The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

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Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.

Review: Wild’s End #1 – Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds

Wild’s End #1
Dan Abnett, Ian Culbard
Boom! Studios

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When I see Dan Abnett and Ian Culbard’s names on a new comic, frankly even before I know what it is about, that’s sufficient to make me want to take a look. Add in the fact that we have an anthropomorphic fantasy take on one of the first great classics of science fiction, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (with a touch of the Archers thrown in for good measure) and you have my undivided reading attention!

We open under a clear night sky in the countryside, away from street lights, a great glowing, indigo firmament specked with sparking stars and a great moon, whose silvery glow lights the way home for Fawkes (a fox person) and his drouthy companion Bodie (a weasel), good naturedly arguing over their bottle of booze as, from the looks of it, they are walking home from a good evening’s poaching. Until they are stopped in their tracks by the sight of an astonishingly bright shooting star describing a great, flaming arc across that wonderful fairy tale night sky. Before they can even wish upon that falling star – still marvelling at how bright it was – the sound of its impact reaches them and they realise it didn’t just burn across the nocturnal heavens, it’s crashed to earth, not far from their quaint little village. Excitedly Fawkes starts out for the site, followed grudgingly by Bodie.

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The clear day after the night before and all is peaceful and as it should be in Lower Crowchurch; Mr Slipway (a dog) is very carefully painting his new home, a very traditional thatched cottage, about as picture postcard rural England as you can imagine, having just moved to the village, retiring from a life in the Navy. Two of his new neighbours, Gilbert Arrant and Peter Minks, stop to greet him in a friendly manner, although it is also clear that covertly Arrant (a pillar of the village and, one suspects, the type who likes to know the inside scoop on everyone else’s business) and Minks (a local journalist) are trying to pick away and see what they can find out about Slipway’s past. They invite him to join them in the pub later as the village fete is coming up and a group are meeting to discuss who will do what (although it is fairly apparent this is almost a formality as the same people do the same things each year in this little hamlet – tradition, charming or stultifying, delete as is your taste for such things).

And it’s during this rural chat that Fawkes makes his re-appearance, dishevelled and rambling and ranting about a dangerous light they found in the woods, a light which is deadly. But as a known drunk and poacher none believe him, except Slipway who comments “I’ve seen enough young men gripped in terror to know what genuine fear looks like” and he decides to investigate. But they may be late in checking the veracity of the errant Fawkes’ tale, someone, or something may be starting to investigate their little, peaceful domicile too…

This is a charming piece of work, a sort of blending of Wind in the Willows with HG Wells, and I found the idyllic, rural setting was enhanced by having anthropomorphic animal-people as the characters – they combine, with Culbard’s beautiful artwork, to create that fantasy, picture-postcard view of the idealised countryside English village that probably never really existed quite like that even before the modern world rudely pushed its way in, and yet it’s an image we all know and frequently have great affection for (perhaps not where many of us would choose to live, but certainly to take a peaceful sojourn in). This is only a first issue (of six), but already we’re introduced to several main characters and between Abnett’s dialogue and Culbard’s artwork their characteristics are pretty well established in the reader’s mind.

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I found Culbard’s approach to depicting Slipway especially effective, not just the way he delineates the facial features, but the angle and pose of the character speaks silently of his mysterious past that Arrant would like to tease out of him, a man who has seen much, done much, some of it, one suspects, the sort of tasks he doesn’t want to dwell on, while his depiction of Arrant is again wonderfully spot-on, the oh so friendly, fine chap who is actually the village gossip and always using his bonhomie to dig out everyone’s secrets and ensure his own place in the local society. Naturally they bring to mind other prominent anthropomorphic characters, such as Bryan Talbot’s Grandville cast, but these creations stand on their own and any comparisons I might make from Wild’s End to Grandville are entirely complimentary. That so much of their character comes through simply from the art is a testament to Culbard’s ability. Matching that with Abnett’s script and dialogue and you have something wonderful. Much recommended.

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(I can’t resist including this image of Culbard’s map of the village and surrounding countryside – as a friend commented during the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, there’s always something delightful about a map with your fantasy tales, and he’s right, there is)

This review was originally posted on the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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Nicolas De Crécy is one of the more fascinating – not to mention gifted – creators to emerge from the great Franco-Belgian comics scene in the last couple of decades, able to switch his styles seemingly effortlessly to suit different subjects, from biting satire in the trilogy which started with Léon la Came (in collaboration with the equally brilliant Sylvian Chomet, who would go on to become the acclaimed animation director of Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist) to end-of-the-world science fiction as we have here in Glacial Period, part of a series created in conjunction with the Louvre Museum in Paris.  First published in Europe back in 2005 it has recently been reprinted in English by NBM, and a very welcome return to print it is, with this single album (presented here in a slim hardback similar to many French bande-dessinee volumes) allowing De Crécy to express adventure, comedy and action all in one tale, accompanied by some beautiful and varied artwork.

The world is frozen, the snow and ice hold dominion over the sleeping land below, as they did several thousand years ago during the last Ice Age (which still leaves its marks on our landscape today). A party crosses the often featureless expanse of white – they are researchers from an enclave of surviving humans somewhere far to the south, exploring, seeking out a fabled lost metropolis, the humans accompanied by some rotund creatures who look like tubby dogs but can speak. In fact these are genetically modified dogs (with a little pig thrown in, hence the rotund appearance) and their sense of smell is  an invaluable tool for the expedition. One, Hulk (they are all named for what the researchers think are the names of ancient gods), has very refined nasal receptors (as he likes to tell everyone) which he can even use, via a Carbon-14 augmentation, to detect some of the history of found objects.

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The thing is, this earnest party of researchers on their noble quest knows almost nothing about the world before the great freeze. We see them discussing a venerated object to be taken back for serious scientific study, a mysterious logo of interlocking letters – hieroglyphs they want to learn the meaning of, little knowing it is merely the logo of a long-gone French football team… When a collapsing fissure reveals the mighty Louvre museum, emerging from beneath the snow, they enter and are astonished at the size of the place and the sheer volume of paintings. Except they don’t know what paintings are, much less why anyone would create them and hang them on walls. Or how a flat image can still convey a sense of depth. Shorn of all knowledge of pre-ice civilisation they attempt to understand our world through these pieces of art, swiftly coming to the conclusion we must have been illiterate but skilled at image making, hence all the paintings, and also, judging by the number of nudes, a rather salacious bunch of erotomaniacs, not to mention having some odd notions about femininity…

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I don’t understand … More images. And More lewd ones! And as if lewdness was always feminine. A lewdness in enslavement to men,” muses Juliette, the only woman on the team, observing large numbers of nude paintings and wondering about gender in that long-ago society.

In many ways this is broad comedy, as we watch the serious historian attempting to place some paintings into what he thinks is a chronological order so they can give them a rough history, of course getting it hopelessly wrong. Even the concept of an art gallery and museum is unknown to these researchers, able to find these remains of the previous human civilisation, but totally unequipped to comprehend the social, cultural and historical meanings contained within those works. Of course there is a serious point here, partly riffing on the old “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look upon my works ye mighty and despair” theme of how even the greatest grandeur will be lost in the face of the eternal march of time, but partly a comment, as much good SF is, on our own present era. We have spent centuries, especially since the 1700s, piecing together this history and customs and beliefs of those civilisations which predate us – ancient Greeks, Egypt, Babylon, Ur, Angkor Wat – from similar pieces of art, paintings on walls, sculpture, lost languages. And with great respect to generations of historians and archaeologists who spend careers painstakingly putting those clues together, there must be whole swathes where a person from that era would find our conclusions laughable. I found this especially intriguing, having just recently read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book where a historian goes back in time to the 1300s and finds out how many solid conclusions they had reached on life back then were false. It’s a reminder to all seekers of knowledge to remember humility and the fact that, lacking important context, we may easily and often get it wrong.

Hulk, separated from the group, is the first to enter and finds himself by great walls within walls which any visitor to the great museum will recognise as the original walls when the Louvre was a fortress-palace, now buried inside the great gallery. A visual reminder of the passings of civilisations, as is a later, more comic sequence where some of the artefacts, now possessed of a sort of life (a la Night at the Museum) tell Hurk of the days when earnest, slim scholars came to gaze upon then, then much later (in our own time) the obese, jolly tourists gawking. Again satire from De Crécy, painfully on the nose, and once more riffing on how time changes everything. His art changes from delicately drawn scenes with the main characters to an almost cartoonish style for Hulk and the other modified, intelligent dogs, to a gloriously detailed, painted approach to depict those millennia of artworks gathered in the Louvre.

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At one point De Crécy touches on the war years and the evacuation of these treasures to the countryside to protect them from Nazi bombers, as if, one character comments, they were more important than people. Again De Crécy uses a double-edged sword, on the one hand berating the way we have been conditioned to place certain artworks on a pedestal for veneration, a value which is purely in our head, product of our culture (a culture, which the book reminds us, can vanish taking all the contextual meaning of that object with it), when it is people who are more important.

And yet at the same time those works of art are people, our collective soul of aesthetics, beauty and wonder without which any human society is dreadfully impoverished. We’ve made art for as long as we’ve been human, from paintings etched on cave walls by flickering firelight to these massive oil paintings dominating entire walls of the Louvre. Perhaps De Crécy is trying to remind us with his satirical approach not that these works lack importance, but it is we who give them that importance, so we shouldn’t simply accept being told by some authority this is a masterpiece to be worshipped, we choose, we think, consider, and in doing so we make the art part of us, as it should be. It’s a delightful satire on human civilisation, knowledge and art, both lacerating and venerating it, using the genre of science fiction and a future-set tale to comment on the present (and the way the present sees the past, which of course is what today’s present becomes in time too), and even veers into some highly enjoyable fantasy when Hulk comes in contact with some of those artistic treasures, who have their own opinions. Beautiful comics work and art talking about the importance and place of art, what’s not to love here?

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Barricade – superb science fiction debut from Jon Wallace

Barricade,
Jon Wallace,
Gollancz

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Meet Kenstibec, a ‘taxi driver’ in a ruined, near-future Britain. But in this post-apocalyptic world taxi driving doesn’t quite mean what it does to us today. This ruined, irradiated, polluted land is now split into rural and urban, both utterly wrecked, the rural areas held by the Reals (natural human survivors) while the pulverised cities are in the hands of the Ficials, at first glance human-looking, but a closer inspection shows them to be that bit taller, better built, more perfect. They are engineered beings, a sort of biological version of an android, somewhat like the Replicants of Blade Runner, and like those Replicants usually stronger and more capable than mere humans, originally designed to serve, with different models optimised for various specific purposes. Kenstibec started as a Power 9 engineering model, very strong and optimised for engineering and construction – not so much call for that after all the wars and destruction of course, so now he has adapted to his taxi role, one of the few who are skilled enough to take a passenger across the Real-infested wasteland that had been the British countryside from one Ficial urban stronghold – or Barricade – to another.

Fortunately as well as being strong, Ficials are also built to last, unlike mere humans, loaded with clever nano technology which can repair even devastating injuries (early on we encounter Kentsibec in a flashback to before the wars, hanging upside down in the recovery shed, missing a limb after a horrendous construction accident, but unlike us, he can heal from such an injury – it takes a lot to really terminate a Ficial, and if course this means they are very difficult for humans to stop, let alone kill). Currently resident in a ruined Edinburgh, Kentsibec gets the call for a driving run and makes his way to the underground garage where his ride is being prepared for a fare he has to take, a former pleasure model (and one time media celeb) now working on a Ficial news channel that broadcasts out of an underground chamber near one of the city’s old breweries. He is to take this female Ficial, who calls herself Starvie, to Control in the London barricade, a hell of a run, extremely difficult to do – even just getting out of town is hard enough let alone traversing the distance from the Scottish to English former capitals with hundreds of miles of diseased, violent, hate-filled Real tribes trying to kill them all the way.

There’s much more going on here than a simple Mad Max style road warrior fight across a ruined landscape though (fun though that is when done well – and it is done very, very well here). Wallace presents the journey but intersperses it with more flashbacks to the pre-war world, a world where political and economic struggles between nations have pushed humanity beyond the planet’s ability to cope (not exactly far fetched idea, sadly). Our sceptred isle is one of the few places where life is still relatively good, and, in a UKIP supporter’s worst nightmare, there are legions of political, climate and economic refugees desperately working across the Continent trying to aim for Britain (imagine the Daily Mail headlines). And into this come the Ficials, invented as servants and workers it isn’t long before they are also adapted for combat, with soldier models (complete with eerily glowing green eyes that let them see in low light), sold to the human population as the only resource we have to help us manage in this collapsing world and to keep out the ravening foreign hordes desperate to enter Britain. In true Frankenstein tradition though, humanity makes its own monster, which turns on it…

There are other strands coming together here too between the troubled journey south from Edinburgh and the flashbacks showing slowly how the world came to be the horrible mess it now is – for example, why does Control want a former pleasure model turned news presenter transported such a distance? And more to the point why is it most Ficials don’t hear the commands of Control these days? While some things are exactly as they seem other elements of this mission may be other than Kentsibec has been lead to believe, but I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going into the plot in any more detail, because Wallace has constructed a powerful, fast-paced, gripping, sci-fi actioneer and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

The advance copy I had contained an introduction from Gollancz associate publisher Simon Spanton, saying one of the reasons he was so keen to take on this book (Wallace has a solid track record with short stories in excellent SF journals like the venerable Interzone – and I consider being published in Interzone to always be a high recommendation for a writer’s ability – but I think this is his debut novel) was because it reminded him of Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut, Altered Carbon. Since Richard is fantastic writer and his Altered Carbon was one of the best débuts I had read (it was also the first novel my long-running Edinburgh SF Book Group read, a decade ago), that got my attention – of course that sort of comparison could be a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s terrific for a new novelist to get such a comparison, but on the other hand it also places a fairly hefty expectation on you! Back in the days of The Alien Online (some of you may recall that early SF and comics site) we really raved about Altered Carbon, so when I say I think the comparisons are more than fair, that’s a bloody big compliment. Wallace creates a very believable post-war society (and without resorting to some padded-out 500 page brick – this is a slim but muscular read) and a compelling, page-turner of a narrative, and steeps it with sufficient details and characters to make it all very believable and real to the reader, but not overloading it with too much detail that would slow down the well-paced narrative.

And this is a wretched future, not just the remains of the Reals fighting the Ficials for survival, but the ruined landscape, destroyed between chemical pollution, fighting and a nuclear exchange (it is hinted with Bible-thumping remnants of what had been the USA, who see creating Ficials as creating soulless demons). Yes, there are some nods to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs, but while the tweaked abilities and healing powers of the Ficials may remind the reader of Kovacs’ custom-made ‘sleeves’ (engineered bodies to download into), Kovacs was still human and the Ficials really are not, despite being built in our image. No real emotions, no particular drive other than to do what they were optimised for, this leads to what a human would see as a dreadfully cruel amorality, although the Ficials don’t see what the fuss is about. And the contrast between them, with their self-repairing bodies, and the miserable human Reals, half-starved, ridden with diseases in a world where even the air and water is toxic and damaging (unless you are a hardy Ficial) is quite disturbing, as disturbing as the contrast between one of us and a desperate refugee in Africa. Just as JF Sebastien observed of Roy and Pris in Blade Runner, they’re so perfect, and the Ficials seems inhumanly perfect, especially in this wrecked world. Blade Runner and Altered Carbon are obvious influences here, but Wallace draws on other elements, from other science fiction (the toxic environment and engineering beings reminds me of 2000 AD’s classic Rogue Trooper, for example) but also from real world concerns – mass immigration of economic and environmental refugees, an environment and resources being pushed beyond what the planet can handle by short-sighted humans, even the ruined future draws on parts of recent events such as conflicts that include children as soldiers, all adding to the grim, hard-edged atmosphere of Barricade, he even manages to slip in references to our pop cultural obsession with celebrities.

Perhaps his greatest trick here is that the Ficials like Kentsibec, amoral, inhuman beings who ‘cull’ humans on sight, man, woman or child, without a twinge of moral pain or guilt (human traits they care little for, along with compassion or love or nostalgia), still come across as more likeable than most of the wretched humans we meet here, both in the pre and post-war segments, which is a tribute to how well he crafts his characters, I think. A superb, powerful, perfectly-paced debut that I found myself galloping through – clearly a writer we should be keeping an eye on. Hugely recommended. You can follow Jon on Twitter and there’s another Twitter for Kenstibec here, and you can get a taster with a short extract to read online here.

this was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Classic 50s comics Sci-Fi from EC – Jack Kamen’s Zero Hour

EC: Zero Hour and Other Stories by Jack Kamen,

Al Feldstein, William Gaines, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kamen

Fantagraphics

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EC Comics is a legendary name among comics readers, famed – sometimes infamous – for some of their works which would contribute to the baseless moral panic about comics corrupting the youth of America and the imposition of the comics code which neutered many potential stories. Of course the fact that the censor hated them means we loved them all the more! Fantagraphics has been publishing a handsome hardback series collecting some classic archive material from the iconic EC Comics stable (which has brought us other volumes such as Corpse on the Imjin, ‘Taint the Meat and others so far). This new collection features the work of the great Jack Kamen, who was introduced to iconic publisher William Gaines by the equally iconic Al Feldstein. EC published all sorts – romance, crime, science fiction, horror – and Kamen cut his comics teeth on the romance tales, soon becoming noted for his expressive, detailed style, the character he captured on the faces of his subjects and his depiction of beautiful women. It wasn’t long before he was mostly on the more fantastical subjects and 50s style sci-fi and horror by Kamen is what we have in this, the latest of Fantagraphics’ lovely EC library hardbacks, with stories by Gaines, Feldstein and a very young Ray Bradbury (surely not just one of the finest science fiction writers of all time, but one of the finest American writers in any genre).

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These are all very much short stories in the EC classic mould, only a few pages each, most often featuring a male and female character either sneakily plotting behind one another’s backs or frequently in cahoots to commit some act of illegality or immorality for their own selfish benefit. And like, say, Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, there is almost always some sort of sting in the tale here. A jealous, scheming wife is sure her husband is cheating on her, duping her with a robotic duplicate while the real version of him is off with another woman, in a story adapted from one of Bradbury’s Marionettes Inc tales (which also feature in his landmark short story collection The Illustrated Man) where a secretive company manufactures detailed robotic doppelgangers. A scientist creates a special process to freeze humans and animals for long-range space missions, and sees in it a chance to stowaway his attractive assistant, ready to defrost in the distant space colonies, far away from his wife, but of course something goes wrong.

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And that’s a recurring theme here – schemers come up with devious plans, husbands plan to cheat on wives, femme fatales (and what femme fatales or swooning love interests Kamen draws) plot to murder for money, revenge and love, sometimes, as in a couple of young lovers who yearn to be married but are too poor, good people are lead astray to do one seemingly clever crime, but every time something will happen, each time that sting in the tale and the moral reminder (hey, this is the 50s) that in the end crime doesn’t pay and that everyone will get their just deserts. There are some exceptions to this ‘house style’ though – a scientist finds a perfectly proportioned miniature woman in his lab, only a few inches tall and the lonely bachelor falls in love so heavily he uses a special potion to shrink himself to her size to live with her, but love has blinded him and there is a secret about her genesis he will learn too late. Or in another Bradbury adaptation, the titular Zero Hour, parents see all the kids in their neighbourhood playing a game together, borrowing items from the houses to construct something as they play a game invented by their imaginary friends – a game about invading the world sneakily, by using children. But it is just a harmless child’s game, isn’t it? Isn’t it….

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Throughout all of these short tales though Kamen’s artwork is gorgeous – the lurid, leering expression of the villainous man, the seductive and yet somehow simultaneously vicious glance of the scheming femme fatale, the wonderfully captured expressions of shock and surprise on faces as the dénouement is revealed to them, it is a pleasure to admire his craft. It’s very much of its time though – not just the style of storytelling, but of that early post-war society that it came from. The casual sexism in many stories will glare out at modern readers – in one tale where a group is asked to take turns working 24/7 on a science project the only woman in the group is asked by the gentlemen to go first and asks for the morning shift so she can have “time for shopping” in the afternoon. This is also an era of the nuclear family, the husband and wife roles very heavily defined (the woman is in the house if married or a seductive secretary or lab assistant if still single and young). And the science in the science fictional stories is often laughably silly to contemporary readers (to be honest it was probably pretty inaccurate even to any half decently informed reader of the time too), but that doesn’t really matter, it’s the stories and that wonderful 1950s artwork that are centre-stage here, and we can’t apply modern mores to stories crafted some sixty odd years ago.

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Enjoy them as period pieces, the stories as great fun shorts, the gender roles as a window into a vanished society (and reminder that while we may have a long way to go in gender parity yet, we have moved on an incredible amount since then, thank goodness), and most of all enjoy these mid 20th century classics for the glorious artwork, a style we really don’t see used much today, perhaps also very much of its time too, but still remarkable and a feast for the eyes. Besides, no real classic collection is complete without some EC works among it, and I think it’s fair to say it was these kinds of stories which inspired the (still running today) Future Shocks shorts in 2000 AD, short tales with a twist, which have been the launching pad for so many now famous creators. The EC Legacy isn’t just in historic archive delights like this, it’s still there, influencing writers and artists…

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One of the most intriguing & unusual reads in current comics: Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals Volume 1
Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
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It felt so amazing that…

… that I was terrified. I was confused and terrified. How could anything feel so good? How could anything make everything get so quiet?

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Yes, I am recommending a book with that title. No, I have not sunk finally into a pool of my own degeneracy (well not too much). Yes, I expect you to want to read a book with that title on the cover. Why? Simply put because Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is one of the most unusual and fabulous works to come out in comics recently. The quote above? That’s from Suzie, a rather nice librarian, who is explaining about her first sexual awakenings. Everyone’s been there – hey, what is this, how comes this feels so nice, what’s that – oh. Is that normal? Does everyone do this? Why does nobody talk about it? And the half-blind maze of semi truths picked up from other kids at school and the precious little real information about what’s happening to your changing body and what it is all about. Confusing, fun, bit scary, but so want to know a bit more (except isn’t that being bad and dirty?). And here’s Suzie in this quote looking back at her first teenage orgasm and male or female we can all identify with the competing emotions she experiences. But the “get quiet” bit? Ah, didn’t I mention? When Suzie is at peak arousal time stops for her. And no-one can tell her why.

Doctor, what happens after you have an orgasm? I’m asking for a friend.”

Usually fall asleep, Suzanne.”

No, not metaphorically, not one of those “magical moments that felt like it went on and on” type of deals. Time stops and a wonderful show of swirling lights and patterns envelops her. Like going into an altered state but instead of meditation or mind-altering drugs it’s sex. Growing up and finding out about your sexuality is difficult enough, but when you seem to be different from everyone? First sex, always a mix of worry and wonder, finally it is happening and… Okay, time stopped, here are the colours and your partner, well, he is frozen in time while you go wandering off in your own state of sexually induced temporal grace. So, not the easiest thing to come to terms with, but despite it Suzie seems like a pretty nice, pretty together young woman, in love with her library, which she is desperately trying to stop from being closed down, like far too many public libraries (and rather sweetly trying to ‘rescue’ some of the doomed books). And then she meets Jon at a party, and at their own personal, intimate party afterwards she finds out Jon can do what she can do – to the mutual shock and delight of both of them. Finally they’ve both found someone like them.

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As we got the story of Suzie’s awakening we now get Jon’s, and it is funny and embarrassing in equal measure – like Suzie he finds out about the colours and time stopping, trying to work out what’s going on, realising the reason no-one else talks about it is because it doesn’t happen for them. Finding he can use this power, become aroused, enter this timeless state and actually go out and explore the city while everyone is frozen around him (of course at one point his arousal dips and he appears starkers in a shop. Oops). But this starts to give them both an idea – if they can both stop time together during sexual arousal, and go outside and do things while time is frozen, could they use this power to, let’s say, rob a bank? Not for personal gain per se, but to help fund Suzie’s library. Why not rob the bank that wants to take the library for redevelopment? Poetic justice! Sex as a cultural-economic weapon! But if there are two of them who can do this then isn’t it possible there are others? And some of them may be tasked with making sure no-one misuses those abilities?

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But apart from the story of trying to save the library, this really is more about relationships, love, friendship, coming of age (take that anyway you want in this context), exploring who you are. And yes, a big part of that is s-e-x. The confusions, the worries, the sheer bliss. It’s all part of that weird old thing we call life, and Sex Criminals tackles the subject wonderfully. In fact charmingly. Yes, hard to believe, but I am using the term ‘charming’ to describe a book entitled Sex Criminals. Because, well, simply, it is. Both leads come across as very genuine, it’s so easy to like them, so easy to identify with elements of life they deal with because we all have had similar (okay, perhaps not stopping time, but the rest of it). That opening chapter with Suzie telling us about her younger life is an utter delight – imagine in this medium that has, sadly, not always had the best attitude to women, a story where a young woman is front and centre and her sexuality the core of it. And imagine it being handled with humour, grace and charm and warmth. It’s not sleazy, it’s not exploitative, it is warm, delightfully human, emotional without being schmaltzy.

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It’s different, unusual and utterly addictive, drawing you into these young people’s lives, making us identify with them, laugh with them, share embarrassment at lack of knowledge, smile at them finding one another. Zdarsky’s art handles it all effortlessly, managing to be naturally sexy without being too much or seeming to be simply there for voyeuristic effect (I suppose the difference between pornography and erotica), also doing a great job with the facial expressions of the characters which mirrors the back and forth dialogue perfectly. And those trippy colour scenes in “the quiet” as Suzie calls it, up there with the sort of cool colouring effects Dan Goldman and Brendan McCarthy might use (which is high praise).

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All in all it’s just a uniquely unusual and wonderful story, it’s picked up a pile of critical acclaim and frankly it deserves it. One of the best works in comics right now. And as a bonus there’s a scene where Suzie sings Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls (including donning Freddie Mercury’s iconic yellow jacket), but they didn’t get the rights sorted in time, so the speech bubbles are all covered with post-it notes explaining what’s going on, which is just a cracking bit of playing with the medium and winking to the reader about part of the process of making the issue, while still creating a great scene. How can you not love it?

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Harlan Ellison’s original City on the Edge of Forever adapted

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever #1
Harlan Ellison, Scott & David Tipton, KJ Woodward
IDW Publishing

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(regular cover art for Star Trek City on the Edge of Forever #1 by Juan Ortiz)

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

When I first heard these now iconic words I was just a little boy; it was the mid-70s and we didn’t have the multi-channel reams of telefantasy let alone online works we enjoy today. But alongside the small amount of home-grown science fiction on the telly back in that age of “stone knives and bear skins” we also had this wonderful, colourful import of a US show, a huge starship on a noble mission to explore and learn, crewed by men and women of all colours and creeds – some of them even alien – it was good science fiction and drama and also trying to paint an optimistic view of what our future could be. I loved it. It was, of course, Star Trek. The show that too many grew to love for it to ever die.

I had no idea it hailed from the late 60s when I first saw it being repeated on the BBC as I sat and watched it with my parents, it didn’t matter really – while the odd episode is very much of its time (think the now embarrassing ‘space hippies’ episode) most of it holds up well, even now, decades on. Several episodes in particular still stand out some half century on for their clever use of science fiction, drama and emotional content; a good story, well told, is a good story in any century. And among the most notable episodes any version of Star Trek every aired, City on the Edge of Forever by the great Harlan Ellison must be the most respected (also one of the few to win a Hugo award). I’ve seen the episode numerous times, I even still have the ‘Fotonovel’ from the late 70s of that episode (one way to revisit an episode in the days before home video – here’s my pic of that old, dog-eared copy, still on my shelves today). But Ellison always maintained that his original idea was much more complex and intriguing than the version that was chopped and edited and changed to suit a television production schedule. And most of us who have read Ellison – and that episode was my introduction to this remarkable spinner of words, another reason to love the show – believed that and wondered what the Ellison draft of that story would have looked like, in another time and place, perhaps in a mirror universe.

Or perhaps in that alternate reality space we call comics…

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(artwork for variant cover for Star Trek City on the Edge of Forever #1 by Paul Shipper)

And that’s what we get here as Scott and David Tipton, with art by JK Woodward, adapt the mighty Ellison’s original teleplay – the story as the original creator envisioned it, and as a bonus visualised here with the magical ‘unlimited budget’ which a comics artist can supply, rendering visualisations well beyond the basic special effects the 1960s could have supplied in the actual show (not to knock those, though, like the stories some still hold up well for their time and budget). Some very fine science fiction art by Woodward, who also balances the not inconsiderable task of capturing the familiar likenesses of the Enterprise’s crew and sets.

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Looking at this first issue and the essential main idea of the story is familiar from the broadcast version: the Starship USS Enterprise is far, far from home, on the edge of the galaxy, and she detects strange anomalies on her sensors – perturbations in the fabric of time itself, and a seemingly desolate, dead and ancient world is the centre of it. On beaming to the surface Kirk, Spock and company find the source of these strange readings, an energy vortex which is also a way of looking into the past and future, as well as a potential gateway.

How we get to that point, though, is somewhat different – in Ellison’s draft the crew is not merely exhausted by years of deep space exploration and the danger which comes with it, some are starting to crack, despite the best of training and supervision by the medical staff; there’s no way to anticipate these breakdowns after so many years of continual stress. And one lieutenant has developed an addiction to a strange, alien narcotic, a sort of jewel which is ingested, and one crewman is quite happy to supply him with his fix – as along as he gets certain perks in turn, because this man, Beckwith, sees the voyage purely as a way to advance himself. Any chance to meet new species for him is not for knowledge but how he can barter for technology, artefacts or narcotics than he can peddle and exchange for his own enrichment. And it is the odious, unscrupulous Beckwith, at last confronted by his drugged-out officer finally coming to his senses and trying to report him, who flees the ship, not, as in the televised version, Doctor McCoy, temporarily unbalanced by an accidental injection, beaming down to the strange world below, pursued by the crew, leading them to this temporal gateway.

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I can see why Rodenberry in particular may have objected to some of this – character flaws like drug addicted officers and villainous crew members out to make a buck any illegal and dangerous way they can (it is hinted a previous trip to a planet by Beckwith lead to deaths) doesn’t fit in with his vision of how the Federation or humanity was meant to be by the 23rd century. But it does make for a more biting drama… There are other changes here – multiple Guardians instead of one, the time vortex itself more imaginative than the one the show had (again though some of that was editing changes to Ellison’s draft some elements like that would always be constrained by budget and effects tech of the time no matter what), and instead of a few ruins and talking gateway we actually do have a literal city on the edge of forever. This original version also, even in just this first issue, starts to gives us a bigger, more complex view of the Guardians and the nature of time as presented here, not to mention the dangers travel into the past can create. All of us who love science fiction today are well schooled in the “do not interfere or change anything” rule should we ever, however unlikely it may be to happen, find ourselves transported into history. This is one of the landmark time travel tales that set down those warning rules and the consequences if they are ignored.

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Would it have made a better television episode this way? Perhaps, but also perhaps the tone here is, as I commented earlier, just not quite what 60s Trek was aiming for. But does it make for a fascinating new angle on a classic science fiction tale? Oh yes, my pointy-eared friends, it certainly does. I was genuinely crestfallen when I reached the end of this – the end, already? More weeks to wait for the next part? That’s a measure of how quickly this hooked me in, even with my familiarity with the original tale I was utterly engrossed in this version of Ellison’s tale and I cannot wait to read the rest of the issues. A compelling new perspective on one of the finest Star Trek tales of all time and one of the quintessential time travel stories of science fiction, from one of our most intriguing writers (and if this introduces Ellison – no stranger to the comics medium – and his writing to you then so much the better). And the questions and moral dilemmas raised by City on the Edge of Forever remain thought provoking, or, to use the old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating”.

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This review was first penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The clockwork universe: Edginton & Culbard’s beautiful Brass Sun

Brass Sun #1

Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard

Rebellion

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Regular readers will no doubt have heard several of us on here mention Brass Sun, a wonderful science fiction series created by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard for the mighty 2000 AD. Have you ever, as an adult or a child, been entranced by the simple beauty and wonder of an old clockwork orrery? A seemingly perfect little moving model of the solar system, all the worlds and moons orbiting around the sun, driven by clockwork, representing each world’s distance from the mother sun and length of rotation and orbit relative to its fellows, an intricately fashioned device. Our understanding of celestial orbits and dynamics has increased enormously since those models were first fashionable and we know the universe to be far more complex than we ever dreamed of when first the craftsmen took Newton and Keppler’s laws and applied them so lovingly to these brass representations of the heavens.

And yet the orrery remains such a beautiful piece of work, conjuring dreams of wonder, a marriage of the craftsman’s art, as precise as a hand-built clock, with scientific learning; engineering and art and imagination all in one lovely device, for some a demonstration of what Sagan called “the magnificent machinery of nature”, for other’s proof of a benign deity, a magical clockmaker in the heavens. Now imagine there were real worlds, little realms actually on such an orrery, all living on their little realms rotating around that central sun on their brass wheels. A “wheel of worlds” set by a blind watchmaker… That’s the set up for Brass Sun, which several of us on the blog have been loving in the weekly 2000 AD, but now as part of the ongoing expansion of 2000 AD series (especially to the North American markets) the series (so far, it is still ongoing in the weekly Prog) is being collected into US-style comics of 32 pages, starting late in May, a perfect way to get into it if you missed it in 2000 AD.

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Frankly I have to say the Ians had me at that simple but beautiful and wondrous concept alone. And oh, it is beautiful, achingly beautiful – Culbard does wonderful close-up character scenes but he’s also a master of the magnificent splash page, and our first glimpses of this clockwork solar system is a glorious piece of comics art, tapping into that most precious of sensations that science fiction – in both graphic and prose form – does pretty much better than any other genre in literature: the sheer sense of wonder.

But wonder alone isn’t enough – a story requires narrative drive, it requires characters, and we’re in the hands of two of the UK’s very best here. We meet young Wren and her grandfather – he has been committing a dangerous heresy in a very religious and orthodox world, studying the skies with his telescope. He knows he will be noticed and reported, that the guards will come for him, that he will face burning at the stake for his heresy. But he has gained knowledge from old papers, secret papers, and with his scientific study of the sky applied to this he knows that the seemingly relentless icy winter which is pushing into their world, killing all before it, is no accident but a sign of something wrong in the very system of their wheel of worlds. He equips his grand-daughter Wren, entrusting her with information and a ‘quaycard’ and sends her off, knowing that he himself will be dragged before the religious authorities. Indeed we now find out he was once a bishop himself but what he learned turned him from orthodoxy. Now beaten and in chains he argues with the religious leader:

I was like you – I did as the Cog commanded – but the ice still came. Our people freeze and starve by the million. Prayers and persecution cannot hold the inevitable at bay. There must be another way.”

Faith! Faith is the only way!

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It’s not hard to see these scenes alluding to the persecution by the church of early astronomer’s for daring to suggest that their observations and calculations showed the progression of the heavens to be different from what the religious authorities of the day said, threatened with torture and worse for daring to speak what we now know is commonsense truth. And it’s not a major leap to see these scenes also as a commentary on some zealots today who refuse to acknowledge rational debate and scientific evidence (think on demands to give creatonism space on a school curriculum alongside evolution). But the world doesn’t care what blinkers people put on and what fables they tell themselves are true, it will do with it will, and in this case it seems the wheels have been slowing for centuries, but religious dogma has chosen to ignore this. Now Wren is sent away from her doomed grandfather, beyond her own world and into the spaces beyond armed with his journals. He hopes she can escape, but more than that, perhaps she may be able to do something to help the people of her world, of the other worlds…

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And so we get a wonderful melding of different story types, the science fiction with a hint of Steampunk for the clockwork solar system, the medieval religious mind meeting the early scientific thinking and then the classic young but determined hero (or heroine) being forced onto a dangerous quest. All of this is set up within this first issue, a terrific bit of storytelling from both writer and artist – introducing such a lovely concept for a world (or series of worlds), characters and quest, all within 30 odd pages, but then again as both are used to working with four of five pages in a weekly Brit anthology comics format those are skills in economy of storytelling you have to hone to work well in that format.

I was totally taken with the first runs of Brass Sun in the weekly 2000 AD and am delighted to see it being offered in this new format so more readers get a chance to experience it (same US comic book format as was used for the recent, highly successful Dredd movie sequel tale), and it is also a great way to wave the flag to a wider reading audience for some of the fine works that still come out of the House of Tharg and from our top Brit comics creators. A gorgeous, intoxicating story, beautifully illustrated and carrying us on a tide of wonder. Brass Sun #1 is published late May and is available to pre-order on our comics subscription site.

This pen was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

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I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

Avatar

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It’s the end of the world – but from the perspective of Man’s Best Friend. Everything has suddenly, irrevocably gone wrong with the human world, and like the canine protagonists in this tale we have no idea why, but it has and the people are turning on each other and on themselves, while the poor dogs look on, terrified, upset, uncomprehending as the world falls apart all around them, blood, violence, fire, as their former “feeders” (as the dogs refer to the humans) go insane and destroy themselves.

Ennis and Dipascale drop us right into this, with Charlie, a Collie and a Guide Dog (or Seeing Eye Dog as they call them in America), desperately trying to free himself – his former owner is now a burning corpse on a smashed underground station, others are in a similar conditions nearby, and he is still attached by his lead to the hand of his now dead owner. “I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” he howls in despair – yes, the dogs here ‘talk’, although it seems only they understand one another (and obviously we understand their speech bubbles). Charlie’s shrieks of “I’m a dog!” are clearly, to any human in the story, barks, not words. Once you understand that the rhythm of the dog’s ‘speech’ becomes quite clear to anyone who’s spent time around our four legged friends.

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Suddenly through the flames comes Red, perhaps not the brightest canine in the pack (as his friend notes later, he sometimes has to sit and let this ‘thinks’ fill up a bit first) but loyal in that wonderful way that so many dogs are, charging in, leading his friends Rover and Max to help Charlie. Max, a rather up-himself pedigree German Shepherd decides Charlie is doomed and runs off to save himself, while Red and Rover strain with Charlie to bite through the lead and rescue their friend. Fleeing the burning remains of the station the dogs pause on their flight to safety as Red is very worried about his bottom and absolutely has to stop for a few seconds while a reluctant Charlie has to sniff it and make sure it is okay.

This piece of doggy etiquette out of the way they emerge onto the city streets, wondering what is going on, only to find the big picture is worse than they thought, the entire city aflame, humans everywhere going mad (save one who in a desperate last act tries to save the dogs, knowing he himself is as doomed as the other humans). A human confronted with this sudden destructive madness wouldn’t comprehend what was going on, so imagine the mind of a dog trying to grasp what’s going on… The poor animals are desperate to find a friendly ‘feeder’ who hasn’t gone mad, they will look after them, tell them what to do…

This could be a very cheesy, schmaltzy tale, but actually, given it focuses on ‘talking’ animals (well, we understand their ‘speech’, as I said it’s clear they aren’t actually talking in English) and has a buddy-movie feel to it, it is actually fairly light on the cheese. This is not one of those Disney ‘incredible journey’ stories. The decision to let us understand the dogs’ growls and barks via speech bubbles works well, allowing us to share their point of view of events, but it also works because Ennis nails the rhythms and structure so well, not to mention focusing on what you expect would be a domestic dog’s concerns (friendly owner to look after them, feed them, pet them, tell them when it is time to go somewhere) that you find yourself thinking yep, this is pretty much how I’d expect a dog to be thinking.

Of course that reminds me of the talking dog in Morrison and Quitely’s superb We3 (“bad dog, bad dog…”) but there the comparison ends with that story.  This is an unusual take on the end of the world, seen from the perspective of three dogs who are best friends – a buddy movie at the end of the world, but with canines (and what better friends can anyone, human or dog, have than a good dog?). The three main dogs are all clearly defined with their own characteristics, while Dipascale’s art manages the tricky combination of having to show human violence and mass destruction on city streets with believable dog poses and movements, and he manages this very well. The animals comes across very believably – the movements, the little stances with the eyes opened up big and head titled just so are familiar to anyone who has been around dogs, and of course to any animal lover it evokes that response that just makes you want to take care of them, and this digs us further into the story emotionally – the scene where a mad human attacks another dog is especially heartbreaking, somehow more shocking and sadder than the human on human violence, especially as Charlie barks “Feeders don’t hurt dogs! Feeders don’t hurt dogs!” as it happens, unable to understand how their friendly feeders have become suddenly crazed and violent.

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In some ways it is like a child’s perspective if the adult population went into destructive madness like this but young children didn’t, what would they make of it, how could they begin to comprehend what would confuse and terrify a full adult mind? They seem so vulnerable having to suddenly cope not only on their own but in a world gone so dangerously insane, and again this ties us even more emotionally to the story and characters. Non animal lovers probably won’t get the same levels of emotional investment in it, but those sorts of people clearly need to go out and stroke more warm, furry tummies anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect from this at all when I picked it up and here I found a rather charming, engaging read. One of the more unusual new comics releases.

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

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What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

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And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

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I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

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And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

5 – 4 -3 -2 -1 – Thunderbirds Are Go!!!

Thunderbirds: the Comic Collection Hardcover

Frank Bellamy, John Cooper,Graham Bleathman et al,

Egmont

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Ah, Thunderbirds, perhaps the most loved of all of the late, great Gerry Anderson’s ground-breaking science fiction shows, one of those shows that continues to capture the imagination of new generations time and again. I’ve always loved Gerry’s shows, they were pivotal in shaping the imagination of so many of us growing up, and his groundbreaking, superbly detailed Supermarionation creations like Stingray, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet offered us high adventures and beautifully realised science fiction futures. Probably fair to say none more so than Thunderbirds, with a whole family dedicated to saving lives in disasters with International Rescue, using the most astonishing fleet of craft, all their own creations, all intricately crafted by Gerry’s team, so much so that kids (and us big kids) still lust after the toy versions today.

Gerry Anderson was determined to widen the access to and appeal of his shows and TV Century 21 – later simply TV21 – would become a fondly remembered part of a now largely vanished era of British comics history, when every single week kids, literally by the million, picked up their new comics, read them swapped with siblings and friends for other comics – we devoured them. Anderson being Anderson though he was not content to have anything less than the best, so TV21 used superior (for the time) printing techniques and top-flight artwork to showcase his creations in comics form (remember this is the man whose model work was so good Kubrick wanted him to do effects work on 2001; Anderson turned him down, too busy with his own shows).

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And it shows that higher production value in this lovely hardback volume from Egmont, which is a total must-have for anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson shows, or indeed who just admire some very fine British comics. The fact this was aimed at a young audience didn’t mean they skimped on quality, so in came one of the most legendary artists in Brit comics, the great Frank Bellamy. The technical aspects of the superb quality of Bellamy’s art has been discussed by those far more qualified than me, but suffice to say it is simply beautiful, beautiful work. Freed of the constraints of 60s television effects and budgets Bellamy’s imagination could run free and create scenarios for International Rescue that simply couldn’t have been executed on the small screen at the time, even with Anderson’s skilled team – this is Thunderbirds unlimited, the comics form freeing the imagination of the creators so we can go from giant earthquake machines and shattering cities to deep jungles in South America, crashing spacecraft, giant aliens running amok, we soar through space, underwater, and Bellamy’s strength is not just in the artwork itself but also in his experimentation with how to lay out the panels on a page to increase the atmosphere and vibe of a story (something some modern artists like JH WIlliams III do so well too), and that experimentation is all the more impressive looking back and thinking this was the mid 60s and in a kid’s comic!

This is what science fiction adventure is all about for a young reader (and those of us who never quite lost that quality as we got older) – the sheer sense of wonder and excitement, but also carrying a message, just like the television shows. That there are good people, heroes we can look up to, who do the right thing for no other reason than it needs to be done. Yes, that may be a bit of a naive, even simplistic approach to a hero figure to today’s more cynical, media-aware eyes, but, dammit, sometimes you just want that simpler hero, the firm-jawed, Dan Dare inspired British hero, uncomplicated, resolute, determined… And I don’t think there is anything wrong in yearning for that sometimes – and, simpler or not, those sorts of characters are, I think, good for young readers especially; it’s perhaps not who they can ever be, real life, they will find, is more complicated, but it gives them something to admire, to aim for, an ideal standard, and that’s not a bad thing. And along the way they enjoy hugely inventive tales of great daring and adventure.

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Bellamy’s glorious work is joined later on by John Cooper, different from Bellamy but still terrific stuff, especially remarkable for a kid’s comic of the period. And as an added bonus Graham Bleathman’s wonderfully intricate and detailed cutaways of the Thunderbirds are included, lovely double page spreads showing inner details of those magnificent machines. I’ve loved those cutaway illustrations since I was a boy and they still draw my eye today. In addition to the main Thunderbirds strips from the 60s and 70s this handsome collection also includes the Lady Penelope series too.

In some ways these comics, like the show which inspired them, is very much of its time. An era when humans were just starting on the road to the stars, the dawn of the Space Age, that huge optimism that after the Second World War now we would turn our inventive minds to using our rapidly growing scientific knowledge for good, that new technology and science could – and would – cure all problems, feed the world, heal the sick, deal with disasters and reach out to take us to the stars themselves. We’re more cynical today, we live in an age far more technological than even those 60s dreamers could have imagined, where most of us have a phone in our pocket with more computing power than the Apollo programme had, but although we use it every day we are far more wary of the pitfalls of technology and we have seen that science, like any human activity, can be used for ill as well as good.

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In some ways though that adds to the nostalgic, warm glow of this collection, the desire to enjoy again that simpler time and simpler heroes who used their incredible inventions to save lives. It is so very easy to let yourself be lost in that world again for a few enjoyable hours. And let’s face it, when our 24 hours news brings reports of some awful disaster, earthquakes, fires, floods, is there any of those of us who grew up on these tales wish, deep down, that there was really a Thunderbirds cadre of craft who would ride out to the rescue? Impossible for some of us to hear that distinctive Thunderbirds theme and not want to be with those heroes, doing great deeds. It still works on the inner kid in the adult reader, and I think it will still work that most special of things, the sense of wonder and adventure, for the younger readers, just as the show still captures the imagination of new kids today. And even leaving that warm nostalgia aside these are simply terrific adventures for all ages, executed with some amazing artwork.

And as we’ve noted on here before, we’ve seen a lot of classic American comics given the deluxe treatment with handsome hardback archives, but sadly not so much for our rich British comics heritage, so that makes this a special treat, a handsome collection of some wonderful, classic Brit comics. On a related note Egmont have also released some more classic Brit comics fun at the same time, the three boxsets of postcards drawing from Brit comics, with a set from Battle, a set from 70s Girls’ Comics and yes, of course, there’s a set of Thunderbirds postcards as well. As with the book all looking rather good for the gift idea for a certain big seasonal event in a couple of months…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog