An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics

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There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”

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Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.

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I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.

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The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Word for World is Forest…

The Word For World is Forest,

Ursula K Le Guin,

Gollancz SF Masterworks

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Originally published in 1972 as a novella in Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by the great Harlan Ellison, who suggested the title – Le Guin originally called it Little Green Men) then expanded to a novel (albeit a very short one at a mere 128 pages) in ’76, a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the diminutive size of The Word For World is Forest belies its power. To those of you familiar with the works of Le Guin – surely one of our truly great Queens of Words and Stories – that will come as little surprise; others of her works, such as the magnificent Left Hand of Darkness are not long novels either, and yet because of her skill they simply don’t need to be, she makes all her lines count, and the thoughts behind them, to produce work that lingers in the mind, provoking contemplation long after you put the book down.

Several centuries in the future and humans have expanded into space, entering an age of stellar colonisation. There are some changes for the better, not just advancing technologically but it seems by this era Earth people have set aside their differences on race, at least among one another. But the term “human” encompasses more than just homo sapiens – in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels we have a much older humanoid race, the Hain, who seeded many worlds eons past, leading to a number of different-looking but related human species and biospheres. And while slow progress towards these worlds and different members of a galactic human family working together is moving along, there is an awful lot of negative aspects to human behaviour we’re all to familiar with from our history and, sadly, our present. Earth is denuded of many natural resources, even her once teeming, verdant forests, gobbled up in an insatiable quest for more resources to exploit, and these new worlds offer rich pickings, especially for those with less than honourable morals. And just as with the colonial overlords of the ages of empire, there are men – and they are all men, soldiers, loggers, scientists – who go out to these distant places, with general instructions, but knowing they are far from contact with home and that they can effectively run it like their own private fiefdom.

Such a man is Captain Davidson, in charge of one of the remote logging camps, first glimpsed congratulating himself on being such a manly specimen of the officer class and yelling at his local servant – he and some of the more arrogant Earthers refer to them as “creechies” – in a pidgin tongue which all too clearly recalls the self-important colonial era overlords and their supreme self-assurance that they were entitled to be over other species because, clearly, they were superior. The local intelligent species, the Athsheans, despite being much smaller than Terrans and furry, are part of that galactic human diaspora the Hainish seeded the galaxy with. As such the rules state they must be treated with respect, there can be no coercion and indeed Davidson and the other officers explain there is no such evil as slavery in their colony (New Tahiti at they dub it), just “voluntary” local workers. Voluntary including being marched into the Earth camps and town, being held in pens and treated like lowly animals…

Despite being part of the Hainish human stock, it’s clear many of the Terrans, especially Davidson, simply don’t see them as actual humans, or if they do, they seem them as an inferior breed – smaller, weaker, lazy (why haven’t they stripped all their huge forests for resources and to clear arable land like the “civilised” Earth men?). This distaste at the perceived inferiority of the natives does not, however, stop them having sex with the females – usually by force (again far too many sad echoes of history in those vile acts). Of the Earth team only the scientist, the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, seeks to actually understand the native culture and befriends some of them, notably Selver, who he saves from the brutal Davidson. The Athsheans have a very peaceful culture, aspects of their society and culture shared between the men and women of their groups, the older ones, especially the head woman, holding a place of respect and, most remarkably, they all partake in a regular form of lucid dreaming. In fact they do so to such an extent that they have little distinction between the waking world and the dreamtime, and both play a role in their decision making, with some noted as especially great dreamers. While they hunt and kill forest animals there is no real violence between the Athsheans themselves, and as such they are socially and psychologically ill-prepared for violent, greedy Terrans – a people who don’t really dream properly, who even use hallucinogens (drugs are freely available) to give them what, to the Athsheans appear to be poisoned, deformed dreams. Clearly although they are men, they are not well…

The peaceful Athsheans eventually come to resist the colonial forces oppressing them. With no history or even concept of killing another human, let alone warfare, the change comes when Davidson rapes and kills Selver’s wife, leading to a confrontation. Saved by Lyubov and returned to his people, the beaten Selver dreams for days, deep, dark dreams. The great dreamers of the village listen to his dreams and the message is clear, something has to be done and the dreamtime has shown Selver how, and he must bring this concept from the dreaming into the waking world, becoming a “sha’ab”, a term that means both translator and god. And soon thousands of Athsheans, a people who normally live in small, peaceful, social groups, start to come together to follow his dream, which will lead to bloodshed.

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This short novel is redolent with echoes of the many outrages and disgraces any number of colonial, imperialist powers have shown to the locals they come to dominate, and it’s not just historical, those aspects of the book, along with the rapacious desire to plunder the natural world without thought of consequence or responsibility is not unfamiliar to our own present day either. There are more direct allusions though – Le Guin wrote this still cloaked in much anger at the scenes from the Vietnam War, which she had protested through the 60s and early 70s, and while this does give some elements that “of its time” feeling, for the most part it remains far too relevant to the here and now (I wish it didn’t, that we were better than that by now, but it often seems we’re not), with some scenes very reminiscent of the war in Asia (the firebombed clearings in the forest where the Earthmen set up their fortified camps, the Athsheans all but invisible in their great forest, suddenly appearing) and even some direct comparisons – the commanding officer Colonel Dongh orders Davidson to behave, and tells him that people from his part of Earth know that even a technologically advanced force can’t hold down a resistant people dispersed through a concealing landscape.

But this isn’t just a straight story of colonial masters and oppressed natives striking back, or a parable about greed and ecological damage. This is also a psychological and spiritual story, an examination of how their seeming power corrupts those who are in charge (or think they are), but also, crucially, about how having to resist such evil also infect and corrupts the oppressed. Because in having to learn to fight back – to take another human life – the Athsheans will have to change, and even Selver, the god who brought this knowledge from the dreaming, is terrified of what this will do both to him and to his people. Evil acts, like a viral infection, and a fall from grace for these gentle inhabitants of a natural Eden. Learn to fight the Terrans and maybe they have a chance to save their culture and their world, but the cost on their souls may be heavy. It’s not hard to see that also as perhaps an observation of what violence and warfare can do to even the best of people, even those who fight on the side of right and good still often feel revulsion and horror at the acts they have to perpetrate, haunted in their dreams forever after, and for the Athsheans whose dreaming is an essential part of their life, how much worse that must be.

It’s a compact tale, a masterclass by a powerful writer who fashions a lean narrative where others might have produced a much larger, bloated tome, and yet for all the brevity Le Guin delivers not just a narrative but a believable alien world and society in short yet compelling scenes. Some forty years on as this new SF Masterworks edition comes out (as a bonus featuring a thoughtful introduction by the excellent Ken MacLeod, as well as Le Guin’s own intro), this still retains huge power to provoke thoughts and to make the reader reconsider troubling events in our own day and age in a different light.

The Mechanical: morality, philosophy, free will and a fascinating Clockpunk alt-history

The Mechanical,
Ian Tregillis,
Orbit Books

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Clockmakers lie.”

Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.

There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.

Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).

And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.

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As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…

This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.

The clockwork worlds – Edginton and Culbard’s glorious Brass Sun

Brass Sun Hardcover,

Ian Edginton, Ian Culbard,

Rebellion

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A thousand times a thousand years ago the Blind Watchmaker set the wheel of worlds upon the firmament. And upon those worlds he set the lost tribes of man. Each planet and populous were tasked with their own form and function – each a fine movement. A celestial increment within the greater machine.”

For me, ever since I first saw one in a museum as a very young boy there has been something enchanting about an Orrery, those beautiful, intricate old clockwork and brass moving models of the solar system, little brass and copper planets rotating around a brass sun, tiny metal moons around the planets, each orbiting in their own path and time. Of course cosmology has moved on and today we are confronted by a universe that seems infinitely more complex, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of even our tiny local neighbourhood of it all. And yet that relatively simple clockwork, moving model of the solar system still holds a certain magical fascination, all the heavens displayed at a human scale, in a simple, ordered fashion even a child can understand. Now take that child-like fascination and scale it up – right up – to planetary levels and we have The Orrery, an actual series of real worlds set on their metal rings to orbit their sun like the clockwork model.

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It’s a simple but utterly dazzling and wonderful notion and right from the start it affords us some truly glorious science fiction artwork as Ian Culbard delivers achingly beautiful splash pages, from the intricate cogs of the clockwork mechanism (and even in our day of digital tech and touch screens, isn’t there still something delightful about moving machinery of intricate clockwork?) and then pulling back to show us this astonishing solar system, all the little worlds mounted on their stands and rotating around one another and their sun on a clockwork system of wheels and cogs and gears (you can see a preview on the blog here). I think I fell in love with this story right at that early point.

Now imagine that this clockwork solar system is slowly winding down, the environment in the worlds is changing. Like our own world they face environmental change and possible collapse, and like too many in authority in our own world some are ignoring the facts, or in the religious world young Wren lives in, any attempt to use science to examine the changes and devise a plan is seen as heresy, leading to a death sentence. But in the best traditions of the epic quest tale this young woman is about to be catapulted onto an immense journey, and the fate of all these clockwork worlds will be in her hands, as her grandfather, once the high priest, now secret scientist, entrusts her with the knowledge he has gleaned and, as things fall apart on their world, sends her alone, fleeing, beyond all that she has known.

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Wren finds herself “riding the rails” – the connecting spars that make up this gargantuan Orrery, engineering spaces from its construction, and fortunately for her she meets some of the few who still attempt to study and maintain it, engineers, and a young apprentice befriends her and, again in finest quest tale tradition joins her, the pair travelling further and further, seeking the broken parts of a key her grandfather thinks can fix the slowly declining Orrery, all the time wondering about the nature of the “Blind Watchmaker” who may, or may not, be the creator of this entire, amazing series of interlinked worlds.

I was reminded several times of Ursula Le Guin’s superb Earthsea, not the story so much, but rather the small, different but connected worlds of Brass Sun putting me in mind of the archipelago of islands from Le Guin’s wonderful fantasy classic, while the adventure and quest elements are familiar from any number of fantasy tales, not to mention the original myths which fed those fantasies – an epic-scale journey into the unknown, dangers on all sides, finding new friends along the way who will be true no matter what (and how their emotional bonding also bonds the reader to them, invests us not just in the big-scale wonder of the tale but in the person-level emotions), and how Wren will have to change and grow on her journey, as all the best heroes always have to .

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It’s an achingly gorgeous looking piece of Clockpunk science fiction, and we’ve raved about it as we followed the serialisation in the pages of the much-beloved stalwart of Brit comics, 2000 AD (almost four decades on and still nurturing new work like this). But it’s not just the beauty of the art and the concept, it is a cracking adventure tale, a magnificent quest for our young, untried heroes, who are going to have to grow up fast and face all sorts of challenges, some physical (dangerous environments, nasty people trying to kill them, many now ignorant of how the Orrery was created, or of the other worlds), some mental (the sheer challenge of continuing on into the unknown, the burden placed on such young shoulders), some metaphysical (religion, science, both dealing with the nature of belief and what happens if those beliefs prove to be wrong), and with a subtle message about managing our own environment.

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It is a tale to let yourself fall into, to become hopelessly entangled into it until the Orrery and its characters feel almost real to you (just all the best quest tales have always done, drawn us so very deeply in until we feel we are part of their epic journey). And oh, that glorious artwork. I’ve always held that science fiction and fantasy delivers one quality more than any other literary genre: the sheer sense of wonder. And here Edginton and Culbard will fill your head with wonder and beauty and danger and daring. One of the finest series of the year, now collected into a handsome hardback edition, an absolute must-have. As I said, a story to let yourself fall in love with.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Grandville Noel, Bryan Talbot’s finest yet

Grandville: Noel,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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The fourth album of Bryan Talbot’s magnificent Grandville series arrives from Cape (just in time for you to add to your Christmas “I-Want” list). Each of the preceding three volumes has made my Best of the Year list, I’ve absolutely loved them. Talbot, of course, is more than a very gifted artist, he’s a superb storyteller, not just in terms of creating a cracking narrative to draw you in and filling it with wonderfully realised characters, but also because as you read his books you can feel the thought and care that has gone into each panel, even slight touches  added with great deftness to achieve just the effect on the reader that is required (and I know full well there will be techniques and devices employed which are almost inivsible to the reader but picked up subliminally, adding to the effect in the way a tiny pinch of herbs mixes with other, larger, more obvious ingredients in the perfect dish). Grandville: Noel not only carries on this tradition, I think it surpasses it: pitch perfect story, the balance between adventure and humour, bravery and shock, the elements that clearly draw on current worries in our own society (something the best science fiction has always been good at) and some glorious artwork to give us the finest Grandville volume yet.

We start thousands of miles from this Steampunk alternative Paris, in the compound of a religious cult in America, being surrounded by baying citizens, held back by police as the army is deployed; you don’t need a knowledge of Jonestown or Waco to realise that this is not going to end well. But before the place can be stormed the messiah of this particular cult – a remarkably rare unicorn going under the name Apollo – appears before the robed cult members, telling them they are all now about to ascend to a new level of being… Sadly this approach to a supposedly higher form of being is, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult incident, is taken by ingesting poison. However, Apollo himself, his old, now broken down mentor and a power hungry Gryphon (another rare creature) and a few truly brutal-looking guards (all of them pigs) have not taken the poison and instead flee to a prepared airship. All of this happens within the first half dozen pages.

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But what of our large badger chum Inspector LeBrock of the Yard and his solid companion detective Ratzi? The pair have something rare for those who work for the emergency services – a festive period off. Ratzi retires to his large home and family, leaving LeBrock on his own. Noticing his landlady is upset he soon encourages her to explain what’s wrong: her sister’s daughter has run off, just a young, teenage girl. Naturally our gallant badger undertakes an investigation of his own, picking up small clues the local police overlooked, which soon lead him to a religious cult via a believer on the streets nearby giving out leaflet (leading to some superb expressions, not least on the religious zealot’s face as LeBrock bears down on him. It isn’t long before the trail of the missing girl, Bunty, leads our intrepid inspector back to Paris and the new headquarters of Apollo and his followers, along the way taking in a joyful reunion with Billie, the Parisian lady of the night who LeBrock is rather keen on, his old friend in the French detective service and tangling in both a new gang war as a vicious but remarkably rarely-seen new kingpin, Tiberius Koenig (yes, there is a clue in that name, which I shall not spoil) who has been taking over all criminal operations in Grandville, and also a search for fabled – possibly mythical, perhaps real – religious documents that could reveal something shocking (and which Apollo also wants), as well as a growing civil unrest by the ‘doughfaces’ (derogatory terms for humans) demanding equal rights (including a cameo from a couple of very familiar faces!), and in the absence of Ratzi a new partner events push him to working with, a doughface cowboy from Pinkertons, “Chance Lucas”, a gunslinger who can pretty much outdraw his own shadow (yes, I think  you can guess which famous comic character he alludes to!).

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And the brief summary of Grandville: Noel doesn’t really give you more than a small taste, but I am reluctant to spoil it for you with too much in the way of narrative detail, because it is an absolute cracker of a plot, buzzing along happily and a terrific pace, developing nicely, the main thrust carrying on swiftly but Talbot still allowing plenty of space to work in some increasingly blossoming romance with Billie and LeBrock, some bonding with Chance, some sidebar elements which at first seem to be merely adding some interesting detail to the history of the Grandville universe but which are woven back into the later narrative with great deftness, and also managing to layer in some elements which comment on topical modern concerns, not least the alarming growth of right-wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe and the way both religious and political leaders can use whipping up hatred of one group and playing on exaggerated fears to manipulate many into supporting actions they would never otherwise countenance (which even in this alternative reality includes some iconography, uniforms and rhetoric that look chillingly familiar, a reminder of where this sort of ‘hunger politics’ leads to). And then the cream and cherries on top of some beautifully done references, executed with a much lighter – and more effective – hand than some of the references dropped into later LOEG books, for example, including, appropriately enough given the nature of this story and the Apollo character, some religious allusions, such as a Last Supper scene.

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And again without going into to much in the way of potentially spoiler-territory details, there’s also a deeply satisfying feeling, especially in the latter third of the book, of the events of this book and the preceding three contributing to some major events which feel like they will be bearing down in the future on LeBrock, a very pleasurable feeling of everything coming nicely together into a larger story and sequence of events. We also get some fascinating glimpses into the history of the universe Grandville exists in, with Talbot, not for the first time, making a nice odd to some Moorcockian ideas of realities. Both of these elements of greater events building and the increased detail of this alternate, Steampunk, animal–dominated world seriously add to the depth and feel of not just this book, but the entire series so far. The art is, as you would expect, superb – I’ve already noted some of the wonderful close-ups Talbot executes of the characters and their expressions, while the cityscape of Grandville, this Steampunk Paris, remains as visually ravishing as ever, while on the smaller scale there is some fantastic layering effects – breath misting in the cold of a winter’s day, snow flakes falling – which contribute to giving an almost three dimensional feel to some panels, a true feeling of depth, be it a small street scene of characters talking in a snowy street or a huge splash page of dashing action as Lebrock leaps from an explosion. Adventure, conspiracy, hidden histories, religious and political plots, the dangers of intolerance, some comedy, some romance, heroics… Really, what more can you ask for? Simply superb, the finest Grandville yet – I read this twice, back to back on a train journey, I feel like another read and also like having a nice re-read through the first three volumes again too. Lose yourself in it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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
Image

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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