Reviews: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society,
John Scalzi,
Tor/Macmillan,
Hardback, 272 pages, published March 2022

Jamie (whose gender is never explicitly mentioned) has put up with corporate nonsense and an entitled trust-fund owner of the tech start-up they are working at, to try and get ahead, only to find themselves laid off, right as the Covid nightmare is manifesting and Lockdown beckons. The only job they can find is delivering food during the Lockdown, and in a bitter irony for a company that her former tech company did the software for. Depressing as this is, it does lead to the happy accident of delivering to someone – Tom – who turns out to be someone they vaguely know, a friend of a friend sort of thing. And on hearing of Jamie’s recent employment woes, Tom reveals the animal protection charity he works for has been left short-handed at the last minute and he’d much rather have someone he knows if he can manage it.

Tom can’t tell her the full details, it is all very secretive, but it involves working with “large animals”, Jamie’s work would mostly be grunt work of helping move stuff and help out the science and tech teams, and the remuneration package is superb. Grabbing this offer, Jamie is soon given numerous shots for various diseases – including an early form of the Covid vaccine, not yet out to the public – and bundled off with a team of returning staff and some other new recruits to an airbase in Greenland.

The destination seems puzzling – what large animals are they working with here? But Greenland is just a way-point – from here they take a special portal, one of just a handful secreted around the globe, to, well, Earth. Except this is a parallel Earth, one where giant monsters, the eponymous Kaiju – are the dominant species. It transpires there are indeed numerous parallel worlds to our reality, but this is the only one we’ve been able to access, and only since the Atomic Age: nuclear energy, especially large-scale explosions, thins the walls between the worlds for a while. In fact one 1950s A-bomb test in the Pacific brought over a Kaiju looking for a radioactive snack, only to encounter the US Navy (yes, in this world the inspiration for Godzilla were the stories that leaked of this Kaiju incursion!).

In Scalzi’s world one of the reasons the atomic test ban treaties were agreed by world powers was not just for safety in our world, but to prevent more of these enormous creatures coming through – imagine if one entered our world near a major city. Of course only a few people know the reality behind this – the organisation, a number of senior members of world governments, and a few big corporate heads who also donate to the budget for operations (nice parallel to the billionaires having their rocket-measuring competitions at the moment, and yes these CEOs are just as big a bunch of numpties as you’d expect).

While bad things can and do happen to good people, for the most part this is a joyful romp of a book – it’s laced with a lot of humour (which will not surprise many Scalzi regulars), and the main characters (and even most of the supporting cast) are immensely likeable and indeed, loveable. Actually I came away from this with the sort of warm feelings for the characters as I have from Becky Chambers’s wonderful books, while Scalzi also works in some sound ecological themes and the sheer sense of wonder at such creatures really existing.

In an afterword, Scalzi reveals this was not the book he was originally writing; he was partway through something far darker when Covid hit. Lockdown, then falling ill himself, then a computer failure eating several thousand words of the work in progress, and he realised he just couldn’t finish it. Tor was understanding – it has been a weird two years for everyone – and with the weight of that book lifted from him, the Kaiju story popped into his head, and he wrote it swiftly, offering up instead of that grim, dark tale, something full of wonder and joy and humour. I don’t think I realised how much I needed this book, it left me content and smiling. An utter delight.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s premiere journal of new science fiction.

Reviews: Beyond the Hallowed Sky

Beyond the Hallowed Sky,
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books

I’m always happy when there is a new Ken MacLeod book to be read; for my money he is one of the UK’s most consistently impressive and thought-provoking SF writers. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky we have not only a new book, but the start of a trilogy – the Lightspeed series. As that would suggest, this is a story in which the development of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel is fairly prominent. In the summer of 2067, Lakshmi Nayak receives an old-fashioned, physical letter, containing detailed mathematical proofs, which would seem to indicate that FTL travel is in fact possible. It seems to echo some thoughts she has already had but not fully formulated, but who was thinking not only on the same lines but ahead of her, and knows of her interest to contact her? Examining the letter the seemingly impossible explanation is that she sent it to herself – from the future…

After finally publishing the work, Lakshmi’s reputation is ruined by many of her peers; she eventually decides to take an offer to defect to the Union bloc and travels to Scotland, a member state, where after some Le Carre-esque spycraft in the middle of Edinburgh, the Union’s AI guides her around the spies of rival powers and to a job interview on the west coast. The job offer is genuine, but the AI has other reasons, not least the development of her FTL ideas into a workable engine for a starship.

This brings us to the Clyde Coast and John Grant, a “responsible” (a person who was seriously active and important in a previous revolution in the Union) and his comrades who run an engineering co-operative making ships on the Clyde. The AI guides them together to start a collaboration which could create the first FTL ship – rather pleasingly, Clyde-built, like the great ships of the previous two centuries of tradition on that great river.

But there’s more going on here – out for a coastal stroll John sees a submarine leaving the Faslane naval base – in this decade Scotland is no longer part of the UK, but an independent member of the Union. However, Westminster held onto the vital nuclear submarine base of Faslane as part of the deal, and shares it with their US allies. When John sees a submarine leave the base and sail out into open water it’s nothing unusual – until it seems to hover above the waves for a moment before vanishing in a shimmering haze. Most don’t believe him, the all-seeing AI carefully wipes his photographic evidence from his devices. Is it possible that FTL is not only possible, but other power blocs already have it?

MacLeod proceeds to gives us an expanding universe with three main arcs: our future Scotland and the small team trying to engineer their FTL ship (without the rival power blocs knowing), a Union science team on a floating base in the violent atmosphere of Venus, paying host to a visiting android who is also a spy for British Intelligence (which they are aware of, all sides are playing a version of The Great Game here), and a distant world around another star, reached by FTL, and the science teams operating there. Crossing all of this is a discovery that ties all three worlds together in a way that isn’t clear yet.

The multiple, overlapping story arcs work nicely to build up a three dimensional picture of this future society, dominated by three rival power blocs; as with a number of his previous works, MacLeod conjures up a believable socio-political structure, giving it just enough details that we can grasp the situation but not bogging it down with too much exposition, so the narrative flows at a good rate of knots. Along the way we get to consider various weighty topics, from the notions of political ideology and patriotism to the use and limits of AI in the human sphere, and the exploration/exploitation of other worlds. Looking forward to the second volume.

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

Reviews: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquillity,
Emily St, John Mandel,
Picador

Mandel, who won huge acclaim and the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for Station Eleven (recently adapted into a TV series), returns with a fascinating take on the time travel tale. Taking us from the vast forests of British Columbia in 1912, where a young aristocrat, Edwin St. Andrew, has a strange, momentary audio-visual experience involving a glimpse of a building and violin music, a famous author, Olive Llewellyn, two centuries later, leaving her Lunar colony home for a book tour on Earth, with a new novel that includes a scene with a violin player in a huge airship terminal, but momentarily seeing huge trees, and further into the future, the unusually named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts (named by his mother for a character in Llewellyn’s novel), in an era where time travel exists but is understandably tightly controlled. Gaspery-Jacques is tasked with investigating a potential anomaly in different time periods, an anomaly involving violin music…

Mandel takes us chronologically through these different lives in different periods, introducing us to the different characters, giving us a glimpse of their lives, their worlds, and then deftly drawing them together, through the anomaly. Is it just a weird coincidence linking these disparate lives and time periods, or is there an actual fault in time itself – and if so, is it naturally occurring or the result of human interference? Or… could it be something else again? Gasper-Jacques’s sister, a physicist with the Time Institute has an interest in Simulation Theory, the idea that what we assume is the real universe around us is in fact an advanced computer simulation, that we are, in effect, all living in the Matrix. And perhaps this anomaly is a glitch in the Matrix?

The narrative manages to be both chronological yet circular, exploring the nature of this potential anomaly; I really am wary of saying too much because I don’t want to spoil it, and with all three segments being so interrelated it’s impossible to talk about certain events without massive spoilers. Suffice to say I found Mandel handled this rotation through the timelines and the various people in a very satisfying manner. The book also raises a lot of interesting questions – for instance, the few licensed to go back in time have a strict non-interference policy, like the temporal Prime Directive in Star Trek. Very sensible you may well think, protect the integrity of the timeline – after all, we can’t know what even minor alterations could have on the unfolding centuries of events that follow.

But, as Gaspery-Jacques is told in his training, when they visit a period, they know everything about most of the people they will encounter, their entire biographies. He could meet people at a party, for example, and know that one woman he is chatting to so amiably is destined to die soon, and not in an unavoidable way such as a fatal disease, but by a simple accident. Despite knowing this he absolutely could not tell her to avoid driving on that particular road next week. As his sister tells him, you effectively have to shut down your empathic, human side and remain totally detached; easier said than done. The issues raised by the possibility of Simulation Theory are likewise fascinating in their philosophical ramifications (I was reminded of the compelling documentary A Glitch in the Matrix which came out last year and explored this in some depth), both to the Big Questions of Life, The Universe And Everything, and the smaller, personal, individual elements (what would this mean for our lives, the lives of those we love?).

I can see this being a cracking read to do for my long-running book group, there’s a lot of questions and moral quandaries raised here that would be perfect for book group discussion material! Thought-provoking and very satisfying reading, I raced through this and couldn’t stop.

Sea of Tranquility is published late April 2022 by Picador

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

 

Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

Reviews: Art Deco Dredd in Megatropolis

Megatropolis Book One,
Kenneth Niemand, Dave Taylor,
2000 AD/Rebellion

The “What If?” approach is, of course, not new in comics – indeed Mighty Marvel have had their “What If?” comics for years (with them also recently making the jump to an animated TV series), while DC have long had their Elseworlds. Over the decades these have freed creators to reimagine stand-alone tales featuring famous characters and setting in a new way – what if Agent Carter was the one to be given the Super Soldier serum? What if the Batman was actually a real creature of the night, a vampire? It’s a chance to let imaginations fly, unencumbered by the normal continuity issues of ongoing series.

Originally serialised in the Megazine, issues 424 -431, Megatropolis takes that opportunity to reimagine a well-known series – in this case the world of Judge Dredd, arguably Britain’s biggest comics character – and puts it into visually dazzling, sumptuous, Art Deco inspired alternative reality that’s as infused by the legacy of Lang’s 1920s classic film Metropolis (as you might infer from the title) as it is those fabulous 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Noir films, or the works of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and a dash of Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis.

Rookie cop with a cloud over her career (taking the rap for something that didn’t actually happen the way it has been made to look) Amy Jara is transferred to a new beat and partnered with Detective Joe Rico, perhaps the only badge in the precinct not on the take from the rich and powerful figures in this glittering but corrupt city. Attempting to investigate a growing string of hits on figures, both society, underworld and even police department targets, Rico knows they are linked to the corruption that permeates every level of the city like a cancer, but special departments inside the police, headed by Captain Calhoun with his sidekicks Quincy and Slocum (yes, look at that blonde hair and arrogant approach, it is indeed a version of Judge Cal and his SJS) are doing their best to head Rico and Jara away from their investigations.

However, they’re not entirely on their own – District Attorney McGruder is leading a crusade to clean up the city, and also gunning for the likes of Mayor Bob Booth (yes, “Smooth Booth”, here drawn with something of the Richard Nixon about him), and investigative journalist Bernice Hershey from the Defender is out to open the lid on the sordid secrets of the top members of Megatropolis society (Hershey, still sports her trademark Louise Brooks bob haircut as she does in the regular Dreddverse, and unsurprisingly it fits very well into the Art Deco version).

(is it just me, or does this version of Filmore Faro have a passing resemblance to Ken Dodd?)

There are many other alternate versions of Mega City One characters, from the small to the major players, and while part of the fun is seeing those connections, if you’re not overly familiar with the four and a half decades of Dredd history (although I would guess most of those reading this will be Dredd fans already), it will not harm your reading or enjoyment of the story at all, in much the same way you can enjoy the Marvel movies without having read all the relevant comics, for example (but if you have then naturally there’s a whole other level of Easter Eggs and references for you to enjoy spotting, such as a barman called Murph running a pub called The Tight Brogues).

And what of Old Stoneyface himself? Where does his alternative fit into this strange, 1920s/30s infused take on The Big Meg? Perhaps rather fittingly the Dredd analogue here is only seen mostly in small bursts, in the dark shadows, striking out at corrupt police and politicians and businessmen (our first glimpse is simply a gauntleted hand clutching a very familiar firearm). As his surgical strikes on the cancerous corruption in the city mount, this shadowy figure dispensing his own brand of justice earns the nickname “Dredd” because of the fear he instils on the wicked who have had their own way for so long with the town. But who is he? Where does he come from, who is supporting him? Is he linked to the reclusive Fargo, the father of the city who now hides away in his secretive estate?

I shall say no more – there’s murder and mystery here, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here – occasionally some “What If” stories are too slight, the idea fine in itself but the story not enough to hold up on its own without the concept of the alternative world idea. Not so here, Niemand and Taylor are too experienced for that; yes they want to play with the alternate worlds and versions ideas, but they also know the story and characters also have to be powerful enough to work in their own right, and they do.

And then of course there is just the simple pleasure of the sheer visual spectacle on offer here. Let’s be honest, we’ve all had comics we’ve loved for story and character, but also sometimes the art is just so damned wonderful we find ourselves pausing the reading to drink in details, or go back over some pages to feast on the visual banquet. P Craig Russell’s “Ramadan” story in the Sandman, Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Colin MacNeil’s artwork in Judge Dredd: America, or Schuiten’s art in Les Cités obscures all spring to mind as examples where I’ve found myself going over pages again to savour the artwork, and now I am adding Dave Taylor’s depictions of Megatropolis to that roster (and why not? Comics is a visual medium, after all, I see no shame in celebrating outstanding visuals).

Megatropolis is a visually stunning piece of comics work, yes, but it has the character and storylines to back up those elegant, Art Deco themed visuals too, and clearly delights in drawing as much on those 1930s/40s Noir tropes as it does the science fictional elements. A beautiful piece of comics work.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Reviews: Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Darryl Cunningham, for my money Britain’s finest non-fiction comics creator, returns, following up his previous, fascinating and insightful books such as Graphic Science and Billionaires, here turning his studied gaze upon the vile, despotic Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator takes us from his birth in Leningrad (now back to its pre-Soviet name of Saint Petersburg) in 1952.

As with many from that generation, his parents were veterans of the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as Russians often refer to it), and he would, like many across Russia and Europe, grow up in a city still bearing the very visible scars of that grinding, global conflict. A relatively small child, he was picked on, and learned not just to fight back, but to fight dirty, something he has clearly carried with him throughout his adult life; one is moved to wonder how very different the world may have been if his childhood had been filled with happier moments with better friends.

By his mid-teens, young Putin had already decided he wanted to be a part of the dreaded KGB, at the height of the Cold War. This is an era where the KGB spent at least as much time spying on and dealing with their own citizens as it did in spying on and taking covert actions against Western powers, with a vastly inflated number of informers prepared to rat out their own neighbours and colleagues; the fact a young lad was so keen to join such an agency at that time doesn’t speak very well of his intentions or characters.

Cunningham takes us through Putin’s early KGB career, much of which is still murky and hidden, and his supposedly post-KGB life (I say supposedly because there’s a strong likelihood he was still secretly on the active reserve list), and his early brushes with political power, as an advisor to the Leningrad city council, and even at this very early stage there is both indicators that the intelligence services may have been involved in influencing his appointment, and also of massive corruption (and subsequent cover-ups by any means).

While I was aware of his KGB past, I had no idea of these early political appointments for Putin, or the way he and his cronies misused their growing powers even back then – this was still in the era of Glasnost and Gorbachev, then the attempted coup in Russia,by die-hard Communists, the rise of Yeltsin, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the once formidable Soviet Union, all the related changes in what had been the effectively occupied Eastern Bloc.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these tumultuous, world-changing events, and reading here brought much of it rushing back to me, not least that fragile then slowly blooming hope so many of us had, that this was it, the Cold War was over, Russia was becoming a democracy, we were all going to be friends, the terrifying spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction by nuclear war was fading. You have to remember that back then we had lived for years with the monstrous thought that our entire shared civilisation could be annihilated with only the notice of the five minute warning, before the nukes started dropping. It was one of the most insane periods in human history, and here we were, thinking my gods, we’ve made it through and it’s going to get better.

Of course it didn’t work out that way, and that optimism was so sadly misfounded. And while we may not have quite returned to the hair-trigger, stand-off days of MAD, the world’s great powers have again been badly divided, and with quite clear intent of aggression and harm being directed against us. And the rise of Putin is a part and parcel of this. Cunningham explores this rise, the new Russia where a few become obscenely rich through massive corruption, dining out on the nation’s resources, all with Putin’s connections. The way this spreads across the globe as this dirty money enters the global financial system, not least the greedy financial centres of London and New York which were happy to take oligarch’s money, letting them buy property, connections, influence in Western countries, with Putin always behind this growing, sinister network.

That baleful influence has spread throughout the world, not just in terms of dodgy finance and dealings (no surprise to those of us who read Cunningham’s excellent and informative Supercrash book), but in openly hostile, physical acts beyond Russia’s borders. Not content with “accidents” befalling critics at home, Putin has overseen both large-scale military interventions, such as in the continuing horror of the civil war in Syria, with its massive butcher’s bill of civilian casualties, or the illegal annexing of the Crimea, to the intimate but just as nakedly aggressive assaults, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the poisonings in Salisbury, or the despicable shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17, or attempts to influence the US presidential elections.

Behind it all, Putin. Who, naturally, spins out some obvious fabrications to blame someone else, not really caring if anyone believes him, because even if they don’t it spreads more confusion and mistrust in the West. It’s quite sobering, not to mention terrifying to see Cunningham so effectively laying out this rise from corrupt advisor in a city council to one of the most powerful men in the world, all, as always with his work, drawing on a huge amount of in-depth research that Cunningham somehow distils down into accessible, understandable narratives.

While much of the artwork here is familiar in style to some of his earlier work, there was also here, I feel, a more mature, finer-detailed aspect to some of the panels, especially those depicting some of the people. I felt as if he were trying to convey more not just of the emotion but also to do justice to the people he was depicting here. I felt this particularly strongly in the segment dealing with the downing of the MH17 airliner, where Cunningham doesn’t just cover the events, he takes some of the innocent victims and names them, draws their faces, tells us about some of them. They’re not numbers, not statistics, they are people, and clearly Cunningham wanted to make that clear: these are people, affected by the whims of a madman in another country, with living family and friends still mourning their loss and angry at the lack of justice for them.

Some panels on the Syrian conflict switch to a black and white, much heavier inked-line style, taking us through ruined cityscapes, in a style very different from the rest of the book, or indeed Cunningham’s more regularly-used styles I’ve seen before, and it is highly effective. It’s only a few panels, but their effect is powerful, it’s some superb cartooning work, conveying so much with just a few panels, and, like the MH17 pages, it packs a very strong emotional punch.

This is a story that really doesn’t yet have an ending – Putin is still in power, those who oppose him, even in the supposed security of another sovereign state, have a habit of dying mysteriously, he makes aggressive moves on the international stage, and is making plans to cling onto power for as long as he can (even rewriting the constitution) and to take steps to make himself legally unaccountable even if he leaves office. Where this complex, fascinating, disturbing history leads to, I do not know, but I will finish with some word from Cunningham, drawn from his conclusions:

Murder and corruption should be punished, never rewarded. Either we support democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law everywhere, or we will see these values wither away.”

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: The True Don Quixote

The True Don Quixote,
Directed by Chris Poche,
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Jacob Batalon, Ann Mahoney

Once you’ve seen how life could be, you can no longer see it as it is.”

I’ve long loved Miguel de Cervantes and his immortal The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the first part of which was published in Spain in 1605; for over four centuries it has been regarded as a classic work of literature, and a major influence on so many other creators (could De Rostand’s glorious Cyrano exist without the Don?), and here, once more, that story inspires new telling. Quixote has long since entered the imagination of so many around the world; the tales even give us the term “quixotic” to describe someone’s character; few works of art so enter our world quite on that level.

Chris Poche both adapts Cervantes and directs here, working from the first book. And while you don’t need to have read the full text – I’d imagine while many may not have read it all, most are familiar with the basic idea – as a long time admirer of the Don, I was pleased to notice how many beats from Cervantes Poche plays upon. The dreaming man, surrounded by his books of ancient chivalric deeds and quests is happy among the pages, away from the disappointment of real life, until well-intentioned family (in the books his housekeeper and a local priest, trying to help him, here Ann Mahoney’s Janelle, his niece, who lives with him) burn his books in a desperate attempt to bring him back to reality.

Of course it has the opposite effect – Daniel Kehoe (the brilliant Tim Blake Nelson – Oh Brother, Where Art Thou) becomes Don Quixote de la Mancha, in home-made armour, and sets off on his questing, finding along the way his noble steed (a battered old scooter and sidecar which he makes off with) and a squire (Spider-Man’s bestie, Jacob Batalon). Instead of freeing galley slaves, the delightfully demented Don attacks two police officers overseeing prisoners on a work detail, rather than the legendary tilting at windmills, he mistakes an oil derrick for the giant he must battle; there are even some of the scenes from the inn, all beautifully, rather joyfully translated not into the medium of film, but also to fit the contemporary setting (Louisiana), deftly done, managing to bring it into the modern world yet maintain the heart and soul of the original story. They even keep the “the balm of Fierabras” segment (no, you really don’t want to drink this miraculous cure-all!)

Nelson is, as ever, quite wonderful, and his Don Quixote holding forth on chivalric deeds in a broad Southern accent is a delightful mix-match and contrast, while Batalon begins as a fairly passive character, drawn along by Nelson’s Don, but slowly becoming something more – rather pleasingly Batalon’s Kevin/Sancho Panza manages to straddle both the ludicrous yet enticing imaginary world Don Quixote sees with the real world around them, trying in both to help him. The police are hunting them down, many scorn them, yet some are won over, but we know that this cannot continue – it’s the modern world, and just as Cervantes had his modern world that saw Quixote and his fixation on chivalry and knightly deeds as old fashioned, even silly in their era, so too there is seemingly no place for a madman running around with a sword in the middle of a neighbourhood, convinced he is on great quest.

Or is there? I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say Poche takes that central notion from Quixote that has drawn so many dreamers to him across four centuries: is it better to be made to face the real world, grounded, practical but miserable, or to be lost in your own delusional version, but happy? And how does that affect those around him too? As to how the real world, the police, the family and the Don and his Sancho fare against all of that, well, you will have to watch the film to see what happens to our battered, deluded, yet pure of heart knight errant.

This is an absolute delight of a film, and it is clear Poche and his cast love Cervantes and his noble (if mad) Don – for all his deluded insanity, he’s never played as a fool, and while it is frequently funny, it’s not laughing at him too much (okay, some of the time!), as much as holding a mirror up to our own everyday lives and asking, really, wouldn’t it be magical to embrace a little of this? Poche even manages a sort of short musical number at one point, which had me laughing and clapping my hands in joy.

A film for my fellow dreamers and others who know that we should always charge the giants.

The True Don Quixote is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from August 2nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Katriona Chapman’s richly satisfying Breakwater

Breakwater,
Katriona Chapman,
Avery Hill

Katriona Chapman returns after the excellent Follow Me In, with Breakwater, and, oh boy, it’s just wonderful. The eponymous Breakwater is an old cinema by the seafront in Brighton; like many older cinemas in this era of big chain multiplexes (well, back when we could actually go to cinemas, pre-Covid days, sigh) it is a shadow of its former self, a once grand dame with Art Deco delights from a different era when cinemas weren’t just industrial buildings with seats and a screen, but an experience, designed to be dream palaces to transport you, not just with the film but the whole evening in the cinema.

Somehow, like a handful of others around the country, the Breakwater has managed to hold on in this modern environment, still with a small following, still independent, and crewed by a small group of staff who we are gradually introduced to as new arrival Dan, a twenty-something gay Asian man, is shown the ropes by veteran Chris, a forty-something single lady who is comfortable with her own company. Dan is affable and friendly, and soon fits in nicely with the others, even the teenaged lad that others can overlook (he left school with no qualifications, but Dan doesn’t judge him and just talks to him like a friend).

Dan hits it off even more with Chris, despite the fact she rarely mixes much outside of work and mostly spends her time by herself. He’s open and friendly, she’s warm, supportive, very empathic and caring (she spends time by herself but she’s not anti-social, it should be stressed, she just doesn’t go out much). As the two start to become friends outside of work at the cinema they share more time and thoughts with one another.

Dan gets Chris more out of her shell, getting her to go out for fun with him, to consider a long-abandoned dream of going back to finish her college course (like many she had to give up originally to take care of an ill parent), to stand up for herself a bit more. Chris draws the young man out, to share some of his dreams and his worries, from estranged parents to problems with an ex that he can’t quite get over but knows he should. It’s beautifully done, very, very natural feeling and wonderfully warm. But as they become more involved in one another’s lives Chris finds Dan has other, older problems, especially with his mental health, and it will lead to them both having to make difficult decisions.

That summary really, really doesn’t do justice to Breakwater though: this is a comic to savour, that takes its time to reveal the characters and their lives in a way the evokes very real, natural, believable people, all different in their own ways but clicking together at the Breakwater, in a way that many of us will find familiar from our own work experiences. The pacing and the progression is excellent, Chapman is not afraid to simply have scenes where several of the characters are just standing around in the cinema chatting, or conversely to have several scenes where there are no speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, the art carrying the story and atmosphere.

And what art: here Chapman has opted for a beautiful monochromatic style here, mostly smaller panels focusing on the characters, with the odd splash page that celebrates the faded glories of the old cinema (a now unused old auditorium above the modernised screens, a grand “ballroom” space – it reminded me of a bar I once worked in that was in a converted cinema and also had one whole auditorium above the main area, unseen by most, a ghost of the past). Those artistic asides to the faded grandeur hidden away inside the building also served partly as a way of making the cinema itself a sort of character, but also a nice visual metaphor for the lives of the characters, that we all have hidden secrets and stories within us, some shared with only a very few others.

The main body of the work is those smaller panels focusing on the characters, however, and those are an utter delight – Chapman’s art deftly draws (no pun intended) out her character’s inner lives and emotions, so that even in those wordless sequences I mentioned, the expressions and body language of her cast of characters so clearly expresses their thoughts and feelings.

It’s a fabulous piece of comics artwork, beautifully accomplished, never showy, just the right amount of artistic flourish to delight the eyes without intruding into the narrative, it’s some of the finest work I have seen in ages for bringing out the emotional lives of the characters in a comics work, while the narrative itself, while often warm and touching, also doesn’t shy away from the impact mental health issues can have not just on the lives of those with the illness but those who care for them.

I can’t recommend Breakwater enough, this is a beautiful, warm, engaging, gorgeously-drawn and paced piece of Brit comics that many readers will find themselves empathising with.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: the Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd,
Sean Azzopardi

The most powerful weapons in the world for shaping public opinion and changing the world are cameras, pens, pencils, paint brushes and the ability to speak passionately in defence of the planet.”
Captain Paul Watson, from his foreword.

Documenting the Sea Shepherd organisation for protecting marine wildlife and the biosphere of the seas, founded in 1977 by activists no longer prepared to simply bear witness and document atrocities with existing groups like Greenpeace, but to take direct action, Sean Azzopardi brings the motivations that inspired this ongoing struggle to vivid and disturbing life. Right from the opening pages we are spared no punches – this is a violent, bloody, gory business that sees the worst and best of human activity in the natural world, and it is not for the faint of heart. In the first few pages we have the working of an explosive harpoon explained, and how it is used to kill a whale in a violent, painful death, before it is hauled onto floating death factories to be ripped apart.

The following pages – and we are only a handful of pages into the book at this point – explores the disgusting spectacle of the Grindadràp, the hunt and mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that takes place in the Faroe Islands. To the Faroese this is an ancient ritual enacted since the days of the Norseman. While it may once have been an important supplement to the local diet in these remote islands, that’s not the case today (in fact, as reports and the book point out, the whale and dolphin meat harvested is considered unsafe for human consumption by EU scientists, due to marine pollution absorbed by the animals), and it is now basically a part of the cultural identity of the islands. And while I am sympathetic to protecting cultural heritage, when it is this brutal, bloody and not necessary, it seems horrible to continue to practise it.

We’re shown how entire pods are driven into bays – every single member dispatched, young, old, even pregnant whales and dolphins, blunt gaffes thrust into their blowholes to drag them onto the beach so a large knife can be shoved through to try and cut the spinal cord. As you can imagine, despite what the local government claims, this is not exactly a swift, humane form of killing an animal, and any slaughterhouse in Europe taking this long to kill an animal would be prosecuted. Here it is not only tolerated but celebrated, a total clash between locals who love their tradition and see no wrong in it and others attempting to protect the sea-going mammals.

Yes, it is a very strong opening few pages – brutal and bloody and shocking. And so it should be.

From here we flash back a bit, with Paul Watson talking about what drove him to leave Greenpeace and set up the Sea Shepherd, and his obvious good-humoured appropriation of the term “pirates” that has been applied to them (which they gleefully allude to in their flag). Have they committed almost piratical acts on the high seas? Yes, he agrees, they have, several times now, not just blocked hunting vessels, they have quite deliberately rammed them. Yes, that is a powerful action to take, he agrees, but the ships they rammed were all acting illegally, with their flagged countries most often turning a blind eye to what was going on, pretending not to be aware of their actions, until the Sea Shepherd crews forced their hands, not to mention bringing the glare of public and media scrutiny to bear.

It’s not all horror and piracy though, there is a strong sense of humour here too – while they have rammed illegal whalers, for the most part Watson describes how they have responded to attacks by hunter’s vessels with a wonderful, almost schoolboy level of fun, such as launching stink bombs onto decks of the offending, illegal hunting vessels. It sounds almost slapstick, and while it is funny, it is also deadly serious and quite effective, and has saved the lives of many whales. Members have been arrested and beaten, but it doesn’t stop them continuing their work.

The artwork throughout is in full colour, and Sean uses this strategically, especially the colour red used judiciously for maximum impact, such as the seas going red with the blood of helpless, slaughtered animals, or an effective repeating sequence of talking heads, the same close up image of Watson but each with a different colour wash in each panel (a little Warholesque) as he talks directly to camera. The style is in a strong, mostly clear-line approach, especially when showing the people, moving the panel frequency and size to suit the subject nicely, and with some very nice larger splash panels dropped in (a sea turtle spread across two pages is just gorgeous and makes you stop for a moment to drink it in, as well as reminding you that these remarkable creatures are part of why the activists do what they do).

If you want to be an effective conservation organisation then you have to say the things that people don’t want to hear. You have to do the things that people don’t want to be seen to be done. You have to rock the boat and piss people off…. We cannot live on this planet with dead oceans. If the oceans die, we die.”

Watson makes no bones about the often controversial nature of their work and campaigns – hunters, local communities, even national governments are often furious with the Sea Shepherd crews for their work (not least because it often shames them in public for ignoring or even condoning not just immoral but often internationally illegal practises by their vessels). Yes, he acknowledges, as can be seen in the quote above, that they do get in other people’s faces, even other conservation groups, while they share their aims, are not pleased with their methods. Similarly Watson and his cremates are dissatisfied with the quieter approach of other groups, stating that sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to protect the animals and the seas.

In an ideal world this sort of direct action wouldn’t be required, but the sad fact is that there aren’t enough protections in place for both marine animals and the aquatic environment, and those that have been painstakingly hammered out in international law are all too often subverted, either by illegal criminal action or equally illegal but secretly condoned by national government action, so I think it’s quite easy to understand that, up against this mindset, some have decided to take a serious stand and shout it out to the world while they do so. Hopefully this adds another voice to that chorus.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden,
Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Tor/Macmillan
Hardback, 608 pages,
Published August 2020

After the recent Children of Time and Children of Ruin, as well as Firewalkers, it is fair to say I was very eagerly anticipating Tchaikovsky’s new stand-alone novel. As with the Children series, this is a huge tome of a book, but don’t let the size daunt you – like Peter F Hamilton’s books, when you start reading them they are so engrossing and so well-paced it doesn’t feel like you are working through a massive page count, you will be quite happily enraptured with both the story and the myriad of ideas it sparks inside your head.

Two young girlfriends, Mal and Lee, take a short holiday of sorts – they love exploring reports of cryptids together, and even write them up for publications like the Fortean Times. Naturally both like the idea of mysterious creatures, unknown to science, but they are also intelligent enough to know that most reports are mistaken identities (it turns out the giant panther was a domestic cat and someone couldn’t judge distance and size in the dark) or out and out fabrications. What happens, though, when it starts to seem like there may be more to a sighting on the lonely moors than they suspected? What happens when a set of three ancient standing stones, known as the six sisters, despite only numbering three, becomes, right in front of their eyes, a circle of six? And when snow blows across the midsummer moors in an instant, with strange beings glimpsed in the storm? What happens when Mal vanishes?

Four years on and Lee, still wondering what happened, if she imagined things, if she went mad, is still missing her friend and lover, when Lee returns, looking different, but definitely her. Where has she been? Why so long before returning to London? Lee’s return is linked to a number of other events though – other strange disappearances, a remarkable breakthrough in computational maths and physics that could bypass all the top-secret encryption used by security services the world over, a manipulative billionaire with connections to both political heavyweights and low-life Neo-Nazi boot boys… And, perhaps something even larger, something which has a bearing on the very nature of existence itself.

Within the first hundred and fifty pages or so Tchaikovsky gives us a story of intrepid cryptid explorers then adds in scientific breakthroughs and elements of a spy thriller. This is more than most novels do in their entire page count! And then there is the fascinating and compelling element of multiple realities. The multiverse is no stranger to SF readers, of course, from Moorcock to the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and many more, and indeed it is a concept taken seriously by many in the scientific community nowadays. Here, in addition to the idea of multiple Earths in parallel realities, Tchaikovsky also deftly indulges in a lot of evolutionary what-ifs.

This isn’t just the old, here is the Earth where the Allies lost WWII, or Rome never fell approach (not that I have anything against those, tales, when done well), here, as with the Children books, he takes the very long-term view, exploring multiple evolutionary approaches on Earth. There are some where dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved into intelligent lifeforms (yes, I know, technically not all dinosaurs died out, some evolved into the bird family, and indeed that idea is also nicely explored), others where the huge sea scorpion type creatures became the dominant life millions of years before even reptiles or dinosaurs, let alone mammals or humans. But in each, while all the various possible lines of evolution play out, each Earth still suffers the same massive traumas, the same mass extinction events caused by ice or fire or meteor. Some vanish into these cataclysms, others adapt only to be lost later in the vastness of geological epochs passing (we are talking millions and billions of years, after all). We even get to ponder that remarkable evolutionary accident that had more than one type of intelligent human life existing at the same time on the same world (our own) and how that played out in other Earths closer to our timeline.

The main arcs of the story have some fascinating excerpts from a book on these parallel evolutions on other Earths, which explores so many possibilities (and yes, it does also allow Adrian to indulge in having some multi-legged creatures in the book, of course!), and I found these as intriguing as the main story. We have an engrossing story, some terrific characters (and also, I should add, a nice bit of diversity there, including gay and trans characters, and that’s just among the humans, which was very welcome), and a gradual layering of all the various strands which take the story off into a different direction than you may at first suspect, upping the stakes for the characters, indeed for all of the various worlds, each time we learn something new, and at points even incorporating the multiverse story into the actual structure of the writing to give multiple perspectives and possibilities.

This is simply superb science fiction, a gripping, high-stakes quest, and some staggering concepts that will leave you thinking about all those many possibilities, all those what-ifs that made our world – and the many other Earths – what they became.

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