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: of memories and forgetting in The Glasshouse

Glasshouse,
Directed by Kelsey Egan
Starring Jessica Alexander, Kitty Harris, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

In this intriguing, often almost dream-like dystopia, Kelsey Egan has crafted an unusual apocalypse: The Shred. An airborne virus which slowly destroys the memories of anyone exposed, piece by piece, until there is little left but animal instinct. The eponymous Glasshouse is a beautiful place, a botanical garden structure, one of those wonderfully airy, glass and steel structures the Victorians crafted so well in so many places, all descendants of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition. Concealed by some of the last surviving greenery to protect it, it is a sanctuary, a safe place for several young women – Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and the very young Daisy (Kitty Harris), a single male, Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), overseen by their matriarch, Mother (Adrienne Pearce).

The Glasshouse is not just a safe place in a world that has fallen apart, the plant life nourished there feeds the small group, while also generating fresh oxygen in a sealed environment, that they can breathe without fear of inhaling The Shred (outdoors masks and air cylinders are required for protection). Understandably they protect this sanctuary – with any infrequent intruder most likely to be a Shred victim they simply shoot without hesitation; it’s a brutally efficient method we see early on when an approaching figure is gunned down without warning, then parts of his body harvested, chopped up and used to help fertilise the soil for plants in the Glasshouse, like a sacrificial offering to some plant god. Other religious overtones are apparent in the rituals the group observes, even the stained glass they have added to the Glasshouse, depicting their version of the events that lead them to this place.

It’s a very controlled, very female space – Gabe is the only male, a young man in body, but a child in mind due to exposure to The Shred. His greatest tragedy, perhaps, is that he was not exposed long enough to lose everything he was and become completely oblivious, which may have been more merciful. Instead we see Vermeulen portrays the torture in his damaged mind, glimpses of half-erased memories, struggling to recall the words of the group ritual and failing, unable to manage it but aware enough to know he is failing. For any of us who have watched the cruel advance of dementia on a loved one, it’s painfully familiar, and deeply emotional as we watch this half-life struggling on, part of him gone, but enough left to be slightly aware of what has happened to him.

Into this almost literally hermetically sealed bubble comes The Stranger (Pelser). Bee is on sentry duty, but fails to shoot The Stranger – she hesitates because he is wearing a gas mask. Is he untouched by The Shred? He collapses, she, against all the rules, brings him inside. Mother is not pleased, but with The Stranger confined to one room and on chains so he cannot go far, she can also see possibilities here – just as they pollinate their plants in the Glasshouse, they could use him to impregnate her oldest daughter, Bee.

But The Stranger’s arrival creates ripples in this contained eco-system of closed family and ritualised, selective remembrance – to begin with it unbalances the existing gender dynamic by bringing in a male who is adult in both mind and body, unlike Gabe (who does not react well to this change). It also brings back to the surface the question of their missing brother Luca, who went out on an exploration mission but never returned. They repeat to each other that he will come back some day until it has almost taken on the overtones of The Second Coming, but it seems far more likely Luca lies dead somewhere, and if he never returns but The Stranger has come, what does that mean? No closed system can remain fully closed off forever, change is inevitable for both people and the environment.

This is a beautifully shot film – you’d never realise it was made on a micro-budget. The location, the Pearson Conservatory in South Africa, has been a location writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet has known since childhood, and she created the story with it in mind; she and director Kelsey and the production team were immensely fortunate the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which administers it, were so open and helpful in letting them make the film there. The women’s clothing and the location give it a feeling that is at the same time pseudo-Victorian and yet timeless; the date is left ambiguous, and I was left with the impression this is our future, but one living in part of our shared past, essentially a world with little real future left, living in a memory of the old order, another metaphor for the film itself, in which our memories and our grasp of our own narratives, both individual and our shared societal memories, have been so badly disrupted.

There are echoes here of the oft-overlooked early Clint Eastwood film from 1971, The Beguiled, where Eastwood’s injured soldier is nursed to health in an isolated house filled only with women, upsetting the dynamic there (in that film the outside world is also in a state of chaos, this time from the raging US Civil War), while the isolated tending of remaining natural resources like plants under protective glass also stirs vague memories of another 70s film, eco-SF Silent Running.

The South African setting also ties to this narrative which is about both enforced and chosen aspects of what people and groups forget or remember, or indeed even rewrite their pasts, something that land has had to do to move on. I think the more you consider it, the more this is a film you could find so many parallels to, both individual and on the larger scale, and that gives it a depth and emotional resonance, aided and abetted by beautifully crafted cinematography, excellently exploiting this unusual location, and a wonderfully tight small cast that showcases the increasing friction between trying to be a cohesive family living outside the ruins of the world and a desperate desire to be something else, even if it involves forgetting all.

Glasshouse is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from February 7th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: intriuging Indy SF with Repeat

Repeat,
Directed by Grant Archer and Richard Millar,
Starring Charlotte Ritchie, Tom England, Ellila-Jean Wood, Nina Wadia

Academic Ryan Moore (Tom England) is becoming obsessed with his research project, to the detriment of his wife Emily (Charlotte Ritchie) and young daughter Sam (Ellila-Jean Wood), not to mention his own career (his friend and supervisor is attempting to cover for him, but he can only do so much, especially when it is clear Ryan’s not really listening to his concerns). We can see right from the start that he’s going off the rails somewhat, when he and an assistant have one of his students over to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment using a lash-up of different pieces of equipment in his garage – this is not how approved research works in academia, especially any involving volunteers. The poor girl is clearly nervous and Ryan is simply not giving her much information as to what the experiment involves, nor what potential risks may be involved, all very serious disregarding of the protocols for academic research (even at graduate level you get this drummed into you), and his repeated “don’t worry about it” and “that’s alright” ring hollow right from the start.

It’s a good way to introduce him and his work though, as the viewer can see right away that Ryan’s project is pushing him to ignore all the normal guidelines for safe research, in addition to neglecting his teaching duties and his family obligations, and we all know that little good usually comes from that sort of obsession. But what is it that is driving Ryan? Well, the thinks he has found a way, using technology, to communicate with the dead – long the stuff of (frequently discredited) seances, spiritualism and mediums, he is trying to make it happen using science and technology. People are understandably pretty sceptical, until a few attempts seem to be proving that he may just be correct – the volunteers are asking questions, and the answers coming back would seem to be ones only the person asking and their deceased loved one could be aware of.

Of course, as Harry Houdini once proved repeatedly, and others have since (the late Great Randi springs to mind) have debunked such post-mortem contacts as just elaborate tricks, using the same stagecraft and misdirection as many a stage magician does. And yet Ryan is no stage illusionist, and it is starting to look like perhaps he is somehow breaking through the barriers to the realm of the dead. Or is he? Where exactly are the people he is speaking to? They often seem to be confused, stating that they can’t see anyone, that they feel as if they have been asleep, that everything is dark. Has he really tapped into some sort of dimension where we go when we die? Do we really want to know what it is like, if he has? Will we like the answers?

Added into this and the ongoing problems his obsessive work has created at his college and with his wife (they are attending couples therapy) is the fact that Ryan and Emily’s young daughter Sam has vanished – she was seen speaking to someone outside the school gates one evening, an evening Ryan should have been there to pick her up but was too busy with his work. And she has since vanished without a trace, the police unable to find any clue of her whereabouts or her fate, but the inference being that she is more than likely dead. If she is, could he contact her? Could he assuage his guilt at not being there to pick her up by asking her what happened? Would any of this even help now?

While there were some problems with this, such as the timeline jumping around a bit and not always being very clear (although this may be partly intentional as the narrative has a looping structure around its events), and what I would consider plot holes (an explanation given later would seem to stand in contradiction to what happened earlier, but I can’t go into that without spoilers), and of course the whole thing is operating on a tiny budget, so much of it takes place in a handful of locations with a few main actors (others, like Nina Wadia do appear but only fleetingly, although very effectively on an emotional aspect).

But these are small niggles – overall I found this very intriguing, and given the scant resources available to the film-makers I’m impressed with the ideas behind this. Like Indy SF classic Primer, which I first saw at the Edinburgh International Film Festival years ago, this doesn’t have big budget or names, so instead takes an intriguing central idea then runs with it, and it’s a fascinating one that has the potential to open all sorts of questions if true. A clever little slice of Indy SF film.

Repeat is released on various platforms by Trinity Creative from November 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

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: Between Waves

Between Waves,
Directed by Virginia Abramovich,
Starring Fiona Graham, Luke Robinson, Sebastian Deery, Stacey Bernstein, Edwige Jean-Pierre

Freelance photographer Jamie (Fiona Graham) is bereft after her physicist boyfriend, Isaac (Luke Robinson), vanishes with no explanation. Attempting to get on with work while constantly calling the detective in charge of the investigation, she’s unable to accept that he is gone, either left, or something has happened to him and he’s dead somewhere, while her friends and colleagues worry about her state of mind.

This situation isn’t helped by Jamie glimpsing Isaac – or is it really Isaac? – and trying to follow him, calling out but the figure in front of her never stops. Is she actually seeing him, or is this a mixture of psychological stress and relying on drugs to get through the days? Or, is it something more… You see, Isaac and his colleague Renata (Stacey Bernstein), were working on a complex project involving parallel realities and timelines, and there are many hints that Isaac may, perhaps, have been at more than just the advanced theoretical stage. What if he has made that final breakthrough, what if he is now able to move between alternate versions of his own timestream, or even multiple versions of him from those other timestream can cross to ours? Unable to let this idea go, Jamie pursues it doggedly, but the waters become every muddier.

This is an extremely intriguing slice of low-budget, Indy science fiction – like the micro-budget Primer a few years back it trades in clever, head-scratching ideas (that don’t rely on a massive budget). The idea of parallel worlds is nothing new of course, nor is the idea of differing versions of ourselves crossing from one to the other (Fringe did this very well, for example). But the approach Abramovich takes, where we often can’t be sure if this is serious and Isaac is somehow slipping between dimensions, or if Jamie has simply lost her grasp of reality due to grief and stress, adds an engrossing layer to the story.

While I found that side of things fascinating and thought-provoking, I must confess I wasn’t as convinced by the relationships, not least the central one between Jamie and Isaac. The actors felt as if they were doing their best, but the way it was constructed – we see Jamie trying to work through her grief and worry about vanished Isaac and only get their relationship filled in with flashbacks later – left me feeling I had no real grasp of their relationship, and so it was hard to empathise, which left me feeling somewhat cut off from the characters. I’m not sure if this was just due to the structural choices of the director and editor, or if the smaller budget simply meant they couldn’t have time to do more scenes to build that relationship up before letting the viewer see the effect on Jamie of Isaac’s disappearance.

While I found that annoying, it certainly didn’t spoil my overall viewing – it’s a clever little concept, worked hard by an Indy film team on a tiny budget to great effect, and that’s impressive, and boasts some nice little touches that can almost pass you by without noticing, such as using reflective surfaces numerous times to create momentary duplicates of characters, hinting at the greater idea of a multiverse where there really are multiple versions of each person. Flawed but intriguing and worth some attention.

Between Waves is out now on DVD from Reel2Reel Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

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: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Buddy Guy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival…

Buddy Guy: the Blues Chase the Blues Away
Directed by Devin Chanda, Matt Mitchener, Charles Todd

Chanda, Mitchener and Todd’s excellent documentary one arguably the greatest living Blues legend, George “Buddy” Guy, opens, appropriately enough with Buddy himself revisiting Lettsworth, Louisiana, where he was born way back in 1936. Like the great Johnny Cash, his parents were poor share-croppers, and he grew up picking cotton by hand, slowly being introduced to music as he grew up, through friends and relatives bringing over instruments to play at get-togethers, or when they finally got hold of a record player; he knew when he heard the music that he wanted to make his own, but of course he could have no idea that it would ever become a lifelong career, let alone one so long, successful and influential. As the now eighty-something Buddy looks back over those fields where he grew up, we’re taken back along his long journey.

Working whatever low-paying jobs he could get after leaving home for Baton Rouge, he continued to practise his guitar and soon was noticed, picking up some work with bands in the city, but eventually he moved to the Windy City, Chicago, in 1957, one of the great spiritual homes of Blues music. As Buddy tells it to the camera, back then the city was teeming with Blues bars, many of them free to enter – only drinks cover charge – making them accessible to pretty much anyone, an absolute feast of live music, right place, right time, and its here he came to the attention of Blues God Muddy Waters, as well as, eventually, the famous Chess Records label, although as he and others note, although Chess used him in recording sessions with others, they refused to record him doing his own now unique style.

As Buddy recalls with a laugh, most Blues players would play sitting down, but he stood up, moved about energetically, bent the guitar strings about as far as they can go without breaking to create interesting, new sounds, wasn’t afraid of some feedback, he could be a wild man with a guitar and a song when playing live. It’s not hard to be reminded of Jimi Hendrix in this regard. But Chess just didn’t get it, and while Buddy stuck to his work ethic of plugging in and playing pretty much every night, outside of a small circle he wasn’t getting the wider attention because they wouldn’t record him playing in that live style.

As the turbulent 60s rolled on and then the 70s, his influence was still getting out there to a select few though – among them new talent from across the Pond, in Britain, people like Mike Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and more, and these increasingly famous musicians were very open about their Blues influences and how it fed into their rock’n’roll style, and about musicians like Buddy, or Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, paying their respects to the people who inspired and influenced them. And of course they mentioned them when they came to perform in the US, incredulous that so many into music didn’t know of these creators right on their own doorstep, and naturally this got a lot of youngsters thinking, who are these guys Clapton and Richards are talking about and how do I hear their music?

That theme of inspiration and legacy is key to much of this documentary – just as these now global stars like the Stones paid tribute to Buddy (there are some wonderful scenes of them jamming in his club in the early 70s, and Buddy and Guy playing around each other on stage decades later, the looks of pure joy on their faces is a delight, it’s not rock stars, it’s just mates making music together), Buddy takes great care to pay very sincere respect to his inspirations, and the pleasure on his face even now in his 80s as he talks about meeting John Lee Hooker – whose music he used to practise to as a youngster – just shows unvarnished joy. That legacy is also paid forward, not just backwards, with new, young musicians who have grown up and carrying on the Blues tradition, in their own styles but all influenced by Buddy’s playing, and he is clearly delighted – the legacy he inherited from the players before him, all now gone, is passed on, even when he’s no longer here the Blues will live on.

The film is beautifully crafted – the directors talked after the film (via Zoom, in-person appearances and travel not very easy at this year’s festival, as you can imagine) about how they had to rethink some of the filming because after the planning stage, Covid hit, and everything had to change from their original idea of following Buddy on tour (until Covid, despite his age, Buddy still did around 130 gigs a year around the world). They talked about being able to get hold of people like Clapton and Santanna to talk about Buddy’s influence on their playing when they started out, about the struggle to find archive footage and photographs. Later stuff is a little easier, with recordings, photos, even footage, but early images, well, nobody had a camera documenting their life as rural share-croppers in the 30s, so they turned to a painter they’d seen in a leaflet Buddy himself had in his house, Earl Klatzel, who had covered that period, and his imagery fitted in perfectly to their Covid-revamped filming plan.

This is a wonderful documentary, going through the good times and the rough, but mostly it is joyful, celebrating the work of a musical legend, and the enormous influence his work has had on so many other performers. Even if you’re not a Blues fan, there’s a big chance some of your favourite musicians have been inspired by Buddy’s work, he’s a musician’s musician. And if you are a Blues fan, then this is Blues heaven for you, an amazing life story and a banquet of fantastic music. This is the sort of music documentary that makes you want to go home and spin some of your favourite vinyl for hours. And the film circles around nicely, back to that opening of Buddy as he is now, back looking at the fields where he grew up in the 30s, but he’s here not just for nostalgia, or for the documentary, but because they are naming the nearby road after him, complete with historical plaque, giving him his dues as a local lad done good.

And that title: well, that’s Buddy. As he explains in the film, you can’t just sing the Blues, you have to have lived the life and have it inside your soul; you have to have the Blues, not just play it. Funny thing is, he comments with a big grin, is that when you’re playing it, the Blues go away and you feel better: the Blues chase the Blues away…

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mad God at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Mad God,
Directed by Phil Tippett

I’ve watched a lot of unusual and remarkable movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival over the years, but this stop-motion feature by the Oscar-winning effects wizard Phil Tippett must be one of the most unique. A labour of, well, I’m not sure love is the right word (Tippett encountered mental health problems working on the film over the many years it took to complete, as he discussed recently in a Guardian interview), this is the product of many years struggle for Tippett and a small group to finish the film, with no studio backing (Kickstarter ultimately got it finished), and it’s quite a remarkable looking film.

Opening with the construction of the Tower of Babel, that magnificent yet doomed endeavour of human pride and folly, God not only smites the builders, we get lines from Leviticus detailing God’s wrath in no uncertain terms. This is Old Testament God, one insanely jealous and vindictive – if humans don’t do exactly as he likes he will reign Hellish punishments on them for all eternity. Following this we follow a soldier being lowered inside a pod, past a nightmare landscape of ruins and rusted industry and decaying fortifications, reminiscent of the infamous “flak towers” in wartime Berlin. His pod slips past all of this and keeps descending, lower, and lower, as if seeking out each of the circles of Hell, the soldier finally disembarking to explore on foot, a man with a mission.

I’ve been trying to process my thoughts on Mad God since seeing it earlier today, and it’s not easy – this is actually quite a difficult movie to watch, and I say that as someone with a pretty strong filmic stomach (I’ve watched all sorts, from early Cronenberg to films like Nekromantik or Martyrs, so I’ve no problem with disturbing material). But even I found this to be frequently pretty disturbing stuff, and indeed quite often disgusting and upsetting (I noticed two or three people leaving the cinema after twenty minutes or so). So fair warning, when we say “this isn’t for everyone”, we really, really mean it this time! Even some serious horror hounds might find it quite disturbing.

That said, this is a fascinating piece of work with some astonishing animation sequences, as you’d expect from a visual wizard of film like Tippett. Mad Dog works many references into its nightmarish world, from the great Harryhausen – long a touchstone for Tippett, as he is to most working in visual magic, and rightly so – but to my eye also Jan Švankmajer – the Prague Alchemist of Film – The Brothers Quay, even elements that felt Giger-esque (especially the industrial elements, covered in growth, blood-red with rust, organic and machine mixed), but much darker and more horrific than the amazing Švankmajer’s work. It’s also packed with nods to other science fiction, fantasy and horror greats – I spotted Harryhausen’s Cyclops, Robbie the Robot and others peppered through the dark, festering backgrounds as we descend further into this rotting world of random violence and suffering, the collective horrors and nightmares of humanity.

While I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed this film exactly, it was a quite amazing experience – unique, visceral, disturbing, disgusting, horrific and visually incredible animation work. As I said, this really, really is not for everyone, so be aware of that going in, but for those who can deal with it, this is a pretty rare and unique cinematic experience, from one of film’s genuine wizards.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Flatland

Flatland,
Directed by Jenna Bass,
Starring Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin, Izel Bezuidenhout, De Klerk Oelofse, Albert Pretorius

Arriving with much praise from its stint on the international film festival circuit, Jenna Bass’s Flatland takes elements of the road movie and Western, infused with a very strong gender element; the three main characters here are all women, refreshing in these normally male-dominated sub-genres, while the director also makes great use of the vast Karoo region, a harsh, semi-desert area of South Africa that, like the great American Western landscapes, manages to both awe with beauty and depress with bleak loneliness, creating a pretty unique slice of South African film-making.

The narrative seems fairly simple enough on paper: Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) is a very young – too young – woman of mixed descent, with all the baggage that brings, even in modern South Africa. We open right in the middle of her wedding day – few people in attendance, little family (right away this gives you a clue to her situation, being largely on her own with few options), about to marry white police officer Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse). Natalie is nervous, and yes, many brides are, but this isn’t the usual wedding nerves, this is a young woman who is really still just a girl, way too young and inexperienced in life to be making major life decisions like this, and she knows it, but feels she has to put on a smile and go through with it.

When she finds herself struggling even more on the wedding night in a cheap motel, it gets worse – Bakkies, who at first seems like a genuinely loving husband who is besotted with his new bride (and also clueless to her nerves and distress), becomes harsher, demanding his wedding night coupling, despite Natalie’s reticence, leading to a disturbing scene where he goes from lovey-dovey husband to essentially forcing her into sex. As her best friend Poppie ( Izel Bezuidenhout) later points out, husband or not, if the woman say no, the act is basically rape.

It’s shocking how quickly and easily Bakkies goes from the good-guy, loving new husband to bridal rapist, and indeed it should be. The scene also serves to reinforce the impression from the nervous wedding, that Natalie is young, doesn’t really know what she wants or needs and has nobody else to turn to for advice and help, or to offer her different options. You can’t help but wonder how many other young women in many countries have found themselves in such a predicament.

After the assault, she steals Bakkies’s police pistol, and flees to a stable by the church where she was married, which houses her closest friend – a horse. When the preacher appears, he tries to talk her down, but then aggravates the situation by striking the horse repeatedly with a whip, with Natalie begging him to stop, before taking matters into her own hands and using the gun. This shooting, in conjunction with the wedding night assault, leads her to go on the run with the horse, picking up her heavily pregnant friend Poppie on the way, the two deciding to flee the remote desert land for the bright lights of Johannesburg. Meantime the third female protagonist, Captain Beauty Cuba (Baloyi) is pulled into pursuing them as she investigates the death of the pastor, which is blamed on an innocent man – a man who was once her lover and had just been released from prison.

The messy lives and loves of all three women could almost be from a script in one of the soap operas that Beauty is addicted to, but in contrast to the studio sheen of the soaps, the lives and the loves (and the different men who constantly let them down) of each of these women is presented in a far starker, harder fashion. Bass isn’t afraid to show her heroines doing the wrong thing either, they’re no angels, and we see Natalie and Poppie especially making very foolish, immature choices that makes you think they are partly their own worst enemies, but then you are reminded of just how very young they are, how little they have experienced, and what little experience they’ve had has locked them into very few opportunities or options. Beauty, for all the fact she is a senior police officer and capable, mature woman, finds she too is a restricted in her choices by the simple facts of life in this country and culture as the young women she is pursuing, and despite the fugitive-police officer dynamic, it’s obvious there is a real link and understanding there.

While Flatland isn’t perfect – there are some scenes and edits I found a bit jarring, to be honest, although it could be they were meant to be that way, it’s pretty absorbing, and I applaud the exploration of gender and culture. I’m sure there was even more going on at those levels that I simply didn’t pick up on, but a South African audience would, but I still found it hugely compelling, with nods to classic Westerns and road movies, and naturally a tip of the hat to Thelma and Louse, with great use of that vast, arid landscape, which looks amazing on-screen, and which serves as a strong visual contrast to the more confined, smaller, limited life options of the human beings inhabiting that wide-screen landscape.

Flatland premieres in the UK on 17th August via Bohemia Media, and then a full digital release on August 23rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition
Written by Kelvin Gosnell, adapted from the books by Harry Harrison, art by Carlos Ezquerra
Rebellion

Ah, Slippery Jim diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, the Galaxy’s Greatest Thief! I will confess up front that I am quite likely highly biased in matter of the rustorezista ŝtalo (Esperanto is the lingua franca of this far future). As a young geek, knee high to a gronk, I first encountered James Bolivar diGriz in these comics adaptations in early 2000 AD by Kevin Gosnell and the mighty Carlos Ezquerra. I was only about 11 or 12 and hadn’t come across the books yet – this situation was soon remedied now I was aware of them, and I worked my way through all the existing Stainless Steel Rat novels *the first story appeared back in 1961), and the ones which came later, as well as pretty much anything else by Harry Harrison I could find (away from the Rat I particularly recommend The Technicolor Time Machine – a Hollywood mogul finances a time machine to use for cheap film location shooting! – and Make Room, Make Room, which was filmed as classic dystopian movie Soylent Green).

So yes, I’m afraid I am pretty biased – these comics were my first encounter with this character, and lead me to the books, which I still adore to this day. I went back and re-read some during the first Lockdown in 2020, a form of comfort reading, I suppose, and also because I knew they would make me smile, and by grud we all needed something to make us smile at that point. Actually I still point readers in my bookshop to the Rat to this day (they also make suitable reading for older YA readers if you’re looking for more reading for your teens who are starting to look outside the YA shelves for more new books). Jim is the greatest crook in the galaxy, in a distant future where most of the world of a galactic union have been largely at peace for centuries, with crime also rare (other than very low level crime, easily and quickly dealt with).

With great skill and intelligence Jim was bored by the sedate lifestyle of these world and set out to become a criminal mastermind, but Jim is a crook with a conscience – he steals from big companies, banks, or nasty people who deserve it, and he has a strict moral code: he will not kill. In fact in one action-packed scene Jim exits the safety of an armoured vehicle to move an injured enemy soldier who had fallen close to the wheels, to ensure he wasn’t further harmed, risking his own life in the process. He also doesn’t like idiot authority figures and he hates bullies, which also leads him into altruistic adventures (laced with some larceny too, naturally).

The 2000 AD adaptations have been out of print for far too long, and this new Deluxe version brings together the three series the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic covered back in the early 1980s (a long ago time, an age which seems mythical now, but it was real), The Stainless Steel Rat (Progs 104 to 151 originally), The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (Progs 166 to 177), and The Stainless Steel Rat For President (Progs 393 to 404), and yes, sigh, before you ask, I do wish they’d had the chance to adapt some of the other books too (also why the drokk has nobody adapted the Rat into a TV series yet??).

The first tale, as you’d expect, introduces Jim and his world(s), and does so right out the gate: we see him as paunchy James Bolivar, a businessman, about to be busted by a police robot for the theft of gold bullion. Most would be anxious about such a scenario, but Jim plans for everything and is ready – he takes impish delight in waiting for the robot to say he is being arrest on “the charge” of various counts before triggering the explosive charge dropping the roof onto the police droid – before kicking open a hidden escape panel and skedaddling, ditching his fake paunch and the rest of his businessman disguise as he goes. This isn’t enough though, Jim then works out a plan to re-steal ‘his’ gold from the police evidence collection team, leading to more fun.

Unfortunately this also leads him into the reason the normally incompetent local planet police stumbled onto his clever operation – he is being hunted by the almost mythical Special Corps, a shadowy agency of the galactic government many don’t even believe exist. They want Jim, but not just to stop his intergalactic crime spree – this is classic “set a thief to catch a thief” storytelling. The head of the Corps is Inskipp, in his youth known as Inskipp the Uncatchable, a thief of such daring he even managed to loot a space liner in mid-flight and escape. Jim’s childhood hero.

While the Corps has all sorts of agents, its own version of Q Branch (headed by Professor Coypu, who becomes more important in later tales, especially Saves The World) and gadgets and resources galore, not all agents are suited for every task. Sometimes you need the square peg, the one who doesn’t play by the team rules, the outsider, the one you can drop on an enemy infested world by himself and know he will not only survive but come up with a cunning plan to save the day while he does it. Long, long before Xander Cage would be recruited in the XXX films for similar reasons, we had Slippery Jim, and while working for the Corps gives him access to all sorts of widescreen adventures, he also can’t help but employ some of his old thieving chicanery along the way too (well, a Rat has to plan ahead for his retirement fund eventually, right?).

These tales see him set off on his first Corps mission, when he discovers someone is secretly trying to recreate one of the almost unstoppable space battleships that were outlawed millennia ago (putting a stop to intergalactic warfare and ushering in the centuries of peace in which Jim grew up), which in turn introduces him to Angelina – as clever and slippery as he is, but with a huge difference: she is a psychopath, and enjoys killing for the sake of it. And she’s not happy about Jim butting into her plans…

(Spoiler warning)Of course if you know the books, you know later Angelina doesn’t just become a major character, she becomes Jim’s wife and mother of his two children – James and Bolivar – after the Corps uses advanced psycho surgery to adjust the part of her brain which made her psychopathic, but leaving her other skills intact, making her a perfect partner and foil for Jim. When they are teamed up in the later stories she is no shrinking violet – in fact sometimes it is Angelina who has to save Jim. And woe betide the foolish men who see her and think she is just a pretty face… There are little shades of the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship to their adventures, which of course just makes them all the more enjoyable.

Saves the World sees a time war designed to take out the Corps, the attack launched from the distant past to eliminate this stumbling block to domination plans before it even knows an attack is happening. As his comrades vanish in front of his eyes – including his beloved wife and just born baby boys – Jim reluctantly agrees to a madcap, almost suicidal mission taking him thousands of years into the past to find out who launched the attack and to stop it (this brings him to the attention of the raving megalomanic simply known as He). We get the delights of Jim in 20th century America, 1800s London (during the Napoleonic wars) and the far distant future, before the Earth ends. As with all time travel stories, parts of it will hurt your head if you try to think through the cause and effect too much!

President, which was quite a recent novel at the time of the comics adaptation – sees Jim and Angelina begged to help a struggling resistance movement on what looks like a paradise planet, but which is really under the thumb of a geriatric dictator, a planetary banana republic, essentially. Taking on the disguise of Sir Hector Harapo, a local minor nobleman, Jim, Angelina and his now grown up boys James and Bolivar team up with the local resistance to engineer a challenge to the vile President for life. Said president uses every trick, from ballot rigging, voter suppression and straightforward violence and torture to enforce the rule he’s had for decades, but he’s never been up against The Stainless Steel Rat before.

The original novels are all pretty slim books – Harrison is very economical, introducing characters and scenarios quickly and efficiently while cracking along with the storytelling – and here they are, as you might expect, even more pared down to fit into the serialised comics format, so these are fairly fast read. But that doesn’t mean bad! My god these are still a lot of fun (much like the original books which inspired them), crackling with humour, a real sense of fun (something both comics and prose versions share), wonderfully daft, OTT schemes and plots, lots of action and daring-do, from car chases to space battles, and all of this is brought to visual life by the genius who was Carlos Ezquerra.

Can we just pause for a second there? Dammit, I miss Ezquerra. I’m pretty sure most DTT readers do to. And getting to revisit his early 80s artwork here, all cleaned up in this sparkling new edition, is an utter delight. Carlos depicts heroes, villains, clever gadgetry, starships and everything in between, and clearly he’s having a lot of fun doing it. And yes, Jim does look a bit like James Coburn. Not to mention Major Eazy (and much later, Cursed Earth Koburn)… Okay, fair enough, we know Carlos liked using that imagery! But you know what? It works here, so I’m happy with it. His Angelina is beautifully depicted, Carlos managing to convey both an immensely attractive woman, but also one with a steel core and a propensity to shoot anyone who gets on her nerves (quite how Jim survives this marriage I am not sure, must be love).

So in summary, as well as the welcome nostalgia rush for both Harry Harrison’s great creation and the golden age of 2000 AD, this collection also gives you three cracking adventures featuring crime heists, space battles, fighting oppression, romance, time travel, car and aircraft chases, terrific one-liners and dammit, just a huge amount of fun, all blasting along at a great pace. And all depicted by the pens of Carlos Ezquerra in that magnificent, iconic style of his.

I am a contented reader.

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition is published by 2000 AD / Rebellion on August 18th.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes