Mars, complete with a Marshall service trying to maintain a rough law and order), and Hakan, while agreeing to take the job on, is left wondering what she is really looking for.

To discuss the plot any further would lead to spoilers, and besides, as with Raymond Chandler, the plot, which satisfyingly twists and loops around in conspiracies, political and economic intrigues and sheer bloody violence and double-crosses, is only part of the enjoyment here, much of the satisfaction also comes from the way Morgan tells the story. Like Chandler he has a gift for descriptive flair which manages to be both hard-boiled yet elegant and evocative. As with most of his previous works Morgan delivers some remarkable – and often very violent and bloody – action scenes, and yet this is no mere action-thriller, even the violence has a subtextual layer to it, from the political to the personal levels. And the view of life in the colony for the many is no mere adornment for background colour, there’s a feeling of authenticity, of a real community, of real people struggling to get by, and great empathy for the situation created by those at the top of the heap, over which the many have little control, despite the illusion of elections, and they all know it.

Despite the length this is a tight, fast-paced, high-octane read, with intelligent use of action mixed with some fine science fiction elements, adorned with colourful clothes from the Noir and Western genres for added atmosphere, unafraid to offer us main characters who are not heroic and commit questionable (or downright awful) acts, and yet beneath the powerful action segments, beneath the science fiction of a future Mars and genetically enhanced trained corporate killers, as with most of Morgan’s work it is about fallible, flawed people in a bad situation, trying to get through situations they didn’t ask for.

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

Submergence

Submergence,
Directed by Wim Wenders,
Starring Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Alexander Siddig

Submergence, based on the novel by J.M Ledgard, has what on paper sounds like a straightforward plot structure – two people, Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a scientist exploring the deepest parts of the ocean for life, meets James More (James McAvoy), a former Scottish soldier turned water engineer, both taking a break in a beautiful Normandy hotel before their next missions, she off to sea on the research vessel L’Atalante (a nod to the famous film of the same name, I would imagine), and he to Africa for a new water project. After some playful banter the two start to fall for each other, Danny at first reluctant, mostly married to her research, but drawn to James, with what could have been a brief, happy fling flowering into something far deeper. And then they are pulled apart to go their ways, but both now eager to meet once more, to develop their relationship further.

Except that while James did tell Danny he was a former soldier turned engineer, he didn’t tell her that his water engineer life is a cover for spy work for British intelligence, and he’s not going to dig wells in Kenya, but to Somalia, where he is soon taken prisoner by Jihadist terrorists. The film cuts back and forth between James, held prisoner in Africa, and Danny at sea, James clinging to warm memories of her face, her voice, her touch and dreaming of seeing her again, Danny, oblivious to his plight is growing increasingly anxious about not being able to contact him on his phone, their thoughts and dreams cross-connecting the two strands of their stories as they are separated.

As I said, the lovers brought together then pushed apart by fate is a fairly simple narrative device, but veteran director Wenders is not noted for sticking to the plain and simple – I must confess I have a huge admiration for his work such as Paris, Texas, Until the End of the World and, of course, the achingly beautiful Wings of Desire. And I appreciate that he rarely takes the obvious path, although I think perhaps this film is less unusual than many of his other works, in some way more straightforward and accessible to the non-Wenders initiate than some of his earlier films.

It is, unsurprisingly for one of Wenders’ movies, beautifully shot, be it the Normandy coast, the landscapes of Africa, the open ocean or the deepest, darkest places of the vast oceans. Even the prison cell takes on a strange beauty and symbolism – dark save for one shaft of light from a window high, high above, reached by a sloping shaft, it echoes Danny’s descent into the lightless ocean floor, and James finds himself musing about how he too has found himself in his own deep abyss, just like his lover. Orpheus and Eurydice, perhaps, except here it is Orpheus who is lost in the gloom of the Underworld.

I did have some issues with the film though – some of the dialogue felt rather stilted, something that should have been worked out better in rehearsals and editing, I feel, and for such a career-driven person it sometimes felt a little off that Danny becomes so emotionally churned up from not being able to contact James and wondering why he won’t reply to her. But I mostly forgive the film the flaws, because it is, as always with Wenders, a beautiful piece of work to watch, the gorgeous cinematography matched by having two very attractive actors in the lead roles, the music (by Fernando Velazquez) is wonderfully atmospheric, and a luscious compliment to Wenders’ rich visual tapestry. It’s an unusual love story, mixed with elements of the spy thriller, exploration and environmental change, with two gifted and very beautiful stars and luscious cinematography. While not ranking with Wenders’ best, this is still worthy of a couple of hours of your time. And let’s be honest, if you are already a Wenders fan, you know you’re going to have to see it, just because it is by Wenders…

Submergence is available from Lionsgate on digital download from March 4th, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 11th

Red Moon

Red Mars,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Lauren Panepinto, art by Arcangel Images)

I’ll confess right away to being biased here: I think Kim Stanley Robinson is one of our consistently most thought-provoking and intelligent science fiction writers we have working today, and any new work from his pen is most welcome. In Red Moon we’re roughly three decades into the future, with well-established Moon bases – numerous nations have a presence, from Brazil to Britain, the Americans, the Russians, but the biggest player by a Lunar mile is China. Robinson imagine the vast monetary surpluses China already has today, much of which is invested in gigantic infrastructure projects, and plays that out on the astronomical scale with huge investment in colonising and exploiting the Moon. Among the various nation states there are also freebooting prospectors, 49ers in spacesuits and Lunar rovers and a form of free town, a domed settlement run on co-operative lines where the architecture takes advantage of the lower gravity (humans leaping and swinging from structure to structure like orang-utans).

American Fred Fredericks works for a Swiss technology firm, tasked with taking a special communications device to a customer, a senior Chinese official on the Moon. The device is quantum-entangled, it will only talk to its paired device back on Earth and is pretty much un-hackable. On the shuttle to the Lunar surface Fred meets a fellow traveller Robinson fans will remember fondly from Antarctica, Ta Shu, now quite elderly but still up for exploring a new destination for his much-loved travel shows. Ta Shu takes a shine to the awkward Fred (who is better with systems than people, it’s hinted that perhaps he is on the Spectrum), and when his young friend finds himself mixed up in a mysterious assassination of a Chinese official (which almost kills Fred as well), he does his best to help, which draws him into the orbit of Chan Qi, daughter of a high party official, who needs to get off the moon quickly after breaking the rules big time – she’s heavily pregnant.

Ta Shu, Fred and Chan Qi find themselves soon treading through a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies and movements, some local, grass-roots (Qi is involved with a people power movement across China), some internal party politics (leader succession time beckons and different groups want a different direction for China), and global conspiracies (America is even more in debt to China than it is today, but trying to compete and play the Great Game against a backdrop of economic chaos at home). It’s an incredibly rich stew of the political, economic and scientific, but as with his previous works Robinson is good at ensuring there is always a personal level here that isn’t overwhelmed by the events going on around the characters.

These are characters you come to love – the brave but brittle and testy Chan Qi, the awkward but trying his best Fred, and, for me most especially Ta Shu. There are some beautiful little emotional moments, such as Ta Shu meeting an old friend, who takes him to the best spot to watch the Earth Rise above the Lunar surface, after which the two old gentlemen, in the traditional, refined Chinese manner, each compose a poem for the moment. Fred forced into close contact with Qi for a long period on the run, has to deal with his problems in interacting with others, while Qi is slowly forced to realise that individual friendship is as important as the Great Cause she is fighting for.

Robinson, as he often does, uses his future fiction to address many of the ills of today’s world – the vast economic inequality (both individual and national level), the importance of equal rights for all, the problems of mass, illegal migration (although of a different type from what you may think), and weaves in an environmental aspect to it all. Red Moon also echoes his much earlier Antarctica novel (written after Robinson himself travelled there, part of a writer and artist’s programme by the National Science Foundation), not just in having Ta Shu, but also echoes its feel in some places, the Lunar colonies reminiscent of the scientific bases on Antarctica, the stark, barren beauty of the landscape also evoked by the Lunar surface. But at its heart this is less about the science or the politics but the people involved, and that is what makes it so compelling.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

Guantánamo Kid

Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani
Jérôme Tubiana and Alexandre Franc
SelfMadeHero

Life in the insanely oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be great, if you are rich and male and Saudi. If you are a teenage Muslim boy from Chad, though, you’re part of the large underclass that carries out many of the day to day jobs that keep that rich country going, and you’re unlikely to even get into school (“is he Saudi? Oh, sorry, the school is full”), so your chances to try and improve yourself and so hopefully improve your lot in life are somewhat limited. And this is how we meet young Mohammed El-Gharani, hustling his day job on the baking hot streets, selling items to passing cars with his Pakistani pal Ali (names, as you can appreciate, have often been changed here to protect people), in-between chatting about what they can do to make things better for themselves.

Ali comments that Mohammed is good at learning languages, he could get better work if he learns English. Mohammed recalls an older friend who struggles to get competent workers to staff his small computer repair service, and how he’d like to try that, if he could learn (Franc shows this in a lovely, simple cartoon fashion – a sweltering, sweating Mohammed selling his wares under the blazing sun next to the dream version sitting at a desk indoors with air-conditioning as he works). Ali has a relative back in Pakistan who may be able to help – he teaches IT work and he can build his English lessons while he is there, they will be happy to put him up while he learns, before returning to Saudi.

It is a well-meant gesture from a good friend, trying to help his buddy, but it will change Mohammed’s life in a way neither could have imagined. Mohammed will find himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, after a good start learning in Pakistan (after overcoming all the obstacles to get there – the Saudis less than helpful attitude to anyone not Saudi regarding travel papers, his own family’s reluctance, money), a nice, happy time for this young man, finally feeling that he is seeing something of the world and improving himself.

Until, one day, the security forces simply arrest a bunch of people coming from the local mosque. Of course, the fact that the CIA was paying several thousand dollars for each “terrorist” suspect they hand over in no way influenced the Pakistani security forces at all, honest…

Despite being fellow Muslims, the security personnel here treat him and others abominably, beating and torture are the norm, and this is just the start; this is before he is even handed over to American agents, and finally flown hooded and manacled to Camp X-Ray in the now infamous Guantánamo.

Mohammed is in a no-win situation here, nothing he can say or do will change the mind of the obsessed investigators and interrogators – they start by assuming he must be a seasoned terrorist, I mean, why else would he be here?

“We have files on you going right back to the early 1990s when you were part of a terror sleeper cell in London!”

Um, hold on, Mohammed replies, I am fourteen, and back then I had never been outside Saudi and would only be about six years of age.

You’d think at this point the Americans would realise they had just had any old person passed on to them for money, clearly this intel is totally wrong. How could a fourteen year old boy who had never left the country before have been an active terror cell member on a different continent when he was six? Naturally the US intelligence officers realise their mistake, apologise profusely to the young boy and send him home with a handsome amount of compensation.

No, of course they don’t. They just keep asking him how he knows Osama Bin Laden, when he was active in Afghanistan and subjecting him and the other inmates to a continual regime of the too hot or too cold treatment, no food, or very poor food, abuse, beatings, even petty acts like spitting on his Koran (I’m not fond of any religion, but treating someone’s holy book like that just horrible and pathetic).

Mohammed may only be a wee, skinny lad, but he doesn’t like bullies, and he finds ways to fight back, sometimes metaphorically – singing that annoys the guards, he and other inmates shouting together, “dirty” protests (shades of A Sense of Freedom, except Boyle actually was guilty), and sometimes literally fighting back, physically attacking the guards. You may think the latter just makes his life harder, but when you are innocent, railroaded and abused, I think it’s fair to say many of us would find any way we had of hitting back at our tormentors.

This isn’t all suffering though, despite the subject matter, Tubiana and Franc do a lot to give us an impression of a real person – a young boy, full of dreams for his life ahead of him – suddenly snatched away and plunged into a nightmare not of his own making, over which the only control he can summon is resistance. We see his bonding with some of the other inmates, many of whom clearly have a soft spot for such a youngster dragged into this wretched morass, and their support helps his morale, some teach him bits and pieces, while some of the marines guarding the prisoners are not happy about the situation either and try to perform small acts of kindness to inmates like Mohammed, knowing he is innocent. (The African American soldiers seem especially sympathetic, not least when they see the racist abuse some other soldiers heap on the prisoners).

There are even moments of humour – as some CIA agents grill him, shouting “you fucker!” at him, he notes “thanks to the lessons, I already knew some English words. The Americans taught me the F-word…”

Guantánamo Kid takes us through the years of this young boy incarcerated in the camp, his suffering, his learning of very hard lessons, but also some small, sweet moments of triumph that keep him and his fellows going when it feels like all the world has forgotten them. Importantly, we also follow Mohammed after he is cleared and released, and how despite being found innocent he’s left with the stigma of having been a Guantánamo prisoner following him around, as he tries to rebuild his life and again tries to think, just like when he was fourteen on the streets of Saudi, how to better his life.

The book includes a postscript in prose by Tubiana, where he relates meeting Mohammed and learning his story, and his current status as of 2018.

If Guantánamo Kid was a fictional narrative it would be compelling enough, but knowing this is based on real events, and real events that were inflicted on a child, a fourteen year old boy who had harmed no-one (and that he was continually harmed even after it was so evidently clear he wasn’t what they claimed he was even in their own faulty intel), it has a lot of power. Few things can ignite anger more than burning injustice and bullying, and levelling those at a child is a thousand times worse.

But despite all of that, as I said, there are moments of humour and lightness here too, there are moments that will make you smile, and many that will leave you furious with anger, and, dammit, you should be angry.